My year with the Dragon, Part II

It’s a terribly muggy week here in WNY, which actually reminds me of monsoon season in Korea but without the daily thunderstorm. Today I decided to take the laptop outside and try writing in the backyard. Bowie is coming through the speakers, I’ve got a large pot of coffee, and a cigar to help me channel my inner Twain. There’s a tasty breeze coming through and the grackles are enjoying the feast I left for them. The sun is out. Nature is alive and singing along with “Rebel, Rebel”. Squirrels scamper across my fence and leap spastically into the large maple tree.

This may all seem a digression, but I talk about mental health a good deal here and these outside friends as I call them play a key role in helping maintain my mental health. I thought it would be fun to paint the scene for you all, but also to talk about how simple things build the foundation of how I keep myself sane. It must look as if I spend hours just staring at nothing but the dance of sparrows, grackles, starlings, blue jays, cardinals, squirrels, and my dogs reminds me of the good things that exist. The daily chore of refilling feeders is a source of calmness. It’s a chance to do something in a mindful way. A way to stay in touch with my Franciscan roots, and it connects me to the world around me. Birding has made me more aware of the ebbs and flows of nature. Migratory patterns bring new birds from time to time, learning about them helps to make me recognize the delicate balance of our world and the role we play. It is a way to practice the Stoic exercise of taking a view from above as well. So you see, this simple act is much more for me.

Alright, onto the task at hand. I don’t want to make this a totally linear story of my time in Korea. That would be tedious and boring. Going on a month to month play by play doesn’t tell a fun story, and I really wouldn’t be able to hit on every single thing either. If anything is certain, it is that I will forget things. Some mundane and some important, but the upside to our fallible memories is that you’ll have a reason to keep coming back here! So today I thought I would expand on what I wrote in Part 1 about expat friends and another funny story or two from Camp Casey.

Some of those friends who I’ve stayed in contact with reacted to Part 1 and reminded me of some unlikely stories of how we met. As I reflected on them it occurred to me that they are perfect examples of how crazy and adventurous that year was. So here they are for your reading pleasure.

Yongsan electronics market was a favorite place to go explore. It was essentially a large train station with a 9 story mall built above. This place summed up Korea perfectly. It wasn’t like an American mall with stores placed without thought on whatever floor. This was strictly electronics, even the furniture sold there was in many ways more electronics than couch. Each floor was dedicated to one or two different products with vendors arranged not in sequestered store fronts but with their individual floor spaces in an open environment. Imagine an American office building with a cube farm set up, but with each cube being about 20’x20’ of display cases where the clerks would compete openly with each other. You could wander around an entire floor and find essentially all the same things, but the fun was in the negotiation. Offering the advertised price was a sign of ignorance, everything was negotiable and it was expected that you would dicker for a better deal.

So one floor would be all digital cameras, another floor for computers, one for electronic furniture, one for musical instruments, one for TVs. There was a great movie theater as well, and a food court where I decided to try a dish called ‘Fire Chicken’. I shit you not that plate came out to the table on fire! The waiter warned me to order something else as this dish was even too spicy for many Koreans to eat it. Implied was that Americans couldn’t stand the spicy foods enjoyed by Koreans. Of course that made me double down. I finished about half that plate through pure stubbornness and popped Tums for a week.

After one trip to this magical place with my buddy and fellow PL, Remington, we were standing outside the front entrance talking about where to go next. There was a musical performance going on outside the station that we watched for a bit while trying to wait out some rain. Out of nowhere came Maria. She was still in her first month in Korea as an English teacher and was kind of lost. She asked to borrow one of our phones as her phone had died and she had no way of getting in touch with her friend that she was supposed to meet. Being an officer and a gentleman I happily obliged.

After finishing her call we all stood around for a bit just talking and watching the music and dancing troupe. As it turned out Maria was from the same city in Maryland as my college roommate Phil, who also happened to be my next door neighbor at Camp Casey. We were both still pretty new to Korea and having found a common bond we exchanged phone numbers and stayed in contact. Maria ended up hanging in similar social circles and played for the Seoul Sisters RFC. We ended up sharing many pints and stories throughout that year, all because of an off chance meeting.

There were plenty of other weguks (foreigners) on that plaza that Maria could have approached. Against the odds she came up to a guy just as out of place as her with a somewhat hometown connection. We still laugh about that from time to time, such an odd coincidence that led to a friendship formed over rugby and the shared adventure of being so far from home.

Now if that was the strangest story of making a friend in Korea it wouldn’t be a surprise. Life has a magnificent sense of humor though.

Part 1 mentions Pub Scrooges. It was where the Seoul Survivors hung out and had post-match socials. It became a regular haunt for me whether I was down in Seoul with friends from Camp Casey or if I just went down on my own. It was a place I knew I’d find friends to share a pint with and leave Army life behind. One night at Scrooges, as I was out doing what most 23 year old guys do, I was chatting with a beautiful baby (mandatory Swingers reference) and getting along better than I usually did. I was sitting at a long table when someone tapped my shoulder. Turning around to face the guy sitting behind me, I was told ‘Hey, she wants to talk to you.” He was pointing to another woman opposite him who was sitting on the bench that lined the back wall. Also quite lovely, I was stunned at my good luck that night.

Unsure how to handle this I tried to gracefully excuse myself from the conversation I was in the middle of so that I could talk to this other girl while not turning off the first girl. Without even introducing herself girl #2 said “Did you go to Bonas?” I was stunned at this and looked down at my chest to see if I had been wearing a SBU shirt. Confirming I wasn’t I looked back up and said that I did and asked how she guessed. Turns out Amanda recognized me from Bonas and told me that we had actually met at a townhouse party a couple years ago. Now Bonas had about 2,200 students while I was there, my graduating class numbered around 600. Somehow Amanda, who was also a 2006 grad, was sitting at a rugby pub less than 10 feet from me, 6,600 miles away from where we first met. I vaguely remembered the party and apologized for my hazy (drunken) memory. Finding another Bonnie so far from home I forgot all about the girl I had been talking to and joined Amanda’s table.

We talked over a few pints, retracing our Bonas connections and laughed a lot over how strange it was that we ran into each other. Seoul is similar in size to NYC, so on top of the long odds of us both being in Korea was the extra layer of being in the same pub that night. Well, turns out Amanda was there because she too was a Seoul Sister and had played rugby at Bonas. People often say it’s a small world, this certainly takes the cake. It also shows how the connections we make and circles we hang out in follow us everywhere. If not for rugby neither of us would have been there that night. If not for a few mutual friends at a small university in middle-of-nowhere, NY Amanda would have never recognized me and we might have never talked to each other in spite of frequently being at Scrooges.

I think about these friendships now and then and it still amazes me. I’ve not seen either Maria or Amanda since leaving Korea, but we’ve stayed in contact through the miracle of Facebook. Say what you will about StalkerBook, it has served me well in staying connected to people that I’ve met in so many places. Staying in loose contact with those friends from Korea has made the experience so much better. It’s made these people friends for life rather than friends for a year who become memories you sometimes think of. I’m so grateful for these experiences. There are plenty of bad times from my service, remembering these good things makes the bad times worth it. Without them I would focus on all the negative memories and emotions, which would suck me into an abyss of anger. It’s easy to feel like those years were wasted and pointless when I watch the news. Looking back on the friends made and good times shared is just as important as feeding my outside friends. It lets me know that my life has been well lived and that more adventures remain. It keeps me hopeful and breaks the grip of despair that creeps into my mind. Living in the past can be deadly, showing gratitude for your past can help you to move forward with optimism of great things to come.

You were promised a funny story too. How about the time I nearly caught a beating for being gay (spoiler, I’m not).

On another outing with Remington we went exploring Uijongbu. Only about 30 minutes from Camp Casey, Uijongbu is a medium sized city that offered some of the escape that Seoul did but with half the train ride, so you could do it and get back to Casey before curfew. We weren’t out to party though, we went to check out some of the open air fish markets and the underground mall. Remington bought a bunch of fish and squid (nasty), I found a shirt that screamed 80’s hair metal to me and had to buy it. This thing was black with gold splashed around, shiny, and a weird texture that was a cross between silk and rubber. It was just the kind of thing I needed for my next Poison concert. Happy with our finds we headed back to Casey and decided to head out to the Ville that night.

Of course I wore the shirt!

Hitting up a couple of juicy bars in the Ville always carried an element of danger. They were dirty, seedy places where trouble found you. Who wouldn’t love it? We were at the Mustang Club and a group of juicy girls walked up from behind me, one saying ‘hello’ by giving me a reach around. Taken off guard I jumped, spun around, and let juicy know that I wasn’t interested. They hung around for a while though because…… they loved my shirt. They kept feeling my shirt and started call me Snake Man (I still call it the Snake Man shirt) and put in a pretty strong effort to get us to buy their nights – the prostitution part works by ‘buying the night’ or paying the club owner for the rest of the girl’s shift to compensate for lost beverage sales – but we wanted none of that. The girls went away after a bit and we went back to shooting the shit over our beers.

Not too long after this four guys who were wasted and stumbling approached us. One put his finger in my chest and started rambling about how he hate ‘our kind’. He said something to the effect of ‘what are you two, the kind that stays silent but likes to flaunt it (being gay) in everyone’s faces’. We knew there wasn’t a way to talk ourselves out of this. Like I said, trouble finds you.

When we walked into the Mustang that night we saw a few of the NCOs from our battery in the back. As we were being surrounded at the bar I looked over to their table and saw they were watching, so I waved. Six more guys from our battery walked over, all of equal or greater size than those who were looking to start some shit. G, who was 6 foot and an easy 270 pounds of muscle and gut, tapped on the shoulder of the guy who had been accosting me, looked down on him, and simply asked if there was any trouble. As these guys realized they were now outnumbered and surrounded they slinked away and trouble was avoided. Remington and I happily bought drinks for our NCOs the rest of the night. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to get out of that without a beating and probably a shitload of trouble with the MPs, something that could have easily ended our careers even though we didn’t do anything.

So that’s how close I came to getting beat for being gay. All’s well that ends well, right? What I’d say about that now is that it was a lesson in empathy. It was a terrifying insight into the bullshit that gay men still face. Sometimes you truly need to be put into such a situation to grow as a person. Anyone who doesn’t understand why Gay Pride is celebrated needs to only be in my shoes that night to have their eyes opened. Mine sure were.

 

When I started this last Saturday I didn’t plan for such a multi-part story. I’ve only started to scratch the surface of this year in Korea. Looks like we’ll have at least a Part III and maybe a Part IV. Who else is excited!? If you’re confused at all about the title I’ve chosen for this series check out this video. It’s totally NSFW but in a lot of ways sums up being stationed at Camp Casey. Just imagine the dragon is USFK.

Until we meet again…

My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

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.

 

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.

Off to the Hood

After 12 months in Korea it was on to my next assignment at Fort Hood. I was fortunate to have been a platoon leader for my full stint in Korea. Many of my peers across the Army were getting less PL time than I did. Being a platoon leader can drive you nuts when you wake up on a Saturday morning to news that some of your soldiers got jumped outside a bar, with one ending up in the hospital and the other one was already confined to post. Still it was hands down my best time in the Army. Our Professor of Military Science at Bonas was fond of saying the tragic thing about being an Army officer is that your first job (platoon leader) is also your best. After being a PL nothing else was as rewarding.

I had no idea what to expect as I got to Fort Hood. I had a couple friends already there, including one of the guys I had met on my first assignment at Fort Knox and was with again at our ADA OBC at Fort Bliss. Still, my orders only showed me going to HHB, 69th ADA BDE. That meant that I was assigned to the headquarters element of the brigade. That specific unit had just relocated from Germany to Fort Hood, standing up only two weeks prior to my arrival. When units make such moves they generally lose a lot of personnel to reassignments (PCS). The brigade HQ was down to about 20% of their full complement, and I was one of only three lieutenants now with them. In an odd way that made me a bit valuable, but this turned out to be a case of high value backfiring.

Expecting to be assigned to one of the staff cells, which would have been a normal next step after being a PL, I was instead told I would be the new brigade adjutant. I didn’t even know what the fuck that was. I had always thought the S-1 was also the adjutant (S-1 is the equivalent of a company’s HR department). The Big Green Weenie got me and I ended up running the brigade command group. This was the office composed of the brigade commander, deputy commander, the command sergeant major, their drivers, and a few other odds and ends. As the Adj. my job was pretty similar to that of an executive assistant. Day to day it meant that I needed to control traffic into the Big 3’s offices, prepare transportation as needed, and keep a pot of hot water always ready for the commander’s green tea. Goddamn free radicals.

I went from being in the motor pool or the field most days to being in an office taking care of VIPs. Suddenly I needed to watch my language and keep up appearances. Keeping the boss’s travel books, to include local points of interest, and prepare conference rooms for big staff meetings were of utmost importance. Keeping printers loaded instead of machine guns was the order of the day. I was wholly unprepared for this.

My biggest adjustment though was having female subordinates for the first time. My unit in Korea had some female soldiers, but my platoon did not. I had female classmates in ROTC and in all the schools I attended as a lieutenant, but that’s not the same. I wasn’t too sure about how to interact with the female private who was a secretary in the command group, and I wasn’t even sure what to make of having a female NCO reporting to me. Better scrub all the joking about tiny dicks and giant, harry balls. This nervous aversion prompted me to get away from the command group whenever I could. I was constantly second guessing my words and replaying interactions in my head, hoping that I hadn’t done anything inappropriate.

This went on for a couple months before I finally started feeling comfortable with my new surroundings and subordinates. While I continued to hate the dog and pony show of the command group I developed a really strong relationship with my NCO. Jessica was one of the most professional NCOs I worked with. We became a good team, she was able to coach me in the finer points of being in the command group and watched my back. I made sure her and our soldiers were always taken care of. She even helped drive me to and from appointments when I had my eyes corrected. Jessica’s expertise made her a  steadying soul. She was the kind of NCO a lieutenant hopes for and needs. If she ever picked up on my initial prejudice she didn’t let on. She just did her job as best as she could every day. This humbled me and made me recognize how wrong I had been to harbor any doubts or to favor the male NCO (at least internally) who would eventually get reassigned for being a lazy bullshitter.

I learned how to lead young female soldiers too. PFC Wilde was, in spite of her name, one of the most timid people I’d ever met. She was normally the first person to greet whoever came into the command group. This meant that she would have to interact with majors and lieutenant colonels multiple times a day, and from time to time a general. It was physically painful to watch how uncomfortable and nervous she would get. Once day, after a general had come and left, I took her aside and said to her ‘Wilde, I get that those people make you nervous but they’re just people who eat, breath, and take big stinky shits like you and me. Show them the respect due their rank, but remember they’re just people.’ That got her to laugh and she seemed to eventually shake some of her nerves.

Being the Adj. sucked ass. No other way to put it, I just hated being that close to the sun. It wasn’t a good fit for me and I wasn’t good for it. Eventually a couple more lieutenants came in and after 6 months I was mercifully given a new job. Still with the HQ battery, but as the battery XO. I had been lobbying the deputy commander, a very empathetic man, for this job for months. Everyone knew that the HHB commander was a soup sandwich and needed tons of help. Being an XO is also the typical next job for a lieutenant after they’re a PL. The XO is second in charge, covers down for the commander when they’re on leave, and takes care of the administrative side of the house. It’s kind of like being a chief of staff but with guns.

What the deputy commander told me when breaking this news was to go and fix the supply system and the maintenance program of the battery. It was widely known that these were the two largest problems facing the HHB. These are typically things that an XO would focus on and the HHB hadn’t had an XO since moving to Fort Hood. It didn’t take too much prodding for me to discover the depth and breadth of my task at hand.

Talking to the supply sergeant I found out that there was never a 100% inventory conducted prior to leaving Germany or upon arrival at Fort Hood. My mouth hung open at that revelation. Such inventories are standard practice. How nobody had caught this lapse and corrected it was dumbfounding. Nearly two full years went by for this commander with no 100% inventory. These should happen at least once a year. So I had taken on a supply system that ignored some of the most basic tenants of best practices.

The motor pool was an equal mess. It was short staffed, but we all were. The biggest problem was a lack of oversight. The motor sergeant was good, but motor sergeants don’t carry much weight outside of their motor pools. Without an officer to take his concerns to people with decision making authority the motor sergeant might as well stick the lube gun up his ass and squeeze until it goes click. Out of the 40 vehicles and other pieces of major equipment like trailers and generators, 12 were deadlined. More than 25% of the battery’s mission essential equipment was non-functional. That meant that the unit itself was non-mission capable. While the supply system issues were systemic and would require tedious work to correct, the maintenance program was practically nonexistent.

Absorbing all this information and forming a plan to unfuck the battery meant I would need to be the shit hot LT that I fancied myself as. This was a true sink or swim moment that would test me. If I could pull this off I would do credit to my ROTC instructors and those who had mentored me since. If I failed I’d get some sympathy, but I’d be seen as average at best. That didn’t sit well with me, so I dove in like a maniac.

I knew I wouldn’t be in this position for very long as I would be promoted to captain in June and it was now February. The XO billet was for a lieutenant, so I had about 4 months to get something done. During this time I got one major lucky break with my new boss taking leave for about a 1/3 of my tenure as XO. With him out of the picture I had one less obstacle. Having to cover down on the meetings he would go to and reports he would send up was far less of a thief on my time. I usually prepared those reports anyway. It also made things less bloody when I had to break the news of the lack of inventories being conducted to the brigade commander, the same one whose green tea I used to make. Coming clean with this news instead of continuing to cover it up saved me from a serious chewing out, but my new boss sure got it when he got back. I had become so angered with his incompetence that it didn’t bother me one bit. I was the one having to clean up his mess, he could at least take an ass chewing.

So we got to business with slowly accounting for every single piece of equipment and property. In the meantime I went through every maintenance record with my motor sergeant so that we could make a plan for fixing all our vehicles. One truck was hopeless. It needed a new engine and that was an issue that would be taken care of many levels above us. As for the other 11, we methodically identified sources of repair parts. There was an intra-post transfer program that allowed us to essentially buy excess spare parts from other units instead of ordering through the traditional system. That cut down on wait time for parts and got some of our vehicles back up and running in short order. Other issues required some help from the warrant officer who oversaw the brigade’s maintenance system. He was the head maintainer, and warrant officers are the people who you go to when you need a drug deal. Not cocaine. I’m talking about a quiet deal between some old friends to get things taken care of without all the normal forms and red tape. After a couple months of this our truck awaiting a new engine was the only remaining deadline. We were also able to get a couple more mechanics assigned to us and were nearly fully staffed.

What stood out to me was that the supply sergeant and motor sergeant were outstanding at their jobs. They knew the faults of their respective systems and it tore them up. They needed help though, they needed someone to enable them to just do their jobs. I didn’t do anything special. All I did was talk to them, try to listen and understand their problems, and figure out what bullshit I could take off their plates.

Many times officers are the butt of lazy jokes, not always undeservedly. What I learned from the best officers I met was that they didn’t walk around with a sense of self-importance. They looked at subordinates as important people on a team. The officer might hold a higher rank but that didn’t mean much. Everyone had a job to do, and without each person doing their share the whole team failed. The best officers I knew stayed humble and sought out ways to help their people do their jobs. The approach essentially put everyone else’s job at a higher priority. Being more concerned about their subordinates’ ability to achieve than their own accomplishments and ego, these officers made everyone around them better and happier.

There is a good deal more to my time at Fort Hood, so we’ll revisit this. Reflecting on this assignment it becomes clear to me how important it was to my development as an officer and as a person. Obviously I broke down some unjustified biases. I also had experiences that reinforced my ideas of leading by putting your subordinates above yourself. I learned that sitting down to talk to people, getting to know them and show genuine concern was what would make or break you. The importance of communication and honesty were driven home during this year at Fort Hood. Above all else, what I came to know with complete certainty was that the only things that matter about a person are their competence and their character. Are you able to fulfill your responsibilities and are you ethical?