Monday, December 7, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Local News

Despite the cool, spring temperatures, sweat soaked through Army Tech Sergeant Van Barfoot’s uniform as he ran. It was the last thing on his mind as he gasped for oxygen. Getting shot to pieces was more pressing – running ever further from his platoon behind him. They remained trapped in the open fields near Carano, Italy, and pinned under heavy German fire. Unable to move, they faced certain death if they attempted to advance or even retreat. In front of him, several German machine gun bunkers continued to pour concentrated fire into his comrades. He alone, keeping to the left flank of their position, remained unnoticed.

As he neared the Germans, he dove to the ground, prayed he would remain unseen, and dragged himself forward on his stomach. The buckle of his web belt raked in the dirt, clinging to his gear and increasing the resistance as he crawled. His heart raced. In front of him, the German machine gun nests continued to fire on his platoon behind him. Wriggling closer, he pulled out a grenade, ripped off the pin, and heaved the device into the first machine gun nest he saw. He hit it directly – killing two Germans and wounding three. The firing stopped – at least from that position.

He approached it cautiously, observing the battered remains of the guns and the soldiers manning it. None of them posed any further threat. Further down the line the firing continued, and he kept moving towards it. Having essentially infiltrated the enemy defenses, Barfoot crawled close to the next machine gun emplacement and opened fire with his Thompson, killing two Germans instantly.

The three remaining, recognizing their situation, threw up their hands in surrender immediately. Nearby, German soldiers in another position observed the fates of their comrades and also surrendered to Barfoot. He disarmed them, leaving the prisoners for a squad of his brothers approaching behind him. Still operating on a combination of adrenalin and desperation, he continued moving down the line.

In short order, he had captured seventeen Germans, effectively broken the assault’s stalemate, and his men soon moved into the positions he had singlehandedly overrun. It looked for a moment that Barfoot could rest. They were relatively safe now. Yet they would receive no respite. In the distance, the firing intensified. The Germans were launching a fierce counterassault against them. And, they were using tanks.

As three Mark VI tanks rumbled towards them, Barfoot crawled out of his position, exposed himself directly to their fire, and launched a bazooka at the lead tank 75 meters away. His rocket hit it in the tread, causing a mobility kill. The brazen destruction of their lead caused the other two tanks to immediately turn off to the flanks. Sprinting towards the now-disabled tank, Barfoot killed three tankers as they scrambled from the hatch, and continued deeper into the German lines. When he reached a recently-abandoned German field piece, he rammed a demolition charge in its breech and destroyed it. The immediate threats eliminated and now utterly exhausted, he began retreating to his platoon’s position behind him. He was probably contemplating how many times over he should have been killed that day.

As he moved, he came upon two seriously-wounded US Soldiers and, despite his own weariness, helped them both to their feet and assisted them a full 1,700 meters back to a position of safety before rejoining his own platoon. For his valorous efforts on that day, May 23rd 1944, Barfoot was later awarded the nation’s highest military citation; the Medal of Honor. (Another Soldier, 2nd Lt Thomas Fowler, was also awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day, but was killed 11 days later and received the citation posthumously.)

Decades later, by this time a field-grade officer, and having fought honorably in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, Van Barfoot retired from the United States Army a highly decorated Soldier. Now 90 years old, he lives in Henrico County, Virginia, about 45 miles from my home. Every morning, he solemnly raises the colors on the flagpole in his front yard, and at sunset lowers and folds them perfectly. He has done this for as long as he has lived at that residence.

Yesterday (December 2nd, 2009), the Coates & Davenport lawfirm of Richmond, Virginia (representing the Sussex Square Homeowners Association) issued him a five-paragraph letter stating that he must remove the flagpole by 5PM on Friday or face “legal action being brought to enforce the Covenants and Restrictions against you.” According to the homeowners association, the flagpole was erected despite their denial of his request to their board. The letter also states that he will be held liable for all legal fees the homeowners association incurs to enforce the matter. According to Barfoot’s daughter, however, there is no provision in the association’s rules that expressly forbids flagpoles. Instead, in July they determined it to be forbidden on aesthetic grounds and ordered him remove it. He ignored them.

Evidently, the Colors of the United States of America are an eyesore to the community.

If there is such a thing as a class of citizen who has earned the right to do virtually whatever he pleases, it is a Medal of Honor recipient – one whose actions have changed the course of battles, saved countless lives, and brought a quicker end to bloodshed. More than simply being held in high esteem, bearers of this sacred award must be saluted by all uniformed members of the armed services, regardless of their rank. Even Admiral Mike Mullen, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, must salute this man. Additionally, in a room full of officers, all enlisted men will salute him, the wearer of the Medal of Honor, before rendering respects to any other. It is a well-earned privilege and honor, there are less than 200 of them living today. Under federal law, the award cannot be imitated or privately sold. The penalty: prison.

Yet Barfoot apparently is not permitted to post the colors on his own property on account of it being an eyesore. Though this situation only came to a head one day ago, it has already gained national media attention depicting an overbearing homeowners association making a stand in entirely the wrong places. Barfoot’s daughter, appropriately, alerted the media to the situation, who have made the public aware of a hero’s wrongful treatment. No doubt, the media will also cover the outcome tomorrow, when Barfoot refuses to remove his flagpole.

I am aware that we live in an age where it is “trendy” to take a stand for something. I am also aware that, in a time when being pro-military and patriotic is vocally encouraged, daring to behave differently is trendy, too. Furthermore, I am fully aware that nobody likes to be told “no,” especially when they considered themselves in a position of authority. It is also “trendy” to bring legal action against anybody who insults you. What I was unaware of, however, is that it is apparently trendy to be an absolute asshole.

*Related Article
*Historical Information

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Few Differences

*Retold with permission.

We’ve talked long about how veterans are different from everybody else. Sometimes it’s voiced as complaints about how we’ll never be understood beyond a certain degree, yet other times it’s announced with pride and pleasure that we aren’t as vulnerable to stupid trivialities. But near as I can tell, little has been done to put these differences to words, besides from a haughty “I’m better than you because I’m a veteran” or a fatalistic “I’m different and you’re never going to get it.” Neither explains much of anything. There are differences, though, and some of them are significant.

For starters, we have developed intolerance to injustice. We see something, recognize it’s wrong, and then we grow indignant. As men and women who are trained to lead, to problem-solve and create order from chaos, we will make every effort to right a wrong. If there is a fight, we will pick a side and end it, or we will break it up and throw the offenders out the door. We will NOT be found huddled in the corner and meekly praying that nobody throws something our direction.

If somebody says or does something inappropriate to our wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, or any sort of loved one, we will take immediate action to make sure the person knows what they said was wrong – and that it has consequences. Diplomacy was terminated when they acted as they did, and we graduate to the next measure: apologize and leave, or get hurt and wish you’d apologized – or just not opened your mouth at all. This isn’t unchecked anger, it’s refusal to be a coward.

If we arrive upon the scene of a car accident, we will not keep driving and “just hope that everybody’s okay.” Instead, we will help you, summon emergency services, try to calm you down, tell jokes, mop blood, and be otherwise generally helpful until somebody arrives to take our place. We’ve seen broken bodies before, and we’ve done what we can to help them. Most of them were friends, and some didn’t make it home. Later on, we’ll think about them, one name at a time, and wish we’d been able to help them more. Not one of us will confidently say that we have done enough.

Innately and vehemently, we all love our country. We know how others elsewhere are forced to live, and we’re thankful that we, our families, and friends don’t have to live like that also. Many of you may be blithely unaware of current events and not particularly interested in them, but we follow them closely. We know where our friends are, and we pray fervently for their return. We are quickly angered when somebody announces that they’re embarrassed to be an American. We strongly encourage you to live elsewhere and see how much you like it. Sadly, one is unaware of one’s rights until they’ve been painfully revoked.

If somebody asks us to take down the flags hanging on our porches, we will invest in flag poles and hang them higher. Few more than us have purchased the right to demonstrate our patriotism, and your lack of it encourages us to do it even more. We took an oath to the Constitution, and nowhere in there does it mention anything about sensitivity to lowering our colors because somebody finds it offensive. No, so long as our attempts at self-determination do not interfere or encroach on yours, we can do as we please. If it’s a really big problem for you, move elsewhere.

When the National Anthem plays, we will be standing solemnly, attentively, and place our hands across our chests. Some of us will salute. You may be assured that we will say something if you do not show any respect. That song, that annoying little ditty that delays the start of every sporting event, is a national hymn, and for a pivotal time in our lives we stood at attention and saluted whenever it was played. Failing to do so means you respect neither your country, those who have served it, or yourself. We will help you rediscover that sentiment, or simply embarrass you in public.

I will quickly admit that not all of our differences are good ones. Some are character problems we should all work on, and many of us are. We admit imperfection, as should all people.

We have lost all patience for standing in lines. Years of waiting long hours for gear we didn’t need, shots we didn’t want, or to go places we didn’t want to see have done this to us. We get irritated, and occasionally say rude things. We should work on it. We’ve observed and endured the very epitome of inefficiency and it pains us to see any more of it. Sorry.

We are occasionally too loud in public places, causing discomfort for the rest of our party and potentially displeasure for all those around us. Part of it may be the incorrect supposition that what we have to say bears more weight than others, but it’s mostly an inability to hear very well. Various explosions, machine guns, and roadside bombs have left almost every one of us with some form of hearing impairment. For a few, we just speak more quietly – awkwardly so.

We are not always very comfortable in loud, crowded places. We are trained to seize control of situations and make the best of them, but with so many people and so much noise, there is little we can do. We feel somewhat helpless, preferring to hug the perimeter, or the wall, or a darkened, quieter corner. We can more easily control our little corners. We may not be interested in dancing, either, because people may be watching and we don’t desire the attention. Once again, sorry.

We will yell loudly to get our points across, failing at times to remember that our audience isn’t a lot of idiot subordinates who can’t seem to go one weekend without getting in trouble. We forget that “normal” people always begin by discussing things amicably, not set upon each other with rabid spit-slinging obscenities. The further we move from our service, however, the less we will do this. Just give us some time. Nobody’s perfect, and we know we aren’t.

Sometimes we refuse to talk to you on the assumption that you will never understand what we’re trying to say. We appear silent, or at least painfully reserved, but there’s a reason. Strange as it may sound, we’re truly fearful that what we say will further distance us from you, and we don’t want to do that. We don’t want you to fear us, or hate us, or confuse us with criminals, because we are nothing of the sort. Simply put, we have an understanding of violence.

If, for some terrible reason, somebody runs into a building and starts shooting at people or otherwise attacking them, you will not find us cowering behind furniture frantically punching on our cell phones to dial the police. We will be running towards the enemy. We are trained to assault through the objective, and we will resort to that training as best we can. If we are armed, we will shoot. If we are not, we will FIND a weapon. Somehow, some way, we will kill the aggressor. Later, our hands will shake and we’ll get incredibly thirsty, and we’ll think back to the other times we’ve been attacked and how many of our friends we lost. Without warning, we will be overcome with emotions we long ago tucked into a secluded room and barricaded. Some of us will puke.

There is a high probability that how we act may kill us, but we have identified something far worse than dying. It’s living with regret. For as long as we draw breath, regardless of if we are still in the military or not, we remain keepers, stewards, watchers, and protectors, porters, pall bearers and carriers of a burden. Our actions may be fatal, but they are also right and we’re not going to stop thinking that way. We will gladly use violence to prevent further violence against the innocent. We, on the other hand, are not innocent, and are still combatants. And we’re peacemakers.

Finally, we do not tolerate accusations – particularly when we’re accused of being lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, or members of a generation of losers. When you tell us we don’t know the meaning of work or sacrifice, we will answer you, some quietly and some quite loudly. I, personally, will answer you quietly.

I will reach into my wallet and pull out my lifetime membership card to the Disabled American Veterans, and then I will tell you this: "I can't remember all the friends I lost, or the number of missions I've run, or the years I've spent serving a nation which I am mostly convinced didn’t desire my service. But despite what you may think, and for as long as my body holds out, if they call me again, I will answer."

We ARE different, and these are some of the reasons why. If you look for us, you’ll see us. We may not stand out particularly, but we stand up a little straighter, and perhaps smile a little less, or start limping a little younger than we should. We’re proud of what we did, and proud of most of our differences. This nation needs keepers, and we’re glad to do it. We can’t help it, either; it’s just right.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Now What?

*Retold with permission.

Years ago, somebody working for the Veterans Affairs Administration told me that if we had a combat action ribbon, we automatically rated 10% disability for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Apparently the mere act of being in such a life-threatening situation meant we were certifiably crazy – well, 10% crazy. Even though I certainly have that ribbon, earned multiple times over, I never asked for my 10%. It seemed embarrassing, not only because I don’t consider myself nuts, but because other men from other wars had been through far worse and still come out in the other side of it just fine – or at least seem to be so.

Besides that, I expected many of the tragedies of war. I expected to see bodies. I expected to see blood. I expected that some of us would get hurt. Sometimes, I was convinced it would be me. Occasionally, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to make it at all. I distinctly remember sitting in the humvee with my feet as far apart on the floorboards as I could get them. That way, if the shrapnel came through, maybe I’d only lose one leg and not both. Or one arm. I’d practiced putting on a tourniquet with one hand in the event that I’d lost the other. That part of it was expected, though I hesitate to call it fun.

I know a lot of guys absolutely hate the “did you kill anybody” question, but I’m going to be honest about it. Yes. How did that make me feel? Truthfully, it was remarkably uneventful. It was necessary at the time, and the alternative – potentially losing people because I hesitated – was far less appealing. Am I guilty about it? No. I did the right thing. The only troubling part is hindsight; I, singlehandedly, made the decision and took action to terminate the life of another human being. It’s not guilt, but wonderment.

Recently, I met a girl who shot an aggressor as he attempted to force his way through her window into the bedroom. I told her I thought it was pretty badass, and she confessed that it was most powerful she’d felt in her entire life. I think we feel that way in the military, too, but don’t talk about it. If we were to say it, people would assume we’re warmongers, which we are not. We just volunteered for an ugly business – knowing full well and agreeing that it’s ugly. Nobody hates war more than those fighting it. But it didn’t make us crazy.

All the flurry in the news about veteran suicide is bothersome, since they almost always blame it on PTSD, or us being crazy. I don’t think that’s it at all. If it were, then why didn’t previous generations of veterans kill themselves more frequently? God knows many of them saw more friends die in front of them, saw their own violent demise as a near-certainty, and lost countless friends along the way. There are plenty of veterans from my generation who genuinely have PTSD, but their situations are excusable. I know what many of them went through. I also don’t believe it’s why many of them take their own lives. There are other reasons for that.

It wasn’t killing people. That, perhaps horrifyingly so, was fairly easy. Identify the target, make a decision, and then respond accordingly. More often than not, the aggressor was hidden, or elusive. Fire a shot and leave. Detonate the IED and run. It was infuriating. We WANTED to shoot something, but there was nobody there to shoot. They’d inflicted their damage and flee, leaving us bleeding, dying, and angry.

It wasn’t being gone for months on end, either. Sure, it’s miserably, lonely, and stressful, but those are the dominant emotions of a deployment. Go away, lose a few people (or a lot of people), and then come back demoralized. With the deployment schedules being what they were, we’d come back and start training to leave again in a matter of months. After a time, you get used to it, watch the calendar closely, and eagerly look forward to being done with it all; or out of the military. Being overseas didn’t kill us; it just burned us out, broke our spirits, and made many of us rue the day we joined.

It wasn’t the living conditions, either. Those were total exasperations while we were enduring them, however. All the days sitting in the mud and trying to keep the mosquitoes from eating us – they were over soon enough. All the night mission chainsmoking to stay awake or punching yourself in the head trying to keep from slumping over the steering wheel, they’re great stories for the grandkids someday. Besides that, I take some pride in having gone through all of it and not completely shut down. I’m proud of my intestinal fortitude, self-discipline and endurance. Plenty of other guys didn’t do so well. Even still, I had my days. During one tour, I wasted away to a zombie from stress and lack of sleep. But none of this makes me want to kill myself.

Why do so many want to? I wish I knew specifically, because then I’d make every effort to help them. Though the specifics are still a mystery to me, I have a few ideas. It was purpose; more specifically, the total loss of it.

Throughout boot camp, we’re inundated with stories of heroism, dedication and patriotism. Before we were ordered to jump into our racks [beds] at the position of attention, we were required to scream out, “honor, courage, commitment,” at the top of our lungs. From the very beginning, we were told what we were doing was honorable. Even now, I sincerely believe that it is.

Whenever we went out somewhere in uniform, we always attracted attention – even the ugliest among us. Something about the uniform drew people. Women would naturally forget that we’re morons and gush about how dashing we looked. Men would come up and tell us about how their friends served, or they served, or how a distant cousin was in the Navy and I guess somehow they felt a connection with us. We were quasi-superheroes or something, or at least we garnered a lot of attention. Many civilian guys didn’t like us because we automatically had a leg up when we hit on girls. But when we lost the uniform, we lost everything that went with it. We were suddenly just like everybody else.

Whenever we ran out of things to say in a conversation, we could always tell a war story, or one from training, and people would listen with rapt attention. It was a foreign world to them; far off places, imminent danger, guns and explosions. If we were good talkers, we could dominate every conversation. Even when people said something awful to us, they were usually so much in the minority that people immediately sided with us, defended us, felt sorry for us, and then hung around even closer when we vented about how we’d been wronged. This, too, helped us hit on the girls. We were special. When we left the ranks, it stopped abruptly.

Whenever we were overseas, strangers from all across the United States would send us letters, pray for us, and inundate us with packages full of things that they wouldn’t normally buy even a close friend or relative. We were rock stars. They thanked us for keeping them safe, for volunteering to do miserably difficult things on behalf of strangers, and then thanked us on behalf of a grateful nation. We were heroes in their eyes, though few of us felt like it. Still, though, it was great to be put on a pedestal. Our service wasn’t just a dirty job; it was an identity. We lost it when we were discharged.

