Thursday, October 31, 2013
On Monday this week we marched to the gym for our morning workout. We formed up at 4:50 a.m. and returned at 6 a.m., so we marched both ways in the dark.
On the way to the gym, SFC Wilkerson sang the marching songs. On the way back it was SFC Bennett. They are as different as two men with the same training and the same job can be. Wilkerson yells, Bennett can sing. Marching a mile with Wilkerson is dull. With Bennett calling cadence I feel like I could march to Baltimore from Fort Meade.
But it struck me this morning much more than in the last three months just how completely neutered our marching songs are. When I joined the Air Force in 1972 and when I re-enlisted as a tank crewman in the Army in 1975, I marched to songs that sounded like young warriors were singing.
In the 1972 we marched to songs about killing Viet Cong, and crushing North Viet Nam. One particularly nasty song had the refrain "Napalm sticks to kids." And the sexist songs were so over the top as to be ludicrous even to the 19-year-olds singing them. One of our drill sergeants could sing more than 20 verses of a song that began:
"I wish all the ladies, was bats in a steeple,
and I was the big bat, there'd be more bats than people,
Hey Hey Babareebo. . ."
But no road march was complete without Jody. One of the generic names for marching songs is Jody Calls.
Jody Calls tell the story of a guy named Jody back home who is sleeping with your wife/lover, driving your car, living in your house, emptying your bank account, and hunting with your dog. We always sang songs about this lecherous lothario with the refrain "Jody's got your girl and gone. . ."
And we slammed our heels to the ground when we swore.
But here at Fort Meade, the songs are clean, they are not sexist, they are only occasionally violent. These were the songs we sang on the last day of basic when parents came to visit.
If you have never heard the real songs, watch the beginning of the movie "Jarhead." My daughter Lisa watched Jarhead with her friends when she was in high school. She came home and said, "Dad, you never told us the real words." She also asked about the bulletin board in the tent called the Jody Board.
I told her who Jody was and that the Jody Board was where you put up pictures of the woman that just dumped you.
Lisa explain the Jody Board to her friends. They all went back and saw the movie again.
I miss the songs with sex, death, and enemies. Even with Bennett singing, compared to the old days, I feel like I am marching with a scout troop.
Monday, October 21, 2013
These runs suck. Nearly 100 soldiers run two miles at a pace we can stay together. That usually means 11-minute miles and trying to keeping from tripping over the soldier in front of me.
Before this company run a drug and alcohol counselor led us in rah-rah anti-drug cheers. When he said Army, we said, Drug Free.
Then he said he was going to run with us and call some special cadence. He did, for a few hundred yards, then sergeants from our unit took over, then he called for a few minutes near the end. The run took 26 minutes: 13-minute miles!!
When we were back on the parade field, the drug counselor led us in a few more cheers. His jacket was off. He was sweating. This painfully slow run was clearly a big effort for him.
Then he said to all of us, "I'm 60 years old and I can still do this!" I was in the back row of the formation. There was some laughter around me. He didn't know there was a 60-year-old in the formation who runs two miles at a 7:30 pace.
I am very careful not to say I am good for my age. There is always somebody better.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
"To define is to limit," said Oscar Wilde. In this self-examination of faith I started a few days ago I realized that another vast difference between Sgt. Gussman the new believer in 1974 and Sgt. Gussman in 2007 when I re-enlisted is three college degrees and much personal experience of many facets of the Church in this world.
In one of his best books on the faith, C.S. Lewis wrote about the "Mere Christianity" we all share if we are Christian believers. Thirty-five years of reading and re-reading C.S. Lewis' 39 books and many hundreds more have left me much more aware, sad to say, of everything that is not mere Christianity. The stuff we don't share looms large in my mind.
As a new believer, I wondered about different denominations of the Protestant Church, different faiths, different versions of the Bible, different ways of communicating the faith, and spiritual disciplines. I tried lots of them. I listened to James Robinson preach in stadiums in Texas and Oklahoma on cassette tapes. I listened Bob Mumford and Derek Prince teach about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I read Sword of Lord newspaper out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I went to the Gospel Service in the base chapel where the training NCO in our Armor Battalion was the lay preacher.
I fasted for up to three days. I prayed. I meditated. I tried everything.
Then I left active duty, went to college, and started to learn about literature, science, languages, the whole vast world of the mind that I had very little inkling of in high school.
I learned Greek, I read the Russian greats: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov. I fell in love with Dante's Divine Comedy. Politics went from opaque to entertaining after I read Machiavelli.
I learned relatively little science. I wanted to be a writer and took mostly literature courses. But I learned what may be the most important word when science and religion are discussed together: Contingency. Science was not sent down Mount Sinai on stone tablets. Science changes. Often.
In fact, the best path to fame in science is to take on the biggest theory in science and change, improve, modify, or overturn it. Einstein corrected Newton. Someday someone may do the same to Einstein. In any case, the current theories of science are the best description of reality in their respective fields: Evolution, Quantum Electrodynamics, Universal Gravitation and others are the best description of reality that millions of working scientists can come up with.
All this exciting new knowledge had the effect of limiting my Christian world. I knew Christian Television was a non-sequitor even before Neil Postman explained why in "Amusing Ourselves to Death." Because I knew and loved the ministry of Kanaan in Germany where Cliff lived, the Prosperity Gospel looked both ridiculous and heretical.
End Times obsession combined with Creation Science in my mind as the playground where you can take the Bible literally at no personal cost. Taking the words of Jesus literally could lead to giving away all your money to the poor, preaching without pay, going on a mission trip with nothing but a bowl and a staff and other things no literalist takes literally.
So there I am, trimming away fellowship with vast swaths of the Church in this world. In my current Church, my family is one of the three token Democrat families among 300 Conservatives. So even where I belong, I don't completely.
And there is more.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
I got several responses on Facebook about this post, and two in person. Two sergeants in my class seemed worried about me this morning after they read yesterday's post.
After reading the responses on Facebook and talking to Brian and Lealan (not a misspelling) I was thinking about something else vastly different abut my current experience of the military. In the 70s when I was on active duty, I shared long stretches of time with the men who became my best friends.
For several months, I was Cliff's roommate. For almost three years, Abel and I were in the same tank platoon. For a while we commanded tanks next to each other in the motor pool and in road march order.
Shared time, better yet, shared hardship, is the best soil for friendships to grow in. The time is the soil, the hardship is the fertilizer. So Abel and I had time for endless conversations about faith, the Bible, the second coming, whether Pentacostal believers were crazy or more faithful than us, and a thousand other topics only discussed by people with lots of time and curiosity.
Soldiers don't really have much time together in the National Guard. One weekend a month and two weeks in the summer is usually jammed with training. In 1977, our battalion went to Grafenwohr, Germany for annual gunnery. Fog blanketed the base for two weeks. During those two weeks we sat in our tanks and waited for the fog to clear for days on end. That was the first time I read the entire Bible cover to cover.
Even in Iraq, it was clear from day one that we had missions, requirements, and would be working a lot. My roommate and I worked in different places, on different shifts and had very few interests in common. Being roommates with Cliff was different than any roomie I have ever had in the military.
Cliff was getting ready to get discharged. After he went home for a few months, he planned to come back to Germany and be a Franciscan Brother at a monastery in Darmstadt, Germany. To this day he is Bruder Timotheus. I had the chance to visit him many times during the last few months I was in Germany while he was a Novice at the monastery.
Anyway, I really like some of my current classmates, but as Brian has pointed out several times, I go off and do my own thing when people are eating together during the week and have gone home on the weekends so I seldom go on the class trips around the Baltimore-Washington area.
But the point of yesterday's post was the folly of looking for faith in the Army. I met faithful men in the military, but the military was not the source of their faith. Since returning to the Army, I have met some of the best people I know. But they came to the Army with virtue they got from parents, family, their own faith and the grace of God.
The Franciscan monastic community where Cliff lives requires a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. Although many of my fellow soldiers believe themselves to be poor, and we are more obedient than most Americans, no one I know is taking the middle vow.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
The pictures would seem to clear up my ambiguous headline: is this post about being a person of faith who is in the military, or about having faith in the Army as an institution.
The answer is yes to both. And then again, no.
Some recent comments by several friends indicate that I am complaining more about my current stint of active duty than about Iraq, Fort Sill, and every I have served since I re-enlisted.
Long-time readers of this blog will also remember that my intent in re-enlisting was to serve, to face the hardships of an old man in a young man's game, and that I would strengthen my faith.
