Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Coming Wednesday...

1. Confinement
2. And We're Off

Monday, June 29, 2009

Nameless Towers

I went to Catholic school when I was a kid, and I remember sitting in convocation one morning and listening to the priest tell us a Bible story about some long-forgotten city in the Old Testament. I can’t even remember the details of the story, but it was pretty interesting, and the ancient city sounded pretty neat. It still seemed almost make-believe, though. History books “weather” events. What in our generation may receive lengthy attention, our kids will learn only little about in a few short paragraphs. Details get lost along the way, which is sad. This old city seemed about as real as a fairy tale.

Ten years later, though, I was sitting in that same ancient city in Iraq, and all I could think about was that sermon I’d heard. It all came back to me; the people, the streets, the open markets, and everything that happened in the story. It wasn’t just a tale anymore, but real. I could run my fingers along the same stone walls and walk along the same cobbled roads as the ancients had thousands of years earlier. It came alive to me. The whole country was like that.

People have the impression that Iraq is just some miserable, dust-filled wasteland, that there is nothing more than miles of sand, the occasional mud hut, and a profusion of people trying to kill us. They forget it was the cradle of civilization. Time itself, or at least the self awareness of its passage, began there. It’s not ugly; it’s beautiful. You feel like you’ve stepped into history itself. Not a history book, but history itself.

Almost every small town is a “tell.” Some places look like they’re built on hills, but those are actually the ruins of countless civilizations that settled there, built their legacy, and slowly died off to be replaced by another. You could consider the whole country an archeological dig. This is a land full of cities that Heroditus wrote about. We like to talk about our great grandfathers and how they rode horses when they were kids, but here – some people still do. It’s another world; an exotic one.

When we moved north of Baghdad, we ended up crossing the Tigris river and getting assigned to an old Iraqi Army ammo depot in the middle of nowhere. The place was truly vast. Our job was to guard it and catalogue all the munitions, which was going to take forever. We ended up building a base from scraps and other stuff we scrounged up. It wasn’t big at all, but only large enough to hold our company. I remember making a sign for the front gate with nothing more than markers and a piece of plywood. I think I did okay, considering I didn’t have anything else to work with. We named it Camp Tinderbox for some reason.

Now and then, we’d run missions another base, and people would ask us where we were from. We’d tell them Camp Tinderbox, and they’d look at us like we were stupid. It was like a joke for us. We’d been banished to the obscurest depths of Iraq. But you know, I liked that little base. It was small, mostly quiet, and everybody left us alone usually. When we left a few months later, I never heard anything about it again. I don’t even know if it still exists.

I remember once that some pontoon bridge broke free and washed down the Tigris, so they sent us out to look for the missing pieces downriver. We drove for hours not seeing anything, and eventually we stopped at a cluster of about five houses along the water’s edge. There really wasn’t much else. Somehow the command knew that this was where we’d find the pieces of the bridge, so we waited for a little bit, but didn’t see anything.

After we waited for awhile, we pushed north into the desert to set up a secure perimeter and continue standing by. I figured we’d just park in a wadi, but as we’re driving away from the river, we suddenly saw an enormous structure like a fortress.

Huge stone columns formed a row of arches that surrounded an area ten times larger than a football field, and in the middle of the field was a tower. It looked exactly like all those Biblical paintings of the Tower of Babel – a gigantic round building with an external ramp spiraling all the way to the top. It was at least six stories tall, and at the top was a little covered balcony or something. I wondered how many westerners have ever seen it.

It was completely silent at that place. There were no nearby houses, no water sources, nothing. Just this huge tower sitting in a middle of a field, and surrounded by the pallisade of arches. It was absolutely beautiful. I took a few pictures of it, and before long, we left.

I’m going to go back there someday. It’s not a matter of if, but when. It may be ten years from now when it’s quieter and safer, but I need to go back. I fell in love with that place, and other places, too. Monolithic ruins randomly scattered throughout a country steeped in history.

For millennia, men have assembled on those hills and charged against the conscripts of other nearby city-states. They’ve struggled to bring life from the dirt and create lush, irrigated floodplains. They built cities on their predecessors’ ruins. And some parts survived all the changes – stark reminders to a time in history when monuments were built with the enslaved masses of those defeated in war. It’s mesmerizing.

It’s hard to explain, but I feel like history came alive for me over there. I still get goose bumps whenever I think about it. My biggest regret is not paying closer attention to the names of the places we went, and also not learning more about the history before we deployed. I was busy with other things, I guess, but I still wish I’d paid closer attention. I was always asking where we were, but nobody ever really knew. I want to see those places and those rivers again. I like to think of it as a strange marriage between us, the present, and distant, ancient history. It’s part of me now, and I have to see it again. I want my children to see it, too, and their children. I don’t really want to live there, but I want to go back. I need to know the name of that tower, and I need to know why it’s there. I want my children to remember.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

What Nobody Sees

Something happened this past Friday that this country needs to hear. While it may appear inconsequential to most, it represents a side of Iraqi-American relations and relationships that few are so fortunate to observe. Had you suggested five years ago that I would see this, I would have laughed. On Friday, however, I rejoiced. I attended my friend Waad’s wedding in North Carolina

When I served in Habbaniyah, Iraq in 2007, I had the pleasure of working with and living alongside a small crowd of native Iraqi interpreters as we partnered in weapons and marksmanship instruction to the Iraqi Army and Police. Few of us knew any Arabic, so whatever we taught, these men would translate to our Iraqi Police and Army students. In truth, these interpreters had translated the classes so long and so often that we weren’t particularly needed. Our “terps” knew the subject material as well, if not better than us. In fact, we’d occasionally make an error or misspeak ourselves, and they’d automatically correct it in the translation. Without them, we would have been adrift.

More than assistants or partners, however, they were friends. Many were brothers, earning and receiving the same trust and confidence as our fellow Marines. They were universally liked, to say the least. Waad, along with his brother Steve, were among our best.

After five years working with components of the US Air Force, Army and Marines (us), he parted company in mid-2007 with legitimate concern for his safety. It was a well-known fact that he was a marked target in the insurgent networks. After assisting in the training of over 10,000 Iraqis countrywide, he was quickly recognized – and labeled an enemy to the insurgency.

In 2008, a retired senior Marine warrant officer who had worked closely with Waad in Habbaniyah volunteered to sponsor him in the United States, and not long after he immigrated. Because another Iraqi interpreter and mutual friend resided there, he selected Columbus, Ohio as his home and found work at a local gas station.

While in Iraq, Waad had earned a four-year degree, taught himself English, and collaborated for years with the US military on sensitive and classified missions. Still, the welcome he received in the US was embarrassing. People saw an Iraqi, not a close friend and brother to hundreds of Marines and soldiers. He often fielded questions from customers asking why “his people were killing ours,” which he always answered respectfully and patiently. There was a clear distinction between “insurgent” and “Iraqi,” he explained, and he was one of the good guys. The customers remained dubious. I remember him telling me it was hurtful, but he didn’t blame them. They simply didn’t know, and nobody was telling them, either.

Through a friend, Waad met Laura, an American woman, and their relationship soon developed into romance. He had found the woman of his dreams, and she had found a man who truly loved her. On Friday, they were married. While this is certainly a heartwarming story, it’s neither particularly uncommon or terribly interesting to the random stranger. There are other facts, however, that make it supremely so.

First, Laura is Jewish. Second, Waad is of Muslim, and Christian descent. Third, nearly every man in attendance at this wedding reception on Friday is a current, former, or retired Marine who has served with Waad at one time or another, and didn’t simply forget him when the deployment ended and everybody went home. Fourth, Waad’s best man is my former commanding officer, another senior retired Marine. And this, I believe, is what people need to see.

None among us thinks “immigrant” or “Iraqi” when we consider Waad. We see brother, companion, and a man we gladly welcome to this country. We see a friend, and this is why servicemembers all across the country are often the ones doing everything in their power to bring these men and woman to the United States. We love them, and they love this country.

Marines representing nearly every major command of the Marine Corps witnessed this wedding on Friday, and raised our champagne glasses as one in celebratory toast. We are honored to have been invited.

As his best man (the retired Marine) led him through the reception area, he stopped once and wrapped his arm around Waad’s shoulder. “This is my son,” he gushed, with a huge grin. Those aren’t empty accolades, but the heartfelt sentiment of a man who deployed to an Iraqi combat zone and walked away with a friend. We all feel this way.

We loved and served our country, and Waad, in turn, loved and served his. His passion for Iraq and America both make him a priceless addition to this country. In two months time, he returns again to Iraq, where he hopes his countrymen can soon live in peace, free from fear, and liberated to pursue self-governance. If I am lucky, I will see him over there.

There is perhaps a misconception in America that troops deploy to Iraq to “kill some ragheads” and come back home as heroes, and that they despise the place and never wish to return. Half the men in Waad’s wedding reception will return to Iraq within a years’ time. All of them have volunteered. Consider how difficult it is to commit to a mission in which one doesn’t believe. I would submit it is impossible.

Laura, Waad’s new (and beautiful) wife, described the whole affair perfectly: “My mother is Jewish and my father a Christian, and Waad’s mother is a Muslim and his father Chaldean. WE get along. Why can’t everybody else? There should be peace.” And she’s right.

They have beheld one another and rather than seeing different faiths or radically different cultural upbringings, they see something greater. They see a desirable heart – and one worth loving. They have chosen to pursue commonalities while millions of others are content to remain mired in hatred and misunderstanding. They both have clearer vision than many of us, and we all stand to learn a lesson from it. They see hope, and they celebrate, and we celebrate with them. America needs to see this.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Saturday, June 27, 2009

When I Survived

*Retold with permission...

There are two days in March of 2007 that I will remember for the rest of my life – and dream about, replay, and question. They almost killed me, and at the very least, they completely changed the course of my life. I wasn’t the only one, either.

It was supposed to be a three-day mission. We’d recently taken over the AO from another unit that had failed to patrol the area like they should have been. In fact, by the time they left, they weren’t even patrolling at all. They’d just sit around the COPs [combat outposts] and wait for us to get in-country and relieve them. Because of their inaction, the whole region was overrun with Al Qaeda. We had our work cut out for us. We would spend those three days flushing through all the palm groves and searching the areas known to be infested with Al Qaeda.

We originally set out in Strykers, but that didn’t go so well. We kept getting hit by IEDs, so we’d call EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] all the time, which slowed us considerably. Eventually, we decided to just go on foot for awhile and avoid the roads. We started pushing through the palm groves.

Sure enough, we were attacked almost immediately by machine guns, small arms, and mortars. I don’t know how many there were, but they fought hard and didn’t really shoot and run like they do in other places in Iraq. Al Queda is a lot more organized than most of the other insurgents. We ended up fighting most of that day and well into the night, too. Some platoon leader got hit in his head that day, and in the process of evacuating him, the guys misplaced his helmet and headset, but that was the extent of friendly injuries that day. I guess we got lucky.

Eventually, we set up in a small house and posted on the roof. We ate a few MREs [meals ready to eat], stuffed the bags with trash, and then used them as pillows on the concrete. Watch rotations would be hourly. Two guys on at all times, while the rest of us grabbed a few hours of sleep. They told me I had watch from 0500-0600. I’d be on with the platoon leader, who, unlike many of our lieutenants, actually stood watch with us – which was pretty neat. “Two more days,” I thought, and I drifted off to sleep.

When I got on watch it was still completely dark, so I just sat on the inside of the wall looking down one of the avenues of approach through my NVGs [night vision goggles] and waited for the sun to come up. It was almost completely light by a quarter before 0600, so I took off my NVGs and kept watching down the road. There wasn’t much going on down there, anyway. Just a few people walking here and there, and an old guy standing on the side of the street. That stuff is common. When I looked at my watch, it read 0555, so I got ready to go wake up everybody five minutes early.

Just as I was about to stand, I glanced at the road again and saw two military-aged males sprinting down the road towards our position and carrying something. I checked through my scope, but they were still about 200 meters out, so I couldn’t figure out what they were holding. It could have been anything. As I sat back down to watch them, they stopped next to the old man standing on the side of the street and started talking to him. Then the old man points directly at my position on the roof, which was surprising. That’s when I told my platoon leader and he came walking over.

He watched them intently for a moment and asked if I knew what was in their hands. I told him I couldn’t. It was too far. Then the two guys set down whatever it was they were carrying and started stringing wires across the street. But even that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Iraqis are always doing stuff with the power lines, or wiring up a satellite dish for their TVS. It’s strange; they never consider how it LOOKS to us: bad. I just wasn’t sure, and they were too far away to see clearly. The PL [platoon leader] stared at them some more.

“Kill them” he ordered.

“Um, both of them, sir?”


So I sighted in on the guy by the object on the ground and took him down. The other started running, but I got him without much trouble, too. After all the attacks we sustained the day before, I was pretty much fresh out of mercy. As I fired, everybody on the street disappeared, and everybody on the roof woke up. My adrenalin was pumping, so I got up and started walking around the roof, trying to relax a little.

We sent the EOD robot out to see what the object was that the guys had dropped in the street, and as the robot was scooting along, an insurgent sniper started shooting at it. He wasn’t very accurate, but he was close. The dust was kicking up all around the thing. A second later, a sniper round hits right between me and my team leader. We couldn’t determine its source, so we just laid low and waited for the controlled detonation.

Anyway, the robot eventually gets out there unscathed, and we find out what the guys had been doing. The “object” was the helmet and headset that the PL had lost yesterday, and the wires were connected to two artillery rounds. I felt better about shooting them. They were definitely two insurgents laying in an IED. If we’d gone out there to check it out, we’d have been killed.

When we started moving out that morning, we got hit pretty hard again from the palm groves, and one of our guys took two rounds in the leg. We took cover on the roof of another building, and I remember the company commander yelling at us to not peek over the top, which was stupid. I couldn’t see anything, so I just quickly looked over and ducked back down. A sniper round flew right over my head, so everybody opened up into the palm grove with small arms, machine guns, AT4s, and grenades. While we did that, another unit flanked them from the side and then we called in an airstrike to finish off any stragglers. I’m not sure of the exact numbers, but I think we killed at least a dozen fighters between both units and the airstrike. We kept pushing through the town and searching houses.

Late in the day, they told us that we were going to set up overnight in the same house, which isn’t very intelligent. We’d just finished searching another house, so we got out on the street and started to patrol our way back. At the intersection, I couldn’t remember if we needed to take a right or a left and nobody else could either, so I told our radio man to ask over the net and see if anybody else knew. He never got a chance to speak.

