John Ismay
2014 Gonzaga Father-Son Communion Breakfast

Yesterday I had the tremendous honor of speaking with the Men of Eye Street at the 65th Gonzaga Father-Son Communion Breakfast. Father Steve Planning S.J. gave me the opportunity (and challenge) of relating my friendship with Erik Kristensen and what it means to be a Man For Others to students born after I graduated from Gonzaga.



This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I was able to keep it together only through the support of my girlfriend, my family, Ed & Sam Kristensen, and the Gonzaga community.

I’ve been asked by a few people for copies of my remarks, so I’m posting them below for anyone who wants to read it. The video above is courtesy of my brother Dave — who flew down from Boston for the event, and to whom I owe so much.

***

Thank you for your kind words, Al.

And good morning to you all, Men of Eye Street.

I wanted to start off by telling you that I just turned in my master’s thesis for grad school, and as much time as I spent on it, I think I spent more time writing these words here.

Why?

Because Gonzaga gave me the great honor of asking me to talk with you about friends I made here, and about what being a Man For Others means in my life.

This came as a surprise to me.

I don’t think I’ve done anything remarkable in my life, or anything that friends of mine haven’t done better.

I wasn’t the best scholar or the best athlete here. Far from it, truth be told.

A few months ago, when a friend of mine on the faculty wrote me a note and told me Father Planning wanted to call me with some good news, I’m embarrassed to say my reaction was:

“Who’s Father Planning?”

I didn’t realize I’d been so far removed from Eye Street that I didn’t know the name of our new President. (my apologies, Father.)

Preparing for today, I’ve been reflecting on the time I had here, and what it did for me. While I hadn’t kept up with the changes in faculty, and hadn’t even really seen all the renovations to the school, I knew one thing:

I’d always had Gonzaga. The part that mattered.

The part that informed who I am as a person.

The part that made me proud to say: “I was educated by the Jesuits.”

***

When I think about the brotherhood of Gonzaga, I have to start more than 20 years ago when I followed my big brother Dave here. He graduated in the class of ‘89, and I’m grateful to have him here today.

I had lots of the same teachers he did. Sometimes it was a plus, but mostly it just meant they expected more out of me. Such as when I showed up to my European History class on the first day of my sophomore year.  My teacher, Mike Carolan, was taking roll and checking off students one by one.

When he got through all the names A though H, this man I’d never even seen on campus turned straight to me and said “ah, John Ismay. Obviously the smaller, weaker, dumber brother of David.”

We all laughed — and I’m pretty sure that’s something he couldn’t get away with at a public school.

What it told me is that having an older brother here who succeeded so incredibly well had marked me. Gonzaga expected me to do more, to do better.

It wasn’t always the easiest thing to follow a guy who graduates second in his class at Gonzaga, and then graduates first in his class at the Naval Academy and receives a Rhodes Scholarship.

It certainly meant that I did lots of extra push-ups at the Academy when upperclassmen noticed my nametag.

But for everyone who said “wow, that must be a tough act to follow,” I’d say “no, it’s not. I’m proud of my brother. He’s the best.”

When you set your sights on things that are really hard to accomplish, it helps to have someone in your corner who can help you along the way, and show you it can be done.

So, Dave: thank you. For everything.

It helps when you have brothers to look up to. Who set the example.

I imagine that many of you students have older and younger brothers here too. These are your blood brothers, but know that your classmates are no less a part of your life. Gonzaga is, at its core, a brotherhood

And it’s a bond that will last your whole life.

***

It’s the same bond you see in the Class of 1944 here.  Many of these men volunteered to accelerate their studies so that they could graduate early and enlist to fight for our country at one of its darkest hours.

If that surprises you, it shouldn’t.

These are Men For Others. Some of the best Eye Street has ever produced.

For you students, you should know that you’re no different than these men. They were just presented with a different set of challenges.

If this was 1944 and not 2014, I am confident many of you would make the same decision.

And why is that?

Because Gonzaga builds men who think of others before themselves.

Plain and simple.

I’ve been asked to come speak with you today largely because of my friendship with someone who represents the very best of the ideal we strive for here at Gonzaga.