If you are laughing at the idea of joining the Army to become a stronger man of faith, you should be. But the error was an honest one on my part. Joining the military more than 40years ago was the path I took from vague agnosticism to faith.
All through my first years in the military, I made many friends who were serious believers. They were mostly young men, though some were older (not as old as I am, of course!), and were ready to do things like fast, pray, and read the Bible cover to cover.
I have met many believers since leaving the Army, but the two men I call my best friends are men of faith from my three-year tour in Germany in the 1970s. The only person I know who is as strong as Abel and Cliff spiritually is my wife Annalisa.
So I thought that re-enlisting would allow me to serve and possibly to meet men like Cliff and Abel.
But from the first, the experiment went wrong. It turns out, re-enlisting was not the hardship I expected. I am in much better physical shape than I was when I was a 20-year-old smoker. And the soldiers I serve with are generally in worse shape than the men in my tank unit 35 years ago.
So within a few months, far from suffering, I was one of the top people in my unit in physical training. Fitness is status in the Army, especially for old guys. Far from the Army being a place where I would be the old guy who could barely keep up and thereby gain in humility, I was pacing runs that 20-year-olds were dropping out of.
Not that I was actually anywhere near the best in fitness. The young men and women who were in shape were in WAY better shape than me. But the average soldier was fat, lazy and pale from playing video games.
A few months after I joined, our unit got a mobilization order for Iraq. So I was going to Iraq at 55!! Not a big occasion for humility there. C.S. Lewis correctly says pride is the first and central sin and humility is the route to real spirituality.
Every step further into the Army became a step away from the kind of faith I was supposed to be seeking.
During the deployment and after, I grew and grew in confidence in myself. After returning from Iraq, I began running half marathons. After nine of them, I ran a marathon. I limped home in just under six hours, but I made it. So now I am training for an Ironman. I am much better with weapons than I was the first time around, both the rifle and the SAW machine gun.
I fasted one day every week for two months before calling the recruiter in 2007. I haven't fasted about a single decision since.
At this 90-day school, I have finally reached something like the kind of difficulty I thought I would face when I first joined. Getting up at 4 am is far more difficult for me than staying up till 3 am. The whole school experience is really difficult because i am perpetually tired.
This is suffering for real. I should be embracing it.
I am bitching.
In three weeks when this school is over, I will be celebrating. Not just because this school is over, but because I now know that the Army is really not the place to be more spiritual. Taking care of widows and orphans is the most often-repeated path to pleasing God in the Bible. Next month should end my last stint of active duty.
After all this time, I can finally see that ending this Army experiment is for the best.
Friday, October 11, 2013
The Army will be getting a new fitness uniform soon to replace the current gray and black uniform that is Army ugly.
I saw the new uniform in the clothing sales store on Fort Meade. I noticed that "Army Strong" was written on the sleeve of the uniform.
When I came to Fort Meade and started Army PT at 4am, I scored a 297 on the PT test. Since then my fitness has declined. Before I came to Meade I was training for an Ironman triathlon, adding about a mile a month since swimming two miles in January. Now I am declining. I ran a marathon in March and have barely run 30 miles a month since I have been here. I ride everywhere on post but now my total miles have dropped from 800+ to less than 700 per month.
Am I whining?
By being forced to do Army basic trainee PT five days a week, I do far less exercise than I would have on my own. And now it's starting to show.
This may be a good PT program for people who watch movies and play video games if they are not dragged out of bed in the morning, but it is a bad program for someone who actually trains.
One of my classmates runs two miles in 12 minutes and is training for a marathon next month. He does his long run on Wednesday night. At 5 am Wednesday morning we do hill sprints or sprint in a circle. At 5 pm, Ben runs 18, 20 or 22 miles.
Then he is up before dawn doing upper body exercises at 5am on Thursday.
Most units do not have returning sergeants who qualify for fitness awards do this kind of PT.
27 days to go.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Among the many ill-conceived programs we endure at school, the Thursday mentorship program for Army soldiers is one of the dumbest.
Each Thursday at 4:30 p.m. we gather in a conference room of the main school building and listen to a one-hour lecture about what our job will be like out in the field. At least, that is how the lecture is billed.
In reality, exactly one of the lectures had any real connection to our immediate future in Army Public Affairs. But these lectures do have an effect on our school experience.
They are one more ill-conceived and unnecessary aggravation.
We get up at 4 a.m. each morning to do PT (Physical Training) and have eight hours of classes each day finishing at 4 p.m. Adding a lecture that will not be graded at the end of a 12-hour day would be nasty if it were interesting. But these lectures are farther off topic than cold-weather survival training in Mogadishu, Somalia.
With one exception, these lectures are far above our pay grade, and focused on active-duty Army. The majority of the soldiers in these classes are enlisted and junior NCOs in the National Guard and Reserve.
Four weeks ago, a Sergeant First Class talked to us for 73 minutes about the distribution of Public Affairs leadership slots in the active Army. His focus was on officers and senior NCOs. And he droned on 13 minutes over his hour in front of people who had already spent a whole day in class.
Two weeks ago, a Master Sergeant spoke for his entire hour about creating PowerPoint slides for command briefings. He is a perfect example of the kind of speaker that drives speechwriters crazy: he thinks he is funny, and he is not. Worse still, he thinks he is funny when he is just being himself. He said toward the end of the hour, “I know this stuff is dry, but at least I am entertaining right?”
He got a mildly affirmative answer, but what else could he get. He has power over his audience and was using it to make himself feel good.
To be fair, there was one useful mentoring hour. It lasted just 45 minutes. A Staff Sergeant who works on the Army’s social media program talked to us about how the Army is currently using social media and where the program is headed.
That talk was useful. We got one ungraded day in our entire three-month school program about social media, and most of us will return to units who have or need Facebook page administrators.
By the end of school we will have had 12 hours of mentorship, 12 hours mostly spent trying to stay awake listening to irrelevant information.
Friday, October 4, 2013
I read a post on Facebook about a woman who lost her job because she bitched about veterans getting discounts and being called heroes. She had very little support, but she had some.
The on-going government shut down, like the sequester, spreads pain unevenly across America. Like any Republican program, it will hurt the poor more than the rich, but any cut in government programs will eventually cut veteran’s benefits. So the Republicans quickly moved to restore benefits to veterans.
Sounds like something good. It might be good in the short term, but government is a zero-sum game. If you give money one place you take it from another. So veterans get benefits, but Headstart and school-lunch programs remain without money.
If the shutdown is a good idea, then veterans should be screwed along with kids and cancer patients. Because if we are not, eventually all those who care about kids and cancer patients will remember that veterans got bennies when they did not.
I served when during Viet Nam when Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Dick Cheney and other draft dodgers were sneering at veterans. And the public thought of us as baby killers and college-student killers.
When we mobilized for Iraq, our commander said, “Envy destroys community.” He was right. Now he is in the U.S. Congress and supporting the shutdown. I hope he remembers his own speech. The longer this shutdown drags on, the more envy will eat at those who lost paychecks, lost research grants, lost school-lunch programs, and lost clinical trials for their child with cancer.
The public could hate us again. With reductions in force, we will soon be less than one half of one percent of the population. More people in America have PhD degrees that are currently serving in the military.
Nobody likes people who cut in line.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
CS Lewis said one of the great pleasures in his life was listening to male laughter. One morning last week we were marching just past 5 a.m. and I suddenly remembered how much I like the sound of men singing.
Our platoon sergeant has the kind of voice born to call cadence, so the whole formation sounds best when he is marching us. Also, when we form up to march, the short people move forward and the tall people go to the rear. This is standard practice in military formations, but it has the side effect of making putting the women in the front and the men in the back.
I am just about six feet tall. With 80 soldiers in four ranks, I am near the back and surrounded by the men with the deepest voices. With the platoon sergeant’s voice ringing out in the cold morning air, the formation echoed his calls loud and strong for the half-mile march to the gymnasium.
The calls are all sterile now, none of the sexist bravado and kill the enemy songs of my Viet-Nam-era basic training. Even when the swearing and bragging are removed, 80 voices sounding off before dawn is an inspiring sound.
If you want to hear marching songs the way I heard them 40 years ago, watch the movie "Jarhead."
Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Today is the second day of the government shutdown. Among those on furlough is my primary writing instructor, Peter Robertson. My first feature was about him as a foodie. I hope you like the story. He is an interesting guy in many ways, long career as a Navy public affairs NCO, an avid comic book collector, and a stand-up comic among other things.
Now he is one of the hundreds of thousands of government employees deemed non-essential. I hope this ends soon. Our writing class wants him back!
Now he is one of the hundreds of thousands of government employees deemed non-essential. I hope this ends soon. Our writing class wants him back!
Peter Robertson, a journalism instructor at the Defense Information School here, is living proof that a “foodie” is made, not born. As a child he wanted macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, and chicken fingers. He and his younger brother protested when their mom made falafel and other foods outside their narrow, mostly fried, favorites.
Now Robertson loves to cook and eat international cuisine. He sees food as a door to culture and a way to preserve and share memories. Two experiences turned him from narrow path of the typical American diet to making the cooking and eating of a wide array of food a life-long adventure.
The first big change happened when Robertson took a home economics class in the in seventh grade. He took shop, art and music classes that year, which he described as OK, but home economics “I kind of enjoyed that,” he said.
“I mastered the incredible, edible egg,” Robertson said. “I learned how to make pasta dishes, lasagnas, from there I learned how to make stuffed shells,” he said. “By the time I left home to go to college I felt I had cooking skills other people didn’t have.”
After college, in the Navy, he continued to cook for himself and increase his skills. On his first cruise in the Navy, Robertson had an experience that turned him from competent cook into a foodie with a flair for international cuisine.
His first deployment was a cruise of the Mediterranean Sea in 1997 with port calls in Greece and Italy that began in Haifa, Israel. His shore visit should have been short but extended to several days because of rough seas that kept ferry from taking him back to the ship.
The first place he ate was McDonalds which he said was a bad decision, though not without culinary adventure. He had a goose breast sandwich at the Israeli Golden Arches. “Every McDonalds caters to locals tastes,” he said.
On the first or second morning on shore he and some friends went to a hotel that had a giant spread for breakfast, he said. On the serving tables he saw, “Nothing that makes you think breakfast.”
“There was fish, there was flatbread, there was olives, there were more olives, there were tomatoes,” Robertson said. He started eating, combing flavors. He was eating foods that were familiar, but in a totally different way, he said. For the rest of his stay he ate “mystery” meat from street vendors and other foods he couldn’t identify—and he liked all of it.
As the cruise continued Robertson ate local in Greece and Italy reveling in local cuisine while most fellow sailors opted for American-style fast food and bars. Some sailors joined him when he wandered port cities looking for good local food. His friends then and now tend to be those who share his sense of adventure in eating.
“If you are someone who has an open mind about food, you probably have an open mind about life in general,” he said. “And that’s the kind of person I like to surround myself with.”
Among his recent foodie friends is Erin Smith, also a journalism instructor at DINFOS. Smith and her husband go on couple dates to restaurants in the Baltimore area with Robertson and his wife.
“He’s good because he’s adventurous,” Smith said. “I can’t think of a food and food group he doesn’t like and I’m the same way. We can go out to kind of a funky, hole-in-the-wall joint and find a good meal. He knows all the good places in Baltimore.”
Robertson cooks for family meals, for parties at his home, and sometimes brings his creations to work. Smith remembers a tea-rubbed smoked salmon he brought to DINFOS. “It was absolutely to die for,” she said. “The tea and the smoke and juiciness of the salmon we’re incredible, cooked to perfection, still a little bit raw, a little rare.”
Robertson’s favorite restaurant in Baltimore is Woodberry Kitchen, near Druid Park, north of the city center. It serves local, seasonal dishes, a cuisine Robertson dismissed earlier in his life in favor of getting what he wanted wherever he was and at any time of the year. Now he sees local, seasonal food as the way to get great flavor.
Though Mediterranean cuisine is his first love, Robertson’s current passion is for Korean food. “Korean food always amazes me,” Robertson said. “Last weekend I had Korean food at a place called the Honey Pig in suburban Baltimore—they have this burner in the middle of the table, kind of like a wok, kind of like an iron skillet.”
The food is cooked at the table beginning with sprouts and adding “things I can’t identify—sour and sweet—all the different kinds of meat, Korean barbecue spices, pork bellies—more bacony than bacon—everything was delicious.”
For Robertson, life in Baltimore combines a job he loves with a city of great restaurants, both with local and international fare, access to a wide array of local ingredients from the land and the sea, and good friends to share it all with. The little boy who wanted only chicken fingers and burgers has grown into a man who both knows and cooks good food from around the world, including some of recipes his mother made for her not-so-adventurous sons more than 30 years ago.