Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Here to There: Tips and Tricks for the Student Veteran

For many student veterans across the country, the first semester under the Post 9/11 GI Bill is in the books. Some of the smarter folks opted to stay with the old Chapter 30 until the new bill, Chapter 33, was fully worked out. Others chose to put their faith into the VA and went with the Post 9/11 GI Bill, much to the chagrin of bill collectors and landlords. It is not clear what the VA has learned since the Great GI Bill Kerfuffle of 2009, but it is evident that problems will continue into the new year. Its fully automated system won't be in place until December 2010, so for the next year the crush of new applicants will have to be processed by a team of monkeys pounding on the keyboard of a Commodore 64. According to the VA, less than 5,000 eligible students are still waiting for payments. Take a stroll through the many comments left on the Post 9/11 GI Bill Facebook page and it might give you a reason not to believe such an estimate. The comments left by students still waiting for tuition payments read like a digital Trail of Tears, with many pleading for help months after submitting their paperwork. One post from early December challenges Facebook users to amass 10,000 followers by 2010. Perhaps a real goal, like completing 10,000 applications by the end of the fall semester, was too bold a prospect.

Student veterans have suffered at the hands of the VA's negligence this fall, but we've developed a knack for pressing on in less than hospitable environments. With the spring semester approaching, there will be many new veterans going to class for the first time. Just like beginning a military career, starting college can be a bit daunting. This spring will be my fifth semester in school, and along the way I've learned the ropes of not only the VA system, but how to successfully get along in the classroom. This week I have prepared a list of pointers useful for a new student facing college life with the VA for the first time. After the New Year, I'll be back with the human side of school and how to best adapt to the peculiar nature of school post enlistment.


Back to School, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Wrapped Myself In Red Tape

Know Their Role

On every campus, there is a certifying official that works in the VA system. While a counselor helps you select courses, a certifying official ensures those classes will be paid for by the VA. Only courses in your chosen degree plan will go on the VA's tab; anything extra comes out of your pocket. If there is a hangup in the application and certification process, there are only two reasons why: the VA is using your paperwork to keep their furnace going, or your school official has dropped the ball. Save their number in your phone and hassle them until they send everything on their end. Unlike professors, you cannot choose your certifying officials. Mine aren't the greatest, but it's always a good idea to visit their office so you can double check your classes and make sure everything is set for the next semester. You don't want to be stuck with the bill, as many veterans found out this year. Which leads to the next point...

Choose Wisely

Whether you're on Chapter 30 or Chapter 33, you have 36 months of eligibility (36 months to attend classes, not three years of school). Going full time, you can squeak out a degree in four years if you waste as little time as possible. Avoid the temptation to choose courses pertinent to your degree when you start school. Almost everyone changes their degree at least once, and you don't want to be stuck with useless credits and diminishing months of eligibility. Start out with basic courses that have to be taken to fulfill any degree plan. Good places to start: English I and II, US History and beginning science courses. Consult with your school counselor to nail down what classes satisfy the basics that align with your chosen major, then go back to your certifying official to double check your schedule to make sure all your classes will be certified.

Start Small

Like many other student veterans, I began my collegiate effort at my local community college. Straight out of the Army, no university would take an unproven goofball with no SAT score and a high school GPA hovering between 1.5 and 2. Most universities have a credit threshold where they consider a student for enrollment just by looking at college level work, not SATs or high school GPA. Not only is community college a surefire way into a university, but it's a place to once again familiarize yourself with the classroom and get a feel for homework, professors and the climate of college level work before moving on to a traditional four year institution. It's a great confidence builder in what seemed like an indomitable place when you were enlisted. While I was deployed and dreaming about going to school, the university in my fantasy was a baffling obelisk of hardship where only the most cunning would succeed. Now I'm holding a 3.8 transferable GPA and yawn in the general direction of essays. A few semesters in community college will help tear down the notion that college is an overly difficult experience, and if you're using Chapter 30, it's more money in your pocket. But remember, you cannot stay there forever.

Know The Endgame

I'm going to school at Austin Community College and I'm going to transfer to St. Edward's University to get a degree in global studies. As I mentioned above, you have to take classes that apply to your degree plan. ACC does not have a degree plan for global studies and I've taken just about every basic course offered, so I have to moonlight as a liberal arts general education major to get my classes certified by the VA. If you start in community college, figure out what university you want to attend and get a transfer guide to make sure every credit will transfer over with no fuss. If you slip up and decide to change schools or majors, you will have a difficult time getting everything to transfer neatly. For example, I took an introductory speech class to fulfill the international studies (AKA global studies) degree plan at Texas State, but now I'm going to St. Edwards. They require public speaking, so now I have to retake what is essentially the same class. Since the moonlighting degree I'm on requires just one speech class, I have fulfilled that class permanently. It can't come off my record, and the VA won't pay for my public speaking class because it's not on my current degree plan. I'll be paying out of pocket for that class because I didn't stick to the plan. The GI Bill is generous only when you're on point. You cannot afford to play grab ass and screw around for years trying to decide what to do like your civilian counterparts. Figure out what you want to study before you finish your basics or pay the consequences, either with lost time or a thinner wallet.

Less Hurry Up, More Wait

Hope that your certifying officials are high speed, but prepare for frustrations ahead. Even the most basic of questions directed at your certifying official will likely be met with a perpetual shrugging of the shoulders, though it's not entirely their fault. Call me a cynic, but it would seem the line of communication between the certifying officials and the VA are less than optimal. They don't seem to know a great deal, especially in the midst of an unprecedented program like the Post 9/11 GI Bill. I had two fairly succinct questions for my school certifying official when my application got lost in the sauce:

1. What the hell is going on?

2. Where's my green at?

The answer I got to both questions was a resounding "I don't know," so I had to go straight to the top to get a clear picture. Unfortunately, not everyone has a blog that complains loud enough for VA officials to take notice. Just like playing the ETS game, find other veterans to compare experiences with and see what works and doesn't work. Another veteran at the same school can hold valuable insight into which certifying officials are good, which are not so good, and how to best navigate through the system with the least amount of stress. School is about going to class and making the grades, not fighting a bureaucracy, but that's the nature of the game. Battle buddies make everything easier, and school is no exception.

Slow is Smooth

If the military was the path you took out of high school, it's likely you are not from the privileged class. A part time or full time job is usually a good idea to supplement the housing allowance under Chapter 33. Even though BAH rates changed for the year 2010, housing for student veterans will be calculated using the 2009 amounts. Be sure to check the amount you'll be getting to give yourself a clear financial picture (select E-5 as the pay grade; the amount for an E-5 with dependents will be your housing allowance). If you still need a job but don't think you can handle a full school schedule, find out what your school considers half time, and go a credit over that amount. As long as you take just a credit more than half time, you can get get the full housing allowance without taking a lot of classes (and you will only be charged 3/4 of a month instead of a whole month). For example, half time at my school is six credit hours. If I were to take six hours, I would get several hundred dollars less in my housing allowance than if I took seven. Consult with your certifying official to confirm this, as every school has different rules and ways to figure hours, especially those weirdos on the west coast. This option is definitely slower than taking a full load, but it would be wise to consider when juggling a job and family.


I hope these few pointers are enough for fellow veterans to feel a little more prepared to take the plunge into academia. School is the next logical step after an enlistment, so take the considerable opportunity you've been given with the GI Bill (and cross your fingers some clerk in Washington D.C. won't make paper airplanes out of your application). With any luck and these tips in hand, school should be just a tiny bit easier to take on. Just be sure to look before you leap.

Next week: coming to terms with the idea that you're just a little bit different than the 18 year old hipster sitting behind you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Guns Fall Silent

After a long hiatus I was set to post something today, but I caught wind of Blackfive leading a blackout of all milblog posting for today and in some cases, the rest of the week or more. The blackout is a show of solidarity for CJ Grisham, the founder of A Soldier's Perspective who has come under fire from his command after having the audacity to challenge PTA rulings at his children's school. Take a moment to read his story, and after you are sickened, donate to his legal fund:

Grisham Legal Fund
c/o Redstone Federal Credit Union
220 Wynn Drive
Huntsville, AL 35893

This is a terrible thing that couldn't happen to a nicer and more talented guy. I had the pleasure of meeting CJ earlier this year and found him to be very cordial and sharp. I ask all of you to spread the word, kick some money in his fund and keep this story alive. It's the least you can do for a career soldier that has fought the toughest battles not only overseas but here at home.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Thing I Carried - Special Edition

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Tim O'Brien speak at Texas State University about the art of writing. He read from a recent magazine article and entertained a few questions. During his book signing I presented a copy of "The Things They Carried" that I literally did carry in Iraq. Its edges were torn and bent, the pages browned by dust and sand. I brought an edited copy of an old favorite entry on here, The Thing I Carried, thanked him for the reading, and handed over the copy. The version I gave him is reproduced here. Enjoy.

The Thing I Carried

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. In between crusty Army lifers were shortimers, soldiers approaching the twilight of their enlistment. For some, two deployments to Iraq were enough for a lifetime. Others made plans to get out before desert boots touched foreign sand.

When it came time to sort out, pack and load equipment, a lot of guys were buying their own gear to take with them. Any junior enlisted soldier knows the issued equipment is inferior to anything you can go out and buy for yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. Its dimensions fit the criteria of a regular backpack, save for the digital camouflage and extra utility pouches. The zippers are what you come to expect from the Army’s lowest bidding contractor. They were difficult to shut and snagged easily on the sides. The compartments were more suited for textbooks and notepads, not the instruments of war that infantrymen would need to carry. Knives, batteries, carabiners, socks, water, rations, folded up letters. The things I needed to carry grew larger than my capacity to carry them.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment weeks before we boarded an eastbound plane. His father’s company sponsored us with enough money to buy essentials like magazine and utility pouches, vests and grenade bandoleers. He budgeted himself enough money to buy a brand new assault pack. He didn't need the one from his first deployment, so he passed it down to me.

"You can use it the whole time we’re over there, but you have to give it back to me," he said.

"But if you decide to reenlist, you can keep it."

"You'll definitely be getting it back," I replied.

The assault pack was worn out after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing and foam cushioning was exposed and damaged. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape across the hand drawn letters. On the bottom pouch I wrote in small print, 24 Nov 2007, the day I was getting out of the Army. It was below a message Jesse had written, perhaps before his first deployment - For those who would NOT serve


It was becoming a routine to leave our base outside of Baghdad and spend up to a week in smaller bases sprinkled around the heart of the city. The capital proved to be an underwhelming backdrop to a mission that was starting to grow more frustrating as the days melted together into a pool of hazy memories. Snipers took pot shots as we cleared swaths of neighborhoods, only to reclear them later. For every time we met the enemy face to face we returned fire ten times, mostly at nothing. The action was so dismal that assault packs held things to combat boredom instead of insurgents. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over in the middle of the night. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

By the time we got to Baqubah, Jesse had moved to another platoon. I saw him less than before but he never stopped asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I went on leave, Josh mentioned that a young college student named Lauren was writing to me from Seattle. My platoon was getting their gear on and heading out to surveil possible arms traffickers, but I stayed behind to watch them as I told Jesse the unlikely story of my budding romance with a girl thousands of miles away.

"Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

In case my platoon got the call to move out while I was gone, my assault pack and rucksack were left behind and packed neatly on my mattress. I headed to the flightline and took the next chopper out to Baghdad. My best friend and I decided traveling around in Europe by train would be easier than going home to sleep in our old beds. In many ways, we had grown out of them.


As I made the long trek back to the desert from the fertile landscapes of Italy and Germany, Jesse was on another plane bound for the States. He lay inside a flag draped coffin aboard a transport plane among others killed in theater. He had spent a total of twenty-two months in combat before a sniper found his brown eyes through a scope.

When I walked back into the platoon tent for the first time in three weeks, it was dark and completely empty except for Josh. He stayed back from missions after sustaining a concussion from a personnel mine. He didn’t say anything at first, but motioned for me to sit on his bed. He dug out a copy of Jesse’s memorial program and stuffed it into my hands. I looked over to my bunk to see Jesse’s assault pack still on my bed. Keawe playfully stood out from behind the nametape.


From the moment our feet touched American soil for the first time in fifteen months, the assault pack became a backpack. A year later I was in school with the same sand colored bag at my feet . I traded grenades for pens and ammunition magazines for textbooks. Around campus I can spot other veterans of the wars easily; they still carry their assault packs too. They may have moved on to get an education, but they have chosen to carry part of their former lives with them. The burden of readjustment and the malignant feeling of wanting to be back there weigh heavily on their shoulders. The things they carry in their assault packs weigh more than a thousand books.

Somewhere in the dense palm groves of the Diyala River Valley is my true self. I left behind a boisterous and outspoken personality for a muted and introverted existence in the classroom. I volunteer answers enough to get by with a passing grade for class participation, but I can only yield the topics of Iraq and war to the daftly opinionated classmates that surround me like a pack of oblivious wolves. I was raised in the same era as my peers, but I did not grow up with them. The chasm between us only grows larger when I want to speak up about war, but cannot find the words.

For those who would NOT serve – the words fade a little more each day. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and deliver the standard icebreaking question, "So, where were you at?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Today my literature class continues our unit discussion of poetry. The instructor asked us to bring in our favorite poems and read them aloud. I try to sequester the words 'vet,' 'Iraq,' and 'war' from my my vocabulary when I'm rubbing elbows with teenagers and twentysomethings, but I might need to break the habit so they can understand my eyes misting up when reading this:

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Stop by the New York Times to read about the price of coming home a marked man. I find a bit of solace knowing that warriors have felt the same way going back a few thousand years.

I've been hosting an Army buddy of mine the past few days, and for the first time in a long time, I've been my true self, not the quiet student I've pretended to be. My true self only peeks out from behind the mask when another veteran is there to speak the language and listen to the stories with a knowing smile and a simple nod. They don't change the subject or shy away or languish under the pressure of uttering the I-word or the A-word. They don't secretly wonder when your next outburst or flashback is going to come out. They get it, but the problem is, there are too few around that get it. So each Veteran's Day, the mask stays on until I come across another wearing the same disguise.

In between tweets and twats, Facebook status updates and snores, I'm going to read In Flanders Fields, not for me or the instructor or the other students, but for my father, grandfathers and uncle that served honorably so many years ago. I'll read it for my brothers still in the fight, and those who continue the battle long after the guns have fallen silent.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Funny Name, Serious Movie

When I think of sublime director-actor couplings in cinema the past thirty years, only a few come to mind. Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, The Coen Brothers and John Goodman, Tommy Wiseau and himself. Another pair is sure to join the list: Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon. Greengrass is the shaky cam zen master, taking the helm for the excellent Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatium, United 93 and Bloody Sunday. His new collaboration with his protege is Green Zone, slated for March 10 of next year:

If you're wondering about the title (was REMF For A Dream taken?), it's based on the book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. I'm assuming very loosely based; no one on earth is enough of a bad ass to live the life of a rejected Greengrass espionage screenplay. I join Tom Ricks in hoping it breaks the annual tradition of awful Iraq movies. It would be a good start to the year. If we can get through the release without Michelle Malkin feigning outrage about Damon's keffiyeh, I'll call it a win.


What do you guys think about the trailer? I'm confident in Greengrass' discretion and I'm a fan of Matt Damon. It looks promising if you suspend a bit of that pesky disbelief.

Update: Here's the international trailer, now with 50% more Pentagon conspiracy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Make It Rain!

Have you been stop-lossed? Like wads of cash? You can get $500 bucks for every month you were retained by the pleasure of the government. Grab your DD-214 and go here to start the registration process. The full press release provides email contacts for alternative routes. You have one year to do this, so get to it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

VA to call students to discuss GI Bill, timeshare opportunities in Florida

The VA will be conducting a special telephone outreach this week to students enrolled in the Post 9/11 GI Bill. The staff will be ready to answer questions you may have, the most pressing likely being, "Where my money?" But wait, there's more! The full release:

Representatives of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will be telephoning Veterans across the country to explain their education benefits under the new Post-9/11 GI Bill and ensure beneficiaries are able to receive payments due them.

“The Post-9/11 GI Bill is one of our highest priorities,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “Instead of making people wait to hear from us, we’re reaching out to Veterans, so they can get the money they need to stay in school.

”The Department is conducting this outreach as part of VA’s ongoing efforts to ensure delivery of this historic, earned benefit for our Nation’s Veterans. VA is ensuring the large number of Veterans who are attending classes during the fall 2009 semester have received the education benefits they have earned. The calls are scheduled to go to Veterans who have applied for benefits under the new educational assistance program. Those who registered for advanced payments will be called as well, to ensure they received their benefits.

To protect the personal identity of Veterans, VA representatives will not ask for any personal information. Information such as birthdates, bank account or social security numbers will not be requested.

“Our procedures and policies to provide advanced payments remain in effect,” Shinseki said. “Meanwhile, we’re completing the on-time development of our automated processing system that will ensure timely delivery of checks in the future.”

I hope the VA reveals its goals for this mass outreach. Will they be flagging cases to resolve specific issues? I imagine it's more like, "On a scale of 1 to 10, please identify the level of blinding rage we've caused you."

If you get a call from the VA this week, please let me know the questions asked and and if any issues were resolved.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Defenders Need You

If you've been following the news from Afghanistan, then you no doubt have heard about the Taliban assault on COP Keating that left eight soldiers dead and the outpost destroyed. What the media hasn't told you is that the soldiers stationed at the remote outpost not only lost their comrades but all of the gear inside the base. The American Legion has stepped in and is currently accepting donations for a relief fund:

In the battle for Combat Outpost Keating, the men of Bravo Troop 361 Cavalry lost every possession they had, save for the clothes on their backs. Following this blog posting is information on how to donate to the Combat Outpost Keating Relief Fund. These men havelost friends, their outpost, and all their belongings. One soldier who made it out wrote that "most people back home dont even know, no one gives a shit". Well, many of us do. And you can prove it by giving whatever you can. These guys need things like running shoes, and other essentials, as well as some comfort items like iPods and DVD players. The American Legion has kicked in $1000 to start the fund, and your humble blogger will be the first to donate $100. I intend to get these items out by the end of next week. ANY amount you can give, no matter how small will help us prove that we care.

Tankerbabe has the lowdown on the specific items listed if you'd like to contribute that way.

The American Legion blog The Burn Pit has details of the fight. Those guys are some Grade A badasses; they were giving the wounded blood transfusions while pushing back an enemy force at least four times as big. And right now Terry Taliban is in his cave watching season six of the Gilmore Girls on their portable DVD players. For shame. So forgo coffee this week, cook dinner at home and kick some money in the fund you cheap bastards. It's the best cause you can find.

Update: Tankerbabe says "Mission Accomplished."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Square One

If you picked up your emergency VA check last week but your bank refuses to cash anything written hastily on the back of a cocktail napkin, the VA has a solution:

VA is soliciting the support of local and national banks to honor and cash these emergency checks written to our Nation's Veteran-students.

In many cases these checks are handwritten and could pose concerns of fraud from banks. Therefore, VA has established the following special customer service call-in numbers for banks to verify the validity of any US Bank check brought to them by a Veteran.


Banks calling these numbers will be connected directly to a VA employee who can access to all necessary information to verify who the check was issued to, the check number and dollar amount of the check, and whether the check was previously cashed or not.

I hate to say I told you so, but opting for direct deposit would have eliminated this problem. Now veterans are not only relying on the VA, but the good graces of banks to make an exception to their own procedures.

Now excuse me, I have a betting pool to collect.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Little. Mobile. Different.

The Army is scrapping two heavy brigades for Stryker units:

The move to convert two heavy brigades to Stryker units signals the Army's shift toward a lighter, more quickly deployable formation that is infantry-focused and proven to be highly mobile in diverse environments.

And it further reduces the Army's number of heavy brigades. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had announced in April that the Army would hold the total number of brigade combat teams at 45 rather than the planned 48, and the Army nixed a plan to grow three heavy brigades.

I'll say it now: Stryker units are to Iraq and Afghanistan as airborne units are to WWII. The future of irregular warfare is here, and it's on eight wheels.

(H/T Sal)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Check please!

Those students who were about to drive 400 miles to their VA regional office, heed this press release:

Last week Shinseki announced that on Friday, Oct. 2, VA’s 57 regional benefits offices will begin providing on-the-spot emergency payments up to $3,000 to students who have applied for their education benefits but who have not yet received a government payment.

Citing the distance many Veterans would have to travel to apply in person at a VA benefits office, Shinseki announced Veterans can also apply online at www.va.gov, starting Oct. 2. The online application will guide Veterans through the process to supply needed information. Shinseki noted that online applicants will receive their emergency payments through the mail after processing.

That clears up question #1 from yesterday. No word on question #2.

The press release also describes a free van service that departs from your local VA medical facility. So if you drive or take the van, make triple sure you have proof of enrollment (acceptable documentation are vague, so bring your class schedule, enrollment certification letter from the VA and lucky rabbit's foot). Personally I would not want to take the van. In the inevitable event of someone leaving empty handed, waiting around for everyone else to collect would be pretty frustrating. Plus I do not know what is involved in a VA van ride. I imagine filling out three forms, waiting in a line and scheduling an appointment to take a piss at a rest stop.

For the cynics, the online registration seems like the safest bet. You don't have to go anywhere and it'll take up to three business days to process. Then it's up to the guiding hand of the US Postal Service. If you register on Friday, you will likely get your check by the end of next week barring any difficulties.

I acknowledge that we should never have gotten to the point of emergency checks, but this could be the best solution considering the circumstances. I hope it goes off without a hitch. After the tensions in DC cool, I hope the VA takes a hard look at its program implementation staff and protocol. That they reacted to the crisis with a reasonable solution is commendable. That they had to react in the first place is disconcerting at best. Friend of the blog Ryan dropped out of his first semester, and there is no telling how many took out high interest loans just to stay afloat when funds from the VA should have been the least of their worries.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Closer Look at the Gift Horse

Not everyone has been impressed with the VA's too little, too late response to the newest GI Bill misadventure. Jonn from This Ain't Hell brings up salient points about the implementation side of the $3000 dollar payout:

To get your partial payment of your GI Bill benefits which you earned and filed for months ago, you have to go to one of 57 Regional Offices.

I went to SUNY Oswego - my regional office was Buffalo. A four hour drive each way. But not to worry, the same VA who couldn’t get your benefit to you on time will send representatives to your school to arrange transportation to the regional office. How dependable will that be?

I can schedule buses, for Pete’s sake - the veterans don’t need an eight hour bus ride (how many buses will be late, and how many veterans will ride for hours to find out their paperwork is screwed up, how many buses will break down?) they need their money that the government has been promising since before the last election!

A lot of folks were swept up in the news of the VA doing anything that they didn't consider how poorly this plan is being assembled (myself included). I'm one of the lucky few who have been paid under Chapter 33 (thanks to Squeaky Wheel Syndrome), but veterans who haven't been as lucky will need to make the trek to their regional office. Recently resurrected Joe from Fobbits Need Ice Cream 2.0 notes that he would have to skip school to get what is owed to him (note: the VA cuts you off like a frostbitten leg if you don't keep up good grades). Now, I'm no student of the inner workings of government bureaucracies, but I have two questions:

1. Why can't the VA send the checks through mail or direct deposit accounts they already have on file?

2. Why can't any VA facility cut a check?

I don't think of the VA as a health care and benefits distribution service. I think of them as a claims denial service. This action seems to weed out any of those veterans unwilling or unable to make the long drive to their regional office. God help you if you live out in the sticks or don't bring the proper documentation. The more I look at this eleventh hour peace offering, the more it looks like a dead fish.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The exception to the USAF pogue rule

Mike Yon sent this with the words, "These are the guys you needed when you broke your arm." Seriously. It would have been worth the accident to see their bird descend on northbound Mopac and shoot flares at horrified soccer moms. Beats driving yourself to the hospital with a mangled arm in your lap.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Frogs, checks falling from the sky

The VA has taken a huge step forward in righting its wrongs with the GI Bill brouhaha by issuing $3,000 emergency checks to veterans who have yet to receive housing benefits. The money quote:

Starting Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, students can go to one of VA’s 57 regional benefit offices with a photo ID and a course schedule to request advance payment of their education benefits. Because not all these offices are located near students, VA expects to send representatives to schools with large Veteran-student bodies and work with Veteran Service Organizations to help students with transportation needs.A list of those VA regional offices is available here.

The VA deserves recognition for this. They've taken a lot of heat for this fiasco, but their decision to take emergency measures was the right course of action. It'll save many veterans from getting tossed out on their ass. Well done.

Update: Perhaps my celebration was premature. Ryan has dropped out of school due to lack of funds. To say the VA was late on this is a gross understatement. Their negligence is inexcusable no matter how you look at it. I can only hope this debacle will be the last obscene miscalculation they make, but I'm not terribly faithful when it comes to the VA.

Reality Bites

Note: While my arm is healing, I'll do my best to drop by and divvy out small, decadent portions of interesting links like so many amuse-bouche.

There's a war in Afghanistan that hasn't reached the media by its design: the information counterinsurgency. Mike Yon has been disembedded from the much sought after unit 2 Rifles following his criticism of the purseholders of the Ministry of Defense (namely the shameful lack of helicopters in theater). The media ops of the British military made it their mission to complicate Mike's critical job of reporting on the soldiers in Helmand Province, the flashpoint of Taliban resistance. He has a clear and indelible respect for the British fighting men, so to see him tossed out on his ear by some desk riding pogue is most alarming. One particular line about a media ops major caught my attention:

"Media Ops people—who do not leave their base or go on missions—who are spooling out “the message” to the media. They are clueless about the state of the war in Afghanistan. For instance, many of the Media Ops officers will insist that we have enough helicopters in Afghanistan. Those officers are either completely oblivious to the actuality of the situation or lying."

Shades of experience. In the 15th month of our tour, my platoon was called on our rest day to take part in a meticulously crafted PR stunt in downtown Baqubah. We were to escort the deputy prime minister of Iraq to demonstrate that the city's security situation had improved (it had) and that it was safe to mill about the city (it wasn't). Each Stryker was crammed with lite colonels, full bird colonels and generals - layabout officers that clearly did not get out much, judging from their jacked up chinstraps and alarming lack of weapons. In my truck, two Associated Press reporters chatted with a public affairs lieutenant from the Air Force.

I developed a system of determining the amount of time someone spends outside the wire by evaluating the uniform and equipment of a soldier:

[] Magazine pouch attached to the receiver
[] Immaculate weapon
[] Two or less magazine pouches attached to body armor
[] Crisp, distinctive crease on the sleeves indicating a uniform press
[] Lack of night vision goggle mount
[] Bright digital patterns on body armor
[] Boots show visible signs of cleaning

For the lieutenant, I checked all the above. Now, I understand everyone has a role to play and sometimes that means not going outside the wire. I get it. But as a public affairs officer, she was, as Mike put it, spooling out the message to the media. In her five months in Iraq, it was her first time in the wild brown yonder. The AP reporters were pressing her about the improved security situation, namely the role the Sons of Iraq played in the new security apparatus. As a base dweller, it was patently impossible for her to see a SoI volunteer, much less work with one.

Sprinkled among the brass and reporters were pitifully dirty soldiers with very little rest. Their body armor vests were faded to a light brown hue like they were dragged behind a pickup on a dusty back road. Their desert tan boots bore shades of black that could only result from wallowing in the open sewers of Iraq's most deplorable slums. At their feet were myriad brass shell casings from firefights deadly and ubiquitous. Yet the public affairs officer enlightens the press of the situation on the ground. As it happened in Iraq 2007, so it happens in Afghanistan 2009. The story of the war is kept away from those intimately involved in favor of those far removed and easily corruptible. This is the starting point of ill-equipped soldiers getting killed: message control and a strong aversion to the realities of protracted counterinsurgency operations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tough Break

I haven't typed with one hand since I was a thirteen year old trying to figure out what a/s/l stood for, but here I am again. This past Saturday I was on my way to the Austin gun show (the biggest in Texas!), yet fate had a different plan that didn't involve trying to find a decently priced SKS. Just before my exit, I rear-ended a car that changed lanes a little too swiftly. My truck is a little banged up and I walked away with a broken arm. The other driver and his passenger were thankfully unhurt but came away with a ticket and liability for the accident. Unfortunately, I cannot type efficiently or quickly with a cast, which means I'll be incommunicado on this blog until my arm is once again unfettered. In the meantime, I suggest keeping up with the Joneses of the milblogging community. Any link found on the left sidebar should do the trick. Feel free to browse my archives, check out my photo album or follow me on Facebook while I'm out of commission. Thanks for stopping by.

Your humbly gimp wordsmith,


Edit 9/25/2009 5:PM - Welcome Michael Yon Twitter followers. I should take the time to update my current condition. My left arm (the dominant one) suffered direct trauma referred to as a nightstick fracture, "named because of the injury that results when attempting to block the downward blow of a nightstick with the raised forearm." My x-ray looked much like this:

My arm was put into an infantry blue cast yesterday. The doctor estimated it will be on for five weeks at least. The cast almost reaches my shoulder and is very obtrusive. As for my financial status, I'll be paid lost wages by the liable insurance company plus a small settlement.

Typing with my less dominant hand will take getting used to, but my speed and accuracy are greatly diminished. Homework will not be as fun as it was before the accident. Rest assured, though, by November I should be back to full strength, less one atrophied arm.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Empire Strikes Back: GI Bill Questions Answered

Not much has changed since I posted my love letter to the VA last week. Just from today's Facebook status updates I saw these messages from friends in my old company:

"VA has not finished processing my CH33 app after at least 2 months... now I'm stuck with the bill"

"VA can go to hell! I'm screwed...again..."

Many student veterans are still dealing with issues that are systemic of a large bureaucracy where answers to common questions are lost in the shuffle. The first and last contact for veterans is the school certifying official on their campus. As evidenced in my previous post, the professionalism and tenacity of these officials vary greatly from campus to campus. Some give wise advice, some go the extra mile for the veterans they assist. Some, like mine, laugh at legitimate questions and wait until the last minute to certify enrollment. As this generation of veterans is painfully realizing, you roll the dice any time you interact with the VA system.

Last week I had another opportunity to speak with Keith Wilson, the Veterans Benefits Administration Director of Education Service at the VA. I compiled a list of questions for him to answer, some from me, some from other veterans that have similar problems but haven't received satisfying answers.


Onto the questions, starting with the big one:

"When the hell am I getting paid, dammit?"

Not every veteran can piss and moan on a blog loud enough to get a VA official as high as Keith to handle their individual case. He gave me an approximate time frame to expect my housing allowance and stipend money. That is well and good, but what about everyone else? His reply: "First, the certifying official should have the same info I provided. If not available there, it is available by calling VA. Also, I'd be happy to put it on our web and Facebook pages. It should be up in a couple days."

My certifying official provides the same level of care you would expect from a Tijuana back alley vasectomy; he couldn't answer that question after the many calls, voice mails, emails, smoke signals and carrier pigeon messages I relayed to him. I figure I am not an isolated case and assume there must be more apathetic certifying officials out there. As an alternative, Keith recommends calling the VA. If you have three hours and your sanity to spare, give that a shot. The wait is excruciating when you have to juggle a commute, school and work daily, but you might be able to get answers to questions that your school official cannot (or will not) answer.

"How is the Chapter 33 housing allowance paid?"

After you get the first delayed check, expect to see the housing allowance paid just like Chapter 30 payments are made, just without the monthly certification (which will now be automatic). They will come a few days after the beginning of the month, and just like Chapter 30, are paid in arrears (which is hilariously defined as a "delay in payment"). When I asked why the payments are in arrears and not in "real time," Keith had this to say:

"All monthly Federal benefit checks I am aware of, including all recurring VA benefit payments, are paid in arrears. That is because the law requires the person be entitled (in our case having pursued and attended class) before payments can be made. In other words, we can't pay until classes have been attended."

In other words, registering for classes and buying expensive books no longer qualify as reliable indicators of ones interest in schooling. The government and the VA by proxy require a month's worth of sitting in a hard plastic chair to determine eligibility. Registration for the fall semester was open in June at my school. Presumably, I could sign up for classes, have my classes and enrollment certified and housing allowance figured more than two months before classes began. If I would drop a class, I would repay the money. There is already a system in place to deal with that; the VA sends you a bill or simply withholds the due amount the next time you are set to receive a payment. So why the delay? The government's logic is best explained by the most shrewd of businessmen, Whimpy:

"I'll gladly give you an IOU Tuesday for rent due today."

"Will the housing allowance be paid year round?"

No, only during the months you are enrolled in classes. That means if you take the summer off, you will not get paid housing for the months in between the spring and fall semesters. However, for the break in between fall and spring (Christmas break), the VA will "bridge" the gap and continue paying. The same thing goes for the break between the summer and fall semester if you are enrolled in both. The amount of housing allowance received isn't figured just on months accumulated on active duty and the amount of credit hours. The number of days you are enrolled in a particular month figures into the payment amount as well. For example, I took summer classes that ended August 13. The fall semester did not start until August 24, so for the month of August, I was in class twenty days. I will receive the maximum housing allowance payment. If I wouldn't have taken the summer semester, I would have been in class for seven days in August. The payment this September would have been prorated to only include housing for those seven days. At the time of the Q&A, Keith did not have an answer for the amount of enrollment days the VA considers high enough to give the maximum payment.

"What if I'm an overachiever and want to take summer classes? Will I get additional book stipend money to cover that period?"

Negative. The $1000 stipend for books and supplies is meant for a calender year, not an academic year. They figure that $500 a semester, fall and spring respectively, is enough to cover everything. They're correct if you buy your books used, online or rent them, but what about those of us who want to punish ourselves and opt for summer classes? There will be no additional funds handed out to summer semester students, so use your stipend wisely. I suggest putting the $1000 into a separate account so you don't drop it all on a new Kegerator. The $1000 will be paid in two payments of roughly $500 over the next few days (so I'm told). That means I will have to sit tight until next year for another stipend. You might have to dip into your housing allowance a little, but you should be able to stretch that money pretty far if you take the time to hunt for textbooks outside of your overpriced campus bookstore.

"Why did I get a letter asking me to not contact the VA in case I have a question or concern?"

The matter is being looked into. I've heard this a few times and it is particularly unsettling.

"What is taking so long? Didn't the VA anticipate a burden on the system?"

The VA was met with incredible demand for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Having said that, the VA has been playing catch-up since the bill became law a year ago. According to the AP, the process is done by hand and can take up to two hours to determine the benefits for a single veteran. Keith adds: "Processing claims is currently a labor intensive process due to the limited time allowed to set up this program (i.e. create and modify IT systems, etc). Therefore, VA has hired over 750 additional claims processors. This is a temporary measure because we are moving to an automated system that will require significantly less human interaction in the claims process. Doing so will require significantly less staff and, most importantly, will greatly improve claims processing speed. The system is currently scheduled for full deployment in December 2010."

This is pure speculation on my part, but this initial crush of applications would seem to be the greatest burden on the system. The process will not be automated until next year, but the number of new applications should drop considerably after this fall. With any luck, Chapter 33 applications will be processed in a timely fashion next spring and thereafter.


Like I said before, taking on the VA at any time is a gamble. Relying on them to cover your bills is an incredibly risky calculation. Making the switch from Chapter 30 to Chapter 33 this semester was a bad move on the part of many veterans, myself included. Tuition and rent due in August sit heavy on the chest of exhausted students who just want to go to school with few hassles as possible. Tuition payment and housing allowances are not bonuses or lavish gifts or superflous spending. They are benefits earned through sweat on the brow and blood in the sand. I understand that the VA is overtasked and doing the best they can with what they have. We are told that the system will be fixed soon. Unfortunately, promises do not keep the lights on, nor do they do little to assuage the worries of veterans who have earned the right for a little peace of mind.


Thanks to Keith Wilson for the generous use of his time answering my questions. If he isn't displeased at my remarks here, hopefully he can return to answer more specific questions that some of you may have. New media and the government should be operating in a way like this, and it shows a great deal of fortitude and transparency for an official like Keith to answer questions from us non-media folk.


Useful links:

The VA's GI Bill Homepage
IAVA's GI Bill Info Dump
IAVA's GI Bill Benefits Calculator

Friday, September 04, 2009

Through Amber Lenses, A Light

At times he must have been no more than two hundred feet from me, but I never had the privilege to meet Jordan Shay. Together we chewed up the most inhospitable terrain on earth, and back on Ft. Lewis, we worked daily in the same dilapidated Korean War era barracks. The only connection I shared with Jordan was through the comments section of his blog, which I keep linked on the top of the page under our unit crest. Though our companies faced a heated inter-battalion rivalry, Attack Company was always in the thick of combat with my company, Battle. They shouldered a far greater burden than us, sustaining eight KIAs to our two. Jordan, at 22 years old, saw more combat than a lot of crusty old vets before he could legally buy a beer. For his second combat tour with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, Jordan started a blog to chronicle his experience. He named it Through Amber Lenses, the color of his sunglasses. He wanted to explain to the world what he saw with a bright amber tint.

What I read when I checked his most recent comment section hit me straight in the gut. "RIP Jordan." I rushed to the DoD announcement page and found nothing. Through a Google search I confirmed my worst fear: Jordan Shay, 22 years young, killed in Iraq.

It will always be difficult to hear a Regular soldier has been killed, but to see Jordan leave us too soon hits me especially hard. I didn't know Jordan personally, but I knew him well. I understand his need to commit his thoughts to writing to share with the rest of us. He spoke of his teachers and his mother pushing him to write more. I'm eternally grateful for their efforts, and to Jordan to take them up on their challenge. We did not only lose a great soldier, but a gifted writer. We suffer doubly at his loss, for his talent bridged the gap of understanding between soldier and civilian. Jordan's time on earth allowed just sixteen posts to be written in the span of four months, but his writing was honest, measured and disciplined. He must have thought he was bound for something great, but he never realized he was already there.

The United States lost a brave soldier, and the military blog community lost a brave new voice. I ask that you take the time to read his blog from beginning to end. In his comments section, his girlfriend tells us the blog was important to him. I hope he realized how important it was to those who read it.

"We are respected in Baqubah. We are also feared. Our battalion has a fantastic opportunity to use these facts to our advantage and make a real difference before the withdrawal of all combat forces in the summer of next year. We made a difference in 2007, we could do it again in 2009. I fear we will not."

Rest easy, Jordan. You've made a difference to more than you know.

Update 9:00 PM central - The Department of Defense has officially announced the death of Jordan and fellow soldier SSG Todd Selge. Unlike Jordan, I met Todd at Javelin School on Ft. Lewis. He was a quiet professional, confident in his skills as a leader. I believe he graduated at the top of the class, but it would be no surprise if you had talked to the man for more than a minute. The nation is lesser for the loss of these two soldiers.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Politics of Purse Strings

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened." - The one true prophet, Obi-Wan Kenobi

When the Post 9/11 Bill passed through Congress with a veto-proof majority, I cheered. When it was signed into law, I was elated. But on August 1 of this year, when the bill went live after almost three years of legislation, hopes, dreams and well-wishes, I was silent. I did not want to commemorate a non-event as a moment of triumph. I took part in lobbying on Capitol Hill for the bill when it was just that - a scrap of paper that promised financial security in a post-Army life where almost everything feels uncertain and nebulous. I knew it would take at least a month after August 1 to see how it would play out. Through fears that the VA would fumble this rare opportunity to make good on a solemn promise made by FDR sixty-five years ago, I watched August crawl by, swept up in a lazy mosaic of final exams and term papers that capped a full semester. With the old GI Bill in hand and the new one on the way, I took a leap of faith. With my bank account dwindling and rent, utility bills, school tuition and other obligations on the table, coupled with the advice of my VA counselor, I bet it all on the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

And I lost.

A bit about the old GI Bill first. Most people generally misunderstand how the old GI Bill, hereafter referred to as Chapter 30, is paid to veterans. When a veteran enrolls in college, he must go to a VA counselor at the campus and fill out paperwork. First you must declare a major and select classes that specifically fulfill that major's criteria. I originally signed up for journalism, so I was restricted to only take core curriculum or journalism-centric classes. The amount of money received is calculated by the amount of semester hours taken. A full load of twelve hours with my optional pay-in (a kicker) of $600 yielded $1400 for every month enrolled. That money is paid directly to the student to pay for tuition, books, school fees and other expenses. If enrolled at a state school where tuition exceeded that amount, the difference is up to the student to make up.

The payments from Chapter 30 are retroactive by a month. For example, I started summer school in June, but my first payment was not made until the first week of July. I was paid for July the first week of August. This window does not allow for tuition to be paid when it is due, typically before classes start. The student must come up with that money on their own. Many veterans depend on Chapter 30 not only to pay for classes but for sustainability. That always-late payment is the difference between a warm bed and an eviction notice in many cases.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill, also known as Chapter 33, is more akin to the original GI Bill of 1944. Instead of a flat rate that fails to keep up with ever-rising tuition, the VA pays the school the tuition up front at the beginning of the semester and will pay up to the most expensive in-state school. Additionally, housing allowance equivalent to a married E-5 with dependents is paid to the student each month, based on the school's ZIP code. To sweeten the deal, a stipend of $1000 per year is paid to the student for books and other miscellaneous expenses. These payments go straight to the student, so if they can get their budgets in order, it can translate to a decent amount of pocket change to mitigate the burden of balancing full time loads of work and school.

Those education benefits are law - they must be dished out for anyone who qualifies for them. But the unstoppable force of government mandates did not anticipate the immovable object that oversees the transition from Chapter 30 to Chapter 33 - the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Despite Chapter 33 becoming law more than a year ago, the VA, in a signature move, was slow to implement rules and conditions that clearly defined how and what veteran students would be paid. Even though they anticipated a huge upswing in applications, they did not start accepting paperwork on Chapter 33 until July. Now they're getting crushed with a six week backlog, but the VA staffers aren't the ones suffering with the surge of applications, the students are.

Under the old bill, Chapter 30, the student must call a hot line on the last day of the month to certify that their status has not changed since the previous month. The payment is then sent to the student in seven to ten days. It has become a ritual for veteran students, a promise to see that beautiful deposit in a week's time. But today, some who have submitted paperwork for Chapter 33 might find the certification for Chapter 30 a bit of a challenge. My school's VA counselor assured a seamless transition - he told me those who were switching over would get paid for the months they already paid tuition for. Once again, someone forgot to forward the memo. Since my claim for Chapter 33 is still being processed, I'm locked out of Chapter 30. Even though I paid for the summer semester, I am not getting paid for August. My case is in limbo, familiar territory for the VA. My bills, on the other hand, are very clearly defined. They pile up as fast as the VA's backlogs.

The VA counselors at my school buy salt in bulk to pour into the wounds of the students they are purported to serve. One in particular lambasts me whenever I call with a legitimate question regarding veteran benefits. With his trademark condescending tone, he sharply rebuked my questions about a delay in payments, suggesting that I should have been following the news of backlogged certifications, despite his assurance that the transition would not allow a payment disparity. Oh, to be tongue-lashed for not doing his job for him! He heartily laughed at my question of when to expect my next payment. In that brief moment, he acknowledged the absurdity of my situation - he didn't know, and there is no way to find out. He could not even venture a guess but did not rule out weeks or even a month. The check is in the mail, I am told. That old line doesn't work for my landlord, and it wouldn't get past my utility company. But for the government agency responsible for the benefits going out to the men and women who have served this country in a time of war, with the basic sustenance of thousands of veterans in the balance, it's business as usual.

I believe in the idea that people get the government they deserve. But do veterans get the VA they deserve? How many obscene scandals, misappropriations and misdiagnoses does it take to see there's a rotten core at the center? The VA's budget shot up and Shienseki was brought in to clean house. I'm waiting for answers from him while racking up a lot more questions.

From the Huffington Post, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki:

We face tremendous uncertainties and challenges as a Nation--economic, diplomatic, environmental, and social. We need motivated, energetic and highly educated young people to help us find solutions. We need to find ways, as America has before, to turn uncertainty into opportunity. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is a very good place to start.

Update: September 1, 1 PM - Within hours of this post going live, I was given the opportunity to discuss my situation with Keith Wilson, the Veterans Benefits Administration Director of Education Service at the VA. Keith was eager to assist me with my situation and is looking into the matter. I still have many questions to ask, not only for myself but on the behalf of other veterans who find themselves between a rock and the VA. I will keep you all updated, but in the meantime, fellow student veterans, use the comments section or my email (hortonhearsit at hotmail dot com) to send me questions or concerns you may have. The more detailed the picture I can present to the head honchos, the better they will be at finding solutions.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lockheed Martin's "hard to tip over" vehicle tips over during demonstration

The Titanic of the ground tipped over during a media demonstration of Lockheed Martin's combat vehicle, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. The vehicle will likely replace Humvees for the Army and Marines. For some reason, they let a journalist test drive the vehicle. "Coming to you live from my broken femur!"

Couldn't they just put a turret in a Canyonero and save us a few million bucks?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

5th Stryker Brigade hits Afghan dirt

As the 3rd Stryker Brigade arrives in Kuwait, the 5th Stryker Brigade is boots on the ground in Afghanistan. The News Tribune sends along a few AP photos on base and outside the wire. The captions reveal their location as Spin Baldak, a city "about 63 miles southeast of Kandahar." Their proximity to Kandahar isn't as important as their distance from Pakistan. It's a town about five miles from the Durant Line and the second major entry point for Afghanistan and Pakistan. This location might be an indicator of 5th Brigade's mission in the coming months.

(H/T: Stryker News.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Gamble

From behind his chip stack, Dozer looked unbeatable.

The nightly Mosul poker game saw the regulars leave in a predictable fashion. Mark built up a strong stack in the most unlikely string of winning hands, only to fall after his luck ran out. Steve played tight to his chest as his chips slowly melted into other stacks. Bill let it ride one too many times, sipping Mountain Dew as the other players siphoned his chips. Dozer and I emerged with nearly equal stacks in a game of head-to-head poker. A full poker game means playing the cards you're dealt. In head-to-head, the cards are almost irrelevant. You play the man, using your chips as a battle ax or a scalpel, depending on your playing style. In just a few rounds, his chips barely outnumbered mine. I chose to use the battle ax.

I peeked underneath my fingers before the flop. Pocket twos. Not ideal for a pocket, but a pair off the bat is a good place to start. The flop came out: 2-3-J. Three of a kind! I maintained my cool and placed a healthy bet. Dozer immediately called. I quickly assumed he was holding another Jack. He rarely bluffs, and with a slim lead, he didn't have to. The turn came: 7. Just what I wanted to see. Even if he held two pair, it didn't beat my three of a kind. I bet even larger than before. Without hesitation, Dozer raised. That threw me off. What the hell was he holding? I called his raise, less confident this time.

A nine flopped on the river. My tensions cooled. Staring at the big pot, I decided to go for the gold and make a big dent in Dozer's stack. "All in," I said, a hint of arrogance carried from my throat. Dozer didn't even hesitate. "Call." I flipped my cards over and pushed them forward, expecting to see a frown appear over his face. "Three of a kind twos, dude." Dozer still shielded his cards from view. He erupted in laughter. "No way dude!" He tossed his cards toward the pot. Pocket threes. His three of a kind threes beat my twos. Holy shit.

The countless poker games in Iraq weren't so much about the money as they were about escapism. Once you get on that plane, there is no going back unless you're injured or dead. The heat, the dust, that saccharine septic smell - it swirls overhead like a black cloud. Distractions like poker and endless DVD libraries prove to be valuable tools to keep that overwhelming feeling from slowly eroding morale into dust. Outside the wire was the time to take it all in, to be masters of our own senses. Back on base though, one has to relax. Tension, they say, is a killer.

The Third Stryker Brigade is in the process of heading back to Iraq for the third time in six years. The brigade has proven itself in combat - From Tal Afar, Samarra and Mosul in 2003-2004, to Mosul, Baghdad and Baqubah in 2006-2007. My old company, Bravo 5/20, has been the tip of the spear in both deployments. Bravo company was legendary in its recovery of a Kiowa helicopter in 2005, a story later made into a documentary on the Military Channel. In March of 2007, Bravo Company, along with Alpha and Headquarters Company, moved into Baqubah to take it back from al-Qaeda in Iraq. What ensued in those bloody months form the core of this blog and forever shaped the lives of the men who were there.

5/20 has seen more than its fair share of combat in Iraq. For once, I hope their tour is memorable for all night poker sessions and gathering around a small TV at three in the morning to watch the Super Bowl. I hope firefights this tour are as showers were the last tour. The first thing I want to hear when Bravo Company 5/20 returns is "Man, that tour was fucking boring." 5/20 is notorious for finding trouble. This tour, I'm praying they find time to play poker so I can hear all the great stories of full houses beating flushes. I want pranks and jokes to be what the men come back with. We've seen enough scars, thrashed minds and body bags. We've heard Taps far too many times.

I dug up this video from the waning months of our deployment. It's all doom and gloom (typical of the media), but there are moments of hilarity featuring the Snack Master. Second platoon, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

Good luck, Bravo Company. I wish you all the best and I'll be following your tour closely. Bring it home, and I'll see you on the other side.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It IS a drug

For the many things The Hurt Locker got wrong from a technical standpoint, they nailed the epitaph 'War is a drug':

"In the first years after returning from deployment, veterans of the two wars are 75 percent more likely to die in motor vehicle accidents than civilians of comparable age, race, and sex, according to a 2008 VA study. The rate for motorcycle deaths is an astounding 148 percent higher."

I never had a speeding ticket until I came home from Iraq. Now I have five. The hefty fines have taught me a lesson, but the guys and gals who can flash their military IDs and get off with a warning are at great risk. It's a tragedy to have someone come home from combat only to get splattered across the highway. I'm glad the VA is taking steps to mitigate the problem, but this is an issue of readjustment and mortality. Asking soldiers to slow down on their crotch rockets is akin to rewiring their brain out of combat mode. It isn't that easy, and sadly, these accidents will continue.

Friday, July 24, 2009

War movies and the public

If you live in the greater Milwaukee area, be sure to pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel today. There is a great discussion about the public perception of war movies in the entertainment section. It's an interesting read, regardless of the small detail of my name (Alex Norton?).

Pick up a copy today and do your part to save journalism from its last throes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker

Warning: There are minor spoilers below. Read at your own risk.

Enjoying a good war movie after you've been there, done that requires a bit of finesse. The casual moviegoer doesn't watch closely for errors in rank, patches, vernacular or procedure. They simply want to be entertained for a couple of hours. A veteran, conversely, is tortured with an onslaught of technical blunders that the average viewer will miss. Filmmakers must walk a tightrope to appease both sides; technical and accurate enough for the discriminating military crowd but still accessible to viewers who don't know the difference between CAS and SAF. So far, no Iraq-themed movies have walked that fine line. The bar has been set ridiculously low; Redacted, the reigning champ of tasteless war movies, makes Stop Loss look like A Bridge Too Far. But don't let the sad state of Iraq movies keep you away from the cineplex this week. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is not without its narrative problems, but it's a solid and dramatic entry that can satisfy both sides of the fence.

The story follows a three man team of EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) techs in the final month of their deployment in Baghdad in 2004. The team is headed by SSG James (Jeremy Renner), a reckless cowboy that routinely puts his life and the lives of his men in constant danger. The movie's epitaph lingers on the screen long after the words fade. War is a drug. It is clear from James' first mission that he feeds off the adrenaline rush of bomb defusing at any cost. When he should be wearing his suit or utilizing a remote-driven robot, James goes right for his clippers, wearing nothing more than his uniform. His two subordinates, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghy), quickly grow weary of James' vigilante ways. As James becomes more cavalier with his work, the calendar slowly crawls toward the date they are supposed to redeploy. Sanborn and Eldridge briefly discuss fragging James to save their own skins. With James in charge, they figure, it's only a matter of time before they get killed.

The way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd. The three men drive alone, all over Baghdad and its periphery, in a single Humvee. No escorts, no convoy, just a gun truck and three soldiers. To leave a FOB in the real world, you need a minimum of three trucks, and even that is stretching it. In one scene, the solitary truck arrives on an empty street where soldiers should be setting a cordon. James, puzzled by an empty Humvee in the road, finds an infantry platoon hunkered down in a courtyard like a box full of helpless puppies. One of them manages to point him in the direction of a suspected VBIED. Only then do soldiers beyond the EOD trio emerge to cordon off the area and evacuate local Iraqis.

In a later scene, James leaves the base by himself to confront an Iraqi man about a local boy that peddles DVDs on the base. I had to bite my tongue from erupting in laughter when James, left by his hostage taxi driver, had to run all the way back to base dressed in fatigues and a sweatshirt. He couldn't have been more obvious if he had shot his pistol into the air and shouted, "COME AND GET ME!" His life expectancy would have been measured in seconds by that point.

I understand why Bigelow kept scenes mostly free of extras. The audience can only take so many characters in combat gear before they all start looking the same. Directing EOD to a possible bomb is tricky and cumbersome in combat. Striving for complete accuracy by showing each step of the way would bog down a movie that relies on suspenseful and a fluid narrative. The time between finding an IED and its eventual destruction can flow into hours of tedium that climax into a few moments of spectacular explosions. The script is taut and disciplined, willing to trim away the superfluous moments and get to the core of what EOD techs do. The rest of the war drops away in the margins and the audience is left with the essence of three men doing incredibly dangerous work. There is no war, or even earth, beyond the cordon. Just three soldiers left to tinker with homemade destruction.

My chief complaint about the film is that it goes too far with this view. Besides a scene with a team of mercenaries, the team is alone outside the wire constantly. Civilians can overlook that, but those with field experience might be rolling their eyes at yet another scene involving James cutting the right wire just in time. I've seen dozens of controlled detonations, and I can't think of any that had an EOD tech waltzing up to the bomb to clip wires. That's what the robot is for. It does happen, but not as frequently as the writer has you believe.

In one of the final scenes, the team is called out to assess the damage of a VBIED detonation. James spots a possible escape route for the triggerman, and in a wildly implausible decision, takes his team into three separate alleys in the dead of night. Shockingly, one of the men is nearly carted off by militants. Instead of a close call changing the way James thinks about his leadership, he keeps on with his reckless self. In the end he learns nothing. Of course, who knows what happens when he comes back to the FOB to find a stack of Article 15s.

I don't think it was out of neglect that such unrealistic moments crept into a generally realistic movie. I applaud the efforts of the technical advisers that worked on this film. The movement of the soldiers, particularly inside an IED factory, was textbook perfect. They operated in concert, double clearing hallways and moving with an air of urgency and flow. Combat scenes from Home of the Brave and Redacted looked like they were filmed in Brian de Palma's backyard. The Hurt Locker, filmed in Jordan, has an authentic feeling that is light years ahead of any Iraq movie released. They nailed the environment, the crushing paranoia of watching Iraqi bystanders eyeballing you, everything.

Toward the end of the film, James is back home, crippled with Sudden Civilian Syndrome. He gazes at a wall of breakfast cereals in a grocery store, confounded about the sheer amount of choice. It is here where we see James suffering from combat withdrawal. In Iraq he was on his game, disarming bombs with a few snips. The EOD suit he wears is his real skin. When it comes off, he's an alien on a planet he doesn't understand. As he explains to his infant son, there is only one thing he loves in the world. His body is home safe, but his heart and mind are still in the desert.

The (few) criticisms I've read are largely without merit. From Breitbart's Big Hollywood, dueling bozos of bromance Alexander Marlow and John Nolte both decry the characterization of Iraqis in the movie. This is a part of the narrative that should follow reality as close as possible, and it succeeds for the most part. Outside the wire, you shake kid's hands, you kick around a soccer ball and you act like a decent human being. But not for one second should your guard come down when it comes to the locals. Nolte feigns outrage about a scene involving a taxi driver running a roadblock. After a tense standoff, a soldier takes down the driver and violently handcuffs him. With what I imagine is a straight face, Nolte takes umbrage with the quote, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now." Man, that was a favorite joke of mine! I said that about a man who owned a courtyard where I found two Molotov cocktails. Moments before he opened his trunk for us. It was full of whiskey, a rarity to see in a Muslim country. We laughed and pretended to stumble around drunk, but after I found those cocktails and the IP shoved his face into a brick wall, we weren't laughing anymore. I joked that next time, there would be a spring loaded boxing glove that came out.

Nolte doesn't realize that most people weren't too happy to see us, or consider the possibility that combat operations are a societal irritant. No, that is too complex a notion. He just decides to phone it in as a liberal slight and call it a day. There must be a shortage of veterans in West Hollywood (tip: if someone describes their residence with a cardinal direction, they probably have a gargantuan chip on their shoulder). Nolte could have passed his hissy fit about Iraqis to someone who knew what they were talking about. Quoth the Noltmeister: "The [Iraqi] men are alternately terrorists, a menacing presence, victims, the butt of jokes or utterly clueless." The movie is about guys who go find bombs buried in the road. What kind of person lingers around that environment John? You guessed it. Terrorists, menacing civilians, victims and clueless people.

I can agree with Marlow and Nolte that the order from a full bird to let an insurgent bleed to death is out of place, poorly staged and irrelevant to the plot. I could see what they were going for, but it translated horribly to the screen. Things like that do happen, as some of you might remember (long story short: we watched some insurgents bleed to death, and we watched a blindfolded guy die in slow agony after his house exploded and fell on top of him). A field grade officer ordering his men to let an insurgent bleed out is over the line though, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.

It's a shame some people can't look past their narrow view to enjoy the best Iraq movie to date. Though flawed with a serious case of the WTFs, The Hurt Locker more than makes up for it with technical prowess and unbelievably tense moments. In the only theater in Austin currently playing the movie, I heard a steady stream of gasps and "Oh shit!" moments in a nearly packed house. That kind of audience involvement is a testament to how well crafted the story is, regardless of the basic absurdity of the plot. General moviegoers will have plenty to rave about, and seasoned vets can walk away satisfied if they willfully suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours. I'm sure your wife or girlfriend won't mind that you stop whispering "That totally wouldn't happen" every five minutes.

Final Verdict: 3 1/2 Burning Cars out of 5

Update: West Hollywood is a town apart from Hollywood? Holy crap. I guess H-Town reached critical mass of people like John Nolte. A Manifest Douchery, westward to the sea!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

High Crimes

There aren't many things that instantly burn me up, but Ralph Peters just bested his personal low with remarks so outrageously ballsy it's difficult not to admire his brazen viciousness. The skinny-chested, former lieutenant colonel REMF spewed his bile all over the Fox newsroom yesterday, calling for the Taliban to execute captured American soldier Bowe Berghdal:

In his mad rush to condemn Berghdal, Peters disregards those pesky laws about jury by trial and gets down to the nitty gritty of the situation. Instead of the current rescue operations to bring Berghdal back alive, he cooly suggests the Taliban could save us "a lot of legal hassle and a lot of legal bills." A cursory search of his work will yield a lot about killing. Killing prisoners, killing journalists. His Wikipedia entry reveals the softer side of his military career. He enlisted in 1976, a year after the Vietnam War ended. What the hell was he up to before that? Must have been a writing a sequel to Dave Grossman's book - On Killing (Except In War, and Except By Me).

The story of Berghdal's disappearance and subsequent capture has been shrouded in mystery since the story broke. Berghdal himself says he was captured after lagging behind on a patrol, but some have suggested he simply deserted, citing unverifiable sources. Berghdal's story of his capture sounds ridiculously fishy. But it's not up to anyone, certainly not a coward like Peters, to condemn this soldier. The true story doesn't matter right now, Berghdal's safe recovery does. If he deserted his unit in the middle of the night, especially in the midst of the huge offensive in Afghanistan, he belongs in the brig until the walls crumble into dust. In the end though, no one gets left behind, especially in the hands of fanatics. Peters would have learned that if he didn't spend his career licking boots in Germany. He has handed the Taliban a golden goose eggs of propaganda. Such division and apathy are exactly what the Taliban and al-Qaeda hope to achieve in the US. It's like that old joke about an American soldier messing up so bad he was awarded an Iron Cross. Peters is meeting the Taliban retention quota with gusto.

We don't know if Berghdal is guilty of desertion and defection, but I have seen with my own eyes a citizen calling for an American soldier to be killed by militants. Peters qualifies for an involuntary inversion from a lightpole a tad bit more than a soldier captured under nebulous circumstances.

Get the man back safely. The hows and whys come later.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Informative, Corny Post 9/11 GI Bill video

For those still on the fence about which GI Bill to partake in:

Keep in mind this new bill is not a silver bullet. You might be better off sticking with the old GI Bill. Do some research and see which one suits you better. If you are close to exhuasting the old one, stick with it. You can get a 12 month extension with the Post 9/11 Bill only if you completely use Chapter 30. And if you live in California, move somewhere else.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Haiku Review: Redacted

Redacted (2007):

Modern snuff disgusts

De Palma disposes talent

For outlandish farce

(I'll be seeing The Hurt Locker later tonight. Expect to see an unabridged review sometime soon.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Haiku Review: Home of the Brave

Home of the Brave (2006):

War drama derails

Despite genuine intentions

50 Cent sucks at acting too

(Tomorrow, the final haiku review of the reprehensible Redacted.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Haiku Review: Stop Loss

Stop Loss (2008):

Requisite drawl here

Back door draft is plot device

Phillipe runs from script

(Tommorow: Home of The Brave.)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Haiku Review: In The Valley of Elah

In The Valley of Elah (2007):

Soldiers behave badly

Dubious characters aplenty

Audience cruelly suffers

(Tomorrow: Stop Loss.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

All Quiet on the Celluloid Front

I always liked movies as much as the next kid growing up. I remember watching Batman Returns every Saturday morning until the tape nearly gave out. But I never moved beyond a general interest of film until I watched The Usual Suspects and The Godfather back to back one unforgettable afternoon. From them on I couldn't get enough of movies. Old or classic, color or black & white, foreign or domestic - I overtook my parent's Netflix account and drowned the queue in every film I researched. Pretty soon I was renting 25 to 30 movies a month. My high school grades were inversely related to the amount of movies I watched - Fellini and Kurosawa soon replaced Algebra and English. I didn't mind; I was still getting a good education.

Digging through my film library, you will find war movies sprinkled liberally among French New Wave and Quentin Tarantino movies. From Paths of Glory to Black Hawk Down, I cannot resist a good war yarn, which brings me to the question of the day: Why do the few Iraq-based movies suck worse than an asthmatic prostitute? Can a war movie be good without waiting for an honest historical perspective? It took three years after Vietnam for The Deer Hunter to come out. Based on what I've seen, it might take the end of the war in Iraq to produce a good movie about Iraq.

My grades have improved since high school, but unfortunately the time dedicated to watching (and reviewing) movies has been greatly diminished. But in anticipation for the release of The Hurt Locker on Friday, I will take one for the team and review a few of the currently released Iraq war movies in the form of haiku. It turns out the Japanese are good for things beyond tentacle porn.

Please come back tomorrow for the haiku review of In The Valley of Elah. As for The Hurt Locker, I intend to review it in more than seventeen syllables when I see it this weekend.