Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bike Update

As of yesterday, September 30, I passed the 3000-mile mark here in Iraq. I also cut 2 minutes from my 5k run time the previous week. It is much easier to improve when one is slow. Last week I ran it in 30 minutes and 20 seconds. This week I was down to 28:22. The civilian who runs the race gave me a medal for finishing 3rd in 50-plus (out of three guys who signed up). It was really a close race between the first two guys--they finished in 23:14 and 23:20. I was most of a half mile back in third.

The bike mileage means I have also made more than 200 laps of Tallil Ali's Perimeter Road. Katharine Sanderson, a friend from the UK, wrote recently. I replied to her something about the war. She said, "Somehow I forget that you're fighting a war at all. Weird. It must be your witty blog posts about books and PR!"

Along the same lines, my wife said, "I'm enjoying the other-personal glimpses on your blog.  Since I've been wrestling so intently with my students over verbs, I think your "fights" (as in "Who fights this war?") catches my eye . . . especially because there's not really any traditional fighting going on in your stories.  I know that "Who prosecutes this war?" doesn't have the same cachet, so I'm not suggesting you change this at all."

But they are right. Who would know from most of my blog posts or my current bike mileage that I am serving in a war?

I have more "Who Fights This War?" stories and will post another one tomorrow. Whether fight is the right word or not, we are here, there is a war and so I'll keep the word fight.

Envy is Relative

I have a new office. A really nice office. An occasion for envy for everyone in the unit I left and for many people who come to visit the other people that work in my office. The people in my office are the battalion commander, the executive officer, and their assistant--and me. I have an office with a real wooden desk, a book case, a table, a comfortable chair and a door.

I was working in a dusty corner of the motor pool on a folding table. This is a big step up in the world. But then, as my wife pointed out when I told her about my new digs, nobody I work with back home would be jealous. My new office is in a trailer. It is an Italian-made, double-wide, really nice trailer, but it is still a trailer and I still have to walk 75 meters to use the latrine trailer.

But it does have a coffee maker.

And the boss is a member of the Pennsylvania legislature so he gets an incredible amount of free stuff from home. So the office has great snacks.

I should get to stay in this office for three of the four months until we are finally back home. Late January to early February is becoming a more and more concrete time for us to get home.

I can't wait.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Who Fights This War? -- Flight Medic

This story went on line this morning on our division Web site. The soldier I profiled said I should use her name since the story is on line anyway.

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq – “I am never nervous on the flight out,” said Staff Sgt. Cynthia Dalton, describing her experience as a flight medic in Iraq. “I go over every possible scenario in my mind. But when we touch down, I just go.”

Dalton, who is assigned as a flight medic to the 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Brigade, part of Task Force Keystone, said her first rescue mission in Iraq was the hardest. It was a vehicle rollover in bad weather. One Soldier was dead at the scene, two more were badly injured. She and the other medics at the scene treated the Soldiers as much as they could and then loaded them on their Black Hawk helicopters for transport to the nearest emergency medical facility.

“Both Soldiers made it,” she said. “But after a mission like that I am really hard on myself. I can see why people burn out. I go over everything I could possibly have done differently. We did our jobs, but it always seems like there is something I could have done different or better.”

Dalton, a daughter of military parents who hails from Orwigsburg, Pa., said she knew from an early age she wanted to help Soldiers, but tried various jobs before finding a career path that was right for her.

“I joined the Army at 17 when I was a junior in high school,” she said. “I went to basic training between my junior and senior years and started training to be a medic right after high school.”

While serving in the Army Reserve, she got additional medical training as a civilian and worked for a nursing agency.

She was serving as a reservist in Germany on September 11, 2001. She was activated in Germany in a medical support unit and helped Soldiers prepare for deployment to the Middle East.

“I did literally hundreds of immunizations every day,” Dalton said.

When she returned to the states, she switched to the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to take advantage of the education benefits.

After getting Soldiers ready for deployment at the very beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, Dalton spent the three years prior to her current deployment helping Soldiers return to civilian life after deployment.

“I love helping Soldiers,” she said. “Soldiers come back from deployment needing many kinds of help to reintegrate into civilian life. The Guard has the help available. I make sure they can get access to the right resources.”

In preparation for deployment to Iraq, Dalton trained as a flight medic. She has worked with two medical evacuation companies during the deployment, including an Oregon-based unit during training in Oklahoma and Kuwait. She is currently serving with an Alaska-based active Army MEDEVAC unit. Dalton works a 48-hour cycle, sleeping and eating at the hangar waiting for MEDEVAC calls.

When she returns to the United States, she plans to take a full-time job as the medical sergeant for the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 55th Brigade in Scranton. “That will be the end of flying for a while,” she said. “I am sure I will miss it.”

Monday, September 28, 2009

Who Fights This War? -- MEDEVAC Pilot

This story went on line yesterday on Armed Forces News service so if you want to see the pilot's picture, just Google my name under the "News" tab and this story will come up with photos.

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq – Maj. Matt Stevenson sits alone in the ready room next to the medical evacuation hangar at 11 p.m. He is hunched over his personal computer, editing a document for a meeting the next day.

“I’ve got to get some sleep in case we get a 2 a.m. call,” he says, mostly to the air. The rest of his crew is asleep or resting, waiting for the call.

Stevenson is a senior staff officer with 2nd Battalion 104th Aviation Brigade, but two to four days every week he is a MEDEVAC pilot on a 48-hour rotation with Alaska-based Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment. His shift will be over at 9 a.m. the following morning, but he had a long flight in the afternoon and a long day of meetings on either side of the flight.

“I have to stay balanced, I have to stay rested, but I have to complete the mission,” he said.

It’s a challenge he faces both in civilian life and on deployment. Senior Trooper Stevenson has served with the Pennsylvania State Police since 1995, most recently flying Aviation Patrol Unit One in the southeastern area of the Commonwealth. Adding MEDEVAC pilot to his staff duties makes life hectic, but Stevenson lives to fly.

He arranges his life to complete the staff tasks to the best of his ability, making the time necessary to fly MEDEVAC Black Hawks every week. He is serious and professional when discussing staff duties, but is all smiles and broad hand and arm gestures describing a favorite MEDEVAC mission. Even while crawling on top of the Black Hawk underneath the rotors for pre-flight checks before starting the engines, he is clearly enjoying himself whether under, on top or at the controls of a Black Hawk helicopter.

Stevenson said flying MEDEVAC in Iraq has many similarities with flying for his civilian job.

“Flying for the state police is always on an emergency basis,” he said. “The mission can be a lost child, lost hikers or hunters, or a bad guy pursuit. We get the call. We go.”
MEDEVAC is the same. On the first 24 hours of his 48-hour shift, Stevenson and his crew are “second up,” the backup team that goes if a call comes in and “first up” is already on a mission. During the first day, the crew must be ready to take off within a half-hour and can travel a short distance from the ready hangar. On the second day the crew moves to “first up.” The Army standard says they must be prepared to fly within 15 minutes of receiving a MEDEVAC call. In Charlie Company, the standard is eight minutes.

Whether at Ali Air Base or in Pennsylvania’s Twin Valley, the emergency response mission gives Stevenson a sense of accomplishment.

“We make a difference here,” he said. “When a Soldier is down, we do everything we can to get them care and get them home. At home when we find the lost child or get the bad guy, it’s a great feeling.”

