Thanks for checking in!

I started this blog to keep in touch with my family and friends during my time attending Commissioned Officer Training (COT) and the Judge Advocate Staff Officer Course (JASOC) at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. Now I'm done with training and back in the "real" world, but I'll keep updating this blog with any interesting developments from my JAG career.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

JASOC Week 2, Part 3: The McKinley Anti-Climatic Lab and the DOMINATOR

After the exciting morning spent with working dogs, tasers and shooting simulators, we headed to the largest indoor weather-testing facility in the US -- the McKinley Climatic Laboratory.  The lab is basically a huge hangar souped up with all kinds of fancy equipment that lets the operators replicate any weather condition, from blizzards and freezing rain to blistering desert heat and sandstorms.  The size of the lab allows the military to test huge planes, but it's also available for private companies to test their cars and planes (for a fee ranging from about  $10,000 to $40,000 per day, depending on how complex a testing process they require).  There is a huge dial on the outside of the lab that shows what the temperature is inside; as we drove up, it was set at 32 degrees.  We all were salivating at the thought of escaping the nasty Florida heat and stepping into a huge freezer.  As we stepped off the bus, we all imagined we'd see something like this: 

Unfortunately, we didn't get that.  There was not only no plane, but the temperature felt like a mildly pleasant 75 degrees instead of the freezer we were all expecting.  Apparently, the lab was doing some freezing rain tests on a private jet engine, but the tests were not going on that day.  And apparently the big temperature dial on the outside of the lab doesn't actually reflect the temperature inside the lab; it is set by hand and it isn't always accurate.  As we walked around the hangar, we took to calling the lab the "McKinley Anti-Climatic Laboratory."  That said, it was still pretty cool.

Those huge yellow fans behind me are used to blow the freezing rain into the jet engine.

From the McKinley lab we went to the Taconi Room, which houses a lot of specialized weapons, including some that are in development.  Our tour guide explained how smart bombs were developed, discussed the different kind of penetrating bombs dropped by Air Force planes, and gave us details about some unmanned aerial vehicles in the works, one of which is awesomely called The Dominator.


Some smart engineers built this jamming signal with $40 worth of equipment from Radio Shack and a Coke can.   It has a reach of 1 nautical mile.  Terrorists often have much more sophisticated equipment - underscoring the importance of having smart bombs.

The white bulb-like part at the end of this tail contains the "smart" technology that allows bombs to avoid jamming signals.

This bomb is used to attack chemical plants and other facilities that we may not want to completely destroy because of the chance of putting harmful pollutants into the atmisphere.  It splits up in the air and shoots hundreds of darts through the target.
More from Florida later.  Tomorrow we go to Hurlburt Field, where Air Force Special Operations Command (the command overseeing the elite special ops Air Force personnel) is located!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Latest photos of Joaquin!

Here are the latest photos of Joaquin.  My favorite is the one of him running through the misters at Solvang Park with his mouth open.  Susan snapped that with her iPhone using the hipstamatic app.

JASOC Week 2, Part 2: Bite Work and Tazers

On Wednesday of our second week at JASOC, we traveled down to Eglin AFB in the Florida panhandle.  Our goal in going to Eglin was to see some of the cool stuff that happens on base so that we have a greater understanding of what different Air Force personnel do and exactly how we, as jags, fit into the picture.

Our first stop at Eglin was the military working dog training center.  I love dogs, so this was a blast.  We got to see the trainers, all military police (MPs) who cross-trained into handling working dogs, take the dogs through some obedience exercises before having them practice "bite work" on some brave (stupid?) souls in the class who volunteered to get attacked.  Here are some photos.

This MP and his bomb-sniffing German Wire-haired Pointer, Kanjer, recently got back from Afghanistan.

Going through some preliminaries before the "bite work."

These three guys are waiting their turn to get bitten.

This is Jimmy, a Czech shepherd.  Apparently he is one of the less aggressive biters of the Eglin group, so he got to practice today by chasing down some JASOCers today.

If you're wondering what it looks like in action, you're in luck.  I was able to snag some video:

From the military working dog area we went to the security forces command.  Air Force security forces commanders oversee both traditional security forces (guarding stuff, like planes and missiles) and military police.  We were briefed on the responsibilities and operations of securities forces by the squadron commander before being turned over to some "instructors."  I put that word in quotation marks because all they "instructed" us on was how to get tazed.  It was actually really hilarious to see people get tazed, because everyone has a different reaction.  Apparently women can often speak while being tazed, while men can't, which is due to either 1) women having a higher pain tolerance, or 2) men having more muscle, which makes them have a stronger reaction.  In any event, it was pretty funny watching this parade of tazer victims.  We weren't supposed to take video, so all I have for you is this picture (and I blacked out the eyes just to be safe).  The girl in the middle is falling down while being tazed, and the others are holding her to make sure she doesn't hit her head on anything.

After the Security Forces briefing (aka, mass tazing), my group went to a shooting simulator that is basically a military version of the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disneyland.  One side of the simulation room is a big white screen on which is projected a scenario -- for example, a mission to take out a group of terrorists loading weapons onto a truck, or an ambush of high-profile enemy targets.  On the other side of the room are five modified weapons that shoot air or lasers or something at the screen.  Direct hits are red and misses are green or yellow, depending on how badly you miss.  Apparently the instructors can tell by your hits and misses whether there is some hitch in your shooting sequence (poor breathing, a too-quick trigger squeeze) that affects your accuracy.

The shooting simulator
I'd tell you more about the weapons if I knew anything about guns.  There were three bigger machineguns and two pistols.  I think I picked up an M-4.  It was heavy - much heavier than I expected.  And being the novice shooter I am, I didn't even know how to load it (to keep it as realistic as possible, the weapons need to be reloaded before starting and as you run out of ammunition).  Thankfully,there were plenty of others in my group who could help me out. 

I didn't get a readout of how well I did, because the instructors were just letting us play around and weren't doing a full analysis on each of us, but I can tell you I'm a pretty horrible shot, based on all the green and yellow I saw.  I blame my left shoulder, which is still week from surgery a few weeks ago, and which tired out as I held that heavy gun and sprayed fake bullets everywhere.
More from Florida soon!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

JASOC Week 2, Part 1: How to Fire an Airman

The start of our second week at JASOC addressed more civil law issues, including government liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act, protections for military members under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and the process of administratively discharging an airman.  This last subject was really interesting to me because of the parallels and differences between military administrative discharges and civilian employment law.

Just like in the civilian world, the question whether an airman should be discharged from the Air Force depends to a great extent on the kind of documentation the airman's commander has.  There are a number of ways to officially document an airman's poor performance or bad conduct short of court-martial, including bad enlisted performance reviews (EPRs), letters of counseling (LOCs), letters of reprimand (LORs), and Article 15 nonjudicial punishment actions (NJPs).  In the Air Force, all of these documents are called "paper."  The more paper you have on someone, the easier it is to get them discharged. 

Although the civilian world doesn't have as much structure, it works much the same way.  The first thing you do is look at an employee's personnel file and see if there are records reflecting the employee's poor performance.  With enough there, the employer can be pretty confident in making a decision to let someone go.

We put our lessons into practice by doing a counseling exercise.  My client was a squadron commander who was fed up with a series of disciplinary infractions by one of his airmen.  I had to research the applicable Air Force Instructions and related documents and explain the process to him, including whether there was a basis for discharge (there was), who make the final decision regarding discharge, and what his options were with respect to recommending a specific characterization (honorable, general, or under other than honorable conditions (i.e., UOTHC), which is the modern equivalent of a dishonorable discharge).  It felt a lot like how we would advise a client in the civilian world (except for the discharge characterization part).

It was all really interesting, both from a legal standpoint and from a personal standpoint, since all of us jags, who are tasked with enforcing Air Force rules, are governed by those same rules.  This stuff makes or breaks careers.  As if to drive home that point, one of our instructors told us about someone who went through JASOC with her in 2001, then went to his base and hatched a plot to kill his wife so that he could collect her life insurance and be with his mistress.  (Needless to say, that guy got a UOTHC discharge.)

Biscuiteaters, Buttertongues and Big Mo

After the last lecture ended on the first Friday of JASOC, my classmates started huddling together in different groups trying to decide what, if anything to do together over the weekend.  A number of people mentioned going to a "Biscuits game" that night.  I had no idea what that meant, so I asked someone.  Apparently, there is a minor-leage baseball team that plays in Riverwalk Stadium in downtown Montgomery.  They are, of course, the Montgomery Biscuits.

I was pretty beat, so despite my desire to check out the Biscuits (what a weird but cool name!) I decided not to join the group headed to the game that night.  As it turned out, the game was rained out (go figure!) so I didn't miss much.  But I got a great chance the next night.  One of my JASOC friends ended up befriending a local bar owner who has a suite at Riverwalk Stadium, and he was invited to go to the game.  I decided to tag along.

We met a bunch of locals at the game, and they gave us some interesting background information on the team, which has only been in Montgomery for about five years.  Apparently the team was originally going to be named the Biscuiteaters.  But some people didn't like that, likely because it fed into a stereotype.  (I actually think that name is pretty cool)  The solution?  Instead of being those who eat biscuits, the team became the Biscuits themselves!  It has to be among the funniest names in all of minor-league baseball.  And the logo, a biscuit split at the middle with googly eyes and a pat of butter for a tongue, is absolutely hilarious.  The locals affectionately refer to him as "Buttertongue."
The oddity of the Montgomery Biscuits doesn't stop there.  For some reason the team has another mascot named Big Mo, who looks like a little like Snuffleupagus walking on two legs.  As weird as Big Mo is, my highlight of the night may have been when he randomly walked into our suite and sat down next to me for a picture!

The game was an absolute blast.  Riverwalk Stadium is beautiful, the weather was a breezy mid-80s, the Biscuits won, and there were fireworks after the game.  I'm hoping to catch a couple more games before leaving Montgomery - and I'm definitely going to bring Joaquin to see Big Mo and some fireworks!

JASOC Week 1: It's Not The Heat, It's The Humidity

The first week of JASOC has been brutal, at least in terms of the weather.  I checked the weather report before catching my flight from L.A., so I knew that I was in store for 95 degrees and thunderstorms pretty much every day.  I knew that, but I didn't understand it.  That kind of weather is something you can't understand until you experience it.  When it's 95 degrees in L.A., there's not a cloud in sight.  Here, 95 degrees often looks like this:

Those rainclouds seem to be ever present, and I quickly came to understand what 95 degrees with a chance of rain feels like.  We did a Physical Fitness (PF) baseline test our second day of JASOC.  As you may recall from my COT posts, the Air Force PF Test has four components:  1) your body-mass-index (BMI) measurement; 2) the number of situps you can do in a minute; 3) the number of pushups you can do in a minute; and 4) your time on a 1.5-mile run.  We did our baseline test as a group at 7:00 am.  It was already probably 85 degrees.  We skipped the BMI measurement since it was just a baseline test and doesn't really count, and I skipped the pushups because I had shoulder surgery on June 15 and I'm still recovering.  The situps were fine (I maxed those out).  But the run was absolutely brutal.  Part of it was that I can't really run well while trying to keep the left side of my body as still as possible to protect my bum shoulder, but that was really only a small part.  I got about a lap into the six-lap run and I felt like I was running on a treadmill inside a sauna.  I've never been a smoker but I imagine smoking feels a lot like running in that air.  My final time for the run was over 14 minutes.  By comparison, my last 1.5-mile run during COT, when I scored over a 95 (of 100), was under 11 minutes.

I wasn't the only one in the class who suffered that morning.  As a class, our average score was around 83.  The instructors showed us a graphic a few days after the baseline that compared our scores to those in the last class.  It was pitiful.  The class average for the last class was around 95.  Of course, there are a lot of factors explaining this difference in scores, including the weather (the last class, which ran from mid-February to mid-April, apparently enjoyed great weather), the three-month layoff for a lot of us between COT and JASOC, and the fact that this class is a rarity because almost half of the class is reservists, like me, who tend to be in worse shape than the active-duty folks.  Still, an 83% class average is pretty embarrassing.  I plan on doing a lot of running in addition to rehabbing my shoulder so that I can help bring up the class average before we graduate.

But enough about the glorious failure of our JASOC class when it comes to athletics.  The substance of JASOC for the first week was really interesting.  JASOC is structured in three parts.  The first three weeks are focused on civil law, the next three on military justice, and the last part of the class focuses on operations and international law.  We covered a lot of civil law topics this first week, including wills, private organizations (what authority organizations need to conduct activities on base), ethics and leadership, quality force management (the different tools that commanders can use to manage their subordinates), legal assistance (helping airmen with consumer or family-law issues).  Next week we get to some of the more employment-related topics, such as administrative discharges, that I'm more interested in.  And we'll get to take a trip to Florida to see the operations at Eglin Air Force Base and Hurlburt Field, where the Air Force Special Operations Command (i.e., the Air Force special forces) is located. 

'Bama Fans, Landmark-Based Directions, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Autobahn

I have been here a couple of days and I have to say that driving here has been quite the experience.  The last time I was in Montgomery, for COT, I never drove.  We were pretty much confined to base the entire time and, besides that, I didn't have a car.  This time around I have an off-base apartment and a rental car, so I've been getting to know the city of Montgomery a lot better.

One thing I've noticed a lot of is this:

There are University of Alabama fans all over the place.  (My uncle Tom Blackwell, who went to 'bama, will love to hear this.)  To put this in geographical context, Montgomery is about 107 miles from Tuscaloosa, the seat of the University of Alabama.  Pretty close, right?  But in between Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, only 55 miles from Montgomery, is Alabama's hated rival, Auburn University.  If anything, this should be Auburn country.  But white or crimson letter As are plastered all over the backs of cars around here.  I haven't seen a single bumper sticker on the road.  Nor have I seen a single Auburn sticker.  Only 'bama stickers, and I swear I can't drive to and from base (about 15 miles round-trip) without seeing ten of them.

And the bigger the sticker, the bigger the fan.  I think this guy, with a huge elephant sticker, two smaller A stickers, and two flags attached to his truck bed, might be the biggest Alabama fan in Montgomery:

Update:  I started writing this post after being in Alabama about a week.  Since then, I have finally come across an Auburn fan.  But the only indicia was on the license plate (see below).

Another funny driving-related thing happened on the first day that I was here.  I arrived late on a Saturday night, too late to meet the property manager for my apartment complex and too late to get my rental car.  So I took a cab to Maxwell AFB and took a cab back to the airport the next day to get my car.  Knowing that I'll have to make my way back to the airport to pick up Susan and Joaquin when they come out in early August, I was trying to follow the route and memorize it.  My cab driver was an old african-american man, probably in his sixties, named Bill Wright.  He had brought me to Maxwell from the airport the night before.  The radio was set to the same jazz station as we cruised along.  As we turned onto the Selma-Mobile highway, I craned my neck around to see what exit I should take when making my way back to base after getting my car.  I couldn't see it, so I asked Bill.

"On my way back, do I take that last exit to get back to base?"

"Sure you do.  That one right there.  We just passed it."

"Is that Airbase Blvd.?  I know we were on that as we left the base but I couldn't see if that was the exit."

"It's the one right after the fire station," Bill said, pointing out the driver's side window at a fire station on the other side of the highway.  "As soon as you pass that fire station, just take the next exit."

"Okay, but is that Airbase?  Or Day?  I kind of got lost there for a second."

"Son, just pay attention and look for the fire station.  It's the only one around.  As soon as you pass it, take the next exit, and you'll be fine."

I had to laugh to myself at all this.  I know there's the stereotype of the old southern man giving the out-of-towners directions based solely on landmarks, and here it was, playing itself out right before me.  So I decided to just go with it.  Take the exit after the fire station.  Should be easy enough.  And it was.

Another thing I've noticed is that Alabamans drive fast.  Once I got my rental car and took to the roads myself, I quickly realized that if you aren't driving at least 20 miles over the speed limit, you're bound to be in somebody's way.  On the 85 freeway, which the State Legislature designated the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway, 50 means 70 and 60 means 80.  I've been afraid for my life a number of times already - and I live in the freeway capitol of the world!  And it's not limited to freeways, either.  People fly down the surface streets with reckless abandon.  Maybe it's because there isn't as much congestion as there is in Los Angeles.  Fewer cars on the road and such.  But the rule seems to be that you go as fast as you can, all the time.  And I haven't seen a single highway patrol or police car.  Wish me luck navigating these roads over the next couple of months.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A pyrotechnic-filled, pooh-riffic goodbye . . .

Ever since the Fourth of July, Joaquin has been obsessed with fireworks.  We left Solvang for Pasadena late on the Fourth, and Joaquin got a taste of pyrotechnics as we drove home.  After peering out the car window all through the Valley, Burbank, and, Glendale, Joaquin emerged from the car with a new mantra:  "Joaquin watch fireworks."  But for some reason Joaquin has taken to pronouncing his name with an "F" at the front lately, so it sounded like "Fah-keen watch fireworks."  Every time he does that with his name Susan and I can't help but look at each other and stifle a laugh.  We don't want to encourage him, but sometimes it's impossible to keep a straight face.

After putting Joaquin on my shoulders to catch a glimpse of the Rose Bowl fireworks, we settled in front of the TV to watch the big New York televised celebration.  He loved it.  So much in fact that he spent the entire week reminding us that "Joaquin watch fireworks."  Because of his new obsession, we decided to spend my last night in California at Disneyland, which puts on a fireworks show every night during the summer.  It was pretty much a perfect night.  We got to the park just in time to go on Peter Pan's Flight, Dumbo's Flight, and ride the carousel (Joaquin's three favorite rides) before changing Joaquin into his pajamas and watching the fireworks display.  He was a little less enthusiastic about fireworks afterward, it seemed.  I think the sound got to him, because he introduced his new mantra to us before drifting off to sleep in his stroller:  "Fireworks loud."

The next morning we left the house at 6:45 am to catch a sneak preview of the new Winnie-the-Pooh movie at the El Capitan in Hollywood.  The movie started at 7:30, so we left Joaquin in his pajamas, wanting him to sleep as much as possible (he normally sleeps until about 8:30).  We got to the theater at about 7:15, and it was already packed!  People must have been in line to enter the theater well before the doors opened at 7:00.  I shouldn't have been surprised.  The preview was a special D23 event and Susan practically had to sell our second child to get tickets after she was told it was sold out, so the audience was largely adult Disneyphiles.  There was a small contingent of other kids there, though, some of them even in pajamas like Joaquin.

The movie was really, really great.  I highly recommend it to everyone.  You'll like it even if you don't have kids.  Trust me.  Joaquin was rapt the entire time, staring at the screen and naming the characters as they appeared, disappeared, and reappeared on screen.  Well, not the entire time.  We did have to take a short break in the middle of the movie, after Joaquin overpowered his overnight diaper and christened my lap with pee.  But I was happy to do some daddy duty and clean him up, since I won't get a chance to do that for the next month while I'm in Alabama.

Checking out the Pooh and Tigger figures on his crocs.

After the movie, we went to the gift shop at the El Capitan and then snapped a photo with a Mickey Mouse statue sitting outside on Hollywood Boulevard.  And with that, it was home, some last-minute packing, and an afternoon flight to Alabama.  I should have more time to post than I did during COT, so stay tuned.

Joaquin's face and body language here crack me up.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Joaquin's big announcement!

I'm headed off to JASOC this Saturday, which means that it's time to shake off the dust and get this blog rolling again.  First, Joaquin has a bit of news to share.  Click on this link to learn more about our next addition to the family.