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.