Monday, February 24, 2014

NCO of the Year Board--I didn't make it.

Four members of the six-member panel:  Command Sgt. Maj. Christine, CSM Livolsi, CSM Dowling and CSM Worley.  Not pictured 1st Sgt. Madonna and 1SG Williard.

Most of the day on Sunday's drill I was getting ready for or decompressing after the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade NCO of the Year selection board.  My company asked me to participate three weeks ago.  The sergeant who was their first pick had something wrong with his paperwork, so I was filling the space.  Still, I was happy to be the backup choice in a competition for NCO of the Year.

Then I got the study guides.  Wow!  To be the Soldier/NCO of the Year you have to know soooooooooooo much stuff!!!  

I tried to study on the train back and forth to work, but I had work to do also.  And there was so much to learn, I would have had to take vacation to learn a tenth of it.

Each CSM and 1SG asked me three questions in each of three categories.  The answers they wanted were specific:  five kinds of counseling, three types of judicial punishment, four reasons a soldier can be reduced in rank, six step of immediate action in the event of a misfire with an M16 rifle, and so on.  I correctly answered less than a third, partially answered more.  

Two categories I was perfect:  current events and Army history.  Current events is not scored. But at least I aced something.  Later at least a dozen of my friends said the reason I aced the history is because I served with General Custer.

It was stressful being in front of the board.  I did not study enough and I did not like missing the questions.

I talked to CSM Christine later in the evening and he said that the best candidates devote significant time to preparation.  He said, "With a full-time job and all your kids, I don't see how you could have had time to prepare."  Clearly I did not.  And it was kind of him to let me know he knew that.  

But it was fun to see first hand how tough these boards are, and to see how well I could do.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Old" Soldiers on a Train

Today on the train ride to Philadelphia I sat with Drew Cluley.  He works for Amtrak and is a squad leader in a PA National Guard Engineer Battalion.  Drew has been on three deployments. The first was an active duty deployment with the Marines.  The second was to Camp Adder in 2009-10 where we were both in Echo Company, 2-104th.  The third was to Kuwait with his current unit.

The first thing we talked about was the food.  Would we ever eat as well again as we ate on deployment?  No likely.  We rhapsodized about our particular favorites:  the fresh-cut fresh fruit at Camp Adder and the first-rate cheesecake in Kuwait.

Drew said he had just spent the weekend in Lancaster and was with Brian Pauli, another Echo soldier.  Brian got commissioned after Iraq and is going to make Captain next month.

Then we started talking about when the Army went wrong--ending in the lamentable state it is in today.  Because to old soldiers (even when they are barely 30) the "old army" is always better.

But Drew had an idea I had never thought of.  He said that the post-draft Army of the 70s tried to sell itself as a "family" organization.  That worked well until Sept. 11, 2001.  If I had stayed in, I could have gotten to 20 years with only the Gulf War as a place I might deploy.  And that war was over so fast that no one redeployed.

Drew said if the Army had stayed with being "soldier unfriendly" it would be a better Army.  We were also talking about the book "Thank You For Your Service."  That book is a harrowing chronicle of how bad our protracted wars are for families as well as soldiers.

When I first enlisted, Drill Sergeants still said, "The Army would have issued you a wife if you needed one."

Most of the replacement soldiers in our tank battalion after 1975 fir this description: 19-year-old man with a 17-year-old wife pregnant with first or second kid.

Old soldiers never die, they just get more opinionated.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Today's Post on the NY Times "At War" Blog is Me Bitching about Marching Songs

