Blaggard in Iraq

What’s this? Two posts in one week? A model of consistency I am not. To my own detriment, but hey it’s not easy balancing a day job, household responsibilities, and trying to make this book thing happen on the side. Sometimes though I need to write to stay sane. These past couple days have been shit. Lots of self-loathing, anger, and feeling just plain useless. Winter has transitioned to day after day of grey skies and rain. My list of projects gets longer each day and everything is utterly overwhelming. I would like to just go to sleep for about 10 years.

I want to snap out of it and writing nearly always helps. To say my brain isn’t firing on all cylinders would be an understatement, so how about a light story today? Everyone needs to hit off the tee sometimes.

One of the cool things about Fort Hood is that Austin is just an hour away. Living in Killeen made the trip not quite direct, but after coming back from Iraq I lived in Temple which is right on the I-35. I was able to play beer league hockey and made some great friends. Austin is weird as fuck, and I loved it. Most of all though, the live music was truly amazing.

Being able to bar hop and take in a different band at each bar with no cover was a treat for me. I could spend all my days this way. Not so much for the drinking, but for the unending variety of music. Music that shakes your body with an assault of sonic waves is cleansing. The world melts away for me and life becomes simple. I’m a 16 year old kid at a local punk rock show again, and I’m a 35 year old, broke down old dude in search of a tribe.

Our favorite band was by far Blaggards. NOT The Blaggards…. just BLAGGARDS. They would play in Temple at O’Brien’s from time to time. My wife caught one of their shows and mentioned I was in Iraq. They gave her some freebies along with the merch  she bought to send to me. I slapped their sticker onto the door of my CHU at Camp Savage. It made it easier for me to remember which uniformly green door was mine when I had to get up in the middle of the night to hit the port-a-john. It also was a way for me to hit back against the crushing monotony of the Army. It was a way to show some individuality in a sea of olive drab. It was a way to thumb my nose at authority, even though being an officer inherently made me part of that Big Green Weenie machine.

Stout Irish Rock would help cleanse my spirit after a day of breathing a mix of stale air conditioned air inside and oil fire tinged, shit smelling air outside. I’m not joking about the shit either. The Iraqi Border Police academy that we we assigned to had a broken waste water system. The Border Police students and the National Police students who shared facilities would always know when we were going to show up and would greet us by lining up along the chain link fence to relieve themselves. A string of Iraqis 300 or 400 feet long with their pants down, backs leaning against the fence, and dropping brown snakes as a greeting. Top that off with navigating a series of shit piles as we got around the guard post at the pedestrian gate entrance. A guard post that faced inward to the Iraqi Army compound that encompassed everything.

Getting that waste treatment facility and a fresh water treatment facility on the Border Police grounds was something that fell on me, by the way. I’ll have to tell you that story some other time.

So after a long feces filled day books and music were a great relief. Blaggards gave an additional boost of being a piece of home as well. Sadly, we had to close down Camp Savage in early 2010 and move onto COB Basrah. That’s a rough transition from living remotely. It’s like going from the wild wild west to downtown of a large city. All of a sudden there were all these rules and regulations we had to follow and sergeants major who had nothing better to do than give anyone not in proper uniform the stink eye. Dude, fuck off I’m going to the shower in my five-fingered Hilton bathrobe and you can piss up a rope if you don’t like it.

Before leaving Camp Savage for the last time I made sure to snap a couple pictures in front of my CHU. One chance to preserve my mark, to document that I had my own Swamp just like Hawkeye. One more opportunity to be an arrogant cock. The picture of course made its way to Facebook, and after being properly tagged and shared the guys in Blaggards said they loved it. So that was cool.

Naturally after getting back stateside and beginning my next (and last) assignment at Fort Hood we went to see Blaggards at O’Brien’s. Also naturally, I printed off an 8×10 of that photo, signed it, and gave it to the band. Everyone gives the band an autographed photo of themselves, right? It was a great way to meet these guys and show my appreciate for their kind words and their music. They played no small part in maintaining my sanity in an environment that was anything but sane.

I still laugh at the thought that those CHUs were gifted to the Iraqi Army and that some Iraqi dude must have seen that stick and said ‘What the hell is Blaggars?’ Hope you enjoy Stout Irish Rock. It’d be great tunes to blast while taking the fight to some ISIS goat fuckers.

Till we meet again.

War books

Our war experiences are shaped by pop culture. Pop Culture tells us how war is supposed to be experienced. It tells us what should happen to us in war. It tells us how to prepare for war and how to return from war. It is also hopelessly, inevitably wrong.

Yesterday this fantastic article by Alex Horton was published in the Washington Post. As I’ve previously written, I am a Vonnegut fanatic. Slaughterhouse Five has served as a model of writing for the sake of your sanity. Vonnegut is a writer that I keep in mind when I sit down to the keyboard. His path to writing his famous Dresden story reminds me that writing is a long process. The seething anger over the futility of war, the disgust at the waste of life, and the persistent hope for humanity are themes that grab me by the collar and toss me from wall to wall, stirring up reactions that I didn’t realize were buried within.

So it goes.

Horton’s piece stayed on my mind all day. I thought about the old tropes of war. As Horton pointed out you’re supposed to have a great romance back home to match the great romance of being off at war. You’re also supposed to have books to distract you, anchor you to the real world. Some people have certain movies or music that serve the same purpose. Old hands talked about their Invasion Songs that they chose to blast as they invaded in 2003. There was also no shortage of bootleg DVDs in Iraq. Having a regular movie night with the people in your unit is one of the few escapes some had.

I thought of one of my high school teachers who’d been in Vietnam. Mr. Cook was one of our technology teachers and I took every class of his that I could. JW Cook spent a few tours in Vietnam, some of it with the 101st Airborne as a grunt and then he spent some time doing long range reconnaissance. No doubt he was in the shit in the dirtiest way. He was a great mentor and one of the few people who wrote to me while I was in Iraq. Cookie would always play music for us during class (this was the beginning of the Napster golden age). One day he put on The Who’s Teenage Wasteland. As it played Mr. Cook told us of the first time he heard that song. At night in a bunker it came on the radio, already old in the US. When it came on he and his buddy looked at each other bewildered, “it was like music from the gods.” I can still see the look on Mr. Cook’s face as he told us about that. Eyes somewhat in the classroom, but also in a far away land. Unstuck in time.

Nine years later I would be the one in a faraway land. Having my laptop meant I could binge on The Office at will. I could tailor my war songs however I wanted. The Dropkick Murphys played often, serving as a connection to the Gulf War. Books were a premium though. They’re heavy and take up lots of valuable space in your bags. I brought a few with me. Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle and Jon Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson didn’t last me very long. The guy I replaced at Camp Savage left a couple books behind. One was Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, and the other was a copy of one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books… in Korean. So I read one of them, brought both home as souvenirs, and have since thrown one of them out (take a guess).

One book that I took comfort in during my deployment sticks out among all the others.

After a couple weeks in Kuwait my Border Transition Team meandered to Camp Taji, one fuck of a shithole in Baghdad. We had a couple more weeks of in-country training before we went to Basrah. Lots of Arabic classes, some more cultural awareness training, and other combat advisory type things that the Army wanted us to know. The facilities were absolute trash. Dank open bay barracks made of cinder blocks and cracked cement, a dining facility that couldn’t hold all of us at one time, and shipping containers for classrooms.

One small relief was the hookah cafe. As a way for us to gain extra cultural insight the Army set up a tiny hookah cafe and paid retired Iraqi military officers to hang out there. These guys taught some of our classes and basically got extra pay for sitting around hitting the hookah with us, if any dared.  With no alcohol available I happily went to partake most nights. Soccer matches on the TV, plenty of strong chai, unlimited free tobaccos of varying flavors (thanks taxpayers!), and the Iraqis were happy to talk about anything. It was also a convenient way to get some space from the guys that I’d been cooped up with 24 hours a day for months. The memory of those nights that lingers is one evening when I asked one of the retired Iraqi officers what he thought of democracy in Iraq and if it would last. He paused to show fair consideration, but also looked sad as he said he hoped so but did not think it would work. So it goes.

The other bright spot was the MWR (Morale, Welfare, & Recreation) office. Pretty small compared to the MWR at Camp Buehring in Kuwait, and nothing compared to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) which served as one of the largest (the largest?) US bases in Iraq. Or rather, the bright spot was what I found in the MWR. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.   In 1960 John Steinbeck set off on a spectacular road trip with his French poodle Charley. He chronicled America and Americana as only he could. A vagabond trekking and living with whomever he encountered. A few weeks of platonic one night stands, reflecting on what he saw and the isolation of being on the road with Charley.

What an odd book to have found at Camp Taji. It seemed out of place, a prisoner of Iraq as much as I was. There to serve a fruitless purpose and to be forgotten in time. The thought of reading the book and abandoning it seemed a terrible tragedy, so I liberated Travels with Charley. Steinbeck became a vagabond again and has remained with me. I still love the smell of the aged pages. Holding this book in my hands reminds me that the bizarre time of my life spent in a far off desert really did happen. The comforting feeling is there too. Reading a book about traveling across America while I was 6,000 miles away with nothing but uncertainty in front of me provided an anchor. Travels with Charley reminded me of what still existed back in my other life. It reminded me of the things worth fighting and sacrificing for. Maybe in a way it was the perfect book to find at Camp Taji.

Until we meet again.

Thanksgiving in 3 acts

Last year I wrote about my Thanksgiving in Korea, this year I thought I’d talk about my other Thanksgiving experiences. Each was very different and ran a spectrum from worst Thanksgiving the some of the best. They covered the globe from one end to the other, and took me to one of the oddest places in the United States (El Paso). I hope you enjoy these memories.

My first Army Thanksgiving was in 2006. I was at Fort Bliss for my Officer Basic Course and very much unaware of what the holiday was like on active duty. In 2006, Fort Bliss was still just the home of the ADA school house. Soldiers going through their AIT (specialized schooling after Basic Training) and officers going through their OBC and the Captain’s Career Course. It’s changed a good deal since then, but at that time it was a fairly small post in terms of personnel.

Pretty much everyone on post was given a half day on Wednesday so that you effectively had a 4 1/2 day weekend. I had no clue about this and had decided to stay local instead of trying to get back to Buffalo from El Paso during the short break. Most of my OBC classmates however did leave. So there I was, El Paso, Texas, all by myself like a Green Day hidden track. Living in the annex of the post hotel I didn’t  have a kitchen. The hotel annex was an old barracks that had been converted to kind of look like a hotel suite. Two former individual barracks rooms were connected to a single bathroom. The way this layout was it provided a typical hotel bedroom, a squeezed in bathroom, and then another room that passed for a living room. Pretty sparse, really ugly, a heating unit that was centrally controlled, but at least the recliner was good for napping.

By dinner time on Thanksgiving I was stir crazy and went out in search of a passable meal. Unknown to me, all the dinning facilities closed after lunch. All of the enlisted soldiers who had stayed on post had been adopted for the day by local families. Nobody had thought to tell the OBC students about this. So stupid lieutenant me was left wondering how the fuck to get a Thanksgiving meal. Off post I went, starving and already sick of being by myself I stopped at the first place to sit down for a meal. That happened to be the Village Inn on Airway Boulevard. Slumped in a booth by myself, watching families enjoying their dinners I didn’t even feel like eating a normal Thanksgiving meal. I ended up ordering chicken parm, and it was easily the worst chicken parm I’ve ever tasted. That meal was even more depressing than it sounds. I ate out of necessity and headed back to my lonely room in the too hot and too dry hotel annex. There’s not much more of that Thanksgiving that I can remember. I think I’ve pushed a lot of that memory out of my brain. No doubt it was the worst Thanksgiving I can remember, but I know it could’ve been a lot worse than simply having to eat a crummy meal alone. At least I still had beer in my fridge.

The following year I was in Korea. If you’ve not read about that Thanksgiving check the hyperlink above. We’re skipping past that for now and heading to Fort Hood in 2008. My second opportunity to serve Thanksgiving meals to troops. Unlike in Korea where we wore ACUs while serving, this time it was dress blues – as it should be. While I noticed some of the other LTs shirking out of this detail, I was absolutely giddy. I mean, that damn dress blue uniform set me back $700 so it was nice to get some use out of it. The day itself was so much more though. Thanksgiving offered a rare opportunity to serve your soldiers, to show genuine love of those whom you led. It’s a really simple gesture. In practical terms I just stood around for a couple hours lumping  mashed potatoes and yams onto trays. It took more effort to square away my uniform and keep clean.

When my shift was done and I got a chance to grab a meal and sit with the soldiers it really sank in just how far that simple act went. It’s difficult to put into words. You had a group of strangers really, bonded together by their service to country, unable to go home to their families, some without families to go home to. We were all there sharing our Thanksgiving meal with each other, making up a family of misfits. These were the moments that made life in the Army special. For all the horrible memories, all the shit details that you had to pull, days like Thanksgiving were a chance to show our best. These are the days to remember.

This was the third Thanksgiving in a row that I was away from home. Just like my Korean Thanksgiving it was not spent alone thanks to some special people. Rhana, who was our brigade S-2, and her fiancé Sid invited me and one of the other single LTs who were in the brigade HQ to share Thanksgiving dinner at their place. They didn’t need to do that, but they were leaders in the true sense of the word. They were the only ones who seemed to have thought about Gregg and me. Thanks to them I had another great memory of Thanksgiving in the Army, rather than another lonely meal. Another meal where I got to experience the traditions and food of strangers who had become my family.

That brings us to Thanksgiving 2009. Basra, Iraq. The photo above is from that day. It’s the four captains of Team Sword with the DFAC manager in the middle (I’m the short one). Camp Savage, the small outpost we lived on, had maybe 30 American military personnel and then 50 contracted support personnel. That included the Ugandans who provided base security, their eastern European bosses, a few Iraqis working the fuel truck, and the DFAC staff was mostly Indians and Pakistanis. That doesn’t include the interpreters of our team and the PRT who we shared Camp Savage with. We easily had 8 different nationalities on Camp Savage, most of them unfamiliar with Thanksgiving.

Korea and Fort Hood were both normal, in that it was senior NCOs and Officers serving meals to junior enlisted. At Camp Savage we had our Border Transition Team and the Provincial Reconstruction Team, pretty much all NCOs and Officers. The PRT may have had a couple junior enlisted but my memory of that isn’t perfect. Still, we got behind the serving line and scooped up the finest foods our tiny DFAC could make. We served meals to all those contracted support personnel who kept us safe and well fed, and we served each other. With so few people on Camp Savage the serving part didn’t last too long, but we all took our time sharing Thanksgiving dinner with this queer assortment of people. Some were there for fortune, some for adventure, and some out of a sense of duty. It was a Thanksgiving that I am grateful to have experienced.

Basra and Seoul are about the same distance from Buffalo, NY. In the span of three years I had bounced from one side of the globe to the other. The holiday had become symbolic and powerful. It had become a day that I cherished and learned from. It became a day that I looked forward to in the same way I had once looked forward to Christmas. After that first abysmal Army Thanksgiving I had three consecutive Thanksgivings where I gained new family and grew into a better person. Now, every Thanksgiving I get too look back on those memories. I am infinitely grateful for those days, for those people, and for the chance to have made them part of my life.

 

Until we meet again.

100 years and counting

Ever had too many ideas at once and not know where to start? That’s a pretty odd thing to freeze you up, but it happens. So I spent some time looking through Facebook memories for today and came across this photo.

It’s from a deployment patch ceremony that my Transition Team held on 11 November, 2009. This might seem pretty straight forward and subdued, however the more I looked at the photo the odder it became. After being in a combat zone for 30 days you’re authorized to wear a combat patch, it’s the one on your right shoulder (the left shoulder is your current unit). By 2009 it was strange to see someone who’d been in for a few years without a patch on their right shoulder. It made a person stand out in a bad way. I was happy to get mine.

Of course by November 11th we’d been deployed for 62 days. So why the delay? Well our team leader was a major who was just getting his first deployment. He’d been in for over 10 years without deploying. Transition Teams were a solid concept that has continued to evolve into the Security Force Advisor Brigade. They were also a great way for Human Resources Command to identify individuals who hadn’t yet deployed and place them on deployments. So as a team of 11 dudes living remotely our team leader made the call that we’d not wear the combat patch from this deployment until we had a ceremony on Veterans Day.

The military has made an art form out of taking the mundane and making it special. The simple becomes complex as soon as someone with enough rank decides it’d be a good idea. The Good Idea Fairy struck on this occasion.

This kind of ceremony isn’t typical. Usually people just hit 30 days and slap that patch on. Making such a big deal out of earning our deployment patches reeked of POG. I don’t think a single person on our team really cared that much about it, but sometimes only one person’s opinion matters. Sometimes you’re just a monkey being told to dance, so dance!

What do you do when the Good Idea Fairy pays you a visit? Make jokes. Humor is the only way to deal with these things. Realizing that GIF wasn’t putting our asses in danger made this easier to deal with – a minor inconvenience. The way this ceremony went, as much as I can remember, the team leader had some brief remarks to the team about being proud to be leading us in this important mission and to reflect on Veterans Day. Then the 11 of us paired up and slapped brand new 17th Fires Brigade patches on each others’ right shoulders.

So SSG Harvey and I decided to pair up. Standing 6’8” to my 5’4” we made an odd couple. Our roles on the team had us working together most of the time. Harv was our logistics NCO, and also the guy with the most deployments on our team (4 I think) even though he was the most junior ranking. Harv was a guy you’d look at and immediately pin as the heartbeat of a team. Dude was always smiling and taking a positive outlook on things. He was quick to pick you up and notice when something was off. He had more relevant experience in Iraq than nearly the other 10 of us combined. Let that sink in.

I was successful in Korea and at Fort Hood because I had great NCOs to learn from and to count on. Any officer who would say that they were successful solely because of their own skills is full of shit. What success I found in Iraq usually stemmed from Harv. We worked well together, respected each other, and we simply clicked. Unfortunately we lost contact following the deployment. That still bothers me today.

This was certainly an odd way to mark Veterans Day. It also made the day more meaningful. Being able to share it with our small team in such an intimate way flew in the face of the normal Big Army experience. A year later I was sitting on my couch in Temple, TX snapping pictures of our golden retriever Eisenhower.

There are many ways to mark this day. My friend Phil will say that Veterans Day is best when it’s ignored – a cynical outlook but one I understand. The over the top Patriotic Correctness of the NFL, chicken hawk politicians, and any number of chain restaurants make some of us sick to our stomachs. The Entitled Veteran walking around with a list of places to hit up for Vet Day discounts make the anger sharks swarm. These are pretty extreme examples, ones that have equivalent opposites.

If you’re asking me, the best way to mark Veterans Day is to reach across the civil/military divide and put effort into understanding someone else’s experience. That’s equally true for both sides of that divide. It’s great to have a day off work, to get a free beer, or to say ‘thank you’. Don’t forget to spend some time thinking about what this day is for though. We are marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I. The War to End All Wars it was not. Maybe the best use of Veterans Day is to spend some time thinking about why that is.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax et bonum

I always wanted to drive a big truck

Today I’d like to move along the plot a bit and share a comical story. At the time, this was more of a disaster story, time has changed it into a fairly funny tale. Time’s a crazy thing like that. A couple different twists and this soon to be told story could have taken a drastically different road. When I look back on this particular day a flood of conflicting emotions still rush through me. Let’s explore that.

December 2009 – I’m in Basrah, assigned to a Border Transition Team. This was similar to the Military Transition Teams fielded after the Surge but we were partnered with the Iraqi Border Police instead of the Iraqi Army. BTTs were generally 12 man teams composed of various specialists from across the Army, cobbled together and put through a 3 month school designed to turn us into military advisors. For us, we got a special week of training in El Paso with the US Border Patrol and US Customs Enforcement so that we had some kind of idea about border enforcement. With that I, a fresh captain with 3 years in the Army, was supposed to mentor an Iraqi colonel who had served 28 years in 3 different branches of the Iraqi military (yep, he fought two wars against us). My counterpart was in charge of doctrine for the 4th Region Border Police Academy. Yep, I had no business telling this guy anything, and we both knew it. With that in mind we had a pretty friendly working relationship, exchanged some gifts, and made the best of the situation. He struck me as a person who wanted to do something good for his country and just live in safety. I hope he is still well.

Now that there is some context, let’s get to the LoLz.

So my team lived remotely, not on the large US base COB Basrah. We were at an outpost called Camp Savage. It was a tiny cluster of storage containers used for living and working surrounded by HESCO barriers (think of large sandbags about 4′ tall and 3′ around). Camp Savage was located within a large Iraqi Army base that used to be an Iraqi Air Force base. This base also contained the BP Academy. Camp Savage was a few dozen miles from COB Basrah with only 3 different routes for us to take, each with only minor variation. No matter what the drive would take 45 – 60 minutes. We were equipped with one of the newest MRAPs, Caimans (pictured above). Talk about a gas guzzler!

Once a week or so we would make a run to the COB for all the typically mundane stuff – get resupplied, pick up mail (one of my extra duties!), stop into the COB HQ to touch bases with counterparts, visit the other BTTs based out of the COB, and whatever other team business we might have. We liked to get out of there with enough daylight to get back to Savage. The routes always took us by some vulnerable areas, trash dumps (easy to hide IEDs), tight curves (Caimans rolled over at a 30 degree yaw), overpasses, and we would always lose radio contact with the COB once we got within a few miles of Savage.  Our SOP stated that if we ever reached a destination with half a tank of gas or less that the crew was supposed to get it topped off before departing again. Pretty simple stuff, certainly not a challenge for a team made up of senior NCOs and officers. (Did I give away the surprise yet?).

This day our team was down to 11 as our team leader was home on his 2 weeks of leave. With three vehicles that each require 3 people (driver, TC, gunner) that only leaves 2 extra bodies, so one vehicle has no spare dudes. We leave the COB later than we should have, a couple miles out from the gate we exited the highway to take a sharpe turn onto an overpass which would have left us with a straight shot back to Camp Savage. This route was nice for it’s clear sight lines and simplicity. The turn and overpass at the beginning were the only real choke points. This turn had one of those large trash dumps right beside the road. I always got nervous going by this place because there was a large pipe sticking out from a pile, about 20′ long and 4″ or 5″ in diameter. It was the perfect place to plant an EFP which was one of the few things we had to worry about with our Caimans. Bonus, this fucking pipe was at such an angle that it seemed to stare right at me each time we passed it. With the turn being so sharpe we really couldn’t speed by the spot or even alter speed much. Driving through this spot made my mouth go dry every single time. After getting past that pipe I may or may not have, on occasion, reached down to grab my balls out of thanks that they were still there.

OK, so we got by that bit of the road, just get over the bridge and we’re on easy street. Expect for some reason, on this day, we ground to a halt with all three vehicles on the bridge. For anyone not following at home, this is one of the most vulnerable positions we could have been in with these vehicles. We’re sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s an Iraqi Army checkpoint right beneath us, and some other small utility buildings to the rear and off our right. Either one of these could have had an insurgent spotter in them calling in his buddies to let them know they had easy pickings. I’m the TC (commander) of the trail vehicle, all I can see ahead is the second Caiman, I’ve got no eyes on our lead vehicle. My driver, my gunner, and I are all thinking “Why the fuck are we stopped? What the fuck is going on?” I squeeze the radio mic and ask the other two TCs what’s going on. Silence. The radio traffic comes through speakers in the vehicle, so everyone can hear what’s being said (or not said).

You may have heard someone describe their blood running cold, feeling their butthole pucker, or feeling their balls in their throat. Yeah, all of that at once. We were about to have a very bad day. The TC from vehicle 1 called back to me asking what I was seeing. We realized the TC in vehicle 2 must have a dead radio or headset, and I was the only one who could relay what was going on. All of a sudden we (vehicle 3) see the driver and TC doors of vehicle 2 opening and out pop the driver and TC. This happened to be the one vehicle without a spare crew member, so the TC had removed his radio headset and not told us what they were about to do. They both head to the rear of their Caiman. Seeing this my gunner said “Oh no, they’re not doing what I think they’re doing, are they? Are they seriously going for the gas cans?” Better believe it. Atop the bridge, balls flapping in the wind, the driver is pulling off the spare gas cans and dumping the fuel into his truck while the TC watches his back. The biggest mouth on the team forgot to fill up before leaving the COB and now we were all sitting around waiting for an IED to go off or a barrage of RPGs to fly our way. Completely stunned I got on the radio to let vehicle 1 know what was happening. Amazingly this joker finished up, secured the empty gas cans, mounted back up, and we took off. Back at Camp Savage we all topped off our trucks and then the team had some, uhhh, lively discussion and decided to never speak of this once our team leader got back.

I can laugh about this story now. At the time it caused a lot of anger and tension on the team. For years afterwards I would think of this day and start ‘what if-ing’ every possible bad scenario that could have happened. The anger would flood back. I had a hard time getting over some of these stupid things, obsessing over what could have happened and why they didn’t. Eventually I grasped just how toxic this behavior was, I found some peace with my hangups. What is important is that the bad shit that could have happened didn’t, the ‘why’ doesn’t matter. What matters is that, for me, things turned out for the better. I am here, I am thankful, and I focus on the present moment not the past which cannot be changed.

This was easily one of the top 3 most fucked up days of my life. Nobody died though, everyone made it back home, so really, how bad is that? I learned a lot from this day, but it took years for the lessons to sink in. These 1500 words can best be summed up by Marcus Aurelius “Every event is the right one. Look closely and you will see.”

Pax et bonum