Saturday, September 5, 2009

Perhaps the Coolest Chaplain in the US Army

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Times Are Changing (1)

It occurs to me that, despite more than 200 military-related posts and hundreds of other e-mails and essays about Iraq, combat deployments, and combat zones in general, I have still done relatively little to describe a base, its ambience, and the general sights. Photos abound of bases out here, but they don’t adequately “put you there.” One friend described Iraq as being equivalent to turning on all the heaters in your house, turning on the oven and opening it, donning over 50lbs of body armor, and sitting next to the oven. He added that there also needed to be an odor of burning some trash emanating from somewhere. To top it off, he suggested having a friend turn on a fan, aim it at you, and then instruct him to constantly throw handfuls of dirt into the breeze, which in turn will sprinkle you with dirt, adhere to the sweat, and make for a generally bad day.

My own description is to stand in the hot exhaust of a bus and, well, just keep standing there. If you want to simulate Kuwait, notch up the temperature a bit, but keep the hot wind on you. What with all the generators here, the diesel fumes are altogether fitting. Winter, however, is another story entirely. Cover yourself in mud, hose your clothes down once with cold water, and then wear them for three days. Keep the temperature in the mid 30s.

On a more serious note, below is a collection of observations, facts, and descriptions about Iraq, US bases, and some of the activities that take place while our loved ones are deployed. I assure you that it is by no means complete, exhaustive, or necessarily representative of every base, every tour, and everybody’s experience.

Kuwaitis only accept an American presence begrudgingly at best. Thus, bases are as far as humanly possible from any conveniences, utilities, and civilization. With the notable exception of Kuwaiti Naval Base, US facilities in Kuwait are collections of tents, lightweight “hangars,” and trailers assembled in some sort of grid, in the middle of nowhere. All electricity comes from generators – everywhere. All water is trucked onto post in tankers, and potable water arrives on flatbeds full of palletized waterbottles. They are distributed across the bases at random intervals. Naturally, most trash is comprised of empty water bottles.

Civilian vehicles are common, and tactical vehicles increasingly uncommon, as units arriving in Iraq typically “fall in” on gear left by the units they replaced. Perimeter security is overseen by practically unintelligible third country nationals (often African), and they are in turn supervised by extremely irritable American civilian contractors. Most attempt to deny me entrance to the bases. Floodlights are everywhere at these entry control points, as are also pallets of waterbottles.

The air terminal, which oversees all flights into Iraq, is operated by a strange combination of military and civilian personnel, all of whom give indication that they would like to be elsewhere, and would not like to speak with you. This said, however, they are extremely efficient at what they do. Rolls are called throughout the day, as troops lounging on half-dilapidated couches and chairs revive, hear their names called, and trudge out the door laden with gear. Some are outbound for the states, others to Afghanistan, but most are headed north into Iraq.

These Kuwaiti bases will almost always have a profusion of useless amenities, to include expensive Persian rugs (arguably made in china), tailors to custom-fit suits, US automobile and Harley dealers, “gift shops,” an alterations facility to repair uniforms and sew “motivational” banners celebrating OIF MCVII, and pay-by-the-minute internet and phone centers. All of those are lodged in trailers, about eight feet wide and about 25 feet long. A double or triple wide is often used for the AAFES PX building. They will have a smattering of useful products and gear that nobody in their right mind will buy. More will be mentioned about trailers later.

All Kuwaiti bases have massive, well-supplied gyms. At least two have rotating rock climbing walls. They usually stay busy – especially after dark in the evenings. People do their best to not move during the heat of the day. With temperatures well above 135 degrees in the summer months, I can’t say I blame them. Daytime productivity, at least outside, is low.

There are also typically a few restaurants, to include McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Subway. There may also be a smaller chain restaurant represented. These, too, are in trailers. When I departed Ali Al Saleem for Iraq in early July this year, Subway had just been gutted by a fire. The running joke is that Burger King (right next door) was jealous somebody was selling healthier food and elected to burn down the competition. This is a joke. They had a grease fire.

My arrival in Baghdad Intl Airport revealed many more hangars, pallets of waterbottles, more tents, and a number of hardened buildings. If I had to guess, that base was at least 25 square kilometers, perhaps larger. Transient “guests” are housed in air conditioned tents, and permanent personnel live in trailers, 25 feet long and called CHUs. I think it stands for Contained Habitation Unit, but I could be mistaken.

My flight was on a fixed-wing aircraft, so flown by the US Air Force, staffed in the back by Air Force, and the gear was unloaded by an Air Force dude in a fork truck sporting a hard hat. When he dropped the pallets, they were unloaded by civilians – probably Bangladeshis. They are also the ones that “palletize” the gear, too.

Another fixed wing flight was operated by the Army, and the next one after that was Air Force. Rotor wings are almost all Army (in my experience), but you still find a strange mix of Airforce, Army, and civilians at every major air terminal in Iraq. Somehow, I suppose, they work together without incident. From what I observed, they have their mission down to a science. Weather, however, messes things up, as do mechanical failures. One Air Force officer who sat next to me on a flight indicated that this was the third aircraft in a row that had been grounded for repairs. This time: hydraulic problems. Most flights, despite the extreme conditions and astounding hours these birds are airborne, have no problems whatsoever.

The dining facility (DFAC) in Kirkuk is an enormous hangar-style building complete with waxed, ceramic tiled floors. It also seated 3,300+ diners at any one time. While it is the largest I have thus far seen, others still typically seat more than 1,200. The food is mostly good, the salad bars immense, and whenever food is served, there is a desert bar with pies, cobblers, cakes, and ice cream. As one might expect, it is not uncommon to see troops hauling a few unnecessary pounds. At one time in the not too distant past, everybody attempted to blame the DFACs rather than themselves.

Because of the once-extremely real threat of car bombs and indirect fire, bases in Iraq are usually partitioned off in a confusing array of T-walls, Jersey Barriers, and Hesco Barriers. The former two are concrete sections of walls, the latter is a wire mesh basket into which dirt is poured. The result is the same. Any blast on base, no matter where it is, will cause only minimal damage.

Since T-walls, I have been told, cost as much as $3,000 to manufacture, transport and install (per very three foot barrier), I feel comfortable stating that while the streets in Iraq aren’t paved in gold, the walls are, to say the least. On a side note, the streets are mostly gravel (except on air bases, which have paved roads). The gravel is also spread for pathways, but usually creates a mess. The rocks are rounded and smooth, never pack, and pedestrians must pick their way over them without rolling an ankle, falling, or otherwise walking like a complete idiot. But I digress. Back to barriers.

Every structure more important than a laundry facility will be surrounded by them, to include all living areas, showers and latrine trailers (not outhouses, oddly), dining areas, most generators, important people’s quarters, etc. One deputy commander (a general) here has his own BASE within a base, complete with his own guarded entrance. The guards, by the way, are Ugandan.

Guards. They’re everywhere. While many believe that the US may be reducing perimeter security and thus freeing troops to return home, they have done so by hiring private security contractors. Large bases often have a strange hodgepodge of guards. An outer cordon may be maintained by Iraqi army or police (who are often asleep, or at least not alert at their posts), followed by a private security cordon (mostly Ugandans, falling under Triple Canopy). The innermost may be US troops –if there’s an inner cordon at all. If US personnel are involved, they are either bored Soldiers, or Air Force personnel on a grueling four-month tour in Iraq.

Security personnel also exist inside the perimeter of a base, posted at the rare breaks in T-walls that gives access to dining facilities, gyms, MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) buildings, and the PX. They will always physically inspect your badge. They always do not like me.

Nor do the Air Force personnel acting in the same capacity (depends on the base), even when I have presented five government ID cards with photographs. I have been sent through metal detectors, searched with an individual detector, and one Air Force gentleman, clearly unhappy about his miserably long, four-month tour in Iraq, threatened to take away my pocketknife. Last I checked (today), there is only one known situation where an American has participated in a suicide bombing. It wasn’t me. The guy didn’t survive to do it again. That also took place in Somalia.

The elaborate security measures for the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone) include at least one cordon of Iraqi Army, and three of Triple Canopy. I was unable to pass through any of them without a military escort. I am unsure how many thousands of Triple Canopy personnel are devoted strictly to the IZ.

Sandbags here are showing their age, since the plastic hasn’t done so well in the high summer heat. The woven material disappears, leaving a sandbag-shaped brick in place – until somebody tries to move it and it crumbles. Other bases used cloth sandbags. Those seem to be intact. Bunkers (little more than upside down concrete culverts) continue to dot the landscape. This is still Iraq, and attacks still happen. One hour ago, my building shook as an IED went off somewhere outside of base. By the color of the smoke, we determined it to be an IED, not a VBIED. There wasn’t enough black in it to involve an exploding car. I presume the occupants of the vehicle are safe.

The reason being is that most tactical vehicles these days are a far cry from what they were in 2003, and perhaps as late as 2007. US personnel used to have humvees (with varying degrees of real armor, “Mad Max” armor or sandbags), tanks, Bradleys, M113s, and some sort of armored vehicle I still cannot name. These have been almost completely replaced with Tanks and MRAPs. MRAP stands for “mine resistant ambush protected.” They are enormous, lumbering and heavy, and the entire crew compartment area is shaped like a gigantic steel bathtub, meant to deflect projectiles. Most of them cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $465,000. Some may balk, but last I heard, there hasn’t been a SINGLE fatality in one of these vehicles. The same cannot be said of other vehicles, even tanks. Consider also that one vehicle will properly protect a number of troops – each of whom has a $400,000 Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance policy. The people are the most expensive thing out here – to put it bluntly.

Frustratingly, the vehicles with which we have outfitted the Iraqi Army (and some police) are of better quality and possess better armor than those I myself used on two combat tours in Iraq. We lost well over a dozen from my battalion on the first tour, at least six of which were in humvees. I am thankful that the US now has fielded better vehicles. I am also thankful that Iraqi Security Forces have decent transportation. After all, they are the main combat force outside the wire these days.

On base is a different story. Nearly every officer over the rank of Major (or perhaps Colonel) has managed to find him or herself a NTV – non-tactical vehicle. With the number of meetings they attend all over a base, it is mostly appropriate. There are others that do NOT have, and complain. Traffic on most big bases is primarily civilian vehicles. Convoy and tactical vehicles are predominantly restricted to their little areas of the base. Most large bases have bus lines, complete with 24 hour service, bus stops, etc. On sprawling bases that have even higher numbers of civilian personnel, various contractors will operate their own bus services for their personnel. Balad is one such example. I accidentally stepped onto one, where I was asked if I was the driver. I departed quickly, embarrassed.

Larger bases are moving more and more in the direction of “garrison,” and with this comes more rules and regulations, to include military police (MPs) conducting speed traps, random stops to ensure that personnel are wearing their seatbelts, and other missions. They also stop pedestrians if they observe some violation. I was recently stopped and asked why I was not wearing a reflective belt after sunset. I explained that I thought they were stupid, and that I wasn’t aware that the glow belt rule applied to civilian reporters. Apparently it does. I was not issued a citation, in part because the MP was running out of citation papers. This worked in my favor.

On smaller bases, troops still use outhouses. They are cleaned regularly, unlike in the past, when they would overflow. Artwork also seems to have diminished to nearly disappeared. I miss the humorous read. On larger bases, both latrine and shower trailers are available. On this particular base (outside of Mosul), ever visible piece of copper piping is polished daily. Perhaps twice daily. Toilets rarely clog anymore, in part due to the sincere plea that people no longer flush baby wipes. Unlike before, they do not reek – and there’s no entertaining artwork on the walls in these facilities, either.

A few shower trailers, however, are so old that the floors are starting to rot out from water damage. I don’t think they were made for this many years of constant use. Many facilities in Iraq are like this, to include wiring on bases (which usually means a birds nest of power and comm cables draped all over the place, hanging low over roads, and occasionally shorting out and hurting people. For example, one Navy Corpsman died on my base in 2004 when he was electrocuted in the showers. There have been a number of incidents like this. Most, if not all, I consider preventable. In more recent years, a huge effort has been made to improve on-base safety – often with ridiculous signs about how special we all are.

With the operations tempo diminishing as it has, there are a myriad of other changes and developments, some of them good, some of them not so good, some of them absolutely ludicrous. I will continue this piece tomorrow, but will first close with this: while the US military strictly forbids any physical contact between its members (and charges those who are caught), all the medical stations here still freely pass out condoms. I don’t understand – unless this is a clear demonstration that they have given up.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 4, 2009

Same Story, Different War (2)

If you have not done so already, please read the first part of this post here.

Here is a second letter from Private First Class Arthur _____
15 April 1946
Butzbach [Germany]

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know that it has been a long time since I’ve written and I’m really sorry. But, as usual, I have an excuse and that is that I’ve been trying to learn to read, write and speak German. The woman who does my laundry teaches me as well as she can with her very limited knowledge of English but starting tomorrow I’m going to take lessons from a private tutor and while writing this I’m smiling very broadly.

But, actually, it’s quite inexpensive and even with the money I spend for rations and little luxuries it doesn’t amount to much. In fact, my rations cost more than the lessons; so, I guess that it ought to be O.K. financially. And socially, they’re quite friendly to anyone who doesn’t “shoot the town up” once in a while and they are especially friendly to anyone who’s a little better than intelligent and is eager to learn something.

I’m now living in one of the rooms of the house in which my laundry woman used to live. She must’ve been fairly well off at one time because the rooms are rather nice. But to get back to my German lessons, I don’t see any danger in it… they seem to respect the man who has a gun on his shoulder (in other words, they respect whoever’s in power); so I guess it’s alright to continue the lessons for the short time (less than two months now!) that I’m going to be here.

Well, I do hope that you approve. I promise to be careful as ever, and I’m just waiting for “you know when;” so, please, please, don’t be too expectant and let’s hope that I do get home by July 1st, as the schedule says.

All my love,


*Thanks again to JH for sharing this.

Same Story, Different War (1)

In the not too distant past, a friend of mine found himself helping another friend (and family) clear out a cluttered apartment. The older gentleman who resided there had recently died, and they were making an effort to toss out what they felt had no value, and store what they considered important. Among the items they deemed useless was a stack of letters.

Arthur, the recently deceased and an Army Private First Class, had written these notes to his parents while he was in Europe during World War II. His family, tragically, had no interest in them, so my friend salvaged them from the trash and has held onto them since. The below letter is Arthur’s, a piece of history now more than sixty-three years old. How unfortunate that it was deemed garbage.
21 March 1946
Burtzbach [Germany]

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, as they have just said on the radio, today is the first day of spring and that means (to me) that I should be home in approximately three months from now; so, I’m feeling pretty good… That doesn’t seem long compared to the time I have been over here.

The last two days have been very nice and it’s so quiet around here that sometimes it seems as if I were back home. But I soon wake up from my reverie and realize that it’s not so; and so, I get busy doing something to pass the time and bring the day that I go home a little closer.

Did you know that I’m not working as a switchboard operator? Well, that’s right! I took the job because it gives me time to read and also because you’re not bothered by the “rank” as much. That’s what I like.

I’m fine and I hope that everyone at home is the same.

As usual, the mail service over here is not good. I haven’t had a letter from home on over three weeks but I suppose that it’s the same with everyone.

I received Jean’s Christmas package about a month ago. I thank her very much for it.

I haven’t had any more nose bleeds since the last time I wrote you. It must be due to the lack of something but I don’t know what.

I inquired about my war-bonds and the personnel sergeant said that you received the bonds as long as I get paid over here and that has been mighty irregular. But maybe you’ll be getting one soon.

I have finished my study of the typewriter as I no longer have one to practice on.

I’m enclosing a few pictures. The one that has been cut in half is a picture of the windowless and, in some rooms, roofless house that we stayed in when we first hit Germany (excuse the slang, please). I cut it in two because the bottom half contained a very unflattering picture of Walter _____ and myself in our “ten minute young” butch haircuts; I have burnt that half!

Well, the other pictures will be self explanatory; so, with hopes of being home on the 4th of July,

Ever your devoted son;


P.S. And although it’s a little late for this, “”HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” to the best parents in the WORLD! Arthur

P.S.1 These envelopes were typed in Epernay [France]. NOTE THE NEW A.P.O!

Thanks to JH for letting me read and share this letter.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Lies They Tell

*Retold with permission.

I’ve walked into internet and phone centers repeatedly and been amazed with the lies I hear floating around the room. Guys on the phones talking about how dangerous it is over here and how many terrifying missions they’ve run. Firefights that never actually happened. Exaggerating brief incidents into epic battles that were really little more than a few potshots, if even that. Little of it, though, actually took place.

I’ve sat down at the computers and seen similar things, too. I remember one instance when the previous user forgot to close out his chat program and I read the last thing he wrote: “I don’t see how you can dump me out here. I could die at any minute in a war, and you’re trying to leave me.” Right. It’s really not that bad out here.

Even as a Marine grunt, I haven’t done a whole lot on this tour. And even if you factor in the other two tours, I haven’t seen much. When we first got out here, I did a couple months of patrols out west – without incident – and I’ve spent the rest of my time on a big base police calling trash. That’s it. No glorious combat, no huge firefights, and thankfully, no IEDs either. Even when we were rocketed early on, it was so inaccurate that it was a joke. Basically, it’s pretty slow out here. Yes, I’m sure some guys have had it tougher, been through more and lost more, but for the most part, it’s quiet in Iraq right now. And NOTHING like it was in 2004 or maybe even as late as 2007.

I really don’t know why these guys feel the need to lie. Maybe they need to play the “danger” or “sympathy” card to get laid. You see it fairly often, especially in bars back in the states. Either way, I don’t have the need to do that. I think it’s smarter to be honest. Between one tour over here, one in Afghanistan, and then another one here, I haven’t been through much. Other know guys have, but I’ve been lucky. It’s been quiet.

Not too long ago, our battalion chaplain pointed out that it’s more dangerous for us outside Camp Lejeune on a Friday night (from drunk drivers) than it is out here. Considering the statistics with all the drunk driving incidents, and the number of traffic fatalities we have around base in the states, I’d say that this is accurate. Yes, it’s still Iraq and there’s obviously some risk, but it’s not as high as some of these guys are making it out to be. I just can’t believe that they’d do that to their families. They’re already worried sick about us. I’d think you’d want to reduce that; not worsen it.

Slow is nice. Yes, it’s boring out here. Without a doubt. Nor am I very excited that I’ve spent almost five months police calling and picking up trash. It gets old. But, I’ve had plenty of time to work out, plenty of time to e-mail and call home (and NOT lie), and in a matter of weeks I’ll be home and out of the Marine Corps.

This is good because my mom doesn’t have to worry. Nobody in my family does. I may be separated from them, but I’m not in any imminent danger. I have worse odds in the slums of a few US cities. And it’s the same for almost everybody else, despite what they’re telling their families. Relax; it’s not that bad out here. And no, we’re not going to come back all screwed up.

Thankfully, the guys who lie about all this are actually the exception to the rule. At worst, maybe 20% are doing it. I guess they think they need to make up combat stories to earn respect from people. Which is more interesting to say: “yeah, I didn’t do a whole lot or see much. I mostly spent my time working out and missing home,” or “man, we hit IEDs all the time and got into firefights at least every week.” The latter might sound better, but the truth is better in the long term. You’re not living a lie. How many firefights do you have to be in to feel like you’ve accomplished something, anyway? One? Ten? One hundred?

My biggest problem right now is actually probably caused – at least in part – by the 20% who tell “combat” lies. Between all the horror stories that these guys are telling, and the fact that I’ve done three tours, my girlfriend’s mom is totally convinced that I’m going to be criminally insane when I get back. She’s thinks I’m a single trigger away from snapping and losing my mind. Obviously, it’s not true, though. I keep trying to convince her that I’m fine. She needs to know I’m not nuts, because she’s going to be my mother-in-law quite soon. I’m a Marine veteran, not the combat-crazed lunatic that some of these guys are making us out to be. Iraq has been far worse than it is now. People need to know that, and stop worrying. And other people need to stop lying about it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Every Last Drop

For those whose loved ones have lost friends…

Friend, I am no stranger to this myself. Feeling helpless, being sick with grief that while you may be just fine personally, there's still a family missing a loved one, and will spend the rest of their lives with something other than normal, loving relationships. It is truly heartbreaking, though but a small fraction of what they’re experiencing. And for those who have lost brothers, know that they won’t address it until they’re home. Be prepared for it. Out here, grieving is arrested. For the time being, there’s a mission that takes precedence. The living demand greater attention until they are well out of harm’s way.

We, those who did not know, but mourn nevertheless, are placed in a difficult position. I have reached but few conclusions.

We live our lives mindful of the fact that many have fallen in order that we may breathe free. We are solemn in the company of others, for there are always faces missing. We wring every last drop out of life, because that is what those who fell would want us to do. We remember their names at weddings, and support the widows our war has created. We adopt their children as our own, and provide for them as best we can. We tell them stories of their loved ones, of their sons or daughters, of their husbands or wives, and we speak of how who they were and how much they loved their families. We keep them alive in stories, lest we forget. Lest we act "American" and never truly care. We are charged with living in their stead, and thus we will live it well. Every last drop of life.

Yet first, first, we grieve, for this nation has lost a son.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Negative Fixations

Recently, I was asked why many of the stories I post pertain to rude things said to troops upon their return to the States.  Surely, the reader argued, they were not hearing only negative comments, right?  Not everybody is misinformed or downright rude.  This is true.  Only one remark out of perhaps ten is inappropriate.  It has to do with our selective memories.


When I worked for a building contractor, I remember him wisely telling me that if he did a superb job on a project, the clients would tell one, maybe two of their friends about it, and he would receive free marketing via word-of-mouth.  He then proceeded to say that if he did a poor job, they would tell TEN of their friends.  For whatever reason, we concentrate far more on the negative than the positive.  The same applies to all of us.


I have had countless nice things said to me about my military service.  I have been bought innumerable free drinks, offered free lodging, and been forbidden to pay for my meals at random restaurants and diners across the country.  They all wished to say thank you.  I have even attended a wedding where the entire wedding party raised a glass to toast me – before they had done so for the bride and groom.  There are many other heartwarming experiences which I cannot recall, mostly because they're too numerous to mention.  Nevertheless, it takes concentration to remember these.  Other things made a more lasting impression.


More often than not, I remember the day I pulled into a gas station and bumped into a gentleman who I vaguely knew, and he immediately piped up with, "hey, I just ran into another old Jarhead [Marine]…Said this is the stupidest damn war we've been in yet."  I did not respond.


Or the time I was chatting with a lady about the Iraq War when a young man wandered up and abruptly interjected his firm conviction that troops are an uneducated, lesser class of American who mindlessly carry out barbaric acts at the commands of brainwashed, egocentric officers.  When he was done, I walked away.


These are what I remember the most clearly.


A friend of mine, after a score of warm handshakes and kind remarks, remembers a woman driving by and throwing food at him as he exited an airport terminal.  Another friend remembers the day a random stranger remarked that he was GLAD my friend's comrades had died in Iraq.  After all, he said, they were killing innocent women and children.  He also remembers the time a college professor sharply rebuked him in a college course with a retort of, "I know FAR more about war than you do."  That professor, incidentally, had never served.


Another friend remembers unsolicited comments from an uncle (with no military experience), explaining to him how the conduct of this war was absolutely ridiculous and paralleled the mistakes made in Vietnam.  He was at a family reunion, and ended up escaping to another room – where he received more questions from another relative.


Years from now, as history books incorporate the "Iraq War" into their pages, there will be significantly more writing devoted to prisoner mistreatment at Abu Gharaib than to the thousands of heroic acts by individual servicemembers and their units.  Little notice will be given to the improvements in Iraqi Security Forces, but much to the few Iraqi Soldiers that turned their weapons on their US counterparts.  For reasons I cannot explain, we fixate on the negative.


Yet if this is a fault of those in the US Armed Forces, it is similarly a fault that afflicts all humankind.  For whatever reason, we quickly forget the encouraging remarks and remember only those that wounded us.    So why perpetuate the problem and continue mentioning them?  Well, it's easy.


What a US servicemember most remembers about his or her experiences will become the backbone of his or her perception of military service as a whole.  We are certainly not the sum or product of our memories, but we are definitely strongly influenced by them.  If a Soldier remembers the hurtful remarks, he or she may very well walk away from proud service wounded or bitter – even if the negative comments were only two and the positive ninety-eight.


For as long as we are free to voice our opinions in the United States, there will be a handful who sharply and rudely disagree with us.  Such is the nature of free speech.  We are permitted to say as we wish, however wrong, hurtful, or inflammatory it may be.  I have no desire to change this, because these are Constitutionally-protected rights – and they are what make America great.


Nor am I attempting to "train" the public on what they should or should not say to a returning Soldier, Marine, etc.  They are welcome to say as they wish.  My purpose is simply to show them what potentially damaging and lasting effects a single poorly-considered remark may have on a veteran.  For it is not the nice things we remember, but the negative.


A veteran who remembers a civilian saying something horribly inappropriate to him may in time conclude that the public is ill-informed, rude, and not worth his time.  Similarly, a civilian whose sole memory of the military is Abu Gharaib and the few Soldiers' actions that tarnished a generation of men and women who served honorably, may reach the conclusion that veterans are all criminals acting under the sanction of the federal government.  Obviously, neither presumption is correct.


For this reason, I share positive stories about troops.  I do not focus on the mistakes they make because we all make them.  Hopefully, readers will clearly see that the military as a whole is far greater, and far nobler than the few bad apples in their ranks.  And I DO focus on the negative remarks said to them because I am hopeful that readers will better understand what lasting consequences there may be for a single, inconsiderate statement.  My desire is to narrow the divide between the military and the public, mainly through arming the public with more information.


Am I painting civilians in a negative light or hanging them out to dry?  Some might argue that, but it is unintentional.  Perhaps, when I have completed my embed with the US troops in Iraq, I will "embed" with the public and write the stories of how they've been terribly insulted by veterans or servicemembers, for I will quickly grant that many in the military do not treat the public (their collective bosses) as they should.  Perhaps readers among the military ranks will see them and learn how to better address the public.  Both parties have grounds for improvement.


Yet for the time being, my desire is to share the servicemembers' stories.  Their service alone will drive a wedge between them and the general public, since it is entry into a world and a subculture that is, at best, poorly understood by outsiders.  And in so doing, by helping the public understand what these men and women go through and how to best approach them, perhaps the negative remarks will taper off a bit.  Perhaps veterans won't feel the need to walk into a crowd ready to quickly defend themselves.  Perhaps they can drop their guard and feel that they've fully and comfortably returned to their homes.  Perhaps they will no longer "pull both triggers" when a single offensive comment is heard.  And finally, perhaps fewer will take their own lives.


The public could stand to learn a bit, and so could the military.  At present, my part in all of it is to introduce the public to the hearts and minds of the men and women who serve them.  And as both camps lay aside their weapons and drop their guards, I am hopeful that the veterans see a public that, for the most part, is thankful and receives them well.  Mistakes should only be remembered so we no longer repeat them.


Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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Monday, August 31, 2009

Keep Them Flying (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When the weather’s bad out here, the choppers don’t fly, nothing breaks, so we don’t have anything to fix.  It’s nice for a little while, since we like a break every now and then, but it gets boring quickly.  I like fixing things.  It’s what I joined to do.  So as far as I’m concerned, get those birds back in the air.  It’s why we’re here – to make them fly.

I can’t remember the exact dates, but some of the components on these aircraft date back to the tail end of the Vietnam War.  For all I know, some of the airframes were over there, and maybe over here back in Desert Storm.  We’re the last unit to get all the equipment upgrades, so we may have the oldest fleet of helicopters in the entire Army.  The 58s may be the slowest chopper out there right now, but everything still works well.  I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise, either.  After more than 30 years in service, they have the kinks worked out on the systems.  In fact, our fleet has the easiest maintenance schedule of all the rotor wings out there.

Our job is pretty straightforward.  We keep the helos airborne.  That’s it.  If something’s wrong with the radios, we fix them.  If the parts wear out, we replace them.  If they get shot up and need the skin repaired, we fix it or put on a new panel.  We even maintain the weapons systems, too.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as scrubbing a little dirt out of a rocket tube.  Other times, it’s dismantling an entire machine gun and getting it back online.  Whatever needs work, we take care of it.

What’s humorous, however, is that the electronics are antiquated.  The newest computer technology still dates back to the early 90s.  If they actually updated it, something like an iPhone could handle all the computations.  But that’s not how it works with military equipment.  If it ain’t broke, they don’t fix it, and they don’t upgrade it either.  It makes sense, but it does mean the aircraft are weighed down with heavy systems.  Eventually they’ll upgrade, I guess.

It’s different for us, being aircraft mechanics.  I’ve been here almost eight months, and I’ve only left the FOB [forward operating base] once.  The rest of the time, I’m here.  It has its perks.

For one, everybody’s wife, girlfriend and family is happy that we’re relatively safe.  We only get the occasional mortar or rocket around here, but that’s about it.  We don’t have outrageous schedules, either.  My shift come to work in the morning, fixes or maintains whatever needs attention, and then we head back to our trailers, to air conditioning, and either get on the computer or play video games.  So long as the job gets done, we’re off.  When we leave, another crew comes on to relieve us.

Nobody has ever suggested that I’m not doing my part out here, but if they do, I already have an answer for them.  It’s remarkably easy.

Everybody out here has a mission.  For the infantry, it’s go kick in doors, operate outside the wire, and kill the enemy.  That’s essential.  Whenever they’re in trouble, or they need any sort of medevac or aerial reconnaissance, the pilots are up there talking them onto targets, chasing down cars, providing heavy firepower, or flying out the casualties.  I know for certain that they appreciate that last one.

We’re the ones that keep those pilots in the sky.  If the birds didn’t work, they couldn’t fly.  We’re not out killing the enemy, but we’re enabling the guys on the ground to do it – and as safely as possible.  I can’t count the number of times that we’ve bailed them out.

The whole Army is like that.  Everybody has their job, and everybody’s job is essential to somebody else.  The mechanics make sure the trucks run, the supply guys make sure the ammo gets to the legs [infantry], the cooks feed all of us, the comm guys keep everybody talking, and so on.  Everybody has a job out here, and at some level, we’re all reliant on each other.  If it doesn’t have a purpose, it’s not in the Army. 

People sometimes think that the only thing we do out here is run around with guns and shoot things, but it’s more complex than that.  For every one guy outside the wire, there are probably more than ten that get him there, keep him there, and keep him fed, safe, and supported.  We’re still out here fighting the war, just not in the sense that people typically think about.  But it doesn’t matter.  They need us, we need them, and before long we’ll win it and go home.  I like my part in all of it, and I intend to stick around.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 30, 2009


*Retold with permission.

One of the biggest disadvantages of being on a vehicle recovery team last tour is that they only called you out if something has gone wrong.  It’s not so bad if a vehicle is simply broken, but more often than not you go out when a vehicle has been disabled by an IED [improvised explosive device].  In many cases, they’re hardly recognizable as vehicles.  More than anything, being vehicle recovery means you see a lot of disasters.

When it’s all happening, you try not to think about it – besides what’s necessary to get the job done.  Since it’s so godawful, you construct a defense mechanism and basically steel yourself.  You have to complete the mission, so it’s in your best interest not to think about it.  It starts to hit you a few days later, but only somewhat.  Even after the first tour, I knew I was coming back over here again, so I continued to not think about it.  To be honest I probably still haven’t actually dealt with it.  I don’t think I will until I’m out of the Army.

I remember one morning last tour.  It was about 0830 and I was showering, and I needed to be at work at about 0900.  As I showered, my team chief came in.

“Hey, we got a catastrophic kill.  Hurry up and get out of there.”

A catastrophic kill basically means nobody survived, and there’s hardly any vehicle left to recover; or it’s in pieces.  I asked him who it was, and he gave me the bumper number, which didn’t really help.  I can’t ever remember who rides in which truck.  Who was it, I asked again, and this time he told me.  They were my three closest friends in the infantry.  None of them had made it.  It was devastating, but we still had to go get the vehicle.

When we got on scene, everything was silent.  It was in an area of town they shouldn’t have been in, on a road where everybody always gets hit.  I remember seeing the Bradley, or what was left of it.  It was ripped open at the seams.  The ramp was down, the turret was on the other side of the street, the engine was down the road, and there was a huge hole in the middle of the vehicle.  Everything was blackened from the blast.

In the chaos of the situation, they’d made a mistake about who was in the vehicle.  One of my three friends they said hadn’t made it was actually sitting on the FOB doing just fine.  There was a third, but they didn’t know who it was, and they also didn’t know WHERE he was.  They hadn’t found a body yet.  They just knew he was dead.

I pulled the 88 over [M88 A1 Tank Recovery Vehicle] and started lifting all the pieces onto the truck, one-by-one.  When I lifted the turret, though, we found the third body, completely unidentifiable from the blast.  They had to use his dog tags to figure out who he was.  I didn’t know him.  I felt immediately relieved that it wasn’t my friend, but then I felt awful for feeling relieved.  It was still one of our guys.  It’s a shitty feeling.

As we inspected what was left of the vehicle, I remember seeing a single boot, wedged into a crevice in the reactive armor.  That’s all.  Just a single, twisted, mangled boot.  It was black instead of tan.  I’m always going to remember that.

This second tour isn’t like that, thank God.  It’s nothing now.  It’s waiting.  We hardly do any recoveries anymore.  The IEDs are too small to do any real damage to the vehicles, so the units are mostly able to self-recover and tow them back without our help.  If we do get called out, it’s because somebody got stuck, which is no big deal.  You just go and pull them.  In truth, it’s boring.

But I’ll take boring.  Nobody’s dying out there.  I’d rather be bored than lose friends.  Our company alone lost fourteen on the last tour, so it’s a relief to not have to go through that again.  Boring is fine.  And at any rate, if this was like it was last time, I’m not sure I could do it.  I still haven’t dealt with it all, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I do.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved