Friday, December 31, 2010

Perpetuating Mediocrity

One of the reasons the motor platoon has such a high pass rate on the PT test is, oddly enough, that the training NCO for our unit is such a stickler for everyone meeting or exceeding the published standard on the test. He fails people who miss the run by ten seconds and who miss the minimum by one pushup or situp. We are a National Guard unit and many active units will allow more slack than we do. But by forcing everyone to meet the standard, eventually everyone really does--except one sergeant. But 98% is very high for any unit and beyond the moon for the National Guard.

But he is not in charge of all training and performance in other areas it is clear how our socialist group both forces us to conform and helps us when we don't. In February, many of us went to the rifle range for two days--one day to zero, one day for qualification. The qualification consists of firing 40 rounds at pop-up targets from 50 to 300 meters distance. To qualify as a marksman, you must hit 23 of 40 targets. To be a sharpshooter or expert requires 33 and 37 hits respectively the first time you fire. If you get less than 23 the first time, no matter how many hits you get the second time you score only as a marksman. But when we were on the range, one soldier scored less than 23 five times. At the end of the day when the people who run the range wanted to go home, this soldier went to position 11 with 40 rounds. At positions 10 and 12 were two range instructors. Miraculously, the soldier who failed to qualify five times hit 40 out of 40. That soldier should have been scored as a Marksman, and hopefully that soldier will have other people who can shoot nearby in a firefight. But the scoring system broke down when a sergeant major showed up. Hearing that a soldier shot 40 of 40, he presented the soldier with a commemorative coin (a standard token for a very good job). So our records indicate this soldier is our top expert marksman. Once the fudging starts, it is hard to stop. Those instructors could not admit they were nailing targets.

Remember Sgt. Oblivious? After he was relieved from his job as a squad leader, he was not formally removed, so he was still squad leader on his soldier's records. So he signed the awards that others rewrote. By putting an electronic signature on these documents, he has proof that he is competent at writing awards when he next comes up for promotion. If the awards were not rewritten his squad members would have suffered. Because they were rewritten, the Army suffers because a thoroughly incompetent soldier has proof he can write awards.

One thing I thought I would get a one-year break from in a war zone is all the gray areas of modern life. But the Army is part of modern life and it is as gray in here as it is on the outside--with an olive drab tinge.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Letter on a New Yorker Poddcast

Today's Political Scene podcast by the New Yorker magazine has a short letter I wrote about Sarah Palin. You can listen here.  The letter is at about minute 14.
http://www.newyorker.com/online/2011/01/03/110103on_audio_politicalscene

Single Father Deployed to Afghanistan--Read to the End

Another great story about 87th Infantry deployment to Afghanistan and its effect on families.  Read the story to the end.

Monday, December 27, 2010

In NYC for Post Christmas Shopping

What a contrast from last Christmas.  In Iraq last year, Christmas was 90 degrees, sunny, dusty and an extravaganza of food.  Two days later I was on a flight to Al Kut, Baghdad and Balad.

This year Christmas was a calm day at my father-in-law's house near Washington DC.  Christmas night, four of my kids and I drove to Lancaster.  After Church we loaded the car and drove to New York City--actually Trenton, then the rest of the way by train.

The weather was clear for about 20 miles then more and more snow.  We passed six accidents and almost became one ourselves when some slowed to look at other accidents.  After two and a half hours of sliding, we made ti to Trenton station.  Another 90 minutes and we were in Penn Station and on the way to our hotel in Times Square.  The blizzard was howling when we left the subway.  We struggled two blocks to the hotel then checked in.  Even through the snow Times Square was pulsing bright with ads on two-story electronic billboards.  Jacari saw NYC for the first time stepping out of the subway staircase and said, "Awesome!  This is like Hollywood!"

The gym was closed by the time we arrived, but the Crown Plaza has 46 floors so we could run up the stairs and either walk back down (which Lisa did all three times) or take the elevator, which I did two of three times.

We changed and went three blocks to the Marriott Marquis so the kids could ride the glass elevators up to The View--the 60th floor restaurant.  We struggled another couple of blocks and had pizza for dinner.

Today, I am sitting in Starbucks while the kids shop the few vendors who opened on Canal Street.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas at Home

Last year Christmas was warm, sunny and dusty.  This year I am back to the complicated travels that only  a Yours-Mine-Ours family has around the holidays.

Right now I am on the train to Philadelphia.  I will finish my overdue expense reports, have lunch in the city, then take a train to Washington DC at 330pm.  By 6pm, the Metro should have me in Silver Spring MD where my wife will pick me up at the station and take me to her Dad's house.  I will be with my wife, both sons, and step-daughter Iolanthe for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Somewhere around 5pm, my daughters will drive down from Lancaster to Silver Spring.  We will exchange presents and have dinner together.  Then Lauren, Lisa, Jacari, Nigel and I will drive back to Lancaster around 9pm.

The next morning, we will go to Church in Lancaster.  I will go to the bike shop, Bike Line of Lancaster and pick up my latest bike, a break-apart frame Surley bike that is legal for riding on Amtrak--no more driving to New York.

Around 2pm the five of us will drive to New York City.  Every year I take my daughters and their friends to NYC to shop the day after Christmas.  This year we are delayed a day because Christmas was on Saturday.  We start at Century 21 Department Store at the World Trade Center and walk up Broadway to Times Square where we are staying at the Crown Plaza.

On Tuesday we drive back to Lebanon PA where Jacari and Nigel will spend the night and the next day with Jacari's foster mom Melissa.  I will work in Philadelphia the next day and Annalisa will return from Silver Spring and pick up Jacari.

Then we can start working on New Years Eve.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Article About Ground Combat in Afghanistan

Jim Dao of NY Times on the war in Afghanistan
The story about the minefield is really sad.
Follow the link.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Today is the 41st Anniversary of My Driver's License

Many people tell me they don't celebrate their driver's license anniversary. That is SOOO strange.  What could be more important than driving?

Actually, the strange thing about this anniversary is that until this one, I had always owned more cars, trucks and motorcycles than years of driving.  I owned three cars by the time I had a license for a year, six by year two, ten by year four, fifteen cars and two motorcycles by my tenth driver's license anniversary.  A decade later, I owned my tenth motorcycle and was up to 20 cars.  It took 17 more years to add ten more vehicles and I just spent $788 on my current 2002 Malibu to keep from buying another car.

In that same period, I have owned somewhere between fifteen and twenty bicycles and currently own five since the Trek GT single speed got stolen on Veteran's Day this year.    Bicycles are not quite separate from each other the way cars are.  I am currently getting all the components from one of my race bikes switched to a new frame that breaks in two pieces in less than a minute.  When it is complete, I will have a spare frame.

When it is complete, I will have:


  • A Trek Madone road bike
  • A Surley travel bike (the new one)
  • A Cannondale tandem
  • A Dahon folding bike with 20-inch wheels
  • A GT Peace 9-R single speed road bike.

Friday, December 17, 2010

How I Would Have Died--If I Lived 100 Years Ago: Broken Neck


This week's post on my work blog.  Click if you want to see it there, or just read it here.
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Last week, I described the bicycle racing crash that left me in a ditch bleeding with ten broken bones.
The worst of those ten broken bones—at least in terms of my short-term and long-term survival—was my seventh cervical vertebra, C-7. At the moment I crashed, I flipped into the air and landed on my head. My helmet saved my skull, but the impact cracked the first two vertebra in my neck and smashed my C-7.  
I was blessed/fortunate/lucky that one of the other racers was a police officer and knew to keep me flat on my back until help arrived. Officer Mike Whitaker also called 911 and let them know I was in very bad shape and needed a MEDEVAC helicopter to take me to the hospital. Because an off-duty Emergency Medical Technician lives in the neighborhood and was nearby in his car, there was an EMT taking care of me in three minutes and I was strapped in the MEDEVAC 20 minutes later.  
The MEDEVAC landed on the roof of Lancaster General Hospital in ten minutes. I was again blessed/fortunate/lucky that the neurosurgeon on duty was Lt. Col. William Monnachi, just back from a tour in Baghdad Hospital treating wounded soldiers.
Dr. Monnachi and his surgical team replaced my C-7 with a bone from a bone bank the next day. I could barely swallow for the next six weeks, but I could walk within three days. I was in a neck and chest brace for the next three months, but was walking at least three miles a day from the day I left the hospital. I resumed running a month later.  
Last week Bess Williamson, one of CHF's visiting scholars, mentioned during a presentation that 100 years ago people with spinal injuries died within a few months. She said the polio epidemic led to new treatments for spinal disease and injury, but recovering from spinal injury was rare until recent medical innovations like bone transplants.  
In the hospital, one of the first people I thought of was Joni Earackson Tada. She is a quadraplegic who is three years older than I am. She smashed her fifth cervical vertebra in a diving accident at age 17. The difference between us:  In 1967 there were no bone banks, MEDEVAC helicopters were rare, and neurosurgery did not have as many tools as it has today. Joni has done great things for the disabled over the last 40 years and is an inspiration to thousands of people. But it seems clear from her writings and presentations that she would trade her work and her wheelchair for the use of her arms and legs.  
Next week, I will talk about the nine ounces of high-tech plastics that kept me from smashing my skull in the 50 mph impact with the road.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rotten Weekend Turns Out Great

When I came home last night from drill weekend, I thought I had lost both the camera the Army issued me and a video camera from my day job.

But on the train home from Philadelphia tonight, Master Sergeant Kirby Hoke of 2-104th called my cell phone to tell me they found the cameras. I had left them in the S-1 (admin) office.  I thought they had been stolen from my car.

It turns out I just left them in the admin office while I was waiting to talk to SFC Lori Burns.

WHAT A RELIEF!!!!

I did learn some useful things about losing Army.

One of the officers, I own't rat him out, said even if they charged me for losing the camera, they can't take more than one month's pay.  That's less than $300 for a weekend warrior like me.  And he said that they usually waive the penalty in cases of hardship.

I asked if it would help if I put water spots on my statement and said they were the tears of my children.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How I Would Have Died--If I Lived 100 Years Ago: Bicycle Racing

Latest post on my work blog:


On Wednesday, May 9, 2007, twelve riders (including me) started down a 3/4-mile winding descent known as Turkey Hill. If you live in the Northeast, you probably have eaten Turkey Hill ice cream. It's that Turkey Hill—a real place on the west side of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Turkey Hill is a coasting race; no pedaling allowed. Riders sweep down the hill crouched as low as they can get on their bikes, passing each other using the momentum of the draft. On that lovely spring afternoon, I started at the back of the group and picked off the riders one or two at a time as we went faster and faster down the hill.
Just before nearing the finish line, I swept left to pass the lead rider. I timed it perfectly—except that the lead rider moved left. We touched wheels. I remember less than two minutes of the next three days.
When two-wheeled vehicles touch wheels, the back rider crashes. According to the ten riders behind me, I flipped through the air and landed on my head and right shoulder, sliding into the ditch at the base of the hill.
By my count,  I would have died four different ways 100 years ago. In order of severity:
1) I broke cervical vertebra 1 and 2 and smashed C-7. 100 years ago, spinal injury victims survived for weeks or months at best.
2) My high-tech bicycle helmet was crushed and covered with blood, but intact. Without it I might have been dead before I was done sliding without the bike.
3) Within 30 minutes after the accident I was in a MEDEVAC helicopter on the way to the Trauma Center at Lancaster General Hospital. With a smashed vertebra, I could have been quadraplegic or worse before I got the hospital by any slower means.
4) When I landed, my racing glasses dug into my forehead, peeling it up about two inches and ripping the skin from the bridge of my nose. Plastic surgery put me back together. Without it, infection could very well have been fatal.
This does not mean I got off scot-free. Stay tuned for next week's post, when I explain how modern medicine healed my spinal injuries.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Westboro Baptist Church and Conspiracy Theories

Today's news reports say Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church www.godhatesfags.com will be protesting at the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards.  I suppose this is great news for her former husband.  Even he looks good next to the vile members of that creepy Kansas church.

