Gallows humor, smell-triggered memories, and administrative betrayal

Good podcast episode from Always In Pursuit.

SGT Retired Michael Sugrue served as a police officer for 14 years and also served in the Air Force as an officer in the Raven Program. After 8 years as a police officer, he would answer a call that would forever change his life. What ensued for the rest of his career can be described as a perfect storm of trauma. 

There is some really good stuff in this episode. The three things that stood out for me were the ultimate futility of gallows humor, the way that smells trigger memories more than anything else, and the concept of “admin betrayal.”

There’s also a great discussion on the way that service changes over time. Whether it is the military or law enforcement, no one can tell you what it’s going to do to you. You will be changed completely. And even if someone could tell you that, it wouldn’t matter. It’s a strange tragedy.

I’ve written about this before. The dark humor that gets folks in tough jobs through the day (military, law enforcement) doesn’t actually help with processing it over time. There comes a point where you have to turn to “serious talk” if you want to move forward.

Do you remember the smell under the body armor? It remembers you.

Administrative or “admin” betrayal is what happens when the organization that you worked and bled for turns the other way. We see this a lot. Organizations like to be inclusive and like to consider themselves a “family.” Well, what happens when a family member gets in trouble? or is struggling? Does a family throw that person out, or does it help?

A fascinating episode and worth the listen.


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“Nicotine and bullets bring the world together”

soldiers in the film mosul

Finally got around to watching Mosul, which I felt shamed into watching after reading this article that declared it “the best Iraq War film ever made.”

It was good. I enjoyed it.

It’s a different kind of Iraq War movie, though. It felt like the ruins of something that came before. It felt like an alternate reality of what would happen if it all went wrong.

Except it’s true.

I’m not sure that the world recognizes the incredible sacrifice shouldered by young Iraqi men and women in their battle against ISIS. Especially in Mosul. It all kind of happened in the back of the newspaper while we were otherwise distracted.

I especially appreciated the scene below, which captures the absurdity of the whole thing, in a blown-out dark room. The Mosul SWAT team meets with an Iranian Colonel who is in Mosul supporting the ha’shd al-sha’abi – the “Popular Mobilization Forces.”

They’re trading cigarettes for bullets.

This is what “strategic competition” looks like on the ground.


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The Veteran Card

abstract art of tank and civilian

The From the Green Notebook podcast continues to push the boundaries, just a little bit further.

Elliot Ackerman joins the podcast to discuss a recent article he wrote for Liberties Journal titled, “Turning in My Card“. Joe and Elliot talk about the dark side of identity and how it can prevent us from personal and professional growth. While acknowledging there benefits that come with an identity, Elliot cautions us to avoid using our identities to shut down discourse and warns everyone about the dangers of becoming a slave to identity.

S3,Ep9: Elliot Ackerman- The Dark Side of Identity

In this one, Joe speaks with Elliot Ackerman about what it means to be a veteran.

The whole thing reminded me of this episode, which feels like it is from a generation ago.

Elliot talks about the disservice we do when we open up a paragraph with “As a combat veteran…”

Or “as a” ‘anything‘ really…

It robs us of having to make an argument.

We’re saying ‘believe me because I did something, once.’

This is a good episode and one that cuts deep into the bone of what it means to define yourself by service.

It even throws badges and tabs into the bin.

The conversation eventually settles into a place where they begin discussing the civil-military divide, and the odd growing apart that is happening due to one side of that coin.

Want to know more? Go back to 1997 and this article. Still the single best thing I’ve read on the civil-military divide.


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On Veterans and Veterans Day

a man blurred in vietnam

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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You had me at psychographics

tom cruise as william cage in edge of tomorrow

A conversation on Army marketing – and how it factors into recruiting.

The United States Army, like any Army, should represent the people that it defends. Yet when that Army is made up soley of volunteers, that creates challenges for those responsible for attracting and retaining those individuals who want to be all they can be. The Army is not just a job after all, it’s an adventure. And even if every person who finds their warrior is an Army of one, questions remain about how to find those people most likely to stay Army strong long enough to make a difference.

Enter Army Enterprise Marketing.

APPEAL TO THE MASSES, DISPEL THE MYTHS: ARMY MARKETING

Kudos to Ron Granieri for getting all of the Army slogans into that intro.

This was a good discussion with some of the leadership of Army Enterprise Marketing on the intricacies and challenges of marketing the Army to the American public.

If you’ve been paying attention – which I know you have – you know that recruiting ads have gotten a lot of attention lately.

This is a good episode to listen to if you find yourself holding strong emotions on the way that the Army markets itself. There is a reason Army marketing heads in a certain direction.

Things that struck me in this episode:

It’s always about MOE, isn’t it? I’ll keep beating my drum on this – MOE (Measures of Effectiveness) doesn’t always matter. Effectiveness matters – even if you can’t measure it. If we make ads and recruiting is up, but can’t tie the recruiting to the ad, that doesn’t mean the ads weren’t effective. There is a place for hunches, gut instincts, and intuition.

Why Army Marketing? Why are we paying for this? Because if we can’t attract volunteers to sign-up, then we have to hold a draft. I appreciated the guests pushing back on this concept that is floated every couple of years that in order to save our democracy we need some form of mandatory public service – not necessarily in the military (although that obviously would be a big part of it) but “somewhere.” As I’ve written about before, bringing back the draft makes no sense – it just creates an American Hunger Games.

What does Gen Z want? They want purpose. And the Army’s mission is to find ways to show how serving in the Army can deliver that purpose. And that message has to appeal to as large a cross-section of 18-24-year-old men and women as possible. It’s not that easy.

What plays well with the force doesn’t play well with the target audience. Do you know who pays a lot of attention to military recruiting advertisements?

People in the military and veterans.

In other words, not the target audience. So if you are in the military or you got out, those ads aren’t for you. You are not the audience. If it makes you feel a certain way, that means it is likely an effective ad – because it probably is having an effect on the actual target audience (it worked on you, didn’t it?).

The guests talked about how the “what’s your warrior” campaign played really well inside of the Army (where it doesn’t matter) but fell flat with the target audience. Back to the drawing board.

Will I die if I join the Army? The guests discuss that one of the most difficult aspects of marketing is getting the point across that military service isn’t all bullets and bombs. It’s difficult to remember, but to the greater American public, military service is often considered frightening and something that “other people do.” It’s the reason it is common for veterans to come home and be asked (over and over again) if they ever killed anyone. Communicating to young Americans that the Army provides purpose but is not a constant walk across a tight-rope is the challenge.

An incredibly fascinating episode that has relevance for anyone interested in information operations, public affairs, marketing, and human psychology.


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Colin Powell

colin powell rotc cadet
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 Military and Conspiracy Theories

Good write up on the military and conspiracy thinking at War on the Rocks.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is appealing to some servicemembers because its powerful narrative appeals to the same moral foundations which draw them to military service: care for others; sanctity of ideals; respect for authority; and the primacy of fairness, liberty, and loyalty.

Conspiracy Stand Down: How Extremist Theories Like QAnon Threaten the Military and What to Do About It – War on the Rocks

This is something I’ve written about before. The same base material that works to compel someone to join the military can be stirred towards conspiracy thinking – especially if one starts to become cynical.

The author points to another WOTR piece that calls for more mandatory training to “inoculate” the troops. While more mandatory training doesn’t ever seem like a good answer, this is probably going to need to happen. As ineffective and grating as annual training can be, the stuff does seem to stick over time. Most folks I know have gotten pretty good at rattling off the indicators of an insider threat.

Better, I thought, was the author’s call for more civic education. This problem is way beyond the scope of the military.

Maybe this isn’t the best example, but if we can ask school children to hide under their desks at the threat of nuclear war or rehearse school shooting scenarios, some modicum of media literacy training should be doable.


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The Best Years of Our Lives

in a bar or diner best years of our lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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The Minutemen (of the veteran community)

the minutement from the revolutionary war
Minutemen

Last week I made a reference to the Minutemen of the veteran community. What I was talking about is that cadre of veterans who have a megaphone or a soapbox out there that can quickly rally whenever some event happens – usually when veterans get slandered as a whole or misrepresented in the media.

I’ve been having this conversation with other veterans for the past few weeks. It’s been interesting to watch how mature the veteran community has come in terms of responding to nonsense out there. Milblogs have been around for awhile and have always been a fertile dumping ground for angry veterans to rant about this or that. What’s changed now is how connected and polished some veterans have become over the past ten years.

Go to war, come home, go to school, get educated, learn to write, meet the right people, get connected, and now you can rapidly put pen to paper and get a piece published somewhere prominent to respond as an “authentic” voice. The explosion of social media helps this, for sure.

It’s hard for me to know, but I can’t imagine that Vietnam veterans had the same potential outlets as this generation does. Or at least, the barrier for entry was much higher.

Also interesting is how the Minutemen are pretty much leaderless. It’s like a headless insurgency. There is a pulse out there of what’s going on, informed by Twitter feeds and what’s trending on The Duffle Blog. The Minutemen don’t need to be told what to write or who to attack or what to defend. It’s just known and happens usually about the time it needs to happen.

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Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

original final fantasy 7 pre-order shirt cloud strife

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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