Executive joins Guard, hopes to use his knowledge of chemicals
By JON RUTTER, Staff writer
Sunday News Published: Sep 02, 2007 12:17 AM EST ￼￼LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Fifty-four-year-old Neil Gussman is in the Army now.
Actually, he's in it for the second time.
He originally joined back in 1972, when the draft and the Vietnam War were still on.
Gussman had just graduated from high school in Boston. He enlisted to get money for college. He was, by his own admission, clueless.
"I had no political opinion. ... I don't think I had a view on the war, positive or negative."
Thirty-five years later, Gussman lives in Lancaster with his wife and four children. He travels the world as a corporate executive. He's a self-described "token Democrat" at his church, Wheatland Presbyterian.
He isn't out to spill blood. "I'm 54 years old," he reiterated. "I didn't join the Army now to kick down doors in Tikrit or anything."
So, then, why?
Why forfeit a weekend a month and two weeks each summer to serve in Echo Company, 104th Aviation Battalion, in the Pennsylvania National Guard?
Somebody has to do it, Gussman reasons, and he's eager to give back.
He expects his helicopter-maintenance-unit job at Fort Indiantown Gap to lead to a slot as a chemical-weapons specialist.
Chemical weaponry is cumbersome and unpredictable, Gussman acknowledged. Strategically, it's dead. But it's tailor made for terrorists, and thus remains a critical threat to the modern world.
"My intention is to get training [in detection] and then later join the unit that goes out and looks for this kind of thing."
Gussman knows chemicals.
He's a communication manager for The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.
"I've been writing a lot about chemical weapons" for work, noted Gussman, who also focused on that subject as a sergeant in an Army tank unit in 1976.
"Once a month, I would teach people how to survive" chemical weapons and nuclear attacks. "We were stationed in Germany and waiting for World War III to start."
The Communist onslaught failed to materialize, and Gussman eventually returned to the States. He married Annalisa Crannell, a mathematics professor at his alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College.
Crannell's altruistic spirit has led her to volunteer for Hospice of Lancaster County and other causes, Gussman said. Five years ago, she donated a kidney to an ailing co-worker.
He, too, yearned to make a difference, he said, but his type-A personality has never quite fit the charity mold. "I believe the same things she does, but I don't really do anything."
Of course, Gussman has been doing something.
He's an avid bicycle racer who competed in 50 events to celebrate his 50th year, among other feats.
While descending Turkey Hill at 50 mph during a training ride in May, he recalled, his front wheel kissed the derailleur of another bike; the crash flipped Gussman onto the pavement, knocking him out and breaking 10 bones.
The accident has not dampened his enthusiasm for riding. But it deepened his conviction to risk his neck for a worthier cause than simply "flying around in Spandex."
He said he first thought of re-enlisting last fall after researching an article on weapons of mass destruction.
About a month before the cycling accident, he'd rung up Kevin Askew, a Pennsylvania National Guard recruiter at Fort Indiantown Gap.
It turned out that chemical-weaponry specialists were in demand. Askew said the Gap's chemical-disaster team especially welcomes knowledgeable people such as Gussman.
"Neil's experience is going to put him on a track to be able to work with those guys," Askew said.
There was one other hurdle besides the bike wreck: Gussman exceeded the maximum enlistment age by a dozen years.
Congress raised the cutoff for all branches from 35 to 42 in 2006. But there is a caveat.
The military subtracts one year from a person's chronological age for each year he or she has served previously.
"It's Army math," said Askew, who entered the service when he was 18, in 1989. "It's not supposed to make sense."
With 11 years under his belt, Gussman was close enough to get in on a waiver. He drove to the Gap a week ago to pick up his green-and-brown-patterned uniform and lunch with his new "homies."
A handful of Gussman's "older than dirt" peers clustered at one end of the table. The guys at the other end had not yet been born when he left the service the first time, in 1984.
"I get the idea there's not a whole lot of people doing this at my age," Gussman cracked.
Fort Indiantown Gap had no available age-specific data on recruits. However, according to Sgt. 1st Class Gino Burns, the Gap recruited 701 individuals with prior military experience and 1,419 with no service experience through July this year.
Graybeard or no, there are bright spots.
Gussman said he enjoys the camaraderie of military life. He's looking forward to flying around in helicopters.
Plus, he said, "I can still keep my job" and stay close to wife and son, Nigel, 7; stepdaughter, Iolanthe, 17; and daughters, Lisa, 16, and Lauren, 18.
They're conditioned to a crazy, bike-racing dad, he added, so they're OK with this latest venture. "So far, my kids think it's really cool."
His biking roadies are perplexed.
Scott Haverstick said he supports Gussman in this latest "shocking episode" of his life.
"Honestly, to his credit, this is all about service. I've got a lot of respect for him." On the other hand, pondered the self-proclaimed "old '60s lefty" from Washington Boro, "What in the hell is he doing?"
Gussman's peleton assumed his age would disqualify him, Haverstick said. Then came the horrific crash, which Haverstick witnessed, and which he initially thought had killed his friend.
Gussman, bleeding profusely and spitting teeth, was medevaced from the scene. He came back with fused vertebrae.
The military accepted him anyway, said Haverstick, who remains incredulous that injury and age seem to pose no barrier. "I'm 60. I'm going to start slinking around for fear they'll get their hooks in me."
Gussman, meanwhile, has been running to prepare for his physical fitness test, coming up in October.
He said he started running when he was still in a cervical collar.
"I think I won't be the slowest guy in the fitness test," predicted Gussman, who must complete a two-mile run in 19 minutes and 30 seconds, among other challenges.
An Army training course will update him on detection equipment, which has gone digital since the days when experts sniffed out chemical contaminants with litmus paper.
Gussman will not likely be going to Baghdad. But nobody can predict what dangers lie ahead.
Dispatched to the Utah desert during the Vietnam War, Gussman recalled being temporarily blinded by munitions test shrapnel.
His buddies who were deployed to the war zone returned without incident. "I was the only one who came home in bandages."
Such sacrifices remain necessary, according to Gussman, who said he is frustrated by what he calls "the complete failure of conservatives" in Iraq.
"The war is a fact now. Whether you support the war or not, somebody's got to go."
￼ Jon Rutter is a staff writer for the Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org