Tuesday, September 30, 2008

“In a Time of War” by Bill Murphy Jr. – A Must Read for All Citizens

I have just completed Bill Murphy’s moving book, “In a Time of War – The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point’s Class of 2002.” The book is both gut-wrenching and heart-rending, yet it also leaves the reader inspired and proud of the young men and women who left West Point in the summer of 2002 to answer the call to fight the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The title of the book is drawn from the speech that President Bush gave to the West Point Class of 2002 as they graduated and were commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Army. I was in the audience that summer day and heard him utter those words. I also have personal relationships with several dozens members of the West Point Class of 2002, so for me the book was particularly poignant. I have followed several of these soldiers through their multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. This book added to the depth of my understanding of the challenges they have faced as they lived and fought, sweated and bled, in those far off places.

Bill Murphy describes himself, in essence, as someone who has served in the military (as an Army Reserve officer), but without great distinction. He has, without question, distinguished himself in his ability to grasp the essence of the West Point experience for a representative sampling of graduates of the Class of 2002, and to bring the reader inside their lives as they took their West Point training and became officers serving our nation in a time of war.

“This, for Todd [Bryant], was the essence of West Point. ‘Duty, honor, country’ was the academy’s motto, and everyone talked constantly about honor and commitment, loyalty and patriotism. All that was true and good, but stripped of its pomp and circumstance, the place was really about love. Love of your country, love of your classmates and friends, and love of the future officers you’d someday serve with. Most of all, West Point was about learning to love the soldiers you would someday lead, the privates and sergeants, knuckleheads and heroes alike, who might, just once, in a life-justifying moment, look to you for leadership in some great battle on a distant shore.” (Pages 11-12)

I have never read a more concise or accurate summation of the West Point ethos as I have come to understand it through the eyes of my many friends who proudly stand as part of the Long Gray Line.
These newly-minted lieutenants faced the classic dilemma of what kind of leader to be, deciding where their ultimate loyal should lie:

“A new lieutenant had to choose between two leadership styles. He was obliged to follow his commander’s orders, of course. But he also had to decide whether, at his core, he was going to be his platoon’s envoy to the higher brass, or the higher brass’s man embedded with the soldiers. Todd chose the former style, and most of his soldiers considered him one of them. He was their guy, advocating on their behalf to the people making the decisions that controlled their lives.” (Page 117)

Along the same lines, Murphy does a nice job of painting a clear picture of the complex relationships that exist in an Army aviation unit among the three types of personnel found there:

“The majority of their soldiers were warrant officers, pilots with college degrees and ten or more years in the Army. Most important, they had many thousands of hours of flight time under their belts. Although he’s been out of West Point for almost two years, this was Tim’s [Mosier] first real opportunity to lead other soldiers, and he got off to a rough start. One day early on, they went to the rifle range for an annual qualification on M-16 rifles. Tim was nervous. He started checking his soldier’s canteens to make sure they were full, as if he were still a West Point firstie looking out for a platoon of clueless plebes. He reached out to grab the canteen belonging to one of the most experienced aviators, a chief warrant officer with eighteen years in the Army. The chief turned away with his mouth open, shocked that some brand-new lieutenant had the gall to touch him.
Another of his pilots realized that Tim was making the classic new lieutenant’s mistake, letting his anxiousness get the best of him.  ‘Your enlisted soldiers need leadership,’ the pilot told Tim. ‘Your warrant officers need information.’ Tim didn’t need to be told twice.” (Pages 177-178)

Tricia LeRoux Birdsall followed her mother into the military. The journal she kept while serving in Iraq gives a rare look inside the mind, the perspective and the world view of one serving in the “sand box”:
“In one of the last entries in her war journal, Tricia wrote: ‘It is such a great feeling to see an end in sight. There are very few things that I will miss about this place, but there are several things I can’t wait for once we leave.

I can’t wait to . ..
Fall asleep at night and not wonder if I’ll make it through the night;
Go through an entire day and not worry about whether or not my husband is safe;
Hear a door slam and not jump because it sounds like an explosion;
Not have a radio next to me at night;
Fall asleep in my husband’s arms and know it is not a dream and that we are really at home;
Not have nightmares about what I’ve seen here;
Grieve for those we’ve lost;
Celebrate our return;
Not be afraid anymore;
Carry a purse instead of my machine gun;
Wear anything other than desert colored uniforms;
Be truly happy away from here with my husband for the rest of my life.”
(Pages 244-245)

This book is tough to read, because not all the endings are happy endings; not all the main characters of this true life drama are able to experience living “happily ever after.” Yet this is a book that needs to be read by as wide an audience as possible. For those who have served and for their families, the book offers understanding and catharsis. For those of us who have not served in the military, it is instructive and challenging.

“Jimmy Mitchell returned to Fort Stewart a few days later, escorted by another soldier from the unit. ‘Mrs. Tucker, you should have seen Will.’ the other soldier told Sallie when she visited. ‘He was covered in blood from head to toe. It was awful.’

He paused, as if asking permission to tell her more. This was what a psychiatric nurse did for a living, counsel people; but never did Sallie’s work get this personal. That little detail – her husband, covered in someone else’s blood – hadn’t been part of her mental picture before. And as hard as it was to hear the details, she wanted to know. She needed the connection, needed as much understanding as she could get about what her Will and his soldiers were going through.
She let the soldier go on, taking in the whole account, even though every instinct of self-preservation told her to cover her ears and run from the room.
No, she told herself. Listen to the story.” (Pages 276-277)

Bill Murphy has done a masterful job of listening to many stories and weaving them together into a compelling narrative that is a tapestry of the lives of the West Point Class of 2002 living and dying in a time of war. The book is apolitical. The closest that Murphy comes to making a political statement about the war is when he quotes from a speech by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell:

“What we’re worried the most about is our best and brightest young officers – I’m speaking of our West Point graduates – who are resigning at extremely high rates when their duty is done. Now let me emphasize that their duty is indeed done. In fact, it is done and then some, so I don’t blame them. . . We have to recognize that we have a group of young officers in particular who are carrying the lion’s share of the hardship with this war and an unsustainable deployment schedule. For good reason, they’re saying, ‘Okay, I signed up to serve my country and have made enormous personal sacrifices, but other people need to step up to the plate as well.’” (Page 305)

I invite you to step up to the plate by reading this book and by giving away multiple copies – and by making yourself available to hear the stories of those who have fought.

West Point is about love. This book is about love – and loss.

Listen to the story.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

On 9/11, Remembering Our Soldiers - The Floral Flag


Between the fields where the flag is planted, there are 9+ miles of flower fields that go all the way to the ocean. The flowers are grown by seed companies. It's a beautiful place, close to Vandenberg AFB. Check out the dimensions of the flag. The Floral Flag is 740 feet long and 390 feet wide and maintains the proper Flag dimensions, as described in Executive Order #10834. This Flag is 6.65 acres and is the first Floral Flag to be planted with 5 pointed Stars, comprised of White Lark spur. Each Star is 24 feet in diameter; each Stripe is 30 feet wide. This Flag is estimated to contain more than 400,000 Larkspur plants, with 4-5 flower stems each, for a total of more than 2 million flowers.

For our soldiers....

Please stop for a moment and say a prayer for our servicemen.

Thanks to my friend, Rasul, for making me aware of this fitting floral tribute to the men and women who have served and who continue to serve.


Remembering 9/11 Seven Years Later - Some Personal Reflections

I was visiting my son, Ti, and my daughter-in-law, Raluca, in her home town of Craiova, Romania. Ti and I were engrossed in playing a computer game, and Raluca and her mother were watching TV in the next room. With urgency in her voice, Ralu asked us to quickly come to see what was unfolding on the television screen. "Something is happening at the World Trade Center." She recognized the venue, because just a few days before, Ti had taken her there for a visit just before they had flown back to Romania out of New York's JFK International Airport.

We spent the next several hours in front of the TV, trying to make sense out of - using the words of NYC mayor Bloomberg - "the day our world was broken." I recall the flood of emotions and reactions that flowed over the next few days.

  • I remember my anger that evening at a restaurant when someone suggested that "the Jews" must have instigated the attacks on the World Trade Center.

  • I remember wondering when I would be able to get home in light of all air travel in the U.S. having been suspended.

  • I remember continuing my journey and flying into Moscow's Scheremetyevo Airport and being greeted by a half dozen Russian friends. They said, in essence: "You country is now at war, and it may be a long while before you are able to return home. You are welcome to stay with us as long as you need to stay."

  • I remember the next night being taken to a club in the center of Moscow. A Russian punk rock band was playing. They learned that I was in the audience, and during a break between songs, they addressed the crowd: "We have here tonight an American, whose country has just been attacked. We dedicate this next song to our American brothers and sisters and we stand with them in this time of turmoil." How poignant in light of the renewed Cold War-like tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
  • I remember learning that my flight from Moscow to JFK would be among the first flights allowed to fly into the U.S. from Europe on 9/16. Our flight path arriving in NYC the next morning took us almost directly over the smoldering hole that had come to be known as "Ground Zero."

  • I remember spending the day at JFK waiting for Delta Airlines to find out if Logan Airport would be re-opened that day. Later that night, one flight was allowed to leave JFK for BOS. From my window seat on departure, I was able to see the floodlights illuminating the pit where the hundreds of rescue workers and recovery workers continued to dig among the rubble of the Twin Towers.

A few minutes ago, I received an e-mail from the family of Robert Seidel, a West Point graduate who died in Iraq. I share with you the Seidel family's message and request:

"On this solemn day, let us pause for a moment to remember all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this War on Terrorism. Please take a moment to thank our Soldiers, Police and Firefighters who continue to put their lives on the line to ensure our American way of life.


Bob, Sandy & Stephen"

May we never forget.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Review of “In Search of the Warrior Spirit” by Richard Strozzi-Heckler

Much of my reading these days is influenced by friends and family members who say to me: “You really need to read this book!” Thus, I was led to a book I would not have otherwise been aware of. Richard Strozzi, a former Marine and a black belt instructor in the martial art, aikido, has chronicled his 20-year pilgrimage of helping the US Special Forces to integrate into their training the insights of Eastern thought in general and aikido in particular. He subtitle for the book is: “Teaching Awareness Disciples to the Military.”

I found the book fascinating as Strozzi describes in great detail the pilot project he was asked to conduct for the Green Berets, dubbed “The Trojan Warrior Project.” The concept that Strozzi and his team mates taught initially met with great skepticism all up and down the chain of command, yet twenty years later can be found as an integral part of Special Forces training in all the U.S. branches and among NATO nations.

To give you a flavor of the task that Strozzi described, I will share a brief quotation.

He describes the distrust and animosity that originally existed between the martial arts world and the world of the U.S. military. Strozzi quotes the reaction of one of his aikido colleagues upon learning of the author’s plans to help the military:

“‘How could you pass these sacred teaching to Them?’

Us and Them. Here was a caste system of which I hadn’t been consciously aware. In my mind the soldiers were not them. Teaching the disciplines that have most positively affected me, to a population that seemed most obviously in need of them, was an obvious outgrowth of my work. Obvious to me if not to others. Although I knew I would get a reaction from being part of this project, I thought it would be entirely different from the Us/Them scenario.” (Page 4)

Strozzi goes on to tell the story of how both he and the soldiers his team members were training learned to adjust to one another’s very different views of the world and of what it truly means to be a warrior. The edition of the book that I read brings up almost up to the present day in recording how the concepts and the project have spread beyond the initial limited “Trojan War Project” to now include influencing the training given to the navy Seals, US Marines and other allied special forces.

This is a book that will be a valuable read for anyone interested in exploring what it takes to be a warrior who is fully human and self-aware. You may not agree with all that Strozzi believes and preaches, but you will have a hard time putting the book down.


Sometimes It Is about More than the Final Score – Red Sox Nation Reaches Out to the Taylor Family

I remember wincing when I heard about the medivac helicopters that crashed a few weeks ago near the Grand Canyon. Little did I know there was a Red Sox connection. In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Stan Grossfeld chronicles the moving saga of the Taylor family’s visit to Fenway Park in memory of James W. Taylor. Taylor was a Life Flight nurse and former Army Reserve officer. He perished as a result of the injuries he received in the helicopter crash. It appeared that when he died, a promise he had made would also die. He had told his three young sons he would take them to Fenway Park this summer to see their beloved Red Sox. Grossfeld’s story, linked below, tells what happened when members of Red Sox Nation learned of the family’s situation.

A Promise Kept

Reading this story makes me proud to call myself a Red Sox fan. Fans and players united in a moving way to turn tragedy into a life long memory.