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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…