Monday, March 31, 2008

Center for the Intrepid

Today I saw the Center for the Intrepid, what is now the main rehab center for badly injured soldiers. Sandy, the receptionist, let me see the first floor public areas and told me about the facility. I had to sign up in advance for a tour so that will have to wait for another time. I talked to soldiers yesterday and today with Boston accents. I grew up in Boston and lost the accent in Basic training in 1972, but can still hear it in just 2 or 3 words. Both soldiers were from suburbs outside Boston. One was looking forward to going back home to stay, the other wanted to stay in San Antonio. I knew they were both real natives because they both talked about how expensive everything is in Massachusetts compared to the South. Real Boston-area natives far from home love to complain about prices back home and talk about how cheap things are everywhere else. Any mention of the Red Sox comes after the price complaints.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Randy's Parents

Today I visited the Powless guest housing located just across the road from the Center for the Intrepid. I met the parents of a soldier named Randy. He was in the family's room sleeping. Mom and Dad were outside in the smoker's gazebo. Randy stepped on an IED on January 13 of this year. His immediate prospects were grim. His left hand was gone and the rest of the arm was mangled and his legs were both mangled to the point that they were not sure the legs could be saved. Randy's Mom described the doctors from both Landstuhl where Randy was first Med-evaced and Brooke as "amazing." Randy is the sixth of seventh children of a blended family from West Virginia and the only soldier.
More later, they just closed the door on my flight so I have to sign off.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center

This weekend I am in San Antonio on business at a petrochemical conference that starts Sunday afternoon at 430pm. I arrived at 2am on a late flight from Newark and rented a bike at 11 this morning. I rode a north and east then back to the south to Brooke Army Medical Center. I had read several articles about the Center for the Intrepid at Brooke, the places where amputees and other severely wounded soldiers go through rehab. I arrived Saturday at 1pm to the sound of loud music. Crossroads, a local Texas rock band, was playing on the porch at Fisher House and a local group was serving barbeque to soldiers and their families. I talked to a volunteer named Pete Peterson who told me about the place then introduced me Inge Godfrey and Russell Fritz, the manager and assistant manager respectively. Russ gave me a tour. It turns out Inge and I lived in the same military housing area in 1976-77--her husband and I were assigned to the same base in Germany. I am going back tomorrow morning.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Back to Work

I have been catching up on work for the past few days and thinking about the contrast between the Army and my civilian job. At work I am a manager without a staff. A manager because I have a budget, but a "private soldier" when it comes to work. I write news releases, speeches, negotiate with video producers and photographers, talk to reporters who cover chemistry, and work on teams that are getting ready for events. The emphasis is on what I do. I work at home two days a week because I live 70 miles away and many of the things I do, I do alone. And if something comes up in a project I am working on that our president or a director should know about, I can drop in and talk to them, or send them an e-mail.
In the school at Aberdeen, my first responsibility was to be wherever the school staff said I was supposed to be. Even the tests and performance evaluations were essentially pass-fail. As soon as I met the standard on a performance test or got 70% on a written exam I was done with that art of the course and on to the next part. One member of our class was clearly the best at every hands-on performance measure in the course. If someone was stuck, he was the one they called. But he got a low (passing) grade on one test and so we did not have an honor grad. the first sergeant spoke to us every morning at formation before we went to class. In fact we could depend on him repeating everything at least once per formation then repeating a lot of the same warnings and information a half-dozen times more.
In my day job, time matters. Standing in front of our first sergeant all that mattered was that he believed that we understood the information he was passing to us.
Today I worked on 20 different things, and did no paperwork to prove I did any of it. I am a civilian again--at least until May.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


We got our DA form 1059s, the form saying we are now qualified in our military job (MOS or Military Occupational Specialty). There were four different groups and ours was last. We were all seated at tables and went up one at a time to receive our certificate from the course instructor then shake hands with the instructor, NCOIC (sergeant in charge) of the school and the school commander. At the end of the ceremony the NCOIC, an master sergeant with close to 30 years service who is younger than me, told the group he wanted to bring one of the students to their attention "Specialist Gussman who has a 23 year break in service and has the patriotism to return to duty after all these years." I got a round of applause and some very quizzical looks. In the hallway later a couple of guys from other classes said, "That's way cool what you did." I didn't really do anything, but it felt like I just won a race--and I didn't even sweat.

Last Class

This last class covered the 1500 gallon-per-minute water purification unit and finished up the smoke generator. We then took a test on the smoke generator and went to lunch. After lunch we presented plaques to our instructors. My roommate got them made at a local trophy shop for each of our instructors. Neither of the instructors had ever received a plaque from their students, so it is apparently an unusual gesture. Before presenting the plaques, the guy from Las Vegas whom our instructor had dropped for pushups on a half-dozen occasions took charge of the class and ordered all of us to the Front Leaning Rest (pushup) position. We then did ten pushups together yelling out "One sergeant, two sergeant. . ." as we did them. The instructor then said she would accept all of our pushups for the ones our class clown owed her. It was a great way to end the class. After we were dismissed, I rode my bike, went to the gym on Post and went running. The 20-somethings in the class got a case of Miller. All three of them can max the PT test without working out. Even the one of them who smokes can run two miles in under 13 minutes. Different ages have different workout schedules.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Last Supper

For those who follow the Church calendar, the Thursday before Easter is the night of the last supper. Without making too many Biblical references, our class had its last supper together on Maundy Thursday--at TGI Friday's. There were 11 of us, but that's pretty close. Anyway, we drove 20 miles west to get to TGI Friday's in the 15 passenger van that hauled us to meals for most of the two weeks. During our 30-minute wait for a table, I called my youngest daughter to ask her what was the best thing to order at TGIF (I have never been to TGI Fridays--that was part of how we picked this restaurant.) She told me about the top-chef menu they are featuring in their ads. she also asked why we didn't drive 15 miles further and go to Baltimore. Everyone had just one or two drinks. We all had to get up at 6am for the final class, so no one "got their party on." One of my classmates from Las Vegas talked about joining the Army in 2003. He was a sprinter and hurdler in high school running the 400 in just under a minute. His recruiter told him he could be on the army track team, just sign up for 11 Bravo (Combat Infantry). When he completed infantry training, he went to Iraq. He never joined the Army track team.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I Passed the Laundry Test This Time

Today we learned about the Laundry Advanced System LADS I mentioned in an earlier post. This amazing self-contained system on a semi-trailer can wash 2-tons of clothes operating 20 hours per day and use just 540 gallons of water for each ton of clothes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Real Smoke

Today the active army class fired up an M56 smoke generator right outside the building where we work on our equipment. I was surprised because these billowing smoke clouds can only be generated for short periods under conditions of nearly no wind, but two classes sent big white clouds into the countryside. The building on the far side of the cloud all but disappeared after just seconds of smoke. It works very well at hiding a building and works much better obscuring smaller things-like vehicles.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Give Me 50!

This afternoon four of my classmates were told "Give Me 50!" at the beginning of an afternoon class session. The instructor relented somewhat and said they could do the 50 pushups in two sets of 25. The offense? The instructor said she would tell us her first name at the party at the end of class. The four guys pushing the earth down tried to figure out her first name by questioning the other instructor. Speculation about her name pretty much stopped after that.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Army Instruction

Today's class was on 600 gallon-per-hour and 3000-gallon-per-hour water purification units. These water purifiers can take in swamp water, sea water, even water contaminated with chemical agents and turn it into safe drinking water. Most of the day was on the 600gpm unit with troubleshooting of the electrical system, preventive maintennance checks and putting the system into operation. With the 3000 gpm, both of the units available for training had maintenance problems so we could only simulate. In another occurrence of what could have been the dullest method of instruction on the planet, we read aloud, in turn, 20 pages of the start up procedures in the Army Technical Manual. A sample follows:
a) With the raw water pump primed, the discharge hose will quickly fill and harden with pressure. Check the hose and the media inlet/outlet pressure gage
(1) to assure pressure has been established. NOTE If pressure is not observed check the raw water hose for kinks, sharp bends, or leaks. Check that control panel and valves are set up properly. (b) Push CHEMICAL PUMP START
(6). (c) When media inlet/outlet pressure gage
(1) reading steadies, push BOOSTER PUMP START
(3), and slowly close feed valve
(4) until feed flowmeter
(5) reads 100 gpm.
If 100 gpm cannot be obtained check as follows: · Check discharge hose for kinks restricting the water flow. · Check valves for proper position. · Check suction hose connections to assure tightness. · Refer to Troubleshooting.
(d) Open media filter vent valve
(2), close, when a steady stream of water is seen.
(e) Hold steady condition (no control operations) for 10 minutes.

If you want more Enjoy!!!!

So the nine of us students and our teacher crammed ourselves in a 20-foot container that houses the control systems and filters and read 20 pages of the manual aloud in turn--sentence by sentence. After a few minutes the reading rate got almost to auctioneer speed and everyone yelled in unison when we read NOTE or CAUTION! By the time we were done everyone was laughing and making jokes on the way out the door.

Home for a Day

We were released from Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening. I lived close enough to go home. More than half the students in the class went to Washington DC with the instructors all day Sunday. I got to do half of the Sunday ride with my riding buddies, go to Palm Sunday service with my family, watch the F1 GP of Australia with Nigel and even sleep in past 9am. The guys who went on the DC field trip left at 8 am on Sunday. There's no sleeping in on Army time, even on a day off.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Berets are a Big Deal

Our unit wears patrol caps, but here at school berets are the uniform of the day for everything. My classmates have showed me how to make the beret fit my head. With time off this weekend I will be "shaving" my b so it will fit tighter on my head. Here's the official info on the beret.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Army School: Free Food or Fitness

For those of us who prefer to work out in the afternoon instead of 5 am, the Army school schedule means I have to choose between free food and fitness. We get an hour for lunch. I can go the chow hall in the van or ride for about 30 minutes and get fast food at a base concession. I have opted for fast food to take advantage of the 50-60 degree weather every day. Same thing for dinner. We are done with class by 6 pm and the gym closes at 8pm. So the last few days I have ridden or gone to the gym to work out and run, and missed the free food at the mess hall. Tonight I tried to have it all. I rode for an hour and 15 minutes, showed up at the mess hall at 1850--ten minutes before closing, left at 1910, gym at 1920, 20 minutes of upper body, 20 minutes on the treadmill and out the door at 1956. Next time I will wait until after the run to eat. Free food is not worth the feeling of running on a full stomach.

At Least They Have the SPEED Channel

It's 11:35 and I will be tired in class tomorrow because tonight is the beginning of the 2008 Formula 1 season. So even if our residence has some tendency to catch fire, they have the SPEED Channel. The F1 season is broadcast live on Speed, so that means Friday's 1pm practice in Australia airs at 11pm on Thursday on the US East Coast. For fans, Ferrari is back on top of the practice speed charts. Fernando Alonso is back at Renault and is mid pack.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My Training Unit

So who is training to be a chemical and quartermaster repairer? There are nine of us in the class from Army National Guard Units across the nation: 3 sergeants (SGT), 5 specialists (SPC) and 1 corporal (CPL). One of the SGTs is my roommate, he is from Kansas and another is from Michigan. Both of them are 50 years old. The other SGT and one SPC are brothers, both from Las Vegas. Strangely, all three of the SGTs are ex-Navy. There is an SPC from North Dakota, one from Virginia, and one from W. Virginia, besides yours truly from Pennsylvania. The CPL is from Long Island. All of the students are men, which our instructors tell us is unusual. Our instructors are both women, a sergeant from Pennsylvania and a staff sergeant from West Virginia.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Running To. . .or From

I have been writing for months about what I see and what I do. Many of the questions I get from friends and family are about what the Army is like for me. But partly they are asking what is the Army like at all. Most of my co-workers and friends don't know a serving soldier except as an acquaintance or a cousin from somewhere else.

But today when I was tired and miserable from being up late and then watching the smoke roll out of the hotel where we are sleeping, I thought, "What happens when I get deployed, and I am up all night with something more serious than a kitchen fire? Can I handle that?" I had opposing urges to let my one-year enlistment run out and leave and to see a regular Army recruiter and volunteer for a tank unit.

I am in this to both run to what I believe is my eternal future and run from the life I have been leading. I don't mean my family. I mean the guy who over the past two decades has transplanted himself from high-school-educated soldier and Teamster (four years on the dock at Yellow Freight) to "communications professional." I have a lovely family, a big house, and have made more than 40 trips overseas on business in the past decade.

To paraphrase CS Lewis, I am in the world, but more importantly, the world is in me. I do love the world in a way that I did not when the world was a big, hostile, mysterious place. I joined the Army to run away from the privilege that has become part of my life. Eventually we will say to Our Lord, "Thy Will Be Done" or He will say the same to us and we will be eternally undone. And the life I have been living is increasingly dominated by my will. But the Army is the opposite. On duty, I do what I am told by whomever is in charge. I do what they say, when they say. I eat when the chow is available, or not. But I don't choose meal times or menus.

So I am running away from my love of this life and running toward the next, but it is already difficult at one weekend per month and now a two-week school. I have enough money to skip the mess hall when I want to. So I do. I am already equivocating and I am three days in to some of the lightest duty the Army has--a school. Just two weeks of beign clean, well-fed and learning about equipment.

My long-term plan is to get the training I need, go on active duty for a year, then live a simpler life making less money. No more expensive clothes, no more expensive food whenever I want. I still think it is the right thing to do. But I have to keep running. If I stop, I will turn back.

And a Longer Night!!!!

I got to bed late Monday night. BAD Choice. At 1:45 am the fire alarms went off in the hotel where we are staying. Anyway, the kitchen caught on fire and by 2 am we were out in the parking lot watching eventually seven fire trucks arrive. No one was hurt and everybody was back in their rooms by 330 am.
It wasn't enough sleep though. I was tired all day. We got done just before 6pm. I passed my first exam, which was on the 350GPM pump, and we started on a 120,000 btu heating unit.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Long Day with a Pump

All of today and most of tomorrow we learned to maintain and operate the Army's 350 GPM Pump. This aptly named, diesel-powered, trailer-mounted device, pumps 350 gallons per minute of either water or fuels--but not both. We read schematics, did mechanical and electrical troubleshooting, and took the whole pump body apart and put it back together. If you were wondering what a 3-cylinder pump has to with chemical weapons, this course is about maintaining the equipment that helps to clean up after contamination. The various steam cleaners and field showers and laudries need water and diesel to get where they need to be and operate while on site--so we start with a pump.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

We Are National Guard on an Active Army Post

The classes I and the other 30+ students are in are for National Guard and Reserve soldiers. This was evident Sunday morning. We were told it was very important to begin class at 0800 Sunday because that was the only time we could have a soldering class during our two weeks. Every other day was booked. So at 0815 after waiting 15 minutes outside a locked building, our instructors went to Plan B and took us to another building for the afternoon's lesson. The school staff person assigned to let us in did not show up. Our instructors tried to arrange for a class in the same place in the afternoon, but for reasons they were polite enough not to share with the students, that option was out also. They did say that we must remain flexible throughout the two weeks because the active Army soldiers would have priority.

Army Meet and Greet

If it was not evident in the last post, an Army meet and greet is different than the civilian version. At 4pm Saturday, our 1st Sergeant said we would a 1900 hours formation that evening for a meet and greet. Between 1900 and 2000 hours we 30 or so students sat in a conference room and met and were greeted by the senior NCOs who gave the briefings I described yesterday. In summary: be safe, don't speed on post, don't go near the active Army students, don't get drunk and if you do stay in the hotel, formation at 0715 hours every day. Have fun!

Reporting for Duty

Chemical & Quartermaster Equipment Repair School (MOS 63J10) started with in processing this afternoon. Report time was No Later Than 1600. I arrived at 1500 hours. The training school headquarters is located off post. After filling out some forms, I had to change into my PT uniform and get weighed and measured. I am 71 1/2 inches tall so I can weigh up to 197 pounds. With winter PT uniform I weighed 193, so they let me continue processing.

By 1600 the first inprocessing was completed and I drove to our quarters--just two men to a room for the entire two weeks.

After formation, I tried to get on the internet in the room, then in the lobby using wireless. No wireless in the room, slow in the lobby. My roommate, a sergeant from Kansas also here for 63J training, told me how to use the ethernet connection in the room, now I am on line.

Formation tomorrow and every day is 0715. Tomorrow we have a mandatory safety briefing after dinner. The training schedule every day runs from 0715 to 2000, so I wont have a lot of free time. It should be an interesting two weeks.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Monday, March 3, 2008

Letter on Science Education and Medicine

This week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News (Washington DC, weekly, 140,000 subscribers) published a letter I wrote in support of science education based on the technology that put me back together after several bad accidents. It's a subscription Web site, so I am copying the letter rather than posting a link.

Broken neck, evolutionary biology

One of the few moments I remember from the hours following the bike accident that splintered my seventh vertebra and broke nine other bones is the neurosurgeon saying: "You have two choices. Get the surgery or we can put you in a halo cast for a year and see what happens." I said, "surgery." And I have walked three to 10 miles per day since I left the hospital eight days later. Since the cervical collar came off on Aug. 2, 2007, I have been back on my bike.

But 10 or more years ago I would have had no option but the halo cast. My seventh vertebra was in pieces. Cadaver bone replacement was not a routine option in 1997. I would still be screwed into a cage or maybe in traction or recovering from surgery to "harvest" bone from my hips. In 1967, I would have been quadriplegic or dead.

C&EN writes well and regularly about modern science and why evolution is so important to our intellectual life. Understanding how the body works at the molecular level is key to accepting donor body parts. So for me the insights of Darwin and Mendel, which led to the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, then to huge advances in medicine and all biosciences in the past 50 years, allowed me, a 54-year-old bicycle racer, to walk out of the hospital eight days after a 50-mph crash that would have left me caged for a year, quadriplegic, or dead if it happened earlier in my life.

I am also a believer. So in addition to thinking rejection of modern science is crazy, I also think it is very bad manners. I would respect those who believe in science-rejecting young-earth creationism more if, consistent with their beliefs, they lived in caves and refused all of the technology that comes directly from science in the past century. But who in America does not benefit from modern medicine or high technology?

In my adult life I have been blinded by shrapnel, seen the bones and ligaments inside my knees after a motorcycle crash, and in 2007 was saved from paralysis by the latest trauma medicine. I certainly support modern science on an intellectual level, but for me I am also a fan of modern medicine, as passionate as my fellow Penn State alums are about football.

Obviously, I am writing with no specific expertise, just an ACS member who thinks support of modern science and rejection of pseudoscience is not just right—it's a matter of life and death.

Neil Gussman

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