Friday, April 3, 2009

Old Habbaniyah

Two years ago at this time, I was sitting in Habbaniyah, Iraq, approximately 300 meters from the Euphrates River, and more likely than not studying Arabic with my roommates or dissecting a new weapon so we could magically pronounce ourselves experts and create courses of instruction that helped expedite Iraqi army and police training. We were never bored, to say the least.

When I arrived in late January, 2007, I spoke two words in Arabic: yes and no. When I left in late May, I was instructing in Arabic; a fairly impressive feat. Nor was I the only one. We worked hard for that. Immersion is the best way to learn (and also the best way to make stupid mistakes a lot and look stupid).

But far more memorable than our accomplishments and escapades were the people. There were exactly thirteen of us in the original group, and, like no other unit in which I have ever served or even observed from afar, we meshed fantastically. I had the privilege yesterday of catching up with our old Habbaniyah commanding officer (CO), a now-retired Marine Gunner who gave the Corps 34 years before turning to the private sector to do virtually the same thing he was doing while in. Most heartwarming about our conversation is that, after this man completed at least 12 full-length overseas tours in various parts of the world, the one that he remembers the most fondly is our time in Habbaniyah. "I am the luckiest man alive," he told me.

Save for a few unique cases in the special forces community, no military commander under almost any circumstance is permitted to hand-pick his or her own troops. My CO, however, was a notable exception. After well over three decades, it was universally known that when he touched something, it worked. Using this fact, some clever bullying, and a some back channel negotiations, this man was permitted to hand select every last one of us. And he did so quite boldly, pulling not only from his own unit (with well over 100 Marines in his charge), but also from other battalions and even regiments. He knew who he wanted, and he worked to get them. From his enormous pool of friends and associates, he chose a mere twelve of us. I was privileged to be one of them.

If I said we were simply friends, I would be a liar, for we were more than that. If I said we always got along swimmingly, I would be painting a much brighter picture than actually occurred. If I say that every day was an exercise in the deepening of lasting friendships, nobody would even believe me by this point. This wasn’t the case. But we had fun, and we got things done.

Foremost, we had a number of commonalities. I got along with one guy because he liked to find things and make them somehow work again. He once came back with a Lexus (with permission!). Another was an absolute gun fanatic, and I knew just enough about ballistics to enjoy his recitations of shooting some obscure machine gun that nobody else had even heard the name of before. Later during the tour, we teamed up and problem-solved a weapon neither of us had ever fired before. And I thought of something he didn’t. As I am a TOW missile gunner and he a machine gun instructor, I was particularly proud of myself, and reminded him of this often. Whenever we explored the labyrinth of roads on our base, he’d invariably end up lost and I’d help him navigate back out. Making fun of the GPS navigation system Tom-Tom, he called me Ben-Ben. And I still hear it every now and then.

Another man was a big fan of old-style, real southern cooking. We would sit around and discuss our favorite homemade meals of cornbread and biscuits and gravy. We’d compare our grandmothers’ recipes. We spent many an evening discussing Hotel Habbaniyah, a rotating door of tactical genius, reporters, and stragglers. We were the staff, and we knew every visitor.

One of the Marines in my room was a particularly odd bird, tying complex knots in short strings and hanging them to display around his sleeping area. It looked like a little shop of horrors, made significantly worse when he took out his teeth. But he was a great guy, and the most enthusiastic about my “extracurricular” activities, joining me for “finding” equipment, exploring the overgrown areas of base and wandering the halls of the old Habbaniyah British Hotel (now a derelict, but still beautiful structure). He also helped me wire the whole barracks for internet – for no other reason than he was enthusiastic to help.

A man by far my senior was a great shopping buddy – seriously. Somehow he’d managed to find all the little stores on the Iraqi side of our base and establish a great relationship with all the vendors. We’d wander over there at all hours of the day and buy bread, tea and teapots, barter, or experiment with new things that stood a good chance of making us sick. He, by the way, did get sick, and I never did. But it never diminished his enthusiasm.

But more than having fun with these men, I had friendships. When days were long and everything went poorly, they were quick to sympathize. They’d probably had a similar day in the not too distant past. Maybe tomorrow would be better? Who knew. We’d all be out there anyway. We worked and lived together always. In the evenings, we’d all go eat together. Yet we weren’t just eating, we “broke bread.” And when our schedules permitted, the entire lot of us would conduct a special “mission” through a non-secure area outside the wire (to another base altogether) for the sole purpose of sitting down at a long table and enjoying a slow, better-quality meal. When we broke bread as a group, we blessed the meal, too. We’d have barbecues and a general would come rumbling in at the last minute for the express purpose of enjoying a steak (cooked, of course, by my culinary compatriot, who could really work a grill). We’d spent weeks planning those events, and negotiating enough food for everybody, securing charcoal (back channels), and even condiments. We took food seriously. It’s truly amazing we all didn’t get fat.

More than any unit I’ve served in, this was a small, close family. We certainly had our fair share of squabbles and disagreements, and hardly a day went by that we didn’t yell at each other about something, but come evening time, we were friends again, arguing over Monopoly, studying Arabic, perfecting the courses we created and taught, dissecting a gun, or simply watching a movie with failing, decrepit electronics. We were united in early-morning misery until we’d gulped down at least the third pot of coffee. We were united in prayer, a bond which extended well beyond a quick tour with varying degrees of danger. And we were united in mission, where merely thirteen dedicated instructors and staff saw to the instruction and tactical preparedness of well over 10,000 Iraq soldiers and police. The country continues to reap the rewards of these efforts, with those troops serving as the backbone for some of nation’s most successful infantry divisions. We trained them, and we did it with only a handful of men, a fairly modest budget, and in only a year’s time (and I was only part of that for 4.5 months).

We all talk still at random intervals and about random subjects. Some guys have since elected to get out of the Corps, a few have moved to different units, at least two have retired, and a couple more have simply faded back into the regular infantry ranks. But they show up every now and then, and it’s great to hear from them.

I know of no units since World War II that actually have reunions, but we will certainly buck that trend. Being such a small family as we were, there are few to actually track down, only limited logistics, and friendships that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. I rarely reminisce about the Corps, since most of the greatness of it is so buried in daily aggravation that it’s hopelessly lost. It wasn’t really that awesome; we just tell ourselves it was. But Habbaniyah was different. On a base once occupied by the British (from the 20s to the 60s), in an old barracks that was probably an office, thirteen men did amazing things with few resources, little planning, and often little support from our overseeing unit. But we did well, and we had a great time doing it. But more than anything, they really WERE the good old days. A bunch of gun nuts, goobers and oddballs became a family, and no distance or time can ever diminish it. And I miss it…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

We Needn't A Parade

Over the years, a number of famous anti-war protesters have risen from the ranks of the military and joined the throngs in Washington, tossing their medals onto the White House lawn and marching for a quick end to their particular war. I hold no opinion on their actions or convictions. Those are decisions reserved for the individual. These veterans, more than most actually, are entitled to their own opinions. They personally fought for the rights we all enjoy. I am also pleased that their objections were clearly directed upon those who propelled the nation to war, NOT the men and women who fought in it.

As I pumped gas at a station some time ago, a man I knew pulled up and strolled over cheerfully.

“I just talked to another jarhead from another generation,” he blurted immediately. “He said this is the stupidest war we’ve been in yet.”

I was speechless. What do I say? Agree with him? Disagree? Tell him, “my good man, please find me a war that isn’t at its core, caused by somebody’s stupidity?” In this case, I remained silent. It is not battle I was trained to fight. But this situation illustrates a good point – and an issue on which I feel quite strongly: I firmly object to those who berate the men and women of the armed services who, given orders they may or may not have felt to be the most prudent, made the best of their circumstances and served with honor and integrity regardless. They took an oath to this nation; they did NOT demonstrate their unwavering support for the conflicts into which this nation may propel them. The oath was to trust the judgment of their leaders who, ultimately, are duly elected civilians.

In Bob Greene’s book, “Homecoming,” he recounts an experience from James Wagenbach, a Vietnam veteran:

On returning from Vietnam minus my right arm, I was accosted twice…by individuals who inquired, “Where did you lose your arm? Vietnam?” I replied, “Yes.” The response was, “Good. Serves you right.”

While much of what is now uttered is (thankfully) less odious and wretchedly inappropriate as this, it still serves the same purpose: telling the veteran that his or her service is not uniformly recognized as noble and selfless, and that the decisions of the highest echelons of civilian leadership are somehow the responsibility of those men and women who are tasked with their execution. The anger and opposition are misplaced.

World War II saw perhaps the most universal support for the war effort, and troops, as a whole, were greeted with great fanfare and treated as heroes. Yet the public response to Vietnam was virtually the antithesis. Many were spit upon, ridiculed, and even attacked. Curiously, however, high frequencies of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) did not arise until there was an astoundingly negative reception to war veterans. But it is veterans who, more than most, hate war. They lived with it, and IN it, and endured its hell. The death, carnage, and loss in today’s wars is little different from that of World War II, yet the millions of the Great War suffered remarkably low incidence of PTSD. Why? In large part because the country received her sons home with open arms. Now, however, there is a burning anger, and veterans bear the brunt of it. In many ways it is PUBLIC ABSOLUTION of veterans that most helps them with their reintegration into society and their ability to live with what has happened.

If one were to approach the adult child of a now-incarcerated bank robber and say, “your father is an absolute idiot and horrible person. He screwed up your entire family and left you, your siblings and your mother to fend for yourselves,” his statement however accurate, would be needless, and actually destructive. Foremost, this man is probably keenly aware of his father’s mistake. He, more than most any other, lived with the consequences of that mistake. Second, the deed is done, and dwelling on it does absolutely nothing to make it go away. Third, shouldn’t these statements, though definitely factual, be reserved for the father himself? Why attack his child? Such is the case for veterans; they don’t make the decision where they are sent. That choice rests firmly in the hands of the democratically-elected government. The troops simply go where they are sent. They have chosen service and personal and collective honor over their own pursuits.

The public as a whole is infatuated with being unquestionably RIGHT, even at the total sacrifice of their own dignity and courtesy towards their fellow man. Yet veterans, and above all else, would simply like some assurance that what they did and how they served was good, appreciated, and remembered. But they are often robbed of this much-deserved peace. Attacking the veteran does nothing more than sow seeds of doubt, forbids the interment of an awful and tragic time in his or her life, and continually rips open wounds that are increasingly unlikely to heal with time.

We are not the war; we are the warriors, and there is a clear and essential distinction between the two.

A good cause receives commendation, and a futile one great condemnation. But why? An exercise in futility is by no means a descent into barbarity. A futile cause can still be a good one. Yet the rewards are lower, popularity virtually nil, and a lifetime of poorly-seated memories and tragedies for the participant. War, we have all agreed, is hell. Just ask a veteran, those who survived his or her own hell… Yet again, the veteran made no choice as to the location and his or her mission. They simply answered the call of their country, which is deserving of respect.

I don’t imagine there will be any victory parades when our current wars end, regardless of their overwhelming success or futility. Nor will there be defeat parades (I presume). Instead, there will simply be a quiet belief that the matter is now sufficiently settled that the gadflies on both sides will finally lower their megaphones and find something else about which to vehemently complain. Maybe they will no longer attack the men and women who served their country. More likely, however, veterans will still be the recipients of undue hostility, misplaced aggression, and forever left to question if their actions were right or wrong. Absolution is difficult under the best of circumstances for them, yet nearly impossible without confident affirmation from their countrymen. Yet in reality, it is questionable if the country ever stood behind them in the first place. Why are there so many incidents of PTSD in this current conflict? Let us pose a better question: why is this nation so quick to condemn the men and women who have sworn to personally and collectively defend them?

I STILL don’t care what you think of my war, but I do care if you’re a patriot. Patriots don’t abandon their countrymen.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A New Request

Sergeant Nate Foersch has identified some specific needs for his unit and himself:

-Reading material, of course
-Snacks of all types

As for reading material, I suggest good books. Few of us want to read about "What went wrong in Iraq" while we're sitting IN Iraq. Classics are great, as are paperbacks, and almost anything else. Somebody, somewhere, will probably enjoy it, no matter what it is.

Magazines: Marines' (males) favorite magazines are such publications as Maxim, Stuff, Mens' Fitness, Soldier of Fortune, a few titles I will not mention, and any variety of gun catalogs, which we refer to as "gun porn." But as with the books, send it anyway. More likely than not somebody will enjoy it.

Snacks: crackers, cookies, brownies (you can make them if you want!), pop tarts, rice Crispy treats, granola bars (Sunbelt is one of the best brands), chewing gum (sugar free), individual powered drink mixes (Gatorade, lemonade, Propel, Powerade, etc), and just about anything you can think up. Marines often don't have time to eat full means in a chow hall, so snacks are increasingly essential.

Letters: something nice.

If anybody has any further questions on specific items being a good idea or a bad one, please e-mail me or comment on this post and I will respond as quickly as possible. (e-mail is

Sgt Foersch's address is as follows (his list ALSO applies to Sgt Paul VanSant, so please purchase/pack/ship accordingly). His address is also posted below.

Sgt Foersch, Nathan A
2/23 Marines H&S CO S-3
UNIT 43490
FPO AE 96426-3490

Sgt. VanSant Paul
2/23 Marines
H&S Co. Engineer Platoon 43490
FPO AP 96426-3490

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

In Quieter Moments

There have been a few days recently where I believe my greatest and most exciting achievement was simply getting out of bed. From that point forward, it was pretty humdrum. Very little was accomplished, and certainly no great matter of lasting significance was either confronted or resolved. Nothing happened. And I am quickly discouraged. Just WHAT I am discouraged from is somewhat of a mystery, but it exists nevertheless. I guess I'm seriously hoping a comet will hit the earth or a volcano erupts nearby.

I, perhaps more than most, have a misconstrued notion of what should transpire on any given day. Books, movies, and our imaginations fixate on events or moments of excitation. Like all good stories, they consist of a smattering of turning points, decisions and conclusions. For us, they become the framework for our memories. We don’t remember anything if nothing happened. Thus, a day when nothing happened will be, at least for me, quickly forgotten. But the next question is if this suggests that a slow day is wrong or somehow a waste. Many would argue it is not at all.

I have friends who, currently swamped with work, schooling and sundry other projects, would give at least one limb for a slow day, a chance to sleep late, catch up on a good book, or even just watch cartoons and eat a salad bowl full of cereal. To them, a day such as this would be quite memorable. Their routine busyness can be just as forgettable and seemingly vapid as how I perceive an empty day. I suppose it all depends on perspective.

Yet contrary to nearly every enjoyable story in any format or media, life isn’t a constant inundation of excitement, entertainment, or even adventure. In fact, pursuit of this lifestyle will be one riddled with brief highs and replete with lingering monotony. Even running away and joining the circus, however new and fun it may be at first, will soon evolve to any other job: it’s just what you every day. You work in the circus. My point: pursuing adventure and avoiding the quiet days is attempting to satisfy a lust for adventure that will only ask more of you. It is like a drug. Eventually you simply cannot get enough of it and need to move on to something else.

Real life, whatever that may precisely be (and I hesitate to define it here), will not be an endless profusion of highly memorable events. Sure, there will be milestones, but we neither live for their achievement nor dwell on them incessantly as they pass us by. They’re just part of life. REAL living is a path, and at times a rather dull one. The scenery along the path can be quite mundane, or even totally nonexistent. There will be long, boring straight sections when we wonder if there’s even a path at all. There is, but we just can’t see it. But we should keep at it rather than taking a hard turn and pursuing an intangible “anything” that’s better than the drudgery of the one we’re currently exploring. To be vaguely philosophical, we’re on this one for a reason.

Pursuit of constant entertainment, or calamity, or commotion is, in and of itself, dysfunctional. It’s not how real life works. Those caught up in it yearn for peace, yet those who aren’t experiencing it presently eagerly desire it. But just as monotony produces nothing memorable, perpetual commotion will quickly fade as well. In the end, it only keeps us thrill-seeking.

All the same, I continue to begrudge that my days are slow, for a number of reasons. I have relied heavily upon a barrage of fortunes and misfortunes to entertain me, give me something to think about, and serve as fuel for further writing. However, pursuing this indefinitely will keep me forever restless, which I do not wish. There is something to be found in the quiet days; I just need to be more receptive to it. I am afforded time alone to think, to know myself, and grow comfortable in the knowledge that on some days and at some hours, this path will have no other travelers but me and God. We should talk while I’m here. I still have much to learn. And when we do come upon something exciting, it will be all the more memorable.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Guys In The Sand

As of this morning, three of my friends are either already in Iraq, or awaiting a flight north from Kuwait INTO Iraq. Let me briefly explain my connection to them, their current service, and also my purposes in sharing this.

Paul, the little brother of an old college roommate, joined the Marines not long after I did, and after a chaotic, tragic, and action-packed seven-month tour just north of me in Mahmudiyah (we were in Iskhandariyah) in 2004-2005, he has now returned to Ramadi with his engineer unit to help with base fortification, dismantling smaller outposts, and whatever else comes down the line. While the nature of the Marines is that everybody is subject to deployment, this activation and deployment came as a bit of a surprise, and inconvenience.

The first tour interrupted his tenure at Virginia Tech, but he returned, completed his degree, and found a great job not too far from home. Not two months after moving to that area, securing an apartment, getting a pet, and beginning the adjustment to a new job, the call came for another tour. The unit was short on senior, experienced leadership, and he was certainly qualified. His knowledge of demolitions (and other skills) is immense. His employer, thankfully, is very military-friendly, and took the news well.

He is in Iraq as of about two weeks ago.

Nate is an old friend from Weapons Company ½ back when I was in the Corps. We both served together in Iskhandariyah, and al Hit, and when I left the unit, he soon thereafter reenlisted and was posted with a reserve unit as a trainer (this is called “I&I”). Much to his surprise (since training staff aren’t typically slotted to deploy), he was informed he would be deploying with them. He is now in Iraq with his reserve infantry unit, and probably doing his best to ensure they have the necessary skill sets to keep them alive. As a two-time veteran of Iraq in its wilder days, he certainly knows how to conduct combat operations.

Jay is a friend that I met not long after I departed the USMC, and although he’s an Army dog (and an officer!), I suppose he’s an okay guy. This is, I believe, his first major activation with the Army Medical Corps since a tour in Kosovo. He will be traveling a lot in-country, so it’s difficult to say just where he’ll be stationed, but I believe it will be north of Baghdad. Here in Virginia he leaves behind two young children, a fantastic wife, and his own practice.

My purposes for writing about these three men are probably fairly obvious. These guys are all personal friends and I wish to not only support their families stateside, but also ensure that they have the equipment, encouragement, and primarily prayers that will help them in their overseas duties and hasten their return to families and friends. Only two have thus far been given APO addresses, but I will post those below. Because amenities are hard to predict in advance of a unit’s arrival, there are no specific needs lists just yet from any of them. But I know one need right now that can be easily met by all of us: prayers and letters/notes of encouragement.

Rest assured, when I receive information on ways in which to best help them and their units, I will quickly pass on this information to any who wish for it, so you may expect random interruptions to my writing for an update on their situations. If in the future I post a need (say ten packs of baby wipes), and you would like to help out, please indicate this and post it in the comments section for that particular post. This way we can avoid inundating these guys with more resources than they practically need. At this point, I do not know just what they will need, nor if we can help them with it. But mail and prayers are always much appreciated. I know this from personal experience. These three men are great friends and fierce patriots. I look forward to tracking their travels, progress, and passing it on to all of you.

Sgt. VanSant Paul
2/23 Marines
H&S Co. Engineer Platoon 43490
FPO AP 96426-3490

Sgt Foersch, Nathan A
2/23 Marines H&S CO S-3
UNIT 43490
FPO AE 96426-3490

*An address for Jay is still pending

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 30, 2009

Living With Lunacy

As I readied myself in my room one morning and prepared to go out into formation to either yell or be yelled at, my roommate, who had been inexplicably out all night, came tumbling in the door. He looked cheerful. Still wearing the same clothes he was when he left the night prior, something was noticeably amiss. It was his face.

“Dude, you know you have purple glitter on your face?” He looked puzzled, smeared his hand across his cheek, and stared at it.

“Yeah. It went really well with the purple dress I was wearing.” I dropped the subject. This wasn’t as bizarre as one might think. I figured the less I knew, the better.

Right off the top of my head, I can count at least a dozen roommates I’ve had over the years, in college, in the military, and afterwards. Though a few of these “situations” ended well, most did not. For whatever reason, the forced marriage of the roommate selection process was typically an abysmal flop.

The nature of most colleges is that, in the absence of a reasonable suggestion from the student, a roomie will be chosen at random and everybody just hopes you get along. Mine was afraid of me, was horrified that he walked in on me studying physics in the nude once, and I was left with the challenge of explaining to the cops why my room smelled like marijuana (long after he had left). I returned the courtesy, however. Whenever he was drunk, he snored. So I’d smother him with a pillow until he stopped. Stopped snoring that is; not breathing. Apart from this, we got along swimmingly, though we never went out anywhere together. We just weren’t cut from the same mold.

In the military, roommates are chosen for us at the whim of a senior staff NCO, who may be incredibly sadistic, apathetic, or simply unfamiliar with our personalities and who will most definitely not get along with whom. This is how I ended up with a convicted murder sleeping across the room from me. But you know, he was a pretty nice guy. I still wish I had kept up with him better. He more than any other, taught me tactics and TOW missile gunnery. Even the strange cases turn out well.

There was one guy who never showered, so constantly reeked of dirty shoes and fetid socks. He also had other difficulties – namely with his digestive system. During one particularly bad spell, our other roommate would awaken in the night gagging from all of this guy’s bad gas. I, thankfully, slept more soundly. His light sleeping may have been what encouraged “glitter roommate” to seek another place to rest, though it also appears he sought another lifestyle as well. There were other mornings that he returned with rug burns on his knees and wooden spoon prints on his back. He, too, was actually a great roommate. A little weird, yes, but not afraid to enjoy himself. The only time I resented it was when the entire infantry battalion found out that he was wearing purple toe nail polish. That went poorly for ALL of us in that room. Thanks buddy.

In Iraq I beat one roommate with a bed slat for something, but I somehow ended up with more blood drawn. I tried repeatedly to get him back, but without any sort of success. I’d slowly and carefully lay in the bunk below his and remove all the slats, meanwhile propping him up with my feet and hands. Then I’d roll out of the way and he’d slam down – still on his mattress, and still asleep. I, now having no place to sleep, was relegated to the floor. He won that battle. I was just glad that I didn’t have the roommate that always insisted on air drying his backside. He’d stand naked in front of his fan for as long as necessary and yell at anybody that disturbed him. Somehow they impeded the drying process. I was pleased that he was in another room.

College was little different, though, even when I DID select my roommates. I didn’t choose so well, I suppose. Of the four of us, I only keep up with one. The rest, I couldn’t care less about. They caused me too much grief. One was just weird, invited his girlfriend over a lot, and she would invariably save her daily business for our house. Yet she still clung to the silly belief that women never smell like anything other than flowers and potpourri. We ALL suffered because of that. “Hi,” she’d smile, as she strode out of the bathroom, leaving the door wide. She never turned on the fan.

But the pinnacle of my angst was the other guy. The short kid who, in between playing video games and chatting online with highschoolers, would wander around the house with a tissue and a pair of tweezers – picking acne publically. This was a daily event. He also never cleaned his dishes, which eventually grew mold and may have grown maggots had we not stirred things up a bit and moved them to HIS room. But even then, he never cleaned them. They just sat in his room, leaking the odor of pungent, rotting food into the rest of the house.

That advanced apathy, actually, was the final straw. During one rather heated “discussion” of the situation, he ended up high on the wall with one of my hands clenched tightly around his neck, and the other balled into a fist. All I needed was a little more encouragement. He looked at my other roommate in desperation, who simply raised his text book a little more and kept on studying (sniggering behind the textbook). I put the runt down and was told the next day that there might be a lawsuit for harassment. Two of us spent the remainder of the semester tip toeing around to avoid being charged. He would have done it, I know.

Post college and military wasn’t that much better, when the roommate’s cats went out of their way to irritate me, play in their water, fiddle around in the toilet, and then leave hairballs and puke throughout the house. I got along with the roommate splendidly, but not so much the cats. They hated me, and I, of course, hated them back. I offered more than once to duct tape them in the middle of the road, which earned me dark looks.

So now I’m in a quandary. When I next pick up a lease and realize that I have four bedrooms and insufficient income to pay all the rent, I’ll have to get roommates again. I’ve had more luck with random strangers than with my own selections, but at the same time, random strangers could also be a lot WORSE than the oddballs that I’ve previously chosen. Should I post an online ad and take my chances, or should I invite friends and see how long they remain my friends? I’d prefer a living situation to be pleasant, not chaotic and stressful, but this may mean living alone. And that costs lots of money. I may have to pursue alternate living arrangements that I can actually afford. If that is the case, just wave at my tent in the front yard as you drive by. Lord knows I won’t have any friends in there.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 29, 2009

When They're Drinking & Actually Honest

Observations from some recent barroom conversations:

There are times when a notable and legitimate difference is exploited to absurdity and when a fact is given more of a nod than it perhaps deserves. We, “those veterans,” from whom entirely too much is expected or nothing at all (never just the right amount, it seems). “No, no; you deserve a break. You just go ahead and enjoy yourself for a while.” Really? Two years? Five? At what point are we rehabilitated?

When do you expect us to look and act productive? When do you want us to work again? How much failure in schooling is permissible on account of our “war experiences?” How long are we permitted to not dress up EVER and not shave our ratty facial hair that we only grew out because the military wouldn’t let us while we were in? When is that being ignorant and rebellious and when is it capitalizing on your simply giving us permission? When does it indicate a genuine problem? We don’t know and I don’t know, and nor do I want to, actually, because it might require a lifestyle change I am currently unwilling to make. Where we are now is easy. Well, not really. But it’s EASIER than what might otherwise be asked of us.

So hooray for us and for being stupid and having annoying laughs and speaking too loudly and for pretending to have a good reason for acting out when in reality we don’t and should be the somberest of upright citizens. But God knows we’re not. Expectations of and for us are low, including our own of ourselves. “We’re screwed up, many of us, so it’s okay that I am too.” Really? Or is it more of an excuse to just never move beyond something that only lasted a matter of moments, changed us forever, but really doesn’t prevent at least a halfway successful return to normal life?

We’ll drink to us and for us and with just us, though our reasons are probably the worst to be had. But everybody expects us to do this. We’ll spend the next forty-five years in a veterans’ bar talking about the good old days that really weren’t all the good but, like almost all traumas and ours all the more, they arrested our development, maturity, or growth, killed something, birthed something else, and presented the vast majority of us a long life to try to figure it out. I don’t think we do so well. Maybe that’s our truly legitimate excuse. Or maybe it’s hot air that people with lots of letters after their names told us and we bought it because it was license. And it’s a license for a LOT…

But I want to know how much is permissible. When does this have to stop? When SHOULD it stop? When are we no longer allowed to be “losers” and on hiatus and hold a regular job and hate it? And that’s the problem, at any rate. We WILL hate it. We can’t do this, or at least not right now. We are smart, I guess, and studied a lot and passed a lot of tests and received degrees and various things, so it’s not for lack of ability. It’s for lack of interest. We don’t want to. Not now, that is. Did “the war” do this to us? Does it matter? Does anybody care? Are we more likely to get away with it if people think it’s a consequence of the war? If so, then that’s what we’ll say. But then again, we’re utilizing an excuse here, not following our own intuition, whatever the hell it’s saying. I try not to think about it.

Yeah, we’re different, and in reality, most of us like it. But what’s unclear is if it’s really a pronounced difference or we’re just exploiting people’s typically low expectations of us. Now, if people expected more we’d hate them for it but maybe that’s what we need. Hard to say. Again, I try not to think about it.

At the heart of the matter is this: everybody is okay with us, where we are, and what we’re doing…except for us. Why? After living with grand and noble purpose have we now utterly lost it? Who told us something stupid that we believed? Who are we mirroring our lives against and judging ourselves so harshly? We are our own worst critics of our decisions and our way of life and our behavior and laziness, and our evaluation continues to yield one word consistently: fail.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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