Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Without A Country

When I was twenty, I lost everything and started over. It had been twenty-five years since my mother had submitted the application for a visa to the US, and amazingly it finally came through. I was living on my own, had my own house, job and life, but my mother said leave it. We’re going to America. We dropped everything and left. I didn’t even know any English.

That was 2000. We ended up settling in New Jersey, and I worked hard to learn to speak English without an accent, started studying on my own time and started working too. I liked America. There was so much opportunity. Less than a year later, the planes hit the towers in Manhattan.

I couldn’t see the towers themselves from where I lived, but I sure saw the smoke billowing high over the island, and I was angry. I was new here, but this was home, those were my countrymen, and we were being attacked. I wanted to do something, and soon enough I did. I joined the Army.

You don’t have to be a citizen to join the military, which is a little strange, and there are only about 66,000 veterans in the entire country that aren’t US citizens. When we join, it expedites the application process, but it still takes awhile. They’ve waived the waiting period since then, but at the time, we had to be in at least a year before they’d start the process. Now, it’s different. The first day you’re in boot camp, they’ll start helping you become a citizen. It wasn’t like that then.

But I wasn’t really interested in that, actually. I wasn’t joining for perks or to get citizenship. I joined because my home, my friends and my country were attacked. Not for benefits. I wanted to keep these attacks from happening again.

After about a year in the Army stateside, we deployed and I did another year in Iraq. It felt good, doing something meaningful, serving my country. I loved the sense of belonging. Nobody cared that I wasn’t a citizen. It really didn’t matter. We’d all taken the same oath to the same flag, the same Constitution, and to preserve the same values. It was colorblind unity to a single cause. When I got back, the Army started helping me apply for citizenship. I really wasn’t worried about it, but they encouraged me to, so I began the applications. Since I was going to make a career out of the military, I needed to get it out of the way with anyway. You’re only allowed eight years to get it all figured out. But then I ruined it.

Not long after I got back to the states, a friend introduced me to cocaine, and without knowing what hit me, I was badly hooked, still in the Army, and bound for trouble. That quickly came when they did random drug tests and I popped hot.

I make no excuses for what I did, since it was entirely my fault. It was a mistake which I regret, and I can’t take it back, but I can at least take ownership of it. I told them the truth, since I had at least that much integrity remaining. And it was devastating. My friends were astonished, my command was surprised, and actually I was, too. I’d never been in trouble before – ever. I’d never even smoked a cigarette before. But somehow I wound up addicted to cocaine. They started the paperwork to get me kicked out of the Army.

I was ashamed of myself, to say the least, and knew that I’d let myself down, let down my country, and let down my friends, too. The guilt was so compelling that I cleaned up immediately. I worked hard at it. I went through all the withdrawal symptoms and the cravings. I even checked into a rehab and got over it. And I’ve been clean ever since, too. I haven’t slipped once.

But it didn’t matter. There’s a zero tolerance policy for drugs in the Army, and after five months of withdrawal symptoms and rehab, grilling and regret, they kicked me out with a general discharge under honorable conditions. It really should have been a dishonorable discharge. The only reason I got what I did was because I cooperated fully. I knew what I did was wrong. I told them the truth. Yet here, it didn’t set me free. This, I know, is entirely my doing. When they kicked me out, though, they dropped all the charges against me.

That was 2006. I’ve been clean ever since, and still living here in the states. It’s been difficult though. Because I didn’t receive an honorable discharge, I lost all the GI Bill benefits, and the VA will only see me for service-related medical problems, which I don’t have. I’ve been going to school and paying for it myself, and I’m close to graduating with a 3.8 GPA. I’ve done okay. I also have a job I like, which is nice. But there’s another problem.

Last year, my citizenship application came through. I’d passed all the interviews and the tests, and they invited me to a swearing in ceremony. All I had to do was raise my right hand and I’d be a citizen. But then my past caught up with me once again. Right before the ceremony, they gave us one last short questionnaire. One of the questions was if we’d ever done anything criminal in the past. I may have made mistakes, but I’m not a liar, so I told the truth. When they read that, they sent me away – without swearing in. Application denied.

My visa expires next year, and right now, I have no idea what I’m going to do. People make mistakes all the time, but any sort of criminal behavior by citizenship applicants is magnified tenfold. They scrutinize each candidate individually, and when I told them about the blemish on my record, they balked. The soonest I can apply again is five years from the date they turned me down.

I’m in limbo. I’ve been in the US for nine years, and I love it here. I love America. This is home, and there’s nothing left in my home country to return to. I don’t know if they’re going to deport me, if I should just go ahead and leave anyway, or if there are any ways to reapply for citizenship earlier – or maybe appeal my case before the five year waiting period is up. I’m afraid that this has all been a waste, and it’s entirely my fault.

I am not asking for help, because this is something that I did to myself. I’m not complaining either, because again, this is my fault. I guess it just feels good to talk about it a little. I don’t discuss it with people, because it’s embarrassing. My own family doesn’t even know, actually. I still haven’t told them. I’d just overwhelm them with shame and disappointment anyway, and there’s no reason to do that.

But I’m at a loss. This is home now, yet I don’t think they’re going to accept me here. My native country is little more than distant memory I abruptly left behind nearly a decade ago. I love it here, and I want to stay. I’ve been perfectly clean since that one incident in the Army, and I fully intend to stay that way. It nearly ruined me once. My entire twenties may have been a waste, and I only have myself to blame. I really don’t have a country anymore, and the country I want doesn’t want me. All I can do is wait and pray, but right now that doesn’t seem like much.

Though he has not asked for it, I want to help this friend and brother. He has honorably served the same country as have I and millions of others. He has made no excuses for his mistakes and made no claim of perfection. That character alone far exceeds many of the citizens blessed to call this country home. I know little of immigration laws and the citizenship application process, so I humbly appeal to any who may know more and could perhaps offer this close companion some advice regarding his dilemma. He isn’t asking for it, but I am. If we claim to be a nation that sees hope where others find none, we would do well to prove it. I see a good man, a patriot, and one who, though new to America, fell in love with its ideologies, its freedom, and its opportunity. In truth, we need more men like him. ~bys

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


*Retold with permission

I’m not bringing this stuff up because I’m proud of it, or because I think telling you about it is somehow going to explain away my actions. I’m telling you these things because they’re part of who I am. And as much as I may be ashamed by some of this, as much as some people may be shocked or feel uncomfortable, they need to hear it, too. This period, more than any other time in my life, served to shape who I am. If they don’t like it, that’s their business. You don’t select your favorite parts of your friends and claim those. No, you either claim the entire friend, or you choose not to. That’s just how it works.

When I got back [from Iraq] and went home, I was completely separated from all my buddies in the Marines and basically alone. I started reconnecting with old highschool and college friends, but it didn’t go very well. We hardly had anything in common anymore, for starters. They really didn’t know what to say to me, and I actually really didn’t know what to say to them, either. I was different from them, and I kept thinking about Iraq constantly.

I’d think about everything I saw over there, the death, the violence, the people I shot and the friends of mine who were shot, and I was angry. I think most guys are when they first come back. Some get stuck in it. I was simultaneously angry, grieved for my brothers, missed Iraq, hated Iraq, and felt wholly alone back in the states. Everything was different, and everything was gone. I thought about suicide a lot.

When I first started drinking, it wasn’t much. Mostly just hang out with a few highschool and college friends and grab a drink or two at the bar, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that, really. But I didn’t stay there. The anger was starting to permeate me.

I was angry at God and angry about what happened to me. I was angry about Iraq and everything that went wrong. The brothers I lost, too. And I blamed it all on God. I can recall a bunch of times I just shook my fist and cursed at Him. I wanted to know why He let it all happen. I probably told Him I hated Him. I didn’t like who I was and didn’t like my circumstances and feeling alone. So, I drank more.

At first I would just go out and get drunk in bars, maybe alone or with friends, but then there came a point where that wasn’t enough. I started looking for women to sleep with. I didn’t give any regard to them, even their names, their looks, or my safety. I just wanted to get laid. The alcohol gave me courage and numbed my morals until I didn’t have any at all. I told myself it was fun.

And even that became insufficient. On top of sleeping around, I started adding in drugs, gambling, and occasionally violence. It wasn’t uncommon for me to throw down $50 on the roulette wheel, take my winnings and go buy an 8-ball, do a couple lines in the bathroom, and then go get drunk and look for women. There were mornings when I woke up and had no idea where I was and who the women were next to me. Sometimes, it was more than one woman at a time. Another time, it was a married woman. For a while I convinced myself that it evidence of my sexual prowess, but that satisfaction didn’t last. I threw more things into the mix.

I met a veteran who was just as much a wreck as I was, and he introduced me to heroin, but I only tried it once. I usually just stuck with coke. Then I’d go find hookers or other girls, drink myself into a coma, and do it all again the next day. When I look back on it, I can’t figure out how I kept a job and a house, and how on earth I didn’t get arrested.

As much as I thought I was having fun, or as much as I at least told myself I was, I wasn’t at all. I hooked up with a woman who was 12 years older than me and we’d just get high and sleep together. I got into an actual relationship with a girl for a little while, but she was bulimic, cut herself, and did a lot of drugs, too. I also verbally abused her and then she cheated on me several times. Obviously, that didn’t last very long. I was totally miserable.

The violence is probably the part I’m most ashamed of, since that was when I didn’t just hurt myself, but I hurt other people, too. I’d go out looking for a fight, and usually I’d find them. This city is a rough place, and it’s not hard to piss off the wrong person. I was trying to, too, which made it even easier. I remember I once threw some guy into the hood of his car, denting it pretty badly. There were other fights, too.

I’d sit at home by myself, drink an entire case of beer, and watch the combat scenes in war movies – all with a loaded gun sitting next to me on the couch. Sometimes I’d just sit there and cry. Other times I played Russian roulette with the pistol. Once, when I was really drunk, I loaded my rifle, cocked it, and put the barrel in my mouth. The last thing I remember was reaching up with my toe to pull the trigger. That’s when I passed out. I think that, despite my best efforts, God had divinely appointed me to live. But I didn’t want to. I was afraid to. I was living in a state of slow and deliberate suicide.

I started to crack eventually. One night I did a whole 8-ball of cocaine and my heart started racing and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was barely conscious, but I remember hearing the EMT say, “we gotta get this guy to the ER. He might not make it.”

As they worked on me, I started thinking about my family, and the few friends I had that truly loved me. I started thinking that this was how they were going to bury me. Veteran dies from overdose. And it wasn’t how I wanted to go. But living still scared me. I could stare down a barrel of an AK-47 or endure a firefight without fear, but I was afraid to look at myself. I decided to stop doing drugs.

Even though I was still drinking heavily and sleeping around, I weaned myself off of drugs, but even that was difficult. I craved the sense of euphoria and the feeling of elation. Sometimes, I’d get drunk and walk around town holding a gun in my pocket. If somebody so much as looked at me wrong or said something to me, I’d pull it out and threaten to kill them. I felt the familiar thrill and I felt powerful again, but in reality I wasn’t. I was still a mess. Depression was setting in. I was petrified of examining myself.

The VA absolutely useless at getting me any help, so I eventually started to see a private therapist, and she turned out to be amazing. I’d go once a week and she’d listen. Sometimes I’d just cry like a child, and she’d wrap her arm around me and listen. Other times, she’d coax the anger out of me and help me talk about it.

I still drank heavily during all this, but I was starting to reach a point where I knew I couldn’t. I flipped my truck four times one night and fled the scene. I’d go out and randomly fire guns in the city. Iraq wasn’t a death wish; it was a purpose. But this; it was death wish. I had to take an inventory of myself, as terrifying as it was. If I didn’t run from a firefight, then I wouldn’t run from this. This was harder, but I couldn’t run.

I kept going to my therapist, and started exercising again, connected with other like-minded veterans. These three things, above anything else, were what helped me survive that time in my life. In fact, they’re still helping me today. And I did other things. For a little while, I distanced myself from the crowd where I was the most tempted. I got rid of my TV for a time, too.

The self-examination was extremely difficult, to say the least. It’s like looking in a mirror and hating what you see staring back at you. But I learned something. That was life without God. And I couldn’t do it anymore, so I called out to Him and He answered. Peace came from self-acceptance, which came only from His acceptance.

Iraq wasn’t the biggest battle for me at all. Coming home was my D-day, and I was charging towards a premature death. I still loved my country, but for some time my hatred for myself had overshadowed it.

None of this is comfortably far behind me. It’s still fresh. While I rarely drink now and I don’t sleep around at all or use any drugs, the potential is still there. That’s where I’ll end up if I walk away from God again. I am a great man, but I can do horrible things.

And I’m still learning, too. Great lessons. I actually don’t regret anything that happened. I think it had to. I needed to awaken. Yes, I did terrible things to myself and sometimes to others, but I’ve sought forgiveness and received it. I’m glad it happened because I needed to be stripped of myself and discover what was left: a total desperation for God. I’m also happy to have my midlife crisis out of the way with at a young age. I won’t be going through this when I’m forty, because I went through it in my mid-twenties.

I have learned humility in this, because I have learned empathy. How can I judge people now? I can’t. Everything that I would judge people for I have now done myself. I’ve broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I have learned that I am a man now, but only because I finally shattered to pieces and gave everything to God. And now, being no longer a child, I have put away childish things.

I know that some people will read this and be horrified. I might lose friends when they find out. To a degree, I understand. Sometimes, I think back on things I did and I still get physically ill. I make no excuses for it. I’m amazed at my own depravity. Yet I’m also amazed at what manner of miracles God can work in a human life: mine. But if they do run, I have to seriously question their friendship in the first place. What true friend runs when he learns the imperfections of another?

My greatest critics, I am certain, will be those who have not endured what I did. They won’t understand, and in many ways, they’re not even my audience. They cannot fathom the depravity of men because they have never left the comfort of the sidelines. I did. And I stepped out there and made my fair share of mistakes, and now I take ownership of them. I bled out there and at times I was covered in the putrid stench of the underbelly of life. I chose my path, however foolishly, and I led myself into hell. And to me it’s not a pit of flames, but a wall to run through –a wall of honest, painful self examination. I ran into it several times, but with God’s help, I ran through it. He had been tapping on my shoulder for a long time, but apparently He had to punch me in the face – lovingly.

Yet it grows ever distant behind me, and I am increasingly solidified in what I believe and who I am. And it is a far cry from what I once was. This is why I need to tell this story. More than a story, it’s a testimony, and shaped the very core of my being. To know me, you must know this part of me. You must also know how I arrived here: with monumental difficulty. I also know that others have been through this, and perhaps my honesty will embolden them. I don’t judge them. How can I? I have done the very same things. Perhaps their eyes will be opened.

Most importantly I have been awakened. I am winning my war, and I know I’m going to make it. I have seen what I can be in the absence of God. Like I said, I’m a good man, but I can still do horrible things. But I am not what I once was, and that is solely by the grace of God.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Their Reward

On the several occasions that I have observed a less-than-sober Marine receive some perceived insult, the quick retort has been the same. Summoning whatever half-drunken indignation he can muster, he ejaculates, “I’m a combat vet!” He will then add a few more lines about how horribly he’s being treated and how war heroes deserve better service, or quicker attention, or some other sort of deification on account of his military record. In consequence, I have avoided public appearances with any grunts who intend to drink. They get stupid.

But in reality, I have heard similar remarks from completely sober vets, which as far as I am concerned is even less excusable. I wondered for quite some time why so many invariably slip into this rut and feel compelled to tout their veteran status. Regardless of the reason, it does us all a disservice.

At the heart of the matter is the notion that being a veteran of combat operations somehow makes one a better person. Hardly. The purpose of war, as a whole, is the employment of an evil for the defeat of an even greater one. Philosophers since the beginning of time have argued its merit, and they will probably continue to do so indefinitely. Few, interestingly, have experienced war.

The purpose of combat, at its core, is the deliberate taking of human life. Killing. No amount of nonsense about national service and patriotism can detract from this. Combatants are purposed to take the lives of others. Aggrandizing the act reduces the intentions of the combatant and calls into serious question his or her motives for serving at all. Combat, and specifically killing, is a heinous situation which this nation must necessarily approach with apprehension and great debate, and then carry out with simultaneous regret and resolve. Pride has no place here.

What precisely is it about combat that justifies boasting? The act of destroying human life? Bravery in the face of adversity? The self-perception of being tough? This is by no means patriotic and selfless service; this is satisfying one’s own insecurities. If a vet must pontificate about his glorious involvement in combat, he has ventured into moral ambiguity. There is nothing glorious about taking the life of another. It is tragic, and dangerously close to playing God.

Christ once said that when we complete a good work we shouldn’t “sound a trumpet before” others and inform them of our accomplishments. Those that do this, He continues, “have received their reward in full.” A good deed done with an audience in mind is no good deed at all. It is a performance with an anticipation of applause.

Though I am more comfortable around veterans than perhaps any group, though I write extensively about the nobility of their service to fellow servicemembers and their country, I quickly distance myself from those that treat their combat experiences as notches in a belt. They paint us as fools.

We did not take up arms with the intent of advancing our careers or somehow earning a better theater seat. We did not volunteer to enter harm’s way with the expectation that we would receive special status as citizens. Most citizens, in fact, don’t care what we did. We did it because it was right and because we wanted to serve our country. These loudmouths may have done the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons.

As civilians, we walked amongst our fellows and went to war. Upon our return, we walk amongst them once again – as civilians again. The more these veterans boast, the more likely it is they’ve done little. War produces a continuum of tragedies, not halls of saints and idols. The more these veterans treat their combat service as an identity, the more they degrade the purity of their own service, and thus their own hearts. Keep pounding your fists, friends; this nation owes you nothing. Indeed, you have already received your reward.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 15, 2009

Parade of Trucks

There was a large stone building next to our barracks during that tour. The walls were so thick that they never even bothered sandbagging it. It was better than the bunkers, actually. One half of the building was the base hospital, and the other was a computer center. I liked how close it was. It made it easy to just hop over every now and then and check my e-mail.

Within a few weeks, though, the local Iraqis that maintained the computers were murdered for their involvement with the US, and the machines quickly fell into disrepair. For a short time we’d go to the far side of base to use the other computers, but then the building was mortared and burned down – with all the computers in it.

About the same time, the medical personnel in the hospital decided they needed a morgue, and since the next-door room was filled with broken computers, they naturally just took it over.

I’m not really sure why they needed a morgue right then, but if I had to guess, I think there were two reasons. First, we were taking far more casualties than anybody had anticipated, and they didn’t want to just stack them in the corner while they worked on the survivors. It was disheartening to the men on the tables fighting for survival. My second assumption is that the medical flights that typically collected the dead were too busy elsewhere. Iraq, at that time, was a hellhole. I think the military, on average, was losing about three a day. The hearse choppers were busy, and they didn’t have time to pick up the dead promptly, I guess.

The consequence of having the hospital and morgue right next to us, though, was that we observed a steady parade of vehicles delivering the dead and dying. All you had to do was look at the speed of the vehicle and you could immediately tell what was going on. It was obvious.

The ambulance humvee would pick up the lightly wounded and take them back for treatment. They hustled, but never drove too quickly. If they drove like maniacs, you knew the wounded were bad off.

A humvee would come flying through the curves so quickly that if it was a narrower vehicle, it would have definitely flipped over. In the back, you could see Marines hunched over somebody, working on them. You sort of said a silent prayer and hoped they made it into the hospital and were stabilized. Once, an Iraqi army truck careened by us with a wounded Iraqi soldier in the back. His torso was covered in blood and his whole body was convulsing. I doubt he made it even to the door. He was in bad shape. None of us knew him, so while he was definitely on our side, it was a casualty to us, not a brother.

But the worst times were just after mortar attacks on base. We’d be huddled in the bunkers until somebody sounded the “all clear.” We’d emerge and sort of mill around, and eventually get back to whatever it was we were doing. It was always eerily quiet right after an attack, for some reason. And then more trucks would drive by.

They never drove quickly, and nobody in the back was working on anybody, but we knew. We read it in the faces of the Marines in the back of the humvee. They were mostly senior enlisted, staff sergeants and higher. Most hadn’t bothered to dress completely, so some would be wearing sweatshirts, or shorts and flip flops. A few had their flaks on, but most weren’t wearing their helmets. They looked old, and weary. The Marine Corps is small, too, so we knew them. They were platoon sergeants and section leaders. They just stared at us as they slowly drove by.

In that quiet, we knew. I remember thinking, “Oh God, another?” And there was nothing else to say.

We knew that on the floor of that truck lay at least one of their Marines, and he didn’t make it. We knew that they’d just lost a son. A man they’d vowed to protect, advocate, and bring home alive. We read it in their faces. They were forlorn as they stared, and we just stopped and stared back. We knew. And all we could do was wait for word to see which friends we’d lost. The enemy was slowly killing us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Victims if Told Such

Written in January, 2008

“Ben, you deserve a break, some time off.”

I hear this all the time, and I still am unsure exactly what it means. Clearly, when transitioning from combat zone to stateside to civilian, a little quiet time is indeed in order. But a break? From what?

I think Americans are starting to recognize that returning combat veterans aren’t altogether “fine” upon return. And I think it’s good, but also simultaneously bad. We elicit sympathy, which is certainly nice, but that simply permits many of us to act less responsible, less active, less productive, and be far more selfish than perhaps we should be.

“Ben, you’ve been through a lot.”

A blanket statement, and while perhaps to some degree true, also too generous.

It’s a ticket to be a loser.

Am I suggesting that I should rush out, seek career-oriented, gainful employment and launch into a series of commitments that restrict creativity, freedom of movement and relaxation? Not in the least. What I am saying, however, is that many of us, myself included, aren’t particularly victims until we are told we are such. Keep telling us we are and we may start to believe it.

I do deserve a hiatus. I do deserve some time off. I have worked hard (some days), and frittered away many others. I have endured high stress and undeniably low pay. This much is certain. And I did see and do things that are not easy to reflect upon, much less discuss with others. This is true.

But I do not need a vacation from reality, to fill my days with meaningless television programming, too many drinks accompanied by too many cigarettes. I, we, do not need pity. We need instead your help.

I need friends, I need confidants, challenges, to think, to not be alone with my thoughts. That idleness, this poison, brings melancholy to the heart and further widens the already-present chasm between “us” and “normal people.” We need friends around us.

I am not a victim unless you tell me I am. I must deal with my experiences on my own. Our survival, others’ departure, personal failures, self-doubt and anger. These are between me and God. But you can listen, and many times that is all we ask of you. Listen. I know, we know, that you cannot solve our problems, that you cannot convince us to cut back on the drink or the drug, that you cannot tease out what claws at our conscience. But you can be there when we start to grapple with it on our own. Do not let us go it alone.

When does the vacation I deserve evolve into the unjustified lethargy of poor transition? One month? Six months? Years? It must end sometime. It is not healthy, nor right, to ride comfortably on the wave of sympathy that we receive. Challenge us.

Make us think. How? Listen to us and we will eventually think on our own. Be that safe recipient as we tell you of our duress. We will appear crazy, in grave need of professional help, perhaps medication and restraint. Listen to us, gain our trust, and treat it as a gift. Swallow that enormous, rising lump of alarm and just listen. We will probably sort it all out, but be willing to listen. Don’t ALLOW us to be victims.

Encourage us to think. Don’t let us alone. We NEED to fit in, not go on extended mental and social holiday. Stop buying us drinks, stop making concessions: “oh, he’s a veteran; it’s okay if he drinks himself into a stupor.” It’s not okay.

Challenge us. Do not make allowances. Giving us license to withdraw from society may be terminal:

” In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.” (read the article here)

We need you, and that is our only request of the nation we swore to defend. War is not our darkest hour nor the longest night. Those come when we are home, when we are remembering, when we are standing in crowds but somehow alone. We need you to see us through it.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved