Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day: Me and Jerry

Memorial Day is a day when we remember those who gave service to our country whose time on earth is through. For some it has become a day for BBQ and beer drinking. For those that have loved one's that have served however it will always be a day of remembrance. The first veteran I think of on Memorial Day is my Uncle Jerry. Jerry spent 28 years in the Navy, Active Duty and Reserves. He served during the Vietnam Era and beyond retiring as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in 1992.

Jerry is my Dad's brother and he and my Aunt Carolyn always treated my children and my wife as an important part of their family. On Christmas no matter where I was you could always count on the fact that Jerry and Carolyn would have a present for my children under our the tree. Jerry always liked to tease my wife and she thought he was a very good man. She was very sad when he passed.

As for myself Jerry was always extremely interested in my military career and how it was progressing. He would quiz me on the times when I came home on leave on what I had done and what I was going to do. and when I was promoted to SFC (E7) he was almost happier than I was. Being a Navy man making E7 for Jerry was a sign that you had made it. Navy E7's (Chief Petty Officers) cross the line from junior to senior enlisted. Navy E7's enjoy different uniforms and perks on board ship that the lower enlisted do not. I remember the time I got Jerry laughing when I told him how my Special Forces ODA was doing some Military Free fall training with Seal Team 10 at the Naval Air Station in Rota, Spain. During this trip it was quite comical to watch my friend Terry who was an E6 at the time try to sit in the Chief's area in the Dining facility or try to get a room in the Senior Enlisted Quarters. Terry tried but the Navy would have none of that. 

Jerry retired from the Navy in 1992 and he requested that I be at his retirement ceremony and present him with his flag. It was an honor I will never forget. When I retired myself in 2004, Jerry made the trip to witness my retirement just as I had witnessed his 12 years before. It was sitting in my garage after the ceremony when Jerry joked with me "now you will have to get a real job!" I indignantly replied that in my opinion I had been doing a real job for the last 22 years. He just laughed and said " You'll see."
In the military you can get an instant history of a man just by looking at his bearing, the badges on his chest or the unit patch on his shoulder. You know where in the hierarchy of things he is just by looking at the rank on his sleeve or collar. Civilian life is not like that and sometimes figuring out where you stand can be confusing. That is what I believe my uncle was talking about. Jerry you were right and I now know exactly what you meant.

Tomorrow when I go to the annual Memorial Day Ceremony, I will be thinking of you Jerry..Blue Skies always and see you on the high ground

Saturday, May 22, 2010


 The radio transmission we received told us not to engage any target west of the base of the Kani Domlan ridgeline. I asked for authentication due to the fact we had been pounding this ridgeline and the Iraqi troops on it for a few weeks with airstrikes. The order was authenticated and myself and my commo sergeant looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. We made a transmission back to our patrol base in Klaw Kut where the rest of our team was located seeking further direction. Our Team Leader informed us that the Kurds had broken through to the city of Kirkuk and that he and the rest of the ODA would link up with us at a small village that was situated on a road intersection just north of our position. It would take them a few hours to arrive so we leisurely packed up our gear and threw it in our vehicles. We headed north until we stopped at the agreed upon meeting point and discovered it was already swarming with Kurdish Peshmerga. We dismounted our vehicles and greeted our allies with some small talk and those that smoked enjoyed a butt.
While we were waiting our medic conducted an impromptu sick call for the Pesh, one young fighter hobbled up with a bullet wound in his lower leg which our medic quickly treated. From the facial expressions and gestures, I got the impression the other Kurdish fighters felt it was self inflicted. As I lounged on the bumper of our vehicle I watched the continuous and comical stream of Kurdish vehicles pour by as they headed south towards Kirkuk. The Peshmerga had commandeered anything with wheels in an effort to take back what they considered their ancestral home. A home that had been stolen from them by Saddam Hussein, and oh by the way there also just happened to be some very large oil fields located near by. Pesh were packed into the beds of the usual Middle Eastern vehicle, the white Toyota pick up, but they were also jammed into school busses, taxi cabs, and passenger cars. I even saw a dump truck with about twenty Peshmerga hanging out the back. All of theses were flying down the road hell bent for leather with scarves flapping in the breeze and rifles hoisted in the air.
I got out of the truck when I saw some Humvees headed towards us, at first I thought it might be another SF team although none were operating in our sector and none where driving such obviously marked military vehicles.  In fact it was a unit from the 173rd Airborne Brigade who had seen us sitting by the side of the road and stopped for a quick intelligence update. I laid my map out on the hood of this Major’s vehicle and pointed out to him the lay of the land and the targets we had been engaging. I estimated the Iraqi strength and probably direction of flight. He asked me a few more questions and got in his vehicle and their little convoy moved on down the road. This small encounter put in context why I had joined Special Forces. Here I was a Master Sergeant deep in enemy territory with my small team of kick ass troopers and our indigenous allies. I was wearing my University of Iowa baseball cap and hadn’t shaved in about a month. My team had more ammunition and fire power on us than a platoon of infantry. We went where we wanted and when we wanted within the scope of our orders.
This Major had his Kevlar on, chin strap tight, and was all dress right dress. It was obvious he didn’t like talking to a lowly E8. But the point was he needed the information we had and it was good to kick a little dirt on his regular Army boots so to speak. After they left my Team Leader showed up and we all joined the parade of vehicles going south. As we headed down the highway we started to climb up over the ridgeline and as we topped it I saw the damage we had inflicted. The pillboxes we had been directing our airstrikes onto where actually very large bunkers that looked like they led to tunnels farther underground. They were scarred with shrapnel and blackened by smoke. Time and the very real likely hood of booby traps kept us from investigating further. After we crossed over the Kani Domlan we could see the oil fields and the city of Kirkuk spread out before us. We also saw what appeared to be some kind of armored vehicle approaching us at a high rate of speed. It looked like nothing we had ever seen before but we were taking no chances. We got our vehicles off the road and prepared a vehicular ambush using our AT-4’s and Squad Automatic Weapon.  As it got closer however we came to the strange realization that this was a Toyota pickup truck so loaded with stacks of what appeared to be conduit and aluminum tube that from a great distance it looked like it was a Multiple Launched Rocket System. We packed up the ambush and waved as out little Kurdish friend drove by with his loot.
It was shortly after that we entered the chaos that was Kirkuk, the Kurds were vandalizing and stealing everything they could get their hands on in revenge. It was obvious they intended on pillaging the city. As there were only a few U.S. troops on scene in those first few days, there wasn’t much we could do about the whole scenario. I saw one Peshmerga driving a forklift up the highway out of town. I am not sure what he intended on doing with it, but it was his by god and he was driving it home. I also saw a full sized and operational fire truck heading back north. A few weeks later I saw this same fire truck abandoned on a mountain road with no wheels or battery. It must have run out of fuel and they stripped what ever was valuable.
We navigated to a link up point to meet our company commander and the rest of the company. The linkup point was at a large, gated house that reportedly once belonged to “Chemical” Ali the cousin of Saddam. “Chemical” Ali was like the Iraqi Kilroy, that dude was everywhere. Our company had experienced a short but intense firefight prior to our arrival but had secured the house. We linked up and were given some security positions to man on the flat roof of the building. From our vantage point I could see the entire city which mostly seemed to be on fire. I could also hear automatic weapons fire and explosions. Some were in the distance but some were quite close.
Once we got organized I reported to the Company SGM for a debrief and some further instructions. I will be quite candid here, I had no respect for our Company SGM the man was a Douchebag. When I reported to him it was the first time he had seen me in weeks he told me to have my guys shave and take the Kurdish scarves we were all wearing off. No “Hey Mike how’s it going?” or “You guys have been doing an outstanding job!” Just instructions that I had to take back to my guys and enforce that made me look like the same douche he was. Oh well, one thing about civilian life I don’t have to ever talk to that guy again. We stayed in this villa for a few days and then were told to find somewhere to set up a safe house to run operations out of similar to what we had done in Kosovo.
We ended up renting a gorgeous house on the South West corner of the city; it was all marble tile and stone walls with a large stone fence around the yard. The previous owner had obviously fled as no furniture or utilities of any kind were present, we weren’t even sure if the guy we rented it from had authority to do so. We organized the upstairs as an operations/communications room and started running patrols out of the house on a rotating basis. These patrols turned up some interesting things. One day we discovered an Iraqi Mobile Multiple Launch Rocket System stalled and on fire in the middle of the street another day we had to diffuse a small riot between rival Kurdish groups. The PDK did not take kindly to the PKK taking over one of the buildings they had claimed. Tribal loyalties run deep in the Middle East and these rivalries are pretty intense. Another day we acted as a PSD (Personal Security Detachment) for Jalal Talibani . He was a Kurdish leader that would eventually rise to the highest levels of the new Iraqi government.
An informant directed us to an Iraqi vehicle depot that had obviously been looted, but still provided some valuable intelligence. On the way back we cleared what appeared to be an Iraqi barracks and discovered some suspected chemical weapons we turned over to a U.S. Chemical unit. Just for the record, Weapons of Mass destruction where found in Iraq, because we found some. Our time in Kirkuk though was like a finger in a dike, there was only so much that a small contingent of Special Operators could do in a city that size. Every night we heard gunfire celebratory and otherwise. The Kurds where fighting a turf war with the Turkmen, and each other over control of Kirkuk. We saw tracers arching across the sky on a daily basis from the roof of our house. We also heard and felt some huge explosions that rattled our neighborhood as car bombs and IED’s became more prevalent. The smoke plumes would linger for hours from these explosions. After initially melting away the Iraqi resistance was starting to flex the muscle it would show in the bloody months of 2003-2006 prior to the “surge.” My time in Kirkuk is what makes me uncomfortable around any fireworks and sudden bangs to this day. Eventually conventional units like the 173rd moved in to take over responsibility for security in the city. My team and the rest of our battalion moved back north in to Kurdistan to refit and await further instructions. As we left the city once again headed north I didn’t realize that that would be the farthest south I would ever get during my time in Iraq.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Fat,Slow, Distance

There is a training term in running circles. The term is long,slow,distance and it is what runners do as they prepare for a variety of endurance events usually over 20 kilometers. Due to being closer to 50 years old than 30 I have my own term. It stems from the fact that every year I seem to gain or lose a pound or two but mostly gain. I also find my pace per mile creeping up second by second year by year. When I was a younger man I used to be quite a speedster. I was usually one of the fastest in the company and my personal record for a two mile run was 10:32. At one time I could keep that pace for miles. Now I still enjoy running but I jokingly call what I do fat,slow,distance. I am a fan of John Bingham of "Penguin Chronicles" fame John's believes everyone can benefit from running if they have the courage to start. So I will continue to run as long as I can move on down the road.

One of the races I ran this month was the Mall to Mall prediction race. This race is an 8.8 mile race between Lindale mall and Westdale mall here in Cedar Rapids. The cool thing about it is that it is a prediction race, you don't have to be the fastest to win you just have to be the best guesser. You are not allowed to wear a watch or ipod or anything that could help you keep a pace artificially. Since the course was an open course meaning no traffic would be stopped I was pretty conservative in my prediction. We started off at 0800 on the morning of the race on a nice spring day. The first part of the run took us through a cemetery for about a mile until we came out onto the main drag in Cedar Rapids, First Avenue. The course was flat and somewhat down hill for the first half. We continued down First Avenue eventually crossing over it and turning right on Third Avenue. The course took us through what I jokingly call the "ghetto." Compared to larger cities this area is nothing but in our city it is truly the ghetto. If there is a shooting in town you can bet it will be somewhere in this area. Most people blame it on the influx of welfare recipients from Chicago looking for a free Iowa handout. I am not sure I agree but I do know that on this particular day everything was quiet I guess all the criminals were still in bed. Once we crossed the river we started heading back up hill, the course took us on a detour through the Cedar Rapids Kernals ball park. The Kernals are the Class "A" affiliate of the Anaheim Angels and we got to run a lap around the warning track before exiting the stadium. Once we left the stadium we turned on to Wilson Avenue at this point I knew how far we had left because this was near my house and I often did training runs on this street. I had been holding a pretty steady pace this whole time but knowing where I was at I picked it up a little and started passing people as we went up the last major hill. We crossed over Edgewood Road and into the parking lot of Westdale Mall. As I crossed the finish line my time was 1 hour 19 minutes and 36 seconds this worked out to 9:02 minutes a mile. I had seriously underestimated my own speed and had run the race over 19 minutes faster than my predicted time. Oh well, the bananas and bagels at the finish still tasted good.

The next race for this month was the Rockford, IL. 1/2 Marathon (13.1 miles). I picked the location due to the fact my daughter's boyfriend lives in Rockford and I was looking for a race within 4 hours of home. I was only doing the 1/2 Marathon on this day because my knee had been acting up and I hadn't had the time to train for the full. On the day of the race I woke up at 0445 got dressed and grabbed the 0530 shuttle from the hotel to check in and get ready for the 0700 start of the race. Before the race I tied and retied my shoes, fiddled with my walkman, and stood in line at the Porto Potties. Finally it was race time,the sky was gray,overcast and the temperature was about 54 degrees. This was actually good running weather, and I was hoping to finish the race in 2 hours or better. The airhorn sounded as all 1200 runners started the shuffle to the start line that is normal for these large races. I finally made it to the official start about 45 seconds after the actual clock had started. No worries though since we all had individual chip timers on our shoes to keep an accurate time as we crossed electronic sensors at various points along the course. The biggest problem I have when racing is running my own race, I tend to let the spirit and adrenaline of the event trick me into starting to fast. The ideal race is one with a negative split which means you run the second half faster than the first,unfortunately this race was no different than any other and I found myself starting too fast. I finished the first mile in around 8 minutes and I knew I better slow down so I wouldn't slow down even more at the end. I was right on track and cruising along for the first 3.5 miles before we hit the first hill. This hill went from 3.5 miles to about 5 and was a long continuous grade. I concentrated on keeping a 9 minute mile pace and trying to ignore people I passed or even harder the ones that passed me. At mile 5 we went back down hill and then back up again before we entered a park and did a loop around a small pond. As we exited the park we hit mile 7 and I looked at my watch and saw I was at 58 minutes. I was on pace for a sub 2 hour race. The second half of the race was mostly flat or down hill. I really concentrated on my pace but about mile 9 I started having some issues with my knee and my left hip. The hip problem stemmed from what I guessed was an uneven gait as I was favoring my left knee somewhat. I also suspected the problems were because I did most of my training runs on a gravel road or on trails and this entire race was on pavement. The pounding on this hard surface was slowly wearing on my legs. At mile 12 I was at 1 hour 48 minutes. I had 12 minutes to run the last 1.1 miles. I kept moving forward and as we made the last turn I could see the large banner marking the finish line. I looked at my watch and poured it on for the last 200 meters. I crossed the finish line at 1 hour 59 minutes and 1 second, 59 seconds under my goal and a 9:06 per mile pace. I liked this race, there was plenty of water stops.One every 1.5 miles and 2 aid stations along the half marathon route. There was also plenty of encouragement along the route as it was all in town allowing for many spectators. I will probably do it again,maybe doing the full marathon next year. Next on the agenda is the Five Seasons 4th of July 5K.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


If you set the way back machine to the spring and summer of 1983 you would find me on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula conducting operations as part of the Multi-National Force and Observers (MFO). I was a PFC and the assistant gunner for an 81mm mortar squad. Specifically, 2nd squad (base gun), Weapons Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. Unlike the other regiments in the 82nd, which are designated as Parachute Infantry Regiments, the 325 is designated as Airborne Infantry since our regiment actually landed in gliders during World War II. After the war, gliders were phased out and the 325th was made regular parachute infantry. The designation stuck however, such are the vagaries of military heraldry.

The MFO consisted of units from many nations as the name suggests and still operates in the peninsula to this day. It was formed as a result of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty and was tasked with patrolling the no mans land along the borders of Israel and Egypt to make sure both countries were conforming within the stipulations of the treaty. The US Battalion occupies South Camp just north of the city of Sharm El Sheik and fans out small squad size elements to check points and observations posts within its sector. At the time of my deployment we were only the second United States unit to conduct this mission as we were to relieve a battalion from the 101st Airborne Division.

This was my very first overseas deployment and also my first deployment to a “hazardous duty” area. I didn’t know quite what to expect as we boarded the chartered Arrow Airways flight from Fort Bragg, NC straight to Sharm El Sheik, by way of Gander Newfoundland. It was very strange to me as we sat in our seats with our high and tight haircuts, M16 rifles and “chocolate chip” desert uniforms that there were stewardesses’ offering us sodas and peanuts for the flight. As would become my habit during my career I fell asleep as the plane took off only to awaken when we stopped in Gander for refueling. I wandered around the dark and tiny terminal with the other bored and hungry paratroopers gawking at the Canadian souvenirs in the closed gift shops and wondering how much longer we had to fly. Eventually we reboarded the plane where we were served a standard in-flight meal of rubber chicken, mushy green beans, and warm soda. I fell back asleep and was awakened by the whine of the landing gear as it extended itself for landing at the airfield in Sharm El Sheik.

I snapped some pictures out the plane window upon our arrival and what they showed was a rocky, brown landscape dominated by numerous mountains and wadis. When I moved to Arizona some years later the terrain was eerily similar but with the addition of cactus and without the camels. Sharm El Sheik and South Camp sit on the coast of the Sinai and the Red Sea dominated the view to the east as we made our way towards our new home. With all the organized chaos of any military operation we swiftly moved into our living areas which were small trailer like buildings with two man rooms.

For the next week or so we attended orientation briefings and shadowed our 101st counter parts. But soon enough they departed for home and we were left alone facing our 6 month deployment. Each squad was assigned rotating duties where for 3 weeks you would man an observation post or check point and then you would rotate back for a week of training and refit or guard duty at the camp. South Camp itself was pretty comfortable; it had a small post exchange, mess hall, a gym, and an enlisted club. It also had numerous private “hooch” bars run by units from other countries that were tolerated but not sanctioned by the Camp Commander. The mess hall which was open 24/7 and Murphy’s Bar which was run by the Explosive Ordinance Detachment soon became the center of my social scene when we were back in camp. Typically we would mosey on down to Murphy’s about 1800 and drink .50 cent cans of Carling’s Black Label while playing darts or watching movies on the VCR. During the break between scheduled movies we would haul butt across the compound to the closest latrine and run back to be on time for the start of the next movie. Then we would all hit the mess hall for ice cream and sandwiches as we staggered our way back to our rooms about midnight.

This was a different era for the Army; soldiers in hazardous fire areas were still allowed to drink off duty as they had been able to since 1776. Political correctness and General Order #1 which forbids alcohol on deployments had not yet taken over as it would with the start of Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990. Just a heads up for the Muckety Mucks prohibition never works; soldiers still drink on deployment you just force them to become criminals to do it. In Kosovo we had a full bar complete with sound system. You had to enter it by stepping thru a wall locker into a hidden room. No one ever found it, so much for General Order #1.

My squads first off camp mission was to man checkpoint (CP) 3-Alpha which was located on the main supply route (MSR) from Israel to southern Sinai. Our job was to monitor traffic along the MSR, report any large military type convoys or troop movements and send in a situation report of activity three times daily. We arrived at the checkpoint and relieved the squad in place with a quick debrief. They left on the same deuce and a half trucks that had dropped us off. Our CP consisted of two mobile home type trailers about 40 feet long, one was the bunk house with bunk beds and small metal lockers. The other was the kitchen/dining/commo building. The commo room was manned 24/7 as was a small guard shack immediately adjacent to the MSR. Our daily routine consisted of preparing a hot breakfast in the kitchen using local meat and groceries delivered weekly from South Camp, then squad training or physical training in the morning. Lunch was a C-Ration or later in the deployment the new fangled Meals Ready to Eat. Afternoon consisted of more training or area beautification. We were constantly raking the sand around our buildings into a nice concentric pattern of lines. We also had the best rock garden in town with a huge set of Parachutist wings painted white and surrounding the pole upon which flew Old Glory. Another hot meal ended the day.

Squad members also where on a rotating duty roster where about every 36 hours you would pull a four hour shift either in the guard shack monitoring the MSR or giving and receiving situation reports in the commo room. We also conducted weekly vehicular patrols in our sector driving up to the edge of our sector along the border and back in our M151 jeeps. On these patrols we would often leave partially opened cans of C-ration fruit along the side of the road with a P38 can opener sticking out. As soon as our vehicle would pass Bedouin children would rush out from the rocks and seize the treat. Sometimes as a joke we would leave lima beans or spaghetti and meat sauce. We would laugh and laugh as we saw them throw the can down in disgust in our rear view mirror.

Quite often we also conducted 2-3 day foot patrols in our sector, patrolling in team size elements in circular search patterns that eventually brought us back to the CP. It was on one of these patrols that we had a close encounter with a mine field. Mines were the biggest hazard in the Sinai as they were left over from many previous conflicts along with burnt out tank hulls and destroyed vehicles. We often passed these relics on patrol, and I would wonder how they were destroyed and who won the battle. Mine fields were generally marked and we were under strict orders to steer clear of them. The local Egyptian police had a unique way of clearing a path through these minefields. They would get a Private with a 20 foot long stick to start probing a path through the field in an effort to clear it. This was not the preferred technique and I witnessed at least one Medevac due to some mine clearing gone wrong.

This particular minefield was not marked. It was notated on our map however and we had plotted a course to skirt the edge of it by about 500 meters. Unfortunately it is the nature of the desert that it shifts and as we were walking our azimuth we started noticing some rather strange looking black sticks poking up from the ground. These sticks looked too regular and angular to be natural. Upon closer inspection we determined that we had managed to walk into the middle of a field of Anti-Tank mines and these sticks were actually the tilt rods that activated the mines. True we weren’t tanks but Anti-Tank minefields are also usually accompanied by Anti-Personnel mines as well. If anyone has seen the movie Kelly’s Heros you know what happened next. The ol’ bayonet came out and we started probing our way to the edge of the minefield. Eventually we all made it out with no injuries besides some scraps and cuts from low crawling across the desert. We also handed out candy to Bedouin kids as we passed through their villages on our patrols and I learned my first two words of Arabic “Mish, Mish” which means food and “Dollah” which is not technically Arabic but they sure said it a lot. The old guys just stared at us as the kids crowded around. I wondered what they were thinking, squatting there holding the halters of their camels as their children begged the Super Power for a handout.

So our deployment followed the 3 week rotational pattern, punctuated by guard duty and hijinks. We had a platoon toga party using bed sheets. This was inspired by the movie Animal House which had been released not to long before. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders showed up one evening on a USO tour accompanied by a One Man Band as an opening act. I liked the One Man Band better. My Platoon conducted our annual ARTEP (Army Training and Evaluation Program) and passed with flying colors. We better have, all we did during our down week was practice crew drill. Sometimes we would hump a rucksack full of beer and ice the 2 miles to Naama Bay, a resort area, and hang out on the beach drinking beer and checking out girls until the sun went down. We could take the occasional weekend trip to Eilat, Israel on our down time. It was a 5 hour deuce and a half ride but it was worth it. It was in Eilat that I acquired my life long love of Mediterranean food. I still eat a good Falafel when I can get it. We did a lot of things to keep occupied and to stave off boredom in those 6 months.

My final posting was on an Observation Post on the top of a mountain 5 miles off the coast. The only way to get to this OP was by UH1H Huey helicopter due to the fact it was on a mountain top. The winds constantly howled so the helicopter would have to call in for windspeed and direction at least 20 minutes prior to landing. Our only job was to observe and report on shipping in the Straits of Tiran, no patrols vehicular or foot required. Due to this and the fact that we always had advanced warning of any visitors the uniform of the day was PT shorts and flip flops. I had the most awesome tan I have had in my entire life after being on that island.

After we returned from this rotation we started processing our replacements from the 101st to take over our duties. After a week or so we got back on the Arrow Airways jet and made our way back home. My plane took a route which required a refuel in Cairo Egypt. Of course we broke down; while we were restricted to the terminal our leadership made us take our fatigue jackets off so as not to offend other patrons of the airport. “Who are those bald guys, with great tans, desert camo pants and brown t-shirts?" “I am not sure but one thing I do know they couldn’t be Americans.” After a two day breakdown and sleeping in the airport we finally got off the ground. We arrived back in Fort Bragg about 2130 and as soon as all gear was accounted for we were released. I made a bee line for the one thing I had been dreaming about for 6 months, a Burrito Supreme from Taco Bell. That and a nice cold Pepsi ended my first foray into hostile territory on a positive note.