Saturday, January 31, 2009

Not So Peaceful

As we ate, he explained a situation where he almost got into a fight recently. It wasn’t a terribly unique scenario. In fact, were I in his position, I would have done the exact same thing – perhaps with less delicacy than he had handled it. Somebody had attempted to do something inappropriate to a friend, and he had stuck up for her, suggesting that the guy leave now before there was any trouble, but then getting more unpleasant when the guy didn’t.

“I always try to avoid fights,” he told me. “First of all, I hate being punched. It hurts. I’d rather be shot. Gunshots just sting [he knew that from experience], and then they dope you up with morphine and you don’t feel anything. Well, sometimes. But anyway, I just don’t like to get hit.” But he also didn’t like getting into fights, either. Not so much because they were unnecessary violence (sometimes they aren’t), but because he worried about himself.

“Here’s the thing: I try to be diplomatic for as long as I can, but then, probably after being too nice for too long, I just snap. And then, I don’t want to throw punches, I want to actually kill him. So if I start hitting him, I’m not going to just stop when he’s down. I’m going to finish him off. I guess I’m not really afraid of my rage or anything, but I respect it. I know what it could do.”
I asked him if it was rage, or if it was training, which was my first hunch.
“Yeah, good point. It’s probably training. It’s what we’re trained to do. Kill them. Eliminate the threat. Neutralize the target – or whatever you want to call it.”

In Marine Corps boot camp, we had been taught a number of martial arts moves where you get the person on the ground, but then always end with a killing blow. Not breaking the neck or anything pretty like that, but actually a boot stomp to the face. And it was always (at least in training) delivered as a double stomp accompanied by two loud, “Marine Corps” shouts. During training, we thought it was beyond lame. In fact, I still think it is. But it stands that these were the first moves we learned in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. And lame as it may have been, it stuck.

What he did not stay, however, was that these tendencies (and the associated fear of them when we’re not supposed to “need” them) aren’t so much training as they are consequence of practical application. Meaning this: once you’ve been in combat, you realize just how easy it is to kill somebody. It sounds horrible, but it’s a fact. With proper conditioning, only some of which comes from military training and the rest coming from social conditioning in our culture, the mechanisms that would normally innately tell us that this is to be avoided are easily, and perhaps permanently disabled. To him, and many others, killing is still easy.

I have never feared for my safety around him, not just because he’s a nice guy, but because I also know that he is fully aware of what he is capable of doing, and therefore works hard to ensure that he doesn’t do it. Nevertheless, the abilities still remain, and they’re something he monitors closely. He’s not a murderer, or particularly violent. None of us are. We just know how to use violence to accomplish things. And the reality is that the ability – though carefully controlled, still exists.

In fact, I don’t consider him any more dangerous than any other guy I know, and nor do I consider myself dangerous. We may not be exactly well-adapted civilians, but we aren’t lunatics, killers, and criminals. We were warriors once. That’s all, and the skills, and perhaps the character itself, persist s long after our part in the conflict has ceased.

I’m almost afraid to write this, since it paints him, and others, and perhaps even me as a threat to the security of society. Yet it was society that we swore to protect – and in many way still do now. We’re latent. Sleepers, if I can borrow the expression from terrorist cells. But we’re not criminals. And if I convey nothing else, that’s what I want to stick with people. Don’t fear us. Help us adjust.

What I have wondered personally, and I know others have as well, is if these abilities or tendencies ever go away. I’m sure they’re tempered with old age, poor health, and weight – since a 400 pound man on a motorized scooter isn’t going to be doing much, for example. But the mentality may still be there. I’ll bet that if I asked a Vietnam vet, he’d tell me that it never goes away. You just learn to live with it, and certainly don’t act on it. Ability means nothing. Character means not exercising that ability – at least until a situation absolutely requires it.

Perhaps the better question is this: do we really WANT these abilities to go away? In some regards, I don’t think so, since they kept most of us alive once, and are now still useful in harrowing situations. Yes, it may mean that we battle with ourselves in subdual for the remainder of our days, but I’d much prefer that than to ceding the mentality and living instead in fear or paranoia. I don’t think anybody should ever live in fear. We do not, but that shouldn’t necessarily be hinged on the capacity to kill. Such reasoning is a full reliance on self, not trusting God at all.

Yet even in this, as difficult as it may be individually for him, me and others to constantly have an internal struggle to not act in a way that now comes naturally, our presence, I firmly believe, benefits the nation. When calamity strikes, whether it be terrorist attack, natural disaster, riot, or just a situation requiring the use of delicate negotiating skills, veterans are probably best equipped to handle it. They know how to lead, to hold up under pressure, and if a terrible scenario arises where action must be taken, they can handle that, too.

For the same reason, the country is safer from foreign attack. We would be a highly successful insurgency. The men and women with the skills to accomplish a mission with little regard to personal safety. The dormant warrior, simply waiting on his war. Due to training, due to conditioning, and due to experience, we’re still ready, and we’re still able. Yet for the time being, however, our skills have no place. They just sit there, and rear their ugly heads when we least desire them to. We were of great use at least once to our nation, however, and we may still be again. Just don’t piss us off, I guess.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

In Their Stead

My return from my second tour wasn’t terribly exciting. After we’d gotten off the buses, I fairly quickly figured out that nobody was there to greet me yet, so I busied myself helping my Marines find their gear, locate their families, and even helped the Lieutenant’s wife track him down. Once everybody found their families, they wanted to disappear immediately, so the crowd dwindled quickly and I wandered inside to eat cold pizza which the command had provided for the families.

A guy I didn’t recognize came slowly limping up to me. He had a big “boot” on one foot, and still favored the other leg too. He shook my hand. “Welcome home, man. How was it?” he asked quietly.

I explained how it had been – which really wasn’t all that bad. Certainly not like the first time. He listened, looking far away and, though he was definitely paying attention, he was clearly somewhere else. Only then did I remember how I knew him.

Dave was the sole survivor of the last catastrophic IED that some guys in my battalion hit before leaving Iraq in early 2005. In fact, it was their last mission. They were going to drive around as usual, try not to get blown up, and then head back to base to start turning in ammo and preparing for the long, miserable drive down to Kuwait.

During that mission, Dave was in the turret, manning a 240 [medium machine gun] as they patrolled route Martinez – to our west. The IED wasn’t really even an IED. It was a death-trap. For days, insurgents had been tunneling under the road and creating a hollowed-out spot which they loaded with old artillery shells and rigged with a detonator. Not only would it create a huge explosion on its own, but it’d also add an abundance of dirt, rocks, and asphalt to the shrapnel. It would be huge.

Tragically, the triggerman detonated this one right as the vehicle was traveling over the hollowed-out section of road, and the whole vehicle was consumed in a dust, smoke and shrapnel filled cloud that mushroomed upwards. The humvee was completely destroyed – what pieces of it could be found. The engine block landed in one place, piece of the frame in another, and Dave, the gunner, was shot out like a cannon directly upwards by the blast. As pieces rained down around him, he landed a moment later in the crater itself, which was still smoldering. Nearby, the frame of the humvee started to burn, with ammunition inside of it sympathetically exploding and shooting out in all directions. Amazingly, the grenades rolling around the remnants of the floorboards didn’t detonate. Unable to move, both his legs mangled, Dave lay in the crater, where his buddies soon found him and began working on him as best they could. Everybody inside the humvee was killed instantly.

When Dave shook my hand, he had the demeanor of somebody who missed the Corps and missed his brothers even more. I, one of the dwindling numbers who were also around on the first tour, was a familiar face to him. I guess he’d seen us out on other missions to assist him and his guys. Yet now, he was quieted, and still limping.

The doctors had amputated one leg above the knee, and he was still getting used to walking with it, which was made worse by the fact that the other foot was virtually fused from repeated surgeries, and now tightly wrapped in a cast. He told me that they’d given him the option keeping it and walking with a pronounced limp, or amputating it and eventually learning to walk quite smoothly with a prosthetic. He sorta wanted to keep his foot, though, he said. At least until it was so bad that he couldn’t walk anymore.

We talked for a little while about how my tour went, and how his treatment and recovery was going – which was slowly. He was ready to be done with all the surgeries and rehab. Even if he couldn’t serve anymore, I could tell he at least wanted to be around his brothers.

My unit had gotten called out for that mission – one or our last, too. We heard what happened, and went out there, expecting the worst. We found it, too. That was the mission where Doc [Navy medical corpsman] used his poncho to cover a body, and years later the USMC still wouldn’t give him a new one. The kept insisting he had carelessly lost his. I was on the back end of that cordon.

We were blocking traffic while in front of us EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] struggled to figure out what happened and perhaps profile who did it. I remember that a car approached, and we told them to stop, but they just kept edging forward. I was already angry with what had just happened to Dave and his buddies, so I just shot their engine in fury and went over to yell at them. Of course, they didn’t understand. But they should have known that stop meant stop. Well no kidding. I just yelled at them until they backed up and drove away. That, I believe, was the last time I fired my rifle that tour.

What impressed me most that Dave took time to come welcome us home is that I, we, and the country still owe HIM, not me. He gave up all luxury of a normal life when he lost one leg and stands to still lose the other. That, to me, is like a WWII veteran thanking me for my service. I’m the one that owes HIM a handshake, free drink, and a clap on the back. It’s those guys that deserve my gratitude. Not them thanking me. I almost feel guilty accepting it.

But for Dave, the brotherhood extends beyond personal trauma and collective tragedy. To him, we were still brothers. We were still both Marines, and still wore the same uniform and fought for the same cause. He simply paid more for it – yet there was no trace of regret in his voice. I think he was glad to be alive, and still wholly grieved that the other three in his humvee were not. Maybe he came to honor them, because they paid still more for our cause. For many of these men, living and dead, the unbreakable bond has been anointed with their own blood. Only some lived to enjoy it. As for the rest of us; we can offer little more than a pathetically weak, but heartfelt thanks. And live fruitful lives devoted to the memory and honor of those who are unable to do the same.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fight Pretty

One of the best things about the military is that, no matter what you do, you’re going to get yelled at – especially when you’re a bunch of miscreant, criminal assholes like we are. Constantly testing to see what we can get away with, constantly learning that it isn’t much, forgetting the less, and trying it again. Hope, or maybe stupidity, springs eternal.

It wasn’t so bad in the rear (stateside), but overseas it was another matter altogether. When your primary focus is to successfully conduct combat mission and destroy the enemy, you’d think that everybody’s concern for your rigorous adherence to grooming standards would diminish, but no; it doesn’t. You still get yelled at, and we still do stupid things.

In hindsight, I have concluded that when you’re forced to abide by strict rules, you feel like some sort of accomplished rebel if you can bend them a bit, or even break them. But heaven knows there aren’t many areas where you can do that. Failure to behave a certain way means you’ll probably get charged. Failure to be on time means you WILL be charged. Failure to offer salutes will also get you in trouble.

So what do we do? We gripe about and question the most ridiculous minutia and see what we can get away with. First thing: rank chevrons. Obviously we wear in them in the states, because it’s grossly obvious if we don’t. But Iraq, why bother? We spend most of our time either hiding in our rooms/tents/racks(begs), or wearing a flak vest – which completely obscures them. There’s really no point. In fact, there’s good incentive to NOT wear them. The weight of the flak vest continually grinds their metal backings into your collarbone. So forget it. We stopped wearing them.

Well, then we got yelled at, so that didn’t work out so well. But for some reason, people tried it anyway – again and again. A few of these guys were clearly immune to being yelled at. I guess we all were to some extent, but they could take an ass chewing like a champ and just keep on doing what they were doing. They knew – perhaps better than us – that no NCO or Staff NCO in his right mind would charge them with anything, though they certainly could: disobeying a lawful order. Maybe disrespect, too, or something like that.

Another big issue was blousing our boots. Sure, it looks less ratty if we don’t, but after hours on end wearing those things (like every waking hour), it got old, and extremely uncomfortable. So some guys stopped wearing those, too. Curiously, it was also the same guys that tried to get away without wearing chevrons. If it was dark, they usually got away with it, but never out during the day. Somebody would yell at them, they’d pretend they hadn’t even noticed, and quickly blouse them back up. It’s too obvious to overlook.

And then there were the cuffs of our blouses (shirts). According to regulation, we could not just cuff them over once to keep them off our hands and wrists, no matter how annoying they were. That was one of those rules that we followed when higher ups were around, and quickly broke as soon as they were out of sight. We didn’t like being encumbered.

Perhaps the worst matter, overall, was haircuts. In the states, it’s simply a matter of walking or driving the short distance to any one of a number of barbershops. And the one on base used to give us cuts for a mere $4.50, which was awesome. They were usually pretty good, though I knew guys who swore they could tell I got my cut at the PX barbershop. They gladly paid three times that much out in town – and looked just as stupid as I did. Maybe they went there for the whole barbershop experience. Beats me.

But in Iraq, it’s another matter. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a set of clippers suddenly considers himself a barber. And if he even mentioned once that he knew how to cut hair, Marines would crawl out of the woodwork like rats, scrounge up a pair of clippers, and proceed to demand every second of his free time with haircuts. None of the, by the way, looked good. If they were really crappy, we called them barracks cuts – sure sign that the wearer had been too lazy to get a haircut over the weekend, so lopped it off with moderate assistance in his room Sunday night. They looked awful. But, on all the bases I’ve been on, there were never any barbers to be found. Some chopped off all their hair, some shaved their heads, but a number of us just neglected it altogether.

Without fail, we’d receive warning that they were approaching too long.

“Hey Marine. That when you get back on base, you need to get that shit on your head cut. You’re starting to look like a real shitbird. You got that? If you don’t, I’ll come cut it for you, and you’re not going to like that.”

We assured them that a cut would be our first order of business. Right. The warnings continued, and nobody really ever did anything. The yelling just got louder. But eventually they’d no longer yell at the Marine, they’d go find one superior or another and yell at him instead. Then we’d have to do something about it – it all rolled back down onto us.

I knew a guy that was so desperate to rebel against the Marine Corps grooming and uniform standard that he rotated between offenses. If they yelled at him to get a haircut, he’d do it, but then stop wearing his chevrons. Then they’d yell at him to put them back on, so he would, and deliberately unblouse his boots. That would be spotted and corrected fairly quickly, so he’d be in good shape for a few days, at which point his hair would be out of regulation again and the cycle would start all over again. He did this almost continuously for seven months. On a side note, he was also a convicted murderer.

A few months into our first tour, I gathered that my unit wasn’t the only one struggling to get Marines to wear their chevrons at all times. It was base-wide. So common, in fact, that the battalion commander himself issued orders that trickled all the way back down to us: get caught without your chevrons, and you WILL be charged. Period. The easiest solution for these guys wasn’t what you would think. Instead of just putting them back on and not worrying about it, they adjusted their lifestyles to no longer go around people that would write them up and charge them. I consider it working ten times harder to break the rules than just actually follow them. The allure, I suppose, we that we were sticking it to the man. We called the magic chevrons. They command had gone so far as to claim that wearing them would help improve our chances of not getting hit. I have no idea where they conjured the idea of saying this, but it may have had something to do with the notion that a prepared Marine – that is a properly-attired Marine – is less likely to get blown up. IEDs, however, shred you no matter how stupid or sharp you look. Shrapnel, like bullets, do not discriminate.

I discovered some time later that these were by no means major in comparison to what was taking place in other units. One friend’s platoon, I learned, worked hard to carry melee weapons everywhere they went – to include maces, battle axes, hatchets, ice picks, and gurka knives. A number of them also discarded their own gear and wore Iraqi load bearing vests. And even carried AK-47s instead of M-16s. My rebellious addition of a “thank you for not making me kill you” sticker to the door of my humvee paled in comparison to their antics.

The second tour brought its fair share of similar problems, but they weren’t as pronounced or absurd as the first. This time, it was the magic throat protector – the flak vest attachment that strangled the lower portion of your trachea. Uncomfortable, yes, but truly helpful against the SMALLEST pieces of debris and shrapnel. Against bullets however, forget it. You were going to get hit.

We did one mission when we escorted the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) commander to the middle of nowhere. When we got there, the MEU Sergeant Major sought me out and started screaming at me. Initially I had no idea why, until he bellowed that one of my Marines wasn’t wearing his throat protector. If he caught him like that again, he’d run ME up a flagpole. I took it like a champ. “Yes, Sarn’t Majr.” When he stormed away, I walked over to my Marine. “Dude, you’re killing me. When they’re around, just button it up, okay?” They were horridly uncomfortable, and restricted movement. In fact, we’d repeatedly turned down additional personal body armor because it so restricted our range of motion that we couldn’t even aim our rifles correctly, much less move about the truck with any sort of ease. 60 pounds of crap was plenty, I thought.

One piece of “flair” that I was not anticipating would cause any problems was a little US flag I glued to my humvee door. We were, after all, Americans, right? Well, I was told to take it down after awhile. And the entire MEU was told that we were forbidden to fly American flags on our vehicles or our persons. I am not entire sure why. That became a major point of contention on my third tour when we were no longer permitted to fly US flags on BASE. The commander’s explanation was that we were now no longer victorious conquerors, but visitors on Iraqi soil. They hoisted the Iraqi flag on our base, and put the US flag below it. At our training center we held out for as long as we could, but when the MEU sergeant major came by for a visit, that was the first thing he noticed – and ordered us to lower our own colors. We did, but then put them back up as soon as he left. I wasn’t serving in the Iraqi army, but the US Marine Corps. If I couldn’t even fly the flag, what was the point in even being there?

I saw a photograph recently of some Russian troops in Ossetia, and their appearance drove him to me just why these various people were so concerned with our uniforms and physical appearance. The Russians had beards, disheveled and long hair, and wore a wide assortment of boots, white socks, gray socks, and even tennis shoes. They looked like idiots – or maybe uniformed terrorists.

And in reality, if left to our own devices, half of us wouldn’t have worn shirts, would have preferred shorts or no pants at all, flip flops, headbands, peace t-shirts, long hair, and an assortment of decorations indicating our religious preference, opinions on necrophilia, war, and even how much we hated everybody else.

As much as I truly hate to admit it, the higher ups were on to something. If they gave us an inch, we’d have taken well over a mile and run around in medieval armor with spiked clubs, looking like the rebels from the movie “Waterworld.” That would have been behavior and appearance unfitting a Marine. We’re not angry peasants brandishing burning torches and pitchforks, we were professionals. Unfortunately, we needed to be reminded of this often.

Seen on a Hungarian machine gunner’s helmet in Iraq: “Fight Brave, Die Last.”
Seen on a Marine’s fleece beanie: “Arm the Homeless.”

But I say this: “Fight Pretty, Die Anyway.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mail Woes

During my first tour overseas, any mail was good mail. It momentarily propelled me out of Iraq and sent me home, provided me with ample food and books to keep me entertained, and even helped supply things that we couldn’t get through our own supply lines or PXs on other bases. It was, in short, a lifeline.

New to the whole deployment thing, I wasn’t terribly prepared for the vast assortment of interesting, strange, or even outright wrong mail we received. I’m still amazed at the stuff people wasted their money sending.

I think the most universally useless items that arrived were mountains of Christmas ornaments. Just where we would hang these developed later. But this is Iraq. Christmas ornaments? Don’t people usually save these things? Especially when they’re carefully handmade? While I felt guilty at first, I started just throwing them away after a time. Not only were they useless for where we were, but even if I was in the states I’d be hesitant to display some of those that were sent.

But then the Christmas trees starting arriving – lovely, plastic sizes of all shapes and colors. I guess to get us in the festive mood to better enjoy our “special crawdad dinner,” which was interrupted by a mortar attack. One guy, when I was complaining about all the trees we were getting, put it in perfect Marine Corps perspective:

“Yeah, they’re not good for much, but ours sure burned well. Once you light ‘em, they’re gone in a matter of seconds. I thought we were going to burn down the place. Wanna see the pictures?”

I did not. While he burned his, a number were smaller, and people actually put them in their rooms and elected to NOT incinerate them. They were still gaudy, though.

I knew a Navy nurse who, while stationed in Guantanamo Bay, went through similar experiences.

“Every year,” she told me, “they’d cut down live tress in the states and put them on ships for Gitmo. Forty days later, when they arrived, we’d buy them, and the second we touched them, all the needles fell off. They were dry – and dead – as a bone. That led to a lot of jokes.”

We weren’t getting the live ones. Just the fake, inflammable ones.

Our company XO, perhaps as a joke, or perhaps in protest of all the wasted garbage being sent to us, elected to put up a tree of his own. It was positively stunning. Little more than sparse, bare, dead tree with about four branches. He hung random Easter eggs and other crap from the branches, and I think there may have been some pumpkins and fake spider web stuff, too. It was propped up with rocks at the base, and fell over a lot – especially since it was between our barracks and the nice little pile of palm trees everybody liked to piss in instead of walking to the porta-jons. We’d run into it, curse, then go leak in the bushes. On warmer days, the whole area reeked so badly that we didn’t want to admire the tree, anyway.

But Christmas junk wasn’t the only junk we’d received. There was plenty of it, even letters.

I’m still trying to figure out who released the false information, but folks in the states were all told that they should never send us chocolate. It melted in the harsh desert sun, and made a mess of things. With that went my favorite treat: chocolate chip cookies. While I made every effort to refute the incorrect briefing, I never received enough. The idiot that told them all no chocolate had left his mark.

Other items were well-intentioned, but became ridiculous with quantity. Apparently we were all dying of cancer in the same desert sun that ruined cookies, so we were sent literally cases of lip balm, sun screen, and dry skin lotion. Half of these things blew up in transit, and the rest were picked through methodically and discarded. For a long while, we had boxes of unwanted things sitting in a spare room. If you wanted it, just take it. We sure as hell didn’t. We used most of the other toiletry items, or at least found somebody else who needed them. I replaced my toothbrush once a week, and could have tried a different flavor of toothpaste every day if I was so inclined – though I was not.

Candy was also a nice gesture, but by the time we had about fifty pounds, we had to do something with it. Rather than throw it way, we chose instead to toss it to the Iraqi kids as we drove around the AO [area of operations]. Before long, however, that too caused problems. Kids, knowing we were going to throw candy, would line the sides of the road and wait for it. We always threw enough (well, I did), but they’d end up fighting over it anyway. The boys would shove the girls, and then the boys would get punched by bigger boys. Everybody was firmly convinced that the other side of the road had more candy, so they’d go streaking across the road directly in front of us. Several were nearly hit. Before long, we weren’t allowed to throw candy at all, so we threw it away. Lord knows we’d get tooth rot if we ate it all.

Though I did not do it, I have a hunch that a couple of my associates would routinely find a crowd of kids and then carefully throw only a couple pieces – then stand back to watch them scrap. I never did this. Nor did I get creative and cruel like some of our other counterparts who, instead of throwing candy, threw the individual, metal fruit cups – at peoples’ heads. Those incidents were undoubtedly the deciding factor in us being forbidden to throw anything at all.

The letters, above all else, took the cake as being the strangest. I remember one I received from a stranger in South Carolina, which read something like this:

“Hi this is so and so from South Carolina. My husband was a Marine Gunnery sergeant, so I’m familiar with deployments and having him gone a lot. He’s retired now, but still thinks he’s a Gunny. He just runs around the house screaming orders at everybody like we’re Marines, too. We just ignore him. That’s our Gunny. Signed, the Gunny’s Wife.”

Nice. My friend, however, received undeniably the worst, from a package of letters written by an elementary school class.

“Thank you for being in the war. I know that most of you die, so you may not actually get this. But if you don’t die. Thank you for protecting us. I hope you don’t die anyway.”

Whoever filters their students’ writing should do so a little more carefully. At least they left out handy, illustrative drawings to prove their point. Nevertheless, the letter really bothered my buddy, and he talked about it for days. In fact, had he an address, he would have sent back a response:

“Dear snot-nosed kid; No, I have not died yet, and am also hopeful that I do not. And while I’m at it, f**ck you. Thanks a freakin’ lot. How old are you? Are you hot?”

That one, to my knowledge, was never sent. Most of the others were friendly, encouraging, and fun to read. Though I had little time to thank more than a handful, I appreciated their thoughts and prayers – however anonymous they may have been.

One of the problems that quickly surfaced with military mail is security. While the post office was very careful to get things to us reliably, once they arrived in the hands of military mail clerks, that went out the window. The pricks would read the packaging labels, and if the boxes contained anything interesting, they’d steal it – routinely. A lot of DVDs, electronics, cigarettes, and other expensive items never reached their destination at all. I remember one card that was opened, the single piece of candy removed, the wrapper replaced, and a label on the envelope stating, “this package has been opened.” Well thanks guys. They’re all a bunch of thieves. Nobody ever took things that weren’t expensive.

To combat this, I informed everybody that if they wanted to send me anything at all, the label, regardless of content, should state that the contents were books and baby powder. Those always seemed to arrive. I’ve received many a tin of brownies, electronics, tools, coffeemakers, and other sundry items all disguised as books and babypowder.

Just never put soap in the same box as food. No matter how many times you wrap it, the brownies still taste like Lever 2000. And even though we still eat them, it’s not with quite the same enjoyment.

The most vicious rumor that nobody in particular started and everybody spread around was that our mail shipping containers had met a terrible demise by either falling off a ship, getting lost, or blown up by IEDs. We’d fret and worry, and think about our lovely tins of brownies now either being eaten by fish or burning in a heap on the side of the road – and they always arrived anyway – though sometimes well over a month after they were sent. I never figured out who started these rumors, but they’re worse for morale than eating crappy food overboiled by the most apathetic military cooks. Combat cooks. That’s another stupid term. But anyway…

Regardless of the scores of items that never arrived, the food that tasted like soap, the flammable trees, and the disheartening mail, we were well supplied with any number of items we needed – mostly by strangers who took the time to pick out things, buy them, and wait in long lines to send them to people they would never meet. While I have certainly kept in touch with a few, most will never hear a thank you. So, hear it now: Thank you. You kept us alive, well-fed, and eager to come back to a country we knew would welcome us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Still See

A few months before I got out of the Marines, I got a call from a friend who had gotten out a short while ago, and he and another veteran friend were going to come down for a visit. He tried to warn me what to expect.

“Just a heads up,” he told me. “Kyle’s isn’t in the best of shape, and I don’t want you to be shocked or anything when you see him.”

I assured him that I’d be just fine, and we’d have a grand time. I was looking forward to seeing him. I’d been to Iraq and back since I last saw him, and I figure any friend of his would be a friend of mine.

When John introduced me to a buddy from his platoon, I was taken aback – despite his warnings. This buddy, when he was hit by an IED [improvised explosive device], was virtually shredded. His scalp was peeled back, his skill fractured, face shattered, limbs mangled, and organs eviscerated into his lap. And he lived – with significant injuries.

Three years after this incident, when I first met Kyle, he had no eyes, an immobile and mangled hand, walked with a limp, and his skull was held together by at least one large plate. One eye socket was sewn shut, and the other was fitted with a jewel-encrusted false eye.

They had both come down to visit me and a few of their other friends – relive the “gory” days, and perhaps partially because they both missed it. My friend had brought his blind buddy.

Typically, any event involving young Marines devolves into a cussing and shoving match as each vies to out-shout, out-cuss, or even out-offend the others. They’re rowdy. These two: my friend and his blind buddy, were not.

John had served during his first tour with Kyle, during which Kyle was so badly mangled that they didn’t think he’d make it at all. The corpsman had tried to delicately preserve his entrails hanging out, but they figured that, like so many other guys with injuries as extensive as his, he wouldn’t even make it back to the hospital. They said goodbye to him. But he did survive, and made a remarkable recovery – with what’s left to recover.

I met the two of them at their hotel and we were going to go out and get dinner at some place. I hadn’t met Kyle before, and though I wasn’t going to pry into how he was doing, I was still curious to see how he was handling being half lame, totally blind, and dependent on others for most of his needs.

As we walked to the car, John would walk a half pace in front of Kyle so Kyle could rest a hand on John’s shoulder and guide him along. He warned him about steps, narrow doorways, and a host of other obstacles that lay between us and the car. I unlocked the door and opened it for him, and he struggled in, collapsed his cane, tucked it next to the seat, and I started driving down the road.

“So where you guys wanna eat?”

Kyle wanted a steak. Jacksonville, NC is replete with steakhouses, so I asked if he had any preference. He told me.

“Um, I actually don’t know where that one is.”

Based off of nothing but memory before he lost his sight three years prior, he told me how to get there – accurately. He knew Jacksonville better than I did, and he couldn’t see anything.

We ate well that night, and John respectfully guided Kyle’s hands to his silverware, drink and I think he even told him where everything was on his plate so he didn’t have to touch anything to check. During dinner, a girl a couple of booths away came over, sat next to him, and introduced herself. She was actually a Marine, too, and particularly gorgeous.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

He would permit that. And, without cue, explained what she would never ask, but still wanted to know – how he wound up blind, crippled, and stitched back together with modern medicine. He recounted it graphically – while eating. She listened in silence, all but forgetting that a number of people at her table were staring at her uncomfortably.

But after going through all this, tell us, he’s doing pretty well. He’s still sport shoots, is licensed to and carries a concealed handgun, and I think he was also studying in college. And living alone. And judging by how the conversation was going with the female Marine now sitting next to him, he still maintained a robust social life.

I was guilty that I had eyes.

After the meal, we hung out for awhile, and then I drove them back to the hotel room. Kyle drank too much, so he was getting talkative. And referring to himself constantly as an IED detection device. Maybe it’s how he deals with it. When we walked back inside, John repeated the process of walking in front and guiding him down the hall back to the room. Kyle, in case we had forgotten, gave us the room number. When he got inside, he spent the next several minutes arguing on the phone with a woman I presume was his girlfriend. I tried not to pay attention, but I think she was mad that he wasn’t terribly devoted to her.

I’ve never known Marines to be particularly tender people, even when they’re not playing Marine. They’re still fairly firm with their kids, probably yell too much, and perhaps expect them to exhibit the instant obedience to orders that they observe in their troops. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad parents, but they’re pretty strict.

The younger the Marine, the more likely he is to be rough, garish, and macho – especially the single ones. But war changed that.

Every other time I’ve gone out with a bunch of Marines, there’s a feeling of reverie about us. Celebrating, eating good food and drinking too much, telling stories, and continuing the conversations to the car and back to the rooms. Lots of laughing, smiles, and horrid jokes. But that night, none of it. We were quiet as we walked, so Kyle could hear John’s direction, and really because there wasn’t a damn thing funny about the situation. There was a lot to think about: guilt, grief, and in at least some of our minds, gratitude for surviving in once piece.

Every day, I forget how nice it is to have legs that work and eyes that see. Every day that Kyle lives, he remembers blowing up. He told us that. And I don’t know if he’s glad he survived.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Russian Sanitarium

VA [Veterans Affairs] facilities have never been known for being warm, inviting medical centers teeming with well-trained doctors and solutions. In fact, they’re usually known for being horrid places – like hospitals for “the rest of us.” Those too poor to go to real medical care. That conviction was firmly driven home when I sat in the records office of a VA medical center one day As the man there took a break from hitting on me and telling me stories about misdiagnosed CODs [causes of death] all the time in the VA morgue, he leaned in and whispered, “I’ve been working here ten years. I wouldn’t take my DOG to get treated at this hospital.” His admission didn’t provide any reassurance that I was receiving quality medical care in the least.

While I can only speak for the part of the VA medical system I have seen, that hospital, at least aesthetically, is bloody awful. In what I presume was a massive attempt at improving their image in the community, the hospital underwent a thorough renovation of their main corridor – complete with friendly banners pointing you down the right halls, signs offering you helpful health tips, and even a nice little dining area with attached shop to buy veterans paraphernalia. (The one thing they didn’t sell was the one thing I would have purchased, though. A t-shirt that read, “Crazy, washed-up veteran.” I’d definitely wear that).

As a consequence of the renovations, the main corridor of the veterans hospital in question looked almost modern. But the cheery aura ended abruptly when you followed one of the signs into the bowels of the building. Until about six months ago, the corridors were painted a pale, awful, minty green. If I had to guess, they bought it as overstock from the Soviets when they realized they had no further need for Ukrainian Orphanage Green. But that was just the walls.

The sad, buzzing, flickering lights overhead illuminated similarly ghastly floor tiles – also bought from the Soviets: Russian Sanitarium Blue. The only thing missing was patients in ratty gowns sliding listlessly along the walls, or perhaps wheeling themselves along in 50s-era wheelchairs. And honestly, they had a few of those, but they somehow were allowed to “escape” into the main corridor. I’m sure it was bad for business. But hiding them was equally bad for business. It meant hiding the cost of war – and freedom.

I have certainly spent my fair share of time sitting in dank waiting rooms, wondering where on earth any sort of receptionist may be. For some reason, the VA will often schedule an appointment for me at high noon. I dutifully arrive 30 minutes early and check in, and am promptly informed by random passersby that nobody will be in the office from noon to 1PM. They’re on lunch, I’m told. So why was I told to be there at noon? Nobody could ever explain.

I will not comment on the professionalism of the medical staff there, since I’ve had equally unpleasant experiences in more mainstream facilities – doctors running into doorways, nurses unable to draw blood and routinely jabbing the needle all the way into my elbow joint – then panicking. I guess, in comparison, the VA docs aren’t any worse. So far, I haven’t seen any of them wearing googly eyes or a Patch Adams red nose. In fact, I’ve had a number of good dealings with VA staff.

In order to help reduce the traffic and burden at major VA facilities, and also to help accommodate the rapidly growing numbers of veterans entering the system, the VA began constructing a series of outpatient clinics throughout more local areas. They handle what they can, act as general practitioners, and screen any patients for more advanced care at the hospitals. Thankfully, I’m able to drive thirty less miles to one of these, and receive what I consider to be excellent care.

Since the building is new, an effort was made to improve the ambiance of the place from one of perpetual, eastern European depression to a cheery, inviting place to get your checkups and be done with it. And, they’re nice people.

Since I began using the facility in late 2007, I have been thoroughly pleased with the doctor there. In part because she has a smaller patient load and also because she’s just good at what she does, she actually remembers patients and their histories.

After I check in with the cordial ladies at the desk, I’ll sit in the waiting room and watch the handy flatscreen TV until I’m called back for some initial triage nonsense – with a friendly nurse. They record everything, determine that I’m not on the verge of death, type it all out at breakneck speed into the system, and then shuffle me into an examination room to wait on the doctor.

She’s always punctual, polite, and courteous. I find this particularly admirable because veterans, as a whole, are probably the single most self destructive patients a doctor can counsel. They tell us to do something, we promptly do the opposite. It may cause them to pry a little less into our behavior, but that’s probably so they don’t rip their hair out in frustration when they learn what we’ve been doing with (and to) ourselves.

When I was diagnosed a year ago with knee problems, the doctor prescribed me a PILE of painkillers, which I promptly put in a cabinet and did not take. I don’t want to take pills until I absolutely need them. When I came back some time later, she asked if I’d been taking them. I told her no, and received a very gentle scolding. She gave me good medical reasons to take it on certain occasions, and I conceded that she was correct. I left, and haven’t taken any still.

I recently scheduled an appointment for some other joint problems. That visit was supposed to be this morning. An hour before I was going to leave for the visit, I received a call saying that they strongly recommended that I not come in because of the ice and sleet on the road. I told the receptionist that I was sort of looking forward to going somewhere today.

“You can still go somewhere, but just don’t come here.”

I see. Rather dejectedly, I hung up. And then went to the appointment. Why? See the remark about veterans being stubborn. At any rate, they saw me anyway.

So, without consulting the records, the doctor reminded me that since I’d been prescribed so many painkillers a year ago, I should be taking it for the joint problems I have now. Again, I told her I had not. And again, the frown and gentle scolding, accompanied by a number of good reasons that I should listen to her advice.

Even the diagnosis amazed me, though. She remembered that I’d only recently returned from a lengthy motorcycle trip (from my last visit in December), and quickly determined that the problems I was now having were due to my body adjusting to inactivity, sitting on a motorcycle, and now suddenly starting to become active again. All this without looking at notes. In fact, the only time she looked at her notes at all was to confirm just how many painkillers I should take on any given day. Aside from that, it was all memory.

Since I highly doubt I’m an unusual patient at her facility (with the possible exception of my age), I assume she has the same sharp memory for all her patients, which is commendable. She gives the impression – most likely rooted in fact – that she actually cares about her patients. I like it, and her professional, caring attitude has greatly reduced the unease of going to see a doctor about anything at all.

She represents a turning point for the whole VA medical system. In the past, they were laughably inefficient, frustrating, and inclined to waste as much of your day as they possibly could. But that’s changing. Even our records are entirely digitized so any doctor at any facility will see the exact same diagnoses and treatments immediately. What’s more, this is now even available to US.

With little more than a few clicks of the mouse, we’re able to go online and access our own medical record and look at our own x-rays, MRIs, diagnoses and prescriptions. We can chart our own cholesterol levels, our own health, and even order new prescriptions without ever leaving the house and waiting in a long line of impatient vets eager to get their pills and escape the horrors of a VA hospital. According to an article I recently read, this new system is an attempt by the VA administration to set a trend in veteran care. And thus far, it seems to be a great system.

While many have undoubtedly complained about the VA healthcare system, my personal experiences have been relatively favorable. So much so, in fact, that I’m probably going to send a thank-you letter to the VA doctor and thank her for her outstanding treatment, professionalism, and care. And tell her that I’m still not taking my medication.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 26, 2009


The USS Pittsburgh, a Baltimore-Class heavy cruiser, didn’t enter the second world war until early 1945, when she sailed with two carrier groups destined to support the invasion of Iwo Jima with wave of air strikes on the island and any surrounding enemy fortifications. During the early days of the attack on the island, plans from the Pittsburgh’s carrier group routinely provided close air support to the Marines floundering in heavy fighting in the island’s black, volcanic ash. Well before the 35-day battle had even ended, the entire carrier group was reassigned to pound airfields and other targets on the Japanese-held island of Kyushu.

The carrier group launched their attacks on the 18th of March and planned to continue throughout the next day as well, were it not for a fierce retaliation by Japanese fighters that left the carrier Franklin ablaze, halfway destroyed, and powerless. After fending off the fighter attacks, the Pittsburgh, with the assistance of a sister ship, the light cruiser Santa Fe, plucked 34 sailors from the sea. Yet then the Pittsburgh executed an historic feat of securing a tow line to the still-burning Franklin, and slowly towed the mammoth, crippled ship to safety while her crew fought to restore power. Over 700 sailors died on board the Franklin that day – more than a quarter of her crew.
(Official U.S. Navy Photograph - National Archives Collection)

As the little ship fought to tow off their companion big deck, she and the Santa Fe also had to contend with holding off two additional waves of Japanese fighters, returned to finish off the Franklin. The Japanese were unsuccessful, due in large part to the constant gunning from aboard the Pittsburgh and Santa Fe as they churned the sea, hauling an 872-foot ship to safer waters.

Captain Gingrich, aboard the Pittsburgh, spent a continuous 48 hours at the conn during this ordeal, retiring for rest only after they had achieved some degree of safety, and restored power to proceed slowly elsewhere for repairs. Three days later, they left with the carrier group to support the invasion of Okinawa.

For over a month, the Pittsburgh and her sister ships repeatedly held back Japanese fighter attacks and rescued downed pilots with her scout plane. By June, she was caught in a typhoon with winds exceeding 70 knots and 100 foot seas. During the storm, her starboard scout plane broke lose from its catapult and rammed into the deck, eventually causing the front 104 feet of her bow to buckle and break off.

Still under power, still battling high seas and now a potentially sinking ship, her crew performed emergency repairs and began a 6-knot steam towards Guam. They had lost not a single man. (See pictures below)
(Photo from US Naval Institute)

(Photo is in the public domain)

Aboard this ship for all her perilous exploits, was William Russell (Peanut) Bingler Jr, of Charlottesville, Virginia. As a shipfitter and deep sea diver, he probably found himself hanging over the exposed end of a ship in gale-force trying to weld shoring to a vessel carrying well over 1,000 men. At any rate, his efforts, and those of the men aboard, saved the ship, which eventually made it stateside without further incident. The hull, incidentally, then humorously nicknamed “McKeesport,” a suburb of Pittsburgh, was spotted by another vessel and later towed into Guam.

Peanut died on the 17th of this month, leaving behind a large family who, for the most part, was unaware of the details of his service during World War II. He was a loving, gentle man with a decidedly odd sense of humor that many of us found endearing. I enjoyed what little time I spent with him, and regret that no further opportunities are now possible. His whole generation is fading quickly – good men who, having survived the impossible, are now aged, feeble, and disappearing rapidly. His loss will be keenly felt by his family, but also the halls of the locals VFW and American Legion posts – they're also my posts.

His obituary reads as follows:

William Russell "Peanut" Bingler Jr.

William Russell "Peanut" Bingler Jr., 86, of Charlottesville, died Saturday, January 17, 2009.

He was born on October 11, 1922, in Charlottesville, the son of the late William R. and Florence Maupin Bingler. Sisters, Waverly Bickers and Mildred B. Delozer; and two brothers, Hugh A. Bingler and Johnnie Bingler, also preceded him in death.

Peanut served in the Pacific with the United States Navy aboard the USS Pittsburgh as a shipfitter and deep sea diver during World War II. He was a life member of the USS Pittsburgh Association and a member of the VFW, American Legion Post #74 and the Cherry Avenue Christian Church. Peanut had a long career as an untrained visionary artist. His work received awards at numerous art fairs and exhibitions throughout the state and he was honored to be included as a part of the opening exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. He retired from the Martha Jefferson Hospital as the Director of Plant Operations, with over 30 years of service.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Merle Addington Bingler; their children, William R. Bingler III and his wife, Vickie, of Charlottesville, Steven Bradford Bingler and his wife, Linda, of New Orleans, Louisiana, Deborah B Shifflett and her husband, Steve, of Charlottesville, Harold Timothy Bingler and his wife, Sharon, of Charlottesville, and Sharon Kaye Drumheller and her husband, Larry, of Charlottesville; 13 grand-children; 10 great-grand-children; and his siblings, James T. "Monk" Bingler and his wife Fredell of Charlottesville, Alice B. Eades and her husband, Walter, of Earlysville, Joseph L. Bingler and his wife, Betty, of Ivy, and David Bingler and his wife, Betty, of Charlottesville; and many beloved nieces and nephews.

Peanut had an unwavering love for his wife and family and a warm humor that will be missed by everyone.

A graveside funeral service will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday, January 21, 2009, at Monticello Memory Gardens with Scott Carter, Senior Minister of Cherry Avenue Christian Church, officiating.

The family will receive friends from 6 until 7:30 Tuesday, January 20, 2009, at the Cherry Avenue Christian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Those who wish may make memorial contributions to the Hospice of the Piedmont, 675 Peter Jefferson Way, Suite #300, Charlottesville, VA 22911 or the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 160, Charlottesville, VA 22902.

Friends may send condolences to the family at

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 25, 2009


“The only reason I drink,” he told me, “is because I can’t ever get to sleep before five in the morning. This is only way I can; getting hammered.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d told me this, and I’d certainly heard it from others, too. In some ways, I’ve been there myself.

For him, and many more in a similar position, the “college experience” is proving far less enjoyable than was expected. “Nobody cares where you came from” he lamented. And he’s right. Nobody cares that you, at least at one time in your life, took an oath and carried a rifle into harm’s way. Unless you walk around showing off a photograph of you in uniform; and that’s when you realize you’re too dependent on everybody else acknowledging you, stow the photograph, and retreat in self-imposed shame – probably to sulk.

But even more than recognition of your exploits, you’d be interested to see that people your age actually care about the world in which they live. In reality, they truly don’t. Somehow, in ways that I cannot understand, they simultaneously think no further than whose party they will attend on Friday night, and also arrogantly assume they will change the world. Yet they haven’t even seen it.

Some would chalk it up to an apathetic generation, yet in their defense I’d say a lot of it has to do with limited exposure. Between thirty-second sound bytes about which celebrity is breaking up with whom and lengthier diatribes about how awful the economy may be at the moment, their age group is left with few opportunities to see, first hand, how the world really works (poorly).

He raises a good point, however. Veterans, for a wide variety of reasons, frequently do not comfortably fit into any social category or generational description. They are a breed unto themselves – hence the profusion of such organizations where they can find other, like-minded friends: VFW, American Legion, IAVA, AmVets, etc. Though I must sincerely question if such camaraderie heals wounds, or keeps them perpetually open. That is something I’ve wondered a lot lately. Are they helping the wound, or is collective lamenting forbidding any significant improvement?

One thing is certain. He, and all the rest of us, very much love our country. Had we not, we would not have volunteered to do what we did. Nor would we closely follow progress on every front, or pray for the safe return of our brothers and sisters still fighting. Yet when they return, they will face disappointment similar to ours.

After the traumatic adjustment to chaos, where violence, action, and even death become the new norm, civilian life is terribly uninteresting, unstimulating, and a monumental let-down. We’re feared by some, scorned by others, and respected by many, but truly understood by few.

Oddly, it is as if the very things he fought for – peace, stability, and some sort of “normalcy” – are the very things he can no longer enjoy. They are fantastic concepts, and true blessings to those that have never experienced them, but they are now just as foreign to us as they are to the oppressed we liberated. We fought for peace by ceding our right to taste it – for, at best, it is shaky. We remain alert and ready, poised for the next disruption of it, domestically or abroad, and thus fail to bask in what we now experience.

And meanwhile, worldwide, oppression continues, whole nations live in fear of their dictators or some other aggressor, and we still see their plight. Frankly, we always will. To ignore such things is to kill an innate sense of justice, right and wrong, and a desire that others live without terror. The draw to protect them, too, is strong, but also infeasible. They are not battles we have been called to fight, at least yet. They are simply a group of people the world cares little for protecting. We still think of their situations, though we can do little about them.

He told me that he’s lost his sense of purpose, and I can certainly understand that. We’ve fought our war, and now it’s over. We did our part, and for a number of reasons chose to walk away from it. War is hell, indeed, but for a percentage of those that fought them, peace is similarly uninviting. It requires the total ignorance of fact: that war still continues. And the character of a warrior is not driven out when our participation in it ceases. We are misfits.

His complaint is nothing unique, by any means. If it was, then why does the Veterans Administration estimate that more than 5,000 veterans will kill themselves this year alone? Suicide rates among veterans are twice as high as they are in non-veteran populations. The veterans feel – more than any single other group – that they do not fit in.

I, as a veteran, still don’t know how to reach out to these guys. I, too, have struggled with a sense of purposelessness. I, too, have felt like an outsider. All I know to do is pray for them, but that seems wholly inadequate. They’re still dying – more to self-inflicted wounds than to those caused by the enemy. And few people seem to notice.

I encourage him whenever I can, call him to make sure he’s okay, and offer suggestions whenever I can think of them, but it changes little. He, they, WE, are still ill-adapted warriors in a country that, though grateful, has no clue how to accept us. And we have no idea how to pursue acceptance. We’re different.

We defended our country and hated war, and returned unable to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The warrior is still there, yet for us the war is not. The battle now is for contentment, and the casualties are high. We fought for our country, but lost our place in it. Collectively, we yearn for a solution, but none quickly comes. We find no enjoyment in peace. In one voice, we cry for help.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved