On Veterans and Veterans Day

It’s kind of nice having a day off towards the end of the week. It’s a way to get “two Fridays.”

I used to write a lot about veterans and Veterans Day. People seemed to enjoy it.

But then I joined up a second time and it gets kind of weird.

One of the things that have always perplexed me is the confusion as to what constitutes a veteran. I’ve met lots of people who think that because they have not deployed they don’t count.

If you’ve served, then you are a veteran.

Anyway, I’ve compiled some of the more interesting pieces I’ve written on veterans and Veterans Day below. These are mostly evergreen, despite often referencing something going on in the world at the time.

There’s a lot more than the below, and clicking through any one of them can take you down a veteran rabbit hole.

Hope you enjoy.


Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia – At some point during the end of my re-enlistment I replayed Final Fantasy VII. It’s then that I realized that at the heart of the story is a veteran dealing with some serious trauma with a sprinkle of stolen valor. It’s always something I’ve wanted to write on more deeply because Cloud Strife is such a well-known figure. Maybe when the next chapter of the remake comes out…

The Special Responsibility of Veterans in the Social Media Era – More than anyone else, veterans are able to tell the story. It’s like a superpower. And with great power comes great responsibility.

The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies – When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

Veterans: When I ask you about things, can you not be a condescending dick about it? – Don’t get me started on coconut bundt cake.

Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies – The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

Damn it feels good to be a veteran – Why? Because it often feels like you’re at the center of the world.

T.E. Lawrence on Veterans Day – My favorite quote when it comes to Veterans Day.

Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans – Oof. This hurts.

On getting out – I’ve met few people who don’t have some twinge of regret for getting out of the service. Not universal, I know.

The Best Years of Our Lives – This is one of the more recent things I’ve written. I have no idea how I’ve missed this movie for all of these years, but it captures the feeling of coming home – the real feeling of coming home – better than anything else I’ve seen.

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Colin Powell

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

Most people know Colin Powell as one of the TV generals during the Persian Gulf War. Or an ever-present military official in the highest circles of power. Or the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who gave a speech at the United Nations that would bookend his legacy.

I knew that guy too. A soldier who loved the operational Army but kept finding himself back in the White House. Duty called, and he was good at it.

But what many people don’t know is how dedicated Colin Powell was to his alma mater, the City College of New York (CCNY) – the “Harvard on the Hudson.”

One of the main reasons I chose to go to City College was Colin Powell. He helped establish a new center there that fostered leadership training and provided scholarships for students. I was fresh out of the Army and wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I met General Powell was at an event at CCNY. He was on campus to announce a donation to the college that would pay for the ‘unmet needs’ of student veterans. It was also an opportunity for Powell to get in the media and discuss his thoughts on the burgeoning “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There was a debate in Washington at the time over how a new GI Bill might affect retention. My role was to give a short speech on ‘what it’s like’ being a student veteran. Colin Powell would introduce me.

Before the event, a quick meeting was arranged between the speakers in a backroom. As I walked in, I saw General Powell, reading over news articles online discussing the debate. He was on. He was working. Somebody mentioned the retention issue. Powell dismissed it, loudly, as nonsense.

He knew he had an important role to play. He understood that he had the power to move the debate, to move the dial. Well placed words and we’re that much closer.

He greeted me by speaking my name loudly like we had known each other forever. This is the first time we met. He seemed to know me. We talked about the Army. We talked about the 82nd Airborne Division. We talked about Iraq.

Minutes later, we were in the hall giving speeches.

He talked about City College. He talked about education. He thanked the donor.

And then he made a sharp statement about the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing crazy, just expressing how he believed the retention issue would not be an issue at all.

Camera flashes and scribbled notes in pads.

Those words became the headlines the next day. He moved the dial.

Then I got up to give my short speech.

The thing I remember most about that speech is how General Powell watched. He was interested in what I had to say. And when I made a dry joke about not being able to put words together with more than two syllables (due to being an infantryman), he laughed loudly.

He was still a soldier.

But what I saw in action was something akin to magic. An innate sense of the local, the foreign, and the temperature in Washington – all at once. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. This was an ability that came through hard work and experience. From City College to the Army to Vietnam to Washington.

A temperance forged over time.

I saw it again, years later, at the ceremony that welcomed ROTC back to City College after being booted from campus over forty years prior.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.”

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

But he wasn’t done. Had he just delivered the line he needed, the one that puts everyone at ease, he would have done his duty.

He went on:

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it.

It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

He could “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

And he had an incredible ability to boil down a thing to its most basic and recognizable concept – one that appealed to everyone. And then deliver a sentence or a line or an idea that makes headlines the next day.

It’s an incredible ability and one that could easily be taken advantage of.

It’s nearly impossible to make it through a career as storied as Powell’s and come out unscarred.

He almost did it.

And unlike so many these days, he wasn’t “unapologetic” about it in some odd pantomime of toughness. He took actions, he reflected and thought critically about them, and when convinced, changed his mind.

He was constantly growing. He was willing to grow.

His death is a true loss. But his life and example is one that will inspire men and women inside and out of the military for generations.

“It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

General Colin Powell

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The Faces on the Wall

I love Army breakfasts. During my enlistment, just about every battalion had its own Dining Facility (DFAC). Generally speaking, I ate most of my meals at our battalion’s DFAC, which was conveniently located in the same building as my barracks.

After awhile, it became a fun treat to explore other DFACs across the Brigade, Division, and post – to see how the other side lives. If we were feeling especially adventorous, we might even drive all the way across post to the Air Force side to eat in their DFAC. After finishing a wonderful lunch, I remember standing up with my tray to bring it to the turn-in when my much wiser comrade gently placed his hand on my tray, pressing it back down to the table. “The Air Force waiters come for it. There is no work for you here, brother.”

Maybe it’s cheap nostalgia, but I feel like our DFACs today just aren’t like they used to be. More likely, I’ve become more picky as I’ve gotten older.

At Fort Hood, I’ve searched for a long time to find a great DFAC. While I haven’t tried them all, the one I prefer the most is the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Memorial Dining Facility. It’s over on the 1st Cavalry Division side of post, and as the name implies, it is in honor of 1st Cavalry Divison soldiers who died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Inside the main cafeteria, the walls are lined with photos of the fallen. The pictures are mixed; some are official Army photographs displaying stoic faces, others are candid shots from deployment, the soldier usually smiling widely, the picture slightly pixellated.

They completely surround the room, hundreds of them.

Soldiers go on enjoying their breakfast.

Eating there a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit struck by how far we’ve come from the heyday of that war. The deaths, deployments, and knocks at the door.

It all kind of just slipped away. And the Army goes marching along.

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There will be no memorial

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As our truck passed a memorial commemorating Iraqi martyrs who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, I asked another soldier sitting across from me, “Do you think they’ll ever build a monument to the American soldiers who died here?”

“No,” he said flatly.

Our truck bounced along and our bodies rocked with the rhythm as I watched the wall disappear around a corner.

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The Rains of Castamere

"When I go home people'll ask me, 'Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?' You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is." -- Black Hawk Down (2001)
“When I go home people’ll ask me, ‘Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?’ You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.” — Black Hawk Down (2001)

Doctrine Man posted the above photo and quote from Black Hawk Down yesterday as part of this weekend’s steady stream of Memorial Day-related posts to counteract a supposed disinterested public while also helping us lose ourselves in a “twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.”

The quote is a variation of the answer to “why we fight” that usually boils down to doing it “for your battle buddies on your left and right.” That is, today, the reason we go to war is simply to protect the ones with whom we’ve gone to war. Put simply, we’re there and doing it because we’re there and doing it.

Force protection.

I’ve always had a hard time swallowing this. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it seems to be a lowest common denominator rationale – there’s no good reason we’re doing this (conquering, for example), so the best we can come up with is this pseudo-spiritual link between the men and women in a given unit. The concept is popular among troops and when uttered, is usually met with nods of gritty determination from exhausted soldiers grasping for a reason to strap on heavy body armor, pick up their rifles, and step out on another ghost patrol.

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?”
-As quoted in Stars and Stripes (November, 2013)

Jack_Churchill_leading_training_charge_with_sword.jpg (1003×643)

Earlier today, I read about Mad Jack” Churchill, a British officer who was known to go into battle with a longbow and sword. It’s an incredible story and the picture is otherworldly. It was this macabre quote of Churchill’s though, that captured my attention: If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks, we could have kept the war going another ten years.”

This is reminiscent of LTC Kilgore’s famous quip of “Someday this war’s gonna end...“, spoken with the sick sadness of a man lost in war, warning his troops to soak up as much of the grim death before it’s all over.

While Kilgore is fictional, Churchill is not, and there seems to be a “type” that indeed is a ‘war-junkie.’ I’m not sure it’s necessarily for the mechanical aspects of war – the shooting, the bleeding, the death. Rather, it’s the whole experience of the campaign. It’s the sights, sounds, and feelings swirling around for years. It’s life in the emerald city. It’s an endless summer where the only victory is survival.

“The dead only know one thing; it is better to be alive.”
-Joker, Full Metal Jacket

In generations passed, strict dedication to duty might have been enough to sustain the fighting heart. Or perhaps, simply, the casus belli was better, or at least understood. Certainly in a firefight, the only thing that matters are those on your left and right, for they will bring you home (the “warrior,” mind you, is dead). As soon as the first bullet is fired, the world washes away and all are instantly swept to a dark arena where humanity disappears and natural instinct takes over.

My point though, is that in order to get to that arena – that point in time where the only thing that matters are those on the left and right – required a series of decisions made by men and women on and far from the battlefield. It is in those decisions where we should find the answer to “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man?”

Not for fame or reward
Not for place or for rank
Not lured by ambition
Or goaded by necessity
But in simple
Obedience to duty
As they understood it
These men suffered all
Sacrificed all
Dared all-and died

I’ve heard it said that this generation, more than others, needs to know the “why” more than those of previous generations. I’d say that’s fair and true. “We’re going on this mission because I told you so” might get them out of the wire, but it is unlikely to tame (or unleash) the “beast in the heart of every fighting man.”

And it will certainly leave them thinking about what it all meant for the rest of their lives.

Something to think about.

This, incidentally is the 500th post on Carrying the Gun.

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Veterans Day 2013 Link Drop

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Veterans Day is a good day when it comes to military writing. It is a great peg for folks in the sphere to say what they want to say and get it out there to someone who might not normally read military stuff.

Here are some of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen over the past couple of days. I know there are more out there that I haven’t got to. If you have a recommendation, add it to the comments and I’ll add it to the list below.

Reunion Clips of Soldiers and Their Loves Ones Have Become Just Another Form of Entertainment (The Daily Beast) – This is what I wrote for Veterans Day. It’s about the spectacle of viral-ready “reunion” videos that appear on the internet and on news programs, essentially as entertainment.

Help Veterans by Taking Them Off the Pedestal (The Atlantic) – A piece by Alex Horton on why over-idealizing veterans may do more harm than good.

On Military Service (Rhino Den) – I have a love/hate relationship with Ranger Up. Often, they post very reactionary or inflammatory essays – but it’s always had a “in the barracks” feel to it, which is probably good for people to see. Nick at Ranger Up often writes really, really good stuff, though. This is one of them.

The Vets We Reject and Ignore (The New York Times) – By Phillip Carter. A short Op-Ed about discharges in the military.

Retiring the Vietnam-Veteran Stereotype (The Atlantic) – By Sally Satel and Richard McNally. About the struggle veterans face during reintegration because of some of the old stereotypes out there fueled by Hollywood and the media.

And of course, every Veterans Day, someone writes a version of this piece: Stop thanking the troops for me: No, they don’t “protect our freedoms.” This year it was Justin Doolittle.

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Remembrance Day

This is an essay I wrote last year while I was in London.

I spent this past Sunday morning standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of men and women of the armed forces, veterans, family members, and citizens to honor the service and sacrifice of those who had answered the call to arms in wars both past and present. These weren’t my armed forces, or my fellow citizens, though. I was standing in central London, where the British gather yearly on the Sunday nearest Armistice Day (Veterans Day in the US). I served alongside the British in Iraq, and this was an opportunity for me to honor their service as fellow warriors.

As the clock reached the eleventh hour, a cannon fired, accompanied by the first chime of the bell, shaking our bodies and minds into silent obedience, urging our hearts to remember with each successive toll those who will not come home. On cue, the slight drizzle turns into a steady rain. Under a dark London sky, the Royal family and nation’s leaders gather together for a few short moments to recognize and pay tribute to the men and women who have fought and died for the Union Jack. The Queen leads the ceremony by laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, a memorial originally meant to pay tribute to the British who died in the tragically labeled ‘War to end all Wars.’ Then, members of the Royal family lay wreaths, followed by the Prime Minister and other state officials.  When all the wreaths have been laid, veterans march to the cheer of their countrymen, render a smart salute upon passing the Cenotaph, and exit the parade ground, having captured for another moment the spirit of military service, but no closer to solving its meaning. The ceremony is both somber and appreciative, beginning with reflection and tears, and ending with catharsis, pride, and applause.

I’m not British, but this ceremony struck me more than any I have participated in back home. I’ve marched in the New York Veterans Day parade, whose main spectators are the families of those marching, November tourists, and people trying to cross the street.  Memorial Day is commemorated nationally with mattress sales. Here though, for one moment, people throughout the UK (including all the nation’s leaders) stop to honor those who have fought for them.

But it’s not just Remembrance Sunday that people “do something.”  From late October to mid-November, the Royal British Legion sells paper poppies to be worn on the lapels of men and women to show their support. This is the most well-known charity event in the UK, and you would be hard-pressed to find any public figure caught without wearing the small red flower (Harry Potter and company sported them for the release of Deathly Hallows). To me, this is more than a gesture. It is a sign that they actually care. It is a way for a person to not only demonstrate that they have donated money towards veterans, but to tell the world that their veterans matter.

It would be easy to dismiss the poppy as an empty symbol, like we often do with our yellow ribbons, which were slapped to the back of our cars at the turn of the millennium, and have since faded to white. Maybe some people who wear the poppy do it because it is the “right thing to do” but don’t actually care about veterans. Undoubtedly, this will be the case for some. To declare the entire gesture as empty demonstrates a low faith in humanity, though. I’d like to live in a world where people’s expressions can be genuine, so I take the view that what they wear is what they mean. And to be frank, when I see someone wearing a poppy it makes me feel like my service mattered – especially in a country heavily conflicted over its role in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Wearing the poppy is an acknowledgement that taking care of veterans is not a political statement, but a moral responsibility.

Remembrance Sunday is the Super Bowl of veterans’ commemorations. Veterans Day and Memorial day, rolled into one, where heads of state are duty-bound to participate and the country comes together to remember and show its appreciation. As a nation that has asked so much of so few, don’t we owe our veterans the same?

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