At first the discharge was freedom – almost the end of a prison sentence, but that changed. In reality, it was also a discharge from the reality we’d been living in, as well as the unique identity that went with it. What once set us apart from everybody else was now completely, irrevocably gone (unless we got so desperate that we elected to go back in). We didn’t just lose a uniform, but also a job, a calling, an elevated status, and direction. We poured our hearts into earning the mantle of warrior, but promptly extinguished our hearts when we left it all behind. We walked away with nothing. Without purpose and completely adrift.

And that, I think, is why many so quickly give up. That’s why they kill themselves – they see life as over. They’re jobless, they’ve lost their purpose, their motivation, and everything that once categorized them as worthy of respect. They try to keep telling war stories, but people lose interest quickly. They’re just the ramblings of a washed-up veteran. They’re told to move on.

They go off to college, but it seems a waste of time. Listening to kids and professors with no clue about the world pontificating how stupid and evil war is, but none of them has ever seen the face somebody who truly wanted to kill them simply because they were different. Besides this, it’s not purposeful. Instead, it’s an endless stream of boring information, mostly forgotten, and far less interesting than doing patrols and carrying a rifle.

What profession, pastime or hobby can come close to the respectability that they earned in the military? Law enforcement? Hardly. Academia? Not really. Besides, few of them ever end up in positions if great importance. They’ve put aside an adventure and picked up monotony. After the military, “normal life” is boring. Nothing seems meaningful.

And so, with the best behind them and blinded to the hope that the future might offer something equally rewarding, they flounder, turn inside themselves and see life as mostly over. The remainder is survival, not living. With a total lack of hope, why bother to keep trying? What’s the point? At best, it’s all less interesting, adventurous, and meaningful. Life, as they know it, is over.

They never prepared us for this in training, either. They spend months readying us to go fight, live in filth and get by on little to no sleep, but then they do virtually nothing to see us off. And I’m not even sure it’s their fault, anyway. We all made the voluntary decision to go in, so it seems appropriate that we also make the voluntary decision to do something great after we get out, too. What I wish they DID do, however, is help us see beyond the patriotism, beyond the service, and beyond the identity of warrior.

Even for the guys that do 20 years and retire, there’s still more living on the outside, and that’s what none of us were ready to face. Having exhausted our hearts becoming warriors, there’s little energy left for much else. Life isn’t over, but living seems to be. And with our greatest achievements behind us, why keep struggling? A quick end seems almost merciful, saving us years of futility. It’s not the war that kills us, or the PTSD, the sights and horrors; it’s the end of the war and the end of purpose. We gave the military our all, and now there’s nothing left.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meeting In The Rain

For mid-autumn, the weather was typical. The skies were grey and the clouds low – alternating between irritating drizzle, gentle rain, and short pauses before the next insult. It was arthritically cold and everyone’s joints hurt. As they walked, their feet turned sodden in the wet, perfectly-kempt grass. A number regretted not bringing umbrellas. It was fitting for the funeral. It was awful.

Half of those gathered were his “blood” family, and the other half the family with whom he bled, in uniform. Grief read on all their faces, manifested as total devastation on many, yet tempered with anger, guilt and disbelief on most of the veterans. In some way, though unquantifiably so, they felt they owned this. All grieved yet another brother who, after years of honorable service, took his own life.

Well-intentioned public figures are always eager to provide data that proves the military and veterans “aren’t that bad off,” but they must not know anybody who has endured a miserable deployment or struggled to regain their footing after transitioning out of the service. To me, their expositions do little more than demonstrate how little they care. They must not know the people I know, either. If they did, they would be unable to NOT grieve.

Since 2003, my Marine battalion has sustained well over forty combat fatalities in Iraq. At least twelve of those were from a single friendly fire incident. Back in the states, the same battalion has lost half a dozen in training accidents such as vehicle rollovers or “runaway guns.” Nearly that many have been lost to liberty incidents – mostly automobile crashes. They have also lost almost a dozen to suicide, and these are just the numbers I’ve been told about. Already, I struggle to remember their names, which embarrasses me.

Even those who have survived their service still seem to be doing poorly. Among those I knew the vast majority of their marriages have failed. Others have since begun relationships and watched them deteriorate, too. I know of few couples who are doing undeniably well.

Amongst my peers, college has become a default – the free option awaiting them when they left the ranks, but remarkably few seem to approach it with any ambition. It’s not preparation for greater dreams, but a way to prolong the inevitable. Real life is fast approaching, and none of it looks enjoyable. Physically, they’re falling apart. Mentally, they may not be far behind.

Those who elected to stay in the Marines are now regretting doing so. Despite their optimism, it hasn’t improved for them. One recently noted that, “it’s just not fun being a Marine anymore.” Those that moved into other branches of the military are also questioning their decisions. It’s turning out to just be more of the same.

And nor can I overlook the dozens from my battalion who have been discharged for medical reasons. They frequently stood right next to those who were killed, and somehow managed to survive – but barely. They’re missing legs and fingers, eyesight, or hearing. They’ve lost mobility, or are still waiting for shrapnel to migrate out from under their skin. Several grapple with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs), loss of memory, radically adjusted personalities, and a host of other side effects. One of my own Marines, struck several times by IEDs, confessed to me that he can’t remember his own father’s funeral. He knows he was there, but can’t remember where it was, or anything about it. His girlfriend left him because she didn’t like who he’d become.

Nobody, as near as I can tell, is remotely happy. One friend announced with conviction that his greatest achievements in life are behind him and now he looks forward to a miserable life without meaning or purpose. People keep insisting that most veterans get out and thrive, but I’m not seeing it. Not the guys I know.

More than I can count are still reeling from some sort of emotional injury – and these are the ones who I have the most trouble understanding. We were infantry, so we expected to lose some in combat. None of us liked it, but such is the nature of war. Fewer always come home. We did not expect to lose any more, though. We did not anticipate an internal war. It’s one we don’t know how to fight; one with staggering casualty figures. In 2005 alone, for example, more than 6,100 veterans took their own lives in the states. To put that in perspective, approximately 5,000 servicemembers have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But in the states, more than that died by their own hands in one year.

Several of my surviving friends wonder what they could have done differently. They mull over what warning signs they should have seen. They soul-search for how they could have made themselves more available, or approachable, or attentive. They’re angry with themselves for what they see as a failure on their part. They’re angry with the departed for not talking to them, because they would have gladly helped. They’re haunted. We are haunted. “I just talked with him, and now he’s gone.”

They say the wars may be ending soon, but I fear the casualties are just beginning to mount. For the majority of veterans I know, to include myself, there is a pervasive feeling of discontent, desperation, and protracted misery. Statistics keep insisting that we’re mostly okay, but I see differently. I see men and women caught in a slow and lonesome death. I see defeated warriors. And I see little being done about it.

The US Army recently admitted that they have no idea what to do about the epidemic of suicides within their ranks. Nor have their aggressive ad campaigns done anything to reduce the numbers. Similarly, the VA has seen only marginal success – a sad realization considering the thousands of mental health professionals they have recently hired. In some regards, it’s as if the war has chewed up a generation of young men and women and permitted them do great and terrible things, but then spit them back into society alone, unprepared, and unsupported. I have no great solutions. I wish I did.

If I knew what else I should be doing, I would do it. Just as it is for my brothers, I see this as personal failure. More than perhaps ever before, we need this nation’s help. Yet more than perhaps ever before, we don’t know what to ask for. Instead, there is a growing generation of complete screw-ups. Something changed in us, and we have no clue how to reverse it. Something died, and many are simply waiting for the rest of their beings to follow.

We were all trained to be leaders. We were trained to be problem-solvers and to rationally overcome any situation even in midst of total chaos. The enemy was tangible, and easy. The one that consistently slays us, however, is nebulous, evasive, and clever. We’re fighting demons; a battle for which we’re gravely unprepared. But trained leaders and problem-solvers are loath to ask for help. They suffer, wage war, and frequently lose in silence. Even at my worst, I never sought any help. It seemed an exhibition of weakness.

There will be more rain-soaked cemeteries with assemblies of grieving parents and angry, guilty, devastated veterans. There will be more haunting questions about how we’ve failed our brothers. There will be more self-doubting and discontent. There will be more struggling, and there will be more defeat. We’ll stand there quietly and not know what to say, and we’ll walk away not knowing what to do differently next time. Who will the next assembly be for? A close friend? Us? The training never addressed this kind of battle. For as much as we struggle to put our war behind us, we keep being pulled back into it. Men, our brothers, our friends, our subordinates and leaders, still keep disappearing from the ranks. Helplessly, we watch them fall.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return 1

*The below is fiction. Maybe...

Hall remembered when he liked being called insane. By his interpretation of the accusation, people were impressed that he was willing to do creative things, but they were entirely too weenie to try such things themselves. It invariably took them too far from the comforts of their suburban neighborhoods with neglected little lawns, overweight and emotionally disengaged husbands yelling at a football games on TV, and their disillusioned wives attempting to keep the kids from climbing the walls while they struggled to cook dinner. He enjoyed not being like that. But now, the prospect of drinking his cheap beer, watching his game, and disliking his frantic wife seemed appealing.

Absently grinding the curved magazine of his AK—47 into the top ledge of the mortared half wall, he looked behind him to confirm if Tucker was asleep. As expected, he was. Despite frequent eminent danger, Tucker still considered any lull as a superb opportunity to catch up sleep – a puzzling trait considering that he never appeared to exert more than the very minimum required energy to stand from his bed in the morning, eat something, drink a strong coffee, and drift back to sleep. Hall had more than once accused him of being a waste of carbon.

He flicked his still-lit cigarette back towards Tucker, hitting the low wall above his head. In the dark, red embers showered onto his head and shoulders and he stirred, eventually lifting his head to stare groggily at Hall.

“They coming?” he managed to ask around a yawn.


“They why’d you wake me up?” He vigorously brushed cigarette ash from his hair.

“Because if I have to be alert up here, so do you.”

Tucker stood with monumental effort, slung his rifle on his shoulder like a shovel, and shrugged. He remained silent, unwilling to concede that Hall was right.

He peered off the roof into the dark. “Anything to see out there?”

“Just jackals. I haven’t heard anything else, and no car’s come near for an hour, but they could be walking in this time.”

“We’ll see, I guess. Hand me a smoke, will you?”

In silence, they looked out into the desert, listening to jackals bicker over which one owned what piece of empty desert. Hall thought about the suburbs again and realized with irony that he was doing exactly the same thing the jackals were doing – only with guns. Being insane had disadvantages.


It had begun as a barroom joke years before. US commanders often made shabby attempts at humor when addressing their troops. “I’ve been here so long, I ought to buy real estate and build a house.” Nobody would laugh, afraid to give them any license to continue. It was true, though. They’d ALL been there too long.

Hall and Tucker, along with five other escapees from the infantry ranks, had repeated the joke over drinks one evening in Oceanside, California and wondered if maybe the commanders’ jokes were more reasonable than they had previously been willing to admit. Tucker thought it would be funny – the ultimate middle finger to a country he had visited repeatedly, never liked, but strangely would be willing to visit again. Hall considered it an adventure. Burr, always eager to horrify people, thought it was a splendid opportunity to wear a “man dress” and get away with it. The rest, judgment blurred by varying quantities of beer and discontent at the prospect of living in their parents’ basements and attending community college, quickly agreed. It could be done, maybe, with the proper funding, careful planning, and a certain death wish.

“Why?” was the question they were asked with incredulity when they tried to explain their reasoning. “Why not?” however, was the best response they could summon. It satisfied them, but not “normal people.” They always seemed enthusiastic to provide a long list of reasons why it was a stupid idea. Most of them were valid, too. If they were so enthusiastic about visiting the sandbox again, why not stay in the military? Each quickly fired off his own reasons for getting out. After Hall mentioned his intentions to one friend, who looked at him with incredulity, he determined it was better to simply not talk about it. He’d wait until he’d done it, grew bored of it, and came back home. He was eager to further distance himself from the weenies.

They concluded that the logistics would be bloody awful. To anybody’s knowledge, no US servicemembers had ever decided to return to Iraq as residents. Tourists had traveled through the relative safety of Kurdistan, yes, but nowhere else – at least not without securing large compounds, hiring enormous guard forces, driving exorbitantly expensive armored vehicles, and living in terror. One American guy had tried to motorcycle the country, but he’d been arrested by Iraqi forces, handed over to the US military, and quickly deported. He was clearly insane, and not in a good, adventurous way. This would be more calculated, and methodical – and still seemed absurdly dangerous. But, that was part of the thrill.

It would take years to research and execute, obviously. Not so much because it was difficult to visit a dangerous area of the world, but because certain things needed to transpire first. The conflict as a whole, specifically as it pertained to US presence, needed to change first. Very simply, the longer they waited, the less likely it would be that they were marching blithely to their own deaths. Time would change the situation on the ground, no doubt, and give them ample opportunity to prepare. Something as complex as this deserved a little forethought. With refilled glasses and even dimmer thinking, they toasted to their health, their success in future exploits, and to hell with everybody else.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Glory Days

Over the course of the Marine Corps Birthday (Nov. 10th) and Veterans’ Day on November 11th, I, and millions of other veterans did what they seem to do best: occupy poorly-lit, smoke-filled bars, buy drinks for strangers and poison ourselves. Amid all the conversations, all the speeches about honor and service, all the toasts to friends who never made it home, and the poorly-remembered second and third lines of the Marine Corps hymn, it was one Vietnam veteran who I most noticed. Despite the blur of alcohol, whenever something meaningful was said, he adjusted his campaign cover (drill instructor hat), snapped to the position of attention, and executed a sharp salute. His behavior loosed a cascade of difficult questions I don’t particularly want to address. Do I want to be like him in thirty years?

For how long can we look back on our service as the most meaningful, memorable experience of our lives and remain uninterested in other memories? For how many years is it acceptable to introduce ourselves as veterans and not simply by our names? When will something else be more important?

How many free drinks can we accept from strangers and older veterans before we drop the title of returned heroes and become the ones buying drinks for others? How long is it appropriate for us to live each day like our last and drink ourselves into a stupor? How much longer will people excuse us for it because we’re veterans and deserve to live a little after all we’ve lived through over the past few years?

How long can we legitimately be angry about at leadership decisions that we’re convinced killed our friends, or bitter at a government that really seemed to have little idea how to properly employ us? For how many more years will we visit the gravesites of fallen comrades before our obligation and guilt fades? For how much longer can we reminisce about out glory days at war and sincerely believe that we’re fundamentally different and don’t want to fit in again? How many more nights can we get away with puking ourselves or wetting the bed? How many more mornings can we justify reeking of booze?

When will we stop devoting all our time to news stories about the war before we grow tired of it and conclude that there are other things happening in the world that deserve attention? How much longer will we watch war movies even though they take us to places we don’t particularly want to be? When will we drop the military jargon and acronyms and make an attempt to speak like everybody else? When will we grow tired of wearing paraphernalia from our uniforms and dress like those around us?

How long will it be before we can no longer hide the secret that we actually enjoy peoples’ sympathy, as much as we may insist we don’t want it? When will we stop telling people we’re deaf because of IEDs and machine guns and simply lean in a little closer? When will we throw away all our old uniforms or stop putting military bumper stickers on our cars? When will we quit limiting our closest friends to veterans and grow comfortable speaking with those who haven’t served? When will we stop wearing combat boots? When will we no longer want to be different?

How much longer will we sputter, “I’m a combat veteran” whenever we’re insulted and conclude that most people really don’t care? When will we grow tired of muttering, “fucking civilians” and remember that we, too, are civilians? When will we stop missing the military? When will we lose interest in being identified by our rank? When will we stop trying to explain?

When will we determine that our short years of service aren’t who or what we are, but instead something adventurous that we did? When will we be interested in seeking out other adventures? When will people no longer ask us our opinions on the war? When will we no longer want to talk about it? When will our stories be about other things? When will we grow our hair back out to normal lengths?

How much longer can we ride the wave of quasi-fame because we’re veterans and instead set out for greater things? When will our service evolve into a memory and cease being an identity? When will we no longer try to defend ourselves when somebody accuses us of being warmongers? When will we move forward? When will we stop abusing ourselves? When will we stop killing ourselves? When will we awaken?

When we are older? When we are old? Tomorrow? Next year? When there is another war underway? When we accept defeat? When we acknowledge smallness? When nobody cares anymore? When we have other things to occupy our thoughts? When we hit rock bottom?

Inarguably, many of these changes, both good and bad, are irreversible. It is impossible to simply forget participation in a war. It’s just hard to see other things. I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but one thing is certain. For us, the generation of warriors who are prone to self destruction, time is definitely running out.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 9, 2009

For All It's Thrill

After months of fabricating an image of what home would be like, long hours forgetting every one of its unappealing aspects, and sufficient time to develop its anticipation to an unrealistic fever pitch, it is no surprise that, at least on some level, I found arriving home a disappointment. My expectations were absurdly unrealistic.

With each passing day in Iraq, home had slowly transformed into the antithesis of a combat zone. In my mind’s eye, whatever being deployed was (even as a writer), home was distinctly NOT. If a combat zone was dangerous, I remembered home as peaceful. If the desert was unbearably loud with the roar of generators and trucks, home was beautifully quiet. If Iraq was miserably lonely, home was immeasurably good company. If my deployed life was complicated, home was simple. But fantasies, just like the best-laid battle plans, never survive first contact. Home is just as complex, just as chaotic, and just as tragic and incomprehensible as a combat zone. I just don’t understand it as well as I understand tactical operations; there aren’t any manuals. But still, it has been good to see my family, catch up with old friends, and make a few new ones.

Nationwide, a hundred thousand husbands return from a deployment to discover that their wives have frequently done quite well in their absence. What was once a mutual partnership to raise a family and maintain a home was successfully handled by only one of them. And marriages, those that survive deployments, are forever different. For many troops, single or otherwise, there’s the initial excitement at your return, but then life continues – without your inclusion. Nobody’s a hero at home, but the guy who cleans the gutters, or the one who’s asked to discipline the children. They’ll go back to taking out the garbage and doing household chores. After leading troops in a combat situation, preparing intelligence briefs, or repairing multi-million dollar pieces of tactical equipment, the return home often seems a permanent descent into obscurity. There are plenty of calamities, but they seem simultaneously trivial and inexplicably unmanageable. We were once making history, yet now we’re only viewing it pass us by.

A few weeks prior to his return, a servicemember was briefing subtle changes in the Rules of Engagement to his Soldiers or preparing weapon systems and vehicles for combat operations. Now, however, he’s arguing with his wife over bills. Loving people proves far more involved than dearly missing them from afar. To their alarm, many find themselves missing the simplicity of a combat zone: conduct the mission, lead troops, stay alive, eat, and sleep when able. Back home, relationships are hard, traffic is awful, and people are generally rude, and seemingly always in the way. Friends are still dying, too – overseas and at home – all under horrible circumstances.

A number will depart the military and smoothly move forward with life – relegating their service to stories for the grandchildren. A number more will stay in and begin preparing for their next tour in six to eighteen months time. None will ever be the same, but a few will become inherently self-destructive, reclusive, or simply go adrift. In staggering numbers, they’ll take their own lives.

Now that they’re home, people will ask questions that they still don’t know how to answer. Most are good questions, but it’s difficult to see beyond the anger, personal loss, total frustration, and culture shock of returning. It’s easier to not talk to anybody, or wile away the evenings in bars talking (and thinking) about as little as possible. Nothing makes sense, and despite the distance from a combat zone, clarity is rare. Truthfully, the combat zone is never that far away at all.

For myself, I still can’t tell you what I think about Iraq. Four tours have simply afforded an increasingly complex jumble of information, disconnected facts, and observations that are nearly impossible to explain to others. I’m embarrassed that I’m avoiding people who ask me challenging questions and ignoring incoming phone calls. I’m still frustrated. Before God I swear that if I knew a way to change how the war has settled with me, I would. But thus far the solution evades me. Perhaps I am in the minority.

Of the dozens of things I planned to do when I returned, I’ve still done none of them. Home is nice, but I don't particularly want to be here. My thoughts are far, far way.

They’re immersed in a very interesting, complicated story; more than one, actually. One is the past decade of my life, which has seen me on four separate continents and scrambling to pull the right currency from my wallet and not confuse languages. Sometimes I held a rifle; other times a pencil. There's a strange draw to deserts of all sorts, and dislike of rain on every continent.

There's the story of a two-front war which continues to occupy billions of taxpayers' dollars and nearly a quarter million US troops. There's the simultaneous absurdity and critical nature of the war. There’s the tragedy of war itself, the adventure of combat, the fear of being the one who never sees his family again, and the general belief that the leaders of this country have committed the US armed forces to a mission the policymakers didn’t clearly understand. There are the individual stories of the hundreds of friends I still have out there.

There is the chaos of being home, the complication of human interaction. There is a total lack of the peace and refreshment which I so desperately sought. I’ve told people I’m ready to leave again, which no doubt horrifies them. Yet how much of this is a calling, and how much of it is running? I wish I knew the answer. Prayers have thus far produced little response. I will keep praying. It changes me - which can't be a bad thing.

If I had to distill everything, I would say that choosing the path I have has alienated me from a great deal of what most people consider "normal." I don't regret taking it, but I confess that I don't particularly like walking it alone. I am not in the military anymore, yet I am not exactly a civilian either. I am both, and none, and something in between. A bridge perhaps? A link? A misfit? An adventurer? A wayward? My answer depends on my demeanor, and the weather, and how much sunlight I've seen. And the rain. I miss combat boots. A lot of vets never stop wearing them.

When I pulled into a gas station three day ago, the first thing I noticed about the car in front of me was the Marine Corps sticker on the back window. The second thing was a young guy stepping from the passenger’s seat. The third thing was the USMC tattoo on his arm. In talking with him, I learned he’s home on pre-deployment leave – a month away from his first combat deployment. In short order, his unit will be patrolling lonely territory in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

For all my eagerness to return to the United States, as much as I missed my family and detest the heartbreaking worry I’ve caused them and others, as lonely as I have been, as little as I like living out of a bag and wearing the added weight of body armor, for all the danger, misery and tragedy of a combat zone, and despite the fact that I will make friends only to lose some of them, I still miss it. As we stood in the gas station parking lot talking, there was only one thing I wanted to tell that young Marine: “Take me with you, brother; I’m ready to go. I’ll absolutely hate it, but I love you guys.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 2, 2009

Watch Closely

“You know why I feel so close to this war? It’s because of two guys we had come through a while back.

“They were both in town for treatment at the hospital – they’d been blown up pretty badly. Since they couldn’t drive anywhere, we took care of it and drove them around when they needed it. We also brought them down here to the VFW, gave them free memberships, and bought ‘em a couple beers. They were the nicest guys you could imagine.

“One of them brought his laptop with him, and he had live footage of some of the firefights and IEDs he’d gone through. Hell, I guess some guy had recorded the mission where he got blown up, too. Just riding along, and all the sudden the humvee’s lost in a mushroom cloud and he’s tossed into the ditch like a ragdoll.

“He had another video where they were doing a foot patrol, too. As it was playing, he said, ‘watch closely here. This is where my friend gets blown away.’ A moment later, a sniper round takes off the head of the guy in front of him, and then all hell breaks loose.

“Some of the folks in here couldn’t even watch it; it was too disturbing for them. But I watched it over and over. These are the images playing through this guy’s mind all the time.

“He told me that when he got home, the first thing he did was go to his friend’s parents’ house and sit down to tell them how their son had died. He figured they had a right to know. He said they cursed at him at first, but later on they thanked him.

“He said that whenever he finished treatment for his brain injury he was planning to get married, but I don’t know if it ever happened. He was still messed up pretty bad. He’d be talking normally for awhile, but then he’d start repeating himself, over and over. Can’t say I blame him, either. Those images keep playing in my mind, too.

“After what he’s gone through, I don’t know how he’s going to fit back in; him or the others. Especially if all he can think about is getting blown out of his goddam humvee or watching the poor sonofabitch in front of him have his head taken off by a sniper.

“I wish I knew how to help these guys, but I really don’t. Right now, I just want them all to come home.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Closing

In August of 2004, while on a mounted patrol outside of Mahmudiyah Iraq, an IED struck two trucks in front of mine, causing concussions and severely injuring the gunner in the turret. While Doc dragged him out and went to work, insurgents in the nearby buildings and treeline started firing on us. When Doc discovered he was still in the line of fire, he dragged his patient to the other side of the truck and continued working. The rest of us fired back, gathered our casualties, and ran a chaotic ground evacuation back to base. It was my first firefight. I think I’ve done a poor job of describing it to people, but I’ll keep trying.

In 2006, while attached to US and Iraqi Special Forces, my squad conducted a targeted hit on a high-value target west of Ramadi. After turning over the package to other US forces for interrogation, we retreated into the desert wadis to sleep. In the morning, we warmed ourselves with coffee while huddled around trash fires. When it started to rain, we were miserable. While on watch that night with a friend, I had one of the most memorable conversations of the deployment. I’m still in close contact with him, too. In fact, he e-mailed me this morning.

In 2007, we and scores others assisted with the casualties of a carbomb that detonated directly outside the base, killing dozens and injuring unknown dozens more. In their haste to evacuate some of the living, the Iraqis unintentionally ran over a few of their dead. Our Doc helped save a few, but better remembers those he couldn’t save, especially one little girl. I think I’ve talked about it more than Doc ever has. It may be years before he’s ready.

About two months ago, a rocket landed about 35 feet from where I stood. Thankfully, for me and the Soldier standing next to me, it failed to detonate. Less than a month ago, the Stryker in which I rode struck an IED, totaling the vehicle. None of the passengers, however, sustained any serious injuries. I have been fortunate. Most of my friends have been through far more. A few of them are dead now. They were all under 30. We rest of us are now tasked with telling their stories.

I’ve navigated through night vision goggles as my driver roared through the desert and prayed I didn’t lead him off a cliff. More than once I nearly did. I’ve slept with a rifle. I’ve awakened in a puddle of water, surprised by unexpected rain during the night. I’ve cooked food over trash fires. I’ve fired most of the common weapons in the Marine Corps infantry arsenal and seen the others fired on various occasions. I’ve expended more than my fair share of $70,000 missiles. I’ve been fired upon.

I’ve helped arrange weapons caches for detonation and rigged them with explosives so powerful that our safety standoff is more than a kilometer away. I’ve heard rockets whine overhead and seen the damage they cause on detonation. I’ve experienced more than enough mortar attacks. I’ve been in firefights and other situations where I’m forced to make a kill/no kill decision which may have determined if my comrades lived or died. A number ARE dead, and I, like many others, still sometimes wonder why I was spared and they were not. I have to remind myself that bullets and shrapnel don’t discriminate.

I’ve missed home so badly that I didn’t care about anything else, potentially at the expense of my leadership decisions. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Even still, I’d do it again if my country so called me. So will millions of others veterans. Some of this never leaves you, regardless of how much you hated it at the time.

By nearly all western standards, these are horrifying events and experiences, and they come with more baggage than any of us could have anticipated. These, as well as the loss of friends, are the brief occurrences that will permanently shape a servicemember. They are the short ten minutes of a deployment that stick out above all else. Everybody’s experiences are different. Believe it or not, mine were comparatively tame.

Many still wonder sometimes if they’ve made a difference at all in the grand scheme of things. Depending on how it’s defined, victory is either very distant or very near. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to agree to its definition. I find some comfort in my uncle’s sagacious remarks: “The warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.” He’s entirely correct. Where we served is far less relevant than the fact that we volunteered to go. That we stood up, in a crowd of Americans unwilling to leave the comfort of their lives; that has made all the difference. It’s difficult to define patriotism. It’s more of a sensation; or perhaps a belief.

For some, because they are young, this is first great thing they have done with their lives. They will return, move forward, and do other great things. For a few, this may also be their last great thing. Either they will fall doing it, or they will return to lives that don’t interest them. Much of it is mundane – even in the military. And after traveling hither and yon with a rifle, calamities at home are unimpressive. Those out here are always well-remembered, though poorly articulated.

And there’s always more to think about, too. There’s the challenge of how to internalize one’s service. Are we victims, or are we battered servants? Were we well-employed, or were we misappropriated? Do we choose bitterness, or do we stand proudly? Do we let grief overwhelm us, or do we find reason to smile through tears? We freely gave something, yet something else was taken. We viewed it simply at first, but walk away astounded with its complexity. Our own thoughts are muddled.

We were youthful once, and enthusiastically fought a war. The public lost interest and some forgot, yet still we fought it. We’re still fighting now. For those veterans deprived a resolute victory, the war may never end. Or at least not for quite some time. It hasn’t settled well with us.

But beneath the layers of emotion, the trauma, the loneliness, the complexity, excitement, confusion and grief, there’s one hell of an adventure, for better or for worse. Five years and four tours later, I still struggle for words; and I’m not the only one. People need ears to hear, though. Not to idolize the military or aggrandize war, but because these stories are our nation’s history, and we won’t be around forever to tell them. It’s a virtual race to write it all down. Still, I have to try.

The friend who e-mailed me this morning wrote me with devastating news. Two days ago, another one of our veteran friends took his own life. After all his years in the military, all his combat deployments and all his adventures, I wonder if he found words to tell his story. I wonder if anybody was listening when he did. Finally, I wonder if it would have made a difference.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two Perspectives

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.


*Retold with permission.

Without a doubt, we all get a lot of attention out here. People stateside go out of their way to take up donations for us, pack boxes, send us things, pray for us, and put yellow ribbons all over the place. While I think that’s good and I certainly appreciate it, they’re not doing so well in another area: supporting the families of those deployed. In fact, I think our families are virtually neglected.

The reality is this: when we deploy, it’s such a dramatic change from what we’d doing stateside, we stay plenty busy – occupied with learning and excelling in our new mission. Sure, it’s lonely, but we’re often too busy to think about it. Families, however, undergo enormous change, endure absent spouses, and still have to function. They often do so with little to no support.

I know the military is making an effort to assemble a support network within the FRG (family readiness group), but there’s only so much that they can legitimately do. The fact still remains that an essential player in a household is missing. The hardest thing out here for me is separation from my wife. She’s my better half, of course. And that’s the hardest thing for her, too – and actually more so than it is for me, since she still has to keep the family running. Out here I have little part in that.

Back in the states, I would get up and go to work, and when I came home, I’d cook dinner. As necessary, I’d also take care of “handyman” chores. Everything else my wife already managed: bills, banking, everything. My absence only means she has to cook one more meal a day and maybe some fix-it stuff. But that’s not entirely accurate. We aren’t merely two people who cohabitate; we are one – and my wife and I are both operating at half capacity as a consequence of our separation.

I think that deployments are harder for the families of reservists, mostly because they’re accustomed to our status as reservists. We’re gone one weekend a month, and then two weeks a year. They’re used to that, not to having us disappear for well over a year. It’s a shock, because you never really know when it’s going to happen, and then you only receive fairly short notice. Surprise, your spouse is leaving. Then we depart with lots of people in the states supporting us, and they’re left to their loneliness, silence, and a home and family that still need to function smoothly.

The number of detriments to all of it begs the question why I volunteered to do this. I have easy explanations. First, it’s for my family. This is a reliable, honorable job, and it provides an income to support them. Second, it’s something I can do for my country, and something I’ve always wanted to do. Third, this is for my children. Not in the conventional sense that I’m trying to pay their college funds, but something else.

Here’s how I look at it. I want my children to know what military service is like. I want them to know that it pulls away mom or dad at random intervals and puts them in harm’s way. I want them to know that while it’s something to be proud of, it comes with a number of costs – potentially high ones not only for me, but for them as well. I want to be a hero for them, and right now that means doing something difficult for all of us.

The reality is that at any time in the states, I could be run over by a bus and killed. There is an inherent risk to life, and it’s unavoidable. And yes, there are added risks out here, too. But, I’d rather go out doing something meaningful than any manner of accident or “tragedy” in the states.

So why do I want my children to know what military service is like? It’s simple. I want them to be equipped with enough information and insight to make wise decisions about whether or not they wish to serve. They will have an intimate knowledge of the separation it causes. If they determine that they accept the downfalls and choose to do it anyway, I will support them. If they wish to never go through it again, I will support that decision, too. At least now they will have the information to know what it does to a family.

People like to talk about how we’re doing such great things for the Iraqi people, but they’re not part of the equation for me. This is not a part of the world about which I particularly care, and nor do I have any expectation that they will thrive under democratic leadership. That’s not my concern. This is for my family, and for my children. The hard part is what it does to my family.

During the Family Readiness Group briefing, we learned a bit about programs available for our loves ones in the states, mostly our children. There are organizations that collect donations and cover the expenses of involving our kids in some sort of extracurricular activity. They’re not so much trying to train athletes as keep the children of deployed US troops busy – and therefore less fixated on familial struggles or the absence of a parent. Thanks to one of these programs, my son will begin learning to box fairly soon.

Despite the programs available, there’s entirely too little available for the families of deployed servicemembers. We get all the care packages, the prayers, and media attention. They get virtually nothing. It’s assumed that because they’re not in harm’s way, they must not be going through much – which is untrue. They’re trying to sustain a broken, long-distance marriage. I’d say that merits some attention.

How can they be helped? More support, more awareness of the sacrifices they make while we’re overseas, more programs for our children, and assistance with whatever minutiae their spouses handled when he or she was home. That’s just the beginning. How about prayers? How about a nation devoted to encouraging and caring for them in our absence. We’ll be okay out here. We’re busy. They need the help back in the states. Unfortunately, though, the nation can help with everything but the one thing they want: to simply have us home. Only time can resolve that one.



*Reprinted with permission (from email interviews).

First, thank you for speaking with my husband, and for what you said about our marriage. He and I are indeed very close. We are one, as you will see. Also, thank you for taking the time out to speak with me. I will try to answer your questions as best I can.

For the most part, people who I don't know very well, yet still know my husband is deployed, have been supportive. They ask how we are doing and how my husband is doing and then reassure me that we are all in their prayers. The conversation usually turns to something else fairly quickly.

The one thing that angers me, though, is when they follow all that up with, “our troops shouldn't even be over there, getting involved in all that mess; they don't even want us there." But people have lost sight of why these brave Soldiers are there and what they are doing for us. They mistakenly think they have all the facts, when in reality they have but few. They’re impatient, and I don’t think any of them understand that our entire way of life as Americans is in jeopardy.

When my husband went back in to the Army Reserves after being out for thirteen years, and after serving in the Persian Gulf War [Desert Storm], I remember somebody asking him, “why would you do that? You have a family.” His response was that he would rather be over there [in Iraq], than have them [the terrorists] over here.

He is doing this not only for his country, but for his family to be able to sleep soundly at night, to play outside during the day, and never fear that we may face another 9-11. All the protestors speaking out against the war have forgotten where their right to speak freely and openly came from. Somebody fought to preserve that. The whole world over, people are dying for speaking their minds, but here they do not. They take it for granted, but it came at a high cost – especially to the military and their families.

Yes, the families of the troops might not be fighting a war. But in order for our Soldiers to concentrate on THEIR jobs and on coming home safely, they need to have total confidence that things at home are being taken care of without any worry to them. That’s our war back here – keep everything running flawlessly, so the Soldiers can concentrate on what’s important to them out there. I tease my husband by telling him he's on vacation. He laughs, since he knows I don’t seriously believe that. My better half, my lover, my best friend, and father to my children isn't here. That's my reality.

We have three children, two of whom are teenagers, and Daddy’s girl is seven. Every responsibility we shared as partners: bills, raising a family, the house work, cooking, cleaning, homework, sports, taxi service (for the kids), taking them to school, picking them up from school, and much more – that’s now solely my responsibility.

I don't allow people to see me at my emotional worst. I cry, scream, curse and hate life for a few minutes, but then I pull myself back together. I have to for the sake of my kids. I don't complain to people how hard it is on me. I tell them I'm doing fine. That's because someone once said to me, "Well he joined, it's not like he didn't know he was going, right?" I don’t think anybody has any interest in listening.

I honestly feel people just don't give a damn about what the families go through back here. Or perhaps they do, but they’re too busy with their own lives to consider somebody else’s. I know everybody has a hectic life; not just us. I’m sure someone completely unaffiliated with the military can easily tell me what kind of horrible day they’re having. Not only military families are busy. Everybody is.

This is absolutely the hardest thing my kids and I have ever endured. My husband is the love of my life. We are ONE, and yet I have to live without him for a year. I worry about him every day and I pray every night for his safety. As hard as this is for us, he is our HERO. My kids and I are so proud of him and what he and all the other brave Soldiers are doing for us. I proudly display my "Army Wife" sticker on my car because I truly believe I am immeasurably blessed to have such a brave man as my husband.

I guess, in the eye of the public, you could call us military families "The Forgotten Ones". Though overlooked, we are the backbone to the Soldiers fighting for our country. Without us, they would fall.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Photo

When they stepped off the Blackhawk, it was difficult to resist the urge to run over and help them. Several were limping badly, yet nobody moved. Despite the sincerity of the offer, it would be received as an insult. Still proud, and still persevering, none would consider himself crippled. They walked to the trucks unassisted and climbed in.

Four lost limbs to IEDs or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). One suffered a hip disarticulation from an RPG attack. One is missing an arm, another an eye, and the last suffered severe Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). All eight are back in Iraq to observe first-hand the products of their sacrifice. A number are still on active duty.

The battalion commander first showed them the Wall of Heroes, the building’s foyer dedicated to their men who have fallen in the line of duty. Before their medical evacuations, two of the Soldiers visiting were once stationed on that base. One limped over to observe their photographs. The other Soldier leaned close enough to see with his one remaining eye. The photos were all of friends. One choked back tears. Camera crews from the media pool scrambled for photos. The last unit’s section of the wall is noticeably empty. They lost none in an entire year of operations.

Next, the battalion commander drove the group to the Iraqi side of the base to meet their division general. Outside, the Iraqi troops stood at attention, while inside the general greeted each man individually, thanked each for his sacrifice, assured him that they had not served in vain, and that, “your blood having mixed with ours,” he was forever welcome and honored in Iraq. Two Soldiers, standing awkwardly on prosthetics, fought back tears. The Marine announced how much of an honor it was for him to serve with the Iraq army. Two years ago, he and I served together in Habbaniyah, Iraq. We have several of the same friends. After repeated TBIs spread over multiple attacks, he awakened one morning unable to read or write. After extensive rehabilitation, he’s working on a degree in journalism and plans to become an officer.

Following their formal greeting from the Iraqi general, the wounded warriors reconvened outside to receive a greeting from his soldiers. One-by-one, the entire Iraqi platoon walked the line of injured warriors and shook their hands. Many, in quiet, respectful English, whispered “welcome” or “thank you.” One Soldier shifted his weight uncomfortably from his one limb to his prosthetic.

The next event was a briefing in the newly-constructed joint communications center where US forces and their Iraqi counterparts coordinate joint operations, share intelligence reports and collaborate to maximize battlespace security. The US battalion commander explained just how much of his operations are now channeled through the Iraqi general before execution.

When the brief was complete, the whole group went to lunch and reassembled for an intelligence in-brief. The US commander wanted to update the wounded warriors on progress in the region. The two who had served there on previous tours listened attentively.

Years ago, to help deny Al Qaeda vehicular access to a particular area, the Soldiers had dragged old, destroyed Iraqi tanks into a few small roads. Al Qaeda would drag them off and into the canals. Each time, the Soldiers would reposition them. This July, as one of the battalion’s first projects intended to improve the area through humanitarian missions, the US removed those three tanks. One took eleven hours to load and move. A wounded Soldier apologized for the inconvenience he caused, drawing laughter.

The battalion commander responded quickly: “That’s okay, son; we still haven’t found a way to rebuild the bank you guys blew up.” Laughter again. During the heaviest fighting of 2007, the bank had been used as an insurgent position.

Back in the Wall of Heroes again, the nearly-blind Soldier removed his prosthetic eye and showed it to me. The set is a small purple heart. As he replaces it in the socket, he half grins and tells me that children often stare at him.

Operation Proper Exit, a pilot program sanctioned by the Department of the Army and Surgeon General and sponsored through private donors, the USO, and a non-profit organization called Troops First, strives to assist in the emotional rehabilitation of troops severely wounded in the line of duty. They do this by flying selected volunteers back to Iraq to their previous area of service, showing them changes and improvements, providing a degree of closure, and demonstrating that their profound sacrifice has brought about lasting change. Due to security risks today, hosts were unfortunately forbidden from giving the wounded men a tour of the areas outside the wire. Other bases throughout Iraq have permitted it.

The gym on this base is named after a US Soldier killed in 2007. His surviving wife is now married to one of the visiting wounded Soldiers. Tomorrow, he and his brothers will fly to Ramadi, and the wounded Marine will see the areas where he once patrolled and was eventually gravely injured. Ramadi, like Baqubah, is different now. The whole country is different, to varying degrees.

For thousands, it’s over now. For tens of thousands, it’s only just begun. For our nation, it still continues.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 12, 2009

Here's Your Letter

To Whom It Doesn’t Concern;

With our nation at war on two fronts, it’s understandable that years of news from a combat zone will mostly fall on deaf ears. People are losing interest in the subject. For your disinterest, you are forgiven.

Few Americans having relatives or friends serving in a combat zone, so it is understandable how little they may think about the war on any given day. In their minds, it doesn’t affect them. More immediate matters do, like bills, work, and social lives. For your lack of familiarity, you are forgiven.

Since few of you are able to distinguish a general from a private, it is understandable that you often approach low ranking troops in airports and bombard them with questions about the war. You see a uniformed servicemember and see an opportunity to learn more, or at least voice your own opinions. For your inappropriate questions, you are forgiven.

Because it is an inexplicable aspect of human nature to be drawn to the obscene, it is understandable that you want to see photos from a war zone, however, graphic they may be. In some ways, we all do this. Because of your disconnection from the conflict itself, you do not view these victims as national servants. Your interest in such images, however vulgar, is forgiven.

Since it is an indisputable fact that no media outlets are accurately and thoroughly portraying the two fronts for what they really are, it is also understandable that you are mostly misinformed about the course of the war, its successes, failures, progress, and lessons learned. You have few options for learning the truth, aside from asking a veteran. You are forgiven for being misinformed.

For not caring, however, you are unforgiven. In fact, damn you for your apathy. When your country is engaged in war, a 7,000 mile separation from the conflict itself is still no license to forget.

For looking at a photograph of a Soldier burned down to the muscle from an IED blast and thinking little more than, “ooh, that sucks,” you are not forgiven. That man is somebody’s son, father, husband or brother. If he lives, he will return home severely disfigured and unrecognizable to his loved ones. Many others are missing limbs, or carry colostomy bags, or blind. Thousands more are virtually deaf. Their service has not been for your entertainment, but to safeguard your way of life.

For approaching a returning servicemember in an airport and ridiculing him, you are unforgiven. He is not an instrument of war, but a warrior. When have you last done something for somebody other than yourself? He didn’t join for a war, but to serve his country. And at any rate, he was sent by the political leaders you elected.

For hoping that the deaths of more servicemembers encourage the government to quit the war and come home, you are unforgiven. It is a disgraceful abuse of the freedoms they have sworn to defend. Their service and sacrifice is the very thing enabling you remaining ignorant and apathetic of the threats this nation faces. If they did not serve, you would impotent with fear.

For claiming that you are too busy to worry about the war, you are unforgiven. You may have a life, job, and loved ones, but it is so hard to utter a prayer every now and then? Is it so hard to mail off a care package or a letter of encouragement? Did you really need that last gourmet coffee? Somewhere, on some distant combat outpost, there are troops who would rejoice at being mailed a pair of socks.

For viewing the war as simply a poor economic investment, you are unforgiven. Do you presume to put a value on human life? What is the cost of NOT waging war? Does your apathy extend to the fundamental human rights of others? There are incalculable millions who have benefitted from US military action. Ask a Filipino, a South Korean, a Jew, a Gypsy, or other nationals from around the world.

For believing that there is no such thing as a war worth fighting, you are unforgiven. War is certainly an evil, but one undertaken to halt an even greater evil. You don’t know this because the military has successfully held the enemy at bay. Had they not, you would live in fear for your life.

For presuming that all veterans are inherently unstable, dangerous, and potentially criminals, you are unforgiven. Despite recent reports by the Department of Homeland Security suggesting otherwise, veterans pose no greater threat to the peace of this country than any other group. Considering that many of them know how to kill, the fact that they do not indicates superior character. They choose not to.

For preferring not to think about it all because it’s stressful, you are unforgiven. You’ve shown your true colors as inherently selfish. You enjoy all the fruits of the military’s labor, but you are unwilling to consider their purchasing price: blood, fear, unbelievable loss, loneliness, and at times death. Your ingratitude is profoundly inexcusable.

Not too long ago, an inebriated VFW commander confessed to me that he doesn’t want to know the names and stories of the troops overseas. He reasoned that, “it’s too much like losing my own children every time.” Caring may be painful, but citizenship bears more responsibilities than merely voting. Voting gives you the right to complain when the other candidate gets elected. Caring means you have a heart beating in your chest. If these men and women can sacrifice their lives, you can sacrifice a few tears.

Those who take freedom for granted are quick to either lose it or cede it as a small sacrifice for comfort. Its loss, however, is quickly felt.

Do you fear bombing while you shop at the supermarket? Are you concerned that somebody will run you out of your home in the middle of the night? Have you had any family members disappear only to be found days later decomposing in a ditch? Do you adjust the course of your day to accommodate fearing for your life? No. The military has ensured that.

What have you done for your country? What sacrifices of comfort, family, and safety have you made? Have you done anything extremely beneficial for countless millions, but inherently jeopardizing to yourself? Have any of you sacrificed a clean conscience or spent months and years away from home, only to realize that part of you never fully returns? Have you spent years trying to find peace with your own actions, service and sacrifice, but certain you have done something good? No, you have not. And nor have you felt the searing pain of your fellow Americans stabbing you in the back.

If something, God forbid, were to happen in the states, all these men and women, however disappointed they may be with their country, however betrayed they may feel, will once again answer their nation’s call. They don’t do it because they like you. Many of them don’t, and I don’t like you either. They do it because it’s right. Nobody expects you to fully understand, but they do expect you to try.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 11, 2009

That's the Plan

In about three weeks time, I will be touching down somewhere in a United States airport. As the day of my departure grows closer, I struggle to maintain interest in what I’m doing here, in my mission, in genuine concern for the troops, and concern for the war as a whole. For lack of a better way to put it, my head may no longer be in game. I’m elsewhere already. The overriding desire to get the hell out of here and go home has drowned out all my other interests. Every day, I schedule a few more things to do when I return.

First, I’ll turn on my cellphone. There are a number of people I have promised to alert when I’m safely stateside, and they are most easily contacted via phone. Additionally, talking on the phone helps keep me awake while I drive, and I plan to do a lot of it. There’s a great deal of catching up to do. Then there are the plans.

Initially, my time will be spent with my family. I’m sure I’ll see them all in one place at some point, but I still intend to sit down with each of them, see how they’re doing, catch up on their goings on over the past four months, and generally return to a more proactive involvement in their lives. I get along with all of them, so this is probably the one thing I’ve missed the most out here.

Following this, there are a few local friends who I need to see. There is the former boss and now mentor and friend I need to visit. He’s been busy this summer, so I know little about the details of his life at the moment. I’m hoping for good news, but more realistically I expect a mixed bag. Such is reality. For him and most everybody else, there are always difficulties.

In my absence I also missed a wedding, so I’m eager to congratulate the newlyweds (both friends of mine), see their new house, and see photos from the event. Their wedding party, comprised mostly of people I know, would have been a fantastic reunion.

My media sponsor also deserves a visit, since it was his implicit trust in me that permitted my travel to Iraq in the first place. As a veteran himself, I’m sure he has a number of questions about Iraq. It’s been a good eighteen years since he was last here. Much has changed. His editor has also promised me lunch. I’ve yet to turn down free food.

Across the entire United States, I have been guaranteed shelter should I come for a visit, and I hope to visit at least a few. There are two volunteer editors in Kentucky who have set aside more pressing matters and provided me critical feedback on pieces prior to my posting them. There is another faithful volunteer in New Orleans, though I doubt I will have time to make it down there for a visit.

There are two Iraq veterans who have provided me invaluable encouragement while I’ve been gone, and both have promised me free drinks if I make it up their way. One even promised be food. Coincidentally, both will be in one place soon after my return. With a little luck, I’ll catch them both in Detroit. Flatteringly, they both consider me a brother.

In all the initial excitement of being home, I will take a break from writing. Seeing as it’s basically all I’ve done for the past fourteen months, I look forward to having no deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, no pressing responsibilities, and nobody particularly concerned about my silence. I will sleep late every day and not feel guilty about it.

There are a couple local restaurants whose cuisine I’ve missed while out here, and I can’t wait to sit down in their crowded dining areas, observe nobody in a uniform, and chat with friends I’ve known for years. I will make at least one trip to the local coffeeshop, buy an overpriced gourmet drink, tune out the background chatter around me, and play solitaire on my computer.

When I have settled in and finished all the greetings, I plan to head into the mountains. I’ve longed to see something other than scraggly palm trees, and there’s no better place for that than in the Appalachians. I hope to hike out there at least weekly, carry in all my gear, stay out overnight, and stretch my legs. After riding in military vehicles for so long, I need the exercise. It’ll be nice to not have to be on the alert for anything more than the occasional bear.

At some point, every conversation will invariably turn to Iraq. People will have questions, and I will try to answer. Many I will be unable to answer. I have too many questions of my own.

And then, after somewhere between three and five weeks, I will miss Iraq and want to come back, as will many servicemembers returning to the states. Part of me will still be here.

I will still have friends over here, many of whom have long months still remaining on their tours. I will have other friends who are preparing to deploy to Iraq in the near future. There’s still a war going on, and its outcome is still uncertain. I will want to see its closing first hand.

I will miss the mission briefs before each excursion outside the wire. I will miss the troops I accompanied. God forbid it, but some of them may never see home again. Regardless, they will still need a voice.

I will miss combat boots and rifles, and thousands of men and women uniformly dedicated to the same cause. I will miss hearing their stories. I will miss being around those who get it and who don’t ask difficult questions I still can’t answer. I will miss the conversations over headsets as we drive a boring road to some town with an unpronounceable name. I will miss the chai we’re served when we get there. I will miss the potential for every mission devolving into an IED attack or a firefight.

I will miss this place because it’s grown on me, but most of all I will miss my fellow Americans who have answered their country’s call to serve here. I will miss introducing them to other Americans. I will miss the adventure. Home life, after some initial excitement, will be disappointingly boring. Though every situation is different and every servicemember has his or her own unique outlook, many will feel this way, too. National service, and more specifically combat service, is memorable. Like little else, this never leaves you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 10, 2009

They're Not There Yet (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Last tour out here, they put me on suicide watch, even though given no indication of wishing to hurt myself. The command would probably argue that they’d rather be safe than sorry, which is legitimate, but the way they went about it wasn’t appropriate. They were acting off too many assumptions.

When I enlisted in the Army, I took advantage of the “Battle Buddy” program, which guarantees that you and a friend who enlists with you will train through boot camp together, and remain together in the same unit for a certain length of time. I’d joined with a friend I’d known for a good three years prior to enlisting, and we remained in the same unit well into my first deployment into Iraq. In fact, we were on the same patrol when things went horribly wrong.

Just like most every other US base in Iraq, whenever we took incoming rocket or mortar fire, a point of origin would be quickly calculated, and a unit would be sent out to investigate that coordinate – maybe they’d even find the perpetrators. Either way, it was the standard operating procedure: take incoming, go out and investigate. We’d done it at least fifty times before.

As we got ready to roll out, I remember our platoon sergeant telling us that instead of varying our route and reducing our “predictability,” we would drive straight out to the site, check it out, and drive straight back. He told us he wanted to be back in time for chow. We shouldn’t have made that compromise in tactics, but it wasn’t our call.

I have long questioned if what happened would have been avoided had we been smarter about our route planning. I have also struggled with the temptation of blaming my platoon sergeant for something that may or may not have been his fault. In this case, the enemy knew our standard operating procedure through and through. They weren’t around when we arrived at the point of origin of the incoming fire, but IEDs were, which detonated, killing two Soldiers. One of them was my battle buddy. I was actually the one that loaded him into the bodybag.

The unit leadership had known that the two of us were close, so they watched me intently over the next two days. Yet what I knew to be grief (relative isolation, lack of interest in talking to people, and restlessness), they presumed to be potentially suicidal behavior. Based off of what they saw, they made their judgment call. Not only was I going to be considered a combat stress case, but I was also going to be placed on suicide watch.

The command took away my rifle, lest I do myself harm to myself or others with it, placed me under 24 hour watch, insisted I wear a reflective safety vest, and attend daily combat stress classes. Needless to say, it was humiliating. I didn’t want to kill myself at all; I was grieving over the loss of a close friend.

Whenever I went to the chow hall, without my rifle but with my suicide watch vest, I was followed by Soldiers who watched me intently. Naturally, dressed as I was and unarmed, everybody else watched me too. Everybody that saw me labeled me a head case. In the combat stress classes, we all sat around while the facilitator soothingly invited us to talk about what we were feeling. I had little to say, obviously.

I understand the command’s concern, since suicide is a problem out here, but I think they overreacted in my case. I think it would be MORE concerning if I showed no emotion at all when my friend was killed. Grief is a natural and appropriate response to devastating loss. Aside from the personal humiliation, my biggest objection was the fact that what they did caused a loss of confidence with the rest of my peers. They assumed, based upon the command’s response, that I was unstable. I was monitored for two months, and it took a few weeks before my fellow Soldiers treated me as an equal again.

The Army has since changed their policies on how they respond in these situations, which is encouraging. For starters, rather than taking your weapon away from you, they simply take the bolt out. You may still be suspect, but at least your peers aren’t as aware that you’re being monitored. The Army is also working hard to improve their combat stress courses. In fact, the chaplain recently conducted an all-hands series of courses about suicide awareness and prevention. They’re making changes, but they still have some distance to go. I’m thankful they’re at least trying. In my case, though, I’m fairly convinced that the command made the situation worse. I wasn’t dangerous to myself or others; I just wanted my friend back. That, however, nobody could provide.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Reveiw, All Rights Reserved