Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Countdown to Army Retirement

It’s hard to believe that I became 58 today. With less than two years before my mandatory Army retirement date, I am anxious to serve one more overseas tour in the war on terror. Unfortunately, I am having a difficult time getting released from my training unit because, like everyone else in the Army, they are short of soldiers, too.

I am trying to convince them that my many years of military service should be put to better use before I hang up the uniform for good. Yes, I know I can accomplish things here by helping to train American soldiers, but there are plenty of combat veterans who don’t want to re-deploy right now. They have many more years in which to serve. I don’t.

The Army has a lot of qualified soldiers who want to return to Iraq or Afghanistan, but who are being held back by their units. Training Iraqi or Afghan soldiers or cops would be a terrific way to close out my career. I would also enjoy participating on one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. My contacts in Iraq tell me that their mission on these teams has been rewarding and important. With my law enforcement experience (and my previous business background of self-employment), I believe I have a set of skills that could make a difference.

I first entered the Army over 38 years ago. It was never important to me that I make general or sergeant major. My reward has been to make small differences over the years.

As I enter my last two years of military service, I hope the Army will let me participate in one last overseas mission. I am not asking for special favors; the Army is actively looking for trainers and members of the PRTs. Here I am….

Wish me luck.

SFC Chuck Grist

Monday, February 26, 2007

Vietnam Hero Gets the Medal of Honor

History will record the actions of the men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment in 1965 as one of the most heroic efforts in American warfare. The story of their life and death struggle in the Ia Drang Valley was masterfully told by Lieutenant General Hal Moore and Joseph Galloway in the book “We Were Soldiers Once – And Young”. The book later became the Mel Gibson movie “We Were Soldiers”.

One of the many heroes of this battle was then-Major Bruce Crandall. Crandall was a pilot and the leader of a group of helicopters that re-supplied the beleaguered unit and extracted its casualties. Much of this effort took place under fire and many of the men in those helicopters were killed or wounded in their efforts to help the infantrymen.

When Hal Moore recommended Crandall for the Medal of Honor, he said the pilot’s efforts prevented a bloody massacre of the First Cavalry soldiers. Such a catastrophic defeat would have rivaled the deaths of George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn.

Bruce Crandall will be presented with the Medal of Honor today in a ceremony in the White House. The military’s highest honor is a little late, but it is well-deserved by this great American warrior.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Journey of a Knife

As I prepare to leave for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for a month or so, I pulled a couple of pictures out of the archives. Other than me, the one common thing about the pictures is the Randall knife. This blade with the Indian stag handle was given to me by my late parents when I deployed to Vietnam in 1970 and it is engraved with my name.

One morning late that year, I led my platoon out of our night defensive position north of Bien Hoa near Nui Be mountain. We moved a couple of thousand meters when I reached down and patted my knife’s sheath, a habit which ensured the presence of that valued item.

To my horror, the knife was gone. I suddenly remembered I had left it where I made my “breakfast” of coffee and cocoa that morning. I stopped the platoon and took a patrol back to recover the knife. I was glad I found it before some North Vietnamese soldier stumbled upon it.

When I was preparing to leave for Iraq, I took the weathered knife to the Randall company in Orlando and asked them to re-furbish the blade. They did a beautiful job and made it look brand new. I carried it with me throughout our convoys and our travels in the war zone.

The first picture was taken in a jungle landing zone just before Christmas, 1970. Standing next to me is Captain Oakland Adams, a Ranger who was an outstanding company commander.

The second picture was taken in the Green Zone in Baghdad in October, 2004. Lieutenant Clarke Cooper was kind enough to re-enact the older photo, a copy of which I just happened to have on hand.

It is an interesting comparison, but a sobering one for an old soldier. Soldiers are much like knives; they both age over time, but they work just fine as long as you keep the edge as sharp as possible.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thanks, America!

It’s been over two years since this Vietnam veteran returned from duty in Iraq. I traveled to an Army seminar this past week and I had to pass through three separate airports. When I was preparing to fly out of Orlando, the Delta Airlines clerk at the gate asked to see my ticket. I gave it to her, she handed it back to me and I asked her if everything was O.K. She said everything was fine.

I didn’t know until I entered the plane that she had switched my seat to first class. I was pleasantly surprised, but regretted that I didn’t have a chance to thank her.

On my return to Orlando, I was in uniform and waiting for my flight in Atlanta when another Delta employee wanted to look at my ticket. She asked me if I had been to Iraq and I said yes. A few minutes later, she announced over the public address system that she would be boarding Iraq veteran SFC Charles Grist before the rest of the passengers.

I was stunned when the entire waiting area of over a hundred people broke into applause – for me. I was embarrassed, humbled and I got another one of those doggoned lumps in my throat.

All I could do was turn to the crowd, salute them and get on the plane. While I will always remember the unpleasant way I was treated upon my return from Vietnam, I will never forget how my fellow citizens welcomed me home this time.

When you greet an American service member or thank them for their service, don’t ever think that it’s a small thing. You have validated their sacrifices and warmed their hearts with the realization that they are appreciated. They are grateful beyond words.

Thankfully, this generation understands that the warrior is not the war. Hal Moore of “We Were Soldiers” fame said “Hate war, but love the warrior”. No matter how you feel about the politics of the war, remember that the warriors are just doing their jobs – for you.

Thanks, America, for your genuine love and your continuing support. Your warriors appreciate you just as much as you appreciate them.

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Understanding the Enemy

I am leaving today for a brief trip to another military installation. The purpose of this assignment is to attend classes related to some of the current enemy tactics, techniques and procedures. The Army is continually updating its soldiers and instructors on the most recent methods of the bad guys.

After a few days of this training, I will return to this installation for another month or so to continue the training and mobilization of the units here. After that – who knows? I may remain here or there may be other missions. I am still looking for the in-country slot (Iraq or Afghanistan). Once I find it, I am hopeful this unit will be able to release me.

This is a short entry, but I must pack and get to the airport.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, February 16, 2007

Preparing for Battle

In only a few weeks, the soldiers we are training will be on the battlefield. Our mission is to prepare these warriors for the dangers they will face on the other side of the world. We consider that job a sacred trust. Those we train must understand their enemy, prepare for his tactics and realize that he is a resourceful and brutal foe.

I have trained many soldiers during my years in the Army. As I look upon each new squad or platoon, I am reminded of the look of innocence of those who travel the road of war for the first time. They will not return with that same fresh look; their innocence will slowly dissolve among the harsh realities of man’s most horrible game.

This is a sad realization, but it is tempered by the dedication of these soldiers to the task at hand. They know they will soon move closer to the edge of Hell and they intend to be ready. When they meet the enemies of America, they will do so with courage and skill. Their training and their devotion to each other will make all the difference.

Sometimes an old soldier will see the faces of lost comrades among the ranks of a new generation of troops. They will appear like shadows that are visible one moment, but gone the next. Such visions remind us that the long line of American warriors is an endless one.

Today our warrior students proudly wore their armor, held their rifles with purpose and crawled or ran through an exhausting gauntlet. When it was over, they slapped each other on the back, laughed at the things they could have done better and congratulated each other on the things done well.

Tomorrow is another day and another challenge on the road to war. They will be ready.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Sergeant and the Shiites

“We regard Iraq’s success to be our success.
And, God forbid, Iraq’s failure will also be ours.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq on February 20, 2005

One evening in Baghdad’s Green Zone I had a chance to sit down and visit with a group of Shiite security guards (see above photo). It was an interesting encounter and a chance to learn once again that the average citizen of the world is pretty much the same everywhere.

I am working on a book (as time permits) about my 2004 tour in Iraq. The following entry is part of Chapter 12.

“We visited for about an hour discussing politics, religion, our differing cultures, Muqtada al Sadr (a Shi’a or Shiite Muslim like these men), our families and all manner of things. In the end we discovered that men were much alike everywhere. We wanted to live in peace with our families, love our wives and children, have a decent job and make a good home. We might all follow a different path to God, but we all tried to be good men and surely that is what God, or Allah, wanted.

I asked them “Are all Shi’as good?” Their response, of course, was “Yes, yes”. Then I paused, looked at the ceiling and asked “But what about Muqtada al Sadr?” They all laughed and one of them said “Muqtada is not so good.” The guard sitting next to me didn’t respond. I smiled at him and said it was O.K. to tell me how he really felt because now Iraq was an independent country and its citizens could express themselves freely. He still didn’t speak and the others laughed. They told me the quiet man lived in Sadr City, al Sadr’s neighborhood. Another guard said what al Sadr was doing was not good and the real leader of the Shi’a’s was Grand Ayatollah Sistani, a fact well-known to all Americans in Iraq.

Still trying to unmask their real feelings, I asked them “Is America taking Iraqi oil?” They all said “Yes, yes”. In response I said “No, America will BUY Iraqi oil.” I said we would buy it with American money that would go to help the Iraqi people. Then, as the English-speaking guard translated, I explained how Germany and Japan were defeated by America and we helped rebuild those countries. I said America doesn’t control those nations, but it helped them become prosperous and free. They seemed to understand this since they nodded their heads up and down as my words were translated. Either that or they were in the “accommodate the stupid American” mode.

They appeared to agree that Iraq now had a better future. I asked them how they felt this happened. They sat for a minute. I said “Do you feel free? Do you feel free to have a better life? Do you fear the government any more?” They said they did feel free and they didn’t fear the government any longer. I told them American soldiers came to Iraq to give them their freedom and the freedom of Iraqis was being purchased with both Iraqi and American lives. I could tell they sensed my own feeling of loss just as I felt theirs.

We discussed the differences in our cultures and religions. I told them I respected their country and their religion, but if Iraq wanted to be a land of freedom then all religions must be free to practice as they wish. I may have been preaching about the benefits of freedom and liberty, but I sensed they liked it because they hung on every word I said. They asked a lot of questions and I did my best to answer them.

I told them I was a Christian, but I believed all men had the right to choose their own roads to God, or Allah. I told them a story of three men – a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew – who were walking the same path to a common destination when they came to a thick forest. The path split three ways and the men argued as to which path to take. In the end, the three men separated and each one followed a different path through the dense woods. After a long journey, the three paths came out of the forest and once again merged into one. The three men greeted each other and traveled together on a single path until they reached their destination.

I tried to explain to the Shiite guards that we all take different roads in life and we all choose our own path to God. In the end, isn’t the ultimate destination the same? All men seek God, or Allah, and all men must be given the freedom to follow their own hearts through the forest of life as they make their way to Him.

They seemed to like the story. It was apparent I was the first American with whom these men ever shared an in-depth conversation. During the hour or so that we visited, they offered me tea and food and I felt as though I had made friends of some of them, but certainly not all of them, especially the quiet one. As I stood to leave, some of the guards asked me if they could have their picture taken with me. I said I would be honored.

We took that picture the next morning.”

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Part-Time Soldiers - Full-Time Warriors

It is always rewarding to watch skilled warriors perform their jobs. Many of my fellow soldiers at this training center have been mobilized for some time or it is their second or third mobilization. All are Army Reservists and many, like me, have already been to Iraq or Afghanistan.

When your mission is to prepare soldiers for war, that task becomes a profound one. These trainers will receive their first group of students on Friday. In only a week they have prepared training lanes and organized classes. They continually rehearse what they will teach and do so in front of their leaders and peers.

During these informal classes, the instructors seek and receive input and suggestions. They do everything they can to make sure all necessary information will be included and that all critical tasks can be learned.

The soldiers being trained are also experienced veterans for the most part, but the classes are aimed at the new guys. The basics of each task are reviewed, the students conduct walkthroughs and rehearsals and then they perform the task at full-speed. If they need to do it again, they do so until they are comfortable with it.

Finally, the squads and platoons will execute the tasks on a lane with an opposing force, or OPFOR, that will represent the insurgent enemy the soldiers will soon face for real. The current tactics, techniques and procedures of the enemy will be those used by the OPFOR trainers.

The veteran instructors at this post, which I will not name for security reasons, do a critical job at a major point in our nation’s history. War is always in a constant state of ebb and flow. Tactics change, units take on missions they have never performed and the leaders and their subordinates must adapt to an increased call for their services.

Fortunately, the Army is filled with motivated volunteers who see the bigger picture in this war on terror. They don’t have time for whining or political correctness. Give them their mission, make sure they have the right training and they will perform magnificently.

I am proud to be one of them.

SFC Chuck Grist

Monday, February 12, 2007

On the Road Again

It is always interesting to travel in uniform. Unlike my return from Vietnam when some California hippies decided to spit on me, I’ve had nothing but pleasant experiences since I was first mobilized in 2003.

Back then an elderly woman walked up to me while I was at a gas station. She put her hand on my shoulder and said in a thick British accent, “I don’t know if I agree with the war, but we’ve always loved the Yanks.”

When I returned from Iraq in 2004, we landed in Maine and were met by dozens of people with signs who cheered us and welcomed us home. As you can imagine, that was an emotional experience for this Vietnam veteran, but the young soldiers took it all in stride. They didn’t know how different it could have been.

While I waited in the airport this morning for the flight to my temporary duty station here in the States, several people walked up to me and thanked me for my service. It’s a good feeling to know your efforts are appreciated.

Another couple also came up to me this morning and handed me a brochure for an organization called Homes for Our Troops. In looking at their website at, I was impressed at the selflessness of the people behind this organization. Their mission is to help veterans who return from the War on Terror with serious disabilities and injuries. They assist these wounded warriors in building a new home or adapting an existing home for handicapped accessibility.

Americans may change how they feel about the direction of the war and they may be angry about some of the mistakes that led us to Iraq, but they must never take their frustration out on the men and women in uniform who are doing their jobs.

For now I will help train young infantry soldiers who are headed to Iraq or Afghanistan. For many this will be their second or third tour in the war zone. The soldiers training these kids take their jobs seriously and they will ensure that these troops are ready to face the dangers that lie ahead.

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Remembering the C.O.B.R.A. Team

“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because
rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

George Orwell

By this time in 2004, my team in Iraq had been on the ground for less than a week. Before our tour ended, we experienced enough close calls to know that the odds might eventually work against us. Survival in war is about skill, luck and the odds. With so many other soldiers around you, the odds are small you will be the one killed or wounded.

As I leave home tomorrow to begin the first mission of my third mobilization, my thoughts have naturally turned to the men I served with on the C.O.B.R.A. Team. Aaron Self is a police officer in Texas, Chad Higginbotham is a recruiter for the National Guard in Mississippi and John (Doc) Actis is a cop in Mississippi and a part-time actor. We became more than a band of brothers; these men became like sons to me and we were all fortunate to return home in one piece.

Of all of us, Doc is the only one who returned to Iraq after our tour ended in late 2004. He served as a private security contractor and survived some harrowing experiences, including the loss of some of his co-workers.

For now I have been tasked with helping to train infantry soldiers who are mobilizing for duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. I may do this for my entire mobilization or I could have the opportunity to go to one of those countries. Much of this will depend on how my training unit is tasked over the next few months. I’m a soldier; I’ll do what they tell me to do, but I would prefer to be overseas.
Whether I am stateside or in the war zone, I will continue to write in this blog about my own experiences and about the soldiers I encounter. Even in the States, I will meet many extraordinary men and women who have unique stories from their own war-time service. It is important that those stories be told.

Thanks for your continued support and for the many emails you have sent me. Please watch this blog for updates.

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, February 9, 2007

An Ancient Warrior from World War II

“You’ve never lived until you’ve almost died. For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.”

Unknown source from the Vietnam era

The elderly man was not very tall, he had a thick head of gray hair and he wore a black baseball cap that said “World War II Veteran”. He was entering the McDonald’s as I walked out and I could tell from his halting steps that he was dealing with health issues. This would be natural for a man who was surely in his 80’s, if not older.

From the look of his clothes, life was not very easy for this ancient warrior. I paused for a minute, then turned around and walked back inside.

The old soldier was placing his order, so I stepped to the counter and told the girl at the cash register that I would pay for his meal. He looked surprised, but he saw my Army uniform and smiled. His voice cracked a bit as he said “Thank you”.

I asked him where he served in the war and I could almost see him stand a little straighter when he said “the South Pacific”. His eyes watered up and he said, “It was a long time ago.”

I could feel one of those darned lumps in my throat when I looked at him and thought about my own father. Dad died in 1982, but he was an infantryman in World War II. This man was about the age my father would have been, but he was another warrior who helped save the world from the Japanese and Nazi empires.

I told the old soldier that it was men like him who inspired me to enter military service back in 1968. I said I was grateful for their example, for their sacrifice and for the blood their generation shed for the rest of us.

I don’t think he knew what to say except “thank you”, so I handed the money to the McDonald’s clerk. Just then the manager walked up. He heard my comments to the old soldier and said, “Don’t worry about it, sir. I’ve got it.” I shook the hand of the World War II veteran and walked away.

For only a moment, I paused outside to look back at the old veteran. I smiled when I saw other customers walking up to the man to shake his hand.

The old soldier was having a good day. And so was I.

SFC Chuck Grist

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Lieutenant Matt Belfi: Philly Cop & Warrior Pilot

“Without a doubt, of all the cities that I have visited in the East,
Baghdad is the most beautiful and the most important, to my mind.
It is an oasis in the middle of the surrounding desert, a queen born
of the desert peoples that traversed her land, and finally,
the capital of a powerful empire of the future.”
Count Laurent de Sercey (1840)

One of my new Baghdad correspondents is First Lieutenant Matthew J. Belfi, a Pennsylvania National Guardsman and helicopter pilot. From his vantage point in the heart of the Green Zone at the U. S. Embassy, Lt. Belfi can see and feel everything going on in that wartime headquarters building. He works on the travel coordination team for Ambassador Khalilzad, but he also recently co-coordinated the in-country travel for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

When I was in Baghdad in 2004, the embassy always reminded me of an old Humphrey Bogart movie. It’s located in Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palace and the place is filled with generals, admirals, civilian mercenaries, Iraqis and the soldiers and civilians from Coalition countries. With all the diplomats and spies lurking around, it seemed to have some of the intrigue of Rick’s CafĂ© in Casablanca.

In one of his emails, the lieutenant talked about the increase in rocket and mortar fire into the Green Zone. He said the front of the embassy was hit by an incoming round which failed to explode. The insurgents fire a lot of rockets, but rocket scientists they are not.

Like every pilot I ever knew, Lt. Belfi would rather spend his time flying and he has the warrior spirit that one would expect of a former infantryman. He’s also a cop in Philadelphia, so he possesses the natural instincts of a hunter of men. Guys like this are meant to be at the tip of the spear.

As someone who remembers what it was like to be a highly motivated young officer, I admire this American warrior. I am proud to serve in the war on terror with courageous men and women like Matt Belfi who are willing to step forward at such a critical time in our nation’s history.

Regardless of the political outcome of the conflict in general, these warriors have given every ounce of their dedication, their skill and their courage. They are the best of our nation’s soul and we are blessed to have them standing between us and those who would hurt us.

SFC Chuck Grist

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Remembering Specialist Nichole M. Frye

As time permits, I am working on a book about my 2004 tour in Iraq. The following is an excerpt from chapter 4 of that book.

It is appropriate to remember this young warrior just before the third anniversary of her death.

She was killed on February 16, 2004.

* * * *

“On February 16th a five vehicle convoy drove through Baqubah on its way to a military base. The soldiers in the convoy only recently arrived in Iraq and were from Company A of the 415th CA Battalion, one of the units subordinate to the 350th CACOM. The convoy approached an intersection and an insurgent was hiding nearby. When one of the Humvees reached a pre-designated point, the enemy soldier detonated an IED by remote control.

Driving that particular vehicle was nineteen-year-old Private First Class Nichole M. Frye of Lena, Wisconsin. She was killed instantly as the explosion ripped through the Humvee door next to her and the unprotected window above it. The right front passenger, a major, was thrown into the passenger door by the blast. His body armor saved his life, but he was seriously wounded.

The two soldiers in the back seat of Frye’s vehicle both suffered only minor wounds from shrapnel. Their Kevlar helmets and their body armor also saved their lives. The soldier in the rear of the Hummer was standing and shrapnel came through the soft part of his vest under his right arm, missing the heavy armor plate. As the jagged metal twisted through his body, one of his lungs and his liver were punctured.

Our first soldier killed in action in Iraq was a dedicated young female warrior who likely never knew what hit her. A total of fourteen other soldiers were wounded.

Frye was posthumously promoted to specialist.”

SFC Chuck Grist

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Message from the Front

I heard from retired Colonel Logan Barbee in Baghdad yesterday. He continues working for the State Department and his message makes clear the dangers our soldiers are facing and the dedication with which they embrace their jobs:

“SFC Grist. Have been in-country for several weeks now, have been mortared and fired at just after the helicopter dropped me off in Al Hillah. The helicopter was shot down as it was returning to Baghdad (no Americans were hurt, but the bad guys aren’t in this world any longer).”

Barbee continues: “I’ve been meeting with the civil affairs elements, the USAID and other country team and PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) members…We have several projects going….As you already know... we lost several civil affairs folks there last week. A large car bomb was set off three days ago in Al Hillah with over 100 killed and 200 plus wounded. That’s the life that these people have at this time, but we’re still meeting and trying to make things work.”

Barbee and others are continuing their efforts to improve the lives of the average people in Iraq. Still, the Coalition soldiers and civilians in Iraq cannot help but be affected by the sectarian violence that is ripping apart Iraqi life and the disagreement on the war that fills the airwaves here and overseas.

Regardless of how this conflict comes to an end, never forget that American soldiers and civilians are giving their hearts and souls to better the lives of the Iraqi people. Don’t stop supporting them and welcome them with open arms when they come home.

I have said frequently that there are those who “talk” and those who “do”. The Americans serving in the war on terror are the greatest of the doers.

No American must ever forget their dedication or their sacrifice.

SFC Chuck Grist

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Way of the Ranger

“Arms once taken up should never be laid down
but upon one of three conditions:
A safe peace, a complete victory or an honorable death.”

Jeanne Albret

It was not surprising that last minute changes meant I would go to MacDill Air Force Base instead of Fort Stewart, Georgia. Since I have already been mobilized in the past, the process can be expedited, so I will drive over to Tampa tomorrow.

In reflecting on the long road I have traveled since I first entered the Army in December, 1968, I recalled the Ranger Creed. This was created after I became a Ranger back in 1970, but it is impressive nonetheless.

Today's Rangers have become new legends in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The 75th Ranger Regiment and the Rangers who are spread throughout other Army units have waged a difficult and bloody war. They have lost many of their comrades, but other men still step forward to fill the ranks.

When you read the creed, you can understand to some degree the dedication and courage required to become one of these special operations warriors:

The Ranger Creed

"Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment.

Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.

Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight; I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.

Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.

Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy, and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.

Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor."

"Rangers Lead the Way"

SFC Chuck Grist

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Sal Cerniglia: A Warrior Leaves the Battlefield

“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
General Douglas MacArthur

I’m off to Fort Stewart, Georgia, for a few days of mobilization activities. This is when the Army makes sure the paperwork is up-to-date, I have all my shots and my pay is squared away. This computer will go with me, so I will endeavor to continue my entries on a regular basis.

Today I attended the monthly drill for my Army Reserve unit, but it was not a usual day. This was also the occasion of the retirement ceremony for my old friend, Staff Sergeant Sal Cerniglia. (See this blog for last December 21, 2006 – “Purple Heart Medal for “Wounds” not “Injuries”. This entry tells Sal’s story from Iraq.)

Sal has done wonders as he has struggled to recover from the almost fatal wounds he suffered in August, 2004, in Sadr City, one of Baghdad’s most notorious neighborhoods. Today his friends and fellow soldiers honored him and his wife Grace in a formal ceremony in Orlando.

If you did it Sal’s way, he would still be on active duty in the middle of the fight, but eventually we all have to pack it in. After 35 total years of service as both an officer and a sergeant, Sal’s wounds brought him to his final day in uniform. It was a sad time in a lot of ways, but the room was filled with pride, courage and brotherhood.

At the end of the day, Sal will go home, take his uniform off for the last time and look once more at the medals, the plaques and the notes of good wishes given to him by his friends and fellow warriors. Then he will sit back and smile to himself.

He can rest comfortably in the knowledge that the next generation of American warriors will follow his example, pick up the banner, re-load the rifle and move into battle against the enemies of freedom.

After all, Staff Sergeant Cerniglia helped train, lead and inspire many of the very same soldiers that will follow in his footsteps.

No man could ask for a greater legacy.

SFC Chuck Grist

Saturday, February 3, 2007

A Sergeant's Last Tour

“The Sergeant is the Army.”
General Dwight Eisenhower, WW II

My orders have been issued calling me to active duty as of February 1, 2007 as an infantryman. I am an observer/controller trainer who will participate in the training and mobilization of infantry units headed to war. My civilian career as a police officer is on hold once again, but I believe I am needed more as a soldier for now. This is my third mobilization since 9/11.

My Army Reserve unit is aware of my desire to return to Iraq. My second choice would be Afghanistan. Should our unit be tasked with missions in those theaters, my name is on a list of volunteers.

Yeah, I am well aware of my age. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t serve in a war zone as long as I am in the active reserve and physically able to do the job. I have never believed that service in war should be restricted to the young; the kids need an old hand every now and then. Still, this will be my last active duty tour.

I am beginning my final two years of military service. I will turn 60 in February of 2009 and that is my mandatory retirement date. I will surely be one of the few remaining Vietnam veterans serving in the Army by then.

For those military souls who wonder why a 57 (almost 58) year old soldier is still only an E-7 or sergeant first class, I would simply say “Don’t worry about it.” I have been in and out of the military several times since I returned from Vietnam as a young first lieutenant. It was that first break in service of nine years that cost me the commission. However, I have enjoyed my time as a sergeant and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.

I believe I have one of the three most important ranks in the Army. Over many years I have learned that battles cannot be fought or won without sergeants, staff sergeants or sergeants first class. Non-commissioned officers, or NCOs, are indeed the backbone of the Army.

As a very young lieutenant, I served in the jungle with sergeants who taught me how to read trails, smell the enemy and think like a guerrilla. As a sergeant, I have shared my warrior skills with younger soldiers in various training schools and also in the deserts of Iraq. I spoke today with an Army major who is retiring. I was one of his trainers when he was in Officer Candidate School preparing to be a lieutenant. He may be retiring, but I am still around.

It won’t be too much longer before I hang up the uniform for the last time. Until then I hope the big Ranger in the sky will permit me to fill many days of useful service to my country.

After all, if I can teach just one soldier something that might keep him alive, then the old sergeant still has a purpose.

“Rangers Lead the Way”

SFC Chuck Grist

Friday, February 2, 2007

Post Traumatic Stress: When the War Doesn't End

When I returned from Vietnam in 1971, I was not the same young man who entered that war with determination, patriotism and a positive attitude. There is nothing glamorous about war. It is a miserable life filled with experiences of unimaginable horror, with moments of burning fear and with the crushing emptiness in your soul because of your dead friends.

Each soldier fights his own war against the enemies that face him in combat; each man brings home memories based on his unique experiences. When he tries to merge into civilian life, he discovers that he is always alone even when he is surrounded by others. They cannot understand where he has been, what he has seen and what he must carry around with him for the rest of his life.

With the memory of two wars, I have known many fellow warriors who have come home to face their families as well as the demons of the mind. Even within this last year, my job as a police officer has brought me into contact with recent war veterans. Some are doing fine; others have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and they are not adapting very well to life back here in the “world”, as we said in Vietnam.

Some of the troubled souls among us once stood tall and proud in their uniforms, they faced the enemies of their country with courage and fortitude and they did so with honor and integrity. When I meet these veterans, I try to remind them that they were once the elite members of their nation’s warrior class, that segment of society that is tasked with protecting everyone else. When they took off their uniforms, they didn’t remove the warrior spirit from their souls.

I haven’t been immune to post-war effects. My first two years after Vietnam were spent as a wanderer with little or no purpose. I lived responsibly sometimes, but I was often irresponsible. My wife Debbie came along like a rose after a storm and she helped me realize there was so much to be grateful for.

My training as a Ranger has always made me a hard-headed person. That training also taught me to never quit. Like almost everyone else, I have been knocked to the ground and I have endured both success and failure. We seldom know what we are made of until we fail or endure tragedy. Then we must get up, dust ourselves off and move on. It is this renewal that makes all the difference in life.

To my fellow warriors who cannot seem to find the way to cope with the memories of war, I ask them to remember who they were in battle. Reach into your soul and extract the essence of your warrior spirit. Put away the drugs and alcohol, stand up and move ahead with your life.

As you face a new day, you must re-awaken the pride you once had in yourself, you must stand a little taller and you must become a warrior once again. If you need help or someone to talk to, your fellow warriors will stand by you now just as they did in combat.

Nothing defeated you in battle and you will allow nothing to defeat you now.

You will never, ever quit.

SFC Chuck Grist