Thursday, April 30, 2009

Then and Now: Contractors and Training

One of the big differences between the end-of-Viet Nam Army and today is Contractors. In the early 70s, soldiers scooped creamed chip beef on toast in the the Chow Hall serving line. That same soldier got up every day at 2 am to start cooking our high-calorie breakfast. Soldiers drove buses, dug field latrines, hauled ammo and did most other tasks, important and menial, in our every day lives.

Now contractors do many of these jobs. The intent, I suppose, is to allow the soldiers to concentrate on training, and to have more soldiers be warriors and fewer be cooks, clerks and drivers.

Which sounds good, but as someone who has been both a consultant and a corporate manager, I can tell you the world is a different place when you are paid by the hour (contractor)and when you are on salary (soldier). Soldier time is a fixed cost. If we wait three hours, the budget does not change. Contractors get paid overtime if things run late. Everyone in every part of government is worried about costs, so soldiers now know that training begins and ends when depending on the bus schedule.

In the 70s Army if we went to a training area and screwed up something, the soldiers who drove the buses waited till we were done re-running the course for a couple of hours. On our recent convoy training the big former infantryman who conducted our training said if we did not complete the exercise to his satisfaction we would do it again till we got it right. We (and he) all knew he was full of crap. No matter how badly we did, the buses were scheduled to arrive at 2pm on the last day of training. (Actually, we did very well so he got to leave early.) And his shift ended at noon that day. So the contractor was not paid past noon and the civilian drivers would have to be paid extra if they waited for us (NOT vice versa). So he could bluster, but at noon on the last day, he was gone. The buses arrived at 4pm, which was OK because a few hundred soldiers waiting out in the desert is OK--no additional cost when soldiers wait for the bus.

Fighting the War on Terror, One Latte at a Time


Now that we are back on base, at least for now, I am back at my favorite place in this sand-covered, blast-wall enclosed corner of the Kuwait desert: Starbucks!! Yes, there is a Starbucks here. More importantly, it is within site of our tent and it is one of the designated Hot Spots that dot the base. We buy Internet service for $12 per week from a local guy who also sells cell phones. But the access card is no gaurantee of service, so the wireless nomads like me move around the base looking for a good signal. Starbucks is one of the best and therefore very crowded nearly 24/7. I get up at 4am to come here and call home on Skype when there is enough bandwidth. At 4am, the place is at least half full. By 6am the 70-odd chairs are full and the good floor spots near the power outlets are filling up.

It really looks like Starbucks too, pine furniture, proper color scheme, snacks next to the register. The drink menu is in English and Arabic which is different than my local Starbucks. The prices are 20% higher than US Starbucks so a Venti latte is $5.

The other difference from the Starbucks at Stone Mill Plaza in Lancaster PA is that all the patrons carry automatic weapons. Whether we are wearing ACU camouflage or PT uniform, we bring our weapons everywhere so almost every table and chair has a rifle or machine gun underneath it. After a couple of days, I got used to M4s and M16s. One day a group of SAW gunners came in to use the internet. I don't know why, but it seemed slightly stranger to see M249 machine guns under tables and chairs than the usual automatic rifles.

Also, Starbucks in Lancaster operates without 6-foot thick sand walls in front and 5-foot high concrete barriers in the back.


So for the time being I am fighting the War on Terror, One Latte at a time.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Then and Now: Finding My Limits

In 1982 my sister got married on the 4th Saturday in October. That was also an Army Reserve weekend for me. My sister's wedding was near Boston, Mass. I helped set up a range on Friday, got Saturday off, then had to fire the .45 cal. pistol and submachine gun at 0800 on Sunday. (By the way, Happy 54th birthday Jean!)

I went to my sister's wedding and reception then drove all night to central Pennsylvania. In 1981 I fired expert with the .45 cal. pistol. In 1982 I fired marksman by just one round. Marksman is the lowest category. Afterwards our commander said, "Don't worry Sergeant Gussman, we now how well you can shoot."

I thanked him, but ever since I have known that morning is how I really shoot. I was in a tank unit. If I was going to fire a .45 pistol in combat, that means I am off my tank. So I would be tired, scared, maybe injured. How I shoot after driving all night was a better guage of how I would shoot when things were less than perfect. If the worst happened, I was going to wait till the bad guys got close if I only had a pistol.

On the desert convoy training we just completed, we arrived at 4 in the afternoon and got started with classes and orientation briefings. At 530pm my convoy commander sent me to find out where we would fire at 5am the next morning. I also drove with one of the lead instructors to a compound three miles away where they service our machine guns. Because I knew where the armorer shop was across the desert, I took the weapons over to get maintenance before we fired. I thought I would be staying up late. For a variety of reasons I stayed up all night except for an hour of lying down for an hour at 2am and swatting flies in the back of our 5-ton truck

So at 5am, I drove the weapon-filled truck to the range and got the 30 automatic weapons into the tents where range training started. I stayed with the weapons till 10 am then went to classes on convoy tactics till mid-afternoon. Then we went out and practiced convoy movement. We kept training till just after 9pm, then we could get some sleep. I started to unroll my bag in an open spot on the floor. I was beyond tired. One of the enlisted men, a guy who has a comment about everything, said that the spot of floor where I was unrolling my bag was where some other enlisted man was sleeping last night.

I exploded. I let him know how much I cared about reserved floor space in a tent in the middle of the desert. One of his buddies took him outside. The next day after we were done with training one of the sergeants from the fuelers said, "Sgt. G, I heard you really went off last night. Nobody was bustin' on you, they were just surprised." My roommates from Fort Sill heard about it. One said, "Damn! And I had to miss it. That must have been the shit." (See post on shit as a pronoun.)

Just as I cannot take the heat like a 25-year-old, missing a whole night's sleep is really my limit. I did sleep very well that second night and the training went well on our third day. I suppose it's good I have a reputation for not blowing up. But now I have less of a reputation than before.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Back from the Desert

We just returned from three days of convoy training. We learn to identify, avoid and react to IEDs, hostile fire and the other hazards of driving on Iraqi roads. We had a full week of the same training in Oklahoma and some of our guys had more convoy training in Pennsylvania before we left.

So the training itself was not new, but in the U.S. we had to pretend to be in the desert. Here the biggest training aid was miles of sand in every direction that occasionally blew up into a a sideways sandstorm, not to mention the clear, blue sky and the sun that here travels east to west near vertical. At noon here (actually 1pm because of Daylight Savings Time) my shadow is so small the fatter sand beetles can't get shade unless they crawl right next to my boot. With a mid-afternoon high temperature just over 100 and wearing full battle rattle we are hot. We wear a a 35-pound body armor vest, 4-pound helmet, uniform with long sleeves, heavy boots, a 9-pound rifle, and 15 pounds of ammo, knives, and other stuff. Plus a pound or two of scum from not showering. Nothing in the states prepares us for the sun and wind of open desert.

Another plus of training here is we our drivers get realistic practice for the first time. In the states going off road means wrecking some local habitat so we pretend to go off road to set up Medevac sites or avoid hostile fire. Here we drive on sand tracks and when we need to we jump the berms and head off road. We also had real up-armored Humvees to train in instead of the light models we trained on in the states. The armor changes the handling. My driver had us bouncing through ditches and sliding sideways. They told us to keep it real and he was only too happy to oblige.

Another realistic element of training that never happens in the states (at least in my experience) is the all the vehicle crews in each group sleep in the same tent. After waking up before 5am we all sleep on the floor of the tent at around 10 at night. There are no special facilities for the female soldiers out on the road, so we all have to deal with that.

We had one hot meal in three days, the rest was MREs. On the bus on the way back the first 50 jokes were about constipation remedies we would need from three days of eating no fiber and lots of greasy meat and crackers from vinyl bags. But I have said quite enough on this subject already.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Back to the Latrine

A few days ago, I wrote about how happy my Battle Buddy is that he found the luxury latrine 1/4-mile from our tent. Yesterday before we left of three days of training I decided to use the indoor plumbing. I have been slowing reading an old high school edition of Les Trois Mousquetaires in French. So when I went to the facility I was an ethnically Jewish American guy in a latrine maintained by a local Arab contractor reading a French book.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Is Dry Heat More Comfortable?

I got a comment asking if dry heat was any more comfortable than heat with humidity. I suppose it is, but I can't tell the difference. In 1976 I trained for two months in the southwest US desert before deploying to Germany. I had one shower during that two months--July and August--and it was hot. It was a dry heat, but I felt very hot in a 56-ton metal container (an M60A1 tank) and after two months, I smelled like I had been hot for two months.

Yes, it is dry heat here, but two days ago when it was 108 degrees on the range (a temp update from range control) I was HOT. I suppose it makes some difference that we are in dry heat, but it does not seem to matter much with 50 pounds of gear on. It's just hot. With summer coming I am expecting a lot more dry heat in my future. I will be just plain hot.

My computer doesn't like dry heat either. It has been shutting off after an hour or less when I am outside trying to get some bandwidth near the signal towers. It turns out it can't cool itself with dry 100-degree air. So my Mac and I think alike.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hydration, Hydration, Hydration

Everywhere we go we hear "Hydrate!" "Hydration is Critical!" This follows the government/military penchant to use a multi-syllable Latin-derived word to show that a given task must be done. "Drink!" would not work because it would lead to the smartass retort "Drink What?" then "Drink Beer!" So we hydrate. But not always.

Because when one hydrates, one will sooner rather than later need to un-hydrate. Which is more of a problem than you would think. If we listen to closely to the all the calls to hydrate then get on a bus, no one is going to stop the bus. The hydrated soldier might have a couple of hours of serious discomfort before being allowed the natural consequences of following his orders.

And since we travel in groups, we line up for everything. That means the poor soldier in the back of the bus does the un-hydration dance in a long lane waiting for one of six portajohns with lines of 50 at each one. Like every other health pronouncement, one size never fits all and some people hydrate to the point of pissing away necessary salts. So they end up full of water and with dehydration effects.

I would hydrate more if I knew I could take a leak when I needed to. But it is quite clear the opposite is true. If I hydrate I will be sitting in a bus or Humvee think that nothing could be more beautiful than a brown plastic Kamal Al-Sultan (the local contractor) Portajohn. So I drinking slowly and often, same as when I am racing, and pay attention for signs that I need more water. And since much of our hydration is by individual half-liter plastic bottles, I always make sure I keep at least one empty with me in case we are confined and my personal emergency becomes dire.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Home on the Range. . .or Not

Today Echo Company range a small arms range for several hundred soldiers. It was not the exhaustive marksmanship test we went through in Oklahoma, just a few rounds to make sure the weapons are working. Even so it takes a long time for that many soldiers to fire, so we were on the range for hours. I was one of ten range safety soldiers. We kept the people who were on the firing line in line and made sure everyone was keeping their weapons pointed down range.

In Oklahoma or Pennsylvania, this job would simply be boring. In Kuwait the high temp was 102 degrees (40 Celcius) under clear skies. We are at 29 degrees north latitude, about the same as Daytona Beach, so the is much closer to straight up in the sky than we ever see in the northern states.

It was hot and we were standing on hot sand. After two hours I was starting to melt. By the end of the day when the safeties fired, I was worn out. I know I will acclimate eventually, but while it is always good to be in shape, in a place like this it is better to be young and in shape.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Flush with Happiness

Here in Kuwait we all have Battle Buddies. Everywhere we go--except stumbling out to the PortaJohns in the middle of the night--we go with our Battle Buddy. The main thing is that we go nowhere alone. So we can travel with just about any other soldier, but most of us have one soldier we travel with more than others.

