Sunday, December 28, 2014

First grenades of autumn

I held the grenade tight to my chest.

“Thumb clip,” the instructor said behind me.

“Thumb clip.”  With my left thumb I popped the safety clip off the lever of the grenade.  The clip fell to the ground as my left hand swung to my side.  All that held the lever in place against the grenade body was my right thumb.

We’d practiced the routine dozens of times, mimicking the arm movements as a group while standing in loose formation.  Now, alone with an instructor in a concrete shelter, I held the real thing.

The instructors feared this part of the course.  A lot can go wrong when teaching new Marines to throw grenades.  Our platoon commander here, a stocky barrel-chested Staff Sergeant, had learned that the hard way.

Our platoon commander, you see, had only half an ass.  The other half had been blown off some months before on this very range.  A Marine had fumbled after arming his grenade and dropped it on the ground.  The SSgt tackled the Marine over a short berm and covered him with his body.  The ensuing explosion ripped off his left butt cheek, the only part of him protruding above the berm.  The Marine, safely smooshed under the SSgt’s massive hulk, was unharmed.

“Twist-pull pin,” the instructor said.

“Twist-pull pin.”  With my left hand I pulled the pin from the top of the grenade.  It was now armed.

With a 5 meter kill radius and 15 meter casualty radius, a frag grenade is a deadly thing.  Once I released the lever we’d have a few seconds before the grenade exploded, sending hot steel fragments in all directions.  If I didn’t screw up—if I threw the grenade where I was supposed to—this time no humans would be caught in that cloud of death.

A two meter earthen berm stood to my left.  Beyond that a metal pole covered in chipped white paint stood amid a field of shallow craters.  That pole was the target.

Finally the command came.  “Fire!”

“Frag out!”  I flung my right arm above my head, tossing the grenade laterally over the berm, and then ducked.  After a pause a sharp explosion sent a shockwave through my chest.  I had survived my first explosion in the Marine Corps.

“Good job,” the instructor said.

I walked away and the next Marine was called up.

For the past few days we’d been mucking around the forests and swamps of eastern North Carolina, firing weapons, digging holes, practicing small unit tactics, and generally being miserable.  This was Marine Combat Training at the School of Infantry at Camp Geiger.

We learned some combat skills in boot camp—martial arts, bayonet fighting, hand signals, combat movement, and lots of shooting with the M16.  At MCT we would go beyond that and learn the basic skills of a rifleman.

In an intensive month in the field we’d fire a host of weapons—M240G machine gun, M249 squad automatic weapon, M203 grenade launcher and, of course, grenades.  We also learned to use Claymore mines and AT4 rocket launchers.

The most distinctive thing about MCT, though, was that no one wanted to be there.  To us new Marines MCT had some of the physical misery of boot camp, but without the motivation and sense of purpose.  We also lacked our godlike Drill Instructors.

Boot camp was over.  This was infantry school.  Even worse, it was infantry school for non-infantry Marines.  We were the second string, the lower priority.  The best infantry instructors teach infantry Marines.  I don’t know how they select instructors for MCT.  I imagine it’s forced on underperforming second term Marines as a punishment.

However they were chosen, our instructors wanted to be there less than we did.  We could graduate and leave, after all, but they were doomed to repeat the course over and over again.

We had six instructors, in addition to our half-exploded platoon commander.  The senior one, my squad leader, was a lanky Sergeant from Ohio with big glasses and a push-broom mustache.  He had some leave coming up and bragged that he was going to go “grind up on some girls” back in his hometown after our course was over.  He enjoyed pointing out that we, on the other hand, would be stuck at our next training commands.

Another instructor, also a Sgt, hated us for making him miss the war.  His battalion had gone to invade Iraq just weeks after he got assigned to teach MCT.  Now he was here while his best friends suffered without him and performed the jobs they had trained together to do.  He took it out on us.  He’d snap if we asked him dumb questions, and made sure to wake us up at 3 AM to stand in formation out in the cold until five or six when training started.

Then there was a small Polish immigrant Corporal who replaced her Ws with Vs.  She was reasonable but every once in a while would scream at us.

“Vat vere you thinking?!  Pick that veapon up off the ground!"

Another Cpl got promoted to Sgt while we were there.  He was tall and chubby.  He used to be a marathon runner but an injury kept him from working out and ruined his body.  No longer able to perform in an infantry battalion, he ended up here.

The most junior instructor, a short freckled red haired Cpl, assured us that yes, we were indeed miserable, and no, it would not get better.  When someone mentioned looking forward to life after MCT he offered us his wisdom.

“This is what life in the Marine Corps is like.  My first two years in the Marines were the worst of my life.  After that I started to get used to it.”

Finally, there was a fat Corporal—another injury case—who thought he was too smart for the Marines.  His sister worked at a Papa John’s out in Jacksonville and when we weren’t in the field he’d allow us to order pizzas from her—at the low, low cost of $20 a pie, payable only in cash.  With a whole platoon of exhausted, hungry Marines, I’m sure it was a lucrative trade for the siblings.

The fat Corporal was on duty when I first arrived.  It was hard coming back after my boot leave.  The summer was over and my reunion with my family had been brief.  I flew in my Alphas—a drab formal uniform, equivalent to a suit, that you wear to check into a new command.  I met some boot camp friends at the airport in Jacksonville and drove to Camp Geiger.  We checked in and marched in a group to the barracks.

The waiting Cpl checked us in.  We stood in line and one by one the Marines told him their names and he added them to his list.  Occasionally he asked for a spelling.  Then it was my turn.

“Name,” he said, without looking up.

“Helms.  H-E-L-M-S.”

He looked at me.  "Don’t tell me how to spell.  I bet I got a higher ASVAB score than you did."

I stared back at him.  “No, Corporal.”

He was taken aback.  “What’d you get?”

“99.”

 “It’s good to be the best, ain’t it?” he asked.

“Yes, Corporal.”

Boldness usually pays off in the Marine Corps, if you can back it up.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Veteran scientist #13, Georges Lemaître

Georges Lemaître (1894-1966)

Belgian Army artillery officer 1914-1918.  Mathematician, priest and astronomer.


Georges Lemaître is best known for proposing the Big Bang theory.  But he was also a decorated combat veteran.

Lemaître was an engineering student in college when World War I broke out.  He left his studies to volunteer for the Belgian Army.  He served as an artillery officer throughout the war and earned the Belgian Croix de Guerre with palms for his conduct.

After the war Lemaître finished college and then got a doctorate in mathematics.  He then went to seminary and three years later became a Catholic priest.

But then Lemaître changed interests yet again and decided to become an astronomer.  He studied first at Cambridge and then moved to MIT.  After working for a while at the Harvard College Observatory he returned to Belgium to teach while he finished his PhD.

In 1927, in yet another example of veteran grad students doing world changing science, Lemaître published a paper that proposed the universe was expanding.  At the time, most people thought of the universe as static and unchanging.  In this paper Lemaître not only proposed the opposite, but also provided an early version of Hubble’s Law—named after another veteran scientist, Edwin Hubble—which describes the relationship between a galaxy’s distance from earth and its relative velocity.

Two years later Hubble, working in California, verified Lemaître’s ideas by observing that galaxies were moving away from each other in the predicted pattern.

Meanwhile, now a professor back in Belgium, Lemaître further developed his model of an expanding universe by pushing it backwards in time.  In 1931 he published a paper in Nature proposing that the universe began as an initial point, which he called the “Primeval Atom.”  The universe expanded from this point in a process described as “the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of creation.”

Future generations would come to call this idea the Big Bang Theory after it was given the nickname in 1949.  Observations in the second half of the 20th century verified some of Lemaître’s predictions and provided strong support for the theory, cementing its place in our understanding of the universe.

Lemaître quickly became one of Belgium’s most famous scientists.  In 1934 he was awarded Belgium’s highest scientific award—the Francqui Prize—by King Léopold III.  In 1936 he was elected to the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which he later became president.  In 1941 he became a member of Belgium’s Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts.  Finally, in 1953 he became the first recipient of the Royal Astronomical Society’s Eddington Medal.

In his later career Lemaître continued to combine his talents for math and astronomy by developing new mathematical approaches to cosmological problems.  He also delved into computer programming and pioneered the use of computers in astronomy.  Throughout it all Lemaître continued to serve as a priest, and in 1960 Pope John XXIII promoted him to prelate.

In a world where people often feel the need to specialize, Lemaître showed that diversity is a strength.  He drew on his interests in engineering, math, theology, astronomy, and a strong military and combat background, to address the most fundamental scientific question—the origin of everything.  His work changed our view of the universe and our place in it, and became one of the most widely recognized scientific ideas in history.

I suppose Big Bang is an appropriate name for an idea coming from an artilleryman.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Free at last...

Boot camp did eventually end.  Those thirteen weeks, although formative, were only a small part of my five year contract.  Each day of mind games, punishment and inspections brought us closer to graduation.

Family Day came the Thursday after Sergeant Crum caught me locked in the broom closet.  It was September 11, 2003.  Our families were allowed to visit and we’d be given a few hours of liberty to show them around base.  More important to us, that was also the day we’d become Marines.

We started the day with a four mile moto run.  Unlike other runs in boot camp, this was supposed to be fun.  We were celebrating our impending graduation.  Our company ran by the other recruit battalions on base.  At each barracks one of our recruits would fall out of formation to bang a giant hanging bell to announce our passing.  Some family members watched from the sidewalks.

The sight of the families invigorated us.  The outside world still existed and the lives we left behind three months ago were catching up with us.  Back at the barracks we showered and prepared our uniforms for the big event—the ceremony where we would officially become Marines.

Our company marched onto the concrete parade deck.  We’d spent countless hours here marching, doing rifle drill and, in the past few days, practicing for this ceremony.  This time it was different.  The platoon was the same.  The hot sun was the same.  The DIs’ rhythmic cadences the same.  But now music blared over the loudspeakers and an audience filled the stands.

You can’t turn your head in formation so I scanned the stands with my peripheral vision, trying to find my family.  I wasn’t sure they’d be there.  The only contact I’d had with them was through letters.

We came to a halt facing the audience.  Someone gave a speech that I don’t remember.  I looked straight ahead, looking for my family in the section in front of my platoon.  No one.

Then the big moment came.  Our DIs walked down the columns of our platoon.  Sgt Crum had my squad.  Another Marine walked behind him, carrying an open box.  I couldn’t see him but I sensed Sgt Crum to my right, getting closer, stopping at each recruit along the way.

Sgt Crum stopped in front of me and looked me in the eye.  I put out my right hand.  He took a small black Marine Corps emblem—an Eagle, Globe and Anchor—out of the box to his left and placed it in my hand.

“Congratulations, Marine.”

He walked on to the next recruit.  I took off my cover, screwed the EGA into its place on the front left, and put it back onto my head.  I finally had the title I’d worked and suffered for.


After thirteen weeks we emerged from boot camp as a platoon of Marines

The ceremony ended, we fell out of formation and families rushed onto the parade deck.  I found mine after a short search.


For the next few hours I tried to introduce them to my life on Parris Island.  I gave them a tour of the squad bay.  I showed them my perfectly made rack.  The bed seemed small.  The squad bay had been my universe.  But now it was just a room.  My rack was a tiny bed with a shitty green blanket, and my foot locker, where I stored my whole life, just a wooden box.

Some recruits introduced their families to the DIs, who talked to the parents like normal people.  They even shook hands!

It felt strange, but I figured I’d introduce my girlfriend to Staff Sergeant Whitehead.  Our terrifying kill hat had become a jolly uncle, and he looked at me and smiled.  Then he turned to my girlfriend.

“You need to look out for Helms.  Normally I tell my Marines to take care of their girlfriends.  But in your case, I think you should take care of him.”

She laughed.  I don’t think she or my family knew what to expect coming here.  She’d heard the horror stories in my letters.  But SSgt Whitehead and the other DIs were careful on this day to display their human side, to show the parents that they were people—teachers—and that everything they do is for a reason.

My family and I went to a restaurant and I told stories on the way.  Walking down the street, we passed two Marines going the opposite direction.  A few meters later a Gunny I had never met stopped me.

“Hey, Marine, do you know who that was you just walked by?”

“No, sir.”  I should’ve called him ‘Gunnery Sergeant.’  I was a Marine, not a recruit.

“That was the Battalion Commander and another officer.  Do you know what you should’ve done?”

“I should’ve saluted and said ‘Good afternoon, gentlemen.’”

“That’s right.  How about you do that?”

I turned around, saluted the two backs in the distance, and gave the appropriate greeting.

“Oorah, Marine.”  The Gunny patted me on the shoulder and turned to my family.  “We never stop training here on Parris Island.”

It was the first time I’d had to salute as a Marine and I screwed it up, with my family there to witness it.

After dinner my family went back to their hotel and I returned to the squad bay.  Sgt Crum had us that night.  He congratulated us on becoming Marines, and thereby his brothers.

“Who cried when they got their EGA?  I did when I got mine.”

A few recruits raised their hands.  He also reminded us that boot camp is just the beginning of life as a Marine.  We had a long way to go.

“I wouldn’t want any of you in my platoon out in the Fleet.  You’re young and you don’t know anything.  You haven’t gone to infantry school, and you haven’t deployed.”

He asked the platoon which Marines had hot girlfriends come to the ceremony.

“Helms, sir!” someone shouted.

“Really?”  Sgt Crum shot me a look of disbelief, eyebrow raised.  “How’d that happen?”

The next day we had another ceremony on the parade deck.  More sun.  More speeches.  At the end we sang the Marine Corps Hymn.  Our platoon had been practicing every night before lights out.  We shouted the lyrics, emphasizing the last line.

“We are proud to claim the title of United States Marine!”

As soon as the lyrics ended we screamed “Oorah” and fell out.

I was free.  Well, as free as you can get in the Marines.  I had ten days of leave.  I could eat what I wanted, sleep in, ride in cars, see my family.  I didn’t have to carry a rifle everywhere or walk in formation or wake up every morning to a screaming drill instructor.

We stopped in Myrtle Beach for a couple days on the drive home.  I changed into civilian clothes.  I swam in the ocean I’d stared at for a whole summer but never entered.  One evening a man on the street asked about boot camp and congratulated me on becoming a Marine, before disappearing into a club.  When he walked away my family told me he was a famous country singer.

Back in Elyria I visited my old teachers and friends.  Nothing had changed.  My friends had either gone off to college or were still doing the same things they were doing when I left them in the spring.  Life was slow.  I had undergone a transformation.  I had a new identity, new skills, and had just entered a new phase of life.  I didn’t fit.  I had long fantasized about returning home as a Marine.  But home was no longer home.

The ten days burned by and it was time to leave again.  I had to report for combat training in North Carolina.  It finally sunk in that my life in Elyria, Ohio was over.  Those months of separation, of being out of touch, were not.  Being a Marine meant being away.

Yet again I found myself in the airport after a tearful farewell to my family.  I went through security and I was alone.  The prospect of returning to the Marines terrified me.  I had survived boot camp, but the weight of the next few years overwhelmed me.  Three months down, only four years and nine months to go...  A feeling of dread sank in my stomach.

After a couple years I’d get used to these transitions—the mixture of sadness and anxiety.  I’d eventually learn to make my home wherever I was, among the people I found myself.  But right then, my first time coming back from leave, I was new to the game and it stung.

But I had learned a lot over the summer and I was prepared for whatever came next.  Boot camp was the first decision I made as a free adult.  It was the first time I ever took my fate into my own hands, thought about what I wanted, made an unconventional decision and stuck with it.

Among other things, I learned that seemingly impossible tasks are doable if you take them bit by bit, work on them every day, and don’t let misery get you down.

Five more years in the Marines was one such impossible task, and I mentally prepared myself for the challenge.  I boarded the plane and flew to my next adventure.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Veteran scientist #12, Julius Richard Petri

Julius Richard Petri (1852-1921)

German Army physician 1876-1882.  Microbiologist, bacteriologist and physician.


Julius Petri, best known for his eponymous dish, was also a German military doctor.  After graduating from the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy for Military Physicians he served on active duty from 1876 to 1882.

For part of this time, from 1877 to 1879, he was assigned to a research position in Berlin, where another military doctor—Robert Koch—was doing groundbreaking work on Anthrax.  This mysterious affliction had been sweeping through Germany’s livestock, and Koch worked to prove that it was caused by a bacterium.  Koch started his career by serving in the Franco-Prussian War and would later earn a name for himself as one of the founders of the germ theory of disease.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 1905 for similar research on tuberculosis.

Here in Berlin in the late 1870s, Petri met Koch and became an assistant in his lab.  For his disease research Koch was trying to develop new ways to culture bacteria.  People of the time grew bacteria in liquid broths.  But that was a messy method and it was difficult to isolate or manipulate individual strains when all the cells just floated around in a stew.  Koch needed a way to grow bacteria on a solid surface.

A few years after Petri left Koch’s lab, and the military, he hit on a solution—the device now known around the world as the “Petri dish.”  Bacteria could be grown on an agar gel at the bottom of a shallow dish, and a simple lid would keep the plate from being contaminated by airborne microbes.

Petri took it a step further.  He invented sterile methods for plating small numbers of cells, allowing scientists to track individual bacterial clones.

Today Petri dishes are a staple of lab science in all fields.  They aren’t just used for microbiology, but are handy for containing small animals and in almost any type of microscope work.  In my own research I use Petri dishes on a daily basis, whether I’m dissecting ant queens from Panama, corralling live fire ants in Florida, sorting leaf litter animals from rainforests in Guyana, or picking through the slimy gut contents of purple martins in Oklahoma.  We all have reasons to be grateful to Julius Petri.

After leaving the military Petri continued to work in the medical field for the rest of his career, doing research in bacteriology, disease and hygiene.  For those of us who work in a lab, we’ve got something new to think about every time we use one of those inconspicuous little dishes.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The end of art

It was an evening shortly after the Crucible, during our square away time.  The platoon sat on their foot lockers, adjusted their gear, read letters.  I sat on the floor of the supply closet putting the finishing touches on our Senior Drill Instructor’s hat plaque.

When it was finished I sent Santos, the assistant artist recruit, to tell SSgt Wooten the good news.  I waited in the closet for SDI to come get the finished product and show it off to the platoon.

A hat plaque is a flat wooden oval with a broad raised lip around the bottom, and is meant to be mounted on a wall.  A DI can hang their round campaign cover on it by slipping the rim of the cover into the lip.  Their large brims make it awkward to hang them any other way.  DIs often decorate the back board of the plaque, and write their names across the lower lip.  When occupied by a cover, the name on the lip shows whose hat it is.  When the cover is removed, the main painting is exposed and the plaque becomes wall art.

We decorated ours in typical Marine moto style.  I painted SSgt Wooten as an anthropomorphized bulldog.  He wore a campaign cover and a tan service uniform.  SDI lent us a set of his ribbons so I could copy the proper awards onto his canine self.  The dog flexed one muscular short-sleeved arm in front of his body.  In a case of moto art within moto art, I painted a USMC tattoo on the exposed biceps.  A scarlet and gold Marine Corps flag waved in the background.  We painted his name in stylized gold letters across the lower lip.

It was a great hat plaque.  Weeks of effort, stealing hours from letter writing or sleep, or locking myself in the supply closet while the platoon field dayed the squad bay, had paid off.  This would make up for our shitty range flag.

It had been a few minutes since Santos went out to announce its completion, but no one had come in to see it.  I gave up waiting, put away the paints and brushes, turned off the light and left the closet.

The platoon sat in a semi-circle around SDI at the front of the squad bay.  I secured the padlock on the closet door and joined them.  SDI was handing out mail.  Had Santos not told him about the hat plaque?

When the mail was passed out I stood up and requested permission to speak.

“Sir, the artist recruits finished Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Wooten’s hat plaque, sir.”

SDI bristled.  “Sit down, Helms.  What, you wanna announce it to the whole world?”

I was confused.  Didn’t he want the platoon to see it?  This was for them, right?  Wasn’t that the whole reason he guilt tripped me about the range flag?  I knew he liked it.  A day or two before he was so pleased with the progress he had commissioned us to make a second one whenever the first was finished.

I figured he must just be waiting to make a more formal announcement on another day.

The following Sunday, like all Sundays in boot camp, was devoted to cleaning.  But this one was the worst.  It was our final Sunday in boot camp, our final field day.  Our training was complete and we would graduate and leave Parris Island that Friday.  We had to prepare the squad bay for the next batch of recruits.

Monday morning the Battalion Commander himself would pay us a visit and inspect our squad bay.  It would be a typical Marine inspection—he would check for traces of dust along ledges and inside vents, make sure the sinks and water fountains and doorknobs were polished, check that our towels were perfectly folded and draped over our racks in the right places, and so on.

Sgt Crum explained that all inspections are subjective.  If the general impression is sloppy the inspector will go out of his way to find something wrong.  On the other hand, legend has it, once in a blue moon a squad bay looks so perfect on first glance that the inspector just walks in, turns his head to the left and right, and declares that the squad bay has passed, without ever checking the angle of a folded sheet or running a finger along a window.

“If that happens tomorrow, I’ll cream my pants,” Sgt Crum told us.

And so we cleaned for hours, first under the watchful eye of our Senior Drill Instructor and then with Sgt Crum.

By then we’d started on that second hat plaque.  Unlike the first, we had only a few days to finish this one.  We’d have to work eight hours or so a day if we hoped to have it before graduation.  SDI, as usual, wanted us to work on it during field day while the rest of the platoon cleaned.  But this field day was too busy, and there were DIs from other platoons passing through to consult with ours about graduation.  So we couldn’t work in the main supply closet.

Instead, SDI locked Santos and me in a tiny broom closet.  There was just enough room for the two of us to sit on the floor with the plaque in between us.  We worked under the light of a single overhead bulb.  When we needed to use the head, we’d bang on the door from the inside and a nearby recruit would let us out.

At some point, while Santos and I obliviously painted in solitude, SDI left and Sgt Crum took over the platoon.

As I hunched over the painting the little closet suddenly exploded in a flash of light.  The door cracked open a couple inches, I got a glimpse of Sgt Crum’s face, and then it shut just as quickly as it had opened.  Before I had time to figure out what happened, the door opened again, this time wide enough to show Sgt Crum towering over me.

“Who put you in here?”

I was still lost, but knew something was wrong.

“No one, sir!”

“Fine, I’ll get the Company First Sergeant.”  Without skipping a beat, Sgt Crum calmly pushed the door open the rest of the way, revealing the Company Gunny and First Sergeant standing next to him.  Three powerful sets of eyes glared at me.

I shot to my feet and stood at attention.

“Now, who put you in here?” Sgt Crum repeated.

“Senior Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Wooten, sir!”

The First Sergeant exploded.  “Boy, if you ever lie to me again I’ll make sure you don’t graduate!  You understand that?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Now get out of here.”

“Aye, sir.”

Santos and I ran to join the other recruits.  We never painted again.  We didn’t finish that second hat plaque, and the platoon never saw the first.

And Staff Sergeant Wooten, our Senior Drill Instructor, disappeared.

Staff Sergeant Whitehead took over for him.  He finally got to stop being the kill hat, which he hated, and become the sympathetic father figure.  We never got an official announcement but it was obvious.  SSgt Whitehead started wearing the thick black Senior Drill Instructor belt, the ultimate sign of platoon authority.  He carried a sword, stood in front of our platoon, and presented us to the Battalion Commander for inspection as we stood in formation the next day.

Staff Sergeant Wooten did reappear briefly at the end of the week to stand with us during the graduation ceremonies and see our families.  But he never again interacted with us as a platoon.

It suddenly made sense—the secrecy, the closets, the Oreos.  I had always known I was being manipulated.  This was Marine boot camp, after all, where mind games rule the day.  But I didn’t realize it was illegal or, even worse, that it was for SSgt Wooten’s personal benefit and not the platoon’s.  It was never about the platoon after all.

I learned a hell of a lot from SSgt Wooten.  But by the end we respected him less than our other two DIs.  SSgt Whitehead and Sgt Crum were gods in our eyes.  They set an impossible standard to learn from and live up to.  SSgt Wooten, on the other hand, was human.

The evening after our inspection Sgt Crum lined us up along the center of the squad bay.  He was proud of us.  The impossible had happened.  While the platoon was outside in formation, waiting with SSgt Whitehead to be inspected, Sgt Crum had been inspected on the condition of the squad bay.  The Battalion Commander walked in, strolled down the aisle, and told Sgt Crum it looked good—without ever checking the details.  We had achieved the perfect first impression.

Recruit Henderson requested permission to speak.

Henderson was the only person in the platoon who wasn’t fresh out of high school.  He was 23 and had spent years drifting from couch to couch and working odd jobs.  He was even a rodeo clown for a while.  Boot camp was the only worthwhile thing he’d done as an adult and he was probably the only person there who genuinely enjoyed it.  He was cocky, undisciplined, almost immune to pain, and found humor in every situation.

Sgt Crum let him speak.

“Sir, did Drill Instructor Sergeant Crum cream in his pants?”

Sgt Crum reached up and pushed his campaign cover down over his eyes, struggling to suppress a smile.  He fought off the urge, maintained his composure, and calmly said, “No, I didn’t.”

A ripple of suppressed laughter flowed down our lines.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Veteran scientist #11, Edwin Hubble

Major Edwin P. Hubble (1889-1953)

US Army infantry officer (WWI) and researcher (WWII).  Astronomer and cosmologist.


Edwin Hubble, one of the 20th century’s most influential astronomers, also served in the US Army during both World Wars.

Hubble initially got his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees studying law and became a high school teacher.  At age 25, however, he decided to pursue his true passion—astronomy—and entered grad school at the University of Chicago.

During his final semester of grad school in spring 1917, as World War I raged in Europe, Hubble received a job offer from the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena.  But in April the US declared war on Germany.  Hubble decided to volunteer for the war effort instead and declined the offer from the observatory, telegraphing “Regret cannot accept your invitation.  Am off to the war.”

Hubble rushed to finish his Ph.D. early.  He stayed up all night writing his dissertation—“Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae”—and defended the next morning.  Three days later he reported for duty with the US Army.

He became an officer in the 86th Infantry Division, attaining the rank of Major.  His division served in France from August to November 1918.


Major Hubble served in France during WWI

When the unit returned to the US Hubble left the army and stayed in Europe for a year at Cambridge.  He returned to the US in 1919 and finally accepted the offer—over two years later—from the Mount Wilson Observatory.

At the observatory Hubble almost immediately set about changing our conception of the universe.  Until then people thought our galaxy—the Milky Way—was the only one in the universe.  Using a new telescope, in the early 1920s Hubble discovered stars beyond the Milky Way and proved that the universe consists of many galaxies.

In 1929 he observed that objects in the universe are moving away from each other.  The farther a galaxy is from Earth, the faster it moves away from us.  This was the first observational evidence of the expansion of the universe and the Big Bang theory.  He formulated the relationship between a galaxy’s distance and relative velocity in what is now known as Hubble’s Law.  Although Hubble wasn’t the first to propose the idea of an expanding universe (that was done by another veteran scientist, Georges Lemaître), he was the first to observe it and nail down a precise formula.

In 1936 he devised a system for classifying all these new galaxies he’d discovered—the Hubble Sequence—that is still used today.

But yet again, when war broke out Hubble interrupted his astronomy to join the military.  He reentered the US Army in 1942 and served at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.  There he worked as chief of ballistics and director of the Supersonic Wind Tunnels Laboratory doing defense research.  He was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1946 for his accomplishments there.

After the war Hubble returned to the observatory and his research.  He spent much of the end of his life campaigning to get astronomy recognized as a branch of physics by the Nobel Prize committee.  Before then astronomical discoveries were not eligible for the prize.

The Nobel committee agreed in 1953 to allow astronomers to receive the prize, but the decision came just after Hubble’s death.  Many believe that Hubble would’ve won the physics prize that year had he survived.


The US Postal Service in 2008 issued a stamp commemorating Edwin Hubble’s scientific contributions

Today Hubble’s name is most familiar in the context of NASA’s popular Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990.  Among many other things, the Hubble telescope allowed us to refine Hubble’s Law by taking more accurate measurements of distant galaxies, helped us determine the rate of expansion of the universe, and has provided us with countless images of other worlds.  It is still operating and continues to enhance our understanding of the universe and galaxies beyond our own.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The final test

The defining challenge at Parris Island—the one that symbolically makes you a Marine—comes in the second to last week of boot camp.  It’s a grueling event aptly named The Crucible.

I’d been thinking about the Crucible for weeks, with dread and excitement.  This was it.  It was time to stand up and perform, and graduate the next week with my friends.  Or fail and be rolled back to another platoon.

It would start on a Tuesday morning, my 78th day in boot camp, and continue for over two days.  I learned a hell of a lot in those first 77 days.  By the time the Crucible rolled around we had completed all our training milestones.  We had passed our tests for martial arts, swimming, shooting, Marine Corps knowledge, gas masks, drill, and physical fitness, and spent a couple weeks doing basic combat training.  Now we would put those skills to the test.

The Crucible is a physical and mental challenge designed to test recruits’ ability to work together to accomplish missions under stress.  In 54 hours we would hike over 50 miles on only 4 to 8 hours of sleep.  We were issued three meals at the beginning, which we had to ration out over two days.  Each day consisted of 20 hours of physical activity—obstacle courses, combat exercises, shooting, problem solving challenges, hikes and patrols.

SSgt Wooten had been good to us the day before.  He wanted us motivated, unhurt and rested for the next morning.  Monday evening he gave us each a power bar and even got a TV and played a movie for us—Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson.  We hadn’t watched TV or seen a movie in months.

That night was different and we all felt it.  The movie reminded us how much we’d suffered over the past months.  We hadn’t spoken to our families, eaten real food or heard much from the outside world.  Almost all of us had just graduated high school and given up our last summer at home.  The Crucible was our chance to show ourselves it was all worth it.  We talked with each other and squared away our gear.  I wrote a long letter.

I was antsy and struggled to fall asleep.  Eventually I drifted off for a few hours.  The Crucible started at 2:30 the next morning.

We woke up, donned our helmets and packs, grabbed our rifles, and marched a few miles to an abandoned airfield.  This cracked concrete expanse, and the surrounding sandy pine savannas and live oak forests, was our home for the next couple days.

Unfortunately, for obvious reasons those days were a blur to me.  I don’t remember much, and I certainly wasn’t writing any letters.  The details of what happened out there are mostly lost to history and will remain part of Parris Island’s secrets.

But I do remember being hungry.  And tired.  We slept in formation in the open air each night, on thin mats on a concrete platform with our rifles attached to our arms.  It seemed like just as I managed to fall asleep, amid the clutter and bustle of a whole company of recruits, and despite my rumbling stomach, I had to wake up again to another exhausting day on the concrete and sand under the hot South Carolina sun.

We operated in small squads, independently of the drill instructors and the rest of the platoon.  We patrolled or ran from place to place, using hand signals, climbing over obstacles, solving puzzles, and just enduring.  A DI would sometimes come up and “kill” one of us.  The dead recruit would go limp and the rest of us would have to carry him from station to station.  Or they’d give us heavy ammo cans to carry.  We took turns carrying the dead recruits and ammo cans, passing them off to someone else in the squad when we could no longer manage.

In one particularly brutal combat course we had to assault a defended beach.  A long clearing in the forest was crisscrossed with concertina wire and wooden barricades.  The ground was dug up, exposing piles of sand.  The sounds of machine guns and explosions blared from hidden loudspeakers.  I crawled on my belly through the sand.  I had the ammo can, and I struggled to find a way to move it forward.  I tried pushing it in front of me as I crawled.  But the sand would pile up in front after a couple feet and it would be impossible to move.  It seemed like the sand went on forever.

I got angry.  I propped myself up on an elbow, picked up the ammo can with one arm and threw it forward.  It flew a few feet and clunked down into the sand.  I crawled up to it, and picked it up and threw it again.  I hated the sun, I hated the sand, and I hated that fucking ammo can.  I repeated the crawl and throw routine, switching to the push when I had to go under concertina wire, until I met my squadmates at a wooden barricade.  They climbed over and I passed the ammo can up to them.  Fuck that sand.

The DIs were different at the Crucible.  They’d sometimes sit with a squad, take their hats off, and talk to us like humans.  They asked about our backgrounds and how we felt about things.  Even more surprising, they told us how they felt.  SSgt Whitehead, our terrifying yet sympathetic kill hat, stepped out of his boot camp persona to reveal that he didn’t like punishing us.

“I wish boot camp could be fun for you guys.”

Sgt Crum asked us why we joined the Marines and how we felt about life after boot camp.  I told him I was anxious about my family.  They didn’t understand why I joined, they couldn’t understand what I’d gone through that summer, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate what I would become.  He responded in classic Marine Corps style, blunt and laconic.

“Who cares?  You have 150,000 brothers now.”

We ended Thursday morning with a 10 mile hump.  My body ached, my shoulders were dying under my pack straps, and the soles of my feet burned.  But eventually the airfield disappeared, the forest disappeared, and we were back at the main campus.

The Crucible was over.  We wouldn’t technically be Marines for another few days, but the last hurdle was over.  I had done it.  I would graduate.

Our first stop was the chow hall.  We had earned the right to eat.

The Warrior’s Breakfast—the meal after the Crucible—is unique in boot camp.  Instead of a few minutes of panicked gulping, we would have a full hour to eat.  For the first time we could eat as much as we wanted.  They served steak and eggs—a Marine combat tradition.  And there was cake and ice cream!  I ate two full trays of food, and a whole glass of ice cream.  It was paradise.

Until, that is, SSgt Wooten sat down next to me.  Even now, at the Warrior’s Breakfast, I couldn’t escape my special relationship with our Senior Drill Instructor.  It was his usual mix of insult and motivation—calling me a fairy and encouraging me.

I just wanted to gluttonize in peace!

After a few minutes he left me alone and I resumed my decadent feasting.

A couple hours later I felt like I was dying.  My stomach was wracked with pain.  After three months of limited food, and two days of starvation rations, my body couldn’t handle what I had just done to it.  I had dangerously overeaten.  And I wasn’t alone.  Most of the platoon suffered in agony.

But it was so worth it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Veteran scientist #10, Louis de Broglie

Louis de Broglie (1892-1987)

French Army 1914-1918.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.


Louis de Broglie was one of France’s most famous physicists and an early contributor to quantum mechanics.  But his story also involves World War I, the early development of signals intelligence, and the Eiffel Tower.

Before rising to prominence as a physicist, Louis de Broglie got a degree in history in 1910.  He then discovered his love of science and decided to study physics, getting a second degree in 1913.

When the First World War broke out de Broglie joined the French Army.  He served in the wireless section from 1914 to 1918 and was stationed at the Eiffel Tower.

The Tower served then, as it does today, as a radio broadcast tower.  World War I saw the first widespread use of radio communications in war, and the first exploitation of those signals.  This period thus marked the development of signals intelligence—the branch of intelligence that focuses on intercepted electronic signals.  The Eiffel Tower played a central part in the Allied signals intelligence effort, and de Broglie was there through it all.

Allied operators used radio transmitters on the Tower to jam German communications during their advance on Paris.  The Tower also intercepted enemy communications, transmitted zeppelin warnings, and gathered intelligence on enemy troop movements.  In one famous event, operators at the Tower intercepted enemy radio communications revealing that a popular exotic dancer—Mata Hari—was actually a German spy.  She was arrested, charged with causing the deaths of 50,000 Allied soldiers, and executed.

After the war Maxwell pursued a Ph.D. in physics.  His dissertation in 1924 extended some work of Einstein’s and was an important development in quantum mechanics.

From Maxwell’s equations in the 1800s light had been treated as waves of electromagnetic fields.  Then in 1905 Einstein published a paper showing that light could also be described as discrete particles called photons.  De Broglie, as a grad student, extended this idea to propose that electrons, and all other matter, also behave as both waves and particles.

When de Broglie submitted his thesis his graduate committee found themselves unable to evaluate it, and so they passed it along to Einstein.  Einstein approved and de Broglie received his doctorate.

Three years later his hypothesis received experimental support when two American physicists confirmed that electrons behave like waves.  Following this confirmation de Broglie was awarded the 1929 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his discovery of the wave nature of electrons.”

De Broglie spent the rest of his career studying different extensions of the wave theory of matter.  He was elected to the French Academy of Sciences, where he was Permanent Secretary for mathematical sciences, and the Académie française, the governing body on the French language.

Louis was not the only veteran physicist in the family.  His older brother Maurice de Broglie (1875-1960) was in the French Navy for nine years, where he served on a gunboat in Tunisia and the Mediterranean.  He left the navy in 1904 to become an experimental physicist.  While Louis was serving at the Eiffel Tower in WWI, Maurice did research on radio communications for the navy.

Maurice had also been elected to the Académie française.  When Louis was elected ten years later he was inducted by his own brother.

Louis went on to serve as counselor to the French High Commission of Atomic Energy, was knighted into the Légion d’honneur, and won the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for his efforts at explaining physics to the public.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Into the field

It was my turn.  I rushed forward and climbed onto the thick pine log in front of me.  On the other side was a second log, raised above the ground on short supporting beams.  I jumped onto the second log, hugging it while I pulled my legs up.  I balanced myself on top and prepared to jump to a final, even higher log.

I aimed, I jumped—and I miscalculated.  My body was too low, and I couldn’t wrap my arms around the target.  My chest bounced off the log and I fell ten feet to the ground below.

“What are you doing, Helms?  You’re embarrassing yourself.  You let a little log beat you.”

Staff Sergeant Whitehead was my favorite of our three drill instructors.  He was supposed to be the kill hat—the scariest DI who meted out the most punishment.

In this game of good cop, bad cop, SSgt Wooten—the Senior Drill Instructor—was the good cop.  He was fatherly, occasionally giving us snacks or asking personal questions.  When we got quarterdecked by another DI he would save us after we’d had enough.  But if we ever disappointed him he’d turn away and unleash the others.

SSgt Whitehead was the primary other DI, the baddest of bad cops.  He was also the most attentive and made an effort to learn all our names and faces.  He was the first DI to recognize me.  His job was to cause us the most pain, and he was good at it, but I think he sympathized with us.

When I bounced off that log he pounced on me.  I did the right thing—I didn’t react.  I jumped up, ran around to the front of the obstacle and started over.  This time I timed my jump well, made it to the top of the high beam, and dropped off the other side.

Boot camp had been getting harder.  And it wasn’t all about late night painting.

Swim week and the two weeks on the range had been tough, but they were just the beginning.  Now that we could shoot we spent more time in the field.

We learned to shoot under different conditions.  We fired at multiple targets and moving targets.  We fired while wearing body armor and gas masks.  We fired at night and used luminescent tracer rounds to adjust our aim.

We slept in canvas tents with our rifles tied to our arms.  If a creeping drill instructor stole someone’s rifle while he slept, the recruit would pay for it in the morning.  We wore camouflage face paint, communicated with hand signals, and didn’t shower for days.

We rappelled and fast-roped off towers, learned to move under fire, ran obstacle courses, and crawled in the dirt under concertina wire.  We practiced urban warfare in empty buildings, climbing up walls and into windows, and moving from room to room.  We practiced night movements, and learned how to stay hidden and not lose our night vision when an enemy shoots a flare or shines a light.

We learned to use our gas masks and practiced in a chamber filled with tear gas.

We were, in short, doing Marines stuff.

The training took its toll on us.  Our platoon started with 80 people and we lost 9.  A few who remained were on crutches.

One guy failed at the rifle range.  Another recruit didn’t adjust well and had to start all over with a new platoon.  Most of the others who dropped just got too sick or injured to continue.  Their fate was the worst.  They were sent to a Medical Rehabilitation Platoon until they recovered.  Then they’d try again with a new platoon.  Some of them might end up suffering through boot camp for six months or more.

I developed burning rashes, got sick a couple times, hurt my wrists, and lost feeling in my toes.  The numbness lasted for weeks after graduation.  But I never had any serious problems.

In the midst of all this I received my first bank statement.  In two months I’d earned a measly $613.

A few days later we went on a 10 mile hump.  A man in the platoon ahead of us passed out.  His rifle skittered onto the concrete as he collapsed under his pack.  Without missing a step, we diverted our course and flowed around him, as a corpsman ran over and poured water on his motionless body.

We stopped in a clearing for a short break.  I sat on my pack, propped my rifle between my legs and drank from my canteen.  Old gnarled live oaks surrounded us.  Spanish moss dripped off the massive branches.  Birds sang.  A steep drop-off fell to the ocean.  I could see across the water to the mainland.  There were buildings and cars.  I imagined the people there going about their daily lives.

Then the break was over and we were on the move again.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Veteran scientist #9, Erwin Schrödinger

Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)

Austrian army artilleryman 1914-1918.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.


Erwin Schrödinger was a father of quantum mechanics and one of the world’s most famous physicists.  He is perhaps best known for his thought experiment about a cat in a booby-trapped box—Schrödinger’s Cat.  Less well known is his combat experience in World War I.

In the pre-war years Schrödinger studied physics in Vienna under Friedrich Hasenöhrl, receiving his doctorate in 1910.

When war broke out he volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army and served as an artillery officer during all four years of the war, from 1914 to 1918.  Assigned to the Italian front, Schrödinger earned a combat decoration for his command of an artillery battery.

His mentor, Hasenöhrl, also fought in Italy and was killed by a grenade in 1915.

Through it all, Schrödinger somehow found time to continue his research.  He wrote several manuscripts, including one submitted from the Italian front early in the war.  Toward the end of the war he served in Vienna as an instructor, and published his first work on quantum theory.

After the war, Schrödinger returned to physics full time.  In 1926 he published the equation that would earn him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933.  Later known as the Schrödinger Equation, it provided an elegant way to describe and predict the behavior of quantum systems.

In 1935, while probing the interpretation of quantum phenomena, Schrödinger came up with his famous thought experiment.  In essence, he asked whether objects could simultaneously exist in two states until being observed (could a cat be both alive and dead until someone checks?), as suggested by some interpretations of quantum theory.

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Schrödinger fled his Austrian homeland and took refuge in Ireland, where he spent most of the rest of his career.

Thanks to his eponymous equation and cat, Schrödinger earned a place in science history.  There’s even a crater on the moon named after him.  We would do well to remember that this great mind was also a soldier who distinguished himself in war.

photo credit nobelprize.org

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An offer you can't refuse

“I should just throw you off this tower, Helms.”  Staff Sergeant Wooten looked at me.  “You know why.”

It had been nearly a month since I put myself on Senior Drill Instructor’s radar by becoming the artist recruit.   I had successfully hidden from him for the first half of boot camp.  But now he knew who I was, and he held a grudge against me.

I had hidden my painting ability when it was needed and the platoon suffered as a result.  Though we won the company shooting competition, our success was dampened by our pitiful range flag.  We may have had a better design if I hadn’t let fear keep me from volunteering.

A week after I finally revealed myself and became the artist recruit, SDI gave me an assignment.  I would paint his hat plaque—a wooden frame for hanging his wide-brimmed campaign cover.  A former artist recruit, Santos, stayed on as my assistant.

From now on my Sundays were devoted to art.  While other recruits cleaned the squad bay, I would sit on the floor of the gear closet, amid the cleaning supplies, and paint for hours.  I also painted in the evenings on other days.  And after lights out I would shut myself in the closet and paint for another hour.  We were told to only paint in the closet, and not show anyone what we were working on.

And SDI began to target me.  While working in the laundry room one week, I found ten dollars and gave it to the Marine in charge.  SSgt Wooten heard about it, accused me of stealing it and told me I would die.  He knew I didn’t take the money, but he wanted to torture me.  He left me alone after another recruit vouched for me.

The next day he quarterdecked me because the recruit across the aisle from me screwed up and I didn’t prevent his mistake.  He told me to drink a lot of water because he would punish me again every hour on the hour.  I didn’t think he was serious, but an hour later he called me over.

“I never lie to you, do I?”

He pointed to the ground and I started pushing.  Fortunately, he left before the next hour was up and another DI took over, so I didn’t get quarterdecked a third time.

This was not my plan.  I wanted to be anonymous.  I didn’t even wear my glasses, to keep from standing out.  My Drill Instructors never knew I needed them.  At the rifle range I shot, and passed, without them.  But now, despite my best efforts, I stood out.  It was like my hickeys had returned.

After two weeks of hat plaque work SDI called me into his office to show him my progress.

“What, did you go to art school or something?”

I told him I just took art classes in high school.

“Why didn’t you volunteer for the flag?  It’s because you’re a selfish little bitch, and you weren’t willing to use your time to help me.  You said fuck me, and fuck the platoon.”

“This recruit was just shy at the time.”

“Confidence keeps you alive,” he said.

I tried to remember that a few days later when I stood on top of the 50 foot tall rappel tower.  An instructor attached a harness and I braced myself for the jump off the side.  That was when, predictably, SDI found me.

“You look like a geek, Helms.”

“This recruit is a dork.”

“Why do you think you’re a dork?  And why are you admitting it?”


“This recruit likes math and stuff.”

“I like math.  Are you calling me a dork?”

“No, sir.”

“I should just throw you off this tower, Helms.  You know why.”

He walked away and I jumped off the tower on my own.

That was our relationship.  I owed him because of the range flag.  But as long I worked on his hat plaque he couldn’t punish me too badly.

Two weeks before graduating he called me into his office.

“You’re a pretty good painter, ain’t you, Helms?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Too bad you lied to me at the range.  We had to walk around with that piece of shit.  I should make you make me another flag just for the hell of it.”

He handed me an Oreo.

“This is for all your hard work…even though you’re not willing to scratch my back even though I scratch yours.”

I didn’t ask for a cookie.  That’s not why I painted.  But I couldn’t turn it down.  Plus, it was real food…from the outside!  I ate it, and it was delicious.

My friend saw me through the window and smiled and shook his head.

It was like accepting protection from the mob.  Somehow, despite weeks of work, I owed my Senior Drill Instructor even more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Veteran scientist #8, Roger Tory Peterson

Sergeant Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996)

US Army engineer 1943-1945.  Artist and ornithologist.


I’m not sure this week’s veteran scientist really qualifies as a scientist.  But he certainly influenced science and the public’s perception of it.

Roger Tory Peterson became fascinated with birds as a child in New York.  Through his love of birds, and the early ornithologists who painted them, Peterson discovered his talent for art.  After going to art school he pursued a career of drawing and painting birds, while also teaching natural history and art to young people.

Tracking his subjects in the field, Peterson learned to quickly identify birds from features that were visible from far away.  Traditional identification methods used by scientists relied on features that could only be distinguished on dead specimens.  Those methods were more precise, but weren’t useful for amateurs who wanted to enjoy birds passively.  Peterson, in contrast, relied on obvious field marks, which may have had less biological meaning but were more accessible to the non-expert.

Peterson codified this new method as the Peterson Identification System.  Using his system, in 1934 he wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to the Birds.  The new guide’s simplicity and detailed paintings revolutionized bird watching by granting millions of amateurs an easy toehold into the field.

The success of his field guide earned him a prominent place among American ornithologists.  He joined national societies, wrote popular articles, designed bird guides for children, and worked with the Boy Scouts to revise their Bird Study Merit Badge.

In 1943, during World War II, Peterson was drafted into the US Army.  He went to engineering school and served in the Army Corps of Engineers and then the Air Corps.  According to one story, while in school he convinced his unit to alter their marching path to avoid a horned lark’s nest.  Throughout his service he continued to draw and paint birds.

Recognizing his talent, the Army put him to work designing camouflage and illustrating technical manuals.  The Air Corps even adopted his identification system to design a plane spotting guide for troops on the front.

Finally, in 1945 he was sent to Florida to research the effects of DDT on birds.  He performed a series of experiments alongside another veteran ornithologist—George Miksch Sutton.  The experiments were rushed and the results inconclusive, but they introduced Peterson to the post-war world of pesticides.

Peterson left the army that year and resumed painting and birding full time.  Four years later, building on the success of his early publications, he launched the Peterson Field Guide series—a string of books that would incorporate his identification system into popular guides for all sorts of things.  There are now over 50 Peterson Field Guides, including books for birds, mammals, herps, fishes, insects, shells, plants, mushrooms, wild medicines, forests, seashores, coral reefs, stars and planets, and geology.  There’s even A Field Guide to the Atmosphere.  The series has continued to use the Peterson Identification System to help scientists and amateurs alike observe the natural world.


The Peterson Field Guides continue to inspire people to observe and enjoy nature

Peterson also entered the world of science advocacy.  He made documentary films, and promoted environmental protection and the regulation of pesticides.  In 1964 he testified before the US Senate on the dangers of DDT, and in 1980 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter.

Though not a scientist himself, Sgt Roger Tory Peterson devoted his life to bridging the gap between science and the public.  He made lasting impacts in several fields, and advocated for the role of science in guiding responsible environmental practices.

—Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson. 2008. Elizabeth J. Rosenthal.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It's a trap!

I sat on my footlocker with a notepad and pen, staring at a recruit across the aisle.  I’m not sure what he was doing—writing a letter or tightening his war gear.  I was focused on his leg.

I had just finished my first painful week at the rifle range.  In addition to the usual mind games, physical challenges, and marching in the South Carolina sun, I suffered from the most painful sinus infection of my life.  But today, Saturday, I drew.

A couple weeks earlier our Senior DI had asked who the artist recruits were.  He didn’t say why he wanted to know.  I enjoyed drawing and painting.  I took art throughout high school, entered a few things in shows, and painted murals around town.  But common sense—and my drive to blend in as much as possible—recommended silence.  It could be a trap.  At the very least, it would give DIs something to remember about me, and I didn’t want to be remembered.

So I stayed quiet as braver souls volunteered themselves.

There was a tradition on the rifle range.  In addition to the normal scarlet and gold flag—the guidon—each platoon marched with a second flag, hand painted by recruits.  Platoons competed unofficially for best flag, paralleling a more serious competition in shooting scores.

Those brave artist recruits got the honor of painting our flag.

And they did a terrible job.

Our flag violated basic principles of aesthetics and graphic design.  Instead of a single large image on a simple field, which the eye could recognize from a distance, our flag was randomly scattered with tiny drawings that could only be made out from less than a meter away.  There were crude sketches of cartoon skeletons, guns and people.  It looked like a comic book drawn by a ten year old.  Instead of an intimidating symbol of aspiring Marines learning to shoot and kill, we had a Halloween decoration.  It was the worst flag in the company.

To be fair, those guys didn’t know what they were getting into when they volunteered, they were rushed, and the conditions were less than ideal.  They later admitted they were not even painters.

So when SSgt Wooten, disappointed with our flag, again asked who the artist recruits were, I raised my hand.  I knew now it wasn’t a trap.  Artist recruits got to be artists.

This time our Senior DI was smarter—instead of taking us at our word, he held a sort of audition.  Anyone interested in being an artist recruit (again we weren’t told why) had 30 minutes to draw him a picture to show off their talent.

I liked doing art but was never an artist.  I had the technical skill to produce images but lacked the creativity to design them.  Hence the leg.

With the clock ticking, I just drew what was in front of me—in this case a recruit on his foot locker in PT shorts.  I started with his foot and worked my way up his bare leg.  But just as I finished the top of one thigh, the unthinkable happened.  The recruit got up and walked away.  I lost my model.

I moved on to another recruit, making sure to start at his head.

When time was up I stood in front of the platoon and handed SSgt Wooten my drawing, including the hairy detached leg floating in space.

“What is this?  Why the hell would you draw a man’s leg?”

 “This recruit just drew what was in front of him, sir.”

He went into his office and the platoon laughed.  After a moment he came back with a picture of a bulldog and told me to draw it the next morning.

The bulldog drawing was less of a failure.  Senior DI loved it and so did the platoon.

“Keep drawing,” he told me.

I was the new artist recruit.  But I still didn’t know why.  What project would I have to do?  He would let me know when the time came.  Turns out, it was a bit of a trap after all.

I had given our Senior Drill Instructor a reason to make fun of me.  He knew my face and my name and my penchant for drawing dudes’ legs.  Even worse, he was angry I didn’t volunteer earlier.

I owed him.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Veteran scientist #7, Walter Kohn

Walter Kohn (1923-present)

Canadian Army infantryman 1944-1945.  Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Chemistry.


Walter Kohn grew up in a Jewish family in Austria in the interwar years.  Kohn fled to England just before the outbreak of World War II, and moved from there to Canada.  His parents, who were unable to leave Austria, died in the Holocaust.

Across the Atlantic, Kohn majored in mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto.  He tried to enlist in the Canadian military but was denied several times because of his German nationality.  He was finally accepted into the Canadian Infantry Corps and served during the last year of the war.

Kohn not only continued his studies during his infantry service, earning a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, but also published a paper in his spare time on the physics of spinning objects.  The paper, "Contour Integration in the Theory of the Spherical Pendulum and the Heavy Symmetrical Top,” served as part of his Master’s degree after the war.  He went on to get his Ph.D. in nuclear physics at Harvard.

In 1998 Kohn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in the development of density functional theory, a revolutionary model for determining the properties of materials based on their electronic structure.  Methods based on Kohn’s work allow researchers to scale up properties of individual atoms to predict the behavior of whole systems.

Kohn is not just an infantry veteran and researcher.  He is also an activist who worked to end the US-Soviet arms race.  Now retired, Kohn continues to do physics research, and also advocates for renewable energy, stabilizing the world's population, and combating climate change.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Media blackout

“Look at you.  You’re all writing to your girlfriends even though they’re probably fucking someone else.  That guy’s probably reading your letters right now and laughing.  You should spend your time stretching instead.”

It was the end of our first week at the rifle range.  We’d spent the past few days learning the Marine Corps shooting positions—standing, kneeling, sitting and prone.  Some positions, especially the kneeling, were awkward and painful.  We had to practice the poses for hours on end to get our bodies used to the unfamiliar contortions.

It was worse than the body hardening we did in martial arts training, where we lined up and hit each other to deaden our nerves and prepare our bodies for fighting.  We’d bang our forearms together, kick each other in the thighs, and punch each other in the stomach.  Even so, I’d prefer twenty minutes of body hardening over an hour of the dreaded kneeling position.

Now, during our single hour of free time at the end of the day, Sgt Crum wanted us to stretch more.  We were safe—he had to let us write letters if we wanted.  But he had a point when he said writing home was a waste of time.

Isolated from the outside, the few reminders I received of the world beyond the platoon jarred with my daily experience.  My girlfriend sent me my scores from the AP tests—English Composition, Calculus, Electricity & Magnetism, and Mechanics—I had taken just weeks before.  I was happy to get my scores but it seemed like a different life.  Instead of physics tests, we now had the kneeling position.

She also wrote about going to parties and seeing movies I hadn’t heard of, and complained about people I didn’t know.  I once asked her for news about world events.  She sent me a newspaper clipping about Kobe Bryant getting accused of rape.  So for the most part I was in the dark about the world beyond.

The media blackout went both ways.  This is the first letter I ever wrote from boot camp, to my girlfriend.

Dear ______,

    I’m doing well and learning a lot from my Drill Instructors.  I have the best Drill Instructors and Senior Drill Instructor on the island.  Our SDI will take care of us.  This letter is fake.  They are telling us what to write.  I get 3 meals a day and plenty of sleep.  I love you.


                                                                                         —Jackson


Like the scripted phone call when we first arrived, the fake letter probably just caused more anxiety back home.  And I’m sure mentioning the meals, sleep and good care aroused more suspicion than it eased.  At least with the letter I could sneak in a couple scribbled over sentences that someone could decipher.  Since I had little time to write real letters, couldn’t make phone calls, and didn’t keep a journal, my family and friends were as blind as I was.

One day in late July our Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Wooten, sat us down for an announcement.  Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, had been killed in a firefight in northern Iraq.  Every once in a while we’d get more tidbits from Iraq—soldiers were getting attacked on the streets and in cafés.  We didn’t know, and I suppose most civilians didn’t either, that an insurgency was brewing.

The war wasn’t over, after all.

I spent the summer in a universe defined by my platoon, while events half a world away, in Iraqi neighborhoods and alleys, decided my fate.  Meanwhile I trained and studied, preparing for that unknown future.  I learned to swim, learned to fight, learned to shoot.

And I practiced that damned kneeling position.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Veteran scientist #6, Robert Tucker Abbott

Lieutenant Robert Tucker Abbott (1919-1995)

US Navy dive bomber pilot 1942-1944, US Navy research scientist 1944-1954, and World War II veteran.  Malacologist and conchologist.


Robert Tucker Abbott, one of the 20th century’s influential mollusc biologists, is most famous for uncovering the life cycle of a form of schistosomiasis, a disease afflicting millions of people every year.

Interested in seashells from childhood, Abbott studied malacology—the study of molluscs—as an undergrad at Harvard.  While still a student he founded a journal, Johnsonia, dedicated to the study of western Atlantic molluscs.

After graduating in 1942 Abbott joined the US Navy, serving as a dive bomber pilot in the Pacific War for two years.

Meanwhile, troops throughout the Indo-Pacific region were falling prey to a mysterious disease—Schistosomiasis.  Like Ebola and many other diseases, Schistosomiasis is a zoönosis—meaning it lives at least part of its life cycle in animals other than humans.  In this case, flatworms in the genus Schistosoma live part of their life cycle in snails and part in vertebrates, including humans, where they cause Schistosomiasis.

The species infecting Marines, soldiers and sailors during the Pacific War—Schistosoma japonicum—had not been studied, however, and its non-human host was unknown.  Until the host was identified there was little hope of preventing the disease.  Researchers knew it probably lived in a freshwater snail.  But thousands of snail species roamed the Indo-Pacific and there were few people available who could identify them.

So the Navy turned to Abbott, transferring him to a Medical Research Unit based on Guam.  Traveling between the Pacific and Maryland, Abbott began tracking down the mysterious parasite’s host.  At the end of the war he was sent to China’s Yangtze River Valley.  There, working out of a makeshift lab, he finally tracked down the host of Schistosoma japonicum—little brown snails in the genus Oncomelania that inhabited rice paddies.  The mystery was solved.

Abbott continued to work for the Navy Medical Research Center as a research scientist until 1954.  At the same time he was a curator of the Department of Mollusks at the Smithsonian in D.C.  Still more amazing, he earned his Master’s and Ph.D. at George Washington University during this period as well, and somehow managed to find time to publish a book—the first edition of American Seashells.

Eventually leaving Navy work, Abbot moved to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, then to the Delaware Museum of Natural History, and finally became founding director of the Bailey-Matthews Seashell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida.

In addition to fighting a war, publishing research, and combating diseases, Abbott tried throughout his career to popularize conchology—the study of seashells—by writing popular identification books and lobbying for responsible seashell collecting.

Upon his death in 1995 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lessons in drowning

The water came up to my chest.  Keeping my rifle barrel above the surface, I felt along the bottom with my boots.  My Kevlar helmet, belt with canteens, and full pack weighed me down.

It was Swim Week in boot camp, the beginning of 2nd Phase.  After the few days in Receiving, the first four weeks of boot camp—1st Phase—were focused on the basics—marching, PT, obstacle courses, Marine Corps history, first aid, taking apart and cleaning rifles, classroom learning, and martial arts.  It culminated in a martial arts test and the awarding of our tan belts—the lowest rung of the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program.

Now, new belts in hand, we moved on to more field-oriented learning.

It was the second day of swim quals.  The Marine Corps is amphibious, and every Marine must swim.

Day 1 tested our basic swimming ability.  Wearing cammies but no boots, we had to swim 25 meters in shallow water.  Then the DIs pushed us off a 10 foot ledge into deep water.  We treaded water for four minutes.  They taught us to blow air into the sleeves of our blouse, pinch the collar shut, and use it as a flotation device.  Finally, we swam 25 meters in deep water.  If we passed we advanced to the next stage.  Those who failed—mostly people who had never learned to swim—were doomed to a week of practice and retesting.

Day 2 started off simple.  A DI pushed me off a ledge into deep water with boots on.  I surfaced and swam 25 meters.  Then they added more realism.

I entered the pool with full gear, Kevlar, pack and rifle.  After wading 50 meters I had to swim.  Our packs doubled as flotation devices.  By leaning back, kicking my legs, and steering with my arms I swam feet first with my rifle on my chest.  After swimming in shallow water we moved to the deep end.  Finally, I jumped off a platform with all my gear.  Treading water, I took off my pack, wrapped an arm around it, and swam 25 meters to a ladder.  I had passed the second qualification.

On Day 3 they added body armor and took away the pack.  I had to swim 50 meters wearing cammies, boots, belt and canteens, Kevlar, flak jacket and rifle.  I entered the water, slung my rifle on my back and started swimming.

If I succeeded here I would make it to the 4th and final qualification, where we had to get pulled to the bottom of the pool by a DI, fight him off and swim to safety.

I've never been a strong swimmer.  I struggled to stay above the surface, fighting frantically against the dragging weight.  20 meters in I panicked and sank.  A DI thrust a pole into the water in front of me.  I grabbed on and he pulled me up.  Dejected, but not drowned, I climbed out of the water for the last time.  I wouldn’t advance to the final stage.  Swim Week was over for me.

Only about five guys made it to the 4th qual.  One of them, in his underwater struggle, stuck his thumb in a DI’s ass.  The startled DI let him go and he swam to safety.  The instructors praised the recruit’s ingenuity and he lived to tell the tale.

In the years since I’ve never had to use my blouse as a flotation device or swim with a rifle.  My war experience, after all, was limited to the deserts of Iraq.  But I have to admit wading with a pack is a skill that has come in handy a few places, from New Zealand estuaries to Indonesian rivers to rice paddies in Madagascar.

Now that we could march, fight and swim, it was time to learn to shoot.  The rifle ranges were in a different part of the island, and we had to move to another barracks.  After a Physical Fitness Test in the morning—three mile run, pull ups and crunches—we put on our packs and Kevlars, slung our rifles, and humped the five miles to our new home.  It was my first time moving on foot.

Upon arrival in the new barracks I promptly got myself quarterdecked by Sgt Crum again.  This time it was worse—especially after the PFT and the hump—and I was sore for days.

It was a fitting welcome to our new home.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Veteran scientist #5, Amotz Zahavi

Amotz Zahavi (1928-present)

Israeli military 1948-49.  Evolutionary biologist and proposer of the handicap principle.

Zahavi is perhaps best known for his work in animal communication.  His handicap principle hypothesis, put forward in 1975, attempts to explain what keeps signals honest and prevents cheating.  The hypothesis has been especially useful in explaining the evolution of expensive sexually selected traits, such as male peacock tails.  Since its proposal, the handicap principle has been influential in guiding communication and sexual selection research, and is a basic concept learned by budding biologists around the world.

Not as well known, however, is his military experience.  Zahavi served in the Israeli military from 1948-1949, a period coincident with the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

After the war Zahavi pursued his studies in biology, doing his Master’s research on birds of the Hula marshes in northern Israel.  During his work, however, the government drained the marshes as Zahavi raced to study the area’s biology before it disappeared.  The experience spurred him to found the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel—now the nation’s oldest and largest conservation organization.  Zahavi went on to get his Ph.D. and begin his work on communication.

Zahavi started his career by serving during a politically difficult war, and later fought to conserve nature in a troubled and densely populated nation.  At the same time he somehow managed to change the way we think about communication and the evolution of sexual differences.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Naked collision

“You wanna talk?  Good, take off your blouse and get on my quarterdeck.”

It was a Sunday, and I’d been in boot camp twelve days.  Until then I’d somehow avoided getting quarterdecked.

I’m ashamed to admit I only received this punishment five times.  Many people got it dozens of times, and at least one guy in my platoon broke a hundred.  Real Marines tell graphic stories about getting in trouble as recruits, and the resulting physical torture.  With my measly five quarterdeckings, I spent the next five years feeling like I’d somehow missed out on the boot camp experience.

They say boot camp makes you either strong or smart.  I think I got smart.  I was good at blending in and not getting caught.  It helped that my hickeys wore off before I met my real DIs.  And although I got issued glasses in receiving, I never wore them because they’d make me stand out.

I was so successful none of my DIs even knew my name until after the first month.  I’d seen other people get quarterdecked and figured it was something I’d rather avoid.  After experiencing it myself I was sure of it.

We were making a quick head call.  80 guys rushed to piss and fill up their canteens in the bathroom sink before continuing training.  In a press of people I made the unforgiveable mistake of asking someone to fill my canteen for me.

Rather, I made the unforgiveable mistake of getting caught.  Speaking is not usually allowed in boot camp.  But communication is necessary.  Complicated group tasks have to get done.  The expectation is that you either rely on non-verbal communication, or you speak but don’t get caught.  Getting caught is worse than the crime itself.  It’s one of the subtle ways you are taught to be flexible and seize hidden advantages.

But this time I blundered.  Drill Instructor Sergeant Crum was right behind me.

Sgt Crum was the only combat veteran of our three DIs.  He had recently returned from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as an infantry squad leader.  The evening of September 11, 2001 he got a phone call saying to be ready the next day to ship out somewhere unknown. Within a few days he had left his family and was overseas, and became part of the first wave of Marines to enter Afghanistan that fall.

In an institution devoted to warfighting combat experience is the gold standard, and infantry Marines are often seen as a cut above the rest.   Even as recruits we were taught this, and we respected Sgt Crum.  We were also terrified of him.

I ran to my rack, put my blouse on my foot locker, ran back and stood at attention on the concrete floor in front of the DI’s office.

As far as quarterdeckings go, this wasn’t so bad.  Sgt Crum stood in front of me and told me to push.  I dropped to the floor screaming, “Push, aye sir!” and started doing pushups.

“Now run.”

“Run, aye, sir!” I stood up and ran in place with my arms held out in front of me.

“Push.”

“Push, aye, sir!” Back to the floor, my hands slipping in a sweat puddle.

“Now run.”

And so it went, with some other exercises thrown in—mountain climbers, crunches, jumping jacks, the works.  The exercises aren’t bad.  Rather, what gets you is the lack of control over your own body, and the uncertainty about what’s next or when it will end.  Sometimes you switch exercises—say, from run to push and back—without actually having time to the do the exercise itself.  It’s an unpredictable back and forth designed to break you mentally.

And then, after you’re broken or the DI gets bored or feels guilty, it ends.

I put my blouse back on and rejoined the other recruits.

I had another, more literal, run-in with Sgt Crum.

In the beginning we showered together.  Sgt Crum marched a couple dozen naked bodies into the shower room.

“Turn on the water.”  Sgt Crum watched us with hands on hips, ignoring the splashes of water on his immaculate uniform and wide brimmed campaign cover.

“Aye, sir!”

“Put soap on your body.”

“Aye, sir!”

“Now rinse off.”

“Aye, sir!”

And so it went, showering by the numbers.  The whole process took 45 seconds and we were out, and another batch of recruits marched in.

Once after showering I walked through the head with a towel around my waist.  I took a step backward and bumped into someone.  I turned around, and Sgt Crum was behind me yet again.  I had committed two cardinal sins—I touched a DI and I looked him in the eye.

Sgt Crum blocked me with his arm and looked down with hate in his eyes.

“Get your disgusting naked body away from me.”

Averting my eyes, I scuttled off with an “Aye, sir!”  For some reason he didn’t quarterdeck me.  Perhaps he was too busy showering the other recruits.

A few weeks later, while getting ready for a hump, I swung my pack over my shoulder… and right into a passing Sgt Crum.  I turned to see what I’d hit.  Again I got the hate stare, but again he let me live.

I just couldn’t get it right.  But at least that time I wasn't naked.