Thanksgiving in 3 acts

Last year I wrote about my Thanksgiving in Korea, this year I thought I’d talk about my other Thanksgiving experiences. Each was very different and ran a spectrum from worst Thanksgiving the some of the best. They covered the globe from one end to the other, and took me to one of the oddest places in the United States (El Paso). I hope you enjoy these memories.

My first Army Thanksgiving was in 2006. I was at Fort Bliss for my Officer Basic Course and very much unaware of what the holiday was like on active duty. In 2006, Fort Bliss was still just the home of the ADA school house. Soldiers going through their AIT (specialized schooling after Basic Training) and officers going through their OBC and the Captain’s Career Course. It’s changed a good deal since then, but at that time it was a fairly small post in terms of personnel.

Pretty much everyone on post was given a half day on Wednesday so that you effectively had a 4 1/2 day weekend. I had no clue about this and had decided to stay local instead of trying to get back to Buffalo from El Paso during the short break. Most of my OBC classmates however did leave. So there I was, El Paso, Texas, all by myself like a Green Day hidden track. Living in the annex of the post hotel I didn’t  have a kitchen. The hotel annex was an old barracks that had been converted to kind of look like a hotel suite. Two former individual barracks rooms were connected to a single bathroom. The way this layout was it provided a typical hotel bedroom, a squeezed in bathroom, and then another room that passed for a living room. Pretty sparse, really ugly, a heating unit that was centrally controlled, but at least the recliner was good for napping.

By dinner time on Thanksgiving I was stir crazy and went out in search of a passable meal. Unknown to me, all the dinning facilities closed after lunch. All of the enlisted soldiers who had stayed on post had been adopted for the day by local families. Nobody had thought to tell the OBC students about this. So stupid lieutenant me was left wondering how the fuck to get a Thanksgiving meal. Off post I went, starving and already sick of being by myself I stopped at the first place to sit down for a meal. That happened to be the Village Inn on Airway Boulevard. Slumped in a booth by myself, watching families enjoying their dinners I didn’t even feel like eating a normal Thanksgiving meal. I ended up ordering chicken parm, and it was easily the worst chicken parm I’ve ever tasted. That meal was even more depressing than it sounds. I ate out of necessity and headed back to my lonely room in the too hot and too dry hotel annex. There’s not much more of that Thanksgiving that I can remember. I think I’ve pushed a lot of that memory out of my brain. No doubt it was the worst Thanksgiving I can remember, but I know it could’ve been a lot worse than simply having to eat a crummy meal alone. At least I still had beer in my fridge.

The following year I was in Korea. If you’ve not read about that Thanksgiving check the hyperlink above. We’re skipping past that for now and heading to Fort Hood in 2008. My second opportunity to serve Thanksgiving meals to troops. Unlike in Korea where we wore ACUs while serving, this time it was dress blues – as it should be. While I noticed some of the other LTs shirking out of this detail, I was absolutely giddy. I mean, that damn dress blue uniform set me back $700 so it was nice to get some use out of it. The day itself was so much more though. Thanksgiving offered a rare opportunity to serve your soldiers, to show genuine love of those whom you led. It’s a really simple gesture. In practical terms I just stood around for a couple hours lumping  mashed potatoes and yams onto trays. It took more effort to square away my uniform and keep clean.

When my shift was done and I got a chance to grab a meal and sit with the soldiers it really sank in just how far that simple act went. It’s difficult to put into words. You had a group of strangers really, bonded together by their service to country, unable to go home to their families, some without families to go home to. We were all there sharing our Thanksgiving meal with each other, making up a family of misfits. These were the moments that made life in the Army special. For all the horrible memories, all the shit details that you had to pull, days like Thanksgiving were a chance to show our best. These are the days to remember.

This was the third Thanksgiving in a row that I was away from home. Just like my Korean Thanksgiving it was not spent alone thanks to some special people. Rhana, who was our brigade S-2, and her fiancé Sid invited me and one of the other single LTs who were in the brigade HQ to share Thanksgiving dinner at their place. They didn’t need to do that, but they were leaders in the true sense of the word. They were the only ones who seemed to have thought about Gregg and me. Thanks to them I had another great memory of Thanksgiving in the Army, rather than another lonely meal. Another meal where I got to experience the traditions and food of strangers who had become my family.

That brings us to Thanksgiving 2009. Basra, Iraq. The photo above is from that day. It’s the four captains of Team Sword with the DFAC manager in the middle (I’m the short one). Camp Savage, the small outpost we lived on, had maybe 30 American military personnel and then 50 contracted support personnel. That included the Ugandans who provided base security, their eastern European bosses, a few Iraqis working the fuel truck, and the DFAC staff was mostly Indians and Pakistanis. That doesn’t include the interpreters of our team and the PRT who we shared Camp Savage with. We easily had 8 different nationalities on Camp Savage, most of them unfamiliar with Thanksgiving.

