I went to Afghanistan and all I got was this fantastic sketch

War in 2014 is strange. Reliable internet, decent living conditions, and smartphones with data plans. Of course, there are always others who have it worse or better, and there is the ever-present danger of sudden death looming over everyone like a humid day.

Still, the defining characteristic of this deployment (so far) has been just how uncharacteristically similar it is to being back home, at least, in terms of connectivity and following trends.

Through the magic of the internet I learned about Richard Johnson, Senior Graphics Editor for the Washington Post. He is a sketch artist, and is currently traveling in Afghanistan, capturing war with a sketch pad and a ball point pen.

I caught some of his drawings being passed around on Twitter, clicked them, shared them, and moved on.

CSM Heinze

Days later, in one of those tweets being passed around, I caught the familiar face of my Regimental Command Sergeant Major.

“‘My first morning in Forward Operating Base Lightning, Maj. Vance Trenkel, the Third Cavalry’s public affairs officer, asked me to create a little good feeling and sketch someone wearing the Third Cav’s Stetson. Of course I agreed, and made one plaintive request: it had to be some Clint Eastwood-looking crusty veteran of multiple conflicts. “I need to see the grit in the corners of his eyes,” I said.'”

I began following Mr. Johnson on Twitter and we began a short back and forth dialogue. As things would have it, our paths would cross for a few hours somewhere in Afghanistan. We agreed to meet for dinner.

I only had a couple of hours before I had to be on a C-130 and off to another location. Over not-too-bad food, we chatted about how strange it is to be able to arrange for a meeting in a war zone via Twitter, and then agreed that maybe it’s not that weird after all. I lamented the fact that I wasn’t doing anything cool or interesting at the time that was sketch-worthy, but he offered to draw me anyway.

We finished our dinner, grabbed some coffee and cookies and set out to look for a brightly-lit space. We walked to one MWR facility that was cleaning up after a sparsely-attended Air Force birthday party. There was no space available there, and someone pointed us to another MWR facility not too far away. Once there, we walked up a flight of stairs and into a recreation room. A group of soldiers played poker in the middle of the room while AFN news updates filled the silence. We moved past them and Mr. Johnson grabbed a folding seat and swung it in front of a worn out, dusty leather chair. He gestured for me to sit in the folding chair  and face over to the left while he sat to begin sketching. I sat down normally and he told me to hold that pose the best I could and he would start sketching.

Unfortunately, there was another soldier sitting about four feet in front of me, lounging in a chair and playing with his phone. The order to hold my position meant that I would be frozen, looking straight in that poor soldier’s direction. It was uncomfortable for me and I imagine it must have been worse for him, having some strange lieutenant stare directly at him unflinching. He lasted a good 20 or 25 minutes before finally getting up and walking away.

Mr. Johnson furiously sketched, aware that he was under a time limit. He finished the sketch with a total time of about 35 or 40 minutes. He showed it to me.

“Do you recognize him?”

I looked down and grinned widely, “Yeah, that’s great!”

We walked out of the MWR facility and spoke briefly about sketching and where we were both off to next. We shook hands and he promised to send me the sketch in a day or so, which he did.

sketch
sketch.jpg

Left: The fantastic sketch that Richard Johnson sent to me.

Right: After sharing it on Twitter, I was instantly corrected and put in the “correct” uniform.

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A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong

Saw this article from the Washington Post making the rounds a couple of days ago: In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with demons of post-traumatic stress. It’s about soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division who are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Not sure why I decided to read it – I think someone said it was an important article so I jumped in.

It’s a good article, but one of two things are happening here: either the journalist doesn’t understand the nature of the modern, all-volunteer military (doubtful), or he’s taking advantage of the fact that most Americans certainly don’t.

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas — pulling a friend’s body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from e-mail that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

The first paragraph is catching. Seven deployments! That’s pretty incredible, and probably unfathomable for someone reading this who has not served in the past ten years. It’s incredible to me – as someone who has served!

But it is the second paragraph that had me leaning in and wondering where this article was going. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. What is he talking about there? That sentence is making it seem like these men were forced to go overseas, specially selected, when they certainly were not. Stop-loss as a policy has ended. These men chose to stay in the Army, which is admirable. They are not victims of the Army preying on their war experience to close this thing out. The Army is not having any problems recruiting or retaining its soldiers. These soldiers chose this, proudly.

The author then goes on to list some soldiers and the problems they faced upon redeploying from previous tours. All good stuff.

Later, he writes this:

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Chosen? Again, this line makes it seem like the Army singled him out, which the article is not substantiating. It appears that Borce wanted to go, despite dealing with readjustment issues. The Army “chose” the 10th Mountain Division, of which Borce was a member. That is all.

Further on, he writes this:

“The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues,” he said. “Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up.”

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty sure that this was the line that compelled me to write this down and make sure I responded to this here. It was just a few weeks ago that a study came out confirming that deployment factors are not related to the spike in military suicides. If you didn’t know that, you would probably buy in to the popular narrative that deployments are related to the military’s suicide problem – which the studies show is not the case.

Lots of people like to write about the “veteran as victim” narrative and the civilian-military divide. While there was some good stuff in this article, I got the sense that it painted the soldiers in this story as victims of their own professionalism. They are professional soldiers, capable of coping with multiple deployments – that is a good thing, and worth writing about. The style and juxtaposing though, hints at things that don’t exist, and to me, that does nothing to inform the public of the reality of what is going on with their military, but rather only reinforces tired old narratives that don’t want to die.

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