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.

 

Our shared trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling Tim

Hello, Friends.

I want to share a couple of current events before launching into the heart of the post. My stories can be a useful means for bridging the civil/military gap, but linking them with what’s going on right now seems to have a value of its own.

My wife and I went to the Women’s March in Buffalo. Protests aren’t really my thing. I’m not into big group gatherings, especially for political reasons. Eventually the group-think takes over and the group becomes a mob. The gathering stayed fairly tame though, minus a few people shouting down a man criticizing the mayor of Buffalo when the mayor got to the podium. A few speeches were made and we all walked a circuit downtown. It was all so very civil that you got a feeling this was just a regular weekend event.

Wanting to take advantage of this new experience I tried to just observe. The predominant thought that I was left with was that I had just seen the most basic use of the First Amendment. A gathering of strangers peaceably assembled for the purpose of expressing their feelings and thoughts about the state of our country was powerful. And I was grateful. I did not agree with every person and every sign that day, but I was beaming with appreciation that these people all came out on a January day in WNY to exercise their rights. These people were, in a way, showing gratitude for the sacrifices made by service members by getting out and getting involved.  Vets are sometimes guilty of detesting civilians for not caring about the country and not appreciating their civil liberties. This event, and the many across the nation, ought to be viewed as Americans at their best.

Shifting gears to a story from this week, I spent some time reflecting on this teacher from California in the news for some pretty ignorant remarks about military personnel and the predictable backlash. While Mr. Salcido was wildly off the mark,  he wasn’t completely wrong. Eventually I’ll come to the ‘One Krueger, One Cup’ story (anyone remember 2 Girls 1 Cup?). Every organization has some dirtbags in it, including El Rancho USD. Measuring groups by how they handle these people is a fairer metric than simply dismissing a group for having them.

Dismaying as it may be to see an educator abusing their position to preach their opinion on developing young minds, this shouldn’t shock anyone. More discouraging to me was the backlash. The Chief of Staff of the White House saying this teacher should ‘go to Hell’ does not help. All the Basic Vets trying to bro-up to Mr. Salcido only helps to make his statements seem accurate.

For me, this all confirmed the depth of our civil/military divide and the need for Vets to reach out. Yes, there are some real dumb bastards in the ranks. Yes, joining the military was the only way for some of us to get out of our hometowns or improve our stations in life. What about that is so bad? Without an ROTC scholarship I would have never been able to go to St. Bonaventure University. My hard work opened an opportunity for me and taxpayers gave me the help I needed. As much as I sneer at the service academy types they do get an Ivy League level education. For every time I wondered how a private managed to walk and chew gum simultaneously, there were 20 who could hold their own in any academic setting.

I will never get the chance to talk with Mr. Salcido, but maybe these writings will reach some who sympathize with him. The only way to bring people to the truth is to communicate. Instead of challenging people to arm wrestling matches we need to engage each other with dialogue. Above all, aggressive actions intended to intimidate someone to change their speech is nothing but censorship. A teacher’s First Amendment rights are sometimes fuzzy, but let’s assume these comments are protected speech. Anyone who swore to defend the Constitution and then tries to intimidate a person espousing an opinion that they do not like is nothing but a hypocrite. Using force to change a person’s words only entrenches their silent opinion. This is no way to build community and understanding. It’s the antithesis of America.

With these recent events in mind, let’s talk about how travel changes these problems. Much has been written about the benefits of frequent traveling, I don’t aim to write another trivial piece along these lines. What I would tell you, and what I would tell Mr. Salcido, is a story of life lessons gained during my year in Korea.

Camp Casey is the northern most outpost of US soldiers on the Korean Peninsula. About 10 miles from the DMZ there just isn’t much around the base. Aside from the Ville (every US base has a ‘Ville’ in the immediate area outside the gates) the offerings are slim. The Ville was good for bootleg DVDs, odd gifts that people back home thought were exotic, and juicy bars. I spent a good many nights in Cheers and I think the Mustang is where I almost got in a fight when some soldiers cornered me and a friend because they thought we were gay.

Nothing good happens in the Ville, so I got the hell out of TDC whenever I could. Seoul was an hour away by train and the ticket cost a couple dollars. Busan was also great, but required catching a 4 hour bullet train out of Seoul. That was a full weekend trip. It also violated curfew and probably a dozen other regulations that could’ve ended my career, so Busan was a once every few months trip. That’s no exaggeration either. I met the longest tenured First Lieutenant in the Army at Camp Casey. Dude busted curfew while out drinking with his soldiers and was pretty much told ‘OK, you’ll serve out your term and then you can go be a civilian. No more promotions.’ (The promotion rate from 1LT to captain hovered around 98%, just to show how special this guy was).

Traveling was a matter of survival for me. I needed to get away from work and the only way to do that was to hop the train and go exploring. Uijongbu was only 30 minutes away and provided a great weeknight escape. Seoul was the jewel though. While most of my exploits revolved around drinking and the night life offered, I also took time to enjoy being in such a foreign land. Going from WNY, spending a year crossing the US, and then being in Korea is something you could write comedies of. Not quite a bumpkin, but not very worldly either.

Some areas were heavily Westernized and English was widely spoken. Those areas also tended to be swamped with soldiers. If I wanted to feel normal I had to learn some Korean so that I could travel at will. What I figured out was that if you showed some universal manners and learned some basic words/phrases like “Hello/Good bye”, “Thank you”, “Please”, some words for directing cabbies, and ordering food and drinks in Korean everything was much easier. I decided that the universal phrase to learn in the native tongue of any country is “Two beers, please”.

Little courtesies and basic manners. These things neutralized any distrust a Korean may have held (I don’t think I ran into much though). I also learned a lot from my English teacher friends. I started playing rugby in Korea and it helped me meet Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians, and some Brits who were in Korea teaching English at local schools. These people were a literal life line as I often went out with them. I learned where the good places to go to avoid any military curfew patrols, and they often let me crash at their apartments while I was busting curfew. They also taught me how to get around the city in a respectful way, how to not make an ass of myself and perpetuate the Ugly American image.

There’s the missing link. Starting off with showing respect, understanding that you are just one small piece of a larger whole, not putting yourself above another. These concepts seem to be missing all too often. A man not keeping his hands to himself, a teacher thinking he holds moral superiority, a Vet thinking they are more equal than non-Vets, or an American abroad. We lose our sense of community one small chip after another. When we lack respect and civility, when we start thinking that we hold some special status over another person, we betray our American ideals. We can all do better.

This experiment in addressing our civil/military divide is a microcosm of a larger illness. We don’t need safe spaces, we need to be civil toward each other. We need to humble our egos. We need to talk to people who hold differing opinions without becoming angry. Each time we build greater understanding of the other we fulfill the lofty ideals of our sacred documents.  That is our perpetual responsibility as Americans.

Until we meet again.

On transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until we meet again.