Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Weblog Awards Finalists Announced

When I started this blog over two years ago, I never imagined my audience would grow beyond my family and friends. I hardly read blogs back then, but if I did I still called them websites. After writing my first post, I had no idea I was entering a large realm of military bloggers.

Flash forward two years and I'm once again a nominee for Best Military Blog in the 2008 Weblog Awards. Like last year, the competition will be tough. Last time I was naive about going up against Blackfive and Michael Yon, both godfathers of the milblogging community. Now I know all too well their influence. But I'm more in tune with the community this year. The War on Big Tobacco is a finalist and I'm proud to call him a friend. He's also the only deployed blogger in the competition, armed with a unique writing style he likes to call sargeasmic. His female readers will confirm the effectiveness of his prose, amongst other things.

Like me, Big Tobacco realizes the importance of winning this competition. He and I are both trying to make a career out of this whole writing thing, and a blog award can only help finding a publishing agent. Even though he's relatively new to the scene, Big Tobacco has amassed a following that will be hard to beat. It should be a good competition this year.

I hope to at least bring it home for Team Enlisted this year. Blackfive and Michael Yon are former officers while Big Tobacco and I are/were enlisted men, the working class of the soldiering profession.

Voting will begin next Monday and will last one week. As polls become available, I will post the full list of nominees here. Don't forget to check back often for new posts and new banners throughout the voting process.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Loose Interpretation

"Battle Five, Battle Five, this is White 7 Romeo. Radio check, over."

"Roger out."

Besides the soft, quiet hum of the radio at my side, there wasn't a sound in the makeshift combat outpost in the heart of Old Baqubah. After an impossibly long day of patrolling in the summer heat, we bedded down in an occupied house to await the next groundhog day of patrols, weapons cache destruction and ubiquitous firefights. At sundown we had filled a filthy kitchen sink with ice to cool down bottles of water and Gatorade. Hours later, only a warm pool remained in the sink, the bottles offering little relief from the torrid wind that swirled in from the open front door. It was barely fifteen minutes into my one hour watch when my eyelids began to betray my only task: to keep my sleeping platoon safe from anyone who might come through the courtyard gate.

A faint metal-on-metal clanking sound drew me out of my lethargy. It came from the other side of the courtyard wall. Was it the intermittent rustling of an unknown intruder? Jolted out of my chair and out of my loose and sweat-soaked boots, I reached for my short barreled shotgun. Without boots and body armor, I crept slowly to the wall, my feet leaving behind moist footprints barely noticeable under the silver glow of a full moon. With my platoon resting for a few precious hours inside the house, I had but two lifelines with me. One was the ten pound clunker of a radio. The other was the shotgun I held in my hands. I racked it as slowly as possible, the sound of double-aught buckshot shells rubbing against the chamber barely audible. I thumbed the safety on top of the weapon to red. The noise on the other side of the wall grew louder and more menacing. I stepped on top of an empty barrel, one hand on the shotgun pistol grip and the other on the courtyard wall. Taking one last deep breath, I stood up and swung the shotgun over the wall and pointed the barrel at what was making the noise: a piece of sheet metal rattling in the wind against a steel cabinet. My paranoia assuaged, I stepped down off the barrel, put the shotgun on safe and walked back to the chair. My senses heightened, I listened as the metal clanking blended with the radio static and counted the seconds until my watch was over.


Make no mistake: the Army owns your ass even when you're not in it anymore. When you sign an enlistment contract for three, four or five years, there is a period of inactive service tacked on for a total of eight years. Once you leave active duty, you are placed in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). At any time and without warning, an inactive soldier is subject to recall and mobilization for a deployment. The reason is simple: in times of emergency, a pool of trained soldiers is readily available to once again answer the call of duty.

Reality, of course, is not so simple. While the ashes of September 11th were still warm, it was pledged that this nation would fight its enemies abroad, its will redoubled in the fires of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our government declared a global war to combat our enemies with the American people behind the military every step of the way. But a call to arms was not sounded from the White House. There was no effort to get young men and women into recruiting stations, only a suggestion from President Bush to go to Disney World instead of the mountains of Afghanistan. A wise man once said: You go to war with the military you have and not the military you want. It soon became a doctrine instead of a red flag of personnel shortage. You cannot fight a war without soldiers. With recruitment down and units constantly rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it became clear that the demand for warm bodies far outweighed the supply. The National Guard and Reserve were tapped. Where to turn?

Before the Pentagon raided the IRR cookie jar in 2004, fears were calmed by recruiters and career counselors. If a recruit had a question about the IRR and the chances of getting recalled, the standard line given was, "Only if World War III breaks out." It was generally regarded as an absurd possibility to get recalled, thrown back into active duty and sent to a war zone. These days, career counselors have changed their tactics. Instead of characterizing an involuntary recall as a remote possibility, they will tell a soldier with a straight face that there is no escape from the looming shadow of the IRR.


"You might not want to pack just yet, but I would get ready."

A single sentence from my father on the other end of the phone was enough to send my head spinning, every drop of blood drained from my face. It was spring, and I had just moved from Seattle to Austin for school and began working in a warehouse for a wine distributor. All of my Army records listed my parent's house as my mailing address. Without notice, two Army career counselors on the hunt for inactive troops showed up at my parents' doorstep looking for me. They were dressed in sharp combat uniforms and wanted to discuss with me the possibility of joining the Army Reserves. If I did not, they warned my father, I would be on my way to being recalled.

"He's 11-Bravo infantry, a trigger puller," the ranking sergeant grumbled to my father. "His job is in high demand and infantry will be the first they recall." The only way to keep me from getting deployed again, they insisted, was to join the reserves with a guarantee to not be deployed for at least a year. "It'd be the smart thing to do," he said. I knew the line well, but I wasn't a trigger puller anymore. I was trying to make a home somewhere else, far from where the Army could interfere with the lives of my family. I sat alone, crumpled and defeated. What if they were right?


It was no accident they spoke in such a way that made my dad feel uneasy about the prospect of me going back to Iraq involuntarily. Since recalls became routine four years ago, government civilians and military counselors have used the same fear tactics to push soldiers to their breaking point with the veiled threat of recall. Other tactics are beginning to emerge, however. Not long after the two counselors showed up at my parent's door decked out in combat fatigues, two different counselors showed up again, both of them women dressed in casual civilian clothes. They were much more informal than the previous pair, keeping recall talk to a minimum yet sticking to their insistence that I take a look at the reserves. Some counselors are more nefarious. One even suggested that with the election of Barack Obama, two years is enough time to avoid a deployment since we'll be out of Iraq anyway. Shit, sign me up. Does it come with a juicer?


"This area is under surveillance by undercover police."

The banner, hanging low over a street a few blocks away, lets everyone know who is watching. My neighborhood is not a shining example of safe city life; prostitutes keep an eye out for potential johns within spitting distance of my front door step while stray dogs roam the streets in small, desperate packs. Drug deals are made under the few trees that line the intersection. While Lauren and I were moving in, a friendly old woman welcomed us to the neighborhood with a stern warning. "Be careful to always lock up and don't set any patterns," she said. "People on this street will watch you until they recognize a pattern, then they'll rob you," she added, her smile still intact. "Happened just last week."

I never owned a gun until that weekend. I went out and bought a pistol for home defense. I had an irrational fear of burglars since I was young, terrified to come home from elementary school by myself. Most of the time I waited for my older sister's bus to drop her off before I spent an unbearable few seconds alone. When I was brave enough to be in the house by myself, I was armed with a large steak knife, hoping the time wouldn't come where I would have to shove the tip into an intruder. It was inconceivable for my ten year old mind, the feeling of slicing open another person. Years later, I have no trouble with the thought of putting bullets into someone, sending brain matter scattering across the floor or plastered onto the wall in a fine pink mist. I'm a trigger puller after all. Or I used to be.

The first few months in the house didn't feel the least bit dangerous despite our seedy surroundings. I could usually count on a good night's sleep even with the bass from passing cars shaking the windows and nightly block parties blasting mariachi music. But the noises come back, and with it, the paranoia. Five times a night, ten times a night, I'm drawn out of sleep by sudden creaks and cracks around the house. One night, a pounding on the window sent Lauren and I five feet into the air and me scrambling for my gun. After chambering a round, I bent the blinds back slightly to peer out the window. The wind was knocking a trash can lid into the window with each powerful gust. Relieved but not yet calm, I went outside and secured the lid. It took me a long while to find the right state of mind to sleep again.


Hearing things on watch in Iraq. The constant torment of waiting for recall orders. Looming noises in a broken down neighborhood. All took place thousands of miles away and months apart from each other, yet they all produce the same feeling of despair and malignant desperation. The battle for peace in a soldier's mind isn't settled in the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. It's waged for months and years later in cycles of inner reflection that can take a lifetime to interpret. With the possibility of recall hanging overhead like a dark, lurid cloud, that interpretation is sped up until it crashes head on with a stark realization: I could be going back to face those demons once again. If my time comes to accept recall orders and inevitable mobilization, so it goes. I always told my friends that I'd ignore the orders and not show up. Why do the job I've already done, that so many have resisted for seven years? But my obligation towers above that line of selfish reasoning. I've been out of the Army for a little more than a year now. I'd have a hell of a time waking up everyday at 5:30 and my infantry tactics might be a little rusty. But I haven't forgotten how to pull a trigger if the time comes for me to do it once more. I just hope that I can face the unseen terror that hides in the night.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Strykers

For every ten silly questions I get about the Army and being in Iraq ("Are there any hot chicks?" being the most practical), I get one good natured, serious question. One that keeps coming up is, "What is a Stryker?" I have a hard time answering that question if the person asking is not familar with military hardware. I usually describe it as a smaller tank (it isn't) or like an armored bus. More informed folks are satisfied with the answer of it being an APC (armored personnel carrier). But because it has only been in combat for five years, little is known about the Stryker outside of the military community. Hopefully I can shed just a little light on this.

Forward thinking propelled the Stryker into 21st century warfare. Its necessity rises from the philosophy that big, conventional tank-on-tank wars were a Cold War relic and unconventional, smaller wars were going to be all the rage. Egghead thinking prevailed if Iraq and Afghanistan are any indication.

The Stryker is an eight-wheeled armored infantry carrier specifically designed for urban conflict. Its thinner armor relative to the Bradley and Abrams Main Battle Tank gives it the mobility and speed needed to meet unconventional threats. Think blitzkrieg meets mujaheddin. Unlike the Brad and Abrams, the Stryker sits on top of eight huge tires, each capable of running completely flat. For defense, each Stryker is fitted with either a .50 cal machine gun or a Mk-19 grenade launcher, fed by linked grenades for automatic fire. The Mobile Gun System variant, in contrast, boasts a 105mm cannon. In combat, the armor can stand .50 cal fire but crumbles under the explosions of RPG fire. To combat this effect, a cage was built around the vehicle. Slat armor is just narrow enough to force the warhead to explode several feet from the Stryker, displacing deadly shrapnel.

Bottom center: Slat armor

The most common variant is the Infantry Carrying Vehicle, the kind I rode in for my entire enlistment. A vehicle commander guides the driver, the squad leader observes from the front, and two men in the back watch the flanks of the vehicle. With retrofitted armor, these positions leave the soldiers vulnerable from the neck up or the chest up, depending on the defilade. Inside, two benches seat three men on one side and four on the other. Situations on the ground dictated how many men could be crammed into a moving vehicle in combat. Seventeen fully armored men and one dog was the unofficial platoon record. Some have asked me what it's like to ride in a Stryker. Here's your answer:

Diehards of OPSEC, I hope you are pleased. I edited out our terp and super duper tech equipment. Credit goes to Dozer for the video. Shauu!

When the Stryker was first in combat in 2003, pundits, analysts and dudes stuck in the 80s were falling over themselves to declare the Stryker a failure. In actuality, it has risen from a strange new vehicle to a must have in combat.

The Stryker is the only vehicle in the American arsenal capable of dropping a fully equipped squad onto an insurgent's doorstep, and it will do it quietly. My brigade earned the nickname Ghostriders in its first deployment for their ability to sneak into neighborhoods in the silence of night, nab potential bad guys and leave unnoticed. As a weapons platform, Strykers have the ability to have three barrels and a crew served weapon pointed at any direction at any given time.

Modern COIN doctrine requires that two Stryker brigades operate in Iraq at any given time. It's a testament to the ferocious tenacity of Stryker soldiers to bring the fight to the enemy at every turn. It's no coincidence that Strykers have led in nearly every major campaign since the invasion. From Tal Alfar and Mosul in 2003-2004, to Baghdad in 2006 and Diyala Province from 2007 to present, Strykers have been in the thick of it. In Baqubah, IEDs became such a nuisance that we only used the vehicles for infiltration and exfil. Still, we were able to subdue most of the city before reinforcements arrived months later. It is clear that it isn't only the Strykers that make a difference, but the soldiers inside of them. No fight was tougher in 2007 than the battle for Baqubah, and it was conducted with a minimal amount of vehicle support. The capital of al-Qaeda in Iraq was toppled by Stryker soldiers, never deterred over the loss of the vehicle itself.

Strykers are the future of the Army, if it isn't already clear. The days of tank-on-tank warfare are over, and no other unit is better prepared to fight a sustained battle than a Stryker brigade. Yet Strykers are hardly recognized for helping to turn the tide in Iraq despite the 3rd Stryker Brigade leading in both Baghdad and Diyala Province, places that were hotly contested by both American and insurgent forces for the past several years. If anything, the early critics of the Stryker can be finally silenced as it becomes the centerpiece of American counterinsurgency operations.

The most important part of a Stryker unit


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

That Time of the Year

It's fall again. The leaves are turning a golden brown, the Texas weather is still trying to decide what to do, and of course, the Blog Awards are full-on. Once again, faithful readers have tossed my name into the ring, so I thought I'd post this for anyone else wanting to contribute:

The 2008 Weblog Awards

Click on the image above to go directly to the military blog nomination page, scroll to the bottom and add your own comment or simply click the "+" icon next to a nomination you want to second.

All the usual suspects like Michael Yon and Blackfive are listed, but more importantly are the new guys that have made a name for themselves. Big Tobacco is a must-read while LT Nixon is the most informed libertarian ever to own less than fifty guns. If I'm fortunate to become a finalist once again this year, I hope it is with those fine fellows. Then it can be assured that civility and good sportsmanship will rule the day instead of, well, this.

Voting will begin some time in December, so I'll keep you all posted.


Edit 11/22: Nominations are closed. Thanks to all who nominated me!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day...

In my classroom, I sit toward the front, flanked by students on opposite sides of the room. Their thumbs move in a mindless text message symphony, waiting for class to start. Their hair and clothes are impeccable. As the instructor walks in and greets us, the two students don't look up to say hello. They instead respond with a deafening click-click-click-click. I almost feel like apologizing for them.

Are these the people I chose to surround myself with?

Every day that goes by is a day apart from the men of second platoon. I have replaced my battlefield peers with classrooms full of students that don't know the stories or even the names of each other. I haven't tried to make friends. Why bother? My friends are not in Austin. They're in Chicago, Brooklyn, Green Bay, San Diego. They're everywhere except here, carving out their own destinies. Our shared past becomes more of a distant memory as time goes on. In a month, we will have spent the same amount of time home as we did in combat. The last fifteen months have flown by like a fading dream. At least in war, time moved impossibly slow. You could really squeeze every minute out of a day.

Whether at work, school or home, I cannot go ten minutes without thinking of the men I came home with, or the men we brought back home. Like I've said before, every day is Memorial Day. Every day is Veterans Day. My entire being is seared by the tragedy and triumph of war, an invisible mark I wear at every waking moment. My life will be spent trying to sort out what happened out there in the desert, but today is a reflection on the men I served with, both living and dead. It's to pay respect to the uniform that millions of Americans have worn and will wear. When I'm in class and I inevitably begin to space out, I'll be thinking of Chevy and Jesse, their lives gone too soon. I'll be thinking of playing craps on the floor and poker on the table. I'll remember a time when stepping ankle deep into septic waste was barely the worst part of a day, and that first sip of cold water was always the best.

Ever seen college kids moon an attack helicopter? Didn't think so

These memories rushing back will not take place in a dimly lit bar outside Ft. Lewis or on a sweltering rooftop deep inside Diyala Province. They'll be within the confines of my own mind, tucked away in a classroom full of delicate, protected students that tend to forget we're still at war, that men are still not coming back home with their limbs and their lives intact. Veterans Day is not just for us, it's for everyone to remember, lest we forget the cost of war. Today I'll be thinking not just of the men I served with, but my family as well. My grandpa in the Korean War, my uncle in Vietnam and my father off the coast of Beirut and Grenada will all be on my mind.

If you're a veteran or a family member of one, please leave a comment telling a favorite story of yours.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Night Open Thread

I hope none of you have been looking to this blog as a source for news regarding the presidential election, as I tend to write about politics with a focus on military matters. I exhaustively covered the GI Bill issue, and I've touched on foreign policy a number of times when it pertains to the United States military. But tonight in an AoD first, I'd like to hear your thoughts on what it means for the future of active duty military and veterans when one man is elected president tonight - Barack Obama or John McCain, either through the lens of domestic policy or foreign policy. I'll be sitting here with plenty of Blue Moon on hand to witness history.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Feature in the St. Petersburg Times

For all you AoD readers in the Tampa Bay area: pick up a copy of the St. Petersburg Times this afternoon. The Thing I Carried is in the feature section, likely buried somewhere near the back. And if you're wondering what I have to do with Florida, well, me too buddy. If you want to contribute to the death of newspapers (or simply don't live in America's Wang), you can read the full article here.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

And now, an important message

I received a bit of feedback from my post about the feelings of coming home from a deployment, but a couple of emails asked for advice on the flip side of that coin - how to deal with a returning soldier. I've never set foot in an FRG meeting so I'm not familiar with the concerns and worries of wives and girlfriends of a deployed soldier. In any case, I hope this benefits the kind women who inquired and those out there that have unanswered questions gnawing away at them. Following are questions sent by women who have a romantic link to a deployed soldier, answered here not just for their benefit but for everyone in the same predicament.

How often do soldiers want to receive letters? (especially if you have rare access to internet/phone.)

The answer is simple: all the time, especially if contact by phone and internet is limited. Forget mp3 players, DVDs and X Box 360s- letters from home, and especially from a woman, provide the ultimate comfort and peace of mind to a soldier in a war zone. No matter how long a deployment feels, they're ultimately finite. The link back home must remain strong to keep a soldier's head level, and writing letters to them is instrumental. When a young lady named Lauren was writing to me, I treasured every letter sent, reading them over and over. They came with me everywhere. As long as there has been war, there have been letters sent from home to the men fighting as a delicate reminder of what was left behind.

Ideally, what do you want to hear from your friends?

This is a tough one. All my loser friends from home couldn't be relied upon to send an occasional e-mail while I was deployed. My only friends were to the left and right of me in Iraq. But if you're a better friend than what I had, let them know what you have planned for their return. If it's a party, a get-together with other friends, a getaway to a favorite spot, whatever. It provides something to look forward to, a familar setting for a place that will seem a world of difference when the soldier returns. A year, fifteen months, however long the deployment is - a lot has changed in society. Familiarity is key to reintegration. When I left, the coolest thing cell phones did was flip open. When I came back, phones had keyboards. It was incredible, strange and confusing all at the same time.

Be sure to keep them up to date with news. Toward the end of my deployment, we spent anywhere from 3-10 days in the urban wilderness of Baqubah. When we came back to the base, sweaty, filthy and exhausted, the only news we caught was at the dining facility, which was permanently set on Fox News. I could only rely on Bill O'Reilly and Fox & Friends for news, which is like relying on a prostitute to give you safe-sex tips. Let them know what's going on in the world using whatever means you like - phone, emails or letters.

What do you NOT want to hear from your friends?

Don't ask obtuse questions like "how hot is it?" and "did you kill anybody?" It's offensive and flippant. Let them know how things are going in your life, but don't approach it as something they're "missing." They know. Don't press the issue.

What can a friend do to bring her soldier out of his darkness, besides consistent messages of support and willingness to listen or just sit with him?

Let them decide when to open up. It's not something to coerce out of him. He knows you'll listen intently with empathy and support. That's not the issue. The issue is him being comfortable enough with what he has seen and done to talk about it openly. It takes time, and unfortunately everyone is different regarding this issue. War does not leave anyone untouched, physically or mentally. Something about him will change. Your best bet is to recognize that and do your best to understand why the change happened. It could take six months or six years for him to come out of his shell. Be patient.

From another inquirer:

Is him wanting to be alone to decompress and adjust normal for someone coming home from war, even when you have loved ones who want to be with you?

This is a position of extremes. A soldier will either want to be surrounded by loved ones immediately, or he'll want to be alone to sort out his feelings. Everyone is different, so there's no real solution to this if he wants to do something contrary to your wishes. He knows what's best for him to do, so go along with it. Just be sure he doesn't get on that slippery slope of alcohol abuse. It happens like clockwork to returning units, and the first line of defense is other soldiers and loved ones. Keep an eye on him but don't be intrusive.

Hopefully this provides at least a shred of insight for those looking for answers during trying times. If you want answers to your own questions, either leave a comment or email me at hortonhearsit at hotmail dot com.

Also, this is my 100th post. Thanks for keeping up with me dear readers. It has been rewarding beyond belief to stick around this long.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Thing I Carried

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple two step plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. Nearly half of my platoon would be getting out if and when we made it back home from Iraq. We focused the best we could when it came to preparing for the mission, but there is no helping the excitement in the prospect of starting a new chapter of life on the government's dime.

In the run-up to the deployment, a lot of guys were buying their own equipment to take with them. It is generally accepted that government issued equipment is inferior to what you can go out and buy yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. It's just like a backpack except with a sweetass name. The only problem was the zipper sucked something fierce and it held no more than what a high school backpack could carry. I'm the kind of person to carry backups of everything. Extra knives, batteries, carabiners, socks. I needed to haul a lot more than what the issue assault pack could carry.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment. His dad's company sponsored us with thousands of dollars to buy magazine and utility pouches, vests and other luxuries. Jesse budgeted himself enough to buy a new civilian assault pack. He didn't need his old one, so he gave it to me.

"You can use it for the deployment, 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.

I made the secondhand assault pack my own. It was worn out after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick, black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape to cover it up. 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 - For those who would NOT serve

In Baghdad, I carried my assault pack everywhere we went. It was becoming a routine to leave our base in Taji and spend up to a week in smaller bases in the heart of the city. We began to live out of our assault packs, bringing whatever we could stuff in there. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

Jesse was always asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I was going on leave, Josh told him I had a girl writing to me in Seattle. While my platoon went out to check out insurgents loading weapons into a car, I stayed behind and told Jesse the unlikely story of our relationship. "Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

Two weeks later, Jesse would be cut down by small-arms fire in Baqubah. He would survive some time before passing away. I could not possibly avenge him; I was two thousand miles away. I heard about his death in the most undignified way; a Myspace bulletin read in an internet cafe in Rome.

Coming back to Iraq after leave, I looked at Jesse's assault pack a lot differently. I still carried it with me everywhere, but I treated it a lot better. I no longer tossed it off the Stryker into the dust. I didn't shove it into small spaces on top of the vehicle. In the outposts where we lived, I used it as a pillow.

The assault pack is not an assault pack anymore. It's a backpack. I no longer stuff it with extra grenades, ammunition magazines or packages of Kool Aid. It now carries textbooks, calculators and pencils. I started my first classes a few months ago to fulfill the plan two years in the making. I imagined it to be a seamless transition into civilian life. Boy, I was fucking naive, even when I came home. I saw some guys falling apart from PTSD, getting drunk or doing drugs to drown it out. I thought I made it out okay, relatively.

With my unassuming tan backpack at my feet, I break out in a sweat if I even think about mentioning Iraq in the classroom. I let it slide nearly every time, yielding the topic to daftly opinionated classmates. I feel like a foreign exchange student, confused about the motivation of my peers. I literally carry the burden of readjustment on my back, not wanting to let go my past but anxious to get to the future. Fractured into part war veteran and part journalism student, who I am speaking to determines which part of me is actually there in the room. To many, my past is my best kept secret. For all they know, my parents pay my tuition and do my laundry. I can be honest here. It's terrifying to be honest out there. Perhaps it's best that way.

For those who would NOT serve - it's faded now, not easily read unless you look closely. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and ask, "what unit were you in?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Blogs of Note

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

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

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

This week: Fobbits Need Ice Cream Too

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

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

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

Money Post: Donkey IEDs, Flat Tires And Ramadan


Thursday, September 11, 2008

365: A Guide To Coming Back

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

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

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

Sensory Overload

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

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

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

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

The Public

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

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

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

Going Back

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

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


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

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

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Veteran's Case Against John McCain

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

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

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

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

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

1. Opposition to the new GI Bill

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

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

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

2. The Elephant in Afghanistan

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

3. Underwhelming Voting Record

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

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

4. Plans for Leaving Iraq

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

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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Last Patrol

It had to end, someday.

We had been at Combat Outpost Battle II for a few weeks, trying to leave it in the best shape possible for our beautiful, wonderful relief unit, our sister brigade from the other side of Ft. Lewis.

Operation Arrowhead Ripper was the cherry on top of a grueling five month adventure in Baqubah, a place we didn't know of in 2006 but one we'd get to know all-too well toward the end of 2007. After that big offensive, there was one last hurrah: the clearing and holding of the neighborhood of Old Baqubah.

It proved to be the most dangerous of neighborhoods, one left relatively untouched during the massive clearing operation in June and July. While elements from our brigade held ground on the west side of town, we began clearing operations in Old Baq' in the hopes of setting up a new outpost. For my twenty-second birthday, I read a book cover to cover inside a Stryker in between guard shifts. It was a gift from my platoon to not go on patrol.

We quickly found a suitable outpost, an abandoned two story whiskey distillery. To make enough room for a motor pool, we blew up a man's house that had been in his family for decades. For days, he came by our front door to collect the bricks, sprinkled over dozens of yards. He wanted to rebuild.

The days felt longer than any other point in the deployment. It had a lot to do with the heat; the building had no electricity and poor ventilation. The high ceilings gave way to several windows that let in plenty of sunlight. The concrete building and floor held the heat during the day and released it during the night. Most of us slept outside on the roof to escape the dreadful, choking air that filled the building. Half the time was spent stealing and re-stealing cots the Iraqi Army took upon themselves to grab when we were on patrol.

It was three days at the outpost, three days off. "Off" was a relative term. We spent that time on the FOB rearming and regrouping in between supply runs to the outpost. Time evaporated during our off periods, but came back with a vengeance back at COP Battle II.

Day in, day out. Going through the motions of scheduled patrols like the good ol' days of Mosul. It was all building to the inevitable. Our replacements were ready to show up near the end of August to effectively relieve our positions. Soon, we'd be going home.

By the luck of the draw, my squad was the last from my platoon to conduct a foot patrol during the day.

Right out the door, we came upon a group of sheep rummaging through one of the trash piles next to the outpost. One in particular was gnawing on a sheet of plastic. As we walked past, they momentarily stopped to watch us. The one with the plastic kept on gnawing.

Rounding around the block, we came upon a huge gathering in the street. Evidently there was a wedding going on, as throngs of people were singing, clapping and chanting down the street. We were bookended by kids riding bicycles and shouting slogans to us.

The most boring video of Iraq you'll find on the internets

Before heading out, we got the ubiquitous word that our BFFs, the 1920s, was possibly going to ambush us for old times sake. We were told to keep an eye on them, to not turn our backs to them even once.

We passed a couple of their checkpoints along the way, stopping to remind them to wear their reflective belts so they don't get shot in the face with a Hellfire missile. Walking in between us - a group of women under black head dresses, paying no heed to the American squad on either side of the street.

Matt gives Last Patrol 2: Insurgent Boogaloo two thumbs up!

You'd think that simple, vital things like smoke grenades would be in endless supply to the most senior unit in Iraq at the time. You'd be wrong. When our white screening smoke ran out, we were forced to use colored smoke (usually reserved for signaling). When our colored smoke ran out, we used training smoke grenades. The biggest concern wasn't that we were using smoke that barely lasted ten seconds, it was that we had training smoke in fucking combat. After the training smokes were gone, smoke grenades shot from grenade launchers were used. Imagine shielding yourself from machine gun fire with what amounts to fine colored chalk floating in the air. It'll definitely put some pep in your step.

On this patrol, we had managed to scrounge up enough smoke grenades. They were casually tossed to get rid of them, as they would be useless to us in ten minutes. Our platoon leader tried to play kick the can with an Iraqi kid, but he wasn't sure what to do with it.

Sure, NOW we get them...

The patrol didn't last longer than 45 minutes, but I had a tremendous sense of finality walking back to the outpost. As I looked around, I realized it would be the last time I'd have my feet down on hostile territory, the last time I peered habitually to rooftops and doorways, looking for anything out of the ordinary. It'd be the last time my sense of smell would be subdued by the intertwined smell of human waste and garbage (and the last time I'd have the privilege of stepping in both). But it was the first time I realized that our deployment was finite, that the end was drawing near toward an uncertain future of civilian life, with all its beautiful complexities we weren't afforded for fifteen months. We were going home.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Enemies With Benefits

Don't tell the pathetic non-serving members of the old media (and new media), but the surge wasn't wholly responsible for the drop in violence seen in Iraq over the last year. I have outlined the three main reasons violence has subsided, but one of the more important aspects is still largely misunderstood and mischaracterized by the punditry across the country.

The 'awakening group' movement first appeared in Anbar in late 2005 (or if you're John McCain, it started in a time warp before and after the surge) and has since grown to a large, lethal force that battles elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. That is usually where the media narrative leaves you, insinuating that these groups are patriotic volunteers casting out the demons of al-Qaeda. What they don't mention is both the original motivations for these groups and their history of battling American soldiers. One of the latest to operate (and propped up by my unit in Diyala Province) is the 1920 Revolution Brigade. I covered their nationalist history a year ago, citing their name was a throwback to the 1920 revolution to oust British influence. So this group in particular didn't start in 2005, 2006 or even 2007, but in 2003 for one reason: to attack and kill Americans.

They got pretty good at it. While in Baghdad in late 2006 and early 2007, any group that we battled that wasn't Sadr's militia was likely the 1920s. Their most dramatic act?

Above is the crash site of a Blackwater Security helicopter, downed by the 1920s Brigade. My platoon responded to the crash, found the crew members executed and were caught up in a firefight started by anti-aircraft guns in high rise buildings.

The insurgent group met us head on in Baqubah, being present in the attack that killed my friend and an IED ambush that resulted in four explosions on three Strykers in just seconds. Yet somehow, it was deemed not only acceptable but advantageous to work with these killers. Two months later, we began our first patrols with them.

Without any remorse on our part, many of the 1920s (called "concerned local nationals" at this point) were killed accidentally by our hands at the start of that shaky alliance. American rifle and helicopter fire was the biggest 'concern' of these local nationals until they began wearing reflective belts and brown t-shirts. Some even brought up the notion of killing them once they outpaced their usefulness. Our battalion surgeon, a well respected medical doctor in the civilian world, had the best idea: "kick the Stryker up to sixty and throw them out the open door."

Insurgent "Concerned local national" checkpoint stops a deadly kid on a bike as an old man looks on

Unfortunately, we couldn't take out the trash that easily. We grudingly worked with the 1920s as per our orders. We were moderately successful in tracking down al-Qaeda operatives (or possibly doing in-house cleaning) and caches. But the point isn't the success of turning over a new leaf with insurgents, though. We traded in our values, our self reliance to get things done, for $300 a head. We did not destroy our enemy but rather aided them. We secured not only their future success, but the future instability with the Iraqi government. Maliki and his Shia government adamantly oppose the Sunni groups and have said in the past that they will never become a permanent part of Iraqi forces.

But they don't pay the former insurgents, we do, as taxpayers. That's why they're trying to leverage the American military into giving them more money, the ol' "pay me more or I'm going back to killing you" ruse. And for their part, they'll probably be successful. Commanders know that they're important not for killing al-Qaeda, but for not fighting us. They're not allies, they're enemies with benefits. And they're holding the cards.

Why isn't there an outcry from the media and citizenry about these people? Quite simply, the military led the media by its nose when they characterized insurgents as "concerned" and proudly spoke of them as volunteers. To further confuse people, they were renamed 'Baqubah Guardians' and then finally 'Sons of Iraq,' each name a brighter shade of lipstick for the same dirty pig. They're only growing stronger and more experienced as time goes on, watching coalition forces close up, looking for every weakness. They've already discovered a big one: our over-reliance on their dirty, sectarian work.

A 1920s member who likely lifted a bullet-proof vest off a dead Iraqi policeman

You can only pay someone not to fight you for so long before they ask for more and more. We're past that point now, and approaching another tough reality on the horizon. If we're as successful as defeating al-Qaeda as the media says we are, who will our new friends fight, if not us?

The very definition of 'a friendship of convenience'


Monday, July 14, 2008

From Nation Building To Net Roots

It's a strange concept to me, being home ten months, yet I left for Iraq more than two years ago. To put that into perspective, I got on that big, beautiful plane as a clueless twenty year old. This week, I'll be turning 23.

These days, I have a less deadly (and therefore less exciting) job in a warehouse. A regular 9-5 until I wait for school to start. I was always a quiet guy, never really the kind to strike up a conversation with someone I didn't know well. Introverted as all get out.

Lately, I feel that personality trait rearing its head again. I thought it was gone; anyone from my platoon can tell you that I absolutely loved to debate anyone and anything with my partner in crime, Steve. We were an arguing force to be reckoned with, and I always carried a big voice when we discussed everything from capital punishment to evolution.

Now in the break room, civilian as hell, I can barely muster a hello or keep a conversation going. It's not shyness, it's a breakdown of understanding the culture I left and readjusting to it. While deployed, we knew society moved on without us. What we didn't realize is that it would keep going even after we got home, still without us.

The two dueling wars, fought by neighbor's cousins and friends from high school, have little to do with day to day life. When I tell someone where I was the past two years, they usually respond with "oh." They're either too embarrassed to ask about it or too bored at the prospect. Questions begin and end with, really, what was it like? I often give two descriptions: hot and shitty. There's no point in telling the truth, that for better and for worse, my time there changed me. There's no point in describing the feeling I get walking down the street in my run down neighborhood, a sinking uneasiness when I imagine the passing cars could explode. The same exact feeling when you hear a bullet whiz by you for the first time, coming close enough to ring your ears. No, I just tell them how stepping in human shit can really damper an afternoon stroll in Baghdad.

L to R: A rare picture of Chi's face, Dude, Jesse and Payday on our maiden voyage

Two years ago this week. I'm getting old.

My antics here and at Vet Voice got me a spot at the milblogging panel at Net Roots Nation this week. I don't know what I'll be discussing, but let's see if I can get over that whole 'not talking' thing. If you're attending, let me know and I'll tell you how to get around Austin (hint: don't get on I-35).


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Final Salute

I just finished a book called "Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives," a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Sheeler. It centers around a Marine casualty assistance officer and the stories of the families most affected by the war. It'd behoove the nation to read it. I wrote a little something about it on VetVoice. Please do take a look!


Monday, June 16, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Burning Sensations

I was kind of lucky going on leave when I did. We arrived in Diyala Province just ten days before my scheduled day to go. My friend Steve and I decided to go to Europe together, and we were the very last in the platoon for a much needed break. Everybody knew it, too, and if you were ever in the military, you know that anything that could be made of, will be made fun of. My leave date was no different.

"Hey dude, when you going on leave, two weeks before we go home?" Some would ask.

"It must suuuuck not to go on leave yet," said others, regaling me with stories of their two weeks at home that came months prior.

I gave them all a quick fuck you and playfully told them I wished they would have twice the work to do while I was gone. Sadly, that came true.

In the near month I was gone, my company saw some of the most intense fighting of our deployment. Firefights became more routine than patrols, and for the first 45 days of operations in Baqubah, 40 of them were spent outside the wire, sleeping in abandoned Iraqi houses as the summer slowly crept on.

By the time I got back, my former team leader was killed and my squad leader was shot in the arm by a sniper. I had missed a lot, but was a bit anxious to be back in the mix. There was no point in looking forward to home. When I left for Europe, it was only two months away. When I came back, it was five.

I wasn't placed gently back into missions but thrown violently into a new phase of our deployment. Before my departure, it was standard operating procedure to call EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) any time we found a cache or an IED. We didn't find many in Baghdad, but they kept popping up in Baqubah. Imagine a road where every few yards, a bomb buried deep in the ground was waiting for you like a starving predator waiting for the next meal.

It was too much for the EOD guys to handle, bless 'em. They were overloaded, and that meant that blowin' up stuff was going to be a new addition to our endless list of side jobs.

I was stunned the first time Matt uncovered an IED wire, picked it up and followed it to a HUGE FUCKING BOMB in the middle of the road. It eviscerated every rule I knew about IEDs, which all amounted to 'don't go near them.' It was all too routine for Matt and others in my company to simply find the bomb, mark it and wait for EOD to come.

You just follow that wire. I'll be back here

The culprit: Underneath our metal can marker

We left some guys to watch it and continued on our patrol. We got word later that EOD had placed charges on it, so it would be in our best interest to take cover.

On our way back to COP Battle I, we passed by the crater the blast had left. We had to run by it, actually. To our left was a huge open field with scattered palm trees - a perfect hideout for snipers. Everyone was running in pairs past the hole, except Bill. Bill wanted me to take his picture inside of it. Matt decided to join him. I accepted the invitation to take the picture as my fellow platoon mates sprinted ahead of me.

It took me awhile to wrap my head around that. Before, we didn't go near IEDs. Now we were walking directly to them to give it a once-over. Let the EOD team know, hey, you got some land mines taped to a can of gasoline. Good luck.

Pretty soon after that, we were finding so much bullshit that we could take things a step beyond and blow stuff ourselves. A couple of guys carried C4, detonation cord and all the other goodies necessary for homemade boom.

Dozer was always finding caches, like it was a sixth sense. In one particular courtyard, he uncovered a buried water tank filled with RPGs, launchers and machine gun ammo. In other words, a lot of shit.

If you spend enough time on the ground in Iraq, you're bound to come across a screaming, hysterical woman that will cry and yell right in your face before she slaps herself over and over. It's one of those things that transcend culture and human dignity; women striking themselves in fits of rage.

I caught one of those moments from across the street. I was standing in the courtyard with a bunch o' weapons while the people in the houses near us were told to leave while we destroyed the cache, for their safety.

Obviously, the lady in the blue wasn't going to go quietly, but we managed to get her family to take her away to a neighbor's house.

The guy who laid the charges on the cache let us know it was going to be, for the lack of a better term, a big one. We moved several blocks, took off our helmets, and waited.

One minute.

Thirty seconds.


For the truly impatient, go to 1:00

The explosion threw so much shit into the air that I heard chunks of concrete falling near us, several blocks away. The house that contained the cache was completely destroyed, as was the house next to it.

Winning hearts and minds

The force of the blast was great enough to destroy the courtyard gate across the street and start a small fire on the roof.

The oozing septic pond next to the house was thrown all over the neighborhood as bricks from the house are strewn about

I learned quite a bit in my first week back in the game. It was okay to approach a massive IED like an injured bunny and place other bombs on top of them. It was okay to tug on its wires and hack at it with a crowbar to get a better look. It was at one time profane, but eventually it became nothing more than ordinary.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Recollections

On a radio interview I did for Memorial Day, I had a hard time describing how I would spend it this year. Before I enlisted, Memorial Day seemed a convenient way to have a long weekend away from school. In my first year in the Army, it was spent sleeping in without having to do any PT. No push ups in the mushy Ft. Lewis grass for us that day.

A year ago, Memorial Day was spent in the confines of our small outpost on the east side of Baqubah. We had converted a two story house into a fortress deep within the city to keep close to the roads and buildings that concealed homemade bombs, waiting for us to wander helplessly into them. It was part of the surge strategy: total immersion in the communities we patrolled.

1/2 of Team Destructon talking to Omar

I don't know why I'm being dressed in the background

The outpost was a home away from home, one where we spent four days out of seven without plumbing, running water or relative safety. All that was found miles away at a huge forward base. We were on our own, two platoon's worth of scrawny, hungry, tired and irritable men heading into month twelve of the deployment. On the day we were supposed to be home, everyone gathered on cots on the second floor, shouting phrases like "fifth quarter, fuck yeah!" and "Overtime baby!". We were, as you can imagine, a little disappointed in June of 2007. We were supposed to be on American soil by then, sipping beers and laughing about the deployment and how cold Washington was. Instead we were chugging boiling water in between guard shifts and slapping mosquitoes off our necks in the Diyala River Valley.

We named the place COP (Combat Outpost) Battle, after our company motto of Battle Hard. It was here where routine almost started happening again, a schedule of patrols and raids that weren't too hard to follow. As I've tried to explain before, war is a time spent largely on your ass or on your feet, waiting for some guy in some office to tell some other guy what to do. COP Battle wasn't so much of a base as it was a lounge for second platoon. Sure, it didn't have furniture and we burned our own trash outside, but it was all we had for a couple months. A place you dreaded going to, but when you got there, you figured it was alright.

OK Kyle, here's a picture of you without a shirt. Can I have my $10 now?

Not too many places to cut hair in an abandoned city


How do I spend Memorial Day? Like any other. If the occasion is about somber reflection of the valorous dead, killed in battle, then every day is Memorial Day to me, and I imagine, to my friends. I cannot get through a day without thinking of Chevy or Jesse, without their images running through my head over and over, thinking about how they gave their lives in the most selfless way imaginable so that we may live through the war and carry their spirit home with us. It was easy at first to separate my time in Iraq from the present, here in civilian life in the states. Now it has become a constant battle not to be drawn back into that past, that reality left behind.

It's bafflingly difficult to explain the feeling of wanting to go back, but when you think of those times, like at COP Battle, it doesn't feel out of place. I remember watching bootleg DVDs of The O.C. in between patrols. In passing, people would ask "Is that the fucking O.C.?" in a disapproving voice, only to join in and become entranced. I remember the Iraqi Army stealing flip-flops and CD players from us, almost resulting in cross-culture fist fights. I remember standing on the roof in shorts and a t-shirt, trying to get cell phone reception on the shitty Iraqi service long enough to call Lauren. I remember the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life: a truckload of water and rations falling off a flatbed truck in an attempt to smoothly place it on the ground (see above for the aftermath).

Most of all, I remember the jokes and laughs heard throughout COP Battle, where the worst times of our life turned out to be pretty good. Where memories of Chevy and Jesse carried on every single day after their deaths, their sacrifices heavy in our hearts and in our minds. Memorial Day isn't so much about remembering the dead as it is remembering why they died for us, their brothers. It was to get us closer to home, if only by a few seconds, so that we may live.

How do I spend Memorial Day? By carrying on, like Chevy and Jesse wanted us to.


Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Ad Campaign From Vote Vets

Today, released a double barrel ad campaign on a subject near and dear to me, reformed education benefits for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The two adds plead with two key Republicans to sign onto Senator Webb's GI Bill, Senator Cornyn from Texas (my senator), and Senator McCain.

Senator Cornyn

Senator McCain

This really should have not been a political issue, but allegiances to parties before soldiers and veterans forced it to be.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Truth or Consequences - The Quest for a New G.I. Bill

When I heard about the new G.I. Bill some time ago, I thought it was too good to be true. With the pitiful peacetime, 80s era education benefits being offered to veterans today, it seemed a far cry to see those benefits improve drastically to assist those who, you know, did the heavy lifting for this country for the past seven years and counting. I've been following this development for some time now, writing this piece for Vet Voice and later this little thing.

The good news is the revamped G.I. Bill cleared the House by an overwhelming vote of 256-166. Here's a handy list of who voted for and against it, so when supporting America's troops is quantified, you can see who gave a big, sleazy meh.

The good news doesn't stop there! McCain-Graham's cowardly, toothless version of the G.I. Bill was struck down with great vengeance and furious anger as it tried to sneak in before the Memorial Day break.

But you might ask me, "Alex, what's the difference between all these bills? Can't we just have the best one?" Well, here's a comparison of the current G.I. Bill, McCain-Graham's version and Webb's version.

Current G.I. Bill

$1,200 nonrefundable contribution from the first year of a soldier's paycheck

Maximum benefits of $1,100 per month for a total of $39,600 (Reservists and National Guardsmen get a fraction of that)

A time frame of ten years to use the benefits

McCain-Graham's G.I. Bill (S. 2938 - The Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention, and Readjustment Through Education Act)

Twelve years of service for maximum benefits of $2,000 a month, six years yields $1,500. This figure is fixed and does not address rising tuition

Touted transferability to veteran's family members (this has been a feature of the G.I. Bill since 2002)

Around fifteen Senate cosponsors (just conservatives)

Webb's G.I. Bill (S. 22 - the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act)

Complete tuition costs after three years of service, with benefits maxed out at the most expensive public school in the veteran's state. Costs will cover a private school if a compromise is met with the school and student

A monthly living stipend equal to a married E-5 living in the area (that's BAH for you veterans)

Books and other costs are completely taken care of

58 Senate cosponsors and strong bipartisan support

Does it come to any surprise the Pentagon and Bush administration adamantly oppose Webb's proposal, which is clearly the best? Here's their take from a press conference a couple of weeks ago:

You know, we are mostly concerned with the harm it would do to troop retention. We have no issue with the fact that Senator Webb wishes to, you know, provide a more generous education benefit to troops, but we are certainly concerned that this would be eligible to them after only two years of service.

We think pegging it to a longer period of service -- the number we have in mind at this point is six years of service -- that the longer you stay in, the sweeter the benefits are to you. Six years would show a commitment to service. In fact, it would allow for at least, at that point, one reenlistment for another tour of duty. And having done that, we believe that they should certainly have the ability to transfer their unused education benefits to their spouse or to their children, and that we believe to be very family friendly and would also enhance retention among our troops. The last thing we want to do is provide a benefit -- or last thing we want to do is create a situation in which we are losing our men and women who we have worked so hard to train.

Translation: Three years (minimum enlistment time) doesn't cut it for sacrifice and commitment anymore, only a reenlistment at the very least.

It is definitely not the Pentagon's job to define commitment to service in terms of years. One infantryman could deploy twice in three years and get separated for PTSD (or their new favorite, adjustment disorder), and a desk jockey could never deploy in six. According to those tucked safely away in the Pentagon, the guy riding the desk deserves more benefits than the grunt with a messed up head. A sliding scale of education payments is a disgrace and insult, attempting to hold hostage as many people as possible until they reach the finish line of 6-12 years.

There's an obvious philosophical difference between Webb's bill and McCain-Graham's bill. Webb's bill recognizes service after 9/11 as an honorable commitment because it meant volunteering in a time of war. Just that act garners recognition and education benefits that every service member is entitled to. It's aware that almost three quarters of enlisted personnel separate after their first enlistment, so increasing benefits will not do much to hinder the size of our forces. It also recognizes that education is a direct cost of war, just like beans, bullets and bombers. It's vital for reintegrating back into a society that the soldier risked their life for.

McCain-Graham's bill is a bit different. It pushes aside the fact that most people want to get out after their first enlistment is up. It aims to recreate separate-but equal standards by awarding those who stay in the service and punishing those who get out. It has a fixed level of monthly payments that does nothing to address rising tuition, whereas Webb's version is dynamically set to change as tuition inevitably goes up. It completely ignores how compelling Webb's bill would be in terms for first time enlistees. In the internet age, any would-be recruit can easily look at the current G.I. Bill to see how inadequate it is. Or I can do it for you. For those interested in getting college money by joining the military, you won't be getting much. Sorry to break it to you. But if Webb's G.I. Bill passes, you won't have to worry about deciding between food or school once you get out of the military. Education benefits is the number one reason people enlist in the military. Only a fraction go on to multiple enlistments, so the military isn't losing anyone they wouldn't lose anyway. Those scare tactics about rising benefits dealing a blow to retention are completely without merit, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

This will all come to a head next week when the bill goes onto the Senate floor. In the meantime, go here to see if your senators are on board. If not, call or email them and ask why they're against giving our veterans what they need.

I've written my own form letter you can copy and send to your own senator*.

Senator ______________,

Dude, it has come to my attention that you are not currently a cosponsor for S. 22, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. To which I ask a succinct question: what the hell? Veterans of the war of Iraq and Afghanistan, if only a small number of your constituents, deserve your attention and approval of this vital bill for education assistance. Luckily, only a small number of you were tricked by the introduction of S. 2938, Senator Graham's pathetic shadow of S. 22. Congratulations for knowing the difference between a bill and an insult! But we need more from you. Please, pretty please, at least two of you add your names and realize what it means to really support the troops. Tomorrow's doctors, lawyers, firefighters and lobbyists are waiting for their education to be secured. I know you can't deal without any of those groups! Thank you for your time.



*Please don't send this to any public official. They deserve respect!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Photo Story Monday - Road Trip Part Two

Previously, on Army of Dude...

A visit to Yellowstone, getting a speeding ticket in Utah and winning small in Vegas.

Now, Part II!

With a heavier wallet than before, we left Las Vegas heading west. We talked about visiting Disneyland before the trip started but decided it would take too much time for something so out of the way. We were making good time, reaching Nevada in just a few days into our planned twelve day adventure. We made the decision to go for the magic.

We'd make our way to Los Angeles to visit Lauren's friend from high school. She was going to an all girl's college, so sneaking in a man as well as a dog was going to be difficult.

We played it cool. With Axel on a leash we waltzed into the dorms like we owned the fucking joint. After a reminiscing about old times, we thought it'd be best to get liquor and make a stop at In & Out Burger. I wasn't familar with the latter but heard of its tastiness. It was a bit windy so we ate in car, which didn't do anything to hinder the deliciousness of my double-double.

The plan was to get drunk and watch Family Guy. We made a simple drinking game: take a sip every time there was a flashback joke, and two drinks for any joke all three of us didn't get. Though we are three well read individuals, we got tipsy pretty damn quick.

Saying farewell to Megan the next morning, we drove into the city on a mission to see the Kodak Theater, the Hollywood sign, and if there was time, the place where Hugh Grant picked up a hooker.

We got to the theater, and good lord! What a freakshow. The streets were crammed with CD wielding amateur rappers rubbing elbows with people dressed up in superhero costumes. I didn't know they worked for tips, so I gave a simple 'thank you' to a guy in a Batman costume after he took a picture of Lauren and I. Whoops. If you're reading this right now, sir, I'll send you a check for $2!

Er, guys? Are you going to move that D a little to the left?

We wanted to see the ocean before we headed to Anaheim, so we drove in the general direction of the shoreline. No luck. We called Lauren's mom who grew up there for any tips on getting to the beach. We were to follow Santa Monica Boulevard all the way to the shore. On and on we went, only speeding past bodegas and palm trees on the outskirts of L.A. Armed with only a U.S. road map, we were clueless about the area we were in. We looked for locals to point us in the right direction, but every neighborhood seemed to be Chinatown. We had quite a time finding someone who spoke English. Half a tank of gas later, we gave up on the idea as the sun went down on another day on the road.

If you're ever going to visit Disneyland, do yourself a favor and go in April. The wait for rides hover around 15-30 minutes and the weather is mighty fine. I had never been to Disneyland, Disney World or even Euro Disney. I was always a fan of roller coasters and uncomfortable rides where you get wet with scummy water, so it was a good time.

After goofing off in California for a few days, it was back to business. We had gone waaay out of the way by heading west. It was time to head east toward our final destination. The goal was to reach the Grand Canyon in the evening, just in time to see the sunset. We drove like hell to do exactly that. Once again, the time of the year we chose for the trip was a boon to us. Traffic going in and out of the canyon was light and we had no problem getting there before nightfall.

How'd they get down there?

One of the more interesting characters we encountered


It was a beautiful sight to behold, and the dog was happy to be walking around. It was time to leave the park with God's beauty in our hearts.

We were advised to exit out another gate on our way to Winslow, but luckily for us we had a map of the park. No problem getting out. It was completely dark, but there was no traffic. No human traffic, anyway.

Once again, we were lost. We followed the signs into a dead-end loop with no other people in sight. After awhile we spotted a couple at the gas station, so we pulled over to ask them if they knew the way out.

"Sorry, we're in the same boat as you and we're out of gas."

Ergh. With less than half a tank of gas and a disastrous start, we decided to fill up as well.

We got back on the path we took three times before. Suddenly, Lauren gasps and shouts, "What is that?!" just as I make the turn. Standing over us, staring back with cold, hateful eyes, was an elk as tall as a school bus in the middle of the road. I slammed on the brakes, waiting for it to trample our pitiful car - or run away. Fortunately for us, it chose the latter and sprinted into the woods. The high beams went on after that.

After a U-turn, we caught the same elk running across the road again! He was playing a deadly game. At a top speed of 25 miles an hour, we chugged along to the exit some twenty miles away, spotting many more elk, either standing in the road or close to it. What should have been a thirty minute drive took three times as long, but we escaped the park without totaling the car and only running over a couple of bald eagles (kidding!).

When we were planning our trip, I circled in bold Winslow, Arizona. Not only a place where hot chicks drive flat bed trucks in Eagles songs, Winslow is right next to a meteor crater 4,100 feet in diameter that was created 50,000 years ago. Pretty cool huh?

The Petrified Forest was down the road a bit, and it made for a beautiful sight. We drove through it halfway before letting the dog run free as we got out to stretch and walk around. The hills were just begging to be climbed, and I was happy to oblige.

Me and Axel, the dog rescuer

The lady and the dog, from up above

Axel couldn't get enough of the dirt. It was surprisingly soft against his fur and he loved to roll around for our amusement:

Onto New Mexico, the final state before Texas. It looked just like Arizona honestly, but at a gas station/Dairy Queen, we were greeted with a road trip staple for countless families across America:

The trip nearing an end, we headed to Dallas for the final leg of our journey (and to stay at my parent's house and eat their food for free). It was only four hours to Austin, but on the twelfth day on the road, we reached our destination.

Nearly two weeks and 4000 miles later, we made it home. Since then, we've found a house and are waiting to start school in the fall. The road trip proved to be a great way to spend time together. My dad said to me, "If you can survive it the whole way, you two are meant for each other." On that regard, we did just fine.