I am pleased to welcome you to my personal blog, which I started in March 2009. I first became interested in blogging about five years ago, using old "blogger.com", which was cumbersome to use and I never mastered. About a year ago I discovered that Google had bought "blogger.com" and had revised it considerably, making it fun to use, so much so that I have devised at least 15 blogs on various subjects and frequently add posts and Gadgets to them.

Monday, December 28, 2009

18.05.2001 Tabriz - Our first taste of Iranian hospitality

[While reading the Solar Cycle Diaries, I was introduced to this very-well-written blog about a tandem-bike-ride through Turkey and Iran in 2001. Here's the URL to get you to it:


Cass writes…

As chance would have it, our arrival in Tabriz coincides with the last stage of the sixteenth Azerbaijan Bicycle Tour. Toiling our way up a steep climb out of Marand, we're left teetering over a valley that encloses the city, confronted by dozens of cyclists procuring track side spots for this 1000km regional version of the Tour de France.

It's Friday, day of rest for Muslims. Like Turks, Iranians seem a nation of picnic lovers. Extended families of fragile old grandpas, languidly relaxed fathers, chador clad wives and football obsessed teenagers (What is your country? England? David Beckam!!) tuck into home made feasts, alluringly served on portable carpets. Gathering momentum like a torpedo, we rocket by to frantic waves and yelps of delight, defiant against the hardy headwind that's trying its best to slow the descent after all our hard toil. Through forested valleys and along undulating plains, the road eventually flattens and widens into the industrial outskirts of the city.

We stop for a few gulps of water in the heat of the day, squeezed onto the gravel by a fleet of thundering lorries. Two Lycra skinned riders - a particularly strange sight in this Muslim republic - join us for the last fifteen kilometres into the city. Our introductions to Habib and Farad are made on the move, all but drowned out by the roar of traffic, uneasily cycling side by side just a hair's width from a stream of friendly by lumbering trucks and nimble but careless Paykan saloons.

A quick pit stop before we reach the city suburbs has our friends unfolding neatly pressed shirts and trousers from rucksacks, blending into the Islamic surroundings once more. Expecting to reach the city centre, before we know we find ourselves on a tour that emerges before Habib's home, introduced to his radiantly rounded mother, shaking the hand of a slightly bemused father and nodding towards clusters of intrigued neighbours peering from windows and doorways. Downing rounds of tea we work our way through a bowl of fruit before a half dozen giggling children, waited over like king and queen.

It's our first time in an Iranian house, our first experience of Iranian hospitality. We sit on the floor propped up with cushions, admiring the open design and simple decorations, painfully aware of our smelly socks. Habib is a baker, his brother a dentist and his father a bus driver. Their home is far bigger and more modern than we expect. Carpets are the main theme and there's not a bed or chair in sight - just a spotless kitchen and in the background a DVD of a Maria Carey concert - perhaps to make us feel more at home! After a few days in cramped hotels, it seems very luxurious.

As well as two brothers who watch us through thick glasses, Habib has two sisters who move like a blur, constantly scuttling around to replenish tea cups and fruit plates, disappearing into the kitchen every few moments. A succession of doorbell rings marks the arrival of friends and family, reminding us of a soap opera. Away from the prying eyes of the street, Rosal is allowed to lift her hejab - the head dress that conforms to Iranian law - and there follows a session of hair gazing, swooning and admiration. Habib's family express their dislike for the religious mullahs and their stringent laws, preferring the pre Islamic Revolution rule of Shah Pahlavi. Despite the Shah's apparently repressive government, it's an opinion we have heard several times in just the few days we have been in Iran.

A stilted conversation, limited by the phrases in the back of our Lonely Planet guidebook, is relieved by the arrival of the wife of Habib's brother. Married by arrangement just two months ago after Habib' s mother took a shine to this sweet faced teenager, Elnaz is just 16 to Ali's 27 years of age. As far as we can make out, the couple don't live together just yet - Eland has been called out to put her studies into practise and act as interpreter. With the help of an English-Farsi dictionary, we chat way, silences filled by all round beaming smiles until a banquet of rice and salad appears, served on a huge plastic tablecloth laid out on the carpet. Our arrival is celebrated by the opening of a dozen bottles of neon orange Zam Zam - the Iranian equivalent of Fanta. Plates stacked high with crispy rice seasoned with red currents are proffered and we're strongly encouraged to eat until we can no longer move, then invited to stretch out and relax our weary limbs.

Such incredible hospitality, almost overbearing in its zeal, puts our own Western preconceptions of Islamic people to shame. Two strangers invited into a home, we can have hoped for no warmer welcome to Tabriz, gratefully accepting their offer to spend the night.

Senior Leaders Blog, Too

Army Secretary John McHugh speaks with California native Staff
Sgt. Nathaniel Cummings of Charlie Company, 296th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, about taking care of Soldiers at Foward Operating Base Warhorse, Diyala, Iraq. December 18, 2009.

Just returned from a great trip seeing our Army’s efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait – followed up by a visit with Soldiers and their medical team at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Spending time with our Soldiers overseas was a real improvement from my usual work week. As much as I value the input of the Army’s great senior military and civilian leaders at the Pentagon and throughout Washington, D.C., you just can’t beat what is learned from a personal view of conditions on the ground.

Not surprisingly, the primary intent behind the trip was to get feedback from Soldiers. My job as Secretary of the Army is to organize, train and equip the Army to carry out its mission to fight and win the nation’s wars. Among other issues, I asked Soldiers how well their unit formations function given their set of wartime missions, how we can improve training stateside before they deploy, their experiences with the various MRAP vehicles now in theater, and the medical evacuation process. In Kuwait, I focused on the tremendous effort to drawdown personnel and materiel in Iraq and concurrently to surge into Afghanistan. As a professional Army, we are committed to continuous improvement in order to do our mission more effectively and efficiently while minimizing loss of life. My impression is that we’re doing a good job, but I’ve brought back a few ideas to share with leaders here to provide even better support to warfighters in the field.

I also wanted to share some holiday cheer. At each place I visited, I expressed to Soldiers the thanks of the Army and the nation for their sacrifices and those of their families. It’s humbling to wish “happy holidays” to a Soldier at a remote forward operating base, and even more so when that Soldier is serving a second or third tour. Our nation is truly blessed by the commitment and courage of the few who choose to put country before self and serve us honorably.

For those of you reading this who are part of the military community – Soldiers, DA civilians, spouses, kids, parents, veterans, and volunteers – let me thank you for your part to keep our nation strong during this period of protracted conflict. Each of you makes a contribution to preserve our way of life, and to enable others to have a better future. My wish for us all, this year as always, is a warm, healthy, safe, and secure New Year.

Posted byashmccallinArmy News, social mediaJohn McHugh, Secretary of the Army, U.S. Army

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Kindle Experience — A Personal Report

[This post is from Albert Mohler's blog]Books are a major part of my daily life. As I write this, I am surrounded by many thousands of books, each with its own feel, appearance, and meaning. Many of these books have played crucial roles in my thinking and understanding. Even as Christianity requires a certain level of literacy for its transmission and understanding, the book (whether scroll or codex) is rightly cherished by Christ's people.

There is something special about most books and the experience of reading them. The physical reality of the book, including its cover, paper, typeface, and design are part of its charm. Books are wonderful to behold, to sense, to hold, and ultimately to read. As a technology, books have survived the test of time. They do not need batteries, they hold up well with a minimum of maintenance, and, unlike a computer, they never crash. Books are almost perfect as a combination of design and purpose. Who could ask for more?

I do. The printed book is superior to almost every imaginable technology in any number of respects, but not in all. The digital revolution has reached the world of books, and things are forever changed. I was an early adopter of the Kindle, Amazon.com's almost iconic electronic reader. My first Kindle was bought soon after the technology became available. I purchased a few books and intended the Kindle to operate as a supplement to my library of printed books. I did not expect to spend much time with it, but I saw the advantage of instantly-available books that could be carried in my briefcase by the hundreds.

Now, I travel with an unreasonable number of books inserted throughout my luggage, but I cannot stash more than a few. The Kindle allows me to carry hundreds, and eventually thousands. Even as Nicholas Negroponte of MIT predicted the shift of all information from atoms to bits, the Kindle allows this transformation for the book. Writing in The New Republic, Anthony T. Grafton predicts that "electronic reading will move from being one of the ways we access and consume texts to the dominant mode."

I am not sure of that when it comes to books, but it is already true for any number of other published formats, ranging from newspapers to academic journals. I cannot imagine that the Kindle (or any similar technology) will replace the printed book in affection or aspiration, but it has already become a means of transcending the material barrier when it comes to books.

Put bluntly, I seldom leave home without my Kindle. It rides in my briefcase, holding more books than I could ever carry and ready for more.

I started with the original Kindle, then switched to the Kindle 2, and upgraded to the Kindle DX. I eagerly recommend the Kindle DX as the state-of-the-art Kindle. Amazon now also offers a Kindle that can be used to purchase books internationally.

Some thoughts:

1. Do not think of the Kindle as replacing the book. Bury that thought. Bury it deep. Then go and hold a favorite book in your hand. Enjoy. Then pile 50 of your favorite books and carry them with you all day, through airports, onto airplanes, checking into hotels, sitting in meetings, reading in bed at night. You get the point. You sit (gloriously) in a library. You take a Kindle in your briefcase.

2. Yes, you really can read books with this thing. The experience is not identical to reading a printed book, but it is very satisfactory for most books, magazines, and newspapers. The screen technology makes the Kindle look much like a printed book with type on a page. You will gain a feel for reading on the Kindle quite quickly.

3. The ability to purchase and receive books almost instantaneously is nothing short of amazing. I recently needed a couple of books for an article I was urgently writing in a New York City hotel room at 2:00 AM. No worries. I had both books on my Kindle within five minutes.

4. My Kindle holds dozens of theological classics, Bible translations, and seminal works of theology, history, and philosophy. It also holds a great deal of literature, including novels. I find reading fiction particularly profitable on the Kindle. I tend to forget the technology and just get lost in the book. I also have dozens of biographies, books on current events, and books by favorite authors on my Kindle.

5. I purchase and read some books on the Kindle, knowing full well that I probably do not want to maintain them in my permanent library collection. The Kindle is glad to hold them for me. You can often request a sample chapter to see if you want to purchase the book. I generally find myself hooked.

6. I really like the ability of the Kindle DX to receive and display PDF files and the ability of all Kindles to receive my own files as books. I can send a manuscript to my Kindle by email and it is there for the reading whenever I need it. That is extremely helpful.

Will the Kindle and its digital competitors replace the printed book? I think not. Indeed I hope not. I think most of us will reserve a special pride of place for printed books. Think not of replacement, but of supplement. Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bazos recently told The New York Times Magazine: "For every 100 copies of a physical book we sell, where we have the Kindle edition, we will sell 48 copies of the Kindle edition."

That stunning figure tells the story. Digital books are here to stay, and sales will only grow. You are probably reading these very words on a screen. That ought to tell you something.


I am always glad to hear from readers and listeners.  Write me at mail@albertmohler.com.  Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.

I will be trying out the Barnes & Noble e-reader, the "Nook," in coming days. I'll let you know what I think.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflections on 'The Rap' and kudos from the parliamentarian

By J. Gerald Harris, Editor

Published: December 3, 2009

Since our Georgia Baptist Convention meeting I have preached in another state convention, traveled to Germany and Latvia, enjoyed a family vacation in the Sunshine State with all ten grandchildren, had another birthday, and had some time to reflect on our recent GBC meeting at First Baptist Church in Woodstock.

In our annual convention gatherings I have always tried to present The Christian Index as a relevant, Georgia Baptist-centric publication that also addresses moral and cultural issues from a conservative, thoughtful, provocative perspective. Through the years the comments about my reports have been mildly complimentary and placidly approving, but rarely resulting in the sale of any newspaper subscriptions.

Nevertheless, we pressed on with our report year after year undaunted by the lackluster response to our plaintive appeal for new subscribers. We faithfully set up our Christian Index booth amidst all the other ministry displays with the bright hope that one day messengers and guests alike would find the appeal to subscribe to our state paper as compelling as Calvinists’ find grace irresistible to the elect and make a mad rush to sign up on the dotted line.

At the end of each convention we would pack up our goods, fold up our Index display board, eat the remainder of the reduced-priced post Halloween candy that we had not given out to potential subscribers, and trudge back to the Baptist Missions and Ministry Center, not necessarily clothed in laurels and victory.

When we discovered earlier this year that the ministry reports would be limited to a restricted time, placed on a video, and edited to insure that the time constraints were upheld, I knew that I could not preach my typical sermon – oh, excuse me – make my typical report within the framework of the time allotted.

So, one night after eating a pepperoni pizza just before going to bed I had a vision of three persons on our convention staff doing an interpretive dance. While I was not inspired by the interpretive dance the idea of doing a rap suddenly penetrated my skull, lodged in my brain, and struck a responsive chord.

So, I wrote the rap, contacted the Communications Department of the GBC, and the rest is history. The response to the video production has been nothing short of amazing. This whole experience has taught me a valuable lesson – Georgia Baptists are sometimes more likely to respond to the ridiculous than the sublime.

What kind of report will I give at the Convention next year? It is difficult to tell this early, but someone suggested that I come onto the convention platform on a zip line. I have also had someone suggest I do my report as an Elvis impersonator.

All I know is that the ridiculous worked this year; we had more folks sign up to subscribe to The Index than in the previous six conventions combined. I also have been inundated with invitations to do the music for multiple youth retreats and lock-ins. I am of the considered opinion that those invitations were offered in jest. If not, call my booking agent in New York at (800) 555-1234.

To be honest, we may be back to the mundane for next year’s Index report, but if your church would like to use this year’s rap video to promote The Christian Index in your church just give us a call. You can preview it on our website at www.christianindex.org and have a copy sent by calling Heidi Hager at (770) 963-5590.

Actually, the Georgia Baptist Convention annual session was marked by many non-frivolous moments and experiences. The hospitality of First Baptist Woodstock was incredible and worthy of emulation. The business sessions were harmonious and effective. The preaching of Jeff LaBorg, Dan Spencer, and Bucky Kennedy was anointed and inspiring.

Dr. J. Robert White’s state missions report was thrilling and very informative; and the ministry and salvation reports from the rain-soaked participants (almost 1,000 of them) from LoveLoud were truly heart-warming.

Barry McCarty, the parliamentarian for this year’s convention, may have summed the Woodstock meeting up about as well as could be expected of anyone. McCarty has become a fixture at Southern Baptist Convention national meetings for almost 25 years.

In 1986, SBC President Charles Stanley called the American Institute of Parliamentarians and asked them to recommend the best-certified professional parliamentarian in the country who was skilled in church polity. McCarty was the man recommended for the job. Since that time he has stood by the side of multiple SBC presidents to assist them in conducting Convention business.

When the 188th GBC Annual Session met in Woodstock, McCarty, who pastors a church in Dallas, Texas, stood by the side of Georgia Baptist Convention President Bucky Kennedy to assist him in the business sessions of the Convention.

At the conclusion of the Tuesday morning session McCarty turned to me and said, “I have a quote for you, if you are interested.”

I was interested in what he had to say so I got out my pen and paper like an alert, on-task reporter.

He said, “I have been the parliamentarian for a lot of church business meetings and for a lot of Christian denominational gatherings and after observing this convention for two days I have concluded that Georgia Baptists are a happy group of people who have confidence in their leadership.”

Without question McCarty spoke from an experienced and objective perspective; and for what it’s worth, I agree with his assessment.

Copyright © 2009, The Christian Index, All rights reserved, Unless otherwise noted.
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Friday, December 11, 2009

Starting Something You Cannot Finish: Christian Ministry From Generation to Generation

[This post is from Albert Mohler's blog.]

Posted: Friday, December 11, 2009 at 4:00 am ET

A commencement ceremony seems absolutely right and profoundly necessary. The hard work of education cries out for ceremonial recognition. The commencement traditions of higher education have developed by formality and ritual in order that this business of teaching and learning would be marked by milestones and memories.

Arrayed before us today is an assemblage of scholars decked out in all their glory. The regalia and ceremonial symbols will be recognizable throughout the world of scholarship and higher education. The completion of degree programs and courses of study deserves recognition. The investment of time -- even blood, sweat, toil, and tears -- is worthy of celebration. Furthermore, there is the very real sense that this institution of learning is setting loose a new generation to go out into the world. The least we can do is to organize an orderly launch.

Of course, there is actually far more here than meets the eye. Even as the regalia and ceremony will be recognizable throughout the world of education, this is no mere commencement ceremony. Then again, this institution is no mere school. This ceremony is a service of Christian worship and this institution serves no less than the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our calling is to educate and prepare a new generation of Christian pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and ministers in order that the church may be faithfully fed and competently led.

