Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Message

To the Marine who lost his closest friend:

"I will go there with you. That was said to me some time ago by a man far wiser than I. I offer you the same, to the extent that I am able. I have been there before, and I have survived the furnace. I will go there with you if this is where you believe need to go. We took the same oath, we both lost friends, we were/are both angry, and we both have a hard time living in a seemingly apathetic country that long ago forgot her veterans (though I KNOW many remember, and very well). It is hard, it will hurt, and you will change. But you have survived for a reason. Feel no guilt, but instead duty, blessing, and hope. God has preserved you because there is something He wishes to do WITH you and THROUGH you. I was your brother in arms, and I am your brother now. You were not, will not, and even now are not alone. We do not forget our own, and we do not leave our own behind. If it's 2AM and you want to talk, call me. If it's 3PM and somebody has cut you off in traffic and you're pissed off beyond all belief, call me. I've been there, too. If you have another dream where you're killing people, wake up, chalk it up as another dream, and call me anyway. Maybe you'll wake me up from mine, too. We all have them.

"You are different yes, but what you have become commands respect. You are a leader among those who cow in fear of the unknown and fear of harm or adversity. You have seen much, endured much, and will approach the remainder of your days even better equipped to confront problems head-on. You are different, yes, but there are many different LIKE you. Band with us, talk with us, and we will be different together. We're everywhere, and we're glad to have you among us.

"Above all else, do not isolate yourself. The belief that you will never fit in is pervasive and believable, yet downright wrong. You WILL fit in - to a degree - and people will always notice in you a deep scar. It did not kill you, it tempered you, changed you, and you are stronger for it. You, as a leader, as a warrior, and as a citizen, have something to offer. What might that be? You have seen and experienced the cost of freedom, and thus possess the ability to live with the deepest gratitude. Do so now, just as I do, and we will muddle, stumble, grieve, and walk this path together. Millions have come before us, and millions will come after us. We have fallen in step with our predecessors, and in time others will fall in behind us. We are not a nation that forgets her heroes nor her fallen. We are nation that remembers. And that, my friend, begins with you living in the memory of your friend. You wore green digital, just like me. You wore desert digital just like me. You were pissed off a lot, shot a little, cried when nobody was looking, and one day decided to channel it into anger. Come, brother, we will approach life as a somber and perpetual memorial service, salute as the flag-draped coffin passes, and live in their memory. Because we remember. Because we know the man in the coffin. Because he was our friend, and he was robbed of life. We will continue to hate the enemy, and we will continue to remind those that quickly forget that the enemy still exists. We will survive, and we will live - and our fallen brothers, whose names are forever engraved on our hearts, will never be far from thought."

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

It Wasn't Fun

When I first met her in a foreign hostel, she explained that she’d been traveling for the past decade. Rattling off a long list of places she’d visited and loved, I found myself jealous. Compared to her, I’d barely begun to scratch the surface of a vast and diverse western hemisphere. She was excited about where she was going next, but displayed little fondness for any place from the exhaustive list she had already been. What she did not say, but I quickly determined, is that she was not happy.

I think her situation is unfortunately common in the world of professional travelers. There is an aversion to being stationary, a quick boredom with the routine of most long-term friendships, and quite likely a powerful fear of commitment. This is not spoken with even a trace of judgment, but with analysis – particularly because I often find myself thinking and acting similarly. I don’t want to commit, I get tired of the same faces, and perpetually quest for others. I will be the first to admit, from both experience and observation, the emptiness of this lifestyle.

While it probably ranges from subconscious to directly articulated, a traveler’s life (at least the type about which I speak) is devoid of anything meaningful but “ME.” The traveler goes where he or she chooses and hopes to meet nice people upon arrival. There is a distinct lack of collaboration, companionship, argument, and compromise. There is just self, and that is typically unrewarding.

If I travel alone, I rob myself of the opportunity to say, “remember when we …?” There are no mutually-held fond memories, no great pictures of anybody (since it’s difficult and perhaps absurd to take self portraits), and instead just a constant, unmemorable infusion of activity and excess with the intent of self entertainment. Trouble is, self is rarely entertained.

What this lifestyle represents is several things: fear, lack of commitment, and at its very root, a total dedication to none other than oneself. That, however, is perhaps the most unrewarding life one can lead. There can be no recognition of contentment until there is an experience of discontent. Self will be perpetually dissatisfied because there is an avoidance to one critical factor of human nature: we were made for relationships.

The professional traveler keeps trying. “Are you happy?” “No,” they will quickly answer. “But I will be soon.” They, more than any other, are the illustration of the U2 song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” What I suggest, however, is an amendment that may refine their quest: “I Still Haven’t Found WHO I’m Looking For.” Things, stuff, and meaningless possessions will ultimately amount to little. Without the application of sentiment – which incidentally can only come from relationships with others, there will be no lasting value to any material thing at all. In fact, next year’s model will be out soon and you’ll quickly discard the old. It’s just stuff, and you don’t particularly like it. It all distills to something remarkably simple (in principle): stop looking for what or where, and start looking for “who.”

This is not a subtle order that all single people (particularly travelers) should abandon their wandering and look for a mate. Such an overt action will likely be met with total disappointment and frustration, probably stemming from a number of poor decisions. It is more general than this: look for relationships – everywhere. And perhaps key to the lasting enjoyment of travel, look for somebody with whom to travel. The purpose: consider and accommodate somebody other than yourself.

Do you want to have fun traveling? Bring somebody. Do you want to remember it fondly? Ensure that there is somebody there with whom to later remember it. If you want to seek, seek others. In the process of forgetting yourself, you will find others. In such places, there will be contentment with the presence, and mutual excitement for the future. The destination is irrelevant. The companion that journeyed with you, however, is a friend for life. Forget yourself, and open your heart to others.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ben Has Posted On His Blog...

Anybody who has spent any sort of time on Facebook will quickly agree that it has the potential to be an absolute bottomless pit. Between the sporadic litanies of “update” from people you claim are your friends, requests by people you never know, and an inability to escape, the likelihood of getting sucked in is high.

What started as a fantastic means by which college students could remain in contact quickly spiraled out of control to anybody with a computer scrambling to combine a pile of crappy photos and useless monikers to let everybody who also has no life keep up with just how dull theirs is, too.

The reality is that half those “friends” aren’t even friends in the first place. They’re people whose names you halfway remember hearing somewhere at some point in your long boring life. Then, in one rather lengthy and desperate spell of boredom, you search the Facebook archives for these virtual strangers and enthusiastically add them to your friends list. Most you will never speak to – even as friends. Nor will they make any effort to speak to you. It’s a game. A competition. Whoever has the most friends is the least like a loser. Trouble is, you have to be more of a loser to go to the necessary lengths to even find these people. Furthermore, musicians, politicians, writers, and celebrities do not count. Stop acting like your “friendship” with Brittney Spears counts for something. It doesn’t. It means you have horrible taste in music, and are willing to publicly announce it by adding a sub-par musician as your friend. Try finding a real friend – if you can pry yourself away from the computer.

And that is actually hard to pull off. I may very well take the initiative to close Facebook, but unless I divest myself of all electronic media, I will still be connected. Not only will Facebook e-mail me friendly reminders that there is some activity on my account, but I will also get blasted with similar reminders to my phone. I would probably disable them if I knew how, but I do not. And I sort of like pretending like I have friends.

“John is sleepy and going to bed.” Well holy damn. It happens to the best of us. Are we to feel empathy? Solidarity? Cheer for him? How about wish he wasn’t on your friends lists. The most annoying are people telling you about every detail of their life from front to finish. “Jane woke up in a bad mood.” Well, I do every day – because I have to wake up. The one aspect of their life that is always omitted is bathroom habits. I, to help overcome this terrible limitation, frequently include the nature of my movements. I’m setting an example. Inquiring minds want to know, and I will tell them. If they don’t like it, they can delete me from their friends list. But they won’t, because secretly they all really enjoy reading about everybody else. In their heart of hearts, they themselves with their own status updates indicated they had the most screwed up, dysfunctional lives. Why? Because then people would comment these status updates and they’d feel like they had friends.

I say, however, why limit oneself to the truth? It’s terribly inconvenient. Make something up. Consider it creative advertizing. And you’re advertizing yourself; in this case attempting to “outdo” the other Facebook posters and steal them from spying on everybody else’s accounts.

And that’s the scary fact: people DO spy. Proof of this occasionally comes when you’re minding your own business and are suddenly blasted with an e-mail, a text message, and a little red alert box all informing you that somebody has commented on a status update or photograph you posted weeks ago. Somebody, specifically one of the people claims to be your friends, has poked around the bowels of your archives, seen something that caught their eye, and felt inclined to tell you what they thought of it. What would otherwise be alarming because of its indication of their nosiness, you quickly write off because you’re thanking God that somebody is paying attention to you.

“Sorry man, I can’t go out tonight. I have to catch up on Facebook stuff.” Well, then, I’d say it’s failed as a social network. It’s become an online identity. But who else has online identities? Stalkers, Hollywoodophiles, and pederasts. Welcome to their ranks. You have no friends, per se, but you have 1,243 Facebook friends, so you’re not alone, right. Well, actually you are. Pathetically so.

Another continually annoying feature of Facebook is the ease with which one can join or even create groups, events, or some stupid application that otherwise burns valuable electrons. “Tim has joined the ‘I like Huffing Farts’ group. Click here to join.” No thanks.

“Rose is now a fan of Bulimia. Click here to binge with her.”

“Todd joined the Order of the Flambouyant, Left-Handed Gay Man. Click here to win a left-hande feather boa.”

“Shannon is a fan of Auschwitz Victims Turned Comedians. Click here to see show schedules.”

“Muffy is celebrating ‘Let’s All Hug a Stranger Day.’ Click here to join the movement. Now 27 strong nationwide.” Wow, what a rousing success.

Instead of joining these lame causes, I will start my own stupid groups and events and see how many people I can sucker into joining. These will include, “Let’s Waste Electrons Together,” “Facebook Users That Admit They’re Losers and Have no REAL Friends,” “The Machete Fascination Group,” “Fans of Public Urination,” “Let’s Celebrate National Take-The-Toilet-Paper-Out-Of-Every-Stall-And-Run Day,” and whatever else comes do mind. I’ve already started the Machete Fascination, too. Seriously. I have…

Facebook Applications are no better. I subscribe to NONE of them.

“Maggie has hidden an Easter Egg in your profile.” That’s littering. Get it out of there. RIGHT NOW.

“Tank sent you a martini.” All Tank does is either take photos of himself drinking and post them on Facebook, or send drinks to people. Tank should pursue help, not an electronic social forum.

“Jack has poked you. Click here to poke him back.” Good for him. That’s battery. Next time I’ll use a machete.

“Jenna gave you a pet baby alligator. Click here to feed it.” Is it edible? Can IT feed ME? If I could abuse an electronic pet, I would, and then blame you for giving it to me without my approval. The internet needs to be spayed more than anything – and most of the people using it.

Perhaps most important is that while I perpetually complain that Facebook is an utter waste of time, electrons, and time SUPPOSEDLY intended for work, I too spend a notable portion of my day on it. But I claim to have an excuse. I keep up with Marine I haven’t seen in years, pretend that the 87 people that I have added as friends actually care about me, and then, in my quieter moments, I prowl through their photos looking for something incriminating. Facebook, I suppose, doesn’t get you any real friends; it just allows you to be lonely, pathetic, and nosey all at the same time. If it weren’t for this program, we’d have to look out the window and spy on our neighbors. How boring would THAT be…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

What's Different

Q: Has your opinion of the US military been changed since being in Iraq?

Spending time in the service will always extinguish whatever grandiose notion you have of it. Before joining, I approached the military with curiosity and a healthy dose of intimidation. Everybody seemed perpetually cock sure of themselves, spoke with authority, and I found being among them truly daunting. They seemed to have a solid grasp on things, looked sharp in uniforms, and had been around the world a few times and done some pretty neat things.

But what I discovered is that, like any other organization comprised of people, the Marine Corps is full of people of all personalities, races, creeds and ethics. And in reality, they tend to attract those who struggle most with the question, “do I have what it takes?” In that regard, the Corps may be full of some of the most insecure young adults in the country, which carries with it its own set of problems and outright dysfunction.

With the addition of the human element come mistakes, exhibitions of poor leadership and tactical decisions, and a glut of lazy people exploiting a relatively simple, steady paycheck. To many, myself included, it is a total disappointment. Not all experiences, however, were bad ones.

For quite some time, the Marine Corps aired a television commercial wherein a fit young man scales a mountain, fights a fiery dragon in a complex obstacle course, and then morphs into a Marine in dress blues. The running joke is, “dude, I’ve never fought no damn dragon.” The Marine Corps has long attracted young men and women by appearing, at least on the outside, to be full of the fittest, toughest, most capable leaders in the nation. While it is somewhat true, the rest is a myth, and many of us are crestfallen to realize that, like any other group of people, it has its fair share of complete duds.

The more humorous among us begin to apply nicknames to the Corps, mostly to help cope with a frustrating situation they are totally powerless to change. Some of the more repeatable names are as follows:

United States Moving Company (spoken by a friend who was weary of frequent working parties tasked with little more than moving furniture around a room)
The Big Green Weenie (always screwing us)
Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children (we usually think this is lame)

There are a host of others, but few I am willing to post on this venue. The underlying notion is that the Corps isn’t all we expected it to be. We do not exist in a stasis of perpetual patriotism, nobility, overwhelmed with the warrior spirit. We’re a bunch of clowns in uniform that are occasionally issued guns and told to go shoot something. Another running joke is that the only reason Marines are so effective in combat is that by the time they actually get there, they are so completely infuriated that shooting something makes them feel a little better. And I actually think there’s some truth to that. The Army, who has much better troop welfare than the Marine Corps, is a less ferocious fighting force. Perhaps this is because they aren’t always angry and desperately seeking an outlet.

We have also been described collectively as a scene from Benny Hill, and in dire need of the “Yacketty Sax” theme song set to fast motion film. This is probably slightly more appropriate than the comparison to a herd of chimpanzees humping a doorknob.

Like every other company or organization, there are lazy people, normal people, and extremely motivated people. Lazy Marines are called “shitbags.” Motivated ones are known as “motards.” The normal people have no nicknames that I can recall, besides perhaps “coasters” enjoying “three hots and a cot” (three meals a day and a bed).

If a Marine exhibits signs of apathy, in addition to being called a “shitbag,” it will be said that he has “dropped his pack.” This is especially true of those that are nearing the end of their enlistment. As amazing as it may sound, many drop their packs with a full year remaining on their contract. Those nearing the end proudly refer to themselves as “short timers.” It is almost impossible to extract any sort of effort or responsibility from them.

Three deployments to Iraq have certainly changed my opinion of the Marine Corps, mostly by underscoring a belief that they are woefully unprepared for anything at all. Frequent infantry deployments have not been without the sacrifice of once-standard training – namely in the conduct of more conventional ground combat. Between total disorganization, aged and faulty equipment and insufficient training, I am deeply concerned that the Marine Corps would perform very poorly against an enemy of any tactical competence. As it stands now, large Marine Corps units can be quickly halted and harassed by a small handful of clever insurgents. There is no longer a general preparedness for the unknown.

From the perspective of a tactics instructor, those, too, have been on the decline since nearly the moment of the invasion itself in 2003. Poor tactics tend to drive out whatever confidence troops may have in their fighting ability. Observation of these poor measures leads me now to estimate that a sizeable percentage of casualties sustained in Iraq are the direct result of poor tactical decisions, NOT a terribly aggressive enemy. I will intentionally decline to provide a figure.

The point is that I have lost most of my confidence in the readiness of the Marine Corps to quickly overcome whatever challenges are presented. Given their total inefficiency, it’s amazing they even make it to the fight, much less win anything. What is humorous, however, is that this should come as no surprise. Every military in the world has a high degree of inefficiency and incompetence. The Marine Corps, astoundingly, somehow always manages to exhibit a little less of it than everybody else. It remains our saving grace, and we're extremely proud of it.

Despite the appearance of hopeless negativity, most of us, including those that didn’t particularly enjoy our time in the Marines, will look back on that period as the “glory days,” simultaneously the most exciting, frustrating, purposeful, miserable, and adventuresome time of our lives . We miss it, we hate it, we talk about it incessantly, and thank God we aren’t part of it anymore. Many are, however, and love it.

There is often tragedy, but there is also great humor. There are dysfunctional people, but they become your dysfunctional family. There are also terrible experiences, but they were not endured alone. There were great times, and we remember them more fondly and tend to forget everything else. Would I do it again knowing what I know? Absolutely not. But that being said, if the nation needed us, we would answer the call, and guys who vehemently forsook the Corps and all things related to it, will quickly line up to return to active service. For all its challenges, disappointments and letdowns, we were, are, and will forever remain brothers. No length of time or great tragedy can drive that from us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

More Good Questions

At a date later in this month and another in April, I have been asked to speak before two classes of social work students at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA) about veteran issues, their readjustment to civilian life, and also what they, as soon-to-be social workers, can best do to assist them in these matters. While my qualification to answer such questions is dubious at best, I can confidently state that the challenges many of these vets have faced are things that I, too, have faced, and in time learned to either live with, overcome, or perhaps still struggle with today. At any rate, I am flattered with the invitation, and hopeful that something I may mention will help these students better help veterans.

In preparation for these presentations, I have been given a list of several questions that I should be prepared to answer in an intelligent manner. In looking at them, they are reasonable, important, and certainly worth addressing. In part because I wish to practice answering them (and you are the lucky readers), and in part because I think they should be viewed by a wider audience than just these two classes, I am going to respond to some here on the blog. I apologize if this seems to be exploiting an audience, but I have a hunch that these represent questions from a much wider audience. Some I have answered in part, but others I have not. So, without further rambling about it, I will simply begin.

Q: Have you or anyone you know experienced PTSD? If so, how has it affected your life?

The specific causes of PTSD are multitudinous, but basically encompass exposure to any traumatic event that threatened or caused grave physical harm. These needn’t be restricted to combat situations, and can include such events as rapes, assaults, riots, automobile accidents, fires, and so forth. I do not claim to be a psychologist, so I can neither list all the situations that may cause such a condition, nor outline the specific psychological processes that lead to symptoms of PTSD. Contextually, I was asked if my military experiences have brought about such symptoms, so that is the question I shall address.

How PTSD manifests in symptoms is even broader than what can cause it, making direct diagnosis undoubtedly difficult, since it is often hard to pinpoint what behavior is a direct cause of these exposures to trauma. In the case of veterans, however, it often appears as increased arousal (excessively alert, difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, etc), but includes also such things as total avoidance of the issue, refusal (or inability) to talk about anything remotely similar to the traumatic event, general irritability, anger, and relationship problems. Personally, I would describe many of the symptoms to be increased exhibitions of behavior patterns already fairly common with veterans transitioning to civilian life.

For my part, given my understanding of PTSD, its causes and symptoms, I have at various times exhibited signs of having it. How much is directly tied to traumatic events and how much is simply the consequence of a military lifestyle is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, I will attempt to separate the two.

It is extremely common for newly-returned troops to be incredibly jumpy and sensitive to sudden loud noises, movements, etc. This is particularly true when coming from a combat zone where most of the casualties incurred where from indirect fire (mortar and rocket attacks on bases), and IEDs (which are frequently artillery rounds hidden on a roadside). I have observed many a Marine standing around outside on a stateside base when artillery training commenced in the distance. They lurch, look momentarily confused, and appear like they’re seeking a location to run for safety. Within a moment, they usually catch themselves and shake it off. Their heart rates, however, remain high, and the adrenalin is still in their system.

Upon return from my first tour (wherein we sustained the most mortar, rocket and IED attacks), I was initially extremely sensitive to loud noises, to include balloons popping, tires blowing (on the highway), pots and pans being dropped, and other sudden, staccato sounds. In fairly short order, however, overreaction to this diminished, though I am still sensitive to a few sounds (for example, a snow plow dropping it’s blade onto asphalt in preparation to plow – which sounds like a detonating mortar round). Others do not recover so quickly, for whatever reason, remain jumpy, and continue to overreact to these stimuli for years to come. Though I cannot prove it, I believe that one’s in-country exposure to this type of attack is directly related to the length of time one remains sensitive to these sounds.

How has this affected my life? Very little, though being startled does immediately cause an injection of adrenalin into the bloodstream, an increased pulse rate, and activation of “fight or flight” muscles. The urge to run or hide usually quickly subsides. If it changed anything, it diminished my ability to enjoy 4th of July fireworks and may have contributed to an increased desire for silence around me.

An increased interest in silence may also relate to dislike of chaotic situations, with several competing speakers, loud music, or even an excess of motion. While such things aren’t necessarily going to cause any sort of “episode,” they are certainly nice to avoid. Combat, above anything else, is the epitome of chaos and confusion, and none of us really enjoyed that aspect of it. While this may translate to an avoidance of large crowds and activity for some, I have not really found this to be the case personally.

What HAS changed, however, is my hearing. In doing some research, I have discovered that an inability to “pick a voice out of a crowd” is more psychological than it is aural. When in loud places, I have difficulty distinguishing background noise from a speaker’s voice, which certainly causes some social awkwardness. It is not an inability to hear, but difficulty listening. It is unclear to me if this is a consequence of military service, though I do know the problem did not develop until during/after my service. The embarrassment of having to lean in more than usual to hear, coupled with the frustration of asking others to repeat themselves has caused me to avoid situations when I will have difficulty participating in a conversation.

Perhaps the most common symptom of PTSD is general irritability, though it is also the most difficult to directly attribute to PTSD. During times of heightened alertness (specifically following a combat deployment), it contributes to impatience and leaves one quick to anger. Part of this, no doubt, is simply caused by military service, where many orders are conveyed with yelling, everything is conducted with a sense of urgency, and waiting is totally abhorred. However, a greater display of this irritability directly following a combat deployment suggests that it is, at least in part, related to PTSD.

As for how it as impacted me personally, I have frequently found myself making a conscious effort to remain calm, not yell, and resist the urge to speak sharply to not only friends and family, but also total strangers. I have not permitted it to alter my social habits, but it has meant that I’ve had to issue a number of sincere and humble apologies for unbecoming behavior towards others.

A clear symptom of PTSD is the revisiting of the traumatic experience itself. This may come in the form of a waking “flashback,” but is more common during sleep – resulting in nightmares and perhaps a reluctance to sleep at all, since it will only cause one to relive the experience repeatedly.

I do not know anybody personally that relives his or her traumatic experience in nightmares, but many of us have encountered vaguely similar situations in dreams – wherein one sees killing, is being shot at (or even killed), observes others suffering a similar fate, and in some cases we are the ones doing the killing. They are clearly dreams, and nobody that I know awakens and wishes to continue thinking about such topics. It is quickly dismissed as a dream. For some, however, they may be so graphic or disturbing that they don’t wish to sleep again. I suspect that some veterans drink heavily to induce a sleep so deep that no dreams are ever remembered.

While I have certainly experienced my fair share of nightmares involving violent situations, they are neither sufficiently graphic or frequent enough to legitimately bother me. I dismiss them and continue with sleeping (or waking). Nor are they so disturbing that I awaken suddenly in any sort of panic. Others are not so fortunate.

Curiously, there are specific stimuli that may “encourage” dreams of this nature, such as watching a movie with a violent gun battle, a news clip, or even a written account of a similar situation. For this reason, many veterans may avoid movies, books, or video games that cause them to dwell on their own similar experiences. I have found myself overly-alarmed or “caught up” in various scenes of movies, such as the D-Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan,” the firefights in Mogadishu during “Blackhawk Down,” and other similar movies. For somebody that has never experienced combat, a depiction of it is so unfathomable that the viewer does not “enter it.” Yet for me (and other veterans) they are believable, and it is difficult to enjoy it as part of a movie. Instead I find myself in the scene itself and wishing I could somehow help. I have, thus far, not overtly avoided films as a consequence of this. Many do, especially World War II veterans. There are numerous accounts of them simply walking out of theaters during showings of “Saving Private Ryan.” Given what they experienced, I do not blame them in the least. It is not necessarily a nightmare to be relived, but a real event that the viewer enters yet feels totally powerless to help. Servicemembers, as a whole, do not like feeling helpless.

As I understand PTSD, it may also be delayed in its exhibition of symptoms. Thus, a seemingly well-adjusted veteran may inexplicably begin showing signs of PTSD. It should not come as a shock to friends or loved ones. The nature of the condition is that it may remain latent for quite some time. It depends on the individual, their traumatic experiences, and a host of other variables. It remains, important, however, to not ignore the symptoms should they arise.

What is most poisonous is when a number of PTSD symptoms all act simultaneously on a veteran. Jumpiness dissuades him from being in situations he cannot control (crowds, large social gatherings, noisy situations), irritability causes him to avoid others, and severely disrupted circadian rhythms (from nightmares and flashbacks) leave him routinely exhausted and even more irritable. These combine to create a belief that he is fundamentally different, that he does not fit in, and the symptoms are sufficiently overwhelming that he feels unable to overcome them. What results is a tendency towards isolation, which quickly serves to solidify that conviction. In short, the veteran is left alone with his thoughts, will never discuss experiences they are best not buried, and may begin to consider his difference from “normal” people so severe that fitting in is totally impossible. This line of thinking can become quickly self-destructive, difficult to reverse, and potentially fatal.

What can be done to help a veteran that suffers with PTSD? Depending on its severity and how much it influences their lives and behavior, they may wish to pursue treatment with a professional. The VA offers extensive programs for this, specifically tailored to veterans suffering with combat-related PTSD. While other mental health professionals may be qualified on paper, many lack the experience or specific training with veterans. I would personally recommend a VA professional before any other. They may be able to assist a veteran in talking through the problems, or perhaps even prescribe medications that calm the nerves until such things occur naturally.

Another hurdle is getting a veteran to admit that he or she may, in fact, have a problem. There is a general tendency to ignore the issue or deny a problem with it. More specifically, many may be willing to admit to themselves that they need help, but are uninterested in seeking it. There remains a common belief that a mental health issue is a clear sign of weakness. Rather than admit this, many will simply ignore the problem. I, too, have struggled with this thinking. Truly believing that an issue with PTSD is not a show of weakness is difficult. Until veterans feel “safe” and accepted with an admission that they need help, few will seek it. This requires a concerted effort on the part of friends and loved ones to accept the veteran non-judgmentally, and think no less of them if they choose to see a mental health professional.

The greatest help that anybody can offer a veteran is therefore this: patiently love and accept them in spite of them their struggles, and openly (and sincerely) indicate that a need for help in no way suggests weakness, but instead a boldness that tragically few possess. It is also imperative to not allow a veteran struggling with PTST to isolate him or herself. Friends and loved ones must keep up with them, even if they are poorly received. But in truth, they will probably not be poorly received if everything they do is firmly rooted in a sincere love and concern for their friend or loved one. Above all else, veterans nedd people to truly love them.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Was Asleep

Written In Iraq, February, 2007:

It's 0515 and there's an alarm of some sort going off. Wait, that's an alarm clock, and it sounds close. Oh, it's mine. The veil of my coma is slowly lifting. What a pity. Ignorance was such bliss.

My legs won't work. The cold air stiffened my knees when my blankets fell off last night. I need coffee. I gather momentum and after two pathetic tries manage to roll my shoulders just enough to fall to the floor. My left arm doesn't work. Apparently I was sleeping on it. Of my four limbs I'm operating at 25%. Much like a paraplegic would, I drag myself across the tiles towards the coffee maker. Somebody had the foresight to program the device to make a pot before we awoke.

I leave a trail of polished clean floor as I heave myself along by one arm, like the heroic, gravely wounded knight in shining armor dragging his half corpse to the stiffening frame of his fallen lover before he, too, completely expires. Yet I'm nowhere near so noble.

The coffee is done by the time I've dragged myself to the machine. Propping myself against the mini-fridge, I use my one good arm to shakily pour that black death into my tin cup. The coffee spills on me and I'm fully awake, albeit still largely disabled. But I've poured it and I shakily maneuver the cup to my lips and promptly burn my tongue. Damnation. I can't even sip this stuff. I look and feel like a hobo who's endured a New York winter passed out on a steam grate. And the tin cup doesn't help. All I need is a trash fire to warm my hands… "Please, sah' I wont som' more". Charles Dickens comes to mind, but I'm too pathetic for one of his sob stories.

Ah, there's my arm. Now it hurts. Pain – proof of my existence. Great. And now there are my legs. No chance of running this morning. I'm too lethargic anyway. But I can stand up – which I now do and fall down. Now I'm seeing spots. Just as well I'm not running today. It rained last night, again, and the road is covered with a thin layer of mud. Imagine running down a slip and slide barefoot, then add speed and a firearm in your hand. Take into account my mortal terror of being eaten my some half-crazed hyena, and I'm actually afraid to look where I'm going. I don’t even bother on mornings like these.

And there's that mindless oaf of a roommate awakening. Apparently the litany of epithets I release when twice burned got him going. First thing he does it look at me, grin, and wish me good morning. That cheery, happy fool. I stare at him. I don't know what it's like to have a recovering heroin addict give you a maniacal look, but I do my best and hopefully that buffoon of a giddy moron will cease grinning at me. He looks all the stupider because he hasn’t put in his teeth yet. I am successful; he looks away. My coffee cools and I sip enough to learn the malodorous brew was apparently prepared by the devil himself. I could dissolve paint with this grime.

I hobble outside to the facilities. Porta-Jons are a fixture of Iraq. The artwork, the condition, the pleasing aroma. Today it's windy, which brings its own problems. I finally manage to wrench the door open, step halfway inside, and the door decides to attack me. I'm stuck. I hate these things. Being afraid to touch any portion of the things makes extricating myself from its clutches all the more difficult.

We get ready to pile into one of our trucks to hop to work. My cheerful roommate is going to make us late. He putters around with various bags and packs until he's satisfied he has all he needs for work. I swear he'd carry a purse if we wouldn’t call him gay. But we would. My other roommate is constantly cocking and uncocking his pistol. I suspect it's loaded. He doesn't say anything, nor do feel this is the best time to engage him in meaningful conversation. He also hates mornings. I imagine he'll be stabilized within an hour.

We clamor into the truck – a little green Nissan pickup that looks like it was rolled down the side of a mountain – not on its wheels. I think we got it when some Marines diffused a bomb in it and confiscated the thing. We call it the green monster, or worse. But it runs, and we're fond of it. And it sure beats walking.

I get stuck in the back – again. It's too cold for this.

Another fixture of Iraq is speed bumps. Apparently somebody is concerned that we'll speed on base so there are heaps of sandbags, tank treads, and countless potholes to check our speed. My spine is compressing. This truck has no shocks. If I ever come back to Iraq it will be for the personal vendetta of removing all these speed bumps. It's worse than a Walmart parking lot. The bumps are twice as big, not smooth, and will swallow a truck. There are even retarded people milling in the street – other Marines, contractors, Soldiers, Sailors, SEALs, and God only knows who looking lost. All these guys need are shopping carts.

At work I dig through a box of individual cereal boxes looking for one that hasn't been chewed by the mice. I find one that's in decent shape and eat it. Special K. What a dull cereal – and I spill the milk all over the desk. It's hard to pour from a shelf-stable juicebox.

My cheery roommate removes his teeth and eats his too. He spills a lot too, but I guess he has an excuse. I think I'll take extra special care of my teeth, lest I lose them.

Today's calamity - somebody stole my pens from my pencil can. I'm angry they're gone. I'm angry with myself for complaining about pens when I'm in Iraq. I've lost my frame of reference. And I want my pens back, too. I’d spent days, if not weeks stealing them.

Out medical corpsman is ranting about something – and stuttering. He stutters like a madman when he's excited. We all make fun of him, then feel badly for it, convinced that Providence, in His infinite sense of humor, will bless us too which special children. What goes around comes around. Doc is ranting about somebody eating his fruit, which, apparently was clearly marked and stowed in the fridge. Good job, Doc. Should have marked them with something other than a dry erase marker. Next time spend that extra second to secure a real writing utensil. Aren’t dry erase markers poisonous, anyway? I sure get funny when I sniff them for long enough. It was probably me that ate his fruit. I can’t remember.

The cheery roommate is singing some stupid country song. He needs a sedative. I need one too. Maybe it'll dull my hearing.

There's a hat hanging on the wall we made for him – we call it the 'tard hat. It's an old-fashioned bike helmet with numerous insults written on it. When he gets going, we make him wear it. He's currently chasing Doc around the room with a broom. I hope Doc gets hit. Everybody is staring at them wishing happy thoughts about a semi truck, slippery roads, malfunctioning brakes, and an inattentive driver.

The day starts with a meeting. Everybody is dressed for the cold, so it's a room full of homeless people in strange clothing. You'd be surprised how many configurations you can make with issued cold weather gear. Add to that the fact that there are many with buttons unaligned, shoelaces protruding, hats askew. Everybody is sucking down coffee. Does anybody sleep around here? The scary part is that we're the guys responsible for the bulk of training done with Iraqi Army and Police, but apparently can't dress ourselves on difficult mornings. Some "Tip of the Spear"… But we'll be okay, though, once the sun comes up and the caffeine sinks in.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 2, 2009

My Lion's Tail Was A Coke

There’s snow on the ground, which means there is the potential of being snowed in. The best solution: go somewhere and prove that you are not. Where? Just out. Somewhere. Anywhere.

When Massai warriors return from the lion hunt that ritualistically identifies them as brave and noble fighters, they will proudly display the lion’s tail as proof of their fighting prowess – chopped from the lion as he was cornered and eventually subdued. A more resourceful man than I, having braved the snow, would return with bread, milk, or some other staple. I fail on all counts and bring back a Coke. But I proved I’m not stuck. I think that part’s genetic.

The power is still out here. In a panic, those without any heating options other than electricity bundle up inside, pray their pipes don’t freeze, and break out cook stoves and lanterns they haven’t used in eons. Every few years around here, a redneck burns down his home when the charcoal grill he was using in the middle of the living room ignites the furniture.

This is heart attack weather, when people unaccustomed to any physical exertion appear outside to clear off driveways and cars before discovering their cardiac health is not as it should be and they keel over. Ambulances stay busy – if not with the heart attack people, then with accidents.

Everybody with an old pickup makes the incorrect assumption that trucks perform better in the snow, and proceed to careen around one turn after another, forgetting that there needs to be weight in the back of pickup in order for it to have any traction whatsoever. People end up in ditches a lot. I would guess that many of them, like me, were simply trying to get out of the house.

Half the population, rushing to arrive at places they needn’t even be, create massive pileups in town that the local police force will get into wrecks of their own trying to respond. Nobody’s hurt, but a number of angry soccer moms are late for nothing and sound panicky when they called 911.

Local schools, each and every one shutting down services as all-day adolescent babysitters, release scads of bored youth into the suburbs where they’ll play in the snow for an hour, track most of it in, and resort to watching the television if the power is on, and whining about not wanting to read a book if the power is out. Their parents aren’t usually there, anyway, since they’re driving around hunting for lion tails.

A flurry of telephone calls throughout the morning between concerned neighbors will confirm little more than, “yep, it snowed.” The rest of the conversation is devoted to road conditions. It doesn’t really matter, though, because they’re going to get out and try driving somewhere anyway. Normally vacuous chatter is now focused on the weather – which I also consider a vacuous subject. Weather happens, and eventually it will change. I think some small wars have consumed less phone time than this half-day calamity.

With the power out, everybody pretends not to notice it, but there’s nothing they want to do more than turn on every electric appliance in the house and just be satisfied that it works. Just as snow encourages driving, a power outage makes us want to vacuum the floors, watch TV and cook things. Or perhaps it makes us want to “pioneer it,” a silly notion that is usually abandoned by midday. But pioneers didn’t have the internet – which we now all dearly miss, even though it just means we wasted more time.

So we dig out books and discover we’ve mostly forgotten how to read, or at least lack the attention span to settle down and enjoy it, what with children tracking in snow, appliances to check for operation, layers of clothing to shed and don as the interior temperature changes, frequent phone calls about weather condition updates and so forth. The house feels small, terribly quiet, and confining. So you drive somewhere. Maybe that’s the only place you don’t feel stuck – in a warm car, cell phone charging, radio blasting, and driving down slippery roads – until you really ARE stuck and get cold and apoplectic. You’ll pick up your cell phone (thank GOD one appliance works!), call other friends, and they, too, will brave the roads to come pick you up. Perhaps they’ll get stuck, too, if they aren’t already. We liked the snow for 10 minutes, until we got cold, the power went out, and we started wishing it was melted and summer was here. But we’ll still call each other about the heat wave.

If it weren’t for the weather, what would we actually talk about? Something substantial? Probably not. We’d talk about celebrities and waste oxygen by opening our mouths.

"Oh my GOD! This is, like, the perfect day for a soy milk white mocha latte with ginger! Let's all go to Starbucks!" Suddenly, the aimless driving has been afforded purpose. They, the generation that speaks in emoticons and text message abbreviations, will show up to the counter with designer plaid rubber boots, elaborate knitted hats, and absurdly low cut tops exposing cold bosoms. It may be cold, but they’ll still look good. "Winter apparel provides SO many options because of the, like, layers and stuff." And the hats.

I, on the other hand, simply wear what works. And I will be here at the house, fidgeting about the same things as everybody else. I already did my pointless drive, already played with the appliances, already tracked in snow, fiddled with a book before giving it a miss, and am now just lounging around – unique only in that I am openly admitting that we, as a culture, as mid-Atlantic residents unaccustomed to snow and things, are terribly silly and undeniably lame.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

The Other Sandbox

With President Obama recently publicizing troop withdrawal timetables from Iraq and much of the tactical focus shifting to Afghanistan, it will quickly be forgotten that there are still more than 140,000 United States servicemembers deployed in Iraq. I am somewhat fearful that they will be overlooked in these next several months. While the conflict as a whole may be in its twilight, it is still a very real and daily struggle and danger for the thousands still serving there. In our haste to fixate on more “juicy” matters, we must not neglect them in the slightest.

Nevertheless, while historians and commentators who have never seen things first-hand spend the next several decades robustly debating whether we have achieved victory or suffered defeat in Iraq, other conflicts will continue to steal national attention. Afghanistan will be the first. At the risk of appearing insincere with my aforementioned remarks, I, too, wish to throw in my own comments on the subject.

While Iraq has been undeniably awash in sectarianism, tribalism, and even regionalism (unfortunately at the expense of much-needed nationalism), there are a few factors which quickly differentiate it culturally and tactically from the situation in Afghanistan. Foremost among them is terrain.

Iraq is, by and large, exceedingly flat (except for the northern borders), and broken up predominantly by two rivers and a confusing network of canals that make otherwise terribly arid land a fantastic location for crops. There is a relatively well-established highway system, paved roads, and even a fair degree of order to how settlement has been arranged. Above all else, the people go where the water is. Roads connect such localities, and eventually all roads lead to Baghdad and a few other towns. What is not irrigated remains, as it has been for millennia, vast tracts of dusty, sandy wasteland. While roads have been, at times, extremely dangerous to travel by vehicle, a clever reallocation of most air traffic to odd hours of the night has permitted relatively easy travel to and from any given location in the country. Helicopters routinely “taxi” missions through most of the night under the cover of darkness, and will only venture out during the day to transport MVPs and support ground combat operations. For the most part, it works well.

But in Afghanistan there are no such luxuries. In addition to the standard difficulties that desert flight presents (dust storms, and disorienting dust clouds), the terrain itself is such that battlespace dominance is extremely difficult. Helicopters are restricted to certain altitudes, yet various mountains throughout the country impede their travel to more manageable elevations, or force pilots to brave the exponential dangers of higher altitude flight. Combat aircraft crash records quickly indicate this.

Not only does the terrain prohibit the relatively straightforward flight paths seen in Iraq, but even roads are scant. Those that do exist are not nearly as well-maintained as the roads found in Iraq, many are simply dirt (and therefore subject to whatever bizarre weather patterns the country experiences), and tend to wind precariously through the hills and mountains. Their infrequency further prevents battlespace dominance from the roads – relegating troops all the more to foot travel, which is slow, relatively inefficient, and a task for which their limited numbers are grievously undermanned. There is much terrain to cover – and difficult terrain – yet few equipped to do it.

The end result is that regional isolation is simple, permitting Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to quickly establish in small areas, take root, and potentially flourish as coalition forces lack the manpower to conduct thorough presence patrols. Thus, once-gained ground has sometimes been quickly lost in their absence. Not only are the regions isolated, but so also would be any troops left to secure it – if there were even sufficient numbers to do so.

The infamously lawless regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan have also presented themselves as a profound problem, since the open border has permitted pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda elements to move from an area of combat (Afghanistan) to the relative safety and sympathy of Pakistan – which has done little to check their movements. Yet like Iraq, until Afghanistan’s borders have reached a low level of porosity, material, funding, weaponry, and fighters themselves will continue to move into the country unabated. Pakistan’s unwavering support for such an endeavor is essential – but not at all exhibited at present. That must change.

Culturally, however, there are also some significant matters differences. Until the fall of Saddam, the people of Iraq were fairly simply distilled into three general categories (I am excluding the Kurds because they have operated free of Saddam’s control since Desert Storm). First, are the Baathists – Saddam’s party of Sunnis that remained fiercely loyal to him and him alone. They were a small, highly feared minority. Second was the Sunni population (a minority representing but 17% of the population), who because of their sectarian alignment with Saddam and the Baathists, were left well enough alone, and enjoyed greater autonomy and less harassment than the third group: the Shiites. While Iraq was predominantly Shia, they were the lesser class of citizen, frequently the target of Sunni and Baathist discrimination, and generally looked down upon (especially to the south, where Shiites were quick to side with the United States during Desert Storm and paid for it dearly later).

The consequence of this simplicity is that tribalism, while present, held less weight than it would have otherwise. By sectarian alignment, they universally hated another sect/party, or were the ones being discriminated against by the Sunni minority or the Baathist superminority. Tribalism was not permitted to have the strength that it naturally holds in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, lacked a strong central government or a single, feared leader. While the Taliban was sufficiently discriminatory and ruthless to be considered a threat, many simply aligned with them for the ease of it, and other terrain-isolated regions were banded around tribalism and warlords. Much more than Iraq, violence and a lifetime of constant conflict was the norm. Localities simply vacillated between fighting for various warlords, tribes, or the Taliban. Boundaries and even loyalties remained vague.

A teenaged male growing up in an isolated area may habitually join the local warlord or fighting faction (be it tribal, warlord or Taliban), and be thus quickly indoctrinated into a warmongering culture. When they were told to fight, they fought. This they have been doing for decades. When one warlord or another was dispatched and replaced by another, alliances shifted and men suddenly found themselves fighting on the same side as others they invested years in ruthlessly killing, which suggests that their specific loyalties played a lesser role than their participation in a fight. Perhaps it gave them purpose. It was, undeniably, an innate aspect of their culture. Until one has experienced such things, it is extremely difficult to explain them. Universal rights and wrongs to not particularly exist in the Afghan culture (if there is such a thing). Alliances were formed and broken mostly as a matter of convenience. This dearth of deeply-revered convictions is fairly common in Islamic culture – perhaps in part because the Koran itself lacks the Judaic-style commandments that serve as the pillars of all Judeo-Christian cultures. In this void, convenience and self-interest quickly surpass some universally-acknowledged truths.

It is in this culture that a society that is adapted to, accepts, and perhaps even celebrates violence has been given unhealthy root. Driving out something so deeply engrained in the social, religious, and tribal habits of Afghanis will pose a far greater challenge to coalition forces than it did in Iraq. Iraqis simply needed to overcome sectarian resentment, and years of living under a single megalomaniac. Afghanis, however, must reverse their culture altogether. It will not be an easy task – especially with the limited military and Civilian Affairs personnel available to do it. Their terrain-based isolation only worsens the matter.

These do not, however, amount to insurmountable odds. Successes in the unification of Iraq and the slow process of overcoming sectarian squabbles should serve to further embolden US troops to the task in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it has given them superb practice in the field. They will need it.

Several measures can be undertaken to assist them in this process, however, and it would behoove all coalition forces to unite towards this goal. Foremost, troop numbers must be bolstered to not only root out and eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, but sufficient numbers must remain in these “secured areas” to keep them away permanently. Unless the Afghan citizenry are constantly exposed to the benefits of some form of democracy, they will continue to treat it as a passing ideology that will soon depart and permit them return to their culture (and truly a cycle) of violence.

Just as it was essential in Iraq, Afghanistan’s borders must be resolutely sealed to prevent ideological and manpower reinforcements to Taliban and Al Qaeda elements within the country. At the moment most of the blame for their growing ranks can be directly blamed on Pakistan’s total failure to quell Taliban and Al Qaeda factions within their own country. Their participation is crucial to the improved security and stability of Afghanistan. In fact, such a situation may be truly impossible without their unequivocal support. At present, it does not exist, and they have actually begun “ceding” large portions of their country to Taliban ideologies. This must necessarily stop.

Additionally, the suicide bombing tactics that so successfully demoralized and impeded troops in Iraq must be firmly halted in its infancy in Afghanistan. As must also the concept of IEDs. Both have gone up exponentially in practice within the country, but with a sealed border, there are insufficient volunteers and ordnance to sustain the practices. Gaining mastery over these highly effective insurgency tactics will permit concentration of combat efforts to small arms fighters, which are far better organized, numerous, and established in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq. Slowly and methodically coalition forces, with heavy reinforcements, can begin a sustainable mission of terrain denial.

The next phase of combat operations will not be easy by any means. In truth, it may require a massive reallocation of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, rather than home where they nation would prefer they be. Yet to continue to approach the Afghan conflict halfheartedly will result either in total failure or an even greater prolonging of a conflict many presumed would be complete years ago. But it must happen. To continue to permit the presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces will perpetuate a greatly heightened threat to US and Western interests and citizens throughout the world. The ideology must be terminated, since, as primitive as it may appear from the outside, and as ragtag as the individual fighters may be, their leadership has proven to be powerful, well-connected, well funded, far-reaching, and hateful of all those unlike them. As a nation, we have been shocked at their capabilities once already, and it would be tragic were that to happen again.

The process will necessarily take time, but that should in no way detract from the United States’ vested interested in its success. It remains essential to our safety, and that of much of the western world. It is tragic, however, that so few nations are willing to concede that and offer their assistance. Once again, the United States will find itself prosecuting a war of global significance that most others will view with timidity or outright apathy. This does not defeat us however; and instead only serves to sweeten the victory.

Thanks, Melody, for making me think.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved