Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ask Somebody Else

*Retold With Permission

I’ve touched down in stateside airports before, in uniform, and I’ve been somewhat taken aback when people line up for us and clap. Frankly, it’s sort of embarrassing. I didn’t join for medals, for rank or any sort of accolade; I joined because I love it and I love my country. There are a lot of others that aren’t getting the thanks that they deserve. They don’t have uniforms, so the public completely overlooks them. I think my wife deserves a thank you, as do a many wives. Mine is back home holding down the fort and raising two children on her own.

It’s only by some grand stroke of dumb luck that I married the greatest woman in the world. I remember when we were dating, she once told me that I’d have to let her know by Wednesday if I was going to come visit on Saturday. I ignored her. Whatever. She’d drop what she was doing, I thought. I was incorrect. After I got in trouble for interrupting her studying, she explained it to me: there are responsibilities that can’t be shirked, no matter how much she enjoyed my company. I couldn’t have asked for a more loving wife and mother to our children.

So whenever I’m over here, I have absolutely no concerns. I’m able to devote my entire attention to my mission and my troops. Everything back home is covered. I don’t worry about the insurance not being paid, or my children being fed, the bank foreclosing on the house, the car getting repossessed, debt, nothing. I completely trust her. When I’m gone, she does everything. She mows the grass and does other household chores. She functions as both mother and father to the kids. She encourages them, disciplines them, and despite all this, I have normal, well-adjust children.

Here’s a woman with a graduate degree, who aspired to be a Fortune 500 businesswoman, and she’s content to be a stay-at-home mom and raise a family. I could call her and say, “honey, we’re moving to North Carolina in November, and she’d say, ‘okay. I’ll have the kids ready.’” She’s amazing. More than being highly responsible and a great mother to our children, she’s supportive, and encourages me while I’m deployed. She listens, advises, and loves unconditionally. She could have any man in the world and she chose me: a short, stumpy, fat guy.

But many others here aren’t so lucky. I can walk back inside and point to the soldiers who I know are coming home to divorces, financial woes, or some other unforeseen relationship complications. It’s tragic to watch, obviously, and I can point specifically to why most of it is happening.

My wife and I have been married for years. She’s been with me as I’ve gone through the ranks, through one command after another, but more importantly, we were married long before the war kicked off. It was a garrison Army back then. Aside from time in the field and the occasional command that kept me working long hours, I was typically home fairly promptly. The result is that we had sufficient time to develop the relationship, to solidify it, and prepare for a time when I wouldn’t be so available.

Yet for these younger soldiers, it’s different. They joined an Army at war. The stateside training tempo is fast-paced, and then they deploy. Then they come back and do it all again. More than marrying in a time of war, they married INTO war, and it’s extremely challenging to hold things together under these conditions. The marry, they leave, and they both get lonely. In truth, they haven’t fostered strong relationships. Many of them fail. I imagine it will continue until this is all over.

This war, conflict, or whatever we’re calling it now is exacting a toll on the troops in other ways, too. As a whole, it’s blurred our warfighting doctrine. I’m an aviator, for example; not a statesman. But these are the positions that many leaders are finding themselves occupying. They do fairly well, given the abrupt assignment of a completely different mission, but it comes at the sacrifice of their actual MOS [military occupational specialty]. We have soldiers that join at war, complete basic training, then come out here and never function in their MOS. Thankfully, though, the Army has begun implementing training changes to reflect the varied missions in which our soldiers may serve. As a whole we’ve stumbled, but we’re quickly righting ourselves. Historically, we have always adapted to the mission, and we’re doing it now.

In terms of the caliber of troops, that’s also suffered too. I don’t doubt that these men and women love their country, but some are just here. They’ve trained up repeatedly, deployed repeatedly, and if they choose to stay in, they’ll continue to do this for the immediate future. But they’re tired, and it’s reflected in the loss of military standards, discipline, and even leadership. Are they bad people? No. They’re just burning out. In many ways, all of us are. After fifteen years in the military, I’ve been gone for a total of five years. Two of those have been since 2003.

My soldiers, though, I love them to death, and I’m proud of them. I’m honored that you want to talk with me, but they’re the ones out there getting things done. I fly missions every now and then, but for the most part, my war is conducted at a computer. Well, two of them. I type on one then I roll my chair over and type on the other. I’ve worn marks into the floor.

If you want to see the ones fighting hard, go talk to my soldiers. Talk to the captains, who are providing daily, hands-on leadership to their troops. Go talk to the troops themselves, who sweat over engines, pump fuel, cook our meals, and do it well. We have our fair share of lemons, but so does every unit. They represent our society. We simply work with what we have, and as a whole we have good people.

In fact, the privates are the most creative ones out here. They’ve helped me out repeatedly. They’re brimming with creative ideas. We present then with problems, and they formulate solutions. They may be low on the totem pole, but that’s irrelevant. Their thinking isn’t as rigid as us old guys. It’s our job, as officers, to listen to them and give them a voice. But they deserve all the credit out here. Unsung though they may be, their actions are winning this war.

Will the Iraqis ever be able to put aside their differences and pursue amicable solutions? In time, yes. Will the Sunnis and Shiites ever stop killing each other, or the Kurds ever get along with the Arabs? Again, in time. Are we perhaps making the mistake of holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? We have problems of our own with inner city violence. We have corruption in politics, too. We shouldn’t forget that. If you consider that in the course of six years we’ve dismantled the Baath party, disbanded their Army and then helped them construct a new one, impatience is misplaced. These things will take time.

And at any rate, I don’t think it’s hopeless over here. I do feel that using the word “democracy” is a misnomer, however. We’re not so much instilling that as we are instilling peace. They will always have a different system of government than us, and that’s fine. So long as it promotes peace. We’re getting more of that incrementally. Province by province, city by city, Iraq is demonstrating that can stand on its own, provide security, and maintain a stable government. In time, I’m hopeful that they’ll be contributors on the world stage at a level equal to other non-Arab countries.

For us, it translates to boring, but boring is good. Boring means we don’t lose soldiers. Boring means Iraqis are taking the lead. And eventually, boring means we all go home. That’s victory to me – all of us going home.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Standing Among Us

*Retold with permission

Not long ago, we got a new piece of equipment in our battalion that let us do on-site finger printing and iris scanning while out on missions. We just called it “the camera.” We’d carry it with us on patrols, and whenever we saw somebody suspicious, we’d just do a quick retinal scan, record their fingerprints, and keep on moving. If they were wanted, we’d haul them in for questioning. If they weren’t wanted, we’d at least have them in the system if we caught them again.

We did a patrol once where we’d put soldiers out on the ground and the humvees would shadow them on the street. The dismounts would walk from courtyard to courtyard and scan all the residents with the camera. We were looking for a specific person. Biff was carrying the camera that day.

That area, Mandita, was already known to be a stronghold for a small insurgent network called Na Shamani. They had no idea what the camera was, but they knew we were methodically moving down the street – apparently towards their leader, our HVT [high value target]. And I guess they were prepared for us, too.

In hindsight, the whole disposition of the neighborhood was different that day. The kids weren’t running around like they usually did. Even the adults were scarce. They never seemed to move more than a few feet from their doorways, then they’d duck back inside. They knew something.

Right before the lead humvee out on the street was about to make a turn down the next road, a white sedan pulls up and blocks the way, almost like it was an accident. In the rear of the convoy, the same thing happened, pinning us in.

Biff was standing in one courtyard holding the camera, and the rest of the dismount team was there, too. He was about to start a scan on the Iraqi standing there, and then suddenly we heard a distinctive hiss, a soft impact, and a rifle crack off in the distance. The first thing I thought was, “oh shit; that somebody’s been hit,” but when I looked around quickly, everybody was just standing there doing the same thing. Everybody seemed okay.

But then Biff’s hand came up sharply and he grabbed his chest. Blood was pouring out between his fingers. He’d just been sniped through the heart. Somebody outside yelled “take cover” and soldiers started jumping behind cars, walls, or running to the trucks.

This wasn’t a stray bullet that happened to connect. This was a skilled sniper shot. Whoever it was knew our body armor, knew its weak points, and also knew how to still hit the heart with a single shot. Biff fought it, though. He fought it hard.

He looked down silently, and slouched forward little as LT grabbed him in a bear hug. Then he dropped to his knees. Finally, he laid himself gently on the ground like he was going to go to sleep. The whole thing seemed like it happened in slow motion. Blood was absolutely everywhere by then, and a huge pool had already formed on the ground.

Doc rushed over and started working on him, but I know he recognized that it was hopeless. It didn’t matter, though. He was going to do everything he could. Doc just didn’t want us to lose him right there.

As everybody scrambled for the trucks, Doc loaded Biff into the nearest one, and then we took off for base. We’ve never driven that maniacally before. I think we did about 80, which is hard to do in the city. In fact, we blew out the truck’s engine, but it didn’t fail us until we arrived on base. Later, we had to tow it away.

When we got inside the wire, Doc rushed Biff into the aid station where they were prepped to receive a casualty. We just parked outside and waited. The whole thing was horrible for us. It’d happened fast, and back on the FOB was really our first chance to actually think about it.

After a time, our LtCol comes out with a female medic and tells us to huddle up. That meant bad news. He gets us close and quietly says, “he’s gone.” Every one of us broke down. When we’d had a chance to comfort each other a little, we had a moment of silence for him, and then they let us go inside in pairs and say goodbye to him.

The sniper didn’t have a clue with the camera was for, and they sure as hell don’t know our rank insignia, but since it looked like Biff was carrying an expensive piece of equipment and a radio, he was the one they shot. They’d assumed he was the one in charge.

We wanted to retaliate immediately. We wanted to go back to that street, kick down doors, and take in everybody that looked in the least bit suspicious. More than anything, we wanted to kill the sniper. We wanted to do something, but they wouldn’t let us. In fact, they strictly forbade any US unit enter that area for a long time. They did it on purpose.

Insurgents around here typically brag about what they did, then immediately leave town to let things simmer down. That’s just how they operate. In this case, the command was relying on it. They’d let the guy brag, let him run, and knew that he’d come back in time and brag some more. That’s when we’d move in.

Sure enough, it worked. When the Iraqi police received intelligence that the guy was back, we planned a huge hit on the place. Actually, it was the last combat raid conducted by US troops in Iraq, and it required the written approval of a 3-star general.

Four platoons of our soldiers converged on that place, along with over 200 Iraqi swat police. We even had Kiowas overhead for aerial reconnaissance. We detained 44 from the raid, and well over half of those where known criminals with some involvement in either the insurgent network, or the sniper attack on Biff. They even got the sniper himself, too, and some of us testified in Iraqi court during the trial.

The Iraqis did an aggressive and thorough investigation on the whole incident, reenacted it, gathered a lot of intelligence, and eventually they even traced the trajectory back to its source – a two story building where they’d sneaked onto the roof without the family’s knowledge or permission. It was a coordinated effort: two drivers to block the convoy, lookouts, a sniper, and even a spotter for the sniper. In total, at least six were involved in that one attack.

They officially closed the investigation a week ago, but the whole matter is far from closed to us.

The morning of the sniper attack, Biff was the one that did the prayer before we headed out. He asked God to watch over us and protect us, but then he asked that God soften the hearts of the Iraqis so they could ensure their own safety and we could go home. In my mind, that shows where HIS heart was: with the Iraqis, with us, and with his family.

I don’t think there are any good words that fairly explain who Biff was to us. At best, it just sounds like we’re raving about our favorite NCO, but he was infinitely more than that.

LT called him his “reality check,” and whenever we were doing something stupid, he’d politely approach the LT and suggest we do it another way. And you couldn’t argue with him, because was always right. Somehow he did it tactfully, respectfully, and with a smile on his face. He was always smiling, or telling a joke, or lightening everybody’s mood. He was like the glue that held together the whole battery.

When we were stateside, he was always over at one of our houses, either visiting with his entire family, or just hanging out with us. His three little girls would play with some of our other sergeants’ kids. His wife was a highschool teacher, his own highschool sweetheart, and they were inseparable.

He loved the Army, he loved what we were doing here, and he believed in us, in the Iraqis, and in the mission. When we got back home, he was going to submit a warrant officer package and make a career of the military. His absence leaves a hole on all of our hearts.

At the police station nearest to the attack site, one of the commanders approached our LT and emotionally admitted that he blamed himself for the attack on Biff. He was on the verge of tears. He felt it was a complete failure on his part, and that his police officers had missed something. He and the other police viewed us as their guests, and our safety was their duty – and they felt they had completely failed.

When we did the raid on the suspect’s house, it was that police commander’s unit that eagerly volunteered to storm the buildings. “Let us go in,” they insisted. “You’ve already lost one of your own.” It was personal to them because they’d loved Biff, too.

We all wear bracelets engraved with his name now, and some of our commanders do as well. Now, the whole brigade wants them. We just want to keep his name alive. We have to. Forgetting him is like disowning one of our own family members.

About a month ago, they did an enormous memorial service here on base. All the other units stopped everything and everybody attended. Air Force, Army… everybody. Their commands wanted them to know who Biff was, and that this is real. Many of those guys never leave the wire, so it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is still Iraq, and still a combat zone. It wasn’t just our platoon out there, either. It was our US police advisor and our interpreters. And the terps cried just as much as we did. They loved Biff just as much as we did.

When Biff got hit, he dropped the Lt’s green book he was holding, which contained the names, locations, photos, and even aerial reconnaissance for all our HVTs. In the chaos of getting Biff loaded onto the truck, nobody remembered to grab it. But Alex did [our interpreter], and he sprinted back into the courtyard and retrieved it. If he hadn’t, we never could have done the hits we did, and we would have been robbed of any sort of payback.

On the day of Biff’s funeral back home, the entire state of Iowa flew their flags at half mast. And three days ago, the Air Force named this base’s landing strip in his honor. Those are nice gestures, I guess, but I’d rather just have my brother back.

When he died, it brought us closer together, really the whole battery. Whatever disagreements we once had have completely disappeared. There’s no fighting anymore. There’s nothing to fight about. And we’re more cautious, too. We’re hyper alert. We look for cover constantly, and we watch the locals and the terrain like hawks. We don’t want this to ever happen again. One was enough.

Replacing him is basically impossible. We lost one sergeant, but it’s taking the combined efforts of at least three just to accomplish what he did with ease. Everybody’s trying, but it’s not the same. He was a gifted leader and role model for all of us. Some of us don’t talk about it, but that’s not me. I could talk about it for hours. It keeps him fresh in our minds and close in our hearts. The more we tell people about him, the more he’s standing right here next to us. And that’s all I really want right now. I want him back.

In memory of Staff Sergeant Leroy O. Webster, killed in action on April 25th, 2009. He was 28. Share his story...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 20, 2009

Small Thinking

*Retold with permission

As I was growing up, I sort of felt like I was missing out. I don’t mean to suggest that I had a sheltered childhood or I was deprived, because I wasn’t. I had great parents, great brothers and sisters, and good friends, too. Everything I needed, I had, and I even had some of the things I wanted. I guess home felt small. It seemed boring, mundane, and all people worried about was their own miniscule facet of reality. The world carried on without them. Even at a young age I knew there was a lot out there; and I wanted to see all of it. But now, though, after years living around the country, years in the military, and years overseas, home is all I really want.

I’ve decided the world is a big place now, and there’s no way in hell I can see all of it. Besides, what’s the point? Just to say I’ve seen it? That seems sort of self-indulged. There are better things I could do with my time. Each culture and area has its little appeal, and it’s home to somebody, but there’s only one home to me. That’s what I miss out here.

I miss being with my family and catching up on what they’re doing. I’ve spent so much time away from home that I’ve missed first words and first steps, graduations and birthdays, Christmases…everything. I love my family and I love my friends, too, but there are gaps now in our relationships. Gaps when I was gone and something important happened in their lives when I wasn’t there to enjoy with them. They’ve told me about it all in phone calls, emails and letters, but it’s not the same to me. I didn’t SEE it, so it doesn’t carry the gravity that it rightfully should.

When you’re at home, I think it’s easy to get bored. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone to visit, said hello to family briefly, then felt a wave of boredom wash over me. To some extent, military life becomes normal. Everything needs to be done yesterday. Everything is fast-paced and important. You’re constantly in a state of panic, or at least in a rush. Home is different. It’s slow.

But at the same time, this isn’t normal, not at all. Getting shot at isn’t normal. Living in a tent isn’t normal – at least not for modern Americans. Living out of a green bag isn’t normal. Disavowing all responsibilities and relationships in pursuit of a mission, while noble, isn’t something that’s meant to be sustained over a lifetime. I think that the people who do that, the guys who spend their entire lives in the military: they’re missing out. Yes, they did something good and selfless for their country, but what about their families? What about a normal life?

Sometimes I think that you can either be married to the military and to the mission, OR you can be married to a wife and family. It’s hard to do both. One or the other will suffer. Besides, is it really fair to expect my wife to raise a family alone? I don’t think so. My dream is to own a house, have a family, and grow old with my wife. If I keep doing this, it’s not going to happen. There’s no way I can even meet somebody. I’m never home for long enough.

Do I regret getting into the military? Not at all. I think it’s been one of the most important and meaningful things I’ve done with my life. Yet I also think it’s going to be something that I will do, remember fondly, and then pursue other things. If having a wife, family, and a house wasn’t normal, why would people consider it the American dream?

It’s easy to fall in love with combat operations. It really is. I don’t mean the actual combat part. That never lasts long, anyway. I mean being deployed. Everything is taken care of for you here. Somebody cooks you every meal. Somebody tells you when to get up and when to get on the trucks and run a mission. You really don’t have anything to worry about. You know what you’re doing is good, but I think there are other good things, too, like home.

If we were a nation of warriors, what would we be fighting for? The idea is to fight, win, and go home. Not fight forever. People sometimes make the mistake of aggrandizing the warrior above the victory. But victory is what lets us all come home. We’re supposed to fight to win, not fight because we enjoy the conflict.

Part of the initial appeal of the military, and specifically a combat zone, is that I wanted to see what I was made of. I wanted to know if I could do it. It’s wasn’t a fascination with combat, per se, but more of a desire to test myself. But that’s done now. I’ve been tested, and I came through it okay. It doesn’t make me a man or anything, but I’m still pleased to know that when things get chaotic, I can still think straight. What makes me a man isn’t this; it’s how I care about people.

Some days I love this, but then I catch myself and remember that this isn’t normal. In fact, it’s very abnormal. This is a temporary suspension of reality. If it was so great people would be flocking to do it, and they’re not. It’s something you do, and then you move on.

Other days I absolutely hate it out here. It’s not that I don’t believe in the mission, because I do. It’s not like I regret joining, because I don’t. What I don’t like, however, is what this has required me put aside – a real life. I have some time left before my contract is up, but I imagine I’m going to get out and go to school. Hopefully I’ll meet my future wife along the way, too. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a plan, but I have time to think about it. Besides, thinking about it too much out here is going to distract me. I’ll start staring at all the Air Force girls or something, which isn’t going to accomplish anything. They think we’re all disgusting grunts, anyway. And we probably are.

Years from now, I hope to tell my kids stories about Iraq. I want to show them pictures and tell them about the friends I’ve lost. I want them to understand that it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not something you do forever. You do it, then come home to your family. If I keep at this forever, I’ll never have kids to tell this story to. Maybe I will if the war ends and we go back to the states, but I don’t think that’s going happen any time soon. We’ll be out here for a long time, or somewhere else.

I’ve always heard people say that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and they’re right. Home was like that. So, years after thinking home was small, now I think this out here is small. Home is what seems appealing right now. I’ve had enough of war.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, July 19, 2009


*Retold with permission

My soldiers and I were attached to an Army EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] team during one operation while Marines swept a small town for any insurgents. While we traveled with them, EOD would float within the secured perimeter and disable any IEDs the Marines found or suspected as they cleared the buildings and streets. I don’t think they were expecting to find too much on their own, though.

We walked up to a dump truck and started to poke around, and then I heard one of the EOD guys call out to another. “Um, I just found five Italian 750s [artillery rounds].” A moment later, I heard him call out again. “Okay, if you’re not EOD, you need to get out of here right now.” I’m thinking if EOD’s getting nervous, it’s definitely time to back up. I headed back to my truck and we moved off a distance to provide them overwatch.

The EOD team started focusing their search on the dump truck, and before long they radioed up to the Marine commander, explained that they’d found an enormous VBIED [vehicle borne IED], and that he needed to back up all his Marines a full kilometer from this site. When they did the controlled detonation, EOD warned, it was going to be enormous.

“Absolutely not,” was the reply from the Marine commander. They’d pushed too far to voluntarily give up ground they’d just finished securing. The Marines would be fine if they weren’t that far back. He’d move them back maybe 300. Anything more was a waste. EOD, didn’t like this response.

“Sir, you’ve have heard our recommendation, so we’ve done our part. But you need to know what’s out here.” He rattled off a huge list of ordnance that they’d found in the truck, and continued. “If this VBIED was to drive into the middle of a unit of M1A1 tanks, it would kill every single tank and every single occupant. As it stands, with this much ordnance inside the vehicle, it is the second largest VBIED that’s ever been found in this country. But, we’ve made our recommendation. One kilometer. What you elect to do is your concern.” The radio was silent for a long pause.

Begrudgingly, the commander radioed back that he would compromise and move his Marines back 900 meters. No more. Fair enough, said the EOD guys.

We helped EOD set up for the detonation, and we ended up rolling out a good 750 meter of det cord [detonation cord used to ignite C4]. As they were working, I looked over and saw that a house near the blast site had a rickety little stable with two donkeys in it. I also knew they wouldn’t survive the blast, so I asked EOD if I could set them loose and give them a chance. In terms of public image, it looks bad to not even try. No, they said, we don’t have time. I walked back to the truck to sulk.

When it came time to detonate, we all pushed into a narrow alley with high mud walls on either side. I asked if I could hold my camera around the corner at the end of the street and film the detonation, but the EOD guy tells me hell no. I have to stay down for this one.

“Fire in the hole, fire in the hole, fire in the hole.”

It was like nuclear holocaust. I saw red for a second, and then I watched the mud walls on either side of the street ripple with the concussive wave. When I could see again, I stumbled to my feet and peeked around the corner to see what the blast site looked like. Sure enough, there was a huge mushroom cloud pushing high into the sky.

One of the EOD guys grabs me, yelling. “You idiot! For the next minute and a half, shit’s going to be raining down. Take cover!” I got back down just as we started to hear little “tinks” all around us, and then the occasional “thud” as a larger piece of debris hit the dirt.

When it was finished, EOD went over to do a post-blast analysis of the scene. They’d wired the one dump truck (which was FULL of rounds), and left a similarly-rigged car nearby alone. They figured the main blast would take it out too. And they were right.

The crater was a good 50 feet deep, more than 100 feet wide, and still smoldering. The car was completely gone, and so was the dump truck. The largest piece I could find was the transmission differential and half a tire. Everything else was too small to even pick up. Even a nearby warehouse was completely flattened, as were several small buildings around the perimeter.

We showed the blast site to the Marine commander, and he was pretty apologetic. “You’re right that this would have killed a platoon of tanks. Next time, I’ll listen to your recommendations.” As he rode off, I looked over towards the donkey stable. I assumed it was flattened, too.

To my utter amazement, the building was mostly intact. A second later, I see a donkey head slowly appear where the door used to be. Then another. One cranes its neck out into the street and nervously looks both ways. As I watch, they slowly emerge, briefly look at us, and walk off into the city. Somehow, they’d survived. I doubt we’d have been so lucky.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved