Easter Morning Sunrise Service

Posted: April 20, 2014 in Egypt, Life

 

The sun trying to peak through the clouds over Tiran Island.

The sun trying to peak through the clouds over Tiran Island.

This morning I had the privilege of attending the Chaplain’s sunrise service down at our little piece of the Red Sea coast here at South Camp.   While it was fairly overcast by south Sinai standards, the sun did its best to at least make an appearance during the sermon and final music.  I feel like showing up was the least the sun could do considering it was a sunrise service, after all.

Now, I can hardly stake claim as the world’s most religious person but it is hard to argue with the peace and tranquility of the view above.  Short of actually being in the Holy Land during such religious holidays, there are few moments more surreal for me than this morning.  To be attending an Easter Service in the Sinai while overlooking a sunrise above the Red Sea is a blessing in and of itself and the theological significance was not lost on me.  These little moments truly help keep everything in perspective.

There are a number of friends and family members that I wish could have shared in this whole experience (not just today) with me, or even in my place, as I know that they would have appreciated it even more so than I do.  I just hope that I have at least done a fair job of bringing everyone along  with me on this journey thus far.

And, more importantly, I hope everyone enjoys their holiday weekend!

Happy Easter!

Acts of Kindness

Posted: April 18, 2014 in Egypt, Life, The Army

As I sit in my room, taking yet another break from the packing process that marks the final few weeks of my time in the Sinai, I am able to reflect on the past eight months here in Egypt.  More importantly, as I thumb through the countless letters, cards, gifts, and words of encouragement — most of which are from perfect strangers — I am once again overcome with a sense of astonishment at the kindness of average people, most of whom I do not even personally know.  And I mean absolutely no insult by the phrase “average people.”  In fact, it is just the opposite; incredible people committing extraordinary acts of kindness.  I only use the term “average” in that I have come to the realization that these folks are the rule not the exception.  These acts simply do not get the recognition deserved.

If you are friends with me on Facebook then you have likely already seen me post on several occasions the care packages or gifts I have received from individuals, organizations, and sports teams leading up to, and throughout, the holidays and beyond.  It all started back in the fall when I was looking for a copy of Jurassic Park and dropped a line to a group known as Books For Soldiers.  This nonprofit was organized during the original Gulf War to provide free, new or gently used books upon request for service members overseas.  After submitting my address, I thought nothing more about the book until a copy of Jurassic Park arrived in the mail a few weeks later with a personalized letter.

From Facebook on October 4, 2013:  Jurassic Park was the first adult novel I ever read back in 5th grade, it was the only book we had in Basic Training when another Soldier snuck it in to the barracks and we passed it around in the evenings to cure boredom, and it's generally one of my favorite books. I've been wanting to read it again just for kicks but couldn't find a copy around here. I randomly stumbled across www.BooksForSoldiers.com the other day and submitted a request for Jurassic Park in paperback, not thinking anymore about it. That was about two weeks ago. Yesterday, a small care package arrived from the Friends of the Hickory Corner Library (East Windsor, NJ) with the book, along with a personal letter thanking me for my service. In reality, I'm the one who should be thanking the person who took the time to acquire, package, and send a book to someone they've never even met. A random act of kindness that really made my day. So while the jackasses in Washington fight like children and play games with many Americans' livelihoods, it's nice to be reminded that there are still good and decent people in this world that just try to make someone else's day just a little bit brighter.

From Facebook on October 4, 2013:  “Jurassic Park was the first adult novel I ever read back in 5th grade, it was the only book we had in Basic Training when another Soldier snuck it in to the barracks and we passed it around in the evenings to cure boredom, and it’s generally one of my favorite books. I’ve been wanting to read it again just for kicks but couldn’t find a copy around here. I randomly stumbled across http://www.BooksForSoldiers.com the other day and submitted a request for Jurassic Park in paperback, not thinking anymore about it. That was about two weeks ago. Yesterday, a small care package arrived from the Friends of the Hickory Corner Library (East Windsor, NJ) with the book, along with a personal letter thanking me for my service. In reality, I’m the one who should be thanking the person who took the time to acquire, package, and send a book to someone they’ve never even met. A random act of kindness that really made my day. So while the jackasses in Washington fight like children and play games with many Americans’ livelihoods, it’s nice to be reminded that there are still good and decent people in this world that just try to make someone else’s day just a little bit brighter.”

As you can tell, I was a bit surprised and even more flattered by the fact that someone I had never met took the time to do something of this nature for me.  Obviously I understand that this is what the organization does, but that fact did not make it any less of a breath of fresh air.

I had seen a number of similar support groups online for deployed service members to that point, but a combination of the skepticism of the legitimacy of any potentially random website, the apprehension of divulging complete personal information to a web form, or just a general feeling of a lack of claim to any “freebies” because I was not deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan had all previously led me to dismiss any such organizations.  And wrongfully so.

After the success with Books For Soldiers I decided to submit my information to a wide array of groups, having a little fun with the process around the holidays, and I was not disappointed.  Since October, I have heard back from a number of charitable organizations, each of which sent more than one care package, including Bunkers In Baghdad, Operation Support Our Troops – America, and Treat The Troops, as well as companies such as Zippo, the Cincinnati Reds, and WWE, all of which sent free merchandise to pass out to my guys at Christmas.

And then I heard back from the Cincinnati Bengals, who sent the following:

From Facebook on December 13, 2013:  "A few of us in my barracks building decided to put posters on our doors of our favorite teams for the NFL season and I started it out with the standard-sized Cincinnati Bengals 2013 schedule poster (not pictured). Amid the boredom of the daily grind out here, I decided to e-mail the Bengals and see if they'd be willing to send anything they had to help my cause since what started as a harmless poster on my door had now become a bit of a team spirit competition among a few of us. To my surprise the Bengals not only responded to my e-mail but also told me that a package was on its way. I was only expecting some left over promotional items, outdated game programs, or expiring team calendars, just something to look forward to getting in the mail. What I received on Thursday went well beyond even my highest expectations. The Cincinnati Bengals sent me a 6 foot by 30 foot canvas banner that one would assume hung somewhere in Paul Brown Stadium during the military appreciation home games of November. The banner reads "SALUTE TO SERVICE --MILITARY APPRECIATION--" and is flanked by the Bengals' and NFL's logos. The fact that someone within the Bengals franchise read my e-mail and saw to it that this massive banner made it successfully out to the Sinai is awesome and it's easily one of the coolest things any company or organization could have sent me. I'm sure they get plenty of requests on a weekly basis so they didn't even have to respond to my e-mail, let alone send me what they did. Kudos to the Bengals for an extremely cool act that many in my building were impressed with, myself included. I'm a die-hard Bengals fan and while I've been a life-long fan of the team I've also been one of their biggest critics for actions both on and off the field. They're not always perfect but this classy gesture only further solidifies my loyalty to the team and makes me proud to be a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals."

From Facebook on December 13, 2013: “A few of us in my barracks building decided to put posters on our doors of our favorite teams for the NFL season and I started it out with the standard-sized Cincinnati Bengals 2013 schedule poster (not pictured). Amid the boredom of the daily grind out here, I decided to e-mail the Bengals and see if they’d be willing to send anything they had to help my cause since what started as a harmless poster on my door had now become a bit of a team spirit competition among a few of us. To my surprise the Bengals not only responded to my e-mail but also told me that a package was on its way. I was only expecting some left over promotional items, outdated game programs, or expiring team calendars, just something to look forward to getting in the mail. What I received on Thursday went well beyond even my highest expectations. The Cincinnati Bengals sent me a 6 foot by 30 foot canvas banner that one would assume hung somewhere in Paul Brown Stadium during the military appreciation home games of November. The banner reads “SALUTE TO SERVICE –MILITARY APPRECIATION–” and is flanked by the Bengals’ and NFL’s logos. The fact that someone within the Bengals franchise read my e-mail and saw to it that this massive banner made it successfully out to the Sinai is awesome and it’s easily one of the coolest things any company or organization could have sent me. I’m sure they get plenty of requests on a weekly basis so they didn’t even have to respond to my e-mail, let alone send me what they did. Kudos to the Bengals for an extremely cool act that many in my building were impressed with, myself included. I’m a die-hard Bengals fan and while I’ve been a life-long fan of the team I’ve also been one of their biggest critics for actions both on and off the field. They’re not always perfect but this classy gesture only further solidifies my loyalty to the team and makes me proud to be a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals.”

The original idea was to have a little fun and cure a little boredom during the winter grind and the response was not only unexpected, it was down right humbling.  Bunkers In Baghdad sent multiple boxes of golf clubs, golf balls, and golf memorabilia; Operation Support Our Troops – America sent several boxes containing snacks and toiletries; and Treat The Troops sent an assortment of cookies, candy, and comfort items on four separate occasions via the Iowa Cookie Crumbs and the Council Bluffs Centennial Rotary Club, both of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  My Platoon and I even received care packages and hand-made cards and letters from the students of Imagine Clay Avenue Elementary School in Toledo, Ohio, the National Junior Honor Society of Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the congregation of God’s Grace Church in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

A few holiday care packages.

A few holiday care packages.

I never like to be too far from a golf club, even if I live in one giant bunker.

I never like to be too far from a golf club, even if I live in one giant bunker.

Don't worry, Mom, I don't smoke.

Don’t worry, Mom, I don’t smoke.

The WWE has a long-standing reputation of supporting the Troops and as a childhood fan they didn't let me down.

The WWE has a long-standing reputation of supporting the Troops and as a childhood fan they didn’t let me down.

Seeing return addresses from the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cincinnati Reds never gets old.

Seeing return addresses from the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cincinnati Reds never gets old.

As you can see I was more than spoiled but don’t worry, all of the items were shared with the guys.

From Facebook on February 18, 2014:

I continue to be amazed by, and grateful for, the generosity of perfect strangers. Once again, I dropped my name in to a virtual hat and shortly thereafter received an incredible care package for my efforts from people I have never met. This time the culprits were the fine folks of Treat The Troops via the Rotary Club and other thoughtful residents of Council Bluffs, Iowa. I had since forgotten about adding my name to their mailing list so when a box full of cookies, candy, and words of encouragement showed up in today’s mail run I was that much more surprised and appreciative. These gestures maintain my faith in humanity and prove there is a lot of good left in America regardless of what the news will have you believe. As cliché as it sounds, it is the little things in life that can have the biggest impact on someone’s day, as I can attest to with this afternoon’s care package. You may never know what someone is going through but just the slightest act of kindness could be the difference so pay it forward and do something nice for someone today.”

These sentiments ring true now more than ever and I do not believe all of the aforementioned organizations, companies, schools, and people fully understand how much their unconditional support means to me.  This experience has truly renewed my faith in many facets of life.

Not to be outdone, however, are my close friends and my family — my rock and my foundation.  The support and encouragement (and letters, and cards, and packages, and gifts) from those who matter most to me continue to be what drives me each day.  There are too many individuals to name for fear of leaving someone out but they know who they are and I hope they know how much they, and their unconditional love and loyalty, means to me every morning I wake up.

A quote that I recently discovered that has stuck with me throughout this deployment, and I feel is only fitting in this instance, comes from Robert Kennedy, “The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.”   No matter how big or small, any positive contribution goes a long way in making things better and can have a lasting impact far greater than one might imagine, as evident by the outpouring of support mentioned above.  And while the media is chock full of negativity and the 24-hour news networks will find ways to further divide our country just to earn a dollar, it is refreshing to see people put their differences aside and simply support one another as Americans and as human beings.  Once again I say that you may never know what someone is going through on any given day so before passing judgement understand that just the slightest act of kindness could be the positive difference that person needs.

So pay it forward and do something nice for someone today.

The Tel Aviv Marathon

Posted: March 8, 2014 in Israel, Marathoning

IMG_1134

A week ago last Friday I had the privilege of running the 2014 Samsung Tel Aviv Marathon on Israel’s Mediterranean shore.  By the time I was made aware of the race in early January, and our unit gave those interested the approval to go, I only had about eight weeks to train and had not ran marathon distance in nearly 10 months.  Thankfully I had been participating in most of the physical activities South Camp had to offer, to include the Spur Ride, the Army 10-Miler, and the Norwegian Road March (18.65 miles with a 25-pound ruck and weapon), so I was confident I would be able to finish the race but had little idea how long it would take me.

Training for a marathon when confined to a military post with only a two mile circumference is downright boring, to say the least.  There are only so many laps one can make around the perimeter until they are tired of seeing the same scenery and the same faces conducting tower guard, not to mention the dirt track here is hardly flat and even less enjoyable to run.  Because of these factors the longest training runs I completed throughout were about 10 miles long.  During my previous marathon training I battled a fair amount of knee pain, especially as the long runs became more frequent, and without the same level of training resources at my disposal I decided to go easy on my training and simply supplement my normal Army PT with 8-10 mile runs a couple times each week up until race day.  This plan would afford me some conditioning without the risk of injury.

Apparently the Jewish Sabbath is Nike sponsored.  Just do it.

Apparently the Jewish Sabbath is Nike sponsored. Just do it.

Last April I ran the inaugural Army Marathon in 4:39:47, a time I was pleased with if only because I actually finished while having no idea how to pace myself for that distance.  Now I have never claimed to be a fast runner because I am not one, but I did have a couple of goals regarding my second attempt at a marathon.  My baseline goal was to beat my previous time and my high end goal was to break 4:30:00.  I figured, if nothing else, I could replicate my performance in The Army Marathon.  But in order to reach my high end goal I would  attempt to run with the 4:30:00 pace group for the duration and, in doing so, would finish much faster than I had before (even if I failed to come in in the 4:20s).  A plan that seemed simple enough in theory but posed to be a bit more complicated in execution.

Pace groups are made up of a bunch of paying customers following one semi-professional runner who essentially guarantees he/she will cross the finish line almost exactly at the time printed on the back of their jersey.  This is quite the impressive feat by my standards if only because my interpretation of time is a bit loose — when I tell you that “I am 15 minutes away” that could mean 5 minutes or it could mean 50 minutes, just ask most of my friends.  What is funny about these pace groups is their resemblance to the running scenes from Forrest Gump.  One guy trudges on rather uneventfully, and really appears as if he could run right on to the other side of the country once he crosses the finish line, while several less-graceful runners crowd around or closely follow behind, mimicking the pacer’s every move.  He drinks, they drink.  He takes a gel pack, they take a gel pack.  The pacer, much like Forrest, says very little and sweats even less.  It is all actually quite entertaining when taken out of context but I figured being a follower in this instance was an easy way to accomplish my goals.  Considering the 4:30:00 pacer also happened to be a senior citizen was both a shot to my pride and clear motivation that I could do it.

A little before and after.  Our hotel rooms had mirrors built for selfies.

A little before and after. Our hotel room had a mirror built for selfies.

As it turns out, I could not.  My official time at the tape was 4:39:27, a mere 20 seconds faster than my previous marathon.  While I was happy that I succeeded in accomplishing my baseline goal of improving my time, I was disappointed that I did not get discernibly closer to my ultimate goal of breaking 4:30:00 and beyond.   I was able to hang with the pace group until right around the 20-mile mark when a bout of self-inflicted cramps attacked my left leg, forcing me to stop and stretch and lose sight of the pacer, a set back I never would overcome.  An unfortunate outcome to an otherwise entertaining story.

Just prior to completing 20 miles I noticed that a tall, lanky hippie, who bore a stark resemblance to Jesus, had jumped out of the crowd and began leading our pace group.  Barefoot.  And in skinny jeans.  I really appreciated his enthusiasm and sense of adventure and figured I needed to have a picture.  In the midst of fumbling with my iPhone and trying a dead sprint to catch up with the runaway hippie, I pulled up lame as if I had just been shot in the ass like Private Gump.  I think every major muscle in my leg seized simultaneously, as if in one collective voice they were reminding me that I had just finished 20 miles and was in no shape to be sprinting on any day, let alone that one.  I was never able to catch back up to the pace group and was forced to be content with grinding out the remainder of the race a bit sore, which no doubt hurt my time.  The real travesty, though, was that I never did get that picture.  I wonder what hipster Jesus is up to today.

Aside from actually running it, one unforeseen difficulty to completing a marathon overseas — especially once I had lost my pace group — is that the distance is calculated in kilometers instead of miles, meaning a marathon goes from 26.2 mi to 42.2 km in a hurry.  When fatigue sets in towards the end, one kilometer might as well be one mile and it feels like it takes a helluva lot longer to reach 42 than it does to get to 26.  My mind was not prepared to pace myself when the route was calculated in mileage back in the States, it certainly was not ready to first convert kilometers to miles then figure out my pace all on the fly.  This is, by no means, an excuse for my showing, but it is another unique facet to running events in far off lands, an experience I am eternally grateful for having had nonetheless.

While I did not finish in the time that I had hoped, I did not particularly train well enough to deserve a 4:30 flat either. With that in mind, along with the barefoot hippie debacle, I have myself to blame. Considering my limited training, and all of the circumstances involving our presence over here to begin with, I am just thankful for having been given the opportunity to participate in and complete a marathon overseas — a likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me.  It is certainly one of those events I can add to and check off my bucket list in one fell swoop.

And at least now whenever I see people with the oval 26.2 stickers on their cars I can be that guy with the smug 42.2 sticker instead.

42.2 is just so much more posh than 26.2.

42.2 is just so much more posh than 26.2.

I Did The Unthinkable… AGAIN

Posted: February 6, 2014 in Israel, Marathoning

MarathonLogo_ltr

I signed up for another marathon.

Technically I signed up for it back on January 6th — consider it some kind of New Year’s Resolution to quit being fat — but I am just NOW making the news public for no good reason whatsoever.  This level of procrastination on even the simplest of tasks (blogging) can only translate to success on the race course, trust me.

When I ran The Army Marathon back in April of 2013 I gave myself 8 weeks to prepare only because I did not know about the race prior to hearing a radio advertisement and signing up on one (likely) inebriated evening.  This time, I gave myself just 7 weeks, 3 days for mainly the same reason, I was not aware of the opportunity until I received an e-mail about it from my unit (along with approval for the trip from our command, which is partially to blame for the delay in the announcement to begin with).  However I decide to rationalize my lack of preparation and ensuing struggles, it by no means eliminates the reality of the situation: the marathon is fast approaching and I am not getting any younger.

The event this time around is the Tel Aviv Samsung Marathon in Israel along the Mediterranean coast.  While the race does not have quite the sentimental significance of running the first Army Marathon for my first marathon, finishing attempting to finish a marathon in a foreign country — near the Holy Land no less — was an opportunity I simply could not pass up.  Besides, if I am going to attempt the physically unthinkable and keel over in some turtle ditch what better place than in the Big Guy’s back yard?

I am at roughly the halfway point in my preparation and have an 18.6-mile ruck march with a 25-pound ruck (Norwegian Road March) under my belt thus far so I am fairly optimistic about my chances of not dying, even if my resources are a bit limited here on South Camp.  My primary goal is to beat my Army Marathon time of 4:39:47, with a secondary goal of coming in under 4:30:00 and/or not embarrassing myself;  not entirely impossible but certainly no guarantee on all of the above.  I guess I did not get enough of all of the pain, anguish, and public humiliation the first time around, I have decided to come back for seconds.

Which means the real winners of this race are those people of Israel who get to witness my suffering.

The look of a champion.

The portrait of a champion.