In a related story, Julian Assange was arrested for sexual assault.  Who knows how long his trial will drag out.  Remember the guy who was threatening to burn Korans?  I don't.  And I am not looking him up.

For me, the very fact that Julian Assange and Fred Phelps are alive show just how nutty conspiracy theories really are.  People who really think our government was involved in 9-11 should look at Westboro and Fred Phelps.  Phelps dishonors our own war dead, hurts the grieving families and friends of the dead soldiers and no one "takes him out."

You would think a government that could pull off a conspiracy like 9-11 or implant tracker chips in people's butts (Timothy McVeigh believed that one) or be involved in one-tenth of the conspiracy wet dreams of Glenn Beck or Michael Savage could at least kill Julian Assange and Fred Phelps.

But they are alive, healthy, and Fred is off to trash the funeral of a long-suffering woman for his own disgusting reasons.

Next time you hear some nut case--either live or broadcast--try to explain some vast government conspiracy just check to see if Phelps and Assange are still happily peddling their respective rubbish.  If they are, just try to imagine a world takeover by a government that can't do anything about Westboro Baptist Church.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Facebook Message from Medic I Served With

Facebook is great for keeping in touch.  I got this message today.  I hope I get to meet the lady Cynthia Dalton talked to.  I will write abut her for a future blog post.  I wrote about Cindy here:  http://armynow.blogspot.com/2009/09/who-fights-this-war-flight-medic.html

Hey! Something interesting I wanted to share with you...
So there I was at Military Clothing Sales, you know, purchasing all my last minute Class A stuff just like everyone else in the PA Guard! Well I was trying on some shoes for my Class A's when an older woman came over and asked if I was in the national guard. I explained to her that I was AGR. Out of nowhere she just said, I was in the Army for 6 years, active duty. I was a medic in vietnam. Fellow Medic! I instantly stood up from trying on my shoes and shook her hand! I thanked her for her service and especially for laying down the foundation of what I have had the honor and privelidge of what I have made my career. I instantly thought of you. I explained to her what you were doing next fall and asked her if she would be willing to talk to you. (I realize that may have been presumtious of me) She was hesitant for a moment and you could tell she was in deep thought. She said "IDK, maybe" sighed and then said "yea sure." I thought WOW I would love to sit down and have coffee with this woman. The only detail she mentioned in our short conversation was about assisting with a surgery in a tent while she could here the bullets flying! We instantly had a repor and talked a little about what it is like to be a female in the army and what it is like to do the best job in the army. She told me she was there shopping because her husband was in the hospital and he asked to be buried in army fatigues, not the new ones that we wear now but the old desert fatigues. She was looking for his ingsignia and rank to put on them. This woman went from being an army medic in vietnam to an army wife for 22 years, and now here she was preparing for her husbands funeral.
It was time for me to get going, I wish I could have stayed and talked to her for hours. She thanked me for continuing what the WAC's started (Women's Army Corp) and extended her hand to shake mine. I leaned over and hugged her instead.
Neil- I do not know if you have a place in the event you are planning but if you do she would be worth talking to. I was so intrigue by our meeting that since I have been searching the internet for hours looking for books or essays on enlisted female army medics. Unfortunately, I have not been too successful. There is some out there about Nurses and the Women's Officer Corp, but nothing on the enlisted female medics. Something told me to share this with you.
I could tell she wanted to talk more too. She lingered around the register and when I walked up she said "and here is Mrs. Dalton!" I have her name and phone number, if you would like. She gave me her home and cell. She also does a lot of painting revolving around women in the military. Let me know your thoughts-Cynthia

Monday, December 6, 2010

Waiting for the Retirement Verdict

Last week I met with the NCOIC of administration in our battalion, SFC Lori Burns.  She looked at my pay statements from the 80s and forwarded them to division HQ to see if there is any way I can stay long enough to retire.  I know I will have to stay another five years of so, the question is will five more years bring me close enough to 20 years to get me a real retirement?

