Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Closing

In August of 2004, while on a mounted patrol outside of Mahmudiyah Iraq, an IED struck two trucks in front of mine, causing concussions and severely injuring the gunner in the turret. While Doc dragged him out and went to work, insurgents in the nearby buildings and treeline started firing on us. When Doc discovered he was still in the line of fire, he dragged his patient to the other side of the truck and continued working. The rest of us fired back, gathered our casualties, and ran a chaotic ground evacuation back to base. It was my first firefight. I think I’ve done a poor job of describing it to people, but I’ll keep trying.

In 2006, while attached to US and Iraqi Special Forces, my squad conducted a targeted hit on a high-value target west of Ramadi. After turning over the package to other US forces for interrogation, we retreated into the desert wadis to sleep. In the morning, we warmed ourselves with coffee while huddled around trash fires. When it started to rain, we were miserable. While on watch that night with a friend, I had one of the most memorable conversations of the deployment. I’m still in close contact with him, too. In fact, he e-mailed me this morning.

In 2007, we and scores others assisted with the casualties of a carbomb that detonated directly outside the base, killing dozens and injuring unknown dozens more. In their haste to evacuate some of the living, the Iraqis unintentionally ran over a few of their dead. Our Doc helped save a few, but better remembers those he couldn’t save, especially one little girl. I think I’ve talked about it more than Doc ever has. It may be years before he’s ready.

About two months ago, a rocket landed about 35 feet from where I stood. Thankfully, for me and the Soldier standing next to me, it failed to detonate. Less than a month ago, the Stryker in which I rode struck an IED, totaling the vehicle. None of the passengers, however, sustained any serious injuries. I have been fortunate. Most of my friends have been through far more. A few of them are dead now. They were all under 30. We rest of us are now tasked with telling their stories.

I’ve navigated through night vision goggles as my driver roared through the desert and prayed I didn’t lead him off a cliff. More than once I nearly did. I’ve slept with a rifle. I’ve awakened in a puddle of water, surprised by unexpected rain during the night. I’ve cooked food over trash fires. I’ve fired most of the common weapons in the Marine Corps infantry arsenal and seen the others fired on various occasions. I’ve expended more than my fair share of $70,000 missiles. I’ve been fired upon.

I’ve helped arrange weapons caches for detonation and rigged them with explosives so powerful that our safety standoff is more than a kilometer away. I’ve heard rockets whine overhead and seen the damage they cause on detonation. I’ve experienced more than enough mortar attacks. I’ve been in firefights and other situations where I’m forced to make a kill/no kill decision which may have determined if my comrades lived or died. A number ARE dead, and I, like many others, still sometimes wonder why I was spared and they were not. I have to remind myself that bullets and shrapnel don’t discriminate.

I’ve missed home so badly that I didn’t care about anything else, potentially at the expense of my leadership decisions. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Even still, I’d do it again if my country so called me. So will millions of others veterans. Some of this never leaves you, regardless of how much you hated it at the time.

By nearly all western standards, these are horrifying events and experiences, and they come with more baggage than any of us could have anticipated. These, as well as the loss of friends, are the brief occurrences that will permanently shape a servicemember. They are the short ten minutes of a deployment that stick out above all else. Everybody’s experiences are different. Believe it or not, mine were comparatively tame.

Many still wonder sometimes if they’ve made a difference at all in the grand scheme of things. Depending on how it’s defined, victory is either very distant or very near. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to agree to its definition. I find some comfort in my uncle’s sagacious remarks: “The warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.” He’s entirely correct. Where we served is far less relevant than the fact that we volunteered to go. That we stood up, in a crowd of Americans unwilling to leave the comfort of their lives; that has made all the difference. It’s difficult to define patriotism. It’s more of a sensation; or perhaps a belief.

For some, because they are young, this is first great thing they have done with their lives. They will return, move forward, and do other great things. For a few, this may also be their last great thing. Either they will fall doing it, or they will return to lives that don’t interest them. Much of it is mundane – even in the military. And after traveling hither and yon with a rifle, calamities at home are unimpressive. Those out here are always well-remembered, though poorly articulated.

And there’s always more to think about, too. There’s the challenge of how to internalize one’s service. Are we victims, or are we battered servants? Were we well-employed, or were we misappropriated? Do we choose bitterness, or do we stand proudly? Do we let grief overwhelm us, or do we find reason to smile through tears? We freely gave something, yet something else was taken. We viewed it simply at first, but walk away astounded with its complexity. Our own thoughts are muddled.

We were youthful once, and enthusiastically fought a war. The public lost interest and some forgot, yet still we fought it. We’re still fighting now. For those veterans deprived a resolute victory, the war may never end. Or at least not for quite some time. It hasn’t settled well with us.

But beneath the layers of emotion, the trauma, the loneliness, the complexity, excitement, confusion and grief, there’s one hell of an adventure, for better or for worse. Five years and four tours later, I still struggle for words; and I’m not the only one. People need ears to hear, though. Not to idolize the military or aggrandize war, but because these stories are our nation’s history, and we won’t be around forever to tell them. It’s a virtual race to write it all down. Still, I have to try.

The friend who e-mailed me this morning wrote me with devastating news. Two days ago, another one of our veteran friends took his own life. After all his years in the military, all his combat deployments and all his adventures, I wonder if he found words to tell his story. I wonder if anybody was listening when he did. Finally, I wonder if it would have made a difference.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two Perspectives

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.


*Retold with permission.

Without a doubt, we all get a lot of attention out here. People stateside go out of their way to take up donations for us, pack boxes, send us things, pray for us, and put yellow ribbons all over the place. While I think that’s good and I certainly appreciate it, they’re not doing so well in another area: supporting the families of those deployed. In fact, I think our families are virtually neglected.

The reality is this: when we deploy, it’s such a dramatic change from what we’d doing stateside, we stay plenty busy – occupied with learning and excelling in our new mission. Sure, it’s lonely, but we’re often too busy to think about it. Families, however, undergo enormous change, endure absent spouses, and still have to function. They often do so with little to no support.

I know the military is making an effort to assemble a support network within the FRG (family readiness group), but there’s only so much that they can legitimately do. The fact still remains that an essential player in a household is missing. The hardest thing out here for me is separation from my wife. She’s my better half, of course. And that’s the hardest thing for her, too – and actually more so than it is for me, since she still has to keep the family running. Out here I have little part in that.

Back in the states, I would get up and go to work, and when I came home, I’d cook dinner. As necessary, I’d also take care of “handyman” chores. Everything else my wife already managed: bills, banking, everything. My absence only means she has to cook one more meal a day and maybe some fix-it stuff. But that’s not entirely accurate. We aren’t merely two people who cohabitate; we are one – and my wife and I are both operating at half capacity as a consequence of our separation.

I think that deployments are harder for the families of reservists, mostly because they’re accustomed to our status as reservists. We’re gone one weekend a month, and then two weeks a year. They’re used to that, not to having us disappear for well over a year. It’s a shock, because you never really know when it’s going to happen, and then you only receive fairly short notice. Surprise, your spouse is leaving. Then we depart with lots of people in the states supporting us, and they’re left to their loneliness, silence, and a home and family that still need to function smoothly.

The number of detriments to all of it begs the question why I volunteered to do this. I have easy explanations. First, it’s for my family. This is a reliable, honorable job, and it provides an income to support them. Second, it’s something I can do for my country, and something I’ve always wanted to do. Third, this is for my children. Not in the conventional sense that I’m trying to pay their college funds, but something else.

Here’s how I look at it. I want my children to know what military service is like. I want them to know that it pulls away mom or dad at random intervals and puts them in harm’s way. I want them to know that while it’s something to be proud of, it comes with a number of costs – potentially high ones not only for me, but for them as well. I want to be a hero for them, and right now that means doing something difficult for all of us.

The reality is that at any time in the states, I could be run over by a bus and killed. There is an inherent risk to life, and it’s unavoidable. And yes, there are added risks out here, too. But, I’d rather go out doing something meaningful than any manner of accident or “tragedy” in the states.

So why do I want my children to know what military service is like? It’s simple. I want them to be equipped with enough information and insight to make wise decisions about whether or not they wish to serve. They will have an intimate knowledge of the separation it causes. If they determine that they accept the downfalls and choose to do it anyway, I will support them. If they wish to never go through it again, I will support that decision, too. At least now they will have the information to know what it does to a family.

People like to talk about how we’re doing such great things for the Iraqi people, but they’re not part of the equation for me. This is not a part of the world about which I particularly care, and nor do I have any expectation that they will thrive under democratic leadership. That’s not my concern. This is for my family, and for my children. The hard part is what it does to my family.

During the Family Readiness Group briefing, we learned a bit about programs available for our loves ones in the states, mostly our children. There are organizations that collect donations and cover the expenses of involving our kids in some sort of extracurricular activity. They’re not so much trying to train athletes as keep the children of deployed US troops busy – and therefore less fixated on familial struggles or the absence of a parent. Thanks to one of these programs, my son will begin learning to box fairly soon.

Despite the programs available, there’s entirely too little available for the families of deployed servicemembers. We get all the care packages, the prayers, and media attention. They get virtually nothing. It’s assumed that because they’re not in harm’s way, they must not be going through much – which is untrue. They’re trying to sustain a broken, long-distance marriage. I’d say that merits some attention.

How can they be helped? More support, more awareness of the sacrifices they make while we’re overseas, more programs for our children, and assistance with whatever minutiae their spouses handled when he or she was home. That’s just the beginning. How about prayers? How about a nation devoted to encouraging and caring for them in our absence. We’ll be okay out here. We’re busy. They need the help back in the states. Unfortunately, though, the nation can help with everything but the one thing they want: to simply have us home. Only time can resolve that one.



*Reprinted with permission (from email interviews).

First, thank you for speaking with my husband, and for what you said about our marriage. He and I are indeed very close. We are one, as you will see. Also, thank you for taking the time out to speak with me. I will try to answer your questions as best I can.

For the most part, people who I don't know very well, yet still know my husband is deployed, have been supportive. They ask how we are doing and how my husband is doing and then reassure me that we are all in their prayers. The conversation usually turns to something else fairly quickly.

The one thing that angers me, though, is when they follow all that up with, “our troops shouldn't even be over there, getting involved in all that mess; they don't even want us there." But people have lost sight of why these brave Soldiers are there and what they are doing for us. They mistakenly think they have all the facts, when in reality they have but few. They’re impatient, and I don’t think any of them understand that our entire way of life as Americans is in jeopardy.

When my husband went back in to the Army Reserves after being out for thirteen years, and after serving in the Persian Gulf War [Desert Storm], I remember somebody asking him, “why would you do that? You have a family.” His response was that he would rather be over there [in Iraq], than have them [the terrorists] over here.

He is doing this not only for his country, but for his family to be able to sleep soundly at night, to play outside during the day, and never fear that we may face another 9-11. All the protestors speaking out against the war have forgotten where their right to speak freely and openly came from. Somebody fought to preserve that. The whole world over, people are dying for speaking their minds, but here they do not. They take it for granted, but it came at a high cost – especially to the military and their families.

Yes, the families of the troops might not be fighting a war. But in order for our Soldiers to concentrate on THEIR jobs and on coming home safely, they need to have total confidence that things at home are being taken care of without any worry to them. That’s our war back here – keep everything running flawlessly, so the Soldiers can concentrate on what’s important to them out there. I tease my husband by telling him he's on vacation. He laughs, since he knows I don’t seriously believe that. My better half, my lover, my best friend, and father to my children isn't here. That's my reality.

We have three children, two of whom are teenagers, and Daddy’s girl is seven. Every responsibility we shared as partners: bills, raising a family, the house work, cooking, cleaning, homework, sports, taxi service (for the kids), taking them to school, picking them up from school, and much more – that’s now solely my responsibility.

I don't allow people to see me at my emotional worst. I cry, scream, curse and hate life for a few minutes, but then I pull myself back together. I have to for the sake of my kids. I don't complain to people how hard it is on me. I tell them I'm doing fine. That's because someone once said to me, "Well he joined, it's not like he didn't know he was going, right?" I don’t think anybody has any interest in listening.

I honestly feel people just don't give a damn about what the families go through back here. Or perhaps they do, but they’re too busy with their own lives to consider somebody else’s. I know everybody has a hectic life; not just us. I’m sure someone completely unaffiliated with the military can easily tell me what kind of horrible day they’re having. Not only military families are busy. Everybody is.

This is absolutely the hardest thing my kids and I have ever endured. My husband is the love of my life. We are ONE, and yet I have to live without him for a year. I worry about him every day and I pray every night for his safety. As hard as this is for us, he is our HERO. My kids and I are so proud of him and what he and all the other brave Soldiers are doing for us. I proudly display my "Army Wife" sticker on my car because I truly believe I am immeasurably blessed to have such a brave man as my husband.

I guess, in the eye of the public, you could call us military families "The Forgotten Ones". Though overlooked, we are the backbone to the Soldiers fighting for our country. Without us, they would fall.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved