Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Resilience & The 25th Anniversary of Desert Storm

Welcome to my blog! Just some thoughts as I get on with life as I tackle Neuroendocrine cancer, and prepare for this year’s London Marathon. I’m establishing some solid habits in my training (mental and physical), and part of the mental side is to write.

Here is a little recap about the physical training habits I am establishing. It is day 264 of my “182.5” mantra and only 85 days until the London Marathon. I’m currently taking a spin class on Mondays, rest day Tuesdays, circuit training for an hour on Wednesdays, 10km run on Thursdays, rest day Friday, 5km and weights on Saturdays, and a long run of 10 miles on Sundays. I’m finding the training hard, but tonight’s 10km run was the first time I have felt strong since the cold I caught over the holidays. My diet is working quite well too. I’m trying not to focus on weight loss, but to make healthy choices.   I’m trying to eat for fuel.

This week includes a big milestone for me personally.   This is the 25th anniversary of Desert Storm. 25 years? Really? It seems just like yesterday. My “war” story isn’t very action packed, but it was quite a big event for my family and me. I was lucky, only a couple months and no injuries or traumatic events. I cannot begin to believe I understand anything the servicemen and woman have gone through in WWII, Korea, Vietnam or in Iraq and Afghanistan, but can empathise with them over issues of separation from family, heading off into the unknown, and the unexpected feelings on returning home.

It is crazy how the mind catalogues events, and some events carry more impact than others. You know; big occasions when you are a child, high school, first times, wins, pain, joy, and sorrow. I’d like to add – saying goodbye to your family as you prepared to leave for war.

As I write this entry, my mind is flooded with both good and bad feelings. I can easily see how some veterans get stuck on the bad, and that can lead to very dark places. So, why do some veterans seem to be able to adjust to living with these experiences? My experiences seem to feel a lot like dealing with the traumatic experiences of dealing with cancer. Maybe I can use them to help myself through this battle, and that is exactly what I’m going to try.

I’m starting to feel another essay coming on. If you think you may need a break, you may want to go to the toilet now. This could be a while. In this blog I’m going to discuss how (25 years ago) I was selected to join a small team charged with taking a secure telephone switch to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for General Schwarzkopf and his staff. Seems like yesterday.

From 1982 to 1991 my career in the United States Air Force was no script for an action movie. I was a Strategic Air Command (SAC) airman. Not even close to be involved in anything Tactical like Desert Storm. GThe first four years I was an administrative clerk in the Offutt Air Force Base education office. It is where I took night classes in electronics and finished my degree in 1986. From there I retrained (Keesler AFB, Mississippi) into the career field of electronic computer switching systems maintenance (early computer maintenance).

I was then reassigned from Keesler AFB, Mississippi back at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska to the HQ Strategic Air Command (SAC) underground command post. Over the next five years I worked on some really old gear (back to the Cuban Missile Crisis days of the early 60’s), and also on state of the art communications (for example, lasers and fiber-optics were new back then). The Cold War was still going on, and as the headquarters for America’s nuclear arsenal, we were at “Ground Zero”.

Even though I was “technically in the military”, it really didn’t feel like it. We didn’t bother with chemical warfare training, physical training, putting up tents, map reading, marching, etc. We were only going to be around 15 minutes into a nuclear war. What was the point? It was at this point in my life that I established some pretty unhealthy habits (smoking & chewing tobacco, skipping breakfast & lunch, drinking coffee and diet coke instead of water, binge drinking, not exercising, not effectively dealing with stress….wow, typing this list is quite depressing!)

However; if there was something broken, we worked our butts off until it was restored. This equipment was used to send out the nuclear alert messages. There was no messing about, people got hurt even on false messages. They could cause whole B52 bomber units to spin up. It was very serious!   Some very challenging problems, and since it was a one of a kind facility we’d have nobody to call for support.

Our military exercises were short and sweet. They were held several times a day, and often I didn’t even know they were going on. All ending pretty much with us getting “smoked”. You’ve seen the movies when a missile office has to point a gun at their partner to turn the key, right? Well, I was one of the guys behind the gear that made sure they got that message. Most of the time I had a cigarette in my mouth (we could still smoke in the office then), a cup of coffee within reach, and a Snickers candy bar in my pocket.

My specialty (1989-1991) was on a new type of secure voice telephone switch. These switches allowed national leadership to pick up the phone and call & conference on encrypted lines (“specialty” was in my mind’s eye, because I’ve since realized I wasn’t even a novice compared to true specialists). It was a switch used by White House communications, the Pentagon, HQ SAC, HQ TAC, and US Central Command.   At the time of Desert Shield & Storm, CENTCOM Forward (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) was configured off “long local” telephones. These were over Satellite communications, and a lot had to be right for these phones to work (especially in encrypted mode).

My Desert Storm mission!

Not knowing how long the “Gulf War” would go on, this setup was too unreliable for critical communications to General Schwarzkopf and his staff with General Powell and other national leaders. The secure voice program office started looking for military guys that could deploy with a switch (which was a mini-computer with routing tables, digital and analog interfaces, and was capable of direct and conference calls). It was quite a “state of the art” piece of gear at the time.

At the time contractors maintained the CENTCOM switch, and at that time could not be forced into a war zone. This is where I came in.   They would take one “active duty military” from HQ SAC, one from Whitehouse Communications, one from HQ TAC (Langley AFB, VA), an Engineering and Installation expert (E&I), and our leader would be from the program office at the Pentagon. I was selected from about half a dozen guys in my work center that all volunteered to go. In the military, most don’t want to be the guy left behind, and I definitely “wanted” to be in the game.

We would meet in Tampa, Florida to configure our equipment, get on a transport plane to Riyadh, set it up, and then kick back and watch it all run smoothly. Have you noticed there was no thought of how this would all end? I was so naive.   (BTW, the contractors were really disappointed not to be going. They were just as dedicated to the mission as the military, and they still are. Contractors, National Guard, and Reservists have proven themselves vital over the years, and today more than ever!) In 1991 I didn’t feel this way…I was so ignorant!

This story is starting to get long, and I’ve already left out numerous points I could write a separate blog entry about.

I think this is a good place to take a break, and bring this story into parallel with my cancer and marathon journey.

I feel this point in my Desert Storm story lines up well with my cancer journey’s pre-diagnosis stage and on the marathon side it lines up with up to my selection to run for the NET patient foundation.

Some of you know over the last four or five years I have been spending a lot of time reading and studying the power of keeping a positive attitude. My goal was to understand myself a little better, and then maybe be able to use this knowledge to help others as well as “cure” myself.  I’m a long way from being cured, but it has helped me establish a level of resilience I’ve never had before.

One of my favourite resources is Mark Manson.net, and in one of his earliest articles he shares a commencement speech of writer David Foster Wallace. He started off the speech with a short story.   To quote: There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two you fish swim for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and says “What the hell is water?”

It is pretty obvious to me now, that in 1991 I was one of the young fish. I was swimming in things bigger than I realized.   What I was getting into was not as simple as I early laid out “meet in Tampa, Florida to configure our equipment, get on a transport plane to Riyadh, set it up, and then kick back and watch it all run smoothly”. It was much more complicated than that, and its the same with the battle against cancer.   The stages for cancer for me are; before diagnosis, diagnosis, educating yourself, dealing with the disease, deciding on a treatment, going through the treatment, living with the disease, overcoming or succumbing to the disease, and life after the disease.

Up to this Desert Storm pre-deployment point, I had set up a point where I was definitely swimming in “water” I did not understand or appreciate. That’s not to say I had not envisioned it. When tensions mounted, and war was looming I had visualized all the pieces that would need to fall into place for me to be involved. I’m not saying I wished for it, but I do vividly remember visualizing. It is one of the few times I really remember visualizing to such detail. And, years later I often reflect back to this example of when visualization has worked.

In the early days of my cancer diagnosis (probably over the first couple years) I didn’t realize what “water” I was swimming in. I was ill for quite a while, but ignored to signs. Convincing myself the signs were just “getting older” and probably diet related. I would have used visualization then if I had understood the water.

Do I really know what swimming in “London Marathon” water is? Do I really know what running 26 miles is like? Do I know what a “wall” is? Do I know who and why I’m running? How can I handle this with honour? I can’t pretend to know I will be able to know for sure until I do the marathon, but I’m going to use the lessons learned from Desert Storm and cancer to get myself as prepared as I can envision. Including the eventual post marathon.

If you look at the speech by David Wallace I hadn’t learned how to think, but was definitely the “center of my own universe”. I had learned how to troubleshoot computers and work hard, but I was clueless on how to take myself back and really look at the big picture of what was going on.   The mission I was going to support was setting a world stage we are still dealing with today.

But to me, I was doing something big in my career. When I am in this mode I’m quite good at putting blinkers on, and pushing off all other responsibilities. It can actually be a place you can hide from other responsibilities that don’t go away. Things like taking care of my wife, daughter, unborn daughter, home, and my family’s needs. These still need to be dealt with. Oh my, I’ve just realized I better re-evaluate my marathon and cancer journey. (Note to self & point taken!)

My “war” experience could not have gone any easier really.   I can only imagine the effects on some of the same type of men that have been deployed over and over again into Iraq and Afghanistan. I continue to be amazed and inspired by the resilience of these young military men and women and their families. Just as I continue to be amazed by others affected by cancer and their families.

The military and patients aren’t really that different. Those that seem to handle things the best have set up habits that establish resilience. Exercise, diet, meditation or reflection, planning, education, and keeping things organized. Simply establishing good habits.

My habits of exercising, diet, meditating/reflection, and staying on top of my appointments and paperwork are paying off for me over the past 263 days. (I’m 8 years into my cancer journey, in control of the disease, and I’m training for the London Marathon). I’m also feeling pretty good about things!

Over the next few days and weeks, I’m going to continue this story through the post-deployment period.   I’ll talk about the shocks of: chemical warfare & weapons training, Florida, CENTCOM, flying on military transport, Saudi Arabia, the awe of heroes, food poisoning, and a couple stories about returning home.

If you’d like help setting up your own mantra, I’m happy to help – just drop me a line at zwanny@hotmail.com. If you’d like help with dealing with NET cancer, please contact the NET Patient Foundation, which exists to help NET patients, their families, and carers.

Thank you for stopping by my blog, and if you’d like to donate towards my run & NET Patient Foundation please click here. http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/MarkZwanziger.



I can also be found on Twitter – @zwanny63