Our shared trauma

It’s time to talk about Post Traumatic Stress. Not mine, I’m fortunate to not suffer from PTS, nor any other individual’s. We need to talk about our collective PTS as a nation.

This is the elephant in the room. We all know it exists, but rarely is it discussed. We see the symptoms every day. Our political gridlock, the anger on social media, the seeming impossibility of constructive debate, our self imposed segregation as a coping mechanism.

Satisfaction is more often derived from tearing someone down than from lifting them up. We scream at each other on planes. We rail against anyone perceived as ‘other’ on social media. We feel justified in passing judgement on total strangers. We distrust everything, unless it conforms to or reinforces our biases.

This all seems to be coming to a boiling point. Civil discourse left long ago. Logos is gone, pathos is running the show.

It’s understandable that emotions run high these days. But our emotions have taken over to a point of destruction.  We are too easily manipulated by third parties who have recognized this. Our emotional fragility has become weaponized while we were patting ourselves on the back for having such strength.

Just like an individual suffering from PTS we, as a united nation, must face some hard truths and move forward with reason guiding our thoughts and actions. So where do we start?

September 11, 2001

We don’t acknowledge it, but the attacks on 9/11 inflicted a mass casualty event upon the nation. Thousands died, many more would continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we all suffered a mental trauma that late summer day that set us on a path of self destruction. A trail of events that spans nearly two full decades now. Never ending wars compounded by a once in a century global economic shock, and disruptive technology that we struggle to adapt to.

America, we’ve stacked bodies higher than the Twin Towers, but the terrorists who sought our downfall are still winning. They’re winning because they knew that the only ones who could rip America apart are ourselves. This fact has been noted by America’s adversaries since WWII. For some reason we don’t grasp this. Always outward looking for the next great power threat, we have been killing America from the inside at a stunning rate.

This only stops and changes if we start to be honest about how 9/11 traumatized the nation. Our population felt a vulnerability not seen since 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. Whereas Pearl Harbor galvanized us in a common mission, a clear purpose with a plainly stated end point, 9/11 spurred us onto a jumble of mixed missions that few understood and with no definitive end.

America, we lashed out in October, 2001. We kicked ass. It felt great. Our swagger returned and we knew that we were great again. That didn’t last though, did it? Just as a person suffering from PTS we found quick salve to self medicate. Where a person might reach for booze, Percocet, or a warm gun to get that fix, we as a nation reaffirmed our validity with machine guns, artillery, and sweet precision guided munitions. We tapped that vein with a quick shot of American martial might and validated ourselves.

And just like the individual reaching for a quick, self medicated fix, we collectively came down from our martial high. We looked around wondering why the good times stopped. In our collective paranoia we started looking inward to find the ‘other’. The rotten cancer infecting us from within had to be the reason we fell back down. We drew dividing lines in our society. We labeled those we did not like as unpatriotic or as fascists. Everyone was with us or against us. We found serenity in our black and white world.

But this wasn’t what we needed. We needed to accept that we were all in pain. That all any of us wanted was to live without fear again, to know we would not be hurt and victimized again. In our fear and anger we struck out at the people we once, and maybe still did, love. We did it time and again, going deeper down the rabbit hole of self destructive soothing.

America, we must stop the denial and collective self harm. We need to stop hating ourselves for all our misdeeds and remember how great we have always been. We are still that beautiful city on high. If we allow ourselves to forgive we can mend our way.

Say it with me. September 11, 2001 hurt us like never before, but it will not define us. The attacks of 9/11 are something that happened to us, they are a part of who we are, but we are much more than the scared victims of that day. We will move forward to write our own story on our own terms.

We are a nation with a mission and a responsibility. We are an example of civility, we are a country that values freedom and mutual respect above all else. We are a beacon of hope, shining all around the world.

That is who we really are, even if we don’t always act like it.

So how do we get back to being the country we know we are? It starts with little things. Small corrections to our perceptions, our thoughts, and our actions.

Look at the person you don’t know with affection, not suspicion. See people not as ‘the other’ but as another American. Act with civility that would make our Founders proud. Start by talking to someone who you’d normally ignore. Talk to people with different views than you. Speak to each other calmly, with respect. Seek out these interactions not as a way to change the other person’s mind so that they can be like you, but to find some common ground. Challenge yourself to respect, possibly even like, a person with whom you disagree.

We must rebuild our sense of community without putting conditions on each other. Leave the safety net of self isolation and re-learn to live with each other, accepting our differences. Depart from the mindset of confrontation and march forward with compassion.

Break down your fear and anger and you begin to mend your trauma.

We are only great when we see the greatness of each other. As a nation we share the moral injury of Afghanistan, Iraq, racial strife, our economic inequality, and our ignorance to the shared pain with we all suffer. Put away the anger and exercise empathy. When you feel the knee jerk reaction of wondering just what someone else is, stop yourself.

As you read this you may be looking for subtle hints in my word choice, pointing to some hidden clue as to what I am. He’s a liberal/conservative! Must be a stinking Democrat/Republican. This perverse need to identify and classify everything and everyone has become ingrained. Searching to define everyone is so natural to us that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Is he with me or against me? Will this person hurt me?

