Category Archives: reflections

The Special Responsibility of Veterans in the Social Media Era

Soldiers-and-smartphones.jpg

Over the past year or so, I’ve had lots of conversations with others about how strange it is to be in the military these days. Social media didn’t exist a decade ago in the way it does now, and we’re still seeing new effects.

I’ve been neglecting a post for months about this topic, and especially about the role that veterans play in it all. It’s an idea similar to this one, about student-veterans serving as de facto ambassadors to the civilian population.

What’s different with this, though, is the whole thing is a closed loop. What military/veteran community put out there gets digested internally. The exhaust gets fed back into the combustion chamber, and the results are often nasty.

I’ve got an essay on this, but it needs work. For now, the thesis will have to do:

There are the two pitfalls of this new world (social media) as they relate to the military:
•There are actual effects on the day-to-day operations of the military
•Many civilians do not make the distinction between active-duty and veteran, especially online

Maybe this is obvious to most. As someone who was in the Army before the social media era, got out, and then came back in to a changed landscape, it seems new and important.

Thinking about how others are thinking

This interview with Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine killers, is from back in February. I saved it because it was incredibly fascinating, especially to get the perspective of a mother who’s son would go on to commit mass murder.

This seems more relevant right now, just after the shooting in Orlando when people are searching for answers. Sue Klebold has had over seventeen years to think about what happened, if there were warning signs, and if there was anything that she could have done.

The key takeaway that I got was that no matter how well you know someone, you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head.

“If it were me today, I would dig, and dig, and dig.”

 

 

What is the incentive to write in the military?

I’m working on a longer piece about the important role veterans have in getting their voice out there in the age of social media, and this thought popped into my mind this morning on the way to work: what is the incentive to write in the military?

I’ve never been actively prodded to write inside of the military. There aren’t any obvious professional incentives – no awards or bonuses, it doesn’t go on your ERB/ORB. In fact, there seems to be greater professional risk in writing for an external audience than there is reward. 

I know why I write. It’s how I get ideas out. I also enjoy communicating to a larger audience outside of my bubble.

When I came back in the Army in 2011, I was a little concerned about whether I would have to stop writing or severely curtail it. I reached out to some military writers, and one (very accomplished officer) offered this warning:

Even so, today’s Army does not value intellectually rigorous scholarship from serving officers. General Petraeus succeeded despite, rather than because of, his intellectual credentials; note how few officers are following his path to flag rank. Advancement to that level relies on patronage relationships within one or more of the Army’s “communities” – airborne, armored cav, SOF, etc. There is no patron and no community for intellectual rigorous soldier-scholars, and few of them make it past LTC or COL.

It was a fair – and spooky – warning. I do think things like the Military Writers Guild might be changing this dynamic, but only time will tell.

Sunshine and Battle Flags

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A couple of weeks ago my unit did a battalion competition out on the PT field. Each company put together an eight man team and we raced each other through an obstacle course, carrying weapons and litters stacked with filled ammo cans and five gallon water jugs. The S6 had giant speakers blaring music as the teams made their way around. No one really wanted to do it – it was Friday and everyone just wanted to go home for the weekend – but once the event started the competitive fire took over.

I just finished with my team and stopped at the end, huffing for air. Looking back, the sun was just coming up over post, casting the field in a warm morning glow. As the eight man teams moved through the obstacles, their company guidons moved with them, bouncing along above a mass of soldiers cheering them on. Dust swirled around magnifying the sunlight. A cover of War Pigs blared out of the speakers.

It was a weird moment. It felt like the beginning of a war movie with a very dark ending.

Some random thoughts on suicide

I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately.

Mostly, it’s because I’ve been a bit obsessed with Life Is Strange these past few months. If you haven’t played Life Is Strange, and you intend to, there are spoilers below.

Kate Marsh Roof Journal

In the game, one of the secondary characters – Kate Marsh –  kills herself by jumping off the roof of a school, with her fellow students watching. It’s her choice. You watch her jump, and it is terrifying.

One of the game’s dynamics allows the player to rewind time to make different decisions or use the knowledge you have about the very near future to go back and do things differently. Here, the game allows you to rewind and then essentially stop time so that you can get to the roof and intervene in the suicide. Once there, it becomes clear that you have exhausted your power, and whatever decisions you make, you’ll have to live with. There’s no going back, and since you know what’s about to happen because you witnessed it, the emotional tension is heightened.

Depending on choices you’ve made previously, how much you’ve payed attention to the details about Kate’s life, and the things that you say on the roof, Kate will either go through with her suicide or decide against it.

When I played it originally, I saved Kate. I felt great for it.

My wife played through the game recently, and she wasn’t able to save Kate. She felt terrible.

A few minutes later, as the episode ends, statistics are displayed showing what percentage of players managed to “save” Kate and what percentage were not. For a game as emotionally charged as Life Is Strange, it’s like an extra punch in the gut. Not only were you unable to save her, but others were, meaning, you are somehow shittier as a person.

It’s suicide as a game mechanic. It’s emotional, tense, and a little strange. It also puts the player in the unfair position of being responsible for Kate’s suicide.

For anyone who has been around suicide, the emotional toll that remains for the family and friends left behind is incredible, and they will forever wonder if there was something they could have done. Laura Dale tackled this exact topic in Polygon back in April.

All that said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with suicide as a game mechanicIt was part of the story, and it was handled in a delicate, but realistic way. It’s been done in other games, as well. And it is certainly better than “Press X to Pay Respects.”

More importantly, it has people talking about suicide.

For members of the military and veterans, it couldn’t be more relevant. While we are still a nation at war, suicide ranks as the top cause of death for members of the military by a wide margin. And it’s estimated that some 22 veterans die everyday by suicide.

Barely a week goes by where I don’t hear about an old Army buddy who took his own life or another Army buddy asks for prayers for the loss of one of his.

Over the past few weeks, probably because of Life Is Strange, I’ve been reading through a lot of the suicide articles that maybe I’d normally scroll past.

It started with a front page look at campus suicide in the New York Times which eventually led me to this longer piece about Madison Holleran, whose seemingly Instagram-idyllic life ended dramatically with a rooftop leap.

Last week I read about Stephen Akins, an Army veteran who killed himself in an apparent overdose.

Just a couple of days ago I read about the family of 24 year old Army veteran Ian Michael Curtis who killed himself last year. They are still trying to figure out why he did it. His wife thinks it was simply a chaotic moment of darkness, a spasm of anger.

There’s the dark story of Marine veteran Daniel Rey Wolfe who killed himself and posted the pictures to Facebook as he bled out. The gruesome photos were left online for two days while the family struggled with Facebook to have them removed.

Related is this article in Vice that chronicles the intersection between suicide and the internet – something that is likely to become more important in attempting to get help to those who need it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I attempt to tie everything up neatly and provide some sort of synthesis, some greater idea that puts everything together neatly. After reading through all of these pieces, there really isn’t much for me to offer. As much as we know about suicide, it’s still a personal mystery, unique and difficult to understand.

The only thing I would add is I’m starting to think there is a greater role that youth plays in all of this. If you read through these articles, the underlying symptom is depression – mostly gone untreated, or at best, self-treated through drugs and alcohol.

Something I’ve recently begun to notice – and this might be one of the benefits of being the oldest platoon leader around – is my junior soldiers (~25 and younger) tend to fluctuate wildly in their moods. That is, one day they may seem happy, jovial, energetic. The next day they look down in the dumps and bummed out. My senior NCOs (~25 and older) tend to be more consistent in their mood. External pressure doesn’t push them too hard in one direction or the other. I think it’s easy to dismiss this as simply an effect of training and experience, but we now know that the brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s.  Yes, it’s true that at 18 a young man or woman can join the Army and go fight, but that doesn’t mean that everything is settled internally.

Thinking back to when I was a junior soldier, I could fluctuate wildly as well.

While I’m not offering anything here but anecdotal conjecture, I think there is a lot more we can learn about depression and suicide, especially as it relates to the military community, if we take a harder look at youth and emotion. While simply getting older doesn’t eliminate the risk of suicide, there is evidence that shows it is major youth problem.

Add the risk of youth suicide (of which young military men and women fall into) with a generally pro-firearm environment (firearms are the most common method of suicide for American men) and an “accomplish the mission” attitude likely instilled through the process of militarization, and the problem of military suicide becomes more apparent.

If video game developers can integrate suicide as a game mechanic, and do it in a way that treats it seriously, then we can at the very least talk about it seriously, understanding that it is not simply a thing that happens to other people. It happens to us.

@dongomezjr

#JadeHelm

So no shit, there I was.

Driving between Dallas and Fort Hood, returning from a recon for a funeral detail.

There I was, at a nondescript rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In uniform.

I paid for my coffee and waited for a fellow soldier to pay for his Red Bull when an older man approached the counter. He was about my height, balding, overweight with a stained, sleeveless cutoff shirt. He looked me square in the eyes, making sure we were locked in.

With both hands pressed against the counter holding him up, he looked at me hard and asked with a straight and serious face: “Jade helm?”

I may or may not have responded with a sarcastic remark.

Without going into the details, the rest of the conversation revolved around preachers, preparations, and treason.

Without question, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in regards to civilian-military relations, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anti-military rhetoric, having been a part of veterans issues in New York City and attending graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In those settings, challenges towards my military service usually resulted in me thinking critically about my decision to serve, and eventually hardening that resolve through deliberate thought.

In this instance, being called treasonous by an angry Texan, I wonderd what might be sitting on his belt. I got out of there as fast I could.

It’s interesting – and a little scary – to read on the internet about this group of people worried about an obscure military exercise. It’s a completely different and strange thing to actually be confronted by it and challenged by it.

I didn’t like it.

@dongomezjr

End of War: Post-Deployment Nostalgia

We just hit our 3-month mark of coming home from Afghanistan.

First there was the honeymoon phase and joy of being back in America.

Then there was the long block leave period and the slow yearning to be back in a rhythm.

Then the madness of a unit reset into the gradual resumption of business as usual.

Now, I’m starting to see, hear, and feel the beginnings of post-deployment nostalgia. Guys are starting to talk about being “back on deployment” with a tinge of longing. Four or five months ago, we cursed the very ground we walked on. But now, it exists in our memories as a vacation from the drudgery of garrison life.

Soldiers stand around in groups and tell stories, words going back and forth between them, weaving a bond through every telling and re-telling.

“Fuck this place” is slowly becoming “Remember that time when…”

@dongomezjr