During the Cold War, an Army Special Forces unit was tasked with sabotaging Soviet infrastructure and crippling an invasion force to buy NATO time should war break out. The mission was so secret that the entire thing was almost forgotten — until a few veterans of the unit stepped forward.
We spoke to two of these veterans to find out what it was like serving as clandestine soldiers in an occupied city on what was likely a suicide mission if the seemingly-imminent war ever started
U.S. and Soviet forces standoff across Checkpoint Charlie in 1961, one of the many Cold War flare-ups that occurred in occupied Berlin after World War II.
Master Sgt. Robert Charest is a veteran of Detachment A who has started the push for recording the unit’s history. Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Stejskal is the man who literally wrote the book on Detachment A.
The specific mission of Detachment A changed over the years, but the overarching goal was always preparing to counter and stall a Soviet invasion.
“If the Soviets decided to come across Checkpoint Charlie, we would just try to slow them down so that the rest of the folks, they’d get out of Berlin and all that stuff,” said Charest while describing the mission.
This meant that Charest, Stejskal, and others assigned to the unit — which had about 90 people in it for most of its existence — had to know what infrastructure to hit and how best to reach it. They also had to maintain all of the materials and weapons needed to complete their mission.
Berlin was criss-crossed by a network of trains, like this train for travelers on the U-Bahn. Another railway ran around the outside of the city carrying heavy freight, and Detachment A members were prepared to blow up train engines on the railway in case of war.
Some of the targets were obvious, like the railroad that ran around divided Berlin.
“Around Berlin, there was a railway network, basically called the Berliner Ring,” said Stejskal. “It was that railway network that would carry the majority of the Russian forces from east to west. So, you got the guys that are on the ground already and then you got all these troops that are going to be coming from Poland and the Czech Republic and then you’re heading for the Fulda Gap.”
Shutting down the railroad would slow the Soviet advance, but the teams that made up Detachment A needed a way to do it without getting caught. The more stuff they could break before getting captured and killed, the better chance NATO forces would have in building a defensive line and eventually launching a counter attack.
So, they rigged up pieces of coal, filled with explosives. Were these ever loaded into a train, the engineer would eventually blow up his own engine, blocking the rail line with a shattered train until authorities could clean up the mess, drastically slowing reinforcements.
Other targets included factories and other centers of manufacturing, transportation, and command and control.
To supply these missions, Detachment A relied on a series of spy-like gadgets and hidden caches of conventional weapons buried deep all over West Berlin. But the targets were in East Berlin, and Detachment A had to plan on how to strike across the city and, later in the war, across the Berlin Wall, to hit targets.
Special Forces sergeant Robert Charest while assigned to operation in Berlin, clearly rocking a different grooming standard than most soldiers in the Cold War.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Charest)
This required missions deep into Soviet-held Berlin. While Detachment A members usually enjoyed relaxed grooming standards and wore civilian clothes, spying across the wall was done in uniform surprisingly often.
“You put on a uniform, shaved your hair, got in the military vehicles, went through Checkpoint Charlie, and you had access to East Berlin,” Charest said, “Alexanderplatz and stuff like this. You drove around and that was your cover story. The Russians would do the same thing in West Berlin. They had their little system. That was how we conducted surveillance of our targets.”
The men had a huge advantage when spying on the East, though. Thanks to the 1950 Lodge Act, foreign nationals could obtain U.S. citizenship after a five-year stint in the military. This allowed Detachment A to recruit people from the neighborhoods and areas where their targets were without rousing suspicions. These recruits and leaders proved invaluable.
Soviet workers build the Berlin Wall, breaking up the city and reducing Detachment A’s ability to surveil its targets.
(U.S. National Archives)
“Our commander was great,” said Stejskal. “Our commander was Czech Officer who had served in the Resistance during World War II. Our Sergeant Major was a German who had served in the German Army, sort of, at the end of World War II. Just, nothing like you could imagine.”
“… several of the guys that reconned these targets were the actual Lodge Act people that lived in Berlin and had come from Berlin,” said Charest. “They knew where these targets were and the intel, G2 and above, knew what targets would be best to slow the Soviets down if they decided to come across.”
Detachment A practiced crossing the wall, swimming through deep canals with SCUBA gear, or making their way through sewer and water pipes under the city. One recon of the sewer pipes even got a senior officer in trouble.
Allied troops in West Berlin were deep behind Soviet lines. When the Soviets attempted to cut off re-supply to those troops, America launched the massive “Berlin Airlift” to keep them alive. The airlift was a success, but it drove home for many just how vulnerable West Berlin was.
(U.S. Air Force)
“He, along with somebody else, went into the sewer system to check the situation out for crossing points, okay,” Charest said. “Well, little did he know that the CIA had these things monitored with all kinds of stuff. They triggered the alarms.”
While the plans were well laid, they still relied on brave men willing to take on huge risks to make the mission a success. After all, West Berlin was still deep inside East Germany.
“It’s a strange feeling,” said Stejskal. “We were 110 miles behind the East German border, about 12,000 allied troops inside West Berlin surrounded by close to a million Russian and Warsaw Pact soldiers. Oddly enough, I think most of us were very energized to be where we were.”
And the men had a good idea of how dangerous that situation was.
Soviet forces prepare to leave Hungary. If the Cold War had gone hot, Detachment A members, like the rest of the allied troops in Berlin, would have been outnumbered and outgunned over 100 miles from friendly forces.
(RIA Novosti Archive, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
“Well, it was basically a suicide mission,” Charest said. “If we got in and hit anything and then we had to face escape and evasion, all right? You were on your own. There was nothing set up, formally, for escape and evasion, yet. You were on your own. That’s why you spoke the language, that’s why you were familiar with the countryside. You knew, essentially, you had to get to the coast or wherever NATO withdrew to and stuff like this. But, you had nothing formal, you were on your own.”
“I think we would’ve been hard-pressed to survive more than 72 hours, but you never can tell,” Stejskal said. “How did the OSS agents feel when they parachuted France or into Yugoslavia during World War II? Same kind of feeling. You’re anticipating that you’re going in to a very bad situation, but you got the best tools, the best cover, and everything else.”
Luckily, Detachment A never had to slow a Soviet invasion, despite flare-ups, like the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie. Instead, they spent their time training and conducting surveillance, preparing to save American forces in a war that never came and quietly saving American lives while building the framework and doctrine for units that followed them, like SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.
Humans are very creative, especially when it comes to destroying each other. Throughout history people have had a morbid fascination with torture. A punishment in ancient times served the dual purpose of keeping the masses in line while entertaining them. Torture evolved side by side with civilization perfecting the art of pain.
This torture technique was used during the age of sail to punish sailors and criminals that committed egregious crimes. The condemned is tied to a rope that is thrown under the ship and fished out the other side. The person is thrown overboard and dragged through the water under the keel of the ship scrapping against razor sharp barnacles. According to the Universal Dictionary of the Marine by W. Falconer (1784), the punishment was a legitimate form of punishment in the Dutch Navy.
During the act, a person could drown, succumb to trauma from hitting the side of the ship or be shredded to death. The TV show Blacksails shows how brutal this punishment really is. However, I will not show the clip because it contains spoilers of an important death. Side note: I recommend binge watching the show with some rum.
2. Brazen Bull
…the court sculptor Perilaos presented his king with a peculiar torture machine formed in the shape of a large, hollow bull fashioned out of bronze. The historian describes in detail how the bull’s nostrils were fitted with “small sounding pipes or reeds [auliskous].
Hamilton, John T. 2012. “The Bull of Phalaris: The Birth of Music out of Torture.” Working paper, Department of Germanic Languages & Literature, Harvard University.
The interesting piece of history about the Brazen Bull, also known as The Bull of Phalaris, is that the inventor was its first victim. The bull was a gift to King Phalaris who enjoyed torturing his enemies. As soon as he received it, the king wanted to play with his new toy and told Perilaos get inside. A fire was lit, and it indeed worked as intended. The pipes on the bull’s nostrils turned the screams of the victim into music. The king let Perilaos out when he was almost dead but not because of mercy. He didn’t want to dirty it. Perilaos was then thrown off a cliff for his services.
Rack, a bedlike open frame suspended above the ground that was used as a torture device. The victim’s ankles and wrists were secured by ropes that passed around axles near the head and the foot of the rack. When the axles were turned slowly by poles inserted into sockets, the victim’s hip, knee, shoulder, and elbow joints would be dislocated.
Geoffrey Abbott, Britannica.com
Every time I think of this torture method I picture that it must be similar to how we pull apart chicken wings. Obviously, far less delicious. Several movies such as Braveheart or Narcos feature different variations of the technique. Regardless whether it is on a medieval table or pulled apart by horses or motorcycles, the rack is undeniably a brutal way to go. There were times when victims were allowed to keep their lives, but the rack destroyed their muscle’s ability to contract. So, they were crippled for life and served as a living reminder of what happens when you break the law.
The cruel practice typically has been carried out by locking the unfortunate soul in some sort of coffin-like box or in other cases, sealing them into a wall or other structure of some kind.
Joel Stice, Immurement: A History Of Walled In Terror And Cruelty
The Mongols used Immurement until recently in the 20th century. This wasn’t an instant death and the person inside was allowed food and water if someone took pity on them. This type of punishment was reserved for the most extreme crimes or adultery. Other forms of immurement were practiced throughout history in almost every culture. Immurement in Christendom could be done willingly or as a severe punishment for pedophilia. Cultures in other regions would build a single, hollow pillar to seal a victim inside. One of my favorite short stories, The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe, features immurement as a murder weapon. The old world developed a taste for starving people to death, covered in their own filth.
Speaking of swimming in one’s own filth, Scaphism ups the ante of gross. This torture method was a slow and disgusting way to die. The criminal was nailed between two boats or inside a box with their head, arms and legs sticking out. The boats are either placed into a water source or left out to bake in the sun. The guards proceed to force feed the victim milk and honey until they vomit on themselves. This diet causes the victim to have severe diarrhea as well. The mixture of bodily fluids and food attracts rats and stinging insects which would then eat the victim alive over several days.
Worms and maggots would spawn in the victim’s feces and crawl into the victim’s orifices and eat them from the inside out. If the victim’s crime was truly deserving they would be force fed daily to prolong their suffering. Since it is impossible to die of dehydration because of the forced feedings, the vicitm’s boat would be filled to bursting as they rot alive.
The most famous victim of “the boats” was a young Persian soldier by the name of Mithridates who died around 401 B.C. He was sentenced to die because he accidentally killed Cyrus the Younger, a nobleman who wanted the throne. The actual king, Artaxerxes, was actually grateful to him for killing the young threat, and had secretly covered for him, but when Mithridates forgot about the deal and started bragging about having killed Cyrus, he was immediately sentenced. According to the records written by Plutarch, the Greek essayist and biographer, he was unlucky enough to survive 17 days in “the boats.”
“A Persian Boat” by Ellsworth D. Foster (ed.), 1921
The usual way for a victim to be sawed in half is be hung upside down and sawed through the genitalia. Simple, effective, and cheap. Victims can be sawed in half like a botched magic show or piece by piece, dealer’s choice. Hanging the victim upside does fulfill a few purposes at once. The first is that it prolongs the life of the tortured by conserving blood. The second is that blood continues to flow into the brain preventing the victim from passing out and remaining awake. This method has been used by the Romans, Greeks, the Chinese and even in the Bible.
Hundreds of North Korean nationals in Europe and Russia are forced to undertake manual labour without breaks, sleep at their workplace, and send their earnings to prop up Kim Jong Un’s lavish lifestyle, BBC Panorama has reported following an undercover investigation.
An unidentified North Korean worker in Vladivostok, Russia, told the programme: “You’re treated like a dog here. You have to eat trash. You have to give up being human.”
He added that he and his fellow workers had to hand over most of their earnings back to North Korea via an intermediary, known as a “captain.”
“Some call it ‘Party Duty.’ Others call it ‘Revolutionary Duty.’ Those who can’t pay it cannot stay here,” he said. “Ten years ago it was about 15,000 Robles ($242/£170) a month, but now it’s twice as much.”
These wages, combined, can generate as much as $2 billion (£1.4 billion) a year, The Washington Post reported.
It is then used to finance Kim Jong Un’s lavish lifestyle and nuclear development programme, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to the UK said.
Thae Yong Ho, who defected from the regime in 2016, told the BBC: “It financed the private luxury of the Kim family, the nuclear programme, and the army. That’s a fact.”
The North Korean leader recently travelled to China in a bulletproof train containing flat screen TVs and Apple products — a great show of luxury while millions of his citizens remain undernourished or lack basic access to healthcare. He also tested multiple short-range, medium-range, and intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017.
North Korean slaves in Poland, are also forced to live where they work and aren’t allowed to take any breaks, the BBC reported.
A North Korean supervisor in charge of foreign workers at Szczecin, northwestern Poland, told the programme:
“Our guys are stationed in Poland only to work. They only take unpaid holidays. When there are deadlines, we work without breaks. Not like the Polish. They work eight hours a day and then go home.
“We don’t. We work as long as we have to.”
There are about 150,000 North Koreans foreign workers worldwide, many of whom are in Russia, China, and Poland. About 800 are in Poland, mostly working as welders and manual laborers.
The UN in December 2017, ordered countries to stop authorizing visas to North Korean workers and to send them home within two years.
Poland said it stopped issuing visas to North Korean workers, but that doesn’t mean the activity has stopped.
A Polish manager secretly filmed by the BBC acknowledged that he continued to employ North Korean workers, but complained that it was getting harder to get permits for them.
June 6, 1944, is known throughout the world as D-Day, but for the Class of 1944 at the U.S. Military Academy, the day holds a second significance. It was the day they graduated from the academy.
Twenty-one members of the D-Day Class, as they have become known over the years, are still alive. May 21, 2019, retired Col. Doniphan Carter represented the class on the occasion of its 75th reunion by serving as the wreath layer during the annual ceremony prior to the alumni review parade.
Carter, who turned 96 in February 2019, was the most senior graduate in attendance at the parade.
Alumni Wreath Laying Ceremony and Review at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, May 21, 2019.
(Photo by Brandon OConnor)
“I’ve waited 75 years for this to happen, but I didn’t know I was going to be the oldest,” Carter, who is the president of the Class of 1944, said of getting to lay the wreath at the Sylvanus Thayer statue. “I was one of the younger members of my class and that was because I skipped a year in grade school, but nobody else is coming. So here I am, and I get to do it.”
Alumni Wreath Laying Ceremony and Review at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, May 21, 2019.
(Photo by Brandon OConnor)
Carter and his classmates originally entered West Point as the Class of 1945, but when America entered World War II the classes were accelerated. The Class of 1943 graduated six months early in January of that year, the original Class of 1944 became the June Class of 1943 and Carter’s class graduated a year early.
After commissioning in the Army, Carter served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. During his career, he also served with the 45th Infantry Division during the Korean War and the 25th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War. He retired from the Army in 1974.
Alumni Wreath Laying Ceremony and Review at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, May 21, 2019.
(Photo by Brandon OConnor)
“Stay in for 30,” Carter said of what his advice is to the Class of 2019. “It is a wonderful career and a lot of benefits come out of it … They needed me when I came out because World War II was on, and I got into that. They needed me when the Korean War was on, and I went and got involved in that. They needed me when we were in Vietnam, and I went and got involved in that. I’ve got three wars under my belt. I think if they stick around, they will have a very good career.”
The alumni review was attended by more than 700 members of the Long Gray Line representing the classes of 1944, 1949, 1959, 1964, 1969 and more.
It’s been nearly three years since I officially ended my Active Duty service. The first six months of my transition were rough. After speaking to a lot of fellow former service members, I realize that my experience is not an outlier, but rather, it’s the norm.
Hardest part about the military… logging into sites that don’t take a CAC card.
In the Marine Corps, I was trained to deal with all sorts of tactical stresses. But civilian stresses? Not so much. When it came to work, insurance, or liberty, I could blame Uncle Sam for everything:
“Sorry, can’t make that baptism/wedding/ graduation/ (insert family event here). I have to move to Japan for work.”
“Yeah, the healthcare system is fugged; I’m on Tricare though, watch anything good on Netflix lately?”
“I put my name on a list to live off base, but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just be put in the tower, end of story.”
“I PCS in June. I’ll either go to Camp LeJeune or get sucked into the vortex that is the Pentagon. Not much I can do.”
In the military, every moment of my life was planned out for me, until suddenly… it wasn’t. When I “got out,” all I had was choice, and I didn’t always make the right ones. In fact, it sometimes seemed like there were no right choices–just varying degrees of wrong.
There wasn’t a big picture for me anymore.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Robert Knapp/Released)
I lost my sense of purpose.
I was actually embarrassed about these realizations for a long time. I was a Marine Corps Officer. I did alpha stuff for a living. There are literally thousands of movies made about my old job.
How could I fess up to being lost and stressed? It felt like I would be admitting defeat to an enemy that hundreds of millions of Americans deal with every single day. That’s not very alpha.
On top of the stress and state of general lostness, my sense of purpose was gone. I felt that my time in uniform had been helping the greater cause. I was helping people. At the very least, I was impacting my Marines’ lives and helping them become better every day.
It’s a lot harder to become excited about sending emails and filing TPS reports in the civilian world when it seems that the only people that are being helped are the company owners or stockholders. That’s not really a mission statement I can get behind.
I had spent the most testosterone-packed years of my life under the government’s thumb. I signed up at 17. For a decade, I was expected to be: sober, on time, awake at 0600, on-call 24/7, and never take more than 96 hours of liberty/leave.
As soon as I was let off the leash, I had some catching up to do. I slept when the sun was up and spent all night howling at the moon for months. It took a toll on my body; I gained weight, I lost energy, and I got sick a lot.
My cornerstone was gone.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Drake Nickels)
Worst of all, I stopped training.
Staying up late and spending all day stressing about “coulda, shoulda, wouldas” made me lose sight of the one thing I actually had control over. Me. More specifically, my training and diet.
This was the hardest-hitting of all my issues because it made everything else worse. It’s a lot harder to stay healthy if all you’re putting into your body is junk food and not moving.
Exercise is a natural stress reliever. Without it, I was living in a state of chronic stress.
I had the all too common reaction to physical training that I’ve seen dozens of times first hand. No more PFT…no more PT for me. The overwhelming majority of us do it. It’s like the military induces some traumatic memory of what exercise is supposed to make us feel like as well as how much we should hate ourselves for not working out.
It becomes a physical punishment when we train and a mental punishment when we don’t train.
Recognizing that it doesn’t have to be either one of those punishments was the key to me getting back in the gym.
I knew I had to make changes. I wasn’t in the position to come up with some grand overarching ethos that would cure all my woes. I needed something simple.
I started by making my training mandatory. I knew it made me feel better. Having stress hormones pumping through my veins 24/7 was the literal reason I felt like I was failing. Training hard helps relieve some of that cortisol and frees up the body to actually repair itself. That was the state I needed to get into regularly if I ever wanted to think clearly enough to actually turn my business into a success.
I started losing some of the extra fat I had put on, I got stronger, my performance increased, but the most important benefit of training hard was that I didn’t hate myself anymore.
My military service was a high-point in my life, but it isn’t the summit I need to plant my flag on. That’s much higher, and I have a lot more work to do. I was great then, but I’m greater every day that I decide to train and sink my teeth into another bite-sized piece of life.
The Marine Corps made it easy to feel like I was part of something bigger and helping people. Military service isn’t the only option in life to help other people though. By taking care of myself first, getting my training in line, and staying healthy, I’m able to take all the skills and discipline I gained from my service and directly apply them to my current mission.
I know that objectively my life looked fine, but internally, I felt like I was crumbling. Plenty of us live our whole lives with that feeling. I’m lucky that I managed to shift my perception after only six months of the vicious cycle.
Maybe it took you years.
Maybe you’re still in it.
Maybe you never served in the military, but you experienced a different transition that made you feel helpless, alone, and chronically stressed.
It doesn’t matter. Our perception is our reality. If your reality isn’t great, the only thing you can do is change your perception.
The best perception shifter I know of is…training hard.
If you aren’t training, start training.
If this resonates with you at all, I’d love to hear your story no matter what stage of the process you’re currently in. This link will take you to a survey that will allow you to do just that.
There’s something magical about the approach of a New Year. After all, it’s the time we tend to create wonderful fantasies about what the coming year will bring. Untold riches, a beautiful new hobby, and a six-pack that would make Schwarznegger shed a tear are at the top of many lists.
However, come the end of January – let’s face it. The struggle bus is real and the wheels are about to come off. And you know what? That’s ok!
This New Year, give yourself some grace if you make – and then break – these resolutions.
1. Limit Family Screen Time, Starting with Fortnite
I guess we could cut back an hour…or two…and parent by using less screen time in the house. But, since we’re talking crazy, I could also churn my own butter, but that’s not happening either.
2. ‘Marie Kondo’ the $@%& Out of this House Before We PCS
Converts swear by organizational queen Marie Kondo’s life-changing magic of tidying up. And soon, you too find dreams of nice, clutter-free spaces dancing in your head. This year is finally THE YEAR to de-clutter before a PCS.
But let’s face it. Once you pull out every piece of clothing and lay it on your bed, it doesn’t take long to realize this little exercise does anything but spark joy. Back into the closet it goes, right next to “The Box” and the curtains you swore would fit in the next house.
3. Not Go Into Feral-Mode Every Time My Spouse Leaves
Whether it’s a lengthy deployment, or the seemingly never-ending rounds of TDYs – it’s oh so tempting to set the loftiest of lofty self-improvement goals to stay busy while our spouses are away from home.
But, if you find yourself having ice cream, mac and cheese, or wine for dinner for a week straight, that’s ok too. We’ve all been there.
4. Stay on Top of the Laundry
Is that the third time I’ve washed the same load of laundry – because I left it overnight in the machine? Someone remind me – why did we ever want to grow up and become adults?
5. Not Buy Plane Tickets Before Leave is Finalized
Until one magical commercial later. Disney – here we come. Hopefully.
6. Finally, Step Outside of my Comfort Zone
This is the year I’m finally going to do it! I will step outside of my comfort zone, meet that village I keep hearing about, learn a new hobby, and sign up for ALL of the things. Crochet, CrossFit and Zumba – here I come!
Right after I finish catching up on my latest Facebook gossip and hiding in my car for five minutes in the commissary parking lot to avoid people…
7. Learn to Better Manage my Time
Ok, who are we kidding? I call foul and blame the military for teaching us constant lessons in the fine skill of “hurry-up…and wait.”
This year, let’s resolve to give ourselves grace and let go of the pressure to be perfect. Regrets? None.
This article originally appeared on Military Spouse. Follow @MilSpouseMag on Twitter.
The universe has been finding ways to mess with people long before Edward A. Murphy uttered his famed statement in the aftermath of Dr. John Paul Stapp strapping himself onto a rocket powered sled. One of the earliest instances of this “law” being stated explicitly happened in 1877 where Alfred Holt, in an address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, said, “It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later…”
By 1908, it had become a well-loved maxim among magicians as well, as explained by Nevil Maskelyne in The Magic Circular: “It is an experience common to all men to find that, on any special occasion . . . everything that can go wrong will go wrong…”
This was reiterated by Adam Hull Shirk in The Sphinx in 1928, “It is an established fact that in nine cases out of ten whatever can go wrong in a magical performance will do so.”
This all brings us to our unsung hero of the hour, Dr. John Paul Stapp — a man whose work has saved hundreds of thousands of lives since, and who Joseph Kittinger — who famously did a high altitude jump from 102,800 ft — called the “bravest man I’ve ever met… He knew the effects of what he was getting himself into… And he never hesitated.”
Dr. John Paul Stapp.
Born in Brazil, the son of American missionaries there, Stapp eventually became an English major in college, but he changed career paths due to a traumatic incident that occurred during his Christmas break of 1928 when a 2 year old cousin of his was severely burned in a fireplace. Stapp helped to try to nurse the child back to health, but efforts failed and, 63 hours after getting burned, the toddler died. Said Stapp, “It was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. I decided right then I wanted to be a doctor.”
Unable to afford to go to medical school initially, after he earned a Master’s Degree in Zoology, he instead started teaching chemistry and zoology at Decatur College in Texas while he saved up money. Two years later, he attended the University of Texas where he got a PhD in Biophysics. Next up, he went to the University of Minnesota Medical School and got a Doctor of Medicine degree while working as a research assistant there.
Initially planning on becoming a pediatrician, Stapp changed career paths after joining the Army Medical Corps during WWII. While working as a flight surgeon, among other things, he was heavily involved in designing high altitude oxygen systems as well as studying the effects of high altitude/high speed flight on the human body. The end goal of all of this was to create better safety systems for pilots. During this time, he became puzzled at how some people would survive crashes, even extreme ones, while others in similar or lesser crashes would receive fatal injuries.
This all brings us around to Project MX-981 at the Edwards Air Force Base in 1945.
Up until this point, the prevailing theory was that a human body could not withstand more than 18Gs of force without suffering a fatal injury. The problem here was that airplanes of the age were flying faster and higher than ever. As such, the military wanted to know if their pilots could safely eject at these high velocities without being killed, as well as to try to design the safest possible system for doing so.
Testing towards this end was overseen by Dr. Stapp, using a rocket powered sled called the “Gee Whiz”. This was placed on rails on a 2000 foot track, at the end of which was an approximately 50 foot long section where a hydraulic braking system would stop the 1500 lb sled in its tracks.
Stapp rides the rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.
The passenger aboard the cart was to initially be a 185 lb dummy named Oscar Eightball and then later chimpanzees. Stapp, however, had other ideas. He wanted to see what an actual human could handle, stating of Oscar Eightball at the project’s onset, “You can throw this away. I’m going to be the test subject.”
David Hill, who was in charge of collecting the test data throughout the experiments and making sure all the telemetry gear stayed working, said of this, they all thought Dr. Stapp must be joking as “We had a lot of experts come out and look at our situation. And there was a person from M.I.T. who said, if anyone gets 18 Gs, they will break every bone in their body. That was kind of scary.”
Dr. Stapp, however, used his extensive knowledge of human physiology, as well as analyzing various crashes where people must have survived more than 18Gs of force, and determined the 18G limit was absurdly low if a proper restraint system was designed and used.
That said, Dr. Stapp wasn’t stupid, but rather an excellent and meticulous researcher, who would soon earn the nickname, “The Careful Daredevil”.
Thus, step one was first to design a proper restraint system and work out all the kinks in the testing apparatus. Towards this end, they conducted nearly three dozen trial runs using the dummy, which turned out to be for the best. For example, in test run number one, both the main and secondary braking systems didn’t work owing to the triggering teeth breaking off, and, instead of stopping, Gee Whiz and Oscar Eightball shot off the tracks into the desert. Funny enough, after the teeth were beefed up, the braking cams engaged, but themselves immediately broke…
In yet another catastrophic failure, the forces were so extreme that Oscar broke free from his restraints. The result of this was his rubber face literally being ripped off thanks to the windscreen in front of his head. As for the rest of his body, it went flying through the air well over 700 feet (over 200 meters) from where the Gee Whiz stopped.
This brings us to about two years into the project on December 10, 1947 when Dr. Stapp decided it was his turn to be the dummy.
Initially strapping himself in facing backwards — a much safer way to experience extreme G-forces — the first run with a human aboard was a rather quaint 10Gs during the braking period.
After this, they continued to improve the restraint system as Dr. Stapp slowly ramped up the Gs all the way to 35 within six months of that first run. He stated of this, “The men at the mahogany desks thought the human body would never take 18 Gs; here we’re taking twice that with no sweat!”
And by “no sweat”, of course, he no doubt meant that throughout the tests, he’d suffered a hemorrhaged retina, fractured rib, lost several fillings from his teeth, got a series of concussions, cracked his collarbone, developed an abdominal hernia, developed countless bloody blisters caused by sand hitting his skin at extreme velocities, severe bruising, shattering his wrists, and fracturing his coccyx. But, you know, “no sweat”.
While recovering, if further tests needed conducting in the interim, he did begin allowing other volunteers to do the job, but as soon as he was healthy enough again, Dr. Stapp was back in the seat instead. One of his coworkers on the project, George Nichols, stated that Stapp couldn’t bare the idea of someone being seriously injured or killed in experiments he was conducting, so whenever possible made himself the guinea pig instead.
Of course, in order for the research to be as useful as possible and for other scientists to believe what Dr. Stapp was managing to endure, extremely accurate sensors were needed, which is where one Captain Edward A. Murphy comes in.
For a little background on Murphy, beyond very briefly helping out on this project, the highlights of his career included working on the SR-71, XB-70 Valkyrie, X-15 rocket plane, and helping to design the life support system for the Apollo missions.
Going back to Dr. Stapp’s project, at the time Murphy was working on a separate project at Wright Field involving centrifuge, including designing some new sensor systems in the process. When Dr. Stapp heard about this, he asked if Murphy wouldn’t mind adapting the sensors for use in Project MX-981, to which Murphy happily complied. More specifically, Murphy’s sensor system would allow them to directly measure the G forces on the passenger, rather than relying on measuring the G forces on the sled body itself.
Now, before we go any further, we should point out that exact details of what occurred over the two days Murphy was directly involved in the project have been lost to history, despite many first hand accounts from several people. You might think it would make it easy to sort out given this, but human memory being what it is, the accounts from those who were there vary considerably.
This acrobatic airplane is pulling up in a +g maneuver; the pilot is experiencing several g’s of inertial acceleration in addition to the force of gravity.
Illustrating this point in the most poignant way possible we have a quote from Chuck Yeager, who was good friends with Dr. Stapp. In the quote, Yeager was responding to the widely reported idea that Yeager had sought out Dr. Stapp to clear him for his famous flight where he broke the sound barrier. As to why he chose Dr. Stapp, Yeager supposedly felt that no other doctor but Stapp would clear him on account of Yeager’s supposedly broken ribs.
Yeager’s response to this almost universally reported story is as follows: “That’s a bunch of crap!… That’s the way rumors get started, by these people…who weren’t even there…”
He goes on,
that’s the same kind of crap…you get out of guys who were not involved and came in many years after. It’s just like Tom Brokaw’s book if you’ll pardon the analogy here, about the best of the breed or something like that. Well, every guy who wrote his story about World War II did it fifty years after it happened. I’m a victim of the same damn thing. I tell it the way I remember it, and that’s not the way it happened. I go back and I read a report that I did 55 years ago and I say, hmm, I’d better tell that story a little bit different. Well, that’s human nature. You tell it the way you believe it and that’s not necessarily the way that it happened. There’s nothing more true than that.
During this impressive and extremely accurate rant about how difficult it is to get an accurate report of some historic event, even from those who were there, he notes of those writing about these things after, “Guys become, if you’ll pardon my expression, sexual intellectuals. You know what the phrase is for that? Sexual intellectuals. They’re fucking know-it-alls, that’s what.”
And, we’re not going to lie, we mostly just included that little anecdote because we’re pretty sure “Sexual Intellectuals (Fucking Know-It-Alls)” is the greatest description of the staff and subscribers of TodayIFoundOut we’ve ever come across, and we kind of wish we’d named the channel that (and are pretty sure we’re going to make a t-shirt out of it…)
In any event, that caveat about the inherent inaccuracy of reporting history out of the way, this finally brings us around to the story of how Murphy and his law became a thing.
The general story that everybody seems to agree on is that Murphy or another worker there installed Murphy’s sensors and then a chimpanzee was strapped into the sled to test them out. (Note here, that years later in an interview with People Magazine, Murphy would claim it was Dr. Stapp that was strapped in.) After the test run, however, they found the sensors hadn’t worked at all, meaning the whole expensive and dangerous test had been run for nothing.
As to exactly why the sensors hadn’t worked, there are a few versions of this tale. As for the aforementioned David Hill, he states that it was one of his own assistants, either Jerry Hollabaugh or Ralph DeMarco, he couldn’t remember which, who installed the sensors incorrectly. As Hill explained in an interview with Nick T. Spake, author of the book A History of Murphy’s Law, “If you take these two over here and add them together. You get the correct amount of G-forces. But if you take these two and mount them together, one cancels the other out and you get zero.”
Cover of “A History of Murphy’s Law.”
George Nichols, however, claimed Hill and DeMarco had both double checked the wiring before hand, but had missed that it had been wired up backwards. That said, Nichols stated it wasn’t DeMarco nor Hill’s fault, as the wiring had been done back at Wright Field by Murphy’s team.
Said Nichols, “When Murphy came out in the morning, and we told him what happened… he was unhappy…” Stating, “If that guy [his assistant] has any way of making a mistake… He will.”
Nichols, however, blamed Murphy as Murphy should have examined the sensor system before hand to ensure it had been wired correctly, as well as tested the sensors before they were ever installed in the sled, and on top of it all should have given them time to test everything themselves before a live run on the sled. However, as Murphy was only to be there for two days, he’d supposedly rushed them. Nichols stated this inspired the team to not repeat Murphy’s mistakes.
Said Nichols, “If it can happen, it will happen… So you’ve got to go through and ask yourself, if this part fails, does this system still work, does it still do the function it is supposed to do? What are the single points of failure? Murphy’s Law established the drive to put redundancy in. And that’s the heart of reliability engineering.”
Hill also claims this ultimately morphed into the mantra among the group, “if anything can go wrong, it will.”
As for Murphy himself, years later in an interview with People Magazine, he would state what he originally said was, “If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.” He then claimed when Dr. Stapp heard this, directly after the failed sled run, he shortened it and called it “Murphy’s Law”, saying “from now on we’re going to have things done according to Murphy’s Law.”
In yet another interview, Murphy painted an entirely different picture than accounts from Hill and Nichols’, stating he’d sent the sensors ahead of time, and had only gone there to investigate when they’d malfunctioned. He stated when he looked into it, “they had put the strain gauges on the transducers ninety degrees off.”
Importantly here, contrary to what the other witnesses said of how Murphy had blamed his assistant, in the interview, Murphy said it was his own fault, “I had made very accurate drawings of the thing for them, and discussed it with the people who were going to make them… but I hadn’t covered everything. I didn’t tell them that they had positively to orient them in only one direction. So I guess about that time I said, ‘Well, I really have made a terrible mistake here, I didn’t cover every possibility.’ And about that time, Major Stapp says, ‘Well, that’s a good candidate for Murphy’s Law’. I thought he was going to court martial me. But that’s all he said.”
Murphy then went on to explain to the interviewer that he actually didn’t remember the exact words he said at the time, noting “I don’t remember. It happened thirty five years ago, you know.”
This might all have you wondering how exactly this statement that nobody seemed to be able to remember clearly came to be so prevalent in public consciousness?
John Paul Stapp Fastest man on Earth – rocket sled Pilot safety equipment 1954
It turns out, beyond being incredibly brave, brilliant, and hell-bent on saving lives, even if it cost him his own, Dr. Stapp was also hilarious from all accounts from people describing him. He even wrote a book with jokes and various witty sayings called For Your Moments of Inertia. For example, “I’m as lonely as a cricket with arthritis.” or “Better a masochist than never been kissed…”
Or how about this gem from an interview where he was asked about any lasting effects on him as a result of the experiments — Dr. Stapp wryly responded, the only residual negative effect was “all the lunches and dinners I have to go to now…”
Beyond all this, he was also a collector of “Laws”, even coming up with one of his own, Stapp’s Law — “The universal aptitude for ineptitude makes any human accomplishment an incredible miracle.”
When collecting these laws, he would name them after the person he heard them from, though often re-wording them to be more succinct, which, for whatever it’s worth, seems to align most closely to Murphy’s own account of how “his” law came about.
And as for this then becoming something the wider public found out about, during one of his interviews about the project, Dr. Stapp was asked, “How is it that no one has been severely injured — or worse — during your tests?”
It was here that Stapp stated, he wasn’t too worried about it because the entire team adhered to “Murphy’s Law”. He then explained that they always kept in mind that whatever could go wrong, would, and thus, extreme effort was made to think up everything that could go wrong and fix it before the test was actually conducted.
Going back to Project MX-981, having now reached 35 Gs after 26 runs by himself and several others by 11 volunteers, Dr. Stapp needed a faster sled. After all, at this point humans were flying at super sonic speeds and whether or not they could survive ejecting at those speeds needed to be known.
Enter the Sonic Wind at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. This sled could use up to 12 rockets capable of producing a combined 50,000 pounds of thrust, resulting in speeds as high as 750 mph. The track was about 3,550 feet long, with the braking system using water scoops. The braking could then be varied by raising or lowering the water level slightly.
This now brings us to December 10, 1954, when Dr. Stapp would pull off his most daring and final experiment.
Previous to this run, Dr. Stapp stated, “I practiced dressing and undressing with the lights out so if I was blinded I wouldn’t be helpless”, as he assumed he would probably be blind afterwards, if he survived at all. He would also state when he was sitting there waiting for the rockets to be fired, “I said to myself, ‘Paul, it’s been a good life.'”
In order to stop his arms and legs from flapping involuntarily in the wind during the test, they were securely strapped down and a mouth guard was inserted to keep his teeth from breaking off.
All set, he then blasted off on his 29th and final sled run, using nine solid fuel rockets, capable of producing 40,000 pounds of thrust.
As an interesting aside here, beyond ground based cameras, none other than Joe Kittinger piloted a T-33 over head with a photographer in back filming it.
As for the sled, it accelerated from 0 up to 632 miles per hour (1,017 kilometers per hour) in a mere 5 seconds, resulting in about 20 Gs of force on the acceleration phase. Then, in the span of just 1.4 seconds, he came to a full stop, experiencing 46.2 G’s of force in the other direction, meaning his body weighed almost 7,000 pounds at the peak G force! In the process, he had also set the record for highest landspeed of any human.
Col. John Paul Stapp aboard the “Gee Whiz” rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base.
(Air Force photo)
Said Kittinger of watching this, “He was going like a bullet… He went by me like I was standing still, and I was going 350 mph… I thought, that sled is going so damn fast the first bounce is going to be Albuquerque. I mean, there was no way on God’s earth that sled could stop at the end of the track. No way. He stopped in a fraction of a second. It was absolutely inconceivable that anybody could go that fast and then just stop, and survive.”
Nevertheless, when he was unstrapped from the chair, Dr. Stapp was alive, but as Nichols would observe, “His eyes had hemorrhaged and were completely filled with blood. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible.”
As for Dr. Stapp, he would state, it felt “like being assaulted in the rear by a fast freight train.” And that on the deceleration phase, “I felt a sensation in the eyes…somewhat like the extraction of a molar without anesthetic.”
He had also cracked some ribs, broken his wrists, and had some internal injuries to his respiratory and circulatory systems.
And on the note of his eyes, he was initially blind after, with it assumed that his retinas had detached. However, upon investigation, it was determined they had not, and within a few hours his sight mostly came back, with minor residual effects on his vision that lasted the rest of his life.
Apparently not knowing when to quit, once he had healed up, he planned yet another experiment to really see the limits of human endurance via strapping himself to that same sled and attempting to reach 1,000 mph this time…
When asked why, he stated, “I took my risks for information that will always be of benefit. Risks like those are worthwhile.”
To lead up to this, he conducted further experiments, going all the way up to 80Gs with a test dummy, at which point the Sonic Wind itself ripped off the tracks and was damaged.
It is probably for the best that it was here that his superiors stepped in. As you might imagine given his end goal was seemingly to figure out the extreme upper limit of G forces a human could survive with a perfected restraint system, and to use himself as the guinea pig until he found that limit, Dr. Stapp had previously run into the problem of his superiors ordering him to stop and instead to use chimpanzees exclusively. But while he did occasionally use chimpanzees, he went ahead and ignored the direct order completely. After all, he needed to be able to feel it for himself or be able to talk to the person experiencing the effects of the extreme Gs to get the best possible data. And, of course, no better way to find out what a human could take than use a human.
Rather than getting in trouble, he ultimately got a promotion thanks to the extreme benefits of his work. However, after his 46.2G run, they decided to shut down the experiment altogether as a way to get him to listen. After all, he had already achieved the intended goal of helping to develop better restraint and ejection systems, and proved definitively that a human could survive ejecting at the fastest speeds aircraft of the day could travel.
Now, at this point you might be thinking that’s all quite impressive, but that’s not Dr. Stapp helping to save “hundreds of thousands” of lives as we stated before. So how did he do that?
Well, during the experiments, Dr. Stapp became acutely aware that with a proper restraint system, most car accidents should be survivable, yet most cars of the age not only didn’t have any restraint systems whatsoever, they also were generally designed in ways to maximize injury in a crash with unforgiving surfaces, strong frames and bodies that would not crumple on impact, doors that would pop open in crashes, flinging occupants out, etc.
In fact, Dr. Stapp frequently pointed out to his superiors that they lost about as many pilots each year to car accidents as they did in the air. So while developing great safety systems in the planes was all well and good, they’d save a lot of lives simply by installing a restraint system into the cars of all their pilots and requiring they use them.
The military didn’t take this advice, but Dr. Stapp wasn’t about to give up. After all, tens of thousands of people each year in the U.S. alone were dying in car accidents when he felt many shouldn’t have. Thus, in nearly every interview he gave about his famous experiments almost from the very beginning of the project, he would inevitably guide the conversation around to the benefits of what they were doing if adopted in automobiles.
Not stopping there, he went on a life-long public campaign talking to everyone from car manufacturers to politicians, trying to get it required that car manufacturers include seat belts in their vehicles, as well as sharing his team’s data and restraint system designs.
Beyond that, he used his clout within the Air Force to convince them to allow him to conduct a series of experiments into auto safety, test crashing cars in a variety of ways using crash test dummies and, in certain carefully planned tests, volunteer humans, to observe the effects. This was one of the first times anyone had tried such a scientifically rigorous, broad look into commercial automobile safety. He also tested various restraint systems, in some tests subjecting the humans to as high as a measured 28 Gs. Results in hand, in May of 1955 he held a conference to bring together automobile engineers, scientists, safety council members and others to come observe the tests and learn of the results of his team’s research.
He then repeated this for a few years until Stapp was reassigned by the Air Force, at which point he requested Professor James Ryan of the University of Minnesota host the 4th annual such event, which Ryan then named the “Stapp Car-Crash and Field Demonstration Conference”, which is still held today.
Besides this and other ways he championed improvement in automobile safety, he also served as a medical advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, in both heavily pushing for better safety systems.
It is no coincidence that not long after Dr. Stapp started these campaigns, car manufacturers started installing seatbelts as a matter of course, as well as started to put much more serious thought into making cars safer in crashes.
In the end, while Dr. Stapp got little public credit for helping to convince car manufacturers to prioritize automobile safety, and provided much of the initial data to help them design such systems, he was at least invited to be present when President Johnson signed the bill that made seat belts required in cars in 1966.
Besides ignoring direct orders to stop using himself as a guinea pig, other ways Dr. Stapp apparently used to frequently flout the rules was to, on his own time, freely treat dependents of people who worked at Edwards’ who were nonetheless not eligible for medical care. He would typically do this via doing house calls to airmen’s homes to keep the whole thing secret, including apparently attending to Chuck Yeager’s sons in this way according to Yeager.
It turns out Murphy was also good friends with none other than Lawrence Peter, remembered today for the Peter Principal — people inevitably get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. According Murphy’s son, Robert, at one point Peter and Murphy tried to get together with Cyril Northcote Parkinson of Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands to meet the time and money that is available.” However, Robert claims that fateful meeting ended up getting canceled when other matters came up to prevent the get together.
One other strong safety recommendation Dr. Stapp pushed for, particularly in aviation, was to turn passenger seats around to face backwards, as this is drastically safer in crashes. And, at least in aviation would be simple to do on any commercial airline, requiring no modification other than to turn the seat around in its track. As Stapp and subsequent research by NASA shows, humans can take the most G-forces and receive fewer injuries overall with “eyes back” force, where the G-forces are pushing you back into your seat, with the seat cushions themselves also lending a hand in overall safety. This also insures tall people won’t smack their heads and bodies against anything in front of them in a crash. Despite the massive safety benefits here for people of all ages, outside of car seats for babies and toddlers, nobody anywhere seems interested in leveraging the extreme benefits of rear facing passengers to increase general safety.
If you’re wondering about the safest place on a plane to sit, funny enough, that’s the rear. In fact, you’re approximately 40% more likely to survive a plane crash if you sit in the back of the plane, rather than the front. The other advantage to the rear is that most passengers choose not to sit in the back. So unless the plane is full, you might get a row of seats to yourself. (Of course, a bathroom is also often in the rear on planes, soooo.) Another factor to consider is where the closest exit is. As a general rule, studies examining accidents have shown you’ll want to be within six rows of an emergency exit to maximize your survival chances. So if the plane doesn’t have a rear exit, that’s something to be factored in.
During Joe Kittinger’s then record leap from about 102,800 feet on August 16, 1960, the following happened during the ascent:
At 43,000 feet, I find out [what can go wrong]. My right hand does not feel normal. I examine the pressure glove; its air bladder is not inflating. The prospect of exposing the hand to the near-vacuum of peak altitude causes me some concern. From my previous experiences, I know that the hand will swell, lose most of its circulation, and cause extreme pain…. I decide to continue the ascent, without notifying ground control of my difficulty… Circulation has almost stopped in my unpressurized right hand, which feels stiff and painful… [Upon landing] Dick looks at the swollen hand with concern. Three hours later the swelling disappeared with no ill effect.
His total ascent took 1 hour and 31 minutes, he stayed at the peak altitude for 12 minutes, and his total decent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds, so his hand was exposed to a near vacuum for quite some time without long term ill effects. Incidentally, during his fall, he achieved a peak speed of 614 mph, nearly as fast as Dr. Stapp had managed in his little rocket sled. His experience, however, was very different than Dr. Stapp’s. Said Kittinger,
There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Here are 8 more unit nicknames from terrified enemies all proudly worn by U.S. military formations:
1. Walking Dead
The nickname “the Walking Dead,” was originally used by Ho Chi Minh to describe all Marines in the A Shau Valley of Vietnam, but the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, suffered and fought through more in that valley than nearly any other, losing 747 Marines and suffering thousands wounded in the war. Their normal unit strength was only 800.
While some have tried to change the unit’s name to “Walking Death,” Marines kept going back to “Walking Dead.”
2. Roosevelt’s SS
The 30th Infantry Division was pitted against Germany’s elite 1st SS Division over and over. First at St. Lo and then Mortain in France and finally in the Battle of the Bulge. The 30th defeated the 1st SS every time, leading to the German high command dubbing them “Roosevelt’s SS Troops.”
A group of soldiers in occupied Japan were trying to talk to locals when the translator had to figure out how to describe paratroopers to the locals. He went with Rakkasans which meant, “falling down umbrella men.” The locals found the construction clumsy but funny and they made it a permanent nickname.
One of the greatest fighting forces of World War II was the First Special Service Force, an American-Canadian joint commando unit. According to legend, a German diary was found at Anzio that referred to the legendary men as “The black devils.” The name was applied to the unit as both “The Devils Brigade” and “The Devil’s Brigade.”
6. Iron Men of Metz
The city of Metz in the northeast of France had repelled invaders without a single defeat since 451 A.D. when America decided to crack its teeth on it in 1944. The 95th Infantry Division’s success against the Germans got the nickname “The Bravest of the Brave.” The division preferred a nickname from the Germans, “The Iron Men of Metz.”
The 36th Engineer Regiment was tasked with conducting and supporting amphibious assaults in World War II and hit the beaches at Morocco, Sicily, Naples, Anzio, and Southern France. Their specialty was symbolized by a seahorse on their patch and, after the regiment held 7 miles of frontline at Anzio, the Germans nicknamed them “The Little Seahorse Division.”
“Division” was dropped since the unit was a regiment and later a brigade but has never grown to a full division.
Are you struggling to meet Army weight standards or need to improve your run time to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test or Army Combat Fitness Test? Maybe you just signed up for the Army Ten-Miler and would like to improve your performance.
Did you know there is a world-class team of experts at an Army Wellness Center near you with access to cutting-edge technology just waiting to help? No need to hire a personal trainer, your AWC offers free services and programs to help you meet your fitness goals.
Last year, AWCs served 60,000 clients and achieved a 97 percent client satisfaction rating, according to the Army Public Health Center’s 2018 Health of the Force report. Program evaluations of AWC effectiveness have shown that individuals who participate in at least one follow-up AWC assessment experience improvements in their cardiorespiratory fitness, body fat percentage, body mass index, blood pressure and perceived stress.
Making improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness and body mass index are particularly important because increased levels of cardiorespiratory fitness and decreased levels of body mass index are associated with decreased musculoskeletal injury risk.
Megan Amadeo, Army Wellness Center Project Officer, Army Public Health Center, assists U.S. Army Capt. Zachary Schroeder, Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, Army Public Health Center, with putting on the new K5 metabolic testing unit May 9, 2019, as part of his training to compete in the Army Ten Miler in October 2019.
(Photo by Graham Snodgrass)
“The types of assessments provided at an AWC are world class,” said Todd Hoover, division chief for Army Wellness Center Operations, Army Public Health Center. “If a client is interested in losing weight, AWCs provide an assessment called indirect calorimetry or simply metabolic testing. The test involves a client breathing into a mask for 15 minutes. After the test we can measure, with an extremely high accuracy, the total number of calories an individual needs to lose, gain or maintain weight. The information provided from this test is often the difference between someone reaching their goals or not.”
There are currently 35 AWCs located at Army installations around the globe offering programs and services to soldiers, family members, retirees and Department of Army civilians, said Hoover. AWCs are known for being innovative in the use of testing technology for health, wellness and physical performance.
Hoover said the best client for an AWC is a soldier who is not meeting APFT/ACFT performance standards. Those with low or high body mass index plus poor run times are the highest risk populations. These individuals are the majority at risk for musculoskeletal injury, which account for more than 69 percent of all cause injuries in the Army.
One of the AWC’s newest pieces of gear is a portable metabolic analyzer called the Cosmed K5. This system measures how well muscles use oxygen during any type of strenuous activity. From this measurement, AWC experts can determine how efficient the body is at using oxygen to produce energy and identify the exact threshold or intensity level an individual should train at to improve performance.
“Essentially the devices provide the most accurate measurement of aerobic performance,” said Hoover. “From the testing, we can precisely advise a soldier or family member the exact training intensity for them. What this means is there is no guessing. This is an exact physiological representation of the individual’s needs for a particular activity. It doesn’t get better than this.”
U.S. Army Capt. Zachary Schroeder, Headquarters and Headquarters Company commander, Army Public Health Center, runs with the new K5 metabolic testing unit May 9, 2019, as part of his training to compete in the Army Ten-Miler in October 2019.
(Photo by Graham Snodgrass)
AWCs are built on a foundation of scientific evidence, best practice recommendations and standards by leading health organizations to include the American College of Sports Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, said Hoover. As a result, clients of AWCs receive highly individualized health and wellness services to improve overall health-related factors as well as enhanced performance through effective coaching strategies.
An article summarizing the effectiveness of the AWC program was recently submitted to the American Journal of Health Promotion, which recognized their success by selecting the article as a 2018 Editor’s Pick.
“The staff academic and credentialing requirements surpass industry standards,” said Hoover. “This means that each AWC health educator has completed advanced education plus achieved national board certification in related fields for delivering health promotion programs.”
AWC health educators also undergo more than 320 hours of intensive core competency training prior to seeing their first client, said Hoover. Basic health coaching requires an additional 80 hours of training.
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through studies, surveys and technical consultations.
Sit across the table from Spc. Sergo Dzamashvili for just a few seconds and you’ll see a basic outline emerge fairly quickly. His manners and easy smile, the way he leans forward when he talks, and — not least of all, of course — his affection for Starbucks Doubleshot energy drinks make him the typical — almost archetypal — 30-year-old soldier; busy, eager, and always ready for the next task, the next challenge. But dig a little deeper and you will see, quite clearly, the details that color the world inside that simple sketch. To map the entire terrain, however, you’ll need to travel some 15,000 miles.
“I always wanted to be a soldier,” says Dzamashvili, sitting in the offices of the 21st Signal Brigade on a warm September morning. “When I was a kid that was always something I thought would be cool, being a soldier for the American Army.”
Those words, and indeed his affinity for the Army and America as a whole, are repeated so often and with such calm conviction that he could almost double as a motivational speaker; one specializing, perhaps, in writing simple daily mantras for busy professionals to read on their daily commutes. Instead, Dzamashvili is a board-certified medical doctor who enlisted in the Army just last year, in early 2018. It’s a commitment, he says, that doubles as a gift to the country that gave him opportunities he never would have had in his native Georgia — a tiny, still-emerging country located at the intersection of Western Asia and Eastern Europe.
U.S. Army Spc. Sergo Dzamashvili speaks with a coworker at his desk located in the offices of the 21st Signal Brigade.
(Photo by Mr. Ramin A. Khalili)
“Honestly,” says Dzamashvili, “the reason I wanted to become an American soldier is because America has given my family everything.”
The first 5,000 miles
“When I was born in Georgia,” says Dzamashvili, reaching back to the late 1980s, “it was still part of the U.S.S.R. This was just before the U.S.S.R. split up, and so there was instability and there was upheaval … there was an ongoing fight for power.”
It was that atmosphere of decline that Dzamashvili’s father, Konstantin, sought to flee when he reached out to a friend living in Chicago for help in the early 1990s. Political and cultural strife in the country of — at the time — barely more than four million people had led to the breakdown of living conditions and, in some cases, the basic application of law. And so Konstantin, a neurologist by trade, was hoping America could provide safety for his wife, son, and young twin daughters.
“My father was waiting in breadlines for hours just to feed the family,” says Dzamashvili. “So when he came here, it was for a better life.”
But that opportunity came with a catch. In order to pay for his family’s move to America, Konstantin had to travel to the U.S. alone first in order to save up enough money. He wound up bunking with that same buddy in Chicago for a year —eventually re-starting his medical career at 40-years old — before bringing the rest of the family to Illinois.
Says Dzamashvili of his father, “He was out there for a year, alone, while we were still in Georgia, until he had passed all his boards and started his residency program, which would then fund us coming over here.”
And so at age five, Sergo was finally in the place he wanted to be all along … for a little while, at least.
Return to Georgia
For Sergo, it all started with his grandfather — his father’s father. He was the catalyst, the inception point. He passed away when Konstantin was in his late teens and so Sergo never got a chance to meet him, but he did have pictures — volumes of mementos from Georgia.
“I would always hear stories about his bravery,” says Sergo, “about what kind of man he was. From early on, I was always intrigued — the way he was standing there in his [military] uniform with all these medals.”
Those pictures, coupled with Sergo’s newfound affinity for the United States, stuck with him during his formative years and carried through to his entrance into medical school — which he ultimately chose to attend at David Tvildiani Medical University back in Georgia.
U.S. Army Spc. Sergo Dzamashvili (foreground, right) conducts Army Warrior Tasks (AWT) drills during the 21st Signal Brigade Best Warrior Competition 2019.
(US Army photo by Sgt. Raul Pacheco)
The decision to both leave home (to leave again, in a manner of speaking) and reconnect with family roots was daunting to say the least, as Georgia had been rife with the same political instability from Dzamashvili’s youth up until pro-democratic forces rose to power in the mid-2000s. The tiny, burgeoning country was still — much like Sergo at the time — moving through its adolescent years.
There was contrasting comfort, however, in the medical training itself. Turns out Dzamashvili’s chosen university not only came highly recommended from family friends practicing medicine in Chicago, it was designed specifically to cater to regional students who wanted to ultimately enter U.S.-based medical professions. To that end, all university textbooks were written in English and, further, the overall cost of schooling was substantially less than a U.S.-based medical education — all perks unavailable to his father just a decade-or-so earlier. Ironically, Georgia would eventually, in 2014, become home to the U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Georgia, a subordinate command of the USAMRDC’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
“Going back to Georgia really brought me that perspective,” says Dzamashvili. “There was a long time where my family wouldn’t go back, even though we had a chance to go back in the 90s.”
Just twelve years after touching down in America’s Heartland — and just a few years after becoming an American citizen — Sergo was back on a plane at age 17 for a new and different journey.
Homecoming, part II
When you ask him how Georgians speak — ask about the language they use, the way they talk, the casual slang terms they use, even — Dzamashvili is quick to make it clear that Georgia is a singular and unique entity; a hard-fought identity that he clearly still respects.
“Georgians have their own language,” he says quickly, almost as a sly-but-gentle rebuke to those who think the country may still be hindered by its turbulent past in any way. “They have their own alphabet, everything — and so I had to re-learn how to read and write, essentially, when I went back for school.”
Dzamashvili’s university stay would last for six years until his graduation in 2013; at which point he’d not only navigated the rigors of initial medical training, but had reached a poignant understanding of the country of his birth (“people there are very hospitable,” he says), gained a greater understanding of the government’s democratic efforts (“I see hope,” he says), and, with regards to cultural differences, had also determined that Georgia had substantial culinary shortcomings as compared to the U.S. (“I did miss burritos over there,” he says).
U.S. Army Spc. Sergo Dzamashvili assigned to HHC, 21st Signal Brigade, conducts M9 weapons qualification as part of the 21st Signal Brigade Best Warrior Competition 2019.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Raul Pacheco)
Touching back down in Illinois, Dzamashvili eventually passed his medical board examinations, shadowed professional doctors, and even performed clinical research at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital. But when it came time for residency training, instead of waiting a year to attend either Loyola University of Chicago or the University of Illinois at Chicago, he opted for a different path: the U.S. Army.
“Screw waiting,” says Dzamashvili of his mindset at the time. “I’m going to join the Army. I was always told the fastest way to get into the Army was to just go and enlist anyways, so that didn’t bother me to go enlist for a couple of years as long as I got into the medical field.”
Desire, meet destiny
Now, after thirty years and medical training efforts on two different continents, Sergo Dzamashvili is both a medical doctor and a member of the U.S. Army; his first assignment is here at Fort Detrick. His unique qualifications have bred an understandable eagerness to move forward — a chomping at the bit, of sorts — as, indeed, he’s already started the process of entering the Army’s medical occupation; taking the steps required to become a physician. But if you think the man who’s waited nearly three decades to realize his dream is put off by a little time in the waiting room, then you don’t know Sergo.
“My ultimate goal is to practice medicine in the Army,” says Dzamashvili. “That’s what I want, to give back. I’d like to serve for at least eight years, to give back that entire time in service.”
Just how long it will take to reach that goal is yet to be seen, though it should come as no surprise that Dzamashvili has already attempted to plot the arc of his military medical career even before his training has been completed. Even now, serving as a Human Resources Specialist in the S-1 Office until his next assignment, he finds in each day’s shift what so many others would gladly welcome into their own lives: a sense of purpose, the feeling of belonging, and the satisfaction of a job that truly has meaning.
In the end — if these kinds of stories can have an end — the service career of Sergo Dzamashvili is, in reality, just beginning. It would be an exaggeration, perhaps, to say that Dzamashvili has already lived multiple lives; though it wouldn’t be such a stretch to say that’s the truth, either. In any capacity, his life’s work as currently constructed already stands as an impressive feat; a soldier coupling the desire to serve America with the talent required to make a lasting impact.
Not too bad for a typical 30-year-old.
Says Dzamashvili, “If there’s nothing else I do in my life, I can always say I was a soldier. That’s the way I look at it. If there’s nothing else that I accomplish, I will always know that I served my country.”
Since ancient times, warriors have gathered around the fire to recall battles fought with comrades over flagons of strong ale. Today, we keep this same tradition — except the storytelling usually happens in a smoke pit or dingy bar.
If you’ve been part of one of these age-old circles, then you know there’s a specific set of mannerisms that’s shared by service members, from NCOs to junior enlisted. The way veterans tell their stories is a time-honored tradition that’s more important than the little details therein — and whether those details are true or not. Not every piece of a veteran’s tale is guaranteed to be accurate, but the following attributes will tell you that it’s legit enough.
Just hear them out. Either out of politeness or apathy — your choice.
Beginning the story with “No sh*t, there I was…”
No good story begins without this phrase. It draws the reader in and prepares them to accept the implausible. How else are you going to believe their story about their reasonably flimsy military vehicle rolling over?
It’s become so much of an on-running trope in veteran storytelling that it’s basically our version of “once upon a time.”
But sometimes, you just have to tell the new guy that everything they just signed up for f*cking sucks.
Going into extreme (and pointless) detail
Whenever a veteran begins story time for a civilian, they’ll recall the little details about where they were deployed, like the heat and the smell.
Now, we’re not saying these facts are completely irrelevant, but the stage-setting can get a bit gratuitous.
If your story is about your time as a boot, everyone will just believe you… likely because your story is too boring to fact check.
(Meme via Coast Guard Memes)
Constantly reminding the listener that they can look it up
The military has paperwork for literally everything. Let’s say you’re telling the story of how you were the platoon guidon bearer back in basic training. If you tried hard enough, you could probably find a document somewhere to back that statement up.
As outlandish as some claims may be, nobody is actually to put in the work to fact-check a story — especially when you’re just drinking beers at the bar.
Maybe it was because I was boring, but I never understood why people felt the need to go overboard with hiding people in the trunk. Just say, “they left their ID in the barracks.”
(Photo by Senior Airman Ryan Zeski)
Citing someone that may or may not exist as a source
Among troops and veterans, it’s easy for most of us forget that people also have first names. This is why so many of our stories refer to someone named of ‘Johnson,’ ‘Brown,’ or ‘Smith.’ It’s up to you whether you want to believe this person actually exists.
If they start getting into the stories that will make grandma blush, fewer nudges are required.
(U.S. Army photo)
Tapping the listener’s arm if they lose interest
Military stories tend to drag on forever. Now, this isn’t because they’re boring, but rather because the storyteller vividly remembers nearly every detail.
Sometimes, those telling the story feel the need to check in on the listener to make they’re absorbing it all. Most vets do with this a little nudge.
Basically how it works.
(Comic by Broken and Unreadable)
Filling in the blanks with “because, you know… Army”
It’s hard to nail down every minute detail of military culture, like how 15 minute priors really work.
Some things can only be explained with a hand wave and a simple, “because, you know, that’s how it was in the service.”
Or they could just be full of sh*t. But who cares? If it’s a fun story, it’s a fun story.
(Meme via Pop Smoke)
Finishing the story in a way that fosters one-upsmanship
Veterans’ stories aren’t intended to over-glorify past actions — even if that’s how it sounds to listeners. Generations upon generations of squads have told military stories as a way of a team-building, not as a way for one person to win a non-existent p*ssing contest.
Whether the storyteller knows it or not, they often finish up a tale by signaling to the listener that it’s now their turn to tell an even better story. Just like their squad leader did for them all those years ago.
The history and role of military women throughout the years is fascinating. And with March being Women’s History Month, we decided to dive in and take a look back at the role women have played in the U.S. military from WWI to the present day.
World War I
Many people know that women were part of WWI, but did you know about the women who worked as switchboard operators? The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit had to be bilingual, speaking in both French and English to ensure orders were heard by everyone. Over 7,000 women applied, but only 450 were accepted and even though they wore Army Uniforms and were subject to Army Regulations they were not given honorable discharges. Grace Banker was one of these women. She led a team of 38 women and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her service.
World War II
During WWII, over 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces. And while many women worked as nurses, secretaries and telephone operators, there were several other jobs that women filled. The two most influential groups were the Women Armed Service Pilots (WASP) and Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)
Women were called up to serve as pilots during World War II to allow men to serve on the front lines overseas. While these women were promised military status, they joined before the final law was passed and, in the end, served as civilians and were not given veteran status until years later. During the time of the program, WASP flew over 60 million miles, transported every type of military aircraft, towed targets for live anti-aircraft training, simulated missions and transported cargo.
This program authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as commissioned officers and enlisted troops. The purpose of the legislation was to release officers and men for sea duty and replace them with women on shore establishments. The first director of the WAVES was Mildred H. McAfee. The WAVES served at 900 stations in the U.S. The WAVES peak strength was 86,291 members. Many female officers entered fields previously held by men, such as engineering and medicine. Enlisted women served in jobs from clerical to parachute riggers.
The Korean War marked a turning point for women’s advancement in the armed forces. While we typically think of Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (MASH) from Vietnam, they actually got their start in Korea. The first one was led by Margaret (Zane) Fleming and 12 other Army nurses. This role put the nurses much closer to the front lines and direct combat than anyone had anticipated. On Oct 9, 1950, while moving from Inchon to Pusan they came under attack. They hid in a ditch and helped treat the wounded. Because they all survived the attack, they began calling themselves “The Lucky Thirteen.”
While over a third of women serving were in the medical career field, women served as administrative assistants, stenographers, translators and more. Additionally, the first female chaplains and civil engineers served in the Korean War.
Approximately 11,000 women served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Nearly 90 percent of these women were nurses. They were an all-volunteer force and arrived in Vietnam as early as 1956. Other women served as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and more. Master Sergeant Barbara Jean Dulinsky was the first female Marine to serve in a combat zone in 1967. Five Navy nurses were awarded the Purple Heart after they were injured in a Viet Cong bombing of an officer’s billet in downtown Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. They were the first female members to receive that award during the Vietnam War. Commander Elizabeth Barrett in November of 1972, became the first female naval line officer to hold command in a combat zone.
The first female Marine promoted to Sergeant Major was Bertha Peters Billeb. She was the first woman to become the Sergeant Major of female Marines. It was a billet similar in duties and responsibilities to the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps. Six women would fill this position until it was eliminated in 1977.
In Desert Storm, the role and influence of women in the military had integrated into almost every military unit. Over 40,000 women deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, with 15 women killed in action and two women taken prisoner by Iraqi forces. Although women were restricted from combat, a new frontier for women was established as the lines of combat began to blur. Congress began rescinding the statutory restrictions which barred women from combat aircraft and vessels. It was a key step in shaping female service in the military today.
Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had dramatic impacts on female military service today. The military has continued to rely on women service members as the front lines of battle have been eliminated; fighting a war that relies on Improvised Explosive Devices, and surprise attacks both on and off base. But the military has realized the value of women on the battlefield, and began creating teams that partner with military infantry units, such as Team Lioness and Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which eventually paved the way for Female Engagement Teams.
In 2016, after years of women proving their capabilities on the battlefield all jobs were opened to women. Although women have been serving on the front lines of war for decades the regulations preventing women from serving in career fields that were held historically by men were finally rescinded. Since then we have seen women sign up for and complete the rigorous training programs required to serve in some of the most elite military groups.
Women have proven their willingness to answer the nation’s call and take on new roles at each challenge. Where will they go next?
The US Navy has some of the world’s most advanced ships with electronics and automated systems that handle much of the manual tasks involved in the millenias-old craft of sailing — but that same technological strength may be its downfall in a fight against Russia or China.
“Reliance on digital technologies is particularly acute in the realms of communications, propulsion systems, and navigation and has produced a fleet that may not survive the first missile hit or hack,” Panter writes.
Panter’s comments follow a 2017 incident that saw two US Navy destroyers suffer massive collisions with container ships. These ships are among the world’s best at tracking and defending against incoming missiles flying at hundreds of miles an hour, yet they failed to steer well enough to avoid getting hit by a relatively slow container ship the size of a small neighborhood.
“Navigation and seamanship, these are the fundamental capabilities which every surface warfare officer should have, but I suspect if called to war, we’ll be required to do a lot more than safely navigate the Singapore strait,” US Navy Capt. Kevin Eyer, former skipper of the cruisers Shiloh, Chancellorsville, and Thomas Gates said in December 2017. Eyer was speaking in reference to the USS John McCain’s crash with a container ship in the Singapore strait, as Breaking Defense noted at the time.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Gavin Shields)
“If our surface forces are unable to successfully execute these fundamental blocking and tackling tasks, how can it be possibly be expected that they are also able to do the much more complex warfighting tasks?” Eyer asked.
The Navy responded to the two major crashes by replacing the commander of its Pacific fleet, but concerns about its reliance on mutable, fallible electronic and automated systems remains an issue. Additionally, the Navy has begun teaching navigation based on the stars to its sailors in an effort to mitigate over-relaince on technology.
Navigation, that quiet background endeavor without which missiles cannot be launched or guns fired, is similarly teetering one casualty away from disaster. For a loss of GPS, you switch to another; for a loss of a VMS console, you switch to another. But what happens in a total loss-of-power casualty? Wait until the 30-minute batteries on the GPS and VMS wind down, then switch to a laptop version—also battery-powered. The assumption, of course, is that help will be on the way.
Russia operates a more analog fleet than the US in both at sea and in the air, and China’s sea power is concentrated near its own shores where ground assets can back it up.
Through electronic warfare and a misstep in US Navy strategy, the world’s biggest, most powerful Navy could lose its next war as its strengths turn to weaknesses in the face of technological over-reliance.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.