Monday, November 30, 2009
I celebrate that day every year. Usually I can mention at a holiday party and say I am pretending this particular celebration is in honor of my driver's license anniversary. It's usually good for a laugh. It turns not so many people celebrate their driver's license anniversary.
In sad bike news I think I am losing a bearing on the road bike. It makes and awful sound when I pedal and the freewheel is not very free. If it is a bad bearing, I don't have to sit up nights trying to decide which bike to ship and which to keep. The road bike goes in the Conex, the Mtn. bike stays.
On a completely different topic, I got my 7th Army Coin today. It's an unofficial award that recognizes a good job, sometimes on the spot and has no paperwork. I'll take a picture of mine, but the ones on the photo above are typical. Today's coin was for being the emcee on Veteran's Day from the Garrison. I got another one from my brigade commander for the same event.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
A diving accident in 1967 left Tada hospitalized and paralyzed (as a quadriplegic; unable to use her hands or legs.) After two years of rehabilitation and in a wheelchair, Tada began working to help others in similar situations.
Tada wrote of her experiences in her international best-selling autobiography, Joni, which has been distributed in many languages, and which was made into a feature film of the same name.
when I became a believer in 1973, it seemed Joni was everywhere in Christian media and even secular media.
Two years ago, Joni returned to my life in a way. She and I had very similar injuries. She smashed the fifth vertebra in her neck, I smashed the seventh. In 1967 MEDEVAC was rare. More importantly, medical science was only beginning to bring the discovery of DNA into practical treatments. In 1967 Joni's first responders may not have put her on a backboard. She was not MEDEVACed from the scene. And her hospital did not have a neurosurgeon who just returned from Baghdad and was very skilled in replacing smashed vertebra with bones from cadavers. All of which I had.
Joni has touched millions of lives with her ministry as a paraplegic. I may have had a ministry as a paraplegic, but I consider it a very awesome blessing that I do not have her ministry.
The advances in medical science since Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA (They knew from Mendel and Darwin what they were looking for) are something I am VERY thankful for on this Thanksgiving Holiday Weekend. Younger Christians here often talk excitedly about how Christian rock stars cross over and get played on secular stations. The new icons of Evangelical Culture play metal and alternative and get picked up on secular stations. They make movies, or at least animated vegetables. More sadly, they put saddles on dinosaurs in an indoor theme park labeled a science museum.
It's strange to think of Joni as passing to the margins of Christian culture.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Louie always drove Cadillacs and often drove too fast. My father liked to tell the story of Louie being one of the first to get a new Cadillac after the auto plants started making cars again after World War 2. Louie wrecked the car not too long after. He wasn't badly injured, but no one seemed to car about him anyway. People at the scene and after said what a shame it was to wreck a new Cadillac.
Uncle Louie had one son, Bob, who I always thought of as an uncle rather than a cousin because he is about 15 years older than I am. I saw Bob more than any of my cousins. He had a very dry sense of humor, in contrast to the loud exclamations that characterized most of the people at Gussman gatherings. Bob, like his Dad, is still working long past the age others retire, and if he lives to 100 like his Dad, he will also probably work till he is 98.
The obituary below is from Produce News--a trade paper. It says a lot about Uncle Louie as a businessman and as a person that they would run his obituary.
Mutual Produce founder dies at 100
by Brian Gaylord
BOSTON -- Lewis Gussman, founder of Mutual Produce Corp., here, died Sept. 30 at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA, following a brief illness. He was 100.
Mr. Gussman launched the wholesale company, formerly named Mutual Produce Inc., at the New England Produce Center in 1955. He sold the company in 2000 and continued to work for Mutual Produce Corp. until he was 98.
"He paid his bills on time, he ran a good business," Richard Travers Jr., co- owner of Mutual Produce Corp., said of Mr. Gussman. He added that some shippers have been doing business with Mutual Produce for 30 years.
Mr. Travers said that Mr. Gussman loved the produce business because "no two days are the same." He said that Mr. Gussman would "jump on the phone" to tell callers that he'd rubbed elbows with their grandparents.
Sadly for Mr. Gussman, he outlived his contemporaries in the produce industry. "He was the oldest guy around here for 15 years," Mr. Travers said. "He was an icon of the produce industry."
Mr. Travers recalled that Mr. Gussman "loved playing with fruit, creating displays that were outstanding."
Paul DiMare, president of Boston-based DiMare Inc., said that Mr. Gussman was a mentor of sorts to him. He described Mr. Gussman as "honorable" and "one of the best produce people."
"He was a double A house in [the] Blue Book," which meant that he paid his bills every week, Mr. DiMare said. "There aren't a whole lot of companies that do that."
Mr. DiMare said that "everybody respected [Mr. Gussman] in Boston" and that he had a "great list of top-notch shippers."
Mr. Gussman's five siblings -- all brothers -- also worked in fresh produce, though not at Mutual Produce. Mr. Gussman's father also worked in fresh produce.
Mr. Gussman is survived by a son, Bob Gussman, and his wife, Trudi, of Winchester, NH, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Lewis Gussman was preceded in death by his wife, Ethel Rosenberg, in 2004.
Bob Gussman said that the family is considering holding a memorial gathering in the spring.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Today I got a brief message from one of my high school classmates thanking me for getting in touch and asking me to Google his son. His son was killed in action in Baghdad in 2006. I read the many messages from his friends and family on the memorial web site. Seems clear from the messages he was a good soldier and a good man also. He was 22.
Before I went through the pre-deployment processing and training for this trip, I made three visits to Brooke Army Medical Center, which everyone refers to as BAMC--pronounced BAM-See. BAMC is the treatment and rehabilitation center for those who lose limbs. I was in San Antonio for four days, had some free time and thought I ought to go and see what this war really costs.
I talked to parents at BAMC. But they are different than the parents of the dead. Even when their child is maimed, he or she is alive. The parents of the dead have only memories. I have other friends who have lost children. Two men in our unit lost children during this deployment. I went to one of the funerals when I was home on leave.
Part of what we are here for is to comfort each other when we face grief. On this day after Thanksgiving, I am very thankful for four healthy children. And I will put the grieving parents I know at the top of my prayer list.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Here's the story. Photos tomorrow.
Among the hundreds of things I miss about home during my year in Iraq is the Turkey Day bike race in Lancaster County, Penn. This unofficial final race of every season draws 50 or more racers from around the county, and it shows which cyclists kept up with their fitness routines since the end of the season in September. So when I finally got a chance to organize a bike race on Tallil Ali Air Base after six months here, I wanted it to be on Thanksgiving Day.
As far as anyone on the base knows - and there are civilians who have been here since late 2003 - no one has ever organized a bicycle race at Tallil base, or as the Army calls it, Contingency Operating Base (COB) Adder. To the purist, the Task Force Diablo Biathlon was not exactly a bicycle race, but bikes raced in it and bikes crossed the finish line, so it was a bike race.
A biathlon was also an easier sell at Garrison Command because the cyclists don't ride in packs. In July I tried to organize a race for Labor Day weekend. I had a promoter, Rich Ruoff, who put the race on his Web site and was going to handle registrations online. Bike Line of Lancaster gave me two boxes of prizes. I could get medals from the KBR people who organize the running races. Everything was set, but then I met with a sergeant major (who has since left) and the race was over before it started. He wanted me to guarantee participation of at least 100 entrants and guarantee their safety - a tall order for a bike race.
The current garrison sergeant major was stationed in Italy and rides a Colnago road bike himself, so he was more amenable to hosting a race. Early in November, we had a meeting at Garrison, got the green light and started to put together road guard crews, medics and advertising.
Everything was in place, then the day before the race it rained. Real rain. After six arid months here the roads were awash in mud. Tallil has about 20 squat, dirty trees in 20 square miles of base and no grass. As soon as it rains, the armored trucks and fuelers with their four-foot-high tires drag mounds of mud onto the road. I rode that morning and found myself and my bike caked with mud by the end of the ride. I thought the race might be canceled. But by afternoon the sun was out, and an east wind was drying the mud.
We had both team and solo racers. The really cool people race solo. (I have a heel spur and raced as part of a team.) Being half of a team also solved a problem I had with organizing a bike race and riding in it. I was worried about winning my own race. But since I was in the "less cool" category I did not worry. We also kept the distance short -5k run, 15k bike - which favors the runners.
At 5:00 a.m. I walked the ¼-mile to the start/transition area at the House of Pain gym. I walked both of my bikes because my commander, Lt. Col. Scott Perry, was borrowing my single-speed mountain for the race. By the end of the race he wished it had gears.
The coffee shop is just 200 meters from the House of Pain so I could start the day caffeinated. The road guards started arriving right away and the medics followed soon after. By 5:45 there were only 20 competitors. Five minutes later we had the safety briefing and I gave the race instructions. I thought I was very clear. But not everyone listened.
At 6:10 a.m., 30 racers started the 5k run. Ten were doing only the run. Six of us stood at the side of the road and watched the runners disappear in the pre-dawn gloom of this cloudy morning. We were the riders in the team event. Around the edge of the House of Pain parking lot, leaning on the concrete blast walls, sat two dozen bikes - from a perfectly clean 20-speed Giant carbon road bike with bladed spokes to a $100 mud-covered PX special.
After the runners left, I did a few sprints to get warmed up. There's just no way to be a race organizer and warm up. As the race timing clock neared 18 minutes, my partner, Sgt. Derek Miller, made the final turn on the 5k run. When he finished, I took off riding as hard as I could into a 10mph east wind. Our main competitors were a pair of Air Force security police. Their runner was nearly a minute behind mine, but their rider had gears and I was on a single-speed road bike. As it turned out, the only other rider I saw was the guy on the 20-speed Giant. He was coming toward me when I was just past half way. He yelled, "Am I going the wrong way?" I said yes and kept pedaling. He won't do another race without riding the course first.
At 50:12, I was the first finisher. The Air Force team was two minutes behind. The next finisher was the overall solo winner, Maj. Joel Allmandinger, followed by two more solo competitors. Their race for fourth was the best race of the event. The two riders are both colonels, Colonel Perry, who commands the aviation battalion, and Lt. Col. David Callahan, the deputy commander of the armored brigade at COB Adder. The pilot beat the tanker in the run, but Colonel Perry was on a single speed mountain bike. He was O.K. on the first part of the course riding into the east wind, but on the south side of the course the tank commander could change gears and was going 6 or 7 mph faster with the tail wind. Colonel Perry got passed on the south side. Colonel Callahan stayed ahead until the finish.
After the race I handed out the helmets, gloves and water bottles from Lancaster Bike Line and the medals from KBR. I am hoping we can do one more race on December 19th.
Sgt. Neil Gussman rejoined the Army in 2007 after a 23-year break in service. He blogs every day about his experiences as a 56-year-old soldier at http://armynow.blogspot.com. Sergeant Gussman is a Category 3 masters racer. He has done more than 120 races since he turned 50, including three while he was home on leave in June.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
When the IED exploded it ripped through the left side of the humvee. The vehicle commander and the other passenger were shaken but not badly injured. The driver, 19-year-old Spc. David Broome was not so lucky.
His legs and hands were bleeding. His right thigh was badly damaged.
Medics were at the site in moments. They stabilized Broome, then loaded him in an M113 armored personnel carrier for transport to a MEDEVAC site.
After that short ride, Broome began a long journey from rescue, to recovery, to return to duty.
He was flown by Black Hawk to Baghdad hospital and initially treated for what he remembers as two or three days.
After that, he was transferred to the hospital at Joint Base Balad, where further treatment was performed on his badly injured right thigh. The next stop was the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, then Fort Gordon, Ga.
In all, Broome was a patient in four hospitals for nearly two months before going home to begin the rehabilitation process.
After several surgeries and treatments, he regained the use of his right leg, but some of his thigh muscle is missing so he has limitations.
In 2008, when the pre-mobilization training began for his current deployment to Contingency Operating Base Adder with Task Force Diablo, Broome looked at deploying a bit differently from most Soldiers.
He knew how dangerous duty in Iraq could be. But he also was ready to go back.
“I’d say I am 50/50 about being outside the wire,” said Broome. “Part of me wanted to get back out on the road and see how much had changed from 2005, but part of me is happy to stay here on Tallil.”
At 23, Broome already has six years of service. The Manayunk , Pa., native enlisted at 17 after being a member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Roxborough High School. He went to basic training in June 2003, and then to advanced training in 2004 to become a human resources specialist.
In January 2005, he was mobilized with the Pennsylvania National Guard’s “B” Troop, 1st Squadron, 104th Cavalry Regiment.
In June 2005, he was in Ar Ramadi.
Two of the biggest battles of the war were fought in Ramadi. According to Michael Fumento, who wrote about 101st Airborne operations in Ramadi, the phrase “The graveyard of the Americans” was scrawled on the walls of the city of 400,000.
Broome was assigned as a human resources specialist, but spent less than a week in that job.
“They needed more soldiers on patrol, so I was attached to a Vermont line platoon,” Broome said. “My truck commander taught me room clearing, convoy route security and detainee operations.”
“We responded when the gate got attacked,” he said. “We were attached to a Marine unit for missions.”
Broome served four months on security and patrol duty until he was injured and evacuated from Iraq.
“I know this tour is rough on some of the first timers,” said the Purple Heart recipient, resting his hand on his right leg as he spoke. “But compared to my first tour this time is cake for me.”
Sunday, November 22, 2009
So I got up at 0440 and went to the gym to take the PT Test at 0530. The first event is the pushup. I need to do 56 in two minutes to max--get 100 points for the event. I got 49. Not bad. I was tired. I have done 56 when I felt really good, but after the 100km ride, I did not feel "really good." The situps were next. I needed 66. I got 66 in a minute, 50 seconds. Because I am over 55 I can take an alternative to the run. For the bike I have to ride 10km in 30 minutes. I am not allowed to change gears--which is fine since I have single-speed bikes. I rode the 6.2 mile course with 7 turn arounds in 20:03 on the road bike. For the PT Test, I ode the mountain bike and finished in 22:37.
I expected to have a full day's rest before the PT Test. I didn't. It's nice to know that I can score 288 out of 300 on a day when I am tired and haven't had much sleep. But I was wiped out afterward. I worked in the morning, but felt like I had cotton inside my skull. I took a nap at lunch.
Now I have to just be cool till Thursday morning and the race.
Being over here made me think more about high school and how life twists and turns. In September, when I started writing stories that got picked up on the Web across the world, my friend Meredith Gould reminded me that "wherever you go, there you are." Taking a year off from public relations had the result of me getting more stories published than in any two-month period in my life. So I go 6,000 miles from my writing job and--here I am.
Steve Thorley, a neighbor on Oak Street who graduated in 1973, wrote to me on Facebook remembering me as the kid who always wanted to play Army--even when the other kids had moved on to stick and ball sports. At six or seven, I was the kid with the toy gun. And here I am, fifty years later, back in the Army and carrying a gun, when every other soldier in my age group has long since left the Army or is retired. I left the Army in 1984 because I wanted to be a writer and thought the commitment the Reserves required would mean I could not both become a writer and be a soldier. Turns out I would have been OK.
My wife Annalisa, following Steven Covey and philosophers all the way back to Aristotle, thinks we are defined by out habits. CS Lewis agrees. He says real virtue must become habit. It must not be simply an act of will, but virtue should train the will to respond correctly.
I have written recently that I had a soldier's reaction in situations where a public relations manager would do something different. My habits right now say I am a writer and a soldier and they do not seem mutually exclusive. So I am both the man who is observing intently to get the right detail for the story or the right picture to go with it. And I have the habits of a man who safely carries a weapon everywhere every day and who reacts to do the right thing for his soldiers first and get the story second.
Friday, November 20, 2009
One stop on the same mission in the last post Camp Echo. When we landed, the crew told me there would be grilled steaks waiting for them after they got their paperwork and loading/unloading completed. I was skeptical, but when I came back from a visit to the Charlie MEDEVAC TOC (Tactical Operations Center) a smiling man with a big black cowboy hat, an enormous belt buckle and, according to the Alpha crew, an even bigger heart, was grilling steaks outside the blast wall.
That man was James “Country” Curtis, 46, of Olden, Texas. Curtis has been the passenger terminal manager in Diwaniya since June of 2008. Curtis controls the airfield and does what he can to help soldiers passing through Camp Echo “enjoy the time they spend here.” The Alpha crew definitely enjoyed Country’s cooking. It’s a skill he has had a long time to perfect. Except for R&R leaves home, Curtis has worked in Iraq since February 2004. “I was a truck driver at the base in Babylon,” he said. “When that closed we took over the former Spanish base here at Diwaniya. I drove trucks till last year when I started working at the airfield.” Curtis plans to return to Texas next year, maybe to work his farm, maybe to drive trucks, maybe both. “That’s next year. I’ll see what happens when I get back home.”
The fuel crew at Diwaniya is very good at their work according to the air crews. They roll out to fuel the birds as soon as they land. And they dress so brightly only one wears a PT Belt.
Last Month I wrote part of the story below--about the Blackhawk pilot who was a pilot for Gov. Blagojevich of Illinois in civilian life. Here is the four-man crew and their four very different backgrounds.
Task Force Diablo is based in Pennsylvania but includes units and soldiers from across the nation. Because National Guard soldiers bring a variety of life and work experiences with them on deployment, even the smallest unit can include soldiers with a surprising array of skills and experience. In September Alaska-based, Charlie 1-52nd MEDEVAC needed a crew for the chase bird for a routine flight to two of their remote sites. Alpha 1-106th from Illinois supplied a crew for a Pennsylvania 1-150th Blackhawk helicopter. The four soldiers who comprised the Illinois crew on a Pennsylvania helicopter following an Alaska MEDEVAC show how different the members of a four-man unit can be.
Flying in Iraq and Flying in the Spotlight
In the left pilot seat is Chief Warrant Officer Four Patrick Schroeder, 38, an Instructor Pilot with 21 years of service. The Sherman, Illinois, native joined the Army in 1988 and served as a UH-1 “Huey” mechanic for four years before attending flight school. He has been a pilot “24/7” ever since. In 2003 he took a job as one of the pilots who fly the Governor of Illinois. Because he deployed in January of 2009, Schroeder served as a pilot for Governor Rod Blagojevich from shortly after the time he took office in 2003 until shortly before the notorious governor was removed from office in 2009.
Schroeder would say nothing about flying the governor except to say that he enjoyed the times he was able to fly Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn and looks forward to flying for Governor Quinn when he returns from deployment. Schroeder was married just a month before his current deployment and took his R&R (Rest and Recreation) leave as a honeymoon in Australia. Schroeder is on his second deployment. He first deployed in Iraq in 2004-5 with Alpha 1-106th for 15 months.
Pilot Engineers a Successful Dual Career
Next to Schroeder in the right pilot seat was Chief Warrant Officer Two Nathan McKean, 31, of Decatur, Illinois. McKean has served 12 years, beginning with four years in the Navy building bombs on the aircraft carrier USS Stennis and in a combat search and rescue unit based in San Diego. McKean came home in 2001, enrolled in college, and joined the Army National Guard. He trained as a crew chief and later deployed to Iraq for the first time with Bravo Company 1-106th in 2004-5. After leaving active duty, McKean decided he needed a good job that would allow him time off for military duty—lots of time off. In 2002, he took a job as an engineer on the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Within a year he was training to go to Iraq, then left for a deployment of 15 months.
Soon after he returned he went to flight school for a year, then had additional training before his current tour in Iraq which began in January. McKean estimates he has worked on the railroad for 2-1/2 years, but has more than seven year’s seniority.
Blackhawk Crew Chief Plans Fixed-Wing Future
Behind McKean on the right side of the Blackhawk was Sgt. Steve Sunzeri, 26, of Naperville, Illinois. Sunzeri has six years in the Illinois Army National Guard. From 2003-7 he served as a scout and infantryman with
Charlie Company 2-106th Cavalry. In 2006 he completed the require-ments for a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Then in 2007-8 he reclassified to become a flight crew chief, deploying in 2009 with Alpha Company.
After nearly two years of service in helicopters,
Sunzeri will return to college to earn a degree in Aviation Management at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and at the same time train to be a commercial pilot. If everything falls into place, he will start school in the Spring Semester of 2010. “My goal is to fly fixed wing aircraft for a major airline,” Sunzeri said. In the meantime he will be earning the ratings necessary to become a fixed wing pilot while earning a degree that will help him achieve his career goals. He will continue to serve as a crew chief in the Illinois Army National Guard while he attends college and completes flight training.
Door Gunner on Third Deployment at 24
In the left seat behind the pilot is the door gunner, the youngest member of the crew and the one with the most combat deployments. Cpl. Michael Randazzo, 24, of Queens, N.Y., is on his third deployment in six years of Army National Guard service. Randazzo enlisted shortly after graduating high school serving first as an infantryman with the New York based 1-69th Infantry Regiment. In May of 2004 Randazzo deployed with the 1-69th to Baghdad and Taji patrolling and conducting raids. Randazzo also worked route clearance patrolling Route Irish. When he returned from Iraq, Randazzo worked for an executive protection company until June 2008 when he volunteered to return to Iraq as a door gunner with 3-142nd Aviation Regiment. Near the end of that tour, he volunteered for a second consecutive tour as a door gunner with Alpha 1-106th. When this tour is complete Randazzo plans to return to New York City and “squeeze in a semester of college” before going to flight school in the fall of 2010. After flight school he will continue his college education until 2012 when he plans to deploy to Afghanistan as an Army helicopter pilot.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
My Band of Brothers. The two guys in the middle, Matt and Dale, run
public affairs for the Brigade (the next higher unit, 2000 soldiers) and
the guy on the right, Andy, works for a 700-soldier unit that is part of
the brigade. Matt and Andy are very good writers. Dale is admin
mostly--but really good with paperwork and politics.
Matt and Dale got me the camera that got me back into photography. They were also very encouraging, meeting with me every week in the summer when I was doubting I could do half of what I was assigned and dealing with all the difficulties in the motor pool. Matt and Dale, more than anyone else here, got me through July and August.
Andy is a good writer who is assigned as a truck driver. He has only a little college, but is an avid reader. He is a good guy. We will be keeping in touch when we are back in America. I am hoping he can get work as a writer.
We hold our weapons down in Iraq, but I thought, as the oldest member of the group by about two decades, I should hold the weapon the way we did back in the 70s.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Capt. Peter Huggins, executive officer of Charlie 1-52nd MEDEVAC, was
very careful to say that the Army response time standard for a MEDEVAC
call is fifteen minutes. That is fifteen minutes from the time the
9-line MEDEVAC request is received until the mission is in the air.
But in the day room, the hangar, the ready rooms and at the picnic
tables, flight medics, pilots, crew chiefs and chase-crew door gunners
all know the real goal is eight minutes. One day recently, I was at
Charlie MEDEVAC waiting to talk to a medic when the 9-line came in. The
sky was clear and temperature was just over 120 degrees. When I heard
the call on radios all around the area, I looked at my watch, marked the
time, and went straight out to where the Blackhawks sit enclosed by
blast walls waiting to take off. The crew chiefs and right-seat pilots
of both aircraft were already getting their Blackhawks ready for flight.
The flight medic and both left-seat pilots were in the TOC (Tactical
Operations Center) getting a mission brief.
Within three minutes the twin turbine engines were screaming and the
huge rotor blades were starting to turn. I walked along the blast walls
to the front of the aircraft so I could watch the takeoff from directly
under their flight path.
The main rotors turned faster and faster. I moved to a dead air spot
between the shuddering Blackhawks where I was not being buffeted by the
wind from the main rotors. The pilots and the flight medic jumped into
their seats. The tail rotors were spinning crazy fast looking like they
might pick the whole aircraft up from the back. The roaring sound from
the rotors suddenly dropped to a lower pitch.
In that moment of quiet, the medic bird took off. At first slowly
upward, then twisting to the right it banked up into the air,
straightened out and shot into the distance.
The chase bird was seconds behind following the same counterclockwise
curve into the sky. Eighteen seconds short of eight minutes--and gone.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
I used to smoke. Most of my life from 13 to 33 I smoked. I estimated something on the order of 100,000 cigarettes. I am well past any current desire to smoke, but I still consider myself a smoker--at least in the sense that a long stretch of my life was limited by that bad habit.
And now I carry a gun. I have been carrying a gun for a year. I ride my bike with a gun. I wonder about using the gun. As my last day on the range showed, I am only accurate with the gun if it is supported by something. Without resting the gun on a sandbag or a wall, I can't fire very well. So I left work tonight in a light rain thinking about the gun on my back. I was distracted. I rode south into the darkest part of the base where the road is smooth as glass, but there are no buildings and no lights. Almost as soon as I turned on this usually lonely road I was between two walls of trucks. Just off both sides of the road were 50 huge flatbed trucks parked end to end with armored vehicles on nearly every one of them. Some of the flatbeds were the huge 4-axle armored tractors towing 5-axle trailers designed to carry armored vehicles. These long trailers have 40 tires.
With MRAPS and ASV Armored Gun Platforms, the twin lines of tall trucks strapped to flatbeds made the ride seem to be in a tunnel. The sky was black with clouds and made a roof. The ride pulled me back to the scariest ride I ever had in Hong Kong. I was flying down the mountain above this unbelievably crowded city and entered the middle lane of a three-lane wide one-way street. I was passing a double decker bus to my right. It was a flat steel wall on the left, they drive on the right. So I was riding next to a 15-foot high steel wall when the double-decker bus in the left lane started to move right. I jumped on the pedals and hoped I could pass the right bus before I became a smear between them.
I made it.
So I snapped myself out of that memory when I passed the long line of trucks. Then I was alone in the desert. Usually a bus or a maintenance truck will go past. Nothing. No one. I rode all the way to the east end of the base and north to main post before I saw another human being or vehicle. That started to get spooky after two miles and it was four miles that I was alone.
I am going to my book group now to talk about book 11 of Aeneid when Camilla gets killed.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Here are some photos from today.
Spc. Aaron Trimmer, the armorer, fixes weapons at the range
Prone firing position
Staff Sgt. Hummel ran the range from the tower
Friday, November 13, 2009
In the next few days I will be updating some of the stories you already read, if you have been reading for the past two months--or they will be new stories if you weren't. I will be posting the full version of the story about the crew that includes Governor Rod Blagojevich's pilot. I am also writing an update to the Jason Guge PT Belt story. I will also post the latest version of Eight Minutes and Gone for those who don't get the Task Force Diablo Newsletter.
And on a completely different note, my main riding buddy convinced me we could do a Century next Sunday--on a single speed! We'll see.
This led us to the trials of faithful Aeneas as recorded in Virgil's epic. All of us wish we could identify with Aeneas, his troops, and even his enemies. They face danger with no regret. When they die they are brave to the final moment. We don't get a lot of chances to face real danger and we hope we will do it well. But the gods in the epic--we know them. The generals and political leaders above them are the gods in our story. They are powerful, able to move thousands of soldiers at their will, but like the Roman gods, they all have a specific territory they are in charge of. When they step outside that territory another god will fight them, or appeal to Jupiter to settle the dispute.
So a big group of us train together, arrive together, serve together, then at the stroke of a pen, most of the group goes home a month early--including the Christmas holidays--and the rest of us stay here as planned. It all makes sense to someone in Baghdad with a big map, but to us it all looks arbitrary and territorial, like the gods in Virgil's Aeneid.
Before some of the extreme beliefs of the 18th century became the mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century, most well-educated people read "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius. This book, written in the 6th century AD, may be the best ever written on how Destiny or Providence can guide an individual life in a world dominated by chaos. Our world is contingent, chaotic we live by faith daily even when we don't want to, and yet some people follow a destiny laid out by God.