I have a friend at Church, Ethan Demme, who knows everybody in Lancaster Country politics.  He said he can put me in touch with my US Congressman, Joe Pitts.  My wife knows our state representative, Mike Sturla.  I could need help from state and federal representatives if I hit one of the paper walls any big bureaucracy can set up.

Lucky for me, an old guy who wants to stay in the Army longer (and is healthy) should be one of the projects representatives actually have fun doing.  Many requests for their help come from people who are neck deep in a cesspool and need a real strong pull to get out--not to mention help with clean up afterwards!

I have read memoirs of people my age, back when 57 was really old, who said they believed what they saw in the mirror--a face that obviously belongs to a person nearing 60, but behind their eyes, the person looking at the mirror does not seem like a different person than the 17-year-old who looked in the mirror hoping he would get older so his zits would clear up.

After I met with Lori Burns, I talked to Captain Mike Gross, our battalion operations officer.  He was not with us in Iraq.  We talked about the newsletter.  He asked whether I "just wanted to be the guy with the camera" or if I wanted to work in my MOS to advance my career.  I said, "I'm 57 years old and have three college degrees.  I'm not sure my skill (or lack of it) in generator and pump repair will make a lot of difference to my career."  But he is right to ask.  If I am not going to fix generators, I should let a generator mechanic have the sergeant slot.

We'll see what happens.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner

I know it’s a week late, but we had a great Thanksgiving.  All the girls were home from college and among our guests were six political refugees from Bhutan.  A family at our Church is involved with refugee resettlement and Lancaster. Pa. has several hundred refugees from various conflicts around the world.  When they came to our house, I thought immediately they were from Nepal.  It turns out there was a migration of Nepalese people to Bhutan several decades ago.  The native Bhutanese since decided they did not want Nepalese and started an ethnic cleansing campaign. 

Men from Nepal worked in the Green Beans Coffee Shop on Tallil Ali Air Base and at other shops I went to in Balad Air Base and in Kuwait.  They are short and thin and don’t eat much.  My wife cooked for 20 Americans which meant we had a lot of leftovers, even sending a lot of food home with our guests. 

I am glad America is still a refuge for persecuted people like my own grandparents who escaped Russian pogroms more than a century ago.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

How I Would Have Died--If I Lived 100 Years Ago, Motorcycle Accident

On a Tuesday in June 1980 I ran from my desk at the Elizabethtown Chronicle to my 550 Suzuki motorcycle parked out back. I was running late for class on the second day of the summer trimester at Penn State's campus in Harrisburg, Pa. I could cover the 12-mile distance in 10 minutes, park close, run up the stairs and be on time.
It was mid morning and Route 230 was clear of traffic. I went over the hill and down into an S turn, which was followed by a flat stretch for three miles.  In the middle of taking the S at 75 mph (speed limit 55mph) the handlebars started a rapid, back and forth wobble called a “tank slapper” by motorcyclists. I have long arms and had once overcome the wobble  by snapping my arms straight.
My snap must have been off that day. The front wheel grabbed the pavement while turned all the way to the right. The bike launched into the air, back wheel first. The bike and I flipped and rolled across the center of the road and into the ditch nearly 100 yards away.  
I felt no pain. It was a beautiful summer morning. At first, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Then I looked down. I was on my back and covered in dirt and blood. I'd crashed in front of a house that was being painted. One of the painters ran up and asked if I was okay.  He covered me with a drop cloth and yelled for someone to call an ambulance. In the narrow clarity of shock, I told the painter I needed to get up and walk around or I would be stiff in the morning. He said, “You just stay where you are, son. Help is coming.”  
After the flip, I hit face down on the road. The main impact points were  knees and  face. I suppose because of my boots, both knees hit on the left side and the road scraped away so much skin that I could see the ligaments. I did not see my helmet until after my two-week hospital stay, but the full-coverage helmet had grooves scraped in the chin bar and above the visor. After surgery on both knees and some very painful rehab, I was released from the hospital two weeks later and went back to class. I got good marks and sympathy, since I returned in a lot of bandages.
Readers might protest that I would not have died 100 years ago because I could not have gone that fast on two wheels. But bicycles and motorcycles have been the fast track to injury and death since they were invented.  The physics are terrible—moving at high speed while perched on top of a vehicle that tends to flip when unbalanced. Bicycle racing was very popular at the turn of the 20th century. Racers were maimed and killed riding more than 40 mph on steeply banked board tracks. One of the more gruesome injuries came when a crashing rider was impaled by a long splinter. Indian started making motor-cycles in 1901; Harley-Davidson in 1903.  By 1910 motorcycle racing was turning into a major attraction at state fairs. Helmets were as crude as the motorcycles. Injuries were terrible.
I'm alive to write about this accident because I had the good fortune not to hit anything solid on my high speed flips through the air. If I had hit an on-coming car or a tree or a curb at 75 mph my story would be over. Also, without the full-coverage helmet, landing face first would have killed me or made me wish I was dead. People who ride motorcycles without helmets or with those ludicrous “brain bucket” helmets should at least make sure they are signed up as organ donors before they ride.
The full-coverage helmet with all of the polymer technology inside and outside is the main reason I survived the crash. Rapid-response ambulance transport, effective treatment for shock and infection, and follow-up care kept me from the fate of riders who once rode without modern medicine.
http://www.chemheritage.org/community/periodic-tabloid/2010-12-03-how-i-would-died-motorcycle.aspx?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving Morning

