More 511th History: Meeting a British Sergeant Major

I saw the following sketch from Monty Python, and it reminded me of a story which I will relate in a moment. But first, take a quick look at the video:

Here's the story: several years ago, (more years than I would care to admit), I was sent to a remote British outpost somewhere in Europe to work with the Royal Air Force (RAF) for a few weeks. Although I was working with the RAF, the post was actually shared between the British Army and the RAF, so I saw plenty of people from both services during my tenure there.

The work that we were doing was somewhat secretive, so there were several security checkpoints through which everyone was required to pass in order to get to the building where work was done. This usually meant a lot of time standing in front of locked gates, looking up into a camera, saying your name into an intercom, and then waiting for some disembodied security guard to push a button to let you through to the next checkpoint.

One morning I was waiting at one of the gates when a Sergeant Major from the British Army stepped up beside me, and I swear he looked just like Michael Palin in the video that I shared - complete with dress uniform cap and a riding crop tucked under his arm.

I'm not quite sure how things work in the British military, but in the U.S. Army we were taught to render the "Greeting of the Day" to our superiors, so I stifled my urge to laugh as I snapped to a more formal position, and then I exclaimed, "Good Morning, Sergeant Major!" He made no reply, and his eyes barely flickered in my direction; somehow his expression managed to register no emotion or formal acknowledgement whatsoever.

But as the two of us continued our vigil outside the locked gate, his countenance slowly began to change. It was barely perceptible, but gradually the corners of his mouth began to turn downward, while at the same time his arm began to flex and the riding crop began to bow under the mounting tension. My silent companion was like spring which was steadily wound tighter and tighter, and sooner or later I knew that spring was going to break.

Eventually the buzzer sounded and the gate opened, after which the two of us parted ways as we headed off into our separate sections of the building. In a few minutes I was regaling my RAF colleagues with the tale of my awkward experience with the Sergeant Major, and there was plenty of laughter all around. But that being said, I was quietly certain that my RAF comrades-in-arms were surreptitiously rejoicing over the fact that they were not serving in that Army Sergeant Major's chain of command.

Time Marches On

Here are a pair of photos of my dad and brothers with me, and there is a difference of 25 years in between the two images. I stumbled across the second image as I was going through some old photos, and it was taken in 2011 at my daughter's wedding. The first image I have posted on Facebook before, and that photo was taken in 1987. It's kind of amazing to see what the passage of time does...

I don't know what the deal is with those other guys who all appear to have aged, but I haven't changed a bit.

Smile

More 511th History: Happy 4th of July

Here's a 4th of July story for you from our days in the 511th...

Anyone who remembers Steve Meyers will recall that he had no fear - although sometimes he had no common sense, either. Steve backpacked across Europe with no cash as a teenager, wandered off in Turkey without knowing the language or telling anyone where he was going, and managed to pull off a two-week vacation using his MAC flight privileges to visit Athens, Jerusalem, and Cairo and still made it back in time for duty. Steve was an amazing guy who simply went where no one else would think to go.

But what some of you who joined the 511th after the Fall Of The Wall may not know is that our unit used to work with members of the British RAF before they rotated back to the UK. We deployed to the border with them several times, and a few of us were sent to work with the RAF somewhere further north (in locations about which we cannot speak). ;-)

Anyway, during one of those deployments along the border, we were having coffee with a few of the Brits, when Steve turned to them out-of-the-blue and asked, "So, how do you guys feel about when you lost the Revolutionary War? Are you guys still upset about that?"

For a flash of a second you probably could have heard a pin drop all the way across the border, then one of the Brits - without looking up from his coffee - replied in his best British accent, "Lost? I think not. We simply left it to you. Have you been home lately? Ah, what a piece-o-crap."

This comment was followed by a well-deserved round of laughter, and all was well in the world. :-D

Happy 4th of July everyone!


UPDATE: I found the following image, which seems apropos for this topic:

Happy-Treason-Day

Jury Duty

I received the following notice for jury duty in the mail a few days ago, (although I edited out all of the actual personal data before posting it here):

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that the first thought which came to mind was:
"Crap. I do not want to do this."

The second thought that came to mind was: perhaps I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss my 'Civic Responsibility.' I am eternally grateful that I am a citizen of the United States, and trial by peers is one of our cherished legal rights which is not available in other countries around the globe.

But over the ensuing days I thought about this a little more, and I began to form the opinion that I have already fulfilled 2,973 days of civic responsibility during my time in the military. Now, for those of you who have never served in our nation's armed forces, you may think that is an unfair attitude. But let me be very clear: during my eight years of military service, the Army owned my life 24 hours a day, and it often made good on its possession. I spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours working in abhorrent conditions in obscure areas around the planet which the average person doesn't know about, and I did so at any hour on any day - regardless of the weather, physical discomfort, or extended separations from loved ones. During my tenure in uniform I endured countless nights trying to sleep in a makeshift lean-to in subzero temperatures, scorching desert heat, and torrential downpours. I also missed dozens of holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. So believe me when I tell you - we veterans have already done more than our fair share for society. With that in mind, I started to think that all honorably-discharged veterans should be exempt from jury duty.

But then again... as I continued to ponder the subject, I began to think about what the impact to society would be if we exempted all veterans from jury duty.

As I watch the news, I am amazed at the lack of responsibility that is so prevalent in North America. When someone does something bad, they generally refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. But when society attempts to punish a person who has done something wrong, large-scale riots break out in protest. When these riots inevitably destroy cities, their apologists claim that none of the rioters were at fault - it is their 'oppressors' who are the evildoers. But the worst part is - if someone is ever taken to trial for their part in these tragedies, the courts often let the guilty parties go without punishment. A group of defense attorneys were able to successfully use the following defense: "They were simply part of a mob; individual actions do not matter."

Well - let me be perfectly honest: I do not share that opinion. I whole-heartedly believe that if a person screws up, they are personally accountable for their actions; I do not care about the actions of any moral degenerates who may have been surrounding them at the time. If you individually break the law - you are individually guilty. Period. And when you are punished, it is not the arresting officer's fault - it is your fault. (Likewise, if you are pulled over for speeding, it is not the police officer's fault if you get a ticket; you broke the law, so you have to pay the fine.)

In the end I came to the following resolution: even though I may not want to give up a day of my life to serve on a jury, perhaps I need to. Our society desperately needs more people who are not afraid to use the word "Guilty" when it needs to be used. So even though I will undoubtedly be bored for most of the day, I will be bored with a better attitude.

 

PS - If you are a lawyer who is selecting jurors and I'm in the pool of potential peers, I believe everyone is guilty of something. Food for thought. ;-)

More 511th History: Arriving in Fulda in 1988

Even though the following article was written a couple of years ago, it has been making the rounds lately: The Lovely Little Town That Would Have Been Absolutely Screwed by World War III. It's a great article, and I highly recommend reading it. However, here's a spoiler alert: they're talking about Fulda, Germany.

Wappen_Fulda

The topic of that article should come as no surprise to anyone who served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR); the Fulda Gap had been used as a thoroughfare for invading armies between East and West Europe for centuries. This point was vividly brought to my attention when I was in-processing after I arrived in Fulda in January of 1988.

blackhorse

Part of my in-processing was a briefing with Colonel Thomas E. White, who was the 52nd Regimental Commander from 1986 to 1988. During his briefing Col. White made the following ominous statement:

"If the balloon goes up, we expect 90% of the 11th ACR to be dead within the first 30 minutes of battle. This is simple a fact of life. Get used to that idea; it will make things easier."

Col. White followed up that dire prediction with the following observation:

"Fulda has the highest divorce rate of any post in the military. If your marriage survives your tour here, it will survive anything."

In retrospect, Col. White wasn't the cheeriest guy.

But that being said, I soon learned just how true his second statement was; during my first year in Fulda, I was deployed to one place or other for 40 of the 52 weeks. (Most of that time was on the East German border in places I cannot mention.)

At the time, we knew that the Russians had tactical nukes stationed just across the border, and since it was our job to figure out what the Russians were doing, we coined the following unofficial motto:

"The 511th MI Company: First to Know, First to Glow."

Thankfully, the balloon never went up, and less than two years after I arrived in Fulda everything had changed dramatically: the borders between the East and West were opened, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and Soviet Communism met its inevitable demise. If you had told me during my first few days in Fulda that all of those earth-shattering events would occur during my tenure at the 511th, I would have thought you were nuts. Just the same, it has been almost 30 years since I arrived in Fulda, and I'm still thankful that the doomsday prophets didn't get their way.

More 511th Stories - Why I Love Coffee

I arrived in Fulda, Germany, in January of 1988, which was in the middle of a German winter. In case you ever wondered just how cold that can be, please take my word for it – German temperatures plummet during the winter months. I had barely completed in-processing for the 11th ACR and picked up my TA-50 from Regimental Supply when the 511th was deployed to Wildflecken for a few weeks. I had some experience with snow camping as a Boy Scout when I was younger, but this was my first experience sharing an 8-man squad tent far out in the German woods for weeks on end. As soon as that deployment had ended, we were deployed to Meissner for a couple of weeks, and then I was deployed somewhere else along the border for a couple of weeks, etc. (By the end of 1988, I had been deployed for 40 of the 52 weeks.)

But I noticed one interesting thing about each of my winter deployments: one squad member always seemed to get up before everyone else every morning to face the cold alone, and he made the coffee for the rest of the squad. Everyone loved that guy, and I decided that I wanted to be that guy. It wasn't because I wanted to be liked by everyone; it was because this guy's act of daily self-sacrifice brought a brief moment of joy to an otherwise miserable moment in everyone's lives.

I don't think that anyone ever asked the original "Coffee Guy" to take on the dubious honor of climbing out of a warm [sic] sleeping bag and venturing out into the snow to brew a strong pot of joe for his fellow comrades-in-arms; I'm sure he simply thought that everyone else would like to wake up to the wonderful aroma of caffeine gently wafting through the tent. By the time I had arrived in Fulda, the self-appointed role of coffee steward had been assumed by SGT "Heave" Mauer. (Note: Everyone in our unit had a nickname; mine was "Fred" because of Fred MacMurray, and you can probably guess where Heave got his.)

Heave was a good guy, and he usually hung out with an assorted collection of ne'er-do-wells (Skip, Duncan, Sleazer, Punky, etc.) They had all been in Fulda long before I was assigned to the company, which made me "The Newbie" during the first six months or so of my tenure there. Despite my branded status as a new guy, Heave was always nice to me – he taught me a lot about how the 511th worked, how to organize a deployment, how to keep your vehicle combat loaded at all times, and how he got his nickname.

It was fairly early on when I noticed that Heave was making the coffee every morning, which I attributed to his "nice guy" disposition. But as the months wore on, I realized that a little bit of effort on his part made a big difference for squad morale. I know that it sounds like a line from a bad coffee commercial, but there is something about waking up with a warm cup of coffee that helps start your day with a better attitude.

Heave was "Old School" about his coffee making; he used an ancient, WWII-era portable Army stove – the Aladdin M-42 – and a beat-up percolator to brew his demitasse. Heave's style showed an extra level of dedication; his particular method was a long process which required patience and persistence. As the winter months gave way to spring and summer, I slowly lost my newbie status, and somewhere along the way I started to join Heave during his morning java routine. I'm not what you call a "Morning Person," so getting up when the world was still dark was a bit of a sacrifice for me. But I thought that Heave's efforts were a noble cause, and if he could do it every day, perhaps he could use some company.

Heave continued to use his old-fashioned brewing methods, but I'm not so antiquated – I started to drag my Mr. Coffee machine with us when we deployed to the border, and I'd plug that into the generators that we used for the radios. I could make more coffee in less time, but nevertheless – my approach to coffee-making was cause for repeated scorn from Heave. He would ask me where was my devotion to tradition, and I would be forced to admit that I had none – I simply wanted some caffeine to start my day.

I formed an emotional attachment to coffee during the winter months, because it was the only thing warm that I would have all day. We were usually deployed somewhere along the East German border, and we generally ate MREs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, we were frequently forced to eat those cold, so coffee was almost always my only source of heat for the day. I would fill my metal canteen cup with java, then I would wrap my fingers around the cup and let the warmth seep into my body while I inhaled the wonderful fragrance that is adored by coffee lovers everywhere. I would eventually drink my cup of coffee, of course, but I would do so with a sense that everything was going to be okay.

I think that it was sometime around the end of my first year in Germany when Heave's time in the Army was up, and he headed back to the United States. But I kept the tradition going after his departure – and I continued to get up every morning and make the coffee for everyone else as we headed into another German winter. I may not have used Heave's methods, but I don't think that mattered to anyone else. No one criticized my technique; everyone was simply happy to have coffee.

My morning ritual consisted of crawling out of my sleeping bag at zero-dark-thirty, getting dressed in subzero temperatures, heading out into the pre-dawn blackness, firing up the generator, and brewing the first pot of the day. I'll be honest – no one else was up at that hour, so I usually filled my personal thermos with the initial fruits of my labor, and by the time I finished brewing the second pot of coffee, some of the remaining squad members would start to drift out of the tent. By my third year in Germany, I had amended my morning routine slightly: I purchased a pair of propane heaters, so I would get up in the morning, light the heaters to take the initial chill out of the air for everyone else, and then I would head outside to make the coffee.

I had a lot of amusing experiences greeting the day before everyone else; here are just a couple examples:

  • I vividly recall one wintry dawn at the Schlossberg when I was trying to fill the coffee pot with water; I started to pour water from a five-gallon jug, and I had barely poured an inch of water into the carafe when the water froze in motion and clogged the mouth of the five-gallon jug. I grabbed another five-gallon jug and had a similar experience. Three jugs later and I had five useless water jugs with barely a few inches of water in the pot. I held up the carafe, and as I watched – the few inches of water froze before my eyes. I remember thinking to myself, "What in the world am I doing here?"
  • On a different frosty morning at our Wanfried site, I was drinking my first cup of the day as Duncan came stumbling out of the tent. He sauntered over through the snow and commented, "You know, it doesn't matter how old you get – whenever you wake up and see snow on the ground, just for a moment you think to yourself, 'Hey, maybe there's no school today...'"

It has been almost 25 years since the events of these assorted memories took place, but I still love a good cup of joe. I no longer have to drag myself out of bed in the hours before dawn and shuffle through snow to brew my coffee for the day, but the emotional attachment is still there. It's not about the caffeine anymore since I gave that up several years ago; there's just something about holding a warm cup of coffee in the morning that still makes me think that everything is going to be okay.

Foul Language in the Military

Every few years during my time in the Army, some new regulation would get created by the Pentagon with the hopes of curbing profanity in the military. This was, of course, a ridiculous idea, since four-letter words are as ubiquitous in the armed forces as boots and bayonets.

No-Swearing

Nevertheless, as each new regulation was put in place, our company commander would read off the details of the new directive at a company formation. As he finished describing what could and couldn't be said in the future, some random GI from the formation would always respond vociferously with, "F---ing A, sir!"

Toy-Soliders

This immediately put things in perspective; the Pentagon could issue their silly, little missives from their isolated world (which had nothing to do with the real day-to-day life in the Army), while the soldiers who actually lived and worked and breathed the military would carry on like always – cussing and cursing when necessary.

;-)

Being Sick in the Military

One of my family members posted the following picture to Facebook:

I'm not a teacher so I can't speak about the veracity of that statement, but nevertheless I felt compelled to post the following response:

"Not true - when you're in the military, it's much worse. Here's just one example from my years in the service:

"I had food poisoning and I spent the night throwing up so much that I lost 10 pounds in one day. (Seriously.) But the military owns you, so you can't just call in sick. Despite feeling like I was about to die, I had to drive 30 minutes to the military post and show up for a morning formation, where I stood at-attention or at-ease for a 30-minute summary of the days' news and events. After that formation ended, all of people who wanted to go on sick call were ordered to fall out to a separate formation, where I had to describe my symptoms to the NCOIC, who was tasked with determining if anyone should actually be allowed to head to the clinic or go back to work.

"Bear in mind that the clinic that I was sent to was not a hospital where I would see an actual doctor, but a tiny building where no one had any formal medical education. For that matter, sick call is a horrible experience where you eventually get to meet up with a disgruntled E-4 who's sorry that he volunteered for his MOS and generally wants to take out that frustration on every person who shows up; since he has no formal education, he is only capable of reading symptoms from a book to diagnose you, so it's a miracle that more deaths do not occur in military clinics due to gross negligence. (Although I have long stories about deaths and permanent injuries that were the direct result of misdiagnoses in military clinics, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

"Before I got to see said disgruntled E-4, I had to sit in a waiting room for around an hour, so by the time I was finally sent to an examining room I had been on post for several hours and it was probably approaching noon. The E-4 was able to figure out that I was seriously ill pretty quickly - all of the vomiting was an easy clue. He decided by taking my blood pressure that I was severely dehydrated, (duh), so I spent the next few hours lying on a cot with IV bags in my arms until he decided that I was sick enough to be put on quarters for the rest of the day and I was sent home.

"By the time that I finally arrived at [my wife's and my] apartment it was sometime in the late afternoon, which is when the normal workday would probably have been over for most civilians. But when you're in the military they try to make your illness so unbearable that you'd rather show up to work, so here's the worst part: when you have something like the flu that lasts more than a day, you have to repeat the process that I just described until your illness has passed or you are admitted to a hospital because you are not recovering. Of course, having to sit in a clinic with a score of other sick people means that everyone is trading illnesses, so you have this great breeding ground of diseases in the military, which undoubtedly helped cause a great deal of the military fatalities during the great influenza outbreak in the early 20th century.

"So being sick as a teacher may be awful, but trust me - you could have it a lot worse."

As a parting thought, there may be some qualified people in Army medicine, but I have always pointed out that people who graduate at the top of their class in medical school do not become Army doctors; they take prestigious positions at world-class hospitals. Who usually winds up as military doctors? Medical students with barely passing grades and large student loans to pay off.

Given a choice between a doctor with a 4.0 GPA from Harvard Medical School or a doctor with a 2.5 GPA from The Podunk Medical Academy for the Emotionally Challenged, who would you pick? Well, when you're in the Army, you don't get to pick. And unless you're a general, it's usually the latter of those two choices.

I have always summarized Army medicine as follows: "You get what you pay for when you see an Army doctor; you pay nothing, and you get nothing."

Zero Dark Thirty

Here's a weird but true story for you: my wife and I went to the movies tonight to see Zero Dark Thirty, (which was a good movie in case you were wondering). Right at the point where the Navy Seals [spoiler alert] pull the trigger on their main person of interest, a man in the theater started yelling, "VIOLENCE ONLY BEGETS VIOLENCE!!! VIOLENCE ONLY BEGETS VIOLENCE!!!", and he ran out of the building while continuing to scream that phrase like a cultish mantra.
 
This leads me to the following quandary: it was publicly and deliberately advertised what the subject of this movie was about ahead of time, so there can be no question that everyone in the auditorium knew before they walked through the theater doors that they were there to watch the CIA and Navy Seals take down the principle terrorist who planned the tragedies of September 11th, 2001. So why would anyone go to this movie expecting anything other than violence?

This movie has an "R" rating because of the violence; and there is a lot of violence in this movie. But oddly enough, the person in question did not run screaming from the theater when [spoiler alert] a lot of European and American lives (both combatants and non-combatants) were premeditatedly and violently killed throughout the two hours of the movie which preceded the brief actions that were the cause of his outburst.
 
The whole affair was surreal, and I am sure that several people (not just me) were nervously wondering if we were about to see a repeat of the tragic theater shootings that took place at the Batman premier last summer. I'm beginning to think that I'll just wait for everything to come out on Netflix before I watch it in the future.

It's Never Too Late to Go Back to School

After two long years of sacrificing my evenings and weekends in order to complete homework assignments, I just received the following in the mail:

This obviously signifies that I have finally earned my Bachelor's Degree. This is traditionally a four-year degree, but I managed to complete my degree in just over 28 years from when I first started college. (So anyone who is currently on a five-year plan for their four-year degree, take my word for it - you could do a lot worse.)

By way of explanation, I had never finished my Bachelor's Degree; I dropped out of college during my freshman year when I got married and we needed the money. Our idea at the time was that I would work full-time while my wife went to school full-time, then we would swap roles when she completed her nursing degree. Unfortunately, our lives didn't work out that way. Shortly after I dropped out of college I joined the US Army, and that put a temporary halt on both of our college aspirations as the military continuously transferred us from one location to another.

After five years in the Army, I was finally at a time and place in my life where I could go to college in the evenings and do my homework during the weekends. Because of this, I received my Associate's Degree around the time that I finished eight years in the military; this meant that I had earned my two-year degree almost 9 years after I first started college.

A few months after I received my Associate's Degree I left the Army, and my plan at the time was to go to school and finish my Bachelor's Degree. But once again, my plans didn't work out that way. Sometime during my first year back in school, Microsoft offered me a job, and that opportunity was simply too good to pass up. This was ultimately a great decision, but it meant that my college goals needed to be put on hold again.

Sometime around my fifteen-year anniversary at Microsoft I decided that I was once again in a time and place in my life where I could go to college in the evenings and weekends, so I enrolled in an online program through Liberty University. (I chose this school because their online programs are very friendly to current and former members of the military.) My declared major was Multidisciplinary Studies, which is a fancy term for a program that allows you to split your major into two or three concentrated subject areas. (I chose Computer Science and Religion.)

Jumping ahead a couple of years, I found myself studying hard to complete all of my upper-division courses while putting three children through college, flying around the world to speak at various technical conferences, surviving the weddings for two of my children, and juggling a work schedule that typically comprised 50 to 60 hours a week.

In the end, I finished all of my courses at Liberty University in just over two years - and I managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout my studies, thereby graduating Summa Cum Laude. (Which is probably Latin for "You really need to get a life.")

So if I do the math correctly, it took me 9 years to get my two-year degree, and it took me an additional 19 years to get my four-year degree. At this pace, I should have my Master's Degree 29 years from now.

;-]