On love

Today is my 11th wedding anniversary. At times I’m surprised at how many years have passed since September 4, 2009. Other days it seems so incredibly distant. We’ve gone through so much together, have taken roads we never expected. In forging our life together we have had to be stubborn, we’ve had to find resolve when hope was beyond low, we’ve had to persist.

Our marriage started in a crucible. A test of long distance and uncertain danger from the beginning. I want to share that story. I want to celebrate it and our love as we wade into a second decade together.

We went from celebrations and exuberant joy to heart crushing separation within a week. While we wed on the fourth, I left for Iraq on the ninth. The swing from peak to valley was massive and swift. It was also full of anxiety just getting to that first, early milestone.

Our plan was to have a secret ceremony in the Finger Lakes while I was on my pre-deployment leave. A gorgeous venue picked out and reserved. All the necessities planned. And then a surprise from the Army, the kind that makes you scream within your heart. My MTT cohort’s planned deployment date was September 19th. When the transportation orders were being cut, someone made a typo and changed it to September 9th. This was only a couple of days after my cohort’s planned graduation date from the MTT school. It meant that nobody would have any time to take leave prior to deployment. Our course accelerated and we squeezed out a few more days off before leaving Fort Riley. It still was not enough to travel from Kansas to New York for me, or for most of the other guys in my cohort to see their loved ones.

I had to break this news to Robin. The Army has a way of forcing you to make these hard phone calls, of ripping the band-aid off. Getting fucked by the Big Green Weenie is bad enough. Knowing that people you love will also have to take it is what really makes that life hard, makes it impossible eventually.

It was horrible. The kind of conversation where your guts are in knots before you even dial. But we rolled with it and decided to make a new plan. Robin put trust in me to find a new place to have our small wedding, just now it would be in Manhattan, KS. To find an officiant, figure out the marriage license, where we would stay for our few days together, and what the hell to wear! I was living TDY in a barracks at Fort Riley with follow on to Iraq. Didn’t exactly pack my formal wear.

So I set out visiting local B&Bs. Saw a few. Some did weddings, others didn’t. Some had vacancies that worked, others didn’t. But then I walked into the Morning Star B&B on Houston St. The rooms named for different teas, the proprietors a husband and wife. Laurie ran the house, Bill had a furniture store and a motorcycle shop in town. She was a former philosophy professor at K State, he was a speed loving petrolhead. They were a perfectly odd couple, people who we could spend hours with. The home had a wrap around porch overlooking painstakingly maintained gardens. It was a peaceful respite and it immediately felt right.

With that part figured out it was easy enough to get the licensing piece taken care of. But now I had to find someone to actually marry us. How do you even start that search in an unfamiliar town and no desire for religious services? I honestly can’t even remember what I did. Maybe a Google search for local ministers, maybe a phonebook, maybe even some kind of local directory. But I found one hell of a fruitcake, non-denominational minister who was just the right kind of weird. She had a small office downtown, next to a chiropractor’s office and down a poorly lit hallway. I explained the situation, she was sympathetic and mostly up for officiating our wedding. She just wanted to meet with us in person first. Not that big of a deal normally, but we were crunched for time and while the chances of her backing out were slim, odder things had happened already.

As it were, the next several days went by without any other surprises. My class wrapped up. Robin made the trip from Temple, TX to the Little Apple. We were together again and nothing else mattered. Painfully aware of how little time we actually had together we made the most of it. Of course because I wasn’t able to get to NY to see family before leaving my family decided to come to Kansas. We couldn’t be mad. Jealous of our time together as we were, we both knew that we weren’t the only two caught up in this mess. So our private wedding grew to a small gathering. My parents, sisters, brother, two brothers-in-law, and nephews and niece. Robin’s dear friend Maureen made the trek and took care of photos.

It was a short ceremony in the garden by the fountain in front of the Morning Star. We wrote our own vows and our minister spoke briefly. I wore a cream-colored suit with black shirt and pirate cufflinks, a wedding present from Robin. My lovely bride wore a black dress with red frills. We were going to do things our way, thumbing our noses at tradition and every force working against us the whole way. I can remember the bubbling of the fountain, songbirds taking the place of the organist, feeling alone in a bubble together despite the small crowd and emergency sirens from a couple streets over. It was public and it was intimate. It was not too shabby for having a couple days to plan.

It was perfect for us.

Laurie brought out a cake she had made that morning for all of us, a wedding surprise both touching and sweet. Our minister simply walked off into the afternoon, not wanting to linger too long. Our small party congratulating us and enjoying the confections before everyone made off for their hotels and some rest. We had a dinner together at Harry’s on Poyntz for our reception and hopped around Manhattan for the evening. The next day family and friends all departed for New York or Texas. Not the greatest ‘good bye’ for a family to get before deployment. There were about 250 other families going through the same thing because of someone’s careless typo.

Hard as those partings were we had no time to spare for ruminating. Our days were rapidly counting down. We were in our bubble together and that was enough for us. Sleeping as little as possible for the next few days and doing as much as we could to make those days count. Picnics in the park, walks exploring town, and simply laying together in each other’s arms. Ecstasy mixed with excruciating torment of a ticking clock. Spending hours lost in amazement of what we had pulled off and then dreading those same hours spent. Deployment hanging over our heads, a Sword of Damocles for both of us.

September 8th was absolute torture. I had to report at 0400 on the 9th, the worst wake up call of my life. Neither of us slept very much, maybe a couple hours, before Robin drove me onto Fort Riley. She had to deliver me to be taken away from her. It was all finally too much and we broke down crying on each other’s shoulders. Dragging out the inevitable as long as I could before that last kiss. One final ‘I love you’ before grabbing my duffel bag and walking off to join my team.

The best and worst days of my life all within a week.

When people say Army life is hard it isn’t easy to really communicate just how horrible it can be. I always felt the worst part was what you had to put your family through. Enduring hardships in a vacuum is easy. Seeing your loved ones shouldered with your obligations is what really rips your heart up.

We began life together under some of the most tumultuous conditions one could dream up. Marriage is something that inherently brings the bitter with the better, but you don’t often get such extremes days after professing your vows. I told myself it would make us stronger, that if we could take that challenge on right away then nothing could break us.

Eleven years on we have come such a long way together. Life is never everything we want, expect, or even what we feel we deserve. Life is what we make of it together.

My incomplete memory seems to do an inadequate job of recalling this story. One thing that I am certain of is how much I love you. You are my person. Our story has many years to go, so much left to write.

Happy Anniversary, my Love.

Continue reading “On love”

Black Lives in camo

I’d like to tell you about some people. People who made me better. People who put on a uniform and were able to gain the respect that they were never shown in civilian clothes by their fellow Americans. Put on the cammies and all of a sudden they’re heroes and are praised. The two faces that America showed to these people display part of this nation’s character in ways few other things can.

I’m talking about the black, Hispanic, Asian & Pacific Islander NCOs who propped me up. If an officer ever achieves any semblance of success, it’s on the backs of NCOs and soldiers. Yeah we had to put in our own work, but for an officer to accomplish anything it also requires others to do their jobs well. Any officer who thinks otherwise is full of shit.

I fucked up plenty of things. I failed repeatedly, and I let others down. I also squeaked out some wins here and there. There was always an NCO behind that W. So how about I tell you of some of them. A few I’ve mentioned here before, some by name & others not.

As a platoon leader in Korea I went through three platoon sergeants. CONUS that’d raise eyebrows, in Korea it was just the nature of rapid turnover. All three were people of color. My first, Clester Slater left a lasting impact on me. While only together for a couple months he set the foundation for all my future success. He also taught me about what life was like for a black kid growing up in Long Beach. He lived through the Rodney King riots. Saw gang violence, and had his own struggles to get a better life for himself. Dude is a pure inspiration to me and we remain friends. Right now I’m wearing a Poison t-shirt that he sent me as a gift, while he was in Afghanistan.

Monday mornings were spent sitting in a conex with Slate. We just sat there talking, getting to know each other. It was a chance for me to show that I wasn’t a butter bar gone wild. I had good ROTC instructors who told me to shut my mouth and just listen. Get to know your platoon, let them know you, and don’t worry about making any changes for 90 days. So we sat on Mondays and Fridays just bullshitting. Slate would think of things to teach me about Avengers and we’d go to one of our crews and he’d have the gunner show me. Talking to my fellow PLs about their PSGs made me know that I was lucky.

It’s hard to imagine a much different background from mine, a white kid who grew up in a pretty safe small town in western NY. The worst organized crime around me was a ‘gang’ of teenaged kids that called themselves the Yellow Diamonds and stole bikes. I got slapped by one once while 12 others surrounded my friend and me. If that’s the worse gang violence you experience in life, be thankful. Of course I wasn’t at the time. I was resentful and pissed off. It reinforced the racist shit my dad was always drilling into me.

My other platoon sergeants were Michael Carmona and SFC Nervis. I did not have as close a relationship with these men but they were with me for months and we worked well together. They had my back when I was pressed by field grades about stupid shit. They kept my head on straight when I got dumb LT ideas. They kept developing me as a young leader and in air defense tactics. They cared about what they did as PSGs and they wanted to mentor a young LT who, miraculously, was receptive.

There was no shortage of junior NCOs in my battery in Korea who stepped up to help me either. Sometimes on the job, in the motor pool, on field exercises, at gunnery (something that makes or breaks PLs), and even off post when some drunken infantry guys were close to jumping me. Those 11 bang bangs were all white and full of hate. They got it in their heads that my buddy and I were secretly gay and pinned us against the bar. Several NCOs from my battery were in a corner table and watching. They came and bailed us out. We bought their drinks for the night. It would’ve been real ugly for two LTs getting jumped in a juicy bar outside Camp Casey. Both medically and professionally. Our asses got saved that night largely because of black NCOs watching our backs. The only thing that mattered to them was that we were in the same unit. That meant they were there to stand by us.

At Fort Hood things were different. I was working on a bare bones brigade staff. I hated it and had lots of trouble finding my place. I didn’t really get along with most the other officers, just didn’t click with them save for the 2LT who was our brigade S1. The people who took me under their wings and taught me the most were the brigade S2 & her sergeant major, the S3 and his sergeant major, and the brigade PBO who was a baby warrant officer.

Our S2 Rhana was Lebanese. Bobby, her SGM was black. As was the S3 MAJ Bronson and our PBO Ms. Bailey. SGM Santos was the S3 NCOIC. These people for some reason seemed to care about me. They took time to talk with me, help keep me sane, teach me, mentor me, and would help me even though I was part of the command group and not really their responsibility. They saw me struggling to adapt to life on a brigade staff and in the spotlight of the command group. Rhana even had me over for meals, inviting me into her home and welcoming me to meet her family. These were the people who looked after me, even if I didn’t realize they were doing so. They continued to help me as I transitioned to being the brigade HHB XO. They offered their advise and wisdom as I neared my date to leave the brigade and head off to the MTT schoolhouse at Fort Riley.

On the MTT assignment my team leader was a black major, and the warrant officer and logistics NCO who I would work most closely with were also black. Now, I’d butted heads with my team leader, but he supported me when it counted. Chief Davis and SSG Harvey (who’s now a badass 1SG) were my boys. I was the team’s XO, but because I wasn’t the senior most captain I was not the second in command as is normal for the XO role. So my main duties were managing the staff functions of the team, especially the logistics and maintenance pieces. That’s why I worked hand-in-hand with Chief and Harv.

We’d bond over music, Chief was stunned when my iPod started playing The Blackbirds’ ‘Doin’ It In the Park’. When I was having a bad day these guys were always there to check on me. Chief was my driver and I trusted him with my life. We spent each Monday crawling over and under our MRAP. When the team went to the COB, Harv and I would team up to do our work gathering the team’s mail and gobbling up resupplies for our team’s food stache and anything else we could scrounge up to make life better. We clicked. We’d get our work done and while the rest of our team was still stuck at one HQ or another we would drive around the COB in the team’s beat up old Toyota pick up. We’d grab some new bootleg movies, shop for weird gifts to send our wives, and just shoot the shit. We’d make fun of our teammates, usually in good nature but sometimes in real anger. These were the conversations that were only held between people who completely trusted each other. We had each other’s backs. That is the greatest gift anyone can share.

These are the people who kept me grounded. The things I got right were because they were standing by me showing me the way. More importantly, they all made me a better person. By the time I’d gotten into the Army I had shaken off the racism that was taught to me as a child. But simply saying ‘race doesn’t matter to me’ really isn’t good enough. That’s just the baseline of where we should be as people. Being a true ally requires you to show empathy, to share pain with your non-white brothers and sisters. Getting to know these people, their struggles in life, their pain, the bigotry they all faced in walking their paths, and to gain a little understanding of how life was different for us because of something arbitrary like skin tone was a gift. Gaining this knowledge wasn’t something I was entitled to, I had to show each of them that I was worthy of their friendship and their stories.

Now, I may be a bit up my own ass on this. I do not want to make it out as if we were all best friends and like peas & carrots. But we sure as fuck shared a sense of kinship to one degree or another. We commiserated together, we vented to each other, we got drunk together, and some of us went to war together.

What I am positive of is that these people all trusted me. They saw a person in need of mentorship, in need of help from their expertise, and someone willing to listen. Having the humility to learn from them is probably something that they did not see from every white officer. That’s not something I ever thought of really until now. I’m sure they met plenty of arrogant officers who didn’t value them, sometimes out of general arrogance but surely sometimes because of the color of their skin.

It doesn’t take much to be a good ally. Understand that you will never fully understand what a person of color has gone through in life. A white person can listen and learn, but you’ll never have the same experiences in America. Don’t self flagellate yourself over that, but be aware of it and be humble. America was built on the labor of slaves, and I recognize that this story is largely about how my success was built on the work of people of color. The very least I can do is give them recognition. The least I can do is stand with them against racism. At the very least I must stand up and say

BLACK LIVES MATTER

 

Till we meet again.

War passing by

Ever wonder what it would be like to be a tourist in a war zone? Think it would be impossible to be a detached spectator just soaking in the savagery? You might not believe it, but that’s what war was like to me.

Arriving in Kuwait on September 11, 2009, my team spent two weeks at Camp Buehring, then off to Baghdad International Airport for a few days, on to Camp Taji for two more weeks, back to BIAP to wait for a lift down to Basrah. Spend two more weeks doing Relief in Place ops with the MTT we replaced. It was well into October 2009 by the time we were on our own at Camp Savage. Operation Iraqi Freedom was near an end. Basrah was largely pacified. The sectarian cleansing preceded us and ensured our safety. We could relax, our security paid for through the generosity of genocide.

But it was still a war zone, right? It looked like one. Pockmarks in overpasses from IEDs gone by. Driving under them made your nuts climb up into your body. Piles of trash strewn along every mile of the highways keeping you hyper-vigilant while scanning for the mass that would ignite your demise.

You lived on an Iraqi Army compound that housed several IA units. Your Iraqi partner unit co-located here in a separated area of the base which housed Iraqi Border Police and National Police academies. The students loved rushing out to greet you during their mid-morning break. Lining up along hundreds of feet of chain link fencing they merrily dropped trou, turned their backs, and squatted. It was their favorite daily activity, a shit-stenched salutation.

Walk up to the guard tower that mysteriously faced into the IA base, walk the serpentine and avoid the fecal land mines and food trash left from countless guard shifts. Stroll right into a 40’ burn pit filled with seemingly everything but dead bodies. Suck it in, breath deep and know that this noxious smell is the lasting memory of this part of the world. From the first foul whiff of Kuwait to the overwhelming odor of Iraq, more a taste hanging heavy on your tongue than a smell. Invading every olfactory pore, every cell of your body. You might be in Iraq for a few months, maybe a year, but Iraq will be in you forever.

Oil black skies interrupted only by oil wells ablaze. Step onto the TOC roof and spin around. A dozen or more clusters of wells. Easy to pick out with their mohawks of flame. There might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there’s a million ways this place could kill you. Gaze off, get lost in your thoughts of mortality. See death’s face in the black smoke climbing into the Iraqi night. Hop back down and wonder if each day is really a new day or just a continuation of the same. Every mundane, boring day. You want to jump in the MRAPs and go on a ‘combat patrol’ just to have something to do. Something to get excited over, sip on the delicious adrenaline straight from Aphrodite’s chalice. Or is it Ares’? Or are you up your own ass?

Is it really a war? Did you really go off and fight if you never fired your M4, were never blown the fuck up? What did you do with all those months in the desert. All that time longing for a far away coast. Was it worth it? Sacrifices borne by you, your family, dozens of loved ones who would never get that time with you back. Is your ego satisfied? Did you find what you were looking for? Was it your manhood? Was it proof that you were special? Do you really think anyone will give a fuck that you went to Iraq? Everyone else is too busy trying to survive themselves. You think you’re in a war zone and everyone back home is doing more fighting during economic collapse. You’re the lucky one with a guaranteed paycheck, healthcare, retirement savings.

A shooting at Fort Hood leaves 13 dead. You just left Hood, thinking life was taking you to  a land of peril, stalked by death at every turn. Turns out you’re safer at Camp Savage than on Battalion Avenue. This is a joke right? Where’s the goddamned war!? You see signs of it everywhere. Bombed out airplane hangars ring the IA base that used to be an Iraqi Air Force base. Tarmac still unusable. Burned out tank and BMP husks decorate house fronts like fountains of Hades. Are there still bones left in them or did someone have the decency to clean them out? Keep your eyes on the road. You AREN’T a tourist here. There’s a mission. Important work to be done. America thinks you’re defending them (maybe?).

Arrive at the Border Police Commando Battalion base, just east of COB Basrah. Park the MRAPs, scan the neighborhood a half mile south of the base walls. Separated by elevated train tracks, Lego-like houses dotted with windows that may as well be caves. You can’t see in them and wonder what might be lurking within. Watching you, waiting for the opportunity to take a lucky shot straight through your nose and out the back. You’ll never know it though.

Teach some Iraqi officers about GPS. They don’t have any GPS devices, but they want to know how to use them so they can brag to their colleagues. You’re in Iraq to award bragging rights, wasta. Wastin’ away in Wastaville, getting looped on chia and RipIt. I am your White Savior in ACUs, here to bestow freedom on the worthy who love us. Why don’t you love me?

A few hours pass, pack it up and head to the COB to pick up mail, make a PX run, restock on RipIts and near beer. Marvel at all the civilians running around. Coming from around the globe, coming to this Little America. Scan the environment. Is there anything here not owned & operated by Halliburton in some form or another? Some people are getting rich, you’re just getting fat and sloppy. Damn. Get the fuck out of there before someone wants to yell at you about how dirty you look, for smelling like an unwashed ballbag. Speed back to the safety of Savage. Another great mission accomplished. Another day done in Iraq. Too many more to go before you can return home and scrub this place from your body. Are you a tourist? Who fucking cares. You’re here in Iraq and that’s all that matters. You hate this place. You hate the people who started all this. You hate the people who can’t take care of their own shit and trap you here. You just hate.

 

 

Pulling the strings of Narrative

Last night I finished reading Caleb Cage’s “War Narratives”. It was hard to get through at times, but for all the right reasons. Cage takes on a monumental task of breaking down the various narratives that drove us to invade Iraq and then the narrative metamorphosis which enabled continued occupation in the face of failure. This is done with great research and objective assessment while also maintaining a straight forward and plainly spoken prose. It’s scholarly in the best ways and also a book for the common man. No small feat.

I was starting senior year of high school on 9/11. I was in my freshman year at St. Bonaventure when we invaded Iraq. These two events are the foundation of my adulthood. Having lived through these days knowing they would set the trajectory for the rest of my life I fancied myself pretty knowledgable on the subject. Yet “War Narratives” brought new focus to this nightmare. I learned a great deal about the Bush Administration’s deeds in sowing the seeds of war, rallying the country to their corrupt cause (of which I bought into hard), and their bumbling attempts to create any plan to competently execute this war.

Many times I set this book down with trembling hands, having to find positive ways to cope with the rage rekindled. I resorted to writing poems after most chapters. Taking the chapter’s topic and funneling that anger into clumsy verse. If you think my writing here is awful then you should see what happens when I try my hand at poetry.

I am grateful for this book though. This is the sober reflection that America needs. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted in a chaotic frenzy of FRAGO after FRAGO, then American public life and society has moseyed onward in its own piecemeal way. Our microscopic attention spans and non-stop sensory barrage of modern media are the drumbeat to our daily lives. No time for reflection when the next crisis is just 12 hours away. I write this in the middle of a global pandemic which is being used to draw red and blue lines in the sand, where people believe whatever they feel like, and our self-centered culture is on full display in the form of spring breakers and Boomers at retirement communities having block parties.

The value of “War Narratives” is that it gives us the analytical string pulling of a serious historical work with the benefit of coming in near-real time rather than with 40 years of hindsight. This means we can actually process what Cage presents and act on it. This book gives us the tools needed to become more aware of our GWOT flaws and end them while there are still lives to be saved.

There’s much more to unpack from this book and it’s helped me to refocus on some of my writing. There are a couple other topics I will make full posts about. Right now I just want to dive into some simple stories from my deployment as they relate to the chapter ‘On Chickenshit’.

In these pages Cage uses quotes from Matt Gallagher, whose memoir “Kaboom” is one of the clearest portrayals of Iraq that I’ve read. In “Kaboom” Gallagher speaks of the chickenshit acts of sergeants major and filed grade officers. These people rarely left the safety of FOBs (later COBs) and suffered from the greatest wartime malady – boredom. People with fancy ranks and no real purpose invariably create missions for themselves. That leads to senior leaders creating new rules, new regulations, new bullshit that must be followed, and they become the enforcers. Don’t have a purpose? No problem, just make up some nonsense that has nothing to do with winning the war and appoint yourself gatekeeper. Things like wearing reflective belts and eye protection at all times. Wearing full uniforms wherever you’re going. Grooming standards that are impractical for anyone actually involved in the main effort.

Do these things in abundance and you all of a sudden need help, and so you hire DA civilians to be brigade safety officers. Now you haven’t just make up a purpose for yourself, but you’ve also created a need for another contract and created jobs. Save that for your evaluation form bullets!

These dedicated servants of safety once pulled us over on COB Basrah. My team had a beat up pick up truck that we would use for running errands around the base. Mail pick up, resupply runs for our team’s needs like fatty cakes and RipIts, or just carpooling to the shops or PX. We’d have a couple guys in the truck and a few sitting in the bed. SSG Harvey, all 6’8” of him, was riding in the bed with me on one of these runs. Suddenly we were being pulled over by some dweebs in armbands and sashes identifying them as Brigade Safety. They wanted to write us a ticket because one of us was standing in the pick up bed. Harvey then stood up and truly towered over these guys. Instead of admitting they made an honest mistake, they tried to still chastise us with a stern warning and empty threat to fine us. As if we gave two fucks who they were. They went on their way and we went on with our business, happily returning to humble Camp Savage and life away from the COB.

Living remotely did not give us a free pass from chickenshit however, oh no. Chickenshit will follow you like a camouflage colored cloud. Military Transition Teams were a wild ride. In concept they were sound. We needed military advisors to help build the Iraqi security forces and allow us to return home without Iraq devolving into a giant bomb crater (LoLz). These teams were not coherent units though, they were individuals selected by branch managers, sometimes volunteers, who often had not deployed. It was a great way to find the cowards who’d been hiding out at non-deployable assignments and make them get in the game. This meant that many MTTs had team leaders who had never deployed. You’d be amazed at how many majors with fuzzy right shoulders existed in 2009.

These guys tended to be career-centered, risk adverse masters of doing nothing while making a grand show. In short, they were the living embodiment of chickenshit. They were also about the worst kind of person I could be stuck working with, even worse working for. And I reacted in typical dickheaded fashion. If we were instructed to do something trivial, I did it to the minimum. If we were having visitors who Rance, our team leader, wanted to impress then I would find my dirtiest uniform to wear. When he would be put on the spot by a higher ranking officer he would hesitate ever so slightly and you could see him trying to figure out the correct answer that would help his evaluation. Turning over every word and action for career advancing effectiveness was entertainment to our team. I began calling it the Rance Dance.

Deployments are long stretches of monotony with rare respite. That means we had to make up our own fun, just like the lonely sergeant major has to make up his purpose. During our first week in Kuwait SSG Harvey dared me to grow out my hair for 30 days so that he could see what it’d look like. He promised that if I made it 30 days then I could cut his hair to look like mine. Well, after a month I looked like Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, and Harv had a new haircut. Rance allowed it for a day so that we could all laugh and then made Harv shave the rest of his head. I maintained my untamed flow even as it began to curl at the ends, something I’d forgotten my hair would do if it grew beyond three inches.

My sudden follicle embrace and abandonment of head shaving bothered Rance, and caught the eye of the colonel who was the idiotic team leader of the head MTT in Basrah. While this guy technically wasn’t Rance’s boss, he kind of was. This COL always told us we needed to just get out on the roads of Iraq and tour the AO, see what the country was like, which completely defeated the purpose of living remotely with our Iraqi partners. If Rance was risk adverse this COL was just a galaxy-brained medal chaser. He even made a point to corner me at the hand washing station in Camp Savage’s DFAC to ask me when I planned to cut my hair. I told him after my R&R in a bald faced lie. My jihad on chickenshit persisted.

Things like this were why I didn’t wear a uniform from my hooch to the shower trailer. No, I wore a marvelous white robe. This minor rebellion wasn’t much on Camp Savage. The only military presence there was our MTT and a PRT who kept to themselves. Shortly after the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn we closed down Camp Savage and moved onto COB Basrah though. We were suddenly back among big army and had lots of uniformed neighbors. While I was a captain and RHIP, there was no shiny insignia on my robe, just a large Hilton emblem and the satisfaction of a five-finger discount. Strutting around in that robe was salve for my malcontent soul. One of my greatest disappointments from all this was never being chased down by some busy body NCO with a hard on for uniform regulations and no clue that I was a captain. We all mourn fantasies unrealized.

There was plenty of more chickenshit that our MTT dealt with, but I think you probably get the picture. Everyone will have their share of stories. I laugh at them now, but I wasn’t laughing while getting a negative counseling statement for shit I didn’t do because  Rance thought I was an overly emotional bitch. And Rance was probably happy to see my deployment end short with a  compassionate reassignment. He made a sheepish apology about how he couldn’t write up a recommendation for a Bronze Star due to how little we’d done as a team to that point, and then wrote everyone else up for a Bronze Star when they redeployed just two months later. It didn’t bother me, but it certainly confirmed for me that Rance was chickenshit to the bone.

There are more narratives to pick apart. More fuzzy truths and generalizations that miss the mark to explore. “War Narratives” is a book anyone interested in understanding how we ended up in Iraq at all, let alone for so long, needs to read. Pull those strings of reason, and you’ll go far.

Until we meet again.

On service and sacrifice

It’s this blog’s 2nd birthday. Something I started as a way to bridge the civil-military divide, and also to help me piece together a memoir. Life has often pulled me away from this and that is something that I’ve had to learn to accept. Tonight I read over my posts from the previous two Veterans Days. I’ve written about the need to temper our habit for overdoing holidays and about spending this day in Iraq. For this installment I want to express some ideas that have been brewing for some time but have not yet made it onto the blog.

Yesterday I read great pieces from Angry Staff Officer on continuing service after leaving the military and a tremendous article in the New York Times from Phil Klay. They helped me take a couple nebulous ideas that have been bouncing around in my head and start forming some half way decent sentences.

ASO’s blog touched on something I’ve been kicking around since July. The idea that separating from the military does not mean the end of our service to our communities. Many Vets form an identity around their service. While we should all be proud of what we volunteered to do, shaping a lifelong identity around something that most of us did for only a few years is not healthy, and downright sad. The majority of Vets serve 3, 4, or 5 years. We all laugh at the Uncle Rico types who hang on to their high school sports glory, the people who still live like frat boys 20 or more years after graduation, all these people who can’t move on to another chapter in their lives and find something meaningful to live for. We never really call out Vets for doing the same thing though. It’s a striking example of the civil-military divide that civilians do not feel able to call out this behavior.

I’m not here to rant on this, although it grates on me all the time. I’m writing to talk about my own struggles with this. To be fair, it’s not easy to transition out of the military and into civilian life. You want to build new friendships, but all you have to talk about is your military experiences. You want to start a new chapter, but there’s usually nobody to show you how to put, what at the time, are the most formative and impactful years of your life behind you. Everyone else in The World had normal lives while you were serving, and now you’re trying to catch up in an un-empathetic world.

If you’ve never seen the movie ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ please make a note to look it up. The first time I saw it I was left in tears. I still choke up watching it, but that first time really shook me. It showed me that these transition struggles were something that Vets of even a popular war (WWII) went through.

For me I tried to make a clean break from the Army and move forward as a civilian as if that was no big deal. I failed horribly for years. Bouts of depression, despair, apathy, nihilism, and anger plagued me. I was bitter over not finding something to do with my life that felt remotely as important as wearing the uniform felt. Life felt empty. Jobs were meaningless. Everything was just a time filler. Make money, pay bills, die.

Slowly I realized that service was a foundational part of me. It’s what drove me to join the Army in the first place. It was something I had amputated from my life without thought and I spent 8 years bleeding out.

That brings us to this past July when I joined my district’s volunteer firefighter company. For months my wife had been softly nudging me to join. The fire hall is on the corner of our street, so nearly every day we were driving by, the sign outside flashing “Join Now!” I went back and forth with it. I didn’t know if I’d have the time to commit, and I had doubts of my physical ability to perform having asthma and two bad knees. As summer began things were starting to settle down for us for the first time since October 2018 when we moved. I decided to stop at the hall on a night when they were training and talk to someone about what the demands were like and what to expect. Later that night I returned with my application.

A week after Independence Day I officially became a member of Union Fire Company, and since Labor Day I’ve been in a Basic Exterior Firefighting Operations class every Tuesday and Thursday night. Being welcomed into the company and made to feel part of the team, part of something bigger than myself, being able to serve my community in a way that I feel matters has been life changing for me. My mental health has improved considerably. It’s also been an exercise in self awareness. After responding to calls for a couple months I recognized what had been missing from my life since July 2011. When someone asks how things are going so far I tell them I’m loving it. Being a firefighter has a lot of the things I liked about the Army and very little of the stupid bullshit that drove me mad. I feel a connection to my community that I never felt before. I no longer feel like I’m just marking time as life slowly expires.

So to Angry Staff Officer’s point, we all need to find a way to continue service beyond the military. This is how I’ve painfully gone about figuring that out on my own. I offer my story as a small example. I hope others who may be struggling with the same problems might read this and shorten their suffering.

Do not let military service define you for the rest of your life. It’s something that we did, something to be proud of, but we cannot let a few years exercise tyrannical power over the other 70 or 80 years that we will live.

 

To the other article I mentioned above. I’ve been a fan of Phil Klay’s work since he published ‘Redeployment’. It’s a beautiful collection of short stories that capture the Iraq War from several perspectives. Truly something that should be widely read.

Klay’s NYTs piece is a lot to unpack, but I want to focus on one thing specifically – the story of Charles White Whittlesly.

**

Whittlesly was an officer who served in one of the Army’s most diverse units, part of the ‘Melting Pot Division’ that was formed of recruits from New York. An outlier in the US Army of 1917. He saw the unity that came of shared sacrifice. He saw that individual backgrounds didn’t matter, each soldier was an American in every sense. What Whittlesly witnessed was one identity forming out of many, the true American Exceptionalism. Our ideals and values are what people come to America for. It’s the mythology of equality and the fable of freedom unabridged that compels people to risk so much to become Americans.

Upon return to the States Whittlesly saw these ideals for the lies they so often are. American history is riddled with hypocrisy. We’ve turned out backs on the values we brag about too many times to count. The racism that fueled slavery is what provided an economic foundation for America. That ideology has never died and at times has roared to public embrace.

Post-WWI America was one such time. The Roaring’ 20s saw a spike in KKK membership,  public lynchings with no hope of justice, and non-white Veterans being pushed back to second class status at best, ripped apart and left on display at worse.

For all the high idealism Whittlesly experienced in the hellscape of No Man’s Land, it was a much gentler environment for non-white Americans than their homeland would be. The people Whittlesly would become friends with among the machine-gun serenade would return to an America of unspeakable violence of retribution designed to put minorities in their place. A righting of the social order.

Years of this broke Whittlesly, he ended his life jumping from a cruise ship destined for Havana.

Just like watching ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, reading Whittlesly’s story brought on a connection that bridged decades. The America I grew up believing in, the country whose uniform I wore, is not a country that I recognize anymore. Our wars have plodded on and our hysteria over terrorist threats have caused us to abandon our ideals. We are again debating what a ‘real American’ is. We are persecuting immigrants just as we did in the 1920s. Purity tests are being established, Federal officials are allowed to question citizenship status without any reasonable cause or evidence.

America of 2020 may very well be the America of 1920. We didn’t get this way overnight, it’s not even a single Administration’s doing. It’s a culmination of two decades of wars that we’ve been mostly too busy to pay attention to. Our reverence for Veterans is only outdone by our indifference to foreign policy. The slow erosion of civil liberties is barely noticed.

At one point, I looked around and realized that we were the Empire, that I was not serving a great Republic, but I was participating in the sinister deeds of a government intent on hoarding power and dictating how the world will work.

Hyperbole? Sure. But I felt it in my bones, just at Whittlesly had.

And just like Whittlesly I’ve had to contend with the dreadful knowledge of my country not being what I was taught it was. Knowing that some of the most sacred truths I held dear were platitudes doled out by those in power for the sake of keeping power.

Like Whittlesly I’ve fought with the demons of despair and depression. Infectious nihilism and an apathy that atrophies one’s will to live.

I’ve often considered my own cruise to Havana out of sheer hopelessness. I cannot stand the thought of all I hold dear being burned to ash.

My plea to you is to consider these stories. Think of how they repeat after every war America wages. And then ask yourself what you can do to break this cycle. Please do not spend Veterans Day wantonly expressing empty ‘Thank You For Your Service’ platitudes. Please do not make a show of your gratitude on social media. For the love of all that is good do not boast of your support for the troops. Do not do any of this if you are not willing to begin holding our government accountable for the needless death and slaughter that continues in your name. Don’t you dare engage in any solemn praise unless you are going to live up to the promise of all people being created equal, of inalienable rights and universal freedom.

If you want to honor Veterans, show us that America is what we all thought it was. Be engaged citizens. We need you to play your part in society. If you don’t, what we do doesn’t matter at all. We will be left with a Nation of Nihilism.

Until we meet again.

Christmas past-out

I’ve written about Thanksgiving previously, and at this point I don’t know if there’s much else to tell. It’s my favorite holiday. A simple day to be with those you love, share a wonderful meal, give thanks for what we have, to serve others, and it’s often overlooked. Not even a speed bump on the road from Halloween to Christmas anymore, Thanksgiving is the forgotten middle child. It seems supremely American to ignore a day for showing gratitude and humility because we need to go shopping and accumulate more shit.

In that spirit, I’m writing about Christmas on this day after Halloween. Specifically my Christmas in Korea. I’m in the mood with an All American beer in my glass, a Budweiser. I’ve even got Christmas music on – Bad Religion’s ‘Christmas Songs’ that is. No wasted words, let’s get this shitshow started.

December 2007, Echo Battery 1-43 ADA is on Red Cycle at Camp Casey, ROK. That means we’re doing nothing but shit details for the month. Basic maintenance each Monday and typical motor pool close out on Friday. Other than that there’s essentially no training going on for us. No field exercises either. Just pulling all the lousy details around the base. Each unit on Camp Casey rotated this bullshit work, we just got lucky to have December. This meant that the NCOs and LTs had to do courtesy patrols around the Ville, because having a couple people in uniform walking around and poking their heads into the juicy bars really kept Joe from acting like a drunken fool.

It also meant that each day we had people pulling gate guard duty at the Ammunition Holding Area. The AHA was a series of large bunkers with a go-to-war stockpile of ammo that each of the batteries would need. Our brigade, being a fires brigade, had dozens of MLRS missiles, also our battery’s bunker had all of our Stinger missiles. Each one held everything a battery would need in the event of a war. So that included bullets for M-16s/M-4s, M-249 SAWs, M-240Bs, M-9 pistols, grenades to throw, grenades for M-203 launchers, belts of .50 cal for the M-2s, also for our Avengers’ M3Ps, and any shoulder launched rockets that we might’ve had (maybe none?). Boxes upon boxes of death, neatly stacked and inventoried monthly.

Typically two or three soldiers would pull this gate guard duty for a 24 hour shift. In one of the few acts of genuine leadership my battery commander gave the Joes Christmas off from this duty and split the day into three 8 hour shifts. The commander and first sergeant took a shift, the platoon sergeants had the second shift, and the LTs were assigned the overnight shift. So Christmas night was earmarked for me. A date with tons of ammo that hung over the day, and the entire month leading up to December 25th. Not the worst way to spend Christmas in the Army, but that’s about the best thing you could say for it.

I spent the month slowly mailing gifts back home and also got a few large packages a week or so before Christmas. Of course I just started opening the presents and only found the card saying “Wait until the 25th” after I got to the bottom. Trying to explain all this to my family over Skype wasn’t the easiest thing, but I probably just had a few drinks and got through it like most of my calls home at that point. So my Christmas came early, I didn’t feel in the mood for any holiday cheer. All I really wanted was to get to New Years Eve. Heathen holidays are my jam.

Not all was depressing. A couple friends from college messaged me to ask if there was anything they could send from home that I really wanted. Of all things, I asked for a nice thermos. I couldn’t find one I liked on any of the US bases and I had a lot of field time coming up through winter. As unimpressive of a request as that is, my friends just said OK and sent me a gorgeous Stanley thermos. Glass lined for extra hours of temperature preservation. I was so happy to get it and touched at the small gesture. Then I opened it and heard rattling. Opening the container I found it loaded with hard candy… and broken glass. A nice touch of including some sweets ended up breaking the lining on the trans-Pacific trip and rendered the much anticipated gift rubbish. That’s a really good metaphor for being at Camp Casey.

So what of Christmas day? Well early in the day I called home and saw my family. My college roommate turned next door neighbor at Casey was back in the US on leave, so it was especially lonely. My friendships with expats in Seoul were the saving grace. I was invited to a party down at one of their apartments. Most of the usual rugby folks I’d hang out with on the weekends were there, they made a feast that chased away any homesickness. There was even a sex toy gift exchange. As much fun as that sounded to me I couldn’t bring myself to walk into the one toy shop near Camp Casey for fear of one of my soldiers seeing me. That sounds silly now, but I jealously guarded my credibility. So I just watched the blind Secret Sex Toy Santa and gulped down egg nog. Knowing my time was limited I indulged to excess without shame and everyone knew why. My friends could not believe I had to get back to Camp Casey to sit in a cinderblock hut and guard bullets.

My shift at the AHA started at 11 pm. It took about an hour by train to get back from Seoul. I pushed it as long as I could and stayed at Amanda and Dawn’s party until just after 9 – maybe, memory is fallible. What I do remember with certainty is that the other LTs in my building were about to leave for the AHA just as I was getting back. I still needed to change into uniform and grab some things for overnight. They waited up for me and we got to the AHA just in time. The platoon sergeants all gave us shit for being typical lieutenants, we all had some laughs and they went on their way.

As we settled in, figured out what paperwork needed to be filled out, and took stock of the guard shack we would be hanging out in I found a few cots in a side room. I went back to the main room and told the others what I found and that I was going to lay down. My stomach was starting to revolt on me and I needed to let it settle. Booze or not, I just had too much egg nog. Mix in the alcohol and all the food I shoved down my gullet and I was in bad shape. I laid on a cot, figuring I’d rest for an hour and then feel fine.

Several hours later I woke up.

The Boxing Day crew came in to relieve us not long after I woke. What an easy night. I felt great, if a bit sheepish. I told the other PLs they should’ve dumped my ass out of the cot, but was happy they didn’t. In all honesty it was silly having more than two people on that detail, but having 5 lieutenants was just how our commander set up the roster. We all knew that each of us spent time sleeping and were sure the PSGs had done the same.

So that was Christmas in Korea, drunk and sleeping through AHA guard duty. What an American Hero. Thinking back on it I think that this point in my year in Korea was when my drinking was about to get out of control. It was just easy to always laugh it off. Chalk it up to making the most of a short time. Go balls to the wall or else you’re wasting your opportunity. The picture I selected for this post is of after our St. Barbara’s Day ball, out in Hongdae (off limits area) and busting curfew. I have no pictures of Christmas and this is about as close as I could find.

