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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
• 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
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:
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.
"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.
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.
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:
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.
Today is a big day for America. We are out of Iraq! It’s times like this when veterans tend to draw the greatest acclaim for the sacrifices they’ve made, yet receive the biggest headache of questions and media inputs questioning the validity and worth of their sacrifice. I’m thankful for having come back home after a brutal fight in Afghanistan, to a nation that is far better at disassociating a service member’s sacrifice from various opinions of the worth of the conflict.
The path to transition is still a long journey far from complete for our veterans back home. But considering where we have been as a country, and the changes our society has embraced, I’m sure that the 1million+ veterans of the Iraq campaign can hang their heads highly without fear of scorn or bearing society’s anger against the war they executed. This is by no means a post to insist that veterans don’t have it bad. On the contrary, I and many other activists fight tirelessly to get our boys and girls the services and resources they deserve to live productive lives in the democracy they volunteered to protect. But in a pluralistic manner, I’m happy today to look on the progress that veterans and their advocates have made over the past forty years or so in preserving a sense of respect for those who are coming home. Now, for us GWOT veterans, it’s our job to remain active and passionate so we can fight for the next generation of young vets that will come home when we are old and gray. We must consider them part of our own unit, and care for them as we would care for our teammates on the battlefield. That means getting involved, putting your money where your mouth is, and using our network to proactively help the veteran community as we disperse to our homes across America. The time for awareness has passed, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
I’m currently working on two projects to get vets back to work and to get them services they need to transition successfully. For those interested in getting involved, tweet/Facebook/comment or email me at Rajiv@RajivSrinivasan.net
Friends and Family,
This Veterans Day, when you thank a soldier or veteran for their service…take a minute to think about what exactly you’re thanking them for in this new generation of conflict. I discuss this in my latest in TIME- All the best :)
WHAT WE’RE THANKFUL FOR
Underneath the regalia and pomp and circumstance, Veterans Day is somewhat of an awkward experience for both veterans and civilians in how we interact. For us veterans, it’s often hard to accept thanks for going to war, when we know others have done and sacrificed far more than we have. It’s hard because not all of us join the military for such benevolent, patriotic reasons. Some of us join to break free from our hometowns. Some join to test themselves. And let’s face it, a lot of folks are like me and joined for the free education.
But for the civilian, the act of thanking a veteran for their service is awkward as well. Not in the least because the gratitude isn’t genuine but rather because it’s too unfocused. It’s hard to thank someone when you truly have no idea what they’ve done. That’s not a flaw of character on the civilian’s part by any means but simply a narrative that I fear goes untold in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
When my military friends and I turn on the news, we relive the moments of violence and fear showcased on B-roll footage of soldiers in combat. I remember the adrenaline-charged feeling of firefights in Kandahar. My power was not in the finger on my rifle’s trigger, but rather the finger on my radio. Just as every good Army platoon leader, I trained vigorously for the decisive moment where I would call for fire upon my enemy. Calling for mortars and aviation fire is the bread and butter of the military profession. My soldiers relished the idea of raining down hell on Taliban positions off in the distance. And when the explosions erupted, they cheered. And I felt like a 24-year-old god holding nothing short of the wrath of the U.S. Army in his hands — just one radio click away.
But behind the scenes where the cameras don’t go, Taliban leaders would bundle their severely wounded teammates into a taxi cab, drive to the front gate of our outpost, kick the bleeding bodies out the door and take off before we could catch them. They expected us to medically treat and save the lives of their wounded fighters.
It breaks my heart to think that when American civilians thank my soldiers for their service in combat they thank them for the assumed bravery under fire. They thank them for putting their lives in danger. But this Veterans’ Day, I’d ask you to thank our soldier’s for something far more valuable and sacred that has truly saved more of our American lives than anything else: their compassion.
I remember one evening after a helicopter engagement that I ordered, two brutally injured Taliban fighters came to our gates. My medic, Specialist Mike Piegaro, a 21-year-old soldier from Florida, began to operate on the most critically wounded. I watched the Afghan’s eyes. He was about my age. He trembled and shivered on the operating table as cold wraps and iodine touched his skin. His gaze at the ceiling seemed to question of God, “How did I get myself into this? I want to go home.” As the fighter’s spasms increased with his anxiety, Specialist Piegaro stopped operating. He took off a glove, grabbed the Afghan’s hand and held tightly. He motioned the interpreter to his side. Mike looked into the Afghan’s eyes — a boy of similar age who just two hours ago had been trying to kill him — and in a calming voice, he said to him, “Relax, brother. Everything is going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” The young Talib responded more to Mike’s body language than the interpreter’s translation. He leaned his head back, lowered his shoulders and allowed himself to be healed.
I look back on that day affectionately as humbling moment. Whereas I had felt so proud of myself for engaging my enemy with explosives, Mike had probably done more for Afghanistan and the United States by engaging the enemy with compassion. It was one of my proudest moments as a platoon leader, but the reality is that these sort of events happen every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. Medics and doctors from all services and ranks, spend countless stressful hours on operating tables and aid stations treating Afghan civilians and insurgents.
My good friend, Maj. Raj Shah is an F-16 fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force who, in his free time during his first Iraq tour, donned scrubs to help in the trauma station at Balad Air Base. One night he was assisting in the operating room when the tell-tale thumps of a landing Blackhawk helicopter signaled the arrival of an emergency casualty. Two injured men were quickly wheeled into the tent-covered operating room. One was an American Marine, the other an Iraqi. Raj was asked to assist with the Iraqi, who was being treated for gunshot wound. As he handed scalpels and bags of saline to the surgeons, Raj watched as the doctors across the room frantically worked to save the Marine’s life. Much of the Marine’s leg had been decimated by a roadside bomb. Several hours into the effort, one of the surgeons called out to Raj, “Take a look at this bullet.” He handed Raj an M-16 round he had extracted from the Iraqi and then dropped a bombshell — the Iraqi they were working on was the trigger-man for the bomb that had blown off the Marine’s leg! While the Marine was eventually sent to Walter Reed for recuperation and the Iraqi to the penal system, during their time in the hospital, both equally received the finest medical care our nation could muster. No other fighting force in history has provided such a level of care for its enemies. I shudder to think of the outcome had the roles of fighter and captor been reversed.
As I returned from combat to read nothing but bad press on the failures of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dire fear started to seep under my skin, a fear that our nation will regard both wars as a total loss with no positive impact. I feared that the daily courage of soldiers like Mike Piegaro would go unappreciated through history. Winning this war is about small daily victories, and a 24-hour news cycle fueled on sensationalism will never give credit where credit is due. Say what you will about the grand national strategy of our occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, but at the end of the day, let us not remember these wars in a simple win-loss context. Let us appreciate the sacrifices shown through benevolence — and the bravery shown through compassion on battlefields and in the operating rooms. They are not gifts deserving of thanks nearly as they are models for how great America can be.
Here is a TIME article I wrote recently discussing how my life changed ten years ago when I was a high school student on 9/11/01. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and comments.
Friends, I’ve been lucky enough to be published again in TIME Magazine discussing our nation’s drastically high veteran unemployment rate. I’d appreciate you taking a read and letting me know your thoughts! All the best.
I wrote a Memorial Day post that’s featured in TIME this week. I hope you enjoy:
Happy Memorial Day and warmest thanks to all who serve and have served.
My eyes always cringe at the sight of a homeless veteran. As I know the pains of war firsthand, it breaks my heart to see that people who have sacrificed so much for my freedom are suffering to such a degree. But it’s comforting to know that groups like the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project in Jewett City, Conn., have been renovating old buildings and turning them into shelters for veterans for quite some time. They’ve raised millions of dollars from private businesses and caring citizens. The federal government has even said it would chip in the monthly rent of $875 for 15 veterans each year and provide additional funds for construction.
Unfortunately, in the recent round of intense budget cuts in Congress, this small funding for the homeless-shelter project was slashed, along with a total of $75 million in homeless-veteran benefits. As both a veteran and an American, I don’t believe that veterans’ programs should ever be isolated from budget cuts. After all, if the nation is hurting, it is we veterans who have sacrificed and will sacrifice first to protect her. But when I turn the pages of the budget to find a $7.4 million guaranteed commitment to fund a U.S. Army NASCAR sponsorship — and $20 million more from the National Guard to do the same — my blood begins to boil.
Advertising consultants may argue that the marketing statistics actually make the NASCAR project worthwhile, that it’s great “bang for the buck” in getting the Army slogan in front of millions of young auto fans salivating at the masculine thrill of modern sport. But is this really what we’ve come down to in our military-recruitment strategy? Have we boiled down the science of appealing to the core of the most dedicated young Americans to simple ad placement? To more-forgiving critics, this is just a miscalculation. To me, it is a telling exposition of how removed our policymakers are from the personal narratives of the men and women who execute their orders.
Running on my 24th month as a platoon leader — 12 of them in combat — I have had the chance to hear each of my soldiers’ life stories from before their enlistment. Some had seen tremendous success; others had seen horrific family pains I know I could never endure. When I ask my soldiers why they joined the Army, each of their answers is unique and far more sophisticated than a halftime commercial.
Michael’s dad was once in the Special Forces in Vietnam, and there was a distance between them for some time. Michael joined the Army against his father’s wishes to better understand him. Since then, their relationship has grown closer than ever.
Doug hadn’t graduated high school and was already in a bad crowd that would have probably led him to an early death or jail time. When his father died, there was no one in his family bringing home a consistent paycheck. He knew he had to make something of his life. He joined the Army.
Aaron is a college graduate, deeply interested in politics and energy independence. He chose not to do the ROTC because, in his words, adding up his enlistment bonus and the accelerated promotion points from his degree, it was more profitable for him to enlist than commission. He’s now one of the most senior and respected NCOs in the company, as well as a loving husband and father.
America’s service members are not one-dimensional people. The military’s target audience — those who have the fortitude to sign on the dotted line — are not simpletons who will be called to action by a race car. They are smart. They are thoughtful. They are not children but grown men and women, and they deserve to be treated as such.
That being said, when a smart, young high school student from Connecticut is considering enlistment, what sort of “ad placement” do homeless veterans on his neighborhood block present? What does that high school student think when he sees veterans unemployed or without health insurance?
For many homeless veterans, residual emotional and psychological effects of war are what led to their unfortunate circumstances. When we fail to support our veterans in dire conditions, we present military service as an unsustainable lifestyle to our prime recruitment audience. Those potential enlistees will deduce that they can better care for their families and themselves in other professions — and our front lines will be weaker for it. Thus, this isn’t just a veterans’-affairs issue but a national-security issue and should be regarded as one. With every soldier I’ve met, the common denominator in their decision to join the Army was a caring mentor whom they wanted to make proud. Rather than spending millions chasing stock cars to get attention, why don’t we invest in the mentors — the American veteran heroes — who can sell the honor and fulfillment of military service better than any athlete ever could?
I truly hope the American Legion Homeless Veterans Housing Project continues its venture. In the meantime, the manner in which our senior policymakers conceive the psyches of the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who lay their lives on the line each day for this country needs a drastic shift. This oversimplification of our identities costs this nation money; it will eventually cost us military talent and perhaps even lives. If you know a soldier or veteran, don’t just thank them for their service. Take the time to understand why they joined — and why they stayed — in the military. It’s an issue we must all understand if we are to democratically influence the decisions that will protect our country. Otherwise, we’ll just be driving in circles around the same problem for years to come.
As reports of the riots in the Middle East continue to flood news outlets, I follow with a distance that is rather peculiar considering my history and interests. Having spent nearly seven months of my four years at West Point in Egypt and Tunisia, I hold a special place in my heart for the people of both countries. After all, they helped me learn their language, and thus gave me a conduit to understanding the depths of one of the world’s most misunderstood regions. And while a call for liberation is certainly worthy of praise, it’s difficult for me to feel proportionally excited for my friends in Egypt and Tunisia, because there is a third country close to my heart that few have considered in this equation: Afghanistan.
One of the biggest misconceptions I brought with me to Kandahar in mid-2009 was how disconnected the society would be from events around the world. I knew the major population centers, like Kabul, would have decent connectivity, but I could not imagine a globally aware population springing up from the isolated villages in Zhari and Maiwand. As my relationships with village leaders and Afghan Army officers strengthened over my 12-month tour, I found that the proliferation of cellphones and radios offered a primitive, but effective, means of relaying world information even in the most remote locations of the Afghan deserts. Concurrently, the information flowed in only one direction, and in my experience with village leaders, was restricted as a privilege for the powerful.
What worries me most as a veteran of Afghanistan is how those village elders with whom I drank chai daily will react to the wave of protests and coups in their brother Arab countries. I’m not talking about the more developed areas around Kabul or Kandahar, but the isolated villages where the Taliban roam and intimidate freely. The leaders of these villages were raised in deep-seated and conservative manifestations of Islam. We in the West may have looked upon the governments of Tunisia and Egypt as dictatorships. But let us empathize with these Afghan tribal elders as they listen to their radios today, hearing of coups toppling leaders, using things like Twitter and Facebook for coordination.
If I were a senior tribal elder in Zhari, I’d look upon these countries and see Egyptian and Tunisian women walking freely outside without escort and without burqas. I’d look at these nations’ youthful resistance as a severe sign of disrespect toward elders, and thus a violation of the patriarchal value system our faith honors. If I were an Afghan tribal leader, it would be easy to designate former Presidents Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as victims of their own leadership philosophies — their failure to instill Islamic discipline in the countries they command. I would view their investments in education and communication as the kindling of their downfall.
It’s hard to tell a tribal elder to liberalize his village and let women go to school when he hears of such threats to power happening in other Muslim countries. If I were a tribal elder wanting to retain an Islamic community, it might even be in my best interest to further isolate my village from the toxins of the Internet and equal gender rights to keep away future threats to what is the true Islamic way of life. But the free flow of information, be it through modern or primitive means, is the key to a successful democracy. If grass-roots Afghan leaders view this information flow as a threat to their authority, what are the implications for our goal to democratize this country and leave it more stable than we found it?
The wave of uprisings may be viewed in the contexts of the individual countries, or in the Arab region as a whole. But the fact is that the entire world, including Afghanistan, is watching very closely. As thrilled as I am to see my Egyptian and Tunisian friends in the streets asserting — and achieving — their right to be heard, I know that there are still American, Afghan and NATO lives in grave danger in the same battlefields from which I returned not so long ago. Those are my brothers fighting to bring democracy to a country that has been tormented by war for centuries. It is an intimidating challenge. The voyage has thus far been painful, and the currents of history continue to work against them. I just hope that this wave of liberalization across the Arab world doesn’t push us farther back to shore.
Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/taking-off-the-armor/
I trembled when I felt the suction of the sterile brace over my right eyeball. The brightly lighted operation room faded to black as the blood ceased to flow. My left eye, still functioning for the time being, followed the surgeon with a paranoia I had not felt in months. My Army-sponsored Lasik eye surgery was supposed to be a relatively simple procedure. The surgeon would cut a flap into my cornea, imprint the prescription on its inner surface, and finally replace the flap with a few steroid drops. I’d jump up, throw on some sunglasses, and would probably see 20/20 in a few days. But this wasn’t what I signed up for.
A sharp swipe of a needle quickly struck the contour of my eye. I felt it pierce the surface of my cornea, and I whimpered. Dear God, was I supposed to feel that? Should I say something? I still couldn’t see in my right eye. With the wet sensation around my brow, I believed I was bleeding.
To a third party, and even to myself as I write this, I might seem unnecessarily dramatic. After all, Lasik is a routine procedure. My doctor had performed thousands of these surgeries. It’s easy to say that my fear was in vain in retrospect, but in the moment, I desperately feared that the needle and blood I felt meant something went wrong and my eyesight was at stake.
A montage of images from the most impactful events in my life flashed through my mind, most from my recent tour in Kandahar. I remembered seeing the delicate smiles of children, finding humor even in their war-torn home. I recalled the crying girl, about 7 years old, who knelt by my side during a firefight in Zhari. I saw the way she raised her hands toward her mouth, as if to cover the cracks in her brave exterior. I remembered dozens of explosions, the bravery of my men and images bemoaning the confusion of combat. I saw the faces of lifeless friends, and the purging of emotion from the losses thereof. My eyes had served me so well in my life.
Overcome with fear and vulnerability, I lost control of my nervous function. I began to shake and twitch on the operating table as waves of post-traumatic stress unleashed itself in my body. But then something magical happened: a moment of kindness and warmth that I will never forget. A nurse sitting to my left reached for my arm. She held my hand, and squeezed it with reassuring compassion. My left eye shot to her face. Though her mouth and hair were both covered, I could tell she was a middle-aged woman, akin to my own mother. Her eyes darted to meet mine with an empowering stare as if to say, “Don’t worry, Rajiv, everything is going to be all right.”
I took a breath. In. Then out. My body slowly began to relax. My arms rested by my side, and I indulged in a rare feeling of delicate protection in the arms of another. It was a dramatic transition from terror to trust and security that I hadn’t felt in years. I felt like a small child, trusting my own mother and father as I received my first booster shot at the age of 5. As the surgeon regained his tempo, I finally sat motionless on the table, amazed at how quickly this woman’s touch calmed me down.
Communication through human touch transcends anything that can be said or heard; it’s therapeutic. I considered my weakest moments in Kandahar: the losses and injuries of my good friends and colleagues; devastating violence that haunts me to this day. There was no one who held my hand then. There was no one to wrap their arms around me and bring me back to that childlike sense of trust and security. Instead, I stomached that grief into a protective wall of masculine armor and walked back into the fight with my soldiers.
As soldiers, we fortify this masculine armor in combat to protect ourselves from the emotional demons which would otherwise consume our hearts and prevent us from executing our missions. We do it because war is tough and we need to be tougher. When we come home, we try to take that wall down and regain the ability to share and trust with our loving families. But to modern soldiers, the act of accepting compassion remains an implication of weakness. This isn’t because of our society, or even because of our institutional military — but simply because of the individual identities we hold as soldiers. We’re tough guys; tough guys don’t need hugs.
Well, it wasn’t until my Lasik surgery when I realized just how badly I needed that hug — and still need it. It took a lot more courage to admit the weaknesses of my masculine wall than it did to patrol the Zhari district for a year. For me, a weakness in that wall was a weakness in my character. It meant accepting my inability to cope with the combat I had seen, knowing that so many soldiers have withstood much more than I had.
For many junior leaders, admitting weakness means an admission of selfishness. Every hour spent in a counseling session means an hour spent away from training my men for their next tour in 2012. Every hour spent managing my anger means an hour away from the planning and resourcing needed to take care of my platoon. It means more work for my soldiers and platoon sergeant. Thus, like many leaders, I let my anger simmer, my focus wanders unchecked, and in my weakest moments, my heart goes without that much-needed hug.
Just because a soldier doesn’t have a diagnosis of PTSD doesn’t mean he does not have life-altering post-traumatic stress. The war zone is not limited to the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan. The fight does not end for a soldier when he comes home. He may shed his helmet and rifle, but he still carries his armor. The enemy no longer wears a uniform, but remains an elusive demon that reappears at the most inopportune times in our life. Each day we thank our soldiers for being strong for us. But, for our soldiers’ sakes, we now need to ask them for a different kind of strength: the strength to take off that masculine armor and accept weakness as one’s humanity. As our commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to close, and our focus turns to our veterans’ well-being, we must remember that it’s not about giving soldiers hugs, the hard part now is making them accept the hugs.
The United States military has announced that it will be sending a company of Marine Tankers to southwest Afghanistan, bringing a much-needed armor presence to an asymmetrical fight.(U.S. Tanks En Route to Southwestern Afghanistan).
Despite serving in an infantry company and performing infantry patrols during my 12-month tour in Afghanistan, I am actually an armor officer trained to command tank and scout platoons…and the news absolutely warmed my heart.
Most tankers with whom I served in Kandahar recognize the inherent value that armor assets can bring even to the most civilian-friendly counterinsurgency. It is often thought that heavily armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, etc.) would be excessive instruments. This argument is not merely in the context of combat, or even intimidation of locals, but the tracks of a main battle tank would most likely destroy the few poorly engineered concrete roads that facilitate the Afghan economy.
Offense & Defense
Driving through minefields is one of the scariest parts of an Afghan tour. A 500-pound I.E.D. is comparable to the psychological effect of a tank’s main gun concussion. My body armor felt more like a pressure cooker around my sweaty chest. As vehicle design has attempted to adapt to this modern threat, the vehicles have inherently become more defensive in nature. They are elevated from the ground to make room for V-shaped hulls. They sacrifice visibility for protection, and combat effectiveness for survivability. But a more defensive vehicle is also an ample target for the enemy.
A battle tank is different. The tank is clearly an offensive vehicle, but with a mine-roller in front and 70 tons of steel to protect its crew, tanks are a fantastic combination of offense and defense on the battlefield. No vehicle is ever immune to the I.E.D. If there is a vehicle on the ground in Afghanistan, the enemy will find a way to blow it up. But tanks are weapon systems capable of taking the hit and continuing the fight.
The Army’s Mobile Gun System Stryker variant (MGS, see above) is the closest thing the Army has to a tank at its disposal in Afghanistan. This weapon system is rarely discussed when the issue of Stryker Brigade performance is on the table. In fact, I imagine few who have followed the Stryker’s progression in the global war on terror would even recognize the 105 mm main gun turret that rotates on an amplified Stryker hull…but I guarantee the Afghans in Kandahar province know it very well.
However, as I say, a battle tank is different.
Driving a Stryker or MRAP down the Afghan highway is much like driving a bus down a crowded street. As Afghan locals become more aware of what behaviors they can get away with before soldiers will respond with their restricted levels of force, it becomes difficult to keep both soldiers and Afghan civilians safe during our movements. But tanks elicit a far different response from the average Afghan.
Most Afghans have distinct visions of the havoc that T-72 Soviet tanks were able to produce from their occupation. As my MGS vehicle rolled through Kandahar streets,no motorcycles cut us off. No oncoming traffic tried to lure us into a game of chicken, as sometimes happened with the infantry carriers. People kept their distance, which kept them safe, and us free to control the tempo of operations.
I’m certainly aware of the argument that rehashing these memories of Soviet tanks to the Afghan people might not be in the best interests of earning their “hearts and minds.” But in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, we are still working on earning their respect. A tank demands respect.
The Power of Sight
Firefights are the bread and butter of daily life in Zhari District; and the enemy has nearly a 100 percent vote in when and how he engages us. Most of these skirmishes occur at ranges exceeding 750 meters amidst dense vegetation. Above all else, the power to see is the most limiting factor in an armed conflict. Currently, most American military vehicles are equipped with remote optics systems, which are useful for urban fire fights at short ranges but do not offer the depth necessary to fight effectively in southwestern Afghanistan. However, tanks offer optics systems that dwarf the traditional capabilities of an infantry carrier…and, oh yeah, these days each tank can acquire targets clearly in excess of four times as far.
Once a target is finally acquired, most people are unaware of just how diverse an array of ammunition choices there are to engage it properly. There are high explosive rounds for light targets, canister rounds for dismounts, which will preserve the local infrastructure, and of course anti-tank rounds in case the Taliban are able to fix up an old relic of previous wars. The tank does not have to be a source of complete destruction. But it is a game changer. And when that fearsome concussion reverberates, the enemy always second guesses its fight.
The Elephant in the Command Post
As I discussed with colleagues the addition of tanks to the Kandahar mission, I was not surprised to find a strong variety in responses and interpretations of how an armor company integrates with a counterinsurgency mission. A memorable quote from a colleague: “One minute they’re saying minimize civilian casualties and let ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] lead the way; the next, we’re bringing in arguably the most fierce ground weapon system in our Army’s arsenal. I think we’re sending mixed signals.”
Another veteran of the Afghan war currently set to return as a civilian noted: “Anything that separates us from the population makes us less likely to win the war. All the successful COIN initiatives in Afghanistan involve dismounted operations, living with the population, minimizing the distance and difference between us and them.”
But from a tactical perspective, a senior tanker NCO hailed the idea: “We can talk about Afghans all day, but it’s really hard to go interact with locals when there’s a minefield and Taliban fighting positions in the way. Tanks will help us fill the gaps where the infantry cannot cover. Both are important.”
Thus, the real strategic question becomes, are these tanks a supplement to the counterinsurgency mission, or a diversion from it? If the latter, what implications arise for our approach to state-building?
Not the first. Not the last.
One of the most memorable moments during our 12 month tour was arriving on FOB Wilson in Zhari, Kandahar, for the weekly district security shura and watching the tanker half of my platoon swoon over the troop of Canadian Leopard 2A6Ms parked in the motor-pool. Memories of past I.E.D.s and firefights flowed through our heads. And of course, we couldn’t help but wonder, “What if…”.
Perhaps in my excitement for these tanks I am personally still stuck in “survival mode” from my year in Kandahar; perhaps I’m failing to see the negative strategic implications that will follow these tanks into southern Afghanistan. But then again, the soldiers who patrol those sectors each day are always in survival mode. If a tank has any chance at keeping them safe during their dangerous tour, I’ll be the first to give it a fair shot.
These Marine tanks will not be the first to enter Afghanistan. But they will no doubt make a resounding impact when integrated with conventional infantry. This will no doubt be a game changer in our fight against the Taliban. From the sidelines here in the United States, the crossed sabers on my chest beat with tanker pride.
Right before I left the Kandahar Province, I traveled from COP Howz-e-Madad eastward to FOB Wilson to transport a detainee to the headquarters of the new battle-space owner of the Zhari District. The 101st ABN had replaced our company area of operations with a whole battalion, so it was exciting to see the potential that could come with increased manpower patrolling the streets.
After the formal paperwork was processed, I handed authority to my medic who used a handful of soldiers to do a last minute medical check up on the detainee’s vitals. Feeling the need to explore the power a full brigade could bring to Zhari, I strolled around the FOB’s intricate design of bunkers and containers, eventually running into a young 19 yearold soldier named SPC Jenkins. He was lingering around his air conditioned tent in the 120 degree heat, presumably right after smoking a cigarette. I thought how crazy he must have been to be smoking in this scorching heat, but then again, most of my soldiers used some form of tobacco to keep their sanity during the tour. I started the conversation with an inconsequential “Hey- so what unit are you guys with”…I proceeded to learn that Jenkins was a combat engineer and a fairly intelligent kid. He wasn’t exactly thrilled to be in Afghanistan, but he had the right attitude to make the most of the tour. At this point, I was on my twelfth month of combat; I was tired, bitter, and edgy. Had it been any other person, seeing Jenkins smiling face would make me roll my eyes, scoffing at their naivety. But there was something special about this kid…he bore a mature optimism that didn’t spring so much from naivety, but necessity…because out here, he knew the situation was bad, but he also knew that a year would go by a lot fast with a smile on his face.
A few weeks ago, I had read about SPC Jenkins’ death from an IED in a military newspaper listing of casualties. My skin grew cold and my eyes feel to the floor. My world paused for about a minute…and I wondered, “How could someone so inconsequential to my life bring me to a silent halt?” I suppose that’s the power the bond of service has on soldiers. It’s something we don’t feel very vividly as a force these days. After all, the military homogenizes itself deliberately as it scrambles its manpower around the world in three year rotations. The Infantry unit from Hawaii and the infantry unit from Ft. Lewis and the Cav unit from Ft. Bragg…we aren’t all that different really, and I suppose we tend to get lost in the ginormous sea of ACU green and gray. We forget that we’re not just members of the same Army; we’re brother’s in the same family.
I heard on my local NPR station a new series that Public Radio is doing to recognize the faces of those paying the price for our freedom, and as if the magical radio gods had been watching me, NPR aired this story on SPC Jenkins’ Memorial Ceremony from FOB Wilson. My eyelids flung wide open as I listened attentively upon every syllable exiting the commentator’s mouth.”Man, to think I only donated to NPR’s pledge drive to get them to knock it off!” But now, I was reaping the pay-off of a nose-bleed section ticket to an event I surely would have tried to attended had I been on FOB Wilson this month.
I hope that you’ll visit this article; I hope you’ll listen to the sounds of the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace. I hope you’ll feel the pain and genuine brotherhood in the voices of SPC Jenkins’ teammates. And as the Holiday Season quickly approaches, I hope you keep them and their family in your thoughts and prayers as they spend their Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays on the front lines.
I yelled to my men, ordering them to get down and take cover and orient their weapons eastward, halting our joint patrol with the Afghan National Army. A sniper had been terrorizing our small outpost in the middle of the Zhari district in Kandahar for three weeks. This menace had created a phantom persona, like the Ghost of Christmas Past who had followed us to the deserts of Afghanistan.
My platoon scanned to acquire enemy targets, but all visuals grew opaque with debris from the Afghan soldiers’ hasty and reckless firing of their rocket-propelled grenades and RPKs, Kalashnikov light machine guns. They certainly hadn’t seen anything we missed, but we all knew the general direction of the sniper fire, and the Afghans expended a hefty load of ammunition each day suppressing the advances of that phantom.
This typical ANA reaction to enemy contact is casually called the “Dust Blossom” in military circles. The dust blossom is not only detrimental to command and control of a joint patrol, but it also undermines whatever hope we have of minimizing civilian casualties.
But on that day, this particular dust blossom might have saved our lives.
“Got him!” shouted my company sniper team leader from the outpost, only 100 meters behind us. Through that big cloud of dust, an enemy muzzle flash appeared bright and vivid. There was no doubt this was our guy: “Hey Sir, it’s coming from that tall building with offset windows, 600 meters northeast!”
“Roger, stand by for fire mission.”
I clenched my jaw, grabbed my company net, and called the most passionate fire mission I called during my entire tour in Afghanistan. I wanted that sniper dead. I thought of all the close-call stories my company had accumulated over this nightmare. He had created a dire psychological scar in the minds of the soldiers of 4th Platoon; my boys were edgy and more conservative in their movements.
How much time had we lost, how much less confident were we with this threat looming ahead of us at all times? We may have hated this enemy, but we had no choice but to respect him.
“Shot over; shot out,” I responded to the confirmation over the net that the fire mission had been cleared of collateral damage, and that mortar rounds were on their way. In my excited state I stood up straight, emerging from my cover to signal to the ANA leadership that there would be incoming fire; dangerous, yes, but it could have been a lot worse if an ANA soldier decided to storm the objective at the last second.
“Splash over; splash out!” The rounds detonated with a thunderous applause of military might.
The gray aftermath spiraled into the air before dissipating into the blue Kandahar sky. And then the most beautiful sound of all … silence.
My men and our Afghan counterparts stood up. Our heads swiveled back and forth, wondering if the madness would return. Whether in Dari, Pashto, or English, only one question replayed through our mind: Did we actually get him?
Later that evening on post, the sniper team leader would remark” “I doubt he’s dead. He’s too smart to operate without cover … but he sure ain’t too happy right now!”
Fast forward to seven months later and I am back in the United States. My girlfriend sent me a link to a news article (see here) and a photograph of an American outpost in Afghanistan. She asked, “Is this what your outpost looked like?”
My jaw dropped. “No way, it couldn’t be!” I thought to myself. I showed it to a fellow platoon leader who gave the same reaction. The picture was not of an outpost we had been to, or an outpost we had built. Rather, the compound in the photo housing a platoon of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (our replacement unit) was the same compound that had protected that sniper so long ago. The offset windows, the texture of the ground — the image was identical.
When we were in sector, very little American news media on Afghanistan made it my way, and now that I am inundated with reports, it’s overwhelming to hear so much talk about the shortcomings of our presence in Afghanistan.
It’s overwhelming to the point where it provokes my mind, still vulnerable from a year at war, to continue questioning why I was there and why so many of my friends sacrificed so much. It can genuinely bring tears to my eyes.
But I got a huge smile on my face seeing that picture. Most readers would never know it, but just a few months ago, that compound was an enemy staging point; an enemy sniper hide. And now, it’s an American defensive position. No matter how trivial it may seem in the strategic arenas of debate, knowing that this piece of terrain had been taken warmed my heart.
We are soldiers, and we get assigned the tasks our country wants done, regardless of time or resources allotted. The fact is that progress is slow, but our cumulative efforts are getting there, slowly but surely.
Upon returning from our tour in Afghanistan, the leadership of 2nd Stryker Brigade (Re-flagged from 5th Stryker) decided to provide its soldiers with a series of adventure team building exercises. My platoon was assigned to a white water rafting trip.
We started out slowly, on a few Class 3 and 4 rapids on Washington’s White Salmon River of the Columbia River Valley. The initial few rapids were gentle, but as our journey progressed, we encountered a vigorous notch in the river’s formation that could throw our crew of rafters head first into a rock wall. Our guide maneuvered the raft to the east bank of the river and we walked onto shore while a second guide trailed our raft over the dangerous obstacle. We skirted the river up a steep hill for almost 300 meters. Upon reaching the top, our guide introduced us to Decision Rock. “You’ve got two choices here, boys. You can walk over to that rope and gently lead yourself to the raft, or you can jump off this rock wall into the river and swim. Its your choice.” For a second, I considered that the soldiers would prefer the safety of the rope descent, but I knew these young infantrymen would relish the opportunity to beat their chests with a brave leap of faith.
Soon, it was my turn to jump. I stood on the precipice of that thirty-five foot cliff, staring at the mighty river below. Its gushing rapids reverberated through the jagged rock walls, overpowering my soldiers’ jeers from below, “Don’t chicken out, Sir! Do it!”
I hesitated. I hated this. I hated the fact that the water was 40 degrees. I hated that I could not see the river’s depth, nor where the hard rock floor began. I hated that this rock valley was so narrow…if I jumped too far or too shallow, I’d certainly break bones along the limestone boulders below. My toes clinched, attempting to find balance on the slippery stone perch.
I loathed this feeling; the sensation of being scared, yet having no control over my options. My eyes closed, and for a moment, I was back in the deserts of Kandahar. My mind took me to one of countless missions where, either on a Stryker or on foot, I had to maneuver my platoon from one point to another through an IED ridden landscape. There was no choice to turn back. Whether my mission was to bring my boys back inside the wire or take them further out, the movement was an order. I had no choice but to execute.
I remember dark nights, my platoon moving across the green brush of Zhari District. My heart rate sped as we passed choke points where the terrain forced us through vulnerable passages: ideal locations for an IED. There were no orders to give over the net. Just silence. I’d pull my radio away from my mouth and breath, long and deep breaths, doing anything to keep my heart rate down. Sweat would pour down my face in the balmy air. And even as a man of only mediocre faith, I’d pray to god that nothing would happen.
And more times then not, my soldiers succeeded. We’d complete our maneuver to safety, and I’d let out a cry of relief with my chest pulsating under my body armor, as if my heart had just been released from a vise.
But here I was again on that same precipice, digging deep to overcome this jump into unknown waters. The soldiers yelled below. Just as I’d give the radio order for the platoon to “move out” on those precarious patrols on the enemy’s turf, I did the soldier’s gulp and made the leap of faith off of Decision Rock.
Water filled my nostrils as I plunged into the subcurrents of the river. I swam to my boys on the rafts. They patted me on the back with brotherly vigor and cheered as the rest of the platoon completed their jumps. I was okay; hell, I was more than okay. I was invigorated! And it occurred to me just how averse to risk I had become since leaving Afghanistan. My body and mind had been put in dozens of risky situations. Now, having achieved a sensation of permanent safety, I felt the urge to guard and protect the blessings I had thus far preserved.
But to equate risk taking in Afghanistan to risk taking in civilian life is a rash comparison. Though my apprehension must certainly be understandable, it’s also not founded. This isn’t post-traumatic stress. This is simply an obstacle of reintegration that most people don’t ever understand. I thought of the hundreds of thousands of combat hardened soldiers who have returned to the States from their adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many may not have physical wounds; many may not have issues with post-traumatic stress…but how many of us have become so scared of taking chances with our lives that we never step out of our comfort zones? How many of us have been programmed to always seek the most secure paths in life, costing us the opportunities that come with risk? I’m not talking rafting or skydiving or bungee jumping. I’m talking about the soldier who can’t find the courage to start his own company, go back to school, or combat his addiction to alcohol or tobacco. How many more suffer from this aversion to risk? A soldier’s natural aversion to risk sounds like a simple matter, but its repercussions are life altering…or life-stagnating.
As the final man jumped off the rock face and hurled into his raft, the guide announced to the group, “Okay fellas, time for round two. Ahead of us is Husum Falls. It’s the tallest raftable waterfall in North America. It’s a Class V rapid…who’s in!?”
The hands and cheers went up in all directions. I smiled and nodded. I was in. And not just because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was not going to let my fear in Afghanistan define me for the rest of my life. And most importantly, I was going to be doing it with my boys. The guide mounted the rear of our raft, and we pushed off, navigating through whatever obstacles that mighty river brought our way.
I’ve always found art museums relaxing. Not because of the sculptures and paintings themselves; rather, I enjoy the stroll through warmly lit hallways, pausing methodically in front of colossal explosions of paint. I ask why…why is this art? Why did some poor kid from the middle of nowhere dedicate his life’s work to something I feel a five year-old could have replicated on accident? And for a minute or two of silence, I stare at a piece of art and attempt to pierce into its creator’s soul. That is, of course, until I regain consciousness and conclude that I have no idea what he was thinking.
Last month, I made one such journey to the Seattle Art Museum. But this time, even from over 100m away, a bright and shiny sculpture caught my eye…
I strolled up closely to find that this piece of art was actually 40,000 dog tags strung together to create a lavish and regal cloak. 40,000 dog tags. I still have the dog tags I carried through my year in Afghanistan. They dangled in my back right pant’s pocket the entire time. They’re bent, shiny, and weathered…I suppose much like myself. It was hard to consider the number of dog tags laying before me. 40,000. Now, we all know that there have been nowhere near 40,000 KIA in the wars of this generation. Nor have there been so many WIAs. But I think what this sculpture encompasses is a demographic I recently heard coined as “The Invisible Wounded”.
There are many of us who go overseas and serve our country, and though our scars may not be physical in nature, they are certainly painful. Though it only sounds like a soldier spends 12 months in combat, the psychological effects can last far longer. Though it is only the soldier who deploys, it is the mother, the father, the children, the wives and husbands who are asked to sacrifice so much along with them. Perhaps 40,000 dog tags on this sculpture is appropriate after all.
I looked for the description of the artist. To my great surprise, the artist was not American…but Korean! The sculpture was entitled “Some/One” By an artist named Do-Ho Suh. I was astonished, and partially offended. What is an outsider to the American military contribution building sculpture out of dog tags for?! That takes some nerve! But in retrospect of my six weeks spent in Korea as a West Point Cadet, I recalled the effect that a conscript army has on a society. Every single male in Korea serves in some capacity towards the betterment of his country. Perhaps as an outsider, a Korean looking at our democracy, I can understand how astonishing it can be to have a democracy of nearly 300 million people sustained through a force of about .5% of its benefactors.
The cloak of democracy fits a little heavier on those bearing the armor and ammunition in combat. And as warm of a welcome as I’ve had upon returning to the United States, it still feels lonely. It still feels like my experience is foreign to most. Seeing this sculpture elicited so many philosophical questions and seething emotions I had buried through my twelve months in Kandahar. But at the end, it was nice to know that such a sentiment was showcased in a major city’s portfolio. I hope that you’ll consider this piece of art and what it means to you.