Monday, September 1, 2014

NOT a Bucket List!

I understand.  You could get the idea I am acting on a Bucket List.  Somewhere in my iPhone is a list of life ambitions that I methodically check off.

Ironman--Check
Iraq--Check
Ride around Beijing--Check
Alpe d'Huez--Check

But it is not true.  Like my ADD sons, then next thing I do is guided by the last idea to enter my head.

Sorry if you gave me more credit than that.  Wait!!  Squirrel!!!  I'll be back.

Really, let's start with the Ironman.  Surely, a life ambition. . .surely NOT.

My wife's main running buddy Terilyn reminded me a few nights ago of a conversation we had after a half marathon we ran in 2010 with a half dozen members of our Church.  After the race Terilyn asked me if I was going to do a triathlon.  "No way," I answered in a millisecond.  "I never learned to swim.  I have no interest in triathlons."

So how did I end up spending 16 hours and 34 minutes in Louisville swimming, biking and running 140.6 miles?  In November 2012 the pastor of our Church preached a sermon comparing the Ironman triathlon to the Christian life.  I was playing Army at the time.  My wife decided after the sermon she was going to do an Ironman.  She told me so that night.  I knew she meant it.  She made the same kind of calm announcement when she decided to donate a kidney to a stranger.  I knew she would do it.  Projected date 2015.  She needed time to train for the bike.

She HATES the bike.  But she bought a bike in January of 2013.  She named it SPDM (Sudden Painful Death Machine) and started to ride.

OK then.  I told her I would do it too.  Which meant I would have to learn to swim at 59 years old.  I never learned and I could not swim at all.  Not close to one length of the pool.  I got lessons.  I learned.

Life plan?  Bucket list?  Nope.  Squirrel ran past.  I chased it.

Did I always want to re-enlist in the Army and just happen to choose 2007?  Nope.  In 2006 I read August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  The hero of the novel is an old (mid 40s) soldier who re-enlists for World War 1.  He loved it, even as the Russian armies were badly beaten by the Germans. Around the time I read the novel, Congress raised the enlistment age by seven years.  I could get back in.  So I tried.  I got in.

At the end of the 90s and the beginning of this century I made more than 35 trips overseas to five continents in four years.  I have ridden in almost 30 countries.  Bucket list?

I did not even have a passport in 1998 when I got the job that would send me overseas almost every month.  I never had a passport.  The only time I went overseas before that was with the Army.

Suddenly I was Mr. Bike--Around-the-World.  No plan.  I just decided to take my bike on these trips.  No one else at my company did.  The opportunity was there.  I took it.

My next big activity will be marching 28 miles with a 40-pound pack.  Why am I doing this?  Well, I was planning to do the march without the pack, but then I thought, 'I am getting out of the Army in May of 2015, might as well see if I can carry the pack for 28 miles.'

So no, there is not a Bucket List.  I don't have a big or small list of things I want to do.  But if someone asks me to do something I have never done before and it sounds good at the time, I might do it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Beginning a Friendship at the End of the Ironman Triathlon

My story of finishing the Ironman Triathlon in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday, August 24, will begin with the end--or near the end.  At mile three of the marathon that ends every Ironman, I jogged past a guy who saw my tattoo and said, "I was in first armored."  So I slowed to a walk and started talking to Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Woodard, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the Kentucky Army Reserve.



Mike has done the Louisville Ironman for several years.  He was convinced we could run-walk to a finish just before midnight, so we started walking and running together--and stayed together until mile 19.  During the 16 miles we walked and ran together we got a lot of encouragement.  When people on the side of the road would say, "Looking good!" I would tell them that Mike and I were 115 years of good looking.  I yelled this to one group of women wearing matching t-shirts supporting another competitor at mile 5.  We passed by them on mile 9 and one of them said, "Here comes that 115 years of good looks."

We agreed that at 10:30 p.m. if we were not at mile 22, we would run till we made it or cracked.  At 10:30 we were at mile 19 and started running.  Mike took a break a mile later.  I kept running and finished six minutes before midnight.  Mike finished just before midnight.

Before the last mile I was thinking of waiting for Mike at the line, but the final effort to get to the line was so painful, I lost track of everything except getting back to my car.

That half-mile walk from the finish line to my car took more than 20 painful minutes.  When Annalisa and I got back to the hotel room, I told myself I should eat before going to bed.  I microwaved some leftover spaghetti.  I tried to eat it, but the effort of lifting my fork was too much.  I went to sleep.

It turns out Mike is a writer in addition to being a pilot and an Ironman.  Here is something he wrote about flying MEDEVAC in Afghanistan.  Mike also flew through the base where I was stationed in Iraq, although a few years before I was there.

The night before the Ironman, we went to dinner with Pam Bleuel, a friend from Iraq who lives in Kentucky.  My next trip to Kentucky, I will be visiting Pam and Mike.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Minutes of Excitement, Hours of Drudgery

Minutes of This
Is Followed by Hours of This. . .
And This. . .


In the Army, anything that is really exciting will require hours of drudgery before and after.  Much of life is like this.  Think of the hours that go into preparing a perfect meal.  The most exciting moment is the first taste of the sizzling scallops or the crunch of the the perfect salad.  

