I went to Afghanistan and all I got was this fantastic sketch

War in 2014 is strange. Reliable internet, decent living conditions, and smartphones with data plans. Of course, there are always others who have it worse or better, and there is the ever-present danger of sudden death looming over everyone like a humid day.

Still, the defining characteristic of this deployment (so far) has been just how uncharacteristically similar it is to being back home, at least, in terms of connectivity and following trends.

Through the magic of the internet I learned about Richard Johnson, Senior Graphics Editor for the Washington Post. He is a sketch artist, and is currently traveling in Afghanistan, capturing war with a sketch pad and a ball point pen.

I caught some of his drawings being passed around on Twitter, clicked them, shared them, and moved on.

Days later, in one of those tweets being passed around, I caught the familiar face of my Regimental Command Sergeant Major.CSM Heinze

“‘My first morning in Forward Operating Base Lightning, Maj. Vance Trenkel, the Third Cavalry’s public affairs officer, asked me to create a little good feeling and sketch someone wearing the Third Cav’s Stetson. Of course I agreed, and made one plaintive request: it had to be some Clint Eastwood-looking crusty veteran of multiple conflicts. “I need to see the grit in the corners of his eyes,” I said.'”

I began following Mr. Johnson on Twitter and we began a short back and forth dialogue. As things would have it, our paths would cross for a few hours somewhere in Afghanistan. We agreed to meet for dinner.

I only had a couple of hours before I had to be on a C-130 and off to another location. Over not-too-bad food, we chatted about how strange it is to be able to arrange for a meeting in a war zone via Twitter, and then agreed that maybe it’s not that weird after all. I lamented the fact that I wasn’t doing anything cool or interesting at the time that was sketch-worthy, but he offered to draw me anyway.

We finished our dinner, grabbed some coffee and cookies and set out to look for a brightly-lit space. We walked to one MWR facility that was cleaning up after a sparsely-attended Air Force birthday party. There was no space available there, and someone pointed us to another MWR facility not too far away. Once there, we walked up a flight of stairs and into a recreation room. A group of soldiers played poker in the middle of the room while AFN news updates filled the silence. We moved past them and Mr. Johnson grabbed a folding seat and swung it in front of a worn out, dusty leather chair. He gestured for me to sit in the folding chair  and face over to the left while he sat to begin sketching. I sat down normally and he told me to hold that pose the best I could and he would start sketching.

Unfortunately, there was another soldier sitting about four feet in front of me, lounging in a chair and playing with his phone. The order to hold my position meant that I would be frozen, looking straight in that poor soldier’s direction. It was uncomfortable for me and I imagine it must have been worse for him, having some strange lieutenant stare directly at him unflinching. He lasted a good 20 or 25 minutes before finally getting up and walking away.

Mr. Johnson furiously sketched, aware that he was under a time limit. He finished the sketch with a total time of about 35 or 40 minutes. He showed it to me.

“Do you recognize him?”

I looked down and grinned widely, “Yeah, that’s great!”

We walked out of the MWR facility and spoke briefly about sketching and where we were both off to next. We shook hands and he promised to send me the sketch in a day or so, which he did.


sketch.jpgLeft: The fantastic sketch that Richard Johnson sent to me.


Right: After sharing it on Twitter, I was instantly corrected and put in the “correct” uniform.

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Three Years of Carrying the Gun

Today marks the third anniversary of this blog. Here are the stats:

Most popular posts:
1. Last night’s Budweiser ad “A Hero’s Welcome” was exploitative and offensive
2. Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop.
3. How to Lead Infantrywomen in Combat

Top Search Terms:
1. troll
2. major league infidel
3. infidel patch

This past year the blog has seen exponential growth in terms of readership. I wrapped up the Iraq: Ten Years Later thing and have been slowing down with my writing since then, although I’ve been able to focus on longer, more thoughtful pieces.

I suspect that the rest of the year will be pretty quiet for the blog. I’ll write when I have time and it won’t interfere with my present duties.


Back to the Grind

The GrinderyAlas, vacation is over and it is back to the grind. Over the short break, I managed to read All You Need Is Kill, the Japanese sci-fi novel that Edge of Tomorrow is based on, thus the vacation-breaking “Full Metal Bitch” post. It was fun, and reminiscent of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War – which I ought to re-read and review here. I also finished Albert Camus’ The Stranger, a book recommended to me by an infantry friend. I’ve added both to the “Just for fun” portion the End of War Reading List, because the former has that element of never-ending war while the latter is absurd – both fitting themes for the end of war.

I also had a short test piece published at Uniform Stories titled 10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget. It’s a fun and true list of things I’ve heard NCOs say over the years that I just can’t forget. Check it out and spread the word.

Bonus points if you know what the picture is.


Me and Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman Madden 2001

Back in 2000, before I joined the Army, I was playing Madden 2001 on my brand new Playstation 2. Whenever I play Madden, I play franchise mode with the New York Giants. When I play defense, I like to stick with one player, and “be” that player for the season so I can develop his skills. Before the season starts and I begin my career, I make initial changes based on the needs of my team.

Back then, I really liked playing as a safety. The safety can be such a versatile player. If you played him close to the line, he served as a quasi-linebacker and could help stop the run, but you could still quickly drop back into coverage if it was a pass play. Playing a good safety can completely change the defense of a team.

In the summer of 2000, less then a year before I joined the Army, I remember poking around and looking for safeties when I came across Pat Tillman of the Arizona Cardinals, who were still in the NFC East. I didn’t know anything about Tillman, but when I saw his avatar, with the fierce eyes, long blonde hair, and thick neck, coupled with a decent overall score (74) and relatively young age (24), I knew I had to have him on my team. He was young, looked badass and there was room to develop him. I made some trades and I got Tillman on the New York Giants.

In the months before I joined the Army, Pat Tillman and I destroyed the NFC East and won numerous SuperBowls.

Years later, after I joined the Army and Pat joined the Army, one of my teammates would tell me stories about Pat at basic training. They were battle buddies. He had nothing but good things to say about him. He talked about how there was always media around, hovering, and Pat would do his best to stay away from it all and avoid the special recognition he was offered as an NFL player-turned-Army Ranger.

In April 2004, after returning from my first Iraq deployment, I was at an Army school when I learned of Pat’s death in Afghanistan – a wild, tragic ending to an incredible journey. It was a sleep-away school, so the news came in whispers and “have you heards.” Before a class started, an instructor confirmed the news. “Yeah, apparently Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan yesterday.” He then began the class.

Months later, the truth would emerge of fratricide, making the whole thing that much more tragic and wild.

Years later, I left the Army to go to school. Pat, this person I never met but have known since 2000, was still inside, lingering.

I learned of the Pat Tillman Foundation and the Tillman Military Scholarship sometime in 2009, when I was organizing the City College Veterans Association. The organization and scholarship was new to me, but I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of it and applied.

Fortunately, I was accepted (it was easier in 2009). Since then, I’ve tried my best to make it to Tempe for Pat’s Run every April and at the very minimum, participate in a Shadow Run. Without question, it is the military/veteran event I look forward to the most every year.

The Pat Tillman Foundation is still relatively young. Its founders and board members are very much connected to the man who was Pat Tillman, and as I was reminded this past weekend at Pat’s Run, he is still missed, and if it could be done, they’d trade it all to get Pat back. He was that fucking good.

That said, the product that is coming out of the Tillman Foundation – the Tillman Military Scholar – is phenomenal. An amazing group of service members, veterans, and spouses who are committed to a life of service, in the spirit of what they believe Pat would have wanted – an impossible thing to know but a source of limitless potential.

I wrote a small piece in the Daily Beast over the weekend that was kind of connected to Pat Tillman. It was a small attempt to link the event in Tempe and Pat to a bigger news story. The run in Tempe, for as big as it gets every year, is still a very local thing – local to Arizona, local to sports, local to veterans. It should be so much bigger. Pat is everything that is right, whether he actually was or not. He is the ideal of boundless ambition, an infinite resource of potential energy.

I don’t write about the things I do personally very often on this blog, but I am so proud to be a part of the Tillman Foundation that I felt like I should use this tiny corner I’ve carved out to say something – so there it is.

To learn more about the Pat Tillman Foundation, please visit their website.

Never Stop Honoring.



The Real SXSW

Fort Irwin NTCSXSW starts today. No, not that SXSW. The real SXSW.

It’s a pity too. Last year I had just arrived at Fort Hood and didn’t get to experience that other SXSW. This time, I’ll be in the box.

I’ll be away for the next month or so. I’ll be unable to respond to anything going on in the world or get back to anyone leaving comments or sending messages.

See you on the other side!


Budweiser Hangover

Monday’s post on Budweiser’s “Hero’s Welcome” Super Bowl ad attracted a lot of attention for the blog. If you’re a new reader, welcome.

The post struck a chord as some people found it offensive while others found it charming, and were in fact offended by other people being offended.

The blog was highlighted by Alex Wagner on MSNBC’s ‘Now with Alex‘ and friend of the blog Wes Moore gave me a shout out, which was pretty cool. The conversation quickly moved from the ad to veterans issues, as per veteran advocate SOP.

I also saw that the BBC linked to the blog as well.

Kind of like my infidel posts, this one is popular because it gets at something deeper than what we’re actually seeing. It’s a culture war. And nothing gets America more fired up than a good old fashioned culture war. The Budweiser ad and everything in its orbit fits into this or that person’s narrative of the world, and to challenge it is to challenge that narrative, which pisses people off.

For the thinkers, however, it’s an interesting spot.


So, now what?

Lest there be any confusion, I’m not shutting down the blog. Last week I wrapped up ‘Iraq: Ten Years Ago‘ and I heard from a few people that they were sad that I was stopping the blog. That’s not the case, I’m just not recounting that experience anymore.

For the past year, that was the meat of the blog. The readership grew exponentially as a result and it gave people a reason to come back to the blog every couple of days or so.

To be honest, the Iraq posts really didn’t garner a lot of heavy traffic. My longer, reflective and analytic posts are the ones that make the most waves, and they are actually a lot more satisfying to write. With Iraq over (nothing is over!), I can focus more on those pieces. Going forward, I think I’ll average one or two posts a week. But they’ll be good.

Work has me pretty busy for the next few months, and likely the next year, but I will do my best to keep new stuff coming. I’ve been socking away article ideas for the past year that I just haven’t been able to get to.

Now, I will finally be able to get to that crazy article on how Cloud from Final Fantasy VII suffered from PTSD and committed Stolen Valor.