The Greeks and Romans imagined the world as dominated by a chaos, with the gods making the chaos worse in many cases, yet the greatest men were guided by the fates--predestined to greatness. Boethius shows how this works in a Christian believer's life. The main difference is that only those of high birth and merit had a destiny in the Greco-Roman world. In the Christian world, it is quite the reverse. Those who most fully focus on doing the Lord's will, and usually being notable failures in this life, find God's will most fully. Mother Teresa's intent to love and serve lepers in Calcutta eventually led to fame for her, but she began as lowly as possible and was exalted for it. Reading Virgil and Boethius reminds me that a program with great ambition for control and power in this life, even with a designer Christian label, is aiming at the Roman heaven of senators and generals. The Christian Heaven of the Man of Sorrows is in another direction.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
While my heel feels better, my running is way down from last year. But my shoulder is recovering well and my back is holding up just fine despite wearing body armor on flights. So far this year I have done 10,547 situps, 8365 pushups and 705 pull ups, but who's counting. We have a PT test sometime this month. Because I am over 55, I do not have to run. For my aerobic test, I can either run, walk, swim (if there was water) OR RIDE THE BIKE!!!! No kidding. I'll take the bike. I have to ride 10km (6.2 miles) in 28 minutes to pass. And since the bike is pass fail, the score I get is the average of my other two events. I think there is a chance I will be able max the test. In any case, I should get a good score, I have ridden 10k in 16 minutes in the US, so 28 minutes should be very easy to do.
The Biathlon is two weeks from today on Thanksgiving morning. I have no odea what the attendance will be.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
After two of these I will be homesick for Army events. To all of my friends for whom some of their job is organizing events: Nancy, Audrey, Sarah, Brigitte, Kristine, Bob and Rick--just try to picture having eight speakers and performers who show up early for each rehearsal, who practice their talks and performances, who speak politely to all of the event staff, who are happy for the opportunity to be part of the performance, an audience that actually shuts off or ignores their phones and Blackberries. I could go on, but you get the idea. With a group like this last-minute changes are a breeze.
And like last time, the event started precisely on the minute, you'll see why in the talk. Everyone performed as we rehearsed. No one went over time.
What a great day.
Welcome to the Celebration of Veteran’s Day on COB Adder. I am Sergeant Neil Gussman of Task Force Diablo.
This ceremony began at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—exactly 91 years after the Allied Armies accepted the surrender of Germany marking the end of World War One in 1918. This terrible conflict killed and maimed millions of soldiers. France suffered worst. The war was fought almost entirely inside her borders. This beautiful country had a population of 60 million when the war began in 1914. Four years later a million French soldiers were dead, five million were wounded. This global conflict introduced the world to many of the most horrible weapons of modern war. In 1916, the Germans had the infamy of being the first to use chemical warfare, releasing chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders on a clear morning in Belgium and killing thousands of mostly French troops who did not know that the green cloud rolling toward them meant agonizing death, until it was too late. Using aircraft to bomb troops and civilians began in World War One. Tanks made their terrible debut on the battlefields of this war. When the First World War ended it was called “The War to End All Wars.”
But this horrible war with millions dead led our nation and other nations to honor not only those who died for their country, but those who lived to enjoy the freedom that their service gave to all of us. That is why we are here today, to honor all those who have served before us in Iraq and Afghanistan, to honor those who served in the Gulf War, in Panama, in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Viet Nam, in Korea, and in World War Two. We are also here to honor each other. Everyone who wears the uniform in this room is a veteran. We are all members of an exclusive club. If you add together every soldier, airmen, sailor and marine including National Guard and reserve, there are less than two million men and women in uniform. That is less than two-thirds of one percent of the US population. It’s the same number of US citizens who hold PhD degrees in either the arts or sciences.
So enjoy the program. Make this the day you thank the veteran sitting next to you for his or her service. Maybe call that uncle or aunt you haven’t talked to for a while who served in the Gulf War or Viet Nam. Thank them for their service.
From this old soldier who enlisted during Viet Nam, thank you for your service.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
“I really like my job when things go wrong or, better still, when I can prevent things from going wrong in the first place,” said Ballard, 26, of Granby, Conn. She is a battle captain in the Tactical Operations Center of the 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment.
“My job is all about contingencies and troubleshooting,” said Ballard. “When things go well, I am just waiting.”
Ballard may say she is just waiting, but the staff of the TOC is busy around the clock tracking every flight in the battalion, monitoring weather, monitoring security, updating higher headquarters and ensuring every mile of every flight is tracked and recorded from pre-flight to after-operations debriefings.
The tracking methods vary from the sophisticated Blue Force Tracker system, to sending updates to every other TOC in theater online through Microsoft Internet Relay Chat, or MIRC, to a large white board on the wall with the status of every mission updated constantly in dry-erase marker.
MIRC is a large chat room that allows TOCs throughout Iraq to keep each other informed of aircraft status and position. This is especially useful for MEDEVAC operations to track lifesaving mission progress which sometimes require transfer from one helicopter to another on a long journey from the point of injury to the best possible care.
The TOC itself is an open room with a row of large, flat-screen monitors on the wall. These monitors allow operations personnel to see weather across the region and the BFT position of active flights. One of the big screens can be tuned to Armed Forces Network TV to get current events.
On the other side of the room are a raised platform and a long desk with several computers, phones and monitors. The operations crew sits at this table facing the row of monitors and at two lower desks in front of the raised platform. The battle captain sits at the long desk near the status white board. Directly in front of the Soldiers are one to three monitors and laptop screens for various computer systems.
Looking from the service counter, the row of video monitors with their colorful displays and the operators at the phones and monitors, make the room look like a plywood, low-ceiling version of a NASA control room. At any hour of the day, the room can range from eerily quiet to buzzing with activity.
Late in October, there was an evening when the buzz of activity hit maximum. That particular evening three mission sets—each one consisting of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters—took off in the dark as usual and started to spread across Iraq with their cargo of troops and supplies. Within 15 minutes two of the flights were returning to COB Adder for maintenance issues.
