Afghanistan Post Mortem: Fallen Soldier Ceremony

One late evening, my phone rang in the middle of the night. I answered it, expecting some emergency or another. It was the Operations Sergeant Major. A soldier in the command had been killed and he was being flown from our airfield to another, en route home. I needed to get the platoon together, he said, for a fallen soldier ceremony.

My commander had just flown in a few hours earlier, and when the platoon sergeant started rounding everyone up for a very strange midnight formation, they all figured it was the CO, pissed about something he had observed.

Once everyone was together, we briefed them on what we knew (very little) and moved to the flight line.

In other years, it wouldn’t have been much of a problem to rally the hundred or so soldiers it takes to form an unbroken chain of troops to create a corridor between the aircraft and the hospital. But in 2014, it took a lot of phone calls and maybe even some personal favors.

We all stood there in the dark on the asphalt, not really knowing what was going on. Nearby crew chiefs conducted final preparations for the flight. It was dark, quiet, humid, and groggy.

Eventually, we all started forming the corridor in an orderly, military fashion, without ever having anyone tell us what to do. It all kind of just happened.

Time passed, and the door of the non-descript building that served as the mortuary affairs office opened up. Large men carried the flag-draped casket inbetween the two ranks of soldiers forming the hundred meter or so corridor to the waiting Blackhawk.

Someone called us to present arms, and we did.

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10 Things My NCOs Told Me That I Can’t Forget

Over the years, NCOs (non-commissioned officers) have uttered little sayings or missives that have been forever etched in my mind. Whether they are true or not is not clear. Either way, I cannot forget these little sayings, and as far as I am concerned, they are the absolute truth, simply because a good NCO told me it was so:

1. Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t drink alcohol.

What makes him so special?

2. Every day of PT that is missed requires two days to make up.

It’s not science, but he was wearing a Drill Sergeant hat.

3. A stretch is ineffective unless it is held for at least 15 seconds.

Because 10 seconds is too easy.

4. You really don’t want a CIB.*

There’s a lot of baggage that comes with it.

5. Never, ever, mention rain in the field.

If you do, it will inevitably rain.

6. Nothing good ever happens after someone says “watch this shit…”

But it is probably funny.

7. You can always squeeze in one more.

One more rep, one more person in the truck, etc.

8. If it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.

Unless it is stupid.

9. Fake it until you make it.

False motivation is better than no motivation.

10. If it smells clean, it is clean.

Pine-Sol the shit out of the latrine!

There are likely many more that I just can’t remember right now. If you’ve got some gems, please leave them in the comments.

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Remnants of an Army

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I walk down the steps and outside, limping from the pins and needles in my legs from sitting too long. The cold air wraps around me and I look up, squinting, catching the dark, looming mountains of the Pashtun border behind a strand of concertina wire along the wall of the cantonment . Turning a corner to head back to my room, the white blimp sits in the air where it always does; black from its own shadow. A low-tech drone buzzes nearby like a lawn mower.

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The Nostalgia of Old Places

zoltar-speaks-2

A couple of weeks ago I found myself on a camp somewhere in Afghanistan for a few days. This was the camp where my deployment began. For the two weeks I was there back in July, the camp was busy, hot, and active. We did a lot of good training and then I left and went to another part of Afghanistan. Being back on that camp, the weather cooler and far fewer people around, an old nostalgia kicked in the way it seems to whenever I revisit a familiar place after a long absence.

It’s something I experienced powerfully when I passed through Kuwait en route to the United States on mid-tour leave from Iraq in 2003. I spent over a month at TAA Champion in Kuwait as the US was gearing up for the invasion. Thousands of soldiers busily milled about, preparing for war. When I returned on my way home, the tents were gone and it resembled an empty lot, the way the amusement park looks in the movie Big near the end of the movie when Tom Hanks returns to Zoltar.

It’s a nostalgia that I’ve experienced a lot in video games, too. At the end of Mass Effect 1 when Commander Shepard uses the conduit to get back to the Citadel – where the journey began – I felt that pang of nostalgia. I felt that same nostalgia when Cloud and team re-entered Midgar – where their journey began.

I think part of the nostalgia isn’t just the old place, but the way it is different when you return, in these examples, emptier and less active. There is something about the change in dynamic and the passage of time that pulls the nostalgia right up. The place is different now.

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Accidental Empire and the British Colonial Service

four feathers 1939

When I initially got out of the Army and went to college, I liked to have conversations with people – mostly International Studies students – about how America could be more effective overseas. This was between 2007-2011, and the limits of what military power could accomplish in foreign lands in terms of democracy-building or statecraft was becoming well known, with then Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously urging more funds to go towards the State Department, even if that meant less for the Department of Defense.

Between classes, over coffee, or at some dive bar near the City College of New York, I argued to anyone who would listen that what we needed was a more “expeditionary” State Department. We needed young Foreign Service Officers who weren’t afraid to get out on the streets and do the hard work on the ground, even if that meant strapping a pistol to their belt and taking a couple of IEDs along the way. In my mind, the stereotype I had of the foreign service was a risk-averse, cubicle-chained organization. In 2007, as the United States began its “surge” in Iraq, there was backlash from some foreign service officers over potentially being sent to Iraq, some describing it as a “death sentence.” I remember reading those stories at the time and feeling frustration, as it exacerbated the idea that the military was fighting the war in Iraq, while everyone else – including the State Department – looked the other way.

On a scholarship application in which I discussed the State Department, I wrote this:

Specifically, the State Department will need Foreign Service Officers who have an expeditionary mindset and are willing to sacrifice personal safety and comfort to meet the nation’s objectives.

Still fueled by the fire of being an enlisted infantryman fresh from Iraq sling-shot into college life, I was adamant that what the world needed was a more aggressive foreign service. At CCNY, we had a diplomat-in-residence, a State Department official who holds an office at a college to recruit and teach classes. Ambassador Robert Dry, a former Middle East hand (and Navy veteran) was the diplomat-in-residence at CCNY. I often visited him in his office and tried my best to keep up with him – he’s exceptionally intelligent. When I spoke confidently about my ideas of a more robust and aggressive State Department, citing the recent examples of the resistance to go to Iraq by some, he quickly fired back, saying that it sounded like I wanted to recreate the defunct British Colonial Service.

I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing it. What was he implying? At the time, I wasn’t really aware that there was a thing called the British Colonial Service but I instantly understood what he meant. The argument that I was making, and one that continues to be made by prominent figures, is that we have found ourselves managing an accidental empire and that requires different mechanisms than the ones we’re familiar with. Not an “empire” in the sense of territorial conquest, but rather we have “boots on the ground” in lots of places, and as a result, the need to “do it right” becomes apparent.

The conversation between the Ambassador and I then shifted to what then to do; if you find yourself running an accidental empire, do you create the institutional structures to adequately manage it, or do you address the policies that led to its origin? Or in paratrooper parlance, do you try to “slip-away?”

As I’ve gotten older and have watched things develop, I’m not as gung-ho about the idea of simply strapping a pistol to the leg of a foreign service officer as the antidote to America’s challenges overseas. I suppose the continuing troubles in the Middle East and the recent stories (linked above) about more frequent deployments and calls for reforming how we do whatever-it-is-you-call-it that is being done, reminded me of these old conversations in the dark, granite recesses of the ‘Harvard of the Proletariat.’

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Long Goodbye

My first two deployments were short-notice deployments. I found out we were going to Iraq the first week of February, 2003. The war hadn’t started yet and the Commander couldn’t even confirm that we were going there. We were told that we were going to “southwest Asia” for “something.” The Department of Defense already put out a press release confirming the deployment of an Airborne Infantry Brigade, and we were the only one still available, but whatever. We stayed up late for the next two weeks stuffing our lives into duffel bags. We said hurried goodbyes, and we flew away for a year.

My second deployment was similar. I was driving for a General, and he was reassigned to a position in Iraq and had to be there in a couple of weeks. He asked his staff if they wanted to go and we all said yes. I packed, said goodbye, and was gone a week later as ADVON.

This current deployment loomed on the horizon like a giant barge, sitting in the water, inching closer by the minute but appearing not to move at all until finally it was here. We knew about it with some degree of certainty back in November, when rumors swirled we were put back on “the patch chart” – this mythical board that dictates when units will deploy. Further, the predicted deployment date was sometime in the summer, giving us at least a full six months in which to prepare.

That long run-up to a deployment is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it allows more time to train and prepare. A curse – and this is especially true for those who’ve deployed before – because a good chunk of time is spent soaking up the good things in life under the excuse of “soon I’ll be deployed and won’t have this opportunity.” Thus begins a see-saw cycle of hard gym sessions followed by binging on Chips Ahoy and beer, because, you never know.

It’s worse on relationships. It’s the elephant in the room, the thing that is right there and coming that both parties try to ignore so they can “enjoy now.” A couple of weeks before this deployment, I sat in a beautiful sea-side restaurant eating breakfast with my wife, looking out at a bay in Saint Thomas. Gazing at the lush hills, my mind drifted to reading terrain for an attack and our current and projected task organization. We began to argue over something stupid, but it was really frustration about the deployment – an oncoming train that won’t stop.

And then, after months and months of that – preparing and binging, ignoring and acknowledging – the day finally comes and it is time to say goodbye. There is no good way to do it – I’ve done it too many times and the only thing that makes it any easier is knowing that the actual physical act of saying goodbye is the hardest part. There are actually multiple goodbyes; the one in the living room, the one in quiet car ride to post, the first one when you thought you were just going to be dropped off at base before you saw all the other families lingering around, and then the final one where you say “this is it.” Inside that goodbye, there are a dozen false starts. You hug and kiss and say goodbye and step away, only to move in one more time “for real this time.” After that, you finally have to go. You look and try your best to absorb the entirety of that moment; the humid air, the early morning, blue hued twilight sky, the feeling of your loved one’s body against yours, one last time.

And then you break and say goodbye, turn around, and walk away.

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Friendship and Loneliness

Friends

I recently re-blogged one of my first posts on Carrying the Gun, called The Last Letter WarI was still in graduate school at the time, and I was getting nostalgic for the feeling that letter writing and receiving brought during my first deployment, which was pretty austere. In that post, I lamented the fact that due to the rapid spread of connectivity and smartphones, future wars would likely not depend on good old fashioned mail the way we once knew it. In that, something would be lost – solitude, loneliness, and a deep yearning for outside contact. I admitted though, that all that nostalgia would be lost on a soldier sitting on his cot, waiting weeks or months for a letter that may never come – he’d choose the internet in a heartbeat because it is better, easier, and instantaneous.

A couple of years later, I wrote a piece imagining what it might be like to deploy in the current media landscape, where a soldier’s actions are almost instantaneously captured and beamed across the world via the internet at the speed of light, dissected, critiqued, and discarded before the soldier makes it back to his camp. It was a dark thought, especially the idea of having a bunch of snarky twenty and thirty somethings share thoughts on your behavior from the comfort of their computer chairs or porcelain toilets, in 140 characters or less.

Now, I am living in that future.

I tend to find myself reading things that bleed into one another – articles that may or not be related, but share common themes. I don’t know if this is a product of my mood at a given time, which makes me more likely to click and follow through on reading one thing rather than another, or simply a random occurrence that seems to happen pretty frequently. Over the past week I’ve been thinking about those two posts while also having read a number of articles and essays on the topics of friendship, loneliness, and civility. They all seem to be connected, somehow, so I thought I’d share them here. The common denominator in them (with the exception of The Hermit) is the rise of social media as a disruptive force – disruptive, in this case, not necessarily being a “bad” thing (although it might be – the jury is still out).

It started with this article in GQ (The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit) about a man who remained hidden in the woods of Maine for almost thirty years. It is a fascinating story, and especially so in today’s interconnected world, where this phenomena seems exceptionally rare. The author, who continually tries to tease out of Chris Knight (the hermit) why he did it – only comes close to an answer when discovering what it is that he missed about his exile, now that it had been taken from him.

“What I miss most,” he eventually continued, “is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.” He said he’d watched for years as a shelf mushroom grew on the trunk of a Douglas fir in his camp. I’d noticed the mushroom when I visited—it was enormous—and he asked me with evident concern if anyone had knocked it down. I assured him it was still there. In the height of summer, he said, he’d sometimes sneak down to the lake at night. “I’d stretch out in the water, float on my back, and look at the stars.”

While scrolling through my Timeline on my Facebook, looking for a certain picture, I came across an article I shared from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled Faux Friendship in 2009. In it, William Deresiewicz discusses the changing nature of friendship, and especially the loss of the “romantic” friendship, as in, that single friend with whom we are almost cosmically linked. Instead, we have replaced “information for experience.” Think about the throngs of outstretched hands at concerts (or any event) clutching glowing smartphones to “capture” moments they aren’t really experiencing to be shared with others who don’t really care.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Deresiewicz wrote another article for the Chronicle titled The End of Solitude, which is very closely related to Faux Friendship, but worth reading on its own.

The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity.

Strangely, I was also pointed to this article called How to Be Polite which feels somewhat related in that it discusses the demise of civility, mostly due to the rise of social media and a more interconnected world.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

Just before I was ready to post this piece, I came across this Mashable article, The Most Connected Man is You, Just a Few Years From NowThe subject obsessively tracks everything he can track with whatever digital tracker exists, creating a cyborg-effect.

“Everyone wants to know if they will be like me in the future, but everyone is already like me; they just don’t think about it like that,” he says. “Your phone is already collecting information about you and your life. If you use a credit card or a car GPS system, you’re already being tracked. But that’s Big Brother. When you take control of it yourself, that’s Big Mother, and that relationship is nurturing, kind and not controlling.

And lastly, just for fun, is this edit of celebrities at the VMAs, looking more and more like citizens of the Hunger Games’ Capitol, ignoring the party going on around them in favor of the pitch-and-toss happening on their smartphones.

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Homies at War

Homies

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this short documentary at Vice about the guy who made millions of dollars in quarters selling small plastic figures in New York supermarkets. They were called “Homies,” and in the early 2000s, they were wildly popular in New York City.

In March 2003, I deployed to Iraq. My mother worked at a supermarket at the time, and like most supermarkets, it had quarter machines near the exit. One of these machines kept “Homies.”

My mom would send me care packages full of the things I asked for – magazines, food, video games – and then drop in a handful of Homies. It was a strange thing to pull out of a box in Baghdad, but for some strange reason, they became popular in my platoon. I handed them out as I got them and guys set them up around their sleeping area or kept them in their pockets for good luck. A few guys taped a homie to the front sight post of their rifles until someone yelled at them for it.

It was strange to see this documentary, with the guy that once hit it big with his homies now struggling to pay his Verizon bill. Meanwhile, Iraq too has fallen apart, struggling to keep the lid on a dangerous extremist march on Baghdad.

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