Sunday, June 17, 2018

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietnam War with 23 years of service became the top enlisted man of the 4,000-soldier mechanized brigade where I was a tank commander. 

Like most career soldiers, he hated journalists, especially Army journalists.  But he gave me the chance to be an Army journalist, then a civilian journalist.  More on that soon.

When Cubbison came to our base in Wiesbaden, West Germany, we had a weekly brigade run, sometimes more than two thousand soldiers formed up by company and battalion and ran the perimeter of the former airfield, now a parking lot for tanks and other tracked vehicles. 

At the time I was 24 years old.  When we heard about this new hard-ass CSM coming to the base, everyone was saying he was 52 years old, even older than our Korean-War veteran First Sergeant, Robert V. Baker.  So we expected this ancient sergeant's major would just watch his troops run the airstrip.  We were wrong. First run he grabbed the brigade flag and led the formation.  Anyone who dropped out of that formation caught Hell.  "You can't keep up with a guy who's THAT old!!"

Clearly, Cubbison was not one of those people who everyone says looks young for their age.  A week ago, I found a brief article about Cubbison and an obituary.  He was 42 years old, not 52 when he became sergeant's major of 4th Brigade. 

After he made clear that the fitness program would be continuing with him at the front, Cubbison had an NCO meeting in the base theater just before Christmas.  He told the nearly one thousand sergeants in the brigade his priorities.  The Tennessee native talked about leadership, readiness and other topics on the NCO to-do list.

Then at the end he said he wanted a Combat Arms sergeant to volunteer to get his brigade into the newspapers. He wanted us in Stars and Stripes, in the Air-Force run base newspaper, "and every place else that writes about soldiers." Then he repeated the volunteer has to be infantry, armor or artillery. "I don't want a raggedy-ass Army journalist that doesn't know one end of his rifle from the other."

With that he dismissed us.  I saw that he wrote with a blue marker pen on yellow pads.  I went straight to the PX, bought the pen and paper he preferred, then ran to the airstrip.  There was a German and an American squad practicing together to be the honor guard at a friendship event on Christmas Eve.

I wrote the story and went to Cubbison's office in Brigade Headquarters an hour after the NCO meeting ended.  The other sergeants who auditioned for the job showed up later in the day or the next day. 

I got the job.  By the first week in January, I was re-assigned to Brigade and on my way to becoming a journalist.  I got 4th Brigade in the base newspaper almost every week and in the Stars and Stripes enough that Cubbison told me, quite proudly, that Col. John Riscassi, the brigade commander, got a call from Division HQ asking, "Why the Hell is it always 4th Brigade I'm seeing in the newspaper." 

In 1979, Cubbison went on to be the top sergeant of 3rd Infantry Division, then the sergeant's major of a rapid reaction force formed within US Army Europe. He passed away in 2015 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

When Cubbison moved up, I moved out. I left active duty in 1979 and went to college. While I studied, I had a part-time job as a newswriter at the Elizabethtown (Pa.) Chronicle.  Cubbison made my new career possible.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

