Monday, February 29, 2016

Who Fights Our Wars? Command Sgt. Major Christopher Kepner



Command Sergeant Major Christopher Kepner, the top NCO of the 28th Infantry Division, is a big man with a big personality.  On any duty weekend, 28th ID soldiers can expect to see Kepner anywhere—on a range, in a dining facility kitchen, in a motor pool, or walking into an administrative section office.  He strides faster than everyone one around him.  It’s usual to see him striding down a hallway with a soldier breaking into a trot to keep up.  And just as usual to see this marathon runner with a Ranger Tab stop in mid stride to correct a deficiency or encourage a soldier doing a good job.

In 2010, soon after Kepner became the top in Command Sergeant Major in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade he led an NCO Development course for all the sergeants in the brigade.  He began that course saying,
“You need to do only two things to be a leader in the United States Army. 
First, keep the men safe as much as possible.
Second, make sure your soldiers maintain standards in every area.
And how will you know if you are doing these two things?
You will eat lunch by yourself for the rest of your career.”

Kepner went on to tell the 28th CAB sergeants how maintaining standards saved the eyesight of one of his soldiers when he served as Command Sergeant Major of a Stryker Battalion in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.  As the young soldier was being loaded into a MEDEVAC he thanked Kepner for “staying in our shit about Eye-Pro[tection].”  Let’s hear a little more about how the Command Sergeant Major looks at his world:

I am a product of . . .
. . .the Army, more so than anything else. I owe the Army a lot.  I graduated high school when I was seventeen.  I was living at home.  I had a Gremlin.  I was a cook at the IHOP.  The only thing I cared about when I got out of high school was, whether I could make enough money to pay for the insurance on my Gremlin, and where was the next party. And, one day on the way home I thought, “Hell, I’ll join the Army.” I had no goals and I had no direction at seventeen.  So, I really, I really, I think, owe the military for who I am and where I am at today for instilling that discipline.
 
Relaxation is . . . .
. . .Sitting on my deck, looking out over the mountains, sipping a Tullamore Dew (12-year-old Irish whiskey, ed.), and smoking a good cigar.
 
There’s value in . . .
. . .taking stock in your life and understanding where you’re at and using that to determine where you want to be. 

You can have the best idea . . .
. . .But, it doesn’t mean squat if you can’t, execute it. The same way with ideas.  There are big-idea guys that couldn’t lead a squad across the street.

My home is. . .
. . .my sanctuary.  It’s very isolated.  I have fourteen acres at the bottom of a mountain. I can be or do whoever I want to be there and the outside world is very secluded from that, and I need that. 

There’s drama . . .
Everywhere! Oh, lord!  There is drama everywhere. Everywhere you have people who interact you have drama.  So, we all have to learn how to live within it and work within it. To accomplish your goals, you’ve got to be able to manage drama. If you say, “I hate drama,” and ignore drama then you’re, you’re not going to be able to do anything.  If somebody says to me, “Oh, I can’t stand the drama.”  I say, suck it up and do what you need to.

War is. . .
Here’s what I will say about war.  I believe that as Army volunteers, we have given up our right to decide which wars are correct and which wars are incorrect. So, so for me to say, make a statement like, “War is,” does not lead to “This war is right,” or “This war is wrong.”  As volunteer members of the service we don’t have that right.  We’ve given that up that right. So, so that being said I would say that war is necessary but it is certainly also horrible. 

Do you get “whiplash” switching from military to civilian life?
The short answer is No. I’ve been in the military since I was seventeen.  Came on active duty when I was seventeen.  Spent the first seven years of my adult life on active duty so I was certainly influenced by military people, growing up in that environment.  That carried over into my civilian job as an operations manger for Schnieder Trucking.  So, I would say I do not have whiplash but I do have to step it down a little bit for the civilians.

But civilian or military, I am I’m pretty much always that focused and intense, and I’m up front with my direct reports at work. Not too much gray area there. As a matter of fact, I had to have a conversation, a performance conversation the other, the other day with one of my direct reports and the conversation was, “You’re not getting it done.  We’re not achieving excellence.  And, because we’re not achieving excellence your work, your work-from-home one day a week has just been revoked.”  So, No. I don’t have a great change. 

How do soldiers see you. . .
When we deployed, I was on patrol walking with one of the platoons.  During the patrol, the Platoon Sergeant said, “You know, Sergeant Major, my soldiers call you The Velociraptor.”  They think I just swoop in from the sky to jump in their . . . [correct them].
“They dare each other to walk past you with some kind of uniform or standards violation,” he said, “and they all talk [deleted] about it, who will really do it.” 
And, I think that sums up the way people see me.




Saturday, February 27, 2016

Tell Me About Your Favorite Top Sergeant


Command Sergeant's Major Christopher Kepner may not look like a funny guy, but here is my favorite quote from him:

Soon after Kepner became the top in Command Sergeant Major in the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade he led an NCO Development course for all the sergeants in the brigade.  He began that course saying,
“You need to do only two things to be a leader in the United States Army. 
First, keep the men safe as much as possible.
Second, make sure your soldiers maintain standards in every area.
And how will you know if you are doing these two things?

You will eat lunch by yourself for the rest of your career.”

First Sergeants and Sergeant's Majors keep their units in fighting shape and up to standards so the officers can decide when and how they will fight.  

When my Army career ends, I want to write a book about Top Sergeants in the Army.  Let me know about your favorite--or least favorite--top sergeant in any branch of the service.  I am also interested in top sergeants in books and movies.  

Thanks for your help.  Leave a comment or write me at ngussman@yahoo.com  


Monday, February 22, 2016

Not Looking Good for Another Year in the Army


This weekend, I found out my application for another year in the Army has not yet been approved at the state level.  And after that, it would have to approved by National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon.

I can't say for sure, but if I were betting, I would bet against me getting the extension.

Yesterday, I turned in a lot of my field gear and went on what may have been my last flight in an Army helicopter.

The field gear that remains for me to turn in during March drill weekend has my name on it and the name has to be cleaned off.  Of course, when I was issued this field gear, my unit said write your name on it.  So I did.  Now I have to erase it or I will have to pay for it.

That's the Army!!


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Americans in West Germany During the Cold War: Don't Piss Off the Polezei!


During the height of the Cold War in the 70s and 80s, West Germany had a higher population of American citizens than ten states.  One million Americans including 250,000 soldiers and airmen and their families, lived in West Germany.  The 1970 census says more Americans were living in West Germany than in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, both Dakotas, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. 

Most of those Americans lived in “Little America” military communities, shopped on Base/Post and never learned German.  Sometimes, they were rudely introduced to differences in German culture.

In 1977, I drove from Wiesbaden to Frankfurt Airport to pickup the wife and child of one of my soldiers.  The post-draft Army recruited very different soldiers from when I enlisted in 1972.  During the draft, although mostly Southern, I met people from the entire country. By 1977, that was over.  Every new soldier on my tank crew or in my platoon was from the South or the West. 

When I went through basic training in 1972, no one in my platoon was married.  By 1978, when we got a replacement, I would expect he was 19 years old, married, had one child and his 17-year-old wife was pregnant with their second child.  The pregnant wife was the reason he enlisted.  That and the mill or factory or garage or warehouse where he worked closed or laid workers off. 

The woman I met at the airport on that hot July day was older than average, but so was my soldier.  He was 21.  She was 20.  She was pregnant and had a two-year-old son who was quiet like his Dad.  Mom was not happy.  And she was not quiet.  The flight was long.  The day was hot.  I had a 1969 VW Beetle.  It was not air-conditioned.  While we walked through the terminal, I listened to how difficult the trip was for her.  She told me how unfair it was that there was no base housing for her PFC husband.  She asked if I could get them on-base housing. 

I could not help with that problem.

We left the airport on the A3 Autobahn.  While my aging Beetle was moving, the car was not terribly hot.  The breeze from every car on the road passing us at about twice our speed helped with cooling. We turned onto A66 toward Wiesbaden.  Two miles later, everyone stopped.  We had no idea what was going on, but we were in a VW Beetle at Noon in July sitting still on the Autobahn.  I shut the air-cooled engine off until we actually moved. 

An hour later we arrived at a Polezei check point.  The Baader Meinhof gang was active at that time and the German Police were searching cars.  The melting Mom beside me was angry at the US Government, the Army, Germany, NATO and most of the world for her current sweat-soaked state. 

One of the policemen approached my window and asked for identification and about the purpose of our trip.  My passenger said “What the Hell do they need ID for.  We’re Americans. . .”  Then she stopped in mid sentence.  I looked to my right and another Polezei officer had come to her window, leveled his automatic weapon at my passenger, and said, “Identification!”
 
She complied.  More importantly, she shut up.

After we were out of sight on the roadblock and on our way to Wiesbaden, I reminded my passenger we were in another country and subject to their laws.  And that she should do whatever Polezei said.  She nodded.  We were quiet for the rest of the trip. 

Apparently, looking down the barrel of an MP5K submachine gun that the Polezei officer was carrying can bring a whole bunch of cultural awareness to an American on her first trip overseas. 


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Tank Gunnery 1976, Part 7, Final Engagement HEP-T at 2000 Meters



 HEP High Explosive Plastic, muzzle velocity 2,450 fps.  



In this night-fire picture, the flat trajectory of APDS is very clear.  
HEP-T at 2,000 Meters looks very different.



Now we reached the end of Table VIII Tank Gunnery 1976.   The last engagement was a house—an 8-by-8-foot panel between 1,500 and 2,000 meters from the firing position.  The ammunition is HEP-T—High Explosive Plastic-Tracer, the slowest round that tanks fire.  The actual rounds we fired is not the service ammo pictured above but the powder-blue inert rounds. 

This final engagement was truly different from the preceding three main gun rounds because it was the longest shot with the slowest round.  When we fired APDS “SABOT” rounds at the moving tank target at 1,000 meters distance, the round is traveling just over a mile per second leaving the gun muzzle.  Even allowing for wind resistance, the time to a target roughly 3,300 feet away is less than a second.  The trajectory is essentially flat.  For a tank-sized target, it is point and shoot.

When we fired HEAT at 1,500-meter target, the muzzle-to-target time was more than a second and I could see a ballistic arc, but with a 3,850-foot-per-second speed out of the gun tube, the trajectory was still close to flat.

For the final engagement my gunner was firing at a panel nearly seven thousand feet away.  The HEP-T round has a muzzle velocity of 2,450 feet per second.  So the time to target is nearly 3 seconds (2.7 seconds with wind resistance).  When you fire SABOT at 1,000 meters, it is difficult to see the tracer at all.  Firing HEP-T at this distance, the tracer goes up, up, up in a straight line then drops rapidly at the end of its parabolic trajectory.  

As anyone knows who has watched a 70-yard touchdown pass, the ball appears to go up for 60 yards then drop rapidly in the final ten yards, right into the receiver’s hands.  Actually, the peak of the arc, whether pigskin or HEP-T round is half of the travel time form the gun muzzle to impact. 

So for this final engagement, every skill of tank gunnery was important.  When I issued the fire command, the driver had to stop on what he saw as the most solid, level ground possible.  Any tilt of the tank would send the round off target to the left or right.

For every engagement we had just fifteen seconds from the moment we identify the target until the first round goes down range.  No problem with a flat shot at 1,000 meters. 

On the other engagements, I did not have to be perfect with the range finder.  On this target, I had to have the range right or we would not hit.  While Merc, my gunner, refined his aim, I made sure I had the best possible range, that my head was straight on the head rest and the sight picture was as good as I could get. 

With every other shot, Merc had a round down range fast.  With this one he made sure his sight picture was as perfect before squeezing his electric trigger.

Then he said, “On the Way!” 

I watched the round go down range for what seemed like minutes.  The red tracer went up in a straight line then seemed to drop almost straight down toward the target. 

Before the round hit the target, the loader yelled, “Up!” then clambered up through the hatch.  He wanted to see the round hit. 

Merc had the best view in the gunner’s seat with the sight on the target. 

“Hit!” I yelled on the intercom.  “Damn,” Merc said looking through the sight. 

What I saw through the binoculars and Merc saw through the primary sight was a dust cloud rising around the target, but the most important part of what we saw was that we could see the panel for just a moment after we saw the cloud.  That meant the round strike was behind the panel.  Of course, that could mean we missed by firing over the target, but we were pretty sure the dust pattern said Hit! 

I yelled, “Fire!” 

Merc refined his sight picture then announced “On the Way!”

It looked like another hit. 

I said, “Driver Move Out.” We rolled off the range. 

As soon as the grader left the tank at the ammo point, we started yelling and clapping and congratulating each other.  We unloaded brass and rolled to the rally point.

After night gunnery, which I really don’t remember well, we scored “Distinguished.”
We hit every target during daylight gunnery and range control confirmed we put a hole in the panel on the last engagement. 

Before gunnery that year, I read the entire Dash 10 manual.  I know the TM Number as well as I know my Social Security Number.  9-2350-215-10. 

I am in Army Aviation now and have had some great flights on Blackhawk, Chinook and Lakota helicopters.  But I am not part of the crew.  For the years I was in tanks, I was crew.  It really was the best job I ever had.