Thursday, August 21, 2014

Georgia on My Mind

Troops from the Republic of Georgia

In 2008 while I was training to go to Iraq, the small Republic of Georgia decided to Invade neighboring Russia.  What I remember from the time were news reports that Georgia was being attacked by Putin and Russia.

But in the delightful book The Invisible Gorilla:  And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us I learned that it was Georgia that invaded Russia.  The books is by the psychologists who designed the Invisible Gorilla experiment.  If you don't know about the Invisible Gorilla, check it out on line. 

The book is about our illusions:  how we deceive ourselves, particularly through overconfidence. The authors used the 2008 War in Georgia to show how members of a group can convince themselves to do things they never would do alone.

The President of Georgia was in his mid 30s and gathered a group of advisors of his own age to run the government.  At the time, Georgia was in a dispute with Russia over two territories on their border.  The Georgian President convinced himself that if he moved rapidly to take over the two disputed territories in a swift military strike, that Russia would hesitate to counterattack and Georgia could hold the territories and get international opinion on their side.

I was laughing out loud thinking about this.  Russia has the second largest military in the world.  Georgia also borders Chechnya, so the Russian soldiers stationed in the area near Georgia have to be ready for trouble.  In round numbers, the Russia Army is 25 times larger than Georgia's Army. For an old soldier like me, the saddest and funniest aspect of this plan was resupply.  If anything went wrong and the war dragged out, where was Georgia going to get resupply for its Soviet-era, Russian made weapons?

Long conflict was not a problem.  The Russians turned back the Georgian Army and attacked from several directions on land and from the sea and air.  The Georgian Army fled back to the capital Tiblisi.  The war ended quickly.  If you wonder how crazy this war was, Belgium would have a better chance invading Germany.

"What were they thinking?" is the question that came to my mind, but at the same time, I remember being drawn into crazy projects that failed completely.  Yet at the time the confident project leader had us all behind her.

The Invisible Gorilla is a delightful and humbling book. Really knowing yourself is difficult if not impossible.  This book explains why.

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 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.