Korea and Fort Hood were both normal, in that it was senior NCOs and Officers serving meals to junior enlisted. At Camp Savage we had our Border Transition Team and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, pretty much all NCOs and Officers. The PRT may have had a couple junior enlisted but my memory of that isn’t perfect. Still, we got behind the serving line and scooped up the finest foods our tiny DFAC could make. We served meals to all those contracted support personnel who kept us safe and well fed, and we served each other. With so few people on Camp Savage the serving part didn’t last too long, but we all took our time sharing Thanksgiving dinner with this queer assortment of people. Some were there for fortune, some for adventure, and some out of a sense of duty. It was a Thanksgiving that I am grateful to have experienced.

Basra and Seoul are about the same distance from Buffalo, NY. In the span of three years I had bounced from one side of the globe to the other. The holiday had become symbolic and powerful. It had become a day that I cherished and learned from. It became a day that I looked forward to in the same way I had once looked forward to Christmas. After that first abysmal Army Thanksgiving I had three consecutive Thanksgivings where I gained new family and grew into a better person. Now, every Thanksgiving I get too look back on those memories. I am infinitely grateful for those days, for those people, and for the chance to have made them part of my life.

 

Until we meet again.

100 years and counting

Ever had too many ideas at once and not know where to start? That’s a pretty odd thing to freeze you up, but it happens. So I spent some time looking through Facebook memories for today and came across this photo.

It’s from a deployment patch ceremony that my Transition Team held on 11 November, 2009. This might seem pretty straight forward and subdued, however the more I looked at the photo the odder it became. After being in a combat zone for 30 days you’re authorized to wear a combat patch, it’s the one on your right shoulder (the left shoulder is your current unit). By 2009 it was strange to see someone who’d been in for a few years without a patch on their right shoulder. It made a person stand out in a bad way. I was happy to get mine.

Of course by November 11th we’d been deployed for 62 days. So why the delay? Well our team leader was a major who was just getting his first deployment. He’d been in for over 10 years without deploying. Transition Teams were a solid concept that has continued to evolve into the Security Force Advisor Brigade. They were also a great way for Human Resources Command to identify individuals who hadn’t yet deployed and place them on deployments. So as a team of 11 dudes living remotely our team leader made the call that we’d not wear the combat patch from this deployment until we had a ceremony on Veterans Day.

The military has made an art form out of taking the mundane and making it special. The simple becomes complex as soon as someone with enough rank decides it’d be a good idea. The Good Idea Fairy struck on this occasion.

This kind of ceremony isn’t typical. Usually people just hit 30 days and slap that patch on. Making such a big deal out of earning our deployment patches reeked of POG. I don’t think a single person on our team really cared that much about it, but sometimes only one person’s opinion matters. Sometimes you’re just a monkey being told to dance, so dance!

What do you do when the Good Idea Fairy pays you a visit? Make jokes. Humor is the only way to deal with these things. Realizing that GIF wasn’t putting our asses in danger made this easier to deal with – a minor inconvenience. The way this ceremony went, as much as I can remember, the team leader had some brief remarks to the team about being proud to be leading us in this important mission and to reflect on Veterans Day. Then the 11 of us paired up and slapped brand new 17th Fires Brigade patches on each others’ right shoulders.

So SSG Harvey and I decided to pair up. Standing 6’8” to my 5’4” we made an odd couple. Our roles on the team had us working together most of the time. Harv was our logistics NCO, and also the guy with the most deployments on our team (4 I think) even though he was the most junior ranking. Harv was a guy you’d look at and immediately pin as the heartbeat of a team. Dude was always smiling and taking a positive outlook on things. He was quick to pick you up and notice when something was off. He had more relevant experience in Iraq than nearly the other 10 of us combined. Let that sink in.

I was successful in Korea and at Fort Hood because I had great NCOs to learn from and to count on. Any officer who would say that they were successful solely because of their own skills is full of shit. What success I found in Iraq usually stemmed from Harv. We worked well together, respected each other, and we simply clicked. Unfortunately we lost contact following the deployment. That still bothers me today.

This was certainly an odd way to mark Veterans Day. It also made the day more meaningful. Being able to share it with our small team in such an intimate way flew in the face of the normal Big Army experience. A year later I was sitting on my couch in Temple, TX snapping pictures of our golden retriever Eisenhower.

There are many ways to mark this day. My friend Phil will say that Veterans Day is best when it’s ignored – a cynical outlook but one I understand. The over the top Patriotic Correctness of the NFL, chicken hawk politicians, and any number of chain restaurants make some of us sick to our stomachs. The Entitled Veteran walking around with a list of places to hit up for Vet Day discounts make the anger sharks swarm. These are pretty extreme examples, ones that have equivalent opposites.

