Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Fury" Brings Back Memories of Tank Gunnery and Life in a Turret.

On Monday night my son Nigel and three men from Church went to see "Fury" with me.  I re-read books I love and will watch movies and TV shows I like a second, third, or more times.  Re-reading and re-watching takes away the delight of surprise that only the first time can offer, but removing surprise lets the best moments sink in more deeply.

In 1976 I spent more time inside my tank "Bad Bitch" than at any other time in my Army career.  That year our brigade was training to go to Germany for three years as Brigade '76--4,000 combat soldiers with an alert area in Fulda, West Germany:  the place where everyone thought the ground war with the Soviet Army in Europe would start.  Tom Clancy wrote his best novel about that war:  "Red Storm Rising."

In the Spring of 1976, the 54 tanks of 1st Battalion, 70th Armor, spent three weeks in the Colorado desert for annual gunnery training.  For three months before that I read the 700-page maintenance and operation manual for the M60A1 Patton tank I commanded from cover to cover.  I came to the Army from the Air Force and was determined to be as good as the Army at tank gunnery.

For three months before gunnery, my crew was the last to go home at night, and sometimes was in on weekends when everyone else was off so we could drill on every aspect of tank gunnery.  Some afternoons we drove to the top of a hill near the motor pool and tracked cars on Interstate 25.  Moving targets are difficult with a tank cannon.  We drilled on tracking targets for hours.

One of the things "Fury" gets so right is how different the members of a crew can be and how well they can work together confined in a turret despite all those differences.  My gunner was Specialist Morris.  His nickname was "Merc."  Because Mercury Morris was a start running back of the 70s.  I was a starched, creased ambitious young sergeant.  Merc was a very good gunner, but a wrinkled, complaining soldier who was at his best after smoking dope.  Outside the tank we would not spend two minutes together.  Inside Merc and I became a team that could hit targets, even if we could never hit it off.

We had an amazing loader in Eugene "Geno" Pierce.  Geno was big, strong and quick.  He could flip and armor-piercing round into the breach one-handed in two seconds and have the second round in the chamber while the first one was still rattling to the bottom of the turret after the first shot.  Our driver, Rich Burhans, was a lanky, laid-back Minnesotan.  He was perfect as a driver.  He could wait calmly during long delays and then driver the 54-ton tank smoothly down the firing lanes.

On the final day of tank gunnery when we were next up to fire on the moving range, Merc walked off into the woods to "have a smoke."  He came back calm and happy.  We were ready to fire.  Would three months of practice really pay off on the ten-minute "Final Exam" for tankers?

Next post.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review of "Fury"

Last night I went to see the movie "Fury" at the 945pm showing.  That meant movie did not start until 1006pm and was not over until after midnight.

At more than 20,000 days my life is much too long to say for sure this is the best movie I have ever seen, but it is the best movie I can remember ever seeing.  I walked out of the movie slowly after watching the credits.  

I never stay for the credits.

But the credits of Fury show actual footage from World War 2 I remember from documentaries.

The story begins in the flaming, smoking wreckage of a tank battle with a lone German on a horse riding into the scene.  The somber calm is broken when Brad Pitt jumps from his tank and kills the German with a knife.  Pitt and his crew are the only survivors of the battle.  They get the disabled tank running and return to the war.

From this scene onward, the movie gets perfectly right the claustrophobic, noisy dangerous world inside a tank.  Even without a war, every tank turret is divided in half by a main gun.  When the main gun is fired, the gun recoils almost to the back of the turret.  Hands, legs, gear, bodies or anything else behind the main gun gets crushed.  This movie gets that danger right.  The crew calls the metal enclosure home, but home is a place that can turn into a fuel and ammo fueled inferno.

In the middle of the movie, four American Sherman tanks are attacked by one German Tiger tank.  The American tanks are outgunned by the more heavily armored German tank and three of the four Sherman tanks are smoking wrecks by the time the brief, violent battle ends.  The way the fight went brought back my best memories of tank gunnery and how well a crew that agrees on little or nothing outside the tank can mesh to put fire on targets.

Like "Saving Private Ryan" the premise of the last scene is ridiculous.  But unlike Ryan, which had me laughing and calling "bullshit" I stayed with the movie because even if the scene was unbelievable tactically, as bad as the worst John Wayne movie, the final scene made clear how attached crews can become to their tank and to each other.

The battle between the Tiger and the Shermans is worth the price of admission by itself.  Brad Pitt's character drew me in past every filter I have for war movies.

I am going to see Fury again in the theater.  Maybe twice.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Apache Live Fire

In mid-August I watched AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters fire rockets and cannon at targets on Range 40 at Camp Grayling, Michigan.  The exercise included ground troops, mortars, artillery and US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack fighters.

Here are the Apaches firing rockets and cannon:

Next post I will show the ground crews loading the rockets and 30mm chain gun.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Changing Faster Than a Chameleon Running Across a Rainbow Bridge

Every day this month something happened that made think either, 'I should try to get a waiver and stay in the Army.'  Or 'I would get out tomorrow if I could.'

What I will actually do is put on my uniform an hour before the sun comes up tomorrow and go to drill.  When I get there, we will have formation, then I will have two, two-hour classes: one on resiliency and one on how to get along with people of other races, sexes, sexual orientations, etc.  

Wednesday, when I found out about the classes, it was one of those I-can't-be-out-soon-enough days.  The resiliency classes are pop psychology which may work for people under normal, everyday, I-live-in-America levels of stress which includes three meals a day, shelter, smart phone, computer, TV and a thousand other things the majority of the world would LOVE to have.  But resiliency training is not going to work if you are face down on one side of the road with you lower leg still in the Humvee you were just blown out of.  Suffering builds courage, builds inner strength, builds the resiliency the Army really wants us to have.  But we get two hours of pop psychology instead.

Today, I wanted to stay in.  I was talking to one of the funniest soldiers in my unit, a Blackhawk pilot named Latifa Gaisi who posted a link on Facebook about a female F-16 pilot flying for the United Arab Emirates Air Force hitting ISIS targets.  Talking to Latifa made me want to stay in.  The 1st Infantry Division set up its headquarters in Iraq.  That's 500 pairs of boots on the ground that are set up to command 15,000.  Are they there just to enjoy Iraq in the Fall?  This time we are not trying to win hearts and minds.  Every soldier I know who was part of the ridiculous mission in the last war, would like to return with a mission to win, me included.

Tonight, my sons came home from school, one after cross country practice and the other after getting help with English from one of the tutors on his squash team at F&M College.  The boys are doing well--much better than last year.  In part it is because they are in a better school, but it is also because I am home a lot more.  I work just two days a week.  When they have trouble I am around.  I am not riding a train or off at a three-month Army school.  

So it also seems to be time to let Latifa and the other 20-year-olds go off and smash ISIS.  I even backed out of doing the 28-mile ruck march on October 11.  I am getting shoulder surgery soon and carrying a 35-pound pack for 9 hours could switch my torn ligaments from scheduled surgery to emergency.

I will try to enjoy the next several months till I am out.  But currently, the chameleon is stopped--far away from green.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What's Next Neil??

"What's next Neil?" My riding buddy Chris Peris asked me that question yesterday.  I have been hearing it a lot since the Ironman.  I did not answer quickly because we were riding fast and my jaw hurt from getting the first stage of a root canal yesterday morning.

I could give several answers to the question:

  • Since I am out of the Army next spring, I can actually race again without Army training eating up all the weekends at the peak of the race season in May and June.
  • Jim Dao and Ethan Demme both want to do Half Ironman events next year.  I could be interested in that.
  • Next month is the 28-mile March for the Fallen--in uniform with a 35-pound Rucksack.
But here's the definite answer:
  • Shoulder surgery, probably in December.
  • Dental implant next month.
  • Tomorrow I will find out if I am getting a root canal or another dental implant.
  • Three crowns.
All of the above are things I put off because I did not want to interrupt Ironman training.

So the answer to "What's next Neil?" is getting various parts of my body repaired from Ironman training, previous crashes and the wear and tear of living more than 23,000 days.

Another dimension of "What's next?" is what I am doing now that I work two days a week and go to Philadelphia just once a week.  Ten years ago when I worked as a consultant, I took a course at F&M College each semester:  French, five courses in Ancient Greek, two each in Organic Chemistry and Physics.  

This semester I signed up for Russian 101. Hearing that I did this, one of my running buddies (who is multi-lingual) said, "Language is not like the Ironman.  There is always more to learn.  There is no finish line."   

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Tough Mudder vs. Ironman, Part 3

Six Minutes to Midnight I crossed the finish line.  Many times after bicycle races I felt good enough that I thought:   'I didn't try hard enough.'  That thought NEVER crossed my mind as I limped and to the car after the Ironman.  I looked for a fork sticking out of me, because I was DONE!

I wrote in previous post that time I spent training for the Ironman exceeded anything I did for the Tough Mudder.  In fact my second Tough Mudder was easier because of the Ironman training.

Now that I have actually finished the Ironman, the contrast between the two events is much sharper.

After I crossed the finish line, a smiling woman grabbed my arm and steered me toward my finisher's medal and asked me if I need anything.  She was looking at an old guy she was worried would collapse.  She guided me to the end of the finishing chute.  I told her I could walk to the car a half-mile away.  She let me go.  It took nearly a half hour for me to walk, limp, shuffle, stop, lean on walls and railings and finally get my very sore self back to the car.  I was as completely exhausted as I have ever been.

After the last Tough Mudder I jumped on a single-speed bike and rode 18 miles including several mile-long hills back to my car.  I was bruised, cut, and smelled like a barnyard, but the next day, I was fine.

Although I shared 16 miles of the marathon with a great guy I met on the Ironman course, hanging with friends is not the point of the Ironman.  I only did the second Tough Mudder because I had a friend who would do it with me.  If I ever do another Tough Mudder it will be with a group from my Army unit or my Church or some other group of people I would like to share a tough experience with.

If you are thinking "Which should I do?" my advice would be form a team and do a Tough Mudder.  But if you want to see how much you can suffer in one day, train for the Ironman.  You will feel awesome when you finish--but not so good the next morning.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Jet Porn: A-10 Thunderbolt II Ground-Attack Fighter Drops Bombs on Range at Camp Grayling MI

I shot these from the control tower of Range 40, Camp Grayling MI.

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.

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.