My Battle Buddy is another old guy (48) who, is a conservative Presbyterian and likes quiet. We are hoping to room together if we end up in a place with 2-man rooms. We room together now, of course, along with 76 others.

For all of us happiness comes in different small luxuries. My Battle Buddy is fond of saying "It's the small things that matter." For him, the discovery that brightened his life (literally) was the latrines 1/4 mile from our barracks that have indoor plumbing and LIGHT. It seems my BB does not like sitting in a dark latrine. Now he knows he can have BOTH flush toilets and lights, he is a happy man.

Speaking of happiness, I could not stop laughing the second day we were here over a joke one of the soldiers made at my expense. In the morning we walk 50 meters west to the PortaJohns and if you want to make a more efficient trip, you can walk 50 meters south to the outdoor running water sinks and brush your teeth. At 530 am I was walking (more like stumbling) toward the PortaJohn holding my toothbrush to make the two-destination trip. A young soldier passed me on his way back from the PortaJohns and said quietly, "Sgt Gussman. The've got some really good blue mouthwash in those PortaJohns."

I thought it was funny at the time. It is typical of the jokes here.



The food in the Kuwait DFACs (Dining Facilities) really is better than Oklahoma. A lot better. The two DFACs serve the same food, but the one close to us has plastic throwaway plates and silverware. The one farther away has washable plates and real silverware. It even has a fountain between the chow lines.

But before I get to the food, the luxury DFAC also has the Sweat Nazi (SW). The SW is a really old school sergeant who believes this DFAC is her DFAC and acts like it. She is tall, never smiles that I ave seen and is constantly checking food on the serving lines and eying the soldiers in line. If you come in her dining facility with sweat on obvious on your clothes, you are ejected. Now this might seem to be a reasonable rule, but it gets very hot here.

Back to the food. In both DFACs you wash your hands upon entry. There are a half-dozen sinks inside the door along with reminders about cleanliness, about not putting headgear on the table and that weapons must lie flat on the floor. We sign in by scanning our ID cards, then choose the short order or main lines. At breakfast, the short order means scrambled eggs along with bacon, sausage, creamed beef, potatoes, and either pancakes or French toast. Main line adds omlettes and eggs to order to all of the above.

That's the hot food choices.

The next line is two-sided and is about 150 feet of fresh and dried fruit, coffee, juices, cereal, milk and other things like yogurt and cottage cheese.

For lunch and dinner, short order is burgers, chicken, grilled cheese and cheesesteak from a grill, plus fried chicken, pizza, fries and onion rings. Main line could be pork, turkey or beef roast, fish, pasta, ravioli, cooked vegetables, potatoes of various kinds and other hot choices. The second line is a 50 item salad bar, a cold meat sandwich line, plus all the drinks above. Tables seat 20 and are wooden.

The whole place is nearly cold with air conditioning. None of us will starve. And with all that, KFC, Subway, Nathan's, the pizza place and all the other fast food places seem to do a brisk business.

No one will starve here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happier in Kuwait than Oklahoma?

It's true. More soldiers today told me how much happier they are now that they are in Kuwait than they were in Fort Sill.

Not me.

I am sitting outside in 90-degree weather on a metal bench trying to get a decent internet signal. We have no internet in the barracks which, as I noted before are 78-man tents. The food is much better, I will grant that. But we are confined to a few square miles of hot sand and bad weather is forecast for tomorrow and Friday--that means sandstorms. We hear the sandstorms are so bad you can barely see to walk the 50 meters to the portajohns, let alone the 1/4 mile to the indoor plumbing or the chow halls.

But today I got a reasonable explanation from one of the fuelers in our unit. He said he has known about this trip for a year and a half and for him, he is glad to be one step closer to our final destination. He also said that in Kuwait he does not have to fight against temptation the way he did in Oklahoma. Back there normal life was just outside the gate. Beer was sold 1/4 mile away in the Post Exchange. In minutes you could be in a bar or at least drinking. Here in Kuwait the whole place is under General Order #1 so nobody drinks and if you go off post here, there is not going to be a bar right outside the gate.

Closer to the goal, further from temptation--that makes sense.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Complaining Against God

Tomorrow Remedial PT begins again as does regular PT. The basic drill is the remedial group has PT at 6am Monday - Friday, except 520am on Wednesday. The others have PT Monday-Wednesday-Friday. I caught myself complaining about remedial PT, not that I have to do it, but that I am in charge of it. Again, it is not the exercise, but it is a piece of human nature that I don't like.

So when that happens I am complaining against God. The piece of human nature I am complaining against is the universal tendency of people who know a subject but don't do it to be experts in it in their own mind.

So as soon as members of the remedial group knew they actually had to do a certain exercise, they immediately have their own grand ideas about what they should be doing for an exercise program. It makes no difference that they consistently have failed to meet the standard of fitness the Army expects--they know better.

Their view of the world extends to every part of life. Who is more strident than a fat, inert couch-potato fan about what the players on the field should be doing. Players know those decisions are complex and they are much less likely to condemn other players.

No one knows more about faith than people who talk about it, but do not actually suffer, sacrifice, care for orphans, and the other things that every faith holds in common as virtuous.

Is there anyone on earth who knows more than a political talk show host about how to run the government? It is interesting to watch the commentators who actually held office versus the ones who never held office. The former office holders may howl about their favorite topic, but they also know the limits of politics--they are former office holders and generally lost an election before becoming a talking head.

Since the tendency is universal, I am guilty of it myself whenever my knowledge exceeds my practice in any given field. Most every human tendency has a good and bad side. I would like to know the good side of this one.

In the meantime I will be hearing soldiers grumble that PT is to hard, too early, too much aerobic, not enough, etc. On the bright side, they do not have pulpits and radio shows to make their ignorance influential.

New Bike for Kuwait

This morning I bought a bicycle at the PX. It's a no-name mountain bike that is too small for me. It has front and rear suspension. I can't take it with me when we leave Kuwait. So why would I buy this bike? It's $99. I am going to give it away when I leave. I have paid up to $40 to rent a good road bike for one day in San Francisco, so $99 for two or three weeks seemed like a bargain. And if I give it to a local guy when I leave, there will be one more person who likes Americans--even if he thinks we are crazy.

There are only about four miles of paved roads and the whole base is flat, so it won't be a very varied workout. But it will allow me some solitude and something to do while we wait to find out what we are doing next.

Thursday we are supposed to get sand storms. Sandstorms mean we all stay inside the tent. that should be interesting!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sandbox: Good and Bad

Saturday disappeared for us on a flight lasted from early evening Friday till midnight Saturday. Then unloading and loading baggage and travel to our new home stretched until 10 the next morning. At that point we got the very good advice to stay up until eight pm and get our bodies into local time.

By 2pm everybody was asleep (including everyone who gave that sage advice) in our new accommodations--a 78-man tent with no empty bunks. A couple of us went to the gym at 4pm. It's a 24-hour gym which is great. The food here is also amazing. Omelettes to order for breakfast, short order and regular food for lunch and dinner, midnight chow for late workers.

The internet is spotty, but not as bad as everyone said it would be. And there's lots of sand here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

William Tell without the Apple

One night I was in the dayroom playing pool when two young soldiers (under 21) decided to start showing off for two young women they are interested in. They were playing darts and throwing the darts way too fast and not very accurately. I was not paying much attention, but I saw one of the two throwing darts and noticed the other member of this demeted duo had his head against the lower half of the dart board with the top of his head touching the bullseye. I saw another dart hit the board above William-Tell-target-wannabe's head and said, "Stop that shit right now. There is now way you two are going to stick darts in each other while I am in the room." The target idiot moved away from the board and started complaining. Target said, "He got to throw darts at me. It's my turn now. How come the white guy gets to throw darts at me and I don't get my turn. It's prejudice." I told him to file an Equal Opportunity complaint. . .and put down the darts.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

If You are Reading This, I am Overseas

We left Friday afternoon. By the time you read this, I should be 6,000 miles east of home.

Business Class Upgrade!!!!

Yesterday we left on the long flight to Kuwait. As with so many other parts of this journey, it was a long day of cleaning barracks and getting ready before we finally lined up to board the buses for the airport. When we boarded the buses I got one of the best surprises I have had in years.

We had known for several days that when we flew it would be on a commercial 747. This immense plane can seat more than 400 people with 80 or so business class seats, and sometimes a dozen first class seats. We heard the seating would be by rank, which meant I would be in the main cabin with 3-4-3 ten across seating. But as we lined up to go, our commander called five of us to the front of the line. He was going to give the top scorers on the PT test business class seats.

One of them was me. I took it. Three others turned the seats down, wanting to sit with their friends. I thought about sitting in back for about a millisecond, but I decided at 55 years old I will take whatever ribbing I get for sitting up front. The other guy who took the seat is older also. We sat together and decided our old selves would enjoy the ride up front.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Rattlesnake Rodeo

Yesterday, our last full day here in Oklahoma, we went to the town of Apache to be guests at the opening day of the annual Rattlesnake Rodeo--a carnival with rides and junk food like any other carnival, but the central attraction is the rattlesnakes.

First we go into a building with a ten by twenty foot by four foot high wooden enclosure. Inside the enclosure are two retired men in boots and coveralls carrying hooks. Also in the enclosure are 50 or so rattlesnakes piled and slithering against the walls and occasionally striking at the men when poked. The more talkative of the men tells us about the snakes, their venom, their rattles with a show-and-tell format that involves holding the angry animals behind their heads and showing them around to the spectators.

At the end of the presentation, the silent handler puts a half-dozen snakes in a box and sends them to the building next door--the snake butcher shop. So we all troop next door and watch as the handlers at that show select a snake, show its markings, then cut off its head with an ax.

The guy with the microphone headset then shows us how the head keeps biting while a woman in an apron hangs the rest of the snake above a sink. While he explains she guts and skins the snake and gets the $15 per pound meat ready to sell.

If I can hook up to one of the cameras in a few days, and if we get internet access, I'll try to post some pictures. In the meantime, you can watch a video on the blog site of one of the other soldiers in my unit.

Army Easter Bunny

Last month we got cases of Pop Tarts from somewhere. I heard it was test marketing. So last Monday, I could send my wife home with Triple Chocolate Pop Tarts and MREs left over from field training for Nigel. He was very happy with his high-calorie pile of treasures.

Saying Goodbye to Other Units

On Good Friday we were released to go on our four-day pass at 1400 hours. The other five companies that make up our battalion slept late in anticipation of a long day of travel.

Echo company was up and out in front of the barracks at 0520. During the 10 weeks we were training for deployment Echo did more soldier-skills training than any other company in the battalion. This is partly because we are the company most likely to do security and go outside the wire on the ground and partly because our commander wants us all to be up to Army standards on physical training and soldier skills.

We were the only company that got up before 5am for PT three days each week and the only one that had remedial PT three more days each week. We were the only company on the rappel tower, the confidence course and some of the other training I have written about over the last five weeks. In fact, complaints from the other companies led to us holding formation for morning PT 1000 feet behind the building instead of out front. They were complaining about the noise we made as a exercised.

But on Good Friday we formed up out front and yelled "Echo" at the top of our 100 voices as we formed up. The leader for the warmup calisthenics is a former singer in a Metal band. He growled out the cadence as we stretched and exercise.

Usually we run out toward the ranges. On this morning we ran behind the barracks, looped around the motor pool then ended with a complete half-mile circle around the barracks area. We sang cadence the entire time we were near the barracks.

Because of us, no one had to miss breakfast.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Then and Now: Barracks Rats


I am going to miss Fort Sill, Oklahoma. For those who are thinking, "You lived there 2-1/2 months, of course. . ." you should know that I am quite alone in my affection for our current duty station. In fact, at a meeting last night, several soldiers were delighted to hear about the kinds of video entertainment that is free at our next duty station. But eventually, they won't like the next duty station or the one after that.

They are barracks rats, a special sort of rodent who sits in his or her room and complains about Fort Wherever mostly because thy don't leave the room. I know I am a special case because I brought and borrowed bikes and rode almost 1,300 miles since our arrival. But other soldiers have walked, taken buses and seen many sights and enjoyed the mostly warm (and windy) weather since we arrived.

I am not sure, but the barracks rats may be worse now than before. In the 70s, there was only dayroom television and radios for entertainment, plus the completely outmoded books and conversation. With video games and personal computers, there are many more options for the sedentary soldier.

Post-Pass Blues

The barracks are as morose now as they were giddy on Friday. Last Friday everyone was getting ready to go home, have some of home come here, or at the very least, spend four days in quiet. Now we are cleaning, packing, and starting arguments over small things. We will be gone soon and home is very far away and everyone is acting like it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I Watched a Zombie Movie--You Can Too

Some of you know my wife, Annalisa Crannell, is a professor at Franklin & Marshall College and the Don (Faculty Advisor) of Bonchek residential house. As part of her duties of bringing academic life into the residential halls, she hosts math and art seminars, the Evolution Table, and helps to organize the annual Humans Versus Zombies event at F&M each year. Humans vs. Zombies is a tag game on a grand scale in which Human players try to avoid being tagged by Zombies and becoming the living dead themselves. My wife is one of the profs who is actually in the game and could become a Zombie because many of the students who start as Humans will want to tag their House Don when they become Zombies. Here is a video by some of Annalisa's students on how NOT to become a Zombie.
It's almost 4 minutes long. I watched the whole thing!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mrs. Hollywood in the Sunday News

Annalisa was the subject of an article in the Sunday News on Easter about a Sunday School class she will be teaching next Sunday through May 31. The Sunday News links expire quickly, so here's the text:

It all adds up to the 'God of Mathematics'
First female adult Sunday school teacher at Wheatland Presbyterian explores infinity ... and beyond

By Helen Colwell Adams, Staff Writer
How is Christian faith like mathematics?

The possibilities, as Dr. Annalisa Crannell sketches them, are nearly infinite.

Infinity itself, for instance.

"Mathematicians and Christians look at very similar kinds of things," Crannell, a professor of mathematics at Franklin & Marshall College, said. "We ask very similar kinds of questions. What does infinity mean? How do you resolve a paradox — how can God be three in one?"

Crannell will be opening that world of possibilities for an innovative Sunday school series at her church, Wheatland Presbyterian, April 19 through May 31. The series, "The God of Mathematics," is innovative for another reason.

Crannell will be the first woman to teach an adult Sunday school class at the Lancaster Township church, part of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America denomination.

"Having Annalisa and her husband, Neil Gussman … and their family here at Wheatland is a great blessing to us, and we are excited that she can use her considerable gifts in this way," Wheatland's pastor, Bruce Mawhinney, said. "She is an amazing believer and follower of Jesus Christ who not only talks the talk but walks the walk."

"I have a lot of support," Crannell said. "I have the feeling there are a lot of people who were trying to figure out how to make this happen and still be true to their values."
The logic of faith
Part of Crannell's understanding of God comes from metaphors of mathematics. John 1:1, for instance, says, "In the beginning was the Word."

"For math, everything flows logically from axioms," Crannell explained. Logic comes from the Greek logos, the "Word" of John 1:1.

"Because I know math and because I like axioms, I have a good picture in my head of how God can speak the world into existence."

Mathematicians believe in the extranatural, as Christians do.

"I believe in 2. There is no 2 in the world," Crannell said. Numbers aren't tangible or material; they are concepts.

"... In that way, math is not of this world. It helps me to understand something that's bigger than a material universe."

But when mathematicians change the axioms, "you change the universe," she explained. "… You change the kinds of things that happen in the world.

"When God spoke the universe into being, the way he spoke it formed us."

She'll be unfolding those ideas in the Sunday school series, which is open to the public. Topics include "Math and Metaphor," "Sizes of infinity," "Mobius strips and the Triune God" and "Symmetry, pattern and repetition."

Too much information? Crannell doesn't think so. "I'm used to dialogue with people who are math-averse," she said. "… How much math do you need to know? If you like puzzles, if you like doing things like Sudoku, then that's enough math."
The logic of submitting
It might seem counterintuitive for a respected female academic to belong to a church that holds, among other doctrines, that only men may serve as teaching and ruling elders or deacons.

For Crannell, it's a matter of biblical mutual submission.

"There are ways in which it's very countercultural to be a Christian at all," she said. "It's a faith that does ask you to submit … to something bigger than yourself all the time."

At Wheatland, an eclectic congregation "that really loves Christ," she said, "we're all submitting ourselves in various ways."

Plus, Crannell noted, "The church is the most segregated institution in the United States. One of the obligations we have as Christians is to try to fight that by placing ourselves with people" who think differently.

"It is very hard to do it. We need to look at people who have differences of opinion not as enemies we should shun but as people we should engage."

Crannell said the church has been enthusiastic about her series, planned after the governing Session voted to allow women to lead adult classes that do not involve teaching the Bible.

"Ordinarily our adult classes are taught by an ordained officer of the church — pastor, elders and deacons — but having a member like Annalisa teach this class is not really a new step for us at Wheatland," Mawhinney said.

"We have been planning on her doing this and trying to find a good place in our schedule for some time now. We try to use our members in areas of their expertise in our Sunday school ministry."

Crannell's membership at Wheatland is part of her faith journey.

"I came to faith very late in life, nine years ago," she said. She began attending church with Gussman, a convert to Christianity, to understand him better and found herself drawn to faith partly by math connections.

"Even atheists will talk of mathematics as something beautiful," she said. "It's something pure and holy."

For her, it's another way Christian faith is like mathematics.

"The God of Mathematics" will be offered at Wheatland, 1125 Columbia Ave., from 9:30-10:30 a.m. April 19 through May 31. For information, phone the church, 392-5909, or e-mail

Monday, April 13, 2009

More Mount Scott

On Friday I finally rode up Mount Scott which I reported four days ago. The view above is what I saw every morning as I walked to formation for 2-1/2 months. I could see it, but being restricted to Post, I could not ride it. So on Saturday while my wife took a nap, I went up Mount Scott again. On Saturday the winds were better and the temp was above 70 instead of the low 50s on Friday, so I went up in 27:10, almost three minutes faster than Friday. On Saturday and Sunday Annalisa and I ran on the flat roads near our hotel in Lawton. Today she agreed to do a "Ride and Tie" Relay with me. So we drove to Mount Scott, I got out of the car at the base of the mountain and ran up. She drove to the top, parked and ran down with the keys in her hand. Eighteen minutes later she handed off the keys as we ran past each other. I got to the top in 32 minutes, 5 seconds.

I love running uphill but I would have been a cripple if I ran down. Annalisa shows no ill effects from running down--even three miles down. She does not keep track of run times, so I don't know how fast she went, but it was a lot faster than I went because she had walked 1/4 mile back up the hill by the time I drove the car back down to pick her up.

Annalisa arrived at midnight Friday and goes home early tomorrow morning. My roommates would be worried we would be bored to death, because we have not watched TV or a movie or listened to the radio in the car since her arrival. She also finished reading Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" to me as we drove in the car. I will be surrounded by noise tomorrow, but I have had more than 72 hours of peace and quiet. Ahhhh!!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Then and Now: Kids and the Army

ERIC, RYAN and NIGEL underneath a C-130 on display at Fort Indiantown Gap.

One of my best memories of serving in Germany during the late 1970s was training on the countryside and meeting little kids. The kids, usually boys between 7 and 10 years old, but some girls also, would ride their bikes up from the villages where they lived to see our tanks. It always seemed to be up. We looked for high ground so we could set up observation posts. Our tanks would be below the crest of the hill and we would send an observer up to watch the approaches.

Soon after we had our tanks positioned on the hill, sometimes just minutes after, we would see two or three kids laboring up dirt paths pushing or riding their bikes toward our position. I could only imagine what it would have been like if a platoon (five) tanks parked on a hill near my house when I was a kid.

We were in the field the day after we arrived so the first time we had kids come up to our tank was just three days after our unit got to Germany in 1976. My tank happened to be lowest on the hill so the tallest boy walked up and waved. The three smaller boys with him followed close behind. My driver and I offered the kids C-ration chocolate bars. These round candy bars were made by Wilbur Chocolate in Lititz. It was years after I got out before I would eat their chocolate because those bars were so bad. They had to last at least three years which must have been a challenge, but they tasted like wax.

The German kids thought they were wonderful. "Soldaten chocolad!" they said to each other. We pulled them up on the fender of the tank and let the kids get inside and talk to each other on our helmet intercom. I let the big kid is the Commander's Override and traverse the turret. They spoke English well enough to ask if we wanted them to go to the store and buy food. I gave the oldest one (I think he was 9) a 10 Mark bill and they sped down the hill to the store.

As they left, the crew of the next tank over found out from my driver that I had given the kids money and they started laughing. "Nice going Gussman. You'll never see those kids again." I wasn't worried. The guys on the other crews got out their C-rations and started complaining about the getting stuck with canned ham and eggs or the grease that congealed on the Spam. Between bites they would yell, "Better eat your C's. Those kids are gone.

Almost an our later the kids returned. They had fresh bread, cheese, sausage, even butter, and two pfennigs change. We thanked them for doing such a good job shopping and gave them two boxes of C-rations and a handful of chocolate bars. They were thrilled. They happily sat on the fenders eating chocolate. They were saving the C-rations and it was almost dinner time.

I put our camp stove on the back deck of the tank so the other crew could see us while I cooked the sausage. My crew and I ate fresh German food sitting on the fender and the turret facing uphill to be sure the other crews could watch.

We held that position for two days. When the kids came back the next day, the other crew members ran down to see if the group of boys would like some more chocolate or to sit in their tanks. For the rest of the time we were in German on the countryside, the little kids on bikes gave us fresh food in return the green cans we were always ready to get rid of.

Last summer my sister brought her grandsons down to Pennsylvania. They spent a day with my son and I looking at tanks and trucks and artillery on Fort Indiantown Gap. I could not actually let them turn a tank turret or talk on an intercom since I am not in tanks anymore, but it was fun to show two little boys all that Army equipment. My son Nigel had been on these vehicles before, so he got to show Ryan and Eric where to put there hands when they climb up on a tank and be their Big Brother for a day.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Perceptions of Risk

I am in the middle of writing an article about perceptions of risk in medicine. Looking at how people perceive risk in medicine reminded me of my step father. My Dad died in 1982 and my Mom remarried 7 years later to a nice guy named Peter Sherlock who is a World War II veteran and a career Air Force sergeant. They were married until my Mom died in 2003. I have kept in touch with Peter since my Mom's passing. We talk every month or so.

Until August of 2007, every call with Peter would begin with him asking, "Are you still riding that damn bicycle?" Peter has a daughter my age who is an avid rider and who broke a hip in a bicycling accident several years ago. Peter thought bicycles were dangerous before her accident, but understandably became more strident after her accident. When I crashed in May 2007, Peter was beside himself when he found out I planned to ride again as soon as I got out of the neck brace.

But he hasn't said a word about bicycling since August of 2007. Peter perceives bicycling as very risky. But when I told him I re-enlisted, he was almost gleeful. He thought that was great. He said, "You won't regret it. Best job in the world." When I told him I was going to Iraq, it did not change his opinion at all. "You'll be fine," he said.

Obviously, lots of people perceive risk differently than Peter, but it is fun to call him and hear him be as "Rah! Rah!" as an 86-year-old can get on serving in the military. And he never asks at all whether I am "riding that damn bicycle."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Saying Goodbye to Fort Sill--The Bike

After I wrote the silence post I thought about how much I will miss riding on Fort Sill. According to my obsessive exercise spreadsheet I have ridden more than 1100 miles (1154, but who's counting) since we landed in Oklahoma. I can look at that as 82 hours of training, which it is, but more importantly as about 70 hours of solitude. I guess I have ridden 150 miles with the Chaplain and the other racer in our unit, but I am almost always riding alone. That means many hours of solitude and quiet. Without the bike, my life here would have been very different.

So with my final ride just days away, I have some bike updates. My usual loop is a 28-mile circuit around the artillery and machine gun ranges. Until Wednesday, I could not cover that distance in less than 1 hour and 43 minutes. But on Wednesday, we had calm air all day. So after the Rappel Tower, I road my usual loop as fast as I could almost giddy with the lack of wind. I covered the distance 11 minutes faster than ever before.

Today I tried to ride from Fort Sill to the Oklahoma City airport to meet my wife. She arrives at 1045pm tonight. We could not leave until 2pm and the airport is 90 miles away. If the wind had been west or south, I might have made it. But OKC is northeast of Fort Sill and the wind was out of the North Northeast at 15mph with gusts. By 315pm I had covered only 16 miles so I turned around and road west to Mount Scott.

Mount Scott is not exactly the Alps, but it is the highest mountain around here. It is also just off post so I could see it every morning since we got here, but not ride it. Today I went up the 3-mile, 9% climb that goes up 1400 feet to an amazing view of the entire area. The road wraps the entire circumference of the mountain as it climbs and ends right on top. It took 30 minutes to go up and five back down.

I passed a herd of longhorn cattle on one side of the road at the base of the mountain and a herd of buffalo on the other side. This is definitely a beautiful place in a dry, wild sort of way.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Silence is not an Option

At the end of every training session we have an After Action Review--as with everything else this is only referred to as an AAR. Usually we collectively are asked to give three examples of what was Outstanding, three things that should be Sustained, and three that should be Improved. Just as with civilian life, these sessions are supposed to be open to all comments.

But I got shouted down for my "Improve" comment.

After we finished six hours of rappel tower training we had an AAR. It was somewhat difficult to hear the leader because speakers on the tower had been blaring and continued to blare metal music. My Improve was shut the music off. If I had said change the music to country, hip-hop, or something else I would have divided the crowd. But suggesting that the sound be shut off was like suggesting we all dress in orange or blue or that we all become Vegans. Silence is simply not an option in this world. Even the people who don't like metal music wanted some kind of music. Our chow hall has big screen TVs on both walls, one on ESPN, one on Fox News during every meal. My roommates like Gangsta Rap and Horror movies. Other rooms are primarily Country or Metal with a preference for comedies or war movies, but there is no silent room.

This weekend when my wife is here we will not be watching TV, leaving the radio on all the time, or eating in restaurants that have big-screen TVs on the wall. While most everyone flies home, I will be staying in Lawton and enjoying four days of quiet.

When the rest of my unit returns to America, they will be looking for some form of entertainment they have been missing. I will want to be back in my very quiet home and back at my job in a very quiet museum with people who can do their work without 24/7 music. AAAHHHHH!

Once in a while people ask me if there is anything I miss, anything people could send me. If you figure out a way to put quiet in a postal package, please send it.

Rappel Tower

Today we spent most of the day at Fort Sill's Treadwell Rappel Tower. For most soldiers it was not their first time to slide down a rappel rope, some even had air assault experience rappeling from a helicopter. I was one of about ten rookies who had never rappelled before. It was fun, but because the tower is set up for basic trainees, they use a figure-8 loop on the harness that makes the ride down very slow. I did get to swing out and drop about ten feet at the end, but nothing too fast.

In addition to the rappel ropes, the tower had four rope obstacles. Each of these was harder for me than the tower. We first climbed up a three-rope bridge, which wasn't too bad. Then we went down a single rope head first and face down (see photo) which hurt my chest a lot. Then we went back up a two-rope bridge, which is harder than three. Then up to the top of the tower and down a 40-foot cargo net. Several soldiers went again, some again and again, when everyone had a chance to go once. Between the harness (I thought it could make me a soprano) and an aching shoulder from the cargo net, I only went once.



Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Anthrax Shot, New Address, PT Top Scorers

We'll be leaving soon, just how soon no one is really sure, but we got another anthrax shot and a new mailing address today:
SGT Neil Gussman
Task Force Diablo
Echo Company 2/104 GSAB
Joint Base Balad
I'll let you know when it is valid.

In other PT news, there are 17 soldiers in our company who scored 270 or higher on the PT test. The age range of the PT high scorers is 22 to 55. Several of the 17 scored more than 300 on the test. Technically, 300 is the max score, but if you score the max for your age in all three categories then you can score on an extended scale. The highest scorer was our commander at 349. One of the women who is a squad leader in the fueling platoon was 2nd at 342.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Remedial PT Success

We ran a PT Test this morning for 12 soldiers who failed the test last week and one who just recovered from an injury. The injured soldier passed, but he was in great shape before he hurt his shoulder. More importantly, 6 of the 12 re-tests passed and three of the people who did not pass missed by seconds or in one case a single pushup. When we get to Iraq, the Remedial PT program will continue for the soldiers who still need to pass the test, at least for those of us who remain on the Air Base. It's great for the soldiers who have been doing PT six days per week pretty much since we got here. It's not easy to go from being a civilian with no fitness requirements to active duty soldier, but most of the soldiers in our unit have passed the test and many who just passed before are now doing much better. I paced one soldier who made his time by 13 seconds. That was a good feeling.

I have a friend who is an engineer who said he hated wearing respirators when he worked in industry. I never did PT in an Army Protective Mask so late this afternoon I did the 2-mile run in the Pro-Mask. I was five minutes slower than without the mask, but I still would have passed. It was a good breathing exercise to do it, because I had to keep my breathing even or I would start gasping and had to calm down.



Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dayroom Interpretations of History

On the first floor of our barracks there are three dayrooms--one in each stairwell. The fourth stairwell has the Anthrax Chapel instead of a dayroom. Each of the dayrooms is different, but dominated by a large-screen TV several feet across. Sports and movies are the programs of choice. This afternoon Braveheart was on the big screen in one of the dayrooms. This movie is a favorite of mine and many other soldiers. In fact, as I walked into the dayroom, one of the older soldiers declared Braveheart "the best movie ever made." The scene playing as I walked in was the one in which an evil English Lord claims his right of Prima Nocte with a just-married Scottish bride--he takes the young woman to his bed the first night of their wedding instead of her husband. It is a poignant scene and everyone is quiet both on screen and in the dayroom when the young woman is taken away. Then suddenly the same sergeant who declared Braveheart the best movie ever said, "It's this kinda shit is the reason we're in Iraq." I had not ever heard this interpretation of the war in Iraq.
NOTE: In this quote shit is a pronoun replacing "strange nasty customs."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Shit as a Pronoun

Last night I caught myself falling into the usage all around me. I had washed a load of clothes and dumped the unfolded load of laundry on my bunk. Someone asked if I was going to chow. I said, "I have get my shit off the bed first." A millisecond later I realized that someone who was thinking literally would think what I really needed to do was wash the whole bed.

In my world, shit is a substitute for every other noun. It also has other linguistic functions, but in the Army they are by far secondary to shit serving as a universal pronoun. Shit can actually refer to feces as when someone leaves a room to "take a shit." That is an interesting linguistic twist in itself. What the speaker will be doing in fact (one hopes) is leaving the feces behind, but since effort is involved, taking is the verb--the same usage as taking a picture. Another twist is in the use of the s-word as an exclamation. "Shit!" is generally negative, but "No Shit!" is positive. If I tell Private Snuffy he has guard duty he will exclaim, "Shit!" to express his dismay. If later on I tell him the Private Duffy has duty in his place, Snuffy will say, "No Shit!" and be happy.

But the main use is a pronoun, usually in the objective case. Looking at someone else's food, I might say, "I don't like that shit." If my tools were in disarray I would say, "I need to get my shit together." If someone else were advising me to put my tools in order they might use the same phrase or the odder form, "Get your shit straight!" I go right for the literal and imagine someone using a straight edge for a very difficult task.

By now you must have had "enough of this shit" so I will "stop this shit" right now. Except to add that the most common modifier of the word of the day is Bull, often said as if it had three syllables.

Friday, April 3, 2009

All-Night Duty

Today I was supposed to be one of the safeties for the next obstacle course. Next Wednesday, we are going on through a Confidence Course with a Rappel Tower. We will rope climbs and other obstacles including rappelling from a 40-foot tower. But I had all-night duty tonight and had to finish the Echo Company newsletter, so I skipped the Rappel Tower training and will just be one of the climbers next week.

Beginning at 8 pm tonight, I sat in the battalion offices with another soldier and waited for something to happen. Nothing did. The soldier I had duty with joined the Army in 1992 so he is an old soldier compared to most soldiers, if not compared to me. We ordered a pizza and talked for hours. Both of us can remember life in a barracks before cell phones and personal computers when people actually talked to each other.

After midnight, I called a friend who was my roommate in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1978. We were in a joint Army - Air Force barracks. He got out of the Air Force in 1978 and instead of going home to Arizona, he became a novice in a Lutheran Monastery in Darmstadt, Germany, and he has been a brother there ever since. After his novitiate, my roommate Cliff Almes became Bruder Timotheus. We have kept in touch ever since. He is the only American in his small brotherhood, so he is the network administrator and has always been the "fix-it" guy. One of the reputations Americans have is the ability to fix and operate machines. We talked for about an hour. Bruder Timotheus only comes to America every few years and I have only been back to Germany a few times since 1978. But we keep in touch by phone and email. I hope to be able to visit Cliff sometime after this deployment.

Land of Kanaan, Darmstadt, Germany

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Back to the Confidence Course

Today we returned to the Confidence Course. I was one of the safeties for the course--which is something like being a condom: Everybody around me is breathing hard and having a good time, but I am just there to prevent accidents.

The Confidence course is an imposing array of high, tough obstacles. Groups of soldiers move from obstacle to obstacle, some require teams, some are individual efforts. Throughout the day, soldiers surprised each other--good and bad--with what they could complete with easy and what they found tough or impossible. A soldier who was scrambling up and down all kinds of obstacles had to be pushed off the the platform on the Flight to Freedom (ride down a Zip line) and another soldier who climbed to the top of the vertical ladder while several other soldiers could not make it.

All morning I unhooked soldiers zooming down the Zip line. In the afternoon, I went over some of the obstacles. After stressing my shoulder at the PT Test, I did not do anything crazy, just these:

I am the one on the right, crawling over the top.

I don't think this one is me, but this is one obstacle I went down, until I dropped into the net.

And this one. Easier to get up than down.

The Philosopher of War and Terror and Politics: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt 1906-1975 Today a friend asked and I were talking about politics and how refugee problems have led to wars in the p...