“One big difference here is we have to be more vigilant when landing at a point of injury,” Stevenson said. Scanning for mines, Improvised Explosive Devices and the enemy are part of every mission in Iraq.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bicycles in Thailand at the End of the Viet Nam War

From my uncle who served in Viet Nam several times and other parts of South East Asia for almost a decade:

This is another Thailand story but a very ordinary one. At Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1974 bird colonels had staff cars, the rest of us whatever we could find. The Thais, seeing an opportunity, opened for business on the base selling (very) used Honda mopeds, provided repair services and sold gasoline by the pint, actually probably a half liter. A moped will run for a long time on a half liter of gas. Guys would buy a moped, ride it daily everywhere and sell it back when they rotated away.

The counter culture was bicycles. The BX did a bustling business in Japanese bikes. Most guys, me for instance, bought a bike, dutifully had the Air Police mark various parts of it stamped with an ID number--bike rustling was a big issue-- and rode it everywhere as if it was a car. After a while guys referred to their bike as their "horse." Korat was as as flat a table, being in the central highlands of interior Thailand, so a bike was ideal. The difference from mopeds was that most guys took their bike home when they rotated away, fully intending to ride it. I did. When it arrived I discovered that the seat stem had been replaced with one that was too large and driven in with a hammer. I had to use a wheel puller to extract it. Didn't matter. I never rode that bike once I got home. Eventually, I gave it to some charity when I was cleaning out the garage.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lapsed Evangelicals

In other posts, I have written about the choirs and the services at Church and how different it is from civilian life. Of course, one of the big differences in the Chapel versus home is the number of women. More women than men attend Church for the very good reason that women are more likely to be poor and disadvantaged than men, and the Church ministers to those with needs--material and spiritual. And for the same reason, the Church has more old people than young people.

So Chapel services are about 90 percent male regardless of denomination, which more or less reflects the population. But considering that 80 percent of the military is under 25, the soldiers attending Church are, by Army standards, somewhere between old and ancient.

So where are the kids? Avoiding Chapel just like their college-bound counterparts avoid Church. In fact, I've talked to young men who were active in youth group, went to Church every week and chucked all of it right after basic training. You want to go to Church during basic because those who don't clean the barracks.

I asked one young man I have known for a while about why he never goes to Chapel after being in Church every week. He said that everybody went to youth group because they hung out there, but they were all getting drunk on Friday and Saturday. He said that a lot of things they were taught turned out not to be true. And he was sick of feeling phony.

It was hardly the first time I had heard that. The Lapsed Evangelicals are actually fairly easy to spot. They are among the leaders in getting in trouble, but they are genuinely polite when I get one of them for a work detail. The bad kids whine and complain by reflex. The LEs break the rules, but generally accept the punishment and are good soldiers.

They still have the culture game to play when they go home. More than one of the LEs avoided that problem by going to Europe, Hawaii, or some other place rather than home for leave. A lot of studies say they will come back to the Church when they have kids. I'm not sure. The guy I talked to today and other LEs are rejecting what they see as a fraudulent subculture for what they see as real life.

And an aggravation of that perception is some of the people they see in the Army who attend Church. There is choir member known for having fits in the workplace, a guy who got relieved for incompetence as a squad leader and believes (and talks about) many conspiracy theories, arch conservatives who talk about Liberal conspiracies, and a whole collection of strange people. There are, of course, some of the best people in the unit--soldiers who work uncomplaining in the worst conditions this deployment has.

One of the things I most looked forward to on this deployment was meeting more of the kind of believers I served with in Germany. But my last overseas assignment was before the Evangelical Church was swallowed by the politics of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right. The Army reflects the nation it recruits from and even the LEs vote straight Republican. They may be doubting God and rebelling against their family, the Church and (particularly) their youth group, but the don't go so far as to become "Librals." The LEs that go to college do that.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Riding in the Dark

I've got another riding buddy who gets stuck in meetings till a few minutes before dark but really wants to ride so I go with him. He has got a five watt (dim) headlamp. I have a blinking LED headlamp that is bright enough for on-coming cars to see us, but even though I am getting close to 200 laps of this place, I miss a gouge or a hole once in a while.

It is a lower intensity workout because we can't sprint in the dark--not actual dark, we've got a quarter moon and lots of security and airfield lights.

Although the rifle halves in the pack seemed like a good idea, my back hurt from riding strictly on the seat. I will have to solve the rifle barrel whacking my helmet problem before I can carry the rifle in backpack.

For those who read the Nick and Nora Nordstrom story, Lenore Skenazy, formerly of the New York Post, now of is interested in their story so they may become minor celebrities.

I did stories about medics that should be able to go up soon as "Who fights this war?" stories. From the email and comments I get, those are the mst popular entries on the blog.

I did have one guy say I should write less about bicycling. Sorry, this is my blog, my life, and that life includes bicycling!!! BTW--2,850 miles on Tallil Ali Air Base so far! I should be at 3,000 by October!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Biking to Work on the South Side

Roadside Sign on my Route to Work

Part of my new job is an office on the south side of the base. It is a 4 or 6 mile ride depending on wind direction. When I worked in the motor pool it was a one-mile ride, so I did not have to think too much about carrying a weapon, but now having the M-16 digging into my back every day I was trying to think of some better way to carry it. One of the aircraft mechanics said, "Break it in half and put it in your pack." He was right. I have to switch packs though. With the smaller pack I used today the barrel of my rifle stuck out just far enough that it hit the back of my helmet when I stood up to pedal. With the larger pack, the whole weapon will be inside.

An M-16 breaks in two pieces in about 10 seconds with just two pins so it is an easy solution to the problem of how to take my gun to work every day. When I ride around post for exercise in PT uniform I am exercising so I don't have to carry the weapon. MUCH easier that way.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who Fights This War?

One of my regular riding buddies is a senior colonel in the armored brigade headquartered here. He has only been riding a couple of years, but is an avid and competitive runner and likes riding a lot. He is 46, planning to retire after this tour, and looking forward to riding in Colorado where he and his wife plan to live.

During the Gulf War in 1991, he was a platoon leader in charge of five M-1 tanks during the invasion of Iraq. By the time he went through the armor officer training in the late 80s, the M1 had completely replaced the M60A1 that I served in back the 70s. But we are both old armor guys (No tanks here at Tallil) and sometimes talk about tanks.

He is very animated when he talks about crossing the desert in an M1 and some of the battles he fought before that brief war ended. He has a look that is so happy that it shows through a helmet and sunglasses even when we are riding 18mph side by side when he talks about the Gulf War. "Our tanks were in charge of the battlefield," he said. "We could engage targets effectively at 3000 meters--they couldn't hit us at half that distance."

The other night he told me about on particular engagement when a company of Iraqi infantry were surrendering, moving toward his vehicles from a position a few hundred meters away. Suddenly the group of surrendering soldiers got fired on by other Iraqis concealed behind them. Iraqi tanks appeared at 2000 meters out. He and the other tank in his section fired on the infantry in ambush with machine guns, the other three tanks fired on the approaching Iraqi tanks. "We got the two Iraqi tanks with first-round hits," he said. "One was 1980 meters, one was 2340 meters. I saw the hit on the near tank. The turret flipped 10 feet in the air and landed beside the hull."

We then started talking about firing tank rounds and how cool it was that was firing fin-stabilized solid shot ammo with a 5700-foot-per-second muzzle velocity. He is currently involved in reconstruction and all of the very unwarlike things that soldiers do in this war, but when the talk turns to tanks, he is a happy guy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


This morning my wife wrote:
Eid Mubarak to you (or, happy Eid)!  How strange it is that you are in Iraq and don't even mention that most holy of holy days in your blog!  Is that because your base is so American that the holiday makes no difference, or is it because you're trying to focus on one small part of your life at a time?

In Bonchek [residential hall at Franklin and Marshall College], we had a standing-room-only crowd for the Eid dinner we hosted.  That's partly because we don't have many chairs -- but we really did have 70 people lined up for food, and everyone had a lovely time in spite of the wait.  Many of the international students talked about how they hadn't had a chance to get together yet this semester, so this was a grand reunion for them; but many Americans intermingled and got to eat yummy food as well.

I knew it was the end of Ramadan because two Jewish friends of mine mentioned that Rosh Hashonah was starting this weekend--Islam and Judaism use a lunar calendar for holy days.

I suppose most everyone in this ambiguous war thinks it would be a relief to fight as their grandfathers did in World War Two. They fought German or Japanese soldiers. The enemy wore uniforms and was always the enemy. Here we don't have an identifiable enemy. Once in a while a real enemy will fire a rocket or mortar at our base, but to very little effect and at very great danger to themselves--so it doesn't happen often.

September 11 and September 19 were both supposed to be days that we could be attacked. We weren't. Who knows why or why not. But in the meantime we do live in a very American place, with a 22-mile perimeter of fence patrolled by Americans with big guns. So my wife and her colleagues in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were a lot closer in fellowship and spirit to Ramadan than those of us who live a kilometer from the Ziggurat of Ur.

We are in a hostile place with an enemy we neither see nor can identify. I might go to the Ramadan party on campus next year. This year I am glad it passed without anyone getting hurt.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My New Job--Then and Now

Abel is the dancer in the middle. 1-70 Armor Motor Pool, Weisbaden, West Germany, 1977.

As I mentioned Saturday, I have a new job. Not, of course, in the sense of I am moving to a different base or even eating in a different chow hall or, God Forbid, wearing different clothes. But I will be doing public relations work full time for our battalion. For those not keeping score on my work life, until Saturday my duties were the following list:
--Squad Leader
--Maintenance Team Leader
--Echo Company Public Affairs
--Battalion Public Affairs
--Morale, Welfare, Recreation NCO
--Drug Test NCO

My new duties:
--Battalion Public Affairs
--Echo Company Public Affairs
nothing else!

My best friends from the 70s, Abel Lopez and Cliff Almes will think this is very funny, back to the future, circle of life, reincarnation or whatever metaphor you use for history repeating itself.

On December 23, 1977, one year and three months into our three-year deployment to Germany, our new brigade Command Sergeant Major had an NCO meeting at 1030 hours. Hundreds of us filled the base theater. Our CSM, by the way was 48 years old and could still do the weekly brigade 4-mile run. All of us were astounded that someone that old could still run. He was a tank gunner in the Korean war according to some of the legends surrounding him.

Anyway, the CSM wanted a line company sergeant to be the brigade public affiars sergeant. He did not want "ragged-ass sissy Army journalist writing about real soldiers." I had a story on his desk before he got back from lunch. I got the job. And most everyone in the tank company I left was some level of envious.

So 32 years later, eight months into taking a year off from public relations to serve my country, I am full-time PR again with a very limited wardrobe and drastically reduced salary. Cliff and I are going to be talking Wednesday night. Cliff really liked Germany by the way. He is Bruder Timotheus, part of a Franciscan Brotherhood in Darmstadt Germany in a place called the Land of Canaan. Cliff was my roommate in 1978 until he got out to become a novice at the monastery where he still lives. I will try to call Abel also. He was commander of the tank next to mine in the first platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 70th Armor. He is now a retired fire captain in San Diego.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Half Marathon the Next Morning


The first thing I noticed when I got out of bed this morning was my age. It took a while to get out of bed. After the run yesterday my heel ached. I expected worse this morning. But when I stood up for the 200-meter limp to the latrine, my heel felt OK. Swollen. Sore. But not too bad. No sharp ache.

My thighs hurt a lot. The front of my shins hurts some. I have upper body aches, but no special pain in my heel. I think this means I can run again. I may even be able to do the 5k Wednesday race. There's a chance that two months of rest from running combined with stretching may have helped me adapt to the bone spur. I don't know. But it is weird not to have acute pain on the bottom of my heel.

Now having said all that, it hurts to get on the bike, it hurts to pedal the bike, it hurts to walk. And some Delta guys are doing the Ruck March, so there can be a Delta, Echo competition during the October 3 half marathon.

Great news for me, at least for now, that all the pain I am having is just what you would expect for an unprepared participant in a half marathon. When I walk down the two stairs in the front of my CHU my legs ache and I lean against the wall.

And they gave us a really cool medal for finishing inside 3.5 hours.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Marathon Man

This morning my alarm went off at 0405. I dragged myself out of bed and walked to the latrine to shave and brush my teeth. I was thinking as I walked my heel feels great and I am about to screw it up. Three weeks ago I signed up for the US Air Force half marathon. The plan was that I would walk the 13.1 miles with a few aircraft mechanics and see if I could walk the distance in under 3 1/2 hours. In two weeks our base is having a parallel event with the Portland Half Marathon. Several of the guys in my unit are planning on walking it as a Ruck March--that's a march in boots with a 40-pound pack. I said I would try to do the Ruck March which led me to sign up for today's event.

In addition, some Delta Company aircraft mechanics said they would walk the half-marathon distance. So I thought I would have a good walk. Luckily I brought my iPod. Just as this deployment seemed like a good idea until I actually arrived, the marathon walk seemed rational until it started. The Delta guys were gone at the started. They lined up at the back, said they would walk, then started running.

Within 100 meters I was alone at the back behind 300 airmen and 100 soldiers who were running into the dark distance. So I started listening to a Teaching Company lecture. Thirty-five minutes later I was at the two-mile mark and the other walkers had disappeared into the distance. The trail truck was 20 feet behind me, idling its diesel engine as it followed me at 3mph.

So I started running. In about half a mile I was ahead of the next runner so I did not have to listen to the truck any more. I ran three more miles tried to walk and started running again. I ran another two miles, walked a mile then ran again until two miles to go. I felt good. I caught up to Delta, then walked the last two miles.

Lucklily they handed out medals at the finish line because I had to go to a company meeting. On the way I could either change or have breakfast--no contest.
I had eggs, creamed beef on a biscuit, French Toast sticks, fresh oranges and kiwi slices, coffee, mango juice and pineapple juice. I ate everything.

Before the meeting the commander told me I had a new job. More next post.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Fights This War?

Until September 11, 2001, Michelle Delta made family her first priority. On that terrible Tuesday Delta was a 35-year-old single woman living in her own house in Bridgeville, Delaware. In the months that followed, she decided to give up her shop supervisor job and put America at the top of her priority list and, with no military experience at all, joined the Army National Guard in May of 2002.

In August she went to basic training. “I was very naive,” Delta said. “Soldiers were heroes. I am not sure what I really expected, but when I got to basic training I was in a holding area with more than 20 girls between 18 and 21 years old. On the other floors of our training area were hundreds of young men the same age. They were kids.”

All through basic Delta helped to take care of and watch over the ‘kids.’ In basic Delta received extra responsibility because of her age and rank—her college degree allowed her to join as a Pvt. 1st Class. All of her drill sergeants were younger than her. It was not easy for her to go from living half her life as an independent adult, to getting yelled at “…by a cocky little punk younger than me,” she joked.

But she has the kind of personality that galvanizes with hardship. Her father died when she was eighteen leaving two younger siblings with her step-mother. When her step-mother passed in 1994, Delta became legal guardian of the two. “You do what you have to do,” she says. Delta’s life changed from that point. “The kids had problems. You lose your father and mother at an early age and it is tough to move on.” Deltas’ sister was shot five times in 1996 and managed to survive. By the time Delta left for basic, the children were in their early twenties and on their own.

