My Dog Naomi

Intro

When you get married, you marry your spouse but also their family. With Muna it was her dog Naomi and her cantankerous cat Mr. Kitty (yes, that’s his real name, lol!)- more about this character in another email.

Meeting Naomi

The first I met Naomi her tailed wagged so hard that the back half of her body wriggled and twisted with excitement. She sniffed and looked at me up and down inspecting me.

Naomi is a Rottweiler and Labrador Retriever mix in one dog, sometimes called a Labrottie or a Labweiler. She is the best of both worlds. In Naomi the mix settled in just right. She is intelligent, loyal, protective and quiet. She has a submissive friendly nature combined with a strong guarding instinct.

When you look at her it’s hard to tell were one breed begins and the other ends. She is a beautiful dog both in looks and personality.

Naomi’s is black and tan. She is a large dog weighing almost 65 pounds. She is ten years old, an old woman in dog years but she is healthy and active.

She has the head of a Lab but the body of a Rottweiler, all black with a tan chest and paws.

Naomi’s eyes are her best feature. She seems to have real eyebrows that are small, tan marks. They dance over deeply expressive, large, calm eyes.

A charcoal line goes from the corner of her eyes all the way back to her ears. It looks like smoky cat eyes in heavy pencil. She has a small dimples of tan in her black fur on each cheek. From her dimples grows three long whiskers.

She has a real majestic quality in her eyes.

The first time I met her I said, “Hello Naomi. Nice to meet you. I’m Dom. I hope we will be friends. I’m really excited to met you.”

Her tail swept out knocking from side to side. Her entire tail is black. From the minute I met her I loved her.

We created an instant rapport. Over the next couple of months Naomi became my dog.

She sits erect and stately waiting for me when I come home. Instantly she is on the ground, her legs up, head cocked waiting for a belly rub. She is a mix of sweet, innocent, clownish and devilishly smart.

K9 Paycheck

She will do anything for the K9 paycheck- a combination of heartfelt praise, a treat of her favorite dog biscuit and a rubber toy called a “Kong ball.”

With most dogs I’ve known the bond comes over food. By feeding a dog by hand you can make a new friend easy. Naomi was no exception.

The real bonding with Naomi came from hours of playing with her, petting her, and hanging out. She had my affection and enthusiastic praise, I had her love and attention. It was a perfect match.

I often talk to Naomi while brushing her tan and black coat. She walks with me in the morning and chases me into the kitchen at night.

Naomi’s favorite thing is her Kong ball. A hard red rubber toy, shaped like a squashed snowman. They are chewable, almost indestructible and off-kilter so they wiggle when you throw them. Naomi loves it when I bounce her Kong ball on the kitchen floor.

For her the Kong ball and a dog treat are the ultimate reward. She is obsessed with her Kong ball. When the toy appears, everything else disappears, including me.

She doesn’t see or hear me once she starts chewing and chomping on the red rubber. Her eyes closed in semi-bliss, she is in heaven.

Loving Naomi

There is an old saying goes, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” The saying has been credited to Winston Churchill who served in the British Army as a Cavalry Officer.

Being around a loving and loyal dog improves a person’s mental and physical health like that. Naomi has done that for me. She is heartwarming and inspiring.

We have formed a lasting bond. It transcends any other love I’ve ever had with any other animal.

Naomi is far more than a family pet. She is a loving part of our lives and family.

Naomi is a very special dog and she created a spiritual connection of love with our family. I cherish her. Watching and learning from her I’ve tried to be a better person.

There is something profound in the relationship I have with Naomi, almost spiritual. She has humbled me in ways I never knew existed.

She is more than a four-legged companion, she is the person I wish I could be- loyal, loving and happy. If I was only half the person Naomi thought I was, I would be a saint.

At night sometimes I have nightmares. Naomi will wake me up by licking my hand and nuzzling her head in my hand. She is letting me know everything is going to be alright.

Death

Naomi is ten years old, old for a Labrottie. My time with her has been too short. I knew that going in and being a part of her life.

I know when she dies that there will be great pain. I try to live fully in the moment with her. I love sharing in the delight that is her innocence. She is my lifelong buddy because of her love and devotion.

There is a real beauty in her innocent honesty. She freely accepts my love and gives right it back. She doesn’t ask anything in return but to spend time with me and to love me.

She has cast a long shadow on my life. Her death will be an unbearable price. I know the grief will intense, but I also know I am a better man for loving Naomi.

If there are angels here on earth I think you find them in a loving dog. I know I did with Naomi. When I go to heaven I am sure the first thing I will see will be Naomi running towards with her Kong ball ready to play.

She is one more incredible gift that Muna brought into my life. The last two years I’ve spent with Naomi and Muna have been the best years of my life.

Viking Quest- Swords and Shields

Intro

Viking Quest is a fitness Mecca. I make the pilgrimage five days a week.

From almost the beginning of any workout, a little voice in my head begins to speak. I think of him as the “Gnome of Can’t.” Mr. Can’t loves to tell me that I can’t do another rep, run a bit further or manage that last round of a brutal workout.

Viking Quest (VQ) has helped me to silence Mr. Can’t. I found in that silence a genuine strength I never knew I had.

The Beginning

Last May, I met the Gunderson brothers at the local YMCA in suburban Lafayette, Indiana. I was answering an old poster advertising “Viking Quest.”

The three Gunderson brothers look like extras from the movie “300” or “Vikings.” The bearded brothers are testosterone incarnate with cobblestone abs and chiseled, bowling ball shoulders, and steely eyes during workouts.

You can see in their eyes every bead of sweat that ever dropped on their foreheads, every weight they pumped, and every Viking “trainee” they pushed to greater levels.

All three blond brothers look like a stunt stand-in for Thor. They greet me with smiles at the beginning of each workout.

The workout begins with Olaf putting his long blond hair into a pony tail. Sven puts his blond hair in a man bun. They grab shields and started yelling.

Five minutes, after the warm up, I am physically failing, and things have only just gotten started.

The brothers prowl like hungry lions up and down our shield wall yelling, encouraging and cajoling. We do sword-and-shield work until we feel exhausted. I’m barely making it but I feel alive.

A Bad Athlete Made Okay

I am not a natural athlete. I am more of an academic than an athlete. I am clumsy and cross-eyed. I am more comfortable in a library than in a gym. I feel better with a book in my hand than a dumbbell.

I got issues- I have muscle tears in my right shoulder from multiple dislocations, creaky knees, a bad back and a constant ringing in my ears. Too much weight on my back, too many miles on my feet and a few too many explosions has left me a physical hot mess.

I literally “fake it until I make it” every day at VQ. The truth is I hate it and I love it.

The Shields

My proper education of being a Viking began the first day of class. Olaf, the oldest Gunderson brother, showed me the basics

“This is the warrior’s way. It is a school of thought we have enrolled in. It is a tough way of life, but it’s rewarding,” said Olaf in his Norwegian accent.

He told me to pick up my shield. The shield is wheeled shaped and two feet across. It’s crafted from hardwood and set with a metal rim.

The shield is emblazoned with the design of a Solar Cross- a large “O” divided into four parts of red and blue.

It is a classic medieval shield but fully functional in its design- to train me to become a Viking. The shield is large enough for defense, but small enough to make the warrior carrying maneuverable. It weighs nearly six pounds.

“For a Viking, a good shield was the difference between life and death. Being able to handle the shield was priceless,” said his Olaf’s younger brother, Sven.

The Swords

The practice blades are single-handed Viking broadswords. The Norse blades are two-and-half foot blades made from ash.

They have a full-tang with thick edges, the points of the blades are rounded for safety.

The grips have leather straps for a secure hold. You totally feel like a badass holding these ancient weapons.

The swords and shields help us recreate the real feel of training for deadly hand-to-hand combat, in feel and performance, and in design and construction, without the risk of cutting off a hand.

The shields and swords help to unlock the spirit of the wielder. They are beautiful in both function and beauty and a heck of a lot of fun.

They made me admire times long ago and long gone. I am a grown middle-aged man playing with toys and having the time of my life.

“This is not about producing false courage. None of the shield-banging and yelling bravado you see in the movies. We only yell when we are having fun,” says Sven. We yell a lot.

“Habit will become your friend. When you train the mind to think offensively, it teaches the mind to think in only way. This makes you strong in battle,” said Sven.

“In Viking times, a warrior wore a helmet and breastplate for his own protection, but his shield was for the safety of the whole line,” said Olaf.

I stand for minutes at time holding a sword and shield stretched out in front of me until my arms ached. I learn the strokes of a blade. I am educated the hard way, when I make a mistake I get hit with a sword.

I learn how to use the shield, how to drop it to stop the lunge beneath the rim, and how to shove it forward at an attacking enemy like a blunt spear.

Olaf watches me rehearse the basic cuts. He fixes stuff, when needed.

“The hardship of the exercises will strengthen your back, but it also strengthens your mind. A Viking shield wall is won by the legs it has underneath it. The real test comes when all your strength is gone. Then you must seize victory from defeat,” said Sven.

One by one we take the test. We face each other in the shield wall. When I am done I wobble around on spasming legs until everyone is finished.

“There is nothing Olaf loves more than to throw trainees back into the fire,” said Sven smiling.

As brutal as the shield wall test seems, it isn’t an exercise in fitness sadism or a crazy attempt to build legs strength while yelling and grunting. It’s not designed to build muscle or burn fat.

It’s a baptism into Viking Quest’s primary belief: strength is in the mind is a warrior’s primary weapon.

True Believer

VQ is almost like a cult. After my first week I was almost in a state of religious zeal. I drank the Kool Aid by the cup full. VQ members are called “Viking trainees.”

A lack of effort or not showing up results in instant excommunication. It’s a closed society, but like the Norse warriors it’s named after, it’s clannish and prickly.

When you join, you join a family. A family that is harsh and sometimes cruel, but always loyal and loving.

The Brothers Gunderson

The Gunderson brothers believe in training as if your life depends on it. Most of their workouts make me feel queasy when I hear what lies ahead.

Their unconventional medieval training methods, such as tire flipping, rock throwing, shield-and-shield work, and rope climbing to make their “trainees” fit.

Olaf is a character from an epic movie-heroic, muscular and tragic all at the same time.

Olaf tried acting in England. When that didn’t work out he followed his brother Sven to Indiana.

Sven was a smart kid. He came to Purdue University to study mechanical engineering. Ragnor followed a few months later.

The brothers were one of the lucky few to escape working-class Norwegian city of Bergan and make something of themselves. They can trace their family line back to the 9th and 10th century Vikings.

The brothers have turned old family legends into a fitness craze. Now, the brothers were getting paid to make people suffer and miserable “Do it again,” says Olaf in a deep, loud Norwegian accent.

My body is out of control. I am hating my life right now.

How It Works

VQ is a stripped-down combination of high intensity aerobic activity, some weightlifting, calisthenics and sword-and-shield work.

Mix in dumbbells, a box, a clock, swords and shields and you have a perfect recipe for pain.

The basic workouts are 40 to 50 intense minutes long. They start at 5:30am and are done by a quarter to seven.

Every workout is different. The Gunderson brothers focus on intensity..

You write down your score after each workout. This allows you to track your progress over 60 days. Watching your reps increase in a set time period is a great feeling.

It’s a grueling regimen. Some days I see trainees puke or have muscle failure. It’s hard to believe that good people pay hard-earned money to do this. We do it because it’s a lot of fun.

VQ is no-holds-barred training regimen that shocks your system and puts you in serious shape. It is a gut-check that tests your physical limits, builds mental grit and helps to forge total-body strength, stamina and power.

Most of the workouts, range from crushing, hour-long circuits with swords and shields to vicious intervals on the rower, to throwing rocks. All of it is almost biblically intense.

“Each workout is designed to be brutal gut check. I want it to be a mental crucible. I want to my students to get used to worshipping in the temple of pain,” says Olaf. Smiling he says, “Through pain and suffering you discover your true potential.”

The Gunderson brothers practice what they preach. They do each workout with us. Sometimes they encourage, sometimes they yell, but always there is a couple of stern looks to “trainees” not putting out.

One trainee is lagging behind. Sven comes up behind her. “Come on, Viking! You got more in you. I am relying on your shield to save me,” yells Sven.

The female trainee lifts her shield for one more hard push. As soon as the workout is over a smile explodes across her face. She worked hard and did something few people could do. Her reward: a pat on the back and nod from Olaf and the admiration of her peers.

Olaf says, “I found VQ to help get people unstuck in their heads.” Over time he has turned doughy engineering students from Purdue into a phalanx of hardened Viking warriors.

“I used to run VQ on the ‘Fight Club’ model- it was invitation only,” said Olaf. That has changed over the last couple of weeks.

The Results

I’ve immersed myself in the Paleo diet. It’s stripped away the weight but has left me fantasizing about loaves of bread and heaping bowls of spaghetti.

I question myself every step of the way. Each morning I confront questions about myself, my past and my athletic limitations. Again, I hate it and I love it.

Deep inside me there must by a masochistic who loves pain and torture. I show up to VQ four to five mornings a week to get my teeth kicked.

I can’t tell you why something so punishing and difficult is also funny and rewarding. But I’ve learned a lot about myself at VQ. I am a better man for it.

 

Viking Quest and Viking History

Intro

I got a ton of responses from my “Viking Quest” post last week. Lots of people wanted to know more about the workouts, the Vikings and the Gunderson brothers.

I thought first we would start with the Vikings. Look at who they were and where they came from.

Viking Quest

The Gunderson Brothers and their training camp are both wonderful and cruel. I had no idea what I signed up for when I trudged off to train under their insane tutelage.

At first it all seemed like madness, training with practice wooden swords and heavy practice shields yet, there was a method at work. I never knew how I would react under their crazy training regime.

They taught me to keep going, to push through when others stop, and to get through when self-doubt creeps in. I learned how to commit to something and then get it done, no matter what! This is why I came back for a second week of school.

They reinforce their lessons with heroic tales of the Viking Age. By learning about the Vikings you learn how to get “unstuck” when things are going wrong.

No matter what the predicament the Vikings always prevailed because of their attitude and belief in victory, no matter what!

Hard Lesson

Everything has a beginning and an end. What happens or what unfolds in the middle is anybody’s guess. There’s no telling how much energy or emotion you will spend or what you’ll encounter.

Sometimes things are easy and sometimes they are very hard (like going back to school in your 40s!). Viking Quest taught me to deal with the unexpected, to endure, until I won, to crush any challenge set before me.

I wasn’t trying to win anything. What the Gunderson Brothers taught me was how to prepare for the unknown- to break big things into little pieces and to eat an obstacle one bite at a time. Learning about the Vikings shows you how to do that.

The Gunderson brothers use the Vikings Sagas as a tool to teach patience, endurance and strength.

Without Viking Quest (VQ) I would have quit school the third day of the first week because this experience was too just too hard. VQ showed me how to take small steps that led up to a mile.

The Vikings in History

From the misty depths of the Early Middle Ages comes the story of mighty Viking warriors. They brought terror to Northern Europe.

The sight of Viking longships made people flee for their lives. The Viking would raid, burn and pillage the town and villages of their enemies.

The rich oral tradition of Norse legends tells that their exploits through time and poetry create a lasting image of fearless raiders who invade and plundered their way through history.

Everyone knows the Vikings were deadly warriors. Modern people might see the Vikings as the scourge of England and France or as brutes and warmongers. They were all these things and much more.

Why the Vikings

Learning about the Vikings’ lives, times and characters can give us a new way to view the world. The Vikings had a worldview very different than ours. They viewed their lives as a basic struggle between good and evil.

These two concepts are not as clear cut as we might think. What Medieval Norsemen saw as good, we might see as wicked, aggressive and based on self-interest alone. What they saw as evil, we might see as simply the natural way of life on our planet.

Reading about the Vikings we see some characters that are larger than life and fascinating as only legends can be. Let’s set sail on the high seas with these great warriors.

Different People

I love to write about people in a variety of settings, circumstances, and time periods. By reading and writing about different cultural groups in a particular historical time you learn about the people.

If you want to really learn about a culture you read and write about their armies. Armies a microcosm of the societies they come from. A culture’s values are put on display in the way they fight a war. It’s the culture at its most extreme.

To really understand any culture you have to strip your mind of notions or old ideas. Old ideas that are positive or negative stop learning. Stereotypes are confining and tight. Removing them is tough.

Ideas that don’t fit templates are unwelcome, smelly guests in the houses of our minds. They shock and challenge us.

A Time and Place

Like all good stories, the Viking saga takes place in a particular time and place. These two factors help explain their tales of adventures and battle.

It helps us to get a clearer understanding of why things happened the way did and what challenges they faced.

Time Period

The legends of Vikings take place in the Dark Ages, a time from 500AD to 1,000AD. The Dark Ages was a bloody and destructive time.

Few people could stand up to the Vikings. That began to change in the late 1,000s.

England and France became more powerful. They were able to fight back against the Vikings with better weapons and ships. They were brave enough to attack the Vikings.

Norway and Denmark also became less warlike. The Vikings went on fewer raids.

Many Scandinavian people converted from their pagan beliefs to Christianity. Over time, they stopped raiding and pillaging.

The Viking Age came to an end. The once fierce Vikings were no more, until now.

Shipbuilders and Explorers

The Vikings were also skilled shipbuilders, sailors and explorers. Their journeys took them through south to Europe, east to Asia and west to North America.

Warriors of the North

The Vikings created trading routes throughout Scandinavia, Britain, and even into Russia. In expanding their empire, it aided in the settlement of regions they conquered.

The Vikings were called “Norsemen” which means “people of the north.”

Where they come was a brutal piece of land called Scandinavia. This region of northern Europe is the lands of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

They sailed from these lands to attack other parts of the Europe to the south.

Jarls

Most Vikings were farmers. The richest Vikings owned the most lands. The wealthiest land owners became leaders called “Jarls” (pronounced “Yarl). Jarls always fought each other for more land and power.

Vikings loyal to a leader would fight for him. Jarls rewarded warriors with land and riches.

It’s believed that over time, land in Scandinavia became scarce. Vikings who wanted wealth had to find it somewhere.

In Norse families the practice of second sons, who had no prospects at home, would go abroad to find fame and fortune.

To Go a “Viking”

In Old Norse, “Vik” means bay or open water. “Viking” was a verb. To go a “Viking” meant to pillage and plunder.

The Northmen looked to the seas searching for gold. The Norse warriors went “Viking” by raiding monasteries all over Europe. They became the most famous and feared warriors in the world.

Pagans

The Vikings would pillage Christian churches. They knew they were poorly defended. They were pagans- a folk who believed in many gods.

Vikings believed that brave warriors who died on the field of battle would go to Valhalla. This great hall was ruled by Odin, king of the Norse gods.

The dead warriors fight every day. At night their wounds heal and they feast and drink together recounting their brave deeds. This would go on until Ragnarok- the death and rebirth of the Norse world.

Viking Training

Viking children learn how to fight from an early age. They practice with swords, bows and arrows. Both boys and girls can become warriors.

The Ships

Viking children learned how to sail almost before they could walk. They were taught how to navigate and read maps. It was important for Viking sailors to know how to read ocean tides and currents to plan the best routes.

The Vikings used longships to navigate the sea. These ships were narrow with a shallow draft. The low draft allowed the ships to sail in the shallow river waters of the lands the Vikings invaded.

The longships had square sails and oars. The Vikings used the sails to move fast on the open sea. Oars helped them to move fast in shallow river water. They could also be used to give the ships a burst of speed at sea.

The longships could be rowed right up on to shore.

Each longship could carry more than 50 Vikings. Ships would travel together in fleets.

Imagine climbing on board an open air RV and sailing some of the roughest waters in the world. For the Vikings, it was another day at the office.

Weapons

The Vikings fought with many weapons. Most warriors used spears.

Some had swords or battle-axes, usually the richer ones or those with noble blood. Making a sword is costly and hard.

A Viking sword had a thin, double-edged blade nearly three feet long. Viking swords were made extremely strong using layers of steel and iron. Handles, called hilts, were made of bone, silver and jewels.

A sword was a prized weapon. Sometimes warriors gave swords to one another as gifts. Swords were passed down from father to son.

Viking poets wrote about their swords. Many Vikings were even buried with them.

Armor

Viking warriors did not wear much armor. The average warrior owned an iron helmet.

Vikings wore leather helmets and armor to protect their heads and bodies. Some Vikings had iron helmets and chain mail armor. Chain mail, made of interlocking metal rings, was good protection against enemy weapons.

Wooden shields were used to block enemy attacks. The shields were flat and round, with a hand grip in the middle. The shields were big enough to cover a warrior from his chin to his knees.

Dishonor is Worse than Death

The Vikings didn’t have an army. Most men were farmers, merchants, or traders. But every man was a warrior.

Summer was the time for fighting. During summer, some Viking clans, or large family groups, fought for land in Scandinavia.

Other Vikings boarded longships in search of treasure beyond their homelands. These Vikings were the raiders who attacked and plundered Europe.

When summer was over, most Vikings returned home. They put away their weapons, harvested crops, and settled in for a long, cold winter.

Honor is Everything

Honor, trust, and wisdom are not words that many people would use to describe Vikings. But Vikings lived by a strong code of honor.

Vikings accepted the fact that all people die. Honor was what really mattered. A skilled warrior who had killed many enemies and fought in many battles was held in high honor.

Bravery was one of the most valued character traits in Viking culture. Physical strength and bravery weren’t enough. An honorable Viking was loyal to his friends and cared for his family. He acted with wisdom and fairness.

To a Viking warrior, the opposite of honor was disgrace. Committing a crime was disgraceful. So was being fooled by a rival in war or business.

To a Viking, dishonoring one’s family was worse than death.

The Havamal

The Havamal is a book of wisdom and sayings. It said by legends to be written by the Viking god, Odin.

One of the sayings in the Havamal is, “Cattle die, and kinsmen die, but honor never dies.”

Revenge

If a Viking warrior was disgraced, he had to restore his honor. Revenge was the only way to do this.

A Viking who didn’t seek revenge against an enemy was considered weak. Many of the bloodiest battles between Viking clans were for revenge.

A Viking could also seek revenge or a disgrace that was not his own. It was a warrior’s duty to help family members and friends gain revenge.

Most Vikings could call an army of loyal warriors to their side. Together, they would attack the man or clan who had caused the disgrace. It was a simple and brutal way to live.

A Proud Culture Fades Away

For more than 40 years, the Vikings attacked the coasts of England, Ireland and Scotland. In the mid-800’s, a huge Viking army called the Great Heathen Army invaded England.

They were looking for new lands to settle. The Great Heathen Army cut a path through England, killing and raiding as they went.

Finally, King Alfred the Great of Wessex (southern England) made a deal with the Vikings. If they stopped fighting, he would give them the northern half of England. This new homeland was called the Danelaw.

Other groups of Vikings settled in other countries. Viking raiders attacked and settled in parts of France, Ireland, and Russia. The Vikings, who had once traveled the high seas, began to settle down.

Explorers

Some Vikings sailed west. They settled in Iceland, and later, Greenland. Erik the Red led 25 shiploads of people to Greenland in 986.

Some Vikings sailed even further west. These Vikings reached North America around the year 1,000. They became the first European explorers to see the New World, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Erik the Red’s son, Leif Eriksson became the first Viking to set foot on North American soil.

End of the Viking Era

After settling in other lands, Vikings married local girls. Their children learned local languages and customs. Many Vikings became Christians. They left the old Norse warrior ways behind.

In Scandinavia, kings such as Harold Fairhair rose to power. Local jarls no longer had control. Fighting among clans stopped for economic reasons such as trade and communal development.

By the late 1000s the days of the Viking Age were at an end.

Last Viking Battles

In 1035, England’s King Edward died. The king had wanted a Viking named Harald Godwinsson to take his place.

But two other men of Viking wanted the position. One was King Harold Sigurdsson of Norway. The other was William of Normandy. William was from northern France, a place called Normandy (place of Norseman). William’s great-great-great grandfather was Rollo the Great (Ragnar’s brother in “Vikings”).

In the fall of 1066, Godwinsson’s army attacked Sigurdsson’s forces in England. The battle was fierce and bloody. Finally, Sigurdsson’s was killed in battle. Godwinsson won.

William of Normandy sailed to England with an army of his own, from the very shores that the Allied Armies would land in 1944 to liberate Europe from the Nazis.

Goodwinnson rushed to a place called Hastings in southern England.

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings is one of the most famous battles in history. It began early on the morning of October 14, 1066 and lasted all day.

Godwinsson’s army was beating William, until he was killed in battle. At the end of the day, William of Normandy won. On December 25, 1066, he was crowned King of England.

After William’s victory, the Vikings’ world changed. Those who had settled in England came under control of William’s new government.

After nearly 300 years, the days of Viking adventures were over.

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Viking Quest

Intro

I am 41 years old and five days a week for an hour a day I practice being a “Viking.”

I know, I know… you are thinking of me on a ship, crossing the high seas, looting a monastery and returning home to claim my prize as a “conqueror.” Although, that would be very cool, that’s not the case.

I have watched “The Last Kingdom” and “Vikings.” I love those shows, but now I am doing the real thing, well, sort of…

For the past month I have been doing a new workout system called “Viking Quest.”

Viking Quest

Viking Quest is a new workout method. It was started by three Norwegian brothers- Olaf, Sven and Ragnar (yes, like the show “Vikings”) Gunderson. These guys turned a business into a fitness crusade.

Two weeks I saw a ratty flyer for “Viking Quest” at the YMCA, where I swim. It read- “Do you want to change your life? Do you like having fun? Than become a Viking!”

I was in the dark about the venture and had no idea would kind of training I would encounter. When I showed up I got a proper introduction to the Viking lifestyle.

When I first arrived, I was met by a very fit, tall guy with long blond hair in a ponytail.

He came up to me and introduced himself. “Hi, my name is Sven, if you have trouble saying it just call me ‘Seven.” A few seconds a carbon copy of Sven showed up. It was his brother Olaf.

They spoke English with slight Norwegian accents. They look like testosterone incarnate and extras from the warrior movie “300.” They had steely gazes, cobblestone abs and broad, chiseled shoulders.

I held up the flyer and said, “I saw your flyer. I thought it would be cool to be a Viking.”

Both men smiled. Olaf said, “Then you’ve come to the right the place.”

The Brothers Gunderson

The three brothers share a passion for historic series like “Game of Thrones,” “Braveheart,” and “Vikings.” Olaf used to be an actor and knows the period roles demand a certain look.

Olaf, is the oldest at 33 years old, and Sven, is the middle brother at 31 years old. They tower over most of the students at 6’5” and 6’5” respectively. Ragnor is the youngest and the runt of the litter at 6”1 and 29 years old.

Their easygoing smiles can turn into surly sneers at a moment’s notice, especially if they feel we’re not putting out.

The brothers’ hometown is Bergen, Norway- the city where most Viking expeditions started from. They moved to Iceland as kids and later lived all over the world.

No matter where they went never forgot their Viking roots. “Gunderson is an old Norse name. We can trace it back to 9th and 10th centuries Vikings,” said Ragnor.

Sven came to Purdue University for a degree in engineering and ended up staying. His brothers followed a few years later.

These three brothers have developed a fitness regime that is just like the physical lifestyle of their burly, seafaring namesakes.

Olaf said, “People like to eat Paleolithic diets. They eat food that is native and available to our ancestors. We wanted to do a paleo workout. No machines, just exercises that build practical strength.”

Everything we do focuses on functional fitness. We do exercises like hurling 20 pound rocks and scale a tree with a rope. It’s all simple and sinister.

Olaf is a leading man with charisma to spare. He laughs and encourages us through the workouts. He is a rogue who reminds me of Han Solo.

His brothers are just as fun but serious when it comes to working out.

Olaf lived for a while in London. He got into acting. He made sure he honed his choreography and fighting skills. He got an advanced gold certificate in sword fighting from the British Academy of Stage and Screen Combat.

He starred as an extra in a few swashbuckling films, but nothing came of it. He decided to start a new workout method based on what he learned.

The Rules

There is just one major caveat: You must submit to every cruel and unusual whim the brothers come up with.

All the stuff we do is something you see in “Vikings.” We row on machines, fight in the “shield wall” and have lots of fun doing macho things in a manly way, even the girls- they’re called “shield maidens.”

There are twelve of us in class today- nine men and three women standing around a converted warehouse.

We are anxious. It shows up in our unconscious movements- shifting feet, tapping fingers and darting eyes.

I smile nervously at one of my brothers-in-pain. Loud, metal music blasts from overhead speakers. It adds an almost tangible intensity as our our profane, superhero-size fitness director Olaf walks into the room on one side. His brother Sven walks in on the other side.

They meander up and down our ranks.

“You, shield wall. You, on the rower. You, shield wall. You, on the rower,” says Olaf. You will do the warm-ups for five minutes. Give it all you got, or die trying.”

Muffled curses are lost in the blaring wail of Metallica. Each one of us moans at the immensity of our task. It allows Olaf and Sven to determine our fitness level.

The shield wall is the most basic warm-up.

Shield Practice

The basic unit of this is the “shield wall.” We use 6 pound practice shields to form a wall of shields. The shields overlap, your partner benefits from the protection of your shield and you from him.

We line-up in even numbers and smash the shields together. Pushing, grunting and yelling we try to collapse the other wall. It doesn’t require a lot of skill, but shoving and fencing with 2 pound wooden practice swords wears you out.

The shields and swords alone are innocent-looking torture devices. I am a blur of whirling, spinning, and straining legs. I push, pull and flail my arms. I bring my sword down over and over again on my opponent’s shield.

My legs are pushing forward as I lean into my shield. My grimace hardens and my breathing becomes frantic as the seconds tick by. Neither side is giving in or giving up.

Then it’s over. My five minutes are up. I am on my back gasping for air. My quads feel like they have battery acid in them. My right arm feels like a jackhammer. Sore and worn out, I hear the next dreaded words.

“Next exercise,” shouts Olaf.

Every bead of sweat falling off my head is well earned from every weight I’ve pumped.

Olaf says” I want you to put on your helmet, grab your shield and unsheathe your sword. You’re going into battle. Today you’re going to fill like a lion.”

I pick up my shield and sword. I feel like a lion, more importantly, I feel like a Viking.

My blood is Italian. My nationality is American. My heart is Viking. This is lots of fun.

 

School Day-by-Day

Intro

I am working hard to reboot my obsolete life. I found that I am an analog man in a digital world. It’s become something more, an almost a reinvention of myself.

I am holding my head above water at school, barely. I am not setting the world on fire but I am have an “A or B” in most of my classes.

Day by Day

Campus is a state-of-the art place with brand new computers and fiber optic (read: very fast) internet. Most of the tech-savvy students are half my age and twice as smart as me. I am learning a lot, it’s a very humbling experience.

This journey has made me face all my fears, anxieties and discontent in my life. Despite some setbacks (bad grades, the occasional anxiety attack) I’m going to keep going.

Ironically, all the chaos of my life has been brought into some sort of order because the schedule makes me set a routine. I go to obsessive lengths to get homework done and getting to class a priority. It has made my life more manageable.

I thought this project was going to smooth sailing and learning about something fun. The first couple of days was a baptism by fire. I struggled to stay alive but now I feel like I am really thriving as I get my legs underneath me.

Humble

Using a tiny kitchen table, an old laptop and some used books I’m learning about computers but I am really learning about myself. I hope my exploits can show anyone they can go back to school. I have a greater appreciation not only for education but for myself for doing something that I was afraid of.

At many points (almost daily) my journey in school has made me question my own actions and values. Nothing reminds you of what you believe in like adversity.

Writing

I really miss writing to you all. I don’t do it as much as I want. It’s one of my most favorite things.

Writing about my experiences offers me a chance to do a postmortem of what I am doing and ask myself why I am doing. Writing to you guys has helped me to understand and appreciate the experience of me returning to school.

I think this experience would have gone very differently if I didn’t write to you.

A Liberal Arts Guy and a Computer

I am a liberal arts major with two useless degrees in history. Future liberal arts majors be warned- these are fun degrees to get but not very useful unless in you do something else…there, I said the unspeakable.

After leaving the army I embarked on a ten year foray into a dizzying wealth of temp jobs all over America. I spent a decade desperately searching for myself. Now I am back school for a serious and real (read: not fun) degree in Computer Networking.

I tried to make a living writing from a home. In a pair of cargo shorts, t-shirts and my witty poise I tried to be a “real” writer. A year later, very broke and a little heartbroken, I went back to school.

My long-suffering wife encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. What I really wanted was to make sure she didn’t to worry about paying our mortgage or bills.

I needed a job so I went back to school on the GI Bill. I’m glad that I did. I discovered something much more than a job- my happiness.

Never Quit

With fierceness and an unbreakable resolve I’ve taken a vow never to quit or give into despair even when I bomb a quiz (happened twice!). No matter what, I’m going to keep going.

The most important lesson of all maybe: to live with gusto. This project has allowed to reclaim my life. I am so blessed to share it with you all.

In the end this isn’t really about getting a degree at all, it’s about me reclaiming my life despite TBI, PTSD and depression. Know all of you are missed, loved and thought of often.

 

 

 

Intro to “Always Ready: The Guardians of Helmand”

Here is the start of the book. Of course, it is a rough draft.

Everything I post is for you to read and critique. I don’t mind honest feedback. I welcome it and will use it to make the story better. So here is the beginning of our book. I have another 10,000 words or so, right now. I write, edit, re-write and then send it as I finish it.

Writing this book has been emotionally draining and physically tough. I haven’t been sleeping well. A lot of this brings up so many long forgotten memories. I always wonder if I am doing the story justice or if I am just another “hack” writing trying to tell a story about one the big adventure I had in my life. Only time will tell.

In the end it will be worth it.

Preface Dedication:

To my friend, Captain Bruno G. DeSolenni, who died while I lived. “I have lived your death a thousand times in my dreams as the years have passed. Yet, you sleep forever brave and laughing in my memory, you are missed.” I did my best to remember your valiant sacrifice, my old friend- until I see you again.

Acknowledgments:

Jerry Glesmann, whose tireless efforts and friendship brought me home again, twice. You are the best big brother a man can have.

Mark Browning, Paul Dyer, Mike Walker, Mike Campbell and the brave men of Oregon ETT# 11289 for the many hours you spent helping me find my way.

To my loving wife Muna- for all your patience, support, and unconditional love. God knows that none of this would have been possible without you. Thank you for letting me to follow my dreams. I love you more than life itself and more each day.

Author’s Note:

This is a work of nonfiction. Events, actions, experiences and their consequences have been faithfully retold as I remember them.

Based on interviews with many of the participants. Events I did eyewitness are retold based on documented accounts and interviews. Every event in the book took place, but a few have been reordered or combined for narrative clarity.

Conversations presented in dialogue are recreated from my memory or from interviews, but are not intended to represent a word-for-word documentation; rather, they are intended to invoke the essence of what was said.

Preface to “Always Ready: The Guardians of Helmand”

This a story of a team of Americans, British, and Danes advising the Afghan Army in the stronghold of the Taliban. The history of these men is told through oral history. My goal is to tell their story.

In 2008, I went to Afghanistan with a Team of American Combat Advisors. After training our Afghan soldiers we found ourselves in the south in the volatile Helmand Province. There along with British and Danish advisors, we engaged in fierce combat with the Taliban.

Some of the men- American, British and Danish- had multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Their experience would prove critical in the battles to come. Their contribution was invaluable both in advising the Afghans and in the learning of the Team.

Not many people know the story of American Combat Advisors in Afghanistan much less their fighting alongside other advisors from Allied countries. The American effort in Afghanistan had only 38,000 servicemen in comparison to the more than 140,000 soldiers in Iraq during the surge in early 2008.

My own experiences in Afghanistan were not courageous nor even that important, but the story of the men who fought in Helmand alongside the Afghans they were mentoring is an important story.

I have tried to get all facts that tell their story and their contribution to the war in Afghanistan. I have tried to tell the story of the men who served: what they saw, what they believed and felt. What brought them so far from home to risk their lives for the future of Afghans they have never met.

I interviewed veterans from the British and American Armies. I built the chapters around those interviews. I sent the rough drafts to them to make sure I recorded the events they saw and did.

The majority of this work is primarily positive. There is enough of the negative aspects of the war in Afghanistan. This not a work questioning the legality or morality of the war. It focuses on the bravery of the Afghans, British, Danes and Americans who are fighting a smart and relentless enemy.

I don’t overlook the negative parts of the war. Where these facts are relevant I add them to the account of the story. This is a story of war and there is little glory found in war.

I believe if we are being honest, we all make mistakes, especially in combat. I know I did. The names here are the real names of the men who fought. I have changed the names in the parts of story that are controversial.

My goal is never to embarrass anyone but to tell the story of soldiers who ventured far, fought bravely, and risked their lives to preserve the freedom and defend the liberty of the Afghan people. It is for them that this book is written.

My Experiences:

I did not have a unique experience in Afghanistan. I feel now, as I did then, that my own time there was common with one exception of a tragic event. Many other veterans I have spoken to saw more combat than I did or the men I was with.

This book is not meant to be a definitive work about the American Experience in Afghanistan. But the story does take place in a critical time in the war. The war changed from year to year, from unit to unit and from place to place. There is no such thing as a “representative experience.”

The only thing typical about the Afghanistan experience, is that it is different for everyone. The war in 2008 was different than the two years I spent there in 2010 to 2012.

It has changed since then. The purpose of this book is to tell a story about an American Embedded Training Team of Oregon National Guardsmen fighting alongside British, Danish and Afghan allies in combat.

It is a hell of a story. I was proud to be part of it. I am even more proud to tell it. These men are my friends who through our experiences became my brothers.

A Note to the Reader

This book chronicles the nine month tour of an Oregon National Guard Team in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous parts of the planet.

It’s based on firsthand accounts, it describes the combat, tragic loss of a beloved teammate and the heroic deeds of a team of combat advisors. Of my 17-man team one would die, three would be severely injured in combat and several more wounded in action.

All of us were changed by the experience. We weren’t special forces soldiers or an elite team of commandos, we were average national guardsmen.

Most of the team were part-time soldiers. We drilled one weekend a month and two weeks a year- traditional national guardsmen with regular lives 28 days a month.

Our average age was 35. We were experienced soldiers with over a decade or more of service. In our regular lives, we were teachers, mechanics, policemen, fathers, sons and husbands.

What makes the story so exciting is a group of regular men who did extraordinary things. War is the ultimate adventure. Men take great risks to prove themselves, to live up to an imagined sense of manhood.

The conditions were harsh. The weather was hot, the enemy fanatical and experienced. When the unexpected happened the adventure became a life-or-death struggle. With the odds stacked against us sometimes things got worse- no one knew what would happened next.

The links we forged binds us inseparably together forever. The things we saw and did in that year would take all of us to the breaking point- and one beyond- in the years to follow. This is my gripping account of the time I served on a team of a remarkable group of men – from the day, I joined them to a year later, when we came home and tried to get on with our lives.

This story is about the struggles and hardships all soldiers face. The stark brutality and surrealism is revealed as American soldiers far from home describe their bitter combat and occasional camaraderie with soldiers from many nations, including Great Britain, Denmark, Canada and Afghanistan.

When I interviewed my teammates I was struck by the depth of their emotions, the intensity of their descriptions and their love of their fellow man, even after a hellish year in Afghanistan. It is not about the official policy of the United States government. It’s not about the strategy of the war, talking points or pointing fingers. It’s not about happened before the team arrived in Afghanistan or after.

It’s about what happened on the ground, on the battlefield, where bullets flew, bombs exploded and brave men were wounded and killed. The men whose experiences are the heart and soul of this book are aware of the controversy of the war.

In telling our story none of us cared about the right or wrong of the war. We cared about those issues, but it’s not my purpose in telling our story. The intent is to record for history, as accurately as possible, what the team did, what we saw, and what happened to us- to our buddies, comrades and fellow soldiers- in a certain time of the war.

Although written as a narrative and first person perspective, this is a work of nonfiction. No scenes were altered, no dramatic license was taken. I did not invent characters or create composites. Descriptions of events were taken from the men who were there, from verified accounts or both.

All dialogue was spoken or heard first hand from primary sources. Thoughts ascribed to individuals came directly from the men themselves. The main sources of this book were myself and seven other team members.

All of us served as “combat advisors,” mentoring and advising soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA). We each had a different job on the team. These men represent a mix of officers and senior enlisted members of the team.

Several names of minor characters have been changed, or withheld for privacy or security reasons, but all descriptions and information included about the team are true. Classified details were omitted, in keeping with standard nondisclosure agreements about standard operating procedures.

Those changes and omissions had no material effect on the story and do not misrepresent the known facts. The story of the team is fundamentally in sync, but sometimes diverge on details, depending on where a team member was when something occurred.

Whenever possible the narrative reflects different perspectives besides mine. This is due to the fast moving nature of events, the fog of war and team members’ recollections while staying alive and not keeping track of dates and times events occurred. Secondary sources include additional interviews, photos and videos, books on Afghanistan, public documents, and media reports.

Myself and no member of the team have a financial stake in this book, my only intent is to tell the story truthfully. When the book is finished I will place it on my website free as an e-book.

Consider this book to be directly from the battlefield, from the men who know from hard experience, scarred bodies and searing memories what really happened during that harrowing nine month tour. Dom Oto

Intro to the “Always Ready: The Guardians of Helmand”

The team from Oregon were not Special Forces soldiers, highly trained in unconventional warfare, but citizen-soldiers of the Army National Guard. They trained part-time, close to home, until they were needed.

Now there country was at war and the call came. Their story is about ordinary citizens who became extraordinary soldiers in an exotic war-torn land far from home. They volunteered to be combat advisors to the Afghan National Army in the heart of Taliban territory.

From their grueling training at Fort Riley, Kansas to fighting and dying in Afghanistan to their return home a year later, this is a story of an amazing group of men. In training, they become buddies. In combat, they became brothers. They faced extreme danger and risked their lives to do a tough mission against overwhelming odds.

The Tour

They started training at Fort Riley, Kansas, re-learning the basics of soldiering in the middle of a cold, harsh Midwest winter. Two months later they were in Kabul.

They got a brand new Afghan infantry battalion full of raw recruits and reserve officers. Two months later they moved to Helmand- a province that is a Taliban stronghold, and a center of opium production.

They fought with the Canadians in the Battle of the Arghandab Valley after the Taliban attacked the Sarposa Prison- freeing hundreds of insurgents. A month later they occupied remote combat outposts alongside British, Danish and Afghan soldiers.

They endured relentless Taliban attacks while patrolling fields, orchards, and villages in the “Green Zone”- a stretch of fertile, farm land along the Helmand River Valley that hid mines and enemy ambushes.

Finally, in December 2008, they fought in “Operation Red Dagger” to liberate Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand.

They were ordinary men who came from all over Oregon. Among them was a mechanic, a school teacher, a logger, a nurse and a policeman.

They weren’t saints, but you don’t send choirboys to win wars. They were common men who displayed uncommon valor. In training and later in combat, they learned about sacrifice, heroism and loss.

It made them brothers. This is a story of men who fought, loved and sometimes died for each other. They were a small team of men who faced death, heat and a relentless enemy far from home.

In March 2008, a small team of combat advisors from the Oregon Army National Guard arrived in Afghanistan with 17 men. Eight months later, nearly half were wounded and one was dead. This is how they lived.

Cast of Characters

Bruno G. DeSolenni- A thirty-two year old Captain in the Oregon Army National Guard (ORANG).  He is a logger and fisherman from Crescent City, CA. He is a short, strong-looking man with blue eyes and jet-black hair. He is a legendary soldier with a solid reputation.

Bruno served in the Sinai Peacekeeping Mission and in Iraq as an Infantry Platoon Leader in 2003-2004.

Mark Browning- A thirty-three father of two year old Sergeant First Class from Portland, Oregon. Mark was a former active duty infantryman who spent the last decade in the ORARNG. With light brown hair. Mark has a colorful personality. Mark was built like a lumberjack at five feet ten and 210 pounds. Outgoing and smart, he sings in a garage band on the weekends.

Mark is a great trainer of soldiers, a natural fit for being a combat advisor.

Jerry Glesmann-  A forty-one year Master Sergeant from Salem, Oregon. Jerry is a full-time member of the ORARNG. Jerry is tall, with brown hair and built like a bear. He reminds me of a Louis L’Amour cowboy hero. His values are what he lives. His personal and public face are the same. He is a kind man, but has no softness in him. His toughness, like his bravery, is ingrained and deep. Jerry is a brave man. He is the ultimate soldier.

Jerry served as an Infantry Platoon Sergeant and advisor to the Iraqi Army in Iraq in 2003-2004.

Steve Cooper- A forty year old Captain in the ORARNG from Salem, Oregon. Coop was a sheriff deputy back home. Tall with the slim build of an endurance athlete with short, brown hair, he loves to read and talk history. Coop is the fittest guy I’ve ever known.

A quiet, solid man I’m proud to call a friend. In Afghanistan, he always walked point.

Paul Dyer- A thirty-one captain in the ORARNG from Monroe, Oregon. Tall, with his corn yellow hair and blue eyes that sparkle when he laughs, he radiates a powerful and contagious inner calm. Paul should have been a Viking, he would have fit right in with a pointed helmet with horns on his head, furs hanging off his shoulders, and one of those big double-edged swords in his hands, but he would need a Hunter S. Thompson book in his pocket to finish the picture.

He would become the finest combat commander I ever saw.

Mike Walker– A thirty-six year Sergeant First Class from Medford, Oregon. Mike was bald, short and stocky. He was a warrior who hated violence, a thinker who was immensely physical, and a quiet and considerate soul. He could describe how he felt in few words that were powerful. Mike loves guns. He was our team sniper and chief firearms instructor.

Mike Campbell- A forty-one year old Command Sergeant Major in the ORARNG from Klamath Falls, Oregon. Broad-shouldered with short gray-brown hair. He has the spare, tan face of a man who does hard, physical labor outside. He has a weather beaten face. He shook my hand in a firm grip. His hand felt rough from work done outside. He looked me in the eye as he introduced himself. Mike had a powerful build and easy athleticism that came from working physical jobs.

Mike is a Command Sergeant Major who leads by physical and personal example in everything he does.

Dominic Oto–  I was a thirty-two year old Captain from Lacey, Washington. I was a school teacher who was a last minute addition to the team from the Washington Army National Guard.

I served as a Headquarters Company Commander in Iraq in 2005.

Tribute to Bruno

Intro

I did my best to capture the spirit and essence of Bruno, such a great man deserved a stirring tribute.  Everyone who knew him loved him.  I hope you guys enjoy it.  He is missed greatly, thought of often and loved eternally.

Background

I served in Afghanistan in 2008 on an Oregon Army National Guard Embedded Training Team, sent to help mentor the Afghan National Army. It was in the company of this remarkable group of men I had some of the most memorable experiences of my life. The links we forged from our time there will bind us together forever. But for me, one event stands out above all others.

On September 20, 2008 a convoy hit a massive Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The explosion flung the 37,000 pound vehicle 20 feet into the air and it slid 70 feet. Three good men died that day. One of them was my friend Bruno.

In Captain Bruno G. DeSolenni, we see the best of a generation that has served with distinction through more than a decade of war. I was proud to call him my friend, and I am so grateful to have been part of the team I served with in Afghanistan.

Why Men Go to War

For almost two centuries the nobility, the devotion and the selflessness of those who defended America and protected liberty by going to war has never been a matter of debate. A lot time we use the word “hero” is to describe the young people who volunteer to go to war.

My father, a decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam, said, “Real heroes die in war. What more can you give than your life?”  Maybe he was right, I don’t know. I finally came to understand why he was so uncomfortable being called a hero. Heroes are something we create, something we need.

It’s a way for us to understand what’s almost incomprehensible and tragic, of how people could sacrifice so much for freedom, but for my dad and his friends, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that really for one reason: their buddies.

Men’s performance in combat is never inspired by patriotism or duty, but a feeling of loyalty to the men they are facing hardship with. The brutality of war mixed with the hierarchy and tight constraints of military life allows them to feel love and tenderness towards each other.

Noted war correspondent named Tim Hetherington once said, “War is the only opportunity men have in society to love each other unconditionally.”  Risking your life to save the life of another is the definitive and sometimes a final act of that love. It’s the ultimate expression of what they mean to each other. It is a promise made among brothers that allow men to serve and die together with no fear, and most of all with no regrets, facing those times with courage and professionalism.

Over time there is nothing you wouldn’t for the members of your team who you deploy with. It becomes a family. The bonding has to do with the intensity of the experience.  It is the warrior calling: Life and Death along with Love and Violence. Brave men may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends. The greatest of all the heroes I have known with this warrior ethic was Captain Bruno G. DeSolenni.

Bruno the Man

Bruno was born to lead. He started out as an Army recruit who pushed himself to his limits, both physically and mentally, to earn the title Officer, United States Army. He was an Infantry Soldier who, on his tour in Iraq, was called the “best Platoon Leader” by the men he led because they loved him for his spirit and fearlessness.

When I first met Bruno in January 2008, he was a Lieutenant in the Oregon National Guard. He was a short, strong-looking man with piercing blue eyes and jet-black hair, he was about to do his third deployment in six years. He was known in his Battalion, 1st of the 186th Infantry as a legendary leader. As I served with him in Afghanistan, I found him to be an instinctive warrior from the cradle to the grave.

I didn’t know Bruno in Iraq, but I think of his service in Afghanistan as the finest hour in his career as a Soldier. He showed himself to be an outstanding commander: clear, decisive, forceful, inspiring on several occasions personally brave.

He never seemed in doubt about the reason he was on this deployment. He was totally committed, he served with outstanding professionalism and a crazy sense of humor. In front of the men he led, both Afghan and American, his resolution never faltered.

Sense of Humor and Kindness

As I got to know Bruno I came to like him more and more. Bruno was emotional and sentimental beneath his easygoing, brooding visage. One of the best things about him was he never feared emotion, never dreaded any commitment of spirit and was never helpless to translate the murmurings of the heart into words. He always spoke his mind.

One day he came strolling into our hut at Camp Dubs, right outside of Kabul. Wearing nothing but a towel he said, “How does it feel, Dom, to come from a race of men who once ruled the earth, who brought order to the order to the Mediterranean world in an empire called Rome?”

Striking a bodybuilder pose with his arm flexed.  He flashed me his lopsided grin and said, “The both of us are Italian, but I come from the part of Rome, where men were masters of the universe, while you came from the part that evolved into the guys rolling dough and eating pizza!”  He laughed and grabbed me into a headlock. Bruno shows of emotion were always a form of martial art. It was never with a verbal expression.

You could always tell he loved others, and deeply. You could see in the way he listened to other people’s problems, the way he was attentive to other’s needs. It really came out in how he would get physically close to wrestle you or punch you in the arm after a kind ribbing.

This was his way of showing affection without being seen as “too emotional,”- his words. Besides demonstrating bravery in the face of enemy fire, he was kind to those who served with him. Being his comrade-in-arms always seemed to demand something more of yourself because he encouraged all those around him.

The Sacrifice of Volunteering

By volunteering for a deployed Soldier do so with the knowledge that by embarking on this adventure they risk losing one’s life as a possibility; there is a chance you may die. Duty to one’s country demands certain things, certain responsibilities.

But this is something more. This is not simply answering the call of duty. I always thought such commitment was truly “above and beyond.” Bruno understood this better than anyone.

I have known several young men who have given this country the supreme sacrifice. They are our country’s best, the nation’s sons, who answered the call of service to defend this country in a time of war.

They answered what Theodore Roosevelt described as “the trumpet call,” which he said, “Is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn all ease and self-indulgence and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.”

Bruno answered that trumpet call, as did every member of his team. Bruno came to represent that extra measure of courage and determination to be at the very tip of the spear in America’s wars.

In Bruno’s case, that meant leaving a loving family and prosperous job to join the Oregon Army National Guard to become an Officer, where he quickly earned the respect and trust of his fellow Soldiers; no small feat among that brotherhood of arms where so many men are veterans of multiple combat tours.

Whenever a particularly challenging mission came up, Bruno would be the first to volunteer. At just 32 years old, Bruno was the true embodiment of that special breed of warrior that he had long aspired to become, a grizzled combat veteran who cared more for others than himself.

Every human impulse would tell someone to turn away, especially after a harrowing tour in Iraq in 2004. He could have stayed home. But when his friends needed him, he was always there. Instead of staying, this young Captain, my friend, a 32-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, did something extraordinary.

He volunteered to go with a group of men to a faraway land, live in an alien culture because he knew he was needed and his skills as a soldier would allow men to live. In the end, he did just that.

Bruno’s uncommon qualities – his intellect, curiosity, agility and determination – were in demand and on display during his two combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Along with his legendary athleticism, Bruno had a real affinity for learning about cultures and history.

He quickly picked up the nuances of the culture while in Afghanistan and, because he was honest and learned their culture, he developed a bond with the Afghan National Army soldiers he was mentoring; they respected and trusted this young American.

Even as he was winning the trust of the Afghan Soldiers he mentored, Bruno never stopped being a warrior. That is why on the morning of September 20, 2008 Bruno volunteered to be a gunner on a routine convoy.  An Improvised Explosive Device destroyed the vehicle he was in and killed him instantly. I am sure even if he had known the outcome of that day I am sure he would have put the lives of his brothers in arms – Afghan and American – ahead of his own, it was just the way Bruno was.

Mourning his Passing

At his funeral, his deeds and incredible life were being celebrated, and I remembered a conversation we had on our way home to see our families one more time before we left for Afghanistan in March 2008, he said something to the effect that “People can tell me whatever they want about going over there, I’ll listen… but I’m just a middleman here, representing all those who have sacrificed and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  Bruno’s modesty, humility, together with his valor, truly set him apart.

Though he would call himself, and I quote “average”, he was clearly exceptional, even amongst the fellow warriors he so graciously extolled when talking about his teammates.

In his sacrifice, he has become a living example, a reminder to America that there are heroes—modern heroes that live and walk amongst us, heroes who are still fighting and dying to protect us every day as he did.

Bruno as a Leader

I have served with many great leaders, but Bruno was among one of the most inspirational field commanders I have ever known. His enthusiasm and “can do” spirit was infectious; he was an uncommonly talented leader that, led by personal example in everything he did.

He was also a fine officer, a model of courage, intelligence and inspirational leadership. When these qualities were added charity, humanity and generosity of spirit, a knight emerges who might be deemed worthy of a place at an Arthurian Round Table. I have known many distinguished soldiers in the American Army, but few seem so deserving of admiration as a human being as my friend.

The Roman Military historian Tacitus said; “In valor, there is hope.” With Bruno’s passing, he has become a symbol of that hope, but that is why we bestow this honor on those uncommon individuals who’ve already proven their ability to bear such burdens for the sake of our country and call them heroes.

His valor and ultimate sacrifice, offers enduring hope for the future of our country. Pericles’ speech to the families of the Athenian war dead, in which he said, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” His story is certainly interwoven with mine.

Today and in the years to come, we may find peace and some comfort in knowing that Bruno gave his life doing what he loved — protecting his friends and defending his country. His family gave a son, brother and uncle to America and America is forever in their debt. We are reminded that behind every American who wears our nation’s uniform stands a family who serves with them. And behind every American who lays down their life for our country is a family who mourns them, and honors them, for the rest of their lives.

His Legacy

Bruno’s legacy endures in the service of his teammates – his brothers-in-arms who served with him, bled with him and fought with him. Those brave men embody the spirit that guides our troops in Afghanistan every day – the courage, the resolve, the relentless focus on their mission: to break the momentum of the Taliban insurgency, and to build the capacity of Afghans to defend themselves.

Bruno endures in the Afghans that he trained and he befriended. In valleys and villages half a world away, they remember him – the American who respected their culture and who helped them defend their country.  We honor him most by living our lives to the fullest, and I suspect Bruno would be especially proud to know he had a nephew named after him.

I’ll close with my favorite line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” Bruno is now known to history as one of those valiant. His name, and his story, belongs to the ages.

May God bless this brave young man. And may God grant peace of heart and soul to his loving his family and to the men who have served with this brave American.  He is missed.

Master Sergeant Mark Browning, a good friend of mine and Bruno’s, wrote this about Bruno and read it at his Memorial Service in Kandahar two days after he was killed:

“He is a hero, a champion, a gift from God. His good nature and genuine care for others was infectious and spread not only to our team, but other nations, including the Afghans, the British and the Danish. Everybody loved Bruno. He was a force of nature.”

On 20 September 2008, my buddy Bruno was killed in Afghanistan. The Roman Military historian Tacitus said; “In valor, there is hope.” With Bruno’s passing, he has become a symbol of that hope, but that is why we bestow this honor on those uncommon individuals who’ve already proven their ability to bear such burdens for the sake of our country and call them heroes.

His valor and ultimate sacrifice, offers enduring hope for the future of our country. Today and in the years to come, we may find peace and some comfort in knowing that Bruno gave his life doing what he loved — protecting his friends and defending his country.  You are really missed buddy.

 

Kipling’s “That Day”

Kipling the Man

Rudyard Kipling was the bard of the British Empire in the late 19th Century.  He was born in 1865 at the height of British Victorian Power. He was the Indian-born, English-educated Anglo-Indian who gave voice to the British experience. He was a newspaper reporter and editor who won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature.

He was one of the most popular writers in Victorian England. He was as popular as Stephen King is today. He was known for his poems and short stories. He knew all the important men of his day and was of the few men to have refused knighthood.

He was a chronicler of Britain’s late 19th Century and early 20th Century wars. He lost his son in the First World War. This had a profound impact on his usually imperialist writing.

History

Kipling’s poetry about Great Britain fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier serve as a reminder of grief and anguish. The British fought three wars in Afghanistan beginning in 1839 and ending in 1919.

They were trying to block Russian expansion in the area in what is known as the “Great Game.” It was the first global Cold War with small wars being fought by super powers through proxy nations for political and territorial gain. The Russians would return 60 years later.

The 80 years that British fought there the strategy changed from one of occupation to punitive expeditions. We would now call this strategy “Preemptive Strikes” or a “Forward Policy.”

A young lieutenant named Winston Churchill fought as a Cavalry Officer in one such expedition into Northwest Frontier. He wrote his first book about the experience. It was called The Story of the Malakand Field Force: an Episode of Frontier War (1898).

He wrote it in a series of serials for the Daily Telegraph. It is a cracking read. Winston is a great writer- we will look at this next week!

In the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was on the throne. Her Diamond Jubilee was to be held in 1897. At that time the British Empire covered one-quarter of the earth’s land surface, its 380 millions of inhabitants lived on every continent and on the islands of every ocean. The sun truly never set on the Union Flag of Britain.

It was a time when soldiering was romantic, casualties were few and the British felt that God had ordained them to rule the world. Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden” talks all about the glory of being ruled by the British.

Kipling should be forgiven. The horrific carnage of World War I would change all that. Kipling the Writer

Kipling was a prolific writer who covered several genres in his work. He wrote short stories, novels, poetry, science fiction and historical fiction. Kipling knew firsthand all about violent death on the plains of Afghanistan. This is where his writing exceled.

Kipling’s voice in his poetry was always in the barracks language of the soldier. This is why he had such wide appeal. In one of his most famous poems called “Arithmetic on the Frontier” he tells the story of what happens when simple Afghan tribesmen use modern weapons against a modern, elite British force:

Two thousand pounds of education

Drops to a ten-rupee jezail-

**

Strike hard who cares-shoot straight who can –

The odds are on the cheaper man.

Kipling’s Poem “That Day”

In “That Day” recalled the bloody disaster sustained by British forces in the 1880 Battle of Maiwand. The Battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880 was one of the principal battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The Afghans defeated two brigades of British and Indian troops. The British gave a good showing but were forced to retreat.

The numbers are all rounded but between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan warriors were killed, and probably about 1,500 wounded. British and Indian forces suffered 969 soldiers killed and 177 wounded.

Aftermath

The Queen’s Colors and Regimental Colors of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot were lost at the Battle of Maiwand. This is resulted in the British Army no longer taking their regimental colors (guide-ons) on active campaigns.

Maiwand was one of the major military disasters of the Victorian era. It demoralized the British and had much the same impact as the 7th Cavalry’s 1876 defeat at Little Big Horn where 244 US soldiers lost their lives at Custer’s last stand.

The British realized there was no military solution for their political objectives in Afghanistan. Shortly after the victory, the British army withdrew from Afghanistan back into British India. Afghanistan was reunited and independent again.

The Brits would return for a brief period in 1919 but this battle would mark the end for British expansion into Afghanistan.

Location

Maiwand is a district (county in America) that lies in the province of Kandahar. It is located 50 miles northwest of Kandahar. It borders Helmand Province to the west.

September 20, 2008

I was driving a MRAP truck on the morning of September 20, 2008. The truck hit a 500 pound IED killing my friend and gunner, Captain Bruno de Solenni and two Afghan interpreters Hanif and Ramin.

The site of the Battle of Maiwand is only 10 kilometers from where the explosion occurred. The two events are separated by 128 years show us the relevance of history. The ideals and reasons for being in Afghanistan are different. The nationality of the western army is different. The enemy and his motives remain the same while his methodology and tactics are different.

Outcome

Maiwand illustrated the knife edged nature of the battles in Afghanistan. Heavily outnumbered British and Indian forces winning against much larger forces of Afghans. Providing they were experienced troops led by competent commanders.

The Last Verse of “That Day”

An’ there ain’t no chorus ‘ere to give,

Nor there ain’t no band to play;

But I wish I was dead ‘fore I done what I did,

Or seen what I seed that day!

A fitting reminder to a tragic day where several brave men died.

___________

Sorry for the somber tone of this piece. I just wanted to point out some history and why it was so deeply personally to me. Afghanistan is an ancient land with lots of history and has been the last stop for three world empires- Alex the Great, the British and the Russians.

I don’t know what will happen but this is a subject I know a lot about and have given great thought to. All of us have served there. Most of us have lost friends there. Explaining the why and how we are there is important to define our reasons for continuing to be there.

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Math- 1+1=11!

Intro

School has kept me as busy as a one-legged man in a fancy dance. I wish I could say I was crushing it, but it’s crushing me.

I am between a textbook and the rock that is my brain and the textbook often wins, lol. Actually things are turning around slow and sure.

Some people go on religious pilgrimages or try a new exercise routine to restart their lives. I attempted to go back to school to learn a new thing: Networking and computers- I know, I know, they are two things but really they are one and the same.

Don’t think so? What can your computer do without the internet? It basically becomes a heavy paper weight capable of a mean game of solitaire, just sayin’.

At forty-one years old, bored with my life and despairing over my abject failure as a writer, I decided to transcend my life by taking by going back to school and getting a “real” degree in Network Infrastructure (called “NETI” by those who love it, again, not me, but it’s beginning to grow on me).

Here is the blueprint: two years, sixteen classes. I thought at first it seemed like almost too much to fun. I love school and I love learning new things. Well, my dream degree quickly turned into a nightmare after the first week.

Imagine the first ten minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” I am Tom Hanks and I have landed on Omaha Beach. I watch in despair and anger as the German machine gun nests overlooking my beachhead slaughter my friends.

My program started out with twenty folks and now, a month later, we only have a small group of twelve survivors left. The other eight dropped out of the program. I am the only “old man” left in my original cohort; everyone else is twenty-years old or younger.

Like Tom Hanks, I am just trying to get off the beach and find some cover from all the machine gun bullets and mortar rounds blowing up around me. I am under siege and trying to stay alive, academically speaking.

Before I knew it, suddenly, I was down the rabbit hole of taking apart computers, re-configuring networks and the worst thing ever- more math classes. Guys, I am a liberal arts nerd. I love history, philosophy and writing. Math is my kryptonite, I dread it more than a severe beating.

Math and hardware stuff is outside my wheelhouse.

Math is a Dragon

Math is a fire-breathing, man-eating dragon. I knew I had to go Dungeons and Dragons old-school style and get medieval on it. I had to trek into the dragon’s lair and slay it one bloody, crusty swing at a time.

This was not going to be like Bard the Bowman in Lake-town (from “The Hobbit”) slaying Smaug by firing an arrow into the beast’s vulnerable spot on his belly. I knew this siege was going to be bloody and ugly, it was my own personal Battle of the Somme- the single bloodiest battle of World War I.

This dragon was an old nemesis. I last saw him in high school and my freshman year in college. I put the nightmare behind me and tried to move on with my life. Now, twenty years later he has come back in the form of an innocent sounding class named “computer logic.”

The class has nothing to do with logic (I wish it did because I love watching the Vulcans on “Star Trek” getting logical), but everything about an evil sounding thing called “computer math.” It’s basically algebra on steroids.

The Khan Academy

I was drowning in a sea of math and I needed a life-preserver. I signed up to take some classes with the Khan Academy. This has been a lifesaver for me, I am afloat and beginning to swim for shore.

The on-line classes are free and available to anyone. The program sets you up with personalized math experiences. I get “missions” that recommend what to learn next, by mixing skills and problems.

Each new “mission” has a three to five-minute tutorial video from YouTube which explains the new skill set. You practice and practice until you get it. It has helped a lot.

Study Sessions

I divided up my time with a study plan. I am working on getting a couple of network and security certifications. It was important to know what to study for and when. I mapped out the materials I needed, what labs I needed to setup and where to begin.

I am currently going for two certifications. The first is the CCNA for Routing and Switching. Here I can work on basic Cisco routers and networks. The second is the CompTIA A+. With this cert I can do basic hardware and software support on Macs, PC and UNIX systems.

Time is precious, so I tried to make a decent plan. At the end of the day, between family time, running errands and trying to have a life of some kind it was going to be tough.

I also knew I was far behind my peers. Most of the other students in the program are under twenty years old. Computers and math comes easy to them. For me, it is a long haul up a very steep intellectual hill. Nothing in this program has come easy to me and I have to fight for every inch I get.

I settled on two two-hour chunks a day. I study for two hours in the morning and two hours at night. I get most of my assignments done in class. Where I needed help was becoming familiar with new stuff or material I hadn’t seen since high school, ugh…this makes me feel really old!

I started taking the practice tests on Saturdays for both the certs. I downloaded audio books for both tests from Audible.com that I listen to on the way back and forth from school, a twenty-five minute drive.

Outcome

I am not replicating any kind of artistry here. This is a knife fight in a telephone booth. It’s ugly, boring work, getting done right now.  I am staying alive, but just barely.

Trying to learn boat loads of new material at such short notice has tested my comfort level, skill and stamina, not to mention my wife’s patience- God bless her, she is a saint to put up with my shenanigans and tomfoolery.

But I do have to say this has produced some hilarious and high-spirited times. I gotta get back to studying, but I did want to let you guys know how things are going.

I am slowly losing my mind but I wanted an adventure and I got one. Know you are all missed and thought of often, especially when I am doing boring math “missions.”