Thursday, July 31, 2008

Are you going to miss your family?

I get that question at least weekly, often from very earnest people who must think I have not considered that getting deployed might involve being separated from the people I love. With 181 days to go till we go on active duty, and at least 35 of those days in training, I do think about being separated from my family--a lot.
Our motor officer has been deployed twice--once with 48 hours notice, once with almost a year's notice. He prefers 48 hours. "You don't have to keep thinking about it," he said. "Just pack your shit and go." Our motor officer is a warrant officer, the rank between enlisted soldiers (like me) and commissioned officers (captains and generals and so forth). Warrant officers are like consultants in the business world--experts, but not managers. So people turn to them for advice about everything--in the same way kids expect teachers to know everything.
In this case, I'll disagree with Mr. Consultant. (Male Warrant Officers are called Mister as opposed to Sir for commissioned officers.) I like having time to spend with my friends and family, to get things in order at home and at work before I go, and I like being aware of the clock ticking.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Making Sergeant for the Third Time

On Friday morning, August 8, at 8 am, my youngest daughter will pin sergeant stripes on me at morning formation. This will be the third time I have been promoted to sergeant.




The first time I was promoted to sergeant was in the Air Force in 1974. At the time the pay grade of E-4 was called sergeant. In 1976 it split into sergeant and senior airman--the Army equivalent of Corporal and Specialist--same money, but corporal is supervisory, specialist is not.


The second promotion was in 1976 when I was promoted to Sergeant E-5, the Army rank I will return to in two weeks. At the time I was a new tank commander on the way to three years in Germany. I left the Army the first time in 1984, a Staff Sergeant (E-6). Maybe in 2010 or 2011, I will be able to get back to where I was in 1984. At the last drill, one of my friends said at the rate I am going (Sergeant at 55) I should make Master Sergeant by the time I am 82.

Friday, July 25, 2008

My Post on a Novelist's Blog

I got an e-mail saying I should post what I wrote for the Mrs. Lieutenant blog here. So I will:

When I first enlisted in the Air Force in January of 1972, General David Petraeus was a sophomore at West Point. When he threw his hat in the air at graduation in 1974, I was a sergeant recovering from being blinded by shrapnel in a missile testing accident at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.


I got out of the Air Force that year, joined the Army the following year and served as a tank commander in Germany from 1976 to 1979. Our alert area was the Fulda Gap, right where the prophet of all things NATO, Tom Clancy, said World War Three would begin.

World War Three didn't happen on my watch, so I got out and went to college, and served in a reserve tank unit in Reading, Pennsylvania, until 1984. I got out for good then (I thought.) and got a job writing ad copy.

Last August, I re-enlisted after 23 years as a civilian. Writing this post I am 55 years old and have 196 days and a wake-up until my unit deploys to Iraq.

In the past year, a lot of people asked me why I joined. But the more fun question to answer is what is different about serving then and now. I can feel myself smile every time I answer that question.

What's different? I grew up in Boston. The difference is like being a Red Sox fan in the 1970s and being a Red Sox fan now. In fact joining now was the difference between playing for the 1972 Patriots (3-11) and the 2007 team (16-0).

In the mid-1970s, the sergeants who really had their shit together were in their late 20s. They were young, tough, motivated and were not combat veterans. The worst senior NCOs (not all, but a way more than there should have been) had combat patches on their right sleeves and had picked up a serious dope smoking or drinking habit in Vietnam.

I am currently in an Army National Guard aviation brigade. In the 1970s the National Guard was notorious for being badly trained. Today's National Guard is part of the total fighting force. On soldier skills, attitude, and combat readiness, my current Guard unit is better than the tank unit I served in on the East-West German border. The men and women with the combat patches on their sleeves in this army are leaders.

The difference certainly continues outside the gate. In the 70s no one wore their uniform home on leave--at least not those of us who were going home on leave to the Northeastern US. I was proud of my uniform, but the few times I wore that uniform outside the gate, I felt hostility, like I was a foreign soldier in someone else's country.

But today if I stop at Starbucks on the way home from a drill, someone might offer to buy my coffee or the clerk might just give it to me. People walk up to me in restaurants and thank me for my service. I really wish some of the other guys I served with in the 1970s could join up for just a month or two now and get the gratitude they missed out on back when long hair was in style and we were not.

Of course some things are exactly the same:


-- O-Dark-30 is wake up time for everything – even if all we do is stand around.


-- My weapon in 1972, the M-16 rifle. My weapon today, M16A4.


-- All through the 1970s if we went to the field for training, it was crammed in the back of a "Deuce-and a-half" 2 1/2 ton truck. My "ride" at pre-deployment training this year--the M35A2 Deuce-and-a-half truck.


-- The Army has all records on computer. So when I went to Aberdeen, Maryland, for two weeks of training, the e-mail said "Bring 10 copies of your orders." I couldn't believe it. I brought five. When I got there, I needed more. But all of the processing was in one room. Didn't matter. Every processing station needed a copy of my orders so they could collect all my records in one folder at the end of the day.

But even if I have to make 20 copies of my orders and hand them to a guy who has a PDF of my orders on a computer right in front of him, I am happy to be
back.

From My Day Job

If you looked at some of the links on the right side of the page, you'll see that I write about the history of chemistry, often about weird things in the history of the Central Science. Most recently I wrote the cover article for The Annals of Improbable Research.
I just left a meeting about a new museum of chemistry that will be opening in our building. During the three weeks of training we had in May, I would get on line in the evenings and keep in touch with work. With just over six months till we leave, I am starting to try to picture life without a suit-and-tie day job. You might be thinking "It's about time he woke up" but even with the weekends and two-or-three week training periods, I have not yet been more than 60 miles from home for Army training. It's 70 miles to where I work in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Iraqi Translator at 30th Street Station

Today I got to the Philadelphia's 30th Street train station 40 minutes before my train home, so I sat on a bench and did some work. A young woman sat next to me for about ten minutes then got up. While she was putting her papers away she set a book down next to me on the bench. It was a book about the Iraq war. I looked at the cover. She started to walk away, turned back and said, "Have you been to the war." (She saw my ACU backpack. That and my haircut said soldier even in shorts and a t-shirt.) I told her I had not, but was going in February.

She said, "Iraq has many good people. My people are good people." She said she hoped I would respect her country when I was there, then she walked off. I got up a few minutes later to go to my train. I walked to the front car and there she was. I smiled and waved and walked to the far end of the car. I was thinking I would like to ask her more questions, but decided not to. I took out my computer and started to work, then she walked to my end of the car and said, "If you have questions about Iraq I will try to answer them." So we sat together for the next 20 minutes and she told me about her work in Iraq as a translator and how sad she is about the war. She also said that she and her family think of Saddam Hussein as having died bravely surrounded by men who were taunting him. Alyaa is working at the Science Center in Philadelphia as a translator for Arabic materials. She is also going to school and hopes to return home someday. She believes that the Surge has only moved the violence away from the big cities into the countryside and that when the Americans leave, "The Shi'a and Sunnis and Kurds will kill each other until they have had enough." She thinks the current government is a puppet of Iran and we will find that out when we leave.

When we talked about America she said, "Living here is hard. At home my family would take care of me until I was married. Here I need to pay for my education, pay for medical insurance, pay for everything." She also doesn't like, women marrying women and men kissing men on the street. (She made the gag motion at this point.)

But she is happy to be here for now and hopes she can live in a peaceful Iraq soemday in the future. She got off the train in Exton, so I had 40 minutes to Lancaster to write this post.

190 days and a wake up.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

More PT and My Sister's Wedding

This weekend I switched my training from avoiding the heat 90+ heat to running and riding in the worst of it. The reason gos back to my sister's wedding in 1982. She got married on a Saturday in October near Boston. I had a drill weekend with the reserve tank unit I was in: 6th Battalion, 68th Armor, Reading PA. I got Satuday off, but I had to be at the firing range at Fort Indiantown Gap PA at 0700 on Sunday. I left my sister's wedding at 9pm, so I had to drive all night to get to the range. I made it a half-hour early, changed into my uniform, and went to the firing line. That Sunday we were firing the 45-caliber pistol and the M3 "Grease Gun" submachine gun, the personal weapons of armor crewmen. The M3 was a piece of cake. but the 45 is a moving range with weapons that were more than 40 years old with loose parts.

I just barely qualified marksman. The previous year I had fired expert. The company commander said, "Don't worry Sergeant Gussman. You drove all night. We know you can shoot." I said, "Sir. If I ever have to use that pistol, my tank will be out of commission and I will probably be a lot more tired than today. This is how I shoot."

So yesterday, I rode 55 miles between 0830 and 1230, then I ate lunch with my kids, did some chores, then ran 2 1/2 miles at 230pm. I ran on a track out in the sun when the air temp was 95. My time on the fast two miles was 15:51. At my age I need 19:30 to pass the PT test and 14:42 to max the run. I can do the 14:42 at 70 degrees, so I wanted to see what I could do under rotten conditions.

Today I was just going to watch my teammates race on a new course in New Holland PA. I watched the 50+ race and cheered for my teammates. But the course was so cool I drove home, changed, and came back to race with the 20 and 30 year olds (the Cat 3/4 race for those who know bike racing). I lasted just ten of the 27 laps. It was 95 degrees at 1 pm when the race started. After I dropped out, I took my son home and rode a dozen cool down miles then went to the gym. On Friday morning I did 56 push ups and 66 sit ups in two minutes each, what I need to max the PT test. Today, I took ten seconds too long on the sit ups and only did 35 push ups.

Next time I take the PT Test, I will, of course, try to be fully rested. I would love to max the test. But on my own, I am going to keep trying to see how fast and far I can go when I am tired and the weather is worst.

I am assuming next year the weather won't be perfect.

That's Sergeant Tool Bitch to You, Soldier

Fromm the FRS posts you know I am in charge of the tool crib for my maintenance unit. You need a 5-inch, 3/4-drive socket, you see me. Which makes me the unit Tool Bitch. I thought of getting a t-shirt with Tool Bitch on the front, but I have a friend, Ned, who designs books and also designs t-shirts on the side. Two of my co-workers, Sarah and Shelley, suggested that rather than just a t-shirt that says Tool Bitch I should have a t-shirt that says, "That's Sergeant Tool Bitch to You, Soldier." They also decided they should have t-shirts with the acronym FOSTB (Friends of Sergeant Tool Bitch).
The result, in a variety of sizes and colors, is here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The PT Test

For those of you not following Staff Sergeant Big Tobacco as he gets his platoon ready for deployment, follow the link to his most recent post on Job Security then scroll down to the one on the PT Test. His posts are painfully clear about Army life. They also answer a question I got three times yesterday from people I have known for a long time professionally.
In different ways they asked, "How do you get along with the other guys in your unit?" It's not like we are going to hang out together. But in the Army everyone knows who flunked the most recent PT Test, so everyone also knows who passed. And everyone knows their own last and best PT Test score as well as they know their own social security number.
So I get along by a schedule of running, bicycling, walking fast, and working out in the gym an average of two hours per day. And even then, the soldiers that are really in shape in their 20s are MUCH stronger and faster than I am.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Guest on a Novelist's Blog

Today I wrote a "Guest Post" for a blog by Phyllis Zimbler Miller, the author of "Mrs. Lieutenent: A Sharon Gold Novel." She asked me to write about the difference between serving now and in the 70s. Check it out here.

She posted a new picture of me that was taken yesterday for an article I wrote on why I love plastics. The article is about MREs and bicycle helmets. I'll post the article when it's published.

196 days and a wake up.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Respirators and the Recovery Team

199 Days and a Wake-Up.

On Saturday we worked in the motor pool till 7 pm so by the time I went to the gym and rode my bike, I didn't get home until ten--and first formation this morning was 0700. Worse still the day began with five safety briefings--I was planning on standing through the whole thing to avoid my head crashi8ng into the desk in the briefing room. But the sergeant giving the first four lectures asked me to click the PowerPoint slides for him, so I was awake through the whole thing.

The final briefing was the longest. It was on wearing respirators in the shop. We don't get a lot of chemistry briefings, so I had no trouble staying awake for this one. The main point was that our new sergeant's major is getting all the mechanics effective disposable masks for use with paint and hazardous chemicals. While it is clear that we all need them, he made clear that the masks are particularly important for the smokers. If your lungs and respiratory system are already irritated, sniffing benzene and methyl ethyl ketone is just that much worse.

I thought this would be the weekend I would start training for the recovery team. Looks like that training will be during the August weekend.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Generator Maintenance

200 Days and a Wake Up until we deploy.

Today is the first of two days of our July drill. After formation we all went to the motor pool. This month, I drove like everyone else. I could have walked, but I wanted to go to the laundry at the east end of the Post and get a camo backpack and an Army t-shirt for my nephew Argus. He has an Isreali Defense Force t-shirt he got from his step-mom, so I thought a US Army t-shirt would give him some more variety in his wardrobe. I'll walk tomorrow.

Actually the walking is a strange thing. Because of the security gate getting to the airfield, it is a 8-kilometer drive from headquarters to the motor pool but only a 2-kilometer walk. I drove on my first weekend, but after that, I walked to the motor pool. Generally I arrive at the motor pool before the guys who stop at the PX and after the those who drive straight there. When I ride my bicycle I beat everybody. Everybody either thinks they need their car or wants their car at the motor pool, so no one walks with me. I walk or ride. Everybody else drives.

After formation, my squad leader said he had to do paperwork all day so I am in charge of generator maintenance. We have three generators that need to be check out and run under load to make sure they are OK. And I got two men to do the work with me. Three of us, three generators--no sweat. Except that I am also the Tool Bitch for the whole maintenance company so I was signing our torque wrenches and 3-inch sockets and air guns and welding equipment for everyone else in the company. And my big, fancy 70-hp diesel generator needed http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.giffuel. So I had to find a fuel truck driver willing to drive his fuel rig up to the ground-mounted tool/crane rig I call home. (FRS, see previous post).

And then one of the mechanics was gone for four hours for a change of Sergeant's Major ceremony. And the other guy had to help with trailer maintenance. So by mid-afternoon, I pulled all three of the 3kw and 5kw generators out of the maintenance building with a forklift, started them and tested them. Two work. One works but needs a new battery. The important thing for me is that things get done when there is no one aroudn to do them. I wanted to get a license for the all-terrain forklift, but everyone is busy and there is always someone around who has a license and is happy to drive it. Today, I drove the forklift and learned all its controls because I had to and could let the motor officer know after the fact that I can operate the vehicle no problem. So now I can get licensed without all the usual inertia.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On the Radio

In May I got a call from a radio show producer in Orlando, Florida, asking me to be a guest on their radio show: Growing Bolder. Two very enthusiastic guys named Marc and Bill interviewed me for 15 minutes on Monday, June 30. The show first aired on July 4 in Orlando and Miami. If you go to the site you'll see the other guests are a clinical psychologist, an NBC medical reporter and a comedian. So they got stuck in the same hour with a guy who was on for crashing his bicycle. If you want to listen to the interview, it's here.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Rumor Update

I called our Operations Sergeant this morning just to be get the best possible information. He says We report January 28 and pack up for three days then February 1 we go to our US training facility. After that we go to Iraq. I checked because a rather more nervous sergeant working with the next unit to go said I should be ready to leave November 1. The Ops Sgt says we are here for the holidays.

That means 204 days and a wake up till we go.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

More Books for Deployment

Big Tobacco (see the blog roll down to the right) sent me a list for books for deployment and said I may need a book every two days instead of every two weeks. BT and a couple of other e-mails said I should post a wish list on Amazon.com and let people send them to me. That sounds like a great idea. So over the next few months, I will fill up my wish list and post an APO address as soon as I have it. I've gotten 50 great suggestions already. In the meantime, I'll keep reading.

By the way, this is post # 150. I am officially addictied to blogging.

Friday, July 4, 2008

4th of July Fireworks

I am on vacation with my wife's family in Ithaca, New York. The official fireworks were two nights ago--it saved the town money because the police and fire crews did not get holiday pay as they would when the fireworks are on the fourth. But up and down Lake Cayuga, as far as we can see from my sister-in-law's house on the western lake shore, there are flares and fireworks and rockets.

And there are bugs. So while the fireworks popped outside the window, I went indsdie and finished A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. It's a memoir of a Jewish boy growing up in a New York tenement in the 1920s and walking out of his Brownsville neighborhood into the wider world of New York City--and through the library to all of the world beyond. I love New York and its bridges (Although I love Paris and its bridges more, New York a close second and I could not pick third.)

This chronicle of life and hardship in the city also reminded me of the promise of growing up in America. This poor Jewish boy became a leading literary critic in America before he was 30. His parents worked with their hands, but he was free tofind his own way. My grandparents separately escaped the pogroms of the Cossacks in the 1890s and together made a life in America. My Dad, the fourth of their six sons, only got through the eighth grade in school, but became an Army officer in World War 2 and was a warehouse foreman after the war. The other Jews who escaped Russian persecution and ran only as far as Europe were among the victims of the Holocaust 40 years later.

It should be no surprise now that people from all over the world are still trying to get to America. I will always be grateful my grandparents didn't stay in Europe and made the journey all the way here.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

26 Books for Deployment

Since I will be gone 52 weeks and there will be times I have loads of time to sit around with nothing to do, I decided to take 26 books with me--one every other week. If you have any suggestions, let me know.
Here's a few I will be taking.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

200 Days and a Wake Up...Or Less

Up till now I have been planning with the assumption that we will go to our US training base in mid February. But now the latest date has been moved up to February 1. In addition we will be packing and confined to the base for the last several days of January. Then today I called my squad leader, a full-time National Guard worker. He said I should be packed and ready to go anytime from the beginning of our next training cycle in November. He is pretty sure we will be home for the holidays, but won't bet after that.

Until now the deployment has been so far off it seemed like halfway to forever. But now that we are close to 200 days to go (or maybe less) it seems much more real. I don't know why 200 seems so different than 300, but it does.

Family Black Sheep Flies a MEDEVAC Blackhawk

Brooklyn-born Amira Talifi, (not her real name) is a helicopter pilot I served with in the Army National Guard. She is one of seven ch...