Sunday, February 28, 2010

Breakfast with Jack

This morning I had breakfast with my Uncle Jack. He retired from active duty with the Air Force in 1978 and is currently living in the Orlando area. I am attending an analytical instrument conference in Orlando, so we could get together for a visit.

At a small table in Einstein's Bagel Shop we talked about the military from various angles. One subject I have not written about that was on both of our minds is how the military evaluates soldiers and airmen and how one bad evaluation can end a career. Jack told me about a colonel he worked for who looked like a future general. this otherwise rising star made a high official in the Ford administration angry and his career ended there. He talked about other people he knew who got the one bad evaluation and Poof! career blows away.

And the technique is simple. All evaluations are terribly skewed so that the actual "average" score for any given rank is far above the middle of the scale. When I was on active duty in the 1970s, Army enlisted evaluations were on a 125 point scale. The "average" score was 117 for Sgt. E-5s. For a 1st Sgt. it was 122. Back then, a good evaluation had each block completely filled superlatives if you wanted to say that a given NCO was really great. Lots of people got 125-point scores, it took more to say that someone was truly outstanding.

On the other hand, if you wanted to screw someone, all you had to do was put an honest score in the boxes and less than gushing prose in the comment boxes. The sergeant with a score of 110 or less and half-filled comment blocks was a shit bag. Everybody reading the form knew this for the rest of that soldier's career.

Some of the best people in my unit got screwed in exactly this way. More on that later.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Meeting in the Airport

In the security line this morning at Harrisburg Intl. Airport, I saw Spc. Jared Arthur, one of the Echo Company fuelers I served with in Iraq. He is still officially on leave. He had accumulated a lot of leave by working full time in the Guard before we left. He said he and Sgt. Matt Kauffman might be getting fueling jobs full time at Fort Indiantown Gap. It was good to see somebody I served with and better to hear that two more returning soldiers have jobs.

Another soldier who went right back to work is the commander of Task Force Diablo, Lt. Col. Scott Perry. He is the representative for the 92nd District in the Pennsylvania Legislature. He is already on a state government reform panel. He went back to work February 1.

I am in Orlando for a conference on analytical instrumentation. We hand out an award at the event. But the really important part of the event for me is riding in warm weather and my Uncle Jack lives nearby, so we will have coffee tomorrow before my work starts. When I told one of my co-workers here I was going to meet my Uncle who occasional wrote for the blog, she assumed he was not really my uncle--or that I made him up. For anyone else who thinks that, Uncle Jack is a real live retired major who flew F-4s and mid-air refueling missions and had three tours in Viet Nam in a 20-year career.

So we will be telling war stories tomorrow. In case you were wondering about the difference between a war story and a fairy tale, a fairy tale begins: "Once Upon a Time. . . " A war story starts: "This is no shit. . . "

Friday, February 26, 2010

Social Media Rule Change--Better for Bloggers?

Today the military opened up the rules on social media--Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and the others will be authorized unless temporarily blocked by local commanders. But the authority of local commanders, especially in a war zone, is hard for a civilian to imagine. In November last year, I was accused of an OPSEC violation on my blog.

I wrote a post a week after a missile attack on the base. I did not write about the attack itself, but about one of the dumbest soldiers in our unit. A missile hit the 800 horsepower (huge) generator outside his Living Area compound. It wrecked the generator but did not explode. The idiot in question took out his camera and climbed up on the smoking wreck of a generator to get a picture of the unexploded missile.

After seven days it was OK to post about the attack, but not to give a battle-damage assessment. I was giving away where one missile hit, that it wrecked a generator, and was a dud. Within hours I was in the office of the battalion intelligence officer. His wife was a daily reader of my blog. She found out about the attack through my blog. She was angry that she found out about the attack only through my blog, but I was OK talking about the attack. I just had to take down the battle damage. So I did.

Then a few hours later, I got a call saying I had to report to the commander's office on the other side of the base for an unspecified reason. This is part of the drama when any enlisted man gets accused. I was left to wonder what I did wrong. I thought it was the post, but since I did not always obey traffic laws on my bike--and I was rather easy to identify--I wondered if that was it.

So I rode around the base to report to the commander. When I arrived, the acting first sergeant, who was also the motor sergeant and still angry that I left the motor pool, told me I had to report formally to the commander. I did. Then the commander told me I had violated OPSEC by writing about the attack. He told me that I could be prosecuted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The executive officer had already written a counseling statement.

I was doing my best not to smile while I was being accused, but I know I had "that look" on my face. It turns out the source of the accusation was a captain's wife. The captain was in another battalion on post. His wife also followed my blog. She was pissed at her husband for lying about the missile attack. The captain thought I should be busted for an OPSEC violation.

Along with moral lectures, we got many lectures on rumors. "Do not listen to hearsay," we heard. "Do not listen to rumors," they said. And here I was being accused at third hand. It turns out NONE of the men accusing me had looked at my blog before writing the counseling statement and threatening me with an Article 15 or worse. They had not spoken to the intell officer either.

When I got a chance to speak, I told them that I had spoken to the intell officer that morning and, in fact, the post was fine as long as I removed the battle damage assessment. By this time in the deployment, I had written more than 500 posts without being accused of an OPSEC violation. But these three guys are in charge, so each in turn gave me a five-minute lecture on blogging--even though none of them blog nor had any of them looked at my blog.

I have to think that if I had been a 20-something blogger that this incident would have convinced me to shut down the blog. Since I am 50-something writer on a one-year adventure, I'll admit that the threat got me excited. Immediately, I imagined how much fun it would be to be falsely accused and to become a cause celeb milblogger. I was channeling Clint Eastwood thinking "Go ahead. Make my day."

That's what local commander's discretion can mean. A soldier can get accused in the absence of facts and has little room to appeal. I'll be very interested to see how the new rules shake out on the milblogs.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rain in Boston

It rained all day and night in Boston on Wednesday and, alas, I did not get to see my sister or old friends because I was there just 36 hours and had several meetings. At dinner last night a colleague and I ate in Brookline at Vietnamese restaurant. The rain was steady and I had to stop our conversation about a conference we will be attending. We were seated by the window. I was watching the rain fall in the halo around the streetlight. Rain in Iraq is either sprinkles or a downpour--straight down or almost sideways in a howling wind. This rain was falling at a 30-degree angle pushed by a steady wind from the ocean to the East. The yellow arc of light showed the rain swirling and dancing. It has been a long time since I saw that kind of rain.

Then I looked below the streetlight and saw a Thai takeout place which was a Jewish deli when I was a kid. I then remembered all the tailor shops and butchers and little Kosher markets that were in this Coolidge Corner neighborhood 50 years ago.

Memory brings back embarrassing moments with some of the highest clarity we ever experience. Fifty years ago my Dad and I stopped at that deli after visiting my grandmother. We visited "Ma" every month. At every visit she complained that we did not visit enough and said she "was not going to be around much longer" for us to visit. Although we can't be certain because no one has a birth certificate and she would not tell any her age, she lived another three decades to possibly 100 years old.

