Through the Eyes of an American Hero
8 Seconds of Courage: A Soldier’s Story from Immigrant to the Medal of Honor. Flo Groberg and Tom Sileo. Simon & Schuster. 208 pages. $25
By Capt. Garrison Haning
I had reservations when I picked up this book. The title demands a lot from the reader; a book that revolves around eight seconds of courage just doesn’t seem practical. It could be one hell of an eight seconds, but a book is a lot of pages to fill. Eight seconds seems better suited to an article.
Moreover, there was the book’s cover: a crisply framed photo of the steely-faced Capt. Flo Groberg, eyes behind a pair of sunglasses, rendering a sharp salute in his Army Service Uniform. I’m certain this is the boogeyman who haunts Taliban fighters, and wakes them up in a cold sweat from their uneasy rest. Inspiring imagery to be sure. However, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected. This kind of man, and the courage he embodies, isn’t accessible to a run-of-the-mill GI like me. Still, a memoir from America’s first immigrant Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War commands respect, so like any good run-of-the-mill GI, I opened the book. I’m glad I did.
This book is not about eight seconds of courage. In fact, it is barely about Groberg. His book’s dedication sets the tone: “To US Army Command Sergeant Major Kevin Griffin, US Army Major Tom Kennedy, US Air Force Major David Gray, USAID Foreign Service Officer Ragaei Abdelfattah, and your families.”
It is a book dedicated to the men who gave their lives on the day Groberg’s actions earned him America’s highest military honor.
If you’ve ever wondered what the world looks like through the eyes of a real, living superhero, this book is for you. But be prepared; those eyes are stunningly similar to your own.
Beginning the book the moment he was ready to quit Ranger School, Groberg’s tale is incredibly human and instantly relatable. It is impossible not to cringe with him when he relates the story of his high school rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, as he struggles through wooing Juliet in heinously broken English. (English was a second language. He was born in Poissy, France.)
It is equally impossible not to laugh when he relates the story of his first sniper attack, where he confused the sound of rifle fire for firecrackers, and wound up covered in his battle buddy’s urine. And to read about his Uncle Abdou’s horrendous demise fighting insurgents in Algeria is as sickening as it is prescient of the tactics of the enemy Groberg would grow up to fight as a U.S. Army infantry officer in the global war on terrorism.
But a book is nothing without a meaningful call to action, and 8 Seconds of Courage has this in spades. Groberg’s call to action is implicit through the stories he shares. Again and again, the book is decidedly about the people who shaped this American hero. Groberg discusses his childhood and the family members who gave him the strength and determination to answer the call to serve after the 9/11 attacks.
He explains the feedback he received from his NCOs and mentors that shaped him into a better officer and helped him keep his soldiers and friends alive while he was deployed. He writes about the men he was assigned to protect, who were killed in a heartbreaking and infuriating eight-second engagement that rings less like combat and more like an assassination, too characteristic of today’s military operations. He also talks about the grief, compassion and support of the families he came to know through these men he lost, and how they gave him the strength to receive the Medal of Honor during his ceremony with President Barack Obama at the White House. And he discusses postdeployment living, recovering from life-altering injuries, and ultimately finding the woman he would fall in love with (spoiler alert—it wasn’t Juliet from his high school play).
As suited for a soldier preparing for deployment as it is for a high school student seeking a deeper understanding of heroism and patriotism, the book’s call to action is a simple one: It takes a nation to build a hero. As Americans, we must understand that we all share a hand in this.
When an eight-second moment arises that only courage can answer, the hero that answers it doesn’t stand alone. And his actions will represent the people and the values of the nation he calls home.
Capt. Garrison Haning, USAR, deployed to Iraq in 2011 as a platoon leader with the 1st Cavalry Division and served as a battery commander at Fort Sill, Okla. He is a 2009 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy.
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A Vitriolic View of High Command in War
Forward with Patton: The World War II Diary of Colonel Robert S. Allen. Edited by John Nelson Rickard. University Press of Kentucky (An AUSA Book). 338 pages. $50
By Alan Axelrod
“They were criminally negligent and should be relieved and busted. If [Lt. Gen. Walter C.] Short and that stupid Admiral [Husband E. Kimmel] were guilty at Pearl Harbor—so are Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, and Hodges. Patton saved their bacon … ”
Col. Robert S. Allen, a key member of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army G-2 section, recorded this in his diary on Christmas 1944 about why the Army was caught “with pants down” at the Siege of Bastogne during the start of the Battle of the Bulge.
Is it a blunt revelation of the truth of the criminal negligence and stupidity of the top brass and how their “bacon” was saved by Patton? No. It is more relevant than the truth. It is the stuff of history, which is not the truth, but a truth—as perceived and expressed in a most extraordinary diary.
Perception, the stuff of history, is what Forward with Patton offers. It is the portion of Allen’s war diary covering July 26, 1942–June 3, 1945, the period of his association with Patton. As superbly edited and annotated by Patton specialist John Nelson Rickard, the book lets us into the world of high command in battle via an angle from which historians rarely position us—that of the staff officer, the administrator with one foot in headquarters and the other in the field. Allen was an especially efficient staff officer, but blessed with, and afflicted by, the kind of politically incorrect and supremely irritating personality that reminds one of the China-Burma-India Theater’s legendary Joseph Stilwell—the man known as “Vinegar Joe.”
The thing is, if you want to know what Patton was “really like,” you need to look through Allen’s keen-edged prism. Anyone who spends time studying Patton tends to conclude he was deeply in touch with his inner warrior, a beast, an id. What the general’s great biographer Carlo D’Este calls Patton’s “genius for war” was his ability to harness that id, to point it, push it and drive it to kill the enemy army while preserving most of his own.
Vitriolic and incisive, unsparing in his admiration of Patton and his criticism of most of those around him, Allen writes the things even Patton withheld. And Patton, of course, was a soul who could not help proclaiming whatever he believed, loudly, clearly and often—to the consternation of his superiors and the peril of his own career.
Like Patton, Allen was a flawed man. As Third Army Special Liaison Officer Maj. Melvin C. Helfers said of him, “Even if I had liked him, I could not have stood him.” Maybe that’s why this diary provides such a 3-D, high-definition view of Patton’s world. Perhaps it took the acid-dipped pen of an officer like Allen to really show us Patton. This diary—which, I warn you, is far from “objective” history—opens to us an unblinking look at military leadership as practiced by a war-winning military genius and as observed by an officer sufficiently flawed, intolerant and outspoken to understand and record what he saw.
Alan Axelrod is the author of Patton’s Drive: The Making of America’s Greatest General, Patton: A Biography and Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare.
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‘Stories’ Add Up to Worthwhile Reading
The Final Mission of Extortion 17: Special Ops, Helicopter Support, Seal Team Six, and the Deadliest Day of the U.S. War in Afghanistan. Ed Darack. Smithsonian Books. 256 pages. $24.95
By Col. Kevin C.M. Benson
U.S. Army retired
The dust-jacket comment on this book states, “The Final Mission of Extortion 17 presents modern war like never before by immersing you in one of the most captivating, moving, and revealing stories of war ever told.” Captivating, yes. Moving, yes. Revealing, yes, but also confusing.
Ed Darack is the author of four books and numerous articles for a variety of publications. He embedded with units in Afghanistan and Iraq. He did superb, thorough and competent research in putting together the initial story of Extortion 17, which began as a magazine article. (“Extortion 17” was the call sign for a U.S. Army CH-47D Chinook helicopter.) Darack’s work is noble. He attempts to tell the story of good men doing tough and dangerous missions and does it pretty well. He ensures the song of these good men and their families will be sung. However, the book, while good, tries to do too much.
I base this review on an uncorrected proof, 198 pages of text in 20 short chapters. In the preface, Darack writes that his book is “intended to show the what, the where, the why, the how, and, most important, the who of the mission, the downing, the subsequent action against the enemy, and the enduring legacies of those involved.” He clearly wants to honor the good men who died early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2011.
Taken as individual essays, the effort tells a series of fascinating stories. There is a story of the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site. The story of how helicopters fly, and how Army aviators are trained. There is a short story on the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and even of the Navy’s SEALs. There is all of this and more as the stories of the aircrew of Extortion 17 are interwoven.
Readers will learn wonderful details of the lives of these men. Darack clearly got to know about the aircrew of Extortion 17. He constantly uses their first names: Dave, Bryan, Spencer, Pat and Alex. Indeed, Darack continually uses the first names of his characters to the point where I had to continually go back to find out just who was Buddy or John, etc. This and the multiple stories within stories made it hard to follow the stated main intent of the book.
All these stories eventually led to the fateful night of Aug. 5–6, 2011, the special operations raid and the “lucky” rocket-propelled grenade shot that brought down the CH-47D, killing all aboard. The chapters dealing with the planning, execution and outcome of the raid as well as the chapter on the manhunt to kill the Taliban fighters who fired on the aircraft are the most compelling and tautly written in the book. Indeed, there is a feeling of satisfaction upon reading of the demise of these Taliban.
Darack has an eye for detail and an ear for the nuance of stories. He is clearly an essayist. Does this book contribute to our body of knowledge of warfare, the training of professional soldiers and the hard experience of war and warfare? Yes, it does. Darack accomplishes what he sets out to do, telling the what, where, why, how and who of the saga of Extortion 17. At the end of the book I was warmed by Darack’s noble effort and the story of the continuous bravery and dedication of the aircrew and by extension all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who do the hard things in warfare.
This is a good book. Just be prepared to slog through the winding path Darack takes in getting to the final chapter.
Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, USA Ret., served in armor and cavalry assignments in Europe and the U.S. He is a former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies and has a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.
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Globetrotting Adventures of a Green Beret
Full Battle Rattle: My Story as the Longest-Serving Special Forces A-Team Soldier in American History. Changiz Lahidji and Ralph Pezzullo. St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. $26.99
By Command Sgt. Major Jimmie W. Spencer
U.S. Army retired
Full Battle Rattle is the amazing memoir of retired Master Sgt. Changiz Lahidji. There is an ancient Chinese blessing or curse, I’m not sure which, that says: “May you live in interesting times.” Lahidji, with the help of Ralph Pezzullo, has penned his life story full of excitement, danger and selfless service to the nation.
Lahidji was born in a small town south of Tehran, Iran, in 1950. As a young boy, he dreamed of moving to the U.S. and becoming a pilot. After serving a tour of duty in the Iranian military, he fled Iran at the age of 23 to seek a better life in America. After a short period of adjustment to his new environment, he joined the Army. And that’s when the interesting times began.
“I love the United States with all my heart,” Lahidji confides, adding: “but can’t say that making my way here as a young man with Hollywood dreams in his head and very little English was easy. It wasn’t.”
Lahidji’s incredible 24-year career as a Green Beret has taken him to a long list of hot spots around the world. This is his story filled with laughs, heartbreak, triumphs and defeats; a story of courage and perseverance on and off the battlefield. In 1983, he was in Lebanon working with the Christian militia fighting Hezbollah terrorists. During Operation Desert Storm, he traveled into Baghdad dressed as a civilian and stayed there for nearly a week gathering important intelligence. Being fluid in the Farsi and Dari languages was vital.
In 1991, Lahidji was assigned to work with the FBI anti-terrorism task force in New York City and went undercover to gather evidence on the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who helped plan the first World Trade Center bombing. In 1993, he was in Somalia clearing houses as part of an antiterrorism detail when he aided in the rescue of Americans injured when a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down—an incident that became the book and movie Black Hawk Down.
For Lahidji, the adventure did not end with retirement from the Army. As a government contractor in 2003, he returned to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was riding in the lead vehicle of a convoy to Fallujah when it was ambushed. In 2004, in Darfur, Sudan, working as a cease-fire monitor, he helped broker an agreement with the warring parties to stop attacks on U.N. refugee camps.
The book has a decided Walter Mitty quality to it that makes it read more like fiction than a true story. Some of Lahidji’s chronology is hard to follow. He seems to have been involved in every important military event since Vietnam. If not directly involved, then he was close enough to watch. He states that he served longer on a Special Forces A-team than anyone in history and that he is the first Muslim Green Beret. All of that may be true, or he may suffer from the all-too-common “old soldier’s syndrome” where the story gets better after each telling.
Possible embellishments aside, this is an interesting story that will appeal equally to professional and amateur military historians, or to anyone looking for a good book to read.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmie W. Spencer, USA Ret., held assignments with infantry, Special Forces and Ranger units during his 32 years of active military service. He is the former director of the Association of the U.S. Army’s NCO and Soldier Programs and is now an AUSA senior fellow.
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A Close Look at Life in the Frontier Army
Regular Army O!: Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865–1891. Douglas C. McChristian. University of Oklahoma Press. 768 pages. $45
By Col. Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army Retired
Historians remain fascinated by the opening of the West and the role of the U.S. Army in fulfilling this nation’s quest for Manifest Destiny. In an exciting new book by Douglas C. McChristian, readers will have a more comprehensive understanding of soldiering on the Western frontier between the Civil War and the closing of the frontier in 1891.
Drawing upon more than 350 accounts from soldiers who served in the West, McChristian’s Regular Army O! nicely complements Edward M. Coffman’s The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784–1898 and Robert M. Utley’s Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866–1890 and builds on a popular earlier work, Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay: The Enlisted Soldier Fighting the Indian Wars by Don Rickey Jr.
McChristian is a retired research historian for the National Park Service and a former NPS field historian at Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas; Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyo.; and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Mont. He is the author of numerous books, including Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858–1894 and Fort Laramie: Military Bastion of the High Plains. Regular Army O! is McChristian’s crowning literary achievement.
McChristian begins his narrative with a general overview of Army life in the West. He states that about 85 officers and 875 enlisted soldiers were killed in action against the Indians during about 1,000 engagements on the Western frontier during the period 1866–1891. Far more soldiers died by accident and from disease than in actual combat. Soldiering has always been a dangerous profession.
Similar to today’s Army, McChristian posits that the Army after the Civil War owed “much of its success to the discipline, courage, and endurance of the rank-and-file soldiers, who shouldered the day-to-day burden of implementing the government’s will.” In tracing a soldier’s life from enlistment to discharge, McChristian examines “who the soldiers were and what their lives were like within the context of the army of their day.”
Though McChristian chronicles virtually every aspect of frontier soldiering, his chapter on medicine, hygiene and sanitation is especially noteworthy. Not until 1874 did regulations require post surgeons to prepare monthly reports concerning the sanitary conditions of military posts and to make recommendations for correcting the deficiencies discovered. Although the Civil War led to advancements of the treatment of projectile wounds and amputations, disease prevention and general health improvement did not keep pace. By the late 1880s, however, annual noncombat death rates among enlisted soldiers fell dramatically from 11.5 percent per 1,000 to 5.03 percent.
Life in the field is another enlightening chapter of Regular Army O! McChristian writes, “Tactical doctrine of the day made the frontier cavalryman a second-rate mounted combatant at best and an indifferent one when dismounted.” Tactics called for troops to maneuver in sets of four men each, trooper No. 4 being the designated horse-holder. When a unit dismounted to fight on foot, the Indians quickly realized that a cavalry force’s effective strength and firepower was reduced by 25 percent at the outset of a skirmish. Moreover, cavalrymen were handicapped by their short-barreled carbines, which fired less powerful cartridges than infantry rifles.
To enhance the reader’s comprehension of frontier life, McChristian provides 80 pages of explanatory notes and several appendixes. These appendixes include the 1872 Army pay table, a glossary of Army slang and selected Regular Army ballads, including The Regular Army, O! Additionally, McChristian identifies the enlisted soldiers whose personal accounts of service were consulted for this book.
And who were these frontier regulars? McChristian sees many similarities in today’s Army. The U.S. Army in the latter half of the 19th century was composed of “a diverse collection of men—native-born Americans, both white and black; immigrants from around the globe; good men often rough in manner, toughs and misfits, characters of every stripe—but volunteers all. … Discipline molded them; shared experience tempered and bonded them.”
In summary, Regular Army O! is a tour de force. Small wonder that Utley, the dean of frontier historians, opines in the foreword that McChristian has written the most all-encompassing view of soldiering during the Indian wars of the West.
Current soldiers interested in Army traditions, especially the NCO corps, will find this book indispensable. Regular Army O! will likely stand as the definitive treatment of the frontier Army.
Col. Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant. He has a doctorate from Ohio State University.