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.

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...