Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Truth is Ugly

Yesterday found me sitting in the Veterans Hospital in Richmond, waiting for a physical therapy appointment for a years-old injury that nobody will concede will probably never go away. Despite the unlikelihood of improvement, I figured I’d give it a try.

When the physical therapist strolled off to print a list of exercises for me, I sat on the king-sized platform in the training area and waited. There were a number of other patients. Three men, specifically, caught my attention.

Their forearm tattoos, bracelets and t-shirts indicated they were all Army Rangers at one time – some of the military’s toughest of the tough, highly trained and highly competent. Yet those times were clearly in the past. The three that sat, wheeled, and crutched before me were anything but tough men. Each bore the sign of long hospital stays. Their skin was pale and vitamin D deficient. Their muscles were badly atrophied from long, bed-ridden recoveries. Thin legs, gaunt faces, unshaven with small, delicate-looking arms that appeared unable to lift even the lightest objects. Severe muscle atrophy left one of these three in a wheelchair.

The therapist was rolling up the man’s pajama pants leg and assisting with fitting him with a lower-leg “cast” that supported otherwise terribly weak limbs. After putting it on his shin and ankle, he strapped it in, gave the soldier two crutches, and helped him stand from his wheelchair. Five minutes and one hundred feet later, he had slumped back in the chair, clutching his lower back in agony. The therapist congratulated him on his performance with the “Canadian Crutches,” and how remarkably upright he was walking – especially considering how weak his legs are. The soldier, regardless of how well he was doing or not, was noticeably interested in improving. He was motivated. He wanted to walk again. Despite his pain, he persisted. He asked good questions, fought through his fatigue, and kept on going.

One of the other men, similarly emaciated, slender, and in pajamas, worked on a weight machine with another physical therapist. He didn’t speak much – if at all. He looked grumpy – and like he badly needed a cigarette. When the physical therapist asked what exercise he wanted to do next, the soldier grumbled, “nothing,” which earned him a frustrated response from the therapist.

“Of course. That’s all you want to do – nothing.”

Their session ended a moment later when the soldier answered his cell phone and wandered off – speaking in an eastern European language I didn’t recognize. The therapist lowered his head and wandered off. I doubt he’s used to argumentative patients.

The third soldier was, by far, the worst. He wore a crash helmet – a glorified bicycle helmet that in the past would have sent me into gales of laughter. This time, however, no. He wear this device out necessity. One more fall, one more jostle to his head, and he would probably suffer irreparable damage – if he had not already.

The man’s parents stood next to him and he sat there – staring out from under his helmet listlessly. As I watched, the physical therapist explained the nature of his condition to the man’s parents – easily in their late fifties and wondering how it is their once-successful soldier son is back in their care. I saw no anger in their faces, though, only deep love and concern for their child.

“He has something called spatial neglect,” explained the therapist. “When I tell him to turn right, he does. But when I tell him to turn left, he just keeps on turning. His brain can’t distinguish how far he’s gone.”

His parents listened in silence. The soldier remained silent, too.

He continued : “But what’s very important to remember is that he’s not doing this on purpose. He can’t distinguish these things yet. So we have to help him.” The man’s parents nodded in agreement. The concern that registered on their faces seemed to exceed the love. They were heartbroken and their adult son set next to them, unspeaking, wearing a crash helmet.

All three of these patients, judging by their behavior, the bald patches on their scalps and the fresh cars, were victims of IEDs and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). All were now somewhere on the road to whatever recovery medical professionals reasonably expected from them. One was unduly argumentative and disinterested. Another, resolved but still wheelchair bound. The third wore a helmet to prevent any more destructive damage to his brain. ALL three were younger than me – active duty warriors now reduced to weak patients struggling to learn to walk, speak, and even act normally.

I felt that I, having suffered no significant combat-related injury, had no place in this facility. I listened to my therapist, gathered up the paperwork he gave me, and retreated. In the hall, the soldier with the helmet was receiving walking practice with his mother on one arm and the therapist on the other. I carefully edged around them, chastising myself for not being more thankful that I can walk. In the hall, I passed the crippled soldier, wheeling along as he chatted with the grumpy soldier. Around me were other young men – mostly pushed by young doctors or quiet parents. An unmanned, electronic medical cart annoyingly nosed across the corridor. “Warning, crossing hall…”

As I drove home, I thought about my friend Jay from my platoon in Weapons Company. After being blown up and temporarily knocked out a few times on our first tour, he wasn’t doing all that well. He still struggled with his memory. A couple years after his TBIs and the ensuing battery of tests, he confided in me in day:

“Dude, I can’t even remember my own father’s funeral. I know it happened, and I know I was there, but I can’t remember anything about it. When it was, where it was, and what happened. My own freaking father.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 6, 2009


I am, alas, indisposed for the evening. Tomorrow, however, will come at least two documents. Please stand by, and thank you for your patience...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

We Kill Ourselves

A question was posed to me today that, while I may have discussed issued peripheral to it, I do not recall addressing it directly. The question was this: why are members of the armed forces attempting and succeeding in suicide in such alarming numbers? To be honest, I would presume the reasons are extremely complex, gross generalizations, and certainly unfathomable to the vast majority of the population. As much as people may be depressed, challenged, or enduring difficult life circumstances, few genuinely contemplate ending their own lives. Fewer still make an attempt.

Any explanation that I may conjure will be, at best, speculative, and fail to take into account the personal issues that somehow propel so many of our servicemembers into a self-threatening state of morbidity. Nor am I by any means a psychologist, counselor, or otherwise trained to examine peoples’ heads. Nevertheless, I will make an attempt. While I may no long be a servicemember, and definitely made no attempts on my own life, I did experience some difficult days, weeks and months where contemplation went beyond “I hate this” and devolved quickly into “what, practically, am I going to do about it to escape it?”

There is an aura of mystery that surrounds the military. Several documentaries, while informative, only partially show the stress and exhaustion of our training. Nor have movies done a terribly good job of fairly depicting combat (save for a few notable exceptions , like “Generation Kill”). Typically, the combat itself is either unrealistically aggrandized, or shown in such a way as to demonize servicemembers and paint a scene of wonton destruction at the hands of heartless murders. Both exhibitions are far from the truth. Furthermore, combat itself probably has little bearing on why these men and women are so quick to take their own lives. It is a more complex matter.

Given the contractual nature of military service, it is, at least to many, seen as a prison sentence. While they may have fallen for the initial lure of the military, the attraction of the uniform, the presumed nobility of the fighter, serving their country, etc, the fact is that, like any other organization, the military is replete with problems, frustrations, and a surprising degree of injustice. Whereas a civilian would give the entire show a magnificent middle finger and walk away, few such opportunities present themselves in the military. In fact, it is almost impossible to get discharged prematurely. The only exceptions are heinous crimes – and few have and particular desire to commit them. Besides, committing them while in the military will often get them sent to the worst prisons in the United States – military prisons.

When I first arrived at Camp Geiger, NC to begin School of Infantry training, I expected to immediately “drop” to a training company and get on with things. Due to poor scheduling, lack of instructors, and a general backup, I spent almost a month in a forming platoon – a fancy word for a LOT of young men and women the entire base will use for any stupid project they can find that needs more bodies. We were worker bees, whored out to whomever needed help. I spent many a day painting, pulling weeds, and dragging brush – the only distinction between being a dumb manual laborer and Marine being the fact that I was doing dumb manual labor while wearing a uniform. It was extremely disheartening. Whatever momentum I had gained boot camp to continue a fast-paced training program, learn quickly, and be soon in the fleet Marine force. Instead, I was doing piddly tasks around the base, and hating it. These were the very things that, at least to some degree, I had gone into the military to escape. Camp Geiger is already described as soul death by most Marines, so to be there without any underlying purpose whatsoever was even worse. It was my first experience with awful morale. In some ways, I may have never recovered.

When I finished up there and was assigned to an infantry company on Camp Lejeune, I figured things would improve quickly – yet they did not. As a new guys (boots), we still found ourselves doing the stupidest tasks that anybody could find for us. Every morning, we would slowly pace in a line and pick up all the cigarette butts that senior Marines had tossed over the railings the night before. Knowing that we’d be cleaning it up, they were even less concerned with any sort of cleanliness. They even told us things like, “you’ll clean that up in the morning, dipshit.” More than once I stooped down to pick up cigarette butt or what appeared to be a wad of chewing gum, but found my hand in a lumpy ball of phlegm. More morale killing…

But worse than this was the fact that as “boots,” we were simultaneously hated and exploited. Whenever senior Marines would get drunk, the first place they went was to our rooms – regardless of the hour – and begin banging our door down to come out. Usually they just wanted to make us push or drink with them – sure sign of their own insecurity. During my first six months in the fleet, I hated this so much that I sincerely prayed for a heart attack. A condition that probably wouldn’t kill me, but would at least get me a medical discharge. No heart attack came. And my experiences were better than many others. I’ve known at least two Marines that were beat within an inch of their lives in their own barracks rooms – and then left to die in pools of their own blood. I know many more who weren’t beaten quite as badly. Every few years (especially in the past), one or two would be beaten to death.
Yet barring going AWOL (or UA in the Marine Corps), there seems to be no escape from such treatment besides suicide. An alarming number try it.

So, combine the stress of being a new guy with the total dissatisfaction of being stuck in the military, and the only option that seems to release them is suicide, as foolish, short-sighted, or even selfish as it may be.

In the case of combat deployments, a number of factors contribute to the rise in suicide. When a friend’s unit first entered Kuwait, a few of the Marines were so scared of combat and of “going to war” that they began harming themselves. One shot himself in the port-a-jon just hours after they landed.

Combat itself, though it brings its own share of problems, dysfunction and regrets, I don’t believe to be the root cause of the increased suicide rates. Instead, it is the feeling of being trapped. The food is awful, exhaustion is common (with combat troops), and there seems to be no reasonable alleviation to any of it. And unfortunately, our training conditions us to a familiarity with death. “Born to fight, trained to kill; ready to die, but never will.” It’s in our cadences, in our speeches, our literature, and so forth. We are trained to do it without hesitation or remorse. We are trained to fight, and win wars. Having been thus acquainted with death comes often a reduction in the value of human life. This includes, at least to some, our OWN lives.

A familiarity with death, dying and killing is no doubt essential to fashioning a productive warrior, but such things do not come without their consequences. While we do not necessarily know death, we are familiar with it. It is routine. It happens regularly in a combat zone, and it may just happen to us. Such is war.

When the reality sinks in that the military is, like any other organization, not perfectly run, discontent soon follows. Yet because it is contractual, few see any sort of escape. They cannot share their frustrations and feelings of injustice up the chain of command (within reason) for fear of the consequences – perhaps criminal charges under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for disrespect, disobedience to orders, etc. Yet nor can they vent down on their subordinates, who will immediately accuse them of hazing. They don’t deal with things. They sit on them and brew.

And so, a familiarity with killing and death, coupled with a devaluation of human life (perhaps to include their own), and every last one of them equipped with the weapons necessary to inflict great personal injury or death, thoughts of escape quickly determine that there isn’t an honorable way out. So they entertain suicide. For many, the contractual obligations of the military are a true prison sentence. They cannot be honorably escaped at all. And prisons, definitely, deal with suicidal tendencies of their own. If they did not, why would all means to harm oneself be removed – belts, shoelaces, etc? Prisoners see death as their only escape. For those who feel the armed forces is their prison, they will think as prisoners do – try to escape at whatever cost.

Politicians and civilians alike often proudly boast that the United States has voluntary military service, and while this may be certainly true, it fails to consider that they volunteered at the front of things –often not at all understanding the level of service, the meaning of a 4-year (or longer) commitment, and totally unaware that they would be doing things they absolutely despised. Yet by the time such things dawn on them, the oath has been taken and they are stuck – or at least feel that way.

While I have never been able to prove it, I have a solid belief that if any given unit were assembled in front of their barracks and asked who wished to stay and who wished to go (and receive an honorable discharge), most would leave immediately. For most of the time I spent in the military, I would have probable left, too. The daily life is absolutely awful. It’s only in retrospect that we find pride, personal honor, and nobility in what we endured and accomplished. When admit it, everything is awful, every order is bullshit, and we all just want to leave. Given the opportunity, most of us would. Some of us have joked that if military units held a formation like the one just illustrated above, there would only be about 17 people in the Marine Corps. The rest of us would immediately pack and run.

But few, for reasons of personal pride, will just abandon their responsibilities. They’re fully aware they took an oath, and they intend to keep it. They’re smart enough to know that they will spend their entire lives regretting it if they simply ran away. Suicide, for some reason, seems a better alternative. Perhaps they consider it less dishonorable than going AWOL. I would argue that it’s all the MORE dishonoring to their families – who will forever struggle to understand why their loved one chose to end his or her life rather than seek help.

The reality is that help doesn’t really exist in the military. Any doubts about our service or revelation that we are truly miserable will quickly be met with, “suck it up.” Or “go see the chaplain and bitch to him.” But neither are terribly productive. In years past, the chaplain was the “safe” officer to whom a young enlisted man or woman could go with spiritual, ethical, or personal problems, but that has since changed. Now, duties from the command element of a unit will keep the chaplain so tied up that he has little time available to foster relationships with the troops. I believe they have lost their primary function. Not because of their own doing, but because of command restructuring, political correctness, and a total misunderstanding of their original purpose – to advocate the troops. Now, it would seem, they simply align with the command element (voluntarily or not), and do not make themselves available to their charges.

A matter which must definitely be addressed is that of family life. It is a known fact that military service is difficult on relationships. Though I cannot confirm it, I have heard that marriage failure rates for first term Marines stands somewhere near 83%. And the numbers for young lieutenants isn’t much better at about 75%. The military schedule can be grueling, and with deployments interrupting the fostering of a good marriage, as astounding as the numbers are, they aren’t terribly surprising. They are, however, tragic. Most Marines have horrible home lives. I observed the marriages of MOST of my associates fail. Not some, but most. A number came home and found out their wives were cheating on them. A few cheated on their wives themselves, and a few just split under mutually agreed bad circumstances.

But this does not even take into consideration the stresses of being overseas whilst a relationship at home dissolves. Troops get “dear John” letters. Troops find out their spouses are pregnant by some other man. Wives learn their husbands went home with another woman on a base in Iraq, or perhaps in a liberty port. The combination of youth, distrust, and frequent absence create a recipe for disaster.

For the servicemember trapped overseas, learning that your spouse has been cheating on you is a total distraction to the already-immense challenge of service in a combat zone. A number believe that while a combat zone isn’t terribly pleasant, they are totally unprepared to return home and face a failed marriage or other relationship. Feeling trapped, they consider death. A friend of mine did just this – and killed himself not four days before he was slotted to fly home. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, it was because he found out his wife was pregnant by another man.

The storybook images of a soldier returning home a hero to a welcoming and overjoyed family are, for the most part, false. Marriages are, at best, extremely difficult. Were this not the case, why are more than 50% ending in divorce? And for second marriages the rates are between 60 and 70%. The challenges of a deployment, the stresses, losses, and guilt troops feel about their service are heaped upon a faltering relationship. To many, it is wholly overwhelming.

The entire situation reasonably distills down to a feeling of being overwhelmed, completely trapped, and impotent to change anything at all. Such hopeless negativity and never finding an outlet or a shoulder to lean on, only worsens. We do not talk to each other about these things. We keep them to ourselves – to the point of total isolation. Any sharing of problems is considered a display of weakness, cowardice, or reduced character. Our attempts to open up to peers are met with harsh criticism, mockery, or the suggestion to just suck it up. And in consequence, many just turn inside themselves and ponder their escape. Given their oath, location, rank, training and conditioning, suicide is an avenue alarmingly easy to entertain. More now than ever before, servicemembers are following through with their contemplation of ending their own lives. As a nation we should be grieving, for it is our collective responsibility to ensure that such things do not happen.

The next question would appropriately be what should be done about it. And, unlike the previous, this is one for which I have no particularly solid solution. I, too, have lost friends to this battle, and wish I had not.

Yet I can think of no practical resolution to this tragic, mounting problem. If the military were permitted to disband when it grew discontent, there would be no military left at all – and the nation would be left entire undefended. The fact is that service to one’s country often entails doing things one sincerely does not want to do – on a day-to-day basis, and also more holistically. While it may be a volunteer military, few, if any, can truly fathom what they will encounter and endure when they first sign up. If they were able to do so, I imagine few would even join at all.

Some units (at the platoon and company level) have made an effort to accommodate married servicemembers, mostly be sending them home as promptly as possible, but this only provides them a few more minutes of time with their spouses than they were otherwise receiving. I highly doubt it is sufficient to save a single marriage.

One thing that could be reasonably changed is to permit chaplains to act more in advocacy of their troops than at the pleasure of the command element. If troops never feel comfortable around the chaplain, they will never see him about any of their concerns or struggles. In order for the chaplain to ear that trust, he must spend his time with the troops. He has to be available. As is, he is not. A fairly simple restructuring of the modern chaplaincy could rectify this.

Training could, I suppose, be changed to reinstate the value of individual and collect human life, but even that would probably come at the sacrifice of a unit’s killing ability – and thus their value as a combat unit is severely diminished. Training has changed over the years – primarily since WWII, and the end result is a deadly, highly-efficient military able to accomplish amazing things wish small numbers. Yet this may have come with a horrible sacrifice – the emotional stability of the warrior. Any one of a number of studies can show the elevated suicide rates since the mid 1940s. Is the sacrifice of combat productivity one that the military is willing to make? And is it even appropriate that they do so?

Ultimately, not all responsibility can rest with the military in this matter. As a society, suicides are on the rise – both in the civilian world and the armed forces. That, probably, is due to the seeming “convenience” of the measure. It is an easy out – made all the more possible by the fact that we all, as a culture, have become very acquainted with killing (in movies, video games, and even the news), but a complete disassociation of the terminal consequences of the act. Life, not as we know it, but completely, is now over. We now no longer slaughter our own meat; we buy it already prepared in the store. People don’t often die at home, either. They die in hospitals and hospices. And if they do die at home, they are quickly whisked away to funeral homes or morgues. They no longer sit in the parlor while loved ones prepare the body for burial. We, as a culture, don’t see death. We just see killing. And we have grown accustomed to it. The consequence is that it has much more allure than it reasonably should.

What the military SHOULD take ownership of is that fact that it is an enormous, inefficient beast that screws up almost everything it undertakes. It is, just like the rest of government, a terrible bureaucracy, inclined towards confusion, disorganization and waste. And they are highly skilled at wasting the troops’ time and eroding their morale. That fact is why I consider the morale of today’s volunteer military to be hovering somewhere close to zero. We may have joined with a genuine nobility and desire to serve our country, but the vast majority of our time is consumed doing truly ridiculous things. Few, if any, have any lasting effect on the unit, us as individuals, and certainly not the nation. If life in the military was wonderful, people would stay in. Most do not. That should indicate something to even the most casual observer. There are reasons for it. No bureaucracy like the military asks so much of its members and gives them so little. I oppose reinstating the draft because of its effect on morale. It would slump further, and I sincerely believe suicides would rise quickly.

The military needs to streamline, frankly, and quit tasking troops with poorly-considered missions and needless busy work. They need to stop wasting everybody’s time. As a culture, we need to be reminded of the consequences of killing. Death. We also need to be reacquainted with the fact that life, individually and as a whole, is extremely precious. Until that happens, suicides, in the military and elsewhere, will definitely continue. And as a nation, we will grieve for their unnecessary, inexplicable loss.

Thank you, Uncle Caesar, for asking good questions and making me think.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Dating & Science Clash

Is knowledge a curse or is it a gift? I believe one can argue either side. In my case, however, it was a detriment. Biology is a wonderful field, but apparently not everybody agrees. I had simplemindedly assumed that all people liked plants and animals. This was incorrect…

My first date with Ashley was a beautifully romantic experience…that is until we actually got together. My girlfriend had spent about 5 minutes leaning against her car waiting for me to show up that evening. The weather was beautiful; an early fall night, the sky clear, an occasional wisp of cloud darting across the half-crescent of the shining moon. Ashley was waiting there breathing lightly in the still-warm air; relishing the breeze caressing her hair.

When I arrived we embraced. Neither of us had planned anything for the evening, so I suggested we take a walk for a while to perhaps conjure some ideas for the night. Everything I said and did after this was disastrous.

Along the sidewalk we strolled, beside a residential area, holding hands (okay, so not everything I did was foolhardy), admiring the sleeping neighborhood and the lovely yards. I bent to pick a small rose from a flower bed beside me. Ashley’s eyes lit up. “How cute,” she was undoubtedly thinking. “He’s going to present me a rose snitched from a flowerbed at night.” This is where I made my first mistake, verifying for all those unsure that I am completely incompetent. I held it out to her, and I saw the girlish smile begin to emerge on her face. I then explained what kind of rose it was, the family and the variety, even the Latin name, and then I ran back to my car to press it in a book for later. In hindsight, her expression displayed great disappointment. But at the time I was so excited by my recent find that I hardly noticed. On we walked. The clouds were gathering…

Ashley should have left at that point, but she apparently opted to give me a second chance. This did not help. As we continued on I pointed out other plants I noticed; trees, shrubs, flowers. I’m sure I emanated a childlike exuberance at being able to identify these plants, even mentioning interesting tidbits, such as edibility or specific uses of a wood. A couple of times she tried to embark on a tangent to describe her day or to engage me in a more general topic of discussion, but I was too caught up in what I was doing to see the obvious. When I saw the interesting road kill, however, Ashley did choose to leave.

“Oh look!” I blurted. “There’s a dead raccoon in the road.” Though I’m not sure, I think that normal people overlook road kill, partly out of some strange respect to the deceased, and also because the poor creatures are generally somewhat mangled and rancid. I neglected to consider this as I dragged her into the street to poke at it with a stick. I used it to prod around and identify the gender of the poor animal.

“See, it’s a male, and pretty old too, judging by the condition of the teeth. But wow, these maggots are sure making a fine feast of it” I didn’t need open the mouth, as a sufficient quantity of flesh was missing as to allow easy viewing. Ashley turned away, swallowing hard. I didn’t notice this though, because I was too busy looking for cars that might accidentally run us over. I went on to point out little facts about the pelt, even identified a few organs. When I next turned around to confirm that Ashley had understood all I just explained, she was 100 yards away jogging towards her car.

I didn’t try to catch her, because it was slowly dawning on me that there was a rank carcass squashed into the road next to me and there were cars bearing down on me. I returned to the sidewalk to avoid traffic. On the way back to my car I picked a couple more little roses, in case the first one didn’t turn out when I pressed it. I didn’t need anymore dead raccoons in the freezer. I still had to dissect the two I already had.

Biologist SWM ISO of biologist SWF who enjoys long walks and talking about nature. We can identify plants together, maybe more…must love animals, living and dead.

Copyright © 2001, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

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

Monday, February 2, 2009

And Then The Ships

Three years ago I swore that I would never set foot on a ship again. In hindsight, I should have clarified that I was referring to US Navy vessels, which are renowned for their lavish amenities, high ceilings, and gourmet cuisine. Right. They’re small, filthy, rickety, and they do what boats do on the open ocean – sway.

While I have been lucky enough to fly most places the Marine Corps sent me, I did have the unpleasant experience of “floating” to Iraq for my second of three tours. I would prefer prison. Prison has better food.

To my great displeasure, we were berthed on a Navy LSD-50, which is approximately 300-some feet long – and used primarily for amphibious landings from LCACs (giant, twin jet turbine hovercraft) that deploy from the ship’s bowels. During our pre-deployment training we had invested weeks in practicing getting and off the ship – which struck me as odd. The only thing Marines don’t practice is the one thing that SHOULD practice – combat. But anyway, we’d load all our vehicles onto the LCAC, launch out to sea, land on the beach, and spend the next thirty minutes trying not to drive over each other. Usually we’d get at least one vehicle stuck. Practice didn’t make perfect; it simply gave anybody watching the impression that we’re a bunch of clowns. We had them fooled, though. We weren’t clowns, we were monkeys with guns.

Better put, we know how to drive humvees, so we weren’t the idiots. The idiots were the Marine Corps logistics people that despite extensive training in how to load, unload, plan, and otherwise coordinate a major troop movement, always reek of failure. Unloading the vessel took hours, and loading it back up took even more. When it came time to leave, we were just as unprepared. Weeks of “practice sailing” around the Atlantic, as well as loading and unloading, had produced little more than a massive carbon footprint. We were operating sixteen diesel humvees, though that paled in comparison to the fact that the ship burned about 10,000 gallons of fuel a day. And we broke a lot of things – like our trucks.

The sad fact is that when we did our final load, at least one of our trucks completely broke down as soon as it was parked. Over the course of the next few weeks, it did nothing but sit there and bleed fluids all over the well-deck – which got us screamed at. A mechanic came and looked at it, but couldn’t do much. Rather than put it all back together, he just left a heap of parts in the back seat. The ship was turning into a junk yard.

Between damages already incurred when we got on the ship, and damages that came from having a constant dose of sea salt misting over all our vehicles, the end result was sixteen rusted, barely functional vehicles. Yet we were still considered a battalion asset. Sure.

Part of the problem was that the vehicles were ancient – most of them outbound for their THIRD tour to Iraq, complete with blown up engines, slipping transmission, collapsed suspension, and a host of other problems that manifested as soon as we landed in Kuwait.

The sea takes its toll on metal, and with our hulks already rusted and in sad shape, they were further ruined by sitting immobile for a few weeks on the ocean. Naturally, whatever paint was still on them began to rust, and we were yelled at every two or three days that we needed to all troop down to the well-deck and “bust rust.” Nevermind that you don’t have any tools, find some – ask the Navy guys. They should be nice and loan you some stuff.

So we’d crawl all over the vehicles, trying to remove any rust we found and protect against further damage. Yet nobody had any sealing lubricants, either, so we ended up borrowing a five-gallon bucket of axle grease from the Navy guys and lathering up our trucks with poorly applied smears of goop – which later hardened into a lacquer and looked even more ridiculous. Somebody yelled at us to paint them instead of just coating the rust with grease, but oh yeah, there’s no paint. I mixed a small batch that I borrowed from the Navy, again, but you can’t apply paint to anything that’s been coated in grease – and you can’t take off the grease without solvents – which they also didn’t have. The fact is that they probably DID have all this stuff, but just didn’t want to give it to us. We got yelled at a lot for that, too – constantly asking the Navy for things. Yet we didn’t have anything we needed.

Ship life, however, is all sorts of fun. With the profusion of personnel on the ship cause by our presence, the average wait to eat lunch or dinner was about an hour and forty-five minutes. And then you’d be served some unidentifiable crap that didn’t even fill you. In fact, there were times when the ship ran dangerously low on food – such that hunger fights broke out, specifically when it was obvious that the Navy servers were giving more food to the Navy guys than to the Marines. I’m thankful nobody was detained, because the Marine Corps order still allows for incarcerated troops to be restricted to bread and water. No thanks.

In reality, we shouldn’t have run out of food. We had regularly-scheduled underway replenishments (unreps) where we’d pull up next to another vessel and then haul (by human chain) tons of food into the innards of the ship. But for some reason, they weren’t getting resupplies of food. They got junk food and paint. Paint, because some portion of the ship is always undergoing renovation, and junk food because the snack machine on one deck was emptying three times a day. The fact is that it was being sold out by Marines who were starving to death – and willing to eat anything in there, including the women’s health bars and the pork rinds. It was better than nothing.

With the food shortages, none of us was terribly happy. Couple this with the fact that a good thirty-five men were living in a room the size of a large living room, and we were truly miserable. Fights, altercations, or just impressive yelling matches were a daily occurrence.

With a fair degree of foresight, our berthing areas were designed entirely out of metal. We can’t break metal, they probably thought. Well, we did our best to dent it. Every surface, every locker, ever coffin rack (bunks where we sleep) was covered in punch marks. Even the metal cover over the loudspeaker that always woke us up with irritating whistles – that was smashed in, too. And only about five people in the entire berthing area did all that damage. I was forever hopeful they’d accidentally fall off the ship. I would neglect to report them missing, of course.

At six feet and three inches tall, simply navigating the ship was a challenge. I developed what I feared would be a permanent hunch – just to get through doorways and down ladders. And the rocking made movement itself a chore.

The bigger the ship, the less its vulnerability to waves. Yet ours, being a tiny vessel as these things go, bobbed like a cork – constantly. And when we entered the Straits of Gibraltar, they were at their worst. We’d all be in our little racks trying to get some sleep, and a large wave would list the ship a good 15 to 20 degrees, and people would start rolling out of the racks – even though they had their “seat belts” on. I was only about 5 inches above the floor, so it didn’t bother me, but some guys came close to injuring themselves badly.

One of our guys – already known for being a moron – just fell one day when he was climbing into bed – and broke his wrist. Nobody at all was sympathetic.

During one particularly unpleasant storm, I was up on one of the higher decks, struggling to type an e-mail on a laptop in an office. When we hit an enormous swell, the whole ship rocked hard, I went rolling out the door, trying to grab two laptops before they fell, and a sea chest flew after me. These things happen, I guess.

Some nights, packs and chairs would scoot from one end of the room to the other as we navigated the waves. We’d have to collect everything in the morning and try to re-stow it – with limited success. We had no room. Ever pipe on the ceiling had already become a hanger for something.

So there, in our ape house (that smelled just as bad), we’d try to keep as peaceful as possible – to little avail. Somebody was always yelling, punching something, or otherwise creating a ruckus. When we hit liberty ports, it further complicated matters. To the fray now add drunk people puking into trash cans, other guys crying because they couldn’t understand that their buddies were in sick bay getting restrained and sedated because of alcohol poisoning, and almost everybody had lost something, including their Marine Corps ID card. They never left the ship again.

But even some of that was funny. When the newly-21 guy is hurling into a trash can and crying – as puke comes out his nose. Wailing that he just wants to die. Well, we all just laughed or tried to ignore him.

Most of us would rather be in Iraq than on the ships. And getting back on them to go home was just about as exciting as walking to your own execution.

Sure, they tried to liven things up with programs, classes, and physical training, but that never amounted to much more than an aggravation. No single room was big enough to fit anybody. No computer worked correctly, and nobody want to be there anyway. All we wanted was to be left alone.

When we came back, our greatest desire was simply to not see the same faces again for a LONG time. And when we went on leave, we all got our wish. It’s best summed up by the phone message my friend left for people:

“This is Bobby. If you’re a friend of mine, just leave a message and I’ll call you back. If you’re from my battalion, F**K OFF! I’m on leave.”

Since this time, I have yet to set foot on a ship.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More Mothers

When I was a student at James Madison University in the fall of 2007, an old war buddy and I would get together every Friday in a campus restaurant, catch up, and generally agree that everybody was stupid except for us. I’d served two tours with him – and at least 50 missions with him in my vehicle. During long drives, long hours on watch, or just sitting and waiting to roll out, we’d shared our dreams, our expectations, and discussed post-military life like were eagerly anticipating the end of a prison sentence. Though our schedules rarely aligned in the least, we had about 35 minutes of overlapping free time on Fridays, and it was good to see him. Contact since then has been unfortunately scant.

What we encountered at that restaurant, however, neither of us expected. The restaurant manager, a woman probably in her early 50s, had a rather strange connection to the military. When we first arrived and been seated, it soon came up in conversation that we were Marine veterans trying to maintain contact with each other despite geographic distance and hectic schedules. When she heard this, she went quiet for a moment.

“My son was killed in Desert Storm.”

Neither of us knew much what to say besides express our condolences. Statistically, the odds of us meeting the mother of a Desert Storm casualty were effectively zero. The entire war sustained only 190 killed in action (to hostile fire) for the United States. While it still represents 190 families now missing a father, a son, a husband or a brother, the numbers are so low that we never anticipated meeting anyone from this small group.

Seventeen years after his death, it was obvious that the tragedy still stung bitterly with her, and understandably so. Telling some details of the story one day, she started crying. Yet she had volunteered the information, and seemed almost eager to share it with us. What we had not considered is that while veterans are frequently drawn to each other on account of our mutual backgrounds. I understand it – and I do it, too. But I had neglected to consider the bond that a military mom may feel with military boys. And in this grieving woman’s case, she was missing her son.

Aside from her, and one military funeral I attended in 2006, I have never known or even met surviving loved ones. Overseas, our dead are quickly whisked home for funerals. We aren’t there to bury them, and by the time we return home, their families have long since left the area, moved in with parents, or simply escaped the military town where they have no further reason to remain. None of my friends, at least to my knowledge, have ever managed to track them down, anyway. And frankly, I don’ t know what they’d say to them anyway. “I’m sorry?” That’s awfully empty. In time, we give up even looking for them.

Whenever Drew and I would come in for lunch, she would always come over, inquire how we’re doing, and proceed to bring us out samples of the daily special, the soups, or any new concoction she found particularly appealing. She’d sit down with us, ask us about our classes, and generally socialize with us. Humorously, she would also sit with us and chat – something we both heard her counsel her subordinates not to do – hog the diner’s time. But in our case, she was absolutely welcome. Basically, she mothered us, and we enjoyed it. She was helpful, and made the two of us, already very oddly-connected brothers, now feel like we had an oddly-connected mom.
While in some regards, seeing men about the age of her son when he was killed in Desert Storm probably resurfaced wounds that may have only recently begun to heal, it’s questionable if they ever heal at all. But on the other hand, she was presented with an opportunity to do what she at one time enjoyed so much. Being a mother.

I haven’t spoken with her since spring of 2008, regrettably. I don’t visit the area much. But I should, and I’ve encouraged my buddy still at JMU to also. At the very least, I will call her on mother’s day. While her son is gone and none of us can bring him back, I still have something to offer her, and she has something to offer me. I may never her HER son, but I can certainly be A son. And just as she so clearly adopted us, we adopted her. She’s a military mom, and we’re military guys – roughly the age of her son when he gave his life for his country. And so, she gets a pseudo-son, and I get another mother. I don’t think you can have too many of them. Here, perhaps, we will all find solace.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved