It’s time to start thinking of the Postal Service as a government-provided service, not a capitalist company

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the Postal Clause in Article I, Section 8 gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads” and “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing this task.

To me, that’s pretty simple to understand: the US government oversees the postal system. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist agreed, according to this part of an article by the Constitution Center:

Before analyzing the challenge, then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist, who wrote for a unanimous court, said the case was a good example of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s aphorism that “a page of history is worth a volume of logic.” Rehnquist then proceeded to recount the history of the postal system:

“By the early 18th century, the posts were made a sovereign function in almost all nations because they were considered a sovereign necessity. Government without communication is impossible, and until the invention of the telephone and telegraph, the mails were the principal means of communication.

Posts were made a sovereign function because they were considered a sovereign necessity.

Today’s debate revolves around the Postal Service’s profitability. The USPS bleeds money every year, critics claim, and something must be done to make the postal service profitable.

Here’s the problem: There is no law that says the postal service must be profitable. A law that does exist is one that states the Postal Service has an obligation to provide universal service—that is, to deliver mail to “as nearly as practicable the entire population of the United States.” And it takes money, personnel, and resources to do that, especially to rural and remote areas. But that is the law, and the postal service does so for the betterment of the common good.

So why don’t we treat it as such? We don’t expect other government service providers to be profitable because that would be silly. Even the State Department, which has a moneymaking role through its acceptance of fees for visa applications, isn’t profitable. But we don’t expect it to be. The role of federal agencies is to provide services and not generate profits. Why is the postal service not the same?

It’s time we stop looking at the balance sheet of the Postal Service and chastising it if it takes a loss each year. Yes, it should be run efficiently and effectively, reducing waste where necessary but treated and funded as any other government provided service.

The six steps to easily record your own music at home. Here’s what works for me.

In late 2016, I began recording music for the first time in my life. Since then, I’ve released two full-length albums, two EPs, and a single. 25 original songs in total. And I did it all from home. Here is what works for me, and it might work for you, too.

There are some pretty important components to home recording. Without them, you just won’t be able to record anything.

First, you need a good recording space.

No matter what, you’ll need a space to record your music. It doesn’t have to be a fancy studio with a large mixing board behind glass, but it has to be something where you feel comfortable and the space is conducive to recording your music. Perhaps it is a space in your basement or even in your bedroom. Wherever it is, ensure that you have the space you need, both physically and mentally. Perhaps hang things on the wall that get you into the right mindset. Remember, you wouldn’t eat dinner in your bathroom, and you don’t want to record in a shitty place either.

This is what my recording set up looks like.

Second, you’ll need a good computer (or laptop or tablet).

Recording music takes a lot of computer memory. So much so, in fact, that I’ve crashed mediocre laptops while recording. That’s why you’ll need a good computer to run all of the programs you’ll need.

I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 7, which 1GB of RAM and a super fast processor. At more than $1,000, it is quite pricey, but it does everything I need for my day job and handles recording without any issues.

Some home recording musicians have a standalone computer that stays hooked up to their setups, but that isn’t reasonable for everyone.

You’ll also need a big monitor. Nothing sucks more than trying to squint your eyes while zooming into two milliseconds of recorded music and trying to splice together tracks. Make it easier on yourself. I recently got a ViewSonic flatscreen monitor that is awesome. I highly recommend it. Check it out:

Third, you’ll need a digital audio workstation.

First, you’ll need a digital audio workstation, what some people call a DAW. There are a number of them out there, but I use Sony Acid Pro 7, which was recommended to me by my friend Mark Riddick, who also records his own music in his home.

Acid Pro 7 has a number of features that I think are important for my style of recording, including the ability to simultaneously record processed tracks and dry input tracks. This is important because having dry input tracks allows audio engineers to manipulate the sound however you want it, by adding any number of effects, whereas if they have a guitar track with distortion built in, there is only so much they can do to the sound.

Acid Pro 7 allows you to zoom into milliseconds of tracks, and not every digital audio workstation allows that depth.

Additionally, the splitting, cropping, and fading features of track management are impressive.

You can download Sony Acid Pro 7 on Amazon.

There are others you can use, like Reaper, Garageband, and others. Most have free trials, so check them out and see what works for you.

Fourth, you’ll need a hardware interface.

Most computers, laptops, and tablets have a few HDMI and USB ports, but that’s about it. If you’re going to record vocals from a microphone, or guitar or bass guitar inputs from a 1/4 inch cable, or any MIDI files from an electric drum set or keyboard, you’re going to need a hardware interface that is able to process the signal from your instrument/voice and turn it into something the computer can understand.

If you are just recording one medium, you could keep it simple. For example, if you are recording only vocals, you could use an XLR to USB cable like this:

If you are recording guitar or bass guitar tracks, you might be able to use a 1/4 to USB cable.

But what if you have multiple instruments and don’t want to be plugging and unplugging multiple USB cables all the time?

That’s why I use a Line 6 POD Studio UX-2. It’s a small piece of hardware that has two XLR inputs for microphones, two 1/4 inputs for guitars and bass guitars, as well as two other 1/4 inputs, outputs for stereo monitors/speakers, and a headphone jack. It hooks up to your computer via a single USB. The top knobs control the gain for the microphone inputs and the volume for the headphones.

The hardware comes with a software package called POD Farm that you can install on your computer. It has literally hundreds of different tones you can use for recording everything and it integrates with digital audio workstations. I got mine on Amazon and have used it ever since.

Fifth, you’ll need some studio speakers.

Whenever you record, it’s really important to listen to your final product in a variety of ways, like headphones, mobile phones, and stereo speakers, so you can ensure you’re getting the full and complete sound you want. Ensure you have a good set of headphones. I use Sony’s recording MDR7506 headphones:

For my stereo speakers, I use M-Audio studio monitors like these:

These are pretty hefty speakers (which means they are built well with sturdy, quality wood).

Having quality headphones and speakers allows you to really hear the difference between the panning (the left and right sides) of your music.

Finally, you’ll need the motivation!

No matter what, just start recording. You might be scared or nervous or worried your music won’t sound good. And that’s okay. The only way you get better is through doing it…and the more often you do it, the faster you’ll get better. Do whatever you need to do to get in your home recording space and get after it!

My first album sucked. Four years later, I’m really happy with my most recent release, but I know I still have a long way to go. No matter what…keep going and keep recording!

If you’re interested in checking out my music, check out the music page of my website or listen for free on my Bandcamp page.

Also, here is the backside of my recording desk/setup.

15 really impressive products I recently bought on Amazon

During the past year, I have made my fair share of purchases from Amazon and recently reflected on my satisfaction with them. Below is a list of 15 products that I’ve been really happy with, broken down by category.

For working from home

A convertible standing desk

It seems like working from home is the future of work, so it’s important to invest in a desk that is suitable for that new reality. I bought this desk and have been really happy with it. It is pretty easy to turn it into a standing desk and has enough room for two monitors. It has wheels so you can easily move it when and were you need.

You need a really good monitor

I’ve been a huge fan of this screen since I got it. It’s big, bright, has integrated speakers, and even software you can download to turn it into a split screen.

A multi-port USB interface for all your devices

If you’ve got multiple monitors using HDMI ports and other hardware like ID card readers or a USB mouse or laptop, you need to get this. With four USB ports, two HDMI ports, and even an SD card reader and Ethernet cable port, it manages everything perfectly.

Around the house

Make your cables look nice and neat

When we moved into our new house, the cables and wires were a mess. To help make it look nicer, I got some new cable that matched the color of our wall, some cable extenders, and some cable clips to pin the cable against the baseboard. We’re really impressed with how it looks. Here’s what I used:

Mediabridge Coaxial Cable (15 Feet) with F-Male Connectors – Ultra Series

GE Coaxial Cable Extension Adapter Couplers, 2-Pack

Monoprice Circle cable clips with steel nail, 10mm, 100pcs/Pack

An HDMI splitter for all your devices

Like many, we have a Chromecast, Roku, and an Amazon Firestick. But I also like to plug my phone or tablet into my television if Chromecast doesn’t work. That’s why I got this HDMI splitter. It works really well and provides us the options to pick what we want without having to constantly switch out HDMI cables.

A mini freezer for your garage

With a new baby, we needed to freeze milk for the little guy, so we got this mini freezer, which we keep in the garage. It works great and is spacious enough for what we need.

A universal garage door opener

We needed new garage door openers, and this one from Chamberlain came highly reviewed on Amazon. I bought two and synced them with our garage doors soon after they arrived. The sync process was easy, and while they sometimes take a tricky angle to open the doors, they always work.

A space heater

When we moved in to the house in January, I found that our home was really cold, so I bought a space heater. It heats up our entire bedroom and is certainly cheaper than running our furnace all night.

A shelf that slides under your mattress

Our bed fits perfectly between our bedroom and bathroom doors. The problem is there isn’t much more room than that, so we couldn’t fit our nightstands. Instead, we found these amazing things called the Bed Shelfie. They slide in under your mattress and provide a small platform for your books, glasses, mobile phones, etc.

A garment/jacket/shoe rack for your garage

I ride a motorcycle and needed a place to store my jackets, helmets, boots, gloves, and waterproof gear. I didn’t want to keep it somewhere in the house that I’d have to lug around when I wanted to go for a ride, so I got this garment rack instead. It was easy to put together and ended up quite sturdy. It has plenty of room for all my gear.

Cube organizers (for multiple uses)

Not only do we use these for our kids toys, but we also use them for our workout space in our basement, where we can store cycling shoes, blocks, mats, wipes, and more. It is definitely versatile, which is why we have three.

In the closet

Wool socks (they are a must)

I didn’t wear wool socks until 2019, when I went to a football game in late November and felt like my toes were going to fall off. Since then, I’ve invested in wool socks and definitely wore them all winter long. I’m a big fan of these.

And finally… just because…

If you want to print small pictures easily, a company came up with a great way to do it without ink. They called it Prynt, and it uses a special kind of paper with a zinc compound to display the image. The best part is that the device hooks directly to an iPhone and prints pictures directly from the phone’s image gallery. There’s no need to transfer pictures elsewhere, and you never have to worry about running out of ink (though you will run out of Prynt paper!)

I hope you found this post useful. If you decide to get any of these, let me know how they worked out for you.

The four lessons I learned working for a military communications company

When I grew up, my family befriended another family in our neighborhood, as we had some things in common: both wives liked to play mah jongg and the husbands were both political conservatives. While I was much older, they had two boys who were close to my younger brother’s age.

The husband of the other family was the owner of a communications and power supply company that provided equipment to the US military. When he found out I was in ROTC in college, he asked if I wanted to work briefly for his company and help him out at a trade show at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Any interaction with active duty military was exciting to me, so I jumped at the opportunity. During my college years, I ended up attending two trade shows with the company owner and worked for him for a few weeks in his warehouse. Here are the lessons I learned and the interesting stories along the way.

It’s really important to learn who the decision makers are.

Just because someone is high-ranking doesn’t mean they make the decisions. They might sign off on a decision, but only because there’s a regulation that requires it. I learned from working trade shows that the decision makers in these army units were enlisted non-commissioned officers, generally at the staff sergeant and sergeant first class ranks. Anyone below those ranks didn’t have the authority and any officers placed the trust in their enlisted for what they needed in the field. And this lesson goes for the business and non-profit world, too. Spend some time learning who really makes the decisions and you might find that you can accomplish your goals faster and more easily.

You never know whom you’ll meet. The connections they provide could be incredible.

The first year I was working at the trade show, I met an air force senior NCO who was from the air base that was adjacent to the army base. Based on the badges on his uniform, I could quickly tell that he was a part of Air Force Special Operations Command. When I was explaining about the company’s products, he asked me about my background, and I had explained that I was in Air Force ROTC at Ohio State and had just completed freefall training at the Air Force Academy. He gave me his card and told me to contact him so he could introduce me to officers in his unit if I was interested in joining as a career. Air Force special operations is a very small group and I felt grateful for being invited in, although I decided to pursue pilot training instead.

It really is all about the mission.

At one of the trade shows, I struck up a conversation with someone tending the booth next to us. He was a retired US Army Ranger and had completed several hundred freefall jumps of his own. As I was telling him about my training, he said, “In combat missions, what they taught you doesn’t apply.” I pressed him to explain more.

He said, “Listen, in the military, you have one job. Accomplish your mission. If you need to do something that is dangerous but you wouldn’t be able to get the mission done without it, you do it. It’s all about the mission.”

That type of laser focus really got me wondering about business, non-profits, and government agencies. How much of what they do really is all about the mission? If it’s not, how can they get back to it?

“Don’t work so hard, we all get paid the same.”

The summer that I worked in the company’s warehouse was…eyeopening.

It was a relatively small facility that had about 10 employees working on various pieces of equipment. And from what I remember, they all had something in common: they were all Russian immigrants who had grown up in the Soviet Union.

One day, as I was working on installing some metal racks into some Pelican waterproof cases, one of them looked at me and said:

“Don’t work so hard, we all get paid the same.”

What I was doing wasn’t that hard and it seemed like I could do it quickly, so I asked: “What do you mean?”

“You’re going to make us look bad. Remember that you don’t get paid more for finishing more projects.”

In that moment, it hit me. These guys had emigrated from the Soviet Union. Communism was beaten into them as well as the idea of conformity. And even worse, they were engineers with bachelor of science degrees from good universities in Russia. And now they were working in this warehouse, simply doing what they could to support their families and pay for their children’s college expenses.

Working with them made me realize that it is really important to consider the nuances of people’s backgrounds when working with them.

It seems like the Fort Bragg conference still goes on today, under the name TechNet Fort Bragg.

If you’re interested in more lessons I’ve learned, check out my book:

The five lessons you learn working in a restaurant/food service

When I was 16 years old, I began working at a local, family-owned restaurant
called the Star Diner. Located in a kind of “Leave it to Beaver” neighborhood
in a suburb of Washington, DC, it was centrally located in the town square and
was a famous spot for meals out for families, post-movie milkshakes, and early
morning breakfasts.

While working at the diner, I worked just about every job there was:
dishwasher, busboy, salad/sandwich cook, food runner, expediter, server, and
even assistant manager. I learned a lot along the way and have shared the most
important lessons I learned working in food service, and how I think it is
important for young people to work in food service because of the lessons
learned.

Most of the time, you’ll need to start from the bottom.

“I really need a job,” I told the owner of the diner on a Sunday afternoon.

“I need someone to bus tables,” he responded. If you come back in an hour with black pants and a black belt, I’ll let you clean tables tonight.”

So I went to work. And for the next two weeks I begged other people to let me take their shifts. Then, Marty told me he wanted me to be a food runner. So I learned how to load a tray, carry it, and deliver food to tables. Two weeks later, he made me a server. And from there I worked other shifts in other positions, too. But I had to start from the bottom, and I’m glad I did because it made me work even harder to get the more prestigious serving job…the one where I would make more money.

You learn how to sell yourself.

When customers came to the diner, I always thought they were looking for two things: a good meal and good service. They weren’t expecting filet mignon, but they weren’t expecting slop on a plate. They didn’t need white glove service, but they wanted a community and local atmosphere with personal service. And for customers who wanted that, they could get it. They’d order a hamburger and a soda and call it a night. You’d make a decent tip and move on to the next table.

But you made more money by upselling, and that was a mixture of art and science.
You learned to read a table and figure out what you could sell and what you couldn’t. A table full of kids? Try to sell a milkshake (or two). Guys night out? Upsell some bacon on a burger or onion rings instead of fries. Ask a table what their plans were for the night. A movie after dinner? How about a cocktail or two and a quick meal? A date night? Offer some appetizers and desserts. There were numerous ways you could sell more and that meant more money for you.

Over time you learned what worked and what didn’t and you got prepared for a
lot of people to say no. But if you did it right, more people would say yes.

The customer is always right.

On a Sunday brunch shift, I had a customer who ordered a Rueben sandwich. When I delivered the food, he said there was a hair in it, so I said that I would take care of it and walked the food back to the kitchen, telling the chef about the issue.

They decided that they would keep the plate as is, but it back on the grill for a moment, flip the sandwich around, and add some newly crisp French fries. Losing an entire sandwich was not something they wanted to waste.

When I took it back to the customer, he flipped over the sandwich and immediately started raising his voice. “This is the same sandwich! I tore off a corner of the bread to see if you would try to fool me!”

At this point, I called over my manager who addressed the situation by actually getting him a new sandwich and comping his entire bill. The restaurant lost $40 in revenue versus the few dollars it would have cost for making a new sandwich.

Listen, hair in my food doesn’t bother me. I just pull it out and keep eating, but the customer is always right. The customer can stand up and yell to the entire restaurant about the incident and make a whole bunch more customers really unhappy. Luckily, he didn’t.

But I always learned from that point on that the customer is always right, and that it’s better to keep a customer happy than take the risk.

The service industry is truly grueling work.

You’re on your feet for anywhere between four and seven hours straight. You barely
have time for a bathroom break. Even the times when your tables are happy, and you think you have a break, you’ve got “sidework” to complete, like filling the soda machines with ice, ensuring there are enough salad dressings stocked, making more coffee, etc. After your sidework is done, one of your tables probably needs something, and it’s back to the grind.

Working in food service made me work hard in school.

Waiting tables sucks. It’s terrible. Your shift happens while everyone else is not working. Your personal schedule and eating habits are screwed up because of it. You don’t make as much money as you should for the work you put into it. It’s physically and mentally demanding. While working there, I thought to myself, I better work hard in school so I don’t have to make this a career.

Unfortunately, the Star Diner permanently closed several years ago. I had great experiences there, learned a lot, and am grateful for the time I had.

Republicans in Congress: This is what you asked for

To the Republicans in Congress,

This is what you asked for.

Four years of enabling an autocratic, anti-democratic, narcissistic and deranged man has now led to where we are now.

On January 6th, you and Vice President Pence were huddled in secure locations inside the US Capitol as a horde of Trump loyalists broke through measly security protocols and took control of the building, the first time it had been done so by an alternate entity since 1814. Many of them were reportedly there to kill and/or capture members of Congress, and perhaps even the Vice President.

And I will remind you, they did so at Trump’s behest.

“We’re going to march down to the Capitol,” he said.

“You have to be strong,” he said. “You can’t show weakness.”

And, of course, it wasn’t just him. His lunatic lawyer, the formerly loved and now disgraced Rudy Guliani, added gasoline to the fire. “Let’s have trial by combat.”

And we did. A policeman died. A dozen others injured. Why?

Because a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in an insurrectionist move to try to change the course of a free and fair election, one which had no conspiratorial voter fraud, no dead people voting, no double voting, no undocumented immigrant voting, and no fake people voting.

If there was evidence of this, the courts would have listened. But judges across the country threw out these cases because there was no evidence. And some of these judges were appointed by Trump himself.

For months you let Trump build his powderkeg of lies about election fraud and claiming of only agreeing to the election results if he won the election.

You shrugged it off. It’s okay, you thought, it’s just Trump being Trump. Everything will be fine.

And that’s the issue, right? Let Trump be Trump.

And that’s the problem, right?

Lindsay Graham knew. “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s unfit for office.”

Ted Cruz knew, especially when Trump called him a liar, called his wife ugly, and implicated Cruz’s father in the JFK assassination.

Mitch McConnell knew. They all knew. And they stood by, putting politics over principle.

And you stood by for the last four years, as Trump lied, and lied, and lied, more than any other president in history. You watched as he directed children be put in cages, phoned the Ukrainian president to put his political ambition ahead of US national security interests, order thousands of federal police officers to snatch protesters off the streets and put them in unmarked white vans, meet with Kim Jung Un without any concessions, share highly sensitive Israeli intelligence with Russia, and most recently downplay a deadly virus that has killed about 400,000 Americans…when he knew how deadly it was.

Every day, the pillars of democracy were crumbling at his will.

America was dying. And you were in the front row, watching it all burn down.

“Let’s get back to work,” Pence said from the Senate floor after followers of his boss sat in his very chair a few hours before.

Pence, you could have…should have…been telling your boss to get back to work a long time ago. But, no, you let him stew in his binging of Fox News, One America News Network, Breitbart, and whatever other garbage was on television that day.

Congressional Republicans, you could have…should have…been exercising your ability to check the president when he went on his tirades. But you didn’t.

Now, there are death threats against you for not voting to object to states’ electoral college votes. Lindsay Graham is being heckled and threatened by Trump supporters as he tries to board an airplane. Other Republican members of Congress are receiving the same, especially those 10 who voted to impeach the president for inciting an insurrection. QAnon conspiracy theorists now walk the halls of the House of Representatives as elected officials.

But that’s where we are. And that’s how you wanted it right?

The warning signs were there…day after day…month after month…year after year. Many of us said it. Most Americans agreed. But you didn’t. Because Trump was giving you your judges, signing laws that restricted immigration, reduced benefits for people of color, pulled us away from our international allies, reversed climate policy, etc.

Trump was doing his bidding and getting you what you wanted. And you felt good.

But like any drug abuser. You took a little more Trump each day. And by the time you realized it, you were a full blown addict along with 10% of the American people who are full blown Trump addicts.

You still refuse to recognize yourselves as Trump addicts. “No, I don’t have a problem,” you say. “You can count me out,” said Lindsay Graham, and only a few days later, he was back on his Trump addiction flying with him to Florida.

Just like it took only a few hours to knock down the Twin Towers after taking years to build. Our democracy, which has taken more than 200 years to build, has been eviscerated to its core. Even during the Civil War, American democracy was not threatened like it is today.

Civil War. That’s what many of the insurrectionists wanted right? They wanted a revolution. They wanted a new civil war.

Law enforcement intelligence indicates that every state capitol is under threat of attack on or around inauguration day. The presidential inauguration itself will have no public participation because of the fear of assassination of new members of the administration. Washington DC, my former home, is almost entirely locked down with a green zone and a red zone.

The last time I was in a city with those restrictions was in 2011 in Baghdad, Iraq. Why? Because there were terrorists and insurrectionists who would kill Americans at a moments notice if they could.

And now that is my backyard. This is America.

And that’s what you get. Because this is what you asked for.

The eerily relevant comparison between Donald Trump and the Shredder from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Their name accurately depicts what they are–pizza-eating, somewhat immature, overgrown turtles with incredible fighting abilities.

With their master Splinter, an overgrown rat with ninja skills, they fight the Shredder and his Foot Clam as they terrorize New York as a dangerous criminal syndicate.

In the first ninja turtles movie, the Shredder appears in a dark and dimly lit warehouse, surrounded by the members of the Foot. He calls out to them:

Money cannot buy the honor which you have earned tonight. You make us all proud. Only effort, discipline, loyalty will earn you the right to wear [our symbol]. You are here because the outside world rejects you. This is your family. I am your father. I want you all to become full members of The Foot. There is a new enemy…freaks of nature who interfere with our business. You are my eyes and ears. Find them. Together we will punish these creatures! These turtles!

Pride. Loyalty. The call of rejection. Family. Enemy.

Then it hit me. These are all tactics that Donald Trump has used to secure his following. Pride in America. Loyalty to him. Rejection by people not like them. A family of supporters. The media, immigrants, liberals as enemies.

It was a shocking, yet appropriate relation.

Toward the end of the movie, one of the Foot Clan members, a red-headed teenager named Danny, has a change of heart and decides to help free Splinter, who had been held captive in the Foot’s hideout.

As Splinter is freed, one of the teens blurts out: “Let’s get him! We have a loyalty to The Shredder!”

Splinter looks up at him.

“The Shredder uses you. He poisons your minds to obtain that which he desires. He cares nothing for you or the people you hurt.”

“We’re a family,” the boy says in response.

“Family? Is that what you said? You call this here and that down there family?” he asks rhetorically, pointing to the Foot Clan hangout, where the teen boys learned to fight, steal, smoke cigarettes, and gamble.

In the end, the truth was in our own society, just as Splinter had said: Donald Trump uses you. He poisons your minds to obtain that which he desires. He cares nothing for you or the people you hurt.”

“We’re a family,” the Proud Boys member says in response, as he prepares to march on Washington.

Counterproductive pride: The story of how the US Army refused to adjust, ending the careers of two top brass

In September 2011, I was at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq and we were in the middle of negotiating with the Iraqi government about extending the US military presence there. Brett McGurk, who negotiated the 2008 status of forces agreement, was back in the country as a senior adviser to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey and was working with the Iraqis to try to find a way to strike a deal.

Our plan was to keep about 10,000 troops in the country to provide a massive training and advice mission to Iraqi military commanders and their units. The plan placed all US forces in Iraq under Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, a former division commander of combat troops in Iraq in a previous assignment. Within that 10,000 would be an undisclosed number of special operations forces, which would be led by a two-star admiral named Ed Winters, a Navy SEAL and former commander of DEVGRU. And finally, there would be a large foreign military sales program led by an air force one-star general who was an expert in contracts, acquisitions, and military sales.

In mid-to-late September, Caslen and his staff arrived in the country, taking the reins of the US advising and training mission from LTG Michael Ferriter and waited for us at the embassy to do our work and get the status of forces agreement passed through the Iraqi government.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressed to us on numerous occasions his desire to keep a large number of US troops in the country but repeatedly told us that he did not see how he could get the agreement passed through the Iraqi parliament. In short, Iraq found a lot of value in having the US military in the country, but it was just time to move on.

As September turned to October, General Lloyd Austin, the US military commander in Iraq, and other generals were growing concerned about their ability to get all of the military equipment and personnel out of the country before the end of the year when the agreement expired.

The clock kept ticking until October 18th and with no movement by the Iraqi government, we received the order from the White House: bring the troops home. There would be no new agreement. No 10,000 troops. No special operations forces. No training mission. The only thing that would remain would be a staff of about 150 senior military officers who would conduct the United States’ largest foreign military sales program in the world and be officially attached to the embassy as diplomatic personnel. It was called the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I).

At this point, the Pentagon had a choice to make: keep LTG Caslen, RADM Winters, and the others in those positions, putting them in charge of the security cooperation mission or recall them and replace them with others who would be more fitting for these roles.

For context, most OSC programs, like the large ones in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel and other countries to whom we sell a lot of equipment, usually are run by one-star generals or perhaps even a colonel. In Iraq, we had, at this point, three officers with stars on their shoulders, plus even a few civilians of equivalent rank. And beneath them was a horde of colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors. This was in addition to the official US defense attache, a US Army colonel.

As the US military began a two-month endeavor to move tens of thousands of people and tons and tons of equipment out of the country and across the border into Kuwait, every day I would receive a situation report from our military counterparts that showed fewer and fewer troops in the country.

While the US military is certainly the world’s greatest logistics machine, it was not the most flexible organization. It was a proud bunch who didn’t like to admit defeat or error, and they stuck to their guns regarding the team that would remain. And then the news came: the army held firm that Caslen and his team would lead the way for a successful security cooperation relationship between the US and Iraq. Caslen and Winters, the army said, were the right people for the job.

But even as a 27-year-old one-time diplomat and junior navy reserve intelligence officer, I knew their backgrounds didn’t align to their new mission, and I had a feeling this was going to be rough.

As the year turned, and LTG Caslen became the official head of the security cooperation mission, he continued to do things like he was leading a combat mission. He ran his joint operations briefings twice a day, getting updates from each of his joint staff section heads on the status of their operations. As the weeks passed, I could see the futility (and in many cases absurdity) of the entire situation.

One day, Caslen was being briefed by his J-6, the officer in charge of communications, who reported that US personnel who were located at one of the Iraqi military bases didn’t have enough cell phones. Then ensued a 15-minute discussion in front of the entire group about how to get them more cell phones. I just kept thinking: Caslen is a three-star general and he has to figure out how to get a few cell phones to a base in the middle of the desert? This should be handled by a sergeant. Caslen shouldn’t be involved in this. The army screwed him. Caslen, to his credit, was doing the best he could with the shit sandwich he was given.

It wasn’t any better for Winters. He was originally selected to lead special operations forces and continue the hunt for the handful of guys who were leading the suicide bombs and rocket attacks that still plagued the country. But he couldn’t. He was left to shake hands with Iraqi generals at dinner parties and visit some Iraqi army bases to view their tank training. For a guy who was the former commander of Naval Special Warfare Command and one who was awarded a Legion of Merit and not one, not two, but three Bronze Stars, the army screwed him, too. Winters never directly stated to me in any of our discussions that he was unhappy with how things turned out, but my gut told me otherwise.

Caslen and Winters were guys who had led thousands of people in combat and now they were relegated to selling military equipment, while their counterparts of equal rank had far more high-profile positions.

When I left Iraq in August 2012, Rear Admiral Winters had already departed the country. Caslen stayed another year until 2013, when he took an assignment as the Commandant of West Point, of which he was an alumnus.

And that ended up being Caslen’s swan song. He retired from West Point in 2018 with three stars, never earning his fourth, which I always felt was his ultimate goal. Caslen is now serving as the president of the University of South Carolina, a fitting assignment considering his recent experience. We recently connected on LinkedIn, and he offered the opportunity to catch up and show me around his campus if I ever visited the Columbia area.

Winters retired with two stars a year after returning from Baghdad. Interestingly, his official navy biography page doesn’t even list his assignment in Iraq. He settled on the Florida gulf coast, near where he grew up, with his wife and kids, and he began working a number of security-related consulting positions. As he wrote to me in an email: “Security and assessment missions are the best because you run into old friends.” I was just glad he was back doing what he did best.

And that’s the story of how the US military screwed two very capable flag officers out of further advancement. The Army had the chance to pivot, but it remained firm in its counterproductive pride. And that pride is what ended the careers of two very fine combat veterans.

A song for Greta Thunberg, for her bravery and maturity in the face of Trump the bully

It was an iconic moment for me.

I was sitting in our locker room, having just returned from wearing one of the Washington Nationals Racing Presidents costumes at the center field plaza, welcoming in fans as they attended that night’s game.

One of the other staff members sitting near me started laughing.

“What’s up?”

“Oh, you won’t like it,” he responded.

I shrugged. He showed me the video anyway.

It was the video of President Trump walking by Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, while giving her the side-eye and a smirk.

My coworker loved it. I did not.

“She’s just a kid, man.”

Several months later, Trump tweeted that she needed to work on her “anger management” and directing her to “chill.” The tweet came in response to Thunberg being named Time Magazine’s person of the year for 2019.

That moment pushed me over the edge.

She’s just a kid, I thought again. How could he say those things? She wasn’t a politician…or even an adult. She was a 16-year-old child with Asperger’s Syndrome.

And so, my own anger formed into a new song called Just in Time.

When I was developing the song, I found inspiration in two of my favorite punk songs, Too Close to See by Strung Out and Bullion by Millencolin. The former had a lyrical structure and tone that resonated with me and I absolutely loved the closing guitar riff of the latter. When I put both together, I had something I was really proud of.

And that’s how it happened.

The song starts off with a slow drum beat and the first set of calm lyrics:

She comes to haunt you to stand up with the truth that the world is up on fire

She stands there waiting, you walk on by taking your pompous strides, so dire

And the chorus grows a bit of intensity:

She’s just a kid, man! What the hell is wrong with you?

She’s just a kid, man! How could you say those things?

She’s just a kid, man! You know her presence stings…

I wanted to continue the ending lyrics from the first chorus, so I go right back into them with this:

…you right where it hurts most, prevents you from the boast that you’re not worth the bother

Lucky for Greta, more adult than you are, and now she’s on the cover

Then back to the chorus, with the last line changed to this:

She’s just a kid, man! You know her presence rings…

Here, the song shifts to the chord progression I mentioned above with a drum roll that eventually explodes in sync with a cymbal crash, hard guitars and vocals that resonate:

Around the world!

As the guitar riff is being played, the vocals fade and end, and I added two harmonizing guitar riffs of four single notes that complement each other quite well. I don’t know much music theory, but I try to use the knowledge I do have to get riffs like this. And I will say that it’s my favorite few seconds on the entire album.

At the end of the song, I end with the lyrics:

Greta’s just in time

Of course, referring to her feature in Time Magazine.

Looking back, although this song is slower (in general) than the other songs on the album, it might be my favorite. It means a lot to me because it’s so touching to me.

Now that I am a parent of a daughter, I can’t imagine anyone, let alone a septuagenarian leader of a democratic country, talking about my daughter like that.

Like I said in the lyrics: She’s just a kid, man. What the hell is wrong with you?

A Tribute to LTC Vindman: The Wrong Side of the Right

In November 2019, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He was there to provide information he knew as the National Security Council’s Ukraine expert.

In short, he was listening in on the July 2019 phone call President Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the one where Trump asked for “a favor.”

That phrasing by Trump is what triggered the inquiry that led to the eventual impeachment of President Trump on December 18, 2019.

Vindman testified that he was “concerned” by the call and that he “did not think it was appropriate to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen” because it would “undermine U.S. national security.”

During his testimony, he was asked why he felt confident that he could testify, he said: “Congressman, because this is America. This is a country I have served and defended, that all of my brothers have served, and here, right matters.”

Shortly after this testimony, Vindman was fired by Trump and removed from the NSC. Trump also fired Vindman’s brother, who also worked at the NSC.

In the summer of 2020, Vindman was up for promotion to colonel, and Senator Duckworth demanded that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper confirm in writing that the Trump administration would not block Vindman’s promotion or she would hold up the promotions of 1,000 other officers.

In response, Vindman announced his retirement.

Having served as an officer in the navy reserve myself, this story struck me. He was a second-generation American, who joined the army, fought in combat, and served, seemingly, with distinction and honor. When compelled to testify because of a subpoena, he answered questions honestly and was fired for doing so. Then, putting others before himself, he retired rather than receiving a promotion he duly deserved.

So I decided to write a song…

The lyrics came quite easily, as I used the reports I link above to write the song

Purple heart, ranger tab, combat vet with a CIB (combat infantryman badge)

Never a problem, never a pest, just a lite colonel with a Harvard degree

And then the bridge:

Sacked himself so the others move on…no regrets just a new day’s dawn

And the chorus:

You know we gotta fight back, this time

Rise on up and take back what’s right

In America, what’s right matters

Unless you’re on the wrong side of the right

The last line stuck with me. It was clear that Vindman’s testimony was a partisan affair, but it was clear to me that he was just doing his job. He spoke “truth to power” and did it confidently and clearly.

To him (and me) right matters, unless you were a Republican on the committee, and therefore “on the right side of the right.”

Then I wrote the second set of verse lyrics:

Job on the line with his Class As on and he answers you as you look to Don

Hoping he sees you grill the guy who speaks his truth but it does no use

When I was composing the guitar, bass, and drum tracks, I wanted to emulate a military marching cadence, so I developed a guitar riff that matched that rhythm and style. The introduction of the song builds and gets slightly faster and even more punchy.

I decided to add a guitar solo before the transition to the first set of lyrics, and I had my engineer, Ben Schwartz, add a solo at the end of the song providing a bookend guitar riff.

I’m proud of the song, and consider it my minor tribute to LTC Vindman for his bravery, courage, and ultimate sacrifice.

You can listen on the:

Truth Assassin Bandcamp page or Truth Assassin Spotify page.