Monday, December 27, 2010

The Prophecy of Dave Walker

Do you hear that defining roar in the distance? It's the Leviathan, the Biblical colossal from the sea, the accumulated voices warning about federal government finances. As with a lot of modern life, it's all about numbers. Here are merely four:

The annual deficit load in FY 2010 was $1.3 trillion.* As of today, the total debt is at $8.87 trillion, which is roughly 61 percent of U.S. GDP in 2010. Government spending for FY 2010 was at $3.72 trillion, while federal government revenues (your taxes and all fees) are coming in at approximately $2.165 trillion.

The figures are hard and in stark contrast to the opaque and incessant hand-wringing. It's fiscal Armageddon! How did we get into this massive bind? Why didn't someone warn us?!

Someone did: His name is Dave Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO is a Washington, D.C. institution that commands universal, if not sometimes grudging, respect for nonpartisan, non-ideological fairness and accuracy. Walker used a late-summer 2003 National Press Club speech to stick a flag in the capital's ramparts and calmly state: The nation's financial situation is unsustainable and without change, things will get catastrophically worse.

Below is a New York Times op-ed Walker penned with your's truly providing assistance (ok, ok folks -- I formatted the fonts and ran spell check).

This was written seven years ago. It highlights Walker's prophetic view of the U.S. government's financial bind. In here are allusions to the impending collapse of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Association (Freddie Mac); inexorable federal health care spending exemplified by Medicare and to a leser extent, Medicaid; and, corporate financial reporting, before Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup.

Walker was a leader in the early-warning federal budget alarm system called the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and has now started his own organization, the Comeback America Initiative.

Starting with the title, Walker foresaw in clear terms the intractable bind we are in today. And it's an astonishing piece to revisit amidst today's increasingly desperate fiscal tumult.

New York Times, February 4, 2004
The Debt No One Wants to Talk About
by David M. Walker

WASHINGTON -- "We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's books," President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his secretary of the Treasury in 1802, "so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them." Unfortunately, straightforward government financial information seems as elusive in 2004 as it did in Jefferson's day.

The truth is that the United States faces a long-term deficit that will only increase as the baby boomers retire. The resulting fiscal imbalance will test the nation's spending and tax policies.

Washington's recent difficulty in maintaining fiscal restraint has not helped matters.
The fiscal 2005 budget President Bush released on Monday includes a deficit of $364 billion. Although the administration and the Congressional Budget Office show declining deficits in the years ahead, and an improving economy will reduce deficits further, the long-term projected gap is now so large that we will not be able simply to grow our way out of the problem. Difficult choices are inevitable.

But the current system of federal financial reporting provides an unrealistic and even misleading picture of the government's overall performance and financial condition. Few agencies adequately show the results they are getting with the taxpayer dollars they spend, and too many significant government commitments and obligations are not fully disclosed.

Particularly troubling are the many big ticket items that taxpayers will eventually have to reckon with, including Social Security, Medicare, civilian and military retirement and health care benefits, and veterans' medical care. Despite their serious implications for future budgets, tax burdens and spending flexibility, these future obligations get short shrift in the government's financial statements and in budgetary deliberations.

The federal government's gross debt -- the accumulation of the annual deficits -- was about $7 billion last September, which works out to about $24,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. But that number excludes items like the gap between the government's Social Security and Medicare commitments, and the money put aside to pay for them. If these items are factored in, the burden for every American rises to well over $100,000.

They new Medicare prescription drug benefit will add thousands more to that tab. This benefit is unquestionably popular and will make it easier for some older American to afford expensive prescription drugs. But it also comes with a steep price that few want to talk about. The truth is that the drug benefit as signed into law is one of the largest commitments ever undertaken by the federal government. Preliminary estimates of the long-term cost in current dollars run up to $8 trillion through 2070.

To put that number into perspective, it is about four times the entire federal budget. Long- term simulations from the legislative agency I lead, the General Accounting Office, paint a chilling picture. Even before the new drug benefit was enacted, thsese simulations showed that by 2040, current policy would require a 50 percent reduction in Federal spending or a doubling of taxes, to balance the budget.

Either would be devastating. And keep in mind it is likely that efforts will be made to expand the drug beneift in the future.

A key lesson from Enron, World-com and other business failures is that our free-market system depends on public confidence in the accuracy of corporate financial information. Recent G.A.O. reports have highlighted the increasing frequency of corporate earning restatements. Who would knowingly buy stock in, lend to, or do business with a company that conceals its true financial conditions?

As Jefferson pointed out, truth and transparency are even more essential in the public sector. Government services -- mail delivery, food inspections, Social Security and defense to name a few -- directly affect the well-being of of every American. But sound decisions on federal programs and policies are nearly impossible without timely, accurate, and useful information.

Fortunately, we are starting to see efforts to address the strengthening of federal financial reporting. The latest annual report of the federal government focuses more on the the nation's long-range fiscal imbalance. The president's Management Agenda, which closely reflects G.A.O.'s list of high-risk government programs, is bringing additional attention to troubled areas and is trying to better assess the results that programs are getting, with the resources they are given.

The General Accounting Office and other experts continue to encourage reforms in the federal budget proces to better reflect the government's commitment and to signal emerging problems. Among other things, the G.A.O. has recommended the government issue an annual report on major fiscal exposures -- explicit and implicit promises for future government spending.

Much more must be done, however. A top-t0-bottom review of government activities to ensure their relvance for the 21st century is long overdue.

From a practical standpoint, our elected representative are not likely to get too far out in front of the American people when addressing complex and controversial issues. These fiscal risks however, are long-term problems whose impact will not be felt for some time. The understanding and support of the American people will be critical to providing a foundation for action.

A national education campaign to help the public understand the nature and magnitude of the long-term financial challenges facing the nation is essential. After all, an informed electorate is indispensable for a sound democracy. Young American especially need to become active in this discussion -- because they and their children will bear the heaviest burden if today's leaders fail to act.

Public officials will have more incentives to make difficult but necessary choices if the public has the facts and comes to support serious and sustained action to address our fiscal challenges. Without meaningful public debate, however, real and lasting change is unlikely. The sooner we act, the sooner it will be to turn things around.

* Guess what: Things just got worse. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just released its January document, "Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011 to 2021." The deficit for FY 2011, if current laws remain unchanged, drives to $1.48 trillion.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The 104th and the 112th: A Renovation Revolution

(Reprinted from the Baltimore Sun, Sunday, November 28, 2010)

Just sense the terror accompanying the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives: the huge political battles ahead, the hand-to-hand combat with President Obama, the legislative Armageddon. Yeah, agenda this, policy that. But I’ll tell you where the real turmoil begins. It’s in the mechanics: The transfer of real estate from the once majority to the now-ascendant minority, the shift in operations, the scramble for office space, the control of Committee rooms and the menu in the Longworth cafeteria.

I know. I was a shock trooper during the turnover from the 103rd to 104th Congresses, and a veteran of the 100th and 101st. When power shifts, there's a scramble. The leadership and the chairmanships of 24 standing House committees change, as do more than 105 subcommittee chairmanships. The former minority is emboldened with power to change the way business is done in Washington and that means one thing: renovation.

At the end of the 103rd Congress, I joined the Public Works Committee. Forget about that smarmy New Deal/Great Society moniker. The nameplate was ripped from history to be replaced by “Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.”

Our offices, like those throughout all three House Office Buildings,hadn’t been altered in decades. I vividly recall wandering through office space jammed with wooden filing cabinets holding memos from the 1970s, photos from the 1960s hung on walls, ornamental ashtrays were everywhere as were black rotary dial phones with straight cords, and every now and then a dull green IBM Selectric typewriter.

As the new spokesman for the new committee, I got a high-ceilinged office overlooking the fountain on the west side of Rayburn, a football heave from the Botanical Gardens. The former occupant, a friend, had been here for years. As it was being cleared out, she sighed that there was so much living history here. “You're not kidding, " I murmured, watching workers move a coat rack from which hung a styrofoam Humphrey-Muskie hat.

Forget the Contract With America, a new decorator had came to town. Walls that had stood since the Interstate system was built were torn down, carpet trod upon by House champions was ripped up, mildewed furniture was sacked. Elegant portraits of past committee leaders hung everywhere and had to be moved. "Where is Chairman Anderson going?" one senior Democrat staffer fretted. Congressman Glenn Anderson had been a legend from Long Beach, California. "No problem,” I said sincerely, “I’ll take him -- I was born in Santa Monica." Yes, it was chaos.

As the old ways departed, the new entered. There came down an edict from the Speaker to be: We will be the first Modern Legislature in history. In November 1994, the entire House and Senate had one website (Senator Edward M. Kennedy) and 43 members had email accounts, mostly AOL. Now, all House Committees were required to have sites; all staff and Members required to have email. Then came the most significant revolution in Congressional staff history: “attachments.” The old days of spending hours walking testimony and memos between three House office buildings had ended.

And this massive transformation didn’t stop with the pdf. 52 new GOP Members were seated, setting off one of the greatest office-switch daisy chains in Congressional history. Personal Member offices are assigned by seniority. With the seniority system shot by Democrat losses, here now came the complex orchestration of moving Congressman Joe -- and every single item in his office -- from cramped 4th floor Cannon House Office Building to 1st floor room-with-a-view Longworth.

From November 18, 1994 onwards, the House Clerk movers wheeled huge dollies carrying sofas, chairs, desks, filing cabinets, lamps, and endless boxes of "important" files. The rooms couldn’t be moved all at once given the sheer amount of stuff colliding in corridors. Hence, the moves were done after 8 p.m. and before 6. a.m. the haunting rumble of the House Clerk caissons symbolizing the end of an office-space dynasty.

The new offices, the d├ęcor, the nifty new equipment, the chiliburgers at last in the Longworth cafeteria -- it was all part of the magic of the 104th Congress this Hill rat recalls so well, the promise of which will be revealed to the 112th.One night I was on the phone with my defiantly socialist mother and caught up in the exuberance of the moment, I said, “We’re changing how this town operates.” "Give me one example, son," she said tersely.

I was sitting in the Committee hearing room after hours and was flummoxed for an answer. Then while gazing out at the panorama, it came to me: "We’ve got new microphones on the dais for all the Members."

The dawn, indeed, of a new day.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Diary of a Chart Guy: An inside-the-Beltway look at the ascendancy of charts and the men who make them happen

(Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2010]

"Hey, where's my chart guy?" The words echoed down a marble corridor in the Treasury Department building, where there was a clamor of Medicare Trustees, two cabinet secretaries, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, eight high-ranking staff—and me. Conversation ceased and heads swiveled in my direction as I held the chart above my head. There was a clear sigh of relief.

It was late April, 2007, and we were about to hold a news conference on Medicare's disastrous financial outlook. We had all the right ammunition: big binders and accordion folders jammed with spread sheets, computer models, and talking points on complex economic terms. But the 3-by-2 chart I'd helped develop said it all: fiscal catastrophe.

The news conference had an overflow of reporters, but with all the high-powered leaders and documentation to explain the crisis, it was the chart that had the biggest impact in the next day's stories.

Let's face it, the chart is now a must-have political prop. Charts, on both sides of the aisle, dominate what we like to call political discourse. The Senate floor debate on health care featured more than a dozen.How did we get here? Washington used to feature elegantly crafted speeches by gray-haired, jowly statesmen in dark suits.

Until 1994, when the GOP's Contract With America was displayed on a chart: 10 bold bullet-point goals with red boxes next to each to be checked off as the legislation passed the House. The Contract sparked politicians and decision-makers everywhere to rely less on soaring rhetoric and more on colorful charts that would explain everything—from the reasoning behind cutting one-third of House staff to the need for a 34% increase in ICBMs. Who's going to argue with a chart?

Overnight, you saw legions of Hill rats like me hauling charts while trailing earnest politicians all over town.My boss on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, then-Chairman Bud Shuster, jumped into the fray. His committee became ground zero for charts—Members always had vibrant displays showing interstate lane dimensions, per-mile construction costs, transit ridership, bridge-span engineering ratios. Other committees soon followed suit.

One day on the House floor Rep. Shuster and I were approached by then-Congressman Joe Scarborough with an aide buckling under tubes of maps and folders. "Bud, I got this Army Corps project in the district . . . funding . . . levees . . . big-time hydraulics . . . really need your support." Bud listened, then simply pointed at me and said, "Give it all to Nelligan. He'll make a chart."

Later, working for David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States and the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, we developed charts (sometimes shrunk to PowerPoint slides) to be displayed at numerous congressional hearings and editorial-board meetings. The charts showed frightening measures of spending, future entitlement growth, rising marginal tax rates, nondefense discretionary outlays—impending doom. Those charts even made it into the 2008 documentary film, "I.O.U.S.A."

Charts are now a fixture of the landscape, and in a 23-year career spanning the executive and legislative branches, I humbly consider myself present at the creation.

In that ornate hallway three years ago at Treasury, I waited patiently with my chart underneath a huge portrait of Albert Gallatin, America's fourth Treasury secretary. The bio next to the painting noted that Gallatin was the son of a wealthy Swiss grain merchant and an influential senator before Thomas Jefferson picked him to lead Treasury. And it suddenly hit me: There I was standing beneath Old Washington carrying the baggage of New Washington.

And what baggage. Projected Medicare spending alone in 2010 was 1,010 times the entire United States GDP when Gallatin was Treasury secretary. How did I know? It was on the chart.

Mr. Nelligan is a veteran of Capitol Hill and the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations.
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lacrosse: A tough game to love...

(Reprinted from The Baltimore Sun , May 27, 2010)


This weekend, Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium will host the second-largest crowd ever to watch an NCAA Final Four. The contests will feature 20 young men wearing sophisticated armor playing on a 110-yard field, an unlikely culmination for a sport invented in the 15th Century by Native Americans, using up to 1,000 athletes wearing next to nothing, playing on a field ranging over several miles.Lacrosse might have been a niche sport for the Huron and Iroquois tribes, and several centuries later confined to eastern prep schools and colleges. But today, it's the fastest growing youth sport, coast to coast, in America.

As a guy who has played and been around the sport for three decades and in just the past four years has had three sons on 28 different teams in the Baltimore-Washington region, I find the growth gratifying — and surprising.

Because the fact is, lacrosse is vastly different from typical youth sports.It relies on the most difficult elements of athletics. It requires the hand-eye coordination of baseball — catching and throwing an unforgivingly hard ball in a small pocket, often while running. Lacrosse has the brutal collisions and the acute need for field sense found in football. And it requires the endurance of basketball and ice hockey. "Lax," as it's sometimes called, is a very tough game to master, and with all due respect, it's not turning a dozen energetic kids loose on a soccer field chasing a ball, or the slow agony of kid-pitch baseball.

Nor is there the relativism in youth lacrosse seen in other youth sports. There's no political correctness about everyone-has-fun-and-everyone-plays and please-be-nice-to-Billy. I can count on one hand the number of times snacks were handed out after games. As one of my son's coaches, a former Gilman School and Division 1 standout, perhaps uncharitably said, "This sport doesn't tolerate the geeks or the parents who say, 'Oh, let's try this for fun.' After one season, they move on and you see their equipment at garage sales."

And then there are the coaches, many like my friend above. I've coached and been around kids' teams for a solid decade — but there's nothing like the lacrosse coach: rough-hewn, stern, demanding. Praise is spared and practices can be grim affairs. Players are called by their last names, and parents on the sidelines get used to their kids getting ripped unmercifully for mistakes during a game.

Nonetheless, there must be something appealing in the lax gestalt because the sport has exploded across the county. The 2008-2009 High School Athletes Participation Survey, put together by the National Federation of State High School Associations, tallies 153,525 high school male and female lacrosse players, double the number from 2000-2001. To compare that with well-established high school sports, that number is one-fifth of those who play soccer; it equals more than half of those on tennis, swim and diving teams; it's three times the number of high school ice hockey players, six times the number of gymnasts. And the growth is most extreme in the populous West: California has 215 high school teams, Texas more than 140, Colorado, 121.

The youth movement has led to an equivalent expansion on the college level. This spring, 264 colleges fielded men's college lacrosse teams, and there are more than twice as many players today — 9,200 — as 20 years ago. There are 348 women's teams — that's more than triple the number of women's college teams 20 years ago.

Equally important, there are 213 college club teams in the United States and Canada — again, a product of the popularity at the youth level — and many are lobbying their respective college administrations for NCAA Division I, II, or III status.

There's a pro organization — Major League Lacrosse — that despite fits and starts over the last dozen years has six teams and is looking to expand. Lacrosse has also been helped by the Internet; hundreds of high school games are on YouTube, which is agonizing when you can view your own son getting beat in the once obscure but now viral Loyola Blakefield-Severn School junior varsity game.

In 1921, a Baltimore Sun columnist enamored of the fabled Johns Hopkins team called lacrosse "the fastest sport on two feet." It's a long way from the Iroquois to the more than 100,000 spectators who will watch the NCAA lacrosse finals, proof that the fastest sport on two feet is now on two feet for good.

Jeff Nelligan is the parent of three lacrosse-playing sons who play better than their Dad. His email is Jeff.Nelligan@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

Monday, May 17, 2010

May in Martinique


20 years ago this month, I was a relatively new soldier, and in Martinique at the French Army Brevet Commando School; an unlikely member of a platoon of hard-core infantrymen. Beyond the rather colorful experiences, the training provided a glimpse into the soldierly character, which today you can find on display in the far corners of the world. But alas, never truly appreciated here at home.

The French Army had trained hundreds of units from armies throughout the world at this course at Ft. Desaix. Jungle exercises were combined with water operations, both being the expertise of the island’s unit, the 33rd French Marine Infantry Regiment, responsible for security in the Antilles.

The course was based on passing a number of tests, for which you’d receive the Brevet Commando badge.To win a spot in the platoon, Army Reserve and Guard units sent selected soldiers to a stateside competition, half of which consisted of usual Army measures -- pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and running, all timed. The other half involved swimming -- a timed half-mile in a 50-meter pool, followed by the order to keep swimming in the pool for distance until you sank. Growing up in Los Angeles with ocean-centered parents, I had been swimming and surfing since a kid and was a fair waterman; I made the platoon.

When the unit mustered at an Air Force base for the C-130 trip to Fort du France, as a new guy, I was astonished at the accomplishments of my comrades: Special Forces tabs, Ranger tabs, Expert Infantrymen and Expert Medic badges, air assault and airborne patches, several containing the gold star signifying a combat jump, combat patches on the left shoulder, and explosives ordnance engineer markings. Only because I could swim was I on this plane.

French officers met us when we landed. They loaded us into trucks, and in the nature of the foreign military anywhere, wanted immediately to jack up the Americans. We drove to the base and were unloaded at the obstacle course.

Now, obstacle courses are the pride of every military base in the world. And for the uninitiated, we're not talking a course in the sense of plastic cones set up on an asphalt parking lot, or a 10-foot rope bridge where you bond with your sales pals. We're talking miles of huge, gut-wrenching physical demands.

I recall from memory a few highlights from the Regimental course at Fort Desaix: A timed run through a flooded marshland, repeated repels off 100-foot plus cliffs, low-crawling through a football field of mud and leeches and island snakes, clambering up and down 50-foot cargo nets (with no safety nets below), and a particularly eye-opening 150-foot crawl across a one-inch cable suspended 200 feet above a boulder-strewn field. This was accomplished by lying on the cable, securing your pack and rifle, and dragging yourself hand-over hand to the other side, your trailing leg and boot curled around the cable for stability.

If you slipped off the cable, you hung, spinning crazily, by a rope attached to your midsection and to the cable with an O-ring. Then, a fellow soldier had to crawl out and push the O-ring along the cable, practically inch by inch, across to the other side, compensating for the soldier’s weight while balancing his own weight.All of the above describes only about one-third of the course, which we would do every day we were there, sometimes at night with only covered flashlights and the moon.

That first day, Staff Sergeant Josh Freeman (Landon School, 1983) a former soldier of the year with the 5th Special Forces Group, broke the course record, an astonishing feat. Consider: tens of thousands of men, including the French cadre, had been over the course for years, and our guy breaks the record coming off an eight-hour flight. The French had grudging respect, and redoubled their efforts to burn us up.

Other daily tests followed. Some were as old as the days of the Roman Centurions: hand-to-hand fighting, tying a series of complicated knots in ropes that could support a truck lifted ten feet off the ground (disaster befell the knots that slipped), and 36-hour forced marches through impassable terrain. On night patrols, we’d steal silently through Martinique towns, tested on whether we aroused an outcry from police or residents. During the day, we’d cut through jungle and sharp stands of sugar cane, all done with compass, hours upon hours, trying to outflank the French cadre lying in wait for us. Sweaty, bleeding, and ascending some forsaken volcanic hill with full pack and rifle, I remember going past a fresh, ever-smiling French training officer and thinking, with the hilarity that sometimes accompanies extreme fatigue, “Man, this guy is getting his kicks dragging my rear end all over this damn island.”

We stayed in the field night and day and no matter what, guys were always in good cheer, no matter how awful the circumstances. One evening we were navigating a massive swamp, trying to find footing, our heads going under again and again. Suddenly, truck lights went on all around us, we were hauled out with ropes, driven to a barracks and inexplicably given 3 a.m. training on the French FAMAS assault rifle.

Two days later, we were ordered to the top of the fort walls and lowered by ropes deep into old ammunition bunkers. Each soldier was accompanied by a French non-com. The aperture closed, and in utter and complete darkness, we were handed an FAMAS and told to disassemble and then assemble the rifle in two minutes. Enlisted man Nellie never had a mechanical bent, but I’d recalled the late-night class and thinking optimistically at the time that the FAMAS had fewer parts than an M-16, which I could strip. I patiently outlined the rifle with my hands and used a fair memory to recall the steps taught two nights before.

We were given cursory training in tides, currents and wind and then paddled inflatable Zodiacs for miles on the open ocean, with only one compass for four boats, meaning even the slightest error on an azimuth meant hours of wasted effort. Another test involved being pushed out of a ship and with nothing but three empty canteens for flotation, you were required to make it to shore.

The final test was the water obstacle course. After swimming a long distance in a bay in full uniform, you lunged out of the water to grab ropes and climb a scaffold, dove to the sea floor to retrieve objects, swung hand-over-hand across a 30-foot jungle gym, crawled over and around rusty pylons, then headed into a submerged pipe on the floor of a lagoon, fighting off a claustrophobic, drowning panic while traveling 40 feet through the conduit and coming up in deep water before making your way to a beach.

Don’t get me wrong, U.S. Ranger and Special Forces training makes this course look like a picnic. The guys in the platoon were used to the pounding and this was just a two-week stopover for them. Nevertheless, the thing was, no-one whined, no-one complained. They all went from one challenge to the next. It was remarkable, and the general bonhomie got under the skin of some of the French cadre.

Even after two decades, I recall some of the men -- diminutive Tim Urban, the SF engineer, the HALO-jump artist and clever Robert Parsons, and John Roberts, SF medic, a Jumpmaster qualified paratrooper, multilingual State Department diplomat, and one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. Ironically, 20 years ago, only a seer could have predicted that some of these soldiers would be launching out of Saudi Arabia into Kuwait and Iraq six months later, and eleven years later, lunging into Afghanistan and then again, Iraq.

One scene encapsulates for me the creed of the American soldier. On the first day those wily Frenchmen put us on the obstacle course at twilight, one man did slip off the cable and dangled helplessly 100 feet above the ground. While those of us who had crossed watched, on the other side of the canyon, there was an instant rush of guys to the starting point, scrambling to get to the cable. A senior non-com issued a quick order and then he immediately crawled out and slowly pushed the man, using the O-ring, to the other side.

In that instant, I saw the reflexive selflessness of the American soldier -- a guy was in trouble and needed help. Everyone stepped up.

At the end of the course, every single man who got off the plane was awarded the Brevet Commando badge, one of the few platoons in the 33rd Regiment’s training history to accomplish this because units always lost a couple men to injury. The French Army officers were stunned even as they made the announcement. For me, while I was proud to have the award, I felt more privileged to be associated with these men.

Two decades, I feel the same way. Now leading an easy, conventional life, I am fully aware there are hundreds of thousands of American servicemen across the globe engaged in everything from the tedium of garrison duty to the terror of combat. All of them, in some fashion, have in them that unique soldier’s character which I saw so vividly in Martinque. A type of character which all aspire to, but seems only a soldier fulfills.