An old soldier in a new war - LancasterOnline: News

An old soldier in a new war

23 years after he last served, a 55-year-old soldier is training for what could be a trip to Iraq

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Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2008 12:20 am | Updated: 4:24 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Fifty-five-year-old Neil Gussman was back in the Army Monday.

In deep.

Fort Indiantown Gap gumbo clutched at his boot soles. Raindrops clung to his M-16 like watery blisters.

The Lancaster business executive crept along the wall of a makeshift hut with a squad of other soldiers. One by one, they ran in a crouch across open ground.

Gussman held his arms in close to protect his body from shrapnel. He kept his rifle muzzle pointed down for maximum readiness.

No one was actually trying to blow him up, of course. This was an urban assault training exercise. He made it.

He was one step nearer his goal of becoming a chemical-weaponry specialist.

He was one step closer to serving in Iraq with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.

He hadn't been expecting that outcome.

When this newspaper last looked in on Gussman eight months ago, he was preparing for a helicopter maintenance unit job with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment.

"Giving back" was his reason for re-upping 23 years after his last service in an Army tank unit.

Gussman had anticipated giving back one weekend a month. He was to be a part-time soldier with the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Now, he says, "I'll probably have my 56th birthday in Iraq."

His unit was put on alert this past winter, a possible precursor to mobilization to Kuwait and Iraq.

That's the story circulating.

Soldiers say Army rumors are usually dead on or way off.

Regardless, Gussman will complete three weeks of training this month and another three in the fall.

His self-appointed midlife mission has friends wondering.

But, he said, whatever his eventual deployment, he remains committed.

And, even though he's surrounded by soldiers less than half his age, he said he's reveling in the familiar trappings of Army life.

"It's more fun than I thought it would be."

Roger that

Spc. Gussman began schooling at the Gap in Lebanon County in early May.

He learned emergency field medicine and night navigation through the woods, among other things. He became reacquainted with firearms.

Gussman had not shot an M-16 since he took basic training in 1972.

In a recent hand-to-hand fighting session, he sparred with a strapping 21-year-old recruit.

"He was throwing me around," recalled the lanky, graying Gussman. During the chokehold drill, "I saw stars."

On Monday, Gussman was one of about 120 other soldiers who rose at oh -dark-hundred and drove far out on the range to practice urban combat techniques.

The Army had built a mock Iraqi compound in a wooded valley between Blue and Second mountains.

Battered shipping containers stood in for the houses.

Wire mesh covered some of the windows, the better to deflect "flash and bang" stun grenades and other more lethal projectiles.

Ragged curtains billowed in the breeze. Arabic graffiti stenciled the walls. Old tires, junked furniture and wrecked cars lay strewn about.

"We practice the squad fighting in a rather bad neighborhood," quipped Gussman, peering around through black-framed safety goggles.

But no shots sounded: the muzzles of everyone's rifles had been plugged with "blank firing adapters."

The troops broke into groups and rotated through various stations, absorbing the business of signaling, flinging four-prong grappling hooks and, generally, covering their camo-clad butts.

Stay alert, exhorted Staff Sgt. Arthur Nein and other teachers.

Do NOT poke the muzzle of your rifle ahead of you around a corner.

Do NOT silhouette yourself in a door or window.

"I'm not looking for Rambo!" exclaimed one instructor. "If you have to go slow under the window, go slow."

With good humor, Sgt. Warren Young tested the group's knowledge of hand signals.

"Air attack?" he prompted.

The student GIs waved their arms overhead, as if doing stationary jumping jacks.

"Roger that," said Young, clutching his soggy worksheet. "You guys are high speed."

High speed is a military term of endearment.

Low speed, conversely, denotes anything uncool, such as Gussman's older-edition helmet, which kept swimming around on his head and was due to be replaced.

Gussman with the grappling hook? High speed.

Throwing lefty, he was the only one in his group to lob the thing through a second-floor window on his first try.

"Hooah!" His friends chanted.

Learning guerrilla defense tactics was a stickier proposition.

Gussman and a buddy, Andrew Scott, started by stacking cinder blocks hip high in the doorway of a red shipping container. But then they decided they should have first installed an interior blast wall to shield them from explosions and debris.

For concealment, they draped old towels over the entrance rampart.

"Our blast wall is here," Gussman said, pointing out the finished product to a drill inspector. "So if we get a grenade we can hop over that."

Diving through windows was the last project before lunch.

The first candidate got a vigorous assist from his two partners. His desert-tan hightops rocked up and smartly whacked the outside of the window frame.

When it was Gussman's turn, a young soldier brandishing a camera stepped aside to capture the moment.

"The Gussman," the man said. "Got to get the old man going through the window."

Gussman jacknifed over the sill and folded nimbly onto the cushions inside.


Gussman noted later that he has completely healed from a bone-crushing 2007 bicycle racing accident, though the scar "does bar me from the swimsuit competition."

In fact, added Gussman, who is known for his athletic exploits, "I'm pretty sure I'm in better shape than I was the first time around."

His physical fitness test score, 271 out of 300, supports the contention.

Fort Indiantown Gap Public Affairs Office Spc. Matt Jones, 22, scored 210.

Everyone knows everybody else's results, Jones said with a grin.

Besides the fitness gap, of course, there is a vocation gap.

None of Gussman's reconstituted Army skills will exactly carry over to his married life or his job as communication manager for The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

"Working in a museum and a library," Gussman said, "I so seldom put anyone in a chokehold."

Then there's the generation gap.

"My break in service is longer than their life," Gussman can say of most of his male and female comrades.

The popular culture has evolved since he mustered out of the reserves in 1984.

The barracks before lights out are now "sonic ground zero," reported Gussman, who described a massive proliferation of personal electronics.

He's not the only graybeard. Three other guys in the unit are over 50. Still, age - and media coverage - have conferred some notoriety.

"Hollywood" was Gussman's new nickname Monday.

He likes that better than the old one, "Oddball," which he said sprang from his resemblance to Donald Sutherland's character in the 1970 war movie, "Kelly's Heroes."

Sgt. 1st Class Timothy Cain, a 50-something infantry training assistant who served in Vietnam and Iraq, acknowledged that the Gussman chronology is atypical.

While Sept. 11, 2001 spurred an influx of returnees eager to give back, Cain said, few have a break in service of more than a dozen years.

The trainees at the Gap will undergo 11 basic battle drills "to cut down on their mobilization time," Cain said.

The exercises have changed little since World War II, he added. Nor has the esprit de corps. "I think the camaraderie stays the same."

Gussman, indeed, ticked off a list of warm military fuzzies last week.

Like his ride, the stalwart deuce and a half.

Other motor pool trucks have been retired since he last served, he said, but the soldiers of 2008 still get ferried around in canvas-roofed 2½-ton workhorses.

"The jokes are exactly the same," marveled Gussman, who said humorous themes often revolve around breaking wind.

Intact, too, are the traditions of hurrying up and waiting and of stiff upper lips.

At lunch, the relentless drizzle wrung more wisecracks from the troops than complaints.

"If it ain't rainin' you ain't trainin'," Gussman said, reeling off an old Army line.

Actually, he said, contemporary Army chow is "really pretty cool" compared to the cold jellied meat of yore.

He wrestled open a mocha-colored plastic pouch - "Meal-Ready-to-Eat" -and used the enclosed chemical pack to heat up his food.

Among the copious leftovers was "BEVERAGE POWDER CARBOHYDRATE ELECTROLYTE FRUIT PUNCH (24 grams).

"That would be Gatorade," Jones said.

Gussman drank hot coffee instead.

He would be looking ahead to a warm bunk.

Unlike the Cold War days when he camped out with the tank unit in Germany, he said earlier, "I'm pretty sure I'm going to be dry tonight."

Jon Rutter is a staff writer for the Sunday News. His e-mail address is

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