So this was kind of a shit post, but I needed to get back to writing and I promised to send a special story to an anonymous captain in Afghanistan who has kicked his Christmas celebrations into full gear already. It’s cool, I too love Mariah Carey.

 

Until we meet again.

Kinky sex

“When everyone is getting blowjobs, that’s when we’ll finally have world peace.”

The song 72 Hookers by NoFx is the most honest 3 minutes and 36 seconds you’ll find. It drives to the truth of who we’ve been fighting since October 2001. Just like the average American grunt is some kid from a middle or lower class family hoping to get the hell out of their hometown and improve their socioeconomic station, the normal jihadi terrorist is just a kid from a shitkicker town with no education and no prospects for life. Just another young, angry boy looking to prove he’s a man, get some treasure, and get a piece of ass. Give these kids some literacy, show them another way to make money, get them laid, and the wars are done. No fighters, no wars. Who would’ve thought Fat Mike would be such a fucking COIN expert?

Sounds naive you say? Well, tell me, who the fuck is selling us on these Forever Wars? It sure isn’t Joe from Alabama who just wants to do a job, support himself, and shout ‘War Eagle’ every Saturday. It isn’t Mohammed in Kabul who can’t read and doesn’t even know what ‘career prospects’ means.

These wars are sold to us by chicken hawks who never risked their skin or their kids’. These wars are sold to us by defense lobbyists whose bosses stand to make a fat buck. These wars are sold to us by leeches who see dollar signs when the rest of us see caskets.

Then again, the caskets would have to actually be in public view for us to see them. To be reminded of the cost of war. To feel the societal outrage that we should be feeling after nearly two decades at war. Instead of winding down the Global War on Terror, this administration has only been ramping it up.

Afghanistan was too easy, too quick. It failed to satiate the mongers. It was the perfect level of low intensity to allow for prolonged, ignored conflict that reaped exponential profits. Too much reward to not take the risk.

That led us to Iraq, Syria, back to Somalia, Mali, Congo, Lybia, Niger.

These markets are of course slowing down. An unpopular president is up for re-election soon. So this leads us to Iran. Does anyone else feel like we’re just living out the plot to Canadian Bacon?

I remember the build up to our invasion of Iraq. Like most I bought into the bullshit. When the news reported the first days of Shock and Awe I threw my newly issued Kevlar helmet on and ran up and down the dorm floor like a fucking tool. I was 18 and knew nothing about the ugly truth of war. Old men make their careers and get rich(er), young men, women, babies all die. There isn’t a goddamned good thing that comes of war. Only death.

Dead bodies, dead souls, dead minds.

But if they’re kept to small numbers, kept out of the headlines, minimize the videos and photographs of the maimed, the mentally wrecked, then it won’t really matter. Keep the human toll down, control the message, lie. Just keep the machine turning out those fucking profits and keep reminding everyone how lucky they are to have such a great economy. Great, just great. The greatest.

Johnny comes marching home, or he doesn’t. Nobody will be paying attention. If anyone causes trouble just drown it out in the 24 hour news cycle until they go away. Create so much noise that no one can sustain focus. Dissent dies from an IED of misinformation just as quickly as Joe from Alabama bleeds out. So bleed it out. Divide the populace and the rulers maintain their power, their wealth, their position while the masses tear each other apart.

I’ve been trying desperately to curb my cynicism, to find the good things locally and maintain perspective on the horrible national & global news. Each day seems to grow worse. We have no power over our government any more, if we ever did. The jig is up. They know it. We know it. They know we know. The Forever Wars aren’t just going to continue, they’re going to grow. But hey, that new iPhone should be coming soon. That’ll be a nice way to forget reality when a brand new quagmire in Iran is escalating.

So I ask you, when will we finally have enough of this game? When will we recognize this cycle for what it is? When will the truth set us free? How much longer does this go on, how many more people must die before we finally reject the path that we’ve been placed on for 20 years?

Americans naturally hate authority, it’s one thing that is uniform across our history. There has always been a strong voice calling out injustice and demanding accountability. It hasn’t always won, but it was there. I haven’t seen it much lately though. Our anger and dissent has been sedated by low unemployment and plateaued inflation.

We’re a bunch of fucking sell outs, America. It’s time to find whatever the fuck it is that gives you courage and show your outrage. Digital mental masturbation is just that. Get out, do something to force the ruling class of this country to change course. We cannot allow our government to start any more wars. If you aren’t angry you aren’t paying attention.

This needs to end.

Blaggard in Iraq

What’s this? Two posts in one week? A model of consistency I am not. To my own detriment, but hey it’s not easy balancing a day job, household responsibilities, and trying to make this book thing happen on the side. Sometimes though I need to write to stay sane. These past couple days have been shit. Lots of self-loathing, anger, and feeling just plain useless. Winter has transitioned to day after day of grey skies and rain. My list of projects gets longer each day and everything is utterly overwhelming. I would like to just go to sleep for about 10 years.

I want to snap out of it and writing nearly always helps. To say my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders would be an understatement, so how about a light story today? Everyone needs to hit off the tee sometimes.

One of the cool things about Fort Hood is that Austin is just an hour away. Living in Killeen made the trip not quite direct, but after coming back from Iraq I lived in Temple which is right on the I-35. I was able to play beer league hockey and made some great friends. Austin is weird as fuck, and I loved it. Most of all though, the live music was truly amazing.

Being able to bar hop and take in a different band at each bar with no cover was a treat for me. I could spend all my days this way. Not so much for the drinking, but for the unending variety of music. Music that shakes your body with an assault of sonic waves is cleansing. The world melts away for me and life becomes simple. I’m a 16 year old kid at a local punk rock show again, and I’m a 35 year old, broke down old dude in search of a tribe.

Our favorite band was by far Blaggards. NOT The Blaggards…. just BLAGGARDS. They would play in Temple at O’Brien’s from time to time. My wife caught one of their shows and mentioned I was in Iraq. They gave her some freebies along with the merch  she bought to send to me. I slapped their sticker onto the door of my CHU at Camp Savage. It made it easier for me to remember which uniformly green door was mine when I had to get up in the middle of the night to hit the port-a-john. It also was a way for me to hit back against the crushing monotony of the Army. It was a way to show some individuality in a sea of olive drab. It was a way to thumb my nose at authority, even though being an officer inherently made me part of that Big Green Weenie machine.

Stout Irish Rock would help cleanse my spirit after a day of breathing a mix of stale air conditioned air inside and oil fire tinged, shit smelling air outside. I’m not joking about the shit either. The Iraqi Border Police academy that we were assigned to had a broken waste water system. The Border Police students and the National Police students who shared facilities would always know when we were going to show up and would greet us by lining up along the chain link fence to relieve themselves. A string of Iraqis 300 or 400 feet long with their pants down, backs leaning against the fence, and dropping brown snakes as a greeting. Top that off with navigating a series of shit piles as we got around the guard post at the pedestrian gate entrance. A guard post that faced inward to the Iraqi Army compound that encompassed everything.

Getting that waste treatment facility and a fresh water treatment facility on the Border Police grounds was something that fell on me, by the way. I’ll have to tell you that story some other time.

So after a long feces filled day books and music were a great relief. Blaggards gave an additional boost of being a piece of home as well. Sadly, we had to close down Camp Savage in early 2010 and move onto COB Basrah. That’s a rough transition from living remotely. It’s like going from the wild wild west to downtown of a large city. All of a sudden there were all these rules and regulations we had to follow and sergeants major who had nothing better to do than give anyone not in proper uniform the stink eye. Dude, fuck off I’m going to the shower in my five-fingered Hilton bathrobe and you can piss up a rope if you don’t like it.

Before leaving Camp Savage for the last time I made sure to snap a couple pictures in front of my CHU. One chance to preserve my mark, to document that I had my own Swamp just like Hawkeye. One more opportunity to be an arrogant cock. The picture of course made its way to Facebook, and after being properly tagged and shared the guys in Blaggards said they loved it. So that was cool.

Naturally after getting back stateside and beginning my next (and last) assignment at Fort Hood we went to see Blaggards at O’Brien’s. Also naturally, I printed off an 8×10 of that photo, signed it, and gave it to the band. Everyone gives the band an autographed photo of themselves, right? It was a great way to meet these guys and show my appreciate for their kind words and their music. They played no small part in maintaining my sanity in an environment that was anything but sane.

I still laugh at the thought that those CHUs were gifted to the Iraqi Army and that some Iraqi dude must have seen that stick and said ‘What the hell is Blaggards?’ Hope you enjoy Stout Irish Rock my dude.

Till we meet again.

War books

Our war experiences are shaped by pop culture. Pop Culture tells us how war is supposed to be experienced. It tells us what should happen to us in war. It tells us how to prepare for war and how to return from war. It is also hopelessly, inevitably wrong.

Yesterday this fantastic article by Alex Horton was published in the Washington Post. As I’ve previously written, I am a Vonnegut fanatic. Slaughterhouse Five has served as a model of writing for the sake of your sanity. Vonnegut is a writer that I keep in mind when I sit down to the keyboard. His path to writing his famous Dresden story reminds me that writing is a long process. The seething anger over the futility of war, the disgust at the waste of life, and the persistent hope for humanity are themes that grab me by the collar and toss me from wall to wall, stirring up reactions that I didn’t realize were buried within.

So it goes.

Horton’s piece stayed on my mind all day. I thought about the old tropes of war. As Horton pointed out you’re supposed to have a great romance back home to match the great romance of being off at war. You’re also supposed to have books to distract you, anchor you to the real world. Some people have certain movies or music that serve the same purpose. Old hands talked about their Invasion Songs that they chose to blast as they invaded in 2003. There was also no shortage of bootleg DVDs in Iraq. Having a regular movie night with the people in your unit is one of the few escapes some had.

I thought of one of my high school teachers who’d been in Vietnam. Mr. Cook was one of our technology teachers and I took every class of his that I could. JW Cook spent a few tours in Vietnam, some of it with the 101st Airborne as a grunt and then he spent some time doing long range reconnaissance. No doubt he was in the shit in the dirtiest way. He was a great mentor and one of the few people who wrote to me while I was in Iraq. Cookie would always play music for us during class (this was the beginning of the Napster golden age). One day he put on The Who’s Teenage Wasteland. As it played Mr. Cook told us of the first time he heard that song. At night in a bunker it came on the radio, already old in the US. When it came on he and his buddy looked at each other bewildered, “it was like music from the gods.” I can still see the look on Mr. Cook’s face as he told us about that. Eyes somewhat in the classroom, but also in a far away land. Unstuck in time.

Nine years later I would be the one in a faraway land. Having my laptop meant I could binge on The Office at will. I could tailor my war songs however I wanted. The Dropkick Murphys played often, serving as a connection to the Gulf War. Books were a premium though. They’re heavy and take up lots of valuable space in your bags. I brought a few with me. Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle and Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson didn’t last me very long. The guy I replaced at Camp Savage left a couple books behind. One was Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, and the other was a copy of one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books… in Korean. So I read one of them, brought both home as souvenirs, and have since thrown one of them out (take a guess).

One book that I took comfort in during my deployment sticks out among all the others.

After a couple weeks in Kuwait my Border Transition Team meandered to Camp Taji, one fuck of a shithole in Baghdad. We had a couple more weeks of in-country training before we went to Basrah. Lots of Arabic classes, some more cultural awareness training, and other combat advisory type things that the Army wanted us to know. The facilities were absolute trash. Dank open bay barracks made of cinder blocks and cracked cement, a dining facility that couldn’t hold all of us at one time, and shipping containers for classrooms.

One small relief was the hookah cafe. As a way for us to gain extra cultural insight the Army set up a tiny hookah cafe and paid retired Iraqi military officers to hang out there. These guys taught some of our classes and basically got extra pay for sitting around hitting the hookah with us, if any dared.  With no alcohol available I happily went to partake most nights. Soccer matches on the TV, plenty of strong chai, unlimited free tobaccos of varying flavors (thanks taxpayers!), and the Iraqis were happy to talk about anything. It was also a convenient way to get some space from the guys that I’d been cooped up with 24 hours a day for months. The memory of those nights that lingers is one evening when I asked one of the retired Iraqi officers what he thought of democracy in Iraq and if it would last. He paused to show fair consideration, but also looked sad as he said he hoped so but did not think it would work. So it goes.

The other bright spot was the MWR (Morale, Welfare, & Recreation) office. Pretty small compared to the MWR at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, and nothing compared to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) which served as one of the largest (the largest?) US bases in Iraq. Or rather, the bright spot was what I found in the MWR. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.   In 1960 John Steinbeck set off on a spectacular road trip with his French poodle Charley. He chronicled America and Americana as only he could. A vagabond trekking and living with whomever he encountered. A few weeks of platonic one night stands, reflecting on what he saw and the isolation of being on the road with Charley.

What an odd book to have found at Camp Taji. It seemed out of place, a prisoner of Iraq as much as I was. There to serve a fruitless purpose and to be forgotten in time. The thought of reading the book and abandoning it seemed a terrible tragedy, so I liberated Travels with Charley. Steinbeck became a vagabond again and has remained with me. I still love the smell of the aged pages. Holding this book in my hands reminds me that the bizarre time of my life spent in a far off desert really did happen. The comforting feeling is there too. Reading a book about traveling across America while I was 6,000 miles away with nothing but uncertainty in front of me provided an anchor. Travels with Charley reminded me of what still existed back in my other life. It reminded me of the things worth fighting and sacrificing for. Maybe in a way it was the perfect book to find at Camp Taji.

Until we meet again.

Hello again, let’s talk about loneliness

It’s been a while. If you’re a returning reader, thank you for being patient. If you’re new, you’re in for a wild one. 

I want to write about what influences my writing. I’ve extolled the virtues of Bob Ross before and today I’ll talk about Kurt Vonnegut. But first I need to address the long spell between blogs. I’ve made it a point to commit to more regular posts, to keeping a regular schedule, but I haven’t followed through. Life gets in the way for everyone, that’s no excuse. The last few months have been difficult and I’ve been struggling to keep symptoms of depression from shutting me down completely. 

There have been lots of ideas for topics, plenty of opportunities to write, but the motivation has not been there. The sense that anyone really cares about what I have to say, or that I’m adding anything worthwhile to the non-stop torrent of garbage on the Internet, has been absent. A general apathy started to engulf me, and that’s when I know depression is setting in. I’m lucky that it’s not worse, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me from getting things done. That in turn just makes me feel worse and less motivated to do even the most mundane tasks, let alone sit down to the keyboard. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days where I’m happy. The energy to do anything beyond what is necessary just isn’t there. As much as I want to be writing some days it just isn’t something that I can find the time and headspace for. When this lingers my apathy extends to a general ambivalence towards life. I don’t get suicidal (for that I’m grateful) but there are times when the idea of death just doesn’t seem like that bad of a thing. I imagine lots of people get like that from time to time, but I wonder if it’s as normal as I rationalize it to be. 

That’s a scary place to reach. The self-awareness of it all makes this feeling seem like I’m watching somebody else. My inner monologue seems more like a narration of a character that I’m imagining rather than a person who is actually living. It feels like…. like being unstuck in time.

So it goes. And so I think of Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse 5 typically is the first book to come to mind. But also Palm Sunday. I think about Vonnegut’s post-war life and his own struggles with mental health and loneliness. Vonnegut was not physically isolated, but it’s  clear that he fought with mental isolation. This is almost worse as you are close to people you love and who love you back, but you feel distant. It’s hard to describe and harder still to break out of. You want to, but the words aren’t there. You mumble responses, shrug instead of speak, alternate between averting your eyes and staring blankly at nothing at all. 

I think about what Vonnegut meant when he wrote of smelling like mustard gas and roses. I picture him at his blue typewriter with an ashtray full of spent cigarettes and a glass of whiskey, neat. He’s finished writing for the day. Getting up from one chair, balancing a cigarette and the glass in one hand he walks to another chair. Set the glass down on a small round table top, take a drag from the fag, and pick up the phone to call on someone who might understand the queer things running through his mind. The things that scare him. Things that need to be said out loud to make them less terrifying. So that they may be outside and beaten down rather than inside and beating up.

I think about what Vonnegut thought of these troubles. What did he think of how other WWII vets were most certainly dealing with similar feelings and how they dealt with them? So much time has passed, but the isolation and loneliness reach across time. Vonnegut knew this, and that’s why he talked about it so much. Staying silent creates a feedback loop of loneliness. Speaking up isn’t so much about making myself feel better as much as it is about letting others with the same affliction know that they aren’t alone, even though they feel lonely. 

There was a time when I’d cover up the loneliness with a blanket of booze. A bottle or two of wine isn’t a thing as long as you wake up for PT and outrun some people. Having to stop at the store for another 6-pack after work each weekday isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not a problem if it’s not a full case. Facebook will keep me connected to friends, no need to make new ones. And who doesn’t love getting a drunk dial from me!?

It can be a challenge to see your struggles when your head is up your own ass. Looking at the cover picture I selected for this post I don’t laugh at it like I did when it was taken (Korea, 2007 or 2008). It kind of just makes me sad. I get a pit in my stomach. In spite of all the fun I did have in Korea it was still one of the loneliest times in my life. It was an odd mixture of excitement of being in fucking Korea (!) and having my own platoon to lead, and also feeling so utterly alone at times. Anger was ever present at Camp Casey, alcohol about the only way to cope for any of us. It was just normalized. That picture is the face of so many people who served at Camp Casey. It’s honest if ugly.

The pain and the creeping feeling of isolation don’t stop, but you find better ways of dealing with them. I binge on comics and Star Wars books now instead of booze. Instead of looking at the bottom of a bottle, I look for inspiration and something to create hope. And sometimes I just need to show myself some compassion and allow for the time to work through the darkness without adding on guilt for lack of accomplishment. 

Darkness is an old friend for many of us. Simon has no monopoly on that. When I feel it creeping I reach for comfort from healthier means now. That is something to at feel good about at least. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those things and it seemed appropriate to put that on paper, so to speak. I hope to soon make a trip to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which is in the process of relocating. Check the link out for details, and if you’d like to help them here’s another link. This isn’t any kind of sponsored content and I get nothing out of it. I only feel a deep sense of gratitude for Vonnegut and his work. If this helps others find him then I’ll have done something to fight that bastard called loneliness.

Thank you for your attention.

Until we meet again.

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.

Until we meet again.

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 a major facet of your job  is writing orders, issuing  formal policies, drafting standard operating procedures, speaking to groups, briefing young soldiers and senior leaders, coordinating complex efforts via radio, then you better be on your game with communicating. All of these things are critical to you being effective or you a being a dud of an officer. 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 it 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 and 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 partying 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.

My year with the Dragon, Part III

Hope you’ve enjoyed the first two parts in this series on my time in Korea. Looking through my pictures has been useful to jog and correct my memory. One thing that has stuck out is that in nearly every photo of me off duty I have a drink in hand. During senior year in ROTC we had to list out our top 10 duty station preferences for the Army to ‘consider’. I got advise from some of the cadre on this and one of our NCO instructors told me that Korea was where he became an alcoholic. Like a typical college student I decided that was for me and listed Korea second (Hawaii was #1). Little did I know but that would guarantee that I got sent to Korea.

Most of the pictures involve drinking partly because weekends worth photographing often involved partying or cooking out. There was a stretch where I was drinking a couple bottles of wine a night during the week. Army culture feeds that in many ways. If you couldn’t go out, get totally fucked up, then wake up the next day and outrun your platoon you were a pussy of a PL. Hindsight makes that sound just as dumb as it is, but that’s just how things were. Most of us get to be a PL for 12 months max, many of my peers were getting even less time than that. That provided even more pressure to go balls to the wall every day. This is also why having a good mentor at the beginning is critical. In Korea I couldn’t really say I had one. My battery commander was a tool who was just marking time for his last 12 months in country. Knowing that he was only doing what he had to do I kept my expectations low and just focused on taking care of my platoon.

While it was a great PL assignment that allowed me to lead soldiers, something my OBC classmates weren’t getting to do in their Patriot batteries, it also set me back in many ways. Young officers need to have good mentors to set them on a successful path in their careers. While I had some fantastic NCOs mentoring me on taking care of soldiers, there was a giant void in officer-to-officer mentorship that left me floating in the wind. So when I needed someone to tell me I needed to slow down, that didn’t happen and I just kept going harder. By month 11 in Korea I was toast and needed a change.

The road to getting there was a blast though. I’ve written a lot about my off-duty time in the previous two posts. Today I wanted to bring things back to what the job was like. Both aspects are important in bridging the civil/military divide, the whole picture needs to be painted, but it’s time to get back to Army life. It was not uncommon to go weeks without a real break. I had one stretch of 30-ish days with only 1 day off. Part of what drove this was that my Avenger battery was tasked to provide air defense for two MLRS battalions. That was why the battery was moved from the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade. It was the only ADA unit organized as such in the whole Army. In Korea the go to war plan dictates everything. All our training revolved around a plan to counter a North Korean invasion. So while day to day we worked and trained with our battery, when field exercises were held my platoon (4th PLT) and 3rd PLT were attached to 6/37 (said as ‘six three seven’) field artillery battalion.

Sound confusing? Imagine that you worked in a group within your company that provided tech support specifically for another larger group within the same company. Day to day you went in to an office building used only by your tech support group, but on occasion the larger group that you support goes to a remote site for a job, so you and your team go with that group for actual job operations. That’s more or less how it works when your unit gets attached to another unit to provide some kind of support that allows them to do their mission.

Now, I loved this. We were treated well by 6/37, something that doesn’t always happen to attached units. That was due to their battalion leadership and staff, a great group of professionals – something uncommon in Korea at the time. After proving that I was reliable and knew what I was doing the battalion leadership gave me the freedom to do my job and didn’t micromanage me. My platoon benefitted from that as we weren’t treated like children who needed watching. When the battalion went on field exercises we would roll out with them. To provide proper coverage from air threats the Avengers needed to be kilometers away from the main assembly area that the MLRS battalion occupied. That meant that my guys got to work remotely from the rest of the group, and from positions that had really nice views (got to see a lot of airspace you know). Having 6 Avengers I would find 3 primary positions and 3 alternates, then have my crews do 12 hour shifts while rotating back to the main area so that they could always get hot chow for at least 2 meals each day. I’d have to do a lot of driving around to check on them and on the radar crew that was attached to my platoon.

In an odd twist, the other PL from my battery took a different approach and just pushed all his Avengers out to occupy fighting positions and stay there. Most got stuck in mud, never got a hot meal, and when I’d come across them their vehicles weren’t working properly and the crew would just be hanging out trying to pass the time. Often the soldiers said they hadn’t seen their PL for a couple days. I started taking a few extra hot meals for them when I made my rounds. I’m not saying one method was better than the other, but the two of us PLs had very different approaches to our work. The two of us often got compared, not because there was some competition between us, but because both of us got attached to 6/37 (the other MLRS battalion only got 1 Avenger platoon attached) and the two of us were very different in just about every way. It just naturally led to people taking note.

On one of these field exercises my platoon was scheduled to meet up with 6/37 a few days into the exercise. They were pretty good about not making us go out unless the training schedule was relevant to us. So we made the 30 minute drive out in less stressful than usual circumstances, only to arrive and be told the environment was MOPP 4. WTF it that you ask? MOPP gear is the protective suit for chemical attacks, so it’s it big ass pair of overboots, gloves, pants, blouse, and gas mask. That could have been communicated better while we were en route, but hey shit happens. It was annoying to have someone running up to us yelling to put on full MOPP gear and the stuff is a pain in the ass to put on, even worse to wear. Most of us grumbled and started to pull our MOPP gear out and suit up. Not long after the alert ended and we could take off our suits and get back to reporting in. One of my sergeants wasn’t having it though.

SGT McQueen was a monster of a man, about 6’ and 250 pounds of straight muscle. If he had 2% body fat I’d be surprised. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him launch his helmet at his Avenger and proceed to tossing anything he could while cursing about the lack of heads up on the MOPP 4 alarm. As you can see from the photo above, I’m not quite the same size. A tantrum like that would make us lose credibility (we were about dead center in the main battalion area) and I couldn’t have one of my NCOs acting like that in front of junior enlisted guys. So I got right up in his face as best I could just to get his attention. I gave him the grid coordinates to the most secluded fighting position I had found and told him to just head out there immediately. With that distraction taken care of I reported in to the battalion TOC and then sent two more of my teams out after briefing my platoon on the situation. Twelve hours later when those teams came back SGT McQueen was all smiles. I asked SGT McQueen’s gunner how it went and he said ‘Oh just fine, sir. SGT chopped down a few trees and calmed down.’ I made sure he also taught his gunner some useful things and chalked it up as a W. If a few trees getting cut down was the worst that came out of the largest guy in my platoon going apeshit I was happy.

Not only did my platoon have to roll out on these exercises, we also had our battery gunnery exercises. Twice a year we had to conduct a machine gun gunnery to have crews qualify with the .50 cal M3Ps, and once a year the crews had to qualify with Stinger missile gunnery. I already wrote about the .50 cal gunnery at Nightmare Range. It was a bit of a treacherous trip but otherwise smooth sailing. For our missile gunnery we needed to travel to a beach on the western coast. This required traveling around Seoul on a 5 hour drive, mostly done in the middle of the night to minimize traffic. The whole battery consisted of 4 Avenger platoons (7 – 8 vehicles each), a Sentinel radar platoon, a maintenance platoon, and headquarters element. We broke down into chalks for this drive (4 total if I remember correctly) with each Avenger platoon rolling with a radar towed by another vehicle, and a couple more vehicles from the maintenance and HQ sections. The chalks had staggered departure times, but each chalk leader (the PLs) had a dozen or so vehicles to track as we went from Camp Casey to a Korean Air Force base southwest of Seoul. I want to point out that most of those vehicles were made in the 80s and early 90s. Some broke down, but no accidents on either end of that trip so all was good.

Shooting missiles off of a beach is a pretty weird thing. Remote controlled drones provide the targets and off go the Stingers with an ear splitting crack (I mean that, I forgot my earplugs while standing 20 feet away from one). The whole time you’re trying to not get lost in how beautiful everything is. I’m not joking, right next to the Korean base was a hotel full of tourists. This was clutch at the end of the day when a few of us stupid LTs squeezed through a gap in the chain link fence and got ice cream from the sundry shop in the hotel. Totally worth it. There were also some great cliffs to explore and the sunsets were aces. Those cliffs provided us with the most excitement of the gunnery though.

Korean Coast Guard ships were helping us keep boat traffic clear the whole week. Stingers are heat seeking missiles, they go after hot engines. Now and then a Korean fishing boat would say ‘hey man, hold my beer’ and go charging across the bay. One popped out from around the cliffs just after a Stinger was fired. All of us in the control tower saw it in slow motion. The international incident that we all worried about in the back of our minds was happening. The Stinger went after its drone target at first, then after a couple seconds it started to veer off towards the boat that was darting across our range. Heart-stopping seconds went by as the Stinger got closer and closer to the boat. Shit was about to go real bad, real quick. We were going to have to explain why we blew up a Korean fisherman. Our careers were done and that dude was about to be in pieces. Game over man.

At the very last moment the Stinger did a 90 degree bank, picked up the drone’s heat signature again, and flew away to blow up the drone. By the time we realized crisis was averted the fishing boat was gone around the left edge of the bay. We all changed our pants.

 

That was kind of how work life would go for the whole year. Intense months with little or no time off, absolute crisis mode looming, and then super chill times where you could go party every weekend or enjoy being on a beach for work. No swimming, but there are few things I can compare to spending a day shooting off missiles and then taking an after dinner stroll on the beach, watching gorgeous sunsets while burning a stogie. Wondering if all of it is real, because taken all together it’s just too bizarre.

As much as I love trilogies, I think this is going to wrap up as a four part series. I truly hope you’ve enjoyed these stories so far. It’s always a trip to go through my Korea pictures. I wish I could share more of them with each post. If there’s anything you want to know about or if I’ve left something unclear please leave a comment or shoot me a message. As always, please SHARE, SHARE, SHARE. It’s good for me to reflect, and the book material is adding up, but the goal of bridging the civil/military divide only happens if more people read these posts. Please help me spread the message!

Until we meet again…

My year with the Dragon, Part II

It’s a terribly muggy week here in WNY, which actually reminds me of monsoon season in Korea but without the daily thunderstorm. Today I decided to take the laptop outside and try writing in the backyard. Bowie is coming through the speakers, I’ve got a large pot of coffee, and a cigar to help me channel my inner Twain. There’s a tasty breeze coming through and the grackles are enjoying the feast I left for them. The sun is out. Nature is alive and singing along with “Rebel, Rebel”. Squirrels scamper across my fence and leap spastically into the large maple tree.

This may all seem a digression, but I talk about mental health a good deal here and these outside friends as I call them play a key role in helping maintain my mental health. I thought it would be fun to paint the scene for you all, but also to talk about how simple things build the foundation of how I keep myself sane. It must look as if I spend hours just staring at nothing but the dance of sparrows, grackles, starlings, blue jays, cardinals, squirrels, and my dogs reminds me of the good things that exist. The daily chore of refilling feeders is a source of calmness. It’s a chance to do something in a mindful way. A way to stay in touch with my Franciscan roots, and it connects me to the world around me. Birding has made me more aware of the ebbs and flows of nature. Migratory patterns bring new birds from time to time, learning about them helps to make me recognize the delicate balance of our world and the role we play. It is a way to practice the Stoic exercise of taking a view from above as well. So you see, this simple act is much more for me.

Alright, onto the task at hand. I don’t want to make this a totally linear story of my time in Korea. That would be tedious and boring. Going on a month to month play by play doesn’t tell a fun story, and I really wouldn’t be able to hit on every single thing either. If anything is certain, it is that I will forget things. Some mundane and some important, but the upside to our fallible memories is that you’ll have a reason to keep coming back here! So today I thought I would expand on what I wrote in Part 1 about expat friends and another funny story or two from Camp Casey.

Some of those friends who I’ve stayed in contact with reacted to Part 1 and reminded me of some unlikely stories of how we met. As I reflected on them it occurred to me that they are perfect examples of how crazy and adventurous that year was. So here they are for your reading pleasure.

Yongsan electronics market was a favorite place to go explore. It was essentially a large train station with a 9 story mall built above. This place summed up Korea perfectly. It wasn’t like an American mall with stores placed without thought on whatever floor. This was strictly electronics, even the furniture sold there was in many ways more electronics than couch. Each floor was dedicated to one or two different products with vendors arranged not in sequestered store fronts but with their individual floor spaces in an open environment. Imagine an American office building with a cube farm set up, but with each cube being about 20’x20’ of display cases where the clerks would compete openly with each other. You could wander around an entire floor and find essentially all the same things, but the fun was in the negotiation. Offering the advertised price was a sign of ignorance, everything was negotiable and it was expected that you would dicker for a better deal.

So one floor would be all digital cameras, another floor for computers, one for electronic furniture, one for musical instruments, one for TVs. There was a great movie theater as well, and a food court where I decided to try a dish called ‘Fire Chicken’. I shit you not that plate came out to the table on fire! The waiter warned me to order something else as this dish was even too spicy for many Koreans to eat it. Implied was that Americans couldn’t stand the spicy foods enjoyed by Koreans. Of course that made me double down. I finished about half that plate through pure stubbornness and popped Tums for a week.

After one trip to this magical place with my buddy and fellow PL, Remington, we were standing outside the front entrance talking about where to go next. There was a musical performance going on outside the station that we watched for a bit while trying to wait out some rain. Out of nowhere came Maria. She was still in her first month in Korea as an English teacher and was kind of lost. She asked to borrow one of our phones as her phone had died and she had no way of getting in touch with her friend that she was supposed to meet. Being an officer and a gentleman I happily obliged.

After finishing her call we all stood around for a bit just talking and watching the music and dancing troupe. As it turned out Maria was from the same city in Maryland as my college roommate Phil, who also happened to be my next door neighbor at Camp Casey. We were both still pretty new to Korea and having found a common bond we exchanged phone numbers and stayed in contact. Maria ended up hanging in similar social circles and played for the Seoul Sisters RFC. We ended up sharing many pints and stories throughout that year, all because of an off chance meeting.

There were plenty of other weguks (foreigners) on that plaza that Maria could have approached. Against the odds she came up to a guy just as out of place as her with a somewhat hometown connection. We still laugh about that from time to time, such an odd coincidence that led to a friendship formed over rugby and the shared adventure of being so far from home.

Now if that was the strangest story of making a friend in Korea it wouldn’t be a surprise. Life has a magnificent sense of humor though.

Part 1 mentions Pub Scrooges. It was where the Seoul Survivors hung out and had post-match socials. It became a regular haunt for me whether I was down in Seoul with friends from Camp Casey or if I just went down on my own. It was a place I knew I’d find friends to share a pint with and leave Army life behind. One night at Scrooges, as I was out doing what most 23 year old guys do, I was chatting with a beautiful baby (mandatory Swingers reference) and getting along better than I usually did. I was sitting at a long table when someone tapped my shoulder. Turning around to face the guy sitting behind me, I was told ‘Hey, she wants to talk to you.” He was pointing to another woman opposite him who was sitting on the bench that lined the back wall. Also quite lovely, I was stunned at my good luck that night.

Unsure how to handle this I tried to gracefully excuse myself from the conversation I was in the middle of so that I could talk to this other girl while not turning off the first girl. Without even introducing herself girl #2 said “Did you go to Bonas?” I was stunned at this and looked down at my chest to see if I had been wearing a SBU shirt. Confirming I wasn’t I looked back up and said that I did and asked how she guessed. Turns out Amanda recognized me from Bonas and told me that we had actually met at a townhouse party a couple years ago. Now Bonas had about 2,200 students while I was there, my graduating class numbered around 600. Somehow Amanda, who was also a 2006 grad, was sitting at a rugby pub less than 10 feet from me, 6,600 miles away from where we first met. I vaguely remembered the party and apologized for my hazy (drunken) memory. Finding another Bonnie so far from home I forgot all about the girl I had been talking to and joined Amanda’s table.

We talked over a few pints, retracing our Bonas connections and laughed a lot over how strange it was that we ran into each other. Seoul is similar in size to NYC, so on top of the long odds of us both being in Korea was the extra layer of being in the same pub that night. Well, turns out Amanda was there because she too was a Seoul Sister and had played rugby at Bonas. People often say it’s a small world, this certainly takes the cake. It also shows how the connections we make and circles we hang out in follow us everywhere. If not for rugby neither of us would have been there that night. If not for a few mutual friends at a small university in middle-of-nowhere, NY Amanda would have never recognized me and we might have never talked to each other in spite of frequently being at Scrooges.

I think about these friendships now and then and it still amazes me. I’ve not seen either Maria or Amanda since leaving Korea, but we’ve stayed in contact through the miracle of Facebook. Say what you will about StalkerBook, it has served me well in staying connected to people that I’ve met in so many places. Staying in loose contact with those friends from Korea has made the experience so much better. It’s made these people friends for life rather than friends for a year who become memories you sometimes think of. I’m so grateful for these experiences. There are plenty of bad times from my service, remembering these good things makes the bad times worth it. Without them I would focus on all the negative memories and emotions, which would suck me into an abyss of anger. It’s easy to feel like those years were wasted and pointless when I watch the news. Looking back on the friends made and good times shared is just as important as feeding my outside friends. It lets me know that my life has been well lived and that more adventures remain. It keeps me hopeful and breaks the grip of despair that creeps into my mind. Living in the past can be deadly, showing gratitude for your past can help you to move forward with optimism of great things to come.

You were promised a funny story too. How about the time I nearly caught a beating for being gay (spoiler, I’m not).

On another outing with Remington we went exploring Uijongbu. Only about 30 minutes from Camp Casey, Uijongbu is a medium sized city that offered some of the escape that Seoul did but with half the train ride, so you could do it and get back to Casey before curfew. We weren’t out to party though, we went to check out some of the open air fish markets and the underground mall. Remington bought a bunch of fish and squid (nasty), I found a shirt that screamed 80’s hair metal to me and had to buy it. This thing was black with gold splashed around, shiny, and a weird texture that was a cross between silk and rubber. It was just the kind of thing I needed for my next Poison concert. Happy with our finds we headed back to Casey and decided to head out to the Ville that night.

Of course I wore the shirt!

Hitting up a couple of juicy bars in the Ville always carried an element of danger. They were dirty, seedy places where trouble found you. Who wouldn’t love it? We were at the Mustang Club and a group of juicy girls walked up from behind me, one saying ‘hello’ by giving me a reach around. Taken off guard I jumped, spun around, and let juicy know that I wasn’t interested. They hung around for a while though because…… they loved my shirt. They kept feeling my shirt and started call me Snake Man (I still call it the Snake Man shirt) and put in a pretty strong effort to get us to buy their nights – the prostitution part works by ‘buying the night’ or paying the club owner for the rest of the girl’s shift to compensate for lost beverage sales – but we wanted none of that. The girls went away after a bit and we went back to shooting the shit over our beers.

Not too long after this four guys who were wasted and stumbling approached us. One put his finger in my chest and started rambling about how he hate ‘our kind’. He said something to the effect of ‘what are you two, the kind that stays silent but likes to flaunt it (being gay) in everyone’s faces’. We knew there wasn’t a way to talk ourselves out of this. Like I said, trouble finds you.

When we walked into the Mustang that night we saw a few of the NCOs from our battery in the back. As we were being surrounded at the bar I looked over to their table and saw they were watching, so I waved. Six more guys from our battery walked over, all of equal or greater size than those who were looking to start some shit. G, who was 6 foot and an easy 270 pounds of muscle and gut, tapped on the shoulder of the guy who had been accosting me, looked down on him, and simply asked if there was any trouble. As these guys realized they were now outnumbered and surrounded they slinked away and trouble was avoided. Remington and I happily bought drinks for our NCOs the rest of the night. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to get out of that without a beating and probably a shitload of trouble with the MPs, something that could have easily ended our careers even though we didn’t do anything.

So that’s how close I came to getting beat for being gay. All’s well that ends well, right? What I’d say about that now is that it was a lesson in empathy. It was a terrifying insight into the bullshit that gay men still face. Sometimes you truly need to be put into such a situation to grow as a person. Anyone who doesn’t understand why Gay Pride is celebrated needs to only be in my shoes that night to have their eyes opened. Mine sure were.

 

When I started this last Saturday I didn’t plan for such a multi-part story. I’ve only started to scratch the surface of this year in Korea. Looks like we’ll have at least a Part III and maybe a Part IV. Who else is excited!? If you’re confused at all about the title I’ve chosen for this series check out this video. It’s totally NSFW but in a lot of ways sums up being stationed at Camp Casey. Just imagine the dragon is USFK.

Until we meet again…

My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

Becoming a Bonnie

March Madness is here and it’s raised up so much emotion. I really enjoy college basketball, but what’s caused this recent rollercoaster isn’t the tournament itself, getting to see St. Bonaventure playing in the Big Dance and the outpouring from fellow alumni has been a tidal wave this past week. In an example of Facebook’s fundamental value, an alumnus started a group specifically around the March Madness run of the Bonnies which quickly grew to about 4,000 alumni. The group shared support of the team, but also many stories of why they decided to go to Bonas, why it is such a special place, and we all got to see the Bonaventure Bond in full court press as people who didn’t know each other felt that special connection.

So today I want to share my own story of coming to Bonas, how it changed me, and why I am eternally grateful to call myself a Bonnie. I’ve written in general terms about Bonas when explaining my route to commissioning, but today I’m going to share some not often shared stories to explain why I ended up at Bonas and how it remade me.

I had strong feelings about fairness, justice, and defending the defenseless formed at a young age. A steady diet of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined with adoration of my Uncle Joe’s service in World War II molded my young mind. So much so that when I was about 7 I decided that it was my job to protect the neighborhood. One summer morning I packed up my backpack with toy handcuffs, Ninja Turtle weapons like sais, nunchucks, and Leonardo’s swords, and probably some toy guns – my crime fighting kit. I tied off my bandana and set off to patrol the neighborhood. Walking the beat on the blocks surrounding my HQ (house) and finding no bad guys I returned after maybe 15 or 20 minutes to find my dad losing his mind. I got yelled at pretty good for leaving the house without telling anyone and how worried he was that I’d been kidnapped. I calmly explained I was just out on patrol and couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong – but that was the last time I did that.

