Saturday, October 3, 2015

Who Cares for Our Veterans?

When I was in Iraq, I wrote about many soldiers under the title of “Who Fights Our Wars?” Many people write and talk about VeteransAdministration employees as if they were not real people.  I happen to know they are real people because one of the social workers the VA Hospital in Richmond, Va., is my oldest daughter, Lauren.

Some people fall into a career, some people plan for one career then go a completely different way.  Lauren was on her career path before her eleventh birthday and has stayed on track ever since—with one course correction.

A month before Lauren turned eleven, we adopted our son Nigel.  

Nigel at 5 with civilian Dad

He came to us at six weeks old from Bethany Christian Services in Pittsburgh through Pennsylvania’s StatewideAdoption Network.  Lauren is Nigel’s oldest sister.  Adopting Nigel led Lauren to decide to be an adoption social worker while she was in middle school.  She stayed on that path through high school and college.  She chose Juniata College because they offered the course she would need to go from a four-year degree into a one-year intensive master’s degree program.  She also chose Juniata because she played goalkeeper for four years on their Women’s Soccer Team and in her senior year was the backup keeper for the Juniata Women’s Field Hockey team for three weeks and got an NCAA Championship Medal.

In 2007 when Lauren went to Juniata, I re-enlisted in the Army after almost a quarter century as a bearded civilian.  I deployed to Iraq in 2009. Lauren got an internship at the VA Hospital in Altoona, Pa. , a year later. This is the course correction.  The internship and my service led Lauren to switch from being a social worker for kids to a social worker for veterans.

After graduating from Juniata, Lauren went to VirginiaCommonwealth University in Richmond and got an internship at the Richmond VA Hospital.  They hired her when she graduated in 2012 and she works there now. 

About four months after she began work at the Richmond VA she took a job in mental health social work at the hospital.  Now she deals with veterans who have profound difficulties and loves her work. 

When someone tells you VA workers are just faceless bureaucrats, look at the face at the top of this page.  She is a real person trying to help real veterans every day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Success: When I Can Count to 21 in the Shower!

In September of 2008, I got to be a member of the first class in the Live Fire Shoot House that opened on Fort Indiantown Gap.  For an entire week we trained to fight in a closed building and fired live ammo at targets just a few feet away.

Our instructor was a British Special Forces sergeant who was on the mission to free the hostages in Tehran and in Entebbe.  He told us about the raids and then said after each mission he came home in a blur of adrenaline.  When he finally got home he said he would be sure a mission was a success if he could, ". . .get in the shower and count to 21."

This was clearly an old joke, but I had never heard it before.  Today, I called the training sergeant to volunteer to grade the Fitness Test at next drill, since at my age, I do not have to take it anymore.  He was happy to have me volunteer, but then made a joke about my ability to count past 20.  I told him that, in fact, I could get in the shower and count to 21--a joke he heard so long ago he forgot about it.
Just thought I would share that joke with you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Change of Responsibility: When Top Sergeants Change Jobs

When a new first sergeant or command sergeants major becomes the top non-commissioned officer in a company, battalion, brigade, division, or of the entire Army, the ceremony is called a change of responsibility.  A sword is passed from the sergeant in charge of the formation to the out-going NCO.  He passes the sword to the unit commander, who passes it to the new top NCO who then passes it back to the sergeant at the front of the formation.

I took pictures of the Change of Responsibility Ceremony this past when when CSM Jeff Huttle became the Command Sergeant's Major of 1-104th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion in Johnstown, Pa.

Here are the photos as the sword is passed by 1SG Peacock to CSM Sean Livolsi to MAJ Jack Wallace to Huttle then back to Peacock.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Old Home Week: Meeting My Roommate from Wiesbaden in Baltimore

Tomorrow I am driving to Baltimore to meet my roommate at Lindsay Air Station, Wiesbaden, West Germany in 1978.  Then he was Sr. Airman Cliff Almes.  He left the military in 1979 and become a brother at a Franciscan Monastery in Darmstadt, Land of Kanaan.

We have not seen each other since 2000, though we have talked every month or two since we were roommates in late 1978.  On that Army and Air Force Base, Air Force had to slum with Army depending on availability of rooms.

I wrote about Cliff, now Bruder Timotheus, three years ago, with pictures.

All of my kids have heard the story about me eating with the novices and taking a big piece of meat, finding out too late it was LIVER!!  No one wastes food in a monastery, so I was the entertainment for Cliff and the other novices at that meal as they watched me cover the liver with vegetables and eat it.


Looking forward to a great reunion.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Marking the 14th Anniversary of 9-11

The 9-11 Memorial today on the campus of Franklin and Marshall College: 2,936 flags in the center of the campus to honor the victims.

