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 we 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 Blaggars?’ Hope you enjoy Stout Irish Rock. It’d be great tunes to blast while taking the fight to some ISIS goat fuckers.

Till we meet again.