Monday, July 13, 2015

The Best People Serve in the Guard

Command Team of Task Force Diablo at Camp Adder, Iraq, from the left:  Col. Scott Perry, Command Sgt. Maj. Dell Christine and Lt. Col. Joel Allmandinger.

This weekend one of the best soldiers I have served with since returning to the Army retired.  Lt. Col. Joel Allmandinger ended a 22-year career that began at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and continued through service in Kosovo and Iraq as a combat Blackhawk helicopter pilot.  He was the Executive Officer of Task Force Diablo at Camp Adder, Iraq, in 2009-10 and Commander of 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion at Fort Indiantown Gap from 2010-13.  I served with him the entire time.

He also happens to be THE best bicyclist I have ever served with.  He won the race I organized in Iraq and was the Sportsman National Champion in mountain biking in 2013.  We rode together up the 18 percent grade on Asher Miner Road on Fort Indiantown Gap and the five-mile climb up Gold Mine Road toward Tower City.  I was behind him at the top of both climbs, suffering.

The host and main speaker of Allmandinger's retirement event was Col. Scott Perry, our commander in Iraq.  Perry is also a U.S. Congressman.   Perry talked about how Allmandinger embodied Army Values all the time.  He is right.  I worked in the same office with both men for several months.  If Joel has a weakness, I never saw it.  And I certainly saw the dark side of many people during deployment.

As tough and self controlled as Allmandinger is, it was also clear when he was angry.  Most of the time I worked for him, he called me Neil.  But at Annual Training in 2013 at Fort AP Hill in Virginia, I screwed up and he let me know it.  I rode 300 miles on the bike in the eight days we were there taking pictures of training all across the 76,000 acres of hills and forest.  Among all that space was one strip of several hundred acres that is restricted.  I rode across that strip to take pictures of a refueling site.

As I rode across a Blackhawk helicopter flew overhead.  Less than an hour later, I got a seven-second message that is still on my cell phone in the archive that said, "Sergeant Gussman, this is your battalion commander. Call me when you get this message."  His voice was calm, but my only thought was "Oh shit!!!"  No doubt now who was flying that Blackhawk.

When I called back, he said he was both angry that I had ridden in the restricted area, and jealous because I got to ride and he didn't.  But he did not stop me from riding to take more pictures.  Many military leaders take one guy's mistake and make a policy to prevent something that will never happen again, just to cover their own butts.  Not him.  The mission really did come first in Virginia as well as in Iraq.

When Colonel Allmandinger spoke at his retirement ceremony, he thanked people from his entire career, from his time as a cadet to right now.  Toward the end of his speech, he said he was going to mention more people.  As I sat in the back of the room he said, "Sergeant Neil Gussman challenged me as an athlete, both in the Army and in civilian life."


That was up there with the best compliments I have ever received.  He is one of the toughest soldiers I have ever served with, always among the best in any Army fitness challenge and great on the bike and a Tough Mudder.

Thanks, Sir!  I hope you don't miss military life too much.

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