Saturday, May 29, 2010

Companion to Honor

*Originally published on Words For Warriors.

Doc was singing when I first met him, if I remember correctly. He was always singing. I'd just arrived in my new unit's office and was removing the porn I'd found on the government computer. I'd been in the Marines for about 3.5 years, and Doc had been in the Navy for about the same. He came crashing in singing some unknown R&B piece, tossed down his backpack, and looked around at the new faces.

“Who the hell are you guys?”

We were the new instructors sent to the unit, we explained, and introduced ourselves. He shook our hands briefly and cordially, welcomed us, and returned to rummaging in his pack. A moment later, he had wandered off. I learned later that he was always like this; he never sat still.

Part of it was a continual desire to improve himself. When he wasn't buried in a medical text for his job, he was studying for college classes, which he took online and at a local college. In fact, he'd nearly finished his Bachelor's degree before he came off of active duty. While some might describe him as a flake, it's more accurate to say that he was involved in a myriad of occupational, academic, and social activities and he had to organize his time carefully. His cellphone voicemail greeting even indicated this:

“This is Doc. Leave a clear, concise, grammatically correct message at the tone.” If you didn't, he wouldn't call you back. He might not have called you back anyway. He was busy.

Despite being constantly stretched thin, Doc never allowed it to diminish his attitude. Without exception, he was cheerful, 100% present, and ready at a moment's notice to throw in a humorous remark that would send us all into gales of laughter. At times, he seemed too funny to know his job, but it was a misassumption.

When he taught his medical classes, it was evident that he not only knew his profession, but knew more than most anybody of his rank or position, and excelled at explaining it to others. After seeing him instruct, we never doubted his medical knowledge again. But even his teaching was hilarious to watch. Flamboyant, to say the least.

While extremely intelligent and articulate, Doc tended to stutter; both in private conversation and in front of an audience. You could tell that he knew exactly what he was trying to say, but that his mouth had a hard time articulating the words. He'd stumble over a phrase, stutter a couple times, get visibly irritated, then spit it out with force. He grew even more annoyed when we all buried our faces in our hands and tried not to laugh (unsuccessfully). He never let it slow him down, and he would invariably get us back somehow. My “punishment” one day was driving several miles around Camp Lejeune, North Carolina with a rainbow-colored “Gay Pride” vanity license plate taped to my back bumper. When I found it, I pulled it off in horror.

In 2007, Doc was on a small team of dozen Marines and Sailors sent to Iraq to train Iraqi soldiers, police, and army recruits. It was his second tour doing this, so many of us looked up to him for guidance, advice on working with a radically-different culture, and the subtle nuances of instruction. He stuttered in those classrooms, too. Regardless, the Iraqi students always listened with rapt attention. They even liked it when he sang, which seemed to be a baseline activity whenever he wasn't speaking.

On the firing ranges, surrounded by hundreds of recruits who spoke not a word of English, Doc commanded their attention, their respect, and their friendship, working with them individually to perfect their marksmanship, congratulating them when they shot superbly, and providing encouragement when they needed to improve. He had a knack for getting along with people. Whereas most of us focus on differences and disagreements, Doc searched for reasons to like them. Aside from the stuttering, he'd have made a fine spokesman for any organization.

With our team being as small as it was in Iraq, it was easy for work responsibilities and even chores to totally overwhelm us. Doc, however, always pitched in where he could. While technically just our senior medical guy, he routinely instructed in infantry tactics (which he knew thoroughly), foreign weapons, marksmanship, and a host of other classes that were presumably far outside his area of expertise. If some of us had projects that kept us working late, he never turned down our requests for assistance. For a time, he even awoke early to go running with me – in the cold, in the dark, with the shrieks of hyenas occasionally disrupting the quiet. He'd still go work out later, too. Frankly, the only time he stopped moving was to eat, which for us was always an event.

Marines usually grab some sort of slop, pretend it's food, swallow it, and go back to work (or sleep). Our team, however, “broke bread.” It was the only period of the day when we were all in one location and not consumed with responsibilities. Doc was always the life of the party. Knowing that I disliked people who chewed with their mouths open, he'd sit right across from me and do just that. Then somebody would slap him in the head with a hotdog and he'd start yelling. Then our laughter would drown out the yelling. More than once we were nearly kicked out of chow halls. Only our commanding officer's senior rank prevented it happening.

Our commander said this about Doc's personality: “He was always ready to speak confidently on matters which, in his own mind, he had resolved in full.”

Far more than a coworker, Doc was a son to those older than him, and a brother to his peers. Each of us, on multiple occasions, confided in him, sought his advice, or even vented. Despite being on the move constantly, he would stop, give you his undivided attention, and help you. If people were his calling, loving them was his gift. He was the glue that bound us all together.

During that tour in 2007, insurgents detonated a carbomb directly outside of our base, with disastrous results.  The wounded and dead were immediately evacuated onto base where Doc was among the first responders to begin medical treatment. Surrounded by dozens of wounded, screaming Iraqis, including children, women and the elderly, he moved swiftly to help those he could, assigned others to assist him, and created order in an absolutely devastating situation. More than 40 were killed that day and perhaps 60 others injured. I am firmly convinced that many of the injured survived entirely because of Doc's skilled, methodical care. Barking orders, speaking through interpreters, and moving patients, he never stuttered. There was work to be done.

Doc finished his service to his brothers and his country in 2008, but maintained contact with nearly all of us. We weren't professional responsibilities in his mind, but friends – our relationships cemented in a single oath, tragedy, and key involvement in an historic war.

Whenever I was in his area, he'd offer me a free place to sleep, feed me, and introduce me to his neighbors and friends. Whatever he had, he offered freely. I know many others kept in contact with him, too. Occasionally he'd drive long hours to visit some of us. Yet even then, he was constantly busy.

Soon after leaving the Navy, Doc finished his degree and began not only working full time, but also studying for a graduate degree. When that was done, he began studying to become a Physician's Assistant (PA). He not only enjoyed medicine, but he had a genuine desire to help people. His whole attitude was one of giving.

I visited Doc a few months back, staying at his place for free, as usual. Another friend, between jobs and apartments, was also visiting long-term. Doc, always benevolent, had seen the need and simply taken him in. Since he was getting ready to start in PA school, Doc had moved to a smaller apartment, taken steps to save his money, and prepare for the financial strain of his additional schooling. But he'd figured it all out. He remained enthusiastic about his studies, confident he could manage the money, and looked forward to starting in the fall.

Three weeks ago, under circumstances that none of us will ever fully grasp, Doc took his own life. A man who had invested his life in giving to others, who would drop anything to come to the aid of hundreds of friends and brothers, refused to let us help him – something we would have done without hesitation. His death leaves a void in all of our lives.

