Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Always Gone

In a bit of a break from the recognized norm, I wanted to illuminate a few matters that are going on in my circle of friends. The matters are certainly worth mentioning, should certainly be publicized, and may help explain why many of us, at the nearest opportunity, fled the military for the freedom of civilian life as quickly as we were able.

My friend Paul is somebody I know through consistently strange circumstances. I first met him when I his big brother (my college room mate) and I stopped by his dad’s house. Paul was inside getting yelled at for doing something stupid. Given that I’ve done a number of stupid things over the years, I didn’t think much of it. Three years later, I ran into him in Iraq.

We were stationed down south of Baghdad in a place known as Iskandariyah, Mahmudiyah, or Haswa – depending on who you asked. About thirty minutes north of us was Paul and his reservist unit. He is/was an engineer whose efforts were key to building new fire bases, maintaining old ones, and also providing security on whomever was working around him. He spent a LOT of hours in turret, staring at traffic, dirt, and dark.

Whenever our mission tasking would take us north to his base, I’d make every attempt to find him, asking around until I found the right unit berthing, then crashing in and demanding to know where “VanSant” was. Occasionally they’d all scuttle out to find him, which may have been courtesy, or may have been alarm. Either way, we caught up for a few conversations, swapped stories about our connected AOs (areas of operations), and even once grabbed a photo, along with a third guy most of my folks back home also knew.

In what we presumed was a public service to them, and just sort of neat, we sent home a copy of this photo. When I arrived home months later, I was informed that it not all that much of a public service. The entire background was littered with porn posters. None of us had even noticed. Before the picture could be presented to anybody at all, some drastic editing had to take place. I was somewhat embarrassed that I didn’t catch this.

As a reservist, and when the unit numbers are good, you can be assured that you will deploy once, and spend the remainder of your time in reserve status – barring some major changes in the current war effort. Paul, already interrupted once from his college education, went on to complete a BS in Electrical Engineering at Va Tech, graduating in 2008. And then he was able to land a lucrative position as an engineer doing some neat stuff.

So he moved, rented an apartment, got a cat, and launched into what we all assumed would be a career he truly enjoyed. Until they told him he was deploying again, not five months after he began his new job. While he wasn’t really supposed to do this, it was happening anyway. The unit was short on senior NCO leadership, especially guys with not only deployment time, but also combat experience. He was immediately fingered as a prime candidate, and has been flying to and fro across the country since November for pre-deployment training. While I was in California, I stopped in for a visit, where I found him running around with a logbook and looking particularly irritated. Training, as usual, was a total circus.

Deploying reserve units are typically comprised of reserve elements from all over the country, and the command element for Paul’s current unit is from California. Thus, when they cut them loose for leave, they cut them lose in California. Good luck guys; find your own way home (to Virginia). Out of pocket, he paid his own way home and spent time with family and friends.
In three days time, the unit will be given leave again – also in California, and he is left to make the decision to either fly home with his own money (at $580 a ticket), or simply try to enjoy the five or six days they’ve given him around Oceanside before he flies out on Advance Party (advon) for Iraq. With tickets costing what they do, he’s staying. I’m livid that the unit would act so inconsiderately to their troops. They’re about to leave. Any moment they can spend with their families is time well spent. But now they must do it at their own expense. He’ll be getting out as soon as he’s able.

Nate, an old friend from my weapons company, reenlisted to stay in the Marine Corps after his first term. We’d done a LOT of time in Iraq during that period, and he pulled three tours with one battalion – each time in combat arms. That alone is exhausting, but he enjoyed the military as a whole. When he reenlisted, it was to serve in a non-deployable status. He liked the Marine Corps, but not the deployment schedule.

But then came the order that, despite him being in a non-deployable status as a reserve instructor, he would be deploying with the unit, anyway. They are slotted to leave in a few months. For Nate Foersche, this will be an unexpected tour – and the fourth to Iraq in only five years. Needless to say, he’s not very happy about it. When his time is up, he, too will be getting out.

The same applies to my friend Fred Volz, a guy I came all the way through the School of Infantry with, as well as two tours in Iraq. Like Nate, he had reenlisted for stationing as a reserve instructor in a unit on Long Island. Following an extensive period of disorganization, he, too, was informed that he would be deploying anyway, much to his astonishment. This was the very thing he was trying to avoid by stationing where he was. It is in NO way shirking responsibility, but simply exhibits just how exhausting the current deployment rotation is for combat arms Marines. Fred has been in Iraq since September, and I’m unsure when he will be leaving. To the best of my knowledge, he will be departing the Corps as soon as his time is up. I can’t say I blame him. This routine (or total LACK of it) is hard on relationships.

Gary Evans, after at least two tours to Iraq with us in weapons company, is still in, and also back overseas. I have been thus far unable to get in touch with him. This is either his third tour, or his fourth. Either way, probably not a terribly enjoyable experience.

While deploying is definitely an integral part of the Marine Corps, the burn falls disproportionately on a small number of men and women. First, those in the lowest ranks, but second, those in combat arms. And to be honest, these guys are burning out quickly. The same is certainly true for the Army, and it completely explains why the career retention budget jumped from about 173 million dollars in 2003 to well over a billion by 2007. The point is that the troops are flocking for the exits. It is due, in large part, to the fact that nobody wants to spend their entire lives gone all the time. It makes having a normal relationship virtually impossible, greatly increases the personal risk to troops’ safety, and reduces whatever pleasure they may have derived in serving their country. As it stands, only 46% of the Marines and 67% of the Army are handling the entire deployment burden to Iraq and Afghanistan (I am uncertain of the date of these statistics – sorry).

Being a Marine is fun, bring its fair share of perks and accolades, but even those are now being reduced. While the military will pay for 100% of a servicemember’s education while he or she is in, the opportunity for most of them to do this is eliminated by the fact that they’re always training to leave, done, or then getting ready to do it all over again. The dress uniform is nice to wear, certainly, but if you never get a chance to wear it, it rather defeats the purpose in owning it.

While I do not think that a draft is a good idea, something still needs to change. These guys are exhausted – and all the nation is currently doing is exploiting them.

When I get addresses for these friends (and another one about to leave in March, too), I will immediately post them.

Here's a good Irish tune about their patriots: click here

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved


  1. I knew a guy who was buried in his dress blues...almost thirty years after he left the marine corps. Apparently it was his identiy.

  2. I recognize some of those names. Brian mentioned Fred Volz in his photos. I can't believe he is back over there.

    Hey...despite what you think of the NFL..the Super Bowl was SUPER AMAZING in person. Go Steelers...!!!

  3. Ben,

    Great story. It is amazing that these stories are so prevalent amongst those who've reenlisted, especially for those poor saps who do so for love of country and sense of duty. This was a great read.

    Also to Sarah from the above comment: and a GO STEELERS right back at ya....