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.

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

Thanksgiving in Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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