Monday, May 25, 2009

An old soldier's bittersweet last laugh


The last few years of my military service in the National Guard were difficult to say the least with me pretty much just going through the motions until I retired in 2005 with twenty-one years of service.  I had long since been surpassed by young, ambitious types far better able to endure the demands put on both civilian life and jobs that I honestly believe the National Guard viewed as secondary and detrimental to the overall mission. What pained me the most was that the young ambitious types often viewed us “old timers” as dinosaurs and irrelevant to the evolving and faster paced National Guard. For the longest time I sort of shared that view just glad that I was able to jump off that evolving and faster paced train and fade away into civilian oblivion. That is until now, but I will need to explain the back story for it all to fit together.
This story began on a typical Saturday morning during a weekend National Guard drill a few years before I retired. I had been promoted to Staff Sergeant pretty much by accident the year before but I was outranked by time in grade by two other Staff Sergeants (E-6 ) and a Sergeant First Class who were my platoon sergeant. What I mean by being outranked by “time in grade” is that those guys had received their staff sergeant rank before me so on the hypothetical totem pole they were higher than me and could order me around. The kicker was that I had far more time in service than them and the guy who was now my platoon sergeant. In simpler terms what this means was that I had already enlisted and was wearing the uniform while they were still popping zits and worried about a date for the senior prom. The explanation for that is a confusing mess. I was in an over strength unit for too many years without a chance for promotion. There was also the fact that I didn't want not to piss my civilian boss off by going to the required two week summer camp and then the mandatory army development schools required for promotion. The nasty little thing National Guard recruitment commericals avoid telling is that while American patriotism is a nice sentiment shared by many, the actual depth of that commitment is often very shallow. And I'll be honest by this point I had a textbook case of burnout and I simply wasn't in the mood to play the hyper-motivated game any longer and kiss higher ranking ass.
Staff Sergeant Mike Ward, one of the young studs, did not have any of those concerns and in fact relished his National Guard duties to a near fanatical level that often irritated the living shit out of me but since he outranked me, I had to deal with his zeal. One such time was over a class on the army Global Positioning System receiver and his belief that the GPS was untouchable and completely permanent making other methods of land navigation obsolete. Ward loved to make a huge production out of his classes and came to them in a perfectly pressed Battle Dress Uniform (more commonly just called BDU’s) and boots spit shined to the point they could be used as mirrors. His presentation and confidence in the knowledge of the material would have sent most army leadership instructors into orgasm.
The class that showed how old and obsolete I was dealt with how to operate and use the army GPS hand receiver to both locate your position on a map successfully and use it to navigate across terrain. Being a non-commissioned officer myself I was able to sit back and observe without being required to say much which suited me fine. All the lower enlisted sat close to Ward both in complete and fearful attention. Now giving Ward his due the class was to the point and did not digress into other subjects not relevant to the overall Global Positioning System and its use in the field.
Somehow I had either missed the GPS class in my active army years or the system had not been established enough for there to be a class at all. Nevertheless, I found myself fairly involved and interested in Ward’s class and wondering about a point that at least to me seemed material to the subject. During my active army years land navigation had involved the use of a lensatic compass, a map, understanding terrain features, and using a pace count to keep track of the distance a person can walk. The GPS receiver, with the use of the GPS satellites in orbit, could pinpoint a person’s position within a few meters seemly eliminating most of the techniques I had been taught. Therefore, when a question section of the class started despite my well groomed soon-to-be-retired indifference I raised my hand to settle a point in my mind.
“Sergeant Ward”, I began showing respect, “what allowances are being made if the GPS system is destroyed by either weapons or electronic-counter measures?” My point was that Russia had anti-satellite weapons and China, despite a heavy amount of self-righteous posturing, was reported to be heavily researching and developing its own anti-satellite weapon system. However, the look on Ward’s face shown through with a nice amount of puzzlement and condescension over what I thought was at least a plausible inquiry.
“Well Sergeant”, stressing the pronunciation of my rank like it was a question itself, “I’m sure such a possibility has been taken into consideration by authority much higher than either of us and suitable measures were begun to assure continued use of the GPS in the most dire of times.”
Sergeant Ward’s long winded response touched the line of disrespect just enough to cause a smattering of giggles from the collection of younger hot shots both in the very junior NCO and enlisted ranks. Instead of getting mad my cynical attitude reasserted itself and I graciously smiled and thought to myself that Ward should go do something anatomically impossible to himself. Truly it would have been a losing battle for me right from the start to challenge him. Ward was in the clique with the first sergeant, company commander, and even the battalion commander grooming him for far greater things. For the same senior leadership I was a known quantity who had long since burned out on the “dog and pony show” and was just trying to get my retirement paperwork processed without any unusual situations arising.
After thinking it over I almost convinced myself that Ward was probably right. However in the end I figured with my approaching retirement whatever the answer was that pompous bastard would be someone else’s problem. So, despite putting the subject behind me I had a very good laugh recently after reading the following article:

Making this last laugh of mine even more bittersweet to the extreme my friend Sergeant Ward marched himself, with a good bit of help from his higher ranking benefactors, off to Officer Candidate School and the last time I saw him was on the fast track to his army captain's bars. I just hope his mind is a little more open to what might be out there ready to bite him, or his troops. on the ass.


lime said...

i have often wondered how people will manage without certain technologies they seem to think are the only way to go. your question was more than valid. the utter dependence on technology that can so easily break down, without a back up set of skills is a bit sad.

Beach Bum said...

Lime: The crazy thing for me is that in a million years I would have never begun to think that the Global Positioning System could be brought down through lack of upkeep and maintenance. Anti-satellite weapons or an electromagnetic pulse weapon exploding in space but never a simple breakdown like described in the article.

lime said...

well, basically, the more complex a thing is the more susceptible it is to breakdown, no?

Kentucky Rain said...

When I was in the Army, about the time Dinosaurs were going extinct, we also had a GPS system. It was called a compass. Great story BB. It brings back so many memories.

Randal Graves said...

It's a good thing we haven't wasted billions upon billions of dollars starting unnecessary wars instead of on unsexy stuff like this.

Maintenance is for the weak! Sweep the leg, Johnny!

goatman said...

Oddly enough, I was thinking of the possibility of GPS failure as you were describing Sgt. Wards' lecture.
There you are in the boonies with nothing but this electronic piece of non-working shit and no compass. What to do: spock would make a compass, I may try.
As we kill people in Iraq and Afghanistan from North Dakota with hellfire missles I wonder if war is not becoming just too easy and fun. Ragheads beware!!
An RA to an NG; God help us all.

Cirze said...

Randal, of course, always has the best comment, but I will bring up the rear by adding that when the Bushies decided to fight WWIII they had to steal the money from somewhere.

What better place than the complacent military maintenance budget folk?

Nice reporting, BB.

The Columbia paper (at least) should run this (as human interest at least after a time of vast incompetence and/or ennui among military planners (and their venal managers)).


Beach Bum said...

Lime: You are absolutely right, the troubling thing is that it may hold true for societies as well as technology.

I hope I don't offend anyone from California by writing this but some disturbing thoughts have drifted my way. After reading and hearing about the financial mess they are in as well as all the different groups clamoring that they should be spared any hardship during these lean times with no tax increases to help with basic services I can't help but wonder if California is entering a societal breakdown now. And for years people have been saying that what starts in California moves on to the rest of the country.

MadMike: I really left a lot of detail out that I didn't think pertained directly to the point I was trying to make but my "Sergeant Ward" was more than implying that the old ways with a compass and map would not be used because of how fast troops would have to be moving.
Like Lime mentioned above the more complex a system tends to breakdown far quicker and I honestly still wonder like her what most people would do when faced without the shiny gizmos that make life so easy.

Randal: Yeah, as well as investing a few billion to develop solar and wind power on a large scale, rebuilding the electric grid to move electricity generated from solar and wind farms to other parts of the country.

Since many of these smart guys and gals running the proverbial show and FUBARing up are highly educated college types I frankly wonder at times what is in the water at our centers of higher learning. Then again much of Bush's cronies came from places like Regents, Liberty, and Bob Jones University.

Goatman: Before I even saw the article about the possible failure of the GPS I about fell out of my chair at home when I saw the commercial for the compass application for the iPhone. My first question was what would some yuppy hiker do once his phone battery died?
As I wrote I've been retired since 2005 and despite Ward's zeal I'm going to have to believe that during basic training they still teach young soldiers how to use a compass. But given the stupidity recently at all levels of government I still harbor a fear that other very much like Ward are all too common.

As for what you write about unmanned drones flying around Iraq and Afghanistan and attacking people but being controlled from North Dakota I wonder the same thing.
Over a year ago I wrote a post about the introduction of armed, remote-controlled robots into Iraq and how slime suckers like those in the Cheney, Bush, and Romney families might view this development. That technology might be a way for them to join the military and bask in the "glory" of killing people but yet sit safely in some far away bunker. So yeah, its far too easy right now.

Suzan: You wrote:
The Columbia paper (at least) should run this (as human interest at least after a time of vast incompetence and/or ennui among military planners (and their venal managers)).

Unfortunately given where I live the local papers would never run such an article. If they did there would be a fairly large chance that I would be ran out of town my all the true biblethumping, flag waving patriots. Which honestly would not bother me if I didn't have to leave my kids.
But seriously someone did write a letter to the editor a few years back critical over something the South Carolina National Guard was doing one summer and it was not received very well at all by the civilians in this area and even less by those in the Guard.

A large number in the Guard sort of had an idea that the letter was written by someone in the Guard themselves. A few wanted to hunt that person down. So it might be best if my recollections stay in this venue for now.

Chef Cthulhu said...

Freakin' Army NCOs...and junior and field-grade officers for that matter. :P

In 1999 I did a joint multi-national exercise in Egypt and the Army NCO in charge of transportation made us muster three times just to board a bus. You shoulda' joined the Navy - we have plenty of NCOs and Officers who like to ask and answer the tough questions. Of course, we also have our share of "Sergeant Wards" as well.

Funny thing is that when the shit hits the fan, it's always one of the remaining "dinosaurs" that manages to pull everyone's ass out of the fire.

The issue you highlight is not isolated to the military. Societies that are technologically enabled have a huge tendency to throw away the basics in favor of the "whiz-bang" stuff. Why go to a library when I have Wikipedia? Why learn to speak and communicate a concept when I can just make a PowerPoint with pretty pictures? We save time (and money) leaning on technology and atrophying our basic skills, until the technology breaks. Then we lose time and money...and if we're unlucky, lives.

Americans love to throw all their eggs into high tech baskets. Over the last 19 years I have watched marine navigation go from paper charts to GPS-fed digital navigation systems that are truly amazing. I still made sure every officer I trained as an XO learned old-timey, visual and celestial (sextant and stars - my favorite way) navigation. Three years ago the Navy put out a policy that celestial navigation was no longer a required skill due to the quality of GPS navigation. My old Commanding Officer and I shook our heads and wondered what would happen to the poor destroyer that was half way between Hawaii and Japan when GPS went tits-up. Now I can only hope that someone I trained will be on that ship and they kept their skills sharp.

The USAF people piloting UAVs and shooting Hellfire missiles from Las Vegas are not finding war "fun". They have PTSD and stress levels equal to those in combat born of their unique situation. They shift between war and peace daily - they will "fly" fire support missions, view the carnage (enemy, friendly and innocent) on the UAV's camera and then somehow have to go home after their mission and be a husband/wife/mother/father. Apparently tougher than it seems, from what I've read. A book on my "to read" list is 'Wired for War - The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century' by P.W. Singer.

Actually, the money to fight the wars wasn't stolen - it was simply created from thin air and borrowed from the Fed, to accrue interest and never be repaid...especially since we borrowed an additional three "war's worth" of money to bail out the banks and enact "stimulus".

lime said...

yeesh, that is indeed a sobering thought.

Beach Bum said...

Chef Cthulhu: You wrote:
Freakin' Army NCOs...and junior and field-grade officers for that matter. :P

All I can say is a big amen. During my time I really met more than a few NCO's whose grandparents must have surely been escaped Nazi war criminals.

I'm not talking about some hardboiled NCO's who keeps the lower enlisted from freaking out and lower ranking officers from getting lost.
Some of these neo-Nazis NCO's would brag about how they were putting some troop through hell for no other reason than the could.

Three years ago the Navy put out a policy that celestial navigation was no longer a required skill due to the quality of GPS navigation.

Now that scares the utter Hell out of me. Like you I view the reckless abandonment of basic skills over the newest gizmo a recipe for disaster.

For me the ultimate nightmare involves some sort of EMP weapon that zaps all of most of the country frying important stuff like life support systems in hospitals, the air traffic control system, and even banking computers collapsing the economy.
Just from my observations I see a lot of people dealing exclusively with either credit or debit cards. These types would be lost dealing in cash money even if they could get some. I won't even touch on the possibility that paper money might become worthless.

They have PTSD and stress levels equal to those in combat born of their unique situation. They shift between war and peace daily - they will "fly" fire support missions, view the carnage (enemy, friendly and innocent) on the UAV's camera and then somehow have to go home after their mission and be a husband/wife/mother/father.

I had no idea and I whole heartily apologize.

The origins of my comment came from Mitt Romney during the primary campaign when he was asked why hadn't some of his able body sons enlisted to fight in the wars he saw as so vital to our survival. Romney's response was that his boys were serving the country by working on his campaign.

I have a bit of an issue with people who beat the drums of war so loudly but somehow never found the time to serve. The best example of the spirit of my comment are Cheney's deferments, and Bush jumping ahead of the wait line to join the Texas Guard in the 60's.

I generally view such people a cowards of the highest order craving only privilege and power.

Lime: That is why I often look longingly at remote places on the earth. I actually have looked at immigrating to New Zealand.

Chef Cthulhu said...

No apology necessary - wasn't offended and I understood your point.

Mike said...

This story made me think of something I read a few years ago about the cost of equipping today's soldier. I couldn't find the article, but it costs over 100k to equip today's soldier. They compared that to the average WWII soldier and I think that cost was under $1000. I wish I could remember the exact numbers because it was amazing. I guess that's the price we pay for all of our technology.

Billie Greenwood said...

I will sleep better tonight knowing that my assessment of military top brass does not need realignment.

Beach Bum said...

Chef Cthulhu: Thanks! Just hope more people who never served would realize that war, once the bullets and missiles start flying, is hardly ever about politics, glory, and honor. Its about staying tight with your fellow shipmates, airman, marines, and soldiers with everyone doing their best to come away from the mess usually started by others alive.

Mike: I say that one as well and it going to get worse. With "neat" Star Wars-like stormtooper armor and new weapons that cost more than what most soldiers make in two years being developed.

With people talking about wars for resources other than oil, even fighting over water some say, I guess will get the honor of seeing such items in action.

Border Explorer: Welcome and come back often!
I guess like any other profession the military has the required amount of jerks, asskissers, and zealots.
In real wars they tend to get killed off rather soon, which is a good thing, allowing the more practical and realistic take to charge and end things quickly.

The bad thing is that the jerks, asskissers, and zealots also tend to get a lot of good men and women killed alongside them.

Vigilante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vigilante said...

Screw the military. What are we racing yachtsmen going to do with out our GPS and VMG? And, WTF is a sextant?

Keshi said...

hey GOOD old soldier! ;-)

BB there's something for u in my blog. Come n check it out!


Vigilante said...

Yes, Keshi has a GR8 blog, Beach. I read enough to see that she's from Sri Lanka! Hot. Didn't read much further: felt I was lurking without an invite.

Kentucky Rain said...

LOL Vigil!!!!

RA all the way.....

Beach Bum said...

Vigil: My point entirely! Read a story once written by an "old Salt" that was laughing at all the yuppies and landlubbers taking to the sea and using all fancy technology claiming to be real sailors. I'm sure that Old Salt is loving the idea of the GPS failing just to get those types off the ocean.

Keshi: If I was only ten years younger and ten times better looking!

Vigil: Drop my her site and say hi.

MadMike: All things being equal if I had to do it all over I would join the Air Force.

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I agree....yeesh, that is indeed a sobering thought......
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