Black Lives in camo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLACK LIVES MATTER

 

Till we meet again.

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.