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.

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.