Today at 8:45 a.m. I was walking into Russian class, just at the moment 14 years ago when America was attacked by terrorists.  When I left the class I looked north and saw the quad filled with flags:  2,936 flags, one for each victim of the attack.  

As memorials go, I far prefer these to the endless pictures and videos of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.  The flags honor the victims.  The burning towers glorify in a perverse way the attack and cowards who kill innocent victims.  

Another way of marking the day is to tell the stories of those who stepped up to defend America after the attack.  My favorite story is part of this New York Times article.  It is about my former commander Joel Allmandinger and what he did in the wake of the attack on America.  They are all good stories.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Writing About the Army, and Writing on Paper with a Pen

My first real writing job was in the Army.  I started writing on yellow pads with blue felt-tip pens.  But working for an Army newspaper meant I had to graduate from pen and paper to the typewriter.  The first typewriter I used for writing was gray, to match the gray Army furniture in the office.  That furniture blended well with the beige walls in the stone headquarters building of 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany.  

Now I am taking a Creative Writing course at Franklin and Marshall College.  Part of the course is writing in class.  I have white paper and a ballpoint pen and am back to writing with my left hand on paper.  Weird.  I have not written on paper, except to take notes, since the 80s.  Writing is something you do on a computer--as I am doing right now.  

But I like the feeling of writing on paper.  We have to turn in our work in Microsoft Word, so it also means that anything I write on paper will have to be re-typed on a computer.  I began my writing life with multiple drafts.  Now I will be back to multiple drafts.  

Of course, for this blog, I will continue to write what I am thinking as I think it, hit publish and move on.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Better Life is, the More We Bitch

In June 1975, 40 years ago, I enlisted in the Army.  I had been a civilian about ten months after a 2-and-a-half years in the Air Force.  In that post-energy-crisis era I had a boring job and decided to re-enlist.

I thought about re-enlisting in the Air Force, but they offered me pay grade E3 and no bonus.  Signing up for tanks in the Army meant E4 and a $2,500 bonus.  From the moment I got to Fort Knox for Armor School, I knew I made the right choice.  I had always wanted to be a soldier and being an airman was not the same thing.

Over time, I started to notice that soldiers bitched less than airman.  At first I thought it might be that a different kind of people enlisted in the Army than the Air Force.  While my fellow post-draft soldiers were further down the economic ladder and more southern than the airmen I served with during the draft and the Viet Nam War, they weren't that different.

Then one of the great truths of life showed its face on the horizon of my life:  The better life is, the more we bitch.  Everywhere, always.

On Hill Air Force Base, my duty station after Air Force technical school in 1972, I lived in a two-man room as an airman E2.  When I got promoted to sergeant E4 I was eligible for a private room.  Our chow hall served four meals a day: the usual three plus midnight chow.  We reported for work at 0730.  We were usually done by five.  We worked weekends maybe once every two months.  There were parties in the barracks and on the lawn outside.

And we bitched about everything:  the chow, the barracks, the one weekend we worked every two months.  When that weekend duty happened, we were whining.  We bitched about living in Ogden, Utah!!  Boring, we said.  The girls were Mormon and didn't party, we said.  Midnight chow always had pizza and omelets made to order, but did not always have hot dogs and hamburgers, we whined.  
[While I joined in the bitching as part of the group, I LOVED the chow.  My mother burned most food she cooked and I truly love military food.]

Three years later I was assigned to 70th Armor in Fort Carson, Colorado.  As a Specialist E4 I had an eight-man room.  Promotion to sergeant E5 got me a bunk in four-man room.  Chow was three meals a day with a much more limited menu.  We were armor.  We worked many nights.  We went to the field for up to two months at a time.  We trained in soldier skills after a day of maintenance in the motor pool.  Nobody partied in the barracks.

I heard so much less bitching.  Worse food, less space, less free time, and much less bitching.

For the rest of my life, I have seen the same theme repeated again and again.  The people who have it the best bitch the most.

The kids who grew up in The Depression fought World War 2.  They volunteered in millions, 15 million men and many thousands of women served in the military during the Second World War.  More than 400,000 died, more than a million wounded.  And people from every part of society served.  Rich kids, poor kids, everyone in between.

But the kids who grew up with me in 40s and 50s, the biggest boom in prosperity in world history EVER, were we the best generation ever?  We well-fed children of the winners of World War 2 made Sex, Drugs, and Rock the goal.  And along the way, we let the poor kids of our generation sacrifice their lives in Viet Nam.  The privileged of our generation said Viet Nam was the "Wrong War" and dodged the draft in millions.

There is a correlation between hardship and happiness.  America did not have a major genetic change between World War 2 and Viet Nam.  We were not different people.  We were the children of people who lived through hardship.  We had it easy, we became whiny bitches.

And now we live in country that makes millionaires every day and billionaires every week and whiners every minute.  We have the best medical care in history of the world, the most food ever and we may be as a group the least thankful people who have ever lived.

When people talk about America being in decline, I wait to hear what sacrifice they want to make to make the country better.  But what I inevitably hear is what stuff they need to be happier--and what everyone else should sacrifice to make them happy.

What's wrong with America?  Bitches!

Friday, August 28, 2015

New Writing By Recent Veterans

Just got this in my email.  Free book available by PDF download.  Writing by recent veterans of America's wars.  Check it out here.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Today Marks My IRONMAN Annivarsary

One Year Ago, One Tired Dude

One year ago today I was in the middle of the most tiring day of my life, the 2014 Kentucky Ironman.  As I write this it is 9 a.m.  By this time I was swimming down river after struggling up stream for an hour.  It would be almost 10 a.m. before I climbed out of the water.  That moment leaving the water at about 9:45 a.m. was the best moment of the whole event.  I had finished the 2.4-mile swim--by far my worst event--and I had not been pulled from the course.  At that point, I knew I would finish.  

Yesterday I was finishing my ride and ran into a friend I did a Tough Mudder with in 2013.  Both events left me exhausted, but the Ironman was definitely the bigger physical challenge.  My wife wrote very well today about how finishing an Ironman changed us.  Now some friends are thinking about doing an Ironman, so we might do it with them.  

If we decide to do another Ironman, my pre-race training will be focused on swim interval training.  I need to be faster in the water.  I am planning to swim and ride today.  Maybe I'll run.  But I am sure I will feel much better at 11:54 p.m. than I did one year ago today.

Friday, August 21, 2015

We Are NOT All Heroes!

Major Dick Winters:  This is what a hero looks like.

On June 6, 1944, the day known around the world as D-Day, 1st Lieutenant Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne led an attack that has been celebrated and studied for the past 70 years.  Winters led attack known as The Assault on Brecourt Manor which is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point as one of the finest examples of fire and maneuver in military history.

Just 23 American soldiers from three different companies attacked 60 German soldiers.  The Germans were dug in with emplaced machine guns covering 88 millimeter cannons.  Winters and his men destroyed the German weapons and killed or captured the enemy force.  Just three Americans were killed and one wounded.  

Winters earned the second highest award the Army gives, the Distinguished Service Cross.  Three of his men were awarded the Silver Star Medal.  A dozen more earned the Bronze Star Medal.  The important thing to note is seven soldiers did not receive a medal for valor.

Most soldiers I know make fun of war movies.  But even the most cynical express admiration for the HBO Series "Band of Brothers." In unguarded moments, I have heard some very tough men say they would die happy if they could have been with Dick Winters.

Fast Forward 65 Years

In October of 2009 I was walking into the headquarters building of Camp Adder, Iraq.  The door burst open and a sergeant stormed out muttering to herself "he's getting a Bronze-fucking-Star and his fat ass has never been outside the wire."  

The sergeant was furious about the end-of-tour awards.  A chaplain who never went outside the wire (off the main base) was going to receive the Bronze Star Medal for his service.  "Everybody above Staff Sergeant and 1st Lieutenant gets a Bronze-fucking-Star," the sergeant said.  "I hate this shit."

The same culture that has grade inflation at every level of education gives the equivalent of "everybody wins" medals to people who never faced enemy fire.  The same Bronze Star Medal presented to a dozen men who attacked 60 Germans dug in with cannons and machine guns is now routinely given to maintenance and clerical soldiers who never faced enemy direct fire.

Five More Years

Since I returned from Iraq, many people have thanked me for my service and some said I am a hero.  I am not.  In fact, no soldier I know considers himself of herself a hero.  Even the aircrews who launched MEDEVAC missions in Iraq in blackout sandstorms to save soldiers would on convoy security.  Like athletes who always know someone better than they are, these men and women who I  think of as heroes will always point to someone else who is "really a hero."

All of us who served on Camp Adder in 2009 had a chance to serve under a man we all considered a hero.  The commander of Camp Adder was Col. Peter Newell, a battalion commander and a real hero in the Battle for Fallujah in 2004.  When Rolling Stone magazine wrote about Newell, they praised him for his leadership.  Newell earned the Silver Star Medal at Fallujah.

When someone calls me a hero, I smile.  But in my head, it is like when people ask me if I would ever ride in the Tour de France.  On my best day riding, I could not last two miles with the Tour de France riders--the best in the world.  When someone calls me a hero, I think of Newell, Winters and some of the air crew members I knew in Iraq.  It's not me.