Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cut Benefits! Except Mine!

Soldiers are bureaucrats.  We are employees of the government.  In the National Guard we are state employees.  When we deploy we are federal employees.

So it is sadly funny when I hear the many "small government" and Libertarian soldiers in my unit say they "want to get the government out of my life."

Dude, you are the government.

But even the ardent small government conservatives are very clear that they want and deserve all the benefits they are entitled to.

And I know a few rabid anti-government soldiers who are also involved in lobbying to get more benefits for themselves and other National Guard soldiers.

They see no contradiction in this.  And they do not see that they are just another grasping self interest who wants to cut every budget except their own.

Some of these soldiers are supporters of The Donald or Ben Carson for President.  They want to keep and extend the benefits the government gives them, but since they have no systematic knowledge of politics, they think they can back a political revolution that "changes everything" and leaves their benefits untouched.


When governments change, benefits go to whomever the revolutionaries say they go to.

Here is an excerpt from an email I just received offering me a discounted membership in the Pennsylvania National Guard lobbying group:

There is no greater champion for issues that affect our lives as Guardsmen than PGNAS. In the last six month PNGAS has been ramping up their legislative activity fighting for the best benefits, equipment, and training available to us and the Soldiers and Airmen that follow in our footsteps. Pennsylvania has over 20,000 Guardsmen and we are calling on every single one of you to stand behind PNGAS to Guard the Guard.

For those who know George Orwell's Animal Farm, this is a perfect illustration of "all animals are equal, but the pigs are more equal."  

Of course, there is nothing unusual in Americans banding together to get more from the government, it is just funny when they call themselves Small Government Conservatives.

Sadly funny.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Who Fights Our Wars? Army 3.0: Pilot Trains for 1st Combat Deployment During Third Army “Career”

 CW2 Sara Christensen

In 1985, when President Ronald Reagan was just beginning his second term, the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan and the Cold War was still a hot topic, Sara Christensen enlisted in the Army Reserve.  She lived in California, had just graduated from high school and wanted to be a dental technician. 

The following year she went to Basic Training and MOS training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.  In Texas she met her future husband Kelvin Christensen.  He was an E5 on his way to Officer Candidate School (OCS) in California with the Army National Guard.  Although just a Private at the time, Sara managed to get accepted for OCS.  Kelvin and Sara went through the course together and were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants. 

At this point, the Christensen’s were both officers.  They chose Aviation as their branch and eventually went to flight school.  Sara trained in Hueys, Kelvin in Blackhawks.  By 1991 they both had transferred to the Pennsylvania National Guard serving as aviation officers. 

LTC Kelvin and CW2 Sara Christensen

At this point both Sara and Kelvin were well on their way with their second Army careers as commissioned officers.  Kelvin continued with his career in aviation and currently is a Lieutenant Colonel and is the Cargo Battalion Commander for the Eastern Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (EAATS) on Fort Indiantown Gap.

Four years later, in 1995, the Christensens decided to go from no kids to three kids all at once.  They adopted three children from the Pennsylvania Foster Care system who need homes.  With three kids, Kelvin and Sara both continued their careers in the Army. 

By 2001 the already larger than average family had more than doubled to seven kids and Captain Sara Christensen left the Army National Guard for the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).  She kept her commission and, in fact, was promoted to major while on inactive status. 

After more than a decade of raising seven kids, Sara decided to return to Army Aviation after a thirteen-year break in service.  The timing was critical because the maximum age to return to aviation service is 46 years old.  She made the deadline, beginning her third Army career as a Warrant Officer.  She could have come back as a commissioned officer and been eligible for promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, but she wanted to fly and would have more opportunities to be in the cockpit as a warrant officer. 

In addition to beginning Army service for a third time, she has now held rank in all three sections of the chain of command:  enlisted, officer, and warrant officer. 

Despite being three years in to what a third Army career, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Sara Christensen is currently training for her first combat deployment.  She is a pilot with Detachment 1, Charlie Company (Medevac), 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion,  28th Combat Aviation Brigade.  She is training in Texas for deployment to Southwest Asia later this year. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Suicide in the 1970s Army, Suicide Now

In the spring of 1977, I was the duty sergeant in Wiesbaden, West Germany, when I got a call that one of our soldiers killed himself while on guard duty.  I called the duty officer.  Within what seemed like just a few minutes, the battalion command staff was in the headquarters and handling the crisis.

I heard he fired his M16 full auto with the barrel in his mouth. That was the last official word I heard about the young man who was now dead. The Chaplain did not mention the soldier's death the following Sunday or at any time.

The day after the incident, our first sergeant delivered one of his rambling talks about why we should not kill ourselves. 

In the Army in the 1970s, suicide was still wrong.  It was a failure.  Soldiers who took their own lives got no honors.  They were not mentioned.  In the 1970s in the military, suicide was still a Sin.  The young soldier “committed” suicide, because what he did was a sin and a crime.  Today, when suicide is mentioned, I usually hear it as someone “taking his own life.” 

I left the Army in 1979 and went to college.  Then in 2007, I re-enlisted at 54 years old.  Much about the Army was the same.  The first time I went to field training in 2008, I rode in the back of a “Deuce and a Half” truck carrying an M16 rifle.  But later that year when the father of one of our soldiers took his own life, I found out that the Army’s view of suicide was not the same.  Most of the company turned out to support their brother in arms at the funeral. Suicide was no longer a sin.

This year two soldiers in that same company took their own lives.  I watched the Honor Guard practice for the first funeral.  Watching the Honor Guard practice, I thought how much the Army has changed since the 1970s.  I am not sure if our $10,000 life insurance policy back in the 1970s paid in the case of suicide, but I am quite sure that the families of these soldiers will receive the current full death benefit that is somewhere close to $500,000.

Both then and now, I cannot imagine the severity of the pain these men must have experienced; pain so strong that it led them to take their own lives.  Both in the Army and out, I have seen the pain suicide causes for the friends and family of the deceased.  They are bewildered, guilty, devastated.  Suicide was a tragedy in the old Army and is a tragedy now.  But I am glad today’s Army counts suicide among the casualties of war.  No matter whether we lose a soldier to accident, illness, injury, enemy fire or suicide, we have lost one of our own. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Back Story about the Big General in New Jersey

Recently the Adjutant General of New Jersey made national news when the plus-size governor of the Garden State, Chris Christie, gave Brigadier General Michael Cuniff 90 days to shape up or ship out. That day was certainly a bad day for the general.  But recently I heard about a worse day he had in 1986.

It's not that I disagree with Christie for a moment.  One of the things I dislike about the National Guard is the way it allows senior people who can't meet height, weight and fitness standards to keep responsible positions.

Although it does not change the current facts, I find it too easy to forget that the fat guy in his late 50s was not necessarily that same guy 29 years ago. Just after I saw the unflattering news reports, I heard about the worst day of Cuniff's life from a mutual friend.  That day was June 19, 1986.

I know a guy who used to fly F-4 Phantom fighter jets for the New Jersey Air National Guard.  In 1986 Cuniff was "Guard Bumming" hanging around the flight facility hoping a paid gig would show up and he could get some flight hours.

My buddy was scheduled to fly a practice bomb run but his "back seat" was a no-show.  Cuniff said he would fly.

During the bomb run, one of the F4's engines caught fire, none of the emergency procedures put out the flames, so the two-man crew had to eject.  Cuniff suffered several broken bones and many other injuries ejecting during the bombing run.

When I see the senior officers and NCOs who are 50 pounds over weight (or two feet short of the height for their weight) I look at them only in their current flaccid form.  They have job expertise, but they do not meet the basic requirements and obligations of a soldier.  Hearing about that day in 1986 reminded me that at one time, they were young and fit and on top of their game.

Of course, the general and every other out-of-shape soldier should meet military standards, but it is also good for me to remember that they were not always the way they are now.

Here's the story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rules of Engagement--the Most Common Bitch I Heard in Iraq

The serious complaint I heard most often in Iraq was about our Rules of Engagement.  The rules that say when we could fire and, mostly, when we could not.

In movies and on TV, this is most often illustrated by showing an American unit taking fire from a mosque and not being allowed to fire back.  And to the soldiers I served with, it seemed to them like the concept of Rules of Engagement was a new to their war.  I will admit that the ROE in Iraq was more restrictive than anything that preceded it.  The whole idea of fighting a war and "winning hearts and minds" seems crazy in an actual war.  It sounded crazy when I heard it in connection to Viet Nam. It sounded no less crazy in Iraq.

But American soldiers suffered and died with ROEs in Viet Nam and Korea also.  At different points in every war since World War 2, American soldiers have not been allowed to go all out for victory for political reasons.

Given our track record of success in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan, you might think we would get the idea that pursuing anything less than victory was a dumb idea that gets our own soldiers killed.  But we continue to put more and more restrictions on our soldiers.

Right now we claim to be bombing ISIS, but our rules of engagement are so restrictive that many of the bombers come back with their bombs.

Which makes the Russian intervention in Syria so interesting.  Syria is not Afghanistan where tough mountain fighters beat the Soviets on very favorable ground.  Syria has mountains along its western border and in the south, but much of the country is flat, including its borders with Iraq and Turkey.  The Soviets got bogged down in Afghanistan, but the country ISIS controls is flat.  It's a great place for armored formations supported by ground attack aircraft.

It will be interesting to see how the Russians fight ISIS.  The Russians will not twist themselves in knots over rules of engagement.  They doubled their sorties over the weekend.  And they don't return loaded without dropping bombs.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The VA Has a Big Problem No One Talks About

Every few months another scandal breaks out at the Veterans Administration.  Outrage ensues.  Politicians pound podiums and pretend to care about veterans, until the next issues looms.  Then they are outraged about pipelines, guns, or honey bees.

Whatever the current scandal is at the VA, there is a persistent problem that never gets mentioned.  That problem is fraud by veterans.  A small, but significant percentage of veterans milk the system for benefits they don’t deserve and clog the system for those who really need it.

Shortly after I returned from Iraq, I met a sergeant who had deployed the year before I did with a Stryker Brigade.  He asked me about retiring.  I said my break in service was too long, so I would not be getting a retirement.  He said he was staying for 20, but the retirement was bullshit.  He was going to retire at 40 and then get disability right away from the VA.  He wasn’t going to wait 20 years for National Guard retirement money.  

“We all have PTSD, right?” he said.

The important thing about this conversation is that we had just met.  He did not know me at all, yet he assumed I thought as he did.  And he assumed he was perfectly right in thinking the VA was there to give him money.  “We deserve it,” was something he also said, and I have heard from many other veterans.  In fact, many people have told me I should go to the VA when I leave the military because, “You deserve some kind of money for your service.” 

When our unit was out processing at Fort Dix after Iraq, I ran into a sergeant I had worked with a few times in Iraq.  The rest of us were leaving for home the next day, but he was staying.  I asked him why.  He said he was on medical hold.  For what?  He said he was getting disability for his combat service.

This guy worked in an office, never went outside the wire, was known by everyone he worked with as lazy.  But like a street kid, his motto in life is “Lemme get mine.”

Like many soldiers, I dislike hearing “You are all heroes.” I think the “Every Soldier is a Hero” idea may be helping some soldiers to excuse what is simply fraud. 

When you hear about the mess at the VA, think about the VA as a store that has to treat every shoplifter as well or better than they treat the real customers: even the shoplifters who have been caught shoplifting a half-dozen times.  Because the VA has the charge of caring for all veterans, the perpetual fraud cases can keep coming back.  That means the few engaged in fraud can cause a big and on-going problem.

I believe that if the VA could get control of fraud by the people they are caring for, they would be able to give much better care to the thousands and thousands of soldiers who really need the VA. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Who Cares for Our Veterans?

When I was in Iraq, I wrote about many soldiers under the title of “Who Fights Our Wars?” Many people write and talk about VeteransAdministration employees as if they were not real people.  I happen to know they are real people because one of the social workers the VA Hospital in Richmond, Va., is my oldest daughter, Lauren.

Some people fall into a career, some people plan for one career then go a completely different way.  Lauren was on her career path before her eleventh birthday and has stayed on track ever since—with one course correction.

A month before Lauren turned eleven, we adopted our son Nigel.  

Nigel at 5 with civilian Dad

He came to us at six weeks old from Bethany Christian Services in Pittsburgh through Pennsylvania’s StatewideAdoption Network.  Lauren is Nigel’s oldest sister.  Adopting Nigel led Lauren to decide to be an adoption social worker while she was in middle school.  She stayed on that path through high school and college.  She chose Juniata College because they offered the course she would need to go from a four-year degree into a one-year intensive master’s degree program.  She also chose Juniata because she played goalkeeper for four years on their Women’s Soccer Team and in her senior year was the backup keeper for the Juniata Women’s Field Hockey team for three weeks and got an NCAA Championship Medal.

In 2007 when Lauren went to Juniata, I re-enlisted in the Army after almost a quarter century as a bearded civilian.  I deployed to Iraq in 2009. Lauren got an internship at the VA Hospital in Altoona, Pa. , a year later. This is the course correction.  The internship and my service led Lauren to switch from being a social worker for kids to a social worker for veterans.

After graduating from Juniata, Lauren went to VirginiaCommonwealth University in Richmond and got an internship at the Richmond VA Hospital.  They hired her when she graduated in 2012 and she works there now. 

About four months after she began work at the Richmond VA she took a job in mental health social work at the hospital.  Now she deals with veterans who have profound difficulties and loves her work. 

When someone tells you VA workers are just faceless bureaucrats, look at the face at the top of this page.  She is a real person trying to help real veterans every day.

Faith in the Military: Chaplains During the Cold War and the Current Wars

Army Chaplain with Armor Unit In the Cold War Army of the 1970s, the Protestant Chaplains were very different men...