The process of education is more than the transmission of knowledge from one mind to another. This is especially true in a Christian institution, where teachers and students are learners together, where committed teachers invest not only their minds but their hearts in the inculcation of Christian conviction and knowledge, and where bonds of friendship and affection inevitably arise. In other words, we have come to love these students and it is no easy thing to let them go.

At such a moment, it seems appropriate that we consider this commencement event in light of Christian wisdom drawn from the Word of God -- a wisdom that is, more often than not, counter-intuitive and distinctively different from that wisdom shaped by secular presuppositions. Indeed, a correct understanding of the Christian ministry will often require us to reject what the world is absolutely certain is true. And this applies even to the wisdom gained from the most trustworthy of human sources -- even our grandmothers.

As a boy, I recall hearing my maternal grandmother's admonishment that I should be always certain to finish whenever I start. In most dimensions of life, this remains good advice; the kind of advice a good and godly grandmother would pass along to her grandson. It is the sort of wisdom that passes the test of conventional acceptance. We should not be satisfied to leave our work unfinished.

In some cases, an unfinished project is a matter of mild embarrassment. Projects begin with great energy and intentionality -- to trace a genealogy, restore a vintage automobile, renovate a room, write the Great American novel, or simply clean the attic. Nevertheless, so many of these aims are never accomplished

In other cases, an unfinished project appears more tragic than embarrassing. Mozart did not live to complete his famed Requiem. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not live to see final victory in World War II. The landscape of Europe is dotted with both castles and cathedrals begun but not finished. Each of these has become a monument to the frailty of humankind and the fragility of human plans.

Nevertheless, the biblical conception of the Christian ministry is, as we should not be surprised to find, radically at odds with worldly wisdom. According to the New Testament, one of the most important insights about the Christian ministry is this: We will not finish what we begin. This is not to say that we will never set goals and reach them or that we will never complete plans and programs. It does mean that the Christian ministry must be seen in the context of faithfulness extended from generation to generation until Christ returns to claim his Bride.

This truth is made clear in this well-known passage from First Corinthians, Chapter 3:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building.

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The background of this passage is Paul's utter frustration brought about by the fact that the Corinthian church was so deeply divided into factions. Repeatedly, Paul expresses his grief, frustration, and heartbreaking concern over the tendency of the Corinthians to insult the Gospel and to divide the church by factionalism and a party spirit. As this passage begins, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity. Spiritually, they are satisfied to be nursing infants rather than to grow into the fullness of Christ. They should be eating meat, but they must be fed with milk. When no one claims to follow Paul and the other to follow Apollos they demonstrate to their mutual immaturity and fleshly ambitions.

The exasperated apostle sets the record straight by making clear that both he and Apollos are merely servants of Christ who have been assigned by the Lord to be agents of bringing the Gospel and feeding the flock of the Church at Corinth. Using an agricultural metaphor, Paul simply states: "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." Paul was commissioned to bring the gospel to Corinth and he planted the good seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was followed by Apollos, a man of eloquence, who taught the Word of God and watered what Paul had planted.

Shifting to an architectural metaphor, Paul speaks of his role, by the grace of God, to act as a skilled master builder laying a foundation. He understands that others will come to build on that foundation. Ultimately the true foundation of the Church is none other than Jesus Christ.

In framing his admonitions, Paul reminded the Corinthians that "he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor." Ministers of the Gospel are "God's fellow workers." The congregation is God's field and God's building. Every minister must take care to build faithfully upon the foundation. The one who plant and the one who waters are nothing in themselves. The agent of all true Gospel ministry is God himself. As the remainder of chapter 3 makes clear, the worthiness of our work will be fully disclosed on the day of judgment and tested by fire.

A commencement ceremony takes a quick view backward in order to aim at the long view of the future. This day is far more about beginnings than endings. The completion of these monumentally important programs of study is appropriately marked and celebrated, but our hearts are drawn to the future as we imagine what God will do by his grace and for his glory in these graduates arrayed before us. And so our focus is on the start of new ministries, missionary journeys, and opportunities to serve the church for whom Christ died.

But, in light of Paul's words to the Corinthians, it seems necessary for us to set loose these graduates with the exhortation that they must start what they will themselves never finish. As a matter of fact, we really do not start what is altogether new. We will all build on the foundation someone else has laid. Even as the Lord grants opportunity to sow seed, we will spend much of our lives and ministries watering. The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.

In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart's desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully --- planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.

The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propelled them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.

But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owens and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.

Graduates of the Southern Seminary class of December 2009, if you aim to finish what you start in ministry, you will aim too low or finish what is not Christ's. Go out to plant, but also to water. Sow the good seed of the Gospel, even as you cultivate and irrigate. Build faithfully upon the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. Receive the stewardship of ministry that is passed on to you and give your all to this calling so long as you live. Then, pass this ministry to a generation yet unseen and unborn to continue this ministry and extend the reach of the Gospel until Jesus comes.

Start something you cannot finish and give yourself to it for the length of your days, with the strength of your life, to the glory of God. Dream dreams and see visions, and take up this calling as you plant and water in the fields of Christ. Build carefully upon the foundation laid for you. The hopes and prayers of God's faithful people go with you.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

The mighty Florida Gators finally beaten so next year the Bulldogs can take a bite

By KIP BURKE news editor
Although their season is over, Georgia Bulldog football fans finally have something to cheer about – the mightily hated Florida Gators are finally defeated.

It took, of course, my Alabama Crimson Tide to not only break Florida’s 22-game unbeaten streak Saturday for the SEC Championship, but to thrash the Gators so thoroughly that there is no doubt that the Tide belongs at the top of the SEC and heading to Pasadena for the national championship.

It’s even sweeter that just a year ago, Gator quarterback Tim Tebow and his swamp reptiles defeated Bama for the SEC Championship on their way to another national title for Florida, and it looks like they sauntered into the Georgia Dome feeling invincible and looking for a repeat.

And, to be honest, after Bama’s game against Auburn last week, the Tide didn’t exactly look like a team that could beat Florida, or Texas, or even William and Mary, for that matter. But that was last week.

This week, the Gators showed up at the Dome like national champs who expected to roll right over their next opponent. What we saw, however, was a team terribly surprised, shocked by the fiercely unpredictable offense that Bama put up from the start, a team unable to understand that not only could they be beaten, but that they were being beaten.

I don’t often laugh out loud watching football games, but Saturday I did. I laughed at the confusion on the faces of Gator fans as they saw Bama have their way with Florida. I laughed at the shock on the faces of the Florida players as they realized that they were not only behind, but they were being beaten, and beaten, and beaten some more.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who got the grins as, between plays, the TV showed the faces of Gator fans as they registered first concern, then panic. Could we actually lose? Noooo, we’re the Gators, chomp chomp! Undefeated!

Now I know you Bulldog fans would never rejoice over the tears running down Tim Tebow’s face – that kind of schadenfreude is impolite and the relationship between the Dawg fans and Gator fans is just a friendly rivalry, right? Well, maybe not.

But the fact is, the mighty Gators have fallen. Bama’s proven that they’re not invincible after all. That means that the University of Alabama, 22-time SEC champs, will meet the Texas Heifers, I mean Longhorns, in Pasadena for the national title in January. Since the Dawgs didn’t make the post season, you might as well cheer along with me for the Tide.

And who knows, Georgia fans, now that Florida’s been whupped, maybe a resurgent Bulldog team can beat them, too, next fall, and nail a banged-up Gator hide to the locker room wall. That would be sweet.

Tonight I’m going to sit down and watch a cable rerun of Alabama beating Florida – like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it’s a great story that I just can’t watch enough. Roll Tide.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

New capability gives National Guard Soldiers more realistic training opportunities


By Sgt. Christopher Milbrodt, Florida Army National Guard

- In the midst of a nondescript Middle Eastern-style village, 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Soldiers interact with the local inhabitants the same as they have done day in and day out on routine patrols.

Today, however, something feels different. You can describe all the little things that make you feel that way: the hairs on your neck, that pit in your stomach, or even the fidgeting that at this point you can't stop. No matter what it is, something isn't right.

You look to your buddy for validation of your feelings, and as he acknowledges, BOOM! Chaos erupts as a car explodes and gunfire bursts from a house down the street. Now your mind clears and your body calms down, and all that remains is your training and muscle memory of your tasks at hand.

This engagement didn't take place on some foreign battlefield, and no one was injured. It was just simulations and blanks. This isn't simply a training event, but a true learning experience from which to build - provided through the Exportable Combat Training Capability, known as XCTC.

While these scenarios unfold, subcontractors monitor the movement and actions of each Soldier and establish a high-tech "overwatch" to help even the individual Soldier understand what went right and what went wrong.

XCTC is taking the National Guard to a new level of readiness.

In 2006 at Camp Atterbury, Ind., the principal exercise of XCTC was conducted to demonstrate the type of training to be offered. The 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team is participating here in the seventh rotation of XCTC's training package since its inception. Each rotation, consisting of 21 days or more, is completely customized and tailored to unit mission and requirements. Previously, this type of training was available only at a select few training installations, and most National Guard units did not have the resources to attend.

As part of the ever-changing overseas contingency operations, XCTC brings the most up-to-date theater-specific training to mobilizing Army National Guard units. This approach to mobilization training cuts down on the time spent at mobilization sites and increases the amount of time units can actively support combat commanders.

The XCTC was designed to fill a capabilities gap in training set forth by Army training strategy that the Army could not provide to Guard units. The National Guard Bureau, along with a team from Stanford University, used the Army's training criteria to develop a program that could fill the void.

The XCTC is available only to deployable expeditionary force brigades headed into combat threat areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. "We work our way down, and we get those [units] that we think fit the model, but you don't get it unless you're deploying to theater," said Col. Rob Moore, chief of the National Guard Bureau's training division. "It is tailored and pinpoint training."

With this new tool, the Army National Guard is able not only to meet, but also to exceed, prior training expectations and standards put in place by the Army. "We know that units that use XCTC accomplish at least 82 percent of all their required tasks for deployment," Moore said.

Total immersion training is what XCTC brings to the units receiving the training package. Soldiers are surrounded by the look, smell, sound, feel and taste of their projected combat tour.

"I believe that increased use of modeling and simulation - and using them with greater effectiveness - will be essential for all reserve components to increase and maintain their combat readiness," said Dennis M. McCarthy, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

As part of this immersion, Soldiers interact with American and foreign-national role players to make the exercise as real as possible.

"It's a great pleasure to be able to do what I do," said Thomas Cottle, a volunteer role player from Madison, Fla. "I interact with Soldiers, but I also interact with Iraqi citizens and citizens from other countries as well who speak Arabic. We're helping make this training exercise more realistic for the Soldiers."

Michael LiDondici, managing field director of Allied Container Systems which oversees the role players, said many 53rd Infantry Brigade Soldiers have demonstrated a high level of knowledge of Iraqi culture during the training. He attributes this to the fact that many of the Soldiers wear combat patches and have already deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"The role players have been absolutely critical to our training success," said Col. Richard Gallant, commander of the 53rd. "From working with interpreters to managing the cultural and religious differences, they have created a level of realism we generally don't see prior to deployment."

The appreciation of the level and quality of training extends not only to the leadership, but also to the most important element of the equation: the Soldier.

"The training we've had so far has been very beneficial," said Pfc. Alistair Salesman, a member of the 53rd. The integration and use of Iraqi nationals, coupled with the complete immersion of the environment, helps to bring valued experience and an ability to better learn the tasks at hand, the Soldier added.

As the Soldiers maneuver through the mock village, they understand the significance of being engulfed in the surrounding culture. While their environment is chaotic, they understand they have to differentiate between the friendly populace and those who would do harm.

"So far, it's going great. We're learning a lot of across-the-board tactics," said Pvt. Eric Alapont, a nursing student from Orlando. "It's really an eye-opener as to what we might expect overseas, given not every town is hostile."

As the brigade finalizes its Florida training before leaving for its active-duty mobilization station, the sense is that the Soldiers are more confident in their ability to get the job done when they deploy early next year, and in their prospects of coming back safely.

Lt. Col. George Rosser, commander of 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, exudes the confidence his Soldiers gained through the training.

"The XCTC portion of [the training] this last week really brings a lot of resources we can't get otherwise, with the civilians on the battlefield and the villages," he said. "That adds a lot more realism, and makes the training that much better for the Soldiers.

"I'm absolutely confident in my Soldiers," he continued. "We've deployed this battalion and this brigade twice already. ... We have an extensive amount of combat experience."

Rosser said the goal is simple: "Bring everyone home alive, having completed the mission."