Black Lives in camo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BLACK LIVES MATTER

 

Till we meet again.

Pulling the strings of Narrative

Last night I finished reading Caleb Cage’s “War Narratives”. It was hard to get through at times, but for all the right reasons. Cage takes on a monumental task of breaking down the various narratives that drove us to invade Iraq and then the narrative metamorphosis which enabled continued occupation in the face of failure. This is done with great research and objective assessment while also maintaining a straight forward and plainly spoken prose. It’s scholarly in the best ways and also a book for the common man. No small feat.

I was starting senior year of high school on 9/11. I was in my freshman year at St. Bonaventure when we invaded Iraq. These two events are the foundation of my adulthood. Having lived through these days knowing they would set the trajectory for the rest of my life I fancied myself pretty knowledgable on the subject. Yet “War Narratives” brought new focus to this nightmare. I learned a great deal about the Bush Administration’s deeds in sowing the seeds of war, rallying the country to their corrupt cause (of which I bought into hard), and their bumbling attempts to create any plan to competently execute this war.

Many times I set this book down with trembling hands, having to find positive ways to cope with the rage rekindled. I resorted to writing poems after most chapters. Taking the chapter’s topic and funneling that anger into clumsy verse. If you think my writing here is awful then you should see what happens when I try my hand at poetry.

I am grateful for this book though. This is the sober reflection that America needs. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been conducted in a chaotic frenzy of FRAGO after FRAGO, then American public life and society has moseyed onward in its own piecemeal way. Our microscopic attention spans and non-stop sensory barrage of modern media are the drumbeat to our daily lives. No time for reflection when the next crisis is just 12 hours away. I write this in the middle of a global pandemic which is being used to draw red and blue lines in the sand, where people believe whatever they feel like, and our self-centered culture is on full display in the form of spring breakers and Boomers at retirement communities having block parties.

The value of “War Narratives” is that it gives us the analytical string pulling of a serious historical work with the benefit of coming in near-real time rather than with 40 years of hindsight. This means we can actually process what Cage presents and act on it. This book gives us the tools needed to become more aware of our GWOT flaws and end them while there are still lives to be saved.

There’s much more to unpack from this book and it’s helped me to refocus on some of my writing. There are a couple other topics I will make full posts about. Right now I just want to dive into some simple stories from my deployment as they relate to the chapter ‘On Chickenshit’.

In these pages Cage uses quotes from Matt Gallagher, whose memoir “Kaboom” is one of the clearest portrayals of Iraq that I’ve read. In “Kaboom” Gallagher speaks of the chickenshit acts of sergeants major and filed grade officers. These people rarely left the safety of FOBs (later COBs) and suffered from the greatest wartime malady – boredom. People with fancy ranks and no real purpose invariably create missions for themselves. That leads to senior leaders creating new rules, new regulations, new bullshit that must be followed, and they become the enforcers. Don’t have a purpose? No problem, just make up some nonsense that has nothing to do with winning the war and appoint yourself gatekeeper. Things like wearing reflective belts and eye protection at all times. Wearing full uniforms wherever you’re going. Grooming standards that are impractical for anyone actually involved in the main effort.

Do these things in abundance and you all of a sudden need help, and so you hire DA civilians to be brigade safety officers. Now you haven’t just make up a purpose for yourself, but you’ve also created a need for another contract and created jobs. Save that for your evaluation form bullets!

These dedicated servants of safety once pulled us over on COB Basrah. My team had a beat up pick up truck that we would use for running errands around the base. Mail pick up, resupply runs for our team’s needs like fatty cakes and RipIts, or just carpooling to the shops or PX. We’d have a couple guys in the truck and a few sitting in the bed. SSG Harvey, all 6’8” of him, was riding in the bed with me on one of these runs. Suddenly we were being pulled over by some dweebs in armbands and sashes identifying them as Brigade Safety. They wanted to write us a ticket because one of us was standing in the pick up bed. Harvey then stood up and truly towered over these guys. Instead of admitting they made an honest mistake, they tried to still chastise us with a stern warning and empty threat to fine us. As if we gave two fucks who they were. They went on their way and we went on with our business, happily returning to humble Camp Savage and life away from the COB.

Living remotely did not give us a free pass from chickenshit however, oh no. Chickenshit will follow you like a camouflage colored cloud. Military Transition Teams were a wild ride. In concept they were sound. We needed military advisors to help build the Iraqi security forces and allow us to return home without Iraq devolving into a giant bomb crater (LoLz). These teams were not coherent units though, they were individuals selected by branch managers, sometimes volunteers, who often had not deployed. It was a great way to find the cowards who’d been hiding out at non-deployable assignments and make them get in the game. This meant that many MTTs had team leaders who had never deployed. You’d be amazed at how many majors with fuzzy right shoulders existed in 2009.

