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.

Civil/military relations of The Punisher

There was a great disturbance in my life this past week. As if millions of my hopes cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced by Rian Johnson. When I say this aloud I realize how sad it is, but my disappointment after seeing The Last Jedi on Thursday put me in a real funk for a few days. I’m not going into that here, but I wanted to at least take time to acknowledge this, how silly it is, and to bear some Star Wars fanboy soul.

With that out of the way, I actually want to talk about a different Disney property that has yet to fail me and how it got me thinking about how veterans are portrayed in popular media. By that I mean all sorts of media – TV, radio, movies, the news, fiction, non-fiction, etc. I binged a bit on Marvel’s The Punisher yesterday and it struck me for how it dove into the issue of veterans transitioning out of the military with a uniquely authentic tone. The show is not glossing over the issue, it’s not playing up any stereotype in a superficial manner, and it is not hiding or shrinking from the topic. If you have Netflix, check out the show.

If you’re not familiar with The Punisher, Frank Castle is (in this installment anyway) a former Marine officer. His last assignment was a deployment to Afghanistan in which he was on an off the books team of various special operations types doing a lot of really dirty work (war crimes) under the direction of a CIA spook. As it relates to this blog post, this storyline leaves Frank with a bunch of messed up memories. The show also features two of Frank’s fellow teammates from that deployment, one of whom now runs a private security firm (Blackwater, anyone?) and another who we see running a support group for veterans. The scenes with this support group offer a chance for the show to take on some other supporting characters that do not require much screen time while still being able to introduce a whole gambit of veterans with varying degrees of success in post-military life.

This interests me as it’s not totally necessary to advance the main plot, but it adds a degree of depth to the show for a character who is typically just thought of as a knuckle-dragging, ball of rage, revenge machine with a value system that is so diametrically clear cut it is hard to introduce much subtlety.  Now, I am not a finesse guy. That’s why The Punisher always appealed to me. So getting this sub-plot of ancillary characters to introduce some moral ambiguity is a great shot of complexity. I think that the writers are treating the subject of post-military life with a fair level of seriousness and also present some different views in a way that respects the topic while not playing soft.

One of these chaps is a young post-9/11 vet who is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He is angry, a bit paranoid, vulnerable, and just cannot find meaning out of uniform. He’s also not a caricature of these themes, he presents these real world problems in a very authentic manner. We see Louis fall deeper into himself and withdraw from the group. He is preyed upon by another older vet who attends the support group. This character presents the antagonistic force to the group leader. He openly tells the group that he shows up just to ‘tell the truth’ to the rest of the group. He’s the angry old vet (and we find out later that he’s a stolen valor d-bag) who insists that the country doesn’t care about us, that he was spit on and treated like garbage. He is the self-entitled, ‘your welcome for my service’ kind of guy. This is of note as we do not often see this side presented in media. The ugly vet is a difficult topic to take on for a movie or TV show, with lots of potential backlash. The fact that The Punisher takes this on and does so well with it warrants mention and serious propers.

Louis also got me thinking about myself. I struggled with all of the same things as this character does. Finding purpose was the hardest thing (still is) and the underlying anger that goes along with drifting through life can eat you up. Looking around at the rest of the country, the country that exists outside of the bubbles around military bases, and recognizing that people don’t care about the wars or the military as you do. Feeling betrayed by the fact that their lives go on, blissfully ignorant of the sacrifices being made on their behalf. Resenting your peers for having a leg up on you with their civilian careers even though you’ve done way more impressive and important things. Doubting yourself more and more as you continue to struggle to adjust and just be a normal fucking person. Everyone else has an easy time doing it, why can’t you!?

I remember being out at a local bar one night after finishing up Sebastian Junger’s War. It started out alright and I was enjoying being out and around people. At some point though I realized I was clenching my hands into fists, looking at everyone with a spiteful eye. I hated these people. These pathetic wastes of life who didn’t deserve to be out enjoying themselves while others were still dying on the mountains of Afghanistan. How could they live with theirselves, going on with such trivial and meaningless lives? They didn’t care that Resrepto got wasted. They didn’t care about anything except drinking cheap beer and trying to get laid.

Talk about being full of yourself. I hadn’t been any different than everyone else in that bar not too long ago. There was no justifiable reason for me to feel the way I did that night. Luckily I went outside to get some air, quickly started feeling like a weirdo, and then walked home without incident. This happened only a couple years ago, more than 4 years after separating from the Army. Clearly I still needed more help. I had done some therapy sessions at my local VA clinic but stopped because of changing work schedules. Around the same time that all this happened I got back into regular sessions at an office outside of Buffalo. It’s really hard to see myself having the same reaction today, but to think that some of those feelings aren’t still lingering would be a lie.

The therapy has helped, and I truly think everyone would benefit from checking in with a therapist from time to time. What helped me turn a corner of sorts was stumbling onto Stoicism. I read that Stoic philosophy was a cornerstone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, so it seemed sensible to learn more about it and how the two related. Well, this was a lightbulb-switching-on kind of moment for me. Stoic teachings overlapped with many of the values I learned in the Army and still cling to. The importance on acting like a good person and putting your philosophy into action, rather than just going through an academic exercise of thinking about what makes a person good, was something that attracted me. Deeds over words. This was something that I understood.

Admittedly, I had been floating in the wind when it came to religion/spirituality. Catholicism and me split ways long ago. While I still have great respect for Franciscan teachings, monotheism just doesn’t do it for me. That obvious conflict left me with a bit of a void. Stoic philosophy helped to fill in the gaps and give me something more tangible to grasp. More lightbulbs went off. I learned that much of that anger was just my own incorrect perception. I learned to accept that other people are not going to care about the same things that I do, or if they do it won’t be to the same extent that I do. It finally dawned on me that this isn’t because those people are of poor moral character, but because they have their own lives with their own worries. I started to sort out these toxic ideas that I had carried with me for years. It’s still a work in progress, but the impact of practicing Stoicism was substantial and swift.

The lesson here is that bridging the civil/military divide helps both the civilian and the veteran. Both parties need that to happen as a way to heal individually, and collectively. We each share in the moral burden of our country’s wars, we each have something to learn from each other. I hope you’re finding value in what I am sharing. This blog is certainly helping me. And, after all, you’re here, and I’m here, so isn’t this really OUR blog?

Until we meet again.

 

Making an Officer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax et bonum

Taking time for me

Some fun stuff happened yesterday, and while I want to write about two of those things in more detail later on, I think I’ll talk about what went on yesterday as a teaser and see where the flow takes us. This will be an experiment to see if a less structured writing style produces anything worthwhile for me.

Three things happened for me on Monday. I got the business cards I ordered for the blog, I got some more work done on a tattoo, and I was put on the spot to talk about this blog in front of a class at my alma mater. Opening up the cards was like opening a present. I was excited and nervous. Unsure of how the cards would actually look once I got them in my hands, I was pretty happy with how they turned out. The whole idea of shelling out for these cards was so that I could spread them around in a targeted manner to see if it helps drive some more traffic here (and eventually to a book), and also to help motivate me. The cards are basic, but under my name is the word “Author”. A bit presumptuous, but it’s part positive visualization and part accountability tool. Seeing that word under my name gave me a little chill, a small bit of reaffirmation that I am going down a path that I truly want to be on.

The tattoo was a solid 3 hours under the needle. I’m working on a wrap of my right thigh featuring my all time favorite Marvel character – Captain America. I got Cap done in spring of 2016 and once he was done I started to see a scene building out around him. It took over a year to find good samples of what I was picturing, but after two 3-hour sessions Bucky Barnes has been added and most of the fiery battle scene has been added. Some more finishing touches are needed, so when that happens and it heals I’ll write more and post a photo. So far this piece is up to ~13 hours of needle time, and only about 1/3 of the way through. More to come on that!

After I left the Underground I headed over to the St. Bonaventure campus to grab a coffee and a snack. I also wanted to leave one of my spankin’ new cards with my friend Jim, a finance professor who can make commodity option swaps seem exciting. He was in a class though, so I got my coffee and cookie, finished them up hoping that the class would wrap up soon. When it didn’t I just walked in and asked to sit in for a refresher. Afterwards I showed off the card and spent a few minutes catching up. Jim then asked me to stick around for his next class, which was starting in 15 minutes, so that I could tell all the young minds about my work. I wasn’t at all prepared for this, but it was certainly better than being put on the spot to discuss the Modigliani and Miller Theorem. So I stuck around and went on a horribly disjointed and rambling bit about the blog and what I’m trying to do. Again, this is something I want to write about a bit more at a later date. Suffice to say, I felt a bit awkward, had no clue what I really wanted to say, and on my 90 minute drive home I thought of so many things I should have said but didn’t. I swear sometimes I really am George Constanza, except I never get the chance to work in the jerk store.

So that was an eventful Monday. Also, I revealed a secret about the blog to the class. There’s some incentive to stop back to read the more detailed post about that experience (I most certainly did learn many things in Jim’s finance classes).

Another thing I wanted to mention was that I recently finished a new book called Americana. A 400 year history of American economics that was a wonderful read. The author is neither a professional historian or economist, which resulted in a narrative history unsullied by overly academic passages. The book flows well and the author does a remarkable job of showing the interconnectedness of the American economy through history while also explaining the major shifts and shocks that caused economic progression. I found the chapter on slavery to be the most interesting. To address the vile institution in stark economic terms is an approach not often seen. This view serves us all well by exposing the raw, cold greed of American slavery. It also shows in very clear monetary terms why so many would raise up arms to preserve slavery. Powerful, soul-crushing kind of stuff. It blows me away that this book is the author’s first. That also serves as inspiration to me.

That also sets up a question I have for you, True Believer. I’ve toyed around with the idea of puting another page on this site for book reviews or a ‘what I’m reading now’ kind of page. Anyone really interested in that? That’ll be a spot to put some other thoughts down that otherwise do not necessarily serve a purpose within the blog itself. Let me know in the comments section if you’d like to see that extra layer of Tim put out on display. Not like there aren’t already plenty of my layers out there from past Halloween costumes.

Thanks for stopping by for this slightly wandering post. I hope you look forward to hearing more details about the above stories, I’m looking forward to sharing them.

Thanksgiving in Korea

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. WordPress has pointed out to me that some readers have been from outside the US, so to you folks I say ‘thank you’ for stopping by and the story to follow will shed some light on what to me is the best American (and Canadian) holiday. While I prefer summer over any other season, Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday. The food shared is always the best, both in taste and in variety. The mixing of traditions and sharing of experiences leaves treasured memories. The very idea behind the day, to reflect on what to be grateful for and vocalize your thanks, is something that should be done every day of the year. Thanksgiving, to me, is a day that stands out in American culture as an example of who we are at our best. One of the nicest things about living in western NY is that it’s very easy to travel north and celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving as well, a double dip of gratuity. Ironically the True North version falls on Columbus Day in the US, a holiday that is now somewhat controversial due to the atrocities inflicted upon the indigenous tribes.

Thanksgiving is also tops in my book for another reason. With Thanksgiving comes one of my favorite Army (really military wide) traditions. Army chow halls are typically thought of as having food so bad it is the butt of classic military humor. Griping about the lousy food is something of an official pastime for troops. While I experienced some food that would back up those jokes, I’ve also had absolutely fantastic meals served up by Army cooks. The top culinary teams in the Army compete within their field each year. I was lucky to be a part of this during my first stint at Fort Hood. While that’s a bit off topic for today, I promise to revisit that one. These cooks deserve the recognition for their good work, doubly so because of the shit-on-a-shingle stereotype. OK, back to my point, the tradition I speak of is that of officers and senior NCOs donning their dress blues and serving chow to the soldiers. The formality of wearing dress blues is something missing from modern life. I really think we could all do with a bit more pomp and circumstance sometimes. The act of serving food to our soldiers was always something I enjoyed as it got to the heart of the idea of being a servant leader. This day gives any leader who is worth their salt a chance to show compassion, to bond, and to take care of their subordinates in one of the most basic ways – serving food. This also pulls at my Franciscan heartstrings. Thanksgiving is a day that I truly miss the Army.

Now that you have the set up, here’s a story of my most memorable Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving day 2007, Camp Casey, ROK. This was a different twist on serving dinner. I drew an early shift at the DFAC (dinning facility) that was right across the street from my quarters. For some reason we wore ACUs instead of dress blues, something that bummed me out. I lugged that damn uniform over 7,100 miles and one of the rare occasions to wear them was being pissed away. They also cost me around $700 and I wanted to get some use out of them! Anyway, I went and did my shift, got to serve some of my own platoon and other soldiers from my battery. That was also the day that I met my newest platoon sergeant. Due to the typical 12 month rotation we all had, I had already gone through two platoon sergeants in five months. So now came #3. The constant changes posed a big challenge, but I had been told by a couple of the NCOs in my battery that the guy coming in to be my new PSG was top notch. So that was an interesting way to meet someone who I would be working hip-to-hip with for the next several months.

With all that done I walked back to my odd flat, it was more than a room, but not really an apartment (I washed my dishes in my bathtub), got changed, and hopped the train down to Seoul. I had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of one of my former ROTC instructors, Reed. I was a bit nervous about this as Reed was then a major and I knew all the other guests would be a bit higher ranking than me. This left me wondering what that dynamic would be like. Little did I know that this would become one of my best memories.

A holiday spent so far from family is always weird. Let’s just be up front about that. When you’re 23 and not very well traveled it’s an even more daunting prospect. Then again I had spent Thanksgiving 2006 eating shitty chicken parm by myself in a Village Inn restaurant in El Paso. THAT is easily my worst Thanksgiving (which is saying something since my Aunt Angeline died one Thanksgiving). So once I found Reed’s building and got reacquainted with his wife Janice and their children things got a lot easier. Reed and Janice made me feel like part of the family and I watched them treat everyone else with the same hospitality. I learned a lot about making the best of every situation, how helping to build the community around you (even if it’s just the other neighbors on the floor) is vital to being happy. All the other people at dinner were far from their homes too. While they all had their spouses and children with them in Korea, there was a shared sense of treating each other as an extended family as a simple matter of fact. This is an interesting thing learned from overseas assignments and years of semi-nomadic living. With ever shifting environments and unrelenting moves, building out this extended family was partly done out of survival, partly for maintaining sanity, and partly love.

The older men and women there (really only about 10 years my senior) seemed much older and wiser to me. I was the odd man out for sure. The only one there on my own, the only one with nowhere else to go, the only one with no other family to be with. I was taken in by all and saw Army life at its best. The companionship, sense of community and shared troubles, these experiences brought a bunch of strangers together and made us family for a while. I can’t say I experienced this at every duty station, and for me it was the exception not the rule. I think for anyone to make a career out of the military you need to have this on a consistent basis otherwise the lifestyle breaks you.

I also learned that day that my former instructor was a phenomenal cook! I would have never had guessed that, but Reed is a culinary wizard. Not only with the main course and side dishes, but dessert too. As he explained to me, when you’re a single guy you either learn to cook or you eat crap. Janice also pointed out to me the extra points scored for having said skills. I took note and put these lessons to action later on. No longer my instructor, but still my teacher.

So I look back on this day, taking time to remember it each year, and a smile always comes to my face. I was very lucky to be part of Reed and Janice’s family. I am forever grateful to them, and thankful to count them as friends. Thinking of them I can’t help but think of how our lives are so strongly shaped by people we sometimes only see briefly, whose paths we crossed for a short time. Two hairs and a whisper of a touch refine us as humans, blending in the adjustments of our character. Each Thanksgiving, every day, Thank you, Reed & Janice.

Matters to clarify and classify

It’s been a few days, so I need to check in and write. I’m struggling with thinking of too many topics to write about, but seemingly not very much to say. The best antidote for indecision is action, so I’m going to write a little about the purpose and structure of this blog. In time, as this posts gets buried deeper and deeper, I’ll add some of this into the About page to keep it easy to access.

So, if you’ve visited the About page then you know that I am incrementally working on a book. This is somewhat of an abstract goal I’ve had for many years, one that I could never seem to advance on. I was a history major my first time around at St. Bonaventure University. As such I developed a necessary habit of reading 4 or 5 different books simultaneously and pumping out lots of pages of writing. Write drunk, edit sober was a lifestyle. Since then I’ve maintained this habit of borderline ADD reading. This likely contributes to my several piles of books and magazines scattered throughout the house (this drives my wife nuts). The writing part of that ledger dropped off to near zero (an imbalanced double-ledger is very un-Franciscan) and I’ve missed it. Here and there I would write a short essay to submit to blogs like Doctrine Man. Seeing my ideas being published, even on such a small scale, reminded me of how rewarding it is to see someone value the scattered thoughts I put to pixel.

It was with a couple of these samples I contacted an author who has a fantastic blog dedicated to empowering other writers. Marissa’s feedback was exactly the kickstart I needed. She helped to confirm some of my ideas, such as focusing on short story or memoir formats, and also encouraged me to be more emotionally expressive. That is admittedly something I have a hard time with. My post “I always wanted to drive a big truck” was an attempt, but I suspect it could have been better. So here is where I ask you, True Believer, to leave some comments and TELL ME when I follow through on this, when I suck at it, and what you want to know from me! That’s a desperate plea and it is critically important that I hear from you. Why, you ask? Here’s why…

This book I’m dreaming up is going to be a memoir in short story format. Think of the movie Big Fish, but with more 4-letter words. With that in mind I drew up a rough outline of major time periods in my so-far-short life (33 trips around Sol). That’s why the categories you see on my posts are titled “Episode I”, “Episode II”, “Episode III”, and you get the idea. This will help me to write with more freedom (fuck you linear time-space) and still be able to look back on my past posts and compile them properly. The categories and tags will also help me gauge what time periods and topics you all enjoy reading the most. See why all the reader feedback is so important to me?

Ok, now you all know how important you are to me. Let me give a quick run down of the outline. So far I’ve come up with 8 Episodes that will cover my time from college/pre-commissioning & my time as a LT going through different Army schools, Korea, Fort Hood Part 1, my time on a Border Transition Team, Fort Hood Part 2 (that place is a fucking black hole), Transition – the first 3 years post-Army, Transition – the second 3 years, and finally where I’m currently at in life, to include my exploration of Stoicism. Right now I’ve been out of the Army for just over 6 years. I felt it was sensible to break that time into two 3-year periods as there was a lot going on. This will also allow me to make a definitive break between that period of transition and the time between the start of this blog and publication (I’m expecting this to take a few years).

That’s a lot to talk about, hopefully enough to fill a few hundred pages with interesting stories that people will enjoy, but also with substance. Personally, I disdain reading purposeless memoirs. I don’t want to read someone’s diary, and I sure as hell don’t expect anyone to want to read mine. Here we are going to create something important, something of value that adds to society by diving deep into the civil/military divide that exists in the United States. We’ll also get into how to find our place as individuals within society (transition out of the military can be a real bitch), and also our responsibility to each other. Writing needs to be more than mental masturbation. While I enjoy it and see value in keeping a journal, I also think that writing is a powerful tool we all have for putting well thought out ideas out there for all to benefit from. We don’t always have to agree (that’d be weird) but we need to remember how to have civil discourse. In a time when 140 characters about what Kim K. is wearing, or superficial statements from “leaders”, I say at the top of my lungs “FUCK THAT NOISE”.

Let’s get to business.