Saturday, January 30, 2010

In Today's Sunday News

Jon Rutter wrote the final article about my Army adventure in today's Lancaster Sunday News (Local Section, Page 1)
Photos here


On the home front

Neil Gussman returns from Iraq, where he served the country in myriad roles, including base communicator.


Neil Gussman is back from the Army, at 56.

The Lancaster businessman has returned home after two years away from everyday midlife.

"Boy," the nontraditional sergeant quipped earlier this month, "it seems like I've been gone forever."

The military experience was rich, if sometimes exasperating, he added. And it was a lot different from his 12-year Army hitch that ended more than 25 years ago.

Back then Gussman was, among other things, a tank commander in Germany.

His more recent sojourn with the 104th General Services Aviation Brigade's Echo Company was covered in a series of Sunday News stories spanning nearly 2½ years. It included combat training at Fort Indiantown Gap and Fort Sill, Okla., followed by a 12-month tour in Kuwait and Iraq.

Gussman served at Tallil Ali Air Base.

He initially aspired to become a chemical weapons specialist and expected to pull weekend-warrior duty at Indiantown Gap. Instead, the Army activated his unit and deployed it to the Middle East.

There, as the war wound down, Gussman was given various tasks. He dispensed tools in the motor pool before getting assigned to photograph and write about life on the base.

His work appeared in several Army newsletters.

He loved the journalist job, especially flying aboard Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters during supply missions.

"The last few months have been really good," said Gussman, who downplayed the risk of living in a war zone.

"Hardly anyone fired a gun over there," he noted. "I fired my camera a lot."

Military life, examined
Still, Gussman admitted, "Iraq is more dangerous than New Jersey." Also, he wisecracked, the shampoo selection is scantier. And it's harder to obtain good fresh bread or feed his habit of following Formula One auto racing.

One of Gussman's first stateside projects will be to get himself to a New York City Jewish bakery.

He arrived in the United States Jan. 4, but could not immediately return to Lancaster, where his wife, Annalisa Crannell, and children have been holding down the fort.

First, Gussman and his friends had to go through three weeks of heel cooling at Fort Dix, the sprawling New Jersey Army base where overseas soldiers are processed.

It was a fit and squeaky-clean-cut Gussman who bicycled to the main gate on a recent Wednesday to greet some visitors. Dismounting and padlocking the bike to a post, the camouflage-decked soldier ducked into a car for a tour of his temporary digs.

GIs hiked here and there among low-slung brick buildings. The campus soil was sandy, the air piney. Big silver transports floated in and out of McGuire Air Force Base next door. Behind this purposeful facade, though, were grunts at loose ends.

A lone soldier slumped before a barracks TV, watching an episode of "Yes, Dear." In other areas, men and women were simply standing in line.

That was true at the M.G. Robert Mills Dental Clinic on Doughboy Avenue, where Gussman traded last-minute banter with some departing buddies.

Sgt. Jeremy Houck, of Lebanon, who turned 32 that day, reported helping Gussman with "the problems that young NCOs [noncommissioned officers] have, you know. It was hard to tame him down. I struggled through it."

Thirty-one-year-old Nickey Smith, of Connecticut, allowed that Gussman was a good man to share an air-conditioned trailer with, but a big contrast to Smith.

The younger soldier likes watching movies and listening to music in his down time. Gussman, who coordinated a book club in Iraq, prefers reading and writing.

"Nickey was worried about me culturally," Gussman said, and so he introduced Gussman to such films as "Full Metal Jacket" and "Batman."

"His typing skills put me to sleep every night," retorted Smith, who had not been persuaded to take up literature. "I read a blog [posting] or two of his," Smith said. "That was a book in itself."

Indeed, Gussman's latter-day Army life did not go unexamined.

He calculates that he's written about 75,000 words on his blog, armynow.blogspot.com, and recorded nearly 50,000 visitors since June 2008.

The site reveals Gussman's fondness for tallying. He figures he rode a succession of bicycles 5,200 miles while in Iraq, for example, competed in four bike races in the United States and the Middle East, read 15 books and bought hundreds of Green Beans lattes in Kuwait.

Gussman's work has attracted wide media attention; The New York Times profiled one of his stories this past Thanksgiving.

Lt. Col. Scott Perry, Gussman's commanding officer, tuned in with relish.

"Sgt. Neil Gussman is an eclectic series of mutually unsupporting disciplines, dichotomies and passions that somehow have blended into an exceptional communicative force," Perry wrote in the unit newsletter.

Back home, Scott Haverstick, Gussman's bicycle racing partner, also has been reading.

"Very interesting for those of us who would not be inclined to do anything like this on our own," Haverstick commented.

Haverstick said he admires Gussman but continues to puzzle over why his friend's desire to serve God and humanity "would manifest itself in this particular way.

"I hope he's done" with combat regions, said Haverstick, adding that he's also curious about Operation Iraqi Freedom's long-term effect on Gussman.

"Everyone seems to be changed by their tour of duty," Haverstick said.

Last week, though, Gussman seemed his usual eclectic self.

He said he plans to soon climb aboard a commuter train and return to work as a writer at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, an industry museum and library near Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

"I might write about some of the stuff I can't write now," he promised in his blog.

He'll have to get used to riding his bike without an M-16, and he can forget all about the 130-degree temperatures and blowing grit he faced in the Iraqi desert.

He'll stay in the Pennsylvania National Guard reserves until he gets booted at age 60. But he said he might head overseas again, if he could reprise his role as a journalist.

His unit will be activated next in 2012 — the year Gussman turns 59 — "which would be the absolute last minute I could go," he said.

"I would definitely go back. I know some of my friends think I'm crazy, but ..."

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