As you probably guessed, I was a weird kid. I was also perennially undersized and socially awkward which led to a lot of bullying. In what was probably an overprotective move my parents switched me from the local public elementary school after second grade and I started at the Catholic school. How anyone would think that would result in less bullying kind of amazes me in hindsight. I never fit in there, partly because I also didn’t want to be there. Some of the kids tried to be friendly, but over the course of the year I just felt isolated and never fully part of the class. Fortunately I would be with the same group of kids as long as I was at this school! So I coped by keeping to myself, being suspicious of anyone who approached me, never really trusting others. This ebbed and flowed, but it was mostly pretty crappy.

Like most elementary school classes there were two or three kids that were just absolute douches. These guys were my tormentors. One morning during 5th grade one of them approached me by the coat rack. He was about a foot taller than me and had me cornered as he made weird moaning noises and thrusted his pelvis at me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and something just snapped. Without thinking I just punched him in the gut as hard as I could. That knocked the wind out of the kid, his face turned red and he was completely shocked. The teacher came to sort things out. I ended up getting after school detention that day, essentially punishing me for defending myself. Again, with hindsight that kind of makes sense for a Catholic school.

That’s more or less how early childhood went for me. Lots of isolation and feeling like an outsider, never really finding a place I fit in until I discovered punk music in high school.  Still though, I had no personal connections. I felt no great pride in my hometown or high school, friends and social circles were always fluid. I protected myself by walling myself off. JROTC was what saved me from being a total failure in high school. A few recent graduates had gone on to St. Bonaventure, winning ROTC scholarships. My JROTC was an informal feeder for Bonas ROTC, and this was my path. This was my hope for escaping a hometown I hated and finding my place in the world.

So in August of 2002 I arrived at St. Bonaventure. A place that, in the early unchecked days of Wikipedia, was described as being widely known to be the greatest place on Earth (it is). Boy was I a mess when I got there, that much should be clear by now. On top of the social problems I had growing up I was also raised in a very traditional Catholic worldview coated in a healthy dose of racism. While hanging out in the punk scene helped correct some of that, it’s fair to say I got to Bonas still thinking homosexuality was a repugnant defect and looked at minorities with suspicion. Those things that get ingrained in you from birth are hard to overcome.

Secured in the Bona Bubble, those ugly aspects of my character faded. I had finally found my place, safe and at peace. Bonas immediately felt like home, it’s what made up my mind to go there during a campus visit. The first time I drove in, seeing the Spanish tiled roofs appear as the car crested a hill there was a sense of serenity. I had my bumps during freshman year, but eventually found a group of friends that I could trust. I let my guard down and felt normal for the first time, knowing that I could be myself without fear of ridicule. These same friends also called me on my bullshit. They helped me see how wrong the views I was raised on were. This was the family that I’d always needed.

Ask me where my home is and who my family is and I’ll tell you my home is Bonaventure (Townhouse 33 specifically) and my family is made up of Bonnies. My roommates are my brothers. The bonds made with friends from Bonas are tighter than those I have with most blood relatives. That’s why when I find out a friend from Bonas has a baby, and is without any baby Bona gear, I happily drive the 75 miles to campus to buy a onesie to mail out with my congratulations and love.

I have no greater affinity for anything in my life than St. Bonas. Not my hometown, not my high school friends, and not even the Army. Bonas is the sole place in my story where I felt so right. Bad decisions may have been made every weekend, but never a bad memory. Bonas is where I left behind the shy, stand-offish kid I was and became Timmerzzz. A nickname that I reveled in given to me by some of my stoner friends. I decided to spell it with three Z’s solely so that when someone asked me why I spelled it that way I could then say ‘Because I roll Three Z’s Deep, motherfucker!” A long way from who I was at 18.

Bonas also turned me into a more thoughtful and compassionate person. The ideas, biases, and worldview I entered with were not the ones I left with. At Bonas I was exposed to new ideas, new people, and was forced to expand my critical thinking. The changes were dramatic in scope and swiftness. A liberal arts education is often looked at as needless. I’d argue it’s absolutely necessary if you want to be a complete person. Classes in critical thinking & writing, philosophy and logic, studying the classical world, and majoring in history all combined to give me essential skills for understanding the world around me. I was able to see my own flaws and confront them.

True, this happens at many universities. What makes St. Bonaventure special is the people. Sitting along the Allegany River, the campus’s southern boundary, and overlooked by the Enchanted Mountains with Merton’s Heart guiding you, there is no place more peaceful. St. Bonas is a Catholic Franciscan school. For those unfamiliar with this tradition Franciscans are often called the Hippies of the Catholic Church. While they aren’t promoting Free Love, they are the most friendly people I’ve met. Full of joy and love for nature the friars were a gregarious group that wanted nothing more than to share their happiness with you. What I felt there was the same safety and comfort that I’d known at my Uncle Joe’s house.

The people. That’s the heart of this place we Bonnies love so dearly. The tranquility of the campus is infectious. You cannot help but be happy when you’re there, and that attitude feeds off itself. Walking around campus you are greeted with smiles and warmness, even when the wind chill is below zero. You bond in the shared isolation of St. Bonaventure’s geography, basketball, and beer. Bonaventure, basketball, beer. It seems simple and lacking, yet the simplicity of it is what brought us together. These were the things that mattered, the essentials. Anything else didn’t matter. You’re a Bonnie? Awesome, you’re my friend. Any other label you can put on a person disappears. If they bleed Brown and White you’re family.

So why was this chance to Dance so important? In the 2002-2003 season, my freshman year, there was a scandal that nearly destroyed the basketball program. The proud legacy of Bob Lanier and the 1970 Final Four team was overshadowed by a coach, athletic director, and university president who signed off on a junior transfer who had only a welding certificate and not an associates degree. This blew up with two games left in the season. All wins were vacated, the remaining players refusing to play, coach and AD fired, university president resigned, NCAA post-season ban (5 years I think?) and lost scholarships. During that summer the president of the board of trustees hanged himself. These were dark times for what had been a point of pride for the Bonaventure community. The team didn’t have another A-10 victory until my junior year (against Rhode Island) and that got us to storm the court. There had even been talk of dropping to a lower conference or out of D1 all together. Part of what bonded us so tightly was now something you’d rather forget about (like 4 straight Super Bowl losses).

So this past week when SBU was back in the Big Dance, all of us in the Bona family were dancing. Redemption is sweet. Sharing it with such a large family makes your chest swell and your eyes well. Both are happening as I write this.

We all love St. Bonaventure. I love it because it saved me. It took a scared, untrusting, and angry kid and turned him into a man who is thoughtful and compassionate. No longer ignorant and hateful but aware of the world around me and accepting. I’m not always the person that I strive to be, but I am proud of the person I’ve become. While I’m no longer Catholic, St. Bonaventure and St. Francis still guide me.

The spirit of Bonas molded me into a good person. That light is the gift that each of us Bonnies brings to the world.

Pax et bonum. Go Bonas!

Where it started

Nearly 17 years later how does this make you feel? My stomach still knots up. My skin turns clammy, mouth dry, hands turn into vices. My eyes well up and my chest burns. I still cannot watch videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Then again, I saw that scene replay on CNN and Fox News on that prophetic day so much that it’s burned into my memory. Every camera angle, over and over again. Each time hoping that the plane would turn away. Seeing the grotesque collision belching flames and broken glass shattering everything that I knew.

I was 17.

I grabbed the books I needed for my next two classes, closed up my locker, and walked on to math class. My normal routine since senior year started the previous week (the school year starts after Labor Day in NY). A friend stopped me and asked if I had heard the news. He said terrorists had crashed a plane into both of the Twin Towers in the City. I shrugged it off because making up a joke like that would’ve been normal for him. As I walked the few hundred feet to math I heard some teachers talking about the attacks, trying to keep their voices quiet. By the time I got to class I realized it was true. Still, I hadn’t seen it yet. TVs were only in a few of the classrooms, most were only set up to play VHS tapes anyway. The day went on with updates trickling in. It wasn’t until after 3:00 when I got home that I finally saw the full scale of the horror.

More than 2,700 dead when the Towers collapsed. Another 200 plus at the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The towers burned and then gave out under their own weight. People who were cut off on floors above the crashes jumped to their deaths. Hundreds remained trapped in elevators they rode at the time of the crashes until the buildings fell upon them. Cable news mercilessly replayed the crashes in the corner of your TV while their live coverage continued. We relived the trauma of planes gracefully gliding in the air and then slamming into buildings dozens of times that day. We saw the sickening implosion of the Twin Towers and people fleeing on the street, covered in dust, blood, and tears.

I had known that I was going to apply for an ROTC scholarship before starting senior year. If no scholarship was offered I would enlist in the Army. Camouflage was already in my future, now conflict was too. Senior year of high school became an exercise in passing time. I knew what was ahead of me and just wanted to get there.

A scholarship was won and the following August I began four years of education and training to become an officer. I became part of Year Group 2006, which would become the first year group of officers to have been cadets in a war time Army for all four years of college since the Vietnam War. The suddenness of our transition from peace time to war time was quite queer.

The group of seniors at Bonas who were about to commission in 2003 seemed larger than life in some ways. It was clear that many of them were exceptional and would become great leaders. One would go on to be awarded the Soldiers Medal for his actions during the Fort Hood shooting in 2014. That group set a high bar for my class. We were fortunate to have them as role models. This was something I took for granted, only later realizing how uncommon this was.

St. Bonaventure was a serene place to find yourself. It was safe and welcoming. I became more confident, less introverted, more outgoing. There was tremendous personal growth. The whole time the specter of 9/11 hung overhead. Constant reminders of what caused our current conflict drove me, fueled deep seeded anger. That anger and hatred of our enemy clouded my judgement around the build up to invading Iraq. I was a typical American in that regard. Still stinging from the terrorist attacks and wanting a grand battle, something that Afghanistan could never be, I went along with the excuses to invade and initiate a regime change.

I remember being issued a Kevlar helmet shortly before the invasion started. When news broke of the first bombs dropping on Baghdad I strapped the helmet on and started running around the dorm floor. As the bombs fell I saw my future and grew excited at the prospect of getting my chance to get there to do my part. Shock and awe gave me a hard on. I was fanatical. I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sheltered 18 year old. Oddly, being a freshman at the time of the invasion provided enough time to sour on the decision and become cynical by 2006.

Seeing the war in Iraq become a muddy counter insurgency and the floundering of our hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan made me wonder just what was waiting for me after commissioning. The incompetence and outright stupidity of so many of our military and political leaders left me feeling helpless. I could see the futility of war playing out, but at the same time I knew that it would become my job to execute those plans. I did my part as a good future leader and kept studying doctrine and field manuals, reading all the right books about grand strategy and foreign policy, working out twice a day (mostly). My duty was to prepare myself and then do my best in whatever assignment was handed to me. Being a cadet at that time was an odd mix of having the freedom to be critical and speak freely while knowing that I would become part of the machine executing and promoting a failed strategy. Kind of like wearing a helmet with ‘Born to Kill’ scrawled on one side and a peace symbol pinned on the other side.

All the while the anger born of 9/11 remained, compounded by the anger over the administration’s failures. Keeping busy with school and looking forward to what parties were in store each week made the time pass. Allowing my chest to puff and head to swell off of the lines fed us about our greatness and bravery for volunteering during war time built up an unhealthy ego. Added to that was an unrealistic idea of what life in the Army would be like. Our ROTC instructors had a completely different experience of Army life, having 10 – 15 years of mostly peace time service they painted a picture based on that experience. By the time we all got out into the real Army it was a rude awakening to the realities of an Army that had been in a war footing for 5 years.

Disillusionment was a foregone conclusion. It’s hard to imagine any possible future for us that would end any other way. We were excited, patriotic, driven to serve a higher purpose, defend freedom. These things were not what we would end up doing. To make matters worse for me, the Army branched me in Air Defense Artillery. The Taliban and al-Queda didn’t exactly have air threats that needed to be defended against. The branch had been marginalized, it amounted to about 2% of the Army, and there was no real shooting mission for it in the Global War on Terrorism. CRAM did become operational towards the end of my tenure, but SHORAD – the more traditional soldiering part of ADA – was dying when I commissioned.

I had a difficult time accepting all this and kept looking for a way to get in the fight. I tried to transfer to Armor branch (tanks and cavalry) but ADA wouldn’t release me. I applied for Civil Affairs, only to get the rejection letter on my birthday. Finally I called my branch manager (they’re like career advisors) and said my separation packet would be coming to his desk if I couldn’t get an assignment to a Military Transition Team. Another odd twist of timing, the MTT assignments were winding down, with only two more cohorts planned. My branch manager had to make a deal with Field Artillery branch to swap out slots so that I could get the assignment, but he came through. Three years after commissioning, 8 years after 9/11, I finally had my piece of the fight.

The MTT assignment turned out to be a BTT – Border Transition Team. The Army had decided that few Iraqi Army units still needed embedded military advisors and had shifted focus to the Iraqi Border Police and the National Police to help build up those aspects of the Iraqi civil defenses. Our military advisor training started at Fort Riley, KS in mid-June and lasted about 90 days. In September we boarded planes in Topeka and headed to Kuwait. Stepping out of the plan the nasty air smacked me. Early morning local time, I was finally in the shit. It was September 11, 2009.

The 11 man team that I was on would be military advisors to a Border Police academy in Basra. The cadre of the academy all had more experience than any of us. Most had served the Iraqi military in some form for 20 or more years. I was paired up with a colonel who was in charge of the academy’s training plans and doctrine. Most days I just drank chai with him and talked about our families. We both knew that there was little I could offer. Fortunately my advisee did not begrudge me. I probably learned more from him than he would ever learn from me. It was another chance for me to grow through building an understanding of the Iraqi culture and history as related by this colonel. We would occasionally exchange gifts. He knew I liked the native dates and I knew, from the captain I replaced, that he enjoyed blue Gatorade. I also found the English/Arabic Koran I had kept from one of my classes at Bonaventure and gave it to the colonel. He was studying English and I knew he would appreciate the book more than I would. These days passed slowly.

Eventually one of the other BTTs from our cohort got reassigned and we picked up their responsibilities in Basra. We began advising a battalion of Border Police commandos. They were kind of like a SWAT team for the Border Police. Not long after this Iran seized a small oil field on the Iraq/Iran border. It fell within the area of responsibility for the commandos and they started rotating units out there in what was essentially a Mexican stand off with the Iranian Army. Finally a chance for us to get in on some sort of real action! We looked at several options for transport out to the oil field, with the only feasible option being helicopters. In the end there wasn’t leadership support for this, so we remained in Basra and continued with our limited engagement with our partner units.

Then the deployment ended. My T.E. Lawrence dreams faded. Any thoughts of doing something of meaning were over. Just one more exercise in futility. Youth wasted. Anger remained.

As I typed the first sentence of this post, it shocked me to realize that as many years have gone by since September 11, 2001 as had gone by in my life before 9/11. That 9/11 effectively marks the half way point in my life, and the beginning of my adult life, is distressing. Knowing that the post-9/11 world will forevermore be the majority of my own life is a hard thing to swallow. Every new day makes my pre-9/11 existence seem smaller and smaller. The innocence of youth all that more distant and unknown. Barely old enough to know the world before the world was torn down.

I imagine these are the same feelings that veterans of World War I must have felt. Plucked from their sleepy lives, far removed from any notion of globalization, they were tossed into a cauldron of boiling blood and severed limbs. Before they could understand what was happening, it was over, and then they were supposed to get on with life. Over the years WWI and the interwar period began to make more sense to me than the post-WWII years. The demons haunting Hemingway seem more real than the V-E/V-J day euphoria. The desire to dive into Gatsbian gaiety because the only thing that makes sense is absurdity feels more visceral.

Howdy Doody, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith – are you fucking kidding me!? More like Aunt Bee gives Barney Fife a Cleveland Steamer while Wally and Beaver double team Miss Canfield and Buffalo Bob turns Howdy Doody into a fleshlight that pukes white. That seems more recognizable having grown up in a post-9/11 world.

A memory often comes to mind these days. Sitting at the kitchen table with my Uncle Joe, (who manned the top turret of a B-17 in 1943 – ’44) when I was in my early teens, talking about Vietnam. I said to Uncle Joe that he was lucky to have been in WWII since it was a good war. Uncle Joe simply put his hand over mine and calmly said “Timmy, there are no good wars.”

Down the PTS rabbit hole

My last post was a great cathartic release. It also felt like I wandered off from the main point of this blog. That left me wondering where to go from there. I felt like there was money left on the table, like I had more still to say on our collective PTS. I also wanted to get back to telling my own story. Then an anvil fell on my head and I realized that this idea of how America changed after 9/11 is the starting point of my own story. If I was writing my own origin story then it would start with September 11, 2001. I’m sure many Vets from my generation would make similar claims, so please don’t think I’m making some pompous statement here. Plain and simple, my path in life took a road from which there was no coming back on that day.

We’re not quite ready to delve into that yet though. Today we’re looking deeper at America’s long term reaction to 9/11. Generalities were stated in my last post. Today we need to examine some of the specific self harm that we have neglected to acknowledge. Unless we begin to admit these actions are harmful we are on a course of self destruction that may arrive much sooner than many would think.

(Side note – at this point I still didn’t know what to write so I went to see Black Panther, which appropriately is also an origin story)

Let’s look at three specific trends that began after 9/11 – reckless spending, willing surrender of privacy, and a slow roll toward an autocratic oligarchy. All of these trends are interrelated and were enabled by our mental victimization. Our fear allowed us to excuse a run away defense budget while simultaneously silencing any questioning of budgetary norms being ignored. Our fear allowed our privacy rights to be trampled without any pushback. Our fear has allowed more power to be consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer people in the past two decades.

I’m not writing to rail against a corrupt economy and body politic. That’s not an accurate summation of my opinions, and it’s certainly not in keeping with the spirit of this blog. I’m a guy who likes things straight down the middle, so we’ll look at some objective facts that relate to these three trends and talk about how they reflect our national path since 9/11.

First up, our insane spending on defense and national security and lack of careful scrutiny of said spending. For anyone who wants to do some detailed reading here’s a good jumping off point from CATO. The highlights – debt held by the public in 2002 was about 32% of GDP, in 2016 it had risen to 77% of GDP. While non-defense spending is part of this jump the bulk is certainly due to our sustained practice of paying for wars with credit and loans. For budget geeks like me, here are more data from the Council on Foreign Relations and an aggregate of US defense spending since 1900. The short of it is that our defense spending has rivaled WWII era spending, except that the Global War on Terror has lasted more than 4-times as long as WWII. With the recent budget deal passed we will continue this trend until 2020, essentially two full decades of defense spending on par with our efforts to fight a global war against multiple great power states that lasted 4 years.

Think about the effort needed to fight WWII. America had to essentially create a modern Army, Navy, and air forces (not yet a branch) in less than 2 years just to catch up to its enemies who all held technological advances by a full generation. The enemies being fought since 9/11 are the complete opposite in terms of technology. They have no navy or air forces – which means there is no great need to expend massive sums of money on our own. What is needed in a counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight is lots of people, effective intelligence operations, and a coordinated diplomatic effort.

This is where our civil/military divide came into play. Americans were terrified in the aftermath of 9/11 and in that panic gave the green light for any operation that was proposed. This unquestioning approval became a habit and developed into a perverted patriotism. To question military advice or spending requests was unpatriotic. The same hysteria that fueled Joe McCarthy was tapped by equally ambitious and predatory politicians.

This tactic was quickly applied to pass the PATRIOT ACT. While many of us may say that such thoughtless surrender of privacy has since abated, many of the restrictions removed by the PATRIOT ACT have been repeatedly reauthorized. Our trauma struck so deep that we have allowed our privacy rights to be infringed for the promise of security despite the fact that the former is not required for the later.

The fear that silenced any questioning of defense spending has also squashed any debate on privacy rights in the post-9/11 world. An engaged and well informed citizenry is essential for democracy to work. Our civil/military divide allowed the military to stay comfortable inside its bubble and it allowed civilians to wash their hands of civic duty. Both groups happily went along thinking that they were better off not interacting or understanding each other. While this divide widened, democracy’s enemies grew wide eyed and seized the opportunity. For the musically inclined I offer this explanation.

That gets us to point number three, the slow roll towards an autocratic oligarchy. Again, I’m not here rallying against the rich. That’s not my bag and I don’t think that the country is secretly controlled by the Koch brothers. However, we are absolutely in a period of great concentration of wealth, both by individuals and companies. Following the Great Recession individuals whose wealth was composed of investments made much larger gains than wage earners. Companies seeking growth turned to expansive acquisitions as the best use of capital. Nothing about that is nefarious per se, it’s completely logical. That does not change the fact that wealth and power have become concentrated to a point not seen since the Gilded Age.

While that in itself does not condemn the citizens of the United States to a dystopian future controlled by a few powerful individuals, it does set the stage. Great concentration of wealth has long been known to be a threat to democracy and was even on the minds of the Founding Fathers. Timothy Snyder’s recent book On Tyranny does a fantastic job of  highlighting how such concentrations of wealth and power enabled tyrants to come to power time and time again in the 20th Century. What I believe we are in danger of today is an apathetic citizenry that is so disengaged, so used to consigning away their rights that such autocratic powers could materialize before most realize what is happening.

Bringing this all back to the aftermath of 9/11 the roots of these trends lie in how we as a nation reacted to being attacked. A citizenry that had grown used to not thinking about the military that they funded continued to stay disengaged. Our civil/military divide enabled an even greater hands off approach to national security matters. To be told to return to our normal routines, to go out shopping and that to buy new homes was a display of our resilience and patriotism, this was music to the ears of a citizenry that was scared and clueless to national security policy. To face little civilian criticism was music to the ears of military leaders who were lieutenants during the closing days of Vietnam.

Contrast that with the reaction to Pearl Harbor and citizen action during WWII. Citizens were encouraged to buy war bonds, grow Victory Gardens, to ration things like sugar and give up silk stockings. Everyone shared in the sacrifice. The entire nation was truly mobilized, took ownership, and had a part to play. A cynic could say that the citizenry was also blasted with propaganda, but that’s a fairly weak rebuttal. America came together in a shared mission during WWII. During GWOT the military went overseas and the rest of America went back to the mall.

The key to reversing these trends is to reengage as a nation. For our citizens to become well informed and to think critically. Changing our attitudes towards raising questions from being troublesome, to viewing this as the greatest form of patriotism. To ask questions means you are involved and that you care about what we are doing as a nation. It means that you are taking ownership of what politicians and the military do on  your behalf. Be skeptic, not cynical. Trust but verify means you need to start with trusting others.

We all share in the moral injury of our nation’s actions. It does not matter if you were engaged or not, if you agreed with the actions or not, if you cheered on the wars or protested them. We are all complicit in the moral injury of America’s decisions. Pushing our heads deeper into the sand does nothing but make the injury fatal. We are at a turning point in American history. A generation has passed since the attacks of 9/11. We can correct our course, or we can go off the water fall. If we do not take ownership of the self inflicted harm that resulted from our unacknowledged trauma it will be our collective undoing.

Until we meet again.

 

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 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 a 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. One 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.

 

Making an Officer

As I tried to fall asleep last night I kept thinking about this post. I know I had a couple of deep thoughts that I should have written down, but of course I didn’t and now I’m hoping that they come back to me as I write. Still have work to do in the area of note taking. I’ve just finished Flo Groberg’s book 8 Seconds of Courage. One thing that slapped me upside the head was that many Americans may not understand how officers are made – not assembled from spare parts at OCS, and it’s not quite like An Officer and a Gentleman. The clueless LT that provides comic relief in so many films is also not quite accurate, although not so unheard of that there isn’t a kernel of truth to the satire. This past Saturday was also the Army/Navy game. I realized that this annual football game is probably the only time the service academies cross some peoples’ minds. So let’s dive into the murky waters from which spring fresh faced new officers, and a bit of my own experience in this process.

First, there are four sources from which the Army sources officers. The service academies are the most well known, but only account for around 30% of the officers in each year group (that’s like a class year, I was year group 2006). ROTC, which was founded in 1916 and is tied with the nation’s maturation into a global power needing a standing army, will contribute around twice as many officers as USMA, with Officer Candidate School and direct commissioning rounding us off. Direct commissioning is typically used to bring high needs specialist into the ranks, eye doctors for example. They are brought in after finishing their med school, given some shiny ranks, and have to attend a school that is basically a crash course on ‘being in the Army’.

Officer Candidate School is a way for enlisted soldiers who meet educational requirements to become officers. These people typically have years of service already and need the officership piece taught to them. So their school is primarily the leadership material taught at USMA or in ROTC on a condensed schedule. Some OCS candidates though are straight from basic training. The ‘college option’ candidates are recent college grads who missed the boat on ROTC and decided they wanted to serve as Army officers (with student debt paid off). They’ll go to basic training and then straight to OCS. So not every OCS product has years of prior enlisted service as a foundation.

As for the vast majority of officers, they’re coming from West Point or ROTC. Some critical distinctions between these two sources are that West Point cadets are on active duty status from day one, they receive an Ivy League level education, and when school is not in session they are required to go to some kind of training. West Pointers also get first crack at branch selection (we’ll get back to that). ROTC cadets are either ‘contracted’ or ‘non-contract’, which means that not every ROTC cadet is on scholarship and that any college student can enroll without committing to the Army. Once a cadet accepts a scholarship (2, 3, or 4 years) they are technically in the Reserves. These cadets will have the chance to go to some extra training during the summers but are not required to. There has long been heated debate over which of these two sources is better. As I am horribly biased I’ll simply leave this link to one of the better pieces I’ve read on the matter. I typically found a solid 80/20 rule applied to West Pointers – 20% were the finest officers I served with and some of the best people I ever met, 80% were total shitheads.

ROTC has two requirements to be met in order to earn a commission. Cadets must graduate with a bachelors degree and they must successfully complete a month long training evaluation between junior and senior year. I attended this in 2005 and it was called Leadership Development and Assessment Camp (LDAC) or for short, Warrior Forge. Previous to this it was simply known as Advanced Camp, but that didn’t quite give off a hard core image. I think the name has again changed since 2005, but the key thing to know is that there are several tests of a cadet’s physical, mental, and leadership competence that must be passed. I can’t say that I thought any of it was very challenging. To get top grades certainly required exceptional performance (not me), but I was able to comfortably pass the requirements. I’m a solid B/B+ in life.

The one event that I was nervous for was the Army Physical Fitness Test. This involves doing as many push-ups as you can in 2 minutes, as many sit-ups as you can in 2 minutes, and a timed 2 mile run (this is something else I believe is now different). A few weeks before I left for Warrior Forge (man that still sounds lame in my head) I caught a nasty sinus infection that caused my tonsils to swell up so much that they touched. I lost 15 pounds in 3 weeks, leaving me a bit weaker and my run time suffered big time. Before leaving for Fort Lewis, WA, every cadet in my class at SBU had to come in for one final diagnostic PT test, just to be sure the school wasn’t sending anyone unprepared. I typically maxed out the push-ups and sit-ups and clocked a sub-14 minute run (an OK time). This time around I struggled to get beyond the minimums for push-ups and sit-ups and failed the run. The cadre administering the test knew this wasn’t because I had been lazy in the weeks between the end of the semester and mid-June. I explained the illness I was just recovering from and promised I would pass the APFT at camp. I was terrified that this damn infection was going to delay my commissioning, that I wasn’t going to join my roommates the following year. Fortunately I was given the green light to go. My APFT score wasn’t as good as my usual, which knocked my overall assessment, but I got through it. Again, the APFT isn’t hard, but I had a lot riding on being able to get my shit together after spending my prime prep weeks laid up, barely able to breath because my throat was so swollen. With that bit of anxiety off my shoulders the next 30 days was pretty smooth.

Following this I was sent to Fort Polk, LA for 3 weeks. I spent much of August 2005 in northwestern Louisiana. As my former ROTC instructor MSG Zackery told me “Fort Polk is about an hour away from Shreveport, and there ain’t shit in Shreveport. Have fun.” The time I spent there I was basically job shadowing a platoon leader. This is one of those optional trainings available to ROTC cadets, but mandatory for West Point cadets. Three weeks doesn’t seem like much, but I watched and learned from some great teachers. I was assigned to a Field Artillery unit and was very lucky to be placed where I was. Talking to some of the other cadets there with me it was pretty clear that I got one of the better units and benefitted from officers and NCOs who actually cared about teaching me. This all became very clear two years later when I took over my own platoon in Korea.

After a month plus of not being allowed to drink I used this opportunity to catch up a bit. One night at the house of my sponsor (the PL I was paired with) a bunch of LTs from the unit stopped over to shoot the shit and have some beers. To my surprise a fellow Bonnie walked into the house. Kevin Schuster was a senior at Bonas when I was a freshman but he still remembered me. It was really cool running into another Bonnie in such an out of the way place. This would become a recurring theme throughout my service. Everywhere I went, I found fellow SBU grads – not always ROTC people either. One of the great things about the Army life is that no matter where you go there are familiar faces. I miss this a lot and I took it for granted. While I try to not look back on my time in the Army with rose-tinted glasses, there are some genuinely amazing things about that lifestyle that are hard to appreciate until you’re out.

I left Fort Polk and was back in class a week later. Then Katrina hit. Little did I know, but this would become an event that would impact my life later in the year. For the sake of staying on topic though, we’ll save that for a future post. My senior year went by (too fast), I had my bastard tonsils removed, and we made it to commissioning day. Pictured above is me with my two ROTC roommates (we also had a ‘normal person’ to round out our 4 person apartment). James, me, and Phil. These are guys I look on as brothers. I’ll joke that Phil became my hetero-lifemate because our orders seemed to always overlap. He was even my next door neighbor in Korea. Cropped out of the photo is Phil’s wife Francie, who would commission the following year and was also in Korea with us (sorry France).

So there you have it. One dopey kid’s path to becoming an Army officer and possibly leading your kid. When I think about all of this it doesn’t strike me as strange, or special, or anything other than just what I was doing with my life. Imagining things any differently is what strikes me as odd. I’m aware that my internal normalizing of my story, thinking of this as just another job or path in life that is perfectly natural for any person to take, is an oddity. My perfectly odd reality. Things that I took for granted or as just another fact of life are viewed with wonder, suspicion, reverence, and a bit of side-show freak attraction by others.

I hope that I helped to bring some of these things into better understanding for you. That’s really just scratching the surface, but the way our military sources personnel is a topic that doesn’t really get discussed very much. I mean, who the hell enjoys an HR story anyway? Well, hopefully you did.

Until we meet again.

How to bridge that civil/military gap, and still have fun

This past Veterans Day I read a great post from War on the Rocks. I mentioned it in an earlier post of mine and wanted to revisit it today. In the piece there is a discussion of how to engage a veteran with great examples of questions to ask, ones to never ask, and some deeper questions to ask once you’re on familiar terms with a veteran. I thought I’d take the questions from this article and give you my answers. My hope is that we get a bit closer and that you can then use this example to go engage with someone in a thoughtful, constructive way. Regardless of what side of the civil/military divide you fall on there is room to grow. Vets need to make themselves available and approachable, civilians need to know that actively engaging us with your curiosity is welcomed and needed.

Questions from the source article will be in italics with my answers in regular text. With that, let’s rap.

“What service were you in? Why did you choose that one?” – I was in the Army from May 2006 – July 2011. Initially I looked at joining the Air Force because I wanted to fly a fighter jet. I caught the aviation bug as a young kid. Top Gun was partly to blame, who didn’t watch that and say to themselves “I wanna kick the tires and light the fires.” What really drove my martial ambitions was my admiration for my Uncle Joe. He was a turret gunner in a B-17 in Europe from 1943-44 and made it through his 25 mission tour of duty when that was still fairly rare. His stories captivated me, his lessons formed me as a young boy. There’s much more I could write about him but that should be saved for another time. Suffice to say, with the influences around me as a boy, it was evident for a long time that I was bound for military service. Unfortunately I had dogshit eyesight. I graduated high school in 2002 and the Air Force at that time did not accept pilots without naturally perfect eyesight. Nothing else in the Air Force really interested me, the Navy was never an option to me, the Marines had appeal but I was told ‘if you wanna be a Jarhead you can do the same thing in the Army and be treated better’ – or something to that effect. So I set my mind to the Army. My high school had JROTC and I participated in that for three years. It was helpful in building some connections to St. Bonaventure University. Some recent graduates had won ROTC scholarships to SBU and laid a good reputation for my high school. So I applied for an ROTC scholarship to SBU, Canisius College, and a couple others. I was offered a 3-year scholarship from Bonas and my path to the Army became pretty clear. In retrospect there were a lot of different paths I had to choose from, including enlisting in the Army should I get no scholarship offers. College just didn’t seem like a possibility otherwise. I’m very fortunate and grateful that I was given the chance to attend St. Bonas. As much as I would love to have flown an F-15, I wouldn’t trade my time as a Bonnie for anything.

“Are you still in the military? What are you doing now? What are your friends doing now?”  – So after I separated from the Army I struggled quite a bit to find another job. Mine is a story all too often seen. After years of being told to not worry about post-Army employment because every company loves to hire vets, especially officers, I found this rang pretty hollow. I had dabbled with some of the JMO headhunters (recruiting firms placing recently separated officers into their first civilian jobs) but found that the options available to me and my BA in history to be doo doo. Lots of jobs on oil rigs, which sounded to me to be a lot like being the Army but with different clothes. So I had to do things on my own, relocating back to WNY, no professional network, tons of skills that local hiring managers didn’t understand, and no way in hell of getting a job near the same level I had just been.

I had earned some GI Bill benefits, so I went back to Bonas. I dove into an MBA program that was out of a remote campus in Hamburg, NY (just outside of Buffalo). Holy shit. Never took a business class before, no math classes in over 5 years, totally unsure of what I was getting into. This program met Friday evenings from 6 – 9 and then Saturday mornings from 9 – 2:30, one class at a time for 5 weeks, 3 classes in a 15 week semester. It felt like being on an education assembly line. This took me three full years to complete. I found a job finally in November 2011, so I worked full time for most of the three years that I was a full time student. First I spent time working for M&T Bank as a credit counselor, which was a very churched up term for debt collector. I did this for nearly two years, during which time I began to hate myself. I started getting physically sick at the same point of my commute each day and started to have my first battles with depression. I left that job when the office relocated and I told my bosses that it was too far of a drive for what I made. They seemed shocked when I told them this on the Friday before the move, even thought I had been telling them this for months. So with bridges thoroughly burned I left the worst professional experience of my life. Luckily I talked my way into a nice job at a local winery within a couple weeks. This was a great job that fit my school schedule, I saw myself as a student first because I knew that was the only way for me to get ahead. I spent about 18 months there, finally graduating (something that shocked me), and then took my current job with the Department of Homeland Security in February 2015. I won’t get into specifics about my job here. I should also probably point out that the views expressed in this blog are my own and in no way represent the US Government or DHS!

As for my friends, they’re doing all sorts of ill shit. Some became lawyers, some are working in the energy industry, some are still serving. That’s a tough one to get into without making this post 5,000 words. If any of you True Believers want to know more about this or have specific questions, leave a comment.

“What inspired you to join?” –  Talked about this a little bit in the first answer. I remember a colonel from Cadet Command coming to speak to us my freshman year at Bonas and he went around the table asking this question. I joked that I might have watched too much G.I. Joe as a kid. He didn’t laugh. Really though I was just always fascinated by all things military. I was certainly taken in by the romance of military service. I hate to paint myself as such a cliche, but really I was just a born sucker for this stuff. As I got older I had this feeling that I was meant to do something important, to not squander life by being average. This feeling still haunts me a bit. I will say that such expectations set me up to be disappointed, to become cynical and jaded very quickly. We can dive deep into that as I write about my time in Korea and the effect of our Long War on morale military-wide.

“What was your job? What was the most rewarding part of doing it?”  – I was an Air Defense Artillery officer. Enlistedmen get an MOS (military occupational specialty) and officers get assigned a branch. Each branch is filled with soldiers assigned to a more specific job within the general branch. It’s like how a private company will have a sales division, marketing, HR, and so on. Within each of those divisions are managers who oversee employees performing different specific jobs.

So as an ADA officer I would be trained to lead both HIMAD and SHORAD units. If you’ve paid attention to what’s going on in Korea you’ve seen the HIMAD stuff, Patriot and THAAD batteries designed to knock out ballistic missiles like the ones North Korea has been testing. The SHORAD stuff has been scaled back to the point that it barely exists. This part of ADA focused on shooting down things like fixed and rotary wing aircraft (planes and helicopters), cruise missiles, and now drones and indirect fire (artillery and mortar shells). The HIMAD stuff is thought to be sexier, and it is far more expensive (or lucrative if you’re Raytheon), so for the last few decades HIMAD grew and SHORAD shrank. This was worrisome to me as I attended my ADA Officer’s Basic Course (OBC). I had no interest in the Patriot stuff, and frankly, I wasn’t very good at it. Through an odd stroke of luck I never once set foot in a Patriot unit during those 5 years. Again, I think we’ve found something to expand upon in later posts.

As far as my most rewarding experiences, I’d have to say Korea was the one place that SHORAD assets are still appreciated. This is where I felt I had the greatest purpose and utility out of all my assignments. Also, becoming friends with the Iraqi colonel I was partnered with was pretty great. I can still remember the videos of his kids playing that he shared with me. I still think of him and his family quite often, hoping that they are safe.

“What surprised you the most about being overseas?” – In Korea I was shocked at how safe I felt. The country has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world. Honestly I always felt safe, even if I was alone, except for when I saw other Americans. I found that by being respectful and learning a few basic words/phrases in Korean like ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, and ‘thank you’, a person could get by pretty easily and have no worries. This taught me quite a bit about other cultures. The year I spent in Korea truly transformed me as a person.

As for Kuwait and Iraq, well I fucking hate deserts that’s for sure. Time in Kuwait was limited to deboarding the 747, hopping on a bus, and being transported from one US base to another. I was only there for a couple weeks for standard environmental acclimatization and some extra training before flying into Iraq. My lasting memories of Kuwait are confined to the sight of Kuwait City at night (it looked like an island of electric light in a sea of darkness), the awful smell that hit me as I got off the plane (a mix of jet fumes, hot mess, and general stench), and a really nasty sand storm that I got caught in when I went for a walk to buy a phone calling card.

Iraq was another lesson in cultural appreciation. My job on the BTT put me into daily interaction with Iraqis in a much more intimate setting than most soldiers experienced. Here I confirmed some thoughts that had been scurrying around in my head, defying cognitive capture. This is where I came to know without any doubt in my mind that people are people wherever you go. All we want is security. Physical security, mental security, food security, financial security, and security for our children. What all people simply want is the liberty to go about their lives free from fear, able to do what they please so long as they aren’t causing harm. That description probably fits 90% – 95% of the world’s population. For some reason that doesn’t seem to be a narrative shared by many Americans. I think the collective trauma of 9/11 robbed us of this truth and this vulnerability was seized for financial gain by all manner of bad actors, foreign, but mostly domestic. Whoops, off track again.

“What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you in the military?” –  Well, there was the Stinger missile range in Korea where we nearly blew up a Korean fishing boat. We had to fire the Stingers off of a beach and away from North Korea just to be safe (the range of a Stinger is only a few kilometers). The Korean Coast Guard was assisting us in setting up a perimeter on the water to warn away fishing boats. Well, right after a Stinger was fired some joker decided he was going to go where he wanted to and came buzzing around a cliff. Stingers are heat seeking missiles and the boat was giving off a stronger heat signature than the drone target. From the control tower we watched as the Stinger changed course towards the fishing boat, only turning away at the last second, heading back to the drone target. That was nearly a very ugly international incident. I’m glad the dopey fisherman didn’t get blown away, that would’ve seriously screwed up my weekend plans after getting back from the range.

Oh, there was also a scorpion that we found in a toilet at an aide station in Iraq. We were doing a walk through of some of the facilities of the Border Police Academy and in the bathroom we found this ugly black scorpion trapped in a toilet. This was one of the eastern style toilets that is inset with the floor for you to squat over. The scorpion had fallen in and could not climb out because of the curve of the toilet. This was way more entertaining than it should have been, and the scorpion may or may not have gotten pissed on. The next time we went to the COB I found a poster of deadly insects and animals in the area. Turns out that scorpion was one of the deadliest in the Middle East. And I thought finding a tick in my dick at Fort Knox was bad!

“Was the food as crappy as we hear?” – Another thing I briefly talked about in an earlier post. The worst food I’ve had was in the Army, and some of best food I’ve had was also in the Army. The DFACs at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) were the most impressive I saw anywhere. Steaks and seafood were always available, fresh eggs, fresh baked breads, and even the mythical 32nd flavor of Baskin Robbins were available. It really was obscene.

The other end of that spectrum can be summed up in two words ‘Nerf eggs’. On a late winter training exercise in Korea the ‘eggs’ being served from the field kitchen were so dense that they bounced. I opted to stock up on single serve boxes of Frosted Flakes, my ever present Pop-tarts, and Asian apples. I also ordered the guys in my platoon to all get eggs every morning. We would all go through the chow line and then gather around the hood of my HMMWV to eat and compete to see who could bounce their eggs off the hood the farthest. It was cold, wet, and muddy, but each morning we had some good laughs thanks to the worst eggs ever made.

“What did you do in your free time while you were deployed?” – Here’s something that’ll piss a lot of people off, I had private Internet into my CHU. Thanks to the team we replace in Iraq, every one of us on the team had a private hook up. The last team had swindled a satellite hook up under the pretense of setting up a shared Internet cafe for themselves since they were at a remote location. Being at a remote location no pencil pushing civilian was going to drop in on them to ensure that the cafe was set up as proposed and the privilege was not being abused by setting up individual lines. Of course that’s exactly what they did, and we continued doing this. So while I was living remotely on a weird Iraqi Army base, I had a CHU to myself and my own Internet hook up. I watched The Office a lot, Skyped with my wife, and was able to pretty much keep up with what was going on in the rest of the world. Otherwise it was a bit like college in that we were a fairly close nit group for just being thrown together, and we would just hang out and bust each other’s balls. Except we would be cleaning M-4s and machine guns while doing the ball busting. So kinda like college in Texas.

Alright. That was fun. Some surface scratching there but now you have some greater understanding of my time in the Army. There are a few more questions from the War on the Rocks article that I will save for another time. They’re the ‘advanced’ questions and it seems better to come back to them another time.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my story. Hope you liked it and will continue to come back.

Pax et bonum

Taking time for me

Some fun stuff happened yesterday, and while I want to write about two of those things in more detail later on, I think I’ll talk about what went on yesterday as a teaser and see where the flow takes us. This will be an experiment to see if a less structured writing style produces anything worthwhile for me.

Three things happened for me on Monday. I got the business cards I ordered for the blog, I got some more work done on a tattoo, and I was put on the spot to talk about this blog in front of a class at my alma mater. Opening up the cards was like opening a present. I was excited and nervous. Unsure of how the cards would actually look once I got them in my hands, I was pretty happy with how they turned out. The whole idea of shelling out for these cards was so that I could spread them around in a targeted manner to see if it helps drive some more traffic here (and eventually to a book), and also to help motivate me. The cards are basic, but under my name is the word “Author”. A bit presumptuous, but it’s part positive visualization and part accountability tool. Seeing that word under my name gave me a little chill, a small bit of reaffirmation that I am going down a path that I truly want to be on.

The tattoo was a solid 3 hours under the needle. I’m working on a wrap of my right thigh featuring my all time favorite Marvel character – Captain America. I got Cap done in spring of 2016 and once he was done I started to see a scene building out around him. It took over a year to find good samples of what I was picturing, but after two 3-hour sessions Bucky Barnes has been added and most of the fiery battle scene has been added. Some more finishing touches are needed, so when that happens and it heals I’ll write more and post a photo. So far this piece is up to ~13 hours of needle time, and only about 1/3 of the way through. More to come on that!

After I left the Underground I headed over to the St. Bonaventure campus to grab a coffee and a snack. I also wanted to leave one of my spankin’ new cards with my friend Jim, a finance professor who can make commodity option swaps seem exciting. He was in a class though, so I got my coffee and cookie, finished them up hoping that the class would wrap up soon. When it didn’t I just walked in and asked to sit in for a refresher. Afterwards I showed off the card and spent a few minutes catching up. Jim then asked me to stick around for his next class, which was starting in 15 minutes, so that I could tell all the young minds about my work. I wasn’t at all prepared for this, but it was certainly better than being put on the spot to discuss the Modigliani and Miller Theorem. So I stuck around and went on a horribly disjointed and rambling bit about the blog and what I’m trying to do. Again, this is something I want to write about a bit more at a later date. Suffice to say, I felt a bit awkward, had no clue what I really wanted to say, and on my 90 minute drive home I thought of so many things I should have said but didn’t. I swear sometimes I really am George Constanza, except I never get the chance to work in the jerk store.

So that was an eventful Monday. Also, I revealed a secret about the blog to the class. There’s some incentive to stop back to read the more detailed post about that experience (I most certainly did learn many things in Jim’s finance classes).

Another thing I wanted to mention was that I recently finished a new book called Americana. A 400 year history of American economics that was a wonderful read. The author is neither a professional historian or economist, which resulted in a narrative history unsullied by overly academic passages. The book flows well and the author does a remarkable job of showing the interconnectedness of the American economy through history while also explaining the major shifts and shocks that caused economic progression. I found the chapter on slavery to be the most interesting. To address the vile institution in stark economic terms is an approach not often seen. This view serves us all well by exposing the raw, cold greed of American slavery. It also shows in very clear monetary terms why so many would raise up arms to preserve slavery. Powerful, soul-crushing kind of stuff. It blows me away that this book is the author’s first. That also serves as inspiration to me.

That also sets up a question I have for you, True Believer. I’ve toyed around with the idea of puting another page on this site for book reviews or a ‘what I’m reading now’ kind of page. Anyone really interested in that? That’ll be a spot to put some other thoughts down that otherwise do not necessarily serve a purpose within the blog itself. Let me know in the comments section if you’d like to see that extra layer of Tim put out on display. Not like there aren’t already plenty of my layers out there from past Halloween costumes.

Thanks for stopping by for this slightly wandering post. I hope you look forward to hearing more details about the above stories, I’m looking forward to sharing them.

Thanksgiving in Korea

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. WordPress has pointed out to me that some readers have been from outside the US, so to you folks I say ‘thank you’ for stopping by and the story to follow will shed some light on what to me is the best American (and Canadian) holiday. While I prefer summer over any other season, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. The food shared is always the best, both in taste and in variety. The mixing of traditions and sharing of experiences leaves treasured memories. The very idea behind the day, to reflect on what to be grateful for and vocalize your thanks, is something that should be done every day of the year. Thanksgiving, to me, is a day that stands out in American culture as an example of who we are at our best. One of the nicest things about living in western NY is that it’s very easy to travel north and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving as well, a double dip of gratuity. Ironically the True North version falls on Columbus Day in the US, a holiday that is now somewhat controversial due to the atrocities inflicted upon the indigenous tribes.

Thanksgiving is also tops in my book for another reason. With Thanksgiving comes one of my favorite Army (really military wide) traditions. Army chow halls are typically thought of as having food so bad it is the butt of classic military humor. Griping about the lousy food is something of an official pastime for troops. While I experienced some food that would back up those jokes, I’ve also had absolutely fantastic meals served up by Army cooks. The top culinary teams in the Army compete within their field each year. I was lucky to be a part of this during my first stint at Fort Hood. While that’s a bit off topic for today, I promise to revisit that one. These cooks deserve the recognition for their good work, doubly so because of the shit-on-a-shingle stereotype. OK, back to my point, the tradition I speak of is that of officers and senior NCOs donning their dress blues and serving chow to the soldiers. The formality of wearing dress blues is something missing from modern life. I really think we could all do with a bit more pomp and circumstance sometimes. The act of serving food to our soldiers was always something I enjoyed as it got to the heart of the idea of being a servant leader. This day gives any leader who is worth their salt a chance to show compassion, to bond, and to take care of their subordinates in one of the most basic ways – serving food. This also pulls at my Franciscan heartstrings. Thanksgiving is a day that I truly miss the Army.

Now that you have the set up, here’s a story of my most memorable Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving day 2007, Camp Casey, ROK. This was a different twist on serving dinner. I drew an early shift at the DFAC (dinning facility) that was right across the street from my quarters. For some reason we wore ACUs instead of dress blues, something that bummed me out. I lugged that damn uniform over 7,100 miles and one of the rare occasions to wear them was being pissed away. They also cost me around $700 and I wanted to get some use out of them! Anyway, I went and did my shift, got to serve some of my own platoon and other soldiers from my battery. That was also the day that I met my newest platoon sergeant. Due to the typical 12 month rotation we all had, I had already gone through two platoon sergeants in five months. So now came #3. The constant changes posed a big challenge, but I had been told by a couple of the NCOs in my battery that the guy coming in to be my new PSG was top notch. So that was an interesting way to meet someone who I would be working hip-to-hip with for the next several months.

With all that done I walked back to my odd flat, it was more than a room, but not really an apartment (I washed my dishes in my bathtub), got changed, and hopped the train down to Seoul. I had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of my former ROTC instructors, Reed. I was a bit nervous about this as Reed was then a major and I knew all the other guests would be a bit higher ranking than me. This left me wondering what that dynamic would be like. Little did I know that this would become one of my best memories.

A holiday spent so far from family is always weird. Let’s just be up front about that. When you’re 23 and not very well traveled it’s an even more daunting prospect. Then again I had spent Thanksgiving 2006 eating shitty chicken parm by myself in a Village Inn restaurant in El Paso. THAT is easily my worst Thanksgiving (which is saying something since my Aunt Angeline died one Thanksgiving). So once I found Reed’s building and got reacquainted with his wife Janice and their children things got a lot easier. Reed and Janice made me feel like part of the family and I watched them treat everyone else with the same hospitality. I learned a lot about making the best of every situation, how helping to build the community around you (even if it’s just the other neighbors on the floor) is vital to being happy. All the other people at dinner were far from their homes too. While they all had their spouses and children with them in Korea, there was a shared sense of treating each other as an extended family as a simple matter of fact. This is an interesting thing learned from overseas assignments and years of semi-nomadic living. With ever shifting environments and unrelenting moves, building out this extended family was partly done out of survival, partly for maintaining sanity, and partly love.

The older men and women there (really only about 10 years my senior) seemed much older and wiser to me. I was the odd man out for sure. The only one there on my own, the only one with nowhere else to go, the only one with no other family to be with. I was taken in by all and saw Army life at its best. The companionship, sense of community and shared troubles, these experiences brought a bunch of strangers together and made us family for a while. I can’t say I experienced this at every duty station, and for me it was the exception not the rule. I think for anyone to make a career out of the military you need to have this on a consistent basis otherwise the lifestyle breaks you.

I also learned that day that my former instructor was a phenomenal cook! I would have never had guessed that, but Reed is a culinary wizard. Not only with the main course and side dishes, but dessert too. As he explained to me, when you’re a single guy you either learn to cook or you eat crap. Janice also pointed out to me the extra points scored for having said skills. I took note and put these lessons to action later on. No longer my instructor, but still my teacher.

So I look back on this day, taking time to remember it each year, and a smile always comes to my face. I was very lucky to be part of Reed and Janice’s family. I am forever grateful to them, and thankful to count them as friends. Thinking of them I can’t help but think of how our lives are so strongly shaped by people we sometimes only see briefly, whose paths we crossed for a short time. Two hairs and a whisper of a touch refine us as humans, blending in the adjustments of our character. Each Thanksgiving, every day, Thank you, Reed & Janice.

Matters to clarify and classify

It’s been a few days, so I need to check in and write. I’m struggling with thinking of too many topics to write about, but seemingly not very much to say. The best antidote for indecision is action, so I’m going to write a little about the purpose and structure of this blog. In time, as this posts gets buried deeper and deeper, I’ll add some of this into the About page to keep it easy to access.

So, if you’ve visited the About page then you know that I am incrementally working on a book. This is somewhat of an abstract goal I’ve had for many years, one that I could never seem to advance on. I was a history major my first time around at St. Bonaventure University. As such I developed a necessary habit of reading 4 or 5 different books simultaneously and pumping out lots of pages of writing. Write drunk, edit sober was a lifestyle. Since then I’ve maintained this habit of borderline ADD reading. This likely contributes to my several piles of books and magazines scattered throughout the house (this drives my wife nuts). The writing part of that ledger dropped off to near zero (an imbalanced double-ledger is very un-Franciscan) and I’ve missed it. Here and there I would write a short essay to submit to blogs like Doctrine Man. Seeing my ideas being published, even on such a small scale, reminded me of how rewarding it is to see someone value the scattered thoughts I put to pixel.

It was with a couple of these samples I contacted an author who has a fantastic blog dedicated to empowering other writers. Marissa’s feedback was exactly the kickstart I needed. She helped to confirm some of my ideas, such as focusing on short story or memoir formats, and also encouraged me to be more emotionally expressive. That is admittedly something I have a hard time with. My post “I always wanted to drive a big truck” was an attempt, but I suspect it could have been better. So here is where I ask you, True Believer, to leave some comments and TELL ME when I follow through on this, when I suck at it, and what you want to know from me! That’s a desperate plea and it is critically important that I hear from you. Why, you ask? Here’s why…

This book I’m dreaming up is going to be a memoir in short story format. Think of the movie Big Fish, but with more 4-letter words. With that in mind I drew up a rough outline of major time periods in my so-far-short life (33 trips around Sol). That’s why the categories you see on my posts are titled “Episode I”, “Episode II”, “Episode III”, and you get the idea. This will help me to write with more freedom (fuck you linear time-space) and still be able to look back on my past posts and compile them properly. The categories and tags will also help me gauge what time periods and topics you all enjoy reading the most. See why all the reader feedback is so important to me?

Ok, now you all know how important you are to me. Let me give a quick run down of the outline. So far I’ve come up with 8 Episodes that will cover my time from college/pre-commissioning & my time as a LT going through different Army schools, Korea, Fort Hood Part 1, my time on a Border Transition Team, Fort Hood Part 2 (that place is a fucking black hole), Transition – the first 3 years post-Army, Transition – the second 3 years, and finally where I’m currently at in life, to include my exploration of Stoicism. Right now I’ve been out of the Army for just over 6 years. I felt it was sensible to break that time into two 3-year periods as there was a lot going on. This will also allow me to make a definitive break between that period of transition and the time between the start of this blog and publication (I’m expecting this to take a few years).

That’s a lot to talk about, hopefully enough to fill a few hundred pages with interesting stories that people will enjoy, but also with substance. Personally, I disdain reading purposeless memoirs. I don’t want to read someone’s diary, and I sure as hell don’t expect anyone to want to read mine. Here we are going to create something important, something of value that adds to society by diving deep into the civil/military divide that exists in the United States. We’ll also get into how to find our place as individuals within society (transition out of the military can be a real bitch), and also our responsibility to each other. Writing needs to be more than mental masturbation. While I enjoy it and see value in keeping a journal, I also think that writing is a powerful tool we all have for putting well thought out ideas out there for all to benefit from. We don’t always have to agree (that’d be weird) but we need to remember how to have civil discourse. In a time when 140 characters about what Kim K. is wearing, or superficial statements from “leaders”, I say at the top of my lungs “FUCK THAT NOISE”.

Let’s get to business.

Bob Ross as a spiritual guide

Indulge me if you will. This will be a meandering missive, but I promise a few gems (not the Infinity kind). This has been a week full of frustrating news and to counter this I turned to an old friend, Bob Ross. Amazon Prime now streams seasons 10 – 31 of The Joy of Painting, and it really saves my mental health some days – thanks Bezos. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise, Bob’s soft voice never fails to return positive vibes. As a kid I would watch Bob whenever I was home sick, now I make it a regular part of taking care of myself. There is something so pleasing about the sound of a fan brush striking canvas to make happy little trees. Or the sharp scrape of a painting knife scratching in some happy little twigs. All these audio stimuli combined exude calmness, serenity, tranquility.

As I binged on Bob a couple nights ago I was struck by how many of his witticisms, which can seem goofy at first, are very much like the lessons I’ve been learning from my dive into Stoicism. I started jotting down different Bob sayings, ideas, and other lessons to be gleaned from this gentle afro-grandpa. By the time I finished for the night I had 14 separate bulletized notes. For ease of reading I’m putting my notes in quotes to distinguish them from the rest of the post’s content (suck it, grammar). Here. We. Go.

“You need the dark to see the light” – This of course was always in reference to creating contrast in his paintings, but Bob would occasionally point out how this applies to sorrow and happiness. During the life of The Joy of Painting, Bob lost his mother and his wife, yet he kept bringing light to all of us. At times it seems like creating paintings to share and seeing others experience the joy of painting is what kept Bob going. Taking the sorrow and using it to create happiness for others brought light back into Bob’s life. That’s powerful.

“On the canvass you control all. But nowhere else, so don’t stress over what you can’t control” – A major teaching of the Stoics was that to be happy we must recognize what we control, accept what we do not control, and only concern ourselves with that which we have control over. Bob would joke that when he left the studio and went home all he was in charge of was taking out the garbage, but when he painted he had absolute control over that world. Painting provided a medium to channel frustrations with the outside world, to enjoy having control over something so that he could accept the things he did not control. How much more joy would we all have if we all practiced this in our own way? Lately it seems many people are consumed with their anger, often with things outside their control. That is sad and dangerous. What I can do is to refuse to live like that and share these thoughts with you all in hopes of spreading these ideas.

“Give voice to your thoughts – sounds, naming anything, it’s why we write!” – OK, this is slightly disjointed, but hey, it’s my notes! The lesson here is that the quirk Bob had of putting voice to what he was thinking, even down to making his own sound effects or naming inanimate objects, is healthy and spurs our creativity. My wife will often ask me ‘Are the sound effects really necessary?’ Well, yes. Maybe all those hours of watching Bob when I was a kid is what formed this habit in me. Try it out sometime. Being a weirdo is essential to personal freedom. Keeping everything in your head all the time will take a toll on you, share your thoughts and ideas with the world. We all have something to add.

“No mistakes, only happy accidents” – Possibly my favorite Bob-ism. It’s pretty simple and carries so much power. If you screw up, there is always a way to make something positive out of the situation. It can be difficult to see how or what good can come from some of life’s bumps, but there is opportunity for good in every bad situation. This too is strikingly Stoic. The idea that our perception of an event, rather than the event itself, is what is good or bad was often talked about. It is challenging to live this every day, but that’s the point! The more we are able to live out this idea the better person we become.

“Importance & impact of a gentle touch “2 hairs & a whisper”‘ – Some elements of Bob’s painting technique (wet on wet) required a very delicate touch. He would say “2 hairs and a whisper is all you need” to emphasize just how little pressure was needed at times. To me this also speaks to how our own small, seemingly insignificant actions can make a profound impact. We all face adversity in our lives all the time, often not sharing it. Suicide prevention is a hot button issue for veterans, and really the US as a whole. ‘Check your buddy’ is pounded into your head in the military, but really it’s just a good thing for all of us to do all the time. So be kind to each other. You never know when a gentle word or a random phone call will save a life.

“Aggregation of many small things, that on their own are indistinct, make something beautiful” – Bob’s paintings usually looked like a toddler’s scribblings until about half way through. Then, all these weird, ugly smudges and criss-crossing brush strokes started to coalesce into a gorgeous landscape. The jumbled up picture in Bob’s head (he also had a model painting off camera to his right) would develop and give us all something to marvel at. Bob would say we all have that ability, and it’s true. The greater point here is that all of our small actions eventually add up. Make your actions good and just, take care to do the small things right and the big picture will take care of itself before your eyes.

“Caring about all life. Equanimity to all.” – Bob loved nature and would often show off some birds or squirrels that he and his wife would care for until they were ready to go back to the wild. Peapod the Pocket Squirrel was a favorite. Even after being let loose to nature he would return each day to Bob’s house for a visit. I try to emulate this with bird feeders and putting out food for the squirrels in my backyard. Now that winter is setting in here in NY the visits are less frequent. Spring and summer bring so many different creatures to my backyard zoo though, and it’s a great joy to just watch them. It’s a great way to develop compassion and empathy, things I’m sometimes lacking. Each day is a new opportunity to work on this and to live up to the Franciscan ideals of serving all.

“Believe that you can do it and you will” – Bob loved the wet on wet technique for its ease and mass accessibility. He believed anyone could make paintings just like his. Knowing that people still felt intimidated or uncertain, he frequently reminded us all that it is possible and that the first step is to simply believe in ourselves. Attitude is everything, right? Having the confidence that we can succeed is more important than any natural talent. I have struggled with this so much in my transition to civilian life. It’s easy to remember my failings. At one point I counted up 14 different things I had tried and failed at, or just quit, since leaving the Army. It may have taken longer than I wanted, but I’m here writing this blog now. I’m building up towards this goal of writing a book, post by post.

“Spreading joy/goodness is self-reenforcing” – Another concept that has been explored pretty broadly. For as much as this is talked about it’s odd how often we fail to follow through on it. We all know it, when we make someone else happy we also gain some happiness. Certainly something I need to keep in mind and live up to much more.

“All of us need a creative outlet” – Touched on this a bit earlier. Finding a constructive outlet for our emotions is essential. We’re still in the early days of this blog, but I immediately recognized the benefits of getting back to writing. One day I will try painting, when I have the space to dedicate to paint flying everywhere. For now this bit of writing that I am sticking to is helping me to focus my thoughts, get the noise out of my head, feel productive, and make tangible steps towards a big goal. I’m thrilled whenever someone reads my posts or leaves a comment, but first and foremost I’m here for myself because it’s good for my mental health.

“Dissatisfaction with your painting is a blessing. If you ever make a painting you’re completely satisfied with you might as well stop painting because you have nowhere to go if there is no more improvement to be made” – This is one of those needing dark to see the light things. If you achieve perfection, why continue? Don’t be upset at yourself for having shortcomings, look on them as chances to keep improving yourself. Again, we run into that Stoic idea of our perception, rather than the situation, bestowing value. We are human, by nature we suck. Embrace that and find ways to be better. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the meaning of life?

“Don’t be afraid to make big decisions. They can always be altered with some effort” – Bob would reach a point in his paintings where it was time to ‘make a big decision’ or that it was ‘time for your bravery test’. This would mean that he was about to put a large tree in the foreground, or begin to set the peaks of a mountain range. These were essential elements to the painting, pieces that would draw your attention and provide something dramatic to admire. In the world of that canvass, these were life and death decisions, something to terrify the inexperienced painter. Bob’s way of helping us get over the anxiety was to remind us that if something didn’t go as we wanted it to, there were ways of fixing our happy accident. There is always a way to mend what we foul up. It may be difficult, it may take time, but we can always turn the bad into good. So don’t be fearful. Don’t let your anxieties paralyze you into inaction. Make the best decision you can, have faith in yourself to see where you can do better and know that you will.

“Everyone needs friends, even trees” Bob gave everything in his paintings friends. No tree stood alone, not even fence posts were solitary. While we must find the strength to do right within ourselves, we all need support. We all need help and to have good people around us. Humans are social creatures, and while we might not all want tons of friends or to even be around other humans very often, we do need friends. They help us grow through life, they are there when we need support or even just to help us work through a problem. Don’t forget to be a friend, and remember to say “thank you for being a friend.” (You just sang that, didn’t you?)

“If what you’re doing isn’t working change your technique/approach” My last note! Bob would mention, from time to time, that he originally tried to be a traditional painter. The wet on wet technique that he became known for was derided as amateur. It was looked down on by critics because it was easy and for the masses. If art isn’t exclusionary then what’s the point!? Well, the point is to express yourself and to enjoy the practice. Ignoring the critics, Bob embraced the wet on wet technique and found his niche. I think we all encounter this dilemma in our lives. Don’t be afraid to change course, and don’t let yourself be anchored to any dogma. I tried several times to start writing a full length book from start to finish. That never worked for me, for many reasons. I changed up my approach though, and progress is being made.

There you have it. The wisdom I gleaned from a night of bingeing on Bob Ross. I hope you liked it and can see why I view Bob Ross as a spiritual guide in life. If you’re still wondering why I love Bob Ross so much I suggest watching this and this. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of living up to everything I just wrote! I’m certainly glad you joined me today. Bob would end each show by saying “Happy painting, and God bless”, this wouldn’t make sense for me to say. So instead I’ll just steal from another artist I admire and leave you with “Be good and you will be lonesome.”

 

I always wanted to drive a big truck

Today I’d like to move along the plot a bit and share a comical story. At the time, this was more of a disaster story, time has changed it into a fairly funny tale. Time’s a crazy thing like that. A couple different twists and this soon to be told story could have taken a drastically different road. When I look back on this particular day a flood of conflicting emotions still rush through me. Let’s explore that.

December 2009 – I’m in Basrah, assigned to a Border Transition Team. This was similar to the Military Transition Teams fielded after the Surge but we were partnered with the Iraqi Border Police instead of the Iraqi Army. BTTs were generally 12 man teams composed of various specialists from across the Army, cobbled together and put through a 3 month school designed to turn us into military advisors. For us, we got a special week of training in El Paso with the US Border Patrol and US Customs Enforcement so that we had some kind of idea about border enforcement. With that I, a fresh captain with 3 years in the Army, was supposed to mentor an Iraqi colonel who had served 28 years in 3 different branches of the Iraqi military (yep, he fought two wars against us). My counterpart was in charge of doctrine for the 4th Region Border Police Academy. Yep, I had no business telling this guy anything, and we both knew it. With that in mind we had a pretty friendly working relationship, exchanged some gifts, and made the best of the situation. He struck me as a person who wanted to do something good for his country and just live in safety. I hope he is still well.

Now that there is some context, let’s get to the LoLz.

So my team lived remotely, not on the large US base COB Basrah. We were at an outpost called Camp Savage. It was a tiny cluster of storage containers used for living and working surrounded by HESCO barriers (think of large sandbags about 4′ tall and 3′ around). Camp Savage was located within a large Iraqi Army base that used to be an Iraqi Air Force base. This base also contained the BP Academy. Camp Savage was a few dozen miles from COB Basrah with only 3 different routes for us to take, each with only minor variation. No matter what the drive would take 45 – 60 minutes. We were equipped with one of the newest MRAPs, Caimans (pictured above). Talk about a gas guzzler!

Once a week or so we would make a run to the COB for all the typically mundane stuff – get resupplied, pick up mail (one of my extra duties!), stop into the COB HQ to touch bases with counterparts, visit the other BTTs based out of the COB, and whatever other team business we might have. We liked to get out of there with enough daylight to get back to Savage. The routes always took us by some vulnerable areas, trash dumps (easy to hide IEDs), tight curves (Caimans rolled over at a 30 degree yaw), overpasses, and we would always lose radio contact with the COB once we got within a few miles of Savage.  Our SOP stated that if we ever reached a destination with half a tank of gas or less that the crew was supposed to get it topped off before departing again. Pretty simple stuff, certainly not a challenge for a team made up of senior NCOs and officers. (Did I give away the surprise yet?).

This day our team was down to 11 as our team leader was home on his 2 weeks of leave. With three vehicles that each require 3 people (driver, TC, gunner) that only leaves 2 extra bodies, so one vehicle has no spare dudes. We leave the COB later than we should have, a couple miles out from the gate we exited the highway to take a sharpe turn onto an overpass which would have left us with a straight shot back to Camp Savage. This route was nice for it’s clear sight lines and simplicity. The turn and overpass at the beginning were the only real choke points. This turn had one of those large trash dumps right beside the road. I always got nervous going by this place because there was a large pipe sticking out from a pile, about 20′ long and 4″ or 5″ in diameter. It was the perfect place to plant an EFP which was one of the few things we had to worry about with our Caimans. Bonus, this fucking pipe was at such an angle that it seemed to stare right at me each time we passed it. With the turn being so sharpe we really couldn’t speed by the spot or even alter speed much. Driving through this spot made my mouth go dry every single time. After getting past that pipe I may or may not have, on occasion, reached down to grab my balls out of thanks that they were still there.

OK, so we got by that bit of the road, just get over the bridge and we’re on easy street. Expect for some reason, on this day, we ground to a halt with all three vehicles on the bridge. For anyone not following at home, this is one of the most vulnerable positions we could have been in with these vehicles. We’re sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s an Iraqi Army checkpoint right beneath us, and some other small utility buildings to the rear and off our right. Either one of these could have had an insurgent spotter in them calling in his buddies to let them know they had easy pickings. I’m the TC (commander) of the trail vehicle, all I can see ahead is the second Caiman, I’ve got no eyes on our lead vehicle. My driver, my gunner, and I are all thinking “Why the fuck are we stopped? What the fuck is going on?” I squeeze the radio mic and ask the other two TCs what’s going on. Silence. The radio traffic comes through speakers in the vehicle, so everyone can hear what’s being said (or not said).

You may have heard someone describe their blood running cold, feeling their butthole pucker, or feeling their balls in their throat. Yeah, all of that at once. We were about to have a very bad day. The TC from vehicle 1 called back to me asking what I was seeing. We realized the TC in vehicle 2 must have a dead radio or headset, and I was the only one who could relay what was going on. All of a sudden we (vehicle 3) see the driver and TC doors of vehicle 2 opening and out pop the driver and TC. This happened to be the one vehicle without a spare crew member, so the TC had removed his radio headset and not told us what they were about to do. They both head to the rear of their Caiman. Seeing this my gunner said “Oh no, they’re not doing what I think they’re doing, are they? Are they seriously going for the gas cans?” Better believe it. Atop the bridge, balls flapping in the wind, the driver is pulling off the spare gas cans and dumping the fuel into his truck while the TC watches his back. The biggest mouth on the team forgot to fill up before leaving the COB and now we were all sitting around waiting for an IED to go off or a barrage of RPGs to fly our way. Completely stunned I got on the radio to let vehicle 1 know what was happening. Amazingly this joker finished up, secured the empty gas cans, mounted back up, and we took off. Back at Camp Savage we all topped off our trucks and then the team had some, uhhh, lively discussion and decided to never speak of this once our team leader got back.

I can laugh about this story now. At the time it caused a lot of anger and tension on the team. For years afterwards I would think of this day and start ‘what if-ing’ every possible bad scenario that could have happened. The anger would flood back. I had a hard time getting over some of these stupid things, obsessing over what could have happened and why they didn’t. Eventually I grasped just how toxic this behavior was, I found some peace with my hangups. What is important is that the bad shit that could have happened didn’t, the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for me, things turned out for the better. I am here, I am thankful, and I focus on the present moment not the past which cannot be changed.

This was easily one of the top 3 most fucked up days of my life. Nobody died though, everyone made it back home, so really, how bad is that? I learned a lot from this day, but it took years for the lessons to sink in. These 1500 words can best be summed up by Marcus Aurelius “Every event is the right one. Look closely and you will see.”

Pax et bonum

On hero worship

What did you do today? I filled the bird feeders in my backyard, put out corn for the squirrels, took a long ride with my dog Rayzor in which we split some 5 Guys, picked up a few rolls of film that yielded some really nice photos, and now I’m writing to you, True Believer. Later tonight, I’m going to watch my beloved Fighting Irish put a whopping on Miami (hopefully). A fairly solid day in my book. A little Bob Ross-ness, some time for reflection, and some time for sport.

Oh yeah, Happy Veterans Day. Or Remembrance Day for my neighbours to the north. I didn’t want to write a typical ‘from a veteran’ post today, and I also didn’t want to be over the top non-conformist. I put a lot of thought into what I would write to you all today and still couldn’t come up with anything that struck me as a great insight. Sometimes you can’t force it, so accept that and go with what you’ve got. What I want to share with you is that even on days of true reverence like today we need to still be us.

If we Americans are good at anything, it’s going overboard. We see it on TV, in social media, and in our every day conversations. I am grateful that veterans are respected and held in high regard in the US. Certainly there have been times where this was not the case, although usually at the hands of fellow veterans but that’s a topic for another day. I know that every November 11th I am going to be wished well and thanked, and this year I was even lucky enough to be given a ticket to a suite at last night’s Buffalo Sabres game (thanks Veins Veins Veins!) Such gestures are great reminders that while most people likely do not understand what I did, they really are thankful and genuinely care. That means a lot.

I can also count on being in some uncomfortable situations. At a certain point we hit the saturation point and the gestures take on a tone of thoughtless hero worship. It’s an elephant in the room, we all know when this stuff starts going overboard, but we don’t talk about it. It’s as if to step back and think about how appropriate our words and actions are would be disrespectful. One of the great taboos of our time is to disrespect, or even just appear to disrespect, a veteran (see 2017 NFL season). Fear of violating this sacred rule has caused a damaging shift. We’ve gone to such lengths to respect our military that we’ve stopped to question anything. Those who did not serve dare not ask why something is being done or the wisdom of said hypothetical action (lets say allowing combat operations to continue and expand without even discussing another Authorization of Use of Military Force). Even those who did serve are ostracized if they do not toe the line. Think of the governor-elect of Virginia, a doctor who served in Desert Storm. This man being a Democrat was called out as weak on military/veteran issues by his opposition because he dared disagree. This is the point we have reached in our political discourse, schoolyard name calling, and it’s getting people fucking killed.

Now, not all of that is because of the aforementioned taboo. This is a part of our civil/military divide. It is a result of a smaller percentage of the citizenry having served or having a direct relative who served. It is a result of military service becoming a family business, of the country’s national security burden falling on fewer and fewer people with each passing generation. Again, I’m not here pointing fingers. I’m here shouting that we need to just recognize this issue, create a broad dialogue about it, and take some action to close that gap. Demographically and statistically speaking, the trend of a smaller percentage of the population serving is logically going to continue. America’s population will continue to grow faster than our military grows. That part is simple math. That does not abdicate us as well informed citizens from finding alternatives.

This blog is in part an effort to raise these questions, to let non-veterans know that we know, and that it’s OK. What do most veterans really want and need from the non-veteran population? We need you to show you care by being well informed about national security. We need you to give a shit about how your tax dollars are spent and to question the defense budget (see F-35). We need you to recognize that national security starts with a strong economy and a sustainable, predictable Federal budget (truth be told that applies to the veteran population too).

Mostly, we want you all to just treat us like Americans. We are all part of this nation, we need to act as a real community rather than self segregating into our familiar bubbles and social circles (this again is on the veterans too). Over the course of the last few years I’ve found that many non-veterans understand many of these things. Where things often fall apart is in initiating that conversation. Trust me, I know that problem all too well. It’s why I usually went home alone in college. In the interest of correcting this, please take this post, and the blog in general, as my invitation to talk. If you’re still struggling to think of some specific questions then read this article from War on the Rocks. I’d encourage you to regularly read their stuff, it’s all well done and from people with real credentials.

So as we wind down Veterans Day 2017 please remember to take time to do your normal stuff, like hitting the driving range (the photo above is from my time in Korea, February 2008 I think). Thank you all for paying your respects and for paying your taxes. Remember, we are all in this grand American experiment together.

Getting back up

“Why do we fall, Master Wayne? So that we may get back up.” Possibly the best line in the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films. Yes, I’m a big comic geek and we’ll talk about that much more. Today I want to use that as a starting point for my reflection. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, but it is being celebrated today. I could write many different posts related to this holiday, but this too is something that we will talk about much more.

Today I am writing about the convergence of the two ideas above. Today I want to talk about one of my own failings, one that has led me here to this blog. I had made up my mind yesterday to write this post, and through a twist of irony I read this morning Seneca’s 28th letter to Lucilius. In each of his 124 letters to Lucilius, Seneca ends with a piece of advice to the younger man. In letter 28 Seneca offers a quote from Epicurus “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.” If we are unable or unwilling to see our own faults we will never improve ourselves. With that, I present one of my failings and how I am trying to make it right.

Last year I bit off more than I could chew and tried to start a non-profit called Band of Bards. The goal was to to collect oral histories from fellow veterans and turn them into graphic novels that would be published online. This was an effort to preserve some bottom-up style history and to help bridge that civil/military gap by making many more stories much more accessible (and entertaining). I brought in two friends and started forming an advisory board. We had a good plan that identified and addressed weaknesses of talent as best we could. This was still a really big undertaking. Anyone who never thought of what goes into making comics or graphic novels would be blown away by the amount of labor involved. Undeterred we pressed on. Until it came time to file paperwork to register our business with the state of New York.

The packet was not terribly difficult to put together, but it went off into the mail (no online option) and nothing ever came back. Now, it’s typical for a response to take up to 90 days. So I waited impatiently, wondering if the state ever got what was sent out. Eventually I fell into a bout of depression. I started doubting myself, chastising myself for being overconfident and thinking I’m smarter than I am. “You can sure talk a big game, Tim, but when the rubber meets the road you suck!” I felt I had let down my two friends, as the administrative side of this venture fell to me. My anxieties got the better of me and the wheels fell off. Depression and anger derailed what I was trying to build and put a strain on two friendships that I valued. I felt embarrassed that I had made such a big deal of this effort, had started a Facebook page and even got my alma mater’s alumni magazine to publish a blurb about it in the ‘what everyone’s up to’ section.

Failure. Big time failure. It could be my most spectacular failure for the simple fact that it was so out in the open. I kind of just ignored it and didn’t want to talk about it. I tried to forget it, but Facebook likes to remind me now and then that I haven’t published anything on the Band of Bards page. Squarespace recently sent me an email notification about the auto renewal of the domain name. I could have canceled that, but I didn’t. Something about that seemed like absolutely giving up.

So I fell down and stayed down for a while. Now, it’s time to get back up. Band of Bards might be too much for now, but I can start with something more manageable like this blog. Owning the domain name allows me to keep it in the background and possibly go back and try again. For now I will put effort into this blog. If you’ve read the About section here you know that the end goal is to write a book. Gradual, incremental, manageable steps. Stand back up, dust yourself off, see what your faults were, and then correct them. Rick James said that cocaine is a hell of a drug. I think redemption is a hell of a drug. Building victory from the ashes of our failure and proving, most of all, to ourselves that we are good enough is a beautiful thing.

So friends, take time to reflect on some failure. Small or big, we can always improve something. All those small fixes add up. That’s what I am doing here. Many small fixes and improvements to build something large.

Thanks for stopping by. Happy Veterans Day (I’ll post more on that tomorrow).

Pax et bonum

My first blog post, be gentle

Here we go. My very first ever blog post. No pressure. It’s not like this has to be absolutely perfect, share world changing insights, or lay the cornerstone of my legacy.

Actually, that’s exactly right. This doesn’t need to be perfect, it can just be good or even decent. A post doesn’t need to change the world or blaze a direct path forward. These are things I’ve only recently accepted. See, for years I was stuck on the anxieties listed above. While in grad school I kept telling myself “you’re going to start a blog between semesters.” Well, three years of that went by and still no blog. It’s been another three years since graduating and I’m finally here. So what changed?

Over the last six months I’ve started to dive into Stoicism. By no means am I very well versed in the philosophy, but it did make an immediate impact. What got me to buy into Stoicism is  that it is a philosophy of action, not just a worldview of how to live righteously. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy philosophy as an academic matter. Personally, I need a guiding philosophy centered around deeds not words. The actions are the philosophy, and in doing even small things to improve yourself each day you become a better Stoic.

OK, so what exactly does that have to do with starting to blog? Don’t go running, I’m not here to preach from a soapbox to you. As an exercise in taking small, incremental actions to improve myself and achieve a goal, this blog is a step along my path. The idea of writing a book has been on my mind since I was an undergrad. I majored in history and loved the writing that was involved in that study. I’ve often missed the exercise of writing but always struggled with finding a topic. And if I had such a hard time with just starting a blog, how would I ever write a book? That’s where the Stoic teachings come into play. I have a general idea of something I want to achieve. I even have some outlines.  The roadmap for getting to my destination starts here, with this blog.

What I’ll write about here will help me form the basis of said future masterpiece. It’ll even help me to accept that the book probably won’t be a masterpiece (Mark Twain, I am not). This is also a great way for me to engage in the Stoic practice of routine self examination. The cool thing is that you are a part of this too. By coming here, reading my brain dumps, and hopefully leaving some comments and engaging in discussions you will be helping me in my good journey. I offer my sincere and whole hearted thanks for that.

The photo below is a default picture from WordPress. I kinda dig it though and it seems like a somewhat fitting picture for what we are starting here. So I’m going to leave it.

Till next time, pax et bonum.

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