Sunday, September 28, 2008

Blogs of Note

I've never been a big reader of military blogs. I started this one two years ago when I barely knew what a blog actually was, and I never thought there was a military subsection. The first time I ever heard of the biggest one, Blackfive, was from a Playboy article I read at my outpost in Diyala Province.

Now that I've been out of the deployed loop for awhile now, I've started to read more and more milblogs to satisfy my hunger for first person perspectives in Iraq, Afghanistan and the home front. The media has fallen flat on its face on covering the wars, from the bird's eye view to the grunt's eye view. Milbloggers have become the best reporters in the field, for good reason.

I've always thought it was a good thing to be proactive and spread the good word, so today I'll be starting a feature called Blogs of Note. Every so often, I'll link to deserving blogs, hoping to boost their traffic just a little. I'll try to keep it varied, from infantryman to sailors to just regular folks.

This week: Fobbits Need Ice Cream Too

For the uninitiated, fobbits are the miserable soldiers on a FOB (forward operating base) that are deployed for no clear purpose other than to guard gates, buy 50-inch TVs at the base exchange and take pictures of the desert sunset. If you do not leave the security of the wire on a semi-regular basis, congratulations, you're a fobbit.

Fobbits Need Ice Cream Too is written by Joe, a junior enlisted soldier in the National Guard. He's infantry, but the merciless gods that assign units to their area of operations had Joe's unit based in Kuwait. His job is simple: take outlandish amenities like ice cream, X Box 360s and folding lawn chairs across the border into Iraq to feed the never ending appetite for fobbits from Striker to Marez. They provide security for KBR truckers, usually Iraqi nationals that are working hard to run up Cheney's severance check. As any anonymous junior enlisted soldier would, Joe rails against the lazy assholes who depend on him to deliver their absurd spoils. He has no love for incompetent leaders above him or the pogue units that rule Kuwait with an iron PT belt. I found myself laughing hysterically at all the ridiculous things he goes through (endless formations because of graffiti are among the highlights. The offending word? Breastmilk.).

Joe is getting great buzz within the community for good reason. He's not swayed by politics or concerned with telling the most dramatic combat story. He recounts day to day life in combat, trials of incredible highs and devastating lows. If you want to immerse yourself in the view of the common grunt, look no further.

Money Post: Donkey IEDs, Flat Tires And Ramadan


Thursday, September 11, 2008

365: A Guide To Coming Back

It was appropriate that my journey to Iraq ended like it began - on September 11. Six years earlier (September 2001) as a sophomore in high school, I had already made up my mind about joining the Army. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon simply sealed the deal. I didn't discuss what kind of job I wanted with my recruiter or the dude that signed my papers. I wanted to go infantry. I wanted to put a bullet in the heart of any Taliban that crossed my path. I wanted them to pay dearly with their lives.

As fate would have it, I wasn't bound for the mountains of Afghanistan but the septic waste strewn cities of Iraq. I don't regret for one second my experiences there, both of triumph and tragedy. My battalion led the way in perhaps the most daring offensive of the whole war to capture al-Qaeda in Iraq's self proclaimed capital of Baqubah. The men I had the utmost pleasure to serve with will be my closest friends until the day I die. It's all downhill from here; I'll never make new friends that are on the same level of the men I shared life, love and loss with during our fifteen month combat deployment.

This Friday marks one year since the bulk of my battalion landed outside of Tacoma, Washington. I wasn't fully prepared to have clean air infiltrate my lungs as as we departed the plane after nearly 24 hours of flying. Though nearly half of my fellow soldiers had one tour under their belts, it was difficult to anticipate how we would deal with coming home. With that said, I hope to be of assistance to those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan by dishing out a bit of advice based on my experience of redeploying, getting out of the Army, finding a job and starting school.

Sensory Overload

-You'll notice right way that your senses are in overdrive, from hearing and vision to motor functions. As a result of keeping alert and constantly scanning, everything will be felt in high contrast. To test this, go to a club with loud rap music where everything used to be one loud noise. This time, you will hear several individual conversations and every note in Low by Flo Rida, which in this case isn't exactly a good thing.

-Loud noises are going to happen, and at first, you're going to either A: jump or B: pretend not to react. I opt for option B, which is useful working in a warehouse with other dudes. Any unexpected loud noise still drains the blood from my face. This will never go away. It will only be less frequent. Learn to deal with this new aspect of your life.

-When you get into a car for the first time, try to be in the passenger seat. I rode in a windowless Stryker for over a year, losing my concept of speed and distance after never going faster than 45 miles an hour. The first time I got on a highway, it felt like I was going down a runway in a fucking space shuttle.

-You're likely well aware of that rifle or pistol that you've been toting around for a year or more. You'll be glad to get rid of it, but you might wake up in the middle of the night and feel around for a weapon that isn't there. Luckily, this will go away.

The Public

-Dealing with the uninformed and apathetic public will be a frustrating ordeal if you trend left, right or middle. When I joined the Army in 2004, people were still in 'support the troops' mode, however superficial that support was. Just a few months after I came home, only 28% of the public could correctly identify the number of American soldier deaths in Iraq by rounding to the nearest THOUSAND. If you spent the last year fighting for your life in a place other than Baghdad, don't expect anyone to know where you were. As a bonus dose of ignorance, some might ask if you were deployed to Iran, like my first boss out of the military asked. Worse, if you were in Afghanistan, you might get the question, "we're still there?" To this day, I've only met only one civilian outside the news and political world that knew where Baqubah was. He was in his twenties, high as a kite and lived in Bellingham, Washington, a city so liberal that it makes Castro Street look like a Huckabee family reunion by comparison.

-After spending your career stateside preparing for combat, going over for the big show and returning home again, you might find it peculiar to see little or no indication there are two wars happening this very second. People are talking about high gas prices, the presidential election and who got eliminated on Project Runway (last week it was that douchey old lady, thankfully). Whether you get out of the military after your deployment or decide to stay in, the men and women that served by your side will be the only people you can comfortably discuss your experiences with. In my communications class, I can't bring myself to mention my time in Iraq when it's pertinent to the discussion because I simply feel out of place among the other students. Talking to my Army buddies, I feel fine asking, "remember when that guy on the motorcycle caught on fire and mother-fuckin' exploded?"

-While dodging sniper fire outside Sadr City, you might have missed the hoopla over the new GI Bill, the most important pro-veteran bill passed since, well, the original one in 1944. Of the two presidential candidates, only one of them voted for it, and his name rhymes with 'diorama.' Keep that in your back pocket.

Going Back

No matter your thoughts on the war and the military, you will want to go back. You will crave the adrenaline rush of a firefight and the intertwining smell of gunpowder and rotting trash under the desert sun. Compared to the civilian world, deployed life is resoundingly simple. You're not concerned with car payments, traffic, American Idol or getting your hair to do that flippy thing. In combat, you're looking to avoid your ass getting shot. You aren't worried about how many carbs you're eating but that you're eating more than once a day. Fuck Miller Lite and Jagerbombs when you're dropping iodine tablets in Iraqi water to make it safe to drink. It's wake, eat, patrol, kill, sleep. Over and over. When you get the bill for textbooks in your first semester and add it to your other costs, you'll realize how simple life used to be. And you'll crave it again. Everyone does whether they admit it or not. We were there not only making history, but writing it. Back in the states, you're another face in the crowd, paying taxes like every other sucker. Take away our guns and we're nothing. Not a damn thing.

On the flipside, life is sweeter coming out the other side. I'm still amazed to drive down the road, pick up groceries and arrive back safely. The satisfaction of a completed deployment will not lift any time soon. We have earned through blood and sweat a fresh, shrewd perspective on the world that many in our country are not afforded. It might not be apparent yet, but a whole lifetime of experience is crammed into a deployment. You have a different way of looking at things when you realize it was you at the other end of the sniper's scope. Life will forever be different, for better and for worse. But you certainly will enjoy it a hell of a lot more.


For those who have deployed in any war or know someone who has, please feel free to leave a comment with your own advice on coming back home. Below are some resources for those coming back from a deployment and/or getting out of the military.

PTSD Resources
IRR Information
Veteran's Administration
GI Bill Information
USA Cares - Financial Assistance for Servicemembers

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Veteran's Case Against John McCain

This November will mark the second time that I have been eligible to vote in a presidential election. I was barely nineteen years old when it came time to cast my ballot in 2004. Like any other teenager, I was clueless about the world of politics. I read only the front page of newspapers. I didn't know what a blog was, much less read them. It's safe to say that I was in the realm of the uninformed but not undecided; my parents were voting for George W. Bush. I shook his hand at a 5K in Dallas when he was still my governor. I figured that was good enough.

My vote wasn't cast in a school gym or a courthouse. I filled out my absentee ballot on the floor of my company area in the closing weeks of basic infantry training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Though our superiors were to remain apolitical during the process and not recommend one candidate over another, it was our first foray into the belief that the military heavily favors conservatives. They told us how badly in shape Bill Clinton left the Army, and any liberal was sure to do it again. My drill sergeant, "Hurricane" Harris, told us the news of who won in an unusual way. He asked those who voted for Kerry to raise their hands. A few hands went up in an embarrassingly slow movement. "Well, he didn't win!" Hurricane proclaimed with a laugh. Most of us breathed a sigh of relief.

With an entire enlistment and a fifteen month tour in Iraq behind me, I'm a bit more in tune with politics and the candidates than I was four years ago. I consume news and information at an obsessive rate, but my attention is focused on veteran's issues and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don't care about Obama's smugness or McCain's ridiculous amount of houses. I don't give a shit about Michelle's lack of patriotism or Cindy getting high on her own supply of painkillers. In the end, it comes down to the treatment of veterans and what to do with those sticky territories where we still have American soldiers under fire.

I really want to like John McCain. He gets automatic points for being a fellow veteran and his well-known experience of a POW for 5 1/2 years. He should know the VA system like the back of his hand, I imagine. But by the belief that conservatives will always have the military in the tank, they can afford to burn us when it comes to pro-veteran and pro-military legislation. Even if some of us notice their betrayals, we still make up a tiny constituency. To them, we don't hold any sway. Otherwise they wouldn't treat us like scraggly dogs - smacking our nose after tossing us the table scraps.

There are plenty of minuses in the column of John McCain regarding these issues, but I'll cover the main reasons he has turned me away from his vote this year.

1. Opposition to the new GI Bill

This is the big one, the vote where veterans watched with bated breath to see if a new GI Bill would replace the outdated and underwhelming education benefits package. The outcome was literally going to change lives. With its passing, veterans could attend any school they want and have it paid for. If it was struck down, only a fraction of tuition costs would be covered. It came to no surprise that the bill was extraordinarily well received by politicians in an election year, but there were a few unsurprising holdouts. President Bush and his administration opposed it as being overly generous. My own senator, John Cornyn, opposed it for the same reason. When I called his office to learn why, his aide offered nothing more than it would encourage too many people to leave the service (that claim was later destroyed by the same report they cited). Cornyn stood by McCain as he offered his own watered down, toothless counter-bill, an insult to veterans who didn't luck out and land a slot in a military academy. It was a pathetic attempt to derail popular support for Webb's bill.

When the time to vote came, only two senators sat it out. One of them was Ted Kennedy, at home recovering from his brain surgery. The other was John McCain. He managed to miss the vote not once but twice, his maverick image tarnished by not taking a stand with a vote after publicly opposing the bill. Much to the chagrin of Bush and McCain, the GI Bill passed resoundingly. But what followed after that was even more outrageous. Forgetting about the newfangled internet, McCain went out took credit for the GI Bill, using the imaginary transferability issue to claim victory:

A lot of people put work into the bill. Politicians like Jim Webb and Chuck Hagel wrote and carried the bill under fire from Bush. Veteran's organizations like Vote Vets, IAVA, the VFW and American Legion helped to raise public awareness about the bill and lobby Washington. McCain, on the other hand, had a simple choice: to stand with fellow veterans and get the bill done, or side with the conservatives he hoped to woo in the election. Clearly, he went with the latter while taking the credit of the former.

2. The Elephant in Afghanistan

For the life of me, I can't recall John McCain having any sensible plan for Afghanistan, a place more dangerous per capita than Iraq and with a fraction of the troops. While the surge brigades crowded Baghdad, Afghanistan demanded attention that still has not been met. Obama has pledged at least two brigades to be sent there, a decision that would immediately ease the chaos on the porous border with Pakistan. McCain cannot make that same pledge; those brigades would be tied up in Iraq waiting for that ever so vague moment of victory. We're starting to see the price of not enough eyes on the objective when bombs start falling. Our resources are elsewhere, and that hinders American forces in Afghanistan that are trying to keep a lid on escalating violence.

3. Underwhelming Voting Record

I'll let the numbers speak for themselves here. IAVA scored legislative voting in 2006 after identifying what would benefit active duty servicemen and veterans. McCain gets a D, Obama a B+. It'll be interesting when they release the 2008 scores this fall. To read up on the methodology and to see a bunch of (R)s get Ds, download this document.

A little less damning is the Disabled American Veteran's group scoring, simply "with us" and "against us." John McCain scored 11 with us and 16 against us, with 5 not scored. And Obama? 17-1-1.

4. Plans for Leaving Iraq

This issue is almost baffling in its simplicity. Obama's plan to get out of Iraq is pretty similar to what the Iraqis want. McCain opposes this, insisting on a blank check approach. There is no telling if McCain would reverse any agreement made by the two governments on a definite date of departure.

Some might suggest that I should vote for McCain because he is a fellow veteran. These are the same people that suggested Kerry was a bad choice four years ago. Despite his many, many detractions, he still set foot in Vietnam when his opponent did not. Though Obama hasn't served, he has proven to have a positive impact when it comes to veterans. I admire McCain's past, but I cast much doubt on his vision of the future.