Army Myths: The .50 cal will kill/harm/maim even if you miss

I’ve been back in the Army for almost a year now, and I still hear some of the same myths I heard back when I was enlisted. I probably believed most of them back then.

This myth is about the .50 caliber machine gun, the M2. Most soldiers, even infantrymen, are usually not that familiar with the M2. It’s a heavy weapon and is normally only used by gunners, and most infantrymen will never be gunners. It’s also an old and highly revered weapon – ask anyone who has been supported by one.

The other day, I heard a myth about the .50 cal that I’ve heard many times before. It usually goes something like this:

Soldier: “I heard that if you shoot at someone with the .50 cal it will blow off parts of their body if the bullet comes within 3 feet of him.”

Soldier: “Just shooting near a target with the .50 cal will kill him from the air pressure.”

Soldier: “I heard that a gunner was shooting at a guy overseas with the M2, missed, but still knocked the guy down from the “pressure.””

Now, I’ve never heard someone validate this myth. It’s always something one guy heard from another guy. But I’ve heard completely intelligent people defend this “fact” aggressively despite the lack of evidence.

My guess is the general lack of experience with M2s explains the development and persistency of this myth. And apparently, the MythBusters proved that firing a .50 cal near glass wouldn’t even shatter the glass with a near miss, so I can’t imagine it would kill/harm/maim a person.

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The Veteran Back-to-School Reader

It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.

I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.

Posts about the technical aspects of college:
A Veteran’s Blueprint for College – The nuts and bolts of going to college as a veteran.
College Success: Leveraging Your Vet-Cred – How to use your veteran experience to your advantage while at school 

Posts about college life for veterans:
From Soldier to Student, a Bumpy Road – The strange life of the student veteran, by Alex Horton
Johnny Get Your Textbook – What it’s like… by Colby Buzzell

Posts about transitioning out of the military:
Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the MilitaryThis is good general advice on making it work outside of the military.

Posts about studying Arabic as a veteran:
Learning a Language, and Relearning a Country – A former soldier decides to study Arabic and faces some awkwardness and discomfort.

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A Veteran’s Blueprint for College

This post originally ran on VAntage Point, the VA’s blog. Since school is starting, I thought I’d repost it here.

Having just finished school, I wanted to write an amazing article on what that experience was like as a veteran. (Un)fortunately, Alex Horton and Colby Buzzell recently wrote fantastic articles about that strange transition – and did so in a way that I could not. So instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by writing about some of the nuts and bolts of going to college on the GI Bill and ultimately finishing school with a degree.

In the five years since leaving the Army, I managed to squeeze out an undergraduate degree (CCNY, 2010) and a master’s degree (SOAS, 2011) almost entirely covered by the GI Bill. Starting school, it’s important to understand that getting an education is a long and grueling process. I spent as much time in school as I did in the Army. This post chronicles that journey and might act as a light blueprint for a veteran looking to go to school.

Overcome the skepticism and go

During my last six months of active duty, I met with a number of senior NCOs and retention specialists to discuss staying in the Army and my plans upon separating. The conversations usually went like this:

NCO: “You’re getting out? What are you going to do?”
Me: “I’m going to go to college.”
NCO: “Yeah, alright. It’s not that easy, you know.”

Informal conversations with peers about my future as a college student were often met with rolled eyes and skepticism. It was generally assumed that separating soldiers responded with “going to college” as an answer to questions about future plans without actually putting the thought into what going to college entails. College was also shrouded in mystery as a foreign institution far outside of the base gate since most of the enlisted soldiers surrounding me had not attended. This mystery meant they didn’t have a good second line of questioning. A soldier could say they were simply going to college and that was a good enough plan. Most active duty soldiers don’t have much experience with accessing VA benefits, so there is little advice they can offer.

But if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics.

Swallow your pride – start at community college if you must

Fortunately, I had a basic plan. I wanted to pursue Middle East studies and Arabic. In order to do that, I needed to go to a school that offered it. I wanted to go to the City College of New York (CCNY), but I was not a good student in high school, so applying directly was not an option. So, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a local community college to sharpen my academic skills and boost my GPA before applying to CCNY. At community college, I only took core courses that would easily transfer to CCNY by checking the requirements of the degree program I wanted at CCNY and matching up the requirements to courses at the community college I was attending. I had to take a year of remedial math before I could even enroll in a math course that actually counted. It wasn’t fun, but I needed it. And this year of taking courses I didn’t necessarily want to take laid the foundation for future academic success.

I got my first taste of life with the GI Bill at community college. Fortunately, the community college I attended had a full-time representative that handled veterans issues and she ensured I always received GI Bill payments. If your school has a veterans office, lean on it. Hard.

Start with core courses/general studies – they transfer easier

After a year of community college, I transferred to the City College of New York. Because I had only taken core courses, nearly all of my credits transferred – meaning I hadn’t wasted any time. Switching my GI Bill to this new school was trickier, since it required switching regions. I didn’t have any problems with receiving payments though, because I applied for the GI Bill early and checked up regularly. Phone calls and website inquiries are a student veteran’s best friend when it comes to ensuring timely disbursement of funds.

Stay up-to-date on the latest benefit changes

By the time the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, I had nearly exhausted all of my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. I was a little bummed, since I was otherwise fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and would have received substantially more than what I was getting with the Montgomery. Closely reading the rules governing the new benefit, however, I learned that if I exhausted my Montgomery GI Bill I would then be eligible for twelve months of Post-9/11 GI Bill. Knowing this, I was able to continue to receive GI Bill benefits in the final months of my undergraduate program and then use what was left to help pay for a graduate program in London.

If you do something weird (like study abroad), be prepared to work – you might be trailblazing

I chose to continue my education by attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers studying at foreign institutions, but the rules governing this are different than the rules governing studying at US institutions. In order to make it work, I needed to get the specific program I was interested in approved by the VA before I could start receiving benefits. This can be a long process and one that requires lots of phone calls to desks in VA offices across the US.

I also needed to get letters from the VA documenting approximately how much money I would receive over the course of the year to apply for a UK visa – not a normal thing that the VA does. Also, all housing allowances for foreign institutions are set at a locked rate regardless of the location overseas, which may be substantially less than what you will need. While studying in London, I had a GI Bill discrepancy, and troubleshooting the issue was a little more difficult since calling back to the US could get expensive. Lastly, administrative staff at foreign institutions may have never processed a US veteran before, so you need to be prepared to teach someone “how to do it.”

Spin your service into more opportunities

The Post-9/11 GI Bill shouldn’t be the only legacy of your military service while in school. Veterans represent a tiny portion of any college campus. That, together with the unique experiences, ingrained discipline, and plethora of stories can easily by marshaled to pursue other opportunities, like prestigious scholarships. By supplementing your Post-9/11 GI Bill with other scholarships, you can extend the life of your benefits and potentially squeeze out another degree before you finish.

Start slow, but stay in the game

Since starting school, there have been two problems that I’ve seen over and over again with veterans and college: the veteran who never starts school because of how long it takes to finish and the one that never finishes because he or she takes on too much at once. The first puts off going to school every semester because it’s going to take forever anyway (“Why bother? I have to take a year of classes that don’t even count before I can even start school for real”). The second starts school and then is in a rush to finish, often taking too many courses while holding a job and taking on too many side projects. Both of these veterans have a hard time finishing college, but their solutions are similar: start slow and build momentum. Even if it means starting with one or two courses a semester. Slowly, the veteran will build momentum and start taking on more. Each course is one course closer to finishing.

Lastly, as much as possible, resist the urge to take a semester off. These breaks often last longer than intended.

Good luck!

Additional tips:

Enroll as soon as possible – the sooner you start, the sooner you finish

Have a basic plan (what do you ultimately want to study?)

Backwards plan – find the job you want – determine what degree or education it requires – determine which school offers it – figure out how to get into that school – execute!

Knock out your core requirements first – this might take a year or more, in which time you can think critically about the end game and make adjustments if necessary. Also, core requirements are usually the most transferable, so if you change schools, they won’t be credits, time, and money wasted.

Know the rules to the GI Bill and stay up-to-date on changes (this can mean more money, or at least, not having to pay back)

Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry (if you have any problems, send an inquiry immediately through the VA website)

When it comes to the GI Bill, apply early and check up regularly

Be on the lookout for other veteran-specific scholarships

Stay in school – even if it means one course a semester

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Running around like a maniac in the woods, and winning

The last couple of times I’ve been on a land navigation course, I didn’t do so well. The first time, I tried to “take it easy” and walk the course (I normally run a lot). I wasted a lot of time slowly traversing the course, and then because I had it in my mind that I was “taking it easy” it was more difficult to get amped up to crash into the woods and destroy the homes of hundreds of Fort Benning spiders.

Then, at Ranger School, I made a couple of bad decisions at the start of the course which threw me off.

This past week I had another go at a land navigation course for IBOLC’s mini-RAP week. Excited for the chance to get back on a land navigation course and “get my groove back” I put in a little more preparation than usual. One of the problems I had during RAP week land navigation was poor fieldcraft. I didn’t have a clipboard or flat writing surface and I placed my map haphazardly in a zip-up map case. I wasted lots of time digging it out for map checks. Precious minutes spent standing around on a land nav course messing with gear can add up and work against you.

Eager to not make the same mistake twice, I dug through my giant box of old Army gear from my enlisted time and fished out a plexiglass map case I made. It’s something I picked up from watching officers on the drop zones of Fort Bragg. Many of them would pull out these hard map cases with all of the key information they needed already plotted. The case was easy to handle, flat, and protected the map (see here for instructions on how to make one).

After making a few minor repairs to the case, I headed out to the land navigation course with the other post-IBOLC students for the land navigation course (a painful day, wake up at 0030). Surprisingly, we did not go to the usual Red Diamond course I’ve done almost a dozen times since being here at Fort Benning. It was some other course that I’ve never been to before, just south of the Ranger School land navigation site. It was exciting to have to do a new, unfamiliar course.

The map we got for the course was pretty bad. The contour lines were difficult to make out and everything was blurry. I slipped the map into my case and began plotting. Lesson learned: it would probably be better to plot directly on the map and then put the map into the case. The map case is tight, but the map tends to slide around a little bit, and I had to ensure that the map was correctly lined up each time I pulled an azimuth. Also, the parallax caused by the thickness of the plexiglass can effect grid plotting and azimuths if you are not looking directly down at the map case.

I don’t plot out my exact route or course of action for a land navigation course. After plotting my points (and checking!) I usually move myself to the furthest point first, using the night hours to erase the distance. I’ll have a general route plan in mind, but I don’t lock myself into it because I don’t know how the course is going to treat me. I choose my first point, and move out. After getting it (or not), I’ll look at the map and choose the next point. I repeat this until I finish.

After pinpointing my location, I began the course. I used the trails to get myself to attack points. Most of the course was done during the night, so I kept my attack points within 300 meters. While moving along the trails, I jogged. Time spent traversing the course is time wasted. I want to have as much time as possible to locate the little orange and white boxes in the woods after navigating to the general area. The way to get more of that time is by moving swiftly from point A to B.

On this particular lane, I had three points close to the start point, so I snatched those up first. Then I moved to my two furthest points and got those before bringing it back to the start point, grabbing the last two points along the way in my lane.

At the end of the course I was soaked in sweat, but hadn’t actually broken too much brush because I used good attack points. Going with what I know worked (moving quickly, especially at night) and doing well on the land navigation course provided a much needed shot of confidence. Bringing out the map case was helpful, and I learned some lessons on how to use it effectively.

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Fieldcraft: Building a plexiglass map case

In preparation for another land navigation course, I pulled out my old plexiglass map case from my days in the 82nd. I like this style of map case because it provides my a hard surface to plot points, it protects the map, and it’s easy to carry.

It is easy to build. Here’s how.

What you need:

• Two pieces of equally cut plexiglass – mine was 10″ x 8″ (you can get this at Home Depot or Loews)
• 100mph tape or duct tape
• A couple of binder clips

How to build it:

1. Once you have the plexiglass, use the tape to tape the edges. This is to protect the edges from getting damaged and to protect you from getting cut.

2. Then, tape one of the long sides of the plexiglass to the other, forming a swinging opening. Use as much tape as needed.

3. Attach a binder clip to the bottom to keep the case closed. I like to have a second binder clip on the case to hold on to protractors or anything else.

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