Or the text is here:
In January the U.S. military and I celebrated our 42nd anniversary. Sort of. I am one of those modern soldiers with commitment issues. I enlisted in the Air Force Jan. 31, 1972.
My current and final enlistment in the Army National Guard will end May 31, 2015, the month I turn 62. In between, I switched to the Army in 1975, the Army Reserve in 1981, then I took 23 years off between 1984 and 2007 before re-enlisting in the Guard.
To say a lot has changed since I flew to Lackland Air Force Base 41 years ago hardly begins to describe the difference between serving at the end of an unpopular war and serving today.
My military career started with a wicked hangover from pitchers of beer in Boston bars the night before an early flight to San Antonio, Texas. My shoulder-length hair was shorn by a gleeful redneck. My first drill sergeant was what the Air Force called a BB Stacker. His Vietnam War service had been in Thailand loading bombs on B-52s and living off base in a hooch that came with food, laundry, housecleaning and companionship for $50 per month.
This married-with-kids master sergeant loved telling us stories of loading bombs and getting loaded himself. Though I can’t remember that drill sergeant’s name, I thought of him several times during a 90-day military school I attended at Fort Meade, Md., from August to November of last year. The majority of the soldiers in the Army Student Company had just finished basic training. The rest of us shared their training schedule and their leaders.
In 1972, when we marched in formation, we sang songs about killing Viet Cong. We sang songs about the sex and heroism in our future. Most of all we sang about Jody. Marching songs used to be referred to as Jody Calls. Jody is the guy who is back home sleeping with your wife, eating your food, driving your car, emptying your bank account and, in the saddest versions, turning your own dog against you.
Mr. Gussman on the airfield at Camp Adder, Iraq, in 2009 after a flight to Al Kut.U.S. ArmyMr. Gussman on the airfield at Camp Adder, Iraq, in 2009 after a flight to Al Kut.
The songs we sang at Fort Meade during this summer and fall were more thoroughly bowdlerized than Sunday school stories. Cub Scouts could sing these songs in front of their mothers. No sex. No death. No cheating, lying, drinking or drugs. Certainly no songs with refrains like “Jody got your girl and gone” or “Napalm sticks to kids.”
When we ran in formation at Fort Meade, we almost always sang:
When my granny was 91, she did PT just for fun
When my granny was 92, she did PT better than you
. . and so on up to age 97. The song is clean, affirming of 90-year-old women, and mildly insulting to the wheezing 20-year-old struggling to keep in step at a run.

We also sang Airborne running songs:
C-130 rollin’ down the strip,
Airborne Daddy gonna take a little trip
Stand up hook up shuffle to the door,
Jump on out and count to four. . .

The songs we sang at Fort Meade never varied.
In Army tank training in 1975 we sometimes sang the version above and sometimes this:
C-130 rollin’ down the strip,
Blew a tire and the [two-word expletive deleted] flipped. . .

We were really loud on the second line of the verse. This version goes on to insult the Air Force.
When my daughters were in preschool, I taught them some very sanitized marching songs. The girls learned “They Say That in the Army” which is a complaint song about food, coffee and Army life in general. It has many verses such as:
They Say That in the Army the coffee’s mighty fine,
It tastes like muddy water and smells like turpentine. . .

Each of the various verses ends “Gee Mom I wanna go, but they won’t let me go.”
The girls also learned the “Yellow Bird” song:
A yellow bird,
With a yellow bill,
Just landed on,
My window sill,
I lured him in,
With crumbs of bread,
And then I crushed his (Slam left foot to the ground) little head.

The word emphasized with a stomp was not “little” when we sang the song. And just that one word makes a lot of difference.
A decade later my youngest daughter and some of her high school friends saw the movie “Jarhead.” Lisa came home and said with a smile, “Dad, you never told us the real words to those songs.”
Lisa also wanted to know who Jody was. The older guys in the audience were laughing at places she and her friends did not get the joke. I explained Jody. Lisa and her friends went back to the movie now that they had Jody decoded.
Most of the soldiers I marched with at Fort Meade were in their early 20s, around the age of my daughters are now. They had no idea who Jody was and had never sung a marching song laced with sex, violence and words they use every five seconds in the barracks. Those words make for very loud cadence. But we sang no bad words at Fort Meade.
When the Army fights wars without enemies, we have to sing about running, old ladies, jumping out of airplanes, bad food or wanting to visit Mom. Winning hearts and minds may be good policy, but it makes for lousy marching songs.
Sgt. Neil Gussman enlisted in the Air Force in 1972. He first served on a live-fire missile test range in Utah until he was blinded in a test explosion. When he recovered, he re-enlisted in the Army in 1975 serving as a tank commander on active duty and in the reserves until 1984. He re-enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 2007 serving with 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. He deployed to Iraq in 2009-2010 with the 28th CAB and still serves with the unit today. He blogs about life in the Army. He lives with his wife and six children in Lancaster, Pa.

Friday, February 7, 2014

German Boys Visit the American Tanks in the Woods Near Their Village

On a beautiful afternoon in late October less than a month after 4th Brigade arrived in Germany, the five tanks of First Platoon, Bravo Company, moved into a defensive position on a hill outside a small village near Fulda.  The village was visible in the valley below more than a mile away.  

All of the tanks were below the crest of the ridge.  We had an observer team on the ridge.  The rest of the platoon was working on the tanks or scouting out places to sleep near the tanks.  Five minutes after the the last tank was in position, three boys rode up the dirt road that connected the village with our position.  The oldest was ten years old.  

I used to play Army in an apple orchard near my home in Stoneham, Massachusetts, when I was their age.  I was thinking that if I saw a platoon of tanks in woods I would have been on my bike and getting as close as those soldiers would let me.  I also thought how different life in Stoneham would have been if a foreign Army could just park a platoon of tanks in the orchard.

I jumped down from the turret and waved for the boys to come to my tank.  No one else seemed particularly interested in having kids near their vehicle.  My driver and I lifted the kids up on the fender of the tank and let them sit in the driver's seat and gunner's seat.  They put on our helmets and talked to each other on the intercom system.  We gave the kids the waxy, canned chocolate that came in our C-rations.

They oldest spoke excellent English.  I asked if he would to go to the village and bring us back some food from the local baker and butcher shops.  He said he would right away.  I gave him ten Marks.  As he rode away, the driver of Bravo 13, who was from New Jersey, said, "Sergeant Gussman you are never going to see those kids again."  Some others joined in.  I was happy to see the platoon sergeant and the commander of Bravo 15, the only other soldier who had been to Germany before, did not say anything.  

The boys seemed like good kids to me.  Almost an hour later, the older boy came back alone.  He said the younger boys had to go home.  He had a backpack.  Inside was sausage, butter, two loaves of bread, and some small candies.  He spent 9 Marks, 98 Pfennigs, and gave me the two Pfennigs change.  My crew and I got our camp stove out right away while it was still daylight and started cooking that sausage.  I gave the boy some more C-ration chocolate and said to come back tomorrow, we were probably going to be there for the night.  He thanked me again and rode away.

My crew and I made a big show of cooking that sausage and talking very loudly about how you can't trust those German kids.  We also inquired about what the crews on either side of us were having for dinner.
The next time we stopped near a village and kids showed up, it was a competition to see who could get the kids to make a grocery run.  

That little boy is 44 years old today.  The other two are 40 and 42 if I guessed their ages correctly.  I wonder what they think now.  There has been peace in their country for their entire lives, but many foreign armies have lived in their country and trained for a war that, thankfully, never came.  I hope they have good memories of the soldiers who parked a platoon of tanks in their woods.  In fact, I hope they have nothing but good memories of American soldiers.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Army Made Me a Writer, T-Mobile Made Me Lazy

Did I want to be a writer or a storyteller?  After talking to a friend this morning, I realized the key fact in my last post was the price of calling home from Germany in 1977.  I wanted to tell stories.  I could not afford to call.  So I wrote.

Fast Forward two decades.  In April 1998, I got a job with a global company.  I traveled overseas every month for the next three years--33 trips to be exact.  I flew to every continent except Africa and visited more than 20 countries on five continents.  I had not been outside America since I flew home from Germany in 1979.  By the time I left my job with Millennium Chemicals in 2000 my passport was full of visa stamps and I had paid to have 20 pages added to it.  

As part of the job, I had a global T-Mobile phone and no limits on usage.  All calls were free from anywhere to anywhere.  So when I told my wife, my kids, my friends how breathtakingly beautiful the Hong Kong skyline is at night, I used my phone.  If I had written my impressions, I would not even have to recopy them as I did in my tank turret in the 1970s.  Email would allow me to copy and paste to anyone.

But I did not write about traveling.  It was way too easy to call and talk.  So I wrote for my job and talked about the new life I was leading, traveling the globe.

The next time I was writing without getting paid for it was this blog.  When I first went back in the Army in August of 2007, I got a lot of questions about what I was doing.  So I promised myself to write every day I was on duty with the Army.  At first, this was one weekend per month.  Then we started training to deploy to Iraq.  So we were on duty for three weeks here, two weeks there, another week plus the weekends.

Then we were in Iraq.  Just like Germany in 1977, calling home was difficult.  And time was limited.  So I wrote every day about what I was doing--within the limits of mission security.  I could not write about upcoming flights, about attacks on the base, or about security.  But I could write about food, toilets, the trailers we slept in, laundry, bitching, and dust.

So I wrote every day about them.

Then I came home and went back to work getting paid to write.  The blog was back to one weekend a month.

In the past few months, I have been writing more.  A former co-worker at my day job is the editor of a literary magazine.  I submitted a story.  WITF FM had a writing contest.  I wrote another story.  The stories were about death in Iraq.  I don't know that I intended to write about death, but death is what the stories were about.  If they don't get accepted for publication, I will publish them on the blog.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Army Made Me a Writer

A friend asked me when I decided to become a writer.  It was in Germany in the Spring of 1977. I was a tank commander, tank Bravo 12, based in Wiesbaden, West Germany.  It was the first time I had travelled outside America.  The first time I lived outside America.  Everything was new and wonderful in Germany.

In 1976 in Germany, calling America cost nearly one dollar per minute.  At the time I made less than $100 a week as an Army Sergeant.  Calling home and telling my family and friends about how beautiful, how interesting, how surprising I found Germany would have emptied my wallet.

So I wrote letters home.  I wrote on legal pads.  I am not sure why, but blue pen and yellow legal pads were my way to write.  I quickly started practicing to be a writer without knowing I what I was doing.  

Writers rewrite.  This blog is a terrible example of real writing.  With this blog, you get what I am thinking.  No revision.  I correct mistakes when readers tell me I made them.  The best writers rewrite several times.  

My version of this was the order of the letters I wrote.  First I wrote to my mother.  She did not really care what I wrote.  She wanted me to write.  So the first time our tank platoon set up a fire position on a wooded hill outside a German village near the East-West border, I had a wonderful story to tell.  As a matter of fact, that will be a future blog post.  

I told that story to my mother.  Next I wrote to my friend Frank.  He was studying to be an engineer and not a particularly critical reader.  Then I wrote to other family members or friends depending on the story.

The final version went either to my sister Jean or my Uncle Jack.  Jean wrote very funny letters to me in basic training.  She is a good writer and knew a good story.  Uncle Jack was near the end of his 20 years of service in the Air Force.  I always addressed his letters to Uncle Major and signed them Sergeant Nephew.  The letter that went to Jean or Jack was the version I would later turn in to an editor.  

In High School I had no ambition to be a writer; I did not want to go to college.  I wanted to be a soldier or a truck driver.  At the time I started writing those letters, I mapped my future in the Army.  I would finish the tour in Germany, go to college, become and officer and command a tank company.  

By then end of the summer of 1977, college had moved to the top of my ambitions and becoming an officer was receding.  I wrote about looking across the border at Fulda where World War 3 was supposed to start.  I wrote about the damage a tank company can do when a new lieutenant leads it though a tree farm.  I wrote about a collision between a drunk German in a tiny Renault and an M60A1 tank.  The Renault did not survive, but surprising the drunk German did. 

As I wrote and fewer letters came back than I sent, I learned that most people did not like to write.  But I liked writing.  And by Christmas of that year, I found a way to write full time.  

That is another story.   

Monday, February 3, 2014

Never Older Than When I Was 23

In May of 1976 I was a tank commander in the 4th Brigade, 4th Infantry Division.  We were just about to begin two months of training before 4,000 soldiers with 54 tanks, dozens of howitzers and hundreds of tracked and wheeled vehicles would transfer as a unit to Wiesbaden, Germany.

I have never felt older than I did that year.  It was not because I was going to Germany.  I read an article in the Army Times that month that said the 80th percentile age in the Army was 23 years old.

Wow!!  That meant I was older than 80% of the Army.  I could see it all around me.  My own crew:  Mercury Morris (He was Merc, I don't remember his real first name), Eugene Pierce and Richard Burhans were all younger than I was.  And that was the oldest active duty crew I ever had.  They were all in there 20s.  Before we left for Germany, each of them was promoted or discharged and I got a new crew.  All of those graying 20-year-olds replaced by 17-to-19-year-olds.

Losing my first crew and realizing I was in the oldest 20% of the Army really made me feel old at the time. I told my daughter Lisa that story last week when she celebrated her 23rd birthday.  I may have told Lauren the same story, but I can't remember.

Now that I am actually old, starting my seventh decade, I still don't feel quite as old as that sergeant at Fort Carson did in 1976.  I know when I was that age I was sure I would never live this long.  And if I had thought about it, I would have hoped to be a higher rank if I was still in the Army.

That didn't work out!!

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