Here’s the unmasking. I am an American. I am human being, the same as you.

America, admit it with me. We have a problem but we are strong enough to overcome. We just need some compassion, and we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.

Off to the Hood

After 12 months in Korea it was on to my next assignment at Fort Hood. I was fortunate to have been a platoon leader for my full stint in Korea. Many of my peers across the Army were getting less PL time than I did. Being a platoon leader can drive you nuts when you wake up on a Saturday morning to news that some of your soldiers got jumped outside a bar, with one ending up in the hospital and the other one was already confined to post. Still it was hands down my best time in the Army. Our Professor of Military Science at Bonas was fond of saying the tragic thing about being an Army officer is that your first job (platoon leader) is also your best. After being a PL nothing else was as rewarding.

I had no idea what to expect as I got to Fort Hood. I had a couple friends already there, including one of the guys I had met on my first assignment at Fort Knox and was with again at our ADA OBC at Fort Bliss. Still, my orders only showed me going to HHB, 69th ADA BDE. That meant that I was assigned to the headquarters element of the brigade. That specific unit had just relocated from Germany to Fort Hood, standing up only two weeks prior to my arrival. When units make such moves they generally lose a lot of personnel to reassignments (PCS). The brigade HQ was down to about 20% of their full complement, and I was one of only three lieutenants now with them. In an odd way that made me a bit valuable, but this turned out to be a case of high value backfiring.

Expecting to be assigned to one of the staff cells, which would have been a normal next step after being a PL, I was instead told I would be the new brigade adjutant. I didn’t even know what the fuck that was. I had always thought the S-1 was also the adjutant (S-1 is the equivalent of a company’s HR department). The Big Green Weenie got me and I ended up running the brigade command group. This was the office composed of the brigade commander, deputy commander, the command sergeant major, their drivers, and a few other odds and ends. As the Adj. my job was pretty similar to that of an executive assistant. Day to day it meant that I needed to control traffic into the Big 3’s offices, prepare transportation as needed, and keep a pot of hot water always ready for the commander’s green tea. Goddamn free radicals.

I went from being in the motor pool or the field most days to being in an office taking care of VIPs. Suddenly I needed to watch my language and keep up appearances. Keeping the boss’s travel books, to include local points of interest, and prepare conference rooms for big staff meetings were of utmost importance. Keeping printers loaded instead of machine guns was the order of the day. I was wholly unprepared for this.

My biggest adjustment though was having female subordinates for the first time. My unit in Korea had some female soldiers, but my platoon did not. I had female classmates in ROTC and in all the schools I attended as a lieutenant, but that’s not the same. I wasn’t too sure about how to interact with the female private who was a secretary in the command group, and I wasn’t even sure what to make of having a female NCO reporting to me. Better scrub all the joking about tiny dicks and giant, harry balls. This nervous aversion prompted me to get away from the command group whenever I could. I was constantly second guessing my words and replaying interactions in my head, hoping that I hadn’t done anything inappropriate.

This went on for a couple months before I finally started feeling comfortable with my new surroundings and subordinates. While I continued to hate the dog and pony show of the command group I developed a really strong relationship with my NCO. Jessica was one of the most professional NCOs I worked with. We became a good team, she was able to coach me in the finer points of being in the command group and watched my back. I made sure her and our soldiers were always taken care of. She even helped drive me to and from appointments when I had my eyes corrected. Jessica’s expertise made her a  steadying soul. She was the kind of NCO a lieutenant hopes for and needs. If she ever picked up on my initial prejudice she didn’t let on. She just did her job as best as she could every day. This humbled me and made me recognize how wrong I had been to harbor any doubts or to favor the male NCO (at least internally) who would eventually get reassigned for being a lazy bullshitter.

I learned how to lead young female soldiers too. PFC Wilde was, in spite of her name, one of the most timid people I’d ever met. She was normally the first person to greet whoever came into the command group. This meant that she would have to interact with majors and lieutenant colonels multiple times a day, and from time to time a general. It was physically painful to watch how uncomfortable and nervous she would get. Once day, after a general had come and left, I took her aside and said to her ‘Wilde, I get that those people make you nervous but they’re just people who eat, breath, and take big stinky shits like you and me. Show them the respect due their rank, but remember they’re just people.’ That got her to laugh and she seemed to eventually shake some of her nerves.

Being the Adj. sucked ass. No other way to put it, I just hated being that close to the sun. It wasn’t a good fit for me and I wasn’t good for it. Eventually a couple more lieutenants came in and after 6 months I was mercifully given a new job. Still with the HQ battery, but as the battery XO. I had been lobbying the deputy commander, a very empathetic man, for this job for months. Everyone knew that the HHB commander was a soup sandwich and needed tons of help. Being an XO is also the typical next job for a lieutenant after they’re a PL. The XO is second in charge, covers down for the commander when they’re on leave, and takes care of the administrative side of the house. It’s kind of like being a chief of staff but with guns.

What the deputy commander told me when breaking this news was to go and fix the supply system and the maintenance program of the battery. It was widely known that these were the two largest problems facing the HHB. These are typically things that an XO would focus on and the HHB hadn’t had an XO since moving to Fort Hood. It didn’t take too much prodding for me to discover the depth and breadth of my task at hand.

Talking to the supply sergeant I found out that there was never a 100% inventory conducted prior to leaving Germany or upon arrival at Fort Hood. My mouth hung open at that revelation. Such inventories are standard practice. How nobody had caught this lapse and corrected it was dumbfounding. Nearly two full years went by for this commander with no 100% inventory. These should happen at least once a year. So I had taken on a supply system that ignored some of the most basic tenants of best practices.

The motor pool was an equal mess. It was short staffed, but we all were. The biggest problem was a lack of oversight. The motor sergeant was good, but motor sergeants don’t carry much weight outside of their motor pools. Without an officer to take his concerns to people with decision making authority the motor sergeant might as well stick the lube gun up his ass and squeeze until it goes click. Out of the 40 vehicles and other pieces of major equipment like trailers and generators, 12 were deadlined. More than 25% of the battery’s mission essential equipment was non-functional. That meant that the unit itself was non-mission capable. While the supply system issues were systemic and would require tedious work to correct, the maintenance program was practically nonexistent.

Absorbing all this information and forming a plan to unfuck the battery meant I would need to be the shit hot LT that I fancied myself as. This was a true sink or swim moment that would test me. If I could pull this off I would do credit to my ROTC instructors and those who had mentored me since. If I failed I’d get some sympathy, but I’d be seen as average at best. That didn’t sit well with me, so I dove in like a maniac.

I knew I wouldn’t be in this position for very long as I would be promoted to captain in June and it was now February. The XO billet was for a lieutenant, so I had about 4 months to get something done. During this time I got one major lucky break with my new boss taking leave for about a 1/3 of my tenure as XO. With him out of the picture I had one less obstacle. Having to cover down on the meetings he would go to and reports he would send up was far less of a thief on my time. I usually prepared those reports anyway. It also made things less bloody when I had to break the news of the lack of inventories being conducted to the brigade commander, the same one whose green tea I used to make. Coming clean with this news instead of continuing to cover it up saved me from a serious chewing out, but my new boss sure got it when he got back. I had become so angered with his incompetence that it didn’t bother me one bit. I was the one having to clean up his mess, he could at least take an ass chewing.

So we got to business with slowly accounting for every single piece of equipment and property. In the meantime I went through every maintenance record with my motor sergeant so that we could make a plan for fixing all our vehicles. One truck was hopeless. It needed a new engine and that was an issue that would be taken care of many levels above us. As for the other 11, we methodically identified sources of repair parts. There was an intra-post transfer program that allowed us to essentially buy excess spare parts from other units instead of ordering through the traditional system. That cut down on wait time for parts and got some of our vehicles back up and running in short order. Other issues required some help from the warrant officer who oversaw the brigade’s maintenance system. He was the head maintainer, and warrant officers are the people who you go to when you need a drug deal. Not cocaine. I’m talking about a quiet deal between some old friends to get things taken care of without all the normal forms and red tape. After a couple months of this our truck awaiting a new engine was the only remaining deadline. We were also able to get a couple more mechanics assigned to us and were nearly fully staffed.

What stood out to me was that the supply sergeant and motor sergeant were outstanding at their jobs. They knew the faults of their respective systems and it tore them up. They needed help though, they needed someone to enable them to just do their jobs. I didn’t do anything special. All I did was talk to them, try to listen and understand their problems, and figure out what bullshit I could take off their plates.

Many times officers are the butt of lazy jokes, not always undeservedly. What I learned from the best officers I met was that they didn’t walk around with a sense of self-importance. They looked at subordinates as important people on a team. The officer might hold a higher rank but that didn’t mean much. Everyone had a job to do, and without each person doing their share the whole team failed. The best officers I knew stayed humble and sought out ways to help their people do their jobs. The approach essentially put everyone else’s job at a higher priority. Being more concerned about their subordinates’ ability to achieve than their own accomplishments and ego, these officers made everyone around them better and happier.

There is a good deal more to my time at Fort Hood, so we’ll revisit this. Reflecting on this assignment it becomes clear to me how important it was to my development as an officer and as a person. Obviously I broke down some unjustified biases. I also had experiences that reinforced my ideas of leading by putting your subordinates above yourself. I learned that sitting down to talk to people, getting to know them and show genuine concern was what would make or break you. The importance of communication and honesty were driven home during this year at Fort Hood. Above all else, what I came to know with complete certainty was that the only things that matter about a person are their competence and their character. Are you able to fulfill your responsibilities and are you ethical?

Traveling Tim

Hello, Friends.

I want to share a couple of current events before launching into the heart of the post. My stories can be a useful means for bridging the civil/military gap, but linking them with what’s going on right now seems to have a value of its own.

My wife and I went to the Women’s March in Buffalo. Protests aren’t really my thing. I’m not into big group gatherings, especially for political reasons. Eventually the group-think takes over and the group becomes a mob. The gathering stayed fairly tame though, minus a few people shouting down a man criticizing the mayor of Buffalo when the mayor got to the podium. A few speeches were made and we all walked a circuit downtown. It was all so very civil that you got a feeling this was just a regular weekend event.

