Never-ending 9/11

I really wanted to write something powerful, something meaningful, something worth your time. I’ve been mulling over themes and chasing streams of thought for weeks. Sometimes they flooded my mind and overwhelmed me. After all that I’m left with one thing – a sense of depression, absolute hopelessness.

It’s been 17 years since the attacks. That’s so hard to wrap my head around. I was 17 when they happened, my life now bisected by one of the two seminal events of the 21st century. The other being the global financial meltdown that started roughly 10 years ago this week as well. For people born between 1980 and 1990 (1984 for me) we are a sort of new Lost Generation.

That term was applied to the men who were of fighting age during The Great War, the War to End All Wars. So many of the world’s young men fought, died, were maimed, or left mentally broken that it was as if an entire generation of men had been wiped out.

Bring that forward a century and we’re left with a generation of men and women who should be in their prime years relative to economic earnings, professional growth, and national (global) health, yet we seem lost. We came of age in a dark new world obsessed with global terrorism. As we came into our own and went out into the world all the opportunities we had worked towards vanished in the smoke of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Nothing is guaranteed. Having grown up in the Rust Belt I am acutely aware that the economic promises you grow up looking forward to may no longer be there. We aren’t entitled to the jobs of the previous generation. The dual shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession, just 6 years separated, are historical traumas that were never seen in combination for the United States. Such burdens were never heaped upon a single generation to carry.

And that’s where I’ve been stuck for weeks. Yes, Millennials are the ones left carrying that load. We have been the ones doing the bulk of the fighting and dying in the Global War on Terrorism. We are the ones left with the financial burden of all the bail outs and exploding national debt. The Americans on their way out have stuck us with these unending problems of fighting terrorism wherever it may be, with caring for the largest group of retirees who keep living longer, and with the astronomical bills that come with both.

Is it really a wonder why so many are so cynical? Why so few of us are optimistic for the future? How we struggle to think of a time when America was so great? The American greatness we were all brought up believing in began dying with the PATRIOT ACT, took another fatal blow when we became engulfed in Iraqi insurgents, and was left laying facedown in an alley by 2008. Some politicians tried to sell us hope. They left us with our hats in our hands, still plodding down the same path.

But corporate profits are at all time highs! Our stock market is a runaway bull! Our military is being rebuilt with a $716,000,000,000 annual budget!

While we wait here for the meager drops to trickle down, our futures continue to be sold out. A handful continue to gain wealth off of the blank checks they write on our futures. It’s an old trope, and one nobody should be surprised to see.

What should anger us is the complete apathy so many of us display. We are willing lambs trotting off to the slaughter. Take our pelts, they will provide tax shelters. Have my limbs, they’ll prop up the failing institutions. Take my organs, they’ll keep business producing. Take my brain, we sure as fuck aren’t using it. Take me and use me up. I am your sacrificial lamb on the alter of national security and the ax of economic growth.

 

Seventeen years have gone by. A new generation is taking up the fight abroad. You’d be hard pressed to find many people who know it though. We’ve gone on in a quiet malaise for so long that Americans have forgotten. We’ve forgotten what normal looks like. This course of never ending small wars that impact so few that America can hardly be bothered to pay attention anymore. Get out there and stand for the anthem on Sunday, show everyone you’re a patriot. But don’t you worry about the families that continue to be broken up by the wars we no longer talk about. Mount the Stars & Stripes on your pick-up for all to see. Don’t worry about defense budgets that continue to swell and swell, that bill will come due long after those who wrote the orders are gone.

Are we doomed to be victims of our own uncaring, self-centered attitudes? As long as the screen in our hands is there to comfort us in a soft glow of memes we will keep moving down this line. Our miserable Kardashian-obsessed existences will be their own undoing.

All aboard the express train to Dystopia. It’ll be masked in complacency, a slow roll to handing over basic rights one bit at a time. Because we never said STOP to this insanity. We haven’t shown any organized anger over the bankruptcy of our nation, morally and monetarily. The longer this is sustained the harder it will be to ever come back. War without end, so long as it doesn’t impact too many. Each year a few more subtle whacks at civil liberty in exchange for security. Ironic that all the fears of pop culture in the 1980’s are now coming to fruition.

 

I’ve shared a lot of words on 9/11 on here previously. Some more eloquent than others. In three different posts – here, here, & here. I truly hoped to bring some new insights. But 17 years later all I have for you is a swamp of sadness. The Nothing is coming, and I don’t see Atreyu on the horizon.

How to break the civil/military divide, an advanced discussion.

My earlier post on starting the conversation between vet and non-vet eluded to some advanced questions to broach once you’re more comfortable with each other. I think we’ve gotten to that point and it’s time to revisit the original concept. Again, the inspiration for this came from this post by War on the Rocks. As in the first part the questions from WotR are in italics and my responses are in normal text.

What’s the most important thing you learned from your service? – I learned the value of each individual human. This was touched on in the first part but I’ll take some time to elaborate. My Franciscan education taught me that each human holds equal value and we all deserve to be respected as a basic right. I still held some prejudices though that were ingrained on me at a young age. While I had grown out of some and started to shed others, I cannot deny that some still lingered. My experiences during my service broke down the hang ups I still had around gay men. A big reason for that was that there just weren’t many gay men that I had met while growing up. Meeting different people who I’d never come into contact with before dispelled ugly stereotypes and the lies I’d been told as a young boy in a way that nothing else could have.

The same could be said of my view of the greater world. You have to understand that I grew up in a small town in western NY, which is to say I grew up in an isolated bubble. Growing up somewhat poor we didn’t take a lot of road trips, the first time I flew was when I was 15, and I can count the number of vacations we took on one hand. Bumpkin could have applied to me quite fittingly. So imagine what impact 5 years of living in different places for no more than 12 months at a time would be. In my first year on active duty I lived at Fort Knox, Fort Benning, Fort Bliss, back to Benning, and then went off to Korea! That was a pretty intense education on the culture of America’s south and also a southwest border town (Ft. Bliss is in El Paso). Followed by going right into the deep end of cultural adjustment by living in Korea for a year. The analogy of teaching a kid to swim is apt here. In order for me to enjoy living in these places I had to adjust my expectations and how I interacted with the local population. I had to broaden myself and open my mind. Anyone in such situations who refuses to open themselves and learn new ways becomes closed off and insular. They hate their time spent in said location and have nothing good to say about it.

So the most important thing I learned from my time in the Army is that life requires an open mind willing to continuously learn. And that no matter where you are in the world, people are people. We all have the same intrinsic value, we all need to be shown respect, and all anybody wants is to be safe and free. I came out of the Army a greatly changed person. For the better I think.

What made you most proud of being in uniform? – First, there are plenty of things to not be proud of. Things I did myself and things that I share moral injury for by association. But if I think of what I’m proud of it’s that I did something that so few do. Growing up I had a pretty laser focused concept that I would serve in some way. I didn’t really have a thought of not serving, it was just a given. That’s a pretty broad idea of what to take pride in. If I had to think of specific acts its more difficult. I did nothing heroic, I was never in a firefight, I didn’t save anybody or help a village of little kids to go to school. I do think I served honorably and treated others with respect, especially people I outranked. That may not be something that people would typically think of as a point of pride, but the best thing I can think of is that I did my job to the best of my ability and treated others well. Maybe somewhere in there my actions and example made an impact on a young soldier, maybe I’m full of shit. I hope it’s the former.

How did the United States change while you were gone? – Tricky, I was never gone from the US for more than a year at a time. Some important things happened while I was gone though. I was in Korea from June 2007 – June 2008. So while the worldwide economy was burning like the Joker’s pile of cash I was just doing my thing as a PL and hoping that my joes didn’t show up on Monday morning with news of marrying a Juicy Girl or ending up in the hospital after a bar fight (spoiler, both happened). The effect of this is that I was again living in a bubble, this one built by the DoD, and couldn’t really grasp what the Great Recession was and how bad it was. In retrospect I was not unlike a Wall Street banker (LoLz).

The other major event happened while I was in Basrah. This was the first shooting at Fort Hood by Dr. Nidal Hasan. I had been stationed at Hood before my assignment to a transition team, so this gave me an odd feeling of being safer in Iraq than if I had still been at Hood. This is a memory that still brings up a discomforting sense of surrealism. My hands are trembling as I type and my body is tense. I was so afraid that one of my friends had been shot back home, where we were supposed to be safe, and I was half way around the world watching the news on a TV in our team’s TOC. I was the one who was safe, and they were the ones being shot.

On the lighter side I missed a couple of major sports events (for me at least). The first NHL Winter Classic featuring Pittsburg playing in Buffalo happened while I was in Korea. If you’re a hockey fan you’ll understand that I may never get to see the WC in Buffalo again. Then again, my NYE in Seoul was pretty fucking fantastic too. The other event I missed was the last Yankees World Series win when I was in Iraq. I didn’t really have a chance to watch any of that since I was living at a remote location. Since then, while I’ve been able to follow baseball again, the Yanks were on the decline for a bit and I’ve had to tolerate the Red Sox’s success.

To strike a more metaphysical tone, the whole time I was on active duty I really was ‘away’. The bubble that you live in is ever present. While civilians were facing economic ruin we were all safely employed and receiving annual raises that outstripped our civilian counterparts at an obscene rate. Another aspect of the civil/military divide. There truly are tangible differences in these two parts of American society. I can hardly be upset at a civilian who would’ve begrudged my pay raises from 2007 – 2011. Debates over deserving or not deserving the raises are irrelevant. The fact is many people were losing their jobs, houses, and lives while we were secure in our housing, jobs, and increasing pay. So the country that I came back to after being in a bubble of alternate-DoD-reality for five years was unrecognizable. I didn’t understand what everyone else had gone through during that time and they didn’t understand what I had gone through. We were two strangers separated at birth trying to enjoy a family reunion as if we’d known each other all along. Honestly, there are times where I still don’t understand my place in my community. As I wrote last week I’m not at home at the VSOs, and while I’ve tried to reintegrate to The World, my success in that has been spotty. America changed so much while I was gone. So much so that being ‘gone’ again can seem like a comforting option at times.

Would you do it again? Why or why not?” – This is a question that cannot be treated lightly or given and off the cuff ‘ABSOLUTELY!!!’ Military service will change everyone in such fundamental ways that this question deserves considerable meditation by any vet. I’ve kicked this around a good deal, sometimes thinking it was a mistake to serve. When I see my college peers having more success it’s easy to think that they were the smarter ones for going the traditional route and dedicating themselves to a career path.

But then I remember this. Please do listen, The Kinks say it in a superior way to anything I could hope to.

Now, the romantic notion of the great, unique individual railing against the machinations of conformity is a bit of sentimental horseshit. That being said, at heart I’ve never stopped being the angry punk rock kid I was and that has driven me, in part at least, to detest following set paths. I love freaks. I have Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” tattooed on my left thigh FFS! Doing things on my own has bitten me in the ass at times. I remember a day during my time in the command group with 69th ADA where the brigade deputy commander came out of his office and sang Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way’ to me to point out my counterproductive impatience. Point well taken, Brian.

In the end I know I would do it again. I may even have stayed in longer had some assignments gone differently. Had I been selected for Civil Affairs that would have changed things dramatically. If I had recognized a career as an Acquisitions officer was possible that may have kept me in. Those things did not happen though. To grind my teeth over those lost possibilities would be fruitless and very un-Stoic. I have a lot to be grateful for as a result of my time in the Army. Hopefully I made it clear in my above comments that I became a better person as a result of my service. If not for this path in life I may still be much more like my 18 year old self, a self that I’d like to punch right in the yambags if I could.

 

Well, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed this. Please use these posts as a conversation starter. The whole point is to provide a model for how a non-vet can approach a vet with some certainty of their questions, or for the vets to be open to these questions. One thing that dawned on me while writing these two posts is that it was like interviewing myself. The value of this exercise cannot be overstated. This introspection is great for mental health. It gave me a deeper understanding of myself, and a greater perspective on my own life. It’ll be great if my writing catches on to a large audience. If that doesn’t happen I’ve still gained much from the exercise of writing. I’d encourage anyone to do the same.

Until we meet again.

Down the PTS rabbit hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again.

 

Our shared trauma

It’s time to talk about Post Traumatic Stress. Not mine, I’m fortunate to not suffer from PTS, nor any other individual’s. We need to talk about our collective PTS as a nation.

This is the elephant in the room. We all know it exists, but rarely is it discussed. We see the symptoms every day. Our political gridlock, the anger on social media, the seeming impossibility of constructive debate, our self imposed segregation as a coping mechanism.

Satisfaction is more often derived from tearing someone down than from lifting them up. We scream at each other on planes. We rail against anyone perceived as ‘other’ on social media. We feel justified in passing judgement on total strangers. We distrust everything, unless it conforms to or reinforces our biases.

This all seems to be coming to a boiling point. Civil discourse left long ago. Logos is gone, pathos is running the show.

It’s understandable that emotions run high these days. But our emotions have taken over to a point of destruction.  We are too easily manipulated by third parties who have recognized this. Our emotional fragility has become weaponized while we were patting ourselves on the back for having such strength.

Just like an individual suffering from PTS we, as a united nation, must face some hard truths and move forward with reason guiding our thoughts and actions. So where do we start?

September 11, 2001

We don’t acknowledge it, but the attacks on 9/11 inflicted a mass casualty event upon the nation. Thousands died, many more would continue to die in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we all suffered a mental trauma that late summer day that set us on a path of self destruction. A trail of events that spans nearly two full decades now. Never ending wars compounded by a once in a century global economic shock, and disruptive technology that we struggle to adapt to.

America, we’ve stacked bodies higher than the Twin Towers, but the terrorists who sought our downfall are still winning. They’re winning because they knew that the only ones who could rip America apart are ourselves. This fact has been noted by America’s adversaries since WWII. For some reason we don’t grasp this. Always outward looking for the next great power threat, we have been killing America from the inside at a stunning rate.

This only stops and changes if we start to be honest about how 9/11 traumatized the nation. Our population felt a vulnerability not seen since 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. Whereas Pearl Harbor galvanized us in a common mission, a clear purpose with a plainly stated end point, 9/11 spurred us onto a jumble of mixed missions that few understood and with no definitive end.

America, we lashed out in October, 2001. We kicked ass. It felt great. Our swagger returned and we knew that we were great again. That didn’t last though, did it? Just as a person suffering from PTS we found quick salve to self medicate. Where a person might reach for booze, Percocet, or a warm gun to get that fix, we as a nation reaffirmed our validity with machine guns, artillery, and sweet precision guided munitions. We tapped that vein with a quick shot of American martial might and validated ourselves.

And just like the individual reaching for a quick, self medicated fix, we collectively came down from our martial high. We looked around wondering why the good times stopped. In our collective paranoia we started looking inward to find the ‘other’. The rotten cancer infecting us from within had to be the reason we fell back down. We drew dividing lines in our society. We labeled those we did not like as unpatriotic or as fascists. Everyone was with us or against us. We found serenity in our black and white world.

But this wasn’t what we needed. We needed to accept that we were all in pain. That all any of us wanted was to live without fear again, to know we would not be hurt and victimized again. In our fear and anger we struck out at the people we once, and maybe still did, love. We did it time and again, going deeper down the rabbit hole of self destructive soothing.

America, we must stop the denial and collective self harm. We need to stop hating ourselves for all our misdeeds and remember how great we have always been. We are still that beautiful city on high. If we allow ourselves to forgive we can mend our way.

Say it with me. September 11, 2001 hurt us like never before, but it will not define us. The attacks of 9/11 are something that happened to us, they are a part of who we are, but we are much more than the scared victims of that day. We will move forward to write our own story on our own terms.

We are a nation with a mission and a responsibility. We are an example of civility, we are a country that values freedom and mutual respect above all else. We are a beacon of hope, shining all around the world.

That is who we really are, even if we don’t always act like it.

So how do we get back to being the country we know we are? It starts with little things. Small corrections to our perceptions, our thoughts, and our actions.

Look at the person you don’t know with affection, not suspicion. See people not as ‘the other’ but as another American. Act with civility that would make our Founders proud. Start by talking to someone who you’d normally ignore. Talk to people with different views than you. Speak to each other calmly, with respect. Seek out these interactions not as a way to change the other person’s mind so that they can be like you, but to find some common ground. Challenge yourself to respect, possibly even like, a person with whom you disagree.

We must rebuild our sense of community without putting conditions on each other. Leave the safety net of self isolation and re-learn to live with each other, accepting our differences. Depart from the mindset of confrontation and march forward with compassion.

Break down your fear and anger and you begin to mend your trauma.

We are only great when we see the greatness of each other. As a nation we share the moral injury of Afghanistan, Iraq, racial strife, our economic inequality, and our ignorance to the shared pain we all suffer. Put away the anger and exercise empathy. When you feel the knee jerk reaction of wondering just what someone else is, stop yourself.

As you read this you may be looking for subtle hints in my word choice, pointing to some hidden clue as to what I am. He’s a liberal/conservative! Must be a stinking Democrat/Republican. This perverse need to identify and classify everything and everyone has become ingrained. Searching to define everyone is so natural to us that we don’t even realize we are doing it. Is he with me or against me? Will this person hurt me?

Here’s the unmasking. I am an American. I am a human being, the same as you.

America, admit it with me. We have a problem but we are strong enough to overcome. We just need some compassion, and we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

Until we meet again.

On transitions

So glad you’re back. I’ve been reading a good bit and jotting down some thoughts since my last post. Today I intend to write a literal transition piece to link my previous post and the post to follow this one. One of the things I read that helped form this idea was a blog post by Marisa Mohi titled Transitions Are Hard.

Admittedly I do not read many other blogs. I prefer a book or magazine in my hands and right now as I write there is a stack of 14 books about a foot away from me that I am working through. Marisa was a great help for me kicking this effort off and this particular post of her’s hit home (she’s also kind enough to leave frequent comments here). It’s really a great piece that ties in with some themes that I am tackling here so I thought I’d use it as a jumping off point. Please take a few minutes to read Marisa’s post before continuing here.

The last line is absolutely perfect – “Have you ever jumped out of the trunk of a moving car?” I loved this for three reasons.

  1. It’s the perfect way to describe the transition from active duty back to civilian life. Something that is central to this blog’s theme.
  2. It references Bevis and Butthead Do America, a true cinematic masterpiece.
  3. I’ve jumped out of a moving car…. twice…. within a 1/4 mile stretch. (Tequila)

Let’s chat about that Bevis and Butthead clip. It’s a great (unintended) metaphor for transitioning. Starting with a jacking off joke and the taunting to stop being a pussy, to thinking all you need to do is run really fast to keep up with the fast moving road, and being pushed out by someone who doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about. We’ll take those things one at a time.

In leading up to leaving active duty peers will make lots of stupid jokes to play down the seriousness and difficulty of the task that lays ahead. We are told time and time again that since we performed complicated tasks in the most high stress environment imaginable for long periods of time, sometimes leading others in the process, that we can do anything. Don’t even question your abilities, it’s laughable to think that you can’t do anything that a civilian can do. You’ve done way more than your civilian counterparts, AND they’re pussies. Just be confident and you’ll have people falling over themselves to hire you, you hero you.

And politicians wonder why vets have such difficulties making it in civilian life.

Next up – in addition to overestimating your own value and abilities we are also guilty of underestimating how hard job searching is. I’m not talking about skimming online job boards. I mean building a professional network, selecting companies or industries that suit you, finding locations you want to live in, and finding a job that will hopefully provide a comparable standard of living to what you had in the military. A great book on this (that I wish I had in 2009) is CONUS Battle Drills. A necessary read for people about to make the transition and a neat insight for civilians who want to read something that dives into the details of successful military transitions. This whole idea of just running really fast, to just hustle, sets many vets up for failure. It glosses over the challenges of professional life transitions and completely ignores the personal life transition. In my opinion, the challenges to your personal life in this military-to-civilian transition is the tougher of the two. More to follow.

Lastly, getting the motivational push from a dope who is as full of shit as my colon. This is skewed by my own experience, but I’d wager it’s pretty common. In 2010 the Army required all personnel separating or retiring to go through ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program). A great political talking point is that military personnel need a ‘reverse bootcamp’ to prepare them for civilian life. Well, ACAP has been around a long time. The program exists, it just sucks. There are two required briefings, one on job searching skills and another about VA benefits, that take up one full duty day combined. That’s what all transitioning personnel get without question, ONE day of briefings. There are plenty of other classes offered, usually people sign up for them to get out of whatever shit detail their unit is pushing onto the guys getting out. For anyone who really gives a damn about the class the product is pretty lame and not worth the time. What it really comes down to is that in many cases the person teaching the transitioning personnel about civilian life, job searching, networking, etc. is likely a retired NCO who got out of the military and landed in a nice Federal job teaching these classes. They regurgitate material that was taught them. Rarely is there a person with real experiences and qualifications to teach these classes. It’s literally the dumb leading the blind. Butthead is pushing our collective Bevis out of the trunk while Bevis is still pondering his decision.

So that’s how I ended up unemployed for five months after my separation date, finally taking a job with M&T Bank in its collections department (Customer Asset Management – talk about a churched up name). Fortunately I had built up some G.I. Bill benefits and began a MBA program a few months earlier. School was my main focus but there were still bills to be paid. So I was a full time grad student, a MBA candidate with a BA in history and never a business class taken before, while working full time and commuting over an hour each way 5 days a week with class on Friday nights and Saturdays. Not exactly the image of a successful transition. Ironically, it was this same year that Bevis and Butthead began airing again. Wouldn’t you know it, there was an episode where our heroes stumble into a call center and start taking calls. It was exactly like my experience working for M&T, and I made sure to say “I understand your frustrations” as much as possible. Even got some of my co-workers in on the joke.

Even more difficult than the professional challenges was trying to find a fulfilling personal life again. I had not realized just how much the Army had provided the community that filled my life. There were always a few good friends around, there was a social circle that provided the support needed when life got stressful. There were people with shared experiences to bond with and to value. There were people who understood your troubles, there were mentors, there was a personal nexus that formed your life on duty and off duty. This was something that I just did not recognize, let alone value. It’s something I still miss and have not been able to replace. This is the lasting challenge for me right now. I love and cherish my family, but we all need friends and social interactions outside of the home as well. This is something that my wife has recognized and struggles with as well. Our lives were so dependent on the community that came with being in the Army but we failed to see that. It took many years for this fact to smack us upside the head. It’s still a challenge to work on, but knowing’s half the battle, right?

This is where the next post will pick up. At the urging of a friend, I am going to dive deeper into the social challenges faced in transition, the difficulty in finding friendship and the emotional toll that takes.

My last thought on transition for today. Recently I finished Chris Bohjalian’s Trans-Sister Radio. Gender dysphoria and gender transition has long interested me. The lead signer of Against Me! (one of my favorite bands) is a trans woman and her last few albums laid bare all the pain, joy, and raw emotions of her struggles with gender dysphoria and transition. This book was fantastic, I’d recommend it for anyone with a similar interest (it is a novel). What strikes home for me is the unique challenges facing the trans community. Combining that with Marisa’s post about semester transitions it is clear that difficult transitions are something that all people go through. It’s not just a vet problem, it’s a problem of all people. We all face a different struggle, but we can find common ground here and we should. Rather than the basic vet who wants to turn every issue into a vet-centric issue, the veteran community should see this common ground as a way to talk about our struggles, exercise some empathy, check our egos, and talk to civilians about what similar challenges they’ve faced and how they overcame. Let’s use our unique transitions in life to bridge the civil/military divide. We’ll be more successful, and we’ll be better Americans for it.

Until we meet again.

Chingu, Habibi, Friend

After a brief holiday break it’s nice to be back with you. Hope you had a great time whatever you celebrated. My wife and I took off for Nashville for the NYE Jimmy Buffett show. Absolutely fabulous time with a couple of highlights that I wanted to share here. One was getting accosted by religious zealots outside of the Bridgestone Arena, the other was getting to see two friends that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. Before I dive into today’s story I just want to take a moment to express my gratitude to my wife for dealing with my insistence to drive from WNY to Nashville in one day (then go out to see The Dead Deads at the Lipstick Lounge that night) and for her graciousness in meeting my friends whom she did not know.

This was my first time being the subject of someone’s religious protest, so chalk that one up for the record books. I had always seen some ‘End-of-days’ types with their John 3:16 signs at Bills games, but they were friendly. These folks outside of the Buffett show were the real ‘fire and brimstone’ types, vacillating between warnings of going to Hell for our sins and then condescending mockery of how the concert-goers were stupid, immature, and acting like teenagers (because teenagers are all evil of course). It was truly a sight to behold in the single digit temperatures. Add to that a security back-up that had 300 foot long lines taking an hour to get inside and the folks in line were getting agitated.

Now, people can pretty much say what they want to me and I can brush it off. I just shook my head at how these Christians were acting like anything but, and the irony of someone standing in the cold to shout a message nobody cared about which included telling the Parrotheads that they were wasting their lives was a bit much. Almost past the group of Westboro Baptist Church wannabes I was stuck with one of them in front of me, blocking my free movement just enough for me to let an elbow jut out, meeting the pudgy proselytizer in the ribcage. While this gave a measure of quick satisfaction I immediately cursed myself for giving in to the easy temptation. For the record, I was not intoxicated, this was a clear-headed choice. I knew by jabbing my elbow in his ribs that this guy would feel vindicated and righteous. Still, he was blocking the free movement of people peaceably assembling. I stood there wondering which was the greater Constitutional infringement, my elbowing a protester exercising his religious freedom (misguided as it was) or this man’s infringement upon the right of people’s freedom of movement and right to enjoy themselves at a concert? I did know that my reaction was anything but Stoic. Certainly I was not being materially wronged or harmed and should have simply ignored these zealots and continued on my way.

So this was an opportunity to practice some Stoic self control and I failed. Reflecting on this though, I realize that a short time ago I may have been much quicker to throw that ‘bow, or to go even further. That makes me sad and also gives me some satisfaction that sticking with regular therapy sessions and devoting myself to Stoicism has been helping. While I could brood on my failings in controlling my emotions and taking right action I know that the proper thing to do now is to recognize and accept my failing, learn from it, and do better next time. This is important not just for the sake of being a good human, but also to be a credible voice. It’s one thing to sit here writing a lot of lovely things, but if I fail to live up to these words and then fail to change my ways I am nothing but a hypocrite. We all fail, getting back up and doing better, rather than maintaining the status quo, is what separates people. I will do better.

Now, the other topic I want to delve into is a bit of a set up. Journaling at the hotel room in Columbus, OH it became clear that I have only a partial thought. Still, discussing meeting up with old friends has something important to it, and rather than waiting for the thought to mature before writing about it I want to share some thoughts with y’all and let the writing develop the thought.

One thing people often point out as a uniqueness of the military, or at the least one of the benefits of the military, is the strong sense of camaraderie. This is something that I have had a hard time with, but after years of thought I believe my cynicism may have been the result of unfair expectations. I often felt let down by the Army and lied to. In hindsight this was probably as much my own fault as the Army’s. My lack of controlling my emotion added to the feeling and a negative feedback loop of jadedness followed. I never belonged to a unit where it felt like everyone (or even most people) got along. I was never in a unit where people would spend their weekends with the same clowns they spent their duty days with. Korea was an exception, but even there the unit I was in lacked compared to other units on Camp Casey.

The expected camaraderie just didn’t exist. This was difficult to accept, but some years later I think I’ve finally realized what that unique camaraderie really meant. While units were not filled with friends, I left every unit with a couple of really close friends. These were people who did become family to me, people who I would still rush to help at the drop of a hat. Having spent six years in different civilian jobs now, I can say that I’ve never met a friend at any of those jobs who I felt an equally strong bond with. Now, that’s not to say I think everyone I’ve met at my civilian jobs is a schmuck, I’ve met some people that I really like and hang out with from time to time. I wouldn’t drive 1,000 miles to see them or go out of my way on a road trip just to have a meal with them though. And there’s the rub. That camaraderie I wanted so badly did exist, and I couldn’t see it until it was gone.

On our recent trip my friend Remington Vandergriff drove to Nashville from Clarksville to have dinner with us. We spent a few hours sharing drinks, food, and good stories. We got to catch up face to face for the first time since June 2008. We text and call each other frequently, but it still struck us that it had been so many years between hugs. That being said, we picked up right where we left off. We had lived and worked together at the ADA OBC and then in Korea. We travelled to Guam and all over Seoul and Busan together. We had some really great nights out in El Paso. We’ve saved each other from dangerous situations more than once.

Driving back to NY we decided to split the drive over two days. This allowed time to stop on New Year’s Day to visit another friend, Zach Morgan. I met Zach at LDAC in the summer of 2005 and hadn’t seen him since. Again, Zach is a friend I am in fairly frequent communication with. He’s also one of the friends who partnered with me on the Band of Bards project that I wrote about earlier. Our mutual affinity for history and common world view made us fast friends. Driving some backroads just northeast of Louisville, I commented that we could’ve been anywhere in WNY by the looks of things. As big as America is its continuity is a marvel. We arrived at Zach’s home in time for gumbo, sharing dinner with Zach, his wife (who I’d never met), their children, and two of their friends. We were welcomed like family, conversation striking up as if we met for dinner every week. Sadly, it was a sort of dine and dash as we only had a couple hours to spend and another 3 plus hours of driving before reaching Columbus.

As I drove through Ohio I started to think over these reunions. I couldn’t help but wonder how common it was to meet people like Remington and Zach. I could name a half dozen or so others that I met over 5 years in the Army who I could have similar experiences with. The longer I though the more it seemed that this was probably a high number of close friends to make over such a period. I wondered what other people experienced in their first 10 years out of college. There aren’t many people that I went to high school with that I still keep in contact with, let alone consider such close friends. The same for college. So is that just my isolated experience, or can this be confirmed? Did the Army really leave me with truly unique, life-long friendships that people in other industries don’t experience? This is something I’d like to explore some more. This could be one of those civil/military divide aspects that deserves more attention. When people ask why anyone would go into or stay in the military it isn’t uncommon for someone to respond that they did it because of the people they met. Maybe the friends you make in the military really do have a uniqueness to them that is much harder to come by in the civilian world? We’ll only find out by asking.

So here I need your help, True Believer. What’s your take on this? Leave some comments and let’s get a conversation started. I’d really like to get some opinions from both sides of the room on this one.

Until we meet again.