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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


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.


Making the Sale

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.

Making The Sale: The renewed case for reducing Veteran Unemployment
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2088709,00.html#disqus_thread


A Soldier’s Reflection for Memorial Day

Friends,

I wrote a Memorial Day post that’s featured in TIME this week. I hope you enjoy:

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2074001,00.html

Happy Memorial Day and warmest thanks to all who serve and have served.


The Axe to Vets

Also Available at http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2064039,00.html#ixzz1J26X9ToP

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.


When the Wave Hits Afghanistan

Available From: http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/when-the-wave-hits-afghanistan/

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.


Taking off the Armor

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 Qualitative Point Average: Rebuttal to Bruce Fleming

Bruce Fleming recently published an OpEd piece in the New York Times which provoked a rather emotional response from me as he referred to the Service Academies as “mediocre”. He cited a football star receiving preferential treatment for drug use at Navy. He complains that we only produce 20% of our respective officer corps, and are obsolete compared to ROTC and OCS programs. He insists that Academy officers are burnt-out leaders, incapable of maximizing tax-payer investment. Now, I’ll be the first to affirm that the Academies do waste  extravagant amounts of time and money for senseless efforts; they need work. But to pin the word mediocre upon these institutions, and thus its graduates who’ve done so much for our country, is absolutely ludicrous.

First, allow me to be the first in Fleming’s supposed vast Academy exposure to argue that YES, an Academy graduate is indeed different than an ROTC or OCS counterpart: not better, but different, and importantly so. I can only speak as a West Pointer, but I believe my perceptions are akin to those from other academies. Every waking moment of my life at West Point was dedicated to serving something greater than myself. Sometimes we serve orders from a higher rank; other times we endure sacrifices to serve the comrades on our left and right. But at all times, we are training and learning to better serve our nation. ROTC programs at civilian universities are simply unable to produce the same intensity in the cadets’ day to day lives.

Most undergraduate students strive for good grades in order to boost their GPAs. Cadets study so they have the answers when lives and equipment are on the line. Most university professors are genius PhDs. West Point Instructors are role models who have already inspired courage in the hearts of 18 year old privates facing battle; they have a vested interest in developing the cadets who will one day serve as their Lieutenants when the instructors take battalion and brigade command. Most college students avoid cheating out of fear of getting caught. Cadets do not cheat out of loyalty to a Code and the realization that honor is a virtue that can save American lives and dollars.

Two of the other Lieutenants in my Company are ROTC graduates, the remaining two are OCS. Do they understand and live up to these principles? Sure they do. I put my lives in their hands each day. But I feel my Academy experiences afforded me greater insight into the strategic reasoning behind the missions we execute. We’re groomed by the higher echelons of the institution to carry out its orders of critical importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t ROTC and OCS Lieutenants who do not embrace such a broad vantage point, but I’d argue it’s a mixed bag. Frankly, in order to truly internalize ethical values, a global perspective, and focus them for a lifetime of service, you need more than 3 ROTC credit hours a semester.

True, Academy graduates only comprise 20% of each service’s newly commissioned officer class. That being said, Academy graduates also make up over 50% of our military’s Flag Officer corps, meaning the Generals and Admirals charged with our nation’s defense; certainly not titles assigned to the mediocre. Is this high Academy concentration at the Flag level due to favoritism and networking? Sure, perhaps in some part. No institution in the world is a complete meritocracy. But I’d argue that it’s largely because of the culture in which Academy graduates are raised as committed leaders with a global exposure, dedicated to a lifetime of service to the country.

Secondly, Mr. Fleming believes that the Academy admissions process unfairly values athletics, rather than an “accomplished cellist or people from religious minorities.” For starters, I was both an accomplished violinist in High School and a Hindu-Vegetarian upon applying to West Point. I feel these factors contributed to my application, not hindered it, and I know plenty of graduates who fit either mold as well. Furthermore, athletics is highly regarded in our profession as a conduit to solid leadership under physical duress; something I believe most officers would argue should outweigh academic prowess in a military academy’s admissions process.

Mr. Fleming further grumbles of lowered academic admissions standards in the interests of affirmative action. As one who has served as a minority at war, I will assert that race and religion are huge issues in today’s military. I will speak from first-hand experience as the only minority platoon leader in my deployed Company: race and religion matter, and the army needs leaders who understand ethnic social tension. I am not ashamed of my Academy for attempting to produce an officer corps that is ethnically representative of the soldiers and NCOs it leads. The Academies do not admit cadets because of ethnicity, but a candidate’s ability to understand ethnicity and the unique role it plays in grueling military social dynamics.

Finally, Fleming does bring up the valid point that Academy graduates aren’t maximizing return in military service of the nation’s half-million dollar investment. Around 50% of West Point graduates leave the Army after their minimum five year commitment, I’m sure the other Academies’ statistics are comparable. I understand why this appears as a drastic waste of tax-payer money, but remember that Academy graduates still make phenomenal contributions to the country out of uniform. At every Academy event I attend, I meet hundreds of lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, marketing gurus, academics, writers, engineers, and policy makers. Now, Fleming may be angered by Academy graduates’ civilian pursuits; I am reassured by them.

I am thrilled that there are members of the Long Gray Line, former combat platoon leaders like myself, among the financial elites of our American society. It shows me that, among the cohort of Americans profiting most from my soldiers’ sacrifices, there are several who have been in our shoes. There are those who can speak on our behalf when our nation’s power brokers forget the daily blessings they enjoy as citizens of the United States. I am relieved that there are graduates who reassign the military values of service, honor, and loyalty to the mediocre ethical stylings of both Wall Street and Main Street. Perhaps if the CEOs of Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Bear Sterns had a little “service immersion” in their youth, I’d imagine our country would be a lot stronger than it is today. Whether in a Command Post or a Board Room, good leadership transcends its landscape. I’m proud of the Academy graduates who bring weathered leadership where it is most needed.

It seems Mr. Fleming’s criteria for mediocrity rests heavily on academic metrics. But I assure my audience that there is very little that is academic about combat leadership. It is about heart. It is about fortitude, honor, and courage. Now, you may call a West Point or Naval Academy graduate mediocre…but try visiting any other college in America and collecting a thousand 23 year old kids ready to lead just as many lives into hostile fire. I doubt you’ll be successful. To produce a thousand officers with the grit and spirit of warriors and the intellectual curiosity of scholars, we need a venue of tremendous investment and concentration: this is why you need the service academies.

I wonder if Mr. Fleming would have been ready for such a calling at age 23. Even if not, I surely wouldn’t have the arrogance to call him mediocre.

I find it ironic that Mr. Fleming is about to publish a book entitled “Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide” considering his most recent opinion piece does nothing more than widen it. But I can somehow understand why he would write an article antithetical to the best interests of reconciling civil-military differences so vital to our national security. After all, the bigger wave he makes with such an OpEd piece, the more attention his new book will receive and hopefully the more books he’ll sell. Well, I know I’ll probably buy one now. Congrats, Mr. Fleming…Mission Accomplished.

To the USMA Class of 2010, I’m proud to have served with you. You’re more than ready for the challenges to come. Thank you for your service. We’ll see you on the objective ;-) . Live, Serve, and Die We Pray…


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