Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Heavy D and Fat Robbie visit Ronny

Last weekend saw my final two days of liberty in CONUS (military speak for Continental United States) and two very good friends traveled to Columbia, SC to see me … and eat a few pounds of barbecue: Dave McDonough traveled from Philadelphia and Rob Perkins from D.C.

Dave (a.k.a. Heavy D) is principal at Mastery Charter School in Philly and married to another friend of mine, Mary Ann. We all met during our time in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Dave and Mary Ann swear they never dated as Jesuit volunteers even though they lived together in the same community. I’m not sure I believe that, but I do know this about Dave: The man can grow a full beard in approximately six hours, and if HE went to Afghanistan the respect and admiration for his facial hair alone would likely have him as a tribal leader within two weeks and nationally elected official in three months.

Fat Robbie (a.k.a. Dr. Robert Perkins) is a nephrologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He and his wife, Trish, met when we were at Bryn Mawr College in the Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program. Rob is lucky that Trish began their relationship by accosting him one night on her sister’s sofa, as she is primarily responsible for his admission to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Trish went to Pitt for an “interview” that turned into a recruiting session as the school desperately wanted her as a student. When she informed the interviewer that her fiancé, Robert Perkins, would also have to be admitted for her to consider Pitt, the medical school admissions staff went into a state of panic as it rifled furiously through the stack of applications awaiting rejection letters until it found the paperwork for Rob.

A brief note on Columbia, SC: The city has it charms. Unfortunately, the Confederate Memorial with the Stars and Bars flying in front of the statehouse was not one of them. We also could not justify patronizing one of the most famous barbecue establishments in town as the owner, Maurice, is a notorious Confederate apologist who has caused so much controversy that Walmart will not carry his sauces. We were able to find excellent alternative barbecue establishments, thankfully, and feasted on the mustard-based sauce that is unique to this area and quite nice on pulled pork. We also marveled at the number of streets, highways, buildings, squares, parks, parking garages and gas stations named for the late Senator Strom Thurmond, a man who first won a South Carolina Senate seat as a member of the State’s Rights Party (a title that sounded better than the party mantra: More Power to White People) and then proceeded to stay on Capitol Hill for something like 100+ years. No kidding, we saw a local news report from the Strom Thurmond Wellness Center? The man’s idea of exercise was running black people out of his neighborhood.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Machine Gun Ronny: Part II

I'm having trouble uploading another video that shows me prone firing the 249 machine gun, but hope to have it up soon. The round in the 249 is the same as that shot in the M-16 rifle, but the 249 sustains a much greater rate of fire. (Hence the designation as machine gun.) The gun has a metal loop on the stock which fits atop the shooter’s shoulder to assist in stabilizing the weapon. At the end of the video you will see me trying to extract the loop from a carabineer on my flak jacket, where it hooked when I put the gun into my shoulder. I’m glad I didn’t drag the gun off the firing line with me. Also, you may notice that, after I finish firing, I put my head down before I opened the lid to the feeding tray of the gun. That precaution ensures that I will not be face-down in an explosion if a faulty round in the gun discharges as cool air rushes into the ammunition chamber.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Machine Gun Ronny: Part I

The Army is testing its luck, as today I progressed from firing small arms (a rifle and pistol) to machine guns. I fired four different models. The first, the M2 (affectionately known as the “Mod Deuce”) fires a fifty caliber round and has been used by the US military since WWII. I felt a kinship with The Greatest Generation as I sat down behind the weapon. The rounds are so large that it is illegal to target people with this gun; I shot only 3-5 round bursts with this thing, although it can fire more than 500 rounds per minute. The range of the M2 is almost five miles, but the drill sergeants here adjust the sights so that we fire it only 1-2 miles as last year some Navy personnel got the full five miles from the gun and proceeded to inadvertently “rain lead” on other designed to take out structures. In the video with this post, you will see me attempting to fire five- sailors shooting at another range presumed to be a safe distance away.

The video in the subsequent posting shows me prone firing the 249 machine gun. The round in the 249 is the same as that shot in the M-16 rifle, but the 249 sustains a much greater rate of fire. (Hence the designation as machine gun.) The gun has a metal loop on the stock which fits atop the shooter’s shoulder to assist in stabilizing the weapon. At the end of the video you will see me trying to extract the loop from a carabineer on my flak jacket, where it hooked when I put the gun into my shoulder. I’m glad I didn’t drag the gun off the firing line with me. Also, you may notice that, after I finish firing, I put my head down before I opened the lid to the feeding tray of the gun. That precaution ensures that I will not be face-down in an explosion if a faulty round in the gun discharges as cool air rushes into the ammunition chamber.

I also fired the 240 Bravo, which is the gun found in the turret of Humvees; and the Mark 19 grenade launcher. The round for the Mark 19 is a brass cylinder the size of an eight ounce glass that explodes on impact. In the videos you will see trucks downrange, and those were our targets. I did not hit any myself, but I created a pretty good fireworks show.

I have made friends with several JAG officers (i.e. lawyers), and we all agreed that absolutely no one in the US has a constitutional right to own any of these weapons. Be careful with the volume on these videos. The most shocking aspect of close proximity to these guns is the tremendous noise they produce.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Afghan Ronny: Sharpshooter

Today I qualified as a Navy sharpshooter on the M-16 rifle course. I hit 33/40 pop-up targets at distances ranging 75-300 meters. I might have scored higher and earned the designation of rifle expert, but a few of the targets were dark and set in the shade of the innumerable scrub pine trees here. I did not even see a few of them. Additionally, the range controller, who speaks to the firing lanes from his tower through loudspeakers and controls the safety and flow of the shooting, spoke with a think Southern accent and at times garbled his words worse than Charlie Brown's teacher, leaving many wondering more than a few times exactly where we were to direct our fire.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Field eats

An MRE (the acronym for “Meal Ready to Eat”) is the infamous field sustenance enjoyed by all branches of the Department of Defense. The standard MRE for the past decade or so has been a collection of complementary delicacies packaged individually in heavy brown foil. The entrée – be it beef macaroni or Thai chicken – came with a heating element that, when coupled with water, warmed the main course nicely. After ingenious Marines and soldiers learned to convert the heating elements into small explosive devices, the DoD reduced the capacity of the element until it barely warmed the entrée at all. The resultant lukewarm serving was so unappetizing that many an MRE recipient simply stopped trying to heat the meal’s entrée at all. And today I enjoyed, for the first time, a version of the “cold MRE,” packed as a “Meal Fully Prepared.”

Behold in the photos wrapped and boxed packages of sausage and shrimp jambalaya, pineapple, crackers, jam and an oatmeal cookie. To say that the jambalaya was mediocre would be the equivalent of proclaiming Cajun diction as American standard. The pineapple, crackers and jam were decent. The oatmeal cookie had decent flavor, but the texture and density of compressed particle board. A few standard condiments come with the meal, but this new iteration of the MRE has no Tabasco sauce (unlike its predecessor that features a tiny bottle of the Avery Island concoction in every meal).

The standard MRE contains enough caloric support to maintain a mobile infantryman for a day. The packaged burgers, burritos, potato salads, beans, fruit salads and puddings are packed with fat and carbohydrates and usually a full meal provides up to 5000 calories. The meal was designed so that a person on the move could eat individual portions of the MRE throughout the day, and the plastic and paper packaging of the MRE, that altogether is about the size of a Kleenex box, makes it rugged and mobile.

My experience with MREs in the past is that medical field operations are usually sedentary activities, and that those days called more for observance, evaluation and downright loafing rather than physical exertion; and that the ingestion of 2-3 MREs per day (you usually got handed one for every meal) lead to considerable abdominal sag discovered only after the exercise was complete and I moved to rejoin civilized society by taking off my gun belts and flak jacket and overcoat and found that they were working together to compress and camouflage a burgeoning torso. Although not exactly Nutrisystem, the meal I tolerated today had a much more reasonable caloric load.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A surprise Valentine's Day greeting from Crete, NE!

I felt like a true "traveling soldier" far from home and my family and friends when, on Valentine's Day last week, I received at breakfast this card from Jeovana, an 8th grade student at Crete Middle School in Crete, NE. I wrote her a thank you note and told her I would post a photograph of her greeting on this blog site. Thanks again, Jeovana!

People get very small at 300 meters

Unlike my first experience with the standard military issue pistol (the M-9 Beretta), my first encounter with the M-16 rifle left me feeling good about my gun handling skills. But my visual prowess was questionable that day, as at the 500 meter target I was consistently striking “center mass”… of another rifleman’s target. My concentration was such that I put 5-6 slugs directly in the middle for Lane 25 before I heard the tower announcing “Lane 27, you are shooting at the wrong target.” The young lance corporal firing on 25 thanked me after the exercise, happy that I had improved his score significantly.

That was 2002 in Okinawa, Japan on the US Marine Corps M-16 range at Camp Hansen. The range there had 50 or so firing lanes, and the targets were not numbered but had alternating perimeters of red and white. From the closer distances it was easy enough to count over to your target and then hold your sight steady throughout the firing drill. But at 500 meters, even a slight horizontal movement of the rifle could leave you sighted on a target several lanes away.

The Army range at Fort Jackson, on which I will attempt to “qualify” with my M-16 later this week, is not quite as anxiety provoking. The furthest target is 300 meters, not 500 as on the Marine Corps course; and shooters are spaced more commodiously along the firing line. The 300 meter target is still quite a distance away. I’ve included a photo taken from the gun position. You might be able to see a 300 meter target (which is the size of an average male) with a white spot (how the hell else would you see it?) on Lane 9. A 175 meter target is visible on Lane 12. Having trouble seeing any of those targets? Now you know how I felt most of the day.

The M -16 is a remarkable weapon as with relatively little instruction and practice, a new shooter can gain proficiency with the rifle. You also can easily break the rifle down to its basic elements and then reassemble it in less two minutes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Putting on weight.

Remember the news a few years back of poor or non-existent armor for troops in Iraq? The Department of Defense has ensured that no deployed serviceperson can make that complaint again. Take a look at my 45 lb armored vest. I finally know what the patient having a heart attack means when he says "It feels like an elephant is on my chest." I also have to carry two weapons, an M-16 rifle and an M-9 pistol, EVERYWHERE I go except for the bathroom, and I usually am wearing a helmet, and that makes over 50 lbs of gear. I freely admit that I am at least 25 lbs overweight, and humping (i.e. carrying) all this equipment makes me realize the stress induced by excess weight; and that if I did reduce my personal adipose content that I could develop serious hops and perhaps single-handedly quell the pervasive rumor that white men can't jump.

My witty brother.

My brother Dave had a pretty humorous comment on my last post, reprinted here.

"Seems my big brother's childhood experience with his "official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock" did little for his skills with pistols. Good thing he is now trained on what to do if he shoots his eye out." Dave Willy

Sunday, February 10, 2008

My first experience with a pistol.

I'm at Fort Jackson, SC for "combat skills training," and that means shooting guns. I will be required to carry a pistol, an M-9, with me in Afghanistan. I haven't fired a pistol in seven years, and my first experience with the M-9 was not reassuring to anyone save someone I might be trying to hit. I was the medical officer for 3rd Battalion 12th Marines in Okinawa, Japan, and I decided that I wanted some small arms training. My Colonel loved the fact that I wanted to learn to shoot guns:"Yeah, Doc! We need to get you to the range!" So I find the sergeant charged with weapons training for my battalion and explain to him that I would like to go to the pistol range, but that I have never fired a pistol and need some instruction. Our exchange then went something like this:
"But, you've fired a weapon before, haven't you, sir?"
"No, sergeant. I have never fired a weapon. That's why I'm here. To get instruction and guidance."
"But, sir, you have fired a pistol before, right, sir?"
"No, sergeant, I have never before fired a pistol. So I thought that I would come here, to you, for instruction as I am assigned to the range next week."
"But, sir..."

I never got any instruction before the morning that I reported to the pistol firing range at 05:30 with my weapon. It was dark, but I found my sergeant and said "Sergeant, I think it's time you told me how to operate this thing."
"Sure, sir," he replied. "Now, you've fired a pistol before, right, sir?"

The range had about 30 positions on the firing line, not quite shoulder-to-shoulder but spaced tightly. A Marine in a tower behind the posts began barking instructions unintelligible to me, but with apparent meaning to my brothers-in-arms as they all assumed a position on the line. Anticipating confusion, I earlier had told a gunnery sergeant from my battalion that I really had no idea what was going on, and could I follow him and mimic his every action. He laughed and said "Sure, sir. No problem. First time on the range, huh? But don't worry, sir. You've fired a pistol before, haven't you, sir?"

The one piece of advice I remembered from the three minutes of training I received that morning was this: Begin your pull on the trigger of the pistol as you raise it to the target, as once you are aligned and ready to fire the decreased excursion remaining on the trigger will increase your speed of fire and accuracy. So I stood looking at the gunnery sergeant next to me and listening to more loud, unintelligible orders from the range tower; and when I saw gunny raise his pistol and begin firing, I looked downrange at my target and began pulling the trigger of my pistol and proceeded to put 20-25 rounds of ammunition into the gravel directly in front of my feet and the feet of the Marines on either side of me. My assault on this loose rock prompted my neighbors to stop firing their weapons and jump back off the firing line and away from the small meteor shower I was creating. The range safety officers took note, and ran to my position yelling "Sir, stop firing! Stop firing!"

I did stop firing, but I still cannot recall with clarity if I consciously ceased or if my ammunition clip simply went empty. All I remember is protesting, as I swung my pistol around like a drunken burglar, that I never got any instruction and didn't know what the hell I was doing. The safety officers calmed me but remained nervous themselves until they got me to holster my pistol. Then one of them removed the pistol himself, checked to ensure the chamber was clear of rounds, and holstered it again against my hip. One of the safety officers then noted my collar devices that identified me as a medical officer. He whispered something to his partner before asking me "Sir, did you receive any training before you came to the range?"

The remainder of the morning saw me firing nervously and wildly, but with enthusiasm, at my target downrange. And when we stripped our target sheets at the end of the exercise, my score designated me as "sharpshooter." I had no idea how I achieved that distinction, as I remember creating several small dust storms in the soil bank behind my target when I missed the board entirely. Later, though, the gunny next to me reported "Sir, I had some extra rounds, so I put a few in the middle for you."

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A word on living accomodations at Camp McCrady, Fort Jackson, SC

The quarters are not quite as spartan as I had imagined they would be. I occupy the bottom of a bunk, with no one atop and a desk and locker to myself. There are 18 bunks and only officers reside here, and so far no one is two-to-a-bunk. I’m sure the enlisted have less space. The bldg has wireless connection, which is a relief. You can see me sitting here blogging in the photo to the right.

The base itself is a bit spartan – like the army razed large rectangles of pine and erected huts in the spaces. A wire fence, and ever-present scrub pine, separate us from residences across the street. But the chow hall and a small PX are an easy walk, and today the weather was sunny and around 65-70 degrees. Let’s hope it holds out.

It begins with a night flight to South Carolina

I flew last night from North Island Naval Air Station San Diego to Columbia, SC and then proceeded by bus to Ft. Jackson, Camp McCrady to begin deployemnt training. The flight left ON TIME at 18:30, and we flew at 40,000 ft to SC in 3.5 hours. I was amazed at the speed of the flight. I’m not sure if the tailwind was excellent, or if we got a special military flight path, or both. We definitely were higher than typical civilian flights. The plane was a C-40A, just like a civilian 737. Comfortable. I was in the aisle with no one next to me. More legroom than my last flight in American Airlines coach class.
A Digression to Memories of Military Flights Past
Even though I have been on active duty for nearly nine years, that was my first military transport flight. I have flown in Navy planes before, but only for amusement purposes. In medical school, I spent four weeks at the Navy flight school in Milton, FL, just outside Pensacola. Officially, I was there to assist the aerospace medical officers in the clinic, but in reality I spent half of each day flying as a “backseater” with a flight instructor in the front of a T-34 trainer single-propeller aircraft. It was a small plane, but powerful and able to pull approximately 4 Gs – which was plenty for me. A typical flight had the pilot gain 10,000 feet of altitude where he would pass control of the craft to me (“You have the stick, Doc." "I have the stick, sir.”) The pilot then waited the 20-30 seconds it took for the plane to go careening wildly, when he would reassume control (“I’ve got the stick, Doc." "Yes, please take the stick, sir!”) and level the plane immediately, only to return control to me to begin the whole vaudeville routine anew.

One afternoon at Milton I decided that a helicopter deserved me in the pilot’s seat, but that experience ended abruptly when, only 100 feet off the ground, I put the bird in a relentless counter-clockwise rotation that I could not reverse, even under direct instruction from the pilot seated next to me. The day could produce nothing as terrifying as that episode, I remember thinking to myself, until the pilot, who now had wrested from me and continually maintained control of the helo, announced after a bit of airborne sightseeing that we were going to “auto-rotate” to the ground. I was sorry that I casually asked for a definition of auto-rotate as I learned it is a maneuver in which the pilot cuts all engine power and glides in a controlled manner to the ground. Apparently this is a standard training evolution. All I remember is skidding very fast over slick grass for what seemed to be hundreds of yards.