Wanting to take advantage of this new experience I tried to just observe. The predominant thought that I was left with was that I had just seen the most basic use of the First Amendment. A gathering of strangers peaceably assembled for the purpose of expressing their feelings and thoughts about the state of our country was powerful. And I was grateful. I did not agree with every person and every sign that day, but I was beaming with appreciation that these people all came out on a January day in WNY to exercise their rights. These people were, in a way, showing gratitude for the sacrifices made by service members by getting out and getting involved.  Vets are sometimes guilty of detesting civilians for not caring about the country and not appreciating their civil liberties. This event, and the many across the nation, ought to be viewed as Americans at their best.

Shifting gears to a story from this week, I spent some time reflecting on this teacher from California in the news for some pretty ignorant remarks about military personnel and the predictable backlash. While Mr. Salcido was wildly off the mark,  he wasn’t completely wrong. Eventually I’ll come to the ‘One Krueger, One Cup’ story (anyone remember 2 Girls 1 Cup?). Every organization has some dirtbags in it, including El Rancho USD. Measuring groups by how they handle these people is a fairer metric than simply dismissing a group for having them.

Dismaying as it may be to see an educator abusing their position to preach their opinion on developing young minds, this shouldn’t shock anyone. More discouraging to me was the backlash. The Chief of Staff of the White House saying this teacher should ‘go to Hell’ does not help. All the Basic Vets trying to bro-up to Mr. Salcido only helps to make his statements seem accurate.

For me, this all confirmed the depth of our civil/military divide and the need for Vets to reach out. Yes, there are some real dumb bastards in the ranks. Yes, joining the military was the only way for some of us to get out of our hometowns or improve our stations in life. What about that is so bad? Without an ROTC scholarship I would have never been able to go to St. Bonaventure University. My hard work opened an opportunity for me and taxpayers gave me the help I needed. As much as I sneer at the service academy types they do get an Ivy League level education. For every time I wondered how a private managed to walk and chew gum simultaneously, there were 20 who could hold their own in any academic setting.

I will never get the chance to talk with Mr. Salcido, but maybe these writings will reach some who sympathize with him. The only way to bring people to the truth is to communicate. Instead of challenging people to arm wrestling matches we need to engage each other with dialogue. Above all, aggressive actions intended to intimidate someone to change their speech is nothing but censorship. A teacher’s First Amendment rights are sometimes fuzzy, but let’s assume these comments are protected speech. Anyone who swore to defend the Constitution and then tries to intimidate a person espousing an opinion that they do not like is nothing but a hypocrite. Using force to change a person’s words only entrenches their silent opinion. This is no way to build community and understanding. It’s the antithesis of America.

With these recent events in mind, let’s talk about how travel changes these problems. Much has been written about the benefits of frequent traveling, I don’t aim to write another trivial piece along these lines. What I would tell you, and what I would tell Mr. Salcido, is a story of life lessons gained during my year in Korea.

Camp Casey is the northern most outpost of US soldiers on the Korean Peninsula. About 10 miles from the DMZ there just isn’t much around the base. Aside from the Ville (every US base has a ‘Ville’ in the immediate area outside the gates) the offerings are slim. The Ville was good for bootleg DVDs, odd gifts that people back home thought were exotic, and juicy bars. I spent a good many nights in Cheers and I think the Mustang is where I almost got in a fight when some soldiers cornered me and a friend because they thought we were gay.

Nothing good happens in the Ville, so I got the hell out of TDC whenever I could. Seoul was an hour away by train and the ticket cost a couple dollars. Busan was also great, but required catching a 4 hour bullet train out of Seoul. That was a full weekend trip. It also violated curfew and probably a dozen other regulations that could’ve ended my career, so Busan was a once every few months trip. That’s no exaggeration either. I met the longest tenured First Lieutenant in the Army at Camp Casey. Dude busted curfew while out drinking with his soldiers and was pretty much told ‘OK, you’ll serve out your term and then you can go be a civilian. No more promotions.’ (The promotion rate from 1LT to captain hovered around 98%, just to show how special this guy was).

Traveling was a matter of survival for me. I needed to get away from work and the only way to do that was to hop the train and go exploring. Uijongbu was only 30 minutes away and provided a great weeknight escape. Seoul was the jewel though. While most of my exploits revolved around drinking and the night life offered, I also took time to enjoy being in such a foreign land. Going from WNY, spending a year crossing the US, and then being in Korea is something you could write comedies of. Not quite a bumpkin, but not very worldly either.

Some areas were heavily Westernized and English was widely spoken. Those areas also tended to be swamped with soldiers. If I wanted to feel normal I had to learn some Korean so that I could travel at will. What I figured out was that if you showed some universal manners and learned some basic words/phrases like “Hello/Good bye”, “Thank you”, “Please”, some words for directing cabbies, and ordering food and drinks in Korean everything was much easier. I decided that the universal phrase to learn in the native tongue of any country is “Two beers, please”.

