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The Uniform in Politics

For those who missed it, I was recently in TIME discussing the politicization of the military uniform that occurred the evening of the Iowa Caucuses. I hope you enjoy!

Rajiv Srinivasan: http://ideas.time.com/2012/01/04/a-soldiers-dilemma-should-corporal-thorsen-have-endorsed-ron-paul/#disqus_thread

Resolutions

This year, my biggest new year’s resolution is to keep my resolutions! To help me do this, I’ve decided to make my resolutions public. I figure if I let the world know what I’m thinking, it adds a degree of accountability for what I’m promising myself to do. New Year’s resolutions have grown to depress me. Recently, it hasn’t been a moment of rejuvenation–a fresh start. Rather, it’s been more of a signal of the stagnation of life and the quicksand which keeps me from improving as a person and a professional. But 2011 has put life back in perspective. It’s been a year of tremendous family loss, but also a great deal of personal gain. And I recognize how desperately lucky I am to have the life I have, and I’m not going to let a few impulsive decisions keep me from maximizing my potential to make myself a healthier and wiser person. At the end of the day, that’s all it takes to break a resolution, right? Impulsive decisions. The choice to eat the cookie instead of the apple; the extra slice of pizza instead of backing off and drinking water. Or how bout the decision to turn on a re-run of a mindless sitcom instead of read a book? I crave comfort. I love indulging myself. I think it’s a remnant of my time at war in Afghanistan: there’s no such thing as doing anything half-heartedly. It’s either all or nothing. When I want to take a break, I plan a massive expensive vacation. When I want to work, I pull all nighters and won’t stop till the project is done. When I want to eat…I eat till I can’t stuff my stomach with any more food. When I want to sleep, I plan for a hibernation. And when I want to be with friends, well, let’s just say I have been blessed with a lot of good loyal friends who put up with my neediness :)

Anyways- now that the psychology is revealed, let’s get down to the nit and gritty.

1) LOSE 20 LBS: Classic resolution, the weight loss. But for me, it’s a little serious. I gained about 20lbs of bad weight in 2011. A combination of things happened…the most important of which is that I took a job at West Point as an Admissions Officer, which requires me to be on the road almost 4 days out of every 5. Well, I shouldn’t say “requires”…I chose to push myself. I care about my job, my kids, and the cities/schools I get to mentor in. But that means a lot of eating out, not much working out, and a whole lot of travel induced stress. It also doesn’t help that I got promoted to Captain and am making enough money to afford a beer or two every now and then when I go out with buds. This resolution is arguably the most important, and has a couple different parts to it
-Eat right, especially on the road- Haven’t figured this out yet, but I should probably see a nutritionist
-Workout 3x a week: I got a personal trainer, I make him scream at me, it’s like “The Biggest Loser” (just kidding)
-Sleep at least 6hrs/ night. Yep wasn’t doing that before
-Limit alcohol intake to 3 drinks per week.
-Drink water at all meals

2) FINISH MY BOOK: I don’t like to talk about it too much, but I’m trying to write a manuscript and hopefully get it published. 100,000 words is no joke, but I know I can do this. I think this is going to be the year I actually get this done.

3) BUILD A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS: Most people don’t know this, but I recently started a small IT company. We’re doing really well considering the fact that I’m running this thing parttime. But I decided this year that I work best when I am my own boss. I wanted to build something so that when I leave the Army, I don’t have to go from one corporation to another corporation. I am trying to build it up so that my transition can go seamlessly from military officer to small businessman without the whole “going into debt” thing. So wish me luck on that.

4) PUT 10 VETS BACK TO WORK. This, in my opinion, is the hardest one of all. Because I’ve learned that veteran unemployment in particular isn’t always just about the number of jobs out there. In fact, over the course of 2011, unemployment went from 9.6% to about 8.4% whereas veteran unemployment for those between the ages of 18-24 went from 22%-30%. I started a non-profit a while back called the National Foundation for Veteran Redeployment (www.nfvr.org) to try and offer training, transportation, and jobs to veterans in the energy and IT sector; but it’s hard to even lead the horse to water for a combination of reasons. A lack of knowledge is one, geographic inflexibility is another. But the reason that confuses and disturbs me the most is the unwillingness to take initiative after an enlistment of 4-6 years of a very difficult military experience. It’s hard to go from war to work. How do we get in the psychology of the veteran mindset to let the 49% who aren’t signing up with the VA–effectively removing governmental authority entirely from their life–how do we get those folks to come to the table? The other 51%, typically officers, senior enlisted, or folks with transferable skillsets seem to be doing well. It’s the enlisted doorkicker I’m worried about. If you know someone who needs help, let me know. I’ll make it my life’s mission to get em a job.

So thats my 2012. Sounds like a big challenge. But now that YOU know about it, hopefully it will make me more accountable :) I hate failing, but I hate it even more when its in the limelight!

We’re Making Progress on Homeless Veterans!

Earlier last week, the Washington Post informed us that we are coming within striking distance of eliminating Veteran Homelessness. Over 33,000 homeless veterans are now off the street due to the voucher program which, including all administrative costs, will run us about $10,000 a veteran per year. That’s it. Far cheaper than jail. There are people who spend more on vacations, forget their own housing.

It’s a bit of good news in an environment that continually shifts and changes between horrible situations that veterans face versus this ambiguous cloud of pride and suppor they receive from the “sea of good will”.

But there’s something interesting which as made this effort so much more successful than all the rest that I’m not sure if people are paying attention to: they eliminated the requirement to go to drug rehabilitation before coming to the VA for housing. You see, previously, it was thought as a ridiculous handout to provide free housing to someone who was on drugs. Surely, they would never get a job if they were continuing to use. Why would Americans want to spend tax dollars housing those who are not making any attempt to ween themselves off of the national system?

But now, we might have a different set of priorities. We realize that keeping the vets on the street actually can exacerbate their substance abuse problems. I applaud the VA for making that decision. Finding the home means getting a good night rest, it means getting a shower, getting a shave or haircut. It means being able to wake up and start the day fresh. Solving veteran homelessness is the first step to solving veteran employment, which is the first step in solving veteran drug use. It seems backwards in nature because, to the typical American, NOT doing drugs means FINDING a job and therefore having the capacity to BUY a house.

I find it interesting how transforming our conceptions of what is “normal” or “effective” can actually help us better affect those in dire situations

The Behavioral Exchange

Last week, CNN reported that a soldier coming home from combat tours had been shot at a homecoming/holiday party after verbal and physical engagement with a high school football teammate. The soldier was a wounded warrior, coming home from Afghanistan after being injured in a suicide bomb blast. That article went on to interview the soldier’s mother and we understood that this was a good person and someone who probably didn’t do anything wrong, or at least nothing that merited the drawing of a weapon against him.

The article was extremely sympathetic towards the soldier. And I understand completely, this situation is out of hand. But I’m not stranger to the stresses of returning back home. Transitioning from combat to comfort puts a strain on ones personality and our demeanors. What is usually a calm disposition in a combat zone can appear tense and angry in an everyday situation here at home. The forceful nature of small arguments in combat can appear like a threatening temper storm when put back home. My point isn’t that the soldier did anything wrong, but I can’t help but wonder what sort of transition challenges the soldier was facing that might have provoked the attack against him. Was his voice raised very loud? Was he making any gestures that appeared to be aggressive, though they may not have intended to be so?

The importance of this isn’t to isolate who is to blame in this shooting incident. The point of the analysis is to further understand the minutia of what returning veterans do in stressful situations and how our behaviors can either mitigate or irritate confrontations. Interesting discussions worth having around the dinner table at families who are affected by a loved one coming home. I’m interested to hear your responses.

 

Our Medical Weaponry

In a piece by the New York Times posted on 27 December 2011, we learned that the Obama Administration is going to allow the embattled Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh to receive state of the art healthcare in the United States before facing any of his numerous legal ramifications. Various people have different opinions on the medical treatment of personnel we regard as “enemy’. I know on the battlefield, it seems counterintuitive to offer medical treatment to the enemy when you have plenty of American soldiers who have been wounded or killed (often by the same enemy fighter’s actions) and yet both get treated in the order that they come into the gate; regardless of political allegiance.

But I’ve seen first hand that the offer of medical aid by the United States is actually the most formidable weapon system we have in a counterinsurgency and counterterrorist environment. So much of our success in these fields is out of our control, but actually in the hands of the local populations who either tolerate or are intimidated into supporting anti-American elements. Whether it’s the leader of an unstable country, or the leader of an unstable tribe, the adage from our kindergarten days holds true: you attract far more flies with honey than vinegar.

You could certainly also argue that accepting Saleh into our hands and treating him medically further exacerbates the anger and resentment of the people of Yemen. Why should this elite receive care from a foreign government when he has clearly neglected his own people for the past couple decades? That being said, a journey of a million miles begins with one step, and Saleh no doubt still has influential supporters–alienated from politics, though entrenched in other legitimate and illegitimate businesses– who will look at this act and remember it in their future decisions in the Arab world. And it could keep us safer in the long run. Interested to hear your thoughts.

5 Ways to Help A Servicemember

During this time in the holiday season, I’ve been there…it gets lonely for a veteran. Sometime this season while you’re putting away the stockings and unplugging the Christmas lights at the end of the year, be sure to remember the folks still serving overseas and how much it pains to not be with their families. Now that I’m back home safe and sound, I treasure every moment I get to spend with them. Here are a few ways you can stay active and involved in a veteran or servicemember’s life:

1) Write a letter
Many organizations, including California-based Operation Gratitude, sponsor letter writing campaigns for veterans. It’s never too late to write a letter of gratitude to a Veteran.
Instructions:
1. Please make sure your letters will fit in a standard size envelope
2. Include your own name and address in the body of the letter
3. Do not write about politics, religion, death or killing
4. Please do not use glitter
5. This is strictly a letter-writing effort to thank Veterans; please do not send any care package items for Veterans
6. All letters will be screened
7. Send multiple letters together in one large mailing envelope or box
Please send as many letters (or copies with original signature) as you would like by regular mail only to:
Thank a Veteran
c/o Penny Alfonso
1970 Rangeview Drive
Glendale, CA 91201

2) Volunteer at a VA hospital
Veterans of all wars seek health care at the nation’s many VA hospitals. And more than likely, there is a VA hospital in your community.
Cathy Pratt of veterans organization Freedom is not Free says visiting a VA hospital can make a big difference for a veteran. Many of those hospitalized may not have family or anyone to visit them. Taking a couple hours every week or month to volunteer can make a huge impact on your life and a veteran’s life. This would also be a great way to teach children American history by introducing them to the people who have preserved America’s freedom.
If you go to the Veterans Administration website, there is a way to sign up volunteer at your local VA hospital.

3) Donate simple things
Not money, but donating small items can help make some lonely lives better. Small donations to VA Hospitals are always welcome. Many patients are on fixed incomes and unable to buy some of the things that could make their recoveries better.
Check with your local VA Hospital, but here are some items they are looking for:
• Magazines
• Coffee and cookies
• New or gently used clothing
• Telephone cards
4) Help the homeless
According to VA, a little more than a fifth of the adult homeless population has served their country. The VA has founded a National Call Center for Veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, that provides free, 24/7 access to trained counselors. Call 1-877-4AID VET (1-877-424-3838).
The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars also have homeless programs to assist veterans and several charities are dedicated to helping wounded service members and their families. Coming home from war and returning to the workforce while dealing with the wounds of war can also be economically challenging.
If you are going to donate money to help a homeless or struggling veteran, make sure you pick a reputable charity or organization that has 501(c)(3) designation. Contact your local VFW or American Legion to find out how to make sure your money stays in your community.

5) Say thank you
This may be the simplest and maybe the most effective way to make an immediate impact for a veteran. Many veterans may feel disenfranchised and forgotten by a nation. If you see a veteran or know of one, take a moment to say thank you.
“Thank you for your service,” is a simple statement that can go a long way.

Veterans have given up a lot to serve their country, and many will deal with emotional and physical wounds for the rest of their lives. Knowing that we appreciate their service and their sacrifice can help.
And don’t forget about the veterans still serving. Many of our active duty military personnel have served multiple tours in Afghanistan or Iraq. If you see a person in uniform in public, say thank you — two words that can make a big difference.

These are just five simple ways to help a veteran, but there are hundreds more ways to make an impact.

Info gathered from CNN.com

Out of sight, First in Mind

If you have been living under a rock the past few weeks, allow me to remind you that our nation is still in a sort of financial and political gridlock that few can really comprehend, or want to comprehend for that matter. But Ive been watching with intense interest and fascination, trying to understand what each side is arguing, willing to concede, and who is going to be the hero of the day. Right now, the only thing I can conclude is that we do have some good people, some good ideas, but unfortunately little leadership in showing a willingness to work together and reach agreements. Except for one thing…everyone agrees that military personnel should be paying more for their healthcare:
Stephen Colbert outlined the situation best in his segment on “the 1%”. Please check it out:

http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/402700/november-17-2011/the-word—the-1-?xrs=playershare_fb

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m a soldier, I’m a veteran, and I will personally be the first one to throw my hands up in the air and sacrifice my healthcare and veterans benefits if it’s in the best interests of the country. I will be the first one to acknowledge that the prices for military healthcare have only risen approximately 12% over the past twenty years while the costs of healthcare have risen exponentially. Of course, when I received my two concussions in training, or when a rock was thrown at my head in Afghanistan, I suppose it was in our nation’s best interest to make sure that I was medically insured at a reasonable rate despite the increasing costs of healthcare. There is no doubt…a moderate increase in premiums is in order, and arguably overdue.

But what causes my blood to boil…why should my soldiers be the first ones to give up anything? It’s scary, because at the end of the day, the American service member has the least franchise in the very institution he or she protects. It’s not like a bunch of privates and lieutenants are going to march on Washington demanding better healthcare. They can’t hire a fancy lobbying firm like other industries. And we surely aren’t about to unionize. The American service member is rather defenseless in the political arena, with the only guard of American gratitude to protect itself…At least when it’s convenient.

I honestly do not think that the decrease in veteran health benefits (or comparable increase in costs) is overreaching or out of line. What bothers me is the fact that, in a country of division and polarization, starving for budget cuts, our leaders have found a new rdemographic without the ability to defend itself from the knife on the chopping block. It’s like a wolf finally laying eyes on a sheep that has veered away from the pack. I just hope Stephen Colbert can keep producing enough material to keep our boys out of harms way any more than absolutely necessary.

For Anne

"Poages," "Fobbits,"Legs,"…the internal name calling in the military is an aspect of our culture that few civilians really know about. The guy on the front line getting shot at and blown up receives the same handshake, the same "thank you for your service," and quite frankly the same pay as the other soldier who sits in the safety of the airfield and drives a forklift around post. One soldier eats MREs, the other gets Mickey D's. And yes, a bit of a rivalry develops, some chest beating occurs, and often times, certain branches of the military are regarded as civilianized.

Aviation is certainly a branch that, at least in my unit, had reputation as being a comfortable life. Mandatory eight hours a day sleep!? You get to live on the airfield where there's always great food, internet, phones, and a PX?! And on top of that, you get to fly helicopters! Of course some jealousy ensues. And when we get back home, the feeling of a lack of societal utility overcomes some of us. It's hard to feel like you're contributing anything to society when there are folks in your profession who are overseas on their third or fourth tour, still kicking down doors and taking lethal fire. It's hard to feel like a soldier when people around you are more worried about the shaping of a beret rather than the actual problems people face day to day.

But then I read this article about my good friend Anne Rockeman from West Point ’08. Annie was my friend from my plebe year differential equations class. We both had absolutely no idea what we were doing, but we managed to keep ourselves entertained through some very dry subject matter. She had intense freckles, bright red hair, and some horrific braces she was terribly self-conscious about at age 19. But it didn’t stop her showing off that million dollar smile and making everyone feel like they were her best friend in the world. Annie was one of the most down to earth and normal kids at a school where the dominant alpha-male mentality made me feel like a fish out of water. Annie was amazing at disarming even the most intimidating soldier.

When Annie and I received our branches on Branch Night, we celebrated at the Firstie club with the rest of our classmates…I got Armor, she got Aviation. we were both very excited, and it put life in perspective: four years had gone by so quickly. And they weren’t going to slow down. I zipped off to Ft. Benning and Ft. Knox, then Ft. Lewis and Afghanistan. And coming home from war, I finally felt safe. But seeing Annie die in a helicopter crash at home humbled me. It’s unbelievable to think how dangerous the military profession is, even in training. I think to myself how many amazing experiences I’ve had in the military where I never felt in tremendous danger because it was a “controlled environment”. I repelled out of helicopters, I climbed over intensely tall obstacles, ran around the woods with guns, and spent four months playing war games with 70 Ton M1 tanks at Ft. Knox. I run through the countless times in my state-side military career where I could have gotten hurt and killed. And I just can’t believe that all that internal fighting we do as a force still happens.

The military profession, whether at home in the U.S. or in a combat environment; whether it’s on the front lines or in a forward operating base…what we do is dangerous. Though we do a good job of controlling as many variables as possible, there’s no such thing as an operation without human error. This is a dangerous line of work, and I have a new found respect for those who bear the uniform, independent of the brand of service they provide. Putting your life on the line can take many forms in our profession, and I hope that we as a military–and better yet, as a country–can start having the humility to understand that the surface of person’s life is rarely indicative of the contribution they actually make.

It’s nothing new

But when it was China who had captured a US aircraft earlier this decade, there was at least some underlying assumptions that, no matter how tense our relations may be with  China at any given point, our two nations clearly have so many common economic interests that an all out conflict was really not probably in the short term over this matter. In fact, as I reference the Chinese take-over of the American aircraft in early 2001, most readers probably don’t even remember it. To refresh your memory, read here: Spy Plane Standoff

That all being said, now that it is Iran who has refused to return a captured drone, instinctively, Iran is walking a fine line between sovereignty and provocation. But the interesting question in my mind is, what would happen if the tables were turned? What would (does) the United States do when uncovering espionage attempts from foreign countries? Well, when it happens, it remains largely a secret. When your enemy knows that you are aware of his current attempts and procedures, the enemy adapts and continues to transform in a game of cat and mouse. But in even the most rudimentary counterintelligence training I’ve received, rule number one: don’t change your behavior…at least not at initial discovery.

What this tells me is Iran is falling into one of two categories

1) It has tremendous inexperience with counterintelligence and doesn’t know when or how to use its discoveries
2) It’s looking for attention

My limited experience in this space tells me that drones and unmanned vehicles are prepped for loss of communication and malfunction. After all, it’s a robot flying thousands of feet above the surface, and often hundreds or thousands of miles away from its operators…mistakes are assumed to happen. Thus, the actual capture of the drone is of little relative value to Iran, and this isn’t really much of the story that everyone seems to be making of it. But then again, I’m not the guy in the hot seat.

Quelling Economic Hysteria

I learned a lot in my tour in Afghanistan, but I think the biggest lesson I came away with was Stay Calm. So often, we all turn on the news to find nothing but hysteria and sensationalism. After all, it sells.

Or at least I thought it did. I was very encouraged to read the following report by Vanguard Group:

RT: @Vanguard_Group U.S. trade deficit narrows for 4th consecutive month. Read our Economic Week in Review: http://vgi.vg/rsmh4d

It was nice to finally see someone reporting good news. In fact, I feel that news outlets have bombarded me over the years with hyped up panic-button articles that, for once, it was eye-catching to read something that was moderately positive, or at least pluralistic. It made me think about all the times when the bullets started flying, or bombs started going off. My initial instinct was to panic, but when I heard the collected voices of my junior NCOs and my rock-solid soldiers on the radio, it helped me be a better officer and lead them in a meditated fashion. Likewise, if we as a country are going to start pealing back the problems of our day, we require leadership that can look at a situation, take a breath, and speak clearly into the microphone in a calming manner.

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