Monday, February 02, 2009

Best of Friends

The two car convoy came to a stop at the departure section of the Seattle International Airport. With the engine running, I climbed out of the car and waited on the sidewalk as Steve grabbed his bags from the trunk of Chris' car. The loudspeakers reminded us to make it quick - "This area for loading or unloading only" played on a constant loop as security guards leered in our direction. After seeing Steve nearly every single day for three years, I was there to see him off on his one way trip back home to Chicago. The brisk December wind whisked around us as we cracked our final jokes together. Being tough infantry types, I thought a couple of handshakes and a "Later, dude" would be enough before we parted ways. Instead, Chris and Steve came together for an emotional embrace. Then it was my turn to hug my best friend for the first and only time. "Take it easy, man." My voice cracked as the words came out. He turned and walked through the automatic door, leaving Chris and me on the sidewalk.

With a heavy heart, I got back into my car and headed back to Fort Lewis. In less than five minutes my pocket began to buzz. I pulled out my cellphone and saw a new text from Steve.

"I miss you guys already."

**

Nearly everyone I knew in the Army had one inseparable friend that they were around constantly. Steve was that person for me. We grew up a thousand miles away from each other but our paths were nearly identical. We both came from working class families and grew up on Nintendo and action movies. We joined the Army for many of the same reasons, mostly money for college that we didn't dare ask our parents for. What made us connect at the beginning was our intense love for debate and reasoning. For hours we could argue about anything. On a train from Geneva to Rome during our two weeks of leave, we debated for more than an hour about the main ingredient of salad. Anyone from my platoon can attest to our spirited, three year long argument about which band was better, The Eagles or Led Zeppelin. Of course it's Zep, but we're currently in a stalemate.

At the many combat outposts that we inhabited in Iraq, Steve and I talked about what we'd do after the Army. We both decided that one tour was enough and that higher education would be the next chapter in our lives. He wanted to be an architect and I wanted to write. We yearned to create something after wallowing in death and destruction for more than a year. The plan was simple: take the GI Bill and run with it.

After coming home from Iraq we started the separation process together, running all over post to collect requisite signatures and dodge work at the barracks whenever possible. We sat through countless briefings that warned us about the perils of getting tossed into the IRR, a group of inactive soldiers that can be activated individually and mobilized for duty in Iraq. To get out of it, one simply needed to join the Guard or Reserve and get exemption from deployments. Steve and I both had a few promises broken by the Army, so we weren't going to be fooled once more. We decided to take our chances, load up the IRR revolver, and pull the trigger.

There is no warning that a former soldier is about to be recalled. There is no way of knowing that the game of Russian Roulette is over and your brains are splattered all over the wall. There is only an unassuming brown envelope left on the front porch to say what is already known: Uncle Sam doesn't run out of bullets.

**
Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in.

-Michael Corleone


I was at work when my pocket sent out a cheerful tone alerting me of a new text message. I pulled out my phone to see a new message from Steve. I figured it was some trivia question. I could tell he carried his debating persona back home from the messages he sent me. He asked about actors in movies and lesser known points of history that must have come up in discussions with his friends. I opened it to see that it had nothing to do with trivia.

"I just got official orders to go back dude."

My knees almost gave way after reading and rereading the message. I called him right away to offer any kind of help I could. As the phone rang, I looked down at my silver KIA bracelet and ran my fingers over the etched lettering - CPL BRIAN L. CHEVALIER 14 MARCH 2007 BAQUBAH, IRAQ.

A thousand miles away, Steve was wearing the same bracelet.

I relayed to Steve all the information I had gathered on the IRR. I spent countless hours hunched over my computer researching IRR callups, a challenge considering the intentionally scant information put out by the DoD and Army Human Resources Command. I told him to sign up for any classes, get a doctor's note for any condition, anything that could delay or exempt him from mobilization. There is no shame in it. Steve volunteered during a war, knowing that he would be sent into combat. Not only combat ensued, but the bloodiest fight in Iraq since Fallujah. Steve did his time, and more. His place is at home, not on the battlefield anymore.

By way of Lt. Nixon, Thomas Ricks notes a Pentagon study that reveals troop levels have remained relatively the same since 9/11. A more alarming statistic: 6% of active duty troops have served more than 25 months in a combat zone while 74% have less than twelve months in. The study concludes that the lower to mid enlisted and company grade officers are carrying the most burden. Senior officers and NCOs are hiding like cockroaches in the cracks of TRADOC posts and non-deployable slots while lower level soldiers march to the steady drumbeat of repeated deployments, failed marriages and ever-mounting cases of suicide. On top of that, the IRR continues to mobilize soldiers that have moved on, going to school or beginning careers and families. The only way to lessen the burden is to grow the size of the force. One idea: take the database of the newly minted Red State Strike Force members and dump them into mobilization slots. Those pathetic goons want to wear patches styled after special forces to fight on a battlefield of snark. They want to organize. I can think of no better way to organize than a shout of, "Dress right, dress!" The slack has to be picked up somewhere, lest our forces remain so broken that we must rely on involuntary callups to get bodies to the fight.

Steve's future hangs in the balance. School has been put on hold until a review board decides if he is fit to go back to Iraq. I have described the looming threat of recall as an ubiquitous afterthought, constantly degrading the sense of normalcy and safety as the days pile on. Now that recall has manifested itself as a clumsy destroyer of futures, the feeling has changed. Not only mental, the dread has become physical, hanging in my stomach like a sharply cornered anvil. My old infantry sore spots - back, knees and ankles - throb in a dull ache. The burden is back squarely on my shoulders, but I cannot imagine what Steve is feeling right now. I just know that as his best friend, a thousand miles away, I must carry some for him.

A few days after getting Steve's text, I got a call from our buddy Mark. We were the three biggest poker fiends in the platoon, always at the table no matter the time or the buy-in. He said to me, "You better sit down before I tell you this."

"Is it about Steve?", I asked.

"What about Steve?"

"He got recalled a couple of days ago. Got his orders in the mail."

"Fuck, I did too!", he shouted into the phone. "They got me. They got me."

**

As the weeks and months tick off the calendar, the game of Russian Roulette claims more soldiers foolish enough to play. It was nearly manageable to keep the thoughts of recall at bay before my friends started to get sucked in. Now, a family in in the suburbs of Chicago is contemplating what the future might bring for their son. The same is happening in the hills of Ohio and in cities and towns across the country. The burden that veterans carry may lessen, but it comes back with a terrible vengeance. All it takes is one envelope to throw a life off a path that was so delicately created in the humid and dust-choked outposts of Iraq.


32 comments:

Alex said...

Want to do something about involuntary mobilizations? Call your senator or send him/her an email and keep following up. Below is a pre-written form to send, but you are always welcome to use your own:

Dear _____,

Since 2004, the Army and Marines have used involuntary mobilizations to augment the size of forces in Iraq. The IRR (Individual Ready Reserve) is only to be used in a state of emergency, but recalls been steadily increasing at an alarming rate. The new administration has laid out plans to draw down forces in Iraq, but the recalls continue. The policy amounts to little more than a back-door draft that adversely impacts veterans that have served honorably since Sept 11. Soldiers realize the risk of recall by entering the Individual Ready Reserve, but it is the characterization of Iraq as an emergency situation that is the problem. The focus should be on the growth of our active duty force instead of calling up veterans that have since started families, jobs and education after coming home from one if not many combat deployments. President Obama suggested on the campaign trail that the IRR mobilizations would end if he would become president. It’s time to hold him to his word.

Sincerely,

_______

Ms. Missive said...

Great post, Alex.

How much time between deployments did your buddies have before they got recalled?

Jeff said...

One of your most powerful posts to date. Well done!

Write to President Obama as well. He campaigned on the promise that he wouldn't pull a McCain and send more troops into the Middle East. It's time for him to keep at least one promise.

Dad

Mil_Trucker said...

I know it's not something your interested in, but you may be able to find a "local" Guard unit that recently deployed... it's a "safe" hide-out for about 1-2 years... but it's about a three year turn around for most units, and in my case I jumped into the wrong one... so I guess for all of us, even those who try to use the guard, the hammer is pulled back, and we wait for the click.

13 Stoploss said...

Dude'age,

I fell for it. I raised my hand when I swore that I never again would. It prolonged some of the pain. I had to work weekends when I would have had other plans. I sucked it up, and did more than I was asked. I did what I felt was right, even if I don't feel the way it was carried out was right.

In the end, it was a hassle. They tried to screw me yet again. But, it worked. The extra little that I did sealed it, and I now don't have to worry about the envelope in the mail. I did so, to avoid the things you describe now. I hope your buddies can gracefully and adeptly steer away from their steamin' pile. Maybe there is "hope?" Or has that hope just shifted the shit pile to Afghanistan?

Good luck.

BTW, without question, Zep was, and is the greatest.

mamalew said...

Thank you Alex - for being Steven's friend and for blogging about this. I am his mom and I can't begin to tell you and anyone else reading this how heartsick I am over this. It's not about me though - and I can only stand by helplessly and wonder about my son and what he's going through. We are doing what we can but it just seems like so little and it almost seems hopeless. The paperwork and the research, what seems like endless worries. I just don't understand - why? I am a very proud mother - I take pride in my son and all of you for the bravery you have shown and the service you have done for our country. I just feel that enough is enough. I want him to get on with his life and get his degree - to be what he wants to be.

Anyway - thanks again for the blog and for being there when Steven needed/needs you - you are a very special friend.

Teresa

Patty Peyton said...

Sitting here, reading your blog, foot-tapping as the Doobie Brothers played on the stereo, when one sentence stopped my foot and my heart and brought my pleasant evening to a halt.

What's happening to your buddies, and threatening you, is just SO WRONG it makes me crazy.

Always been a letter writing fool, even when I knew it would land me on someone's "list" (read: Nixon) so count on me for a blitz from here. Humm, thinking here - perhaps thats why the AF turned me down! At least one letter and reply and re-reply on file in Washington,DC. I was nothing if not tenacious in those days!

Anyway. Every day Military.com tells us about all the problems suffered by our soldiers and their loved ones, a direct consequence of our undermanned military - thank you, President Clinton.

But I wasn't aware of the statistic you quoted - the number of military who DON'T DEPLOY AT ALL! Sounds to me like the military's top-heavy if there are too few depolyable troops to avoid repeated deployments for the men and women at the bottom of the food chain. I wonder how many of the higher-ups have ever actually faced conflict of any kind.

ISN'T ANYBODY IN WASHINGTON PAYING ATTENTION???

I don't get it. Dad was an LC when he was sent to Vietnam. If the old farts were good enough for Vietnam, surely today's old farts are good enough for whatever we're dealing with now. Ah, but those old farts already had a couple of wars under their collective belts.

I know nothing can remove that anvil from your stomach or ease the worry the two of you are faced with now. As if the neighborhood in itself weren't enough!

Please know that you have lots of readers who are waiting with you and praying the dreadful missive doesn't find its way to you. REALLY. PRAYING.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop. God.

PS: what happens if the letter just doesn't find you??

Alex said...

Teresa,

You're welcome. I'm just doing my job, as you are. I can't imagine my own mother in your situation. Hopefully soon it will be worked out and Steve will be left with his own future to create as he sees fit.

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
Well at first I was so happy to see that you had a new post and then as I read on, I wasn't so happy anymore. This whole IRR thing is just horrible. Is your friend Steve still trying to fight the order to return? Have you read Colby Buzzell's Esquire article about when he got the recall orders? It is very good and may be of some help to your friend Steve.

The only words I can use to express my anger over this would involve some very unlady-like words containing a lot of hard consonants like f,c, and k!! My heart is heavy for you Alex and your best buddies too! It is really quite unreal that two of your close friends have just "randomly" been recalled. The comment by Steve's mom just makes me want to cry for her sorrow, pain, and feelings of helplessness are so tangible in her words. 13 Stoploss put it right out there in his usual straight forward way...and yes this is a big shit pile of enormous proportions!

I will write to my Congressman but, what this subject needs is more PUBLIC SCRUTINY!!! Do you have any connections in the writing/radio/news broadcasting world that can get this story out? I don't know where Steve lives, but, someone needs to start beating the bushes on his behalf and get this story out in his hometown. I don't think this headline would go over to well:
"Hometown Hero Forced To Return to Iraq. President Obama Turns Blind Eye To Back Door Draft!" Oh how quickly we forget our campaign promises...President Obama where are you??

Getting that horrible envelope is like the US Army declaring war on you! You need to plan your defense and get ready to use every ounce of strength you have to FIGHT BACK using whatever weapons are at your disposal. Don't let them back you or your friends into a corner. In the words of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, "Nobody puts Baby in a corner!"

Let's get ready to rumble.

Tim Strickland said...

Great post, Dude...

Change you can count on? Barack keep promises? Dad has it right... Write directly to the Chosen One. He can do more about this than Senators or Representatives.

Tim

Bradley said...

Sorry your friends got caught in the net, but thats the risk of being a soldier.

Hopefully the Military will start paying attention to the dwell time of some soldiers, and put the long dwell time (say 48 months or more) and move them to the top of the deploy list.

Hope you and your friends stay safe, and get back soon.

From an old signal puke.

Alex said...

bigD,

As usual, keen insight from you. I think you have it right with getting this story out. I'll see what I can do about drafting something up and getting it out there.

Tim,

Change, indeed. Obama needs to get cracking on this before his reputation of Just Another Politician is set in stone.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/03/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

The Usual Suspect said...

MotherFUCKER! 5/2 has been sitting on North Fort for what, three years now? 3rd is going AGAIN and fuck knows with my unit. Whispers and shit up in the air.

They NEEEED us? You fucking kidding me? Baqubah from what I've heard is almost, if not completely handed over to the IA. But no, they need US because no one else will enlist. You're right about it being Russian roulette.

I don't even KNOW these guys and I'm raging. Why the fuck can't they just reclass some fobbits? Or just send them out as they are, cuz if you ask me, most of it is common sense.

Keep me posted on the IRR.

membrain said...

This truly sucks Alex. You and your friends have my sympathy. bigD does probably have the best advice that I've seen here.

I read what CB had to go through with the IRR and it's machinery and it's not a pretty story.

I hope everything works out well for your friends. I hope you don't get a letter.

Take care.

Long-time RN said...

Thanks for posting the letter, Alex, I'll put it to use. Hope you find a media outlet regarding this bullshit. Keep us updated please.

Anonymous said...

My experience was the following,
i signed a 6 year Army Reserve contract @ 17, on top of that the contract included 2 years in the IRR (8 total). How did it turn out? I served 4 years in the Reserves and 2 on active duty (my last 2). So the ETS date comes and goes and a few weeks later i get a letter that says i owe the Army $6,000. I call some people and find out that i should have read the fine print on the contract. They send me a copy of the section, that I signed, that says that after 6 years if i do not elect to extend for another 3 years then i owe them some of the educational benefits back. surprise, surprise! The guy i was speaking to said to me.."it's only 3 years". If an Army minute can seem like hours, 3 years is a lifetime (especially when deployed). I send him to hell and wrote a check. I never really thought much about the IRR while i was on it but it did creep its way into my mind here and there.
Write Obama, LOL, wake up!
There are going to be Americans in Iraq for a long time (14 permanent bases, and a gargantuan U.S. embassy). A minimum number of troops will be required there but unlike Korea it will not be a vacation, ask the British. The troops that are withdrawn from Iraq will be shifted to Afghanistan. Obama's administration has shown no sign of drifting from the Bush doctrine. Still hawkish on Iran and Pakistan. He has been blunt about increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corp. The more these conflicts develop, the more the demand on our men in uniform. If they can't increase their numbers the honest way, they'll do it through the IRR, stop loss, or like me, the burden/fear of debt. These tactics are types of drafts and are signs of desperation. Lets not think it impossible for the "draft" to reappear,it has happened before. The grinder will continue to operate, we are the meat!

Anonymous said...

At least when they're in Iraq they won't be robbing students at gunpoint.

On February 3 and 4, Seattle Police Robbery Detectives arrested three suspects
in the assault and robbery of three University of Washington students in two
separate incidents on January 10 and January 17. The January 10th incident
occurred at 2:00 a.m. in the 4500 block of 16th Avenue NE when three suspects
robbed two male victims at gunpoint. The January 17 incident occurred at
approximately 2:40 a.m. when two of the suspects pistol-whipped and robbed two
of the victims in the 1600 block of NE 47th Street. The suspects also threatened
a third victim with a firearm.

SPD Robbery Detectives working in conjunction with the U.S. Army's Criminal
Investigation Division developed information that two Fort Lewis-based soldiers
were involved in the armed robberies. One suspect is a 19-year-old-male from
Atlanta, Georgia. The second suspect is a 20-year-old male from Nashville,
Tennessee. Both were arrested Feb 3 at Fort Lewis by Seattle Police Robbery
Detectives with the assistance of Army CID agents. The two were taken to SPD
Headquarters, where they were booked into King County Jail. On Feb. 4, Seattle
Police, with the assistance of the Army's CID, arrested a third suspect at Fort
Lewis, a 21-year-old male from Central Falls, Rhode Island. This suspect was
present at the January 17th incident, but did not participate in the actual
robbery or assault itself. He, too, was booked into the King County Jail. All
three suspects remain in jail under arrest for felony robbery and assault.

Alex said...

I don't want to try too hard to feed a troll, but I believe active duty soldiers commit crimes at a lower rate than their civilian counterparts.

themorethingschange... said...

Truly, truly bad news for your buddies Alex. I'm so sorry to hear its happening at all, much less so soon.

You know, you don't have to be a Public Relations nob to write a press release. A hook would be helpful and I'm sure you can manage that without breaking a sweat. A good rule of thumb is to keep the release to one page.

A great human interest story is also worth a try. We've read lots of them here already. As CB showed, you're your own best ally when it comes to dealing with the military machine.

Sadly, most Americans don't know/care about the situation your buddies are in because they aren't inconvenienced by such things.

I wonder how quickly things would change if service weren't the exception, but the rule. I wonder how quickly things would change if men and women who're hiding behind welfare payments were put to work in the military, no whining allowed ..

Ok, this is America yadda, yadda, so how about bringing back the draft! The men and women who stood up and volunteered for service deserve way more respect than they currently enjoy. Why should the best and brightest (to borrow a phrase) be beaten up deployment after deployment while their families stand by helplessly.

Are all those contractors on military bases cost effective or are they just necessary because the military is so lean?

Now we have a President with no personal experience of the military. I truly hope his lack of experience won't hurt our already stressed military.

Love your blog, btw. What a talented young man you are!
~P~

Mezzo SF said...

*insert primal scream here*
Will make use of the form letter you posted. Praying for you & your buddies...

ant said...

Post a picture of Mark so i can see who it is....Ant

Alex said...

Ant,

I don't think I have a picture of him.

Anonymous said...

You sure do have a way of making my heart stop. It's bad enough that 5/20 is making that next deployment let alone Steve and Mark having to worry about another one too. Hopefully things will work out but I know the Army. I told Bryan and he said "WHAT?!? Damn it." He said he'd call Steve later today.

Theresa--I feel for you. I can't imagine what you're going through.

Tabitha Winton

ant said...

Tell Lewey I said good luck and return home soon. Please send me an email with the last name of Mark. I can't remember everyone from white platoon's first name. I hope school is going well and you and your girl are still together.
Good Luck and stay safe,
Ant

Alex said...

Ant,

It's Mark Kulcsar! I'm sure that name rings a bell.

Who are you though?

Steve said...

Okay, here wo go.

Alex, thanks for everything you've done. I've taken every bit of your advice and ran with it. All the doctors' appointments, all the typing of letters, and all of the looking at lawyers for help. So far, it's gotten me nowhere really, except about $750 in the whole. X-rays are no joke these days.

Can you believe that those lawyers want $11,500 to "help" me? WOW! I don't know about you, but I don't have the kinda dough just chillin' in my wallet for a rainy day.

Anyway, I'll keep you updated man. Thanks again for letting people know what's happening to Mark and myself. And as far as going public with the whole thing...I do think that's a good idea. Not sure how to do it.

Catcy ya later, Dude.

Your friend,
Steve

ant said...

your old CO CDR, tell Kulcsar I said hello also

Alex said...

Sir! Glad to have you as a reader still. Thanks for keeping up with this, and I'll pass your message along to Kulcsar.

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
I still agree with you! So I will stand and fight this one on your side of the line. I have a plan and in my spare time I am working it!!
I have a list of all Illinois House members, addresses, and phone numbers for their DC offices and their local offices if anyone would like to WRITE or CALL these House members. If you do not live in their district you cannot email them. The Senators from Illinois will be next. Can you find out what district Steve lives in? It would be better to bombard the representative from his district and it would be even better if people from Steve's area would CALL EVERY DAY and/or set up a meeting. I am not sure, but, I think they are all in Washington right now and due to security issues, it will take at least two weeks before any mail actually gets in front of someone at their offices. I am sending my own letter with a copy of yours enclosed. I have emailed the White House site and my own Maryland representatives. Stay strong Alex. We fight many battles in our lives and some are more important than others.

“To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting.”
~E. E. Cummings

"Take the first step, and your mind will mobilize all its forces to your aid. But the first essential is that you begin. Once the battle is startled, all that is within and without you will come to your assistance.”
~ Robert Collier

I'll stand by you Alex and help you fight for your friends and for yourself. You are worth the fight!

LT Hoffman said...

Who's the guy in the background playing with the AT-4?

Thanks again for your writing, Alex. Give my best to Lewey and Kulcsar.

Alex said...

Sir,

That's your predecessor, two minutes before he embarrassed himself in front of the platoon by missing a bunker fifty feet away.