Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More Guys In The Sand

As of this morning, three of my friends are either already in Iraq, or awaiting a flight north from Kuwait INTO Iraq. Let me briefly explain my connection to them, their current service, and also my purposes in sharing this.

Paul, the little brother of an old college roommate, joined the Marines not long after I did, and after a chaotic, tragic, and action-packed seven-month tour just north of me in Mahmudiyah (we were in Iskhandariyah) in 2004-2005, he has now returned to Ramadi with his engineer unit to help with base fortification, dismantling smaller outposts, and whatever else comes down the line. While the nature of the Marines is that everybody is subject to deployment, this activation and deployment came as a bit of a surprise, and inconvenience.

The first tour interrupted his tenure at Virginia Tech, but he returned, completed his degree, and found a great job not too far from home. Not two months after moving to that area, securing an apartment, getting a pet, and beginning the adjustment to a new job, the call came for another tour. The unit was short on senior, experienced leadership, and he was certainly qualified. His knowledge of demolitions (and other skills) is immense. His employer, thankfully, is very military-friendly, and took the news well.

He is in Iraq as of about two weeks ago.

Nate is an old friend from Weapons Company ½ back when I was in the Corps. We both served together in Iskhandariyah, and al Hit, and when I left the unit, he soon thereafter reenlisted and was posted with a reserve unit as a trainer (this is called “I&I”). Much to his surprise (since training staff aren’t typically slotted to deploy), he was informed he would be deploying with them. He is now in Iraq with his reserve infantry unit, and probably doing his best to ensure they have the necessary skill sets to keep them alive. As a two-time veteran of Iraq in its wilder days, he certainly knows how to conduct combat operations.

Jay is a friend that I met not long after I departed the USMC, and although he’s an Army dog (and an officer!), I suppose he’s an okay guy. This is, I believe, his first major activation with the Army Medical Corps since a tour in Kosovo. He will be traveling a lot in-country, so it’s difficult to say just where he’ll be stationed, but I believe it will be north of Baghdad. Here in Virginia he leaves behind two young children, a fantastic wife, and his own practice.

My purposes for writing about these three men are probably fairly obvious. These guys are all personal friends and I wish to not only support their families stateside, but also ensure that they have the equipment, encouragement, and primarily prayers that will help them in their overseas duties and hasten their return to families and friends. Only two have thus far been given APO addresses, but I will post those below. Because amenities are hard to predict in advance of a unit’s arrival, there are no specific needs lists just yet from any of them. But I know one need right now that can be easily met by all of us: prayers and letters/notes of encouragement.

Rest assured, when I receive information on ways in which to best help them and their units, I will quickly pass on this information to any who wish for it, so you may expect random interruptions to my writing for an update on their situations. If in the future I post a need (say ten packs of baby wipes), and you would like to help out, please indicate this and post it in the comments section for that particular post. This way we can avoid inundating these guys with more resources than they practically need. At this point, I do not know just what they will need, nor if we can help them with it. But mail and prayers are always much appreciated. I know this from personal experience. These three men are great friends and fierce patriots. I look forward to tracking their travels, progress, and passing it on to all of you.

Sgt. VanSant Paul
2/23 Marines
H&S Co. Engineer Platoon 43490
FPO AP 96426-3490

Sgt Foersch, Nathan A
2/23 Marines H&S CO S-3
UNIT 43490
FPO AE 96426-3490

*An address for Jay is still pending

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 30, 2009

Living With Lunacy

As I readied myself in my room one morning and prepared to go out into formation to either yell or be yelled at, my roommate, who had been inexplicably out all night, came tumbling in the door. He looked cheerful. Still wearing the same clothes he was when he left the night prior, something was noticeably amiss. It was his face.

“Dude, you know you have purple glitter on your face?” He looked puzzled, smeared his hand across his cheek, and stared at it.

“Yeah. It went really well with the purple dress I was wearing.” I dropped the subject. This wasn’t as bizarre as one might think. I figured the less I knew, the better.

Right off the top of my head, I can count at least a dozen roommates I’ve had over the years, in college, in the military, and afterwards. Though a few of these “situations” ended well, most did not. For whatever reason, the forced marriage of the roommate selection process was typically an abysmal flop.

The nature of most colleges is that, in the absence of a reasonable suggestion from the student, a roomie will be chosen at random and everybody just hopes you get along. Mine was afraid of me, was horrified that he walked in on me studying physics in the nude once, and I was left with the challenge of explaining to the cops why my room smelled like marijuana (long after he had left). I returned the courtesy, however. Whenever he was drunk, he snored. So I’d smother him with a pillow until he stopped. Stopped snoring that is; not breathing. Apart from this, we got along swimmingly, though we never went out anywhere together. We just weren’t cut from the same mold.

In the military, roommates are chosen for us at the whim of a senior staff NCO, who may be incredibly sadistic, apathetic, or simply unfamiliar with our personalities and who will most definitely not get along with whom. This is how I ended up with a convicted murder sleeping across the room from me. But you know, he was a pretty nice guy. I still wish I had kept up with him better. He more than any other, taught me tactics and TOW missile gunnery. Even the strange cases turn out well.

There was one guy who never showered, so constantly reeked of dirty shoes and fetid socks. He also had other difficulties – namely with his digestive system. During one particularly bad spell, our other roommate would awaken in the night gagging from all of this guy’s bad gas. I, thankfully, slept more soundly. His light sleeping may have been what encouraged “glitter roommate” to seek another place to rest, though it also appears he sought another lifestyle as well. There were other mornings that he returned with rug burns on his knees and wooden spoon prints on his back. He, too, was actually a great roommate. A little weird, yes, but not afraid to enjoy himself. The only time I resented it was when the entire infantry battalion found out that he was wearing purple toe nail polish. That went poorly for ALL of us in that room. Thanks buddy.

In Iraq I beat one roommate with a bed slat for something, but I somehow ended up with more blood drawn. I tried repeatedly to get him back, but without any sort of success. I’d slowly and carefully lay in the bunk below his and remove all the slats, meanwhile propping him up with my feet and hands. Then I’d roll out of the way and he’d slam down – still on his mattress, and still asleep. I, now having no place to sleep, was relegated to the floor. He won that battle. I was just glad that I didn’t have the roommate that always insisted on air drying his backside. He’d stand naked in front of his fan for as long as necessary and yell at anybody that disturbed him. Somehow they impeded the drying process. I was pleased that he was in another room.

College was little different, though, even when I DID select my roommates. I didn’t choose so well, I suppose. Of the four of us, I only keep up with one. The rest, I couldn’t care less about. They caused me too much grief. One was just weird, invited his girlfriend over a lot, and she would invariably save her daily business for our house. Yet she still clung to the silly belief that women never smell like anything other than flowers and potpourri. We ALL suffered because of that. “Hi,” she’d smile, as she strode out of the bathroom, leaving the door wide. She never turned on the fan.

But the pinnacle of my angst was the other guy. The short kid who, in between playing video games and chatting online with highschoolers, would wander around the house with a tissue and a pair of tweezers – picking acne publically. This was a daily event. He also never cleaned his dishes, which eventually grew mold and may have grown maggots had we not stirred things up a bit and moved them to HIS room. But even then, he never cleaned them. They just sat in his room, leaking the odor of pungent, rotting food into the rest of the house.

That advanced apathy, actually, was the final straw. During one rather heated “discussion” of the situation, he ended up high on the wall with one of my hands clenched tightly around his neck, and the other balled into a fist. All I needed was a little more encouragement. He looked at my other roommate in desperation, who simply raised his text book a little more and kept on studying (sniggering behind the textbook). I put the runt down and was told the next day that there might be a lawsuit for harassment. Two of us spent the remainder of the semester tip toeing around to avoid being charged. He would have done it, I know.

Post college and military wasn’t that much better, when the roommate’s cats went out of their way to irritate me, play in their water, fiddle around in the toilet, and then leave hairballs and puke throughout the house. I got along with the roommate splendidly, but not so much the cats. They hated me, and I, of course, hated them back. I offered more than once to duct tape them in the middle of the road, which earned me dark looks.

So now I’m in a quandary. When I next pick up a lease and realize that I have four bedrooms and insufficient income to pay all the rent, I’ll have to get roommates again. I’ve had more luck with random strangers than with my own selections, but at the same time, random strangers could also be a lot WORSE than the oddballs that I’ve previously chosen. Should I post an online ad and take my chances, or should I invite friends and see how long they remain my friends? I’d prefer a living situation to be pleasant, not chaotic and stressful, but this may mean living alone. And that costs lots of money. I may have to pursue alternate living arrangements that I can actually afford. If that is the case, just wave at my tent in the front yard as you drive by. Lord knows I won’t have any friends in there.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 29, 2009

When They're Drinking & Actually Honest

Observations from some recent barroom conversations:

There are times when a notable and legitimate difference is exploited to absurdity and when a fact is given more of a nod than it perhaps deserves. We, “those veterans,” from whom entirely too much is expected or nothing at all (never just the right amount, it seems). “No, no; you deserve a break. You just go ahead and enjoy yourself for a while.” Really? Two years? Five? At what point are we rehabilitated?

When do you expect us to look and act productive? When do you want us to work again? How much failure in schooling is permissible on account of our “war experiences?” How long are we permitted to not dress up EVER and not shave our ratty facial hair that we only grew out because the military wouldn’t let us while we were in? When is that being ignorant and rebellious and when is it capitalizing on your simply giving us permission? When does it indicate a genuine problem? We don’t know and I don’t know, and nor do I want to, actually, because it might require a lifestyle change I am currently unwilling to make. Where we are now is easy. Well, not really. But it’s EASIER than what might otherwise be asked of us.

So hooray for us and for being stupid and having annoying laughs and speaking too loudly and for pretending to have a good reason for acting out when in reality we don’t and should be the somberest of upright citizens. But God knows we’re not. Expectations of and for us are low, including our own of ourselves. “We’re screwed up, many of us, so it’s okay that I am too.” Really? Or is it more of an excuse to just never move beyond something that only lasted a matter of moments, changed us forever, but really doesn’t prevent at least a halfway successful return to normal life?

We’ll drink to us and for us and with just us, though our reasons are probably the worst to be had. But everybody expects us to do this. We’ll spend the next forty-five years in a veterans’ bar talking about the good old days that really weren’t all the good but, like almost all traumas and ours all the more, they arrested our development, maturity, or growth, killed something, birthed something else, and presented the vast majority of us a long life to try to figure it out. I don’t think we do so well. Maybe that’s our truly legitimate excuse. Or maybe it’s hot air that people with lots of letters after their names told us and we bought it because it was license. And it’s a license for a LOT…

But I want to know how much is permissible. When does this have to stop? When SHOULD it stop? When are we no longer allowed to be “losers” and on hiatus and hold a regular job and hate it? And that’s the problem, at any rate. We WILL hate it. We can’t do this, or at least not right now. We are smart, I guess, and studied a lot and passed a lot of tests and received degrees and various things, so it’s not for lack of ability. It’s for lack of interest. We don’t want to. Not now, that is. Did “the war” do this to us? Does it matter? Does anybody care? Are we more likely to get away with it if people think it’s a consequence of the war? If so, then that’s what we’ll say. But then again, we’re utilizing an excuse here, not following our own intuition, whatever the hell it’s saying. I try not to think about it.

Yeah, we’re different, and in reality, most of us like it. But what’s unclear is if it’s really a pronounced difference or we’re just exploiting people’s typically low expectations of us. Now, if people expected more we’d hate them for it but maybe that’s what we need. Hard to say. Again, I try not to think about it.

At the heart of the matter is this: everybody is okay with us, where we are, and what we’re doing…except for us. Why? After living with grand and noble purpose have we now utterly lost it? Who told us something stupid that we believed? Who are we mirroring our lives against and judging ourselves so harshly? We are our own worst critics of our decisions and our way of life and our behavior and laziness, and our evaluation continues to yield one word consistently: fail.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fellow Asses

In Korea in December 1950, US Marines, wholly overwhelmed by Chinese troops pushing south, faced a bleak situation at best. With a brutal winter upon them, surrounded and cut off by the enemy, their leaders still maintained the bullheaded, confident attitude so commonly attributed to US troops as a whole. Amid this disaster, Major General Oliver P. Smith is purported to have declared, “Retreat; hell! We’re just attacking in another direction.” They still had a fight in them, the circumstances be damned. As another example, the famous Chesty Puller is cited as observing, “We’re surrounded. That simplifies the problem!” They were fighters, as were and are still the current US fighting forces. They all possess a fierce stubbornness.

And it keeps us alive. Circumstances can be awful, but so long as there’s ammunition or bayonets, there is still an enemy to defeat and a battle to win. The men and women of our fighting forces are perhaps the most tenacious and hardheaded in the world. As warriors, this alone elevates them into superiority, and keeps them fighting and optimistic in the most potentially hopeless situations. We were trained to be this way, and it works.

The trouble is, this fierce independence extends well beyond the realms of combat service and even military service itself. Ask any VA general practitioner. It is probably universally agreed that vets are the most difficult, disagreeable, and noncompliant patients a doctor can have. “Oh, I’m okay. I’ll make do. This is nothing. There are other guys much worse off than me.” The stubbornness is more than irritating; it’s selfless.

I have found this to be consistently the case when speaking with veterans suffering with some service-related injury or another. This past week I listened to a veteran awaiting surgeries to both ankles and knees tell me that SHE is fortunate and there are lot of guys in need of more help than she. She didn’t really need help. The guys without limbs did. “I have legs, and they don’t,” she told me. Another vet, after enduring multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), was extremely sympathetic to his comrades that are struggling with more holistic and complicated injuries. “They need more help than me. I’m doing absolutely great.” A third, severely behind on bills and riding the edge of bankruptcy told me, “there are others that need help more than us. Make sure they’re cared for first. We’ll be okay.”

These situations illustrate a powerful and persistent independence, but also identify a problem. Disabled veterans, an already-difficult community, are extremely reluctant to accept help from others. They help each other – even in the midst of their own injuries and recoveries, and then they help themselves. Asking assistance from others isn’t something they are trained to do. They’re proud, they’re resilient, and they just make do with what they have. Few people in need are more reluctant to accept help, which many friends, loved ones, and concerned strangers find frustrating. “How do you help people that don’t want to be helped?” is one question I’ve fielded. To be honest, I’m really not sure.

Some of the greatest success stories of disabled veterans recovering from or at least learning to work around their disabilities are those that have committed their fullest concentration not to warding off people that may potentially help them, but to their own recovery. It is precisely the same irritating stubbornness that, when devoted to their recovery, gives those vets with what appears to be a hopeless limitation the drive, gumption, and persistence to improve their condition. The hard part is getting them to invest their energy positively instead of keeping at bay anybody that wishes to help them.

For one specific example of how military resolve can be put to good use, I recently met a serviceman who suffered a number of traumatic brain injuries in Iraq. After some time confined to a wheelchair, he figured he'd try out skiing to help with the rehabilitation process. Four months later, he's ranked fifth nationally in his class.

In the future, I will not be offering to help any veterans, because it will be, at best, poorly received. But I will offer myself as a constant, as a friend, and somebody who will continue to pester about them how they’re doing, inquire how everything is progressing. If they’re having a great day when I call, I will be pleased to hear it and that’ll be the end of it. If they’re having a bad day, I will attempt to offer some words of encouragement (if any are suitable), and again, that’ll be the end of it. My contact with them, if constant, indicates that my concern for them is not driven by some sort of self-guilt or subject to undulating emotions. I’m just there regardless, as a confidante, supporter and friend. Once that has been established, I don’t need to ask how I can help them, they will simply tell me. I’m there; they know how to get a hold of me, and if they need something, they will call me. Offering my help, however, is the quickest way to lose an opportunity to truly do so. Disabled veterans don’t need help; they need somebody who will care about their wellbeing regardless of their success or failure. Like most anybody else, they simply need friends. I specifically intend to be the friend who can be just as stubborn an ass as they.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seeing Too Far

I have a number of friends in school at the moment, enduring the last five weeks of classes, exams, studying, senior projects, with the expectation that soon they will be graduated and moving on to either graduate school, the work force, or sometimes a much-needed break. “I’m almost there,” is the common statement. “Five more weeks to go” or “just one more year now.” And then the stress, the hectic and demanding schedule will be over and they can relax a bit.

Many others, though not in school, find themselves in similar situations. Even I am uncertain if my writing efforts will prove to be a monumental flop or a potential success and career. I cannot predict what the future holds. One friend is waiting for a new job to start. Another is waiting for the economy to pick up so he can stop worrying about losing his job or working absurdly long hours and not daring make a complaint. “This can’t last forever,” “I’ll know soon,” or my favorite: “as soon as I have some more money saved” are expressions I hear often and frequently use myself. Regardless of our transience or our commitment to a determined plan, we are all waiting, in a holding pattern, and extremely eager for one thing to end and another to begin. The expense is that we overlook now. It is probably best described as being overly forward-thinking. We fixate so much on the future that we completely neglect the present.

My dream of a Tuscan home overlooking the Mediterranean, however glorious and inclusive of others, will very likely never come to fruition. Nor will my “bucket list” quest to visit all seven continents at least once. They are terribly grandiose, ambitious, and require money and time I may not have.

What every one of my statements, and the statements of other distill to is this brief conversation:

“Are you happy?”

“No, but I’m sure I will be soon.”

We are blatantly ignoring the fact that we should find some contentment in the present. We are also presuming that we shall not be happy until certain milestones are reached and passed. Life isn’t milestones, though; it’s a journey. There may be no definitive landmarks at all – or at least not until we look back and can actually recognize that at some distant point we finally “got” something or achieved something. Milestones will be few. It would be behoove us to learn to enjoy some of the present.

My concern is that if I continue like this – constantly looking over the present and towards the future, I will spend my life presuming realized dreams and some degree of satisfaction are right around the corner. That’s anticipatory, however, and there’s no peace in it. Besides, what guarantee do I have that the achievement of some milestone is going to somehow make me suddenly content? That’s awfully presumptuous.

So, though my free time may be scant at present and I’m very much looking forward to whatever this summer offers, I will seek to find some enjoyment in what I do today. I will relish the 45 minute dance lesson and simply take some satisfaction in the fact I’m leading a bit now, not just struggling to avoid my partner’s feet. I will enjoy the coffee shop here, and not focus on how nice it will be when I have my own, quieter place. I will listen with interest as a man behind me explains what’s in coffee to his young daughter – in Spanish. I will wonder with curiosity where the lady nearly bellowing at the doorway is from. It sounds eastern European. I will enjoy my coffee and the Bellamy Brothers emanating softly from the speakers. I will strike up a conversation with somebody, and not get annoyed when the soccer mom a few tables over lets both her little children use the coffee shop as jungle gym. I will hand her a napkin when the child runs by covered in chocolate cake. When the woman outside the window walks by again speaking sharply to the little movie ticket in her hand, I will wonder why it’s so important, not chalk her up as crazy and yearn for a quieter, saner, clime.

Robert Frost didn’t wax poetically about visiting the place less visited-by. Instead, he wrote about taking the road less traveled-by. It was a road. Not a place, a milestone, or an event. Contentment isn’t at the end of the semester, or the year, or a new job or marriage. Other stresses and conflicts will simply replace the ones we’ve put behind us. Life isn’t down the road somewhere, barely visible; it is here, and now, and I don’t want to miss it. Tomorrow will bring its own worries.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My Tuscany

In the Diane Lane movie, “Under A Tuscan Sun,” Lane plays a middle-aged writer who comes home one day to find her husband in bed with a much younger woman. Her marriage in ruins and life in shambles, she sells the house, cashes in all her chips, packs a box of books and her laptop, and heads to Tuscany, Italy on a vacation. As the bus winds along a rural road in wine country, she spots an old, regal house for sale, stops to take a look, and in the end elects to buy it on a whim and never go home. It certainly was better than the “down and out” apartment she was renting where she went to sleep each night listening to her neighbor cry and wail because his wife had left him.

It was a bold leap of faith, and on her first night in her new house, the roof leaked, the windows broke open and blew in debris, and lightning struck the trees and icebox outside. Lane’s character spent the night hunkered in bed simply trying to stay dry. She was already regretting her decision. “What have I done?” she wondered, bewildered. She assumed she’d made a mistake.

But in the morning, the sun was up, the air was clear, and before long she had enlisted the help of some workers to not only repair the storm damage, but improve the interior and grounds to her liking. For all its faults and age and inconveniences, the home showed promise. It was beautiful, and would be even more so when the work was done.

Lane’s character had purchased the property in the hopes that it would be the change of pace that helped her bury deep wounds, start anew, and provide a refreshing, exotic environment where she could write in peace, muddle through learning Italian, and potentially meet many of the interesting locals. It was ambitious, but she was willing to take the risk. Her greatest dream, despite the infancy of the decision and the wounds from her recent collapsed marriage, was to have her wedding there, to raise a family there, and to feed a crowd there. It wouldn’t be a house by any means, but a home, a busy one, a living one, and the center of a poetic and love-filled life. She dreamed beautifully.

At the risk of spoiling the film (which will still be worth watching if one has the chance), Lane’s character meets with disaster in almost every aspect of her dreams. There is a man, but it doesn’t work out and she’s left just as devastated as she was when her marriage ended (she caught this man cheating, too). The great big family, thus, never comes, and nor is there anybody to cook for, either. It would seem the entire gamble was a mistake, and now she’s stuck with a large, leaky Tuscan house in varying states of disrepair. The house, really, represented her demeanor: hope was there, but buried deeply. Hidden beneath crumbling walls and unpredictable plumbing, and perhaps irrevocably buried.

But hope returned in a strange and unexpected way. Her friend came to live with her from America, bringing her newborn infant. She came to stay. The three workers renovating her home, accompanied by her friend, filled the table quickly for the crowd she hoped to one day feed. And in time, one of the workers fell in love and married a local girl, in Lane’s home. Despite that nothing went as planned, she was truly living her wish.

The lessons from this story are innumerable, but I derive two very quickly. First, dreams will be had, but few, if any, will come to fruition as anticipated. But they will be similarly good, and they will exceed expectations. We simply need to have the vision for it, and the flexibility that life requires of us. Dreams will come, but not as we planned. We just have to be watchful.

Second, Lane’s character learned that all her dreams, while certainly good ones, were about herself, for herself, and ultimately were to make HER happy. This doesn’t diminish them, per se, but does show their limitation. Dreams with and for other people are far deeper, naturally carry a heavy weight in difficulties, but also a deeper satisfaction in their manifestation. These are lessons I want to remember.

I, too, have dreams, and some not too dissimilar to Lane’s character’s dreams. But even now, I want them to include others. I also want that Tuscan house, but mine will be L-shaped, split level and overlook the southern Mediterranean. The roof will be terra cotta. And I hope it is one day filled with people and I will even learn to cook for them – dining in the patio in late September, windows still open, patio doors thrown wide and the sea breeze lifting the curtains constantly. We’ll have a blessing and we’ll eat, and we’ll all do dishes together, and watch the sun set towards Gibraltar and wander off to bed with the windows still open and the wind still rustling the drapes. It’s not really my dream, but our dream. I don’t know who these people are, whose plates I will be filling, or even when such a house will be built, so for now they’re only dreams. But, I’m inviting other people into them. Perhaps soon we’ll realize them together.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thanks Are In Order

Of late, with my brain going a million different directions and some days incredibly bleak for a new subject on which to write, I have relied heavily on suggestions, questions, and conversations I have had with friends. Their assistance, direct or otherwise, has proved invaluable. Were it not for their curiosity, their probing (and at times uncomfortable) inquiries, and their patience, I would have been high and dry a number of times.

I have often lamented in private that while I can write and it will come out decently, I can edit and improve a document that would otherwise appear mediocre, and I can work on the web page and make it look halfway professional, I cannot do all three with any degree of success. The quality always suffers. But into the midst of this struggle have stepped a number of volunteers who, though they have real lives and responsibilities that far exceed mine, have taken time from their days to assist me. What was once seemed an insurmountable task is becoming manageable, solely because of their enthusiastic help.

One friend has helped edit the information I have posted on my website and its various secondary pages, viciously attacking superlatives, run-on sentences, verbosity, and unprofessional writing. I needed it. I have taken most of this friend's suggestions and walked away with a better web page. Heaven knows my writing needs work.

Another friend has been meticulously poring through all the documents I have already posted on the page, sorting the wheat from the chaff, and helping me improve on material I have arrogantly assumed to be beyond reproach. This is a painful task for me, and I am thankful for the help with it. Nothing makes me want to quit writing more than reading my own material. It's exhausting. But this friend has graciously helped, and e-mailed me file after file of edited text that I will soon be incorporating. Without this help, what is already posted would see no improvement at all - though it certainly needs it.

A third friend serves as a willing sounding board and has offered to examine every blog post before it even hits the blog; turning garbage into something halfway readable, offering suggestions, and often teasing out of me a stronger thesis statement. If I had not received this assistance, many posts would lack the power they now have (hopefully). I appreciate this friend's willingness to wait often until the wee hours of the morning to read through something that is in grave need of repair.

Without their collective help, which is completely unprecedented, I would overwhelmed with literally 1,000 pages of poorly-written, hastily-published nonsense that lacked any significant meat.

A fourth friend arranged an opportunity to connect my passion with people who truly want to understand, and in so doing may have thrown wide open a number of other doors I have been struggling to enter for quite some time.

And there are others along the way, who have held me accountable, expected more from me, and patiently suggested how I might better present ideas. I have lost count of the times they have assisted me, said just the right words, or asked just the right questions.

For getting me started in this, I have three great friends and confidants to thank, and I will name them here, because they deserve the recognition.

To Sarah, for reminding me that somebody is curious, that somebody cares, and that for as long as I present something that's worthwhile, there will be an audience there to warmly receive it, just as she and many others have warmly received hundreds of other veterans. She keeps me chipping away at issues I have yet to fully understand and articulate, and asks me good questions.

To Uncle Caesar for encouraging me to write, and asking why one thing worked and another did not, for being the "wise man I know" whose words I often cite. For enthusiastically reading whatever drivel I write and invariably writing something nice about it. His nudging has propelled me from avid e-mailer to daily writer, something I never anticipated would happen. He, too, asks good questions.

To Ray, for telling me to just write, write, write, for encouraging me when I didn't want to and seeing promise where few others observed it. For sparking conversations that would later appear almost verbatim online, rudely not accredited to him. For reminding me to invite God with me, and seeing hope, not indecision and failure. He is a hortator.

These three, above all else, have helped me move from wandering motorcyclist and daily blogger to a writer who may actually be writing professionally, overseas, and pursuing a dream they envisioned before I had even discovered it. They are my muses and my foundation. Without them, I'd still be in the desert.

There are others, already too numerous to thank individually, but they, too, deserve credit and thanks, and I offer it now, probably the first time of many. Were it not, however, for the seven mentioned above, the past 9 months of writing would have amounted to little, and my dreams would remain intangible indefinitely. To all of you: thank you. Keep pressuring me, because I still need it. The best, you keep insisting, is yet to come.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

From Hell's Foundry

While many veterans will firmly declare that war is hell and their involvement in it was little better, they will usually be quick to remark that this was also the best time in their lives. We were far from home and men died. We missed our families, but we were surrounded by brothers. We hated what we did, but we did it anyway and remain proud of our service. We had purpose, and calling; and each mission, though we acknowledged it or not, was an exercise in patriotism, self sacrifice, and an abandonment of our dreams for the sake of something greater. Life, simplified at times and complicated at others, made sense in its own way. We remember it and miss it and hate it and thank God we’re not there still, but pray we again feel similar grandness in our purpose. We were alive there, hovering on the brink of potential death.

It is difficult to articulate how a bond fostered so totally in tragedy can be so powerful, so lasting, and so memorable. Even now, years later, I’m still not sure I understand it. It does a disservice to simply say, “them were the good old days,”when in all fairness they often were not. They were awful. But they were also great. Perhaps this distinction is important to make: the action was awful, as was the distance and the loneliness and the gnawing fear that we may never see home again. BUT, there, surrounded by men we simultaneously loved and loathed, we made hell home and thrived there. We hated the action, but we loved the company.

It was recently pointed out to me that it is unhealthy to dwell in tragedy indefinitely. It is fairly easy for a veteran to exist in a place of victimhood, woundedness and grief. After all, grief was certainly a large component of our young lives. We saw things no men should see, endured tragedies no man can stomach easily, and we always carry that with us. But veterans don’t dwell there perpetually. They have hope; they have love, they have dreams, and they certainly have each other.

The fact is this: that grief and tragedy must necessarily receive a nod of acknowledgment. Bonds fostered in the best of times are truly good memories. Everyone recalls with pleasure and a distant smile the memory of great day and a great adventure. But such things can be remembered alone and to a fault. Unshared memories are inherently selfish. Those birthed in tragedy are more than memories, however. They are ghastly experiences, and they are wounds. They require companions for healing. They are the basis for the brotherhood.

Men who train together will be close – that is when they’re not squabbling with each other. Men who fight together are brothers, and will always cease their own arguments for unwavering devotion to a single cause: destruction of the enemy. The man who sweats with me is my friend, but the man who bleeds with me; he is my brother. It is an unbreakable bond – and makes for the strangest of bedfellows.

That brotherhood, now forged in the survival of evil, has more levels than can be reasonably explained. It is a strange character that can see the humor in a firefight or the peace in standing guard in a tower at sunset, miserable in the heat, bitten by insects, dehydrated and lonely. Family and home are far, but brothers are close – and they’re there when you need them. That nod towards tragedy is the recognition of the horror that cemented an otherwise disjointed platoon of misfits into the brotherhood. It is the foundation of things. Forgetting the tragedy means forgetting the source of the brotherhood.

But is it not right to perpetuate it, to generate misery for that which is already passed and done, to grieve for those already gone. We still note their absence, and feel it ever stronger on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, at the very hour on the anniversary of each individual death. We remember vividly. Only some of this is appropriate to convey to others. We are their memory, their living memorial. And it is our duty to live life to the fullest in their stead.

Why, then, do we even repeat the horror? Why do we remind many who do not wish to see how ugly things were? Because while they will never understand in full, we must still tell them about it. We saw the underbelly of life and survived it. We saw what we want no others to see. We saw it for them. At best, telling our stories will only bring the listener a little closer to truth: that humankind can be, at times, purely evil. We are not blind to it, and while we desire that no others see it, we find it imperative that its existence be acknowledged. We did not fight to purchase the citizenry’s ignorance of evil; we fought so they would only view it from afar and in total safety. Man does not appreciate peace until he understands the brutality of war. We are purposed to tell the stories of such things.

Should they choose not to cover their ears or turn away, they will then hear truth. They will hear of horror and the brotherhood that took root in its midst. They will grieve with us for those we lost. They will share our anger and a righteous indignation over the oppression of the innocent. They will laugh at our antics and see firsthand a union that death only strengthens. They will smile with us, rage with us, reflect on great and tragic battles with us, and they will understand, at least in part. This is a gift where the recipient must know the cost. They will appreciate what they will never be called to shoulder. And they will be with us and hear us and know us. They will BE us, except they did not bleed with us. Nevertheless, we offer them a seat at our table and full membership in our brotherhood. It was all for them, anyway.

Life isn’t sweet, for there is much tragedy. But it is savory. We have stories that prove it, and a brotherhood to preserve it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nos Baiuli

There are a few men who, at war, having breathed the reek of death, which at times they inflicted and at other times they observed befall the innocent; having lost brethren on foreign soil for the sake of millions never met; having grasped heavy swords and wielded them in duty and steadfast service to their country, disavowing hope and expecting a quick demise; acting fearlessly and fearfully, and seeing hell that others may never even view it from afar, return forever changed and irrevocably unable to recreate what they once were. “Part of me died over there,” said one. It was innocence. Yet it wasn’t enjoyed until it was lost; a sacrifice that prevents a reintegration into everything they so nobly fought to uphold. They occupy the fringe of society.

Any border town perched between a peaceful nation and a violent neighbor will be filled with the strangest of characters and outcasts. The same applies to the borders of society. There are hardened criminals evading the law and relishing a quick retreat to the safety of outright crime. They gave up their place in society. There are also law enforcement who struggle vainly to keep the violence localized and in check. They fight from within society, and it’s wearisome. A few citizens try to navigate the inconvenience of perpetual suspicion or danger, yet most move further from the border at the nearest opportunity. One other quiet group exists: the Keepers. They are there of their own accord.

It is their curse to be on that border, but it also their honor. It is their passion, really. Love of a society they cannot fully enjoy, but only peer in the windows and yearn to someday enter. Yet that is secondary to the call and their purpose for occupying that border. Somebody needed to do it, and they volunteered.

They don’t like it there, but there is nowhere else for them. Any relocation into society sends them quickly packing for the border once again. Nobody understands them. Nobody particularly wants them, and their attitude is more morbid than most can tolerate. They are feared, if nothing else for whatever latent skills they possess – exhibited or not. Their place, though they may wish it, is within society, but they will find no comfort there. Having grasped the sword once, they will forever carry it – and wield it. Yet their actions are strictly for those within the borders. They were there once and didn’t appreciate it, and now, relegated to the perimeter, they sadly turn their back on their greatest love to face instead whatever comes at them from without.

They are self-destructive, usually, because there’s little entertainment on the border and they don’t expect to live long anyway. Their habits won’t kill them; their calling will. The habits permit a temporary escape back towards the society they miss. The alert warrior is replaced with stumbling fool who, but for a moment, finds companionship among the revelers, but awakens once again the warrior – and still on the border.

The Latin word baiulus is defined as, “porter, pall-bearer, carrier of a burden; steward;” and indeed this title is befitting. These Keepers are baiuli: porters of the burden of loneliness and self-banishment. Pall-bearers of their deceased, but not-yet-interred innocence. They will carry that gently until the rest of them dies. Their stewardship is to their country.

Every day on this frontier solidifies the conviction that there is no other place for them. Every well-handled incident is further proof that this is where they belong. Every tragedy serves as a reminder that they’d rather be anywhere but there. But duty holds them there, for there is certainly no benefit to self, only great satisfaction in having answered the call, however difficult it proved to be. There is no defeat but to retreat, and that is never an option. They will fall where they stand, because they stand where they are meant to be.

But for these few it is miserably lonely. Life is abbreviated, steeped in loss with little gain, and devotion to the cause prevents much pursuit of other dreams. What they do is so others can dream. Before them lies fear, oppression, bondage and destruction. To their backs, though never fully experienced, rests freedom, peace, and safety. Also to their backs is home and country – yet they will never go there. They wait quietly, weary and at times haggard; swords sheathed but hands on the hilts, watching outward for sight of the next aggressor. They are expecting him soon but ready for him now. While they will never be home, it is worth their lives to preserve it. They loved it, and they still love all those who dwell there. Only a profound love can keep them where they are. Dream for them, for they cannot.

Nos Baiuli.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Divesting Fear

I have written this three times now, yet none are really to my satisfaction. But, in the advent of time, and for lack of a better way to say things at the moment, this will have to suffice. I apologize for its low quality.

Almost every time somebody sees my motorcycle and we end up chatting about it, he or she looks distant for a moment, and returns with, “I really want to have a motorcycle some day.” Naturally, I encourage them to go for it. Take riding classes; see if you like it. “Oh no, I’m too scared I’ll tip it over. I might wreck or something.” As quickly as they were excited about it, they dismiss it as too dangerous, too risky, and a greater investment of time and energy than they are willing to make. It was a dream, but they squelched it on account of its danger and impracticality. There are many other examples.

I know a number of people who will never leave the country because they’re afraid of being in a situation surrounded by non-English speakers where they don’t know what to do. “What if I get lost?” they insist. A few won’t venture outside of cell phone range. “What if something happens and I need to call 911?” Others presume a relationship will end quickly and poorly, so never open their hearts to the opportunity. They accept superficiality over the clear risks of deep honesty. For a number, their fears manifest instead as zealotry regarding less-than-critical matters: avidly locking a deadbolt the moment a door is closed, drinking water from glass bottles instead of plastic because the plastic might leech a few chemicals into the water, drinking diet sodas because they fear an instant and irreversible case of diabetes with a non-diet soda. The list goes on and on, but the gist is that though we may not know it, we radically adjust our lives, daily activities, and even our dreams to accommodate our fears. The results are tragic.

Due in no small part to the efforts of our founding fathers and the continued sacrifices of our youth to the cause of freedom, the United States remains a relatively safe place to live and a ground fertile with opportunity. Few, however, seem to pursue it. Sadly, the absence of REAL fear (like that of oppression, persecution, wrongful imprisonment, etc) permits us to fixate on minutiae in an attempt to prolong our short lives – if only for a few moments. I would ask if it is worth the effort.

Living a safe life does, in all fairness, increase the likelihood of it being a long one. Yet those who avoid risks out of fear will reflect on a long, yet bland existence. A large part of a rewarding life is looking back with a sense of accomplishment in having tried. Whether or not the attempt amounted to much is almost immaterial. There is merit in trying. Those that never try will carry to their graves a gnawing regret for never pursuing any of the dreams of their youth. “It’s too dangerous,” they say, and extinguish their adventuresome sprit to follow a safer path. But a safer path is, for the most part, boring.

And in the end, none of us can cheat death. Perhaps by safe living we can wring a few more moments out of life, but they will be unrewarding, since our efforts were intended more for self preservation and the extension of life itself than living an adventure and ENJOYING whatever life we are given.

We have a terrible fascination with control, really, and go to great lengths to ensure it. Yet it remains a fa├žade. There are incredible risks to almost everything we do. Every time we hop in a car we’re putting our lives in the hands of hundreds of other drivers who may be busy applying makeup, text messaging, or perhaps drunk or even asleep. We cannot control them at all, yet feel somehow safe in our little airbag-lined, four-wheeled boxes. We ignore the fact that tens of thousands die on the roads each year. 2006 claimed the lives of more than 43,000 Americans. But we feel safe, buckle our seatbelts, and head out anyway. We are never particularly safe.

Even now, there are things of which I am fearful, yet they are often the very things I wish most intensely to pursue. I am left with a decision. I may take either the safe route and regret to my dying day never having tried, or I may venture out, take the risk, and find either success or failure. Trouble is, I don’t know until I try. Many are content to dismiss the notion altogether, but I don’t want to. I want to dive in.

I don’t wish to trivialize life to the constant avoidance of things that frighten us. Eleanor Roosevelt said that we should do one thing each day that scares us, and perhaps she is right; I am saying that we should not permit our lives to be dictated by terror of the unknown. Personally, I am more fearful of having regrets for a life I never lived. Many of those who never smoked will still get cancer, after all, and those that never drank may still be run over by a drunk driver. We mitigate risks, certainly, but then we must take a few of them.

I make no profession of great boldness. In fact, it took me a full 29 years to work up the nerve to learn how to dance, and I still undoubtedly look like a fool. But, I’m pleased that I have tried. Many will not. I may still get plowed over by a semi when I’m on my motorcycle, but I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent on it. I didn’t particularly enjoy having a passport stolen in Mexico City and having to get some emergency paperwork from the US embassy, but I still had a great time while I was down there. Things are going to happen. Sometimes they won’t be fun.

But which is a stronger sensation? Fear of things, failure, defeat, so simply waving the flag of surrender before the battle has even begun? Or trying, having a few successes and a few failures, yet learning a lot from each? I will choose the latter. It may kill me yet, but better that than never leave the comfort of my secure, self-imposed prison.

We will all end up in a coffin at the bottom of a hole. Nobody averts it. If I choose, I can dig my grave, carefully even the sides and groom it to perfection. Yet when I’m done, and thoroughly exhausted with my meticulous efforts, I’ll just sit down in it and die of nothing. Perish the thought. Instead, I’m going to dance around that grave gleefully, and sometime, on a day I do not know, I will fall in and that’ll be end of it. And I am confident of one thing: my tombstone will not say, “He was afraid to try.”

Having a fairly secure country, none of us know real fear. In its absence, we have created little things to occupy us. They give us something to avoid. We feel empowered by our careful decision-making and avoidance of danger. We take marginal self satisfaction in cheating an early death, yet it still comes to us all.

Don Quixote, considered a fool by all his peers, left his castle to fight windmills wearing a soup tureen for a helmet and carrying a stick for a sword. We laugh at his foolishness, wonder at his application of nobility to the most mundane of experiences, yet we do so from the safety of our castles. We watch from the windows. But when we are old, where will we find our deepest content? Accomplishments? Only a few amount to much. Knowledge? But used to what end? Money? We can’t take it with us. These all crumble to dust, since they speak so little about our character. We may derive great pleasure in the relationships we have had, but even they require a bravery only few possess. Will we have stories? Not if we invested our time skirting things that challenged us. Our deepest satisfaction will be our willingness to leave the castle. If we try, we may indeed fail, but we will have the contentment of having tried. Better this than spend the last years of our lives wondering if we could have done something. We don’t know until we try.

But in truth, failure is not defeat. It is merely the potential outcome of trying. And I much prefer it to “he was afraid to try.” For I remain much more fearful of regret than the temporary discomfort of not knowing or controlling the future. Boldness in no way guarantees success. It only provides the satisfaction of knowing that we tried. I’ll take it, however. It’s better than being petrified by fear.

So go ahead. Buy that motorcycle. Try that relationship. Pursue a passion or follow a dream. None of us truly knows if there’s water in the pool, but I’m jumping in anyway. I’m just wearing a helmet as I dive.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 20, 2009

Coming Soon

Coming soon: "Divesting Fear"

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Statement of Purpose

With the possibility of my actually returning overseas as an embed journalist becoming increasingly probable, I have recently fielded a number of good questions about it that, in all fairness, deserve an answer. Mainly, people are incredulous that, after three tours of varying degrees of danger, chaos, and stress, I want to go BACK over there, and this time not even carrying a gun. Or they inquire why I can’t write about the troops from the safety (and relative ease) of the United States. There are, after all, FAR more veterans here than overseas. While my immediate answer is a very inarticulate, “because I can,” these queries do warrant a more thorough answer. Not only do they merit a more complete response, but these are also matters that I, too, need to understand for myself.

In Normal McClean’s novella, “A River Runs Through It,” he concludes the story with the following paragraph:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

And the movies ends as the camera pans away from an old man who having years ago outlived his wife and children, still returns to the stirring waters of a Montana river to fly fish, reflect on his life, and remember the time he spent as a boy and young man – fishing with his father and brother. Neither his brother nor his father lived terribly happy lives, and his brother died tragically well before his time – bludgeoned to death with a pistol in an alley beside a bar. For Norman McClean, the waters are a painful reminder to his brother’s absence, but also to some of his most memorable experiences as a boy and young man.

To me, the desert is just the same: a haunting reminder to not only the most exciting and adventurous days of my life, but also the most profoundly tragic, where friends’ lives were quickly snuffed out and units expected to carry on unaffected by their absence. I was changed there. It brings back good memories, and a full assortment of unpleasant ones. In some ways, it is a reopening of an only poorly-healed wound. But, just as McClean was drawn to the very thing that deeply pained him, so also am I. The desert calls to me strongly – and powerfully so.

This sentiment is nothing new, however. The Vietnam War saw a number of US troops similarly drawn back to the jungle. A few moved there, many married Vietnamese women, and a number simply fell in love with the culture, the art, and the simple way of living. Granted, a number still find it odious to this day, but a large group found it alluring.

I don’t profess a great love of Iraqi Arab culture, and nor do I have any intention of returning to Iraq to find an Iraqi wife, but I do find the country interesting. Just as Vietnamese culture is dramatically different from ours, so also is Iraqi Arab culture. Each have a few enticing aspects – the architecture, an agrarian lifestyle (along the Euphrates and Tigris), and a remarkable amount of greenery that is the product of generations of careful irrigation, cultivation, and an ingenious canal system. Portions of some aqueducts are still remaining from Roman times. The entire country is steeped in history, archaeology, and a culture irrevocably intertwined with Islam since the mid-600s. Some of the cities in Iraq are even mentioned in the Bible. The place is old, beautiful in its own way, and exotic. I also like the desert heat.

But these are all personal reasons that don’t hold much weight for returning to an undeniably unstable and dangerous country. More than a fascination of Iraq, I have a fondness for the Americans currently serving over there.

“Once a Marine, always a Marine,“ as the expression goes, and there’s some truth to that. It wasn’t just a job or a brief stint in the service. More than that, it was the total adoption of a lifestyle, a sub-culture, and an ideology that persists long after my few short years of enlistment. I’m not officially a Marine, but I still think like one, and probably will forever. And I get along with other branches, too, aside from the obligatory needling about their military branch versus mine. While infantry Marines may be my brothers like no other group, the military as whole is my family – and I want to follow them.

More specifically, I am drawn to the men and women of the armed forces. Now that my own service is behind me, I see more clearly the sacrifice that the military requires of the individual and his or her family. I see the nobility in the conviction that one’s own life is completely secondary not only to the lives of one’s comrades, but also to the successful completion of the mission. There are few overt exhibitions of such character in this world, yet among these warriors, it is common – if not universal. I relish the notion of being in their company. I admire them, I admire their service, their sacrifice, and their dedication. Though many are too young to fully understand the true depth of their commitment and service, it is there nevertheless, and perhaps all the more pure because they don’t take the time to ponder it. It’s just what they do. It is Christ-like.

In addition to being simply drawn to the desert and to the military, I have further purpose for my return (should it even happen). Though I did not intend it when I began writing, and while certainly only a portion of my writing pertains to the issue, I find myself increasingly devoted to bridging the gap between military and civilian. As it stands, the two poorly understand each other, with civilians grasping little of the minutiae of a deployment, combat zones, and the high-paced, high-stress lifestyle of the United States Armed Forces. My intent is to explain it to them as best I can. This is best done by simply telling the servicemembers’ or veterans’ stories. I could do this in the states, I suppose, but memories fade with time. If I want to be able to write about life in a combat zone, I need to be in one, and interview people in it also.

But this is not purposed to simply satisfy a civilian curiosity about the military. Such a pursuit would be pandering to an audience with no higher calling. This is not the case. Above all else, I wish for military and combat life to be better understood for this reason: so that the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan return to a welcoming, understanding, and receptive country that is readied to open its arms to them. The more the country understands these men and women, the more able they are to accept them. High substance abuse, suicides and unemployment in the veteran community prove that there is a pronounced disconnect with veterans that extends well beyond their time in the military. I want this to change, for the sake of the vets, for my own sake, and for the healing it will bring to this nation. Veterans need the nation’s help, yet the nation must know how best to do that. Perhaps telling their stories will narrow the divide between the two groups.

While these may be decidedly lofty goals, I must start somewhere. I do not consider it defeat if only a few people read what I write, because it’s better than none at all. If I can somehow help to improve a single veteran’s return to the states, then my time will have been well spent.

I have no particular desire to relive “the glory days.” My time as a Marine, while memorable, is now relegated to just that – a memory. This is not a last ditch effort to sidle up to the military and feel like I am among their ranks again. I was at one time, and remember it fondly, but I am no longer. It is drawing, but it’s over. My war, or at least my small role in it, has ended. Now I am concerned with those that are still fighting it, lest I forget, and lest we as a nation forget the hundreds of thousands that will come home changed, shaken, grieved, or simply adrift. THEY are my pursuit, not entertaining myself with a grand adventure. Adventures are nice, but they often need redemption.

There are undeniable risks to this, yes, and I will not claim to be comfortable with the idea of being in a harrowing situation with no weapon with which to defend myself or those around me (my uniformed family). In fact, I imagine I will abhor the feeling of total helplessness. But my discomfort is secondary to the mission of improving the welcome these men and women receive upon return to the United States. I don’t want to get blown up over there, yet nor did anybody else. Knowing the risks, they willingly have done their duty – and at times paid dearly for it. They have my deepest admiration and the utmost of my support. And I want to know them better. I want to more thoroughly understand the huge-hearted, yet fierce warriors who give so much, ask so little, and will spend a lifetime awkwardly reliving a few short moments that changed them forever. We all know the desert, and like me, it haunts them.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Matter of Import

*Update: Since this blog post was published, the proposal in question has since been completely withdrawn by the White House. Smart move. It caused an uproar.

Yesterday, leaders from various top veterans agencies met with President Obama over the matter of 3rd party billing – a White House proposal that will require private insurance companies to pay for medical treatment that is the direct cause of service connected (military related) injuries or disabilities. As is, a veteran that visits a VA medical facility will only receive free healthcare for issues directly related to service injury/disability. Everything else is fairly billed to that person’s private insurer (should they have one). But the greatest expenses – those pertaining to the service injury, are fully covered by the VA healthcare system, alleviating the veteran and their private insurer of a potentially staggering expense. But there are now drastic changes proposed to this. Simplified, the President of the United States is suggesting that the country who called, trained, armed, and sent its servicemen overseas in the interest of national defense will no longer bear the responsibility of their healthcare for any injuries or disabilities they sustained while in service to their country.

The President’s proposal is intended to not only reduce the VA operating budget, which is growing rapidly as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return to the states, but also because, “it’s time that insurers start paying their fair share.” How charging a private insurance company for health care related to military service is considered its fair share is beyond me. As Paul Rieckhoff, leader of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America bluntly put it, “the insurance companies didn’t send me to war, the US government did.” I would submit that charging a private insurer for a military service-related health issue is the US government doing LESS than their fair share, and attempting to pawn off the national responsibility on private insurance companies.

Occupationally speaking, this measure has grave repercussions. Veterans, a group which already has an unemployment rate 10% higher than the national average, will be less hirable by private businesses. Neither the employer nor their insurance providers could manage the high health costs often associated with service connected injuries. The veterans, in effect, become unemployable, since their hiring represents a far greater expense than profit. And now, even less able to find employment, these veterans become more dependent on the VA healthcare system. But furthermore, the expectation of failure in a job search discourages some of these veterans from even LOOKING for jobs. They will reach the sad conclusion that they are permanently different and less attractive as potential employees (despite millions of dollars of training and years of leadership experience). So much for reintegration.

Any veteran who has sustained some sort of serious service-connected injury that requires expensive, regular medical care will be less hireable – were it not for the VA providing both the veteran and the potential employer full assurance that this medical issue would be covered and addressed in full without financial burden to either employer or employee. An otherwise very uneven playing field has been leveled completely with the best interest of the veteran in mind. But this new measure would shatter this completely.

And in reality, the best estimates are that this entire measure would only save Veterans Affairs $540 million, a drop in the bucket compared to the VA’s new operating budget of $55 billion. But I must also ask why the most universally agreed-upon area of national budget allocation – support of veterans – is being asked to tighten its belt when the federal government is handing out BILLIONS elsewhere.

It has not been my practice to share my political views on this blog, since I think for the most part they’re irrelevant. My writing is pro-military and pro-troop, a position which is bipartisan, mostly supported regardless of political affiliation, and generally considered to be the moral obligation of the citizenry towards those men and women who have voluntarily sworn to defend them. Yet now, I am delving into politics in an area where the potential decisions of a national leader will drastically alter the services and opportunities available to the countless thousands of veterans who rely on the VA for expensive, service-connected medical care.

What concerns me most about this White House proposal is twofold. First, the direct statement that, “it’s time that insurers start paying their fair share,” suggests that the government does not consider the ongoing care of veterans to be a moral obligation, but an area of spending where corners can be cut and the responsibility passed off to others. Never mind that the nation is still fighting a two-front war against various non-state aggressors. The VA budget is going to CONTINUE to increase. We are at war.

Secondly, if ongoing care of veterans is not the moral obligation of the federal government that sent them to war, then whose is it? At the very least, it is disrespectful to the military as a whole, and outright insulting to the individual who, in service to his nation, lost various limbs and now comes home to find that he must ask an employer pay whatever medical expenses he incurs. It is discriminatory. I fear these recent statements indicate just what the highest echelon of leadership in this nation truly feels about veterans: that they and we are a financial inconvenience.

If a country is unwilling to pay the undeniably high cost of war, then that country should be more hesitant to commit her troops to conflict. It is unconscionable to renege on national obligation to ones servicemembers before such duties have ended. The servicemember shoulders great personal risk and self-sacrifice with the comfort that medical expenses are covered, a family is provide for, and that the veteran will not return home to battle a lifetime of exorbitant medical expenses should an injury be sustained. Yet now the White House is seeking to remove that assurance. Of all the areas to trim the budget, this isn’t the place for it. Many veterans are describing this as not just inappropriate, but an outright betrayal; and I agree with them. It is an unexpected sideswipe from the White House itself, and works quickly to silence whatever thank you’s we may have heard from the citizens of this country. For, if the democratically elected leaders of this nation show us no support, we question if our countrymen offer it either. If this continues, the nation will be hard pressed to find men and women who will answer the call.

I doubt that this measure will pass Congress, but the crystal clear message has already echoed deep into the hearts of millions of veterans: “the nation you swore to defend does not care.”

We are a budget constraint.

Read more about this new White House proposal from:

CNN, Fox News, PRNewswire-USNewswire

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Just Go

(Written in January, 2008. A more current post is forthcoming. Thank you for your patience.)


I can stroll down a sidewalk, through a store, or sit in a restaurant, and I can see defeat. I can read it on the faces of the men around me.

I see successful businessmen, wallets stuffed with money, wondering what it’d be like to simply walk away from it all and live in a cave.

I see affluent men, surrounded by a cadre of assistants, associates, and admirers, wondering what it’s like to have one good friend.

I see other men, heads usually lowered, staring at the ground, trudging like surrendered troops to a prison railcar. They never amounted to much, they know, and they will die soon – nobody will remember.

I see others, loud men, making others laugh, engaging friends, attracting attention – merely because it helps paint over the fact that they feel empty.

I see husbands and fathers waking up and going to work because that’s what men always do. They go to work. And then they come home, go to sleep, and rise just to do it again.

I see men devoting every act to attracting women because it makes them feel alive, but still realizing that to love but one takes more humility than they can muster.

I see men turned inside of themselves, having raised the flag of surrender to the nagging fear that they have failed, that they exist to make money to live in a house which they will leave every morning to go to work to pay for. Hollow, numb, alone. They have interred their hearts in shallow graves, accepting as a matter of course little more than continual disappointment.

Men gave up.

We walk about with a continual feeling of death, every dream unrealized, every adventure cast aside as silly boyhood imagination, and the evil one applauds his success. He cast doubt and it took root.

Men are fearful. We are afraid that we will not earn the title man. We search an eternity for something that breathes life into our hearts, but are interminably disappointed with the outcome.

We forget who made us men.

We smothered the righteous anger and a strong sense of justice, because it was startlingly violent and it scared us. But we are made in the image of God.

We chose to stop daydreaming about adventure, because that’s not what adults do these days. But we are made in the image of God.

In His image, we are men.

No amount of highly masculine activities will confirm in our hearts that we are truly men.

It is not carrying a gun, for when we don’t carry it we feel powerless. And eventually, even while carrying it, it will occur to us that we hide behind it, and that we feel but briefly authoritative when we brandish it.

It is not wearing a uniform, because that is simply an outward show of pomp, shiny bits of metal that supposedly indicate achievement. And without that uniform, we are indistinguishable from everybody else. It was as temporal as a peacock’s tail feathers.

It is not great eloquence, because when we are alone with those we truly care about, we have nothing to say. Speaking great words permits us to not show our empty hearts.

It is not beautiful storytelling, because we hide behind our own characters. They are whatever our imagination chooses them to be, but we cannot control a single person in reality, and hardly even ourselves.

It is not a badge, because without it we soon feel as though we have no authority. It masks the pervasive hunch that nobody listens to us.

It is not carving out a living in a cabin deep in the woods, because we are alone at night, and it is miserable.

It is not money, because we are unhappy with what we buy and grow bored of it.

It is not helping others, because that only temporarily diverts our attention to how much we desperately need to be helped ourselves.

It IS resting in God – in whose image we are made. And He redeems us into men.

So keep dreaming, because we are made in the image of God.

Find peace in nature, but don’t forget the Creator who spoke it into existence.
Speak up for what is right, because God did it.
Stop pausing to see if others will approve, and instead press forward.

Just go. And take God with you.

Manhood isn’t typing budget reports, but nor is it hunting moose deep in the wilderness. It is not starting a fire with flint and steel, and it is not taking good photographs. It is not fine craftsmanship, and it is not physical strength. It is not finding a beautiful wife, and it is not fashioning moccasins from animal hides.

It IS resting in God, in whose image we are made.

And so long as we continue to draw breath, there is still an adventure to be lived. Just go, and take God with you.

Not every dream will be lived, and most will fall far short of expectation, but better to try and fail, than to question having never tried at all. Better to dream and hope than accept continual disappointment.

Life is an adventure and we are men, because we are made in the image of God.

Live, hope, dream, love, speak, and remain silent – and do so dangerously. For you are made in the image of God.

He spoke and they killed Him, yes; but it is better to die but one death boldly, than to cower daily in fear of it, to live in the perpetual state of dying, to shut down one dream at a time, until we have nothing left but our body, which will pass away to dust quite soon.

Live. Just Go. And take God with you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 16, 2009

News Appearance

For a relatively innocuous piece in the local news about the 6th year anniversary of the Iraq war (for which I was interviewed) see below:

Video Presentation

Written Article

For the blog post which serves as an addendum to this news article, click here.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Pink Nightgowns & Potato Guns

Several years ago I was invited to participate in a summer fishing trip that would be new for me, but an annual tradition for most of the other parties involved. Relishing the idea of a couple days on the river, some undoubtedly good conversation, and eating well around the fire as we camped, I quickly agreed.

Virginia is graced with a number of slow-moving rivers that, barring a few harrowing sections, are fantastic for a lazy float in a canoe or johnboat, and only moderate paddling. Most of them are teeming with fish at various times of the year, and offer a fantastic view, a peaceful downstream float, and plenty of sand bars and islands for camping. This trip would be perfect.

When I was invited on these trips, however, I was not apprised of was the high propensity for disaster. Things routinely went wrong, and they invariably took place along the loneliest stretches of river, far from cell phones and other people, forcing all involved to think quickly. Yet now, after years of doing these floats, I still remember them fondly, even the disasters, and would jump at the opportunity to go again, should it arise. After a time, you just expect things to go wrong and laugh about it.

From the get go, we’ve never been out the door quickly enough, so the earliest we’ve ever put into the water has been well after noon. Somebody has always forgotten something, a life jacket can’t be found, or the friend who loaned his paddles or canoe can’t remember where he put everything. Canoes that haven’t been touched in months have to be nervously approached where they sit behind sheds and quickly flipped over with the expectation that we’ll have to run. Bees like canoes. Spiders do, too, but they don’t fly out and chase us around the yard as we shriek and remember how much we hate running. We’ll spend most of the first day out stomping on the spiders that crawl out from unseen nooks throughout the boat. For some reason, they’re always black widows.

Canoes have to be lashed to cars that aren’t designed to hold boats, and eventually a slow convoy of vehicles with odd hats is driven to the river (after repeated stops for healthy delicacies like potted meat, cheap beer, and Italian sausage). We’re wearing odd hats, too – a bunch of pasty white guys unaccustomed to hours of direct sunlight, trying desperately to avoid a hideous burn on the water. One guy always wears shorts, forgets to put on sun block, and gets badly burned anyway. This happens every time. I usually lose something and get sand in my shoes. Somebody else always catches more fish, and disasters occur with without fail.

One year a johnboat, somehow magically springing a catastrophic leak not a quarter mile from the shore, deposited its passengers and a profusion of coolers, rods, tackle, and other supplies into the water. What floated was courteously picked up by other fishers, in between gales of laughter. A few favorite rods and tackle, however, are still at the bottom of the river. The boat’s still down there, too. Quick thinking, some frantic rearrangement, and the float continued with one less boat, cramped passengers, and bows dangerously low in the water. Sleeping bags are heavy when they’re wet.

Many think of fishing and camping trips as a relaxing break from the fast pace of life and its dependency on technology, and a return to simple living and simple food. But I always eat better at camp than I do at home. We don’t hack it at all; we bring cast iron cookware, gourmet food, and there always seems to be at least one buddy that can cook better than I ever have. Curiously, I have never eaten fish. Ever. We always throw those back. They’re dirty or something. Pretty as the rivers may be around here, a glut of sewage plants spewing sludge into the water has left things less than safe to eat. What astounds me is that through one section of river, there are sewage plants in some places, interspersed with water treatment plants that PULL OUT this water a few miles down, and invariably a few more sewage plants downstream. They alternate – quite close to each other. I actually try to stay out of the water.

But we have fun. While we sat around the fire on the night of my first trip, one of the other guys turns to me and says, “Ben, since it’s your first time out with us, you get the wear the pink nightgown.”


“Yeah. It’s the tradition. Last year Frankie had to wear it.”

Some guffawing later and I learn it’s a joke. It was also that year that some very drunk and celebratory businessmen on the far side of our camp island lobbed vegetables at us well into the night with potato guns. I hurled back beer bottles I found hastily buried in the sand around our camp.

Another year, conversation somehow turned to the best way to “frog gig.” Some insisted that the purist used only the “frog giggin’ stick.” This was quickly countered with an assertion that it could also be done with a pistol. The demonstration of both methods commenced then and there, by flashlight, on the banks of an otherwise peaceful river. I was not involved in this particular debate, and only observed from afar.

During another float, one rather observant member of our party spotted a blowup doll hung in the brush overhanging the water and felt the need to bring it with him for the remainder of the trip – as a clearly-displayed passenger. Perhaps thankfully, nobody took any pictures.

Without fail, I always learn something on these excursions. There’s a guy who knows how to fish with a whole worm and not lose it in the rapids. I’ve tried repeatedly to imitate the technique, but have thus far never figured it out. I want to master it because he catches more fish than anybody else. There’s a guy who knows a good bit about knives, and always has some sharpening ideas or perhaps a new model I might check out.

I learn how not to flip the canoe when we broadside the rocks in the middle of the rapids. We’ve taken on water, but I haven’t sunk yet. That was the OTHER boat. Not my problem, but certainly my entertainment. I’ve learned how to cook breaded, boneless chicken breasts in peanut oil and what to do when the gas stove explodes and starts blowing flame all over the place. The answer: save the food and don’t spill the beer.

I’ve learned the best way to carry my gear and how to avoid drenched, dehydrated, burned or drunk. It’s easy; drink water and wear a waterproof burka. More importantly, I’ve learned who NOT to take in my boat with me. But above all else, I’ve learned there are a bunch of intelligent, fun-loving guys just looking for a few comrades to escape the rat race with them, be dumb, get filthy, eat greasy food, and remember just how much we like air conditioners. We’re always looking for new people to join our merry practitioners of stupid. Not only do we need people to wear the pink nightgown, but we also want young folks. We’re in constant need of somebody to flip our canoes for us and run in terror. We’re getting too old for that part.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Don't Hold the Applause

You’re not dead yet [name omitted], but I want you to hear your eulogy. I don’t want to wait until you’re no longer around to hear it yourself, when we’re all standing around with reddened eyes and wishing we’d told you these things sooner. I don’t see the point. Kind words about you do no good when spoken to others, besides perhaps preserving your reputation. But that, I believe, speaks very highly for itself. Instead, I will tell you my thoughts directly. Maybe you’ll find them encouraging. That, at least, is my hope.

You often consider yourself a failure because you didn’t do one thing or another, but we are never the sum of our accomplishments – or our experiences, for that matter. We are the sum of our relationships.

You are disappointed with the decisions you made in your youth and how they restricted you to a path you grew quickly to vehemently dislike. You could have been more, you say; you could have done more, yet ended up doing little. But you’ve done a great deal for me and many others.

You are painfully aware of the mistakes you made in your career, and how they continue to hurt you, and prevented you move on to greater things. But you made the best of your lot and circumstances, and labored tirelessly at tasks you hated because you have a great ethic, a superb understanding of obligation, and because you did not accept defeat. Nor do any of us view you as defeated, for you are not. Hindered, yes; but defeated; never.

You begrudge the fact that you didn’t travel more, but such experiences are often little more than self-entertainment, notches in our belts, and fun things we’ve always wanted to do. Had you traveled every day of your life, you’d never have satisfied your curiosity. People try, yes, yet they’re often miserable in it. Nobody travels with them. Staying where you have, you’ve explored so much more: relationships.

You are ashamed with some aspects of your life, concealing peccadilloes, and hoping they aren’t used against you – proving for all to see that you are, in fact an abysmal flop. But there is no shame, for multiple reasons. God still loves you, and so do we. Furthermore, we have less-than-appealing aspects to our character, too. I don’t remember the mistakes with nearly the clarity that I remember the example you set, the manner in which your words aligned with your actions, and how the vast majority of what you did was honorable. On the scales by which we are all judged, you have been found worthy, and you have my deepest admiration.

You believe that, having not provided more, you will forever be remembered for your inadequacy. But the provision was more than sufficient. Many are thankful, myself included.

You are concerned that you’ve left no lasting impression. That every cause and purpose for which you labored will fade to total obscurity. You fear nobody will remember, but we do. And truly thousands, though they may not know it, reap the benefits of your efforts. What you pursued and what you fought for, you did so with passion. Would that we all possessed such dedication.

But we are never the sum of our accomplishments OR our failures. They, quite quickly, will be forgotten. Few wish their headstones to be adorned with their successes in the business world, how much money they made, or how famous they may have been. Ingenuity has its merit, but in death its honor rings hollow. We wish for a greater, more lasting memory. One clearly exists: the lives and people we have impacted. More specifically, the people we loved.

Did you make mistakes? Yes; we all do. Could you have done some things better? Yes, but so could every man. Are there personal disappointments? Absolutely; I endure a number of my own. But now answer this: did you love somebody? YES, and many. Myself included. By all standards therefore, before God and man alike, you have done well. This is what I will remember.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Of The Cast, Which Are You?

From January, 2008:

How often do we dismiss imagination as childish, an utter waste of time, as foolishness – brief, immature attempts at escape from an unwanted job, a hollow marriage, unfulfilling friendships? Far too often. And what a pity. Harmless fun, mind wandering, a cheap vacation, a hope that has little to no chance of fruition, a break from the norm. Why do we catch ourselves and dismiss it? Why do we punish ourselves for natural creativity?

Probably every boy born before 1985 has dreamed of the West, of longhorns, campfires, dust, leather, and denim. The drifter’s life, a horse the closest companion, the unrestrictive walls of his home the masterpiece of endless miles of unfenced land, sage brush, and rocky, unaccommodating soil. And it has a romantic appeal, the huge hat, the strong, silent cowboy, a pair of sixguns about his waist, cutting his swath through untamed country. Every boy’s dream.

Here’s a thought that, even in my older age, pressing responsibilities, and the crushing weight of reality, refuses to die back.

If you lived out there, in that era, who would you be? There’s quite a cast of characters, albeit those derived from watching them eke out their living on the hills of Italy in innumerable spaghetti westerns. They may be one-dimensional, but dream a little.

Most men, without even pause for thought, blurt out that they are cowboys. The quintessential hero. The tall, slender guy with a swagger that steers his horse from one village to the next. Few possessions, few wants, content in the elements. The man who never dies in the movies and always gets the bad guy. The man who tracks hundreds of miles for a handful of rustled cattle. The man who makes the girls swoon when he strides past them, pretending not to notice. Somewhere there’s one that’s his – in a distant town, brown eyes, long hair, and a beautiful smile. He thinks only of her. He’ll fight, and he sure knows how, but only to defend himself or the innocent. And he’ll win, too. Many see themselves as him.

Maybe you’re the barkeep. The good listener, the indiscriminate servant of his guests. The guy who instinctively grabs the mirror behind the counter before he ducks down to avoid another brawl. When it’s over, pick up the broken furniture, scour the pockets of the unconscious (or apprehended) troublemakers for payment, and continue commiserating with the dejected, supervising the card game in the corner, and watching. Perhaps you are he.

Or the barber. Another friend to all men, men who trust you sufficiently to allow you a go at their chins with a straight razor. A listener, an observer, neutral. Up on all the town’s goings on, where the shady guys are, where to buy the best goods, stolen or otherwise. The socialite. Maybe him.

The general store manager. Another friend of many. Neutral, informed on what the townspeople need, taking pride on his work. Clean store, packed shelves, interesting stock. The smell of leather, rough cut floorboards, tools and ropes. The bare essentials. No frills. Just tools, some candy, soap, saddles and hats. Another essential character.

Or the rancher, long ago settled on some dry, dusty pick of ground, scratching out a living from inhospitable soil. Building a business with your own two hands, herds from nothing, barns, a ranch home, a bunk house. Keeping to yourself, fighting for what’s rightfully yours. Large family, beautiful wife and mother to your children. A difficult life, yes, but nevertheless rewarding. Perhaps you are he.

There are a million others – the cattle rustler, the mayor, the town drunk, the mariachis, the perpetual gambler, banker, land baron, carpenter, the criminal, the blacksmith, each with their particular appeal. Perhaps I betray my bias in writing this. Perhaps I do not.

Which character from this cast are you, and why? What is the appeal? How does it stir you? How does it steer your dreams? And where will it take you next?

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 12, 2009

An Unknown Cost

Yesterday I sat down for an interview with a local news station airing a short segment for the upcoming 6th anniversary for the Iraq War. Before being placed on camera, I asked what, specifically, was the “take” of this piece. The Iraq War, after all, is a big subject.

The reporter explained that she recently interviewed a woman whose son is a veteran of the Iraq War, and this mother lamented several things. First, that her son was now irrevocably changed, that he suffered from alcoholism, and also exhibited suicidal tendencies. Second, she expressed great disdain for the war itself and what it does to the nation’s young people. Thirdly, she felt it was a foolish and costly waste of time and that we should withdraw immediately before any more veterans suffer as her son clearly has.

Based upon what the reporter had read online about my scattered interviews over the years, as well as what she had read on my blog and web page, she believed that I served as a good “pro” to this mother’s “con.” But in all truth, only moderately.

Foremost, my opinion on the Iraq War is not so polarized and oversimplified. I will speak neither in overwhelming favor nor in rabid opposition of it. I don’t like the war, to be honest, and I would sincerely question the moral virtue of any man who said he DID like war. Such a pronouncement approaches the realm of psychopathy, not the responsible citizen or political leader who understands the complexity, inherent tragedy, and imperfection of war itself.

Of similar import is that I am not thoroughly satisfied with the conduct, tempo, and overall prosecution of the Iraq War. Any who suggest they are have not closely examined its high cost (under ANY circumstance). Once again, I don’t like war.

I do not wish my statements (on air or online) to ever appear callus or insensitive to the high cost of war. In fact, I have always made an effort to increase awareness to such issues. Thus, I wish to submit, in addendum to yesterday’s interview, that I am extremely sympathetic to this mother’s situation, her son’s condition, and fully aware (including personally) that war, victory, and the defense of this nation demands a much higher cost than typically acknowledged. For every one man or woman that falls in combat, there are perhaps dozens or even hundreds that are injured or somehow maimed. An even higher number will return to the United States and struggle with more intangible, but every bit as real, wounds – namely PTSD and all its periphery disorders. I have been blessed to return in one piece physically, yet I, too, have confronted my fair share of emotional difficulty as a consequence of my combat service. What her son struggles with now is, though to a differing degree, are the very same issues I have encountered myself.

Though I have written about it already at length, I still only understand in part the level of sacrifice involved with war. It is definitely high, to state the obvious, and there are a number of casualties that are often ignored in final (or running) tallies. Naturally, those killed in action command the greatest attention, and rightfully so, but this must NEVER come at the expense of the those that live daily with the cost of war. This doesn’t simply include physically and psychologically injured veterans, but their families as well.

While no man or woman can truly understand the full extent of sacrifice that may be demanded of them in military service, when confronted with its gravity, the vast majority conduct themselves bravely, nobly, and with total disregard to self preservation. They serve with honor, and continue to do so until their time of service has ended. And many reenlist, not only sufficient numbers to maintain the goals of the military, but enough to drastically swell their ranks (as has happened over the past two years).

In reality, I know of no man that, while in the throes of combat itself, ruminates about patriotism, service to country and other lofty ideologies. He, more likely than not, is concerned with three things: killing the enemy, protecting this brothers (and sisters) to either side, and the far lesser consideration of staying alive. The first two take total primacy to the latter. There is immense honor in this. Yet should he survive – and most do – there is a continual cost for one’s willing service to country.

Drastically distilled, the fundamental tenet of our country is the ability to speak, think, worship and live without fear of persecution. No citizen should live in fear of leaders, authority figures, or foreign invaders. The purpose of the military, at its very core, is to ensure that final point: fear from foreign invaders. But it is far more complicated than simply dispatching the enemy. In truth, it requires the shouldering of fear on behalf of the nation.

This fear manifests as concern. The servicemember is concerned for the safety of his or her family, friends, and fellow countrymen. Yet rather than allow them all to live with a feeling of terror and impotence in the face of threats, the servicemember will fear for them. He will fear for his life and the lives of his comrades; he will fear he may never see his family again, and he will fear returning to the states missing limbs or otherwise maimed. But duty and obligation, love for family, country and freedom are a stronger sentiment still. THEIR peace of mind and their safety are of greater import. Such a calling is among the noblest acts of selflessness.

Emotionally, there are a number of other sacrifices that aren’t frequently mentioned – perhaps in part because they are poorly understood. For us, there is a total ceding of peace. A veteran will forever battle his own emotions. He will always question if a decision he made was a wrong one. He will question if certain deaths were preventable had he issued different orders or thought more creatively. He will suffer survivor’s guilt that he made it home and some of his friends did not. He will question his humanity, since the act of killing grew from a distant idea to a very gruesome reality and split-second decision. He will question his performance, the nobility of his service, and even the merit of the war itself. He will have nightmares.

For the veteran, the idea of deadly force and killing was initially restricted to the imagination, to movies, and books. They are a far cry from the act itself. To overcome the innate disinclination to kill requires the awakening of a second self – a violent one that is capable of accomplishing terrible things in the name of a greater good (and defense of one’s peers). It is ugly, grotesque, frequently frightening even to us, but necessary for the prosecution of war. It is also perhaps the biggest source of struggle for the veteran.

The most overt signs of this second self are a very keen sense of observation, hyperawareness to one’s surroundings, and quick, automatic responses to certain stimuli – often so rapid that they appear to bypass the brain. Military training and conditioning have been fine-tuned to maximize the creation of this character, and we, as veterans, submit to its cultivation because it keeps us alive, accomplishes the mission, and brings many more home safely than would otherwise be possible. It is the creation of a warrior, however, NOT (as some naively say), a monster, or indiscriminate killing machine.

A monster DOES kill indiscriminately, yet warriors do not. Statistically, veterans show NO indication of a greater proclivity to violence or crime than any of their civilian counterparts, which dispels the myth that the military creates hellions for war, unleashes them on the enemy, and then carelessly returns them, ill-adapted, to civilian life.

In truth, the act of killing is still so odious that it remains a reluctant response to even the most powerful and violent of attacks. No matter how just, it is counter to human nature itself. We will have nightmares, and spend the remainder of our lives questioning our actions – down to the minutiae of the situation. This element is easily turned off because it remained, at best, terribly unnatural to turn on. What is NOT easily extinguished, however, is the awareness, the alertness, the quick responses, and the knowledge that we, at one time, took the life of another. We have lost our ability to appreciate peace, because we now know war. We have lost our innocence.

This “carnal knowledge,” so to speak, is the very thing that limits a veteran’s ability to enjoy the normalcy of post-military life. We fought for peace, but now we’re forever looking for the enemy, watching, waiting, and mulling over our past actions. There is no killing machine at all, but an awakened warrior, who, having fought in war, is now no longer able to set down his arms. This knowledge is what so vexes veterans. This vast and fundamental difference between us and civilians is what drives many veterans to isolation, self-destructive habits, and tragically, suicide. Among other substances, they drink to forget the warrior, to numb the alerted senses, and to drown the visions of the past. The adoption of arms was a total relinquishment of peace. The killer was a matter of necessity and remained alive for as long as the fight, but the warrior will always be there, and will always be haunted by the war.

Though veterans WANT to fit in, many cannot. The warrior, the second self that required a wholehearted commitment for the sake of duty, country, and peers, cannot be extinguished. His character shadows the normal self indefinitely. Here is the PTSD. Here are the demons. Here also is the substance abuse. Here are the nightmares, and here is the facet of oneself that forever separates the veteran from the civilian. Poorly understood, often feared (unjustly), and often ignored even by the veteran himself, it drives a deep wedge between being us, and the enjoyment of peaceful, routine, even mundane life – the life most of us crave.

We abuse ourselves with self-doubt so you don’t have to. We are depressed so you needn’t be. We are hyperaware and edgy so you can have the freedom to relax. We watched our brothers die so you were sheltered from it. We killed so you would never experience the need. We sacrificed a clean conscience so you can enjoy one. We irrevocably lost our peace so you could live in it. Our payment to you extends far beyond our short, youthful service. And our loved ones and friends, confronted with a forever-changed man or woman, will tragically forever pay with us.

I am not an apologist for war, since it is an evil intended to defeat a greater evil. We hate it, in fact, and hate what it has done to us. Yet we willingly admit its purpose. For as long as evil men exist and carry out atrocities on others, a similar evil, though curiously girded in selflessness and duty, will be sent against them. It is us. In war, all pay, even the victors. The warrior sacrifices the peace for which he fought.

This veteran’s mother has my fullest sympathy, since her plight is similar to that which my own mother endured from me after each of my three tours in Iraq. The veteran himself also has my sympathy because I have struggled with the same things he now faces. As much as I am able, I will go through this with him, since our wound is a common one. Millions of others, from all wars, have battled this.

In many ways, my sympathy lies more with the loved ones of veterans, since their payment, unlike ours, is involuntary. We, though only somewhat aware of the full measure that would be required of us, took an oath to our country and to our constitution. And in the thick of battle, we learned that it was vast. When we returned, we discovered we still had much to pay. Those who love us, consumed with grief in our suffering, pay with us. As a nation, we all pay in part.

But as for veterans, we are still learning the cost; and it is high. To a large extent, we are unable to even enjoy the fruits of our labor. But our country can, and it is for them that we ceded what we did. And now, we ask that they rally and help us; that they enjoy their peace and help us find some of our own.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved
All materials contained herein are copyrighted.
Do not reproduce in any form without the express,
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