AIM-9 Explodes on the Test Stand

AIM-9 Sidewinder missile fired from an F/A-18C

My job in the Air Force was Aging and Surveillance Testing of missiles--everything from the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile all the way up to the Minuteman ICBM.
In my Air Force service between 1972 and 75, I never got closer to Viet Nam than the western desert of Utah, but test firing missiles can be dangerous.  My first brush with missile-induced death only caused minor, temporary hair loss.  The second was a lot worse, but more on that later.
On a warm, spring Friday in 1973, we were scheduled to fire 20 AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles in a test stand.  The missile test area was in the northwest corner of Hill Air Force Base, three miles from main base and the airfield. It was also out of the flight path of the two runways, since we could occasionally send up clouds of smoke from test firings that changed from burn to explosion.  Today was one of those days. 
Weeks before the test, we received a shipment of AIM-9s randomly selected by lot number.  We then froze the missiles in a large freezer. We shook them on a vibration table that was a huge 300,000-Watt speaker driver.  We simulated various stratospheric heights in the altitude chamber, then finally took the stressed missiles, bolted them to a test stand, attached accelerometers, and fired them.
On a good day we could fire one every ten minutes, allowing for burn time and time for the spent missile and for spinning the big screws that locked the missile into the test stand. By the time of this test, I had been on the fire crew of several batches of AIM-9s. 
The crew leader was Staff Sergeant John Pachuca.  He would retire the following year with 20 years of service. Hill was his only duty station in more than a decade. In the 60s, missile testing consolidated at Hill. Several other sergeants planned on retiring at Hill.  But this stable environment also meant that promotions were few and far between, so Big John Pachuca would retire a staff sergeant. Before he retired, my muscular Mexican-American crew chief would save my life.  
After each missile was fired, we counted to ten in a ditch several yards away from the concrete test stand. I waited in the trench till the noise stopped, and then vaulted the wall to switch the missile. Two of us ran to the stand and unscrewed the clamps while two more grabbed the next missile.  We used asbestos gloves to carry away the casing of the spent missile. 
The stand was covered with a shelter made from perforated steel planking or PSP. They were more the sheets were ten feet long, fifteen inches wide and weighed more 66 pounds. They were designed to be temporary runways during World War II, but were also great as temporary roadways or to make a cover that allowed smoke to blow through. PSP sheets are full of holes.
Since it was Friday, we all wanted to get done, so we sprinted to get the fired missile out of the stand and the next missile locked in.  When a missile fires, it roars for several seconds then the sound dies away. Each missile has a unique burn time and part of the test was recording that burn time.  Burn time was not my part of the test. The test went well in the morning, but after lunch a few glitches with electronic equipment slowed us down. We wanted to get done and have a weekend off, so we moved as fast as we could bolting the missiles to the stand, then removing the fired missile.  After three firings in the afternoon we had a rhythm again.  The fourth missile fired and burned, but the burn time was about two seconds too short.  I started to vault the wall then suddenly flipped backwards. I thought the top of my head was being torn off. 
I started yelling with pain and swinging wildly. I shut up when I saw the flash of the entire test pad blowing apart.  I looked up and saw a sheet of PSP fly over the ditch we were in. If I had been standing above the ditch, the ten-foot steel sheet would have cut me in half.  John Pachuca had grabbed my by the hair—which was three inches long and barely in Air Force regulations—and thrown me back in the ditch. He knew the burn was too short and heard the sputter before the missile exploded. 
Inside the missile, the propellant cracked during the freezing and shaking. The air gap caused the propellant to stop burning, but then heat in the casing caused the remaining propellant to heat and sizzle.
Then the AIM9 blew up on the pad.
I was lying on back in the ditch with the big sergeant in the white overalls on top of me.  My head hurt for days. Until sundown and much of the next day we cleaned up what we could of the mess. Engineering teams had to rebuild the test stand.  We continued the test the following week.  The test site had another pad because when missiles go high order they blow up everything around them.
The next time a missile test went wrong I wasn’t so lucky. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Tanks from Inside, Tanks from Outside: The Huge Difference

The podcast Sectarian Review just did an episode on Philip Roth. It included a passage from American Pastoral using a military tank as a metaphor.  It made me realize how different it is to be outside a tank than inside.

It is very different to see a dragon than to be a dragon.  I was a U.S. Army tank commander trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1975. The following year I waited for World War III to start, looking across the east-west border in Fulda.  Tactically, most of what we knew about our own tanks and those of our enemies came from the devastation of Israeli armor at the outset of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the subsequent destruction of Arab armor after the initial shock and loss.

Tanks, like mythic dragons, are terrifying to those outside. But on the inside they are the target everyone wants to kill.  In 1973, lone Egyptian infantrymen with Soviet "Sagger" missiles more than a mile away could and did kill Israeli tanks.  In Cold War West Germany, we looked across the border in Fulda and saw a vast Army of tanks, men with missiles, helicopters, fighters and artillery arrayed to kill us.  No one I knew thought we were the terror of the battlefield.

It just reminded me the experience of literature, of all art, is different depending on the experience of the reader.  Armor crewmen, tank commanders especially, see the modern battlefield as a massive "kill the tank" game.  Some of the most fearsome weapons to our enemies in the current wars were designed as tank killers then used on other targets.  The A-10 Warthog, the most nearly perfect ground attack aircraft in history, was designed around it's tank killer gun.  The Apache helicopter has the same design concept--kill tanks with Hellfire missiles and it amazing chain gun.  As it turns out if you can kill a tank you can kill other targets.  There are youtube videos of Apache helicopters vs. Toyota pickups filled with terrorists caught in the open.  The outcome is always the same: Apache 1 Toyota 0.

Anyway, Roth was right to see the modern dragon as terrifying from the outside.  But we who are inside the dragon, who see out of our dragon eyes, know the terrors both of seeing a dragon and being a dragon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

My New Breakfast Club--Jewish Draft-Era Veterans

In November of last year, I started going to the Wednesday morning Minion prayer group at a synagogue in Lancaster City--Congregation Shaarai Shomayim. After Minion, several of the men in the group meet at a local restaurant north of the city, Olde Hickory Grille. I joined them.

The month before, I met with the Rabbi of the Synagogue, Jack Paskoff. In the wake of the White Supremacist and Nazi rally that ended in murder, I feared anti-Semitism getting worse, especially after the President said these racists were "fine people."

One friend said, "You should see a Rabbi."

Another said, "You should see my Rabbi."

I met with Rabbi Paskoff. He invited me to come to services and hoped it would help me find peace.

The next week I went to Friday evening Sabbath service. When I got up to leave a man named Rick walked up to me and introduced himself. He asked, "Are you a cop or a soldier?" I said soldier. He was both. A retired police officer and a retired Army Command Sergeant's Major. His wife Kathy is also former military, serving as a Medic in the 80s and 90s.

Rick invited me to Minion the following Wednesday.  At the breakfast, Rick introduced me to the other four men at the table. During breakfast, I realized that four of us served during the draft.  Rick was too young for the draft but was a Gulf War veteran and had served in many conflicts from the early 80s to the Iraq War.  The only guy who did not serve was in ROTC after the draft and decided he did not want to complete the program. Five of the six of us are veterans. I did not expect that. 

The oldest veteran, Herb, had served before the Vietnam War as a cook, roughly the same time that Elvis Pressley was in the Army.  The other two were reservists who served during the Vietnam War, but were not sent to the war.

Over the last several months of going to the breakfast every other week or so, I have met a few more veterans who are members of the congregation.

I did not go to the prayer group expecting to find a veteran's group.  All of my work experience after the Vietnam War said that middle class men from the northeast did not serve.  I met one veteran in fifty in the white collar jobs I held from the mid-80s to my retirement three years ago.

Each of the men in the Breakfast Club told a funny story about how strange the Army was for them and how glad they were to be discharged.  Which is how most people feel about the Army. Rick and I are the only members of the group who ever wear an Army t-shirt.

This week three of the veterans--Rick, David and Harvey--were at one end of the table talking intensely about congregational business. Jim and I at the other end of the table talked about documentaries and podcasts. Jim said he was nearly out of memory on his phone.  I showed him how to free up some storage on his 5-year-old iPhone so he would have room for podcasts.

At this weekly breakfast, I almost felt as if I entered a time machine.  I was sitting with a group who meets every week because they have faith in common and they are nearly all veterans.  My Dad's generation had that experience. If a dozen men got together to go bowling or to coach football, the majority would be veterans. And like the men who served during World War II, we seldom talk about the Army, except to make jokes. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

On Memorial Day: Visiting the Grave of Major Richard "Dick" Winters

Major Richard Winters, 1918-2011

This morning I got a message on Facebook from Sarah Frye Gingrich. She was asking about a gravesite of a soldier to visit on Memorial Day.  I immediately answered with the grave of Major Dick Winters, one of the soldiers I most admire, and who is admired by even the most cynical of my fellow soldiers. 

The Winters family grave at Bergstrasse Lutheran Church
Ephrata, Pa.

 In suggesting the visit to Sarah, I was aware I had never visited Dick Winters grave.  Sarah took her six kids to cemetery at Bergsrasse Lutheran Church in Ephrata, Pa.  An hour later, I put on my uniform for the first time since I left the Army and went to visit Winter's grave with my youngest son Nigel. 

Nigel at the Winter's family grave site.

For those who don't know the story of Dick Winters, I cannot recommend more highly the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose and the HBO miniseries of the same name.   
First time in my uniform since 2016

There are many memorials to the men who participated in the Normandy invasion. The airborne museum at Sainte-Mere-Eglise tells the story of those who flew into the invasion in gliders and with parachutes.  And the American Cemetery at Normandy where more than 9,000 soldiers are buried on the cliffs above Omaha Beach.

Nigel and I after the visit.

Rest in Peace Major Winters.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Faith in the Military: Chaplains During the Cold War and the Current Wars

Army Chaplain with Armor Unit

In the Cold War Army of the 1970s, the Protestant Chaplains were very different men than most of the Chaplains I met in Iraq in this century.  For one thing, they were all men. In this century a few of the Chaplains were woman. 

Between the 70s and the 2000s a big gap opened between the kind of person who was a Protestant Chaplain and those who were Catholic Chaplains.  All of the Chaplains I knew in the 70s were from what are now called mainstream denominations.  They were men with advanced degrees: masters or doctorates of Divinity.  Catholic Chaplains then and now were graduates of Catholic seminaries, also with advanced degrees. The only Orthodox Chaplain I met was a college chaplain. All were educated men who were approved by their national denominations for service.

But somewhere between Cold War West Germany and Camp Adder, Iraq, the standards for the chaplaincy and the people who were Protestant chaplains changed.  Most of the Protestant chaplains I met in Iraq and in the Army in this century were Evangelicals. They had undergraduate degrees from Bible Colleges and other Christian Colleges.

The 21st Century Catholic Chaplains were no different than the 1970s, or, I imagine, from the 1870s.  Chaplain Valentine, the Catholic Chaplain on Camp Adder, Iraq, was teaching Philosophy at Fordham University on September 11, 2001. He saw the attack from his office window and joined the Army as soon as he could.  His story is here.

How different were the Protestant Chaplains in 1977 and 2009?  In 1977, I was a sergeant in a tank unit in West Germany. I attended chapel services and had a lot of questions.  The chaplain gave me C.S. Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity.” I loved the book. I read it, re-read it and asked for a book about C.S. Lewis.  The Chaplain gave me Lewis’ autobiography “Surprised by Joy.” I stopped reading at page 13 and did not try to read it again until I was in graduate school five years later.  The book has 246 references to authors and books I had never heard of. I eventually made an index of the books and authors Lewis mentions.  At that time, I had only a high school education and Lewis’ autobiography was beyond me.  The chaplain gave me other books by Lewis when I told him how difficult the autobiography was.

Thirty years later, I re-enlisted was again a sergeant. But this time I was a sergeant with a master’s degree in literature that had read and re-read all of 39 books C.S. Lewis wrote.  I started a C.S. Lewis book group on Camp Adder.  We read several of Lewis’ most popular theology books.  

The core of my book group was three Chaplains and an Air Force Colonel.  A few enlisted soldiers came and went, but only one of them stayed. It was weird for them to be in a book group with mostly officers. The Chaplains had heard about C.S. Lewis but never read any of his works except the Narnia Chronicles.  I know that a 56-year-old sergeant with, as soldiers say, “more degrees than a thermometer” was not typical.  But the Chaplaincy had clearly changed.  Evangelical Chaplains better reflected what the soldiers in the Army believed, but they were much more spiritual guides than experts.  The Chaplains had not read C.S. Lewis, or any leading 20th Century religious thinkers outside the Evangelical world.

Before Iraq, I was tempted to think this change made sense.  Mainline Protestant Denominations were in decline; Evangelical Churches were growing. Does a Chaplain really need an advanced degree? 

No. But the most popular services on Camp Adder, the only ones that filled the seats of the stone-floored chapel, were when the Chaplain Valentine, the Fordham Professor turned Catholic Chaplain, was leading the service.  Soldiers respect expertise.  More than once, I heard a soldier say, “Chaplain Valentine really knows his shit!”  He did. And he made me nostalgic for the Chaplain who introduced me to one of the leading Christian writers of the last century, not the Chaplains who had me introduce them to the same writer.  


Vinnie Vinanti I had a good chaplain in Germany, he was a Methodist. A few years later they were all evangelical and pushy about their faith; I did not appreciate that. Throughout the rest of my career the chaplains were all evangelicals. I usually avoided them. I always fell I was being judged for having a difference in faith.

Another from Facebook: 
I found a difference in Chaplains over the years too. Back in the day, the unit Chaplain was the spiritual leader of the unit. He could easily transition between religious services for different faiths & denominations. If he was unfamiliar with the faith of soldier in his command, he was tell connected to other religious resources, both military & civilian. In Iraq in 2004, we had a National Guard evangelical chaplain. We all hated him. If you didn't follow his faith, you were going to Hell. He was also the racist & jealous type. Many of us gravitated towards a young Korean-American chaplain from the 1st Cav. He was Christian & that was about how much we knew about his own spiritual beliefs. He supported all of our needs. He even made sure the Rabbi chaplain came by to visit our Jewish unit members. The Guard chaplain viewed the Rabbi like Satan himself. I prefer the old school chaplains. They were there for the soldiers, not to spread their own beliefs.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The German Evangelical Church Backed the Nazis in 1932 Then Turned on Their Jewish Members

In Charlottesville in 2017 Nazi flags and Rebel flags
flew together. Jim Crow laws in the American South 
inspired the German race laws that led to the Holocaust.

In 2016, the Evangelical Church in America voted overwhelmingly for a President who is openly racist and has bragged about breaking all the Commandments.  Depending on how you count Evangelicals they are one quarter of the U.S. population. The same people who, less than 50 years ago, did not smoke, drink, dance or watch movies and called on their followers to separate themselves from the world, now grasp for money and power as ruthlessly as the worst Medieval Popes and Cardinals. 

By backing Trump, the Evangelical Church in America abandoned faith for political power. The Evangelical Church in Germany did the same thing in the 1930s.

In 1932 Germany’s state church—the German Evangelical Church—was by far the largest Church in Germany with 40 million members. Another 22 million Germans were Catholic. Jews numbered fewer than a million and about ten percent of them were converts who were members of German Churches. 

Throughout the 1920s, the Evangelical Church was increasingly influenced by German nationalist ideologies. German Evangelicals voted for the openly racist Hitler because they feared communism more than Hitler's rabid racism. Nazis stoked fears of communism and said Hitler would Make Germany Great Again.

With Hitler’s rise to power 1933, most Protestant clergy willingly accepted Hitler’s racist views. The Nazi regime issued the Edict of April 1933 called the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” Many Protestant clergy consequently agreed with the Nazi policy and chose to eject all pastors who had Jewish parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. The Church voluntarily “Aryanized” itself, immediately firing all pastors of Jewish descent in 1933; by 1935, all congregants of Jewish descent were expelled.
Nazis used Luther’s anti-Semitic writings “with scarcely a word of protest or contradiction" from the leaders of the Protestant Church.

Theologically and politically, the fates of Christians and Jews should have been bound together. But most Germans, including those within the church, put an even greater distance between themselves and the Jews. The Church turned its back on its own Jewish believers, which made it easy for Nazi leaders to segregate them, and then kill them.
Theresienstadt, a small city in the German-occupied part of the Czech Republic, was a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp during World War II.
One witness said:
From the end of 1941 to the beginning of 1945, more than 140,000 Jews were sent to this ghetto, which for many, about 88,000, became a transit camp to the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 33,000 died in this ghetto. When it was all over and the ghetto had been liberated on May 8, 1945, there were about 19,000 survivors.
Among those who died in Theresienstadt, or were deported from Theresienstadt to the death camp Auschwitz or survived the horrors in Theresienstadt, were individuals who were Christians of Jewish descent. It is tempting today to call them “Messianic Jews”, but this would not correspond with their self-perception. Like most other Jews in Germany they saw themselves as Germans; unlike most other German Jews they were Jews who had embraced the Christian faith, some by conviction, others for pragmatic reasons. But in Theresienstadt they shared the fate of “Mosaic” Jews. In the eyes of the Nazis, their Christian faith did not obliterate their Jewishness.

Theresienstadt is a window into what happened to Christians of Jewish descent during the Holocaust. It is estimated that as many as ten percent of the half million Jews in Nazi Germany were Christians. They suffered and died along with their fellow Jews. For Nazis, blood not belief defines a person, or a non-person.
The path Germany followed from civilized nation to Nazi domination went from prosperity, to defeat in war, to racism and slaughter.

In 1913, Germany was by many measures the most powerful and civilized nation on earth, the world leader in education and manufacturing. It was the country where Jews were most integrated into the life of the nation, many of whom considered themselves German citizens who were Jewish.
By 1923, Germany was defeated in war and crushed by the terms of peace.  Anti-Semitism was on the rise and Germany turned inward.  In 1933, Hitler was in power and German Jews would suffer increasing attacks.  By 1943 nearly all German Jews were dead or enslaved and soon would die.  Thirty years and an immoral leader completely changed the fate of Jews in Germany and every nation the German Army conquered.  
The Evangelical Church in Germany backed Hitler early and strongly, blessing his war machines and abandoning Jews in their own congregations and their Jewish neighbors to be tormented, deported and murdered.  The Church sold out for power.
Beginning in 2015, the Evangelical Church in America has backed the vilest human being ever to be elected President and backs him more enthusiastically than any other group of his followers.  I know many Evangelicals who say that naming conservative judges to the court and defunding Planned Parenthood prove he is a Pro-Life champion.  I could understand their position before Charlottesville, but after Trump called Nazis “fine people” there is no way to label him Pro-Life. Nazis, White Supremacists and all who support them are Pro-Death, Pro-Genocide but not Pro-Life, unless they mean Pro White Life.
Jerry Falwell Sr. was the first prominent sellout for political power. He created the Moral Majority to create voting bloc for all those who wanted the restoration of White Power. The Moral Majority was clearly the White Majority in America. Brown people, Liberals, Gay people and others who were not white conservatives were not true Americans.

When the Moral Majority dissolved in 1989, it spawned a dozen other organizations with Christian labels grasping for secular power. By 2016, Evangelical leaders flushed doctrine, covenants and commandments down a cosmic toilet and showered blessing on an entitled racist who despises everyone mentioned in the Beatitudes.

But this is not new territory for Evangelicals. Before the Civil War, Evangelical Churches in the America South blessed the especially vile form of slavery practiced in slave states. When the South was defeated, the same Churches supported Jim Crow laws creating American apartheid. Churches were just as segregated as voting booths, schools and drinking fountains.

Since World War II, American Evangelical leaders have blamed the reclusive biologist Charles Darwin for inspiring Nazi leaders with the theory of evolution. They assume Darwin is responsible for Social Darwinism, which is akin to believing Albert Einstein developed the philosophy of moral relativism.

Do I think Trump will turn on the 5 million American Jews? Maybe. But it’s more likely that a national crisis will let a worse racist than him grab power. Trump, unlike Hitler, is a coward and a bully who dodged the draft and attacks men who actually have courage.  He is more sleazy than Nazi.
But I am quite sure the Evangelical Church will corrode further and faster as it receives power and privilege from its new god in the Oval Office. Its millionaire preachers will abandon all traditional faith for its orange-ish golden calf.

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietna...