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.