Add all the bureaucratic bedevilment with safety and the Army brackets each minute of real excitement with an hour of boredom before and after.  This is so true of firing weapons.  Before a soldier steps on the range, that soldier will have two or three hours of Primary Marksmanship Instruction.  For someone like me who fires once a year, this class is a good reminder of some of the fundamentals, especially of zeroing the weapon (lining up the sights and the barrel of the weapon for the particular shooter).  

But most of the class own a dozen guns, talk about gun safes at lunch, know who sells ammo cheapest, and fire on a range or hunt every month.  Yet these guys have to go through the same repetitive rehash of firing procedures.  If all goes well, the soldier is actually on the zeroing range firing for 10 or 15 minutes.  The procedure is to fire three-round groups, adjust the sights and fire again.  Once the weapon has a zero, the soldier can go to the qualification range.  

At the "Qual" range, the soldier fires 40 rounds at pop-up targets from 50 to 300 meters away from the firing position.  This is very exciting, especially for the once-a-year shooters like me who have not memorized the target order and have to look for and fire at the targets for the few seconds they are visible.  

This year I had trouble with the battlesight, but a friend who is an armorer and an expert marksman switched out my sight.  I fired six rounds to zero.  All six were in the 4 cm circle at the center of the target.  On the range itself, I fired the best in my life with 33 of 40 target hits.  During my first enlistment, I carried a pistol so M16 marksmanship wasn't part of my Army life.

After the sight switch, I had an exciting ten minutes getting six rounds in the center of the zero target, and an exciting five minutes hitting 33 of 40 on the pop-up target range.  Immediately after shooting, we carefully pick up the spent cartridges

Then it was time to clean weapons.  For most of the next three hours I cleaned my weapon and started cleaning another soldier's weapon who had to go to a ceremony.  So in all, 15 minutes of excitement in a ten-hour day.

But wait!!! There's more.

At the end of the next day, our brass turn-in was was 400 less than the 10% allowed for loss on the range.  We needed 400 rounds of brass--the spent cartridge that is ejected from the side of the rifle.  For those who have not been on a range, finding brass is a painstaking job.  Most shooters from long years of habit begun in basic training carefully pick up all their brass.  Some ranges require you to turn in 40 rounds of brass when you step off the range after firing 40 shots.

At 5:30 pm, the first sergeant picked a dozen of us to head to the range and find brass.  We were joined by many staff officers.  We kicked the grass and crawled along the edges of the firing stations combing the ground looking for spent brass.  We found about a hundred rounds of brass on our range, then moved to another range, hoping the soldiers who fired there had left some brass in the grass.

An hour later, the Brigade Command Sergeant Major called a halt to the search and we headed back to the armory with the brass we could find.  

I will probably never know what happened to the missing brass.  The most common speculation I overheard on the range is that someone "misplaced" several hundred rounds of ammo.  

In any case, I was happy.  I fired the best I ever fired in my life with a rifle.  My zero was as near perfect as I will ever get.  And crawling in the grass looking for spent cartridges 42 years after the first time I fired on a military range was just too funny.  I was smiling the whole time while most everyone else was bitching.  For me this was the perfect Army end to my last session of qualification.  In the Army those minutes of excitement always begin with safety briefings, long lines to draw weapons and end with hours of waiting, picking up brass and cleaning the weapon.

That missing brass let me have a full Army experience.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

SEALS and Green Berets are from Lake Wobegon



The commander of the garrison at Camp Adder, Iraq, when I was stationed there was a Lieutenant Colonel who was a Green Beret.  Because I helped with some garrison events I got to talk to the colonel a few times about being a soldier.  Once he said, "The difference between [Green Berets] and other soldiers is that we meet Army Standard in every area.  Most soldiers are good in some areas, great in one or two and bad in many others."  The applies to SEALS, Recon Marines and other elite units.  

Like the children of Lake Woebegon who are all above average, elite soldiers are fully qualified on their own weapon and every other weapon in their unit.  They know field medicine.  They are beyond Army Fitness Standards.  They can survive, escape, and evade capture.  

Outside these elite units, the Army looks very different.  Outside the combat arms fields--infantry, armor and artillery--soldiers tend to specialize in their job.  And competence breeds contentment so some of these skilled pilots, mechanics, technicians slip into pushing basic soldiers skills and fitness onto the back burner of their lives while they become the Iron Chefs of their particular specialty.

I have been in units in which the supply sergeant was an absolute wizard of Army paperwork and could pass inspections without any worry--either to himself or to his commander.  But that same guy could not even pretend to pass the annual fitness test.  I know motor sergeants, weapons sergeants and instructor pilots who are beyond out-of-shape and are obese, yet are incredibly good at their jobs.  And they believe their technical skill means they should be exempt from the fitness requirements of their career.

When the Army cuts the force in the coming years, they will do it the way it was done under President Clinton in the 90s.  By tightening height and weight and fitness standards, many mid-career officers and NCOs will decide getting in shape and staying in shape is not the way they want to live their lives.  

As you can imagine, the SEALS, the Green Berets, the Army Rangers, Army Airborne, the Marine Corps Special Operations Command and Air Force Aerospace Rescue and Recovery units will not be affected by the cutbacks.  But the rest of the military will be smaller in numbers and wear a smaller size uniform once the cutbacks are complete.

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 ngussman@gmail.com 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.