So check out five things enlisted troops love, but officers freakin’ hate — according to our resident military officers.
5. Practical jokes
We all love to play some grab ass to liven up a dull situation, and some jokes do go too far — f*ck it. Once the principal officer shows up, consider the fun is over. Most officers aren’t fans of practical jokes especially if they’re the butt of that joke — but enlisted folks love it!
(Note: I’m told this doesn’t apply to pilots…)
It’s common for service members to grow mustaches — especially on deployment. The military has strict grooming standards for all facial hair and officers keep a close eye out on them. We wouldn’t want a single hair follicle to fell out of line — we’d probably end up losing the war.
(Note: The exception appears to be “Movember”)
3. Dipping tobacco while standing duty
Sometimes we need a nicotine fix and aren’t allowed to walk outside for a smoke. So we tend to dip tobacco and leave the spit bottles laying around. We’ll give this one to the officers since spit cups aren’t sexy.
When you’re just starting out in a leadership position and trying to lead from the front — no officer wants to get beaten in a sprint contest by someone who just graduated high school 6-months ago.
It’s probably why enlisted troops always have to run at the officer’s pace.
Lt. Col. David Bardorf and Sgt. Maj. Michael Rowan lead their battalion on a run during the annual battalion’s physical training session to support the Combined Federal Campaign. (U.S. Marine Corps photo: Lance Cpl. Nik S. Phongsisattanak)
1. Buying expensive vehicles right out the gate
Some branches are supposed to clear significant purchases with their command before executing on the sale. This system helps the enlisted troop from blowing his or her already low paycheck on a car with 30% APR — that’s bad.
Troops love buying brand new trucks — until they have to actually pay for it. (Source: Ford)
Do some people call you a Space Cowboy? Or do they call you a Gangster of Love?
Well, if they do, have we got the job for you!
NASA recently announced that it is accepting candidates for its next astronaut class. The goal is to have humans on the Moon by 2024 with the next step of setting foot on Mars by the mid-2030s.
Dubbed the Artemis Generation, this new class of space cadets will make up the core of what should be the most historic period of space exploration since the Apollo Program.
“America is closer than any other time in history since the Apollo program to returning astronauts to the Moon. We will send the first woman and next man to the lunar South Pole by 2024, and we need more astronauts to follow suit on the Moon, and then Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We’re looking for talented men and women from diverse backgrounds and every walk of life to join us in this new era of human exploration that begins with the Artemis program to the Moon. If you have always dreamed of being an astronaut, apply now.”
The last time NASA took applications, over 18,000 people applied for what would end up being 11 spots.
The odds are against you right?
Probably! (Successfully applying through USAJobs is the first difficult hurdle. View the job here.)
You may be a genius when it comes to knowing everything during comment wars on Facebook, but to be an astronaut, you have to be educated in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. (the University of Hard Knocks doesn’t count sorry) plus at least three years of proficiency in your field. Advanced degrees go a long way.
If you want to be a pilot (the new Orion might be the new transport for Americans), you must have over 1,000 hours of command pilot experience under your belt.
People usually focus on the science and education portion of being an astronaut without realizing that physical fitness is a major part of being accepted. Astronauts used to be only military men, but with the expansion of applicants into the civilian side, NASA makes sure that everyone that makes it into the interview stage (by this time down to 120 from 18,000) can pass a strenuous physical and medical exam.
It will probably be a bit more complicated than this.
As a civilian, you get paid GS11 to GS14 wages. If you are in the military still, you will get your typical military pay based on your rank and time in service.
If you made it past the initial selection, interviews and physical and medical exams, then you have to go through nearly two years of Astronaut training. What does that entail?
Here are some of the things you will have to learn and show proficiency in:
Candidates must complete military water survival and become SCUBA qualified to prepare them for spacewalk training. Astronaut Candidates must pass a swimming test in their first month of training. They must swim three lengths of a 25-meter pool without stopping, and then swim three lengths of the pool in a flight suit and sneakers. They also have to tread water for 10 minutes wearing a flight suit.
Candidates are exposed to problems associated with high (hyperbaric) and low (hypobaric) atmospheric pressures in the altitude chambers and learn to deal with emergencies associated with these conditions.
Additionally, candidates are given exposure to space flight during training in modified jet aircraft (the Vomit Comet) as it performs maneuvers that produce weightlessness for about 20 seconds. This sequence is repeated up to 40 times in a day.
Finally, Astronaut Candidate Program will require successful completion of the following:
International Space Station systems training
Extravehicular Activity skills training
Robotics skills training
Russian Language training (We beat the Ruskies to the Moon but now have to ask them for a ride…. Until the Orion is ready)
In August, 1995, a series of events occurred that would just seem implausible today. A Taliban MiG fighter intercepted a Russian Airstan Ilyushin Il-76TD, forcing it to land at Kandahar International Airport in the middle of a nationwide Civil War. The crew and its passengers were taken prisoner by the Taliban. They were held for a year while the Russian government tried to negotiate their release with the help of a U.S. senator
The 1990s were a crazy time. Even with our post-9/11 goggles off, it seems inconceivable that any number of the above could happen – just try to imagine these crazy things:
A Taliban MiG fighter
Forcing a Russian plane to land
Russian government negotiating
A U.S. Senator helping Russia
It’s all true, of course. In 1994, the Taliban exploded out of Kandahar and, by the time of this incident, controlled much of the country south of Kabul. When the Airstan plane was flying over, the Taliban were still deadlocked against the Afghan government of the time, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani.
It must have been an awkward ask for Rabbani, who spent years fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, only to ask them for weapons in trying to keep it away from other Afghans.
Even Jiffy Lube makes you keep the keys on the dashboard, guys.
The Airstan Ilyushin Il-76TD was carrying a load of 30 tons of weapons from Albania bound for the legitimate Afghan government when it was intercepted by a Taliban MiG-21. It was an old fighter, even in the 1990s, but was still enough to bring down the Ilyushin II.
Upon landing, the crew of seven was taken into custody by the Taliban — but the story doesn’t end there. As negotiations between the Russians and the terrorist group began to stall, American Senator Hank Brown stepped in to facilitate the talks, not only buying the Russians time, but also the crew. It didn’t hurt that the Taliban wanted some of their people freed in exchange for their prisoners.
For over a year, the Russian aircrew prepared for their daring escape. Brown managed to get the Taliban to agree to let the Russian Airstan crew maintain their captured aircraft to ensure it was in working order when the time to take off finally came. Brown visited the crew and let them know they would be maintaining it.
But not only did the crew perform its routine maintenance, they also slowly but surely prepared it for their flight home. They finally got their big chance one day, just over a year after being captured. When half of the Taliban who regularly guarded them left the group to attend evening prayers, the crew tricked the others into leaving their weapons outside the plane.
They overpowered the remaining three guards and started the engines.
By the time the Taliban noticed the plane was getting ready for take off, it was already taxiing down the runway. They tried to block their takeoff using a fire truck, but to no avail, the Russians were airborne well ahead of the truck’s position on the runway. The Taliban missed catching the escaping Russians by a mere three to five seconds.
The crew had done the impossible and the Taliban were not able to scramble intercepting aircraft in time to catch them.
They left Taliban airspace as fast as possible and set course for the UAE. By the time they landed, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was waiting by the phone to congratulate them. They made it home to Russia shortly after. The crew is said to celebrate their escape from the terrible event like a second birthday. The Taliban are brutal to prisoners, and the crew of the Airstan Ilyushin Il considered the entire country a prisoner of the terror group.
“My heart really goes out to these people. I’ve seen what a poverty-stricken and miserable standard of living they have. They’re still fighting because they’ve nothing left to lose,” a member of the crew told the BBC.
Their daring escape was the subject of a Russian film, Kandagar, in 2010.
While I still have a few years left, I am on the tail end of my military career. I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my time in uniform supporting Special Operations Forces. I have done a wide range of work. I’ve done everything from working out of safe houses to sitting behind a desk doing policy work to ensure the guys down range were covered. Because nothing happens without paperwork.
During my time I have learned a lot about the community and what it takes to do well in it. Over the years, I have made mistakes and I have reached milestones, and both situations taught me valuable lessons along the way. If I had to pass on knowledge to a new support personnel, these are the things I would tell my potential future replacements:
1) Know your place, and be proud of it.
When you very first get to the community, don’t overestimate your worth. I have seen more than a few well-qualified support personnel get fired from SF commands because they forgot they weren’t Operators. If an SF command has taken the time to screen you, hire you, and then provide you additional training based on your MOS/Rate it’s because they needed your specific skillset, and they considered you ahead of your peers. Be proud of that, because it means the SOF community needed your skillset in order for them to accomplish the mission.
And don’t treat your conventional counterparts like sh–. You may very well need them one day. In fact, you probably will.
2) The Q Course doesn’t produce seasoned SF Operators.
I realize that statement should be fairly obvious, but coming into the community, I didn’t quite grasp that. I assumed all Operators were seasoned Veterans and were professional at everything they did. I also assumed that all the support personnel were seasoned as well. It took me years to fully understand that an Operator has to grow into that seasoned and professional warrior.
At some point you will inevitably hear something like, “What do you know, you’re not an Operator!” You need to remember several things when you run into this. First, check yourself, and make sure you didn’t just put your foot in your mouth. If you didn’t, and you are confident about what you are talking about, don’t back down (remember, you were hired for your specific skillset).
The next thing is you need to remember is to not take it personally. And finally, you need to consider if this is an Operator who has been around and understands the role of the support folks, or if this is a new Operator that still learning what role you play in helping accomplish their mission.
This may have been my hardest lesson at the early stages of my career.
3) Find someone senior and make them your mentor.
There is always that one support person. The one that has been in the command forever, and almost seems bitter about it, yet the leadership always comes to them for advice. The Operators don’t give them a hard time when they need something from them, because they’ve proven their worth time and time again.
More than likely, they’ve been there since they were a junior NCO, and is now a senior NCO complete with the crusty attitude. Get on their good side and make them your mentor (whether they know it or not). There is a reason they has been there forever and a reason they have survived. Find out what it took, and imitate their work ethics. But maybe not the attitude, not yet anyway. Get some years in first and earn your “crustiness.”
4) Always put the mission first.
Like any of us in uniform, we all want to advance. We want more responsibility and we want to take on leadership roles. At some point, you will face a decision where you have to make a choice between the mission and something administrative pertaining to your career, or someone else’s.
One of my favorite mentors gave me this piece of advice: “Always put the mission first and everything else will fall into place”. What he essentially meant was that if I was doing what I was supposed to do, the senior leadership would recognize it and take care of me when the time came.
5) Bad news doesn’t get better with time.
This applies to all communities but I think this really hits home in the SOF community. If you mess up, don’t try to hide it, fix it on the sly, and hope no one notices. Own your mistake, tell the people you need to tell. It’s okay to make mistakes. Learn from it and move on with it.
As Admiral McRaven moved through the SOF commands, one of the things he used to put out to the mid-level leadership was for them to allow their people to make mistakes. He said he didn’t want his people to be too afraid to take chances for fear of being punished if they failed. If you find something innovative, don’t be afraid to try new things. Just make sure you have a good plan and that you communicate with your teammates.
6) Your rank doesn’t make your idea better.
One of my favorite things about the SOF community is that good ideas usually don’t wear rank. Listen to your people! If your junior folks have an idea, it may be worth listening to. It may not, but take the time to listen. That one time you do it and it works, you may make a huge impact on your troops’ morale.
7) Always be in good shape.
You ever see that one fat support person that all the Operators asked for advice from? No? That’s because it never happened. Your primary concern should be your job and how well you do it, and your secondary concern should be your physical shape. No Operator wants to hear from a fat, out-of-breath body.
If you can’t take care of yourself, how can they have any faith you will take care of them as they head out the door? I’m not saying you need to be a triathlete or even keep up with the Operators at the gym, but I am saying that the Operators need to feel comfortable that you can keep up if or when they take you out of the wire.
The Defense Department will deploy more than 5,000 active-duty personnel to aid the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to harden the southern border,” said Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, the commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Command.
“Border security is national security,” the general said at a news conference at the Ronald Reagan Building Oct. 29, 2018. He briefed the press alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan.
The active-duty troops will be participating in Operation Faithful Patriot, the general said.
“As we sit here today, we have about 800 soldiers who are on their way to Texas,” the general said. The troops are coming from Fort Campbell and Fort Knox, Kentucky.
“By the end of this week we will deploy over 5,200 soldiers to the Southwest border,” he said. “That is just the start of this operation. We will continue to adjust the numbers and inform you of those.”
The active duty soldiers will join 2,092 National Guardsmen participating in Operation Guardian Support. The deployment “fully adheres to our current authorities and governed by law and policy,” the general said. The troops that deploy with weapons will carry them, the general said.
Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, discusses the Defense Department deployment to the Southwest border during a joint news conference in Washington, Oct. 29, 2018.
The troops will be in support of law enforcement with Customs and Border Protection, McAleenan said. The agency is facing something new. “What is new and challenging about this caravan phenomenon is the formation of multiple large groups, which present unique safety and border security threats,” he said at the news conference. “Due to the large size of the potential caravans that may arrive at the border, however, the Department of Homeland Security has further requested the support of the Department of Defense.”
The agency has requested aid in air and ground transportation, and logistics support, to move CBP personnel where needed. Officials also asked for engineering capabilities and equipment to secure legal crossings, and medical support units. CBP also asked for housing for deployed Border Protection personnel and extensive planning support.
The commissioner said there are two caravans that the agency is watching. One has already made illegal entry across two international borders, and the second – still in Guatemala – “has deployed violent and dangerous tactics against Guatemalan and Mexican border security teams,” he said. “Accordingly, we are preparing for the contingency of a large group of arriving persons intending to enter the United States in the next several weeks.
Operation Faithful Patriot will harden the U.S. border with Mexico. “In a macro sense, our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority to build up Southern Texas then Arizona and then California,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We will reinforce along priority points of entry to enhance CBPs ability to harden and secure the border.”
Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will bring their experience to the border, the general said. They will be joined by three combat engineer battalions with expertise in building temporary barriers and fencing. The battalions will bring their heavy equipment “which as we speak is long hauling toward Texas,” the general said.
Military planning teams are already engaged with CBP counterparts.
The military is also providing three medium lift helicopter companies and military police units. There are already three C-130 Hercules and one C-17 Globemaster III aircraft standing by to provide strategic airlift for CBP.
We’re getting a little excited here. An out-of-left-field rumor is making the rounds that Michael Keaton might play Bruce Wayne again in the strangest way possible. That’s right, your favorite Batman and star of “Mr. Mom” might once again play an older version of the millionaire playboy who also likes dressing up like a bat.
On Oct. 21, 2019, We Got This Coveredsuggested that certain sources are claiming that Michael Keaton could play an older Bruce Wayne in a live-action version of “Batman Beyond.” What is “Batman Beyond,” you ask? Well, from 1999-2001 it was an animated follow-up to the beloved “Batman: The Animated Series,” and focused on a new young Batman in a kind of futuristic Gotham City. Instead of Bruce Wayne underneath the mask, it was a guy named Terry McGinnis. But, here’s the rub, in that storyline, Bruce Wayne was still alive: We was just an old guy who worked out of the Batcave as Terry’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Basically, in “Batman Beyond,” Bruce Wayne becomes like the new Alfred fused with Lucius Fox from the “Dark Knight” movies. So, if Michael Keaton played Bruce Wayne in a live-action “Batman Beyond,” that would mean he’d be whispering in a younger Batman’s ear from a sick-ass control room.
Most likely this is just a rumor, but then again, what if this is secretly part of the new Robert Pattinson film; “The Batman.” We all assumed Pattinson was playing Bruce Wayne, but what if he’s not? What if he’s a new Batman and Keaton is playing the old Batman?
It’s likely not true. But for now, we can dream.
This article originally appeared on Fatherly. Follow @FatherlyHQ on Twitter.
Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder and the eighth-richest person, has a secret disaster-response team, according to The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast’s investigation found Brin was the sole donor to a disaster charity called Global Support and Development (GSD). The Daily Beast identified Brin as the company’s sole donor through a California court filing.
The company’s staff, almost half of whom are ex-military, arrives at disaster areas on a superyacht called Dragonfly to clear debris and use high-tech solutions to assist victims. GSD is headed up by Grant Dawson, an ex-naval lieutenant who was on Brin’s personal security detail for years.
The idea for GSD was apparently sparked in 2015 when the yacht’s captain was sailing past Vanuatu, which had just been hit by Cyclone Pam. The captain contacted Brin to ask if anything could be done to help, and Brin then got in touch with Dawson.
Dawson said in a speech in 2019 about GSD: “So I grabbed a number of Air Force para-rescue guys I’d been affiliated with from the security world, and a couple of corpsmen out of the Seal teams … We raided every Home Depot and pharmacy we could find and on about 18 hours’ notice, we launched.”
The Daily Beast reported that GSD now has 20 full-time staffers, plus about 100 contractors working for it.
The Daily Beast said that like at Google, GSD’s employees enjoy perks, including strawberry ice cream and fresh laundry aboard the superyacht while working in disaster areas. In addition to military-trained staff, the charity has access to sophisticated technology including drones and sonar mapping.
Since 2015, GSD has assisted during several disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic activity. Now the company says it is lending a hand during the coronavirus pandemic by helping set up testing in California.
“GSD provided operational support to stand up the first two drive-through test centers in California and planning and logistic support for other test centers as they opened across the state,” GSD says on its website. “Our paramedics and support staff also partnered with the Hayward, California Fire Department to perform more than 8,000 swab tests at their drive-through test site and local eldercare facilities.”
Rob Reich, the codirector of Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, told The Daily Beast that disaster relief is good work, but it shouldn’t be secretive.
“There should be an expectation of transparency to understand how his charity interacts with existing efforts at disaster relief, and so we citizens can examine whether it’s consistent with what democratic institutions want to accomplish,” Reich said.
GSD did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment, and the news organization was unsuccessful in trying to contact Brin personally. GSD did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
Sailors work in the ICU unit aboard USNS Comfort on April 20.
President Donald Trump said the US Navy hospital ship Comfort would leave New York City as soon as possible after Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it was no longer needed in the city’s fight against the coronavirus.
The Comfort’s initial mission was to aid these hospitals by taking all noncoronavirus patients. But it turned out that there weren’t many noncoronavirus patients to take, prompting criticism when it became known that only 20 patients were received on the 1,000-bed ship in its first day.
According to NBC New York, the Comfort had treated 179 patients as of Tuesday, with 56 still on board at the time.
Cuomo offered to have the ship deployed to another hard-hit area during a Tuesday meeting with the president.
“It was very good to have in case we had overflow, but I said we don’t really need the Comfort anymore,” Cuomo told MSNBC after the meeting. “It did give us comfort, but we don’t need it anymore, so if they need to deploy that somewhere else, they should take it.”
Trump took him up on the offer, saying that Comfort would be sent back to its home port in Virginia to prepare for its next mission, which has not been decided yet.
“I’ve asked Andrew if we could bring the Comfort back to its base in Virginia so that we could have it for other locations, and he said we would be able to do that,” Trump said at the White House coronavirus briefing on Tuesday. “The Javits Center has been a great help to them, but we’ll be bringing the shop back at the earliest time, and we’ll get it ready for its next mission, which I’m sure will be an important one also.”
The government shutdown has been going on for well over a month now and the Coast Guard is still going without pay. My heart honestly burns for each and everyone one of those affected by the shutdown, but there’s one group of Coasties feeling it the worst: the Coast Guard recruiters.
I mean, think about it. It sucks to show up and still have to guard the coasts. Yet, they can continue their mission with a sour look on their face and abundant worries about paying rent. The recruiters? Yeah. I’m damn sure no one made their quota this month. Good luck getting anyone into the door when you can’t even promise them a steady paycheck.
Anyways, just like the Coasties working Lyft after duty, the meme train keeps on rolling.
At this spot on the western side of the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, some 30,000 Soviet soldiers died under Nazi artillery during World War II. Yet, on this hot June day, there’s nothing to suggest that this particular place was once on the deadliest front of the deadliest war in human history.
“What horrors happened here,” says my 55-year-old Ukrainian father-in-law, Valeriy Deriy, who is a Red Army veteran of the Cold War. “Can you imagine?”
We’ve hired a zodiac boat for the day, embarking from a yacht club in the riverside town of Horishni Plavni. To get to the so-called Island of Death, our captain weaves through narrow, overgrown channels that branch off the main course of the Dnieper River.
Tucked away in a dense forest on the island, there’s an old Soviet war memorial. You’d hardly notice it from the water, unless you knew what to look for. Valeriy explains that one can still find evidence of war in the surrounding woods. Old artillery pieces, bullets, rifles, and boots. That sort of stuff.
“Some people want to forget the past. But it’s impossible,” he tells me. “It’s always there.”
Between August and December 1943, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought the battle for the Dnieper River. It was one of World War II’s largest battles, comprising some 4 million soldiers stretched along a nearly 900-mile-long front.
After Nazi Germany’s defeat at the Battle of Kursk, the Soviets pressed their advantage and pushed the Nazis back across Ukraine. The third longest river in Europe, the Dnieper — which runs roughly north to south down the middle of Ukraine to the Black Sea — was a natural physical obstacle for the advancing Red Army.
The Nazis took to the heights on the western bank to set up their artillery, which they used to devastating effect. The Red Army crossed the river under heavy fire, improvising makeshift means to get across. Soviet losses were staggering — accounts vary, but roughly 400,000 Red Army soldiers died in the Dnieper River battle of 1943.
The Other Side
Earlier, Valeriy and I stand at a spot on the opposite, eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
“My great-grandfather said the water ran red with blood in the war,” Valeriy says as we stand on the riverbank, looking to the other side.
Valeriy explains that his great-grandfather fought in that Dnieper River battle, and he crossed the river at this very spot. Right where we’re standing. I’m left a bit speechless.
His great-grandfather couldn’t swim, Valeriy continues, but Soviet commanders would have him shot if he’d refused the crossing. So he held on to a log for flotation and kicked his way across. Somehow, he survived.
“It was October, and the water was already very cold,” Valeriy says, shaking his head. “What a nightmare.”
Today, at this spot where so many died in World War II, there’s a simple old Soviet memorial crumbling, halfway reclaimed by the forest. A dilapidated Soviet tank and artillery piece sit in the foliage, too. But that’s it. You have to rely on your imagination to appreciate what happened here.
There’s not a cloud in the sky and the hot breeze feels good on my face. On a day like this, it’s hard to appreciate what happened here about 77 years ago. I can hardly imagine the fear felt by Soviet soldiers as they stood at that same spot on the river shore, looking to the far side like lost souls about to cross the River Styx.
And then I remember what it was like to stare across no man’s land in eastern Ukraine. I remember the fear I felt under the Russian artillery and sniper shots. And I imagine, at least a little, what those Soviet soldiers must have felt.
The trench lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region — where Ukrainian troops have fought a war since 2014 to keep a Russian invasion force at bay — are only about five hours away by car. We could be there by dinner, if we wanted to.
True, we’re much too far from the trenches to hear the daily rumble of battle, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The war is always there.
Standing on the riverbank, Valeriy says to me: “History has been hard on Ukraine. But things will get better. We’re fighting for our democracy, just like your country did. And we’ll win it, too. Just like you did. I still have hope that my daughter and my grandchildren will see an amazing, free Ukraine.”
Still looking across the river, facing the same divide his great-grandfather once faced, Valeriy adds: “We’ll get there.”
Valeriy never served in Afghanistan. He was posted instead to East Germany and worked in signals intelligence, a specialty that paved the way for his future civilian career as a German language interpreter.
“It was an unwritten rule in the Soviet army that only one brother would have to be in Afghanistan at a time,” Valeriy explains. “And my brother went in my place.”
Valeriy’s older brother, Sergiy, was drafted into the Red Army and served in the war in Afghanistan from 1982 to 1984.
In fact, both brothers had volunteered for the war. But their mother had secretly gone to military officials and asked that only one son be allowed to go. Sergiy ultimately volunteered without Valeriy’s knowledge. It wasn’t until their mother died in December 2012 that Valeriy learned the truth.
Sergiy was a sergeant in a signals unit deployed near the Salang Tunnel in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The combat he experienced was terrible, Sergiy tells me, but he doesn’t go into much detail about the war very often. And when he does, his eyes adopt a distinctly distant look, as if he’s looking past me, in an attempt to articulate memories that no words could ever really recreate.
Today, both Deriy brothers live in the town of Horishni Plavi — it’s where my wife, Lilya, grew up.
On a warm June afternoon, our family gathers at a park by the Dnieper River to grill shashlik — Ukraine’s version of a barbecue. Both Sergiy and Valeriy are wearing NASA baseball caps, gifts from me and my wife.
It’s the first time we’ve all been together since the coronavirus lockdown was lifted on June 5, and we’re in good spirits. We make toast after toast until our legs are a little wobbly. We’ve brought along an iPhone speaker and grill the meat while we cycle through a playlist of staple rock hits — songs by bands like the Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, Metallica. That’s my in-laws’ favorite kind of music. Mine too.
We end up cooking more meat than we could ever hope to eat in a day. And we maintain a steady pace with the cognac toasts. And, as it’s prone to do, the conversation between Valeriy, Sergiy, and myself returns to the ongoing war in Ukraine’s east.
“The Russians were never our friends. Stalin invaded us, and now Putin has, too,” Sergiy says. “The only county that ever really cared about us was the United States.”
“We’ll never forget what your country has done for us,” he adds, speaking specifically about America’s delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Then Valeriy abruptly stands.
“Please,” he says, beckoning me to shake his hand, “I want to shake the hand of a citizen of the country that put a man on the moon.”
I stand and shake my father-in-law’s hand and feel proud of my country. And I’m particularly proud that he’s proud of my county, too.
A generation ago, we would have been enemies. Our countries were poised at opposite ends of the earth, ready to unleash nuclear Armageddon to destroy one another.
Today, we are a family.
No One Forgets
Located on the east bank of the Dnieper River, roughly 190 miles southeast of Kyiv, Horishni Plavni was founded by Soviet youth volunteers in 1960 as a place to live for workers in the nearby iron-ore mines.
Originally, the city’s name was “Komsomolsk,” a reference to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or “Komsomol.” The town was renamed Horishni Plavni in 2016 as part of Ukraine’s decommunization laws—a set of measures that went into effect in 2015 to curb Russia’s cultural influence.
Across the country, all Soviet-era names of settlements and roads have been changed to new Ukrainian ones. All reminders and relics of the Soviet Union have been removed or made illegal — including playing the Soviet national anthem and displays of the hammer and sickle flag.
Horishni Plavni’s main thoroughfare was once called Lenin Street. Now it’s named Heroes of the Dnieper River Street. The statue of Vladimir Lenin that once stood in the city center is gone. Only an empty pedestal remains — a common sight in Ukraine these days.
Yet you can’t totally erase the past. World War II is too deeply ingrained in Ukraine’s national psyche, and its physical environment, to ever be forgotten.
Soviet-era war memorials still stand around Horishni Plavni. At a riverside park, children play on the marble ramps of a towering, Soviet-era war memorial. In a nearby field, a row of Soviet tanks are on permanent display. Teenagers sit in the shade of the turrets and drink beer and listen to music.
Despite all their years living under Soviet propaganda, my father-in-law and uncle-in-law have a surprisingly pro-American perspective on the war.
“The Soviet Union could have never won without American help under lend-lease,” Valeriy tells me, referring to the American policy from 1941 to 1945 to provide materiel assistance to the Soviet Union’s war effort.
“And thank God the Allies landed in France,” Valeriy adds. “Otherwise Stalin would have taken over all of Europe.”
No War Ever Ends
After our shashlik picnic is over, Sergiy visits his brother’s apartment, where my wife and I are staying. He brings with him a photo album from his time in the Soviet army, including his deployment to Afghanistan in the 1980s.
I’m thrilled to have a look and listen to his stories from the war.
Sergiy recalls how his commander in Afghanistan justified the Soviet war by the need to defend the Soviet Union from U.S. nuclear missile strikes.
“We were told that America was evil, and that we were fighting in Afghanistan to defend the world from America,” Sergiy tells me. “It was all a lie, of course.”
Incredibly, Sergiy bears no ill will toward the country — my country — that was responsible for the death of many of his comrades.
“The Soviet Union did the same to America in Vietnam,” Sergiy says of America’s covert effort from 1979 to 1989 to arm and finance Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters to fight against the Soviets. “It was the Cold War, and we were enemies. And that’s what enemies do to each other.”
Now, Sergiy has welcomed me — an American veteran of another war in Afghanistan — into his family with open arms. More than that, I’d even say that Sergiy and I share a special bond because we share a common battlefield. We remember the same places, and in some cases, the same enemies. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, former enemies actually have more in common with each other than they do with their fellow citizens who know nothing about war.
As he goes through the old photos, Sergiy’s face flashes with various contradictory emotions. Pride and pain. Nostalgia and regret. For Sergiy, war was both the worst and the best experience of his life. Therein lies that great paradox that faces all soldiers who’ve home to live in peace.
If war was so terrible, why do we sometimes miss it?
Sergiy, for his part, remembers his friends from the army fondly. But there’s a dark cloud, too, that hangs over every good memory.
“The Soviet Union lied to me. They lied to all of us,” Sergiy says as he flips through the photo album’s pages.
He pinches his lips and slowly shakes his head.
“They wasted so many lives,” he adds.
Soldiers rarely fight for the reasons dictated to them by the governments that send them to battle. Rather, once the bullets start flying, a simple sense of duty to defend one’s friends, and to not disappoint their expectations, is what inspires one to act courageously.
Yet, once soldiers are separated from their wars for a while — either by time or by distance — the moral clarity of duty may erode, leading them to question the justice of their individual actions in combat. The simple kill-or-be-killed morality of combat no longer shields them from thoughtfully considering the consequences of the things they did in war.
In many ways, life in peace is much more complicated than life in war. That was certainly true for my uncle-in-law. Although Sergiy came through the war in Afghanistan physically unscathed, he was left irrevocably jaded about Soviet communism.
In 1985, just a year after his discharge from the Soviet Army, Sergiy began law studies at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, Ukraine’s premier university.
“I felt so at peace. Finally, no war, no suffering. Only a bright future,” Sergiy recalls of his arrival in Ukraine’s capital city to begin his studies.
But it didn’t last. In April 1986, an explosion ripped through reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The Chernobyl plant is located only about 60 miles north of Kyiv. And so, spooked by the threat of radiation, Sergiy was unsure whether he should stay in Kyiv to finish his law degree. The reborn optimism and happiness he’d felt just a year earlier, fresh from his wartime service, quickly gave way to feelings remembered from the war — dark feelings that he’d wanted to forget forever.
“When I was in Afghanistan, I always felt like death was chasing me,” Sergiy remembers. “And when I came back to Ukraine, I thought I could be free from that fixation on death. But Chernobyl happened, and here death finally caught me. A long and painful death. I remember I said to myself, ‘How ironic, death didn’t catch me in the war, but it did in civilian life.'”
Sergiy ultimately stayed in Kyiv to finish his law degree. After graduating from law school in 1991, he returned to his hometown of Horishni Plavni (then called Komsomolsk). The Soviet Union broke apart that year, further upending his world.
When Ukraine’s economy subsequently collapsed in the 1990s, Sergiy ultimately abandoned his law career and took up work as a hired hand. It was his only option to make a living. He never went back to practicing law.
My uncle-in-law, who is a devoutly religious man, has struggled with his demons from Afghanistan. And his family life has had its ups and downs. But he’s never given up hope for his country, even as Ukraine has gone through revolutions and an unfinished war to finally free itself from Russian overlordship.
“I try to stay positive, despite everything that’s happened to our country,” Sergiy says. “It would be so wrong not to believe in our future. I always have hope. It’s just a matter of time. Our future generations will be truly happy and free.”
As young men, Soviet propaganda told Valeriy and Sergiy that America was their mortal enemy. Yet, as older men, they’ve both shown the remarkable moral courage to abandon their former worldviews and embrace the promise of democracy.
Above all else, Valeriy and Sergiy now believe in the justice of freedom and democracy rather than conformity and communism. And the two Red Army veterans wholeheartedly believe that the United States is a force for good and a beacon of hope for freedom-loving people around the world.
It’s true that history hasn’t been kind to Ukraine, and my in-laws have not led easy lives.
Yet in spite of everything, their faith in America remains unbroken. And, with America’s promise lighting the way, they still extoll the justice of their own country’s democratic path, no matter its attendant hardships.
In the end, they choose to reject their Soviet past but not forget it. When the work of building a democracy gets tough, as it so often does, they look to the past to remember what they’re working so hard to achieve.
“Democracy hasn’t been easy, but I’d rather live as a free man than go back to the way things were before,” my father-in-law says.
Freedom, after all, usually means more to people who’ve experienced the alternative.
Somewhere out in the California desert, a streamlined, aerodynamic behemoth woke up on April 13, 2019. It was Stratolaunch Systems’ critical test flight for an airframe designed to launch rockets into space while in mid-air. The aircraft was a long time coming, the dream of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen who died of Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2018.
After the plane’s historic two-hour flight, Allen would have been proud to watch the mammoth plane land on the Mojave Desert test strip.
Stratolaunch’s six-engine, 500,000-pound aircraft has a 385-foot wingspan and is designed to fly around 35,000 feet. In comparison, the largest aircraft used for civilian air travel is the Airbus A380-800, with a wingspan of 238 feet and weighing in at slightly more than the Stratolaunch.
“The flight itself was smooth, which is exactly what you want a first flight to be,” said test pilot Evan Thomas. “It flew very much like we had simulated and like we predicted.”
The previous record holder for largest aircraft ever flown was Howard Hughes’ famed Spruce Goose, an eight-engine, wooden-framed plane that was less than half the weight of the Stratolaunch. Until April 13, it was the longest wingspan aircraft to ever fly.
“It was an emotional moment for me, personally, to watch this majestic bird take flight,” said Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd.
Stratolaunch was founded in 2011, the brainchild of Allen, who originally also wanted to make the rockets the Stratolaunch planes would launch into low earth orbit. The company plans to do incremental tests of the airframe over the coming years, as they had done in previous years. Other small tests included engine tests and runway taxis before the April flight.
While the two-hour test flight was a success, not much else was conclusive save for a deal with Northrop Grumman to use Stratolaunch planes to put their Pegasus XL rockets into space. Who knows – these could be the early models of a Space Force troop transport. The skies are no longer the limit.