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.

Monday, August 17, 2015

There Are Atheists in Foxholes: But they don't watch Fox News.

Firing on the 300-meter pop-up target range

On the morning we fired the M16, we arrived at drill an hour early.  At morning formation the first sergeant reminded us, loudly, that safety is the most important thing we do in the Army.  

Fifteen minutes later, we lined up at the supply room to get our weapons.  The supply clerk handed out the weapons one at a time, verifying the serial number on each weapon.  While we waited in line, the First Sergeant walked up and down checking soldiers to be sure they had all their gear for the range.

“Eye-Pro” he barked at one soldier.  The soldier quickly showed him his sunglass.  Eye-Pro is short for eye protection, the pretentious Army label for sunglasses.  To another he said, “Hydration.”  The soldier held up a camouflage Camel-Back and sloshed it.  We do not drink water, we hydrate.

He stopped opposite me and said, “One word, Benghazi.” By simply saying that word, this rabid Republican was telling me his party was going to win and the likely Democratic nominee would be defeated.  “President Trump.” he added, indicating his current preference for the 2016 election.

I said, “Trump said he is going to put Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter in his cabinet.  I can’t wait.”

He said, “I didn’t hear that.”  He walked away.  We were done. 

He is among the many soldiers who have asked me in the past eight years, “How can you be in the Army and be a Democrat?”

As he walked away, the woman in line behind me said, “You’re a Democrat!” For the next 15 minutes while we waited in line, the lieutenant and I talked about the how strange it is to be in the Army and be a Democrat.  She is an atheist so she is one step further outside the military norm. 

We talked about how much religion melts into politics for Conservatives and how faith, right-wing politics, and gun rights is the norm, especially in a central Pennsylvania National Guard unit.  We quickly covered fundamentalist views of the U.S. Constitution, the faith (or not) of the founders and voting rights.

Her face lit up when we talked about Young Earth Creationists, the people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. 

“How can anyone believe that?” she said.  “I talked to a guy who was studying radiation and radioactivity.  The half-lives of many elements are in the millions of years.  I asked him, ‘How can you believe the earth is 6,000 years old?’”

She is a medical officer so she also talked about the anti-vaccination movement.  She said she liked the idea of people having control of medical care for themselves and their children, but she also knows the risks of not vaccinating.  And the Army does not ask about vaccination.  It works.  It is mandatory.

Then I was next in line and it was time to grab my weapon, so our conversation ended.

The Army puts people close together with time to talk.  Most of the conversations are ordinary.  Sometimes they are unexpected fun.  Today was definitely fun!

Friday, August 14, 2015

BFF and the Change from Civilian to Army Acronyms

When I joined the Army in 2007, social media was spreading across the world.  Like every subculture, it began to have its own language and its own acronyms.  At that time I was starting to text more, especially with my then teenage kids.  So I began to be exposed to the flood of new texting acronyms.

At the same time, I was re-entering Army culture after a quarter century.  The Army has thousands of official and unofficial acronyms with few rules.  One of those rules says that if a three-letter acronym has the letter F in the middle the F is always the same word.  So BFR means Big F**king Rock.  NFW means No effing Way, and so on.

One day shortly after my re-enlistment my daughter Lisa burst into the house after soccer practice.  She was dropping her gear and going to Claire's for dinner.  She referred to Claire as her BFF.  I wasn't paying full attention to the blond blur that was passing through the house until I heard BFF.  I understood that Lisa was saying Claire is her best friend (still is as a matter of fact), but I was surprised she would refer to Claire as her Best effing Friend.

I said, "Lisa, when you say BFF, I get that Claire is your best friend, but is it like the Army acronym?"

The blond blur stopped.  She looked at me, smiled when she realized what I was asking and said, "Dad, it's Best Friends Forever! It's not Army."

Glad we cleared that up.  Not that it was a BFD.

My First Writing Mentor: Clint Swift

The Army made me a  writer.  In several blog posts, especially this one, I have written about how the combination of inspiration and free time of soldiers in the field gave the chance to learn how to write.
A movie of my life would have me start writing, a twinkle would show in my eye as I looked to the future, and within a minute I would be transformed from Grunt to Gogol!

As you can tell from my current writing, I am still a grunt who wishes he was Nikolai Gogol, but when the Army gave me my first journalism job in 1978, the guy who helped me the most was a civilian reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, named Clint Swift.  I met Clint when I visited the Stars and Stripes office in Darmstadt, (West) Germany.  I told him what I was doing and he took an interest in me and my unit.

He also gave me a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.  I read and reread the book several times over the next year.  Clint told me how news stories worked, explained the difference between news and feature stories, and helped me to learn the craft of journalism.  I am currently re-reading The Elements of Style.  I could not even guess how many times I have re-read it.
I looked on line to see if I could find Clint.  No luck so far.  I hope he is proud that I made writing my career.  I am sure he would be amused I am back in the Army.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Paula Poundstone Embarassed Me in Iraq!

Six years ago this month, Paula Poundstone made me collapse laughing.  She went on a rant about Pop Tarts on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me."  It was so funny I literally fell on my face.  You can listen to her stand-up pop tart rant here.

It wasn't a long fall.  I wasn't hurt.  Except my dignity.  I was working out in the House of Pain Gym on Camp Adder in Iraq.  I was 56 years old.  I was surrounded by weight lifters in their 20s and 30s bench pressing 300+ pounds and listening to speed metal music.  I was listening to the "Wait Wait" podcast on my iPod.  It took 40 minutes to download on the anemic Camp Adder internet.

I had done just 10 of the 60 pushups I usually do when the host disparaged Pop Tarts as junk food.  Paula was outraged!!!  She went into a 2-minute rant on how Pop Tarts were in fact the secret of her good health and the greatest food ever.  On pushup 21 I collapsed laughing.

With the rant still on full tilt, I looked up and saw a couple of beefy metal heads looking at me.  More specifically they were looking at the old guy on the floor who collapsed doing pushups and was shaking.  They didn't know I was laughing.  For a second, I imagined myself trying to explain that I was listening to NPR and not Metal Music, then my senses returned.

I paused the rant, got up, and pretended I was done.  We could not wear headphones outside, so I grabbed my gear and walked over to my CHU (home) so I could finish listening to the podcast without looking like an old guy having a heart attack.

Clearly, Paula Poundstone made that rant on purpose just to embarrass me in the "House of Pain."

My First Day in Iraq, May 2, 2009

On my 56th birthday, the ramp dropped in the back of the C-17 cargo plane at 1130 hours.  We had taxied to the edge of the airstrip.  More than 100 soldiers in battle gear struggled out of the five-across seats and walked down the ramp with short, unsteady steps. The same ramp in the picture above.

Heat shimmered on the concrete airstrip.  The air temperature was almost 120 degrees already.  The surface temperature of the airstrip was closer to 140 degrees. 

“Happy fucking birthday, Gussman,” said Sgt. Jeremy Houck when I reached the bottom of the ramp.  The baggage pallets were still on the plane.  We would have to wait for the bags, then hope for a ride to our new homes behind 20-foot blast walls here on Camp Adder.  

The base we were on was Camp Adder to the Army, Talil Ali Air Base to the US Air Force.  It would be home for the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, me included, until January of 2010.  

On that day, the outside of me was hot, tired, confused and miserable.  I was wearing 45 pounds of body armor, carrying 50 more pounds of weapon and gear, and I was melting.

But underneath the sweat, I was soooooooo happy.  My dream was not comfortable or fun, but it was my dream.  I wanted to be in Iraq.  I enlisted during Viet Nam, but missed the war.  Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in the Army in a war.  Now 50 years later, I arrived.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

Trump Leads Chickenhawk Nation

Recently soldiers I serve with have become public fans of The Donald for Commander in Chief.  At first I thought they must not know how much Chickenhawks like him despised soldiers in the 1960s.  Then I realized they don't care.  They were born after Viet Nam ended and have no idea what it was like to live through that war.

During the Viet Nam War, our nation had a military draft.  If it worked, which it did not, anyone between 18 and 26 years old could be called to serve his country for two years.

Unlike World War 2 when many young men clamored to join the ranks, during Viet Nam most middle-class and rich kids from the northeast and the west coast avoided the draft through deferments.  The Donald had five such deferments.  Mitt Romney, Dick Cheney, Bill Kristol, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and many other Conservative leaders decided not to serve.

And because the war was unpopular, they were barely making excuses.  Cheney had better things to do.  For others it was the "wrong war."  Really?  There are American soldiers fighting.  Are you an American?

The draft is a zero-sum game so for every draft dodger who did not go, a poor kid who could not afford deferments went in his place.  More than 50,000 soldiers died in Viet Nam.  Hundreds of thousands more were wounded or afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Whoever took The Donald's place is as likely as not dead, wounded or suffering from PTSD.

When I bring this up, one reaction is Bill Clinton dodged the draft.  He did.  But he did not go on to urge more war.  Many people I grew up with sang "give peace a chance" in the 60s and are still to the left of Bernie Sanders today.  But the "peace people" who became Conservatives once their draft eligibility ended are simply cowards.  They let someone else serve in their place and became Hawks once they were safe from actual service. 

I can understand why people who define their world by who they hate would love Trump.  But how can people who have made the military their career vote for a guy who despises service.  Trump thought people who served in Viet Nam were chumps when he got his five deferments.  The glib way he dismissed John McCain says Trump thinks no better of soldiers now.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"Super Dad" Article Got Republished by 28th Division

An article calling me a Super Dad got picked up by 28th Division and posted on Facebook.  It was a good article.  It was fun to talk to the reporter.  We started talking about kids and sports.
Here is the link.