As he was about to talk, an Iraqi tossed a grenade over the wall around their house into the street next to us, where it detonated, hitting me in the right shoulder. And as soon as it went off, at least one enemy machine gun opened up on us from the palms again. Two of my guys got hit in the legs and fell, unable to walk. I got virtually strafed.

One round hit the knife on my flak and deflected, and then a few more hit me in the chest plate. One round, however, went through my assault pack, through the Kevlar vest, into my left scapula, and out the front of my chest. My arm went lip immediately, and I could feel the blood start to pool inside my flak vest and run down to my waist. Then it started dripping on the ground. I was afraid to look at it. I feared it was completely mangled, or maybe shot off. I sprinted back towards the house we just left, because I knew our medic was still in there, and collapsed as soon as I got into the courtyard.

The guys started stripping off my gear and my uniform, and when they got my shirt off, the blood spurted out of my shoulder like a garden hose. The bullet had severed my axillary artery, which then snapped back somewhere into my chest cavity. Doc looked at me quickly.

“I’m sorry, dude, but this is going to hurt.” He grabbed hemostats and started digging around in the entry wound trying to find the artery and clamp it. By this time, the internal bleeding was so bad that it collapsed my left lung.

Whenever something like this happens, the first thing you do is panic. You’re completely freaked out and frightened, and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. But then, you started to get some peace with it. It was a supernatural experience for me. I was panicking, and then I felt a peace wash over me. It’s almost like when you’re a kid and you fall and scrape your knee. You’re in pain and inconsolable, but then your dad reaches down, picks you up, and suddenly everything’s okay. That’s what it was like for me. I was okay with dying.

The doc never was able to find my artery, so he just packed the entire wound with gauze and hoped that the medevac to hurry the hell up. Even with my lung collapsed, I felt a little better. I started thinking that maybe I was going to make it. All we had to do now was wait for the medevac Stryker, which was inbound.

When it arrived, they loaded up me and the other two guys and drove us hard to some other FOB for evacuation. I can’t even remember which FOB it was, since I was only sort of cognizant by this point. I do remember that they had the Blackhawks waiting for us on the deck, and as soon as we loaded, they flew us to the trauma center.

All along that flight, I kept thinking about my family. Your whole life really does flash before your eyes. I thought about my wife a little, but mostly I thought about my children. They were 3 and 1 ½ then – young. What did they do to deserve losing a father? They were completely innocent – to life, to the evil of the world, and yet they were going to pay. To stay conscious, I prayed out loud the entire time. I could just have easily prayed in my head, but I needed to fight off the darkness, and talking out loud helped it. They told me later that I’d lost 2/3rds of my blood, so it’s amazing I didn’t pass out.

When we landed, they rushed me into surgery, and I remember the chaplain holding my hand as they started stabbing me with needles and put me under. That was the last thing I remembered.

Eighteen hours and four transfusions later, I came to with the surgeon standing over me.

“How do you feel,” he asked.

“Okay I guess. Just waiting for the anesthesia to wear off.”

“Son, you’re not on any” he told me. “Your days of power lifting are over. You have too much nerve damage in your arm.”

Sure enough, I couldn’t even move it. It was devastating. I had loved lifting weights.

Eventually, they shipped me to Germany for recovery, and while I was there, my squad leader, Sergeant Romeo, kept in close contact with me. He was one of those guys that didn’t just forget about his boys once they left the unit. He’d get off of long patrols and missions in the middle of the night, but he’d still call or e-mail me and see how I was doing. Romeo actually cared about his troops, unlike a lot of other guys that didn’t really go that extra mile. This was a guy who took what most everybody considered the platoon rejects and made a tight, cohesive squad out of us. Not only that, we got so good that the platoon considered us the “go to” squad. We led the charge most the time. It was because of that one man. He genuinely cared.

Within a couple weeks, though, I got an e-mail from Sgt Romeo that bothered me. He sounded weary, and solemn. He wrote, “tell them what we’re doing here.” It sounded terminal, like he was telling me his last wishes. It was also the last time I heard from him. Two days later, him, and my five other brothers remaining in my squad were killed when their Stryker rolled over a 1000lb bomb hidden under the road. The only one who survived it was the driver. Everybody else, every single man that hadn’t been medevaced from my squad already, was killed. Even the two that had replaced me and another guy. One was only about 17 or 18. My squad leader always told us he knew he wasn’t coming home, and tragically, he was right. He wasn’t even a US citizen. They awarded it to him, and promoted him, posthumously.

I’ve replayed that last day with the squad repeatedly. I’ve wondered why the insurgents let one squad patrol right by, but then they hit mine. Maybe they knew my face because I’d shot the other guys that morning. I’ve wondered how things would have turned out if I’d been standing an inch to the left or to the right of where I was. Maybe I would have dodged those bullets. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d still been with the squad when they rolled over the bomb. Maybe I would have directed the driver down a different route. Maybe they’d all be alive still. Maybe I’d be dead. I still feel responsible. I was the vehicle commander before I was hit.

So yes, I have survivor’s guilt. And I’ve wondered why I’m still here and they’re not. I’ve asked that question repeatedly. Why did I make it, and why did they die. The answer is: it’s complicated.

It’s dictated by how you live the rest of your life. I’ve been given a second chance for a reason. I still have a purpose in this life, and I have to do great things. I have to do something with myself.

It’s pretty intimidating sometimes, because it’s easier to just sit my ass on the couch and drink beer. It’s easier to feel sorry for myself. But I can’t. I’ve been preserved for a purpose, and I need to live that out. Otherwise, it’s been a total waste, and I was meant to go out with my brothers.

After two years, it’s still tough. I have PTSD, which continues to be a problem. I have anxiety, which doesn’t help either. And I also have excruciating nerve pain in my arm still. Getting shot and almost dying changed everything.

I couldn’t move my arm for a long time, but I’ve slowly regained some feeling in it. My forearm is still weak, though, and my hand is still completely numb. I’ve been prescribed every medication in the world for the pain, but the only things that actually work are alcohol or narcotics. I stay away from the alcohol, but now the VA isn’t prescribing me any narcotics anymore, so I have to pay for it out of pocket at a private practitioner. I got laid off from my job recently, too, which was tough. The only income I have right now is from disability.

I still have to ask people to help me all the time, which is a real ego blow. If I have my right arm full of stuff, I can’t open the door with my left. I have to get help opening jars now. I can’t even tie knots to go fishing. As much as I may try to forget what happened, I have a constant reminder. I can’t do certain things anymore.

I keep thinking about my purpose, and why I survived when almost everybody else was killed. It haunts me. They were such good men; they were my brothers. Some days are hard still, or dark, or discouraging, but I always pray for a better tomorrow. I’ve been kept here for a purpose, and I have to see it through. Those men, I guess they’d completed their mission, and they were taken home. For me, however, I’m not done yet. I have to live well, and I have to do it for six men who didn’t. That, I think, is my one remaining mission.


The platoon is doing ok, I guess. [T]he commander is running us into the ground, and the morale is low, but we have no choice but to continue to push onward... We were the best squad, and you can really tell the difference because the rest of the squads don’t move and fight like us. [W]e had a special bond, all of us. [E]veryone had their own defects, but somehow we all worked together, sometimes at the drop of a hat, and no one can take that from us... [D]eep down, everyone knows it...

‘The Deuce'...out

P.S. Tell everyone about the great things the squad has done here, and remember it was all because of you guys.

-Army Staff Sergeant Vincenzo Romeo. Died May 6, 2007. He was 23.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Died Every Day

I think people have the impression that we consider ourselves invincible, but that’s not true at all. Maybe we thought we were in boot camp, or in the first few days in a combat zone, but once you’ve seen a body, that’s it. You know what death is and you know it may not be far away. Military psychologists boast that the purpose behind their efforts is to instill in men a high level of maturity yet at the same time preserve their youthful invincibility. They underestimate us. It’s not like that at all. We know the risks, at least on some level, we accept them, and then we do what needs to be done anyway. There’s no room for ignorance.

Whenever we’d patrol down a road full of IED craters, we’d have to check each crater to make sure the insurgents didn’t hide another one in them. They did that a lot, so we had to be careful. The last thing we wanted to do is park on top of one, or miss one, and then everybody around us would get blown up. Unfortunately, that meant peering into each of them. Nobody liked to do it.

I was often the dismount on my humvee, so I’d park on the road and walk over to the holes to check them out. I never thought, “I hope this doesn’t kill me.” That’s lame. Part of our training is to consider every possible outcome to a situation and then act accordingly. In this case, it meant considering my own demise. What I would do before approaching each hole is go over whatever could happen. I could walk over and there would be nothing in the crater, or I could walk over and be immediately blown into small pieces. So basically, not just before you deploy, but a thousand times throughout a tour, you make your peace with God, somehow find acceptance in whatever may happen, and proceed anyway. Better put, you die, at least in your mind, repeatedly. There’s none of this crap about running into harm’s way because we’re too exuberant to know the risk we’re taking. We do know. We just do it anyway.

The same applies when you’re searching a building. You don’t know what’s inside, but you prepare for everything. In your mind, you mull over what happens if you step around a corner and get sprayed with AK rounds. Chances are, they’re aiming low, so you take a couple rounds in the groin, maybe your flak vest stops a couple across your chest, but then you get shot in the neck and then the face. That’s what happens when they fire on automatic – the weapon slowly rises, right up the body of the person they’re shooting at: you. You think about that, you think about stepping around into an empty room, you make your peace, and then you proceed.

None of this is ever slow. The whole thought process takes place in the course of maybe a second or two. You think through everything, imagine yourself dying suddenly, then act. Hesitation, under almost any circumstances, is deadly. The longer you wait, the more time the enemy has to prepare for your approach. So, you think quickly, then move. I hesitate to say we all presume we’re GOING to die, but I know we all consider that we MAY die. It all begs the question why would put ourselves in that situation.

The only answer that I can come up with is that we know we have to. The purpose of the Marine rifle squad is to, “locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy’s assault with fire and close combat.” There’s nothing in there about trying to play it safe. Even the fundamental purpose of the Marine Corps is first: mission accomplishment, and second: troop welfare. The first, we all know, may come at the total expense of the second.

I would propose that this has to do with superior character, but many would probably take issue with such a statement. I don’t, frankly, but there are better ways to put it. I prefer this: the men and women in these situations are thinking bigger than themselves. They know their part in the grand scheme of things is incredibly small, they know it may cost them everything, but they do what is asked of them, and they do it with total disregard to self. There’s no other way to explain how somebody can knowingly enter a situation they’re aware might kill them in an instant. It is acquaintance and comfort with death.

And that, without a doubt, testifies to great character, especially in a culture that invests the vast majority of its time pleasing and entertaining self. So while the world is seeking satiation, we’re out there dying daily – at least in our minds. They have chosen their paths and we have chosen ours. And strangest of all, we’re content with it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Monday, June 22, 2009

Coming Soon...

When The Police Came

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Through The Shrapnel

During World War II, as the Allied front lines vacillated through central Europe, an Army captain found himself in need of a meeting with his commanders in the rear. As an artillery liaison officer, he was reliant upon extremely accurate information to the location of friendly troops to avoid fratricide. The shelling this captain would oversee left few survivors. Tracking down his NCO driver, they climbed into a jeep and headed the few miles to the command post.

“As we were driving,” he told me, “I started noticing that things didn’t look quite right. I wasn’t seeing any friendly traffic at all. I was starting to wonder if the lines had shifted.”

Indeed, they had. The captain and his NCO rounded a bend in the road and screeched to a halt in front of a Nazi roadblock. Surrounded, outnumbered, and severely outgunned, they were captured.

The Germans, furiously attempting to slow or altogether halt the Allied advance towards Germany, were dwelling a state of chaos. Prisoners were poorly detained and watched only minimally in the confusion. The captain and his NCO were herded into a small crowd of other prisoners and quickly forgotten. More than likely, they were still trying to grasp that they’d just driven directly into their own capture.

A few days later, as the captain eavesdropped on the Germans, he learned that the Allies were remarkably near. And after only minimal discussion with his NCO and another American prisoner, the captain took advantage of a momentary lull in their already lax detainment and bolted for the treeline with the other two in tow. In a nearby home, they hid their uniforms, disguised as French refugees, and departed quickly towards where the captain presumed the Allied front lines to be at the time.

If recaptured without their uniforms, they would be treated as spies, and summarily executed. They made straight away for friendly lines, directly into the no man’s land of an artillery battle – most likely his own guns firing against the Germans’ artillery pieces.

With shells raining around them from both sides, the captain eventually led the other two prisoners back inside friendly lines, identified himself, and immediately reported all he had learned about the disposition of the nearby Nazis, their numbers, strength, and armament. His valuable intelligence played a key role in the Allied maneuvers against the Germans over the next few days. He had been in captivity for six days.

Not long after, the captain was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in the face of grave danger, his assistance to the other prisoners of war, and the vital information he provided the Americans as they continued their push towards Germany. I, personally, am thankful he survived. Had he not, he wouldn’t have returned to the states, and my father would never have been born. I had dinner with them both today – Father’s Day.

Wars are not mere strategies and tactics performed by anonymous players on distant lands, but real events, with real people, whose fates determine the course of history. My grandfather is 94 now and mostly deaf, and I confess I don’t visit him enough. But for as long as I am alive, I will remember how six short days, more than 60 years ago in Europe, unfolded to bring him home and set my family history in motion.

Happy Father’s Day, Grandpa. May there be many more.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I'll Miss It When It's Gone

“An IED killed three soldiers in Tikrit early this morning,” the new anchor orates, and continues by regurgitating the Department of Defense official statement which tells nothing more than that a roadside bomb detonated on a US foot patrol, killing three. We turn off the TV, grab our coffee, and head out the door for work. For perhaps five seconds, we conjure an imagine of those three soldiers. They’re wearing flak vests, helmets and carrying rifles, and standing around in ACUs looking imposing. They’re wearing sunglasses in our minds, but they have no faces and they have no eyes beneath the ballistic lenses. We don’t create faces because we don’t want to see them. We don’t want to see eyes, because then we’d see the window to their souls. That requires acknowledging they’re more than anonymous uniformed combatants. They’re more than humans. They’re servants, citizens and patriots – and for us. They need faces.

“Troop Surge Secures Baghdad Outskirts With Tight Cordon,” reads the article, which we will skim for a few moments before moving on to celebrity news – which is notably more interesting. We think briefly about grand strategies and military policy, and how it all sounds terribly complicated. The 30,000 men and women who ringed Iraq’s capital city and dismantled the insurgent supply chain, however, remain unmentioned – at least individually. Nobody discusses their names. Nobody writes about the M240G gunner in the turret of the lead humvee in the convoy. Nobody mentions he’s only 19 and has already been struck by four IEDs, or that he can’t wait to come home and marry his highschool sweetheart. Nor does anybody write about the schools that have reopened and the children that have backpacks and textbooks for the first time in their lives. The fact that thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen have comported themselves honorably as fierce yet compassionate warriors goes unnoticed. They’re just guys with guns and uniforms. If they die, we’ll call them heroes. They volunteered, anyway. Somebody knows them; we don’t, though. Yet we should. These troops need names.

“Truck Bomb Kills at Least 63 in Northern Iraq,” read today’s news, and we thought, “how awful,” before skipping down to the list of headlines to the article about Amanda Knox, on trial for a perverse sex crime and murder. That seems more real somehow. Bombs are always going off in Iraq, anyway. “It must be hard for them,” we might ponder. Undoubtedly. But who has asked an Iraqi mother how many sons she’s lost to sectarian violence? Who has asked an Iraqi to describe living in perpetual fear of unwarranted attack as he goes about his daily business? Who cares, we think. It’s 6,940 miles away. We’re just glad it happens over there and not here. We don’t think or particularly care about the horror they suffer. It’s not real to us. But it should be.

One of my fondest memories of summer here in the mid-Atlantic US is the aroma of fresh-cut grass. It’s peaceful, and it’s somehow stronger as the sun sets and the fireflies come out. Somewhere in the distance, you can always hear a lawnmower. It, too, is relaxing. It’s summer.

A motorcycle ride through any suburban neighborhood hints at a dozen barbeques and reveals twice as many children playing in sprinklers or riding bikes in the street. A few still throw baseballs here and there. They’re young and energetic. They’re enthusiastic about life. When I want to feel like a kid again, I just watch them for a little while. That was me playing there just a few short years ago. That’s what summers were for.

The rivers are slowing now, as the spring rains give way to the summer heat. This is swimming weather, and I need only lose my shoes and jump in. The rocks are showing in the low waters, and it’s nice to hop out and dry in the sun. There are catfish in the deeper holes, and it’s been awhile since I’ve caught any. I’m going to miss it all this year.

In 2006, I returned from my second tour in Iraq, whereupon I promised my parents I would never go back again. I was finished, I told them, and soon I’d be out of the military. Seven months later, I reneged on my vow, extended my contract, and volunteered for a third tour. By the middle of 2007, I was out of the Marines for good, presumably terminating all likelihood of deploying again. Yet now, two years later, I’m leaving for a fourth, and this one without a gun.

I have received dark looks from friends, especially the ones whose weddings I am missing. I was supposed to be in one of them. I have been told I’m crazy a few times, and I can’t find any poignant words to disagree. I’m going to miss my little sister’s birthday again. I missed it in 2004 and 2008 – her 21st. I’ve missed just as many Christmases over the years.

Three times I have written letters to each member of my family – letters they are to open and read in the event that I didn’t make it home. Mostly I tell them I love them and that I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say. I will be writing these letters for a fourth time this week, and I imagine they’ll say the same thing as they did the other times. I’m their only son and brother. Deployments are typically harder on families than they are on those that are gone. We’re busy, but they have time to think about our absence. This is my greatest regret.

It all begs the question why I would do this, why I’ve agreed to do it for free, and pay my own expenses. I have a hard time putting it to words. But there’s something I must do. Those soldiers need faces. Those Iraqis need their daily horrors told. Those Marines need names. And an effort that has demanded the service of more than one million citizens of this country and the lives of more than 5,000 needs to be real to us. We need to know it, and we need to know them.

When I was explaining my writing to a stranger recently, her eyes filled with tears and she looked at me. “I loved a veteran once.” She said little more. There wasn’t much else to say, and I knew what she meant. A week later I saw her again, and I gave her a hug.

It was once written, quite eloquently, that, “to love is to suffer.” And it’s true; though such suffering is brightened with frequent moments of absolute bliss. Such is the nature of love. Would that this whole nation might love a veteran. They are ours. They are us. And herein lies my reason for going: this romance begins with knowing them. And knowing them begins with hearing their stories. I depart in twelve days.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, June 19, 2009

Coming Soon...

I'll Miss It When It's Gone

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Without A Country

When I was twenty, I lost everything and started over. It had been twenty-five years since my mother had submitted the application for a visa to the US, and amazingly it finally came through. I was living on my own, had my own house, job and life, but my mother said leave it. We’re going to America. We dropped everything and left. I didn’t even know any English.

That was 2000. We ended up settling in New Jersey, and I worked hard to learn to speak English without an accent, started studying on my own time and started working too. I liked America. There was so much opportunity. Less than a year later, the planes hit the towers in Manhattan.

I couldn’t see the towers themselves from where I lived, but I sure saw the smoke billowing high over the island, and I was angry. I was new here, but this was home, those were my countrymen, and we were being attacked. I wanted to do something, and soon enough I did. I joined the Army.

You don’t have to be a citizen to join the military, which is a little strange, and there are only about 66,000 veterans in the entire country that aren’t US citizens. When we join, it expedites the application process, but it still takes awhile. They’ve waived the waiting period since then, but at the time, we had to be in at least a year before they’d start the process. Now, it’s different. The first day you’re in boot camp, they’ll start helping you become a citizen. It wasn’t like that then.

But I wasn’t really interested in that, actually. I wasn’t joining for perks or to get citizenship. I joined because my home, my friends and my country were attacked. Not for benefits. I wanted to keep these attacks from happening again.

After about a year in the Army stateside, we deployed and I did another year in Iraq. It felt good, doing something meaningful, serving my country. I loved the sense of belonging. Nobody cared that I wasn’t a citizen. It really didn’t matter. We’d all taken the same oath to the same flag, the same Constitution, and to preserve the same values. It was colorblind unity to a single cause. When I got back, the Army started helping me apply for citizenship. I really wasn’t worried about it, but they encouraged me to, so I began the applications. Since I was going to make a career out of the military, I needed to get it out of the way with anyway. You’re only allowed eight years to get it all figured out. But then I ruined it.

Not long after I got back to the states, a friend introduced me to cocaine, and without knowing what hit me, I was badly hooked, still in the Army, and bound for trouble. That quickly came when they did random drug tests and I popped hot.

I make no excuses for what I did, since it was entirely my fault. It was a mistake which I regret, and I can’t take it back, but I can at least take ownership of it. I told them the truth, since I had at least that much integrity remaining. And it was devastating. My friends were astonished, my command was surprised, and actually I was, too. I’d never been in trouble before – ever. I’d never even smoked a cigarette before. But somehow I wound up addicted to cocaine. They started the paperwork to get me kicked out of the Army.

I was ashamed of myself, to say the least, and knew that I’d let myself down, let down my country, and let down my friends, too. The guilt was so compelling that I cleaned up immediately. I worked hard at it. I went through all the withdrawal symptoms and the cravings. I even checked into a rehab and got over it. And I’ve been clean ever since, too. I haven’t slipped once.

But it didn’t matter. There’s a zero tolerance policy for drugs in the Army, and after five months of withdrawal symptoms and rehab, grilling and regret, they kicked me out with a general discharge under honorable conditions. It really should have been a dishonorable discharge. The only reason I got what I did was because I cooperated fully. I knew what I did was wrong. I told them the truth. Yet here, it didn’t set me free. This, I know, is entirely my doing. When they kicked me out, though, they dropped all the charges against me.

That was 2006. I’ve been clean ever since, and still living here in the states. It’s been difficult though. Because I didn’t receive an honorable discharge, I lost all the GI Bill benefits, and the VA will only see me for service-related medical problems, which I don’t have. I’ve been going to school and paying for it myself, and I’m close to graduating with a 3.8 GPA. I’ve done okay. I also have a job I like, which is nice. But there’s another problem.

Last year, my citizenship application came through. I’d passed all the interviews and the tests, and they invited me to a swearing in ceremony. All I had to do was raise my right hand and I’d be a citizen. But then my past caught up with me once again. Right before the ceremony, they gave us one last short questionnaire. One of the questions was if we’d ever done anything criminal in the past. I may have made mistakes, but I’m not a liar, so I told the truth. When they read that, they sent me away – without swearing in. Application denied.

My visa expires next year, and right now, I have no idea what I’m going to do. People make mistakes all the time, but any sort of criminal behavior by citizenship applicants is magnified tenfold. They scrutinize each candidate individually, and when I told them about the blemish on my record, they balked. The soonest I can apply again is five years from the date they turned me down.

I’m in limbo. I’ve been in the US for nine years, and I love it here. I love America. This is home, and there’s nothing left in my home country to return to. I don’t know if they’re going to deport me, if I should just go ahead and leave anyway, or if there are any ways to reapply for citizenship earlier – or maybe appeal my case before the five year waiting period is up. I’m afraid that this has all been a waste, and it’s entirely my fault.

I am not asking for help, because this is something that I did to myself. I’m not complaining either, because again, this is my fault. I guess it just feels good to talk about it a little. I don’t discuss it with people, because it’s embarrassing. My own family doesn’t even know, actually. I still haven’t told them. I’d just overwhelm them with shame and disappointment anyway, and there’s no reason to do that.

But I’m at a loss. This is home now, yet I don’t think they’re going to accept me here. My native country is little more than distant memory I abruptly left behind nearly a decade ago. I love it here, and I want to stay. I’ve been perfectly clean since that one incident in the Army, and I fully intend to stay that way. It nearly ruined me once. My entire twenties may have been a waste, and I only have myself to blame. I really don’t have a country anymore, and the country I want doesn’t want me. All I can do is wait and pray, but right now that doesn’t seem like much.

Though he has not asked for it, I want to help this friend and brother. He has honorably served the same country as have I and millions of others. He has made no excuses for his mistakes and made no claim of perfection. That character alone far exceeds many of the citizens blessed to call this country home. I know little of immigration laws and the citizenship application process, so I humbly appeal to any who may know more and could perhaps offer this close companion some advice regarding his dilemma. He isn’t asking for it, but I am. If we claim to be a nation that sees hope where others find none, we would do well to prove it. I see a good man, a patriot, and one who, though new to America, fell in love with its ideologies, its freedom, and its opportunity. In truth, we need more men like him. ~bys

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


*Retold with permission

I’m not bringing this stuff up because I’m proud of it, or because I think telling you about it is somehow going to explain away my actions. I’m telling you these things because they’re part of who I am. And as much as I may be ashamed by some of this, as much as some people may be shocked or feel uncomfortable, they need to hear it, too. This period, more than any other time in my life, served to shape who I am. If they don’t like it, that’s their business. You don’t select your favorite parts of your friends and claim those. No, you either claim the entire friend, or you choose not to. That’s just how it works.

When I got back [from Iraq] and went home, I was completely separated from all my buddies in the Marines and basically alone. I started reconnecting with old highschool and college friends, but it didn’t go very well. We hardly had anything in common anymore, for starters. They really didn’t know what to say to me, and I actually really didn’t know what to say to them, either. I was different from them, and I kept thinking about Iraq constantly.

I’d think about everything I saw over there, the death, the violence, the people I shot and the friends of mine who were shot, and I was angry. I think most guys are when they first come back. Some get stuck in it. I was simultaneously angry, grieved for my brothers, missed Iraq, hated Iraq, and felt wholly alone back in the states. Everything was different, and everything was gone. I thought about suicide a lot.

When I first started drinking, it wasn’t much. Mostly just hang out with a few highschool and college friends and grab a drink or two at the bar, and there wasn’t anything wrong with that, really. But I didn’t stay there. The anger was starting to permeate me.

I was angry at God and angry about what happened to me. I was angry about Iraq and everything that went wrong. The brothers I lost, too. And I blamed it all on God. I can recall a bunch of times I just shook my fist and cursed at Him. I wanted to know why He let it all happen. I probably told Him I hated Him. I didn’t like who I was and didn’t like my circumstances and feeling alone. So, I drank more.

At first I would just go out and get drunk in bars, maybe alone or with friends, but then there came a point where that wasn’t enough. I started looking for women to sleep with. I didn’t give any regard to them, even their names, their looks, or my safety. I just wanted to get laid. The alcohol gave me courage and numbed my morals until I didn’t have any at all. I told myself it was fun.

And even that became insufficient. On top of sleeping around, I started adding in drugs, gambling, and occasionally violence. It wasn’t uncommon for me to throw down $50 on the roulette wheel, take my winnings and go buy an 8-ball, do a couple lines in the bathroom, and then go get drunk and look for women. There were mornings when I woke up and had no idea where I was and who the women were next to me. Sometimes, it was more than one woman at a time. Another time, it was a married woman. For a while I convinced myself that it evidence of my sexual prowess, but that satisfaction didn’t last. I threw more things into the mix.

I met a veteran who was just as much a wreck as I was, and he introduced me to heroin, but I only tried it once. I usually just stuck with coke. Then I’d go find hookers or other girls, drink myself into a coma, and do it all again the next day. When I look back on it, I can’t figure out how I kept a job and a house, and how on earth I didn’t get arrested.

As much as I thought I was having fun, or as much as I at least told myself I was, I wasn’t at all. I hooked up with a woman who was 12 years older than me and we’d just get high and sleep together. I got into an actual relationship with a girl for a little while, but she was bulimic, cut herself, and did a lot of drugs, too. I also verbally abused her and then she cheated on me several times. Obviously, that didn’t last very long. I was totally miserable.

The violence is probably the part I’m most ashamed of, since that was when I didn’t just hurt myself, but I hurt other people, too. I’d go out looking for a fight, and usually I’d find them. This city is a rough place, and it’s not hard to piss off the wrong person. I was trying to, too, which made it even easier. I remember I once threw some guy into the hood of his car, denting it pretty badly. There were other fights, too.

I’d sit at home by myself, drink an entire case of beer, and watch the combat scenes in war movies – all with a loaded gun sitting next to me on the couch. Sometimes I’d just sit there and cry. Other times I played Russian roulette with the pistol. Once, when I was really drunk, I loaded my rifle, cocked it, and put the barrel in my mouth. The last thing I remember was reaching up with my toe to pull the trigger. That’s when I passed out. I think that, despite my best efforts, God had divinely appointed me to live. But I didn’t want to. I was afraid to. I was living in a state of slow and deliberate suicide.

I started to crack eventually. One night I did a whole 8-ball of cocaine and my heart started racing and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was barely conscious, but I remember hearing the EMT say, “we gotta get this guy to the ER. He might not make it.”

As they worked on me, I started thinking about my family, and the few friends I had that truly loved me. I started thinking that this was how they were going to bury me. Veteran dies from overdose. And it wasn’t how I wanted to go. But living still scared me. I could stare down a barrel of an AK-47 or endure a firefight without fear, but I was afraid to look at myself. I decided to stop doing drugs.

Even though I was still drinking heavily and sleeping around, I weaned myself off of drugs, but even that was difficult. I craved the sense of euphoria and the feeling of elation. Sometimes, I’d get drunk and walk around town holding a gun in my pocket. If somebody so much as looked at me wrong or said something to me, I’d pull it out and threaten to kill them. I felt the familiar thrill and I felt powerful again, but in reality I wasn’t. I was still a mess. Depression was setting in. I was petrified of examining myself.

The VA absolutely useless at getting me any help, so I eventually started to see a private therapist, and she turned out to be amazing. I’d go once a week and she’d listen. Sometimes I’d just cry like a child, and she’d wrap her arm around me and listen. Other times, she’d coax the anger out of me and help me talk about it.

I still drank heavily during all this, but I was starting to reach a point where I knew I couldn’t. I flipped my truck four times one night and fled the scene. I’d go out and randomly fire guns in the city. Iraq wasn’t a death wish; it was a purpose. But this; it was death wish. I had to take an inventory of myself, as terrifying as it was. If I didn’t run from a firefight, then I wouldn’t run from this. This was harder, but I couldn’t run.

I kept going to my therapist, and started exercising again, connected with other like-minded veterans. These three things, above anything else, were what helped me survive that time in my life. In fact, they’re still helping me today. And I did other things. For a little while, I distanced myself from the crowd where I was the most tempted. I got rid of my TV for a time, too.

The self-examination was extremely difficult, to say the least. It’s like looking in a mirror and hating what you see staring back at you. But I learned something. That was life without God. And I couldn’t do it anymore, so I called out to Him and He answered. Peace came from self-acceptance, which came only from His acceptance.

Iraq wasn’t the biggest battle for me at all. Coming home was my D-day, and I was charging towards a premature death. I still loved my country, but for some time my hatred for myself had overshadowed it.

None of this is comfortably far behind me. It’s still fresh. While I rarely drink now and I don’t sleep around at all or use any drugs, the potential is still there. That’s where I’ll end up if I walk away from God again. I am a great man, but I can do horrible things.

And I’m still learning, too. Great lessons. I actually don’t regret anything that happened. I think it had to. I needed to awaken. Yes, I did terrible things to myself and sometimes to others, but I’ve sought forgiveness and received it. I’m glad it happened because I needed to be stripped of myself and discover what was left: a total desperation for God. I’m also happy to have my midlife crisis out of the way with at a young age. I won’t be going through this when I’m forty, because I went through it in my mid-twenties.

I have learned humility in this, because I have learned empathy. How can I judge people now? I can’t. Everything that I would judge people for I have now done myself. I’ve broken every one of the Ten Commandments. I have learned that I am a man now, but only because I finally shattered to pieces and gave everything to God. And now, being no longer a child, I have put away childish things.

I know that some people will read this and be horrified. I might lose friends when they find out. To a degree, I understand. Sometimes, I think back on things I did and I still get physically ill. I make no excuses for it. I’m amazed at my own depravity. Yet I’m also amazed at what manner of miracles God can work in a human life: mine. But if they do run, I have to seriously question their friendship in the first place. What true friend runs when he learns the imperfections of another?

My greatest critics, I am certain, will be those who have not endured what I did. They won’t understand, and in many ways, they’re not even my audience. They cannot fathom the depravity of men because they have never left the comfort of the sidelines. I did. And I stepped out there and made my fair share of mistakes, and now I take ownership of them. I bled out there and at times I was covered in the putrid stench of the underbelly of life. I chose my path, however foolishly, and I led myself into hell. And to me it’s not a pit of flames, but a wall to run through –a wall of honest, painful self examination. I ran into it several times, but with God’s help, I ran through it. He had been tapping on my shoulder for a long time, but apparently He had to punch me in the face – lovingly.

Yet it grows ever distant behind me, and I am increasingly solidified in what I believe and who I am. And it is a far cry from what I once was. This is why I need to tell this story. More than a story, it’s a testimony, and shaped the very core of my being. To know me, you must know this part of me. You must also know how I arrived here: with monumental difficulty. I also know that others have been through this, and perhaps my honesty will embolden them. I don’t judge them. How can I? I have done the very same things. Perhaps their eyes will be opened.

Most importantly I have been awakened. I am winning my war, and I know I’m going to make it. I have seen what I can be in the absence of God. Like I said, I’m a good man, but I can still do horrible things. But I am not what I once was, and that is solely by the grace of God.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Their Reward

On the several occasions that I have observed a less-than-sober Marine receive some perceived insult, the quick retort has been the same. Summoning whatever half-drunken indignation he can muster, he ejaculates, “I’m a combat vet!” He will then add a few more lines about how horribly he’s being treated and how war heroes deserve better service, or quicker attention, or some other sort of deification on account of his military record. In consequence, I have avoided public appearances with any grunts who intend to drink. They get stupid.

But in reality, I have heard similar remarks from completely sober vets, which as far as I am concerned is even less excusable. I wondered for quite some time why so many invariably slip into this rut and feel compelled to tout their veteran status. Regardless of the reason, it does us all a disservice.

At the heart of the matter is the notion that being a veteran of combat operations somehow makes one a better person. Hardly. The purpose of war, as a whole, is the employment of an evil for the defeat of an even greater one. Philosophers since the beginning of time have argued its merit, and they will probably continue to do so indefinitely. Few, interestingly, have experienced war.

The purpose of combat, at its core, is the deliberate taking of human life. Killing. No amount of nonsense about national service and patriotism can detract from this. Combatants are purposed to take the lives of others. Aggrandizing the act reduces the intentions of the combatant and calls into serious question his or her motives for serving at all. Combat, and specifically killing, is a heinous situation which this nation must necessarily approach with apprehension and great debate, and then carry out with simultaneous regret and resolve. Pride has no place here.

What precisely is it about combat that justifies boasting? The act of destroying human life? Bravery in the face of adversity? The self-perception of being tough? This is by no means patriotic and selfless service; this is satisfying one’s own insecurities. If a vet must pontificate about his glorious involvement in combat, he has ventured into moral ambiguity. There is nothing glorious about taking the life of another. It is tragic, and dangerously close to playing God.

Christ once said that when we complete a good work we shouldn’t “sound a trumpet before” others and inform them of our accomplishments. Those that do this, He continues, “have received their reward in full.” A good deed done with an audience in mind is no good deed at all. It is a performance with an anticipation of applause.

Though I am more comfortable around veterans than perhaps any group, though I write extensively about the nobility of their service to fellow servicemembers and their country, I quickly distance myself from those that treat their combat experiences as notches in a belt. They paint us as fools.

We did not take up arms with the intent of advancing our careers or somehow earning a better theater seat. We did not volunteer to enter harm’s way with the expectation that we would receive special status as citizens. Most citizens, in fact, don’t care what we did. We did it because it was right and because we wanted to serve our country. These loudmouths may have done the right thing, but for all the wrong reasons.