These guys tended to be career-centered, risk adverse masters of doing nothing while making a grand show. In short, they were the living embodiment of chickenshit. They were also about the worst kind of person I could be stuck working with, even worse working for. And I reacted in typical dickheaded fashion. If we were instructed to do something trivial, I did it to the minimum. If we were having visitors who Rance, our team leader, wanted to impress then I would find my dirtiest uniform to wear. When he would be put on the spot by a higher ranking officer he would hesitate ever so slightly and you could see him trying to figure out the correct answer that would help his evaluation. Turning over every word and action for career advancing effectiveness was entertainment to our team. I began calling it the Rance Dance.

Deployments are long stretches of monotony with rare respite. That means we had to make up our own fun, just like the lonely sergeant major has to make up his purpose. During our first week in Kuwait SSG Harvey dared me to grow out my hair for 30 days so that he could see what it’d look like. He promised that if I made it 30 days then I could cut his hair to look like mine. Well, after a month I looked like Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, and Harv had a new haircut. Rance allowed it for a day so that we could all laugh and then made Harv shave the rest of his head. I maintained my untamed flow even as it began to curl at the ends, something I’d forgotten my hair would do if it grew beyond three inches.

My sudden follicle embrace and abandonment of head shaving bothered Rance, and caught the eye of the colonel who was the idiotic team leader of the head MTT in Basrah. While this guy technically wasn’t Rance’s boss, he kind of was. This COL always told us we needed to just get out on the roads of Iraq and tour the AO, see what the country was like, which completely defeated the purpose of living remotely with our Iraqi partners. If Rance was risk adverse this COL was just a galaxy-brained medal chaser. He even made a point to corner me at the hand washing station in Camp Savage’s DFAC to ask me when I planned to cut my hair. I told him after my R&R in a bald faced lie. My jihad on chickenshit persisted.

Things like this were why I didn’t wear a uniform from my hooch to the shower trailer. No, I wore a marvelous white robe. This minor rebellion wasn’t much on Camp Savage. The only military presence there was our MTT and a PRT who kept to themselves. Shortly after the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn we closed down Camp Savage and moved onto COB Basrah though. We were suddenly back among big army and had lots of uniformed neighbors. While I was a captain and RHIP, there was no shiny insignia on my robe, just a large Hilton emblem and the satisfaction of a five-finger discount. Strutting around in that robe was salve for my malcontent soul. One of my greatest disappointments from all this was never being chased down by some busy body NCO with a hard on for uniform regulations and no clue that I was a captain. We all mourn fantasies unrealized.

There was plenty of more chickenshit that our MTT dealt with, but I think you probably get the picture. Everyone will have their share of stories. I laugh at them now, but I wasn’t laughing while getting a negative counseling statement for shit I didn’t do because  Rance thought I was an overly emotional bitch. And Rance was probably happy to see my deployment end short with a  compassionate reassignment. He made a sheepish apology about how he couldn’t write up a recommendation for a Bronze Star due to how little we’d done as a team to that point, and then wrote everyone else up for a Bronze Star when they redeployed just two months later. It didn’t bother me, but it certainly confirmed for me that Rance was chickenshit to the bone.

There are more narratives to pick apart. More fuzzy truths and generalizations that miss the mark to explore. “War Narratives” is a book anyone interested in understanding how we ended up in Iraq at all, let alone for so long, needs to read. Pull those strings of reason, and you’ll go far.

Until we meet again.

Words mean things

In Korea I led an Avenger PLT that, in event of war, would be attached to an MLRS BN to provide protection from fixed and rotary wing air threats so that the BN could execute its counter-fires mission unimpeded. We were all under the command of the 210th Fires BDE.

OR

In Korea I led a platoon that operated Avengers, a short range anti-aircraft system that used a combination of heat-seeking missiles and a machine gun to engage enemy planes and heliocopters. Our job was to provide protection to an artillery battalion that operated the Multiple Launch Rocket System – basically a very large rocket launcher mounted on a tracked vehicle similar to a tank. We did this so that they could do their job of destroying or defeating North Korean artillery in the event of an attack by the North. Both my unit and the artillery battalion fell underneath the same brigade.

Big difference, huh?

There are a lot of things that make the military hard to understand. Even if you served it can be difficult to understand what someone in another service branch did. If I was talking to someone who had been in the Navy or Air Force I’d need them to go slow and explain a good deal to me. Marines always seemed to be very similar to the Army in many ways so they were easier to talk to, but there were still odd differences. Simple things like job designations could confuse. The Army has Military Occupational Specialties for enlisted soldiers. This is an alpha-numeric designator such as 14S (Avenger crew member). The Marines have a different term than MOS (I never remember it) and use 4-digit identifiers. Why a difference in such a basic thing that could be more universal? Who the hell knows?

With so many challenges to communicate just from one service branch to another it shouldn’t shock anyone that we have a hard time communicating with people that haven’t served or worked as a DoD civilian employee. All the cultural divides aside, our civil/military gap starts with a matter of language.

Words mean things. It’s something that my OBC instructor Captain Tooke would always harp on us young lieutenants. Many of the students would snicker at this seemingly obvious statement and at the instructor who was animated and red-faced. Some of us understood the joke was on them. This mantra of doctrine, three simple words, meant so much. CPT Tooke – the Tookie Monster – was trying to drive home the basics of effective communication to us. Something that is a foundational skill for an officer. When a major facet of your job  is writing orders, issuing  formal policies, drafting standard operating procedures, speaking to groups, briefing young soldiers and senior leaders, coordinating complex efforts via radio, then you better be on your game with communicating. All of these things are critical to you being effective or you a being a dud of an officer. You must be careful in your choice of words. You need to understand very subtle differences in jargon and technical meanings. You have to pick your words with great thought and you need to rehearse them as much as possible before they leave your mouth.

Do you want to Defeat a threat or Destroy it? There is a big difference, especially when it comes to air defense planning. You can Destroy an incoming ballistic missile or aircraft only by actually destroying it – blowing it up before it can cause harm. To Defeat the same threat you can destroy it, or you can simply cause it to fail it’s mission of killing the forces under your protection. That can mean that you knock a missile off course so that it strikes nothing but empty desert. It can mean that the threat you pose by your presence, by your effective placement of anti-air systems, causes enemy aircraft to turn back or not even try to attack the assets you’re protecting. So you don’t always need to destroy, to kill, to win. Pretty sure Sun Tzu had something to say about that (III, 6).

You see what the difference in two little words makes? Learning Army doctrine and terminology is a fantastic way to refine your communication skills. It’s highly technical and the slightest oversight can lead to mass confusion. To be good at it takes practice, patience, and a methodical mind. To be poor at it is easy and results in an officer causing unnecessary death. Military movies love the trope of the incompetent officer getting his people killed. Next time you watch a movie with this story line ask yourself what role sloppy communication played.

So what’s the point of all this? It isn’t to bore you to death about Army doctrinal terminology. I wanted to share a story that never fails to make me smile (as the image of CPT Tooke berating my OBC class always does) and to drive home the point that we cause so many problems through a lack of thoughtfulness in our communication. When you can’t talk to someone or another group, you avoid them. We do it with our spouses, families, in our offices, with younger/older people, with people from a different part of the country, with other countries, and within so many different segments of our own society. These difficulties grate on our patience and cause us to run back to our safe zones, our echo chambers.

For the purpose of this blog and my story, this issue of communication is central to America’s civil/military divide. Really thought, this is just one piece of a problem that America has been struggling with in terms of understanding itself and creating a unified society. You can’t always reach someone, there will be failures to communicate. We have to make every effort though. We can’t just hide.

I hope that my efforts in trying to bridge the civil/military gap here can serve as an example of bridging any number of social gaps we have. This is a major problem in America, but I’ll go out on a limb and say other countries experience this as well. I’ve noticed some readers in Ireland, Australia, the Philippines, South Korea, and even Russia and China. I’ve no idea of these are US service members stationed abroad or if they are nationals of those countries. I’d love to know what the international take on my writing is (HINT – please leave comments or send emails). Also, I’m glad you’re here.

Words mean things. It’s a lesson that will always stick with me. It’s a mantra that forces me to be hyper-critical of each word written here. There’s always room for improvement. With effort and thoughtfulness, I hope that what I write conveys something meaningful to you, that together we are bridging the gap.

Until we meet again.

Never-ending 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Veteran Service Organizations and the Civil/Military Divide

Listening to a favorite podcast, After Action with Max & Paul, I was reminded of some aspects of transition to civilian life that need to be addressed. The swamp that is known as traditional veteran service organizations. By that I mean things like the American Legion, VFW, and AMVETS. These groups that have great histories but in function today are not much more than subsidized bars at local levels. Before I take a bunch of flak I do know that there are some good local posts of the old guard VSOs. More and more though I hear of experiences that mirror my own with these groups. Archaic structure, abandonment of the veteran service responsibilities, reluctance to change while bemoaning the lack of young members, enlarging the civil/military divide instead of bridging it, and devolving into nothing more than a place to get drunk on the cheap.

As I wrote in my post On Transitions the military does a piss poor job of preparing us for that transition back to civilian life. In the most recent episode of After Action the hosts, two former Marines, talk about the week of classes they had to go to. For me it was just a single day of required briefings with a bunch of optional classes (I signed up for a few and they were a huge disappointment). I do not know if the Army has changed ACAP since 2011, but I’m willing to bet no meaningful changes have been made.

So out you go back into the world with not much support for finding your way as a civilian again. It’s hard to really grasp the enormity of this problem, even if you have gone through it. Your entire professional life changes, your social life is reduced to who you keep in contact with through Facebook, your very identity needs to be remade. A natural place for a vet to turn to for help in this struggle is the traditional veteran service organizations. At least you’d think.

My wife and I both joined our local American Legion post after moving to WNY. We were hopeful that we’d find a group of people with similar experiences who could help guide us in our transition. It seemed like a place to find something familiar while not getting stuck in an unhealthy nostalgia. These VSOs are, after all, supposed to support veterans with their unique challenges. It seemed to us a natural place to start as we built a new life.

We were so utterly disappointed. While being welcomed as new members who were both vets, even made officers of the post, it became clear from the start that our new ideas weren’t actually wanted. The existing membership, which included the Women’s Auxiliary, didn’t seem to be able to wrap their heads around a woman being a vet and not just a spouse who wanted to help by cooking at events. We tried to understand that it was something new for the local post, but the condescending treatment we both faced was abhorrent.

We ended this experiment after a few months, completely disillusioned with a VSO that we had held in such high regard. We felt let down and in a way betrayed. What we needed was a place to ease us into our new lives, to build a local social network, to find something meaningful that connected us to our previous lives while still moving forward. All we found was a bar full of old people who looked at us like aliens and didn’t understand why we weren’t happy just slurping 75 cent beer and talking about how great we were for having served. What’s the point of public service if you can’t build your ego around it and look down on others who didn’t serve, right?

That’s my personal experience with the Legion. As I said earlier I’ve noticed a lot more younger vets expressing similar sentiments. Mulling that over I started to see how these VSOs contribute to the widening civil/military divide. These groups used to provide a way for vets to integrate into their communities, to serve in a private capacity, and to have that cultural exchange between vets and non-vets. Now they reinforce the divide by abdicating civic responsibilities in their local communities and providing a dark hole for vets to crawl into.

This furthers the isolation that I’ve written about. Instead of empowering newly separated vets to integrate into their new communities these VSOs wrap a blanket of platitudes around the vet. They prop up the prejudices and reinforce the ideas of non-vets being lesser citizens, which erodes our democracy. Rather than building up vets to have successful transitions the VSOs perpetuate the image of the poor, damaged, and unappreciated vet. When you need to have help bridging your own gap into civilian life the VSOs provide a counterproductive security bubble. Oh and don’t forget to pay your dues and come to the bar a few times a week, they need the money to keep operating and to support the national offices in their veteran advocacy.

What you end up with is an abusive co-dependent relationship. The national offices do a fairly good job of veteran advocacy, although they do it in a way that shows the stark generational divide. When Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was being debated the traditional VSOs were about the only ones standing in opposition to repeal. So while they want the young members, they feel no obligation to represent young vets. I don’t want to take away from the good things done at a national level, they aren’t the only ones fighting that fight though. I’d argue that more important is the impact these VSOs could play at local levels. This is where the major disconnect is, the lack of accountability and uniformity of experience. Some local posts certainly don’t fit the picture I painted above, but more and more do. America needs these local posts to help bridge the civil/military gap and to help veterans find success in their transitions.

This isn’t a post to blast VSOs and vent anger. I want to draw attention to this problem in hopes that there will be change as more younger vets take over the leadership roles. I’m not holding my breath though. Baby Boomers holding on to power is an issue in nearly every walk of American life…. looking at you Congress. I would like more people to recognize this void and the dangers it poses. I hope more people start to see the civil/military divide for the serious threat to democracy that it is. I hope you read this and learn from it.

Most of all I hope you’re inspired to do something. A million small acts will aggregate into large impacts. Go talk to someone new. Read something that you normally wouldn’t read. Share the good ideas you find with others. Break bread with your neighbors. These small acts are how we all make America great.

Until we meet again.

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.