Our Shared War

I recently became aware of Operation Song, www.operationsong.org. Their mission is to empower veterans and their family members to tell their stories through the process of songwriting. They need no musical or writing skills, only a willingness to share their stories and, with the help of professional songwriters, transform them into song. I was particularly moved to tears by the song “Machine Gunner” written by Marine Veteran Mick McElhenny, Operation Song writer Jason Sever, and Belmont University student Mykal Duncan.

“Chain of bullets, belt fed.”

Music has always been a strong influence in my life. I do not sing in a way that anyone other than Jesus Christ and possibly Kim would want to listen to, but I do enjoy a well-crafted song. I love songs that move me spiritually, emotionally, and may even cause me to sway and tap a foot, which is as close to dancing as I may generally get. Listening to music often moves me through many emotions.

“It’s hard to find cover in a poppy field, but I sure as hell ain’t no runner – machine gunner.”

The song “Machine Gunner” almost slipped past me as I listened to a pod cast from the Veteran’s Administration (VA). It has become the closing music for the podcast. One morning I had time to devote exclusively to listening to the podcast, I discovered that listening to the lyrics of “Machine Gunner” emotionally captured me. I was so ensnared by the lyrics and feel of the song that I was sobbing and could barely get my mind off of the Soldiers I know and consider my own. I thought also of the military members who find themselves in the predicament of this being their current daily life. I have not had this exact experience, yet I trained for it, I lived for it, and I (truly and fortunately) never thoroughly experienced it.

“The pretty ain’t a shield.”

I’m not a Marine; I’m a very proud and accomplished Soldier. My primary Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), my daily Army job, was Land Combat Support Specialist, 27B. I was an electronics technician responsible for testing and repairing the guidance and targeting systems of anti-tank weapons. My secondary MOS was Infantryman, 11B. It was my choice to have 11B as my secondary MOS. However, I never was assigned to an infantry squad. I admire the infantry and recognize the skill and dedication of the members of the combat arms.

“Lug a thousand rounds – and I ain’t bringing back one.”

I’m a veteran of the Cold War and Desert Shield Desert Storm. I spent a “lifetime” preparing for and prosecuting a war that stayed just outside of all-out terror. And then an extra 96 hours in combat. The stress was intense, the wounds are not visible, and the trauma is real. Each day is a gift that I had no expectation would arrive. I had prepared my mind for the reality of all-out combat. I resolved and oriented my thinking to permit me to point a weapon at someone and pull the trigger with the intent to kill them. Yet, unlike Mick McElhenny, I did not engage with the enemy. I did not participate in a way that had the consequence of seeing my enemy face to face.

There has been a cultural acknowledgement of the end of the cold war, I personally watched the wall come down. I’ve walked on the sidewalks of streets in small former East German towns. I know we won. And still the cold war rages on. I walked on top of the destroyed tanks of Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guards Tawakalna and Medina Divisions. I saw hundreds of defeated men with their hands up in surrender. I participated in a couple of parades at the end of Desert Storm and have marched in numerous Veteran’s Day parades. Why does this song intensify the flames of memories of war that continue to live in my mind?

After listening to the song, I wrote these lines and sent them to my son.

But Why

I’m not sure.

I’m not a Marine.

I’m not a veteran of this war.

I’m not an Infantryman.

Why am I sobbing?

Why am I so connected to this song?

Why do I feel like I failed?

What am I mourning?

I survived.

I’m hopeful.

I’m alive.

I’m not sure.

The soldiers of today have been at war in Southwest Asia for 20 years. This conflict has been a heavy ethical, spiritual, physical, and emotional burden for the men and women of today’s military. They are burdened with deployments to a hostile foreign land, and when not deployed, they are preparing for the next deployment. They leave their families behind to go face constant daily danger. Then via a relatively short flight, they come home to Starbucks and street lights. Where is the emotional switch? Why do the lyrics of this song affect me so?

“Raining down lead, punching that clock. Get ‘em boys, I’m laying down cover – machine gunner.”

It has been more than 25 years since I stopped the daily donning of my warrior uniform. My life of preparation for combat halted some time ago. Yet I find that I deeply empathize with and identify with the pain and anguish of men and women like Mick McElhenny.

For an additional perspective:

My youngest son, Kenny, is a soldier currently on active duty in Hawaii. He has been deployed multiple times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is a trained Military Intelligence analyst and has also been assigned to Recruiting Duty. He served as an advisor and evaluator at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin and is currently performing duties as a Training, Plans, and Operations staff Non-Commissioned Officer with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning.” You can read more from Kenny at his blog: Kalex Content and Photography

This is his response to “Machine Gunner.”

I was introduced to something called “Operation Song” by my father whom recently had an interaction with one of their creative pieces. My dad listened to, then recommended I listen to, a song called “Machine Gunner” created by Mick McElhenney with the help of songwriters and musicians. The program appears to serve as a therapeutic vehicle of sorts to assist veterans in dealing with the often overwhelming and confusing emotions related to PTSD.

I initially wanted to believe and write that I did not share a connection with this song. I am not necessarily a fan of the genre and the majority of Soldiers today find it a little cringey when people make art in this vein. However, as I sat down to listen and write my perspective I realized that I do share a connection here, and it kept punching me right in the gut as I tried to write this. Mick and I experienced deployment very differently. I am an Intelligence professional by trade so my job was, inherently, not as dangerous. As Mick was patrolling and getting in firefights, I was analyzing satellite imagery from the safe confines of a secured Forward Operating Base. Regardless of formal training and job responsibilities, deployments are never safe for anyone.

I spent a combined total of 13 months in Iraq (and then an additional seven months operating in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan), lulled into a false sense of security regarding my job and the negligible threat level which came attached. Four months into my first trip to Iraq, my life was altered forever as I pulled a weapon on a group of innocent Iraqi Nationals, ready to pull the trigger because my ire was up. I had just been bathed in a shockwave and was startled, confused, and scared shitless. A vehicle had entered the perimeter of our base and detonated a very large bomb which had been built into its engine block. A fellow paratrooper was in the cab (a signal Soldier), wrestling with the driver and attempting to thwart the attack. Edge was unable to stop the bomb from exploding and we all had a formation for him at the end of the day. Roll Call and Taps sounds a lot different when the person you’re sounding them for was just eating breakfast in the same dining facility as you that morning.

I didn’t share the same experiences as Mick and I think that is important to point out. Our experiences were different, but our traumas are similar. There exists a stigma in which a person says to themselves: “sure, I deployed, and maybe I saw some things which will live with me forever, but I wasn’t in direct combat and therefore do not deserve to feel this way”. The truth is, I belong to an entire generation of Soldiers who were at war for the better part of two decades and, though not all of us got in firefights, we still saw and experienced events which forever altered our outlooks on life. I still can’t say it’s over to be honest, and I think that bothers a lot of us.

The connection I share here is of the collective shared experience. The connection we share is speaking our experiences through the written word / song and helping ourselves overcome the mental blocks we put in place to cope with unspeakable events. It is very difficult for most veterans to speak about our experiences as we are either taught to internalize or ignore emotions and carry on.

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How big were John Wayne’s Ears?

I’ve stated that basic training was not physically difficult, it was more a time of learning a new culture and refocusing the mind on things outside of myself. But it is important to remember things are still happening to me and I am a young man. Young men are extremely focused on self. At some point in the future, I’ll address my time as an Army Recruiter. I can tell you that young men are very focused on the effect of basic training on them.

My first observation about basic training is that its official name is “Basic Combat Training”. That didn’t impact me very much in June of 1975. What did impact me? Well my last name starts with an A so I was assigned Kitchen Police (KP) duty immediately. You don’t get a badge, there are no doughnuts, and you have no power. You will miss a very important day with the rest of your platoon and you will get aggressively audibly reminded that you aren’t very wise, a lot. Oh, and there will be cussing.

About that important day with the rest of your platoon. While I was at the mess hall on KP duty the rest of the soldiers of 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Brigade, or A-1-3 were at the Central Issue Facility (CIF) drawing field gear and the essentials of our day-to-day uniform. They were given specific instructions about the setup and wear of the gear, instructions I did not get. From that day forward we sere to wear the helmet liner, a pistol belt with a poncho wrapped around and secured to the pistol belt.

I got back to the barracks late and went straight to bed. In the morning my bunk mate, Charles Fink, handed me a bag from his locker and told me that was my field gear. He explained the uniform requirement (sort of) and went off to attend to his duties. I got the pistol belt and poncho set up and was looking at the helmet when the call to fall-in was raised. I slapped that helmet on my head on went out into the darkness for formation and the march to the chow hall. During the march to the chow hall, I kind of figured out I had the wrong helmet setup going on. You see the helmet at that time consisted of two items – the helmet and the helmet liner. We were supposed to wear the helmet liner, but I had the whole package on my head.

At the chow hall we would line up and hold our meal card aloft as we shouted out our branch (RA for Regular Army, AR for Army Reserves, and NG for National Guard) so the Drill Sergeant (DS) could get an accurate accounting of the soldiers eating breakfast. As I got into position, I noticed Senior Drill Sergeant (SDS) Montoya the SDS for 3rd platoon was intently looking right at me. As I held my meal card up he shouted, “Look at what we got here, it’s f—ing John Wayne.” I was pretty sure it was not a compliment. Now all of the DSs and SDSs are out giving me some verbal encouragement about the uniform faux pax I’ve committed. I’m doing pushups and am no longer certain I want to be in the Army. Eventually I complete a number of pushup and am instructed to head back to the barracks and lose the steel pot. I did not get breakfast that day.

There was at least one more negative outcome from missing that first day of basic to KP. It seems that the company had taken a visit to a clinic and had their ‘ears sized.’ This ear sizing matters because we would require ear plugs when we began training with our rifles. I did not get my ears sized and so I did not know what size ear plugs I would need.

By the third week of basic we would begin training with the rifles and were issued weapons cards. Then we went to the battalion arms room and lined up to get our weapons. As we entered the arms room, we passed through a large room where SDS Montoya was seated. He was throwing things at soldiers as they shouted various things. I did not know what was happening. I got to the counter in front of SDS Montoya and just silently looked at him. He barked the question, “What size?” I replied, “I don’t know Senior Drill Sergeant.”. He shouted, of course, “Turn your head to the right.” He looked at the side of my head and said, “Mother F—ing Large,” where upon he threw a set of ear plugs in a case at me. As far as I know that was not a medical analysis, but I still have those ear plugs. Where can you find ear plugs in that specific size?

One more thing – If they ask, “Who knows the Army song?” do not respond in the affirmative or you will find yourself belting out a line or two of “As the Caissons go Rolling Along”. Then when they determine you really can’t sing, you will get to lead the rest of the platoon as they learn the words. You’ll be wishing you could jam those MFLs into your ears.

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Plans for Life and the Journey

In January of 1975 I joined the U.S. Army under the Delayed Entry Program, with a plan to ship off to basic training in June and finish 3 years of service. After completing my time in the Army, I would then go to the University of Minnesota, Winona to study veterinary services. Ultimately, my plan was to attend the University of Minnesota and become a veterinarian.

I was entering an unknown and my future. I had no idea the forces that would impact my mind and my psyche in those first three years of service to my nation and its citizens.

Basic training was not physically difficult, it was more a time of learning a new culture and refocusing the mind on things outside of myself.

After a full day at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) where we participated in physicals, completing forms, and lots of organized forced wandering from location to location. We were shipped to the airport around 3:00 pm. The folks at the United Service Organization (USO) were nice and they got us to the next step – a trip onboard a plane, then a very long bus ride delivering us to the final stop of day 1, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Specifically, the Ft. Leonard Wood Reception Station where we were the initial arrivals at 11:15 pm of group 28A4, I was line number 158. There were forms to fill out, so many forms. What had happened to all of the forms we’d already filled out? We were strongly advised to send a quick letter to our parents to let them know we had arrived and were just fine. Then some kind of a meal, we were issued some skivvies (the first time I’d heard the phrase, “Boxers or briefs?”), a laundry bag, some olive drab (OD) green towels, sheets, a pillow, two wool blankets, and finally were assigned to a barracks for a short sleeping opportunity.

We were awakened to a clanging sound and someone shouting “28A4”. The next few days were a blur of various activities and lots of OD green. There was plenty of yelling, lots of speculation about some guy named Jodie, a good bit of cussing, and the occasional shove. We got haircuts, uniforms, some rudimentary drill and ceremonies instruction, and there were lots of rumors about when we would ship out to basic. Then the cattle cars arrived! We loaded on with our now bulging duffel bags. We packed in tight with the admonition to “make our buddy smile” which simply meant we weren’t squeezed in tight enough, and began the long slow and dusty trip across Ft. Leonard Wood. We were on our way to basic for real this time.

We arrived, the stories we’d heard were not even true. Senior Drill Sergeant (SDS-E7) Herrera, and Drill Sergeant (DS E6) Lansberry greeted us with a good bit of audible enthusiastic encouragement about our ability to move much faster, some rather specific questions about our parentage, and a pretty solid amount of joshing about our masculinity. There was a copious amount of yelling, occasional speculation about some guy named Jodie and our girlfriends, a serious amount of cussing, and the frequent mildly violent jostling and kindly reorganization of our immediate movement (shoving). This is not summer camp and the SDS and DS are not camp counselors.

Next time – Let’s learn some surprising things about me and my experience at Basic Training.

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A Cold War Veteran

I joined the U.S. Army in January of 1975. My parents signed consent papers since I was not 18 years old at the time of enlistment.  In June of 1975, fresh out of high school for almost 30 days I became an Army recruit.  That’s the most common yet lowest title any soldier can have.  I was trained and prepared for the war that was raging at the time, the Cold War.  The Russians Soviets were the enemy and we knew it.  All of our training was geared toward a war with the red army.

After I finished Basic Combat Training and became a full-fledged soldier I went to my advanced training where that premise continued.  I fondly recall SSG Whittenberger who used to begin each classroom session with a question which he asked with full volume, “What is your mission?”  We dutifully responded with even greater volume, “To kill the enemy!”  This was the environment I lived, embraced, and believed as a very young professional soldier.

My first assignment to a real unit was to 7th Army, U.S Army Europe, specifically the 563rd Ordnance Company located at Camp Pieri in Wiesbaden, West Germany.  Yes, West Germany, there was also an East Germany that was forced to be part of the Soviet orbit known as the Warsaw Pact.  The Warsaw Pact was included in that red menace we soldiers alternately feared and hated.  Within a month of assignment I was on Guard Duty responsible for defending a section of the Camp Pieri perimeter against acts of war directed at my country and new temporary home.  I was every bit as hyped and frightened during that and subsequent guard duty rotations as I would be 15 years later in Iraq.  The threat was real.  Hardly a day went by that we didn’t train on Soviet Military Liaison Mission (SMLM) reporting, military vehicle and aircraft identification, or the always everyday task of operations security.

Over the next decade and a half, I developed family preparedness packets, participated in terrain walks, and went on various location scouting bus rides.  These scouting rides usually took us to small towns where we knew our presence in the coming war would put the local populace at risk, but we had a mission and war to prepare for.  I gladly (mostly) responded to unannounced alert roster events, alert deployments to staging locations, division sized war games and constant individual and unit training to fight the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces.  I shielded my family from the knowledge I obtained about the opposing forces and our projections of friendly force attrition.  I was constantly preparing and training for the war that ultimately never “got hot.”

Is it possible to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder over an event that never occurred?  Is it odd to feel as though the war you prepared for over 15 years of your war fighting life has been dwarfed by a war that occupied less than 8 months of your professional career?

We warriors who fought the Cold War were victorious.  We need to understand that and embrace the time we served in a stress filled non-combat war.  It is extremely difficult at times for me to reconcile the battles I fought in the Cold War and those I participated in during Desert Shield/ Desert Storm.  There is no tidy ending to this story, only emotional burdens resolved and unresolved.

Proud to have served and grateful to have survived.

Posted in Army, Health and wellness, Life, Soldier | 2 Comments

To my Shame

Sadly as a failed representative of God I engaged with foolishness. The following is an exchange I unfortunately engaged in on Social Media. The thoughts I am responding to are in italics, my responses are left aligned. My apologies for the assumption s I may have made.

I read all of your texts…

All of them? All less than 500 words worth, good deal.

you have no idea what is really going on by your own words…

Well now, that’s interesting, in less than 500 words you have performed an entire analysis of what I know. That’s some amazing power you have. I love how in my response to M. Riley when I say, “M. Riley I know nothing about it including no facts so cannot comment other than to say follow the law.” Replying directly to her and about the case she claims to have certain facts that are not known to me. This exchange about a single incident allows you to deduce I am spilling my entire knowledge base. When in reality I am choosing not to create fiction about facts she does not disclose. Any rational person who is not interested in spreading rumor would decline to speculate about facts not presented. Why? Because said rational person doesn’t know the facts currently being discussed and any conversation going forward would be conjecture not based in facts, see your words immediately below.

you do not know how many people (it’s a frightening number) in authority/judges have been paid off, threatened, have had their families threatened, they are all traitors to this country because they care more about their own lives and/or pockets.

Well since you now present your words with the authority of one who knows – How many? If you don’t know – don’t spread the rumor or keep the lie alive. In my 20+ years as a soldier I can testify to the damage rumors cause in a platoon, company, and battalion. Baseless assertions serve no purpose.

These wicked and/or scared people keep blocking attempts to have the massive amounts of evidence heard (let’s not forget this is taking place in democrat controlled counties in 4 states), including the hundreds, (yes, hundreds) of eye witnesses who have signed affidavits under penalty of perjury. If there is nothing to hide why the emphatic push back?

Again, you have presented no proof of this. All you have is a belief and a desire (because it fits the outcome you want). Proof would involve your direct knowledge of crimes committed.

There are traitors within the Republican party as well which is also a disgrace. What’s happening right now is the exposing of corrupt people and entities… this is no accident but rather is necessary and part of God’s plan.

Holiness always requires the exposing of corruption.  It’s the reason we, as fallen sin-soaked people need a redeemer. I am curious what you mean regarding God’s plan. Your off-hand response regarding God placing Jezebel in power tells me you misunderstood the statement. God is sovereign. He uses the righteous and the unrighteous to accomplish his plan. The nations cannot be brought to repentance without evil leadership. Daniel cannot be placed into leadership without the evil of Darius. Christ cannot be crucified without the evil of the priests and Herod. When you thoughtlessly reply with “Jezebel, in this case, was Hillary Clinton” tells me you don’t see God’s plan with clarity. You see God’s plan through your “(r)” glasses.

These people MUST be removed from doing any more harm, they belong in prison. Give them enough rope and they will seal their own fates (like certifying election results they know are false).

Once again, you seem to know the hearts of people in ways it is not possible for you to know, be careful as you assume the power of God for your own purposes. Dangerous territory.

It’s been exposed in the past week that Communist China has had people placed in positions of influence over the past 40 years (an ever increasing and alarming number of infiltrators), have been having laws changed to benefit their agendas, not to our benefit. Trump interrupted their plans and those of other hostile to the US governments, the media, big tech and the filthy rich elites within and without our country.

The probing of our national weaknesses is an ongoing business by all players, (foreign and domestic), opposed to the security and stability of the United States. My service allowed me to witness this first hand (actual knowledge). You ascribe amazing powers to President Trump who cannot know any of these things without the small-time intelligence people in the military (like I was), through the chain of our intelligence gathering and assessing community. Those same people who have been doing those jobs long before President Trump and will be doing the same long after his term ends in January.

You dive in quite a few directions in this, but specifically mention “the media, big tech and the filthy rich elites”. There is way more here than my simple response can delve into.  If you would ever be willing to have an actual conversation these issues can be discussed. But I do not see President Trump as the individual who can resolve these issues and in some cases he has inflamed these issues with some of his anti-reality statements.

Sir, this is way more than election fraud, this is a coup, which, if successful, will change ALL of our lives because people such as yourself say there is nothing to see here.

While national issues could indeed have an impact on my comfort, they won’t change my life. I will still be a follower of Christ, and inhabitant of a kingdom yet to come. I respect your right to accuse me of being apathetic, but reject your accusation because it is based entirely on nothing. You still know next to nothing about me and have ascribed behavior to me that I have not stated and do not embrace.

In other words you have violated a commandment by bearing false witness against my character. Repent! Repent! See how easy it is to twist biblical instruction to suit our personal needs? I am certain you mean me no harm, but do not become party to this kind of thinking it will bring noting but bitterness.

The people of this country have been fooled on purpose! How many have bought into the media hysteria since Trump announced his candidacy for the 2016 Presidential race?

I fear you are correct on this account, but imagine for a minute and honestly evaluate if this small two sentence proclamation of yours runs two ways?

Consider as you ponder on that thought, the following words from 2 (that’s ‘second’) Timothy, chapter 4, verse 3 – “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” Please don’t simply read this single verse, read it in context and pray on the words. Pray with the heart of the writer. This is not a political admonition with little d’s or r’s identified or assigned. This is instruction for the people of the Way, don’t allow your political faith to intrude on your thoughts as you pray over these words.

The left have lied, spied, made up stories about Trump to get rid of him, they have been unsuccessful.

I sense no kind spirit in your words. I’d encourage you to read Paul’s words as he writes to the Philippians, I greet you as he greets them, “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you know any democrats? Do you share your hospitality and your blessings with them? Why then are the words above so vile? Do those words advance the Gospel? Or are they simply to justify and support the man, Trump?

Why do you think that is?

Because all of mankind has fallen short of the glory of God.

Can you really be that blind?

I once was. I am no more.

Watch and see what God has to say since you have not been listening to His prophets whom He always, since the beginning, speaks to first before He does anything.

The prophets of the old testament spoke directly of the coming of one to save mankind. The Christ, on whom His glory and authority would rest. He would carry the crown and intercede on our behalf. As much as anyone would like to twist the scriptures to their personal designs, President Donald Trump is not the one of whom the prophets speak. To suggest otherwise is to deny the divine nature of Christ.

The Holy Spirit of God who lives in me, speaks to and guides me daily without using the prophets first. I do read and study the words of the prophets because they point to and celebrate my savior. They are also instructive as they warn me to focus first on God and to be wary of the schemes of man.

He chose Donald J Trump to change the above and he is a 2 term President.

He did indeed choose President Trump. He chose Darius, Jezebel, Ahab, Saul, Jesse, Sarah, Ruth, Uriah the Hittite, even President Clinton and President Obama, me, and so many others. Our response it to obey Him and to represent His glory. He is omnipotent. His plans are not known to you and I any more than they were known to Job. He does as He wants so that we can marvel and be amazed at His glory!

You should read about King David in the Bible… he was no saint and spoke to Goliath with very harsh words… God loved David, He loves Donald.

Thank you for the admonition to read the Bible that is good advice. Read it to uncover the glory of God and to see His truths. Do not read it to merely search for justification of yourself or myself. David is an amazing paragon of faith with many failures. He spoke harshly to Goliath because Goliath was speaking wrongly about God. God was his focus, not Saul, the nation of Israel, or the army of Israel. God was his focus and God slew the giant through his servant David.

I suppose you want to argue with God now?

An interesting thought. Please consider reading the excellent book by Phillip Yancey, “Disappointment With God” it is a very long exposition about Job and God’s role in Job’s misery and redemption all to the Glory of God. My arguing with God is long in my rear-view mirror. Are you angry with God because this election of or rejection of puny men has not turned out as you wished? I do not argue with God, but strive to live a life that follows the joy of Paul in Philippians 3: “7but whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

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Strong Back, (Possibly) Weak Mind

On Saturday after Thanksgiving Day I had one of those “slips, trips, and falls” that you never actually expect will happen to you. It was a doozy, one of those Saturday morning cartoon type falls that involve looking at the camera and all that. My feet flew out and I was hanging suspended in air until I was overtaken by gravity and crashed into the stair case breaking one of the treads with my back.

I had planned to give my drone a little exercise and went out the back door to play in the backyard. The stair case from what remains of our deck to the ground is a mere six steps. I have been walking for a few years and often negotiate stairs with nary a problem. On this occasion the steps were a bit wet. Step one is a breeze and I’m not even remotely aware of the danger step two is about to present. My right foot is in contact with the stair tread for a brief moment as I lift my left foot and then suddenly defying the rules of walking I am completely supported not by my legs, but by air. My feet have flown out from under me and I am hanging in midair for a brief moment of time. It’s enough time for me to understand that things are not right. It’s enough time for me to realize that pain is coming soon.

I succumb to the law of gravity and crash down onto the steps. I’ve skipped step three and have landed square on my back over step four. My rear end has plopped onto step six, but I don’t know this at the moment. I have landed hard and the breath has been knocked out of me. My back is on fire with pain radiating in all directions and in my mind I assume I’ve broken my spine. I can’t catch my breath so cannot call out, even though my brain is screaming. I try to call for Kim and notice as soon as I croak out her name I am unable inhale to make another attempt at calling for help. I somehow make another mildly louder croak, and can finally suck air, what a relief. I was so aware of my breathing in this moment, the focus was unreal. On a side note – I still have the drone in my right hand, but I’ve dropped the controller.

In spite of some odd moments of clarity, my mind is also racing and I am thinking about a multitude of things. The most predominate of my thoughts is how broken my spine must be. I am able to slide my butt to the ground and maneuver myself onto my stomach. And, I can breathe! I once again call for Kim. I get to my hands and knees and crawl to a spot in the sun. Kim has come out of the house and asks me what I am doing. I tell her I’ve fallen on the steps and am just evaluating how badly I might be hurt. My t-shirt has a large stain across the back, my jeans have a large stain on the butt and I’m on my hands and knees in the back yard. She notes the broken stair and is now a bit worried. She doesn’t really know how bad this is at this point, but she asks if I need an ambulance.

I hike up my t-shirt and she can see the bruise across my mid back and says she is calling an ambulance. I tell her no, that’s not necessary, there’s no blood so I don’t need an ambulance. Pride is an amazing thing. There are two men I know who have suffered substantial injuries, Emil (my grandfather) and Dwight (a friend) both of them are now deceased. But, I admire them and am in awe of how they handled the injuries they suffered. I do not want to let them down by being a major wuss that now calls an ambulance, even though I am suspicious that I might have a grievous injury.

I get to my feet and as if none of this has just occurred I set up my drone and fly it a little bit. Bending down to pick it up is more than a struggle so I head into the house to have a seat. Wait did this just happen? I am sore, no I am in great pain, but as I am a fairly ornery fellow, I figure I can just suck it up and tough it out. The rest of the day is a bit of a struggle. Standing up and sitting down are quite an adventure. No twisting and don’t even think about coughing, good gracious don’t sneeze. I manage to get into bed and can lay on my back with very little pain. I must be recovering.

Waking up on Sunday I know that a trip to the ER is in the offing. The pain may be somewhat less, and I believe I can move a little better. But the pain has really not dissipated as I’d hoped. And, then there is the possibility that something might have happened that could be a ticking time bomb. I rearrange some commitments and text my family to let them know what has happened and where things stand. We grab our masks and Head out, I let Kim choose the ER.

I sign in at the Huntsville Hospital Madison campus and we are now in this for real. Kim is allowed in the waiting area and follows along for all of the various consults. She even waits outside of the x-ray room. She is a good bit more concerned about this than I am, and for that I am really grateful. The first consult with the intake nurse is a good time. They of course are a bit concerned that I might have a concussion or that I passed out and fell down the steps. Nope, just your garden variety Saturday morning cartoon slip and fall. I’m able to convince them that there is no head or brain damage, at least as a result of the fall. Finally I’m called to the x-ray room. Oh, boy a cold hard table accompanied by some uncomfortable contortions. There is a positive to this and that is the technician. She has a wonderful voice and is so reassuring and confident.

Back out to the main area we go to wait for the next step in this saga. Eventually we are called back to the final small waiting room to see the doctor. There are additional intake questions. One of which was whether I felt safe at home? Well, I generally do in that I don’t think Kim has any plans to hurt me, but our Shih Tzu is a disagreeable little mutt that has in the past chewed threw metal and does not care for me at all. And, then there are those stairs that tried to break my back, how should I answer? I go with I feel safe to avoid a complex discussion about the question. The doctor arrives and goes over the x-rays. There are a few additional questions. He informs us that there are no fractures or internal spine injuries. His advice was to not schedule any marathons or X-Games activities, use over-the-counter NSAIDS to relieve the pain, and try some topical pain relievers if necessary. Rest and relax, don’t overdo it.

What did I learn? That’s a tough one, like my back apparently! No, did this incident teach me anything about how to care for myself? I did learn that being kind to the staff at the Madison ER is really easy. They have a tough job and making it harder is counterproductive. Give them reasons to feel good about the care they provide. If you hurt yourself, get it checked out. This seems pretty obvious, but not to me. Had I gone to the ER on Saturday I might have gotten on the mend a bit sooner and the worry about my spine would have been resolved much quicker.

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Counter Column – March

My entry into the Army was without a doubt a culture shift.  I enlisted in my senior year of high school and left for basic training 4 weeks after graduation.  Many firsts; visit to the USO, commercial airline flight, becoming part of group 28A4, my name became line number 158, received Army skivvies, t-shirts, socks, and towels.  All of this within the first 24 hours.  On top of this they kept yelling at us and telling us to march like a unit.  It was clear we were going to need training, Army training, sir!

Army Field Manual (FM) 22-5 addresses Drill and Ceremonies, or for the initiated – marching (and some other stuff).  The joy of correctly executing a series of close order drills is undeniably satisfying.  Those who’ve never had the pleasure have no idea of what you are missing.  One of the most complex maneuvers is the Counter Column.  I don’t recall ever doing it after basic training.  But I will never forget how to do the counter column.

What is it and how is it done?  Take a look at this image.

The Counter Column

What is it?  It is a maneuver designed to change the direction of movement of a column of troops in a very short space.  How is it done?  As you can see from the diagram the columns change direction by 180 degrees within the width of the column.  Simple right?  The columns of a platoon perform a simple fold in on itself and within a few turns and movements the platoon is off and running in the opposite direction.  Now imagine the four platoons of a company in column formation performing this movement so that they fully move past each other and the squads of all of the platoons move through the full column length of the company.  First platoon remains at the head of the columns and fourth platoon brings up the rear, just like they started out.

There should be little wonder why it is rarely performed after basic training.  The vast majority of platoon sergeants and squad leaders are so far removed from the drill and ceremony days of basic training, that I believe they’d rather pull KP than embarrass themselves with a counter column.  I however can recall with vivid detail to this very day how to perform this maneuver because of one solitary incident in basic training.

The company had been called to “Fall In” for a physical training (PT) session.  This meant we were in our fatigues with our boots “un-bloused”.  Un-bloused simply means our pant legs were not tucked into our boots.  Our assembly area was a gravel road at the south end of our barracks.  We were used to performing the counter column to go to our PT field about one-half mile to the east of our barracks.  I do not know what caused the problem that day, it generally didn’t take much.  Whatever the problem for some reason the drill sergeant in charge that day determined that we needed some correction.  Correction can take many forms, and that drill sergeant was a master of punishment and efficiency.  He decided the best correction for us that day was to perform a complete counter column while low crawling.  Oh yes that’s the twist – we had to low crawl on our elbows, bellies, knees, and toes along that dusty gravel road through the full company while performing the counter column.  We didn’t stop until we had completed the counter column.  At that point he got us on our feet and proceeded to march our dirty sweaty selves to the PT field.  How’s that for Army training, Sir?

Becoming a soldier is not a simple thing.  It requires mastery of many skills combat and otherwise.  It may even require you to low crawl through a close order drill known as a counter column.  Been there, done that.

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A Brake Job

I recently endeavored to replace the rear brakes on my Volkswagen and knew that I had an ace up my sleeve.  That ace is my grandson Trent.  He is such an accomplished young man.  He is smart – he works in a water purification facility, a job that requires state certification.  He can operate many pieces of equipment, is a good welder, and has rebuilt his own truck from a shell to a running kick butt engine and rolling chassis.  He is just 21 years old and is more than capable.  I earn my living writing and editing documents.

About 7,000 miles back I was advised by the VW dealer that my rear brakes needed to be replaced.  They told me there was about 10% brake pad remaining.  A little side step here.  What the heck does that really mean?  I understand they don’t want liability, but telling me there was about 10% remaining tells me that I have about 10% of my current mileage remaining, so it’s not an emergency.

Okay back to the present.  I ordered the necessary parts through the Advance Auto web page.  To ensure you get the correct parts they ask all the questions, Year?, Make?, Model? Engine size? Trim level? Fuel injection? Turbo? And then they present the parts that apply to your vehicle.  I picked rear brake pads, painted brake rotors, and two cans of brake cleaner.  Up pops a dialog box offering free same day delivery to my house.  Well now, how about that?  I of course select yes!  I checkout online and pay.  This day is off to a rousing start we go to church and have lunch.  And as we return home there is a box of auto parts on the porch.  Wow Advance Auto’s got it going on.

Eventually I’d discover they really don’t have it going on and they absolutely don’t need to ask all those questions.  They could save themselves some reputation and me some time on the front end by just telling me to come to the store.  All that web page does is fool you.  They should just tell you at check out that you are about to come see them.  The pads were not the correct pads, they didn’t even look like the correct pads.  The rotors did not fit, they were for the same year, make, and model but a different engine.  It was really quite frustrating as we had to go to several stores to get the right parts.  We also needed two specialty tools.  One a “triple square” bit.  This is a new one, I’ve only recently gotten used to the need for Torx bits, now the 6 points of the Torx is not good enough by half.  The triple square has 12 points of surface gripping power!

And now the second tool.  It is a special tool for driving the caliper piston back into the caliper.  This tool can be as simple as a little square block with multiple spanner nubs, pick the correct set of nubs and win a prize.

The first night Trent and I did all of the running to various stores for the triple square tool, the correct pads and rotors, and got everything ready on the driver’s side of the car.  But we discovered that the little square block spanner wrench we had did not win us a prize.  We were going to need the special tool designed to impart torsional and lateral force across an unfixed and moving horizontal plane.

We did get to spend a good bit of time talking about things including disappointment, satisfaction, defeat, and victory.  Trent has a good grasp on the state of his life.  I’m very proud of him and his ability to think things through.

Day two Trent is at work so I engage the service of my son, Scott who is Trent’s dad.  It’s a brake job and we now have all the parts and we have the highly evolved special tool.  The tool is relatively short and the work space is restricted such that two hands fill the workspace trying to hold the caliper, the tool, employ the tool.  Oh, a word about the construction of the tool.  The tool is comprised of three connected moving parts and a few parts whose main connection to the tool appears to be air and contact compression.  This tool is used in a primarily moving horizontal space and the connectivity of air is really lacking friction and grip relative to gravity.  Which is to say the stuff keeps coming apart and dropping to the floor.

This is not an area for me, but is uniquely suited to Scott.  He is tenacious and has a positive outlook that allows him to have very little ability to accept defeat as the end of things.  While I move to the passenger side of the vehicle, Scott continues to fiddle with the tool and the caliper to the point that he announces to me that he has gotten he caliper ready for the next step.  I on the other hand have managed to remove a single bolt.  I knew at that point I should devote my time to ensuring the tools were picked up and cleaned.  I did help prepare the pads for installation.  I ran the wrench during the brake bleeding.

I have a son and a grandson that are amazing and who have both shown me such grace.  They also showed me how capable and amazing they each are in their own way.  And the car now has rear brakes that are 100% or good for another 81,000 miles.

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How Cold is it?

Kim and I have three moments in our life that help us frame the answer to the question, “How cold is it.”

No we aren’t going to address the bogus ‘feels like’ pronouncements provided by the professional weather entertainer. Too many people are fooled by that subjective unscientific nonsense. Unlike the bogus feels like temperature, our thoughts on cold are not confidently proclaimed shrouded in the aura of science. For us cold is nuanced as an experienced event.

Three distinct occasions in our life have formed the basis for the comparison of cold relative to how cold we might feel at any given point in time. As a means of establishing our “cold bona-fides” – Kim was born in Canada and has also lived in Alaska and Minnesota. I was born in Wisconsin and grew up in Minnesota. We understand cold. Not the frozen wasteland cold most of our current neighbors in Alabama think of when they hear Minnesota. But, winter with -40 degree air temps. and a respectable wind chill that sets a challenge in front of your plans to go ice fishing.

Alrighty then, we know cold.

In the spring of 1978 we were fortunate to be living in Wiesbaden, Germany. It was a great life for two newlyweds. One of the great things about Army life was the community and the recreation opportunities. The unit I was assigned to had arranged a bus trip and long weekend accommodations to the absolutely beautiful Bavarian town of Bertchesgaden, Germany. It is as picturesque as you can imagine. And just across the border in Austria is the town of Salzburg, yes the town of Mozart, You probably were thinking about the Sound of Music, weren’t you? Another prominent feature in Bertchesgaden is Adolph Hitler’s remote mountain retreat – the Eagles Nest.

One other thing that really makes a Bavarian town is a mountain stream or river. The street from the resort to downtown Bertchesgaden included an 80 meter rock bridge over a rock strewn scenic mountain river. Remember it was spring, the snow melt had really filled that river, it was much more than a burbling stream. Oh yeah, I need to step back a couple steps. We lived in Wiesbaden. I’ve seen maps, Wiesbaden is much farther north than Bertchesgaden. But the elevation, oh the elevation. Kim had taken a sweater and I had a nice London Fog spring jacket. Hey it had been a little chilly in Wiesbaden when we got on the bus.

The first evening in town we went out to dinner with friends and enjoyed a nice 2 to 3 hours of sitting, chatting, and consuming our meal and several biers. As we left the restaurant we detected a very noticeable drop in the air temp. We meandered about town doing a bit of window shopping and practicing for the Olympic shivering team. Turns out it gets significantly colder as you go up in elevation. We walked and shivered our way to the bridge and began to cross it. As we looked down on the water all we really saw was liquid ice, our perception of cold had reached a record low.

For the next 25 years or so whenever we experienced cold temperatures it was always compared against that experience in Bertchesgaden, warmer or colder than that night was our metric.

We bought motorcycles in 2003 and began to plan a trip to ride the Lake Superior Circle Tour in July of 2004. What fun planning for and imagining the excitement of that 1,700 mile ride around the big lake they call Gitchigumee. We put the bikes on a trailer and hauled them up to spend some time with family on July 4th before setting out on our grand adventure. The 4th of July in Minnesota as it always is, was humid HOT, sweaty just sitting there hot, like Alabama. I rarely check the weather and don’t watch professional weather entertainers. Imagine my shock the next morning as I loaded bags onto the motorcycles and discovered air temps in the mid 40’s with an annoying on and off drizzle.

It’s freaking July 5th and we are putting on long sleeve t-shirts over our t-shirts, added a sweatshirt and donned our light rain coats. We rode for about 30 miles and were able to find the campground where some members of our family were camped. We stopped and begged a couple of sweatshirts off of them. We donned the sweatshirts, drank some coffee and we were back on the road headed toDuloot (to Duluth). We have about 130 miles toDuloot and the temps kept getting colder. The closer we got toDuloot the colder we were getting. We stopped short of Duluth and discussed our plan to ride to our first overnight stop in Two Harbors, MN. We decided to stop in Duluth to purchase winter jackets and just warm up.

That’s how we came to be the owners of some supreme Helly Hansen jackets. While they aren’t necessarily cold weather jackets, they do block the wind. And folks in Duluth don’t have winter jackets out for sale in July. Go figure! From Duluth it’s just a hop skip and a jump up Highway 61 along the western shore of Lake Superior to Two Harbors. It was cold, our hands were freezing hanging out in the breeze. The new jackets were okay, but there’s only so much cold a body can take. We have become human pops by the time we roll into the parking lot of our hotel for the evening. We get our room and don’t actually shed our outerwear. We need to eat, we want to buy more coats, and we are tired.

Eventually after thawing a little bit, we head out to find 2 more sweatshirts and each of us got a spanking new Two Harbors souvenir fleece jacket. We’d also gained a new metric for evaluating the cold. A new level of cold, the Circle Tour, it is a touch colder than Bertchesgaden, which is pretty dang cold.

The next day after crossing into Canada we had stopped at a welcome center and I have a great photo of Kim swaddled in her full Michelin Man outfit. Over her shoulder you can see a local woman dressed in shorts and a tank top watering the plants. As the day wore on the air temps began to rise and the ride got much more relaxing.

in 2007 we had gotten larger bikes and had started to ride with the Patriot Guard Riders. December 7th is a memorable day for Kim and I as it set a new metric for our definition of cold. We really should have known better than to head out on a ride when the air temp is 34 degrees with a gusting wind out of the North of 25 to 40 mph. The sun set, the temps dropped, and the wind kept blowing. We rode south at 80+ MPH to Birmingham to escort the body of a soldier to his final resting place.

Once we arrived at the Birmingham airport we were freezing. Kim got into a police car to stay warm, the rest of us stood out in the freezing ‘breeze’ until we were invited into the break room inside the restricted area of the mail sorting facility at the airport. I don’t know about anyone else but my brain was only thinking about one thing – the trip back North to Hartselle, AL in that arctic breeze. Yes, we still had to turn around and ride north back into the wind.

We ultimately made it home. Both of us had hands so cold we could hardly let go of the hand grips to slow or to grab the brake levers. Upon arriving home, Kim immediately took a bath to try to warm up. When she got into bed, her hips were still ice cold. I got so cold on that ride that my fingers tingled for 3 days afterward. It is a day that lives in infamy as the coldest event we’ve experienced. A new metric for cold.

So, How cold is it? Well when we are considering the question, How cold is it, we don’t think of it in terms of temperature, but in terms of those three events. We use the Bertchesgaden, Circle Tour, and Patriot Guard Ride scale. It’s hard to take seriously the purveyors of the “feels like” temperature when you’ve actually felt cold deep in your bones.

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The Denial of the Truth – White Privilege

Social media is a cesspool of bad communication too often amplified by feelings, anger, and lack of knowledge.

As I write this I have taken some time to ruminate on a Facebook post that was shared on June 6, 2020.  I hope the truth of June 6, 1944 is still taught in history classes from elementary to graduate school.  June 6th is the fateful day in 1944 when the allies came ashore on the beaches of Normandy, (Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha) with the intent of removing a blight on the continent of Europe and all of humanity.

This year on June 6th, the 76th anniversary of that day we are engaged in a struggle for the survival of our national conscience.  The murder of Mr. George Floyd has proven to be a tipping point for many.  It’s about time.  Imagine the combination of two great evils, National Socialism and Racism.  I can imagine it because I witnessed the clash in a single photograph with a caption.

The photograph was of bodies of dead soldiers on a beach (not certain it was any of the Normandy beaches, but it was posted on June 6th) and the caption was, “A whole lot of White Privilege going on here.”  It is quite shocking to see the bodies of soldiers used to support a racist perspective, but there it was.  How is it that I can call the caption of this photograph racist?  To qualify myself; I’m a white guy, I grew up around white guys, I’m not ignorant – I understand tone and intent.  The purpose behind this post was to highlight the terrible sacrifice white people have made for everyone else.  We’ve done the hard work of making the world free for you.  How can you not appreciate all that we have done?  How do you now sling the invective White Privilege [like that’s even a thing – (indignant tone implied)] at us without saying thank you?

Ignorance is a terrible thing.  Ignorance when used to support racism is horrible and so destructive to all of us.  The very idea that only white soldiers died during the landings at Normandy is patently and completely ignorant, and more than a tiny bit – RACIST.

The majority of the U.S. forces participating in the invasion were white.  This had much to do with the policies of the U.S. Government, a government predominately controlled and administered by white people.  The Army was not integrated and had units and “colored” units. The colored units with the exception of one combat division were generally not structured to be front line (combat) units.

Colored units were, by design, not in a position to storm the beach as they were typically relegated to Service and Supply units by the white hierarchy of the Army.  One notable exception is the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion a service unit with a combat mission.  The 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion was unique at Normandy for two reasons. First, it was the only American barrage balloon unit in France and second, it was the first black unit in the segregated American Army to come ashore on D-Day.  Five battalion medics were the first to land on Omaha Beach at approximately 9 a.m.  A wounded medic, Waverly B. Woodson Jr., was nominated for the Medal of Honor, though he never received it.  Mr. Woodson treated any wounded soldier he encountered, not just colored troops.   https://www.history.com/news/d-day-hero-medal-of-honor-waverly-woodson

It is very important to recognize the reality these men faced in coming to serve in the Army of the United States.  The era of Jim Crow and it’s arbitrary and made up laws designed to dehumanize was in full effect.  Because of White Privilege, colored troops (black lives) were not treated as “full Americans” by the system (hmm, systemic racism?) and a vast majority of Americans.  In other words, colored troops (black lives) could serve the country to defend the rights of our citizenry, but were not afforded the rights of full citizenship.

To sarcastically paraphrase the quote of the image that started my thoughts on this, “There’s a whole lot of White Privilege going on there.”  Wait, what?

Some time back the United Negro College Fund used a tag line in their advertising, “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”  Clearly they are right.  And, to the individual who created the post that decried the terrible cost of white lives, the result of a system of White Privilege, thank you for proving the point.  Ignorance is ugly and when it is the root of your thoughts on others it is an affront to God and basic human decency.

Social media is a cesspool of bad communication too often amplified by feelings, anger, and lack of knowledge.  Don’t be that guy.

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