Little courtesies and basic manners. These things neutralized any distrust a Korean may have held (I don’t think I ran into much though). I also learned a lot from my English teacher friends. I started playing rugby in Korea and it helped me meet Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, and some Brits who were in Korea teaching English at local schools. These people were a literal life line as I often went out with them. I learned where the good places to go to avoid any military curfew patrols, and they often let me crash at their apartments while I was busting curfew. They also taught me how to get around the city in a respectful way, how to not make an ass of myself and perpetuate the Ugly American image.

There’s the missing link. Starting off with showing respect, understanding that you are just one small piece of a larger whole, not putting yourself above another. These concepts seem to be missing all too often. A man not keeping his hands to himself, a teacher thinking he holds moral superiority, a Vet thinking they are more equal than non-Vets, or an American abroad. We lose our sense of community one small chip after another. When we lack respect and civility, when we start thinking that we hold some special status over another person, we betray our American ideals. We can all do better.

This experiment in addressing our civil/military divide is a microcosm of a larger illness. We don’t need safe spaces, we need to be civil toward each other. We need to humble our egos. We need to talk to people who hold differing opinions without becoming angry. Each time we build greater understanding of the other we fulfill the lofty ideals of our sacred documents.  That is our perpetual responsibility as Americans.

Until we meet again.

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

On transitions

So glad you’re back. I’ve been reading a good bit and jotting down some thoughts since my last post. Today I intend to write a literal transition piece to link my previous post and the post to follow this one. One of the things I read that helped form this idea was a blog post by Marisa Mohi titled Transitions Are Hard.

Admittedly I do not read many other blogs. I prefer a book or magazine in my hands and right now as I write there is a stack of 14 books about a foot away from me that I am working through. Marisa was a great help for me kicking this effort off and this particular post of her’s hit home (she’s also kind enough to leave frequent comments here). It’s really a great piece that ties in with some themes that I am tackling here so I thought I’d use it as a jumping off point. Please take a few minutes to read Marisa’s post before continuing here.

The last line is absolutely perfect – “Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?” I loved this for three reasons.

  1. It’s the perfect way to describe the transition from active duty back to civilian life. Something that is central to this blog’s theme.
  2. It references Bevis and Butthead Do America, a true cinematic masterpiece.
  3. I’ve jumped out of a moving car…. twice…. within a 1/4 mile stretch. (Tequila)

Let’s chat about that Bevis and Butthead clip. It’s a great (unintended) metaphor for transitioning. Starting with a jacking off joke and the taunting to stop being a pussy, to thinking all you need to do is run really fast to keep up with the fast moving road, and being pushed out by someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. We’ll take those things one at a time.

In leading up to leaving active duty peers will make lots of stupid jokes to play down the seriousness and difficulty of the task that lays ahead. We are told time and time again that since we performed complicated tasks in the most high stress environment imaginable for long periods of time, sometimes leading others in the process, that we can do anything. Don’t even question your abilities, it’s laughable to think that you can’t do anything that a civilian can do. You’ve done way more than your civilian counterparts, AND they’re pussies. Just be confident and you’ll have people falling over themselves to hire you, you hero you.

And politicians wonder why vets have such difficulties making it in civilian life.

Next up – in addition to overestimating your own value and abilities we are also guilty of underestimating how hard job searching is. I’m not talking about skimming online job boards. I mean building a professional network, selecting companies or industries that suit you, finding locations you want to live in, and finding a job that will hopefully provide a comparable standard of living to what you had in the military. A great book on this (that I wish I had in 2009) is CONUS Battle Drills. A necessary read for people about to make the transition and a neat insight for civilians who want to read something that dives into the details of successful military transitions. This whole idea of just running really fast, to just hustle, sets many vets up for failure. It glosses over the challenges of professional life transitions and completely ignores the personal life transition. In my opinion, the challenges to your personal life in this military-to-civilian transition is the tougher of the two. More to follow.

Lastly, getting the motivational push from a dope who is as full of shit as my colon. This is skewed by my own experience, but I’d wager it’s pretty common. In 2010 the Army required all personnel separating or retiring to go through ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program). A great political talking point is that military personnel need a ‘reverse bootcamp’ to prepare them for civilian life. Well, ACAP has been around a long time. The program exists, it just sucks. There are two required briefings, one on job searching skills and another about VA benefits, that take up one full duty day combined. That’s what all transitioning personnel get without question, ONE day of briefings. There are plenty of other classes offered, usually people sign up for them to get out of whatever shit detail their unit is pushing onto the guys getting out. For anyone who really gives a damn about the class the product is pretty lame and not worth the time. What it really comes down to is that in many cases the person teaching the transitioning personnel about civilian life, job searching, networking, etc. is likely a retired NCO who got out of the military and landed in a nice Federal job teaching these classes. They regurgitate material that was taught them. Rarely is there a person with real experiences and qualifications to teach these classes. It’s literally the dumb leading the blind. Butthead is pushing our collective Bevis out of the trunk while Bevis is still pondering his decision.

So that’s how I ended up unemployed for five months after my separation date, finally taking a job with M&T Bank in its collections department (Customer Asset Management – talk about a churched up name). Fortunately I had built up some G.I. Bill benefits and began a MBA program a few months earlier. School was my main focus but there were still bills to be paid. So I was a full time grad student, a MBA candidate with a BA in history and never a business class taken before, while working full time and commuting over an hour each way 5 days a week with class on Friday nights and Saturdays. Not exactly the image of a successful transition. Ironically, it was this same year that Bevis and Butthead began airing again. Wouldn’t you know it, there was an episode where our heroes stumble into a call center and start taking calls. It was exactly like my experience working for M&T, and I made sure to say “I understand your frustrations” as much as possible. Even got some of my co-workers in on the joke.

Even more difficult than the professional challenges was trying to find a fulfilling personal life again. I had not realized just how much the Army had provided the community that filled my life. There were always a few good friends around, there was a social circle that provided the support needed when life got stressful. There were people with shared experiences to bond with and to value. There were people who understood your troubles, there were mentors, there was a personal nexus that formed your life on duty and off duty. This was something that I just did not recognize, let alone value. It’s something I still miss and have not been able to replace. This is the lasting challenge for me right now. I love and cherish my family, but we all need friends and social interactions outside of the home as well. This is something that my wife has recognized and struggles with as well. Our lives were so dependent on the community that came with being in the Army but we failed to see that. It took many years for this fact to smack us upside the head. It’s still a challenge to work on, but knowing’s half the battle, right?

This is where the next post will pick up. At the urging of a friend, I am going to dive deeper into the social challenges faced in transition, the difficulty in finding friendship and the emotional toll that takes.

My last thought on transition for today. Recently I finished Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio. Gender dysphoria and gender transition has long interested me. The lead signer of Against Me! (one of my favorite bands) is a trans woman and her last few albums laid bare all the pain, joy, and raw emotions of her struggles with gender dysphoria and transition. This book was fantastic, I’d recommend it for anyone with a similar interest (it is a novel). What strikes home for me is the unique challenges facing the trans community. Combining that with Marisa’s post about semester transitions it is clear that difficult transitions are something that all people go through. It’s not just a vet problem, it’s a problem of all people. We all face a different struggle, but we can find common ground here and we should. Rather than the basic vet who wants to turn every issue into a vet-centric issue, the veteran community should see this common ground as a way to talk about our struggles, exercise some empathy, check our egos, and talk to civilians about what similar challenges they’ve faced and how they overcame. Let’s use our unique transitions in life to bridge the civil/military divide. We’ll be more successful, and we’ll be better Americans for it.

Until we meet again.

Chingu, Habibi, Friend

After a brief holiday break it’s nice to be back with you. Hope you had a great time whatever you celebrated. My wife and I took off for Nashville for the NYE Jimmy Buffett show. Absolutely fabulous time with a couple of highlights that I wanted to share here. One was getting accosted by religious zealots outside of the Bridgestone Arena, the other was getting to see two friends that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. Before I dive into today’s story I just want to take a moment to express my gratitude to my wife for dealing with my insistence to drive from WNY to Nashville in one day (then go out to see The Dead Deads at the Lipstick Lounge that night) and for her graciousness in meeting my friends whom she did not know.

This was my first time being the subject of someone’s religious protest, so chalk that one up for the record books. I had always seen some ‘End-of-days’ types with their John 3:16 signs at Bills games, but they were friendly. These folks outside of the Buffett show were the real ‘fire and brimstone’ types, vacillating between warnings of going to Hell for our sins and then condescending mockery of how the concert-goers were stupid, immature, and acting like teenagers (because teenagers are all evil of course). It was truly a sight to behold in the single digit temperatures. Add to that a security back-up that had 300 foot long lines taking an hour to get inside and the folks in line were getting agitated.

Now, people can pretty much say what they want to me and I can brush it off. I just shook my head at how these Christians were acting like anything but, and the irony of someone standing in the cold to shout a message nobody cared about which included telling the Parrotheads that they were wasting their lives was a bit much. Almost past the group of Westboro Baptist Church wannabes I was stuck with one of them in front of me, blocking my free movement just enough for me to let an elbow jut out, meeting the pudgy proselytizer in the ribcage. While this gave a measure of quick satisfaction I immediately cursed myself for giving in to the easy temptation. For the record, I was not intoxicated, this was a clear-headed choice. I knew by jabbing my elbow in his ribs that this guy would feel vindicated and righteous. Still, he was blocking the free movement of people peaceably assembling. I stood there wondering which was the greater Constitutional infringement, my elbowing a protester exercising his religious freedom (misguided as it was) or this man’s infringement upon the right of people’s freedom of movement and right to enjoy themselves at a concert? I did know that my reaction was anything but Stoic. Certainly I was not being materially wronged or harmed and should have simply ignored these zealots and continued on my way.

So this was an opportunity to practice some Stoic self control and I failed. Reflecting on this though, I realize that a short time ago I may have been much quicker to throw that ‘bow, or to go even further. That makes me sad and also gives me some satisfaction that sticking with regular therapy sessions and devoting myself to Stoicism has been helping. While I could brood on my failings in controlling my emotions and taking right action I know that the proper thing to do now is to recognize and accept my failing, learn from it, and do better next time. This is important not just for the sake of being a good human, but also to be a credible voice. It’s one thing to sit here writing a lot of lovely things, but if I fail to live up to these words and then fail to change my ways I am nothing but a hypocrite. We all fail, getting back up and doing better, rather than maintaining the status quo, is what separates people. I will do better.

Now, the other topic I want to delve into is a bit of a set up. Journaling at the hotel room in Columbus, OH it became clear that I have only a partial thought. Still, discussing meeting up with old friends has something important to it, and rather than waiting for the thought to mature before writing about it I want to share some thoughts with y’all and let the writing develop the thought.

One thing people often point out as a uniqueness of the military, or at the least one of the benefits of the military, is the strong sense of camaraderie. This is something that I have had a hard time with, but after years of thought I believe my cynicism may have been the result of unfair expectations. I often felt let down by the Army and lied to. In hindsight this was probably as much my own fault as the Army’s. My lack of controlling my emotion added to the feeling and a negative feedback loop of jadedness followed. I never belonged to a unit where it felt like everyone (or even most people) got along. I was never in a unit where people would spend their weekends with the same clowns they spent their duty days with. Korea was an exception, but even there the unit I was in lacked compared to other units on Camp Casey.

The expected camaraderie just didn’t exist. This was difficult to accept, but some years later I think I’ve finally realized what that unique camaraderie really meant. While units were not filled with friends, I left every unit with a couple of really close friends. These were people who did become family to me, people who I would still rush to help at the drop of a hat. Having spent six years in different civilian jobs now, I can say that I’ve never met a friend at any of those jobs who I felt an equally strong bond with. Now, that’s not to say I think everyone I’ve met at my civilian jobs is a schmuck, I’ve met some people that I really like and hang out with from time to time. I wouldn’t drive 1,000 miles to see them or go out of my way on a road trip just to have a meal with them though. And there’s the rub. That camaraderie I wanted so badly did exist, and I couldn’t see it until it was gone.

On our recent trip my friend Remington Vandergriff drove to Nashville from Clarksville to have dinner with us. We spent a few hours sharing drinks, food, and good stories. We got to catch up face to face for the first time since June 2008. We text and call each other frequently, but it still struck us that it had been so many years between hugs. That being said, we picked up right where we left off. We had lived and worked together at the ADA OBC and then in Korea. We travelled to Guam and all over Seoul and Busan together. We had some really great nights out in El Paso. We’ve saved each other from dangerous situations more than once.

Driving back to NY we decided to split the drive over two days. This allowed time to stop on New Year’s Day to visit another friend, Zach Morgan. I met Zach at LDAC in the summer of 2005 and hadn’t seen him since. Again, Zach is a friend I am in fairly frequent communication with. He’s also one of the friends who partnered with me on the Band of Bards project that I wrote about earlier. Our mutual affinity for history and common world view made us fast friends. Driving some backroads just northeast of Louisville, I commented that we could’ve been anywhere in WNY by the looks of things. As big as America is its continuity is a marvel. We arrived at Zach’s home in time for gumbo, sharing dinner with Zach, his wife (who I’d never met), their children, and two of their friends. We were welcomed like family, conversation striking up as if we met for dinner every week. Sadly, it was a sort of dine and dash as we only had a couple hours to spend and another 3 plus hours of driving before reaching Columbus.

As I drove through Ohio I started to think over these reunions. I couldn’t help but wonder how common it was to meet people like Remington and Zach. I could name a half dozen or so others that I met over 5 years in the Army who I could have similar experiences with. The longer I though the more it seemed that this was probably a high number of close friends to make over such a period. I wondered what other people experienced in their first 10 years out of college. There aren’t many people that I went to high school with that I still keep in contact with, let alone consider such close friends. The same for college. So is that just my isolated experience, or can this be confirmed? Did the Army really leave me with truly unique, life-long friendships that people in other industries don’t experience? This is something I’d like to explore some more. This could be one of those civil/military divide aspects that deserves more attention. When people ask why anyone would go into or stay in the military it isn’t uncommon for someone to respond that they did it because of the people they met. Maybe the friends you make in the military really do have a uniqueness to them that is much harder to come by in the civilian world? We’ll only find out by asking.

So here I need your help, True Believer. What’s your take on this? Leave some comments and let’s get a conversation started. I’d really like to get some opinions from both sides of the room on this one.

Until we meet again.

Civil/military relations of The Punisher

There was a great disturbance in my life this past week. As if millions of my hopes cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced by Rian Johnson. When I say this aloud I realize how sad it is, but my disappointment after seeing The Last Jedi on Thursday put me in a real funk for a few days. I’m not going into that here, but I wanted to at least take time to acknowledge this, how silly it is, and to bear some Star Wars fanboy soul.

With that out of the way, I actually want to talk about a different Disney property that has yet to fail me and how it got me thinking about how veterans are portrayed in popular media. By that I mean all sorts of media – TV, radio, movies, the news, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I binged a bit on Marvel’s The Punisher yesterday and it struck me for how it dove into the issue of veterans transitioning out of the military with a uniquely authentic tone. The show is not glossing over the issue, it’s not playing up any stereotype in a superficial manner, and it is not hiding or shrinking from the topic. If you have Netflix, check out the show.

If you’re not familiar with The Punisher, Frank Castle is (in this installment anyway) a former Marine officer. His last assignment was a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was on an off the books team of various special operations types doing a lot of really dirty work (war crimes) under the direction of a CIA spook. As it relates to this blog post, this storyline leaves Frank with a bunch of messed up memories. The show also features two of Frank’s fellow teammates from that deployment, one of whom now runs a private security firm (Blackwater, anyone?) and another who we see running a support group for veterans. The scenes with this support group offer a chance for the show to take on some other supporting characters that do not require much screen time while still being able to introduce a whole gambit of veterans with varying degrees of success in post-military life.

This interests me as it’s not totally necessary to advance the main plot, but it adds a degree of depth to the show for a character who is typically just thought of as a knuckle-dragging, ball of rage, revenge machine with a value system that is so diametrically clear cut it is hard to introduce much subtlety.  Now, I am not a finesse guy. That’s why The Punisher always appealed to me. So getting this sub-plot of ancillary characters to introduce some moral ambiguity is a great shot of complexity. I think that the writers are treating the subject of post-military life with a fair level of seriousness and also present some different views in a way that respects the topic while not playing soft.

One of these chaps is a young post-9/11 vet who is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He is angry, a bit paranoid, vulnerable, and just cannot find meaning out of uniform. He’s also not a caricature of these themes, he presents these real world problems in a very authentic manner. We see Louis fall deeper into himself and withdraw from the group. He is preyed upon by another older vet who attends the support group. This character presents the antagonistic force to the group leader. He openly tells the group that he shows up just to ‘tell the truth’ to the rest of the group. He’s the angry old vet (and we find out later that he’s a stolen valor d-bag) who insists that the country doesn’t care about us, that he was spit on and treated like garbage. He is the self-entitled, ‘your welcome for my service’ kind of guy. This is of note as we do not often see this side presented in media. The ugly vet is a difficult topic to take on for a movie or TV show, with lots of potential backlash. The fact that The Punisher takes this on and does so well with it warrants mention and serious propers.

Louis also got me thinking about myself. I struggled with all of the same things as this character does. Finding purpose was the hardest thing (still is) and the underlying anger that goes along with drifting through life can eat you up. Looking around at the rest of the country, the country that exists outside of the bubbles around military bases, and recognizing that people don’t care about the wars or the military as you do. Feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives go on, blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Resenting your peers for having a leg up on you with their civilian careers even though you’ve done way more impressive and important things. Doubting yourself more and more as you continue to struggle to adjust and just be a normal fucking person. Everyone else has an easy time doing it, why can’t you!?

I remember being out at a local bar one night after finishing up Sebastian Junger’s War. It started out alright and I was enjoying being out and around people. At some point though I realized I was clenching my hands into fists, looking at everyone with a spiteful eye. I hated these people. These pathetic wastes of life who didn’t deserve to be out enjoying themselves while others were still dying on the mountains of Afghanistan. How could they live with theirselves, going on with such trivial and meaningless lives? They didn’t care that Resrepto got wasted. They didn’t care about anything except drinking cheap beer and trying to get laid.

Talk about being full of yourself. I hadn’t been any different than everyone else in that bar not too long ago. There was no justifiable reason for me to feel the way I did that night. Luckily I went outside to get some air, quickly started feeling like a weirdo, and then walked home without incident. This happened only a couple years ago, more than 4 years after separating from the Army. Clearly I still needed more help. I had done some therapy sessions at my local VA clinic but stopped because of changing work schedules. Around the same time that all this happened I got back into regular sessions at an office outside of Buffalo. It’s really hard to see myself having the same reaction today, but to think that some of those feelings aren’t still lingering would be a lie.

The therapy has helped, and I truly think everyone would benefit from checking in with a therapist from time to time. What helped me turn a corner of sorts was stumbling onto Stoicism. I read that Stoic philosophy was a cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it seemed sensible to learn more about it and how the two related. Well, this was a lightbulb-switching-on kind of moment for me. Stoic teachings overlapped with many of the values I learned in the Army and still cling to. The importance on acting like a good person and putting your philosophy into action, rather than just going through an academic exercise of thinking about what makes a person good, was something that attracted me. Deeds over words. This was something that I understood.

Admittedly, I had been floating in the wind when it came to religion/spirituality. Catholicism and me split ways long ago. While I still have great respect for Franciscan teachings, monotheism just doesn’t do it for me. That obvious conflict left me with a bit of a void. Stoic philosophy helped to fill in the gaps and give me something more tangible to grasp. More lightbulbs went off. I learned that much of that anger was just my own incorrect perception. I learned to accept that other people are not going to care about the same things that I do, or if they do it won’t be to the same extent that I do. It finally dawned on me that this isn’t because those people are of poor moral character, but because they have their own lives with their own worries. I started to sort out these toxic ideas that I had carried with me for years. It’s still a work in progress, but the impact of practicing Stoicism was substantial and swift.

The lesson here is that bridging the civil/military divide helps both the civilian and the veteran. Both parties need that to happen as a way to heal individually, and collectively. We each share in the moral burden of our country’s wars, we each have something to learn from each other. I hope you’re finding value in what I am sharing. This blog is certainly helping me. And, after all, you’re here, and I’m here, so isn’t this really OUR blog?

Until we meet again.