His name is Erik Kristensen.

He was my friend, and I loved him like a brother.

***

I first met Erik on Buchanan Field when I was around 11 or 12 years old. My brother Dave and he played football together.

Erik came to Eye Street as a junior, because his father Ed – a Navy Captain – had been stationed in Japan, and Erik started high school there.  Even though he joined the Class of 1990 here halfway through, he quickly made friends and excelled at lacrosse, football, and band too.

Erik’s father Ed, and mother Sam, who we’re honored to have here today, moved from Japan when they received orders to the Naval Academy. And Erik made the 60-mile trek from Annapolis to Eye Street every day.

When Erik graduated from Gonzaga, he too applied to the Academy, but was asked to spend a prep year at Philips Andover in Massachusetts before he could begin. Erik was disappointed, but didn’t let that setback keep him down.

So while all of his buddies were going off to college, he quickly found a home at Andover and excelled there too.

At that time, the Navy called his parents away again – this time to San Diego. But that didn’t stop the Kristensens from doing everything they could to make sure Erik had the best education possible.

What an incredible sacrifice.

What a selfless thing.

It’s no wonder that their son Erik was a selfless man. A Man For Others.

*** 

Lieutenant Commander Erik Kristensen was a Navy Special Warfare officer. Naval Special Warfare being the official term for what is better known as the Navy SEALs.

Erik was killed in action in Afghanistan on June 28th 2005.  He was leading a rescue mission when the helicopter he was in was shot down by Taliban fighters.

As a SEAL officer, Erik was in command of a Task Unit working to find insurgents determined to kill Americans and destabilize the Afghan government.

You may have read about that mission in the bestselling book “Lone Survivor,” or seen the mission depicted in the recent movie of the same name.

I’m here to tell you today that that story isn’t something abstract. It’s not something that belongs just to the history books. This is a story about men who lived and breathed.

And loved.

One of whom walked the same hallways you do now.

***

 

So, many of you have probably heard about Erik, and seen the memorials to him on campus.

But I’m here to tell you the part of the story you may not know: some of who he was as a person. The friend I knew.

 

The path he chose was hard.

When Erik was at the Naval Academy, he tried out for the SEAL Teams but wasn’t selected.

So, he went to the Fleet. And it was the summer of 1997 that I first really got to know him. I was sent to San Diego for summer training as a midshipman. I stayed with my brother Dave and was introduced to his circle of friends.

Again, there was Erik.

But here is the kicker: Erik was the first of my brother’s friends to treat me as an equal. Not just a novelty as someone’s little brother, but as a peer.

That meant a lot to me.

Erik had that compassion.

Our paths crossed again and again, and then in 2001, we became roommates.

Erik, who’d been teaching at the Naval Academy, and was nearing the maximum age for consideration, felt the call to try again for a SEAL billet.

This time, he was selected. And he moved from the East Coast back into our old house in San Diego to begin training.

We were all so proud of him.

***

 

Lots of people will tell you that Erik wasn’t what some people would call the “typical SEAL.” There’s lots of reasons why, but here’s one that I think come as close to encompassing most of them.

I think back to when I was at the Academy, and those of us who were interested in SEALs and EOD were in competition with each other. We all wanted to be the best operators, the best warriors we could be. Go through the toughest selections, the toughest schools, join the most elite units.

But that doesn’t make you invincible.

That’s something I didn’t know when I was your age.

Back then, I thought wearing a certain badge made you cool — and being cool was everything. It meant you were ‘better’ than someone else.

I know now that’s stupid and wrong.

A Man For Others doesn’t look at things that way.  He is inclusive, not exclusive.

The Man For Others looks for where he can serve, and then he does his best.

That was Erik.

***

Erik was always there for his friends, no matter what.

When we lived together in San Diego, our third roommate was another naval officer named Bjorn who served at a SEAL support command.

On a nighttime training exercise, Bjorn shattered his ankle and could only move around on crutches with great difficulty.

Erik and I were getting ready to go out on a Friday night soon after Bjorn was injured, and Erik asked our roommate why he wasn’t getting ready too. Bjorn pointed to his cast and said he was staying home.

Erik said ‘nope, you’re coming with us’ and then half-carried, half-wrestled Bjorn into his car.

The bar we went to was packed shoulder to shoulder, and that night, when Bjorn needed to cross the bar when nature called, he didn’t see a way to get through the crowd on his crutches.

Erik just said “I got it,” and pointed over his shoulder, signaling Bjorn to follow.

At 6 foot 4 and 230 pounds, he definitely got people’s attention.

The sight of Erik looming across the floor, caused a significant and instant path to appear, allowing the much smaller Bjorn to crutch quickly behind him.

Erik waited outside until Bjorn was done, and then cleared a path back to our table.

None of us asked Erik to do that. It’s just how he was built.

***

 

You know, I’ve been asked by lots of people if I can find meaning in the loss of someone like Erik, and I honestly don’t know how to answer that question.

But I can find some measure of solace in keeping his memory alive.

One of the ways to do that is to write about him.

For me writing eventually became something that I didn’t just do for a grade in Cantwell Hall.

I started writing because I found stories, like Erik’s, that needed to be told.

Part of the reason for writing is to try to find meaning in a time of incredible loss and sadness. The wars of the past 13 years have killed and maimed more of my friends than I care to count right now.

The realization that there is no rhyme or reason for the deaths of my friends is difficult for me. But I’ve come to accept it.

At Erik’s funeral I heard more than one person say “What a waste!”

But it wasn’t a waste. It was combat. And in war, the enemy gets a vote in the outcome too.

When four of his SEALs found themselves in a bad way on a mountaintop, they called Erik for help.

Of course he went.

Of course he did.

It couldn’t be any other way.

Not for Erik.

He was a Man For Others.

When you’re a Man For Others, you answer that call.

When you’re a Man For Others, you get on that helicopter.

When you’re a Man For Others, you fight for your friends.

And when you’re a Man For Others, sometimes that means you pay for that with your life.

In the Book of Isaiah, there’s one passage that always resonated with me. I think it resonates for many people in this room.

It’s Isaiah chapter 6 verse 8. It reads:

“And the voice of the Lord said: ‘who will go for me? Who will I send?

“and I said, here I am Lord. SEND ME.”

***

 

Years ago, back at our house in San Diego, Erik and I talked about Kairos. For us, it was a formative experience in our lives. Maybe THE formative experience of our lives. More important than the Academy. More important than Dive School or SEAL training.

I won’t speak about what happens in the three days of Kairos, but I can say that it meant so much to me that when I deployed to Iraq, I asked my mom to get me a replacement Kairos cross before I left.

I wore it on my dog tags.

When I was in the alleyways of Mosul looking for IEDs, I carried a machine gun, but I also carried Kairos with me.

I had Gonzaga with me.

So Kairos only lasts three days, but it can stay with you forever. All I’ll say about the experience is that at the end of it you are left with a profound challenge:

What will you do on the Fourth Day?

What do you do when you have to leave Kairos behind, and re-enter the real world?

For me and Erik, it wasn’t something we took lightly.

For guys in our lines of work, training and deployments meant frequent and lengthy separations from our friends.  So maybe it was that goodbyes became more meaningful – even if they were routine. 

So whenever Erik and I said goodbye, we said: “Live the Fourth, brother.”

It was the last thing I ever said to him.

***

 

I’m not here recruiting you for the military. It’s not for everyone. But at its best, it’s an honorable thing to serve. While this may sound trite, it’s true: you can be anything.

You are quickly entering a time in your lives where everything you’ve dreamed of doing will become possible. You’ll leave your parents’ home. Many of you will go on to colleges and universities. And some of you will seek other paths.

You could get drafted out of school and pro ball.

Run for Congress? You only have to be 25.

And NASA has taken astronauts as young as 26.

So what will you do with these opportunities?

Know now that you may not succeed at first. Just as Erik had to try out twice before being accepted for the SEAL Teams.

Know that the thing you’re dreaming of now may change, or you may decide to change course along the way.

Give yourself the permission to do that.

But if you have your heart set on something, don’t let anything or anyone stop you.

Never doubt that you have the ability to achieve the thing you want most.

***

 

I graduated from this school before most of you were born. So hopefully this translates.

Seniors, in just a month or so, you will take Gonzaga with you.

To the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen: take this opportunity, and get everything from it you can.

Incoming freshman, you are about to embark on one of the most important experiences of your life. Live it.

 

***

I’ve talked about choices you have. Decisions you’ll soon make.

The opportunity you have to make yourself into exactly who you want to be.

You have to decide if you’re up to the challenge has Gonzaga given you. And, if you should ever fail, will you pick yourself up and drive on? Will you accept the help and support of your friends and family?

Know that being a Man For Others isn’t something that’s tied to your job description, or your career.

Being a Man For Others is tattooed on your soul.

So love each other.  And help each other.  Spend your time here at Gonzaga making the most of it. Live as a Brotherhood.

May God bless all of you.

And remember to always, always Live the Fourth.

Thank you.

 

Two blades. At Gonzaga, a plaque commemorating the Varsity 8 shell named in Erik Kristensen’s honor.

Two blades. At Gonzaga, a plaque commemorating the Varsity 8 shell named in Erik Kristensen’s honor.

Springsteen Plays “Terry’s Song” for Erik Kristensen



It’s a song about Terry Magovern, a frogman. And that night it was sung in honor of another frogman — Erik Kristensen, who was killed in Afghanistan.

Erik was a huge Springsteen fan.

Chandler is too. (shoot, we all are.) Here’s how it happened.

How cool is this?

Here’s the video of Bruce Springsteen singing “Terry’s Song” for Erik, in concert at the Perth Arena in Perth, Australia. According to this site*, it’s only the third time The Boss has ever sung it live since he wrote it in 2007.

I’m guessing he saw Chandler holding that sign all those hours and knew it would mean a lot to him. He didn’t need to know who “Erik” was, but he probably got an idea that he must’ve been someone special.

He definitely was.

When they built you brother

they broke the mold


*source: “Notes From The Road, Perth #3”

Terry’s Song (for Erik)

imageThis morning my brother Dave and I got an email from our buddy Chandler Comerford with this photo.

Chandler held this sign up for hours at a Bruce Springsteen concert yesterday in Perth, Australia. Chan was Erik Kristensen's best friend, and his roommate both at the Naval Academy and at our place in San Diego. The inset photo shows Chandler on the left, Erik on the right, celebrating as newly commissioned Ensigns on graduation day in May 1995.

Chan writes:

I held this sign up the whole concert - [Springsteen] saw it and he said “Ok - for Erik”  he played it in his final encore 2nd to last song (just him and an acoustic guitar) just before he closed with Thunder Road. People all around me were crying. Me too.


Read the lyrics, or listen to it here, and you’ll understand why.

They built the Titanic to be one of a kind,
but many ships have ruled the seas
They built the Eiffel tower to stand alone,
but they could build another, if they pleased
The Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Egypt are unique, I suppose,
but when the built you brother, they broke the mold

The world is filled with many wonders
under the passing sun
But sometimes something comes along
and you know, it’s for sure the only one
The Mona Lisa, the David, the Sistine Chapel,
Jesus, Mary and Joe
and when they built you brother, they broke the mold

When they built you brother
they turned this dust to gold
When they built you brother
they broke the mold

They say you can’t take it with you
but I think that they’re wrong
All I know’s I woke up this morning
and something big was gone
Gone in to that dark ether
Where you’re still young n’ hard and cold
Just like when they built you brother
and broke the mold

Now your death is upon us
And we’ll return your ashes to the Earth
And I know you’ll take comfort in knowin’
You’ve been roundly blessed and cursed
But love is a power
Greater than death
Just like the songs and stories told
And when she built you brother
She broke the mold

A bad attitude is a power stronger than death
Alive n’ burnin’ or stone cold
And when they built you brother …

Bruce Springsteen wrote the song for his longtime assistant and friend Terry Magovern, who died in 2007. (it’s on his album Magic.) What I didn’t know until today is that Terry himself was a Navy frogman in his younger days — serving in the Underwater Demolition Teams — the precursors of today’s SEAL Teams.

Chandler served at SEAL Team ONE, and Erik at SEAL Team TEN.

They’re both two of the greatest guys I’ve ever met, so I have an idea of what The Boss meant when he wrote that song.

Thanks, Bruce.

Live The Fourth, Brother.

image

Erik and I used to say that to each other instead of ‘goodbye.’ 

In fact, it was the last thing I ever said to him.

Back at Gonzaga, where we both went to high school, we attended Kairos — an intense three-day retreat that challenges your spiritual beliefs, and it was an experience we both cherished. But what to do afterwards? That’s the fourth day.

"Live The Fourth" then became an extension of Kairos, a challenge to live everyday thereafter in a way that honors what you learned there. And, at a school that challenged us to be "Men For Others," I can’t think of someone who embodied both better than Erik Kristensen.

In fact, it’s carved into his headstone.

image

Of course he went. Of course he got on that helo and tried to save his guys. If you don’t yet know how Erik died, you could read this book or see this movie, but let me tell you a bit about his character. Then it all starts to make sense.

He’s the person all those Jesuits wanted us to be.

The priests and brothers gave us an example of piety and selfless service. It was up to us whether we chose to follow them.

Erik did. He followed so that he could one day lead.

When I heard the news in 2005 that a Chinook had gone down and a bunch of SEALs were onboard, I figured there was no way Erik was on it — he was a Task Unit Commander, and I assumed he’d be back in some TOC. But my brother Dave called to tell me otherwise.

Never before and never since have I cried as hard as I did right then. I flew from Guam to Virginia on emergency leave, and joined the growing crowd of grieving friends who came from all over the world to say goodbye.

In the years since, these same friends gather together every June 28th in remembrance, usually at a park in suburban Maryland. It’s called “E Day.” As friends’ families grow, the numbers of kids running around and playing has gotten bigger and bigger. At least one, born just a couple years ago, is named Erik — in his honor.

Erik’s will stipulated that part of his estate should fund a scholarship at Gonzaga, so that the sons of military personnel could have the chance to have the same great education he did. (if you’d like to donate, please click here.)

There were dinners, picnics, barbecues, and even a golf tournament in Erik’s honor. These were relatively small affairs, filled with familiar faces. These were the people who mourned him.

So when I heard that Lone Survivor would be made into a movie, it felt wrong. Wrong that some stranger was going to take this personal thing and make it public. 

I didn’t want to revisit the feelings I had all those years ago. And I sure didn’t want to do that in a theater full of strangers eating popcorn.

But Erik’s mom asked me and a couple other New York friends to go see the movie with his cousins Jen and Allison.

So, we went to see our friend here…

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…be played by this man.
image

And I was surprised to find myself liking it.

All the anxiety I felt started to fall away early on in the movie when I saw something that immediately told me someone really cared about this story.

It told me this wasn’t being done for the money. It was being done by people who cared about our friends.

I explain more here, in NYT At War. There was lots more I couldn’t include from that interview, so maybe that’ll go into a future post.

So a big thank you to Jim Dao at The Times for giving me a thousand words to tell that story, and a huge thank you to Eric Bana for being so generous with his time.

And thanks to Erik for being a great friend who always always Lived The Fourth.

We miss you.

Trying to Bury a Six Year Long Obsession

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When Curt Hall was killed in action, I basically lost my mind.

The summer of 2003, we started off as classmates in 03-50N in EOD School at Eglin Air Force Base. He rolled out of our class on a landmine test in Ground Ordnance Division, and in the days before Facebook, we lost touch.

Fast forward to 2007, and I walk out of my battalion TOC at COB Speicher to use the head. A big tall guy in a desert flight suit stood nearby. He turned around. It was Curt.

My eyes glanced down to the patch on his chest, and I saw an EOD crab there. He had gone back through training and made it.

Big bear hug followed. 

     Curt, I’m so proud of you. You made it, brother.

     Glad to see you here.

     How ya been?

A few days later Curt was dead.

It was a one-in-a-million shot with a Type 63 107mm rocket. While driving in a convoy, someone cranked off one of these weapons on a flat trajectory towards the line of American trucks. This one hit Curt’s Up-Armored HMMWV right at the T-junction between the front and back doors on the left side.

A fraction of an inch difference at the launch point, and it would have sailed right over the truck. We’d still have Curt, and Curt would have another one of those “you not gonna believe this shit, but…” kind of stories. But in combat, Murphy and the enemy both get a vote.

Killed alongside him were Chief Greg Billiter and EOD1 Joseph McSween

The EOD team that did the post-blast assessment sent their findings to us at Speicher. It was my job to review their work and brief it up to Commanding General, Multi-National Division-NORTH (Task Force Lightning).

So there I sat in our plywood ops center, going through all the photos over and over again.

     How the fuck did this happen?

     How the fuck did those assholes kill my friend Curt?

Nearby, my teammate Chuck came by and pointed to something I’d missed in the photos. It was the base plate of a 107mm rocket.

     See that, LT? Heavy steel plate..all those canted Venturi nozzles…can’t be anything else…they’re all over the place here. Lucky shot.

Huh. Say again?

image

I knew for a fact I never saw that weapon at Eglin, or when I was stationed in Guam, or anywhere else.

I thought I was Billy Badass coming out of our year and a half long training pipeline. Gimme an op and I’ll nail it. I really thought I knew what I needed to know in order to survive in combat.  

But here was evidence, drenched in my friend’s blood, that I really didn’t know anything. I maybe knew the basics. Maybe. But to be a good officer and a good operator, you had to work harder and learn as much as you can. Learn the things they don’t tell you in the classroom and on the range.

I flipped on my SIPRnet terminal and started digging.

All the time I could spare, I was datamining classified databases and SharePoint portals for useful information on the weapons taking out Americans.

At one point, I felt lightheaded and realized it had been three days since I’d actually eaten anything. My only food was coffee, Copenhagen snuff, and Marlboro Lights. Dinner at the DFAC that night was like a NASCAR pit stop: fuel up as quickly as possible, and back to the race.

I realized that the vast majority of “intel” on these weapons was simply descriptive. Length. Weight. Explosive fill. Max effective range. Etc. But nothing there to tell the guy carrying an M4 what to do about it. Nothing telling the counterproliferation spook about the new Iranian copies we were rolling up. Nothing about countermeasures.

image

So I found a new little corner of the SIPRnet that let users register and write their own intel products. I thought I would get my pee-pee slapped (who does this Lieutenant think he is?), but I figured the something I’d write would be better than the nothing that currently existed.

     Research. Write. Deal with the day’s IED attacks. Repeat. 

10,000 edits later, I’d like to think I left something of value behind when I left active duty. That part of me lay happily dormant until I saw C.J. Chivers post this piece in The New York Times’ At War blog.

     Who is this guy? How the hell does he get this shit right?

     Journalists don’t walk this beat, too. Do they?

     Would the public actually want to read stuff like this?

An email to Chivers in late 2010 eventually turned into a phonecall in January 2012 where he said to me:

     You should go to Columbia J-School. You should become a journalist.

In a way, this whole thing goes back to Northern Iraq in April 2007. If Curt hadn’t been KIA, I probably wouldn’t be here in Harlem. I’d be back in San Diego screwing off in Ocean Beach, running Sunset Cliffs, biking with my buddy Neil, and hitting the farmer’s market every Wednesday.

But now I’m writing about the things you can learn from an Iraqi weapons cache. The things we expected, the things we didn’t, and the things that killed my friends.

I want people to know.

Now on The NYT At War: a reckoning, of sorts. And hopefully a beginning to the end of a six year-long obsession.

I hate those goddamn rockets.

And I don’t want to think about them anymore.
 

*******

My condolences to the Hall, Billiter, and McSween families. Your loved ones are missed by many.

My thanks to Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists, for the source materiel…and the patience. Thanks to Captain John Coffey, Command Master Chief Pat McLean, and Commander Jeff Stebbins for their trust and support in ‘07 — a better command team there has never been. To Captain Marty Beck for holding EODMU-11 together.  Thanks to “Chuck” for always explaining everything and getting a young LT up to speed; you’re the best NCO I ever worked with. And thanks to Chris Chivers for making me believe I could do this.

*******

photo 1: HT2(DV) Curt Hall, after completing Dive School. Taken from the EOD Warrior Foundation website.

photo 2: cutaway diagram of a Type 63 rocket. Taken from the Federation of American Scientists’ website.

photo 3: an Iranian copy of the Type 63 laid on an improvised rocket launcher in Iraq — a tactic likely similar in design to the system that killed Curt. Taken from militaryphotos.net.

correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Digger DiGuardo as the skipper of MU-11 when Curt was killed. Thanks to Dale Rock for spotting the mistake and correcting me. 

Attacking Chem Bunkers Is Bad Idea Jeans

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My roommates Adrian Bonenberger, Damien Spleeters, and I were talking the other night about the complete failure of the Fourth Estate to thoroughly question the rationale for invading Iraq prior to March 2003. And we thought that as journalism students now, with another new military action on the horizon, we should put up or shut up.

So, here’s my take on the mechanics of what Tomahawks and other kinds of air-delivered weapons do to munition bunkers, and the special kind of awfulness that would result from attacks on chemical weapon bunkers.

I wish the people in my government (politicians and military officers) truly understood how the tools they bought actually work. Explosives and cruise missiles aren’t magic, no matter what Jack Bauer and “24” taught you. 

(if the USG really wanted it to work, they’d use TLAM-Alphas. But that would likely be frowned upon in the international community.)

So put on your Bad Idea Jeans, read up, and I’d like to wish you a very Happy Airstrike Eve.

Many thanks to Laura Dimon and PolicyMic for running the piece.

The Sarin Sweepstakes

The post on InnoCentive struck me funny right away. 1,500 tons of chem, it had to be destroyed in situ, and the solution had to come by C-17s.

If our government is trying to figure out how to get rid of Assad’s chem stockpile, it’s easy to know what won’t work: airstrikes. Like the ones NATO carried out in Libya that only created a giant mess, and continue to kill civilians with damaged UXO spread about. Bombing chem rounds from the air will just create a plume that’ll kill lots of people.

With the post ruling out incineration and chemical neutralization as options, I thought about the only other one I knew. And that’s C4.

But how many 1.25-lb M112 blocks would it take? Figuring that out was the fun part. Running the numbers, you realize it would take tens of millions of pounds of bang and it would completely tie up the US Air Force’s fleet of C-17s and C-5s just to haul it all in. (taking for granted permissive air space.)

Somewhere in the Pentagon a friend of mine probably had to do the same calculations as the token EOD guy on a staff, and hand the bad news to a flag officer. It’s basic pre-mission planning.

Thanks to Noah Shachtman for running The Sarin Sweepstakes on FP’s blog.

Who Is Crowdsourcing a Massive Chemical Weapons Disposal Problem?

This photo appears in a challenge posted by an anonymous party on Innocentive, a crowdsourcing website. Shown here are hundreds of American artillery projectiles awaiting destruction in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Wonder who posted it? And what problem set is likely being addressed?

The evidence points to one organization, and a problem that probably has some politicians and flag officers losing sleep over it.

Coming soon: my first post for Foreign Policy.

Something Better Than Money

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Anyone who has ever faced the threat of being attacked with homemade explosives might owe Kevin Fleming a thank-you note.

He retired from Sandia National Laboratories not long ago, but before leaving he came up with what might be called a “disruptive technology” in US government jargon.

Mr. Fleming found a way to alter ammonium nitrate at the molecular level, and prevent it from being used as an oxidizer in explosives.

If his invention is adopted around the world, it’ll make the bad guys’ work much harder. And the rest of us much safer.

He could’ve patented his work and profited from it. But he felt that there is “something better than money.”

Today, on The New York Times At War: “One Man’s Attempt to Create a Fertilizer Compound That Won’t Explode.”

My thanks to:

  • Kevin Fleming, formerly of Sandia
  • Nancy Salem, Sandia Media Relations
  • David W. Small, JIEDDO
  • Dr. Eric J. Werner, Department of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Physics, the University of Tampa

Photo: Sandia scientists Vicki Chavez (l) and Kevin Fleming (r). Courtesy of Randy Montoya.