Anyway, Dad and I went to the deli. Several of the patrons and the owner knew my Dad. My father was Jewish, my mother was Protestant, but neither were religious. So I knew very little of Jewish life. I certainly did not know that Kosher Jews don't eat meat and milk together. So we went to the little Kosher deli. I ordered a pastrami sandwich. While were eating my Dad got up from the table and walked to the counter to get some more pickles. While he was at the counter 20 feet away, I said "Dad, Can I have a glass of milk." He walked back to the table with all those old friends looking at him. He whispered that he would get me a Coke. In the car he explained why everyone looked so funny when I asked the question.

I had been on the street many times before and after that day. But my memory went straight to that day.

When dinner was over, I took the "T" to Copley Place and Newbury street. There is cafe/bookstore I wanted to visit. I browsed the hundreds of maginzes they have, then went back to Brookline to Booksmith, an independent bookstore. They sell new and used books. I ended up buying a copy of Paris Review because the main article was on memoir. It looks like memoir will be an important part of my life in the next year or two.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Another Moral Lecture

OK. I know I keep coming back to this topic, but today I was coaching one of the historians where I work about a public presentation she is giving in a couple of weeks. I used the following talk as an example of why it is so important to know your audience.

So in Oklahoma the married people got an extra moral lecture on adultery after we already had several general lectures on no sex, no drugs, no booze. The lecturer was a 25-year-old lieutenant who was not married himself, but did have a steady girlfriend. He let us know he was loyal to his girlfriend and planned to continue to be loyal throughout the upcoming deployment. He was not engaged. He had made no public commitment we knew of and was free to end this relationship at a whim if he chose.

He was an officer. His audience was married enlisted men and women. Among his audience were at least a half-dozen soldiers with very strong, orthodox religious beliefs. This lecture got loud and included threats of what the officer would do if any of us were caught having an adulterous relationship. He even threatened at one point to call our spouses.

Now if I had been asked to coach this guy, I would have suggested that early on he should acknowledge that several members of his audience hold very high personal standards on sex and marriage. In fact, to those soldiers, the lecturer was a fornicator whether he happened to be committed to his girlfriend at that moment or not.

But the LT continued with no mention that his own situation was one that several members of his audience thought immoral.

As far as I know, none of the soldiers he lectured ever violated the rules, but by the end of the deployment, the LT himself was known as one of the bigger flirts in the DFACs.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Hours are the Same, but the Clothes are WAY Better

I got up at 6am today to catch the train from Lancaster to Philadelphia. My first of four meetings today was with our communications group. Six of us were in the meeting, when the seven and last person sat down at the table I could clearly see the 20-man tent I stayed in when we were in Kuwait waiting to fly to America. I also caught a quick vision of the 77-man tent we stayed in during half of April.

The reason: my six co-workers were all pretty, fashionably dressed young women. Like the Army, their average age was less than half my age. Looking at them reminded me what how different the world looks in a Center City Philadelphia office building compared with a tent in Kuwait.

But the hours are the same. I worked in the office till five, missed lunch, then took the subway to the train station. I am now on the last train to Boston which will arrive 15 minutes after midnight if it is on time. It will be after 1 am when I get to my hotel and I have meetings tomorrow till after 10 at night. I'll be home Thursday night of Friday morning depending on whether I can catch the last train to Lancaster.

It's good I can use all that workaholic training I had in Iraq now that I am back.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rank from the Outside

Three officers were in charge of the company I served in. They were all First Lieutenants differing only in date of rank. So the senior 1st Lt. of the three was the commander, next was the executive officer, next was a platoon leader.
I got promoted to sergeant the same day as another soldier in our company who is 30 years younger than I am. Since we can't decide who is in charge on date of rank, we would use time in service if one of us had to be in charge.

Inside the Army, the rank on our chests is very significant. Outside--not so much. A few nights ago, my wife took our son to movie night at Wharton Elementary School. One of the other parents is full time in the Army National Guard. I had not met him until movie night. My wife introduced us saying, "This is Sergeant ________ that I told you so much about." He looked at me, smiled, shook my hand and said, "Captain ________ . . ." He was nice about it, but he definitely wanted me to know my wife had his rank wrong.

I have mentioned before that most of the people I work with in civilian life have not been in the military and have no immediate family members who are soldiers. For my wife and most of my coworkers sergeants, captains, colonels, and generals are all soldiers who are in charge of somebody. My coworkers know in a vague way that there is a rank structure, but it is much too arcane to bother with. And it would be completely useless to try explain the difference among the various ranks from sergeant through sergeant major or what the heck a warrant officer is--and why are they almost all chiefs?

I am in the same situation as a bicycle racer. In a good year I am a mid-pack racer for whom a top ten is a great day. But I am a racer which makes me different from a non-racer. So people who know as much about bike racing as I know about figure skating ask me if I am racing in the Tour de France or other professional bike racing events they have heard about. So for those who know nothing about racing, I could be Lance Armstrong's teammate. For those who know nothing abut the Army, General David Petraeus and I are the same age and both were in Iraq last year, so how much difference could there be?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chemical Warfare, Part 2

Sometimes the footnotes illuminate and enliven a rather dull passage. In a section on civil defense Brown says, "Since it has to be assumed that an enemy would use the most destructive mixture of weapons available, gas shelters had to be bomb- and fireproof as well as gasproof." Why is this true? Note 48 at the bottom of the page explains: "High explosives to penetrate collective shelters and homes, incendiaries to drive the population into the streets, gas to kill in the streets." Brown tends to the passive voice in the text but can be vivid in the notes.

While the combatants of World War I expected gas warfare in future conflicts, none of the combatants in World War II attacked each other with gas with the exception of limited use in China. The aversion to gas warfare stands in stark contrast to the other two weapons introduced in World War I: the tank and the bomber. When World War II began in September of 1939, the German tanks backed by bombers made short work of Poland. The following spring the same German juggernaut ripped through France, Belgium, and Holland and defeated every major allied combatant except the United Kingdom. In the Pacific, the Japanese showed how effective ship-based bombers could be, winning many victories against neighboring countries in the early years of the war and eventually bringing the U.S. into the war with the carrier-based bomber attack on Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

The bomber and the tank became indispensable weapons for the major combatants of World War II, but gas warfare did not. Brown says the first reason was revulsion by military professionals. A small group of senior officers strove to make chemical warfare integral to the plans of the U.S. military, but most professional officers wanted no part of warfare they saw variously as inhumane, cowardly, and out of their control. Gas is also more complicated to use than conventional weapons. Gas warfare creates a logistics burden all its own: using gas means providing protective equipment for all friendly soldiers operating in the area affected by gas. Gas munitions displace conventional rounds. The more gas rounds fired, the fewer explosive rounds that can be fired by the same gun. In the fast-moving battles of World War II, persistent gas would slow the successful attacker, forcing his soldiers to operate in an area they contaminated. And in the case of naval use of gas, there is a potential disaster in any ship having a magazine loaded with gas rounds. Any leak of toxic gas inside a ship leaves the entire crew in a contaminated container with little prospect of escape.

Brown shows how politics pushed the warring nations further away from the use of gas. First use by one army meant retaliation by the other. Germany and England bombed each other throughout most of the war. Even when one country was clearly winning, the other was able to retaliate. If one side used gas, the other would be sending gas back across the Channel in short order. Neither of these particularly vulnerable countries wanted to provoke gas warfare, nor did they want any of their allies to add gas to the mix of weapons. Also, the men at the head of the largest armies in the war were for their own reasons strongly opposed to gas warfare. Hitler was gassed during World War I and Brown shows that the German leader did not seriously consider using gas until the final days of the war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was opposed to gas as a "barbarous and inhumane" weapon; he stated to the world in 1943 that the United States would not initiate gas warfare but would retaliate in kind if necessary.

Brown's main narrative closes at the end of World War II. He shows that gas was never seriously considered as an alternative to the use of the atomic bomb or invasion of the Japanese mainland. In his conclusion Brown judges that the circumstances which prevented the use of chemical warfare in World War II still obtained in 1968. The professional military was largely opposed to the use of chemical warfare, and the main antagonists of the postwar period—the United States and the Soviet Union— both had many allies who would not want gas or nuclear weapons used on their soil.

Quite rightly, Brown took a measure of comfort in reflecting that the restraints which existed in World War II continued in the Cold War era. Alas, this modest reassurance does not carry over to our own day. Terrorists are not soldiers. As their name suggests, their purpose is to inflict terror on the civilian population, while at the same time they can trust traditional Western reticence not to respond with indiscriminate murder in retaliation.

For readers who would like to see Brown's book come to life, at least in fiction, I recommend Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising. This 20-year-old best seller describes a conventional war in Western Europe in the late 20th century in which neither side uses chemical or nuclear weapons. The reasons could have been lifted straight from Chemical Warfare. The soldiers on both sides of the conflict share the attitude toward gas and nuclear weapons that Brown describes. And in a prescient prologue, Clancy's World War III begins with Arab terrorists blowing up a Soviet refinery, causing a crippling fuel shortage.

If I found the hopeful note in Brown's conclusion tied closely to the circumstances of the Cold War, I found some practical hope in Tucker's book. His long descriptions of the problems encountered by Saddam's chemists in the Iran-Iraq war—along with the troubles encountered by the cult that attacked the Tokyo subway—show how difficult it is to make nerve gas. The ingredients are corrosive and dangerous. The equipment required to make it is specialized and difficult to obtain. Even the most talented chemists and chemical engineers Tucker introduces in the book faced huge difficulties producing nerve gas—and in many cases failed partially or completely. Even for those with millions and millions of dollars to spend, nerve gas synthesis is very, very difficult. Luckily for us, no weapon in the real world is as easy to use or works quite as well as its fictional counterpart.

Neil Gussman writes a column on the history of chemistry for Chemical Engineering Progress magazine.

1. "Weaponized" means put in a bomb, artillery shell, mine, or other system for use. In 24, the nerve agent was loaded into pressurized cylinders that were intended for release in ventilation systems. Why the U.S. government would weaponize nerve gas in a form most useful for theft and use by terrorists rather than for the battlefield is a question only the show's writers can answer.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chemical Warfare, Part 1

Just a few months before I decided to go back in the Army, I wrote about chemical warfare and spoke about it at my day job at Chemical Heritage Foundation.

So I had chemical weapons on my mind (luckily not in my lungs) even before I went back in the Army. The following was published in Books and Culture magazine in January 2007:


Nerve gas is becoming the weapon of choice for tv doomsday scenarios. In last year's season of 24, for example, Russian terrorists steal twenty canisters of a made-for-tv nerve gas and threaten to kill tens of thousands of people. They do manage to kill about 100 people, despite the best efforts of series hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

Watching season five of 24 makes it clear why we should be afraid of gas, particularly nerve gas, although this terrifying weapon was cleaned up and tamed for tv. The "Weaponized Centox" featured on 24 kills its victims with the lethal efficiency of real-world nerve gas—vx, Tabun, Sarin, and so on—but unlike other actual nerve gases, Centox then conveniently disappears.1 Real nerve gas poses a huge decontamination problem. It sticks to walls and wings, cars and computers, and it is just as deadly on the skin as in the air. When the tv nerve gas Centox is released within CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) headquarters in Los Angeles, the gas quickly kills nearly half of the staff, but those who make it to sealed rooms and survive simply return to their workstations and resume the high-tech fight against determined terrorists inside and outside the government.

Personally, I would not want to be tapping on a keyboard and drinking coffee in a room that had held a lethal dose of nerve gas just a few minutes before. But if TV gets the details wrong, it gets the terror right. Closed, crowded places make tempting targets for terrorists. The 24 terrorists attack a mall, offices, and attempt to attack thousands of homes through the natural gas system.

If you are interested in the history of the most deadly class of chemicals used in warfare, War of Nerves by Jonathan B. Tucker recounts many tales of developing, producing, and deploying chemical weapons, with a particular focus—as the title suggests—on nerve gas. The author of previous books on smallpox and leukemia and editor of a volume on chemical and biological warfare, Tucker takes the reader from the German laboratory where the first nerve agent was developed right up to the present.

So absorbing is Tucker's chronicle that you may lose track of time while learning how an errant U.S. Army test of vx nerve gas killed thousands of sheep in Utah in the 1960s. Lest you think this is exaggeration, I asked my then 15-year-old daughter, Lisa, to read chapter 16 while we were on a rather long drive to a mall. When we arrived, she had two pages left and wanted to finish the chapter rather than run straight in to Abercrombie & Fitch. Chapter 16 describes the life of the man responsible for the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack that left twelve dead and hundreds injured. Most histories of chemical warfare would not slow a teenager on the way to a clothes store.

In his dramatic style, Tucker occasionally reaches beyond knowable facts to get inside the mind of his subjects. He says that Dr. Gerhard Schrader, in his lab at I.G. Farben, "[a]s always, felt a pleasant tingle of anticipation as a new substance emerged from the synthetic process." At the time, December 23, 1936, Dr. Schrader was working in a lab decorated with "a large framed photograph of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in heroic profile." A man in these circumstances could have experienced a tingle for any number of reasons: chemistry, Christmas, or Hitler's portrait. But Tucker doesn't hesitate to read minds.

Aside from this quibble, the stories Tucker finds of ordinary people are both delightful and chilling. Delightful because they are well told and give the reader some insight into the kind of person who would develop or mass-produce weapons of mass destruction. Chilling because his subjects focus on the problem at hand—making thousands of tons of nerve gas, for example—with no apparent qualm. It's the job. They do it.