What began as a routine evening became a full-on maintenance emergency with three pairs of helicopters returning from three directions.
“One of the first pair of Chinooks could not be fixed,” she said. “The crew had to take their weapons and equipment to a spare bird while ground teams moved the cargo.”
The second pair of aircraft came back for a non-emergency repair, but one that would have grounded the mission. The answer to the problem was to switch one of the helicopters from the third mission set with one from the second. Again this meant two five-member crews moving guns, ammo and flight gear while ground crews moved passengers and cargo.
“I was on the phones and the radio non-stop for 90 minutes,” Ballard said.
Within an hour and a half, all three mission sets were back in the air and on their way to their destinations. It would be a longer night than everyone anticipated, but all the missions that night were completed.
“We didn’t get dinner for quite a while that night,” she said. “We were starving.” Like all the battle captains in the TOC, Ballard is a pilot. She flies CH-47 Chinooks as does her husband Seth who serves as a maintenance test pilot and maintenance officer in the battalion. The Ballards met at flight school and have been together ever since.
In addition to Ballard, the other 2nd Bn., 104th AR battle captains are Capt. James Cragg, Capt. John Hoffman and Capt. Paul Ward, UH-60 Blackhawk pilots; Capt. Nathan Smith, CH-47 Chinook pilot, and 1st Lt. Jason Collier, AH-64D Apache Longbow pilot.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
Then I quit taking pictures. In fact, I don't actually own a camera. I have a camera in my cell phone and that has been enough. Everyone around me seems to have cameras so I let them take pictures. Over the last week I started to remember one of the reasons why I stopped. The camera hurts the soul of the photographer. It doesn't steal your soul--that might be better. But the more pictures I take and the better they are, the more I am "the guy with the camera."
Now when people have events they want me to take the picture. And they want me to take the picture they way they want it--which means the picture is going to suck anyway. It will suck in my $3000 camera (Army Property) instead of sucking in their $100 camera.
Why will it suck. Because inevitably, they envision a photo beginning with the BACKGROUND. Their goal is a tourist photo which includes themselves and all of the Ziggurat of Ur, or a square mile of desert, or an entire Chinook Helicopter. Which means the people disappear. YUCK.
I take photos: eyes first, then face, then enough of the rest of the body to convey attitude. I want to see someone through their work.
So the real problem is that I am becoming more judgmental than I already am. Cameras are harsh. People who look good normally can look bad in pictures. They look worse in my kind of pictures because I get close. I start to look at people through the lens and know before the first shot they will look bad. I know most people around me are happy with the photos they take. I would not have cared before I was shooting pictures four days a week. Now I am looking at them like they drink $3 boxed wine.
So if I am not careful, it will be me who loses his soul, from the back side of the camera.
Earlier this year when an American soldier was captured in Afghanistan, most soldiers turned and watched the news when there was something about that soldier, then turned back when that segment was over. It has been that way since the shooting. If there is a report from Hood, people watch, if not they turn back to their conversation. The darkest comments are of the WTF variety "What the F#$k were they thinking when this scum bag was admiring suicide bombers on blogs and trying to get out of deploying."
I was talking to another friend before this tragedy about chance and Providence. CS Lewis, following Boethius (The Consolation of Philosophy), says we live in a created world in which chance and randomness rule the lives of every creature except those who are following God's will for their lives. This may seem like abstract theology, but at times like this and 9/11 and other tragedies, if you believe the created universe is determined down to the movement of particles, then an event like this can only be God's will. A field-grade officer murdering his fellow soldiers is not God's will. The Lord gave us free will and at times like this I wish it were otherwise. But we are free to love, or not. So right now to this random act of violence we are all free to do the Lord's work in caring for the victims and their families.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
With my new job, I can sleep till 0700 if I want to eat the everything breakfast. I can sleep till 0800 if I want to skip breakfast. We get up 5 hours apart and we both work days--sort of. I work 9 to 6 then come back, eat dinner, work out or go to book groups, then work till midnight or later sometimes. So I can sleep late. Nickey has a fixed schedule. So when I come in the CHU to change at 6 or 7pm Nickey is sometimes already asleep. He is almost always asleep by the time I pickup my pack to go back to work at 9 or 10 at night.
If I work late enough I might be up for his alarm. Nickey is a great roommate. We each do our best to keep the room dark and quiet for the other. Nickey's locker divides the room so we each have low-power lamps we can use while the other one is sleeping. Most days, one of us is asleep between 8pm and 8am.
Right now Nickey and I are on sleep schedules so far apart it is as if one of us was in China and one in Iraq. Or one in Iceland and one Iraq. Five time zones is the difference between the east coast of the US and London, or between Chicago and Hawaii, Paris and Mumbai.
Last week a good friend of mine lost his job because of a stupid remark he made to one of his soldiers and this week the whole issue came to a head. He is not the kind of guy who fights back when he is wrong, so he is just going to accept his punishment. Others who have done worse have skated by without a problem. He seems like an example of how good people get screwed, but in the past week while this drama unfolded, he has seen how many people respect him, stand behind him and support him. So he really is getting virtue's reward, love when you need it--more than you expect.
The day I knew I was a wreck was Wednesday. I was writing a farewell to Charlie MEDEVAC for the newsletter that comes out Monday. I have only known those guys for two months and only know a dozen of them personally, but that company is the most professional, together, and focused unit I have worked with directly since I have been in the Army. Anyway, I was writing the essay and started to cry. At that point I knew I was getting too little sleep, having too much excitement, and needed a rest.
I am going to send the newsletter to the people who I have email addresses for. If you want a copy, send me an email at email@example.com and I will add you to the list.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Sgt. James McKeithan, a door gunner in Company B, Task Force Diablo, checks his equipment before a flight at Camp Adder, Tallil, Iraq. As a door gunner in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter, McKeithan flies the night skies. He said the most exciting mission he would have gone on, a support role in an air assault, actually got canceled.
The runner-up was what he described as a hot unloading of pallets at Basra. This means the pallets are dropped from the cargo ramp while the helicopter is still moving. McKeithan said the most difficult part of his job came when he was required to perform overnight missions on eight consecutive nights.
A resident of Carlisle, Pa., 22-year-old McKeithan is a full-time Army National Guard Soldier. He served on the Pennsylvania Army National Guard's Mobile Event Team before he deployed to Iraq. He plans to serve full-time with the Guard when he returns and attend college at night. He has one year of college left to finish earning his degree as a registered nurse.
After that, he will pursue additional training to become a nurse anesthetist. When he is not working, McKeithan is a competitor. His last Army physical fitness score was 336 (300 is considered a perfect score), with a two-mile run time of 12 minutes and 12 seconds. He said his goal is 350 with a run time of 11 minutes and 30 seconds. He plans to run the Army 10-Miler in Iraq. He said he ran the race in Washington D.C. in 2008 with a time of one hour and six minutes. He also participates in mixed martial arts fighting and is a registered competitor in four states.
The course profile is the same as an ironing board--flat. I am hoping to have 100 teams or individuals. I am going to make the race flyer in the morning. Advertising should begin by Saturday. Three weeks today till the start.
When I went to the garrison sergeant major's office to get approval for the race, he said we first had to talk about a Veteran's Day ceremony on Wednesday the 11th. I am going to be the emcee. I contacted the guy who will (I hope) be the featured speaker--one of the chaplains who is a regular at the CS Lewis book group.
This Monday I am going to send the newsletter I do to everyone I sent it too a month ago. This seventh issue really is good. With the help of Sgt. Matt Jones at 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, the simple layout I use is starting to look better. And I got some really good shots that I am using full page so they would not look as dramatic on the blog.
Too many great things happened this week to even write them all down. One sad thing for me I realized this morning is the Charlie MEDEVAC Company is leaving. They have been the source of some of my best stories and are one of the best units it has ever been my pleasure to be associated with. They are going back to Alaska soon and another MEDEVAC will take their place. I re-wrote the Eight Minutes and Gone blog post from two months ago as a tribute/goodbye to them and re-cropped some pictures for the past page of the newsletter.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
In 1999 Reynaldo Santos of Great Falls, Mont., needed an age waiver to join the Army National Guard at age 36. "It was tough joining at that age, but I had a goal. I wanted to be judge and everyone told me, 'You need to be a Soldier to be a judge.'" And it turned out he needed some actual experience as a Soldier. Santos ran for judge that same year and was defeated.
"It wasn't bad though," he said. "I was fourth among 16 candidates, so I knew I could get better." He had the right academic credentials: an associate degree in criminal justice, two bachelor's degrees: one in paralegal studies and one pre-law, and a master's degree in criminal justice administration. Over the following decade, he would get more than enough military experience. Santos trained as a military policeman and began a series of active duty deployments that continue right through today.
"My first deployment was what they called an extended annual training," said Santos. "We went to Kuwait for six months in 2001 returning on Sept. 1. We got activated again on Sept. 12 for months." Returning from his post 9/11 duties, Santos trained as an aircraft fueler. In 2002 he was put on active duty as a fueler and went back to Kuwait as a fueler in the build up and opening months of the Iraq War.
"We were there before it started," he said. He was home for a year then deployed to Iraq again in 2004 for another year, returning in 2005. At that point he parlayed his military experience into a job as crisis manager of the University of Great Falls. Santos is certainly building up his resume for his next run at becoming a Justice of the Peace.
A father of five and grandfather of eight, he is currently on his third deployment to Iraq, this time as a Staff Sergeant with Echo Company, 2/104 General Support Aviation Battalion, working again as a fueler. He plans on returning to his job with the university next year after his current deployment but will be keeping his eye on the opportunity to run for Justice of the Peace when he returns home.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Last night we discussed Eros in the CS Lewis book group. The discussion went on for all but two hours. So we were talking about Romantic love and going back to define friendship (philia) again to be sure the contrast is clear. In the course of discussing Eros, I became very aware that I was part of a group of friends. Steve, Abbie, Gene, Ian and Edgardo--the regular members--really do bring their own perspectives to the group and, as Lewis says, bring things out in the other friends that would never be as clear otherwise. Gene and Edgardo are both chaplains and both orthodox in their beliefs, but are very different politically. With Edgardo gone home on R&R leave the last week, we only have one chaplain and not the interplay between Edgardo and Gene. Abbie and Steve are both Air Force and both friends outside the group, but Abbie is intuitive and Steve is logical. They play off each other very well. Ian is younger than all the rest of us and, like Abbie, goes to both book groups. He is about 6'6" tall and quiet until a subject hits a chord in him, which Eros did. Ian could give us the single-guy perspective on Eros in new Millenium, showing CS Lewis needs some updating.
I said I would start to talk about what I would miss in Iraq. This group of friends is at the top of my list.
Monday, November 2, 2009
The dust storms are supposed to hit us tomorrow. If they do, my mileage will be down. I was hoping to ride at least 33 miles a day. If I can do that, this will be a 1,000-mile month.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Last week I was eating with a few older soldiers and we were talking about going home. "We're never going to eat like this at home," said one of the sergeants. He was so right. Because even if we could eat like this, the price would be ridiculous. Here it's just part of daily life so we can eat like this and not think about the expense or whether eating like this means someone else is going without. We never asked for the particular array of fruits the Army provides and if they were gone tomorrow we would have no effective way to get our fruit basket back. The guys at remote bases get fresh fruit once in a while, some more than others, but nothing like here.