Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eighty-Second! Patch On My Shoulder! Pack Up Your Chutes and Follow Me! I'm the Airborne Infantry!

It's looking like all my perseverance has finally paid off. Over the weekend, my assignment to Fort Hood disappeared from the assignments website, taunting me with the widely-despised "No Data Available" message, which occasionally heralds changing orders but generally just means system maintenance. This morning, however, I was greatly pleased to see my new assignment to Fort Bragg appear, along with my reservation for the Basic Airborne Course (i.e. "jump school").

So, I'm finally, finally, off to the Airborne for real. I don't actually know for certain yet that I'm headed to the 82nd Airborne Division, despite the famous cadence call of today's title, but I do know I'm going to Bragg, and that I'll be Airborne qualified when I get there. If not the 82nd, Bragg is also home to the 18th Airborne Corps (the echelon above the 82nd) as well as the 3rd Special Forces Group, so it's possible I could be assigned to either of those units as well. 3rd Group -- with its primary responsibility for sub-Saharan Africa -- would without a doubt be a dream assignment in many ways. In general, being assigned in support of the SF is probably the most exciting opportunity available for a soldier of my job and qualifications; more specifically Africa -- and Africans -- hold a certain special place in my heart as well. In any case, it will probably be a matter of a few days or weeks before I find out which specific unit I'm being assigned to at Bragg, but for now I'm already imagining life in North Carolina, and looking forward to it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On Art and its Purpose

One of my college acquaintances just put up a new website of her artwork. Jordan's one of those dear, rare artists who managed to make it through four years of art education apparently without ever losing her silly bourgeois conviction that art is supposed to be beautiful. There are certainly many different levels on which any piece of art can be appreciated, and much great art does evoke a wide range of emotion, but I will never agree with the school of thought that considers art only that which "challenges" the viewer. Whatever happened to simply rejoicing in what beauty is to be found in this all-too-often ugly world of ours? Is it not the artist's craft to use his or her skills to find, translate, and share that beauty with others less naturally inclined to see it for ourselves? I praise God, then, that there are still artists like Jordan illuminating the world for the rest of us.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Great Day

Today I had a great day. And not just me, either; my entire squad and class all had a great day, to the degree that from lunchtime on we were in cringing expectation, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. It hasn't yet.

It's sort of strange, that this excellent day started with a bit of a disappointment. I was awaken a few minutes before my alarm (at 05:10) by the sound of a heavy downpour, courtesy of Tropical Storm Erin. I immediately strained to listen with rather un-soldier-like hope for the sound of thunder, which would herald the cancellation of Physical Training for the morning, but was disappointed to hear only the rain. See, the Army will still do PT in the rain. In any rain. (Once did a PT test in a freezing, blustering, sheeting downpour back in CA. Was awesome.) Lightning, on the other hand, means going back to bed. Sadly, no lightning this morning, so off we trundled to PT formation, where we stood, freezing and soaked. (Sidenote: I always imagined a tropical storm would be warm. Apparently not so.)

For a few minutes there, I thought it was going to be a pretty unpleasant morning, until our First Sergeant took us off for a run in the rain. See, among the cornerstone Army philosophies is "embrace the suck". And boy, did we. It didn't take long to be drenched to the skin, but the running warmed us up, and once you're soaked it doesn't make any difference any more, so you just choose to love it. And we did. After a few miles, we ended up back at the barracks dripping and laughing, and my squad and I headed over to the arms room to pick up our rifles for Weapons Immersion (one part of what I was referring to in this post), only to find that it was canceled the day, on account of M-16s being made of spun sugar, apparently. In any case, we headed off to the schoolhouse, happy not to be burdened with rucksacks, flakvests, helmets, and rifles for our walk back and forth to class.

Our day only got better at the schoolhouse. We took the second-to-last test of our course, which everyone passed, then found out that we would all be released three hours early due to a few classmates having a midafternoon briefing to attend. So, here I am, done with class and staring down a long, glorious afternoon of nothing to do. I can't even feel guilty that I'm not going to the gym to work out, because I've already started tapering off in preparation for my PT test next week. I can only hope that this day -- which we've all taken as karmic balance for the frustration and annoyance of the first four days of this week -- is only the introduction to a wonderfully relaxing weekend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Acceptable Risks and Risks Which Must be Accepted

The Army, along with the rest of American society, is continuing to grow progressively more risk-averse with every passing year. In a military environment, of course, a certain amount of risk must necessarily be accommodated in order to achieve the mission, whether it be in a combat environment or the more controlled context of a training base. Certainly nobody likes the idea of losing soldiers to accidents during training, but there comes a point when obsession with safety in training leads soldiers into more danger on the battlefield, if their coddled training fails to adequately prepare them for real dangers. We've certainly come a long way from our grandparents' generation, when hundreds of soldiers died in what were widely considered successful training exercises in preparation for the D-Day invasions.

I say all this as a sort of pre-musing leading up to some field training exercises I'll be participating in a few weeks from now, and which I rather expect to be something of a dog-and-pony show. I guess we'll find out.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Texas Thoughts, part II

Being a soldier, and thus spending most of my free time socializing with other soldiers and -- more pertinently -- riding in their vehicles, I've had more than my fair share of chances to meet the local constabulary. There's a reason auto insurance companies don't give military discounts, if you follow me. Well, during my year-and-some-change in California, I witnessed several of my friends get pulled over, and was annoyed and really rather disappointed each time by the condescending and disrespectful attitude displayed by the California policemen. Even one bad experience, could make a bad impression, of course, but this was a consistent pattern witnessed over probably four or five encounters. Thanks be to Texas, however, for again renewing my faith in Americans generally, and policemen specifically. Last night I was pulled over and given a warning for speeding, and was really impressed by the officer's courtesy and professionalism, as I was a few weeks ago when a friend was was similarly pulled over. These little interactions really do color one's impression of a place, and Texas has been doing very well in my book. I still wouldn't ever want to live here long-term, but I'll have fond memories of this time, certainly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Building a Field Expedient Air Conditioner

I'm in the Army, stationed in Middle-of-Nowhere, TX. It's pretty hot here. Like, really hot. But apparently not hot enough to keep the administration of this post from trying to pinch pennies by turning down our AC. They couldn't do it by, you know, selling off the 40" plasma-screen TVs that display the menus in our chow halls, or maybe not over-watering the grass until it runs down the streets in rivers (despite being in the middle of one of the wettest summers on record). No, the powers-that-be have decided that soldiers' air-conditioning was the easiest expense to cut out of the budget. Thing is, our rooms have individual controls, much like in a hotel, and it seems (so we deduce) that they've simply turned down the massive central compressor unit itself. See, everyone's AC still runs, it's just not really cooling much anymore. Since there's no air exchange with the outside, our rooms are now barely cooler and considerably more humid, moldy, and stinky than the outside air.

Now, being who I am, I'm not simply complaining. I intend to do something about it, and that something involves the ice machine that sits unheeded in the corner of our laundry room. See, most people haven't even noticed the thing's actually running and constantly full of ice. But I have. I figure I can rig up a bucket of ice dripping melt-water through some tubing on the back of a box fan for less than $20 or so. It ought to provide a decent amount of cooling, but it's the dehumidification I'm really looking for. Hopefully it might take some of the fight out of the mold colony in our AC unit before it declares itself an autonomous theocracy and launches a preemtive strike against us.

So tomorrow I'll probably be running to Lowe's to put together this project. Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

On Perseverance

I apologize for the delay between postings. I'd intended to keep up a relatively regular regimen, but life of course intervenes with trips to Houston and finicky internet connections, inter alia.

This week I finally had the great pleasure and relief to watch, in person, as my commander signed my application to volunteer for Airborne duty. This has been a long and unimaginably frustrating adventure for me, and I am indescribably relieved that it is now over.

I'm sure you're all dying to hear the story. So here goes: I decided back in December that I wanted to volunteer for the Airborne after I saw that my projected assignment put me at Fort Hood, TX, the veritable armpit of the Army. And while, in the Army, you have no control over your assignments as such, there are ways to influence the assignment process. The best is generally to strategically overqualify yourself for an undesired assignment by, for example, going to Airborne school in order to get out of an assignment to a ground unit (since Airborne training obliges the soldier to a minimum 12 months of assignment to an Airborne unit). This was my angle, and I jumped through all the hoops, filled out all the paperwork, and submitted my application back in April, while I was still stationed in California.

Or so I thought. I arrived here in Texas still waiting to hear on my new assignment. After a few more weeks of waiting, I finally asked my supervisor to check on the status of the application, only to find that it had never actually been submitted. It had fallen down the paperwork hole somewhere back in California, so I would have to resubmit it. "No problem," I thought. Think again. When I gave my paperwork to my supervisor, he reported back that my First Sergeant* had set some targets for me to reach on my Physical Training score before he would approve my packet. So I reached them, but in a scenario straight out of Vonnegut, the targets went up as soon as I met them, then went up again, and again. Needless to say, this was a rather frustrating experience.

Last week, I finally met the First Sergeant's targets and submitted my packet for command approval, which was duly given. And now that this whole misadventure is over, I've come to reflect a bit on what I've learned through it.

Firstly, a lesson on leadership: there are few things more demotivating than the perception that a superior's decisions affecting one's future are being made arbitrarily. While struggling to improve my own scores, I talked to other soldiers who had recently had Airborne packets approved with far poorer scores than my own. I felt singled out and persecuted, and I didn't know why. I still don't know why I had to meet targets far higher than what the Airborne school requires. But, while I felt demotivated through the whole process, I never did give up, much as I wanted to.

Which leads us to my second lesson, on perseverance. My experience of perseverance didn't play out like I would have expected from movies and fiction. Real perseverance is not about fighting for your goals and overcoming obstacles through sheer determination; at least, it isn't for me. It's about realizing that giving up hurts nobody but yourself and anyone counting on you. I'm reminded of one of the lessons from Ender's Game: real life is not a game, you can't simply quit because the rules are unfair. Or rather, life is a game, but one in which the rules are often rigged against you and there is no choice but to accept that and try to win anyway. I may have felt like I was being given the runaround when my targets kept changing, but what would I have accomplished by giving up? I would have simply been acquiescing to it. In the end, perseverance is not about "I'm going to do this no matter what it takes," but rather "I've committed far too much to let anyone -- even myself -- take this away from me." It's not glamorous, it plays far less well on a movie screen, but that's life. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

*The First Sergeant is the senior Non-Commissioned Officer of a company, in other words, the ranking enlisted man (or woman) in a unit of around 60-100 soldiers. Generally equivalent to the centurion of a Roman legion in terms of responsibility, comparative rank, and approximate time in service (15-18 years).