My favorite of Tucker's tales is the story of Boris Libman, a native of Latvia who could have walked straight out of the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Born in 1922, Libman was just 18 when the invading Russians confiscated his family's land and property and drafted him into the Soviet Army. He was seriously wounded early in the war, returned to duty after a long recovery, and was again badly wounded, the second time left for dead. He survived the war and applied to study at the Moscow Institute for Chemistry tuition-free as an honorably discharged disabled veteran. Libman was turned down because he was officially dead. He managed to prove he was alive, attended university, and became quite a talented chemical engineer. He supervised production of thousands of tons of nerve gas on impossible schedules for many years. In trying to do his best for the Soviet Union, he made an error with a containment pond for toxic wastes. A storm caused a flood, the pond burst its dike, and tons of toxic waste poured into the Volga River. Months later the delayed effects of the spill killed millions of fish for 50 miles downriver. Libman was blamed and sent to a labor camp to appease an outraged public. But as it turned out, no one else could run the nerve gas plant, and Libman was quietly released and returned to work after one year.

Fear of toxic gas and wild exaggeration of its dangers have their American roots in the debate over chemical warfare after World War I. In Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints (first published by Princeton University Press in 1968 and now reissued by Transaction with a new introduction by Jeanne Guillemin), Frederic J. Brown recalls the terror of gas during the years between the world wars. "Propagandists were totally irresponsible in their exaggerations of new weapons developments," Brown writes. He quotes H. G. Wells on the aftermath of a fictional chemical attack by aircraft using the Centox of the 1930s, what Wells called "Permanent Death Gas":

[the area attacked] was found to be littered with the remains not only of the human beings, cattle and dogs that strayed into it, but with the skeletons and scraps of skin and feathers of millions of mice, rats, birds and such like small creatures. In some places they lay nearly a metre deep.

Not quite "blood as deep as horses' bridles," but still a vision to warm the heart of apocalypse addicts.

Brown—Lieutenant General, retired, U.S. Army; he was a junior officer when he wrote the book—carefully recounts the military history of the use and, more significantly, the non-use of chemicals as weapons in both world wars and the period in between. Thorough and well documented, his book also captures the policy decisions and leaders' attitudes that kept chemical weapons, for the most part, off World War II battlefields.

Brown's book has the fat footnotes that have long been out of style even in scholarly publishing, but these footnotes are a delight for the reader who wants details. On page 18 is a three-paragraph, nearly full-page, small-type footnote describing President Woodrow Wilson's attitude toward gas warfare, with references to his biography and a meeting with the French commander at the battle of Ypres.

----More tomorrow-----

Books reviewed:
War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
by Jonathan B. Tucker
Pantheon, 2005
479 pp., $30

Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints
by Frederic J. Brown
Transaction, [1968] 2005
388 pp., $29.95, paper

Friday, February 19, 2010

Medal Inflation, Part 3

Now it's time to say how I fall squarely on both sides of the Medal Inflation issue. I wrote earlier this week about Sgt. Oblivious. When he was swirling in the drain and failing as leader, he was also neglecting most other tasks that are part of managing a maintenance squad.

Most of the soldiers who served in our brigade got some medal for serving during the deployment. Enlisted men and junior NCOs got Army Commendation Medals, senior NCOs and junior officers got Meritorious Service Medals. The next medal up the ladder of importance is the Bronze Star, which I have written about in previous posts.

I got an Army Commendation Medal in 1979. I was very proud of this medal and kept it displayed on the wall wherever I lived since then. Very few soldiers in our battalion got ARCOMs back then. It was not just a participation award. But when nearly everyone gets a given medal, the medal becomes a participation award, like the very nice medal I got for participating in the Air Force Half Marathon on Tallil Ali Air Base last year. EVERYBODY who finished got one of these medals. I was happy with myself for finishing at all, but I was far enough behind the leaders that the best of them could have done a full marathon in the same time. Kids refer to participation medals as "you suck" awards. In my case, finishing on the far side of three hours, they are right.

I did not like the idea that the ARCOM I was so proud of became a participation award. But I ended up writing award citations for many of the soldiers in the squad of Sgt. Oblivious because his soldiers deserved the promotion points you get with an ARCOM just as much as the soldiers who had functioning squad leaders.

So while I thought medal inflation was wrong, I thought it was more wrong to let eight soldiers not get medals simply by neglect.

Teachers and professors are in the same position with their students. Do they grade fairly and then keep a good student from going to graduate school because her grades look low? Or do they grade like everyone else, help the student, and become part of the "everyone is above average" thinking? Tough decisions.

Maintaining standards in or out of the military is a constant battle. Everyone, especially those who admire a given standard, wants to be an exception or make an exception for someone they care about. That's how an Army combat unit, full of self-professed conservatives, can be as liberal as an East Coast art college when it comes to maintaining traditional standards on medals.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Adapting in a New York Minute

Yesterday and this morning, I was in New York City on business. Between appointments I had a chance to ride in Central Park. I was supposed to meet a friend who is an avid rider--he commutes into NYC from New Jersey. But the snow on Monday-Tuesday made the NJ roads slushy enough that Jim took the train.

At 5pm, yesterday, I left my hotel at 26th Street and 6th Ave. One of the entrances of Central Park is on 6th Ave, so I turned north on 6th and got in the 5 o'clock traffic in midtown.

When I first started riding again in Lancaster, I was a little bit tentative riding in groups. I had been riding alone for most of the year and I did not want to mess up in a pack so I would follow three or four feet behind other riders instead of right up on their wheel (where I should be).

But turning on to 6th Ave, I had none of that hesitation at all. I got into the bike lane on the left side of the avenue, shifted to the big ring and started riding as fast as I could toward the park. As I approached the odd-numbered streets I would be scanning for turn signals and making sure I kept my speed up and get right by the front wheel of taxis so they could see me.

When I got near Herald Square I could see people waving for taxis in the bike lane. They were all women. Then I remembered it was Fashion week. I kept my speed and stayed in my lane. The people standing in the bike lane were facing me and decided the best plan was to get out of the lane when I got close. Around 40th the bike lane ended so I moved into one of the center lanes. I got caught at three lights in the 34 block trip. As I rolled into the park I realized I had no hesitation at all riding with the limos and taxis and splitting lanes. I have always liked riding in traffic since I was a kid in Boston.

Riding in NYC traffic made riding feel completely normal again. Today I rode a few miles with the daily training ride. I rode right on the wheel of the rider in front of me. Whatever was wrong in my head, riding up 6th and down 7th Ave cleared that up.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Home from Iraq--"What was it like over there?"

Foreign students entering American culture are usually surprised then dismayed by the question "How are you?"

The foreign students, at least the ones who have never been to America before, try to answer the question and say how they are. They soon find that is a mistake. No answer is expected.

In America, "How are you?" is followed immediately without a pause by "I'm fine." Then by a monologue such as, "I got this totally awesome new Coach purse just by friending the Coach page on Facebook, like free. So did I tell you my roommate just went totally whole foods. Grrrrross!! . . ."

The fifty-year-old-white-guy riff on this I have been hearing lately is, "What was it like over there?" After that question there is a pause and a wide-eyed look that says 'Please don't say anything awful.'

My usual answer is, "Hot."

After that answer, the person I am talking to exhales audibly, smiles, then says, "I am so busy. We just got this new contract. My oldest is going to college next year. I don't know where we are going to get the money. . . ."

I am back to work and back to commuting on the train from Lancaster to Philadelphia. I sat with a guy on the train who asked "What was it like over there?" Without waiting for an answer he said, "It must be weird to be back where people care about nothing but themselves." Then he talked for the next 15 minutes about how tough it is for his business in this economy, how he is sacrificing for the business, etc.

I have two very good friends who both recently used the same expression while we were talking. One friend is from Iraq, one is from my service in Germany in the 70s. They each said, "There is no one like you in my world." They are both blue collar, from blue collar families, with blue collar friends--except me. Even though I had not gone to college when I was in Germany, I was reading a lot and learning to be a writer. I was leaving the blue collar world I grew up in during the late 70s, even before I went to college. And by returning to the Army as a sergeant, I was re-entering the blue collar world as an outsider.

I am glad to be back in my world. But it's really clear that the two worlds are not better or worse, just different. People who never read books can be endlessly interesting and funny. People who are very smart can be duller than butter knives.

Medal Inflation (Background): Specialist Sunshine and Sergeant Oblivious

When everyone dress alike personality almost jumps out of the camouflage clothes. Two guys who served together from the beginning of our deployment, wore the same uniform, but are a stark contrast in their personalities are Specialist Sunshine and Sergeant Oblivious. On the outside, they are both over forty, both need to spend more time at the salad bar than at the main course line, both initially struggled to pass the fitness test, and both are the kind of soldiers who cause pre-emptive groans when they open their mouths to speak at a formation.

Twins?

Not even close. Specialist Sunshine never seemed to get dragged down by circumstances. At every mission change, he just kept working. As his squad leader Sergeant Oblivious deteriorated throughout our deployment, Sunshine was one of the few people who did not make fun of him behind his back. Sunshine makes jokes, keeps to himself, works hard, and ran as much as ten miles in a day to get ready for the PT test after living a very sedentary lifestyle. Sergeant Oblivious barely passed the PT test then ordered a three-foot pizza to celebrate, because he could now forget about the PT test for several months.

Sergeant Oblivious failed as a squad leader almost as soon as we mobilized. But he had friends who, like him, were on the deployment because it was the only way they could keep their jobs as Army National Guard technicians back in America. Finally, after two months in Iraq, Oblivious was so bad he was relieved of duty as a squad leader. A week later, he was watching the sergeant who replaced him struggle with some of the paperwork involved in the job (which Oblivious so bad at as to be legendary). But it had been a week since Oblivious was relieved of duty for incompetence so, in his usual way, all of the actual events had been erased in his mind and he had replaced them with a new history of his own creation. Oblivious looked at his replacement and said, "That job's not hard."

Luckily, I was not drinking coffee when I heard this. Otherwise I might have spit it across the room. Next Oblivious was assigned a security job a pay grade lower than his own. He failed within a day. Which caused a junior NCO to be stuck on five weeks of guard duty with about 2 hours notice. And, of course, none of it is the fault of Sergeant Oblivious.

Like Sergeant Rumpled, Sergeant Oblivious is also convinced that he is quite attractive to women, despite being bald, unkempt, missing a lot of teeth, and being in known across the battalion as lax on personal hygiene. Oblivious believes many conspiracies both of the global variety (he does not know WHO caused the World Trade Center Towers to fall, but someone. . .) and knows people at every level of the military are out to get him. He keeps records. He takes notes. They are in a secret code. He cannot write an English sentence.

CS Lewis, comparing military service with a term in prison, said the military can put you under the arbitrary authority of a very stupid man. That is much less true today than during than 100 years ago, but it is still possible. Sunshine had good-naturedly worked for Oblivious for almost six months. I am glad for him that Oblivious is headed for some sort of oblivion and is out of any position of authority.

But even that is a cause of some anger and envy among his peers. Because he is prone to outbursts and incompetent, Oblivious was relieved of the duties of a squad leader, but he is still getting paid as one. And he may end up in an MWR tent signing people in and out of the public access computers. He gets an all-day air-conditioned job because he is under too much stress to work outside with everyone else.

When the military rewards failure, it ties a camouflage bow on the package.

And as the believers may already have guessed, Oblivious goes to Church and will start arguments about faith. Sunshine does not believe.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Adapting to New Environments



Nigel (left) and Jacari


I rode 31 miles yesterday. After being off the bike for a week because of the snow, I rode 12 miles Saturday and had a long ride yesterday with five other Lancaster racers who braved the wet roads.

I did not ride with them long. In fact, I got dropped on a hill no more than 300 feet long on the 3-mile ride to the meeting point at the official beginning of the ride. After the meeting point, I lasted another two miles, then turned off at the top of the first long hill. I did not want the rest of the group slowing down and waiting for me on every hill and that's what would have happened if I stayed. So I rode south to a 2.5 mile hill in the Village of Buck, rode to the top and rode home in a headwind.

After the ride, my wife said that the thing that might take me the longest in getting back to life in Lancaster is being able to keep up with my bike buddies. I think she is right. It will take months before I will be able to do the training rides. But I am still finding myself staring at landscapes that I would not have noticed before. I am still unpacking books and sorting papers from the year I was gone. I packed everything up because of all the construction in our house while I was gone. It's not big things, but I was clearly immersed in Iraq and after three weeks as a civilian, it still seems strange to have all the choices America offers.

Which lead me to think about Jacari. He will start spending weekends at our home by the end of the month and in the summer, we will begin the process of adopting him. Jacari is 11. He has been in foster care for almost four years with a really great family. He wants to be adopted, but even so, he will have so many things to adapt to with his new life.

I once took a stress test in a magazine. I was surprised to find that both good and bad events raise the stress level. The birth of a child and death of a parent had an equal score. Losing your home had a higher score than buying a home, but not a lot higher. So even if Jacari is completely happy with his new family, his new school, his new room, house, etc. he will be under some stress.

With yet another snow storm on the way, I miss Iraqi weather--at least Iraqi winter weather.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Medal Inflation, Part 2

If you want to be entertained for hours and understand one reason why I met many soldiers who were upset about awarding Bronze Star Medals to people who were not in direct combat, then watch the 2001 HBO Miniseries "Band of Brothers." This eight-hour show chronicles Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, from training through D-Day through the end of World War 2.

If you look at the decorations received by this storied group of American soldiers, you will see the Bronze Star Medal was given for gallantry under fire. Every soldier I met who had watched the series remembered in particular when Easy Company, with less than 30 men, attacked a German anti-aircraft battery. The battery was dug in and protected by machine guns. Using fire and maneuver, the remnants of Easy Company that had just parachuted into Normandy attacked and destroyed the emplacement. The attack, led by then 1st Lt. Dick Winters of Lancaster, is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point. Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross for leading the attack. Sgt. Donald Malarkey was Winter's NCOIC and fire team leader. Malarkey was awarded the Bronze Star. Malarkey got two additional Bronze Stars over the next year. Easy Company as a group fought in more battles than any member of the Normandy invasion force and Malarkey had the most time in the front lines of any soldier in Easy Company.

Many soldiers, as I wrote yesterday, are angry when they see someone who was essentially an administrator receive the same medal that Sgt. Malarkey received for his part in one of the single greatest small-unit actions in American military history.

The Bronze Star was the most resented award I heard about in Iraq, partly because of some of the people who received it never saw anything close to combat, and partly because it was often awarded to senior soldiers near the end of their careers--as in the case of the chaplain in the last post.

But there were also problems with lesser awards. I was firmly on both sides of Medal inflation in regard to the Army Commendation Medal. More on that in a future post.

Medal Inflation, Part 1

Sgt. Melissa White was furious when I visited her office on Tallil Ali Air Base last September. She had just returned from covering an award ceremony for the Sustainment Brigade that was leaving in two weeks. Sustainment Brigades are, by definition, not forward combat units, although in Iraq anybody could get hit with an IED on the roads. What had the tall, tough sergeant fuming was an award of the Bronze Star Medal made at that ceremony.

The brigade chaplain had received the Bronze Star for service during his deployment to Iraq. That service was almost entirely on our big, well-protected Air Base. The chaplain, according to the angry sergeant, almost never went outside the wire (off base) had never been shot at and got the fourth highest combat award for bravery because he spent year in Iraq.

"And he isn't much of a Christian either," she went on fuming about how he spent most of his time with fellow officers and chaplains and about the contrast between him and Chaplain Valentine, the Catholic Chaplain who went on convoys and out to forward bases and outposts every week visiting troops all over southern Iraq.

Her anger was partly specific to this award of the Bronze Star, and partly because she was a reserve soldier who had decided to go on active duty. She cared about tradition and was sure a Bronze Star should only be awarded to someone who was brave in combat--not for 10 months of sustained breathing in a combat zone. In her case it was not envy. She did not want the medal herself. She was sure she did not deserve it any more than he did, although she had ridden in convoys and gone on humanitarian missions in the countryside that can sometimes turn deadly. "If you get the Bronze Star you should be brave under fire," she fumed.

My wife is a professor and deals with grade inflation every semester. It is a perennial conflict between wanting to maintain standards and wanting your students to succeed. In the Army, medals have promotion points. A leader who decides to maintain historic standards in the awarding of medals puts his soldiers behind other soldiers of the same rank and ability who get awards.

The Bronze Star Medal was the focus of anger about the diminishing value of medals. Among people I talked to, the HBO series "Band of Brothers" based on the book by Stephen Ambrose, may be part of the reason. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mental Compartments

One of the blessings of being in Iraq with no cell phone and slow internet service was single tasking. You may know that as concentrating on one thing at a time. Reading a book without interruption, writing without bobbing through 20 windows checking Twitter, three email services, and a dozen Web sites. Now that I am back, I am trying to keep myself from returning to multi-tasking, to the false efficiency of doing five things badly rather than one thing well.

When I was multi-tasking myself, I did not see as vividly how the act of multi-tasking seeps back into our minds and dissolves our mental integrity. One of the hallmarks of modern life is stuffing our many lives in compartments that do not touch each other. That can lead having multiple beliefs and assumptions that really do affect each other, but we keep them in separate places in our minds, as if our memory were a series of Tupperware containers keeping work, family, hobbies, beliefs in their own little worlds in our heads. That is how people can look at religion as a buffet--taking a little Bhuddism here; a little Christianity there; maybe believe in angels, but not devils; or believe in Heaven but not Hell; as if these complex systems of belief were nothing more than raw material for whatever makes someone feel good.

At this point you could be IMing a friend, watching American Idol, thinking 'Whatever, Dude.' But if you are still reading, I can tell you that being in the land that discourages multi-tasking let me see more clearly what it does inside people's heads.

When we were getting ready to go home, we got a briefing about medical benefits. The sergeant who was giving the briefing made it clear to us that he believes our country does not need health care reform. His politics are in one compartment. Five minutes later he tells us why Pennsylvania wants to be sure we all know about the benefits we have. When the Brigade that preceded us mobilized in 2007, 42% of the soldiers did not have medical benefits when they mobilized. Out of 4000 soldiers, 2320 had medical benefits, 1680 did not. These were not street people. They were not illiterate. But 42% were uninsured. The two thoughts that 'The Health Care System is OK as it is' and '1680 out of 4000 soldiers in this brigade getting deployed to Iraq have no health care' stayed in their own compartments in his mind.

It would be no good pointing out this contradiction. He would have an answer if challenged on this contradiction. He sees what his beliefs allow him to see and will bend what does not fit until it aligns with is belief. So if his political views tell him 'my side is right, the other is wrong' then no actual fact--not even 1680 uninsured facts--sitting in front of him will change his mind.

Commander Back at Work

Brad Powers got a new job. I am back at my former job, but with a new boss. Lt. Col. Perry was in the Patriot News (Harrisburg, Pa.) when he returned to work.



Rep. Scott Perry

Rep. Scott Perry of York County welcomed back to the floor of the Pennsylvania House
By JAN MURPHY, The Patriot-News

Following a year's absence while he was deployed to Iraq, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, was given a hero's welcome upon his return to the floor of the state House.

Perry, who was commander of the 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion, seemed almost embarrassed by the standing ovation from his House colleagues, motioning several times for them to sit down.

House Speaker Keith McCall welcomed Perry and thanked him for "willingly ... putting yourself in harm's way. ... We're grateful for your safe return and very, very proud of your service to this great nation." But, he added, "It may take some time getting used to as you return here, Lt. Col. Perry, that people aren't going to be saluting you and calling you sir."

House Republican Leader Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, echoed the gratitude about Perry's service. He also commented on how difficult it must have been for Perry, who had a child born during his deployment.

Smith noted that last year's protracted budget impasse was a grind for those at the Capitol, but then said he'd think about Perry and another House member, Rep. Nick Miccarelli, R-Delaware County, who also was on a deployment in Iraq last year. He said that reminded him, "it's not so bad here."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Assigned Moral Lectures

Only officers gave the moral lectures I referred to in the last post. This made sense, because they are the ones who will punish us for infractions of the Army moral code. And in the same way every officer must be ready to lead soldiers at a moment's notice if they happen to be the highest ranking officer in any given place, any officer might be called to give us a lecture on morality.

My favorite instance of this--and I did keep a straight face through this mercifully brief lecture--happened shortly after we arrived in Iraq. A lieutenant in his mid-20s got assigned on short notice to give us one of these lectures. He is a very affable guy. In fact, just the night before this young man who was a hard-partying fraternity brother just two years before was telling a group of sergeants in the mess hall about a time when he and his girl friend were having sex in a room with several other couples. "This was not group sex," he said. "We were just one of several couples having sex in the same room."

The next morning he was telling a large group of enlisted men don't drink, don't have sex with anyone you are not married to, etc. He was serious. He had to be. At the end he did lighten up a little and said "Don't be stupid. Don't get caught."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Army Morality

In other posts I have said how strange, sad, and funny by turns our "morality" lectures were, especially during training for deployment.

No one was ever talking about a real moral code of any recognizable religion. The Army is the government and since our government separates Church and State, it would be wrong to impose any single religious view on the Army. So the Army makes it up.

Like every bad youth organization, whether religious or secular, the Army tries to use the sins of the spirit to keep us from the sins of the flesh. It uses cold-blooded sins to keep us from warm-blooded sins. In case you have not reviewed the Seven Deadly Sins lately, they are (from least to worst):
Lust
Gluttony
Greed
Sloth
Anger
Envy
Pride

Some lists switch lust and gluttony as the least, but all ancient lists are clear that the disreputable sins are the least and the arrogant sins are the worst. Sloth sits in the middle because it can be both physical laziness and spiritual laziness. So the sins of the flesh: lust, gluttony, greed and laziness are different from despair (spiritual laziness), anger, envy, and pride.

The sins of the flesh are those committed by those pictured on the pages of People magazine--too much sex, food, and money. The sins of the spirit are those committed by the readers of People magazine: hating, envying, and finally looking down on those who are pictured in People magazine.

Anyway, the Army tells us not to drink, have sex, and take drugs. First we are threatened in various ways, but then the poor guy who is giving the lecture appeals to our self-respect and says we are (or should be) better people than that.

But the Army does it with a lighter touch than a bad youth leader. Because nearly all of our morality lectures ended with something like a plea not to get caught. If you have sex, drink or whatever don't get caught.

Any real morality comes from the inside and shows its results on the outside. The only thing the Army can do is impose moral standards from the outside and hope for some appearance of obedience.

This is very funny on the subject of pornography. The Army bans pornography and makes a big deal of telling us how we can get busted, fined, lose rank, go to jail, etc. for possessing porn, especially on deployment. But the lectures on not having sex often end by saying something like, "Keep your porn to yourself, don't get caught, and wait till you get home for the real thing. In the meantime give yourself a hand."

Monday, February 8, 2010

Another Sign I am Home

This morning I called my wife from work to ask about our son Nigel. He had a two-hour school delay and I wanted to make sure it did not turn into a cancellation. In the course of our conversation Annalisa said, "The most fun thing we did. . .wait, fun is not an adjective. . .the thing that we did that was the most fun was . . ."

Later I talked to a friend from Belgium about a book project we might work on together. We were talking about the placement of object pronouns in French. I said French grammar was difficult on this. Brigitte said, "At least French has rules of grammar, English has no rules, only exceptions."

At midnight tonight my military leave ends which means I am off Title 10 active duty orders and back to being a Pennsylvania National Guard soldier. As of tomorrow I am really a citizen soldier again, not regular Army. I could, of course, be called up for duty, but in the near future that would only happen for a disaster in Pennsylvania or a neighboring state.

It is still strange at time to be home. All the more so with another foot of snow on the way Tuesday and Wednesday. I am really home, but I have not ridden my bike since Friday. I hardly missed a day riding in Iraq. Now I am forced to ride inside!! Not yet, but maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who Makes Coffee for the Soldiers?


One of my favorite places in Iraq was the Green Beans coffee shop on Tallil Ali Air Base. I was a regular so I knew most of the staff. Like us, they worked at least 12 hours per day, six days a week and when one of them was sick, the others would work 18 hours to keep the coffee brewing 24/7/365.

Most of the baristas were from India and Nepal. A few months before I left, they hired Frederick Lameki, a young man from Kenya. Like the other members of the staff, Fred was well educated, but could make more money serving coffee in Iraq than he could in his home country. Fred greeted me loudly every time I saw him at Green Beans.

"Goooosemon," he would say. "What's happening?" Sometimes in his enthusiasm he would attempt to greet me with the complicated handshake he used greeting his younger favorite customers--then he remembered I was way too old for that and smiled at my inability.

Fred will be visiting America this summer--most likely New York City, but maybe other North East cities. Fred has 419 Facebook friends which, in his case, may actually reflect his ability to make and keep friends. Fred and I have one mutual friend on Facebook--Jessie Ramos. Fred introduced me to Jessie. She is from Texas, but not really. In fact she is not really Jessie, but more on her in another post.

Green Beans is one of my best memories of Iraq: good coffee, good people who work there, reading good books with no video in the building, and talking about books with other people who read.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Who Fought the War--And Is Back to Work


Spc. Brad Powers just after he landed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.


Spc. Brad Powers has a new job--already. While many members of Task Force Diablo are taking a well-deserved rest, the restless Powers is beginning a new job and a new career simultaneously.

In Iraq, Powers was a wheeled-vehicle mechanic in Echo Company. We were in fourth squad of the motor platoon. At various times I was Powers team leader and squad leader. At Fort Sill, Powers was also in my remedial PT (Physical Training) group. The 27-year-old Lancaster resident is big, strong and went to enough parties before mobilizing that he was marginal on passing the two-mile run. No one was happy in the remedial PT group--the training was Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday from 7 to 830 pm--but Powers never complained in my hearing. And like all but one of my remedial group, Powers eventually passed the PT test.

All the time we were training in Fort Sill and Kuwait and working in Iraq, Powers was taking college courses. During 2009 he completed a full year of college credit, the final year of classes toward a bachelor of science degree that qualifies him to work in safety management. He finished his last class just before Christmas in Iraq and was a awarded a Bachelor of Science degree while he was in Kuwait on the way to America in early January.

In addition to working on his degree in the evenings while working in the motor pool at Tallil Ali Air Base, Powers was sent to Garry Owen, a small forward operating base near the Iran-Iraq border. He kept working on his degree without interruption there.

With the degree in hand, Powers applied for a job on line with a Peabody, Massachusetts-based, firm with operations across the country. A few days after he got home, the morning after a welcome home party, Powers got a call asking if he could be on a flight to Boston in four hours. He said sure. Then they told him it was a Southwest flight leaving from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, 88 miles away.

He made the flight and apparently aced the interview because he got the job. Monday morning he flies to Boston for a week of orientation training then he starts work with clients along the East Coast. Powers said his company likes to hire veterans.

With every possible excuse not to complete his degree and get a job, Powers completed 30 hours of college credit during a one-year deployment and returned to get a professional job in a new career field when he could still here the echo from "Welcome Home."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cooking

In several posts during the last year I wrote that the food we had in Iraq was great. Aside from really good bread we were very well fed. The amazing variety of fresh fruit and vegetables at every meal meant we actually were well fed in the nutritional sense. When I got to America I asked my kids to bring bakery bread to me at Fort Dix. Since I have been home, I have had good bread pretty much every day.

But it turns out I also missed cooking. In the last week I made dinner several times. When I make dinner it is more extravagant than my very frugal wife makes, but she doesn't mind because I do the work and cooking expensive food at home is still much less expensive than eating in a not-so-great restaurant.

One night this week I made a pork roast, mashed potatoes, and steamed cabbage. I make mashed potatoes with butter, whole milk and an old-fashioned potato masher--not exactly health food, but really good if you like potatoes. We also had celery with and without peanut butter, provolone cheese, jarlsburg cheese, and bread from a local bakery named "A Loaf of Bread." And very much unlike Tallil, my wife and I had wine with dinner that I got as a coming home present the week before. Just one glass for me--I had a two drink limit before deployment and now can get a small buzz from one glass of table wine. Two days later, dinner was the leftover pork, potatoes and cabbage along brie cheese and French bread and the rest of the bottle of wine.

Tonight we had apples, cheese, purple cabbage, Cappicola ham, fruit and nut bread from Philadelphia, and a really good rose wine that was also a welcome home gift. It really is fun to cut everything up and make the food look good on the serving plates--that's something you can't get in a buffet line.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Explaining Acronyms

Three of us were standing in the lobby today waiting for the fourth for lunch. In the five minutes before the fourth member of our group showed up (punctuality is very optional in civilian life) the subject of Army acronyms came up. The two women I was talking to had no connection to the military but knew that when F was the middle letter in an Army acronym, what word it referred to.

My favorite example of just how much acronyms replace words in the Army is the use of the acronym BFR when referring to a Big Rock. I could almost understand if it was an exclamation--"That's a Big F-ing Rock!" But it's not. A large rock is a BFR because it is more fun to have an acronym.

Then we talked about titles. I have a new title. Instead of Communications Manager, I am Strategic Communications and Media Relations Manager. If got this title in the Army, I would be the SCMRM. I then mentioned that in the Army everyone is in charge of something, even if it is just their own weapon and wall locker. So if you know someone is in charge and you don't know what their title is, everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to team leader can be called an HMFIC. That is the Head MF In Charge. MF is always the same in Army speak.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"You'll Get Back in Shape in No Time"

That's what the other guys I ride with were saying on Sunday, Monday and today. It was nice of them to say, but the truth is getting back to climbing hills is just as tough as coming back from breaking my neck. Hills that used to just look like hills now look like Alpine climbs.

On the 40-mile Sunday ride the two nasty climbs are about five miles from the start. But I was already gasping from riding up the long shallow hill at the start and the longer, steeper hill at mile 2. On the first big hill, the group slowed at the top for a stop sign just over the crest of the hill. There was no traffic, so I went through the intersection at 22mph and caught the group on the descent. On the next hill two other guys dropped to the back, so though I was lagging, I was not the caboose on the train.

From that point on I never stopped wheezing. We rode the rollings hills at a moderate pace--they talked I wheezed--until we crossed Rt. 222 on the south side of Lancaster. The pack sped up and stayed above 20mph for the next few miles. Just as we were about to turn up hill, I drifted back and watched the bright-colored group of a dozen riders disappear. Another guy was behind me. He said he was going to try to catch up; he never did. I turned back toward home at mile 18.

The next day I rode just 17 of 29 miles of the daily ride and it was very difficult.

I know i will get back in shape, but it will be months, not weeks till I can climb like I used to.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to Work

Today I took the 7:06 am train to Philadelphia. This is my first day back at work after just over a year. Annalisa and Nigel drove me to the train station (Annalisa actually did the driving) and I joined the big crowd that gets on the train in Lancaster--more than 150 of the nearly 300 regular riders of the Keystone train get on and off in Lancaster.

I saw a lot of faces I recognized. the faces looked a little older than when I left--which means my face looks older too. The 7am train riders are, thankfully, a very quiet group. They file onto the train. The regulars walk the length of the platform and sit in the last car. Sometimes there is no sound all the way to Paoli--two-thirds of the way to Philadelphia. The train was 15 minutes late this morning because we got behind a SEPTA local and could not go around it.

After leaving the train I walk across 30th Street and down into the subway station. The El train arrived a couple of minutes later. I rode eight minutes to 2nd Street then walked up Market to Fork restaurant. They bake bread every day. As I arrived the baguettes were just coming out of the oven. I love fresh bread.

I ate bread, checked out my new office and started a series for short meetings to get moved back in to CHF. I learned abut changes in the computer system, got my access card key back, heard about the medical benefits and started cleaning up email and voice mail.

I had a couple of meetings about plans for my work for the next few months and talked to many of my co-workers about Iraq and returning to civilian life. They all thought I looked very different in a blue pin-striped suit than in a camo uniform.

It's great to be back. I'll be going to New York on the 17th, Orlando on the 27th, maybe to Boston or Washington DC in between. I really am becoming a civilian very quickly.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reality Check

One of the things I thought about doing when I returned home from Iraq was getting involved in local politics. Specifically school politics. I care a lot about education and thought I could be of some help just by being involved. My wife, Annalisa, said I could get involved right away by going to three simultaneous events at my son's school: Wharton Elementary School in Lancaster: dinner, Parent Advisory Council meeting, and Parent Teacher Organization meeting.

530pm--free dinner supplied by the school. Chicken fingers, mashed potatoes and applesauce for the kids, turkey, ham or roast beef "wrap" sandwiches for the adults. Water and iced tea were the drinks--no soda in school. Annalisa, Nigel and I got in line and ate at the green formica-covered tables that fold down from the walls in the gym. About a dozen families showed up for dinner.
6pm--we went upstairs to the library and the PAC meeting. PAC organizes events and support for teachers at the school. The only guys in the room besides me were a local bookstore owner in the audience, the head of the group, Nigel.
645pm--Annalisa and Nigel left for Nigel's basketball practice.
655pm--the meeting switched from PAC to PTO. The bookstore owner left. The meeting continued for another 45 minutes discussing PTO business and plans.

The 16 parents (14 moms, 2 dads) who attended the meeting were not attracted by the free food. I knew many of them, at least by sight. They are well-educated, involved in their child's education, encourage learning and reading by reading and learning themselves, are involved in the community, and are, therefore, not at all typical of the parents of Wharton Elementary or any other school.

In racing of every kind, you have to start to have a chance of winning. The people who show up are the people have influence. How we spend time and money are great indexes of what we really care about. It was interesting to see who really cares about education.