Delta trained to be a CH-47 Chinook aircraft mechanic, came home and landed a job as an Army technician for the National Guard. She went from almost 36 years of civilian life to working in uniform full time.

In 2005, Delta went to school to be a flight engineer. She was a sergeant and finding that the military is not always an easy place for a woman. “Yes we are all soldiers but we are not always treated equally” she said. “You have to choose your battles wisely”.

In 2008 her unit got the alert order for deployment and in January of 2009 moved to Fort Sill, Okla., for pre-deployment training. In one of the quirks that lead to jokes that never stop, Staff Sgt. Michelle Delta is a flight engineer in Delta Company. “The Delta jokes are just part of the deal,” she says with a weak smile.

In April, her unit arrived in Iraq with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade and was station at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq. “We were supposed to be going to Balad, but were redirected when we arrived in Kuwait,” she said.

Once the birds and support equipment arrived in, all of the flight operations had to be set up, then the night missions started. “Sometimes we fly five nights in a row and get to be airfield boss on the sixth night. Other times the sandstorms move in and we don’t get off the ground but it gives us a chance to work on our aircraft. We usually work long days and it’s tough on everyone.”

Since starting the deployment Delta and her fellow Chinook crew members have prepared the ships for missions, the door gunners mount and arm the three machine guns on each bird and make sure the pilots’ weapons are ready for use. The cockpit crew does the pre-flight inspection. Delta says “We are all a team and each of us has our section of responsibility”.

Their day is just beginning when, for most of the other soldiers, the day is winding down. The aircrews sit together the whole length of two or three tables with eight soldiers on each side at the dining facility. They laugh, joke and speculate about where they might be going and whether they will be flying. Weather and last-minute changes cancel some missions.

After dinner, they return to the large company headquarters building near the airstrip and wait for the mission. If the mission goes, Delta and her crew will usually fly hundreds of miles in heavy body armor peering through night-vision devices manning their weapons. They will move cargo or passengers to many different locations through-out the night.

If the mission is scrubbed they go back to the flight line in the dark, dismount the guns, and tie the bird down for the night. “If the mission is scrubbed and we leave early, it gives us a chance to go back and do laundry,” Delta said. “When we fly, we get back late, do all the post-flight work, daily inspections, and grab a few hours sleep before we are back again.”

Delta loves what she is doing but has not decided on whether she will stay in the National Guard as a career or not. “I am 43 now. I will be 56 when I get out, if I stay for 20 (years),” she said. “That’s a long time and this can be a physically demanding job. But I am going back to my technician job for now. I’ll see what the future holds when I get back.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Thanks and Requests

Amy--The CS Lewis books arrived yesterday--Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves. We start the Four Loves on the first Monday in October. Thanks very much.

Susan--the Propel Powder, razors and SGT Reiner's M&M's arrived the day before yesterday. The M&Ms will be going up to Base Garry Owen the next time one of our guys gets a Blackhawk ride. Many thanks.

Ginny--I got all those amazon notices. I'll be looking for Purgatorio soon as well as dictionaries. Thanks much.

Shiri--I'll also be looking for dictionaries from you. Thanks.

Katie and Darren (and anyone else who wants to send stuff). The Education Center needs:
--a printer/scanner
--20 copies of the ASVAB (aptitude test) Study guide (send one, five, whatever)
--one and two-inch three-ring binders, lots, with tab inserts
--10 or more copies of the AFAST (FLIGHT) study guide

And I would like TUL Pens, black medium point and other colors also.

Thanks in advance


I was on the BBC World Service Last Sunday

On September 11, just after my blog was linked to the "At War" blog, a producer for the BBC World service called and asked if they could interview me for a story on military blogs and blogging. I agreed and the link blow is the result. It's a 6-minute interview and I am about the last four minutes. If you want to hear it, I should be able to email it from gmail--no size restrictions. But be sure if you want it you give me an Inbox that allows 8mb files.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Eight Minutes and Gone

From the time the Medevac call comes in, the first pair of Blackhawks in the rotation have fifteen minutes to be airborne. Actually, the standard for our Medevac unit is eight minutes, the Army standard is 15. When I heard the call at the Medevac hangar I went straight out to where the birds sit in low blast walls waiting to take off. The crew chiefs of both birds were already getting the aircraft ready for flight. The medic ran to the Evac bird, the door gunner ran to the chase bird.

Within three minutes the twin turbojet engines were screaming and the huge rotor blades were starting to turn. I walked along the revetment walls to the from of the aircraft so I could watch the takeoff from directly under their flight path. The main rotor turned faster and faster. I moved to a dead air spot where I was not being buffeted by the wind from the main rotors. The tail roters were spinning crazy fast looking like they might pick the whole aircraft up from the back.

Suddenly the medic bird took off. At first slowly upward, then twisting to the right it banked up into the air, straighten out and shot into the distance.

The chase bird was seconds behind following the same counterclockwise curve into the sky. These pictures are some of two dozen I took in about 20 seconds until the Blackhawks sped out of view.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Always Moving

I got back from dinner tonight and two other sergeants in our company were in the room. When I walked in I said hello and said I was just picking up the books for tonight's book group. My roommate said, "Our door is the net and Gussman is a tennis ball. He bounces in, he bounces out." I do. But I need to have different things with me for each activity, especially especially on book group days. Today we got done in the motor pool at about 230pm. I went from there to the Charlie Med hangar for a meeting then back to the room to change from the uniform to PTs. I did some writing, rested for a while (we get up at 0445), called a couple of coworkers back in the states about a meeting, then went to the coffee shop to read for tonight's book group and a few pages of French (Le trois mousquetaires).

Then I came back to the CHU dropped the books and rode the perimeter of the post. After that I made two more phone calls about work and then off to dinner. I need to have my weapon to go to dinner, but not a backpack, since they are not allowed in the DFAC. After dinner is when I bounced through the door on the way to book group. Now I am going to the gym then maybe make a phone call back to the states.

There is always some point in the night when my head starts to hurt and I know it's time to sleep. Not yet though.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Today I went to a meeting at the Med-Evac building. The meeting was very routine, just a discussion of how to get soldiers' photos from across the battalion on a single computer. Just after the meeting I was talking to one of the pilots on duty. There are two aircraft that are on standby for immediate take-off and another pair of Blackhawks as a backup for the first. The lead bird in each pair is the medic bird. The trail bird is in air assault configuration with guns in the doors.

When they get a call, team one goes and team two goes on alert. Yesterday there were two calls almost simultaneously. I got to watch the preparation and take-off. The first pair were gone inside of eight minutes--jumping from the pad where they rest into the air one right after the other.

But there were only three Blackhawks on the ready line, not four. It turns out the fourth was on an instrument check flight--guns mounted and ready to go. I watched as the crew chief and pilots made final checks and started up the lone medic bird on the ground. Just as the rotor blades started spinning quickly, the chase bird came into view in the southern sky. It wheeled above the airstrip and landed after a rapid descent, but never stopped moving. As soon is it touched down 300 meters away from the medic bird, it slowly taxied, making the angry noises helicopters make when they are on the ground with the engines pushing those big rotors.

In a few seconds the Medic bird took off. The chase Blackhawk jumped from the concrete taxi five seconds later. It was beautiful to watch. And good for the soldiers at the other end of the trip. Because the calls were clearly very serious.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Shadow Blog

Several of you, especially Daria and Meredith, have insisted I keep a "Shadow Blog" the one in which I talk about all the bad stuff I can't really publish while I am living and working so close to the soldiers I am writing about. They are right of course. Someday soon I will need to look at my sphere of life from above, from every side, and from below. At Meredith's advice, I took down a post about a guy who failed at everything but maintained a thoroughly condescending attitude to everyone around him. I serve with people who rise to the worst occasions and really perform and some who have been relieved of duty for incompetence, and more who should have been.

When I went back in the Army I remembered the friendships I made during the time I spent in Germany. In particular Abel Lopez and Cliff Almes, true brothers and friends for life--in fact since all three of us are believers, friends for eternity. But the messy recriminations and power struggles at every level here are starting to remind me of what I had forgotten: there are people who I served with back then who I found revolting, and because we spent time together in cold tents and colder tank turrets, I know very well their failings and they know mine.

We are now getting to that point in the current deployment when the infighting becomes more visible. The adrenaline of training and the good feeling of going on an adventure is wearing off. I will keep the shadow blog, but I will write when I can about the people and things that are falling apart.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Who Fights This War?

One of the administrative sergeants I run into once in a while was a Marine for 10 years before joining the Army National Guard. He is aloof and old enough that no one bothers him very much. He mostly keeps to himself, but will occasionally burst into a lecture about safety, security, the political situation in Iraq or how this war should be fought. His outbursts, like the lid sliding off a boiling pot, show that the heat has been building for a long time and finally he explodes. An early commentator on the Iliad wrote about Achilles saying, "An angry man never thinks he has spoken enough" and this sergeant proves it.

Today I was waiting for some other soldiers and had some time to sit and listen to this sergeant talk about his last deployment. It turns out the reason he keeps his distance and thinks about security issues goes back to his deployment three years ago. He was also on a large base then, but worked with people who went on convoys. For the most part he did not eat dinner, but one of the guys on convoy was a particular friend, another ex-Marine, so he would always change his schedule and eat dinner when his buddy was on base.

One day the aloof sergeant got the word that his dinner buddy got killed in a mortar attack. As he described it they were great friends, "And I decided I was not going to let that happen again. I'll talk to people but I don't want to care that much have them taken away. I still think about all the plans he had for his family, to travel--all gone."

The alternative to love is self-protection, keeping others at a distance so they won't hurt you by leaving. It's a choice we all make to some degree, to risk love or draw back.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11 Ceremony Went Great

It was really great today to be doing something I like to do and am good at. The event came off perfectly--we started at 310pm had four songs, two speeches, two prayers, the reading of the names of the dead here at COB Adder/Tallil Ali. It is wonderful to be the emcee of an event with all military participants--they do what they are told!

Anyway, so the songs, prayers and speeches were spot on length and when I announced the moment of silence, the base loudspeakers announced the moment of silence for the whole base 10 seconds later. My perfectionist event manager friends Kristine Chin, Nancy Vonada and Karen Coker, amazing as they are, would be jealous of hitting those marks!

The event ended seven hours ago and I am still buzzing. I was the first speaker. The other speaker was an Air Force colonel who talked about being in the underground control center in Colorado for the US and Canadian Air Forces when the 9/11 attacks happened. He is a passionate speaker. He talked about how the military responded to the attacks and what it was like to be at the nerve center of air defense.

I spoke as a civilian on 9/11 who came back to serve. We complemented each other very well. Here's the text of my speech--5 minutes, no more, no less.

Good afternoon. I am Sergeant Neil Gussman of Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation. On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans died. I am going to tell you about one of my friends who lived through the 9/11 attacks and something about why I am here in Iraq today.

Eight years ago I was a civilian, about as civilian as I could be, and now I am serving with you. So how much of a civilian was I? On that fateful Tuesday morning I was 48 years old. I first enlisted in January 1972 and had served till July of 1984. My wife and I had just adopted our fourth child and the oldest of our four children was 12.

I was the communications manager of one of those dot-com internet businesses that burned money faster than Pentagon procurement and sometimes had the lifespan of a firefly.
We had the best computers in our Philadelphia offices and we all watched in horror on those expensive screens as the World Trade Center Towers fell into heaps. I have never felt so helpless. For years before the attack, I had gone to New York almost every month on business and had worked with many editors with offices near the World Trade Center. I tried to call some of my friends in New York, but no one could get through.

One of the editors I tried to call was Helga Tilton—a thin, tough woman in her late 50s who was the editor-in-chief a trade magazine located on Rector Street, just two blocks south of Ground Zero. Helga was born in Frankfurt Germany in 1943. Frankfurt was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Nazi Germany. She grew up in ruins, deprivation and poverty. But she worked hard in school, studied English and wanted to live in America. By the early 70s she finished a PhD at New York University and was fluent enough to get a job as a writer in America.

When the twin towers fell, Helga got out of the building knowing from her grim childhood that when one building falls it can take down others. Helga had married a very nervous American who was an NYC native. She decided it was her duty to make sure he was all right. So she put on her walking shoes, grabbed her purse and walked past Ground Zero almost six miles north to Central Park West.

I talked to Helga the next day. She was fine. Her husband was a wreck. At that time I thought about enlisting, but I was too old then. Even with 11 years prior service and a waiver, I was too old.

That was then.

In 2006, the rules changed. The enlistment age went up to 42. I could re-enlist, but doubt held me back for another year.

But over the winter, I decided I really could serve again. I never thought it would be easy to come back at 54. In late April 2007 I passed my enlistment physical and ASVAB test. The only thing I was waiting for was an age waiver that thankfully took until July. But the biggest hurdle I would face was just two weeks away. Since the early 90s I have been an avid bicycle racer. On May 9, 2007, I was in a downhill race just about to pass for the win and touched wheels with another rider at 51 mph. Within a half hour I was Med-Evaced from the scene. I had broken four ribs, my right shoulder blade and collarbone and my nose. I cracked the first two vertebra in my neck and smashed the 7th. The next day I had emergency surgery to replace the smashed C-7 with a bone from a cadaver.

The injuries made me even more sure I wanted to serve. If I was going to risk my life, I wanted it to be for something more than a trophy. I got the waiver on July 13th. I told the recruiter I could enlist in August because the neurosurgeon said I would be out of the neck and chest brace I was in on August 2nd. I enlisted on August 16, 2007, at age 54 after a 23-year break in service.

But at the same time I was recovering and trying to enlist, Helga got sick. She was something of a health nut, but got pancreatic cancer, one of the most aggressive forms. She survived so much it was sad to think that the end of her life, like the beginning, was marked by death and ruins.

I talked to Helga and her husband a few times during her last months. She was calm and courageous facing a hopeless diagnosis while I was working to recover my health to join the Army during a war. An irony not lost on Helga. She died on November 14, 2007. For me, Helga will always be the face I see when I think of September 11. America inspires people to do great things, to survive the worst circumstances.

I am glad I could serve once more in honor of Helga, my own immigrant grandparents, and everyone who loves this country. I am very happy to be here today, a citizen soldier, serving with other soldiers who love America and are willing to make the huge sacrifices necessary to defend it.

Thank you.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Who Fights This War?

"I'd rather be digging a damn ditch than sitting on my ass in an air-conditioned office pushing FRAGOs (Fragmentary Orders)." That was one of the first things Staff Sergeant Pamela Allen Bleuel said to me when I met her walking across on open area in a sandstorm. She is a cheerful, imposing, funny woman of 43 who joined the Army Reserves on a whim just before 9/11 and now has an intense love-hate relationship with life in camouflage.

Until last month SSG Bleuel was the sergeant in charge of the convoy training school here on Camp Adder. She taught troops how to drive and fight in convoys and how to best use the ungainly MRAP fighting vehicles that are now the standard troop carrier across Iraq. She loved convoy training and did not mind when her tour was extended. When she did the unit she went to decided her training as a military police officer would be best used processing FRAGOs--the daily changes to orders that bubble through the military system day and night.

Bleuel loves being outside, moving troops, and has no desire to sit in air conditioning, but she will do the job as well as she can until the end of her extended tour.

She joined the reserves in 2000 at age 35 with no prior military experience at all, because she saw two soldiers hanging up a sign in the small town in Kentucky where she lives. The sign said the Army would repay student loans for reserve soldiers. She had three daughters between 8 and 13 years old at the time, taught math at the local high school and had $30,000 in student loans. She signed up. She went off to basic at the end of the school year, trying to fit basic and advanced training into the summer break. Training did not quite fit her school schedule and she was just about done with training when the 9-11 attacks hit.

At that point she just wanted to serve and was jealous of the regular Army soldiers who were whisked away to airborne schools and other assignments. She served as an MP until 2004 when she trained to be a drill sergeant. Every summer after that she would "push troops" through Fort Knox, Kentucky, during the 11-week summer break at her school district. Her experience as a drill sergeant and an MP lead her to convoy training here in Iraq.

Now she is ready to go back to being a drill sergeant part time and a full time teacher. "Each year it gets easier to go back to pushing troops and harder to teach school," she said. "It's not the kids. It's the damn parents." She then gave her version of the teacher's lament that parents call her, email her, come to school to say their little child is special. "In the Army you don't deal with that. Mom doesn't call basic training," she said.

She also likes the structure and clarity of Army life, at least in training. "We have a goal; get the trainees ready to be soldiers." She also likes the deference of soldiers when compared to civilians. "When I get back from Knox and I am in a crowd at Wal-Mart, I wish I could yell 'Make a hole' and have everybody get out of my way."

Bleuel's wall is covered with pictures of her three children. She is very proud of them--even the one who, "Is a liberal and wants to save the whole damn world. She voted for Obama. We don't talk about politics." Bleuel is somewhere to the right of Oliver North politically and hates everything about France, which is a double layer of irony given her name.

At age 43 she has eight years of service and will have to decide soon whether she will make the Army a career or not. I'm guessing she will. The look she has in her eyes when she talks about basic training and convoy ops is not there when she talks about Algebra 2.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I am "At War" at Least for Today

If you follow the link here to today's entry in the "At War" blog in the New York Times and then read all the way down to the 2nd to last paragraph, you will see three links, conveniently labeled here, here, and here. The first link is to my blog, the 2nd is to a Navy Medic and the third is to a combat Marine in Afghanistan. So I am in very good company. The blog post is about social media and blogs and the new Department of Defense policy restricting them.

Which could mean I would not be able to post on my blog. I actually doubt that would happen. I have informed everyone in my chain of command about the blog and, as regular readers know, I never us soldier's names or mention any troop movements (which is easy because I never go anywhere!). But just in case I have a backup plan. My colleague Sarah Reisert at Chemical Heritage Foundation is taking my place while I am on deployment. We make jokes about here being Neil 2009. Although she is a very pretty 26-year-old woman, so we really don't look very much alike. Anyway, if the Army shuts down blogs, Sarah really will be Neil 2009 and post my blog entries until I get home.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

September 11 Ceremony

On Friday afternoon the garrison is holding a memorial ceremony for the victims of 9-11. I offered to be one of the speakers if they wanted the perspective of someone who was a civilian and more than 18 years old on that day. There are not a lot of people who fit that description here. Anyway, when I volunteered, I was invited to a coordination meeting for the event last Friday. I found out at that event that I am to be the emcee for the ceremony. One of the people who had been in meetings with said, "Sergeant Gussman can do that no problem." And no one else wanted the job.

I got it in that polite, thoughtful Army way: A dozen of us were seated around the table, the sergeant major convened the meeting and said, "Sergeant Gussman will be the emcee for the ceremony." Next item. . .

Now I may or may not actually talk about my reaction to 9-11 and joining the Army years later, because they may shorten the program or my talk may not pass review. I'll post it after the event whether I give the talk or not.

Today at 1800 was the first rehersal. The same sergeant major made major revisions to the program after the practice already started. His staff was upset. I told them they were in training to be civilian event managers. In my civilian world, the boss can make (and has made) major changes the day of the event. Three days ahead won't be a problem. My Army world keeps getting closer to my civilian world, but with boring clothes.

Just before the ceremony I was in our battalion headquarters and a few guys started talking about the reasons they voted for Sarah Palin--which did not include her education or foreign policy experience. One of the guys said he was an independent who didn't like any of them (meaning recent presidents or candidates) especially Bush, because Bush and Cheney were behind the conspiracy that took down the World Trade Center towers.

Just when I forget that 30% of America believes 9-11 was an inside job, someone pops out his view that there was indeed a conspiracy. As I was leaving I asked if he ever wondered how two guys who botched the current war so badly could have pulled off such a flawless, undetected (except by him) conspiracy. He had a mass of evidence which he was winding up to deliver, but luckily I had to go.

There is no shortage of weird in my world.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

So how does a motor pool sergeant in Iraq spend the Labor Day holiday?

0442--alarm goes off. I was up late, almost midnight, and had trouble sleeping because I slept late Sunday morning (10am). I hit the snooze button and got up at 0447.
Stumble to the latrine, shave, stumble back (150 yards each way on gravel), get dressed.

0530--ride to chow hall. Get breakfast to go so I can put it in my backpack and eat at the motor pool: bacon, biscuit, french toast, cinnamon roll. I ride with a large coffee mug.

0600--motor sergeant opens the gate. he is usually at the motor pool at o540, he splet late.

0610--my team gets its jobs for the morning. I have three mechanics today. Two replace the starter on a bus. One replaces the tire on a trailer. I pump 30 gallons of diesel into our generator. It is a hand-operated pump. It takes 7 minutes, so I listen to a New Yorker podcast on my iPod while I pump the handle.

0700--I fill out paperwork while my team works. I check on them. I do the weekly maintenance checks on a 2 1/2 ton truck. I also spend 15 minutes listening to another sergeant complain about some recent bad work assignments and getting caught between competing bosses. We commiserate.

0800--more maintenance checks. One of the clerks is back from leave so I tell her a couple of pirate jokes she missed.

0900--I ride to the south side of the base for a 0930 meeting. It's three miles, the wind is calm. I have 15 minutes ot check email--since we moved the motor pool two weeks ago, there are no network lines in the motor pool. I have to ride 1 to 3 miles rto check email

0930--Meeting with brigade about stories I am working on and about coordinating stories.

1030--back to email and calendar update.

1100--ride the rest of the way around the base back to my CHU

1130--talk to the couple in the Saturday post.

1200--fill out time sheets for me and my crew.

1230--go to lunch, meet my crew as they are coming back from lunch, give them afternoon jobs.

1315--back to motor pool. check on work assignments. Put away tool boexes and supplies that have come back from Camp Normandy fueling operation that closed last month.

1400--move trucks to get work ready for tomorrow

1445--go to CHU, change, check emails, revise speech for Friday

1600--go to battalion headquarters to check email.

1630--read CS Lewis essay, drink latte

1715--more email

1730--go to laundry

1745--nap for 30 minutes

1815--ride 15 minutes

1830--more email revise article

1900--go to dinner with a sgt who missed last Aeneid meeting, catch up on intro to Aeneid

2000--CS Lewis book group

2130--back to CHU, check email

2200--call Marc Abrahams, I wish out loud I was coming home soon. He reminds me whose idea this trip was (guilty as charged)

2230--shower and write this post

2330--sleep (up again at 0442)

Happy Holiday!!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Married in South East Asia During Viet Nam

From my Uncle Jack who served in all over South East Asia between 1965 and the end of that ill-fated conflict, is the rocky beginnings of military cohabitation:

The tale of the married sergeants is inspiring. My experience with married subordinates differs.

The Air Force in 1974 was dragged kicking and screaming to create accommodations for married service couples deployed together on remote tours. It was still policy that a civilian spouse living within a certain mile-radius of the sponsor's assigned remote station converted a remote tour into an accompanied tour--if it was discovered. The anecdotal evidence is that the Air Force was commanded by ascetic monks who preferred that all intersexual relations be conducted on a high non-physical plane. But there we were at Korat RTAFB, Thailand...

One fine day my office phone rang and a voice said, "Come to Personnel and pick up your new clerk." I sent my NCOIC. He called soon thereafter from there and told me, "This is gonna be trouble, sir!" He was so right!

The new clerk was a pert, cute, slim, pretty, honey blond girl of 19 or 20 with one stripe on a nicely filled out uniform and a lovely smile. Her husband was a grungy, redneck three-stripe flight-line grease monkey right out of a Jeff Foxworthy cartoon book. What they saw in each other is a mystery. He had been on station for several months, chasing Thai women the whole time. They moved into married quarters--a barracks room with GI bunk beds, no air conditioning--and a shared co-ed latrine down the hall. It didn't take long before she learned he had not been exactly faithful while he awaited her arrival to fill his supposedly lonely nights.

The stuff hit the fan. They screamed, hollered and fought all the time they were together. As her OIC, I had many late night opportunities to referee. It got so bad I was afraid to go to the O Club for a drink. She came to work bruised and battered. He resumed his tom-catting. She wanted a divorce, etc, etc. They separated, ie, moved out of married quarters. This all rose to the level of the Wing Commander for solution eventually. She was reassigned to the Chaplain's office and he was shuttled off to another base in-country lest she murder him. I was so relieved.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Married Sergeants Who Really are Friends

I wrote the following for a military publication but wonder if these two are not interesting enough that I should try to send the story to People or something in that vein. Please email, comment, let me know what you think. The names are changed, but their real names, first and last, all begin with M.

When a husband announces at lunch or a party, “My wife is my best friend” within the next 15 minutes he will prove beyond doubt, usually with other guests exchanging knowing smiles out of his view, that she is nothing of the sort. No definition of friend, let alone best friend, will cover the complete lack of shared interest and activities he will blithely go on to describe. [SIBEBAR: Our Amazon Adventure Tour]

Nick and Nora Nordstrom never mentioned friend, best friend, or anything of the sort during the hours I spent with them. She is a sergeant first class, the maintenance platoon sergeant for Delta Company, 2-104 General Services Aviation Battalion. He is a staff sergeant, the sergeant in charge of quality control for the same company. Their offices are 30 feet apart in a row of containers outside the maintenance hangar she runs.

On a 120-degree afternoon on Tallil Ali Air Base, Southern Iraq, I found the two of them sitting together in her office. The small space was cluttered with a half-dozen two-by-two-foot-square, one-foot high foam-filled cases that house sensitive, calibrated test equipment. The equipment had been used in a recent major service of a CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter. The tagged and color-coded wires and instruments were in the wrong spaces, some even the wrong cases. “The mechanics use them then put them back f#$ked up. Then I have to unf#$k them up. Sometimes I go and unf#$k the mechanic.” (In the article for publication, I used screw up and unscrew which doesn't have the emphasis her actual words have.)

Nick and Nora are helicopter maintenance professionals. Sloppy work habits—even when their crews are pushed 24 hours a day support troop transport in a war zone—drive them crazy. They sat together in the office enjoying the newly acquired air conditioning in Nora’s office and carefully stowing the test instruments in the proper places in their cases. While they worked, they made jokes about who last used the instruments and if there were any hope that soldier would eventually develop good work habits.

A week later I was talking to Nora in her office when Nick walked in to ask about which order two Chinooks and a UH-60 “Blackhawk” should be towed into the hangar. It would seem simple enough, but they had an increasingly arcane discussion of the actual versus scheduled time the major components would arrive, whether the best mechanics could work longer hours on the most critical jobs, would the component shops be able to support the jobs in the order they came in. They disagreed initially. They raised their voices in the middle of the argument. But as friends and experts, they reasoned with each other and came to an agreement based on the complex decision factors they carry around in their heads.

Nick and Nora are one of the five couples in their 600-soldier battalion who are married and live with their spouse in Iraq. Like any two other sergeants, the Nordstroms live in a two-person room in a Containerized Housing Unit (CHU). The big difference in the Nordstrom CHU is the two single beds are pushed together in the middle of the room against the far wall and they share a large, leopard-pattern quilt. “My guys call this the porn quilt,” Nora said. Other than that, they each have a beige metal locker and matching end table. After working together from 7 am to 6pm and eating dinner together in the chow hall, they go back to the CHU, tramp over 100 yards of gravel to their respective shower CHUs, then spend the evening together watching TV and getting on line. They have one computer they pass back and forth in the bed for email and Skype calls.

Ask other sergeants deployed here and many say, “I would like to have my spouse in country” because the five married couples are the only soldiers having Army-sanctioned sex in the battalion. But those same soldiers cannot imagine sharing a 180-square-foot space with their spouse, especially if they have to see their spouse all day at work. In their CHU as at work, the Nordstroms share interests and discuss them as friends do.

They live in Jonestown, near Fort Indiantown Gap PA where they both have full-time technician jobs. The Nordstroms have two children currently staying with Nora’s older sister Valery Fuhrman on her farm in Iowa. Nick and Nora agreed before the deployment started they would not take a mid-tour leave to go home. They both feel it is easier for everyone involved, especially the Valery, if they are completely gone for the year. They talked about the disruption in control if they show up and disappear again. They will take a four-day rest and recreation pass to Qatar, but will be saving their leave to spend time with ten-year-old Anthony and eight-year-old Emalee when they get home.

They should know. This is their second deployment together. In 2004 they went to Afghanistan—no “Honeymoon” CHU on that trip. Valery also cared for Anthony and Emalee during that deployment. “They like being on Valery’s farm,” Nora said. “But my daughter is having some trouble with this deployment.” Nora struggles with whether she and Nick have made the right choice, but she speaks resolutely about the dilemma she faced. “I decided I want to be there if something happens to Nick and he feels the same way. I come from close family. The kids love Valery and they get to live on a real working farm for a year.” Nick and Nora are aware that their choice is not the one every couple would make. “It works for us. We are more fortunate than most soldiers. During both deployments we had each other.”

One evening I was in their CHU to review some pictures of Nora’s soldiers. While she looked at the pictures, she and Nick talked about whether or not to get a dog their mother offered them. They discussed the relative merits of the dog, the deal they were offered, the care involved and the other details. Nora admitted it made sense and she was being irrational, but she was not sure about the commitment to caring for the dog because they are both full time Army National Guard soldiers when they return to America. I waited in for one of them to argue using guilt, obligation or something else that would carry the discussion into an argument. It never happened. While she looked at pictures of her mechanics in, around, under and on top of helicopters, she decided Mom’s offer was too good to pass up and they would find a way to get proper care for the dog. “The kids will be no help after two months, but we already know that,” she said.

Even though they live easily and happily together in the CHU, this is their second deployment together and they know the envy other soldiers have for their living arrangement. Nora thinks the envious soldiers should, “deal with it. We went through a lot to get deployed together and our family makes it possible, but it’s not easy.” The first time I asked Nick about the “Married CHU” he said, “I was hoping they would stick us all in GP mediums (20-man tents).” The man with any special privilege is a target in a military unit and as the deployment wears on there are few privileges more special than being one of ten soldiers out of 600 who have a love life. Nick knew coming into this deployment he would have to deal with the envy and on that day he would have been happy to opt out.

Can lovers be friends? CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves says it is possible, in the same way that it is possible for two friends to become lovers. But in each case Lewis says, “shared activity is the soil in which friendship grows. When there is no shared activity, there can be no real friendship.” The tone of Lewis’ comments indicates there is a lot of wishful thinking when people discuss the subject. In certain circles it is almost required that two a couple say, “My spouse is my best friend” when they spend almost no time together, share no interests and disagree on money, kids, jobs, and in-laws.

The Nordstroms both repair and maintain helicopters as a profession. They are both soldiers—they can move, shoot, communicate and pass all of the range, fitness, and leadership qualifications necessary to be a good soldier outside the maintenance hangar as well as in it. They deal with all the stresses of separation from their children and family together, not by trying to push their own agenda on the other. As far as I could tell, they seem to be in agreement as to how to raise their children and what is important for their family life. Nick says their relationship is “Nothing special.” Nora agreed saying she and Nick were just an ordinary couple.

If the definition of ordinary includes working together in heat and sandstorms in an open-ended hangar on combat aircraft, leading troops in months of combat training, carrying an assault rifle to every meal and living in a 180-square-foot space together while their kids and home are 7000 miles and eight time zones away, then yes the Nordstroms are just like everybody else.

SDIESBAR: Our Amazon Adventure Tour

I sat down next to a soldier in the coffee shop next to the chapel. He was flipping through a National Geographic magazine looking at an article on the headwaters of the Amazon. I asked him if he had ever been there.

“No” he said, “But as soon as the deployment is over my wife and I are going on a two-week adventure vacation. It’s $2,000 per person. You sleep in jungle camps. It’s amazing.”

“Wow,” I said. “It’s great you and your wife will get to share an experience like that.”

“She’ll f#$kin’ hate it,” he said smiling. “But I’ve been going shopping with her for years, now she has to do what I want.”

“But wouldn’t it be more fun to go alone, or with a friend.”

“My wife is my best friend,” he said without a trace of irony. “She’s going.”

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Gods of War

I just finished Book I of Aeneid (or chapter one if you count it as one book of 12 chapters). Anyway, it has been seven years since I last read it and I was very much a civilian at the time. I was working at a dot-com, we had just adopted Nigel two years before, I had been out for a long time, I was too old to go back in the Army and really didn't think about it much then. The Army was a source of stories and jokes and memories. (When the Bush administration raised the enlistment age by seven years in 2005 the Army became a present possibility.)

Which is certainly why I missed how the jealous, indulgent, nasty, competing gods with their own needs and wants that fill the Roman heavens seem just like the invisible generals, admirals and other high officials that move us with no purpose we can discern. The gods told Aeneas to found Rome after the fall of Troy. So Aeneas takes the survivors of the Trojan defeat and sets sail from the northeast corner of the Greek peninsula toward the west side of Italy. On the way his ships are wrecked and men scattered by the queen of Heaven who charms the god of the wind. But before the carnage is complete, Neptune, god of the sea, drives off the winds saying "this is my territory" and they have to go. Aeneas knows nothing except he is shipwrecked in Africa and many of his men are lost.

But he has to continue the mission. It's not like we face the danger Aeneas and his men face, but we do deal with crazy changes by people we will never know or meet--and to them we are numbers, not men and women.

In the last week our company and battalion commanders both talked to us in the motor pool about the latest changes in our mission--mostly to say nothing has happened yet. They both told us they would get word to us when something actually changes and the change is in writing. But nothing is for sure yet. Of course there are lots of rumors.

In the meantime, the gods who move us around are busy with what they do and we continue to turn wrenches, fill out paperwork, walk on rocks, and wait to go home.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Deployment is a great refuge for workaholics. I have watched the work habits of leaders here and they do fall into two very groups. One roup tries to maintain a balance between work and relaxation time, whatever that relaxation is. The other group works themselves into the ground and, frankly, loves it.

When a soldier is deployed, especially a leader, that soldier can leave all of the striving for balance and complexity of modern life behind. No spouse, no kids, no social obligations, no choice really on working out--it's part of the job. So for the person who really prefers the monomaniac lifestyle, here it is with no guilt.

We show up at the motor pool at 0550 to get our work assignments. Most of us are eating breakfast outside out of plastic clamshell containers and joking around as the day begins. The mechanics work till 2pm or longer if the work dictates. The men who run the motor pool stay till 5pm, sometimes into the night. At home they would have to feel guilty about their families, friends, community, but not here. They can just keep working. Across Iraq the workaholics have the great relief of public praise for their out of balance lives. And when they get home they might even like to have some balance for a while.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Book Groups

My book groups have been together long enough to show some consistency. They also are very different groups with different people attending.

The Monday night CS Lewis group is in its 5th week reading "The Weight of Glory." The CS Lewis group is an older crowd than the Tuesday Night Dead Poets Society. In fact this week's CSL group was five people: three Army, two Air Force. Four men, one woman. And by rank, two captains and three lieutenant colonels.

Tuesday night was the intro to Aeneid by Virgil. That meeting was a dozen soldiers and airmen with three officers and nine enlisted. Most of the enlisted are in their 20s. There are a two sergeants in their 30s. So the 800-year-old and 2100-year-old books attract the young people and the older people read CSL.

Five of the soldiers go to both groups, but the only person never to miss a meeting is one of the chaplains in our brigade. He also asks the best questions and makes some very good comments. For instance, when we read CSL's "Why I am not a Pacifist" he brought up the people in dictatorships who have no option but passive resistance. It was outside the scope of CSL's essay, but an important way to look at non-violent resistance.

It's two hours of very good conversation every week.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cold Wave--Poop Ovens

Today the temp at 0500 was 77 degrees!! Winter is almost here. It was 118 by lunch, way down from highs over 130, and the wind was howling out of the northwest at 25mph which was bad riding west on the bike, but good in the motor pool because the wind blows the sweat away.

Last week we moved into a different motor pool. It is a much better place to fix trucks than the last place with maintenance tents on concrete pads instead of working on rocks. We still walk on rocks between the tents and the offices, but work in something resembling a canvas garage open on both ends.

But the other place was next to an office building so it had an air-conditioned latrine CHU right next to our rock-strewn maintenance area. The new place only has Porta Potties. Until yesterday, the Porta Potties were located in another area in the large field of motor pools we are in. We had to walk more than 400 meters to get to the tan-colored-plastic latrines. No it is a 150-meter walk to the Porta Potties.

The plastic latrines have air vents at the top, but they are hot inside. On a 130-degree day they could get to 140 degrees on more. No more air-conditioned break from the heat. Get in--get out is the best plan for the poop ovens. We work in t-shirts. When I know I am going to be in the "oven" for more than a 30 seconds, I take off my t-shirts. I get so hot inside the oven that walking out without a shirt actually feels cool.

I am learning so many things I hope I will never use again once we leave here.

Who Fights Our Wars? CSM Donald C. Cubbison, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division

In the fall of 1977, 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division got a new Command Sergeant's Major.  Donald C. Cubbison, veteran of the Vietna...