His memorial service – one of at at least three – was this past weekend. Marines, Soldiers and Sailors, some active, some former and some retired, men accustomed to burying friends, wept as we honored yet another who fell too young. He was supposed to grow old and do great things. We often forget that while national service brings the highest of honor, its close companion is immeasurable grief.

The roughly 5,500 combat dead of Iraq and Afghanistan frequently and rightfully command national attention, extensive news coverage and hometown memorials, but we ignore the more than 20,000 who have fallen to inner wars with demons the likes of which the living cannot comprehend.

I have a mental image of the ranks with whom I've served since 2003. There are now more holes than I can count. Some 46 dead and more than 200 wounded one tour alone, six dead and a dozen wounded another, a dozen more since I left the Marines, and still another dozen dead from self-inflicted wounds in the past three years alone. They have been replaced with little marble crosses in cemeteries around the country, or urns, or inconspicuous granite markers and weathered miniature flags. Their memorials are wholly insufficient.

Nearly 600,000 men and women have given their lives for this country, and an untold number more have taken their own lives soon after serving (at a rate of 17-20 a day). To lower a flag to half mast on Memorial Day morning (til noon) seems almost a mockery of all that they have offered and all that has been taken from them. But I don't know what else to do, besides grieve for an untold number of companions. Will you have a barbeque this weekend and celebrate the beginning of summer, or will you remember the journey of sacrifice, honor and grief that brought us where we are?

Godspeed, Doc, and may we see you in the morning.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 28, 2010

"I Remember"

Originally published on Words for Warriors

I’m not really sure that I like hearing people thank me for my military service.  It always sounds strange, if nothing else.  What do you say when a stranger walks up to you and says, “thank you for fighting for my freedom?”  Do you say you’re welcome?  It seems silly.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks in the least.  People want to acknowledge veterans, which I certainly appreciate, but there has to be a better way to do it.  Saying, “thank you for my freedom” is clunky, however genuine, and my response, a hesitant, “you’re welcome” seems equally out-of-place.  Thankful for what?  That you have no idea?

There are things that should be better known about veterans.  Frankly, I don’t think I’ve heard anybody talk about them before, which could be part of the problem.  First, while we all enjoy hearing somebody acknowledge our service, part of us is thinking, “you have no idea what you’re thanking me for.”  Another part of us is somewhat embarrassed, since not one of us, when under fire, running for cover, or rushing to the aid of a fallen comrade is thinking about our country, patriotism, or freedom.  We’re thinking about the guys next to us or the guy on the ground and praying to God that they all live to come home.  We’re also praying for our own safety.

Yet another part of us feels that we don’t deserve the thanks, even though we enjoy it.  The ones who deserve it never lived long enough to hear it.  You may say, “thank you,” but we’re thinking “no, thank THEM – even though they can’t hear you now.”  You thank us, but in our heart of hearts, not one of us – the living – believe we’ve done nearly enough.

We deployed as cohesive units, dysfunctional little families sent out into strange places where we endured a myriad of attacks and lost some of our friends and comrades.  Though we all know that war invariably sends home fewer than arrived, we view the holes in the ranks with a degree of personal failure.  None of us did enough.

Then we get angry at people for being ignorant and trying to approach us with gratitude we don’t feel we deserve.  Some of us accuse you of being condescending, though I don’t think any of you are.  You just don’t know what else to say, and we don’t have a clue what to say in return.  Point at some graves and say “thank them?”  It seems disrespectful – not only to you, but also to the many we’ve seen broken and fallen.

There are demons in all of us saying, “If you have all you limbs, you didn’t do enough.  If you had bullets left, you didn’t shoot enough.  If you got out before the war was ended and won, you didn’t serve enough.  If you lived, you didn’t sacrifice enough, so you don’t deserve any thanks.”  Some people call it survivor’s guilt.  I just call it reality.  The veteran experience is one of intense pride but marred with equally intense grief.  We made it, but others did not, so we must not have given it our fullest.  “Thank you” is hard to hear, and harder still to answer.

How about saying this: “I remember.”  That solemn statement is enough.  We don’t expect you to fully understand what a war is like, which is fine.  We served so you don’t have to know – ever.  But we do want you to remember.  Remember that there are only two days in the year when veterans, both living and dead receive any unified recognition for their service and sacrifices.  Remember that if you put up a flag, you really shouldn’t take it down when the “holiday” is over.  Remember that there are thousands of families that feel the pang of a missing loved one every day; not just Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day. 

Remember that there are men and women who did things and will never be the same.  Remember that there are generations of broken bodies and hearts who will forever be convinced that they should have done more.  Remember that the living veterans will never forget the faces of the dead – and wonder why some survived and others did not.  Remember that this country and the freedoms we all enjoy aren’t innate; they were purchased at high cost.  We didn’t purchase them, not really, but we fought alongside those who did.  And we remember them more than anybody.  They’ll haunt us until we join them…

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, May 17, 2010

The First Week Home

If you are just coming out of a combat zone (specifically from combat arms), you are about to encounter a wave of emotions, thoughts and dreams for which we are all unprepared.  Some of them will make perfect sense considering the environment you just left, but most will bother you. A few may even scare you.  While virtually none of the generalizations listed below help overcome these sensations, perhaps knowing about them in advance will help eliminate confusion or the feeling that you’ve lost control.  At the very least, take some comfort knowing that you’re not the only one who has encountered this.  Millions before you have, and future generations will as well. The first few days are definitely the most chaotic.

When you reach the states and finally reacquaint with your loved ones, your overwhelming emotion will be one of relief.  You’ll be thrilled that you survived the combat experience, and equally thrilled that you’ve been reunited with your family.  They’ll be excited to update you on events back home and you’ll be eager to listen.  No doubt, there will be things you want to tell them, too.  More than anything, you’re just glad to be home.  Unfortunately, this elation won’t last.  When the initial enthusiasm has begun to wane (within a few hours), other thoughts are going to invade.

The first thought will be fleeting.  At some point – most likely less than 24 hours after you return home – you’ll briefly consider just grabbing your bags (which are probably still packed), and heading back again.  Your new surroundings are too unfamiliar.  And besides, you probably have friends still in the line of fire, and you’ll want to help them; or at least maintain some sort of solidarity by at least being in the same theater of operations.  You’ll feel like you’re no longer contributing to the effort, and you’ll feel guilty.  No veteran comes home believing that he or she did enough.  You’ll think that maybe you can do more if you go back.

Despite all the better food, the safety, the family, and routine, you will still feel like a stranger or visitor in your own country.  Just how normal everything appears will bother you, even frustrate you, since on the other side of the world, US citizens are still fighting for their lives.  Your heart, your mind, and even your dreams are probably still back there, too.  You’ll probably watch the news very closely – just to keep up with how your area of operations has changed since you left it.  Even though it’s a relief to be out of harm’s way, you’ll be convinced that you’re missing out in the next firefight.  You’ll feel adrift.

You may also feel trapped.  After months or years of fast-paced living and lots of dangerous situations, the calm and predictability of home is frightening.  Our natural impulse when we feel trapped is to run – in this case back to something with which you’re now quite familiar: a combat zone.  With embarrassment, you’ll discover that you miss the violence, you feel naked and vulnerable without a gun, and you’ll be afraid that home may never again actually feel like home. You’ll be convinced that part of you, perhaps forever, is trapped in a combat zone, ducking fire, firing back, and waiting for the next attack.  You will be restless.

In between bouts of feeling trapped, you will be overcome with boredom.  The momentary excitement of seeing your loved ones fades quickly, and before you know it you’re desperately looking for something to occupy your time – and all of your senses.  Combat, after all, demands all of you.  “Coming down” from combat is like coming down from a hard drug.  You’ll be irritable, uneasy, and you’ll start substituting various things to make up for the void that leaving combat created.  Just how this looks is very unique to the individual.

Some of you will have an impulse to drink entirely too much.  The easy excuse is that you need to make up for lost drinking time.  If you really think about it, though, you won’t be able to rationally explain it.  You just need to drink.  A lot.  And you won’t know when to stop.  Chances are you’ll pass out first.  Others among you will drink to deliberately calm your nerves – which will definitely be on edge.  A few of you will experience a general feeling of numbness, about your surroundings, relationships, and maybe life in general.

A number of you will want to feel pain for some reason – something that engages their senses. You might want to run out and get tattoos or piercings. You might go out looking for a fight.  More likely than not, you’ll find one.  For a few of you, there is an inexplicable urge to engage in a number of risky behaviors: get drunk, get in fights, and get laid.  Sex will strike you as a very appealing drug.  You may be startled with how powerful the desires are to do this, and choose to carefully limit how often you go out, who you go with, and what you do.  Many of you will restrict yourselves to simply drinking – entirely too much.

Many of you may give in to the impulses for reckless behavior.  After a night or two of this, you’ll probably have it all out of your system, so to speak.  You’ll be embarrassed with what you did or how you acted, and you’ll have little interest in repeating those mistakes.  Be aware that they will probably resurface after a time and you’ll have to decide to give in or resist.  Some of you may carefully control yourselves and stay out of trouble.  The urges to be self-destructive will still be there for quite some time, and you’ll have to battle them daily.  You might find yourself wondering if you should just give in to it, go all out for a little while and get it over with.  Regardless of if you give in or not, you’ll be bothered that you have such a strong desire to be so irresponsible.  Your self-esteem, which is already shaky, may take a severe blow.  You’ll be angry with yourself.

You’ll have a hard time controlling your temper, and it will frighten you.  Loud noises will startle you and you’ll get irrationally angry.  You won’t put it to words, but you’ll be embarrassed that people saw you in a moment of weakness.  They saw you afraid.  You’ll get angry that they observed a crack in your composure.  You’ll also be angry with how much of their lives and daily routines seem devoted to unimportant, useless activities.  Some of you will drink to appear more patient.  You may also feel other impulses, like a need to spend money, or eat entirely too much.  Even work out too hard just to “feel the burn.”  Each of us “substitutes” differently, but it always comes from the same place: an overpowering impulse to do something rash.  Consider these withdrawal symptoms.

People will ask you questions about “what’s it like” that you can’t easily answer.  You might try, but become immediately angry when you think about the number of harrowing situations you experienced and how people repeatedly failed to perform at their best (including yourself).  You may be angry at the injustices of war itself.  Or, you may simply get angry at the people (you will consider them very ignorant) who ask stupid questions.  Do not be surprised if you find yourself avoiding situations where you might be asked questions you have difficulty answering.

Because of your recent experiences, there will probably be times where you DO want to talk to people.  You will try to put your emotions to words, but they will come out as one of two things: anger or grief.  In some cases you may be able to fully articulate what you mean, but people receive it poorly – either with horror, or just awkward silence.  They will be largely unable to relate.  After a few attempts, you’ll give up in frustration.  You’ll be furious that you can’t explain yourself to your own satisfaction, exasperated that you have things to say that people aren’t going to understand, and that after repeated tries, it’s all still stuck on the tip of your tongue.  You’ll start feeling sorry for yourself – misunderstood, a victim, a survivor, etc.  You will begin to think about all the grief you’ve experienced over the past deployment but never dealt with properly.  You may retreat at some point to simply cry.

There will be a nagging sensation with a number of you that you haven’t done enough; that you’ve abandoned the war or your brothers and sisters still fighting it.  You’ll think about the friends you have who came home maimed – or the friends who never came home at all.  If you’ve escaped injury yourself, you’ll be simultaneously thankful and guilty about it.  It is commonly called survivor’s guilt.

You may find many of your dreams startlingly violent.  In some, you will be killing people.  In others, you may die.  You may also have dreams where you are in a horrible situation and it’s entirely your fault.  Some of the dreams will be familiar – the people, the situations, but they will probably play out differently than they did in reality.  Your mind may create a more appealing outcome, or imagine an even a more terrible one.  You will sleep lightly and likely be easily awakened. You will frequently be tired and cranky.

Part of you will be so afraid of “normal” life that it’ll seem too daunting to face head-on.  To your total surprise, you will briefly think about suicide – or at least about death.  The thought will startle you so much that you go to great lengths and efforts to deliberately never think of it again.  Most of you will be successful, but for a few it will creep back again and terrify you.  Tragically, a few of you may act on it.

In general, you will be inundated with emotions you’ve probably never before encountered.  You will be unsure what to do with them.  Give in?  Resist them?  Give up talking?  Try to talk? Pretend there’s nothing wrong?  The answers to these questions are entirely up to the individual. Nor is there anything that can make it all simply go away.  You’ve just been through hell.  You KNEW it was hell, but you grew accustomed to it, and you’re going to miss certain aspects of it for awhile.  The familiarity of home is now totally unfamiliar, your loved ones are strangers, and you have just experienced a series of situations that the human mind always has difficulty processing.  Everybody processes differently, at any rate.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any solutions, but at least take some comfort in knowing that every combatant goes through this upon return to “normal” life.  What I do know, however, is this: time has a curious way of mending things.  Almost imperceptibly, a great deal of the impulses, irrational ideas, and self-destructive tendencies fade.  One day you’ll discover that you just don’t think about it anymore.  You may ALWAYS think about some things, but it becomes controllable and even predictable.  What you do with it is entirely up to you.  Know this, though: you are not alone, and there are millions of veterans in the United States who would gladly go through this with you.  Somebody did for me, and that has made all the difference.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Some Guys in Need

Due to their isolation Soldiers on COP Charkh are always in great need of supplies – from food to hand tools to cigarettes and dip. I know that many of you balk at the idea of condoning or supporting somebody's “bad habit,” but I will remind you that Afghanistan is more hazardous to their health than any tobacco product. If smoking or dipping helps them stay awake for extremely long missions and countless hours on perimeter security, I think it'd be wrong of us to not support them. For my part, I'll send them whatever they need – and whatever I can afford.

I am absolutely certain that the troops would be appreciative of anything you wish to send. Given this, I am posting not only a needs list and an address where you may mail any supplies, but also some e-mail addresses where you can confirm that the address is still valid (since returned packages have been a problem in the past). As it stands, this unit will be on COP Charkh for quite some time longer (e-mail me for the specifics) – so our support would be invaluable to them. I recommend that you post what you intend to ship in the “comments” section of this blog post so as to avoid too much overlap in what is sent. For example, while they could use a couple decent hand saws, they don't need fifty of them.

1. "Top" brand Ramen Noodles (lots)
2. "Cup O' Noodles" (lots)
3. Chef Boyardee canned meals (lots)
4. Doritos (some)
5. Hershey's with almonds (a few)
6. Cigarettes: Newports, Marlboro Menthols, Marlboro Lights, Camel Crush
7. Dip: Copenhagen Long Cut/Snuff, Skoal Wintergreen
8. Coffee creamer (a fair amount)
9. Baby Wipes (ALWAYS a necessity)
10.Dozens of P-Mags - specialty M-16/M-4 magazines that have superior performance to issued products (I realize these are expensive)
Click here for an example (OD green is the preferred color)
(Please note that these cannot be shipped overseas directly from the supplier. Must be shipped by you.)
11. TWO hand saws, click here for an example.
12. A FEW boxes of cement-coated framing and sheathing nails.
13. TWO standard claw hammers.
14. A FEW Stanley brand utility knives
15. SOME Kool Aid

Send packages to:

SSG Jason Patrick
B Troop 1-91 CAV (Recon) 173rd Airborne
FOB Altimur
APO AE 09364

(This is the correct address; not an error)

Packages may also be addressed to: SSG John Vlasis, same address.

E-mail point of contact (to confirm address, or inquire about additional supplies):

SPC Rusty Smith:

If you have any questions, just write them in the "comments" section of this blog and I'll answer to the best of my abilities.  You may also e-mail me at

Thank you all for supporting these guys!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Must-Read Article

The below is an unclassified report produced by Human Terrain Team AF-6 while assigned to Afghanistan. While shocking, it provides critical insight into the workings of Pashtun Islamic culture in certain areas of Afghanistan. Given its significance, it should be assigned reading for all troops deploying to Afghanistan.

This document can be found through a Google search with the following phrase: "HTT AF-6, Pashtun Sexuality"

It can also be found publicly available by clicking here (published in .doc format)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Photos (20100330)

There are now 85 photos taken in Charkh district posted online at:

Several are unprofessionally grainy, but this is due to the fact that most photographing of local nationals was done "offhand," or on the sly.  The result: sub-par photos.  My apologies.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Earthen Walls

While on patrol with the Soldiers the other day, I had the rare opportunity to observe just how mud walls are constructed here in Charkh district. I would imagine there are many ways to build them, but here is the one I've seen. More than being simply utilitarian; they're works of art. And obviously, some builders are more artistic than others.

For a culture which claims to be quite community-oriented, perhaps even communal, the profusion of walls throughout Afghanistan is astounding. In many regards, it is the most compartmentalized place I have ever seen – even in the more rural areas. Walls are constructed for a host of reasons, no doubt, but appear fundamentally intended to keep others out.

I wondered for a time if they were erected to keep animals away from fruit and vegetable crops, but that theory fell collapsed when I quickly observed that most walls are nowhere near secure enough to keep out anything smaller than a human being. Small animals could easily breech these walls, and I haven't seen enough sheep, goats, or donkeys to presume that they pose a significant threat. The walls, I suppose, are to isolate one's home and property from everybody else.

While on helicopter flights, I've looked out the windows to see long, high walls skirting the perimeter of a local's property. Oddly, directly on the other side of his wall is another wall – skirting the perimeter of his neighbor's property. The narrow spaces between the two contain foot paths, occasionally a small canal (more a rut, really), or nothing at all. It seems like a waste of effort. 

One could probably argue that Afghans are fiercely private people and wish to conceal their day-to-day lives from scrutinous (and frequently abundant) onlookers. Perhaps. I would also cautiously propose that this is a shame-based culture, and privacy reduces witness to one's behavior incongruous with Koranic law. Some of these walls (and the houses often incorporated into them), more closely resemble near-windowless fortresses. In a way I don't fully understand, privacy to the point of isolation is important to the Afghans.

Walls here range from precarious and weak to absolutely massive, depending on their location, the dedication of those building them, their intended purpose, and a number of other factors. The only reason mud is a viable building product, incidentally, is that rainfall is remarkably low here; most water comes from snow melt or qanats (I'll save that one for another day). Additionally, the composition of the dirt itself, when mixed with a few key additives, makes for a cheap, stable, and undeniably abundant material.

Walls of any size or height aren't simply placed on the ground. A number of I've seen have a loosely-fitted stone base (usually the nicer ones). Stones are, after all, another readily-available building material in this region of the world. Depending on the size of the wall and probably the laziness of the builder, the stone foundations will be anywhere from eight inches to 36 inches high. This structure effectively preserves the lowest portions of the wall from seasonal runoff and erosion, freeze/thaw cycles and maybe even the abuse of traffic and animals. Atop this stone base, damp soil is shoveled into place.

When I observed the practice along the roadside, one man shoveled uniformly-sized, roughly rectangular clods to a second, who grabbed them and adeptly tossed them into the slowly-forming run of wall. A third man, using his hands and what I suppose was a trowel, tightened the packed clods and shaped them into a course of wall approximately 16 inches high and perhaps 14 inches deep (the depth diminishes as the wall tapers upwards with height). Though I cannot prove it, I would hypothesize that the consistency of the dirt (how wet it is, mostly) determines just how high each course will be built. If the soil is too soft, it sags. If it's too dry, it never packs properly and remains weak. Just how high to make the course, as well as soil moisture content, probably requires some skill and practice. So, course after course of wall is shoveled into place (after letting the previous one dry sufficiently), and the final result will be a wall of impressive strength and size. As the mud/soil sun bakes the entire project into virtual bricks, cracks will slowly develop (at fairly even intervals, oddly enough), giving the impression that the wall was actually composed of earthen blocks (see below photographs). These are the nicer, more elaborate examples: *Click on photos for a larger image, if desired.

In other areas (and seemingly at random), walls will be of lesser quality. Instead of clearly-defined courses, Afghans appear to have simply heaped dirt/mud into a winding, rough wall that skirts the edges of their yards, crops or properties.

It is difficult to tell which walls are simply poorly-built and which are ancient. I can't determine if some of them are 500 years old and showing their age, or five years old and shabbily constructed. Assessing their age and original condition is made all the more difficult by the practice of stuccoing. A number, particularly the nicer structures and frequently homes, are covered in a troweled smooth layer of softer mud – oftentimes mixed with straw (as a primitive strengthener). It, too, cracks and deteriorates with time, slowly revealing the workmanship beneath. See the photo below:

Since any rain at all jeopardizes the top edge of a wall, various things are done to protect them. For many, it simply means heaping soft mud atop the structure and expecting to replace or repair it on a fairly regular basis. For others, they run a course of flagstones or of loose stones mortared with mud. On some of the largest walls, builders will level off the top, install a layer of boards, and then sculpt a final course of mud atop them. Without a doubt, these top courses need considerable attention, at least relative to the remainder of the wall. See the photos below:

If you look closely at that last photo, you will see that in addition to simply throwing on an semi-expendable layer of mud, the builder also added sticks as reinforcement (hard to see, sorry). At first glance, I thought they were all raspberry shoots, but I have since seen a number of other plants represented there – to include cuttings from the cottonwood-like trees seen in the above photograph. None of them, at least as far as I can tell, have taken root. They're just there. If I ever get any video footage uploaded successfully (and I promise I'm trying), you will see examples of this practice more closely.

And so, with the great availability of soil and only a modest need for water, the only significant investment into a mud structure is labor. I imagine they're very time consuming. All the same, it's a very versatile material, and I've seen it augmented with bricks, mud bricks (probably not kiln fired), and concrete. All a builder need do is build a wall, add in some logs above doorways and windows (or breaks in the wall around the property), and an entryway is created. For a roof, the same can be done, and houses are probably reinforced with internal supports, too. In the end, a structure of consider height and durability can be built quite inexpensively. The first photo below shows a two-story structure with mud bricks in the background note the smoke from the small window or chimney port), and the second illustrates some of the colossal compounds that may be seen in more open terrain (near the flood plain).

 Looking around the homes and walls in Charkh district, I get the impression that some homes and walls are genuinely ancient, and residents have been simply adding to them for years. The final product is a strange and confusing labyrinth of not only walls, but also the interiors of homes. Three steps lead into a small foyer, where you can turn one way, walk up more stairs, and enter a two-story tower. Or you can walk straight and enter a courtyard. You can walk to the right and enter living quarters (which are also elaborately compartmentalized). It is a unique building style which I have seen nowhere else.

There are a few mud homes in Iraq (usually along the river and very rural, impoverished regions). The favored building material is concrete, bricks and cinder block. It could be due to an excess of sand in the soil (which would limit the soil's use as a building product), or it could be the ease of constructing a plumb and true concrete or block wall relative to the great efforts of a mud one. But out here, with poverty, abysmal road conditions, seasonal problems with mud and snow, the one consistently available and inexpensive building material is soil itself.

If the occasional car and far more frequent motorcycle were removed from the picture, photos from here could very well be from ancient times. Building practices appear relatively unchanged, save for the improvements of metal doors, glass windows, and electricity. A walk through nearly any area of Charkh, along the Pengram river in the valley, or moving out towards the hills in any direction, consistently strikes me as a walk through time.

 Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 26, 2010

Photos from Afghanistan (1)

 US Soldier observes a Charkh District marketplace from elevated overwatch position.

US Soldier spots for snipers overwatching nearby marketplace.

A mid-sized Charkh District town from nearby hilltop.

US Soldier spots for snipers overwatching nearby marketplace (Charkh District).

 Walled fruit orchard with small graveyard in foreground (Charkh District).

Blossoming fruit trees in Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol the edge of a Charkh District town.

Fruit crops and mud walls, Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol public road in Charkh District.

Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol through Charkh District.

Grape arbor (without trellises) in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan farmer manually tills field in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

 Farm in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan farmer tills soil while others look on.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan rests while working in field.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Secondary home entrance.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afhgan villager.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Afghanistan (12 Mar, 2010)

Though it may be viewed by some as premature (for it frankly is), I have collected a few assessments of the Afghani countryside, terrain, the people, and the international effort to aid them in restoring and maintaining order within their borders.

It should be noted that the culture is altogether fractious – due to ethnic tension, geographic isolation, pockets of extremism, international influence (namely in the regions periphery to Pakistan), and widely-varying economic conditions.  As a general rule, however, survivalism appears to trump almost anything else.  I will return to this momentarily.

To the surprise of many, I touched down in a civilian airport in this country – Kabul International Airport (however small), was quickly processed by customs, grabbed my bags, and wandered outside alone.  No military personnel were waiting for me (nor was I expecting them to be there).  Upon reaching the parking lot, a local national approached, inquired in English if I needed a cab (to which I responded in the affirmative), and he grabbed his driver, stuffed my gear into the trunk, and we drove off into the chaos of Kabul.  The total cost for this transport: 100 US dollars.

Traffic was much as I expected; road-beaten old cars, jumping along pothole-ridden streets, opposing traffic careening towards us, open vendor stalls on either side of the roads, and a high number of pedestrians.  I attempted to get some footage of it, which can be found online here: 

As I witnessed firsthand in Iraq, there were frequent police and military checkpoints.  Also as I noticed in Iraq, they're virtually ineffective.  Personnel simply wave vehicles through, perhaps wave a greeting at a familiar face, and that's about it.  That, friends, is how Iraqi security forces failed to effectively reduce ordnance trafficking into Baghdad (ordnance which later became devastating carbombs in crowded public areas).

For lack of a better way to put it, some degree of poverty is commonplace here.  One could argue it's a lower standard of living, but such things are usually the consequence of necessity, not conscious decision.  Nothing is new, nothing is clean, and very little appears particularly improved.  I did see some new structures under construction, but they seemed to be the exception.

In terms of terrain, northern Kabul sprawls.  It extends away from the road, and up the surrounding hills (mostly to the west).  Most of it appears to have been developed DESPITE the inhospitable terrain.  Buildings are perched on rocks, or rocks are carved back a bit and a home is butted against them.  Most homes, however, are just square concrete structures built on dusty soil and rock, and the land is utterly devoid of vegetation.  I honestly don't recall seeing but a few trees or shrubs (whereas portions of Afghanistan to the south of here are quite superb for growing certain crops).

Aside from a strong propensity for peace, the other fundamentally missing element here in the north is water.  Rainfall is already minimal, a drought has worsened it, and Afghans complain that the bulk of their water is “lost into Pakistan,” which I presume means the river flows out of the country and Afghanistan, for more reasons than I can list here, lacks the sustainable infrastructure and finance to create a canal system.  Everything is dry, and this is considered the tail end of the rainy season.  Come later in the year, the dust will be choking.  The Afghans told me that.

The picture is decidedly bleak, insofar as poverty creates an imprisoning culture of hand-to-mouth survival.  People don't seem to thrive here.  Frankly, they don't seem to live, either.  No; they survive.  They get by.  It's probably best summed up by a recurring sight I encountered on the road north out of the city.  Firewood, of all things.

Anyone in the US who has spent time outside of a major city knows what firewood looks like.  Even if they live in a city, they've probably seen it.  Around Christmas, many grocery stores SELL it.  Vendors sell it here, too, but I initially didn't even recognize it as firewood.  It's all wrong.

Firewood logs – typically – are roughly 20 inch lengths of a tree, usually fairly straight, and chopped into manageable sizes.  Yet here, that isn't the case.  Here it's gnarled, twisted, and looks more like short pieces of root than tree.  At first glace, that's what I thought it was.  But after a saw it a few more times, I concluded it was from grape vines.

If I can drive nearly an hour and not observe hardly a single scrap of vegetation, I can presume that most vegetation is going to be cultivated.  Unlike the US, grapes probably don't just grow naturally around here.  They are planted, tended, and used to somehow support oneself and family.  So, if it's firewood, there's something severely amiss.

A grape arbor transformed into a heap of firewood indicates that a crop is dead or dying, a primary source of income is diminished or altogether gone, and there's little more to do but sell the scraps as fuel.  I even observed a boy attempting to SPLIT some of these short “logs.”  He appeared unsuccessful.

So, if you're burning your dead crops (the only fuel available) for firewood today, what will you burn tomorrow?  Moreover, what will you eat, what will you sell, and how will you survive?  None of these are easy questions, and I confess I have't a single reasonable answer.

I do know for a fact that the Army Corps of Engineers is building wells in the area and that the locals are supremely excited that they may now be able to irrigate their crops.  I heard of one village today where the population has dwindled from about 1,500 to 500 – mostly for reasons of water unavailability.  As much as it will help, wells won't fix everything.  They merely represent a positive step in the right direction.  Also, take into consideration that this is a problem around NORTHERN Afghanistan.  To the south, the objection is with WHAT they're growing.

Survivalism, if I may overuse the word, is not conducive to a sustainable culture, region, country, or geographically isolated locality.  It is a philosophy of “make do” today, and worry about tomorrow whenever tomorrow arrives.  Typically, tomorrow will require a greater sacrifice; but the troubles of today make that a distant second to the present.

Survivalism also provides a breeding ground for a host of other social problems.  Moral flexibility takes root (at least here), as Afghans concern themselves less with doing right and more with not starving to death.  Now, if you factor in a longstanding history of violence (from a myriad of sources), the conditions are further worsened.

Despots will rise abundantly with the promise that they can provide some sort of sustainability.  People, in dire need of food and stability, will eagerly follow them.  But despots also have agendas – often very self-serving agendas – and use their positions of power for person gain, overtly or subtly.

Violence is also given a dangerous foothold, since overwhelming fear of somebody or some group becomes the only means by which to control them.  When despots aren't promising things they rarely deliver, they're using fear to maintain their positions.

Now, factor in ethnic tensions, Islamic extremism, and whatever localized problems plague a culture, and the situation is worsened even further.  In fact, things spiral out of control.  Kindness is generally confused for weakness, and the kind give up after they've been exploited.  Good leadership challenges a populace, so they're often killed off before they have opportunity to make much difference.  Battle lines are drawn, people arbitrarily align themselves on either side (and frequently switch, too), and chaos ensues.

International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), the collaborative effort of more than 40 countries serving here under NATO command (54% of whom are US forces), are caught in the middle of it, and faced with difficult problems for which there are few (if any) easy remedies.

How do you convince a culture of the merits of peace when “peacemongers” are consistently killed off by the opportunistically violent?  How do you raise good leaders when it guarantees an imminent threat on your life?  How do you break a cycle of violence more than 1,000 years in the making?  How do you encourage a culture to consider sustainability when they don't have the luxury of thinking beyond what and how they'll eat today?  How do you bring forth lush vegetation and crops from a land where the rain rarely falls, winters are brutally harsh and summers are oppressively hot?

Fundamentally, how to you convince a culture unfamiliar with it, that some sort of peaceful self rule, free from the fear of their leadership, is a better way of life?  They've never witnessed it, after all, so it's unreasonable to presume it an innate conviction.  No, you have to DEMONSTRATE that it's a viable alternative to perpetual war with other nations, one's own countrymen, and even a neighbor.  But that, however, takes an enormous commitment of time, resources, and the unwavering attention of people who genuinely care.  Time, though, is in short supply.  Neither the US public, nor the citizenry of any other country serving here under ISAF are patient.  They want results, and they want them soon.  They want their boys and girls home, and less time invested in foreign catastrophes while they face lesser ones domestically.  They want results now, or yesterday.  At the very least, soon.

Looking about Bagram Airfield (BAF), one gets the impression that NATO forces have committed enough troops to make a difference in Afghanistan, but a wholly insufficient number to make a LASTING one.  A public relations war is not won strictly by creating “sustainable wealth” (the favorite catchphrase in both Iraq and Afghanistan).  Nor is a kinetic war won by simply killing the enemy.  Eliminating a dominant threat may be necessary, but truly sacrificial leadership must be poised and ready to step into the void created by dispatching the enemy.

The nature of Afghanistan is that the populace isn't terribly inclined to align with the “right” side.  Instead, they're inclined to align with the side they think will win – and thereby stay in their good graces.  Yet NATO, fighting a PR and kinetic war on multiple fronts, doesn't want to win.  They want a legitimate Afghan government and defense forces to win.  And that has proven quite difficult.

Unfortunately, international efforts are notoriously top-heavy, full of overlapping logistics and planning personnel, redundancy, confusion, and organizational nightmares.  I have to wonder sometimes if a number of personnel, isolated as they are on Bagram, have forgotten there's a war going on.  The best example of that was what I observed yesterday.

While walking along the roadside, I passed a foreign airman (perhaps Polish?), appropriately dressed in his fire-retardant flight suit.  Inappropriately, he was sporting at least ten individual unit patches which virtually covered both shoulders and the upper torso of his uniform.  And even some shiny pins.  Worse yet, he was also wearing a blue silk ASCOT.  Who, may I ask, wears an ascot in a combat zone?  I would equate the sporting of an ascot in a combat zone to a Marine infantryman buckling the NCO sword to his waist every time he prepares for a mission.  I'll say no more.

It's hard to make generalizations about this place, this terrain, and this culture.  Because of that, solutions – which require a degree of generalizations – will meet with only limited success.  But everybody's learning, and the battlescape is changing quickly to reflect this.  Over the next two months, I'm looking forward to discovering how individual units and commands are tackling the challenges unique to their areas of responsibility.  Please keep reading, and encourage others to do so as well.  As a nation, we need to know what our servicemembers are doing.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Video Footage - Afghanistan (20100311)

Video footage shot from a cab going north out of Kabul, Afghanistan.  Clip is muted and slowed for the sake of detail:

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 1, 2010

What to Expect

If you are veteran of OIF or OEF (preferably with combat experience) and are now transitioning back to the civilian world, you should read this.  It doesn't provide much in the way of solutions, but it does offer explanations, which will hopefully enable YOU to find solutions.  It isn't exhaustive, either.  It only addresses some of the most common challenges a transitioning veteran will face.  What you do with it is your decision, but it is my hope that this somehow helps you move beyond an active participation in war and towards the myriad of opportunities and adventures that life has to offer.  This time in your life will be among the most trying.  That is almost irrefutable.

Foremost, you will be angry.  Things which didn't used to bother you now will.  In fact, nearly everything will anger you.

However much you enjoyed your time in the military and whatever you got out of it, it doesn't change the fact that you're now exiting – for a reason.  It's difficult to make generalizations as to the “why,” but it probably centers around you being weary of an extremely demanding deployment schedule, tired of the relational sacrifice the military requires (in this day and age), lack of belief in the missions you've been called to undertake, and very likely a great deal of bitterness with your leaders.  Looking back on it, nearly every aspect of it will either invoke anger or grief.

You'll be angry that you answered a call to patriotic service, but learned somewhere along the way that your peers, subordinates and leaders are all human and prone to mistakes.  Subordinates make mistakes that create more work for you.  Peers make more mistakes that create more work for you.  Leaders make mistakes that get your friends killed, seemingly endangered you needlessly, and at the very least made life miserable.  You'll feel like you've just burned some number of years of your life and have very little to show for it but a number of deceased friends and a body that's falling apart long before its time.

You will be angry at the leadership that sent you out on missions you swore were unnecessary.  You'll be equally angry at the rules of engagement under which you were forced to operate.  They sent you away to war, but handcuffed you when you tried to complete your missions.  Individual mistakes of your leaders may have resulted in some of your friends never returning home – or at least returning broken and mutilated.  You'll be angry at the conduct of the war.

You'll be angry with your service, but when people attempt to tell you how stupid the wars are, you'll fiercely defend your service, not willing to make the admission that the past few years of your life have been invested in something that a number of US citizens vocally condemned.  You'll avoid them as best you can, and may not even mention that you're a veteran in their presence.  It might seem like the best way to avoid a confrontation.

You'll go out to stores and observe with horror how people rudely complain when the express checkout aisle takes more than a minute to navigate.  You'll overhear conversations from your peers that center around what appear to be meaningless subjects.  Which celebrity is dating so-and-so, and what movie star is having an affair.  Most, when asked, won't be able to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.  You might observe a few fussing how the barrista gave them a skim milk latte instead of a soy latte, which will drive home your belief that your peer group is completely out of touch with reality.  They will often have no knowledge whatsoever of current events.  In the back of your mind you'll think, “I defended THESE people?” and you'll question the fundamental merits of your service.

People will rarely know how to approach you.  Many, for lack of anything better to say, will thank you for your service.  Despite their sincerity (as much as they're capable of expressing legitimate thanks), you'll frequently see their comments as condescending.  You'll avoid them as best you can.  Others will start a conversation with, “so what are your thoughts on the war,” but before you even begin to answer, they'll continue with, “because I think...” or “because I heard...”  What you mistook for genuine curiosity turned out to be simply a clever means for them to initiate talking AT you about their support, opposition, or indifference towards your war.  Much of what they say will be firmly rooted in misinformation.  In reality, their minds are already made up, so attempting to change them will be an angering – and futile – endeavor.

After repeated encounters like this – people trying to share their opinions without regard for yours – you may reach the conclusion that nobody really cares that you served at all, that they're incapable of understanding what you did, and also unable to grasp any of the dangers the United States faces abroad.  Once again, you'll find yourself wondering why you bothered to swear an oath to defend these people.

Fundamentally, you are now a different person – and the consequence of this is that you've lost a lot of connectivity with the public.  Your civilian friends, though they may not put it to words, will notice changes in you – perhaps sufficient to drive a wedge into your relationship, or even ruin your friendship.  You'll be angry that they're appearing to abandon you, and you'll blame them fully for not making any greater attempts to understand you, to listen to you, or even let you explain what you've endured.

Your family will view you differently, too.  The young son or daughter they sent off to war has come back fundamentally changed.  They'll be keenly aware that you're angry, and will probably try to steer clear of any subject or situation that might set you off.  You'll view it as abandonment.  More than this, they won't know how to engage you very well.  Your experiences, though now similar to nearly 2,000,000 other young men and women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, are so vastly dissimilar from their own lives that they'll have no idea how to connect with you, find common ground, and continue the same level of relationship you perhaps once enjoyed.  In truth, they may also be afraid of you.  News articles, reports, and television programming has repeatedly painted veterans as easily-inflamed, prone to violence, and socially awkward.  As they draw away from you from lack of understanding, you will get more frustrated by it, which will serve to reinforce their misinformation.

Because you've spent the last few years in the military and a number of months in a combat zone, you're going to try to make up for lost “party time.”  Though you know it's impossible, you're going to try to drink a year's worth of beer and shots in one sitting, go out entirely too often, and soon realize that it doesn't make you any happier or more fulfilled.  Realizing this will be a great disappointment, but you'll probably keep trying anyway.

The nature of combat is that your body and mind have chemically and psychologically adapted to a different perception of “normal.”  There's an immediacy and urgency to everything, and you've grown accustomed to it.  Your physiology has received frequent injections of adrenalin, endorphins, and whatever other naturally-occurring hormones the body released when in firefights, their aftermaths, and high stress.  In some ways, you will be like an addict coming off a drug.  Just like addicts, you're probably going to look for a substitution.

Alcohol will seem like the most convenient solution because it calms the nerves, dulls whatever hyper-vigilance you might be experiencing, and helps you relax or talk more freely.  Alcohol, however, is also a depressant, so it may very well bring out the darkest things you have on your mind, but would have never discussed sober.  And because alcohol also impairs judgment, it may also cause you to consider violence.  You will frighten people, worry others, and a number will simply avoid you.  

When friends or bouncers try to restrain you or calm you down, the first thing you'll retort is that you're a combat veteran and don't deserve to be treated so rudely.  In reality, they are in the right, and you are in the wrong.  Your status as veteran does not authorize illegal, violent, or socially unacceptable behavior – despite however honorable your service to the country might have been.

Aside from alcohol, you might try other substances as “substitutions,” but they, too will be be disappointments.  For a number of veterans, it will be more subtle.

Because of the high impact lifestyle you've lived in the military, civilian life will strike you as extremely boring, unrewarding, and in some cases, “not worth the bother.”  You might seek out new ways to get an adrenaline rush or at least experience some excitement.  For some this means buying a motorcycle because you crave the danger.  For others, spending huge sums of money will be the drug.  Others will get into fights all the time, and a few will simply withdraw altogether in defeat.

You will occasionally find yourself willing to talk about difficult subjects and presumably in the company of a receptive audience.  Carefully, you'll start to tell a story about losing a friend, or about a car bomb that caused catastrophic injury and deaths.  Just as you think they're starting to understand what you're trying to explain, they'll blurt out, “oh my God that's so scary,” or something similar.  They won't know how to “receive” what you're telling them – and much of it is so horrifying that they can't listen without comment.  You'll be angry with them, and might give up talking to them completely.  Part of you may also be sufficiently afraid of your own anger that you flee any situations that may cause you to feel like you're losing control.

In your heart of hearts you will believe that nobody understands you except for the few men and women who went through the same experiences over there with you.  For lack of an alternative, you'll turn to your fellow veterans as the only people to whom you'll be able to relate in the least.  You will be tempted to spend all your time with veterans, not only sharing stories of your experiences, but also complaining about how stupid everybody else is.  You might conclude that the country you swore to defend is full of people who are too ignorant and blind to reality to deserve defense.

The nature of combat service means its participants will see first-hand the “underbelly of life.”  Whereas the average American might believe that people are generally good and nice to each other, you have seen with your own eyes just how horrible humans are towards each other.  While a US civilian may assume the best about humanity, you will likely presume the worst.

Because you feel naked without it (from so many months of carrying one), you might attempt to carry a firearm everywhere for safety.  Part of you is aware that it's probably completely unnecessary, but another part of you wants to be prepared regardless.  You just want to still feel in control.  Your fascination with firearms, however well-founded, however much you sincerely enjoy shooting, however trained you might be, will scare people unaccustomed to seeing guns.

Even though you probably don't regret getting out of the military, there will be certain aspects that you miss about it – and you'll try to recreate them.  A few might choose to go back in, but others will try alternatives.  You might look into becoming a private military contractor, a mercenary, or even consider joining Israeli Defense Forces or the French Foreign Legion.  These all fall into the category of “substitutions.”

A number of you will attempt to pursue the closest civilian equivalent to combat military service – police officer.  Very quickly, however, you will realize how fiercely competitive the hiring process is, and, even though you have years of exemplary military service, you aren't nearly as qualified as you might think.  You will also experience this when applying for other positions.  You thought your military service represented some degree of maturity, intelligence, and responsibility.  The civilian world, however, does not.  For the most part, they still want to see college degrees, college transcripts, or some other certification.  Just because you know how to maneuver house-to-house under fire, doesn't mean you're qualified to be a police officer.  You will be angry when you realize that military service prepared you for very little in the “real world.”

College will frustrate you, since it is often taught by men and women who have never left academia long enough to see how the world really works, and because it is attended by students who strike you as extremely immature and sheltered.  You will try to voice your opinions in classes, but teachers will often shut you down or shut you up.  If they disagree with your ideas, they may very well give you a poor grade in their course.  It will only increase your contempt for them and discourage you pursuing school any further.  You might give up altogether.

You will have nightmares about certain things you experienced in a combat zone, but you will be reluctant to talk to anybody about them.  Civilians won't understand, and even psychologists won't be much help, you'll think.  It's something you'll have to suffer through alone.

You'll play and replay events in your mind and wonder what you could have done differently – or what somebody ELSE could have done differently.  If they made a mistake, you will focus all your rage on them.  You'll forget that the enemy was the one attacking you and your fellow troops, and instead blame individual leaders for whatever went wrong.  You will be dissatisfied with your own performance, and therefore also angry at yourself.

You will genuinely want to talk about certain experiences you had in the military, but you'll be too angry to know where to begin.  If you're you able to do it, it'll still come out as a shotgun blast of information, emotions, and anger, and unless your audience is extremely patient and empathetic, they might be so uncomfortable that they never ask you anything again.  Some of your friendships will end because of this, and you'll be angry at them for it.

Leaving the house at all will put you in contact with people you will no doubt determine are ignorant, uninformed, impatient, and extremely rude.  It's possible that you'll start seeing your home as one of the few safe places left.  You'll leave the house only when you have to, come home as quickly as possible, and avoid human interaction in environments that you can't control.  The isolation, however, will also make you angry, reaffirm your belief that people will never understand you, and convince you that even trying is a waste of time.  Out of loneliness, you will turn to the only two groups that don't judge you wrongly: fellow veterans and substances.

Isolating yourself may become so second nature to you that leaving the house becomes a nightmare.  You won't like crowds because you can't control them.  You won't like busy restaurants because you can't hear what people are saying at your table – which is both frustrating and socially awkward.  You might even give up talking on the phone – because your hearing isn't so good, people don't want to listen, and you're convinced they're only checking in on you out of guilt, anyway.  You may retreat from reality altogether – not a civilian, not a servicemember, but something in between.  You will consider yourself a misfit, and it will anger you.

You may wrongly conclude that the most interesting, important, and honorable times of your life are already over.  That after being a war hero, or at least a warrior, everything else you do will be ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, and a total waste of energy.  You will feel abandoned by the very country you swore to defend, misunderstood by your family, apathetically ignored by your peers, and scornfully judged by your professors.  You will be so blind with rage that you'll be unable to step back long enough to gain any clarity.  That place of total discontent will feel like a trap, and at a certain point you may determine that your life isn't worth continuing.  At least it will be a merciful escape from what you're experiencing.  With embarrassment, you'll consider it, never talk to anybody about it, and then dismiss it.  But it'll creep back when you least expect it, and you won't know what to do with it.  You will feel helpless, and ending it will seem like the only way to regain control.

If you look at all of this, it paints what may appear to be a hopelessly bleak picture.  But that's not the case.  Speaking from experience, none of this lasts forever.  Time has a mysterious way of mending things, and people have a beautiful way of helping.  And truthfully, you are not alone.  Every one of the 26,000,000 United States veterans alive today has dealt with this on some level, moved through it completely, or at least begun the process.  Their questions are the same as yours and mine, and  the answers we find, in time, will closely parallel theirs.  These men and women, more than any others, are perfectly suited to help us, reach out to us, and provide peace where we currently have little.  They're reaching out to us right now, eager to help, and all we have to do is reach back.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved