Friday, July 31, 2009


Last night I spent the best two hours since I left America. I was at the Army Education Center which does not officially open for another month, but they are holding sessions to help soldiers study to improve their GT score--the overall score that determines whether you qualify for some of the really good jobs the Army offers.

Last night I spent two hours helping soldiers solve equations with parentheses, powers, roots, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction--which is the order they are solved. These equations included decimals and fractions so I also was helping with converting fractions, finding common denominators and so forth.

If that doesn't sound fun, then I have not done a good job telling you just how strange it is to move from the very quiet home I live in and the very cooperative place where I work to this Lead-Follow-or-Get-Out-of-the-Way environment I am in now. We hear every day we are all leaders. Many of us translate that into trying to dominate everything they are involved in. So last night I was in a room with a dozen men and women who simply wanted to learn something. Not one soldier said, "When I was in Afghanistan in 2004 we did powers before parentheses and our sergeant major said 'Only a one-handed piano player at a cheap whorehouse would solve the parentheses first.'"

And today is my 12th wedding anniversary. I won't be spending it with my wife--which I have known for a while now, but today, like all the other occasions I will miss this year, reminds me with particular clarity that I volunteered for this--for good and ill. Happy Anniversary Annalisa. I'll be home for the next one.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

No Bike Race


One of my big goals, hopes for this deployment was to organize a bike race in Iraq. In case you think this is indicative of severe mental defect or some history of intoxication, a race did not seem crazy to me. Until this month, I thought it was very possible.

First, I was initially supposed to go to a huge air base near Baghdad with paved roads, including a six-mile loop around the air field. At the last minute we were re-assigned to another huge base in the south. Here at Tallil Ali Air Base, there is a 15-kilometer perimeter road which is mostly paved. Some of it is bumpy, but a few miles are very smooth. I can ride the loop on a road bike slowing for the dirt stretches and the worst bumps. It's no problem on a mountain bike.

Speaking of bikes, I estimate there are about 300 to 400 soldiers, airmen and civilian workers with bikes. There could be more. But whenever I ride in the main area of post I see other people riding and bikes chained up at various buildings. Until mid-July there was a group of airmen that would ride together every week. So there were people riding around post and there are a few who ride with me for speed once or twice a week.

So I hoped to have a race/ride. I figured I could find 20 people who would want to race and maybe another 50 to 100 who would ride the perimeter of the post with Military Police at the intersections. I pitched the idea to the garrison MWR (Morale Welfare Recreation) people within a week of my arrival. They thought it was a great idea and encouraged me to get a proposal together, but the new garrison would be taking over while I was home on leave in June, so I would have to propose the idea to them.

After a few delays, I had the meeting two weeks ago. At the meeting I was asked about my strategic plans for perimeter security, about the number of soldiers I could guarantee would participate, and about safety. At one point in the discussion on perimeter security I looked down at the sergeant stripes on my chest and said, "I am a squad leader with five soldiers. What can I do abut perimeter security?" But they wanted food and a party at the end like the 15k running race that happened on July 11. The running race had 400+ participants and, for most people, running 15k is a big deal. Riding 15k is not a big deal. The slowest riders can do it in an hour. the winner of the race would have finished under 30 minutes.

So I was looking at a small, first-time event that would bring out the bicyclists on our big air base and help to form a cycling community. They were looking for an event that is way beyond my resources. There was a follow-up email asking me to provide all the things I could not provide: guaranteed participation, perimeter security strategic plans, etc. I answered the memo then the next day sent another memo withdrawing my offer to organize the race.

When you answer a question and the same person comes back asking again all the questions for which they did not get the answer they want, then the choice is give in to the demands or fight. I chose to walk away. It was awkward, but I have other things going on with MWR that are going well and I don't want to get in pissing contest over a single event. The MWR sergeant who manages most of the programs has given me a room for a Dante book group and a CS Lewis book group (starting Monday) and set me up with the new Education Center (opening soon) to possibly serve as a writing tutor one night per week. They also got lights for the softball field which is what the soldiers in my company cared about more than anything else, and they may let one of our sergeants be the "Commissioner of the Softball League."

So given all that I don't want to fight over the bike race. And I got to do three races while I was home on leave and one in Oklahoma, so I have already done four races despite the deployment. Not such a bad year.

(And for those who know something of my riding history, the garrison also wanted me to guarantee that an event with most of the participants on Wal-Mart-quality, sand-coated Huffys would be safe. All I could do was smile.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Semester Break Blues

Before we left Pennsylvania the guys who had been deployed before warned us people would start to fall apart at six months. My wife wrote today to remind me of the parallels between how here students feel after parents weekend--missing there family with a long semester ahead--and how I have been feeling lately.

Well here we are at six month and the predictions are, unfortunately, coming true. Two mechanics are home in the USA getting knee operations, one from a touch football game and another from a sports injury that was not healing. There have been a lot of jokes about "When's the next football game?" and "Do you need anybody to work on a roof, sarge?"

And we are getting lectures on getting slack--except we report for work at 0700 and many of us do PT before work. Some soldiers are getting vehicles. The vehicles are restored wrecks that are less than perfect and an average of 15 years old. And at the same time, the rules about driving them are tightening up. Any traffic ticket is a visit to the Sergeant Major for the first offense and an article 15 (loss of pay and/or rank)for the second offense. So having a vehicle is not such a great thing that way.

The weather is following the generally declining mood. Usually we wake up to a blue sky and 84 degrees at 0500. The weather becomes hot, windy and dusty by 0700, but the beginning is nice.

Today at 0530 the temp was 94, the wind was up and dust filled the air. It just keeps getting worse. The motor sergeant released the mechanics at noon today because the conditions were so bad outside.



The running race was canceled this morning and it was so dusty I did not ride. I am not riding at 6pm either so this will be the first day since I got back from leave that I have not made at least one circuit of the post on the bike. But the weather is so far beyond foul I will ride in the gym.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More from the Back End of the Chicken

Today we had an NCO meeting to get the latest changes in work-area uniforms. We work in a motor pool consisting of a plywood building, a couple of maintenance tents and conex boxes mostly at one end of a field of gravel and dirt. Next to the rock-strewn work area is a headquarters building and a parking lot. The building and the parking lot are about to be turned over to an active-Army unit. We have two latrines located on the east and west ends of the parking lot. On the east end are two outhouses. On the west end are two latrines--one male, one female--each in a trailer like ones we live in. These deluxe latrines have stalls with doors, sinks and air conditioning--very posh.

Now to get into either latrine, a soldier has to step on the parking lot pavement. As of today, we have to be in uniform to step on the pavement. So if someone is changing the oil in a 5-ton truck and needs to use the latrine, that soldier has to put on his uniform jacket and hat and eye protection before walking the 20 feet from the gravel motor pool to the paved parking lot.

Did I mention the soldiers who are dressing up to walk to the latrine are working in midday temperatures in the high 120s? The soldiers who conceive of the regulations work in air-conditioning.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Hell Boy at the Chapel

Yesterday as I was leaving the 9am traditional Protestant service, the choir for the 11 am service was starting to arrive. I remembered the very enthusiastic young captain from Tennessee who jumps when he sings. When I was about to walk through the door, in walks the subject of my June 8 post, the silent guitar player on the bridge. The guy who wants to make a comeback with a metal band when deployment is over. He told me that evening last month he had a home in Hell. and there he was walking in the door with his enormous 12-string electric bass.

I guess the Chapel band gives him a chance to play.

Who the Wannabe Wants to Be

The Catholic Chaplain from NYC is on the way to a base up north, so my pastor can quit worrying that I will become a Catholic simply to hang around with former Fordham philosophy professor who loves New York.

A week from tonight I will be starting a CS Lewis reading group. The first book is "The Weight of Glory." One of the chaplains said he would attend. This book group will also be in the library in the recreation center. I can't lead a book discussion like this inside the Chapel because official religious activities have to be led by a Chaplain. I'll start out with one essay per week and see how that goes. I can either start with "The Inner Ring" CSL's advice on how to navigate the murky waters of cliques or "Why I am not a Pacifist." CSL's reasons for disdaining pacifism are very similar to George Orwell's. They are contemporaries, but certainly different on philosophy and religion. I am planning on saving the title essay for last. If the group decides to continue, we can move to the Screwtape Letters or some other book they would choose.

Today's picture is from my leave. They are of the doctor who fixed my broken neck and I at his office. The practice he works for hired a writer to do a freelance article on him and I am his success story.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Today the Temp was 133 Before Lunch

I skipped lunch today and rode to the PX to buy new sunglasses. I lost a pair of Army Oakleys two weeks ago then today I lost my backup Army pair at breakfast. They were on my tray and when we leave the DFAC we dump the tray into one of 10 trash cans in rows of five on either side of the exit hallway. I started to ride away, realized where my glasses were then went back. But I could not remember which trash can I had dumped my tray in. I tried to remember, but as I stood there another soldier dumped his tray about every five seconds. I gave up and bought new ones.

Anyway, on the ride over to the PX the bike thermometer said 133 degrees. The air was very still just before I left, which may be why the temp was so high. As I left the motor pool, a wind kicked up and in a mile the temp reading had dropped to 127, a nice cooling breeze--from a blow dryer.

And here are photos of me with a gun on my GT Peace 9R bike. It's not easy to read the logo, but it is the word Peace with an anarchist A--just the thing for a war!

Saturday, July 25, 2009


For the last two weeks, along with my other duties, I have become the squad leader for 4th squad and have been writing awards. Earlier this month I was writing achievement awards for several soldiers who were exceptional in the first month after we arrived in Iraq. Now I am writing what are called service awards--awards for the entire deployment. "But wait!" One might say, "Aren't you just half way through your deployment? How can you write an award for the period from now until when you leave?"

That's easy. I project. I assume that the best conduct and performance I have seen over the first six months will continue and write the award accordingly. The more specific and fact based the award justification is, the better the chance it will go through. Many of the soldiers in my unit have already done some very good things and achieved some of their goals, so there is a lot to write about. And for the rest of the deployment, if I am wrong and the soldier in question were to become "Low Speed and High Drag" (Here and in NASCAR High Speed and Low Drag describes the top performers.) then the award could be withdrawn before it is given. It is much easier to cut an award at the last minute than create one.

And if you ask, "What if one of our soldiers rescues three babies and five kittens from a burning building?" or a similar act of gallantry. Before the kittens can lick the soot from their fur, someone can write an achievement award for a specific act of bravery that can be given in addition to the service award.

So most, if not all, soldiers are at least recommended for a service award. My wife and other professors could explain why. It's a lot like grade inflation. If someone serves a whole year on deployment and does not get an award, there is some reason for a future promotion or evaluation board to believe that soldier is below standard. As with Lake Woebegone Minnesota, all the soldiers are above average, so nearly everyone gets a service award.

If you think that is bad, consider the situation on my deployment back in the 1970s. Back then combat soldiers who were simply doing their jobs watching the border got no awards. But the higher headquarters staff all got awards. I know this because I got a couple of certificates for distinguished tank gunnery while serving as a tank commander for nearly two of my three years in Germany. But at the end of my deployment, I worked in public affairs full time and got soldiers in our brigade in the Stars and Stripes newspaper and all over the post newspaper. For that I got an Army Commendation Medal. I think it's better now that nearly everyone gets a medal than the situation before when mostly the rear-area guys got the medals.

Friday, July 24, 2009

TV in the Chapel Annex

I mentioned in a previous post that one of the marriage conversations took place in God's Grounds--the free coffee shop in the Adder Chapel annex. It is run by chaplain's assistants and other volunteers. The other place to get coffee is and actual coffee shop called Green Beans about a mile away.

I go to Green Beans every day for a half hour between work and the evening ride to read a book and drink a latte. I could go to God's Grounds and drink espresso for free, but if I did, I would have to sit near a big-screen TV with 24/7 Simpsons and animated movies. At Green Beans, they play music on the side of the shop where the coffee is made, but the side with the couches is for reading and conversation.

The conversation I had with guy telling me his wife was his best friend and they share no interests took place with me sitting with my back to the TV and us talking over the TV. There are books in the room where the TV is, but no one picks them up. The TV is loud.

So I go to the commercial coffee place because it is quiet and avoid God's Grounds in the Chapel because of the noise. I would think it odd, except Green beans is run by young Indian men with university education who value conversation. God's Grounds is run by Americans who value cartoons.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Argument Update and Marriage Conversations

Later, after the tax argument, Sergeant Arch Conservative came to me to ask if we we could set up one of the standard gym exercise bikes that reads watts generated to Army PT test standard which requires setting a special bike to 20 Newtons of resistance. It is not a straight conversion. He did not want to deal with that calculation. A few minutes later, we were outside and I asked Sergeant AC if he has this much trouble with math, how can he be absolutely sure (he has loudly told me this on another occasion) the earth is 10,000 years old, evolution never happened and every scientist from Darwin and Einstein to the present is wrong--while he and the Creation Museum are right.

His answer: "Paper birch trees are growing wild in Pennsylvania Sergeant Gussman. They are a northern tree. The earth is not getting warmer. Global warming is wrong. Those scientists don't know everything."

And now to marriage. I was sitting in God's Grounds--a free cafe in the chapel annex. I get coffee there in the mornings. I would stay there more than a minute or two, but being a Godly place in the Army, the Simpsons and other animated movies play 24/7.
So one of the chaplain's assistants, an older guy, is looking at a National Geographic. He says he is going to take his wife on an adventure tour of Peru when he gets back from deployment. "It costs $2000 per person, but it will be worth. The experience of a lifetime. I have always wanted to do it."
I said, "Wow. That sounds great. Are you making plans now? Is she excited?"
He answers, "No. She hates stuff like this. But I go shopping with her, so she can go. It's only two weeks."
He went on to explain how he and his wife are best friends.

A guy I ride with a couple of days a week borrows one of my bikes to ride with me. He got her just before I went on leave and decided last week to ask his wife to send a mountain bike he has at home here to Iraq. She refused. She said he should buy a bike there and not ship a bike to Iraq--he'll just have to ship it back. The two-way mailing cost will be $150 plus whatever the bike shop charges to pack the bike in a box. Chances are they will do it for free for a soldier in Iraq.

Anyway, he does not want to argue with his wife and he recently got a $1000 through an error in a travel voucher, so he is probably going to buy a new bike and have it shipped directly here rather than argue. "She'll never know," he said.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Arguing in the Motor Pool

Earlier I had an argument that would only happen here, at least in my life. I was walking out the latrine near our motor pool and an old sergeant in third platoon was walking in. I said hello and he launched into the latest government ripoff.
"Sergeant Gussman, your buddy Ed Rendell just raised my taxes 16% in Pennsylvania."
He stopped at the urinal and began to multitask. I was glad to be near the door.
"That means he's taking 16 dollars out of every hundred I make. What do you think of that?"
I exited fearing he would lose concentration and some problem would ensue.
When he came outside I said, "Take it easy Sergeant (Arch Conservative) a 16% tax increase on a 2.65% tax is an increase of about 40 CENTS per hundred dollars."
He sputtered, "CNN said 16% and that means $16 per hundred." Then he calmed down and blamed CNN for misleading him.
He is still upset at Ed Rendell and at CNN and I suppose at me for ruining his perfectly good attack on "those damned Liberals."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ran Out of Books Tonight

Tonight was week two of the Tallil Dead Poet's Society and I ran out of the free copies of Inferno (translated by Tony Esolen) and supplied by Nick Jost and by the father of one of the lieutenants in our unit. For this evening's session everyone read the first five cantos. For the most part the dozen people in the room believe in Hell as a literal place, but there were fewer who believed it is like Dante's Hell in the sense of all torment all the time. And no one believed in Limbo--the people who did neither good not evil. We are all too much Americans and have enough of the Protestant thought pattern that no one can conceive of a life apart from good and evil.

Many of the group did not like "Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here" on the arch of the entrance to Hell. They want an escape route.

Less than half the group have read any of Dante in the past, but I already have four people who expressed a strong wish that Virgil get reprieve. They hope that at some point his good deed as guide will get him a pass out of Hell. Among the group are skeptics, Bible students, a chaplain and some soldiers trying to deal with issues relating to the religion they were brought up with.

One woman asked when I mentioned evil who gets to decide what is evil. I answered "Dante. We are in his universe." This actually lead to a discussion of the poets art and creating universes. This evening was a lot of fun.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Chicken Shit

I was going to let this subject go, but today I was talking with another soldier about the latest rule and remembered that as Chicken Shit takes over, the divide between higher and lower ranks becomes more obvious.

The latest rule says No Tactical Vehicles are allowed to park next to Living Areas. The reason given is that there have been minor collisions between tactical and Non Tactical Vehicles (NTVs). Tactical vehicles are Humvees and the bigger trucks soldiers ride in to go to work, especially when several soldiers work the same hours in a remote area. NTVs are the air-conditioned SUVs and Crew-Cab pickup trucks used by first sergeants, sergeant majors and higher-ranking officers. So when I ride back to my living area, I pass through two rows of gray and white SUVs on the way to my room. So those who drive NTVs walk out of their rooms and drive to work. Those who live in an area without tactical vehicle parking walk to the bus stop.

Whether the intent of the rule is to inconvenience soldiers and benefit officers, the result is just that. Of course, this is nothing new. Again quoting my uncle Jack:

"I don't want to overplay this old soldier bit but the CS entry hit home. When I attended Squadron Officers' School (SOS) in 1966 it was a hotbed of daily CS. They valued themselves very highly. Something I've never forgotten was a loooonng wall of shelves in the Air University library filled end to end with looseleaf notebooks, to a height of 7 or 8 feet. The notebooks contained all the regs and policies of the Air Force from HQ at the Pentagon down through Major Command, numbered Air Force, Air Division. Below that Wing and base level stuff was not on file.
The Air Force at all levels tried to have a reg or policy for every possible situation. Of course they failed, but they never stopped trying so far as I know."

In French the expression that corresponds with CS is enculage de mouche . Literally it means the person in question is having a very unhealthy relationship with a housefly, but the common meaning is giving too much importance to small details. I suppose every country with a military has an equivalent expression to CS.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Loaves and the Fishes

At Chapel this morning the Gospel reading was Mark Chapter 6, the story of the loaves and the fishes. The chaplain said this was an example of good leadership on the part of the Lord, but not the disciples. The Lord looked on the multitude with compassion. The disciples said "How are we going to feed all of them?" The chaplain said the disciples were like a group of sergeants who look out at a crowd of soldiers who did not bring enough MREs and grumble about having to share their field rations with unprepared troops.

He converted the metaphor to military. "We are all leaders." Localizing this story reminded me of a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan I heard at an inner city Church. The African-American pastor retold the story with the victim from the neighborhood being pistol whipped and left for dead on the street in front of the Church. Those who passed by were a local pastor and a football player from the neighborhood with an NFL Contract. The Good Samaritan was a Man from the whitest, richest local suburb.

At the end of the story, the pastor, in a resounding voice, asked the children assembled at the front of the congregation, "Who is this man's neighbor?" The reply came from a smiling little girl who said, "The Football Player!" The congregation broke up with laughter. But the real point had been made. The pastor put most unlikely man in the role of the Samaritan.

The parables and stories, retold in this way, are delightful.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Writing About Soldiers

For the last week I have been splitting my time between resuming my duties as Sergeant Tool Bitch in Echo Company (issuing high value tools from a central tool area) and writing brief vignettes about some of the soldiers in the battalion. Since the higher headquarters (brigade) wants photos also, they gave me a motor-drive NIKON SLR camera with an 18 to 200mm telephoto lens to do take pictures. I don't know much about current camera, but one of my buddies who saw the camera said it costs $3500 new and is "Awesome."

In the course of these brief interviews I have learned a lot more about the soldiers in Echo Company and as I move to other companies, about their soldiers. One of the helicopter mechanics I spoke with got fishing gear shipped from the states. One his day off, he fishes on one of the two ponds on Water Street where the water storage and water treatment plants are located. So far he has caught a catfish more than three feet long. He threw it back but it is strange to think someone is fishing in this dust bowl.

Returning to the chicken shit theme from earlier this week, I took off my Livestrong bracelet yesterday. The directive I spoke about does not allow cancer survivor bracelets, only MIA and KIA bracelets. I have worn that yellow polymer bracelet since 2001. Actually the original one broke in 2003 but the current one, though thin, is still in one circular piece and in a drawer until we go to a less chicken shit command. Although I will be putting it back on in a week if Lance wins his eighth tour. Just for the day.

A first sergeant in one of the communications units who is on his sixth deployment including the Gulf War was talking about how the uniform is the way we show we are soldiers. By complying with the current uniform SOP we show that we are ready to do whatever is necessary when the time comes. He is also taking an on-line college course in writing and is one of the few senior NCOs I have met who really wants to learn to write. He is not taking the course just to meet a requirement for his next promotion.

Friday, July 17, 2009

All the Way Across Iowa and other Blogs

If you down my blog roll you will see blogs I follow for various reasons, but mostly for their odd perspective on some part of life that I care about. For the next couple of weeks, the blog posts I most anticipate enjoying will be on Adventure Across Iowa in which my friend Kristine Chin, a New York editor and event manager, will write about she and her husband Rick riding a tandem across Iowa in July with 15,000 other people.

Thunder Run
is another excellent site. It's the only military blog I have on my blog roll because it brings together many other good milblogs, so it is one-stop shopping for interesting perspectives on the wars we fight and the warriors who fight them.

On a completely different note, if you have ever doubted, suffered, or torn your whole life up by the roots and started over, you will probably enjoy Meredith Gould, a Jewish sociologist who took a tortuous path to becoming a Catholic author. Her most recent post, the link above, may be one of the best things she has written about the paradox of living faith.

For weirdness by people who publish in scientific journals, the Annals of Improbable Research blog will introduce you the people who study the medical side-effects of sword-swallowing, who electronically modified the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is, who demonstrated that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine, and who discovered that professional lap dancers earn higher tips when they are ovulating.

More later. . .

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Calling Home During Viet Nam

My Uncle Jack who served in Viet Nam and other parts of South East Asia for several years between 1965 and 1974, had this response to my post on stress:

I was intrigued by your blog about stress. This is completely opposite my experience during remote interludes in the years 1965 to 1974. As late as 1974 calling home from Thailand was impossible. When if you got to the Philippines you had an opportunity. Even then it was a hassle: Go to a special location, file a request with a clerk to call a certain stateside number, then wait. When the call went through you'd be summoned and directed to a booth to which the call would be connected. Then for, as I recall, a dollar a minute you could talk for a limited time, say ten minutes. Pretty much things were even worse in Greenland and other garden spots SAC (Strategi Air Command) populated. There was no internet/email.

In those circumstances it was impossible to be involved in the daily life of your family at home. They had to solve their own problems--or, more likely, create them. As a junior officer of modest means writing a check from the joint account you shared with your wife took two weeks or more of coordination via snail mail. This was in an era when bouncing a check was a serious offense. Of course, trusting your spouse to actually balance the checkbook and keep you from doing that was a stressful gamble. On-line checking didn't exist.

I never considered the circumstances families now face: more or less instant communication and the blessing or burden of participating from a distance. I imagine there is lots of real-time involvement, "Where did you put the vacuum cleaner bags? I can't find them anywhere!" "Do you know what your son did now?!"

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Safe at Tallil

If the current crop of email memos is any indicator, we are stationed at a very safe part of Iraq. The new garrison command is making changes, that's what new garrison commands do. In one recent memo we got uniform standards including sock length with the PT uniform, when we are allowed to wear a specific uniform shirt in the chow hall and when we can't and whether or not we can wear MIA, Cancer Survivor, Livestrong and other rubber bracelets. There are new security standards for weapons taken into the gym and so forth. Minutiae written out at great length in the military is usually referred to as Chicken Shit (yet another use of that word). says:
1. Contemptibly petty or insignificant. For example, He has spent his life making up chicken shit rules that nobody follows anyway. This expression gained currency during World War II, when it was often applied to the enforcement of petty and disagreeable military regulations. [Vulgar slang; c. 1930]
2. Cowardly, as in You're not too chicken shit to come along, are you? [Vulgar slang; mid-1940s]
In this case we are only using Definition One.
The good side of this for your father, mother, brother, sister, spouse or other loved one stationed here is that their is an inverse relationship between CS and danger. After all, if there were immanent threats, the garrison is there to protect us. For most soldiers the increase in CS is a strong indicator that the enemy is remote.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nigel Update

Nigel's room is getting a Spiderman makeover.

He also got a wardrobe addition with a new Sponge Bob Square Pants bicycling jersey.

And finally Nigel got an Army haircut.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Half of 2009 by the Numbers

Today I passed 3000 miles riding--more than I thought I would have ridden by now. So I figured I could do a short numbers update. In addition to riding 3000 miles in just over 6 months, I have lived (in the sense of having some type of domicile for a week or more) in three countries:
United States
Two states: Pennsylvania and Oklahoma
Four Army Forts/Bases:
Fort Sill
Camp Buehring
Tallil Ali Air Base
Ali Al Salim Air Base
This blog has more readers than ever. When I started it, I wanted to give my friends a way to keep up with what I was doing without me sending emails they might not want. IF they wanted to read the blog they could. Last June I put Site Meter on the the blog. That month I got 370 visits and 503 page views. June of this year there were 4378 visits and 5681 page views. People from all six continents look at the blog. I guess an old guy in the American Army is weird enough to make a New Zealander laugh. In any case, The blog has had just over 26,000 visits since last June, making my blog almost as popular in a year as Hannah Montana is for 112 seconds!

I have had two glasses of wine and four beers since January 29 when I got activated. So the "no alcohol" policy is not much of a hardship. There are other activities I am only able to participate in during leave and pass that I will not count and also miss a lot more than more than Guiness Stout or Pinot Noir.

I have watched two movies since I was deployed. Both at the insistence of my roommate who worried that I would be completely culturally illiterate without having seen: "Full Metal Jacket" and "300."

Oh and I did watch the first 16 episodes of "24" while we were in Oklahoma. Since I am still here, I assume Jack Bauer saved the world.

That's all the numbers for now.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Music at the Laundry

Three or four days each week I drop off or pick up clothes at a laundry run by three young men from India. It's a great serve. Drop off up to 20 pieces and 1 to 3 days later it returns clean and folded. The three men are polite and soft spoken. They almost always have music on while they work. Mostly it is Indian music, usually upbeat and not too loud. Today while I was sorting and counting my clothes with the guy at the counter, I noticed the music was different. The beat was calypso. Then I heard the words. Or at least I heard the word motherf#^ker repeated several times. I turned toward the music and the two guys who were sorting a large pile of laundry. One smiled and said, "You like sir?" I smiled back and started laughing. The guy at the counter speaks English well and said something that got the other two laughing--and they turned the song down.
I went back to my CHU and told my roommate about the song. He knew right away that the song was "P.I.M.P" by 50 Cent. You can google it if you want the lyrics or the video. He had some laundry to drop off so he walked up to the laundry to hear it himself. He said when he went in the door "they were playing some other [song]." But as soon as he was inside they switched to P.I.M.P.

Stress in a War Zone

A few days ago I went to a meeting at the base chapel about stress. In particular "Does your family back home raise or lower your stress level?" Since this was a group discussion about stress, I could assume people who were stressed out would attend. I was not quite prepared for how much soldiers are stressed out by their families back home. For much of the hour, I listened to folks who dread the calls home because their parents/significant others are worried sick about them and can't be easily persuaded to talk about anything else. (My family does what they can to keep me informed about their lives and tell me some of the funny things that happen in their lives.)

The conversation that got the most nods of recognition was telling Mom that the attack in Baghdad they saw on TV was 300 miles away and had nothing to do with our base. And once they get Mom calmed down, things will be fine until the next time Mom watches the news then they have to go through the same litany again. The significant other/spouse problems are money/kids/in-laws in roughly that order. You know from earlier posts that soldiers get stressed out about different things than civilians--see Bitching at Breakfast.

But it is sad to think with all the free and nearly free ways we can keep in touch with home from Iraq, a lot of soldiers don't call because it is too painful to talk to their families. Almost everyone present said talking to friends back home was great.

In a sadder post script, I told one of my old sergeant buddies about the meeting. He is a conservative and said something about the problem is that none of the young people make long term commitments and suffer though hard times and etc. etc. But a half hour earlier he told me when I come to visit the new outpost where he is being assigned, don't write anything on my blog about how they get hit with mortars more than our current base. This is also a guy who has mentioned off and on since we first got activated about how worried his wife is about the deployment. He seems to spend a lot of time on the phone reassuring her.

I have had other people tell me not to write anything about attacks or anything else that is dangerous on my blog because their spouse/mom/sister reads it and gets worried.

Also at the meeting, no one mentioned being stressed out by work. One of the odd things our schedule does is give workaholics a chance to live life the way they want to without guilt. Many people work seven days a week even when they get a day off and work well past whatever time their shift officially ends. When I had a corporate job, some of my co-workers made a show of saying they didn't like the long hours and travel, but privately they said they really did. They like accomplishing things. Here, the workaholic can put all the rest of life on hold and work day and night!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

NOT in Utica

Sorry if I was unclear. The Boilermaker is being run BOTH in Utica and on Tallil Ali Air Base. I just finished being the pace bike here in Tallil. The winning runner finished in just over 56 minutes for 15k (9.3 miles). After doing the pace lap, I rode around the course again because there were road guards and I could go through all the stop signs. Almost 400 soldiers and airmen ran. It was a big event. This is the same course I will use for the Labor Day weekend bike race when I get final approval--hopefully soon!

Speaking of contests, my John Wayne Clerihew poem is officially 2nd place to Bette Davis. Here's the poem:
John Wayne
Got shot in movies and barely felt pain
In Iraq I am miserable just from being hot
Those movie soldiers are a tougher lot.

Thanks to all who voted. Especially to those of you, like Kristine, who voted for my Clerihew even when she actually liked the Bette Davis one better. I got up at 0345 for the race. I am going to breakfast!!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Priority List

I am getting closer and closer to corporate America except I have no wardrobe and, well, the other things I don't have when my home life is sharing a room in a trailer with a mechanic. As of my return to the land of heat and brown air, I have a computer that is attached to the battalion server. It runs Outlook. I had several meetings today at different locations and duly filled in the calendar items so the soldiers in my chain of command can know where I am or will be. I will be filling in all my current projects in the Outlook Tasks section.

But then there's the fun part of having more to write about. In the next few weeks I will be flying to our biggest and our newest fueling areas. The new one is fairly close by so I will be able to fly there and back in a Blackhawk. The other one is very far away which means flying in an Air Force plane or a CH-47 Chinook. The weather has been so bad I am not looking forward to the longer trip. It's just a few hundred miles, but my roommate got stuck part way back from there for nearly two weeks!

And on a completely different note, voting has been extended to midnight Eastern time tonight (0700 Saturday here) in the Clerihew contest. I am still in second place. No matter how many people Daria, Sarah and my daughter Lisa get to vote for me, the Bette Davis fans seem to get just as many. But I am only five votes back and still have a chance.

Tomorrow I will be pace bike for the 15k Boilermaker race held here and in Utica NY. Almost 400 people are running.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Bike Guy

When I first got to Tallil Ali Air Base, I met a sergeant in public affairs who rides daily and told me that if I ever had a problem with a bike, I should call/email Larry--a civilian computer technician who is retired military and really likes working on bikes.

It turns out Larry is also a very personable guy who is happy to help soldiers. Like most civilians here he works 12 to 14 hour shifts with a day or two off each month, so his time is limited. But when he can he works on bikes. While I was home on leave, Larry trued my out-of-round front wheel on the single-speed road bike and cleaned it up. Then when the mountain bike arrived, the rear disc brake rotor had been bent in transit. He could not straighten it completely with the tools he has, but it is nearly perfect now in a less-than-perfect environment.

Military communities like this one are very much communities in ways that most American communities are not. We need each other. And those of us who ride bikes are a small community within a community. One of our soldiers had a bike with its gears clogged with sand. I gave the bike to Larry. He will take all the parts from it to use to fix other bikes.

On another bike subject, today the air was calm and the sky was clear at 130pm when I rode to chow. The temp was 129. A half-hour later, the wind was a steady 20mph out of the west, the sky was full of dust, bluish brown with the sun's light going to orange. The temp got cooler. It was only 126 on the way back from lunch!!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bike with a Thermometer

When Bill and Jeremiah at Bike Line put my new bike together, they insisted I get a cycling computer with a thermometer built in. Today I rode a lot all through the day so it's a good opportunity to track the temperature as I ride.
Total miles: 42
Highest temp: 126
Lowest temp: 88

0545--I ride from my CHU (Containerized Housing Unit or trailer if you prefer) to the House of Pain Gym. I am Pace Bike for the weekly 5k race. Temp is 88 (all readings in Fahrenheit). I am wearing Army PT shorts and t-shirt.
0600--Race begins. 90 degrees.
0620--Race ends. 92
0630--I ride the 10.7-mile loop around post. Begin temp 92. End temp at the DFAC (Chow Hall) 99 at 0710.
0745--105 degrees. I ride to my CHU, shower and change and go to the company headquarters.
0900--ride to company headquarters. 108 degrees wen I leave, 109 when I arrive, 1.5 mile trip. Uniform is ACU (fatigues) with rifle and pack.
0930--ride to south side of base for 1000 meeting. temp is 110 when I leave. Uniform is ACU (fatigues) with rifle and pack. Same uniform for the rest of the day.
1000--lock the bike before the meeting. Temp is 113.
1245pm--finished meeting and follow-up appointment for my heel. (Keep stretching sergeant!) 122 degrees. Ride 1.5 miles to DFAC temp is 124 when I arrive.
130pm--ride to main area from DFAC. Start temp 122. High temp on 3-mile ride 126.
2pm--ride to motor pool. 122 degrees. By the end of the 1/2-mile trip, 124 degrees. Uniform is still ACU (fatigues) with rifle and pack.
530pm--ride from motor pool to coffee shop. 1 mile. 109 degrees.
615pm--ride around post. Back to PTs (shorts and t-shirt. ahhhhh!) 108 degrees
710pm--get weapon, ride to supper. 104 degrees. (sunset in 10 minutes)
815pm--back to the CHU 99 degrees.

Each time I ride in midday the temp goes up as I ride. It seems that the bike suffers the same fate as my hands--above 115 degrees the breeze makes my hands feel warmer because it is hot air blowing on me. When I ride in the morning and evening, I average about 16mph on the mountain bike and 18mph on the road bike. At midday, I ride between 9 and 11 mph unless the winds are high like today, then I ride 7mph into the wind and 15mph with the wind at my back. No hard efforts when the temp is above 110.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

News Updates

Tomorrow I go to the second meeting for my newest additional duty job. My new job is to be the public affairs sergeant for the battalion I am in--that's the group of 600 soldiers. I am already doing the same thing for my company--100 soldiers. I do not know what level of work it will mean beyond what I am doing already.

Sometime this month I will be going to some of the remote sites where our fuelers work. Best case is I will be flying in a Blackhawk. It should be fun however it works out and I will get to see the folks who I haven't seen for nearly two months.

My roommate returns soon. Nice guy, but it has been fun to have a room to myself. I have three seasons of The Wire on DVD which he wanted to watch. I have seasons 1, 3 and 4. I might ask Santa Claus for seasons 2 and 5. It's an HBO original if you have never seen it.

My daughters are back from summer vacation. In Switzerland Lisa ran up a six-mile mountain road in Grindelwald. She wrote: "A lot of people were string at me and someone actually said something along the lines of 'you must be a tourist cause locals aren't dumb enough to run up the mountain...we take the bus'." The local folks are just the same in the Alps or Arkansas. From the first part of the trip: "We saw 3 'don't have to ask and very easy to tell cross dressed men in Paris.' So, they won't be flying over and joining the American Army any time soon. They were actually quite impressive, like platform shoes, short tu-tus with fishnets, blonde wigs and all. One actually had a floral dress and hot pink leather jacket on...."

If you read my very first posts from when I came back to the Army, I was in charge of the $250,000 tool box called the Forward Recovery System (FRS). It's my baby again. On Saturday, I will sign for all 42 pages of inventory of more than 1,000 tools. So keeping the FRS in working order will be my actual day job. That means I am Sergeant Tool Bitch again.

The new GT single-speed mountain bike is much better on the roads and rocks here, but it is tiring to push those 29-inch wide wheels.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Vote Early and Often

While I was waiting for a plane to take be back to Iraq I wrote a four-line verse for a contest by Robin Abrahams, the Boston Globe's Miss Conduct. Voting is now open. If you want to see what kind of verse I write in a tent in Kuwait, and better yet if you want to make me a the only poetry contest winner in my unit here in Iraq, please follow the link and vote.

By the end of the 2nd week in America I was beginning to think my bone spur problem was improving. All day today I worked in the motor pool walking on rocks. The improvement was because I was away from the rocks. I am back to limping now. So I will return to sick call and continue whatever procedure I have to go through to get the bone spur removed.

We are already planning the next issue of the Echo Company Newsletter. I can't post PDFs on the blog because of restrictions on, but if you want a copy, let me know and I will email it to you.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back to Tallil

At 0730 this morning we were told to return at 0820 with our bags. We would be flying by 1130! I packed up and told the guy on the top bunk I had packed up before and would be reclaiming my bottom bunk if the flight was cancelled. He promised to be ready to move and I was off to the next formation. We waited in a tent for a couple of hours and then we loaded our gear, loaded on the bus and we were off to load up on a jet for a very short flight.

On the bus I sat with a 23-year-old regular Army soldier returning to duty after R&R leave like me. Unlike me, he is on his second deployment and is planning on being deployed to Afghanistan. His current job is body guard for a colonel. Last deployment he was on convoy duty. Five times he had a vehicle blown out from under him by an IED. He has been temporarily blinded by concussion and has shrapnel lodged in a couple of places, but, at least by his own standards, he is OK. After his next deployment, probably ground combat if he gets the assignment he is looking for, he plans to get out of the Army and go to college to work on computer networks.

"I figure three deployments will be enough," he said. He will finish his third tour at the ripe old age of 25.

Back at Tallil, my new bike was waiting in the post office. I signed for it, put it together but because of a sandstorm, I decided not to ride around the base and cleaned up my dust-filled room instead. My roommate is still away at another base, so the CHU was unoccupied for a month and got very dusty. More tomorrow.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Day After Day

One of the truly delightful things about the Army is that I am not important as an individual. I am on my 4th day stuck in Kuwait. What overcommitted American worker could get paid for sitting and doing nothing for four days. And it looks like I will be here at least till Monday. I get paid the same for working or for doing nothing if my orders tell me to do nothing. And they do.

So I am sitting in a coffee shop writing about doing nothing and trying to decide what to do next. Should I read in my tent and then go to dinner? Should I go to dinner? Should I shoot a game of pool at the recreation tent before or after dinner? Decisions, decisions. I am going to bed early because I am going to get up at 3am and work out at the cardio gym. It's open 24 hours and beginning at 3am will have a live broadcast of the Daytona NASCAR race. My iPod is in Tallil so if I work out at any other time I will have to watch baseball, golf, or tennis. So I can watch the Daytona night race then clean up for Church, then come back at 11am and watch the Tour de France while I cross train on the elliptical.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pack Up, Report for Flight, Go Back

This morning at 0730 my fellow travelers and I were told to report back at 0945 with our gear--there would be a flight later today. We packed up, dragged our gear to the meeting point, had a roll call, then were told to return to the tents. Next formation would be roll call at 1930 (730pm). No more flight information. Maybe there will be a flight one the 4th of July.

It is strange to be 100 miles from the end of a 6000 mile trip and no closer than I was three days ago, but there is nothing to do but wait for the flight. Maybe there will be a flight tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, this is a great way to get over jet lag. Fly across seven time zones then eat, sleep, and read for three days.

Last Race Update

Passing on the first descent

Climbing uphill at the back of a disappearing pack

Thanks to Jan Felice for pointing out these photos on, photos are by Anthony Skorochod. The race was fun while it lasted for me (two of four 8-mile laps, with the pack only on the first lap). After the race I rode for a while with Jan, Jim Pomeroy and Linford Weaver.

Where is Neil?

No flights out of Kuwait for me yesterday. So I spent another night here, which is actually better in some ways than going straight home. I slept a lot yesterday but was tired enough that I could go to bed by ten and get up at five this morning. I overate for breakfast and then read email and waited for the 0730 roll call when we will find out if there are any flights today.

There were no flights. So we won't hear anything until the 730pm roll call, but the sky is somewhat clear this morning so maybe the sandstorm has calmed down enough that we will fly out tonight. I called my unit this morning to let them know how the trip is progressing. I'll go to the gym soon and ride the exercise bike while I wait for news on night flights. More soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Good Advice

Sarah Reisert, my replacement at work for this year, suggested I could volunteer for something in Shannon and fly business class for the rest of the trip. I did not exactly do that, but I went to the WH Smith bookstore and bought a copy of Le Monde to see what the French were saying about the return of Lance Armstrong. By the way, in French Lance is one form of the verb Lancer with 34 dictionary meanings including throw, hit, launch, and race. I am sure French sportswriters have been making puns on Armstrong's name for the last decade.

Anyway, one of the senior sergeants on the flight bought a bicycling magazine from the UK. We started talking about the tour. When the flight reboarded, the bicycle-riding sergeant first class had an open seat next to him in business class, so I got to ride in the front of the plane from Shannon to Kuwait. And as Sarah said, the exit row in a DC-10 had lots of leg room. So I am now three-for-three in the front of the plane to and from Iraq with just one more flight to go. And that flight--the flight home next Janaury--I won't care where I am on the flight!!!

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