My year with the Dragon, Part III

Hope you’ve enjoyed the first two parts in this series on my time in Korea. Looking through my pictures has been useful to jog and correct my memory. One thing that has stuck out is that in nearly every photo of me off duty I have a drink in hand. During senior year in ROTC we had to list out our top 10 duty station preferences for the Army to ‘consider’. I got advise from some of the cadre on this and one of our NCO instructors told me that Korea was where he became an alcoholic. Like a typical college student I decided that was for me and listed Korea second (Hawaii was #1). Little did I know but that would guarantee that I got sent to Korea.

Most of the pictures involve drinking party because weekends worth photographing often involved partying or cooking out. There was a stretch where I was drinking a couple bottles of wine a night during the week. Army culture feeds that in many ways. If you couldn’t go out, get totally fucked up, then wake up the next day and outrun your platoon you were a pussy of a PL. Hindsight makes that sound just as dumb as it is, but that’s just how things were. Most of us get to be a PL for 12 months max, many of my peers were getting even less time than that. That provided even more pressure to go balls to the wall every day. This is also why having a good mentor at the beginning is critical. In Korea I couldn’t really say I had one. My battery commander was a tool who was just marking time for his last 12 months in country. Knowing that he was only doing what he had to do I kept my expectations low and just focused on taking care of my platoon.

While it was a great PL assignment that allowed me to lead soldiers, something my OBC classmates weren’t getting to do in their Patriot batteries, it also set me back in many ways. Young officers need to have good mentors to set them on a successful path in their careers. While I had some fantastic NCOs mentoring me on taking care of soldiers, there was a giant void in officer-to-officer mentorship that left me floating in the wind. So when I needed someone to tell me I needed to slow down, that didn’t happen and I just kept going harder. By month 11 in Korea I was toast and needed a change.

The road to getting there was a blast though. I’ve written a lot about my off-duty time in the previous two posts. Today I wanted to bring things back to what the job was like. Both aspects are important in bridging the civil/military divide, the whole picture needs to be painted, but it’s time to get back to Army life. It was not uncommon to go weeks without a real break. I had one stretch of 30-ish days with only 1 day off. Part of what drove this was that my Avenger battery was tasked to provide air defense for two MLRS battalions. That was why the battery was moved from the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade. It was the only ADA unit organized as such in the whole Army. In Korea the go to war plan dictates everything. All our training revolved around a plan to counter a North Korean invasion. So while day to day we worked and trained with our battery, when field exercises were held my platoon (4th PLT) and 3rd PLT were attached to 6/37 (said as ‘six three seven’) field artillery battalion.

Sound confusing? Imagine that you worked in a group within your company that provided tech support specifically for another larger group within the same company. Day to day you went in to an office building used only by your tech support group, but on occasion the larger group that you support goes to a remote site for a job, so you and your team go with that group for actual job operations. That’s more or less how it works when your unit gets attached to another unit to provide some kind of support that allows them to do their mission.

Now, I loved this. We were treated well by 6/37, something that doesn’t always happen to attached units. That was due to their battalion leadership and staff, a great group of professionals – something uncommon in Korea at the time. After proving that I was reliable and knew what I was doing the battalion leadership gave me the freedom to do my job and didn’t micromanage me. My platoon benefitted from that as we weren’t treated like children who needed watching. When the battalion went on field exercises we would roll out with them. To provide proper coverage from air threats the Avengers needed to be kilometers away from the main assembly area that the MLRS battalion occupied. That meant that my guys got to work remotely from the rest of the group, and from positions that had really nice views (got to see a lot of airspace you know). Having 6 Avengers I would find 3 primary positions and 3 alternates, then have my crews do 12 hour shifts while rotating back to the main area so that they could always get hot chow for at least 2 meals each day. I’d have to do a lot of driving around to check on them and on the radar crew that was attached to my platoon.

In an odd twist, the other PL from my battery took a different approach and just pushed all his Avengers out to occupy fighting positions and stay there. Most got stuck in mud, never got a hot meal, and when I’d come across them their vehicles weren’t working properly and the crew would just be hanging out trying to pass the time. Often the soldiers said they hadn’t seen their PL for a couple days. I started taking a few extra hot meals for them when I made my rounds. I’m not saying one method was better than the other, but the two of us PLs had very different approaches to our work. The two of us often got compared, not because there was some competition between us, but because both of us got attached to 6/37 (the other MLRS battalion only got 1 Avenger platoon attached) and the two of us were very different in just about every way. It just naturally led to people taking note.

On one of these field exercises my platoon was scheduled to meet up with 6/37 a few days into the exercise. They were pretty good about not making us go out unless the training schedule was relevant to us. So we made the 30 minute drive out in less stressful than usual circumstances, only to arrive and be told the environment was MOPP 4. WTF it that you ask? MOPP gear is the protective suit for chemical attacks, so it’s it big ass pair of overboots, gloves, pants, blouse, and gas mask. That could have been communicated better while we were en route, but hey shit happens. It was annoying to have someone running up to us yelling to put on full MOPP gear and the stuff is a pain in the ass to put on, even worse to wear. Most of us grumbled and started to pull our MOPP gear out and suit up. Not long after the alert ended and we could take off our suits and get back to reporting in. One of my sergeants wasn’t having it though.

SGT McQueen was a monster of a man, about 6’ and 250 pounds of straight muscle. If he had 2% body fat I’d be surprised. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him launch his helmet at his Avenger and proceed to tossing anything he could while cursing about the lack of heads up on the MOPP 4 alarm. As you can see from the photo above, I’m not quite the same size. A tantrum like that would make us lose credibility (we were about dead center in the main battalion area) and I couldn’t have one of my NCOs acting like that in front of junior enlisted guys. So I got right up in his face as best I could just to get his attention. I gave him the grid coordinates to the most secluded fighting position I had found and told him to just head out there immediately. With that distraction taken care of I reported in to the battalion TOC and then sent two more of my teams out after briefing my platoon on the situation. Twelve hours later when those teams came back SGT McQueen was all smiles. I asked SGT McQueen’s gunner how it went and he said ‘Oh just fine, sir. SGT chopped down a few trees and calmed down.’ I made sure he also taught his gunner some useful things and chalked it up as a W. If a few trees getting cut down was the worst that came out of the largest guy in my platoon going apeshit I was happy.

Not only did my platoon have to roll out on these exercises, we also had our battery gunnery exercises. Twice a year we had to conduct a machine gun gunnery to have crews qualify with the .50 cal M3Ps, and once a year the crews had to qualify with Stinger missile gunnery. I already wrote about the .50 cal gunnery at Nightmare Range. It was a bit of a treacherous trip but otherwise smooth sailing. For our missile gunnery we needed to travel to a beach on the western coast. This required traveling around Seoul on a 5 hour drive, mostly done in the middle of the night to minimize traffic. The whole battery consisted of 4 Avenger platoons (7 – 8 vehicles each), a Sentinel radar platoon, a maintenance platoon, and headquarters element. We broke down into chalks for this drive (4 total if I remember correctly) with each Avenger platoon rolling with a radar towed by another vehicle, and a couple more vehicles from the maintenance and HQ sections. The chalks had staggered departure times, but each chalk leader (the PLs) had a dozen or so vehicles to track as we went from Camp Casey to a Korean Air Force base southwest of Seoul. I want to point out that most of those vehicles were made in the 80s and early 90s. Some broke down, but no accidents on either end of that trip so all was good.

Shooting missiles off of a beach is a pretty weird thing. Remote controlled drones provide the targets and off go the Stingers with an ear splitting crack (I mean that, I forgot my earplugs while standing 20 feet away from one). The whole time you’re trying to not get lost in how beautiful everything is. I’m not joking, right next to the Korean base was a hotel full of tourists. This was clutch at the end of the day when a few of us stupid LTs squeezed through a gap in the chain link fence and got ice cream from the sundry shop in the hotel. Totally worth it. There were also some great cliffs to explore and the sunsets were aces. Those cliffs provided us with the most excitement of the gunnery though.

Korean Coast Guard ships were helping us keep boat traffic clear the whole week. Stingers are heat seeking missiles, they go after hot engines. Now and then a Korean fishing boat would say ‘hey man, hold my beer’ and go charging across the bay. One popped out from around the cliffs just after a Stinger was fired. All of us in the control tower saw it in slow motion. The international incident that we all worried about in the back of our minds was happening. The Stinger went after its drone target at first, then after a couple seconds it started to veer off towards the boat that was darting across our range. Heart-stopping seconds went by as the Stinger got closer and closer to the boat. Shit was about to go real bad, real quick. We were going to have to explain why we blew up a Korean fisherman. Our careers were done and that dude was about to be in pieces. Game over man.

At the very last moment the Stinger did a 90 degree bank, picked up the drone’s heat signature again, and flew away to blow up the drone. By the time we realized crisis was averted the fishing boat was gone around the left edge of the bay. We all changed our pants.

 

That was kind of how work life would go for the whole year. Intense months with little or no time off, absolute crisis mode looming, and then super chill times where you could go party every weekend or enjoy being on a beach for work. No swimming, but there are few things I can compare to spending a day shooting off missiles and then taking an after dinner stroll on the beach, watching gorgeous sunsets while burning a stogie. Wondering if all of it is real, because taken all together it’s just too bizarre.

As much as I love trilogies, I think this is going to wrap up as a four part series. I truly hope you’ve enjoyed these stories so far. It’s always a trip to go through my Korea pictures. I wish I could share more of them with each post. If there’s anything you want to know about or if I’ve left something unclear please leave a comment or shoot me a message. As always, please SHARE, SHARE, SHARE. It’s good for me to reflect, and the book material is adding up, but the goal of bridging the civil/military divide only happens if more people read these posts. Please help me spread the message!

Until we meet again…

My year with the Dragon, Part I

June has been an eventful month for me over the past dozen years or so. Facebook memories have popped up that reminded me just how life altering this month has been for me over the years. I was promoted to captain, got engaged to my wife, and reported to Fort Riley, KS to begin training as a military advisor in June of 2009. I also had 3 PCSs that fell in June. I began terminal leave in June 2011, and moved back to NY at that time. My first active duty assignment began on June 1, 2006.

Two of those permanent change of station movements were my assignment to Korea and my departure from Korea. Those happened on June 4, 2007 and June 3, 2008, 366 days that were the most impactful on my life out of any other year. Exploring Korea, broadening my mind and growing as a person, meeting people from so many different countries through rugby, and most importantly, being a platoon leader made for one busy year. The apprehension, excitement, fear, anger, enjoyment, and raw exhilaration of being 23 and half way across the globe are difficult to sum up in words. I’ll give it my best….

But first, let me address the 3 month gap between posts. I truly strive for consistency here, both in quality of my writing and in timeliness of postings. March and April brought on a brief spell of depression. I couldn’t bring myself to really do much of anything, and would then become frustrated over being so unproductive. Not just here but with simple things around the house. Everything was just too much to take on or not worth it. Apathy is the worst part of depression to me. It’s a black hole. I shook it off after a few weeks, but by then so much had piled up that it has been hard to find the energy to sit down and write, even as more and more topics came to mind. Lots of other things have been going on as well and it’s been very hard to block out some time to get back to writing. In short – life gets in the way. I apologize for the inconsistency and length between posts. I hope you’ll find this worth the wait.

Alright, so I spent one year in Korea. Originally my orders had me going to Osan Air Base, which was a really posh gig for an Army guy. In the end I spent one day at Osan. Through an odd quirk of timing I arrived at Osan about 13 months after those orders were cut. Following graduation/commissioning I was on temporary assignments for a year, mostly schools, and so when I got to Osan the 35th ADA brigade had just gone through a reorganization where the brigade HQ was under permanent orders to Korea (roughly 150 people) but the subordinate battalions were on one year rotations from their permanent homes stateside. So the majority of lieutenant slots within the brigade were not slots that I could be assigned to and there was no room for me in the HQ. The only air defense unit that I could go to was the Avenger battery up at Camp Casey which was recently moved from under the 35th ADA brigade to the 210th Fires brigade (that’s field artillery). After sorting out all this HR mess I was put back on a bus and sent up to Casey, 11 miles south of the DMZ.

My first week in Korea consisted of an 18 hour flight, being bused from Inchon airport to Yongsan Garrison in Seoul, the next day getting some briefings and inoculations for smallpox and anthrax (a 6 shot series), the next day getting bused a couple hours south to Osan, the next day being turned around and sent a few hours back north, and finally on day five reporting to my first line unit. One upside to my reassignment being so oddly done is that I got in under the radar and avoided a two week orientation to Area 1 (the US bases north of Seoul) which was at Camp Red Cloud if I remember correctly. So that saved me some annoyance and another temporary move while I lugged around a ton of baggage with me.

The rest of June and July were mostly spent getting to know the men in my platoon, building a relationship with my platoon sergeant, and spending the weekends exploring the local area around Camp Casey – Dongducheon- or partying in Seoul. One of the other LTs who was getting ready to leave showed some of us around and introduced me to his suit guy in Seoul. Jokeman was the kind of tailor who you needed to be introduced to by a current customer. His shop was in the basement of a nondescript building in Itaewon (the area right outside Yongsan Garrison). It gave you the feeling of knowing a great secret and being a trusted insider to walk down those stairs and into Jokeman’s place. He made fantastic ‘Armani’ suits and would always say that his dream was to be a great comedian like Jim Carey. That was kind of odd though as he was older than Jim Carey. Whenever you stopped in Jokeman gave you one free joke, and he had a map of the US hanging up so you could show him where you were from. Over 12 months I bought three suits, 2 cashmere overcoats, and 2 handmade scarves from Jokeman, because single LTs have more money than sense.

The single best thing I did during this time was spend time with my platoon sergeant. Clester Slater was a recently pinned sergeant first class in his first gig as a PSG and close to the end of his time in Korea. That combination would probably be terrible with most people, but Clester was the best NCO I ever worked with. The couple months I got to share with him leading our platoon had more of an impact on me as a young leader than the other 10 months I had with two other PSGs. There were a couple of really simple, seemingly insignificant things I did that helped build a good rapport. One was showing up for a uniform inspection. It wasn’t something I thought twice about doing along with the rest of the platoon, but Clester seemed surprised that I participated and that my uniform wasn’t all messed up. The other big thing in hindsight is that I spent time in the motor pool talking to my guys, having them show me around their Avengers, and just shooting the shit with Clester. We’d pass Mondays sitting in a conex (storage container) in the motor pool just talking. It allowed him to teach me about maintenance programs, all the paperwork, how to spot when someone was bullshitting you, and to watch over the platoon without micromanaging. Lots of fundamental knowledge was passed on from him this way. I was fortunate.

All these things seemed like no-brainers to me. I couldn’t think of what a PL would do otherwise, but I saw plenty who didn’t. The simple things made big impacts. That’s something I’ve kept with me over the years and I’m thankful that I learned it early on.

August came and brought with it being detailed out to a joint US/Korean exercise called Ulchi Focus Lens. About once a quarter there are big joint exercises that are largely computer simulations. These are the exercises the North Korean dictators are always complaining about and are currently suspended. It was pretty boring but I got to meet a couple more LTs that became friends. The extra special facet was that as soon as this three week exercise ended my battery was rolling out for a semi-annual gunnery exercise. So for three weeks straight I was working 12 on/12 off shifts and then had to take my platoon out for my first gunnery exercise. These are make or break kinds of things for a PL, and I was able to get released from the UFL exercise a couple days early so that I could at least make sure my platoon was prepared.

This gunnery was the first big field exercise I had with my platoon. I wanted to show that I was competent and I wanted to impress. This exercise was for our Avenger crews to qualify with the .50 cal machine guns and it took place at a Korean facility called Nightmare Range. The range itself was actually beautiful. The .50 cals are so powerful that you have to have a range complex that is several square kilometers in size. Nightmare Range was essentially a valley where you would shoot from one side to the other. If it wasn’t being used for military drills it could probably be a national park. The real nightmare was in getting there. We always drove at night to minimize the risks of mixing with civilian traffic. The roads we had to take were the craziest mountain roads I’ve ever seen. Blind turns, barely any light, sheer cliffs with 100 foot drops. Riding shotgun I could look out my door window and peer into a pitch black bottomless pit. But that meant the terrifying part was out of the way up front.

The rest of the range went off with no major snags. It was a good introduction to how field exercises in Korea went. Every time you went to the field a ‘Field Ma’ would show up and set up a tent and cook. It was kind of like having a food truck follow you out to work. Ma (short for ajumma) would make things like ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches and stocked tons of candy and cold drinks. The peach water and Mr. Big bars were my favorite, red bean popsicles are no joke either. As long as you were on Korean military land you had a Ma nearby. Luckily for me my unit never did much field training on American installations.

The fall rolled on and into winter. Camp Casey is on roughly the same line of latitude as western NY, so with the exception of the monsoon season in summer everything was pretty familiar. There were some trips to Busan, which entailed riding the bullet train and violating several command directives about local travel and curfew. Busan being at the very southern tip of the peninsula and a couple hours from any US installation meant that there was no way to go there without violating curfew. It also meant that you could feel like a normal person. The beaches of Busan were salvation. This was another circle of expat friends that I stumbled upon through mutual Army friends.

The expats in Korea were usually from English speaking countries who were in country to teach English. I met a lot through playing rugby, something new for me in Korea. I fell in love with the sport and its focus on hard competition and sportsmanship. Enjoying the game was only part of it, the post-match socials were what made a community. We sometimes hosted the Seoul Survivors up at Camp Casey, other times we would travel, and sometimes I’d whore it up with the Survivors. There was a women’s side named the Seoul Sisters too. Between the Survivors and the Sisters I made great friends that I still talk to today. They were always welcoming and happy to help me when I needed a place to crash. They were a collection of expats from the US, Canada, UK, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. Through my club, the 2ID Warriors RFC, I also met a South African who joined the Army.

The connections I made through rugby were stronger than those I made from work. Camaraderie in the Army is highly touted, but within my unit there were only a few guys I really hung out with. Even when we weren’t playing I’d pop down to Seoul for a few pints at Pub Scrooge’s and maybe head out to Hongdae, an off limits section of Seoul. There were holiday parties (Halloween and Christmas stand out!) and dodgeball tournaments. I learned about Aussie and Kiwi culture and gained a more international outlook on life. My rugby friends, both Army and expat, were who I spent most of my weekends with. They’re the friendships that helped to shape me, some of them are people I still look up to, a few made life altering changes on who I am. I owe a great debt to these people. If not for rugby I’m not sure I’d be quite the person I am today.

Well, this seems like a good place to take a break. I didn’t realize at the beginning that I’d have so much to write just about this one year. There’s more I could have included here, but maybe that’s best left for print instead of blog. If you haven’t already, check my post about my Thanksgiving in Korea. I hope this entertained you and gave some more insight into Army life by the DMZ. If there’s anything you’d like to know more about leave a comment or shoot me an email through the Contact page. Next week – Part 2, I promise.

Until we meet again….

Becoming a Bonnie

March Madness is here and it’s raised up so much emotion. I really enjoy college basketball, but what’s caused this recent rollercoaster isn’t the tournament itself, getting to see St. Bonaventure playing in the Big Dance and the outpouring from fellow alumni has been a tidal wave this past week. In an example of Facebook’s fundamental value, an alumnus started a group specifically around the March Madness run of the Bonnies which quickly grew to about 4,000 alumni. The group shared support of the team, but also many stories of why they decided to go to Bonas, why it is such a special place, and we all got to see the Bonaventure Bond in full court press as people who didn’t know each other felt that special connection.

So today I want to share my own story of coming to Bonas, how it changed me, and why I am eternally grateful to call myself a Bonnie. I’ve written in general terms about Bonas when explaining my route to commissioning, but today I’m going to share some not often shared stories to explain why I ended up at Bonas and how it remade me.

I had strong feelings about fairness, justice, and defending the defenseless formed at a young age. A steady diet of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined with adoration of my Uncle Joe’s service in World War II molded my young mind. So much so that when I was about 7 I decided that it was my job to protect the neighborhood. One summer morning I packed up my backpack with toy handcuffs, Ninja Turtle weapons like sais, nunchucks, and Leonardo’s swords, and probably some toy guns – my crime fighting kit. I tied off my bandana and set off to patrol the neighborhood. Walking the beat on the blocks surrounding my HQ (house) and finding no bad guys I returned after maybe 15 or 20 minutes to find my dad losing his mind. I got yelled at pretty good for leaving the house without telling anyone and how worried he was that I’d been kidnapped. I calmly explained I was just out on patrol and couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong – but that was the last time I did that.

As you probably guessed, I was a weird kid. I was also perennially undersized and socially awkward which led to a lot of bullying. In what was probably an overprotective move my parents switched me from the local public elementary school after second grade and I started at the Catholic school. How anyone would think that would result in less bullying kind of amazes me in hindsight. I never fit in there, partly because I also didn’t want to be there. Some of the kids tried to be friendly, but over the course of the year I just felt isolated and never fully part of the class. Fortunately I would be with the same group of kids as long as I was at this school! So I coped by keeping to myself, being suspicious of anyone who approached me, never really trusting others. This ebbed and flowed, but it was mostly pretty crappy.

Like most elementary school classes there were two or three kids that were just absolute douches. These guys were my tormentors. One morning during 5th grade one of them approached me by the coat rack. He was about a foot taller than me and had me cornered as he made weird moaning noises and thrusted his pelvis at me. I didn’t know what the hell was going on and something just snapped. Without thinking I just punched him in the gut as hard as I could. That knocked the wind out of the kid, his face turned red and he was completely shocked. The teacher came to sort things out. I ended up getting after school detention that day, essentially punishing me for defending myself. Again, with hindsight that kind of makes sense for a Catholic school.

That’s more or less how early childhood went for me. Lots of isolation and feeling like an outsider, never really finding a place I fit in until I discovered punk music in high school.  Still though, I had no personal connections. I felt no great pride in my hometown or high school, friends and social circles were always fluid. I protected myself by walling myself off. JROTC was what saved me from being a total failure in high school. A few recent graduates had gone on to St. Bonaventure, winning ROTC scholarships. My JROTC was an informal feeder for Bonas ROTC, and this was my path. This was my hope for escaping a hometown I hated and finding my place in the world.

So in August of 2002 I arrived at St. Bonaventure. A place that, in the early unchecked days of Wikipedia, was described as being widely known to be the greatest place on Earth (it is). Boy was I a mess when I got there, that much should be clear by now. On top of the social problems I had growing up I was also raised in a very traditional Catholic worldview coated in a healthy dose of racism. While hanging out in the punk scene helped correct some of that, it’s fair to say I got to Bonas still thinking homosexuality was a repugnant defect and looked at minorities with suspicion. Those things that get ingrained in you from birth are hard to overcome.

Secured in the Bona Bubble, those ugly aspects of my character faded. I had finally found my place, safe and at peace. Bonas immediately felt like home, it’s what made up my mind to go there during a campus visit. The first time I drove in, seeing the Spanish tiled roofs appear as the car crested a hill there was a sense of serenity. I had my bumps during freshman year, but eventually found a group of friends that I could trust. I let my guard down and felt normal for the first time, knowing that I could be myself without fear of ridicule. These same friends also called me on my bullshit. They helped me see how wrong the views I was raised on were. This was the family that I’d always needed.

Ask me where my home is and who my family is and I’ll tell you my home is Bonaventure (Townhouse 33 specifically) and my family is made up of Bonnies. My roommates are my brothers. The bonds made with friends from Bonas are tighter than those I have with most blood relatives. That’s why when I find out a friend from Bonas has a baby, and is without any baby Bona gear, I happily drive the 75 miles to campus to buy a onesie to mail out with my congratulations and love.

I have no greater affinity for anything in my life than St. Bonas. Not my hometown, not my high school friends, and not even the Army. Bonas is the sole place in my story where I felt so right. Bad decisions may have been made every weekend, but never a bad memory. Bonas is where I left behind the shy, stand-offish kid I was and became Timmerzzz. A nickname that I reveled in given to me by some of my stoner friends. I decided to spell it with three Z’s solely so that when someone asked me why I spelled it that way I could then say ‘Because I roll Three Z’s Deep, motherfucker!” A long way from who I was at 18.

Bonas also turned me into a more thoughtful and compassionate person. The ideas, biases, and worldview I entered with were not the ones I left with. At Bonas I was exposed to new ideas, new people, and was forced to expand my critical thinking. The changes were dramatic in scope and swiftness. A liberal arts education is often looked at as needless. I’d argue it’s absolutely necessary if you want to be a complete person. Classes in critical thinking & writing, philosophy and logic, studying the classical world, and majoring in history all combined to give me essential skills for understanding the world around me. I was able to see my own flaws and confront them.

True, this happens at many universities. What makes St. Bonaventure special is the people. Sitting along the Allegany River, the campus’s southern boundary, and overlooked by the Enchanted Mountains with Merton’s Heart guiding you, there is no place more peaceful. St. Bonas is a Catholic Franciscan school. For those unfamiliar with this tradition Franciscans are often called the Hippies of the Catholic Church. While they aren’t promoting Free Love, they are the most friendly people I’ve met. Full of joy and love for nature the friars were a gregarious group that wanted nothing more than to share their happiness with you. What I felt there was the same safety and comfort that I’d known at my Uncle Joe’s house.

The people. That’s the heart of this place we Bonnies love so dearly. The tranquility of the campus is infectious. You cannot help but be happy when you’re there, and that attitude feeds off itself. Walking around campus you are greeted with smiles and warmness, even when the wind chill is below zero. You bond in the shared isolation of St. Bonaventure’s geography, basketball, and beer. Bonaventure, basketball, beer. It seems simple and lacking, yet the simplicity of it is what brought us together. These were the things that mattered, the essentials. Anything else didn’t matter. You’re a Bonnie? Awesome, you’re my friend. Any other label you can put on a person disappears. If they bleed Brown and White you’re family.

So why was this chance to Dance so important? In the 2002-2003 season, my freshman year, there was a scandal that nearly destroyed the basketball program. The proud legacy of Bob Lanier and the 1970 Final Four team was overshadowed by a coach, athletic director, and university president who signed off on a junior transfer who had only a welding certificate and not an associates degree. This blew up with two games left in the season. All wins were vacated, the remaining players refusing to play, coach and AD fired, university president resigned, NCAA post-season ban (5 years I think?) and lost scholarships. During that summer the president of the board of trustees hanged himself. These were dark times for what had been a point of pride for the Bonaventure community. The team didn’t have another A-10 victory until my junior year (against Rhode Island) and that got us to storm the court. There had even been talk of dropping to a lower conference or out of D1 all together. Part of what bonded us so tightly was now something you’d rather forget about (like 4 straight Super Bowl losses).

So this past week when SBU was back in the Big Dance, all of us in the Bona family were dancing. Redemption is sweet. Sharing it with such a large family makes your chest swell and your eyes well. Both are happening as I write this.

We all love St. Bonaventure. I love it because it saved me. It took a scared, untrusting, and angry kid and turned him into a man who is thoughtful and compassionate. No longer ignorant and hateful but aware of the world around me and accepting. I’m not always the person that I strive to be, but I am proud of the person I’ve become. While I’m no longer Catholic, St. Bonaventure and St. Francis still guide me.

The spirit of Bonas molded me into a good person. That light is the gift that each of us Bonnies brings to the world.

Pax et bonum. Go Bonas!

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.”

Off to the Hood

After 12 months in Korea it was on to my next assignment at Fort Hood. I was fortunate to have been a platoon leader for my full stint in Korea. Many of my peers across the Army were getting less PL time than I did. Being a platoon leader can drive you nuts when you wake up on a Saturday morning to news that some of your soldiers got jumped outside a bar, with one ending up in the hospital and the other one was already confined to post. Still it was hands down my best time in the Army. Our Professor of Military Science at Bonas was fond of saying the tragic thing about being an Army officer is that your first job (platoon leader) is also your best. After being a PL nothing else was as rewarding.

I had no idea what to expect as I got to Fort Hood. I had a couple friends already there, including one of the guys I had met on my first assignment at Fort Knox and was with again at our ADA OBC at Fort Bliss. Still, my orders only showed me going to HHB, 69th ADA BDE. That meant that I was assigned to the headquarters element of the brigade. That specific unit had just relocated from Germany to Fort Hood, standing up only two weeks prior to my arrival. When units make such moves they generally lose a lot of personnel to reassignments (PCS). The brigade HQ was down to about 20% of their full complement, and I was one of only three lieutenants now with them. In an odd way that made me a bit valuable, but this turned out to be a case of high value backfiring.

Expecting to be assigned to one of the staff cells, which would have been a normal next step after being a PL, I was instead told I would be the new brigade adjutant. I didn’t even know what the fuck that was. I had always thought the S-1 was also the adjutant (S-1 is the equivalent of a company’s HR department). The Big Green Weenie got me and I ended up running the brigade command group. This was the office composed of the brigade commander, deputy commander, the command sergeant major, their drivers, and a few other odds and ends. As the Adj. my job was pretty similar to that of an executive assistant. Day to day it meant that I needed to control traffic into the Big 3’s offices, prepare transportation as needed, and keep a pot of hot water always ready for the commander’s green tea. Goddamn free radicals.

I went from being in the motor pool or the field most days to being in an office taking care of VIPs. Suddenly I needed to watch my language and keep up appearances. Keeping the boss’s travel books, to include local points of interest, and prepare conference rooms for big staff meetings were of utmost importance. Keeping printers loaded instead of machine guns was the order of the day. I was wholly unprepared for this.

My biggest adjustment though was having female subordinates for the first time. My unit in Korea had some female soldiers, but my platoon did not. I had female classmates in ROTC and in all the schools I attended as a lieutenant, but that’s not the same. I wasn’t too sure about how to interact with the female private who was a secretary in the command group, and I wasn’t even sure what to make of having a female NCO reporting to me. Better scrub all the joking about tiny dicks and giant, harry balls. This nervous aversion prompted me to get away from the command group whenever I could. I was constantly second guessing my words and replaying interactions in my head, hoping that I hadn’t done anything inappropriate.

This went on for a couple months before I finally started feeling comfortable with my new surroundings and subordinates. While I continued to hate the dog and pony show of the command group I developed a really strong relationship with my NCO. Jessica was one of the most professional NCOs I worked with. We became a good team, she was able to coach me in the finer points of being in the command group and watched my back. I made sure her and our soldiers were always taken care of. She even helped drive me to and from appointments when I had my eyes corrected. Jessica’s expertise made her a  steadying soul. She was the kind of NCO a lieutenant hopes for and needs. If she ever picked up on my initial prejudice she didn’t let on. She just did her job as best as she could every day. This humbled me and made me recognize how wrong I had been to harbor any doubts or to favor the male NCO (at least internally) who would eventually get reassigned for being a lazy bullshitter.

I learned how to lead young female soldiers too. PFC Wilde was, in spite of her name, one of the most timid people I’d ever met. She was normally the first person to greet whoever came into the command group. This meant that she would have to interact with majors and lieutenant colonels multiple times a day, and from time to time a general. It was physically painful to watch how uncomfortable and nervous she would get. Once day, after a general had come and left, I took her aside and said to her ‘Wilde, I get that those people make you nervous but they’re just people who eat, breath, and take big stinky shits like you and me. Show them the respect due their rank, but remember they’re just people.’ That got her to laugh and she seemed to eventually shake some of her nerves.

Being the Adj. sucked ass. No other way to put it, I just hated being that close to the sun. It wasn’t a good fit for me and I wasn’t good for it. Eventually a couple more lieutenants came in and after 6 months I was mercifully given a new job. Still with the HQ battery, but as the battery XO. I had been lobbying the deputy commander, a very empathetic man, for this job for months. Everyone knew that the HHB commander was a soup sandwich and needed tons of help. Being an XO is also the typical next job for a lieutenant after they’re a PL. The XO is second in charge, covers down for the commander when they’re on leave, and takes care of the administrative side of the house. It’s kind of like being a chief of staff but with guns.

What the deputy commander told me when breaking this news was to go and fix the supply system and the maintenance program of the battery. It was widely known that these were the two largest problems facing the HHB. These are typically things that an XO would focus on and the HHB hadn’t had an XO since moving to Fort Hood. It didn’t take too much prodding for me to discover the depth and breadth of my task at hand.

Talking to the supply sergeant I found out that there was never a 100% inventory conducted prior to leaving Germany or upon arrival at Fort Hood. My mouth hung open at that revelation. Such inventories are standard practice. How nobody had caught this lapse and corrected it was dumbfounding. Nearly two full years went by for this commander with no 100% inventory. These should happen at least once a year. So I had taken on a supply system that ignored some of the most basic tenants of best practices.

The motor pool was an equal mess. It was short staffed, but we all were. The biggest problem was a lack of oversight. The motor sergeant was good, but motor sergeants don’t carry much weight outside of their motor pools. Without an officer to take his concerns to people with decision making authority the motor sergeant might as well stick the lube gun up his ass and squeeze until it goes click. Out of the 40 vehicles and other pieces of major equipment like trailers and generators, 12 were deadlined. More than 25% of the battery’s mission essential equipment was non-functional. That meant that the unit itself was non-mission capable. While the supply system issues were systemic and would require tedious work to correct, the maintenance program was practically nonexistent.

Absorbing all this information and forming a plan to unfuck the battery meant I would need to be the shit hot LT that I fancied myself as. This was a true sink or swim moment that would test me. If I could pull this off I would do credit to my ROTC instructors and those who had mentored me since. If I failed I’d get some sympathy, but I’d be seen as average at best. That didn’t sit well with me, so I dove in like a maniac.

I knew I wouldn’t be in this position for very long as I would be promoted to captain in June and it was now February. The XO billet was for a lieutenant, so I had about 4 months to get something done. During this time I got one major lucky break with my new boss taking leave for about a 1/3 of my tenure as XO. With him out of the picture I had one less obstacle. Having to cover down on the meetings he would go to and reports he would send up was far less of a thief on my time. I usually prepared those reports anyway. It also made things less bloody when I had to break the news of the lack of inventories being conducted to the brigade commander, the same one whose green tea I used to make. Coming clean with this news instead of continuing to cover it up saved me from a serious chewing out, but my new boss sure got it when he got back. I had become so angered with his incompetence that it didn’t bother me one bit. I was the one having to clean up his mess, he could at least take an ass chewing.

So we got to business with slowly accounting for every single piece of equipment and property. In the meantime I went through every maintenance record with my motor sergeant so that we could make a plan for fixing all our vehicles. One truck was hopeless. It needed a new engine and that was an issue that would be taken care of many levels above us. As for the other 11, we methodically identified sources of repair parts. There was an intra-post transfer program that allowed us to essentially buy excess spare parts from other units instead of ordering through the traditional system. That cut down on wait time for parts and got some of our vehicles back up and running in short order. Other issues required some help from the warrant officer who oversaw the brigade’s maintenance system. He was the head maintainer, and warrant officers are the people who you go to when you need a drug deal. Not cocaine. I’m talking about a quiet deal between some old friends to get things taken care of without all the normal forms and red tape. After a couple months of this our truck awaiting a new engine was the only remaining deadline. We were also able to get a couple more mechanics assigned to us and were nearly fully staffed.

What stood out to me was that the supply sergeant and motor sergeant were outstanding at their jobs. They knew the faults of their respective systems and it tore them up. They needed help though, they needed someone to enable them to just do their jobs. I didn’t do anything special. All I did was talk to them, try to listen and understand their problems, and figure out what bullshit I could take off their plates.

Many times officers are the butt of lazy jokes, not always undeservedly. What I learned from the best officers I met was that they didn’t walk around with a sense of self-importance. They looked at subordinates as important people on a team. The officer might hold a higher rank but that didn’t mean much. Everyone had a job to do, and without each person doing their share the whole team failed. The best officers I knew stayed humble and sought out ways to help their people do their jobs. The approach essentially put everyone else’s job at a higher priority. Being more concerned about their subordinates’ ability to achieve than their own accomplishments and ego, these officers made everyone around them better and happier.

There is a good deal more to my time at Fort Hood, so we’ll revisit this. Reflecting on this assignment it becomes clear to me how important it was to my development as an officer and as a person. Obviously I broke down some unjustified biases. I also had experiences that reinforced my ideas of leading by putting your subordinates above yourself. I learned that sitting down to talk to people, getting to know them and show genuine concern was what would make or break you. The importance of communication and honesty were driven home during this year at Fort Hood. Above all else, what I came to know with complete certainty was that the only things that matter about a person are their competence and their character. Are you able to fulfill your responsibilities and are you ethical?

Isolation

This is the last of a three post series on friendship. While not the end of my writing on this subject, this marks the conclusion of what I’ve built up in my previous two posts. Today we strike the hot flames of comradeship into cold steel of isolation and doubt. Exposing myself emotionally is not easy. I have a large T&T on hand for an assist, but there’s no way around how terrified I am as I write.

To write this I need to dive into some darker places that I’ve work hard to crawl out of. Introspection is healthy – that doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable to do, much less share in such a way. I am encouraged by the fact that my last post seemed to be my most well received. So maybe you all really are interested in this.

OK, no more stalling. Here we go.

June 2011, I begin terminal leave and we move to western New York. Intending to settle down near Buffalo we are flush with confidence. We know that there will be an opportunity for me. We know that while it’s not a cake walk we will be able to find a suitable life and be near family and friends. We just know that everything is looking up.

Weeks go by with no job, barely any interviews. We are in a bind because our household goods will only be held for 90 days. Living with my parents for a short period while we get working and find a home stretches longer than we expected. The first chip. Pressing up close to that 90 day mark and still without work our best option seemed to be to rent the house next-door to my parents. I begin living out ‘Everyone Loves Raymond’.

Could be worse though. I had no idea just how much.

Living in the same town I grew up in again. The same town I worked so hard to get out of. The same town I hated with every fiber of my being by the time I was 18. Another chip.

There are lots of relatives nearby and even some people I went to high school with that I got along with are still around. I never see them though. Everyone is busy with their own lives. When we do get out I feel alone. There are only a few bars in town, and not much else to do besides work on liver cancer. Occasionally I’ll see someone to shoot the shit with but it always ends in frustration. I really don’t have many good things to talk about. Just another one of the failures in town struggling to get by.

Drinking at home or at the bar feels about the same. Just one is easier on the wallet. Either way I’m trapped in my head. Obsessing over all the things going wrong. Anxiety builds over homework, my dickhead bosses at the bank, the pointlessness of my work, the feelings of going nowhere but deeper in debt.

And all of my friends are several states away. Anyone I would really want to spend time with. Anyone who could really help me pull myself together is so far away.

Deeper and deeper down that rabbit hole. Chip after chip after chip to my pride. Confidence gone, I’m wracked in self doubt over every decision I’ve made. Some great leader you turned out to be. Just another schmuck who couldn’t hack it as a civilian.

And now nobody wants anything to do with you.

One night in that first year out I had a complete break down. Stress overcame me. My body shook from frayed nerves and I began to bawl. I had to bury my head in a pillow as I screamed as loud as I could. Everything was just too much. I had completely failed and ruined not just my life but my wife’s too. It was the sobbing of a man completely broken. After this passed and I went back downstairs I found my brother had stopped over. We awkwardly ignored my breakdown but later that night I got a phone call from my  mom asking if I was alright. Awesome.

That first year sucked. But at the end of it we bought our first house, the house on the OTHER side of my parents. It seemed to make sense as it cost less to own than to rent and our lease was ending anyway. The house looked a bit trashed from a couple years of not enough maintenance, but nothing worse than cosmetic. Wrong again. Within a couple months of moving in the insurance company notified us that a new roof was required within 30 days or we would be dropped. Our savings had already been drained and we had no way of doing this.

Luckily I was able to convince the insurance company that putting a new roof on a house in NY in November was a bad idea and got an extension on our deadline. That emergency abated, others kept following. Detailing them here would be mundane, so let’s just say something similar to the roof fiasco seemed to happen about every few months for the next few years. Pro tip: never buy a house built in the 19th Century.

The point is that these stressors kept building up. One hole in the ship got patched and two more sprung. These things added on to my social isolation. I couldn’t connect with anyone in town. I had a few friends at work, but they all lived an hour away from me so I didn’t see them outside of the office and never really got too close. School was like being on an educational assembly line. Nobody was there to make friends and I certainly didn’t find much common ground with anyone.

That’s not true. In the final few weeks I found that most people shared my hatred for a classmate who was the son of a local real estate ‘magnate’ (dude, it’s Buffalo). In the last few weeks there was an opportunity to catch a drink with some classmates (during lunch) and I wish it had happened earlier.

Floating through life. Anxiety dialed up to 11. Pulling financial gymnastics to stay afloat. Grad school being an all or nothing, cannot fail endeavor – which was great when I did fail Management Science and had to retake it.

All of this compounded and distracted me from just how badly my social isolation was harming me.

Years went by and I only became more isolated and distant. I became an awful person to be around, which again compounded the isolation. I hated everyone. I resented the world for abandoning me. I was humiliated for falling so far from the prestige and financial security of being an Army officer.

At the core of it all though I was just afraid. I was afraid that I peaked at 23, that everything was bound to be worse for the rest of my life. That I wasn’t living up to my own standards and never really was anything of consequence. Nobody seemed to care about what I had done in the Army, nor were they impressed. I vacillated between hating everyone else and hating myself. Life became pointless, just something to tolerate until death’s merciful release. Why wouldn’t it just hurry up already?

I was in deep. Angry at the world and ready to lash out at anyone. Sometimes I did. And I hated myself more and more for it. For being weak, for lacking resilience, for not being the man I used to be.

This is where the therapy became necessary. I hadn’t really grasped what was going on, but I recognized there was a real problem, even if I couldn’t see its depths.

I had lost my tribe. I had no sense of community or belonging. My strongest identifiers were in my past, never to be again. Slowly I began to understand this all. Reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger opened my eyes a good deal.

(Oh that was a big swig of gin)

Lacking my tribe I was a listless person. The problem is, I’m not into hanging out at the Legion and talking about how great all us heroes are. I tried getting involved with my local American Legion right after moving back. It was a total crash and burn.

Being able to identify the problem was a major breakthrough for me though. Slowly things started to dawn on ol’ Mongo and over the span of a couple years I found my way to Stoicism.

I’d like to tell you “And that’s where my life completely changed!” That would be a lie. Major change in mentality, sure. Stoic teachings have helped me to reframe my problems, but it’s still a gradual process of making real changes. And I still have some lingering issues dealing with isolation. I’ve made some friends in the past couple years. Even went to a Bills game socially….. in mid-December! I also reconnected with friends that I had not seen for years. All these things happened in the last three months, just to give some frame of reference.

(More gin was needed at this point)

Really, I just nicked the surface of these struggles (it’s a blog post not a full chapter). Anger and alcohol abuse left me incapable of recognizing myself. I lost my way. With help I started clawing back. Integrating Stoic teaching and practices have helped me continue making progress. In 2017 I began reading and learning. In 2018 I’ve begun more actively journaling (including this blog), making time for morning meditations and evening reflections, putting more structure to my days and holding myself accountable.

That still leaves me with no more friends or social connection. But now I am focused on what I can control and maintaining right action rather than feeling like a victim and resenting the human race. In my control – staying more connected with the people who are important to me. Disconnecting from trivial things like social media. Taking time to write. Recognizing the beauty around me and how fortunate I am to live where I live. My hometown may not have much, but we live 500 meters from Lake Erie. The sunsets are amazing, and I can take my dogs to the beach whenever I want.

Finding every single joy in life, everything to be grateful for, is what maintains me now. It’s a battle of light and dark. As much as I’d love to Force Choke mofos every single day it’s so much better focusing on the light.

I’m a work in progress (there’s always WIP). It’s been a much better ride lately. I’m grateful you’re reading this and for anyone who has taken part or will take part in this literary adventure.

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.