Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Everyone knows Rudolph; he’s the guy at the front of the sleigh lighting up whichever pathCOVER 300 Santa wants to travel. The rest of the team, Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, are providing the reindeer power the outfit needs to get to wherever the man in the red says is the destination.  That’s it, today’s military policy lesson in less than 100 words.

On this Christmas Eve, American soldiers are deployed to 150[1] of the 192[2] or so countries around the world.  They are lighting the way for the Commander in Chief. Right behind the troops are an equal or greater number of government defense contractor employees hunkering down to pull the sleigh of state.  All of those people, uniformed and civilian, are volunteers.  They are all doing what they want to do and they are where they are, because that is where the job is.  Steve Traywick shared a soldier’s perspective of Christmas in his post, Reflections of a Cold War Warrior-Christmas, but there is another tale to tell.

Christmas at the mess hall

Christmas at the mess hall

Government defense contractor employees experience the same range of emotions as soldiers at Christmas. Patti, Dave, and Steve in Afghanistan support the military supply chain, and worry about their children being alone on Christmas.  Paco, Vicente, and Tom, in Yemen, will be up at 0300 hours to prepare a Christmas meal in the chow hall, and they will long to be at home when the presents are opened.

Keeping the military machine running is not an easy life, but it is a good job that pays regularly and needs doing.  Contract personnel are used for all manner of work in support of the military machine. Three times a day in 150 far-flung countries, uniformed and contractor personnel are fed come hell or high water; the military insists on it.  Convoys transport material forward and, in many cases, civilians drive the trucks, the wheels and aircraft of the military need routine maintenance and breakdown repair, the supply chain of goods and services needs staffing, training of civilian and contractor personnel must be completed, installations and infrastructure like roads and pipelines need

Logistics keeps the military in business.

Logistics keeps the military in business.

management and maintenance, and construction needs doing.  Defense contractors stand in line for these support contracts.  Contract personnel, many of whom are former military personnel, perform the work.  It is how the business is done.

There are many benefits to the government for using contract support.  First, the charges for the services may be handled in many ways not directly attributable to the Department of Defense.  For example, in the past, the Department of Energy was used as such a contracting agency.  The DOE contractor could then be used to support the military through various intergovernmental agreements justified by references to even more government agreements such as treaties.  Following the money trail becomes difficult at best and obtaining the true cost of business at any site, say Vietnam, approaches the impossible. Continue reading

On Building Artificial Reefs (Just For fun)

The alarm in my Johnston Island[1] second floor apartment rang promptly and unceremoniously at 0300 hours but by then I was already on my second cup of coffee. Running to shut down the noisy

Johnston Atoll. The reef  was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

Johnston Atoll. The reef was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

alarm clock beside my bed, I crashed to the floor. So much for not waking the neighbors, thought I. Grace has never been one of my long suits. Only the power and water plant operators, the Master Sergeant, MSgt, and I were up at that unholy hour.  The operators were always present with coffee and food available. Abruptly, I decided to complete my work at the power plant. I smiled as I left the apartment and heard the MSgt urging the troops to formation in his ever gentle voice, the tone and texture of which would make a grizzly bear envious. Seated in my usual spot at the power plant work table, reassured by the regular rhythm of the fly wheels, fortified by a cup of hot, strong coffee and a plate of loco moco, I was finally ready to review the plans for the reef dump scheduled to begin at the turn of the tide.

Having no reef dump experience, I was determined not to overlook anything. This reef dump had been two years in the making. A dangerous series of dives to verify the location and inventory species had been conducted almost exactly two years ago to the day. Johnston Atoll is a series of natural and man-made coral islands growing from the top of an old volcano, which is outlined by a

protective reef. Inside the lagoon it is peaceful and beautiful. Outside the lagoon the story is quite different. The ocean’s bottom drops off smartly as soon as one exits the protected lagoon. In fact the tangent to any given point on the slope of that old volcano approaches one; it is very steep.

What we were attempting to do!

What we were attempting to do!

Although my staff boasted of having several divers with industrial certifications, this was a specialty dive that employed contracted personnel. The rapid change in depth, differing salinity levels and temperatures meant the currents were wild and unpredictable.

Completion of the proposed reef site studies marked the advent of the project’s age of paper. Reports, proposals, equipment excess lists, justifications, and study documents were prepared into tidy packages and sent to a range of approvers; the Department of Energy, the US Air Force, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Everybody got everything. Everyone who received the package sent it to their staffs and each staff person, so as not to be out-done, commented on their own material and everyone else’s material as well.

Suggestions, improvements and checklists flowed like water in the lagoon. Q: Had we looked at Tinian, Guam, and Florida’s lessons learned? A: Yes, but we would review them again. Q: Could we affix the forklifts and frontend loaders to the barge? A: Not really, if they were being used to push stuff over the edge but we would check into a restraining harness arrangement. S: More study was required. A: Okay what? We studied the sea animals, flora, temperatures, salinity, outcroppings, caves, and migrations. What else would you like studied? S: You are in operational control, you

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

determine the scope, we feel there is inadequate study. A: Okay, how about we look at whether or not the lagoon based flora and fauna use the area outside of the lagoon? S: Excellent! A: Done!  And so it went, iteration after iteration until the tide was stemmed and a checklist was agreed upon. The day was finally here.

For weeks the staff had been preparing the items to be dumped. Running a very active island on a shoestring budget means equipment comes from whoever wishes to give it to the program. Better funded programs give away perfectly good old stuff and, on Johnston Island, we were always grateful to receive it. Because we had older stuff, the stuff had a shorter life cycle and so we had lots and lots of goodies for the artificial reef dump.  Excessed equipment like cherry pickers and cranes were stripped and burned. Trucks and other vehicles also had to be denuded of anything harmful or hazardous and burned. Stuff that might float had to be cut so that it would not. The work had been time consuming and painstaking but it had been done well. Several hundred tons of excess was cleaned and loaded onto the barge along with the frontend loaders and forklifts to shove it overboard; firmly harnessed, of course. Everything was waiting.

Dawn on Johnston Atoll that day found a flotilla of small vessels and a big barge making good progress exiting the lagoon. Standing on the barge, I marveled at the thin columns of clouds that stood from sea surface to the sky circling the horizon. As the columns turned pick, then red in the light of the rising sun, I was reminded once again of feeling like I was living within an ancient Greek temple to some illusive water god. Back to the task at hand, we picked up some onlookers. A pod of Pacific Bottle Nose dolphins was curious about what we were doing. Since EPA as well as Fish and Wildlife official observers were on one of the smaller VIP boats, we refrained from feeding them from the fish buckets we brought for that purpose. We’d drop the fish offering off to the dolphins later. An offering to our sea brothers and sisters was a tradition of our team.

After two hours, all the officials were satisfied we were at the correct location. In spite of the buoy, measurements were taken and the location was ‘precisely’ determined so that all signatures could attest that their makers had witnessed the process. The frontend loaders and forklifts, in full harness, began the difficult and dangerous task of pushing the skeletal hulks of the excess over the side to begin a new life as a fish habitat. The work continued all morning as the equatorial sun beat down on us unmercifully.

The dolphins, however, thought we were having a party and jumped, skid and chirped with joy. They seemed particularly attached to a game of following each piece discarded over the edge to its final resting place on the sea floor. Then they were back for the next one. Work was suspended for about an hour when a pod of whales with young showed up to find out what was happening. We

View from the Waikiki Club

View from the Waikiki Club

were worried that the youngsters’ curiosity brought them too close to the edge of the barge. It took us a while but we all got organized so no one would get hurt. Shortly after lunch, the VIPs and other officials departed. For the next several hours, it was just us; the workers, the dolphins, the whales and a few other curious fish. It was quite a team. The job was finally over at dusk, we offered our buckets of fish to the delight of dolphins and whales alike, and we turned our tired tails home to the island. That night we laughed and relived the day at the Waikiki club soaking up the sea breeze close to the lagoon.

Johnston Atoll was a very busy little island and the artificial reef building experience quickly faded into the background noise. Eighteen months later, though, the contract to study the effectiveness of the artificial reef was executed. The divers returned, took their lives in their hands and re-visited the reef site. Nothing was there. Absolutely nothing! Apparently, the reef materials hit the side of the mountain and just kept rolling. Somewhere in the great depths of the Pacific at the base of a very old volcano is a big pile of stuff. Recently I’ve learned that deep reefs are also wondrously rich with marine life and I hope that the excess material we provided is a good home to many species of flora and fauna.

[1] Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is located in the central Pacific Ocean, 717 nautical miles west-southwest of Honolulu. The refuge is managed for 14 species of breeding sea birds and 5 species of wintering shorebirds, and for its coral reef and diverse marine organisms, including the threatened green turtle.

Are the Philippine Bases Back in the Inventory?

A couple of years ago the government contractor rumor fly wheel began to spin the yarn that military bases in the Philippines were being resuscitated. Fantastic as it seemed at the time, it may be so; at least for Subic Bay and Clark AFB. The Hill’s Carlos Munoz said …“The deal to reopen Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base was struck during Dempsey’s visit to the Asia-Pacific region to

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

attend the Shangri-La defense talks held in Singapore last Saturday…” (06/06/12).[1] More recently, The New York Times Asia Desk ran a Floyd Whaley piece confirming that “…A subsidiary of a major U.S. defense company is bidding on ship repair and logistical support contracts, and the Philippine Department of National Defense has reserved large portions of the former base for future use by the Philippine military and its allies, principally the United States.” (April 26, 2013).[2] If it is true that the U.S. and the Philippines kissed and made up, it is good news for U.S. Pacific forces stuck on vulnerable pieces of land like Guam.

It seems like only yesterday, I was dealing with an antsy Johnston Atoll Base Commander, an Air Force Colonel, preparing for General McPeak’s visit. The general was on the return leg of a visit to the Philippines to decommission Clark Air Force Base, located about forty miles northwest of

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Manila. General McPeak’s airplane was also carrying the last Clark AFB commander and his wife back to the U.S. For Johnston Island, General McPeak was a big deal; a four-star general, chief of staff of the US Air Force, and a decorated Vietnam fighter pilot combat veteran.

It is no small wonder that the Johnston Island Base Commander was worried about everything from flag protocols to FOD, Foreign Object Debris. Air Force service members are, in general, obsessed with FOD on runways and taxiways because it breaks airplanes. The Base Commander took FOD to a whole new level when he directed a full sweep of the island accompanied by stain removal. Roads, sidewalks, maintenance yards, and parking lots were spit polished and gleaming in the tropical sun; a shining city with no hill. In preparation for the visit, the fruit and snacks were inspected and re-inspected and the tour route of the environmental remediation projects was arranged and re-arranged. Island residents, civilian and military, were washed and re-washed before donning their Sunday best. I was relieved when General McPeak and the others finally landed and taxied to the terminal.  General McPeak was a tightly packed, no nonsense, squared-away general. Following introductions, the premier tour commenced immediately. The only departure from the itinerary was that I, as the contractor manager, was assigned to take care of the Clark Base commander’s wife’s dog. Bummer, I got to step and fetch it to every whim of a cool canine while our base commander drank Tums.

By late afternoon, the visit was all over and the general’s jet was serviced, cleaned, re-provisioned and ready to fly. If the tour had gone well, we’d be celebrating at the Waikiki club at the edge of the lagoon by sunset. If not, we’d be drowning our sorrows at the same location. We contractors huddled outside the debriefing room waiting for a sign; white smoke for all clear or black smoke for trouble. The general made no comment on the touted plutonium clean-up project, the unique Agent Orange RCRA Part B facility, the innovative weathered diesel project, or the JACADS operation. In fact the only thing he said was that Johnston Island looked like a gypsy camp. We were not properly painted in accordance to Air Force Facility Standards. And so the base commander worried about his future and the contractors drowned their sorrows.

In the overall scheme of Cold War (1947-1991) phytoplankton, Johnston Island was too small to be seen with the unaided eye. The Philippine base closures were, by contrast, significant.  The Navy’s Subic Bay and the Air Force’s Clark AFB, have histories that go back to the Spanish Colonial period. The Philippines was a well-documented key player in WWII’s Pacific theater.  The advent of the Cold War ushered in a whole new era of military service. Michael Haydock’s article in VFW Magazine provided an outstanding overview of the lay of the Cold War landscape, “The Cold War in Asia took place in a vast theater. It stretched from the icy waters north of Japan—where a downed flier could freeze in six minutes to the muggy jungles of the Philippines and beyond to the desert wastes of the Australian outback. In many instances the duty, necessary and often dangerous, was little-known or even secret from civilians at home.”…

What began as support to the Filipino fight with Communist led rebels, the Hukbalahap (Huks), the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, taking advantage of an emerging nation ended with a vital role providing forward base support to Vietnam.  The U.S. faces increasing challenges from China, North Korea and other Asian players. The current Pacific military base locations are either too far away, such as Hawaii, or too close, such as Guam and Japan. The Philippines is in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, which offers sufficient time to launch a counter-strike in the event of a missile attack.  Clark Air Base’s runways can land the largest U.S. military airplanes and Subic Bay, once the largest American overseas military base in the world, has a harbor capable of handling submarines and the largest naval vessels.[3] If the goal can be realized, bases in the Philippines are an excellent investment.

There is trouble in paradise, however. It seems the U.S. government cannot keep its word to the Philippines. According to Philippines Politics Buzz, “While the Philippines keeps hoping for USA to come for a rescue and honor the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) during the china’s (sic) invasion in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, USA opted not to side with the Philippines but take its neutral stance proving that the USA-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is futile. The very important decision of USA proves that they could not honor what they have signed for the Philippines.”… [4] This decision will, no doubt, lead to re-examination of the wisdom of dealing with the U.S.

On July 29, 1991, Ted Galen Carpenter issued the Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12: The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines: Expensive and Unnecessary.[5] I disagreed with Carpenter then, and I disagree with him now that I have re-read the discussion. I have never bought either the ‘diminishing threat’ or ‘implausible missions’ concepts in Asia. The Pacific is an enormous theater and there are not too many places to hide. The U.S. has a decreasing military land base from which to maneuver. The Philippines is an excellent, strategically located base for operations, if they can be convinced the U.S. government is a faithful ally. Why is it that both the Islamic extremists and Communists are so hot to trot for a Philippines takeover? Islamic extremists do not comprehend western civilization. China is not a friend of western civilization and they are increasing their military presence. With the world swirling in a geopolitical maelstrom, one would think the least the U.S. government could do is keep its word, for once.


[1] The Hill; Carlos Munoz; 06/06/12; The Philippines re-opens military bases to US forces;

[2] The New York Times; FLOYD WHALEY; April 26, 2013; Shadows of an Old Military Base;

[3] Business Insider; Robert Johnson; June 8, 2012; The US Will Open Massive Philippine Bases Not Occupied Since The Cold War;

[4] Philippine Politics Buzz!; Philippine close deal for ISRAEL MISSILE SYSTEM after USA dishonored MDT for China’s invasion in Scarborough;

[5] Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12:The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines:Expensive and Unnecessary; Ted Galen Carpenter; July 29, 1991;


Chemical Stew: Nerve Agent Brew

Author: Solidus

“Fear of death has been the greatest ally of tyranny past and present.” Sidney Hook

The Greenpeace invasion of Johnston Island came during the golden hour, shortly after the sun rose bringing the gift of light with just the right hardness for perfect photography. The Greenpeace team was sailing to French Polynesia. The ship stopped by the island just long enough to drop a small boat in the water, come ashore, and take some good shots of Greenpeace protestors holding signs expressing the party line on the JACADS plant. JACADS is an acronym for the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System. Johnston Island is in the North Pacific Ocean about 717 nm southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, about one-third of the way from Hawaii to the Marshall Islands.  The report I received in Honolulu said the ‘protest’ lasted maybe a half an hour.

Strange that the destruction of nerve agents like GB, VX and mustard gas should stir protests. Greenpeace, and many others, did not like incineration, the technology being used at JACADS. But, then again, it seemed that any technology that was offered to destroy the agents was hated by some protest group or other. Incineration, cryo-fracturing, they all worked and they all had drawbacks. By the end of its operation, the JACADS plant had removed over 2,000 tons of nerve agents and that is a very good thing. Nerve agents create the illusion that nuclear bombs aren’t so bad after all.

Mankind appears to be committed to eternal cycles of partial self-destruction through global and local war. Back in the day, hominids used rocks and sticks to do each other in. We’ve graduated to nuclear weapons and moved on smartly to chemical concoctions. While we humans can and have fought over everything from romantic rivalries to resources, the big wars break out when power brokers manipulate opposing ideas and ideals held by two or more populations. Beware the purveyor of noble ideas. As soon as I hear the evangelizing of noble ideas to the exclusion of other points-of-view, I become very afraid.  While past preachers of noble ideas, like communism, democracy, Christianity, and Islam, sat safely on the sidelines, millions fought and died. Make no mistake they still do.

Fighting wars requires bigger and better rocks and sticks. Chemical weapons came about because conventional bombs and nuclear weapons are messy.  They are excellent at killing people both quickly and slowly but everything in the blast radius is also blown to bits. Wouldn’t it be sweet if the people could just go away while preserving all that lovely investment in infrastructure? Make it so! And we, the scientists, engineers, and technicians, made it so.

Of the three classes of chemical weapons, GB, VX, and mustard gas, destroyed in the JACADS plant, only mustard gas came from WWI.  While mustard gas was first weaponized and used in war during WWI, it was actually developed during the 1800s. Chlorine was also used during WWI but the big killer, by a two to one margin, was mustard gas. Introduced to the battle field in 1917, the German Army used the nearly odorless, lethal Mustard Gas, Yperite, to great advantage.  The gas required twelve hours to take effect and only a small amount of the Yperite was required for each artillery shell. Once in the soil, mustard gas reduces in potency but remains active for several years. Decades after testing mustard gas in Australia some prisoners were sent onto the test site to grub and clear. They experienced blistering from the residual undisturbed mustard gas in dirt.

Death from exposure to mustard gas requires several weeks of pain and suffering. Vera Brittain was a nurse during WWI. Her autobiography, Testament of Youth [1] describes some of the horror: “I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.”

VX is a super-pesticide and a horrific weapon. A tiny drop, an amount less than can be held on the head of a pin, of this colorless and odorless liquid is lethal. Cyanide gas and potassium cyanide become pikers next to VX, which is over 20 times more deadly. VX is a sticky, heavy liquid/gas that once dispersed snakes its deadly way just above ground level. Once it gets on a surface, it is very tough to get off. If the weather conditions are cool and humid, VX will quickly degrade at a rate similar to the evaporation of water. If the weather is hot and humid, however, VX lasts much longer and evaporates at the rate of motor oil. I think the best place to be during a VX event is Seattle, Washington during the depths of winter.

VX works like any other pesticide. A person may be exposed through skin contact, eye contact, or breathing it in. The degree to which any person may be affected depends on the amount and time of exposure. Clothing can release VX for about 30 minutes after contact with VX vapor, which can lead to exposure of other people. Of course, since it clings to surfaces, using a pencil or sitting at a desk, even many hours after an attack, can expose and spread the agent further. Since VX breaks down slowly in the body, it can have a cumulative effect. According to the CDC[2]: “All the nerve agents cause their toxic effects by preventing the proper operation of the chemical that acts as the body’s “off switch” for glands and muscles. Without an “off switch,” the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.” The good news, if there is such a thing for nerve agents, is a person exposed to a deadly dose of VX will lose consciousness quickly before horror of the effects of the convulsions, paralysis, and respiratory failure are experienced. The other piece of good news is that, if the victim isn’t killed, they will probably recover completely.

The British came up with the VX killer brew in the early 1950s. While VX gas is one of the most dangerous chemicals ever created, it presented tactical challenges. It is a double edge sword. The same wind used to disperse the agent can suddenly change and blow the chemical back on the aggressors. It is also difficult to use in the field because VX needs to be ‘fresh’. The ‘freshness’ challenge, however, drove the development of binary weapons, where the last ingredient is added as the weapon is in the air on its way to a target. The last issue is strategic. If a country decides to unleash VX against another, the recipient country is likely to morph into a raging monster and launch everything it has, including nuclear, weapons at the aggressor. Hum-mm, thank goodness for sobering thoughts.

GB, also called Sarin, is another super-pesticide that was actually developed in Germany in 1938 for use as a bug killer. Where VX is very viscous, GB is highly volatile but it kills in a similar fashion. GB’s good news is that its volatility means it does not hang around very long after an attack, VX, on the other hand, clings to surfaces and, depending upon weather conditions, may be toxic for days. Sarin (GB) was used twice in Japan recently by a terrorist group. Sarin was released in 1994, in a neighborhood, and again in 1995, in a subway.  Like VX, GB has no color or odor. Unlike VX, GB could be released into the water supply adding another dimension to its tactical uses. Strategically, GB carries the same liability as VX. Isn’t it nice to know we are just big insects in the game of geo-politics?

People are, in general, terrified of nuclear war. Pictures from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the negative images of children picking flowers engraved forever on adjoining walls, haunt us. Moving films allowed people to witness the awe and power released during nuclear and thermonuclear events. Because of extensive multi-media coverage, the hue and cry of outrage and the demand to ban ‘nukes’ echoed around the world. Not so with chemical agents and nerve agent brews, yet this class of weapon is at least as dastardly and its use at least as dishonorable. We say little about the people who coughed their lungs out and died as a result of mustard gas or convulsed to death in their own waste. Chemical agents will not feel real until, like the nuclear story, the populace can view the event or the aftermath. For the most part, the population is shielded from actually seeing the horror of chemical weapons by the government and a news media unwilling to deal with the righteous indignation that would follow. There are some pictures[3] but mostly chemical agent effects are masked in medical jargon and descriptive narrative.

As a Johnston Atoll newbie, I went through the indoctrination on nerve agents. My mask was fitted and calibrated using iso amyl acetate, a chemical that releases a pungent banana fragrance. Lists of symptoms were discussed during movies showing doctors rescuing exposed chimpanzees. Two syringes were provided. Each needle was to be plunged deep into my thigh, one following another at some interval of time, in the event I experienced more than two or three symptoms. The atropine and anti-convulsing potion in the syringe bought time in the event the nerve agents escaped containment. Silly me! The mask, the syringes filled with atropine and an anti-convulsing medication were, primarily, a placebo. Oh yes, what of those chimpanzees brought back from death? They required an atropine injection directly into the heart, which is what a human would also require to survive even a little while.

One day, several young MPs ran through the Johnston Island community shouting that there had been a release. People ran for their masks and kits and showed up in mass at the JOC frightened half to death, they were waiting to be told what to do next. It wasn’t an exercise but it also wasn’t true. As I looked into many waiting eyes that day, I realized that of the three choices to make—sheep, sheepdog, or wolf—I was a sheepdog and even if the sheep turned on me I would always do my level best to replace fear with knowledge and mind the herd.


Afterthought: Following the receipt of different versions of the same question what follows is the rest of the MP story. There were false positives on several sensors that day. A SGT. asked this particular MP detail to find and notify the commander. Out of breath and worried, the MPS hit the mess hall about noon looking for the COL based on everyone’s knowledge of his habits and the time of day. Unfortunately, the COL wasn’t in the mess hall and they told anyone who would listen why it was urgent. Their description of ‘why’ was incorrect and they were yelling. There had not been a leak, it was a sensor malfunction. It was a major error of youthful exuberance. The MPs kept right on trucking and right on with the same story. Everyone responsible was, as you might imagine, disciplined. I never did find out whether or not the first communication error was was the failure of the SGT to get the story straight or with the kids’ listening ability. In any event, everyone, involved or not, was retrained on the art of delivering a message to one’s commanding officer.

[1] Vera Brittain; Testament of Youth; 1933;   Testament of Youth (Penguin Classics)

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Facts About VX;

[3] BBC news; Fourth death sentence for ‘Chemical Ali; 17 January 2010;

Lolo: The Last Cat on Johnston Island

“A man said to the universe,
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘Excellent,’ replied the universe, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to take care of my cats.” 
 ― Henry N. Beard, Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse

Lolo, which means crazy in Hawaiian, was a black, gray, and white banded, pumpkin-headed tom when I first met him in the late 1980s. Despite his advanced age, Lolo still prowled the spaces between the apartments with a regal air of ownership. Lolo was the last holdover from a time when families and pets were welcome on Johnston Atoll. The last dog had died some years before. Lolo was crotchety and fiercely independent except when an island resident needed an uplifting spirit to sit and talk to. No one knew how many tears he felt on his fur, screams of agony or anger he listened to, or how many secrets he carried. Lolo never talked.

Jack Livingston, an even older island resident, was Lolo’s caregiver. Jack told tales of the days of nuclear rockets, knew how all the old cabling trenches had been used, and managed the island’s real property on 3X5 index cards. He was a holdover from Operation Fishbowl. While Jack could locate a propeller manufactured in 1942 is some remote corner of a warehouse, Lolo kept many from going ‘rock happy’ (a type of claustrophobia that develops as a result of being confined to an island). He consoled those who had lost wives and husbands through divorce and kept more than one person from slipping off the wagon and back into the bottle. When the tears came, Lolo was there. He was adored. Board Certified, chemically trained, medical doctors tended his every ailment and his favorite fish, caught fresh, was delivered daily.

Animals were used extensively during the Cold War (1947-1991) as they have been throughout the history of war. As in wars past, animals were tools in a toolkit during this war; biological programs for intelligence gathering, delivery systems for weapons, personal protective devices, and remote sensing platforms. People can readily summon to mind memories and tales of valiant dogs of war; but dogs are just the tip of an iceberg. Pigeons were used extensively in WWII but the celebrity pigeon during the Cold War was Leaping Lena. She carried a message from behind the Iron Curtain to Radio Free Europe in the mid- 1950s. [1] Dogs, cats, gerbils, and rats along with dolphins, orcas, and other marine animals all gave their bodies and behaviors to the Cold War technology, strategy, and missions.

The lesser known animal heroes of the Cold War are the companion animals that helped the warriors make it through the long days and nights. In southern Nevada, at the test site, pets were made of ring tailed cats in the tunnels at Rainier Mesa. In the abandoned facilities and spaces tucked into the cracks atop the mesas, empty tins of dog and cat food along with 1950’s pin-up calendars featuring Lana turner and others along with abandoned log pages created an illusion that the inhabitant was out for a walk. Only the layers of dust and grime spoke to the length of the abandonment. On the Tonopah Test Range, horses continue to gather where, in the past, they had been fed; hoping that one day the food will appear again. In the Pacific an old dog kept workers company on Bikini Atoll. Mice were tamed and teased with a rubber band tacked to the floor and encased with a Kraft caramel on the Central Arizona Project during the midnight shift. Everywhere I traveled, from Ghana and Australia to Chile and Guam, workers kept animals that were free to come and go. The animals chose to stay on more or less equal footing; a symbiotic relationship.

The annals of history are replete with similar stories hidden behind commas and semicolons. These animals and their humans deserve more than that. They leaned on each other and gave each other the gift of dignity.

One day, after losing a diver in the Johnston Atoll lagoon, I sat in my apartment shaken at the speed with which an aortic aneurism took a vibrant soul. Lolo showed up at my door for the first and only time during my tenure. Upon entry he jumped on the arm of the chair and purred. I sat on the chair lost in thought and stroking his fur. He was just there. The pain of the loss faded to other questions of responsibility as the hours passed and Lolo left. I don’t know why he came that day but I do know he helped me see.

To all the Cold War critters who helped the warriors welcome yet another sunrise, I salute you. Thank you for your service.