Some of you may remember that I had an article published on the New York Times “At War” blog last year about a bike/run race I organized Iraq.  It was on Thanksgiving morning, just like the annual Turkey Day Race here in Lancaster.  This year I definitely wanted to go, even though the only chance I had of winning was freezing rain or snow.  I left my house early figuring I would be dropped on the first lap and ride home.  The race distance is six laps of the 3.3-mile triangular circle where there is a Wednesday night training race from April till October. 

As I left the driveway, the roads were dry.  By the time I passed Park City Mall ten minutes later, it was raining and 35 degrees.  Another mile later, sleet was pinging off my helmet.  I arrived 45 minutes early and no one was there.  I sat under the eaves of the radio station at the start finish (WARM 103 FM) then decided I would be warmer if I rode a couple of laps.  The race starts at 9.  I waited till 9:05 then decided it was time for the race to start.  Since I was the whole field, I then declared it a one-lap race.  Ten minutes later, I met a guy named Sheldon who rode out to see who showed up in the sleet to race.  He was surprised that it was just me.  But he did agree to be my witness of the win.  He is officially second place.


Two days ago I wrote to Keith Wilson, the keeper of the Turkey Day records, on Facebook.  He said I am the winner and I get the prize--a can of Yams!!!!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Changing Workouts

Ten days ago as I got up to leave Church I had a huge pain in my right knee.  I had ridden to Church on my folding bike and planned walk home with my family.  I rode home slowly since I would get to coast part way.  My knee was swollen and sore.  I tired to do the Sunday ride, but only rode the three miles to the start and turned around.  I went to the doctor the next day.  No knee damage he could see, my lack of stretching just caught up to me and pulled a tendon called the IT band on the outside of my right leg.  The doctor put me on physical therapy with my old friends at Lancaster Orthopedic Group.  I was back to riding and running in two days. 

But I have actually been stretching since and will have to keep it up.  In the last three months I have been riding less and running more.  In fact, it is likely I will have fewer miles on the bike this year that last year.  I’ll have to ride almost 600 miles in December to match the 7133 miles I rode last year—mostly in Iraq.

It’s not that I don’t want to ride, but I have been working longer hours which makes it more difficult to ride with just nine hours of daylight.  And I have been running more—just over 60 miles each of the last three months.  And I have been at the gym more consistently, so in October, I did the most pushups (1115) and situps (1403) I have ever done in a month and it looks like 2010 will be the year I do more pushups, situps and pull-ups than I have ever done in a year.  


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Next 2-104th Newsletter

I just sent the latest newsletter to the training NCOs in the battalion for distribution.  It’s eight pages mostly of pictures.  In the next issue I will catch up with pictures I did not publish from Echo Company’s refueling operation in September and the pistol, rifle and machine gun ranges in October.  If you want a whole copy, send me an email at ngussman@gmail.com