Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the Military

Ten years ago this April, I enlisted in the U.S. Army. During that time, I jumped out of airplanes, crawled, marched and ran thousands of miles, blew stuff up, met some of the most amazing people on Earth and served two tours in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne.

Five years ago this week, I got out. Since then, my life has changed dramatically. I’ve gone back to college on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, worked and interned in the private and non-profit sectors, earned a Truman scholarship, studied abroad in Egypt, advocated for fellow veterans on Capitol Hill, married the woman of my dreams and graduated from the City College of New York with a degree in International Studies. Now, six years removed from combat patrols in Iraq, I’m attending graduate school in London.

People say I’ve made a “successful transition” out of the military given the range of problems new veterans are facing as they leave service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a veteran, however, I don’t like this label. It suggests that once the transition is made, that’s it. All problems are solved. Instead, I would say that I’m “successfully adjusting” to life after military service. And to borrow the title of a couple of good books, this adjustment is a Forever War. I’m still doing it every day.

Looking back, there are key things I’ve learned that every veteran making the adjustment or soon will be should consider. This is the quick and dirty. The bottomline up front. The things to know and do that can make the adjustment a lot less painful. They may not work for every veteran, but they worked for me.

1. Your military service will define you, whether you like it or not. With less than 1% of the population serving, you are part of a tiny minority who have shouldered incredible responsibility. If you served overseas, to many, you are exotic. People around you will find out you served (trust me) and will define you by your service. When you raise your hand in class, people will refer to you as the “military guy” or gal.

2. Adjusting successfully depends on a strong support network. In the military, we succeeded and failed in teams. It’s no different on the outside. Family, friends, and peers will not let you fail if you put your trust in them. I put my trust in IAVA and CCNY’s veterans group. You can do the same joining a veterans organization to learn from your buddies who are on the same journey.

3. Have a plan. This is critical. My senior NCO’s used to laugh at anyone who said they were going to get out and “go to college.” They knew how easy it is to say that, but how it’s a whole separate matter to put the work behind that statement and make it happen. Don’t just get out of the military and take time off. It’s tempting, especially after multiple, yearlong deployments. Strike while the iron is hot. Start applying for school or work before you get out of the service. Plan to minimize ‘dwell’ time to maximize immediate available resources.

4. The little things you learned in the military will make you successful on the outside.Class starts at 0900? Show up at 0850. Iron your clothes. Be respectful to the people around you. These little things will set you apart and lead to success. The most important thing I learned from my service was how to negotiate a bureaucracy. You would be surprised by how many qualifying students won’t apply for financial aid simply because of the paperwork involved. If you served in the military, you have earned a PhD in Bureaucracy Negotiation. Put it to work!

5. Seek out the things that make you uncomfortable. There is a civilian-military divide that exists in this country. What are you going to do about it? Often, veterans come out of their military bubble only to rush into the veteran bubble. Talk to people who share different and opposing views. Dispel stereotypes of veterans by being a respectful, model citizen. Join a club or society. Do the things that give your stomach butterflies.

6. Now more than ever, be humble. Don’t be obnoxious about the fact that you served in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one likes it. Not the military, not veterans, not civilians. Just don’t do it. Don’t be “that guy.”

7. No one is going to do the work for you. Whether it is filing a claim for an injury at the VA or getting your Post-9/11 GI Bill started, there are a host of benefits you earned waiting to be unlocked. The system for getting them isn’t always easy to navigate, and it can be frustrating and infuriating to wait for answers. In the end though, it’s your benefit. Get a cup of coffee, block off an hour or two, and knock out the paperwork and applications.

8. Know when you are taking on too much. Many of us have big plans and, after serving in a combat zone, it’s easy to feel like we can take on the world. Ambition and drive are great, but so are setting realistic expectations and maintaining sanity. If you’re going to school full-time and have a full-time job, maybe you should wait until after you graduate to start that business or non-profit you’ve been thinking about. No one can do everything all the time. Know your limit.

9. Know when to ask for help. At some point or another, you’re going to need someone to talk to. Whether it is about money, health, family, or your service, know it’s okay to open up. The network you have around you wants to help. Let them know when you need it. They will go through hell to help you, but they can’t do it if you don’t let them.

10. Never forget where you came from. Whether you loved serving or hated it, for most of us it was a life-altering experience. Take it, embrace it, and use it to help you get to where you want to go next in life.

After I returned from Iraq, I learned these ten lessons the hard way–but they continue to work for me on a daily basis. Of course, there are countless other great lessons that I’ve left out and I have plenty more to learn in the years ahead. But whether you are a veteran, a military family or a friend, pass them along. We’re all in this adjustment together.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post on April 12, 2011.

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Veteran Theater Review: Go To Your God Like A Soldier

“War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.” Michael Herr, Dispatches

Taking a cue from my friend, Jason, this is my first theater review. It’s not a pure theater review, but my experience there plus a review.

Through a friend, I learned of a preview performance of ‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ in London before it heads up to Edinburgh Fringe in August. Before going, I knew absolutely nothing about its content, purpose, or background. With nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, my wife and I set off.

The preview was shown at the Old Vic Tunnels, close to Waterloo station. Entry is gained through a dingy fire door along an innocuous wall. I only spotted it because of the huddle of well-dressed theater-seeming people drinking beer out of plastic cups gathered outside. Inside, the tunnels are dark and scarcely lit. A damp, white mist hangs in the place and the air stinks of unfinished basement.  If I hadn’t paid to get in, I would have thought it was gross.

Making our way past the box office, we reached the bar, situated right outside the theater. We arrived only a few minutes before showtime, so we didn’t have time to get a beer. I got the impression from the faces around me that this was the first time many of them were at this venue, and they didn’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. People looked like drained zombies, watching each other nervously and critically. It was very quiet.

Standing around, not drinking, my mind wandered. I’m always a little nervous when the military is put on display for the masses, or in this case, the theatre crowd. Most people do not have any connections to the military, so this might be as close as they’ll ever get. An anti-military performance or a caricatured performance might confirm forever a person’s impressions.

Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and the ushers began letting people through. We pushed to the front of the gathering crowd and slid through the doors. The theater was long and narrow. The ‘stage’ was not elevated and neither were the seats. We moved to about the mid-section and sat behind a couple of teenagers with small heads. The seats looked like old vinyl movie theater seats. Some of them had sheets of paper on them that said WET SEAT. Water dripped from the ceilings and ran in quick streams down the brown, rocky walls. The stage was eerily-bathed in low light, and a deep, steady humming sound rolled slowly and loudly from the speakers.

Sitting, I began reading the program. I got nervous when I spotted a reference to the “purported” death of Osama bin Laden in the ‘Note from the Director.’ Purported? That loaded word invoked conspiracy, and my stomach turned at the thought of having to sit through a 55 minute lecture on the lies and atrocities of the Great Imperial War Machine. Aside from that, everything else looked good in the program, and I was happy to see that they used a military advisor (Sapper Rob Grover) to ensure accuracy and realism (the most important thing to a veteran audience, mind you). Still, you never know what you’re going to get. A military advisor disgruntled with his service may see things through a very different lens than others. His short bio said he is still serving, so I wasn’t too worried.

Shortly after taking our seats, the theater went dark (except for the stage) and the performance began. The theater was full.

The deep humming noise crescendoed into a bass-heavy techno track as four actors stormed the stage in British military combat gear and began ‘clearing’ the room. Methodical, realistic, and well-choreographed, it looked like dance. Is this going to be performance art, I wondered? I hoped not – I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I never realized just how choreographed and dance-like room-clearing can look, all sharp gestures and angles. Once the room was cleared, the music faded and the dialogue began (phew).

Three men and a woman.

The story attempts to tackle a number of important issues through showcasing the “experience of war for the men and women who serve.” The role of women in the military and combat (and the supposed protective instinct of men), mental health and stigma, counter-insurgency, military families, and civilian-military relations all get a fair treatment through the course of the story.

The first thing that struck me was the female cast member. Obviously, I was watching some kind of British combat unit. Do the Brits allow women in the infantry, I thought? I don’t think so. I wrote it off as artistic license, and assumed that since this was being performed by a small troupe, a woman would have to play a man’s role. That, or pure ignorance of the military by the theater group, despite having a military advisor. As the play developed, I learned that ignorance or artistic license wasn’t the cause, and gender plays a powerful and central role in the story. I had automatically assumed the troupe got it wrong. When it comes to accuracy, veterans rarely give the benefit of doubt.

The story is about four British soldiers who barricade themselves in a room in Afghanistan. Something bad has happened shortly before, and we only learn the details as the story develops. The situation in the room grows more tense as the enemy (Taliban? We don’t actually know) gets closer pressuring the team to do something. One of the soldiers presses the leader to quit waffling and ‘make a decision.’ This character, a young soldier, but seemingly combat experienced, is convinced that violent aggression and decisive action are the only solutions to the problem. He is a War is War(rior). His superior also seems tested and combat experienced, as he weighs the available options. The main conflict in the story is not the Brits vs. gunmen, but the aggressive British soldier vs. his more cautious superior.

We learn about the individual characters through ‘flashback’ scenes, accomplished through sudden changes in lighting accompanied by sound and robotic movements by the cast as they get into position. The first couple of flashback scenes are strange. The audience (or at least I) wasn’t ready for it. Plus, the actors are still wearing their uniforms, despite flashing back to scenes where they are in their homes, the supermarket, or a doctor’s office. After a few of these, though, they become more believable.

The troupe did an excellent job in nailing these tough issues without caricaturing the military.

In the best scene, I sat cringing as a military character argued with his ex-wife over her refusal to let him see their child. Although she had valid concerns, she was being rude and unreasonable, and he was getting angrier. As the situation escalated, and pleading turned to yells, it seemed like the military character was going to snap and do something stupid. But he didn’t. His character came off as intelligent, if emotionally distressed, but good. It would have been very easy, and more dramatic, to have him do something else (like hit her). I think the audience (and I) expected him to do something stupid, or at least, expected to see him do something stupid. He is a combat veteran dealing with incredible pressures, and it seemed like he was ready to burst. Good on the company for portraying such a complicated character as he is, and not as we expect to see him.

Speaking with my cousin over the weekend, who works in film, we discussed the failure of war movies at the box office. We agreed that contemporary war movies don’t do well because it is hard for (non-military) people to connect with them. Most people don’t understand the military, so how are they going to understand a war movie (the military in the most extreme situation)?

‘Go To Your God Like A Soldier,’ does a good job at connecting with the audience because half of the performance is not at war at all, but back home, at places and with people familiar to everybody. The group does a good job at taking something that is abstract to most people (men and women in the military at war) and deconstructing it to a form that is recognizable and digestible, without relying on stereotypes. It is an exciting performance that leaves the audience thinking. Highly recommended.

‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ plays at Edinburgh Fringe from August 4th to August 28th. You can follow :DELIRIUM Theatre company on Twitter @DelirumTheatre.

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Garrison soldiers, field soldiers, and missing the point

Garrison vs. Field: An imaginary distinction.

“He’s good in the field, but he sucks in garrison.”

I saw this story last week, and it bummed me out. ‘82nd Airborne Paratroopers Unhappy with Iraq, Afghanistan Withdrawals.

Paratroopers like to fight. They like to go to war. But I was saddened by the tone in this report, suggesting that soldiers fear a return to a ‘garrison’ Army, one in which they won’t be doing real work, but instead, focused on things like area beautification and the ‘ol dog and pony show. It’s a strange fear, since, for most of these soldiers, they never really experienced a garrison Army.

One soldier reports that he wants to do his job and he can only do that while deployed.

That sentiment is echoed throughout the article, although, the younger soldiers seem to fear garrison life more than the older ones (who are on their umpteenth deployment and wouldn’t mind a little more family time).

The idea forwarded is that being deployed constitutes real work, while being back home does not. It is easy to understand where this attitude comes from. For those who join the Army looking for action and adventure, garrison life is a distraction and boring. I suppose time spent training in the field doesn’t count as strict garrison, and would qualify as a cut above pure garrison life (whatever that is), but still short of an operational deployment. But even time spent out in the field might be a downer. No one in the field is out there trying to shoot you.

Sadly, this eagerness to deploy to do ‘real work’ suggests that being back home isn’t taken as seriously. That is, true soldiering is something that happens only while deployed. Everything else is just nonsense. Not what I “signed up for.”

Well, Army leaders have nodded towards a coming realignment where discipline and old school garrison attitudes will soon be making a return. The drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with the current budget crisis and a downsizing Army suggests a coming higher level of accountability from soldiers across the ranks.

The attitude expressed in the article reminded me of my first year in the Army. The ‘Global War on Terror’ had just started, but only affected a relatively small number of units and soldiers. There was a sense in the air that something big was looming on the horizon, but we were still a ‘garrison’ Army transitioning to a ‘wartime’ Army.

In the Army in days of yore, attentive soldiers with an eye on rapid advancement understood that a premium was placed on the wear and appearance of the uniform. A clean, freshly starched set of BDUs with razor angles and boots that shone like black glass attracted praise from tough NCOs. Standing tall and looking good was not done simply for its own sake, but was often done seeking reward. Preferential treatment, additional passes, and compliments rained down from superiors, who wished to foster an environment where all soldiers took pride in their uniform and appearance.

There were other soldiers, though, who were having none of this. So much attention paid to an immaculately kept uniform detracted from other, more important tasks. ‘Real’ soldiers were good at their ‘real’ jobs, and in the case of the infantry, that is closing with and destroying the enemy. Real soldiers were good at core tasks and were good in the field – PT, shooting combatives – whereas garrison soldiers were good in the rear – well-manicured uniform, competes in soldier of the month/year/millennium boards, takes correspondence courses, has the right things in the right pockets, knows unit history, etc.

Field soldiers and garrison soldiers.

A garrison soldier in the field.

Such a stark division couldn’t last. Handsomely dressed gentlemen wouldn’t survive in the field (there are bugs). And raw grunts would smell bad and break all the fine china in the chow hall.

This led to the inbetweeners. These are the soldiers who fancied themselves grunts but saw the value in keeping a good uniform and understood pragmatically that standing-tall-looking-good-ought-to-be-in-hollywood was good for their professional advancement. But they were torn, because it seemed as if only one path could be chosen – field soldier or garrison soldier. For an infantryman, the choice would be obvious. But to choose the field route meant forfeiting the benefits of the garrison route.

To address this, the inbetweeners decided to maintain a field uniform and a garrison uniform. The field uniform would be the standard issue BDU, but not specially kept. They would never be starched and they would be worn ‘as is’ – wrinkles and all. Field boots would be occasionaly slathered with a chunk of Kiwi quickly rubbed in with the sole intent of preserving the leather. There was little shine, only a matte, dull look that absorbed the sun.

The garrison uniform, on the other hand, would be kept clean and starched heavily. On Monday mornings, it would be carefully removed from its protective plastic wrapper. As arms and legs penetrated the pressed uniform, thin sheets of heavy starch might crack off and fall to the ground, shattering like tiny pieces of glass. Soldiers could look at themselves in the mirror-reflection of their black boots, which may have been shined by hand, or by the boot guy on Yadkin road.

Garrison soldiers could rarely ‘put their arms down.’

A 0900 Monday morning formation was always one filled with grumbles, as the field soldiers scoffed at the parade-ready garrison soldiers, who of course, insisted that they were simply wearing their garrison uniform – not their ‘real’ uniform. Field soldiers retorted that uniforms are uniforms and there should be no distinction, to which the garrison soldiers responded with accusations of laziness and jealousy.

That battle didn’t end until the introduction of the ACU and the tan boot, which requires no shoe polish. It’s hard to make the ACU look good, so no one bothered trying.

I recall seeing starched DCUs while deployed. Relevant? No. Silly? Probably.

The point in all this is to highlight the long-held distinctions soldiers have had on garrison life and field life (whether ‘field’ means a week out in the woods, a couple of weeks at NTC or JRTC, or a year-long deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan).

Wherever soldiers are and whatever they are doing, that’s their real job.

Going forward, the challenge for leaders will be to convince a transitioning wartime Army that these ‘old school,’ basic soldiering skills are no less important than core skills related to a particular job. Leading soldiers in combat is important, yes, but should not be taken more seriously than leading soldiers in the rear, where the threat of death and injury exists just as it does while deployed (but with a different enemy).

Soldiering is soldiering, whether it is in the field or in the rear.

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The 3 things you can’t talk about with military folk

PT, shooting, and combatives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND

When I first got to a line company in the 82nd, my 1SG called me into his office to give me his in-brief, and fill me in on his philosophy on how to be successful in his company. On his desk, he had a GI Joe action figure (one of the big ones). The GI Joe was wearing all the gear: body armor, kevlar helmet, web gear, and he had an M16 strapped to his chest. The GI Joe was sitting on top of a jar, and taped to the jar was a a white piece of paper with the bold black words PSYCHOLOGICAL HIGHGROUND. He caught me looking at it, and said “SPC Gomez, what does that say?”

Me: “Psychological highground, 1SG.”

1SG: “And do you know what that means.”

It didn’t matter if I knew, he was going to tell me, so I shook my head no.

1SG: “It means being the baddest dude in the room. What would you do if someone came busting into your room with all that gear on? You’d probably crap your pants.” (he didn’t say dude or crap)

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

1SG: “Part of being a successful infantryman means being intimidating. When a 6 foot tall (me: neither of us were over 5’7”) monster comes crashing through your door, you’re going to pause, because he’s achieved the psychological highground by looking intimidating. In that pause, is where you win.”

I nodded in agreement.

1SG: “But that’s just one part. SPC Gomez, to be successful in my company you’ve got to be good at three things: PT, shooting, and combatives. You’re an 11B, so 300 is where you start. You will qualify expert, and you need to be ready to fight another human being and win.”

Nod.

1SG: “PT, shooting, and combatives. Take care of those three things and you’ll be golden.”

Me: “Roger, 1SG.”

He was right. If you keep yourself out of trouble and do those three things well, you can be a pretty successful infantryman. But, as the title of the post suggests, these are the three things you can’t talk about with military folk.

This is something I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve recently been reminded about it as I’ve dived into reading the comment section of blogs, and occasionally joining in.

Recently, the Army banned the use of Vibram Five Finger (VFF) footwear from use with the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU). From what I understand, the reason they were banned has to do with the way VFFs look (like gorilla feet), not their utility as a running tool (simulating barefoot running). Over at Kings of War, a blog out of the War Studies Department at King’s College that usually discusses issues of grand strategy and big picture, highly intellectual stuff, they posted a short piece on the situation, which as of this writing garnered a whopping 78 (78!) comments. Heated debates ensued over what the ‘best’ or ‘most professional’ PT program is. I left a couple of comments on why I thought the Army made the decision they did, and was chided as being weak-minded for being easily distracted by footwear (true). Similarly, over at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure, a post about the coveted Reflector Belt resulted in the same craziness.

Post a picture of a target with your shot group on Facebook, and rest assured, your military buddies will jump in to tell you how much you suck, the production history of the weapon you used (and why it is inferior to the weapon they prefer), a detailed ballistic report from the grainy BlackBerry photo, and then reiterate again that your shooting sucks, at least in comparison to theirs.

I won’t get into combatives too much. Everyone who trains in a martial art believes they are training in the best martial art. And to settle the debate, this is the best martial art.

The point is, these three things evoke an emotional response from military folk, probably because these three things are at the core of what we think the military is supposed to do, and be good at. Everyone in the military does PT, shoots, and probably does some form of hand-to-hand combat training. The civilian world certainly expects that we do all those things. So when you bring up your new PT routine with military friends, you are sure to get some unsolicited advice on how you’re doing it wrong, or how you should forget everything you know and adopt his/her eccentric-flavor-of-the-weak fitness regimen. Think you know something about guns? Well you don’t, and your military friends will remind you. And your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is no match for my Krav Maga which is no match for his Sambo or her Muay Thai.

So, like politics and religion, I try not to talk about these things, to the best of my ability. And if I do, I just let everyone else be the expert.

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Introduction

I’ve toyed around with blogs in the past. I had a blog while I was studying at the American University in Cairo. It was shortlived, though, since it was soley based on me being in Egypt. I enjoyed the process, and enjoyed writing.

Since then, I’ve started a few blogs for a day or so, and then quickly deleted them. Always too worried about taking on the added responsibility and feeling compelled to produce, while putting myself out there for criticism.

I thought about doing an anonymous blog, but why? I don’t intend on writing anything nasty towards anyone, and wouldn’t that be the purpose of an anonymous blog? To be able to say what you want without worrying about being revealed? Then, though, I would worry about being revealed.

So here I go again. This will be my personal blog. The title comes from a line that caught my attention from executed ex-President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. You can read about it on the About page. The blog is centrally about soldiering, writ large. Sometimes, I’ll write about things only remotely connected to soldiering, but there will be a connection there, somewhere.

From time to time, I’ll also write about some of my other interests, like Arabic, the Middle East, or the arts.

I don’t anticipate posting daily. Maybe weekly. Maybe longer. I’d like to write longer pieces. With good research and an appropriate number of hyperlinks. A lot of people blog about other blogs, or post news links. I don’t want to do that.

I have a good feeling about this one.

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