If you’re asking me, the best way to mark Veterans Day is to reach across the civil/military divide and put effort into understanding someone else’s experience. That’s equally true for both sides of that divide. It’s great to have a day off work, to get a free beer, or to say ‘thank you’. Don’t forget to spend some time thinking about what this day is for though. We are marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I. The War to End All Wars it was not. Maybe the best use of Veterans Day is to spend some time thinking about why that is.

Words mean things

In Korea I led an Avenger PLT that, in event of war, would be attached to an MLRS BN to provide protection from fixed and rotary wing air threats so that the BN could execute its counter-fires mission unimpeded. We were all under the command of the 210th Fires BDE.

OR

In Korea I led a platoon that operated Avengers, a short range anti-aircraft system that used a combination of heat-seeking missiles and a machine gun to engage enemy planes and heliocopters. Our job was to provide protection to an artillery battalion that operated the Multiple Launch Rocket System – basically a very large rocket launcher mounted on a tracked vehicle similar to a tank. We did this so that they could do their job of destroying or defeating North Korean artillery in the event of an attack by the North. Both my unit and the artillery battalion fell underneath the same brigade.

Big difference, huh?

There are a lot of things that make the military hard to understand. Even if you served it can be difficult to understand what someone in another service branch did. If I was talking to someone who had been in the Navy or Air Force I’d need them to go slow and explain a good deal to me. Marines always seemed to be very similar to the Army in many ways so they were easier to talk to, but there were still odd differences. Simple things like job designations could confuse. The Army has Military Occupational Specialties for enlisted soldiers. This is an alpha-numeric designator such as 14S (Avenger crew member). The Marines have a different term than MOS (I never remember it) and use 4-digit identifiers. Why a difference in such a basic thing that could be more universal? Who the hell knows?

With so many challenges to communicate just from one service branch to another it shouldn’t shock anyone that we have a hard time communicating with people that haven’t served or worked as a DoD civilian employee. All the cultural divides aside, our civil/military gap starts with a matter of language.

Words mean things. It’s something that my OBC instructor Captain Tooke would always harp on us young lieutenants. Many of the students would snicker at this seemingly obvious statement and at the instructor who was animated and red-faced. Some of us understood the joke was on them. This mantra of doctrine, three simple words, meant so much. CPT Tooke – the Tookie Monster – was trying to drive home the basics of effective communication to us. Something that is a foundational skill for an officer. When your job  is so heavily dependent on writing orders, issuing  formal policies, drafting standard operating procedures, speaking to groups, briefing young soldiers and senior leaders, coordinating complex efforts via radio, when all of these things are critical to you being effective or a being a dud you must be careful in your choice of words. You need to understand very subtle differences in jargon and technical meanings. You have to pick your words with great thought and you need to rehearse them as much as possible before they leave your mouth.

Do you want to Defeat a threat or Destroy it? There is a big difference, especially when it comes to air defense planning. You can Destroy an incoming ballistic missile or aircraft only by actually destroying it – blowing it up before it can cause harm. To Defeat the same threat you can destroy it, or you can simply cause it to fail it’s mission of killing the forces under your protection. That can mean that you knock a missile off course so that it strikes nothing but empty desert. It can mean that the threat you pose by your presence, by your effective placement of anti-air systems, causes enemy aircraft to turn back or not even try to attack the assets you’re protecting. So you don’t always need to destroy, to kill, to win. Pretty sure Sun Tzu had something to say about that (III, 6).

You see what the difference in two little words makes? Learning Army doctrine and terminology is a fantastic way to refine your communication skills. It’s highly technical and the slightest oversight can lead to mass confusion. To be good at is takes practice, patience, and a methodical mind. To be poor at it is easy and results in an officer causing unnecessary death. Military movies love the trope of the incompetent officer getting his people killed. Next time you watch a movie with this story line ask yourself what role sloppy communication played.

So what’s the point of all this? It isn’t to bore you to death about Army doctrinal terminology. I wanted to share a story that never fails to make me smile (as the image of CPT Tooke berating my OBC class always does) and to drive home the point that we cause so many problems through a lack of thoughtfulness in our communication. When you can’t talk to someone or another group, you avoid them. We do it with our spouses, families, in our offices, with younger/older people, with people from a different part of the country, with other countries, and within so many different segments of our own society. These difficulties grate on our patience and cause us to run back to our safe zones, our echo chambers.

For the purpose of this blog and my story, this issue of communication is central to America’s civil/military divide. Really thought, this is just one piece of a problem that America has been struggling with in terms of understanding itself and creating a unified society. You can’t always reach someone, there will be failures to communicate. We have to make every effort though. We can’t just hide.

I hope that my efforts in trying to bridge the civil/military gap here can serve as an example of bridging any number of social gaps we have. This is a major problem in America, but I’ll go out on a limb as say other countries experience this as well. I’ve noticed some readers in Ireland, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and even Russia and China. I’ve no idea of these are US service members stationed abroad or if they are nationals of those countries. I’d love to know what the international take on my writing is (HINT – please leave comments or send emails). Also, I’m glad you’re here.

Words mean things. It’s a lesson that will always stick with me. It’s a mantra that forces me to be hyper-critical of each word written here. There’s always room for improvement. With effort and thoughtfulness, I hope that what I write conveys something meaningful to you, that together we are bridging the gap.

Until we meet again.

Never-ending 9/11

I really wanted to write something powerful, something meaningful, something worth your time. I’ve been mulling over themes and chasing streams of thought for weeks. Sometimes they flooded my mind and overwhelmed me. After all that I’m left with one thing – a sense of depression, absolute hopelessness.

It’s been 17 years since the attacks. That’s so hard to wrap my head around. I was 17 when they happened, my life now bisected by one of the two seminal events of the 21st century. The other being the global financial meltdown that started roughly 10 years ago this week as well. For people born between 1980 and 1990 (1984 for me) we are a sort of new Lost Generation.

That term was applied to the men who were of fighting age during The Great War, the War to End All Wars. So many of the world’s young men fought, died, were maimed, or left mentally broken that it was as if an entire generation of men had been wiped out.

Bring that forward a century and we’re left with a generation of men and women who should be in their prime years relative to economic earnings, professional growth, and national (global) health, yet we seem lost. We came of age in a dark new world obsessed with global terrorism. As we came into our own and went out into the world all the opportunities we had worked towards vanished in the smoke of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Nothing is guaranteed. Having grown up in the Rust Belt I am acutely aware that the economic promises you grow up looking forward to may no longer be there. We aren’t entitled to the jobs of the previous generation. The dual shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession, just 6 years separated, are historical traumas that were never seen in combination for the United States. Such burdens were never heaped upon a single generation to carry.

And that’s where I’ve been stuck for weeks. Yes, Millennials are the ones left carrying that load. We have been the ones doing the bulk of the fighting and dying in the Global War on Terrorism. We are the ones left with the financial burden of all the bail outs and exploding national debt. The Americans on their way out have stuck us with these unending problems of fighting terrorism wherever it may be, with caring for the largest group of retirees who keep living longer, and with the astronomical bills that come with both.

Is it really a wonder why so many are so cynical? Why so few of us are optimistic for the future? How we struggle to think of a time when America was so great? The American greatness we were all brought up believing in began dying with the PATRIOT ACT, took another fatal blow when we became engulfed in Iraqi insurgents, and was left laying facedown in an alley by 2008. Some politicians tried to sell us hope. They left us with our hats in our hands, still plodding down the same path.

But corporate profits are at all time highs! Our stock market is a runaway bull! Our military is being rebuilt with a $716,000,000,000 annual budget!

While we wait here for the meager drops to trickle down, our futures continue to be sold out. A handful continue to gain wealth off of the blank checks they write on our futures. It’s an old trope, and one nobody should be surprised to see.

What should anger us is the complete apathy so many of us display. We are willing lambs trotting off to the slaughter. Take our pelts, they will provide tax shelters. Have my limbs, they’ll prop up the failing institutions. Take my organs, they’ll keep business producing. Take my brain, we sure as fuck aren’t using it. Take me and use me up. I am your sacrificial lamb on the alter of national security and the ax of economic growth.

 

Seventeen years have gone by. A new generation is taking up the fight abroad. You’d be hard pressed to find many people who know it though. We’ve gone on in a quiet malaise for so long that Americans have forgotten. We’ve forgotten what normal looks like. This course of never ending small wars that impact so few that America can hardly be bothered to pay attention anymore. Get out there and stand for the anthem on Sunday, show everyone you’re a patriot. But don’t you worry about the families that continue to be broken up by the wars we no longer talk about. Mount the Stars & Stripes on your pick-up for all to see. Don’t worry about defense budgets that continue to swell and swell, that bill will come due long after those who wrote the orders are gone.

Are we doomed to be victims of our own uncaring, self-centered attitudes? As long as the screen in our hands is there to comfort us in a soft glow of memes we will keep moving down this line. Our miserable Kardashian-obsessed existences will be their own undoing.

All aboard the express train to Dystopia. It’ll be masked in complacency, a slow roll to handing over basic rights one bit at a time. Because we never said STOP to this insanity. We haven’t shown any organized anger over the bankruptcy of our nation, morally and monetarily. The longer this is sustained the harder it will be to ever come back. War without end, so long as it doesn’t impact too many. Each year a few more subtle whacks at civil liberty in exchange for security. Ironic that all the fears of pop culture in the 1980’s are now coming to fruition.

 

I’ve shared a lot of words on 9/11 on here previously. Some more eloquent than others. In three different posts – here, here, & here. I truly hoped to bring some new insights. But 17 years later all I have for you is a swamp of sadness. The Nothing is coming, and I don’t see Atreyu on the horizon.

How to break the civil/military divide, an advanced discussion.

My earlier post on starting the conversation between vet and non-vet eluded to some advanced questions to broach once you’re more comfortable with each other. I think we’ve gotten to that point and it’s time to revisit the original concept. Again, the inspiration for this came from this post by War on the Rocks. As in the first part the questions from WotR are in italics and my responses are in normal text.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your service? – I learned the value of each individual human. This was touched on in the first part but I’ll take some time to elaborate. My Franciscan education taught me that each human holds equal value and we all deserve to be respected as a basic right. I still held some prejudices though that were ingrained on me at a young age. While I had grown out of some and started to shed others, I cannot deny that some still lingered. My experiences during my service broke down the hang ups I still had around gay men. A big reason for that was that there just weren’t many gay men that I had met while growing up. Meeting different people who I’d never come into contact with before dispelled ugly stereotypes and the lies I’d been told as a young boy in a way that nothing else could have.

The same could be said of my view of the greater world. You have to understand that I grew up in a small town in western NY, which is to say I grew up in an isolated bubble. Growing up somewhat poor we didn’t take a lot of road trips, the first time I flew was when I was 15, and I can count the number of vacations we took on one hand. Bumpkin could have applied to me quite fittingly. So imagine what impact 5 years of living in different places for no more than 12 months at a time would be. In my first year on active duty I lived at Fort Knox, Fort Benning, Fort Bliss, back to Benning, and then went off to Korea! That was a pretty intense education on the culture of America’s south and also a southwest border town (Ft. Bliss is in El Paso). Followed by going right into the deep end of cultural adjustment by living in Korea for a year. The analogy of teaching a kid to swim is apt here. In order for me to enjoy living in these places I had to adjust my expectations and how I interacted with the local population. I had to broaden myself and open my mind. Anyone in such situations who refuses to open themselves and learn new ways becomes closed off and insular. They hate their time spent in said location and have nothing good to say about it.

So the most important thing I learned from my time in the Army is that life requires an open mind willing to continuously learn. And that no matter where you are in the world, people are people. We all have the same intrinsic value, we all need to be shown respect, and all anybody wants is to be safe and free. I came out of the Army a greatly changed person. For the better I think.

What made you most proud of being in uniform? – First, there are plenty of things to not be proud of. Things I did myself and things that I share moral injury for by association. But if I think of what I’m proud of it’s that I did something that so few do. Growing up I had a pretty laser focused concept that I would serve in some way. I didn’t really have a thought of not serving, it was just a given. That’s a pretty broad idea of what to take pride in. If I had to think of specific acts its more difficult. I did nothing heroic, I was never in a firefight, I didn’t save anybody or help a village of little kids to go to school. I do think I served honorably and treated others with respect, especially people I outranked. That may not be something that people would typically think of as a point of pride, but the best thing I can think of is that I did my job to the best of my ability and treated others well. Maybe somewhere in there my actions and example made an impact on a young soldier, maybe I’m full of shit. I hope it’s the former.

How did the United States change while you were gone? – Tricky, I was never gone from the US for more than a year at a time. Some important things happened while I was gone though. I was in Korea from June 2007 – June 2008. So while the worldwide economy was burning like the Joker’s pile of cash I was just doing my thing as a PL and hoping that my joes didn’t show up on Monday morning with news of marrying a Juicy Girl or ending up in the hospital after a bar fight (spoiler, both happened). The effect of this is that I was again living in a bubble, this one built by the DoD, and couldn’t really grasp what the Great Recession was and how bad it was. In retrospect I was not unlike a Wall Street banker (LoLz).

The other major event happened while I was in Basrah. This was the first shooting at Fort Hood by Dr. Nidal Hasan. I had been stationed at Hood before my assignment to a transition team, so this gave me an odd feeling of being safer in Iraq than if I had still been at Hood. This is a memory that still brings up a discomforting sense of surrealism. My hands are trembling as I type and my body is tense. I was so afraid that one of my friends had been shot back home, where we were supposed to be safe, and I was half way around the world watching the news on a TV in our team’s TOC. I was the one who was safe, and they were the ones being shot.

On the lighter side I missed a couple of major sports events (for me at least). The first NHL Winter Classic featuring Pittsburg playing in Buffalo happened while I was in Korea. If you’re a hockey fan you’ll understand that I may never get to see the WC in Buffalo again. Then again, my NYE in Seoul was pretty fucking fantastic too. The other event I missed was the last Yankees World Series win when I was in Iraq. I didn’t really have a chance to watch any of that since I was living at a remote location. Since then, while I’ve been able to follow baseball again, the Yanks were on the decline for a bit and I’ve had to tolerate the Red Sox’s success.

To strike a more metaphysical tone, the whole time I was on active duty I really was ‘away’. The bubble that you live in is ever present. While civilians were facing economic ruin we were all safely employed and receiving annual raises that outstripped our civilian counterparts at an obscene rate. Another aspect of the civil/military divide. There truly are tangible differences in these two parts of American society. I can hardly be upset at a civilian who would’ve begrudged my pay raises from 2007 – 2011. Debates over deserving or not deserving the raises are irrelevant. The fact is many people were losing their jobs, houses, and lives while we were secure in our housing, jobs, and increasing pay. So the country that I came back to after being in a bubble of alternate-DoD-reality for five years was unrecognizable. I didn’t understand what everyone else had gone through during that time and they didn’t understand what I had gone through. We were two strangers separated at birth trying to enjoy a family reunion as if we’d known each other all along. Honestly, there are times where I still don’t understand my place in my community. As I wrote last week I’m not at home at the VSOs, and while I’ve tried to reintegrate to The World, my success in that has been spotty. America changed so much while I was gone. So much so that being ‘gone’ again can seem like a comforting option at times.

Would you do it again? Why or why not?” – This is a question that cannot be treated lightly or given and off the cuff ‘ABSOLUTELY!!!’ Military service will change everyone in such fundamental ways that this question deserves considerable meditation by any vet. I’ve kicked this around a good deal, sometimes thinking it was a mistake to serve. When I see my college peers having more success it’s easy to think that they were the smarter ones for going the traditional route and dedicating themselves to a career path.

But then I remember this. Please do listen, The Kinks say it in a superior way to anything I could hope to.

Now, the romantic notion of the great, unique individual railing against the machinations of conformity is a bit of sentimental horseshit. That being said, at heart I’ve never stopped being the angry punk rock kid I was and that has driven me, in part at least, to detest following set paths. I love freaks. I have Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” tattooed on my left thigh FFS! Doing things on my own has bitten me in the ass at times. I remember a day during my time in the command group with 69th ADA where the brigade deputy commander came out of his office and sang Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way’ to me to point out my counterproductive impatience. Point well taken, Brian.

In the end I know I would do it again. I may even have stayed in longer had some assignments gone differently. Had I been selected for Civil Affairs that would have changed things dramatically. If I had recognized a career as an Acquisitions officer was possible that may have kept me in. Those things did not happen though. To grind my teeth over those lost possibilities would be fruitless and very un-Stoic. I have a lot to be grateful for as a result of my time in the Army. Hopefully I made it clear in my above comments that I became a better person as a result of my service. If not for this path in life I may still be much more like my 18 year old self, a self that I’d like to punch right in the yambags if I could.

 

Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed this. Please use these posts as a conversation starter. The whole point is to provide a model for how a non-vet can approach a vet with some certainty of their questions, or for the vets to be open to these questions. One thing that dawned on me while writing these two posts is that it was like interviewing myself. The value of this exercise cannot be overstated. This introspection is great for mental health. It gave me a deeper understanding of myself, and a greater perspective on my own life. It’ll be great if my writing catches on to a large audience. If that doesn’t happen I’ve still gained much from the exercise of writing. I’d encourage anyone to do the same.

Until we meet again.

Veteran Service Organizations and the Civil/Military Divide

Listening to a favorite podcast, After Action with Max & Paul, I was reminded of some aspects of transition to civilian life that need to be addressed. The swamp that is known as traditional veteran service organizations. By that I mean things like the American Legion, VFW, and AMVETS. These groups that have great histories but in function today are not much more than subsidized bars at local levels. Before I take a bunch of flak I do know that there are some good local posts of the old guard VSOs. More and more though I hear of experiences that mirror my own with these groups. Archaic structure, abandonment of the veteran service responsibilities, reluctance to change while bemoaning the lack of young members, enlarging the civil/military divide instead of bridging it, and devolving into nothing more than a place to get drunk on the cheap.

As I wrote in my post On Transitions the military does a piss poor job of preparing us for that transition back to civilian life. In the most recent episode of After Action the hosts, two former Marines, talk about the week of classes they had to go to. For me it was just a single day of required briefings with a bunch of optional classes (I signed up for a few and they were a huge disappointment). I do not know if the Army has changed ACAP since 2011, but I’m willing to bet no meaningful changes have been made.

So out you go back into the world with not much support for finding your way as a civilian again. It’s hard to really grasp the enormity of this problem, even if you have gone through it. Your entire professional life changes, your social life is reduced to who you keep in contact with through Facebook, your very identity needs to be remade. A natural place for a vet to turn to for help in this struggle is the traditional veteran service organizations. At least you’d think.

My wife and I both joined our local American Legion post after moving to WNY. We were hopeful that we’d find a group of people with similar experiences who could help guide us in our transition. It seemed like a place to find something familiar while not getting stuck in an unhealthy nostalgia. These VSOs are, after all, supposed to support veterans with their unique challenges. It seemed to us a natural place to start as we built a new life.

We were so utterly disappointed. While being welcomed as new members who were both vets, even made officers of the post, it became clear from the start that our new ideas weren’t actually wanted. The existing membership, which included the Women’s Auxiliary, didn’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around a woman being a vet and not just a spouse who wanted to help by cooking at events. We tried to understand that it was something new for the local post, but the condescending treatment we both faced was abhorrent.

We ended this experiment after a few months, completely disillusioned with a VSO that we had held in such high regard. We felt let down and in a way betrayed. What we needed was a place to ease us into our new lives, to build a local social network, to find something meaningful that connected us to our previous lives while still moving forward. All we found was a bar full of old people who looked at us like aliens and didn’t understand why we weren’t happy just slurping 75 cent beer and talking about how great we were for having served. What’s the point of public service if you can’t build your ego around it and look down on others who didn’t serve, right?

That’s my personal experience with the Legion. As I said earlier I’ve noticed a lot more younger vets expressing similar sentiments. Mulling that over I started to see how these VSOs contribute to the widening civil/military divide. These groups used to provide a way for vets to integrate into their communities, to serve in a private capacity, and to have that cultural exchange between vets and non-vets. Now they reinforce the divide by abdicating civic responsibilities in their local communities and providing a dark hole for vets to crawl into.

This furthers the isolation that I’ve written about. Instead of empowering newly separated vets to integrate into their new communities these VSOs wrap a blanket of platitudes around the vet. They prop up the prejudices and reinforce the ideas of non-vets being lesser citizens, which erodes our democracy. Rather than building up vets to have successful transitions the VSOs perpetuate the image of the poor, damaged, and unappreciated vet. When you need to have help bridging your own gap into civilian life the VSOs provide a counterproductive security bubble. Oh and don’t forget to pay your dues and come to the bar a few times a week, they need the money to keep operating and to support the national offices in their veteran advocacy.

What you end up with is an abusive co-dependent relationship. The national offices do a fairly good job of veteran advocacy, although they do it in a way that shows the stark generational divide. When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was being debated the traditional VSOs were about the only ones standing in opposition to repeal. So while they want the young members, they feel no obligation to represent young vets. I don’t want to take away from the good things done at a national level, they aren’t the only ones fighting that fight though. I’d argue that more important is the impact these VSOs could play at local levels. This is where the major disconnect is, the lack of accountability and uniformity of experience. Some local posts certainly don’t fit the picture I painted above, but more and more do. America needs these local posts to help bridge the civil/military gap and to help veterans find success in their transitions.

This isn’t a post to blast VSOs and vent anger. I want to draw attention to this problem in hopes that there will be change as more younger vets take over the leadership roles. I’m not holding my breath though. Baby Boomers holding on to power is an issue in nearly every walk of American life…. looking at you Congress. I would like more people to recognize this void and the dangers it poses. I hope more people start to see the civil/military divide for the serious threat to democracy that it is. I hope you read this and learn from it.

Most of all I hope you’re inspired to do something. A million small acts will aggregate into large impacts. Go talk to someone new. Read something that you normally wouldn’t read. Share the good ideas you find with others. Break bread with your neighbors. These small acts are how we all make America great.

Until we meet again.

My year with the Dragon, Part IV

Alright, let’s wrap up this series of posts focused on my time in Korea. This has been a difficult series as there are so many things I could include, but at the same time I don’t want this to be an incoherent ramble. I also don’t want this to come off as a stroll down memory lane with rose tinted glasses. I’ve mostly written about some good experiences and the posts have had a mostly positive tone. Well, today I’ll bring the dreary, the bored, the dark……  Aren’t you excited now?

Really though, it’s important to highlight these things. I’m sure some people have read the previous three parts and wondered why I didn’t stay in Korea. I certainly had the opportunity to volunteer for another one or two years, and it was tempting. So I’ll explain that decision today as well. If we are to dissect this we will need to look at two main points – expat life, and honor.

The expat life was pretty amazing. That much should be clear from what I’ve already written. It was also exhausting, often lonely, and terminally temporary. The pace at which I was living started to wear me down by month 10 and by month 11, I was losing perspective. After months of living like this and thinking it was just the greatest way to live I began to see the murky cheerlessness of expat life. The pattern of transience which kept gifting you new friends and then taking others away. The abject lonesomeness of being a LT at Camp Casey with little or no chance of having any kind of meaningful relationship when the people whose company I enjoyed were people I only saw on the weekends (with a few exceptions). If I stayed past my 12 months the few friends still at Camp Casey would also leave. I would be like the old guy hanging around college bars long past his time.

I also started to examine the life of my friends who had been in Korea for a few years but knew that they weren’t going to be there permanently. It was an odd sort of limbo. You are in a semi-permanent state of life. You start building a medium-term life where you want to create some more comforts, you accumulate more things, you establish relationships, but the whole time you know that these things cannot all be taken with you, the relationships won’t last so you don’t invest too much into them, and the comforts are still only temporary. You want to build something more than just a short-term life but you know that you’ll only get so much out of it. This quasi-permanence and superficiality wasn’t how I wanted to start my adult life, especially after spending my first year out of college moving 6 times from one temporary duty to another. I was ready to start something more meaningful.

When I think over all the people I met and the oddity of this life one example stands out among all others. I ended up at a Halloween party that my rugby friends in Seoul were going to. It was at this strangely western style two story house in a dank corner of Itaewon. I assumed it was just another English teacher’s home. It looked so much like the crumby apartment houses that I’d go to for a house party at St. Bonas. Nasty carpets, filthy bathrooms, mishmash of furniture, tons of beer and booze, and it was all topped off with the festive lighting and fog machines that Halloween brings out. I was stunned to find out the guy who lived there was a major stationed at Yongsan Garrison. This guy was running around in a bedsheet, laughing the kind of obnoxious laughs of someone who got too drunk too early. A squirrelly kind of man, he reminded me of Marlon Brando’s character in Apocalypse Now. Lost in hubris, living a hedonistic fantasy. I was curious and horrified at the same time. This was not a future I wanted for myself. Mid-30’s, single, living like I did at 21. I may have been too harsh in my judgement, I probably shouldn’t have made a judgement at all other than to know I didn’t want to be him. I enjoyed my night and drank a lot of his beer. So it goes.

When people ask me what Korea was like I usually give a short answer – I loved the weekends and hated the weeks. This was 2007 – 2008. The Army’s priorities were Iraq, Afghanistan (sometimes), followed by Korea. Trying to keep vehicles maintained and working was a daily battle. This made any training we conducted far more difficult than it should have been. Nothing went smoothly. The monotony of garrison life would drag on, the same struggle day after day. Sometimes this would be broken up when the battery would be on ‘red phase’. Each month some units would be designated to take care of garrison duties, so regular training ceased while a portion of your soldiers would be tasked out to do things like guard the ammunition holding area (AHA) or for gate guard duty. I’d have to go out on courtesy patrols of the Ville some nights. That meant that some weekends were used up having to stay local and at night put on a uniform and walk around the Ville, checking out all the juicy bars. The point was to provide a soft deterrent to soldiers getting out of control. My battery was in this red phase in December and in order to give the soldiers a break on Christmas the PSGs, PLs, first sergeant, and battery commander rotated to cover the AHA duty, which is a 24 hour thing. The LTs got stuck with the overnight shift, so Christmas night 2007 was spent with the other PLs sitting around ‘guarding’ a large stockpile of ammo.

A handful of units took their work seriously but many people looked at Korea as a vacation from the real Army.  This leads us to the part about honor. An ugly truth that many people would rather ignore is that people were hiding out in Korea, dodging deployment. Many were open about it, NCOs and officers. So how does a young LT keep motivated and keep his soldiers motivated when so many other ‘leaders’ are so brashly open about how they are in Korea to avoid going to Iraq or Afghanistan? It was a sick sort of bragging. Laughing about how they’re pulling one over on the Army by staying in Korea, collecting extra pay allowances and parting up, and all the time they’re just hiding while other men and women are, at that time, going on their third, fourth, and even fifth deployments. The combat dodgers infuriated me. Being around them and having to work with them made me sick. Having to maintain a professional front and not undermine them while they didn’t deserve an ounce of respect was intolerable.

By the end I had become so jaded and cynical that I couldn’t recognize myself. My drinking was out of control, but I couldn’t think of any other way to cope with anger from work and the despairing loneliness I felt each night. The Neil Diamond song ‘Captain of a Shipwreck’ became a nightly theme song to belt out in a drunken haze. In many ways I was a wreck myself. I needed change.

Talking about the combat dodgers and my own future with my friend Paul was the single  most important factor in my decision to leave Korea instead of staying for another year. Paul’s view on it was that it’s all well and fine for someone to want to spend a second year, get experience in another position and soak up all you can from the uniqueness of being in Korea. But for someone to do it when their right shoulder was still bare was nothing but cowardice (right shoulders are where combat patches are worn). This wouldn’t be the last time I would consult Paul on matters of career decisions. I made up my mind that I could not stay in Korea and maintain my honor. As much as I loved the country, as much potential as there was for a new assignment in-country, staying another year just was not something I could do without turning my back on my values. A life changing decision in many ways, but I still think this was the right thing to do.

Looking back now there are many things I miss and many I do not. I’m grateful for the experience of living in such a foreign country, experiencing a culture so different from what I grew up in. The unbridled adventure is something to cherish. If I could have any of the things I had in Korea I would want the sense of community, the sense of belonging, that I got from my circle of friends. And a goddamned Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Is that so much to ask for?

Until we meet again.