Becoming a Bonnie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax et bonum. Go Bonas!

Where it started

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

I was 17.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down the PTS rabbit hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again.


Making an Officer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax et bonum