Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ask Somebody Else

*Retold With Permission

I’ve touched down in stateside airports before, in uniform, and I’ve been somewhat taken aback when people line up for us and clap. Frankly, it’s sort of embarrassing. I didn’t join for medals, for rank or any sort of accolade; I joined because I love it and I love my country. There are a lot of others that aren’t getting the thanks that they deserve. They don’t have uniforms, so the public completely overlooks them. I think my wife deserves a thank you, as do a many wives. Mine is back home holding down the fort and raising two children on her own.

It’s only by some grand stroke of dumb luck that I married the greatest woman in the world. I remember when we were dating, she once told me that I’d have to let her know by Wednesday if I was going to come visit on Saturday. I ignored her. Whatever. She’d drop what she was doing, I thought. I was incorrect. After I got in trouble for interrupting her studying, she explained it to me: there are responsibilities that can’t be shirked, no matter how much she enjoyed my company. I couldn’t have asked for a more loving wife and mother to our children.

So whenever I’m over here, I have absolutely no concerns. I’m able to devote my entire attention to my mission and my troops. Everything back home is covered. I don’t worry about the insurance not being paid, or my children being fed, the bank foreclosing on the house, the car getting repossessed, debt, nothing. I completely trust her. When I’m gone, she does everything. She mows the grass and does other household chores. She functions as both mother and father to the kids. She encourages them, disciplines them, and despite all this, I have normal, well-adjust children.

Here’s a woman with a graduate degree, who aspired to be a Fortune 500 businesswoman, and she’s content to be a stay-at-home mom and raise a family. I could call her and say, “honey, we’re moving to North Carolina in November, and she’d say, ‘okay. I’ll have the kids ready.’” She’s amazing. More than being highly responsible and a great mother to our children, she’s supportive, and encourages me while I’m deployed. She listens, advises, and loves unconditionally. She could have any man in the world and she chose me: a short, stumpy, fat guy.

But many others here aren’t so lucky. I can walk back inside and point to the soldiers who I know are coming home to divorces, financial woes, or some other unforeseen relationship complications. It’s tragic to watch, obviously, and I can point specifically to why most of it is happening.

My wife and I have been married for years. She’s been with me as I’ve gone through the ranks, through one command after another, but more importantly, we were married long before the war kicked off. It was a garrison Army back then. Aside from time in the field and the occasional command that kept me working long hours, I was typically home fairly promptly. The result is that we had sufficient time to develop the relationship, to solidify it, and prepare for a time when I wouldn’t be so available.

Yet for these younger soldiers, it’s different. They joined an Army at war. The stateside training tempo is fast-paced, and then they deploy. Then they come back and do it all again. More than marrying in a time of war, they married INTO war, and it’s extremely challenging to hold things together under these conditions. The marry, they leave, and they both get lonely. In truth, they haven’t fostered strong relationships. Many of them fail. I imagine it will continue until this is all over.

This war, conflict, or whatever we’re calling it now is exacting a toll on the troops in other ways, too. As a whole, it’s blurred our warfighting doctrine. I’m an aviator, for example; not a statesman. But these are the positions that many leaders are finding themselves occupying. They do fairly well, given the abrupt assignment of a completely different mission, but it comes at the sacrifice of their actual MOS [military occupational specialty]. We have soldiers that join at war, complete basic training, then come out here and never function in their MOS. Thankfully, though, the Army has begun implementing training changes to reflect the varied missions in which our soldiers may serve. As a whole we’ve stumbled, but we’re quickly righting ourselves. Historically, we have always adapted to the mission, and we’re doing it now.

In terms of the caliber of troops, that’s also suffered too. I don’t doubt that these men and women love their country, but some are just here. They’ve trained up repeatedly, deployed repeatedly, and if they choose to stay in, they’ll continue to do this for the immediate future. But they’re tired, and it’s reflected in the loss of military standards, discipline, and even leadership. Are they bad people? No. They’re just burning out. In many ways, all of us are. After fifteen years in the military, I’ve been gone for a total of five years. Two of those have been since 2003.

My soldiers, though, I love them to death, and I’m proud of them. I’m honored that you want to talk with me, but they’re the ones out there getting things done. I fly missions every now and then, but for the most part, my war is conducted at a computer. Well, two of them. I type on one then I roll my chair over and type on the other. I’ve worn marks into the floor.

If you want to see the ones fighting hard, go talk to my soldiers. Talk to the captains, who are providing daily, hands-on leadership to their troops. Go talk to the troops themselves, who sweat over engines, pump fuel, cook our meals, and do it well. We have our fair share of lemons, but so does every unit. They represent our society. We simply work with what we have, and as a whole we have good people.

In fact, the privates are the most creative ones out here. They’ve helped me out repeatedly. They’re brimming with creative ideas. We present then with problems, and they formulate solutions. They may be low on the totem pole, but that’s irrelevant. Their thinking isn’t as rigid as us old guys. It’s our job, as officers, to listen to them and give them a voice. But they deserve all the credit out here. Unsung though they may be, their actions are winning this war.

Will the Iraqis ever be able to put aside their differences and pursue amicable solutions? In time, yes. Will the Sunnis and Shiites ever stop killing each other, or the Kurds ever get along with the Arabs? Again, in time. Are we perhaps making the mistake of holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? We have problems of our own with inner city violence. We have corruption in politics, too. We shouldn’t forget that. If you consider that in the course of six years we’ve dismantled the Baath party, disbanded their Army and then helped them construct a new one, impatience is misplaced. These things will take time.

And at any rate, I don’t think it’s hopeless over here. I do feel that using the word “democracy” is a misnomer, however. We’re not so much instilling that as we are instilling peace. They will always have a different system of government than us, and that’s fine. So long as it promotes peace. We’re getting more of that incrementally. Province by province, city by city, Iraq is demonstrating that can stand on its own, provide security, and maintain a stable government. In time, I’m hopeful that they’ll be contributors on the world stage at a level equal to other non-Arab countries.

For us, it translates to boring, but boring is good. Boring means we don’t lose soldiers. Boring means Iraqis are taking the lead. And eventually, boring means we all go home. That’s victory to me – all of us going home.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. this is a good one Ben. thank you for sharing...

  2. this is my first visit to your blog and I will return to read you again soon.
    God Bless!

  3. I love my country too. That is the reason I stayed here to protect it.