Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Belated Father's Day Post..Sort of

I have tried to follow somewhat of a pattern here on my blog. One war story and followed by something more current. War Stories and random thoughts just like the tag line sez. However this week I have this overwhelming desire to get something off my chest. This past Father's Day got me thinking about being a Father and how .. wait for it... proud I am of my children. Those readers that do not desire to participate may want to leave now to spare themselves the bald face familial promotion that is to follow. Since my children do not know I am writing this all names have been changed to protect those that desire to remain anonymous.

My children tease me and call me a "sour marshmallow" mostly because I generally act grumpy and tough, the old NCO coming out in me I guess. However they also know they generally get what they want from me, that is the Father coming out in me. It is my twisted parenting philosophy that my children should work for what they get but it is my job to get them what I can. I developed this philosophy by watching the actions of my own Parents. When I was in High School I was a wrestler, not the WWE kind but the High School "Folkstyle/Collegiate" kind. Being from Iowa, the wrestling capital of the free world, there were also a lot of wrestlers that were much better than I was. I lived, breathed, and slept wrestling. I had pictures of Dan Gable, and the Banach brothers on my bedroom walls and I thought I too would be in the Olympics someday. This never happened but that didn't matter to my Dad. My parents managed to send me to wrestling camp every summer during High School. It wasn't easy but they made it happen, one year I had to wash the mats between sessions to help pay for the tuition but I was there. My junior year my Dad drove me over 300 miles one way so I could attend the camp of my choice, then he drove home and came back and got me 5 days later. My Dad knew I wasn't elite material but he also knew wrestling is what I wanted more than anything at that time. I never made it to the Olympics but the training of my will during those hard practices and the example of my Father made me the man and the father I am today. So even though my girls were never going to be All State saxophone players, when they asked to go to marching band camp two years in a row, they went. They detassled corn to help pay for it but they went, that is what Father's do just ask my Dad.

Ninja 11 is my oldest son, being the oldest he got to experience all the mistakes I made as a new parent. The temper tantrums, fits and pouting and that was just me. We did not always see eye to eye, him and I, especially when he skipped school his entire senior year and I never found out about it until it was too late. He was going to a DODDS school in Germany and their communication to parents was poor to say the least. So not being a stupid individual he cut his losses and earned his GED two months before he would have graduated anyway. He bummed around a few years and then decided to join the Army. My heart swelled the first time I saw a picture of him in uniform. N11 spent 3 years in the Army, a year of which he was deployed to Afghanistan. To look at my son most wouldn't think he was a combat vet, he almost always wears black and his hair is a bit too long for my tastes. He likes Japanese Anime and playing Massive Multiplayer Online games. He is a 3rd shift supervisor at the security company where he is employed, a position he worked his ass off for. He has nightmares sometimes and doesn't talk about his service that much. The Veteran's Administration is treating him for possible PTSD. Take a long look VFW,American Legion, and DAV these are the veterans that are coming home,you better do something for them. I am proud of Ninja 11.

Boochie is my oldest girl. She was diagnosed with a learning disability when she was three years old. She has a hard time processing things like the written word or math problems. This makes everything else that much harder. What makes it even worse her disability is not obvious, people that don't know her sometimes assume she is stupid or lazy when in her words "I don't get something." Since my wife is 100% Native American my children are also darker complected and tan easily. Some idiots think she can't speak English when she takes a while to read something. Despite all this she graduated from High School last year and is now attending Community College. Boochie is a social butterfly and the most honest person I know.  I cannot recall any time since she was old enough to know better that she has ever lied to me. She is dating a nice young man who treats her well. She teaches religious education classes at our church and helps serve at all the fish fries during Lent. She has a million friends and everyone always tells me how sweet she is. I hope she gets what she wants out of life. I am proud of Boochie.

The Mook is Boochie's younger sister, they are thirteen months apart and people often mistake them for twins. A lot of their friends call them"the twins" or "thing one" and "thing two." They are inseparable. The Mook graduated from High School this past spring. Mookie is the hardest working teenager I know.She will tackle any job with gusto and often makes up jobs for herself to do. She thinks it is fun to plant bushes,mow the lawn, or paint the bathroom. She is also dating a nice young man but she definitely wears the pants in the relationship. Mookie has been volunteering at a local non-profit since she was 15, in July she will receive a Iowa Governor's Award for Volunteerism from the big lug himself Gov. Culver. She makes me laugh everyday. I am proud of  The Mook.

Mr. Anderson is the youngest. He will be a High School sophomore next year. He was born with one kidney and a genetic disorder that makes certain physical actions painful for him. He never complains and he is my best buddy. We watch baseball,wrestling,football, and NASCAR together. I take him shooting and we both like Doctor Who. I guess his only flaw is he is a Minnesota Gophers fan. But at least he is consistent, he also likes the Vikings and the Twins. We went to a Twins game during the last season at the Metrodome and will also attend one this year at the Twins new stadium. What's a Cubs fan to do? Mr. Anderson has a lot of unrealized potential. I am proud of  Mr. Anderson.

I hope someday my kids are as proud of me as I am of them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pizza is my constant

As any fan of the recently concluded TV Series LOST can tell you the character of Desmond Hume was the "constant" for the island. Desmond could move between the different alternate realities present in the series in a way that other characters could not. As I was making some homemade pizza for lunch today I realized that throughout the course of my life pizza has been my constant. Pizza is my favorite food but it has also been with me always in a way that other foods have not.

When I was growing up my parents would make homemade pizza using tomato sauce and Bisquick baking mix. Canned mushrooms and pepperonis where my favorite toppings but I liked just about anything on my pizza. As the working parents of six children, pizza was a meal that was easy to prepare,hot and cheap. I made my first pizza somewhere around the age of ten and I have never looked back. When I was in high school I got a job working at Happy Joe's pizza parlour. Happy Joe's is a local Midwestern chain whose signature combination of diced Canadian bacon and sauerkraut is my favorite of all time. At the time I worked there Happy Joe's had big stone ovens. We had to grab the pizzas using long handled paddles that sometimes weren't quite long enough. I still have scars on my forearms 30 years after the fact from trying to reach the pies in the back.

We made the pizza in front of a huge glass window that all the kids would press their noses against. The uniform of the day was a straw hat they called a "boater"and black and red pinstriped shirts. Happy Joe's had a 1890's theme which was kind of a pain but the pizza was and is still awesome. I worked at Happy Joe's for the entire time I was in high school, the summer prior to my enlistment in the Army I was given the absolute coolest job any teenager could have. I was the "dough guy" I came in every morning and unloaded the delivery truck, took inventory of the pizza"skins" that were left in the cooler and went down to the dough room in the basement of the building. For the next 3-4 hours I would jam out to tunes while rolling out and cutting all the new pizza crusts and then making 5-6 55 gallon drums of new dough that I would put in the cooler to rise for the next day. It was just the kind of work I have always enjoyed, give me a task and stand out of my way.

At my first duty station Fort Bragg I rented a room from some friends, this was my first official place. And even though it was just a room in someone else's house it had a kitchen and often we would cook pizza. Once again because it was cheap and it went well with beer. I still remember the mix we used, it was called Appian Way named after the ancient Roman highway. I guess that was supposed to make us think it was authentic Italian but since it came out of a box bought from the Winn Dixie I highly doubted it was authentic.

And so it went throughout my travels, every where I went I would look for a good pizza. Once I made it to Europe I discovered that what we call pizza in the United States is not exactly the way they make it on the continent. I ate pizza in Germany and Switzerland, the cheeses were outstanding but they tended to pile all the toppings in the center of the pizza in a small mound. In Kosovo the neighborhood we stayed in had a Serbian pizzeria right down the street. I bet my team provided over 50% of its income in the 5 months we lived there. I used to order a large ham pizza and eat the whole thing myself. In my defense a Serbian large is about an American medium and the ham was really good Italian prosciutto. In Greece I ate pizza topped with fried eggs and olives. Not my first choice but still pretty good. In Turkey I had pizza at a restaurant on the coast of the Mediterranean, drinking EFES pilsner and watching the fishing boats bob in the water.

Eventually I made it to the mecca of pizza, Italy itself. I ate pizza topped with goat cheese and Roma tomatoes in the south of the country. Around Brindisi the toppings tended to be seafood related and tuna was a topping as well as shrimp. I ate thick crust pizza in Naples in the style of that city.Much like our own country Italy has regional variations on pizza. One point of order however, if you order pepperoni pizza in Italy you get pizza topped with small hot peppers not slices of meat. If you want what we call pepperoni you need to order salami. Learned that one the hard way. I think the best pizza I ate in Italy was sitting outside a small cafe' in St. Mark's square in Venice. I was drinking cappuccino, the pizza was cheese, the atmosphere was something I will never forget. I ate that pizza watching the sun go down over the canals wondering how a guy from Iowa had made it that far.

Even though I haven't left the Midwest lately I still enjoy pizza. The quick pizza you throw together using Chef Boyardee to the pizza I make using my pizza stone and gourmet ingredients. Pizza will always be my favorite and my constant.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ελληνικά (Elefsina)

Every time I hear or see the recent troubles in Greece on the news it reminds me of the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) my team ODA 014 conducted in 1998. I had just arrived in Germany for a three year tour about 3 months prior when my team was tasked to conduct the Military Freefall training with the Greek ETA commandos. The ETA are something akin to our Navy Seals and the training would be conducted at the Greek Airborne School in Elefsina just outside of Athens.

I know you’re not supposed to have favorites much like parents and children, but ODA 014, out of all the ODA’s I was on is my clear favorite. I was the Senior Weapons Sergeant then the Intelligence Sergeant on this ODA for 2 years. We once added up the combined operational team time of all the members and it came up to over 100 years. The average amongst the enlisted guys was 10 years on an operational detachment. The width and depth of special operations knowledge on this team was second to none. Ranger Tabs, Military Freefall Jumpmaster Badges, and a variety of special operations skills abounded on this team. This was the best group of guys I ever served with, we were just really tight.

So in September we deployed down to Elefsina from Stuttgart on a C130 aircraft landing at the Athens International Airport. The Greek cadre met us and we off loaded our equipment onto a flat bed truck and an old school bus. After cramming into the bus they drove us through downtown Athens on our way to the school. Never having been to Greece before or since, I was really drinking in the scenery. I could see the Acropolis from the bus window and I hoped I might get to go see it ( I did). The traffic pattern in downtown Athens was pretty typical for a Mediterranean country. The general rule was he with the biggest vehicle and the loudest horn had the right of way. Most of the traffic lights were treated as mere suggestions as cars would line up 4 abreast in two lanes at intersections and little motorbikes would weave in and out of the larger vehicles with complete disregard for any rules of the road. I saw the same scenario played out in Italy and Turkey amongst other places.

When we arrived at the Airborne School we were billeted in an open bay barracks right behind the school Charge of Quarters office. Every morning as we left for training we would have to walk by the paratroop students standing at stiff attention in morning formation. Often they were being chewed out by the Greek Airborne Instructors in their blue t-shirts and black ball caps. I was glad I was through with that nonsense since I had graduated Airborne School in 1983. As we got off the bus our translator and liaison Alex Smiaris greeted us. Alex held dual citizenship, both Greek and Canadian. He had been born in Greece but his family immigrated to Toronto, Canada when he was young. When he got old enough Alex decided to join the Greek army to see the country of his birth and he just stayed. When I met him Alex was a warrant officer with over 15 years service. Alex became a good friend to all of us. I last saw him in Kosovo 2003. His ETA detachment was close to our sector and we did some combined training while there in Kosovo. Alex said he was going to retire upon his return to Greece after his Kosovo rotation. He told me he was going to be a deep sea boat captain and take tourists on fishing trips. I lost touch with him after Kosovo but I hope everything turned out as he planned and I know if I ever make it back to Greece I have a place to stay.

Like most “combined” training we did with our allies this trip turned into the Americans instructing and our allies learning. The combined parts came after training when we all took trips into Athens for a little stress relief. Everyday we would send a drop zone party to set the drop zone up for operations while the rest of us piled into the old school bus for a ride to the airstrip where we rigged up and got into the C130 for what was usually a hot, sweaty day filled with jumping, bus rides, and practical jokes. Once we got to know them the ETA soldiers proved to be hilarious. One day, after training, a couple of the ETA guys went and bought a few of us some T-shirts at a souvenir stand. They were olive drab with a caricature of an ETA commando slitting an enemy’s throat. On the top it had a Greek phrase and on the bottom it said “ATOM SQUAD.” They were so corny; we started to wear them under our fatigue jackets as a joke. That is until Alex told us the Greek phrase was “The only good Turk is a dead Turk” and that the soldier being killed had a Turkish star on his helmet. In the interest of NATO cooperation our Team Leader told us we had to quit wearing the shirts. I still have mine though.

The training was pretty standard and I completed the course of instruction many time during my years on a Military Free Fall team. Each MFF team in Special Forces is required to certify as “level one” every quarter. Being certified as level one meant you could deploy and infiltrate by HALO anywhere in the world in peacetime or combat. To be level one a team had to complete, at a minimum, 3 jumps during the hours of darkness wearing combat equipment (rucksack and weapon) and oxygen. Generally teams conducted the training in a stair step fashion starting out with day time “Hollywood” jumps without equipment and progressing until the training would culminate with the three required jumps. This is the pattern we followed on this deployment with the exception we also instructed our counter parts in the finer points of Military Freefall operations.

Since I had just recently come from being an instructor at the Military Freefall School our Team Sergeant assigned me all the problem children among the Greeks. I had to do corrective training on all the “non flyers” those with a bad or non existent body positions in freefall. Helping these guys out was fun and it also gained me some friends as they were very appreciative whenever I could help one of the soldiers correct a problem he experienced. We jumped on two primary dropzones, one was about an hour drive from the school. It was in the middle of nowhere and was literally a farm field. I almost hyper-extended my knee on one night jump as I landed and one of my feet slid out from under me as I made contact with a freakin watermelon. This drop zone was also plowed in an attempt to make it softer but all that really happened was the hard clay soil was pushed into big clumps that stuck out at all sort of crazy ankle turning angles. The Greeks also used burning tires as wind indicators and the smoke would waft none to sweetly downwind of the DZ party. The end result was there was quite a traffic jam on final approach as all the experienced jumpers tried to maneuver their canopies to land upwind of the vehicle on the dirt road that went through the middle of the DZ.

The other DZ was better. We didn’t get to use it much because it was the primary school DZ and they used it daily. However we did get to jump on it about ½ a dozen times. It was flat and well cleared of obstacles it was also about 1500 meters from the ocean. The Army Military Freefall Operations manual says you must wear floatation devices if jumping within 1000 meters of water, however since we had none and the actual DZ was over 1000 meters from the sea we kind of fudged that little requirement. Being HALO though sometime our release point was pushing the envelope a little; typically we would came in over the ocean on our jump run not hitting the beach until about 30 seconds out. It was a pretty cool sight looking out the tailgate and seeing the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean from 12500 feet.

One of the highlights of the trip was one of our final jumps. It was to be one of the level one certification jumps and it also was to be one the first jumps on to this particular location if not the first jump since World War II. In 1941 during Operation Mercury German Fallschirmjager (Parachutists) had jumped onto Crete in the largest German Airborne operation of the war. Crete became known as the Fallschirmjager graveyard due to the intense partisan activity that resulted in the death of over 400 German Soldiers. My team along with the ETA was going to jump onto the airfield at the Souda Bay, Crete NATO Naval base. We took off under the cover of darkness and as an added bonus we conducted in flight rigging.

In flight rigging is used for longer flights, this is where paratroopers actually rig up their parachutes and combat gear during the flight and don them when they get closer to their objective. Although oxygen was not required due to the altitude we would be jumping we were also training on oxygen console operations during this flight and would be conducting pre breathing activities. About 2 hours out myself and the other jumpmasters starting helping all the jumpers rig up and hook up to the oxygen console. After conducting Jumpmaster Personnel Inspections on all the others we did the same to each other and hooked up to the console. At about 20 minutes out the red jump lights came on and our primary jumpmaster started looking out the windows trying to orient himself. At 10 minutes out the lights turned green and would remain green until we exited or a problem developed. At 6 minutes out he had the first stick of jumpers stand up. Due to the number of jumpers we would be exiting in three passes with my team being last. At three minutes out the squeal of the hydraulics was heard as the tailgate game down and our jumpmaster walked out to the edge of the ramp to identify his release point. While he did this all the jumpers checked equipment and pins on their reserves. One minute out the jumpmaster gave the signal to move to the hinge of the ramp, this is also when all jumpers disconnected from the oxygen console relying purely on the Twin 53 oxygen canisters they had attached to their harnesses. At 30 seconds the thumbs up was given and all the jumpers moved forward and the guys in front hung ten on the edge of the ramp. As the plane intersected with the release point the Jumpmaster pointed out into the blackness and just like that the jumpers disappeared into the night. Once the last jumper had cleared the tailgate, the plane made a hard left turn to line itself up for the next pass.

The tailgate remained down as we made another ten minute racetrack and released another group of Greek commandos. Then it was our turn, as we went through the same commands I had seen thousands of times, I could feel myself reaching that high state of alertness I always attained prior to a jump. The moon was full out the back of the ramp and it looked like I could reach out and touch it, it was so huge. On the standby command we crowded the ramp, I was trying to take special care of my rucksack attaching points as I was wearing a front mounted ruck and didn’t want anyone to inadvertently release one of the straps prior to exit. On the go command, we bum rushed into the darkness and I could feel the old familiar sensation of “riding the hill” as my body actually slowed from the forward throw of the aircraft to terminal velocity. Once I was flat and stable I checked altimeter and saw I had plenty of time before pull altitude, I identified the glow of some green chemlights we used to mark each other in free fall and under canopy. We attached green to the back of our helmets and red ones to our chest straps. The idea being, see red “your dead”, meaning you better turn right or expect to be entangled with another jumper. I put my body in to a track position and increased speed as I flew over to my fellow teammate. When I got close to him I flared and saw it was Frank one of our Engineer Sergeants. Frank was one of our least experienced jumpers so I decided to mess with him a little. I had stashed an activated chemlight in my mouth prior to exiting the aircraft; I flew around in front of Frank and grabbed his forearms to form a “two way.” Once he was looking at me I smiled and I could see his eyes get wide as the green chemlight glow came pouring out of my mouth. I must have looked like a camouflaged Jack O’ Lantern. I checked altimeter again and saw we were about 7000 feet. I tracked away from Frank a safe distance, cleared my airspace then pulled my ripcord at the pull altitude of 3500 feet. The canopy ride was uneventful as we all lined up in our downwind, crosswind, and final legs for landing. Our team was so experienced and well trained we had landed in a tactical perimeter about 30 meters in diameter. We put our weapons into operation and maintained 50% security as we gathered up our parachutes and equipment. Once we were all ready to move out our Team Sergeant called an end to the tactical scenario and we all gathered on the edge of the airfield as the C130 landed to take us back to the barracks.

The day before we were supposed to depart the Greeks threw us a big old soirée, complete with goat meat and ouzo. Needless to say being Greek there was lots of ouzo drinking and man dancing. The best part of the evening is when we convinced our hosts to play a trick on our Team Leader. Every Special Forces officer is ingrained with the notion that they must get along with their “counterparts” and not offend them. This goes all the way back to Vietnam and the work SF did with the Montangards. So we had the Greeks bring the roasted head of the goat complete with eyeballs on a decorated platter and present it to our Team Leader as a delicacy. The funny thing was they were just going to throw the damn thing out. We had him convinced if he didn’t eat the eyeballs he would offend our hosts and the rapport we had built with the Greeks would go up in smoke. After we finally convinced him of our sincerity with a little help from Alex, he finally bit into an eyeball. No one could hold back their laughter anymore and we all roared and toasted his manliness with another shot of ouzo. The next morning with big heads and furry tongues we said good bye to our hosts and boarded the plane back to Germany. Another successful deployment complete.