Saturday, August 29, 2015
In June 1975, 40 years ago, I enlisted in the Army. I had been a civilian about ten months after a 2-and-a-half years in the Air Force. In that post-energy-crisis era I had a boring job and decided to re-enlist.
I thought about re-enlisting in the Air Force, but they offered me pay grade E3 and no bonus. Signing up for tanks in the Army meant E4 and a $2,500 bonus. From the moment I got to Fort Knox for Armor School, I knew I made the right choice. I had always wanted to be a soldier and being an airman was not the same thing.
Over time, I started to notice that soldiers bitched less than airman. At first I thought it might be that a different kind of people enlisted in the Army than the Air Force. While my fellow post-draft soldiers were further down the economic ladder and more southern than the airmen I served with during the draft and the Viet Nam War, they weren't that different.
Then one of the great truths of life showed its face on the horizon of my life: The better life is, the more we bitch. Everywhere, always.
On Hill Air Force Base, my duty station after Air Force technical school in 1972, I lived in a two-man room as an airman E2. When I got promoted to sergeant E4 I was eligible for a private room. Our chow hall served four meals a day: the usual three plus midnight chow. We reported for work at 0730. We were usually done by five. We worked weekends maybe once every two months. There were parties in the barracks and on the lawn outside.
And we bitched about everything: the chow, the barracks, the one weekend we worked every two months. When that weekend duty happened, we were whining. We bitched about living in Ogden, Utah!! Boring, we said. The girls were Mormon and didn't party, we said. Midnight chow always had pizza and omelets made to order, but did not always have hot dogs and hamburgers, we whined.
[While I joined in the bitching as part of the group, I LOVED the chow. My mother burned most food she cooked and I truly love military food.]
Three years later I was assigned to 70th Armor in Fort Carson, Colorado. As a Specialist E4 I had an eight-man room. Promotion to sergeant E5 got me a bunk in four-man room. Chow was three meals a day with a much more limited menu. We were armor. We worked many nights. We went to the field for up to two months at a time. We trained in soldier skills after a day of maintenance in the motor pool. Nobody partied in the barracks.
I heard so much less bitching. Worse food, less space, less free time, and much less bitching.
For the rest of my life, I have seen the same theme repeated again and again. The people who have it the best bitch the most.
The kids who grew up in The Depression fought World War 2. They volunteered in millions, 15 million men and many thousands of women served in the military during the Second World War. More than 400,000 died, more than a million wounded. And people from every part of society served. Rich kids, poor kids, everyone in between.
But the kids who grew up with me in 40s and 50s, the biggest boom in prosperity in world history EVER, were we the best generation ever? We well-fed children of the winners of World War 2 made Sex, Drugs, and Rock the goal. And along the way, we let the poor kids of our generation sacrifice their lives in Viet Nam. The privileged of our generation said Viet Nam was the "Wrong War" and dodged the draft in millions.
There is a correlation between hardship and happiness. America did not have a major genetic change between World War 2 and Viet Nam. We were not different people. We were the children of people who lived through hardship. We had it easy, we became whiny bitches.
And now we live in country that makes millionaires every day and billionaires every week and whiners every minute. We have the best medical care in history of the world, the most food ever and we may be as a group the least thankful people who have ever lived.
When people talk about America being in decline, I wait to hear what sacrifice they want to make to make the country better. But what I inevitably hear is what stuff they need to be happier--and what everyone else should sacrifice to make them happy.
What's wrong with America? Bitches!
Friday, August 28, 2015
Monday, August 24, 2015
One Year Ago, One Tired Dude
One year ago today I was in the middle of the most tiring day of my life, the 2014 Kentucky Ironman. As I write this it is 9 a.m. By this time I was swimming down river after struggling up stream for an hour. It would be almost 10 a.m. before I climbed out of the water. That moment leaving the water at about 9:45 a.m. was the best moment of the whole event. I had finished the 2.4-mile swim--by far my worst event--and I had not been pulled from the course. At that point, I knew I would finish.
Yesterday I was finishing my ride and ran into a friend I did a Tough Mudder with in 2013. Both events left me exhausted, but the Ironman was definitely the bigger physical challenge. My wife wrote very well today about how finishing an Ironman changed us. Now some friends are thinking about doing an Ironman, so we might do it with them.
If we decide to do another Ironman, my pre-race training will be focused on swim interval training. I need to be faster in the water. I am planning to swim and ride today. Maybe I'll run. But I am sure I will feel much better at 11:54 p.m. than I did one year ago today.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Major Dick Winters: This is what a hero looks like.
On June 6, 1944, the day known around the world as D-Day, 1st Lieutenant Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne led an attack that has been celebrated and studied for the past 70 years. Winters led attack known as The Assault on Brecourt Manor which is still taught at the US Military Academy at West Point as one of the finest examples of fire and maneuver in military history.
Just 23 American soldiers from three different companies attacked 60 German soldiers. The Germans were dug in with emplaced machine guns covering 88 millimeter cannons. Winters and his men destroyed the German weapons and killed or captured the enemy force. Just three Americans were killed and one wounded.
Winters earned the second highest award the Army gives, the Distinguished Service Cross. Three of his men were awarded the Silver Star Medal. A dozen more earned the Bronze Star Medal. The important thing to note is seven soldiers did not receive a medal for valor.
Most soldiers I know make fun of war movies. But even the most cynical express admiration for the HBO Series "Band of Brothers." In unguarded moments, I have heard some very tough men say they would die happy if they could have been with Dick Winters.
Fast Forward 65 Years
In October of 2009 I was walking into the headquarters building of Camp Adder, Iraq. The door burst open and a sergeant stormed out muttering to herself "he's getting a Bronze-fucking-Star and his fat ass has never been outside the wire."
The sergeant was furious about the end-of-tour awards. A chaplain who never went outside the wire (off the main base) was going to receive the Bronze Star Medal for his service. "Everybody above Staff Sergeant and 1st Lieutenant gets a Bronze-fucking-Star," the sergeant said. "I hate this shit."
The same culture that has grade inflation at every level of education gives the equivalent of "everybody wins" medals to people who never faced enemy fire. The same Bronze Star Medal presented to a dozen men who attacked 60 Germans dug in with cannons and machine guns is now routinely given to maintenance and clerical soldiers who never faced enemy direct fire.
Five More Years
Since I returned from Iraq, many people have thanked me for my service and some said I am a hero. I am not. In fact, no soldier I know considers himself of herself a hero. Even the aircrews who launched MEDEVAC missions in Iraq in blackout sandstorms to save soldiers would on convoy security. Like athletes who always know someone better than they are, these men and women who I think of as heroes will always point to someone else who is "really a hero."
All of us who served on Camp Adder in 2009 had a chance to serve under a man we all considered a hero. The commander of Camp Adder was Col. Peter Newell, a battalion commander and a real hero in the Battle for Fallujah in 2004. When Rolling Stone magazine wrote about Newell, they praised him for his leadership. Newell earned the Silver Star Medal at Fallujah.
When someone calls me a hero, I smile. But in my head, it is like when people ask me if I would ever ride in the Tour de France. On my best day riding, I could not last two miles with the Tour de France riders--the best in the world. When someone calls me a hero, I think of Newell, Winters and some of the air crew members I knew in Iraq. It's not me.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Firing on the 300-meter pop-up target range
On the morning we fired the M16, we arrived at drill an hour early. At morning formation the first sergeant reminded us, loudly, that safety is the most important thing we do in the Army.
Fifteen minutes later, we lined up at the supply room to get our weapons. The supply clerk handed out the weapons one at a time, verifying the serial number on each weapon. While we waited in line, the First Sergeant walked up and down checking soldiers to be sure they had all their gear for the range.
“Eye-Pro” he barked at one soldier. The soldier quickly showed him his sunglass. Eye-Pro is short for eye protection, the pretentious Army label for sunglasses. To another he said, “Hydration.” The soldier held up a camouflage Camel-Back and sloshed it. We do not drink water, we hydrate.
He stopped opposite me and said, “One word, Benghazi.” By simply saying that word, this rabid Republican was telling me his party was going to win and the likely Democratic nominee would be defeated. “President Trump.” he added, indicating his current preference for the 2016 election.
I said, “Trump said he is going to put Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter in his cabinet. I can’t wait.”
He said, “I didn’t hear that.” He walked away. We were done.
He is among the many soldiers who have asked me in the past eight years, “How can you be in the Army and be a Democrat?”
As he walked away, the woman in line behind me said, “You’re a Democrat!” For the next 15 minutes while we waited in line, the lieutenant and I talked about the how strange it is to be in the Army and be a Democrat. She is an atheist so she is one step further outside the military norm.
We talked about how much religion melts into politics for Conservatives and how faith, right-wing politics, and gun rights is the norm, especially in a central Pennsylvania National Guard unit. We quickly covered fundamentalist views of the U.S. Constitution, the faith (or not) of the founders and voting rights.
Her face lit up when we talked about Young Earth Creationists, the people who believe the earth is 6,000 years old.
“How can anyone believe that?” she said. “I talked to a guy who was studying radiation and radioactivity. The half-lives of many elements are in the millions of years. I asked him, ‘How can you believe the earth is 6,000 years old?’”
She is a medical officer so she also talked about the anti-vaccination movement. She said she liked the idea of people having control of medical care for themselves and their children, but she also knows the risks of not vaccinating. And the Army does not ask about vaccination. It works. It is mandatory.
Then I was next in line and it was time to grab my weapon, so our conversation ended.
The Army puts people close together with time to talk. Most of the conversations are ordinary. Sometimes they are unexpected fun. Today was definitely fun!
Friday, August 14, 2015
At the same time, I was re-entering Army culture after a quarter century. The Army has thousands of official and unofficial acronyms with few rules. One of those rules says that if a three-letter acronym has the letter F in the middle the F is always the same word. So BFR means Big F**king Rock. NFW means No effing Way, and so on.
One day shortly after my re-enlistment my daughter Lisa burst into the house after soccer practice. She was dropping her gear and going to Claire's for dinner. She referred to Claire as her BFF. I wasn't paying full attention to the blond blur that was passing through the house until I heard BFF. I understood that Lisa was saying Claire is her best friend (still is as a matter of fact), but I was surprised she would refer to Claire as her Best effing Friend.
I said, "Lisa, when you say BFF, I get that Claire is your best friend, but is it like the Army acronym?"
The blond blur stopped. She looked at me, smiled when she realized what I was asking and said, "Dad, it's Best Friends Forever! It's not Army."
Glad we cleared that up. Not that it was a BFD.
The Army made me a writer. In several blog posts, especially this one, I have written about how the combination of inspiration and free time of soldiers in the field gave the chance to learn how to write.
A movie of my life would have me start writing, a twinkle would show in my eye as I looked to the future, and within a minute I would be transformed from Grunt to Gogol!
As you can tell from my current writing, I am still a grunt who wishes he was Nikolai Gogol, but when the Army gave me my first journalism job in 1978, the guy who helped me the most was a civilian reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, named Clint Swift. I met Clint when I visited the Stars and Stripes office in Darmstadt, (West) Germany. I told him what I was doing and he took an interest in me and my unit.
He also gave me a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. I read and reread the book several times over the next year. Clint told me how news stories worked, explained the difference between news and feature stories, and helped me to learn the craft of journalism. I am currently re-reading The Elements of Style. I could not even guess how many times I have re-read it.
I looked on line to see if I could find Clint. No luck so far. I hope he is proud that I made writing my career. I am sure he would be amused I am back in the Army.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Six years ago this month, Paula Poundstone made me collapse laughing. She went on a rant about Pop Tarts on "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me." It was so funny I literally fell on my face. You can listen to her stand-up pop tart rant here.
It wasn't a long fall. I wasn't hurt. Except my dignity. I was working out in the House of Pain Gym on Camp Adder in Iraq. I was 56 years old. I was surrounded by weight lifters in their 20s and 30s bench pressing 300+ pounds and listening to speed metal music. I was listening to the "Wait Wait" podcast on my iPod. It took 40 minutes to download on the anemic Camp Adder internet.
I had done just 10 of the 60 pushups I usually do when the host disparaged Pop Tarts as junk food. Paula was outraged!!! She went into a 2-minute rant on how Pop Tarts were in fact the secret of her good health and the greatest food ever. On pushup 21 I collapsed laughing.
With the rant still on full tilt, I looked up and saw a couple of beefy metal heads looking at me. More specifically they were looking at the old guy on the floor who collapsed doing pushups and was shaking. They didn't know I was laughing. For a second, I imagined myself trying to explain that I was listening to NPR and not Metal Music, then my senses returned.
I paused the rant, got up, and pretended I was done. We could not wear headphones outside, so I grabbed my gear and walked over to my CHU (home) so I could finish listening to the podcast without looking like an old guy having a heart attack.
Clearly, Paula Poundstone made that rant on purpose just to embarrass me in the "House of Pain."
On my 56th birthday, the ramp dropped in the back of the C-17 cargo plane at 1130 hours. We had taxied to the edge of the airstrip. More than 100 soldiers in battle gear struggled out of the five-across seats and walked down the ramp with short, unsteady steps. The same ramp in the picture above.
Heat shimmered on the concrete airstrip. The air temperature was almost 120 degrees already. The surface temperature of the airstrip was closer to 140 degrees.
“Happy fucking birthday, Gussman,” said Sgt. Jeremy Houck when I reached the bottom of the ramp. The baggage pallets were still on the plane. We would have to wait for the bags, then hope for a ride to our new homes behind 20-foot blast walls here on Camp Adder.
The base we were on was Camp Adder to the Army, Talil Ali Air Base to the US Air Force. It would be home for the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, me included, until January of 2010.
On that day, the outside of me was hot, tired, confused and miserable. I was wearing 45 pounds of body armor, carrying 50 more pounds of weapon and gear, and I was melting.
But underneath the sweat, I was soooooooo happy. My dream was not comfortable or fun, but it was my dream. I wanted to be in Iraq. I enlisted during Viet Nam, but missed the war. Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be in the Army in a war. Now 50 years later, I arrived.