As civilians, we walked amongst our fellows and went to war. Upon our return, we walk amongst them once again – as civilians again. The more these veterans boast, the more likely it is they’ve done little. War produces a continuum of tragedies, not halls of saints and idols. The more these veterans treat their combat service as an identity, the more they degrade the purity of their own service, and thus their own hearts. Keep pounding your fists, friends; this nation owes you nothing. Indeed, you have already received your reward.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 15, 2009

Parade of Trucks

There was a large stone building next to our barracks during that tour. The walls were so thick that they never even bothered sandbagging it. It was better than the bunkers, actually. One half of the building was the base hospital, and the other was a computer center. I liked how close it was. It made it easy to just hop over every now and then and check my e-mail.

Within a few weeks, though, the local Iraqis that maintained the computers were murdered for their involvement with the US, and the machines quickly fell into disrepair. For a short time we’d go to the far side of base to use the other computers, but then the building was mortared and burned down – with all the computers in it.

About the same time, the medical personnel in the hospital decided they needed a morgue, and since the next-door room was filled with broken computers, they naturally just took it over.

I’m not really sure why they needed a morgue right then, but if I had to guess, I think there were two reasons. First, we were taking far more casualties than anybody had anticipated, and they didn’t want to just stack them in the corner while they worked on the survivors. It was disheartening to the men on the tables fighting for survival. My second assumption is that the medical flights that typically collected the dead were too busy elsewhere. Iraq, at that time, was a hellhole. I think the military, on average, was losing about three a day. The hearse choppers were busy, and they didn’t have time to pick up the dead promptly, I guess.

The consequence of having the hospital and morgue right next to us, though, was that we observed a steady parade of vehicles delivering the dead and dying. All you had to do was look at the speed of the vehicle and you could immediately tell what was going on. It was obvious.

The ambulance humvee would pick up the lightly wounded and take them back for treatment. They hustled, but never drove too quickly. If they drove like maniacs, you knew the wounded were bad off.

A humvee would come flying through the curves so quickly that if it was a narrower vehicle, it would have definitely flipped over. In the back, you could see Marines hunched over somebody, working on them. You sort of said a silent prayer and hoped they made it into the hospital and were stabilized. Once, an Iraqi army truck careened by us with a wounded Iraqi soldier in the back. His torso was covered in blood and his whole body was convulsing. I doubt he made it even to the door. He was in bad shape. None of us knew him, so while he was definitely on our side, it was a casualty to us, not a brother.

But the worst times were just after mortar attacks on base. We’d be huddled in the bunkers until somebody sounded the “all clear.” We’d emerge and sort of mill around, and eventually get back to whatever it was we were doing. It was always eerily quiet right after an attack, for some reason. And then more trucks would drive by.

They never drove quickly, and nobody in the back was working on anybody, but we knew. We read it in the faces of the Marines in the back of the humvee. They were mostly senior enlisted, staff sergeants and higher. Most hadn’t bothered to dress completely, so some would be wearing sweatshirts, or shorts and flip flops. A few had their flaks on, but most weren’t wearing their helmets. They looked old, and weary. The Marine Corps is small, too, so we knew them. They were platoon sergeants and section leaders. They just stared at us as they slowly drove by.

In that quiet, we knew. I remember thinking, “Oh God, another?” And there was nothing else to say.

We knew that on the floor of that truck lay at least one of their Marines, and he didn’t make it. We knew that they’d just lost a son. A man they’d vowed to protect, advocate, and bring home alive. We read it in their faces. They were forlorn as they stared, and we just stopped and stared back. We knew. And all we could do was wait for word to see which friends we’d lost. The enemy was slowly killing us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Victims if Told Such

Written in January, 2008

“Ben, you deserve a break, some time off.”

I hear this all the time, and I still am unsure exactly what it means. Clearly, when transitioning from combat zone to stateside to civilian, a little quiet time is indeed in order. But a break? From what?

I think Americans are starting to recognize that returning combat veterans aren’t altogether “fine” upon return. And I think it’s good, but also simultaneously bad. We elicit sympathy, which is certainly nice, but that simply permits many of us to act less responsible, less active, less productive, and be far more selfish than perhaps we should be.

“Ben, you’ve been through a lot.”

A blanket statement, and while perhaps to some degree true, also too generous.

It’s a ticket to be a loser.

Am I suggesting that I should rush out, seek career-oriented, gainful employment and launch into a series of commitments that restrict creativity, freedom of movement and relaxation? Not in the least. What I am saying, however, is that many of us, myself included, aren’t particularly victims until we are told we are such. Keep telling us we are and we may start to believe it.

I do deserve a hiatus. I do deserve some time off. I have worked hard (some days), and frittered away many others. I have endured high stress and undeniably low pay. This much is certain. And I did see and do things that are not easy to reflect upon, much less discuss with others. This is true.

But I do not need a vacation from reality, to fill my days with meaningless television programming, too many drinks accompanied by too many cigarettes. I, we, do not need pity. We need instead your help.

I need friends, I need confidants, challenges, to think, to not be alone with my thoughts. That idleness, this poison, brings melancholy to the heart and further widens the already-present chasm between “us” and “normal people.” We need friends around us.

I am not a victim unless you tell me I am. I must deal with my experiences on my own. Our survival, others’ departure, personal failures, self-doubt and anger. These are between me and God. But you can listen, and many times that is all we ask of you. Listen. I know, we know, that you cannot solve our problems, that you cannot convince us to cut back on the drink or the drug, that you cannot tease out what claws at our conscience. But you can be there when we start to grapple with it on our own. Do not let us go it alone.

When does the vacation I deserve evolve into the unjustified lethargy of poor transition? One month? Six months? Years? It must end sometime. It is not healthy, nor right, to ride comfortably on the wave of sympathy that we receive. Challenge us.

Make us think. How? Listen to us and we will eventually think on our own. Be that safe recipient as we tell you of our duress. We will appear crazy, in grave need of professional help, perhaps medication and restraint. Listen to us, gain our trust, and treat it as a gift. Swallow that enormous, rising lump of alarm and just listen. We will probably sort it all out, but be willing to listen. Don’t ALLOW us to be victims.

Encourage us to think. Don’t let us alone. We NEED to fit in, not go on extended mental and social holiday. Stop buying us drinks, stop making concessions: “oh, he’s a veteran; it’s okay if he drinks himself into a stupor.” It’s not okay.

Challenge us. Do not make allowances. Giving us license to withdraw from society may be terminal:

” In 2005, for example, in just those 45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.” (read the article here)

We need you, and that is our only request of the nation we swore to defend. War is not our darkest hour nor the longest night. Those come when we are home, when we are remembering, when we are standing in crowds but somehow alone. We need you to see us through it.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Road North

By the time we headed north from Kuwait into Iraq, I had already accepted that this was probably going to kill me. It was fate. The night we sat outside our tents in Kuwait watching Iraqi SCUD missiles course through the sky – that’s when it hit most of us so clearly. This was huge, it was violent, and most of us probably weren’t going to make it home. What’s just as strange, though, is that we were okay with it. I know I became a better Marine then. I stopped caring about myself and started caring about my surroundings, my brothers, and the war.

When we crossed the LOD [line of departure], my lucidity reached its peak. We’d stopped being stupid and sobered up immediately. We stopped telling horrible jokes and started paying close attention. We were about to drive squarely into chaos and potentially to our own deaths, but we knew what we had to do. We were more alert than ever, perhaps hypervigilant is the best word for it. We were more attuned to our surroundings that I’ve ever been before, or since, actually. We were ready. We had to be, too.

Not fifteen minutes after we got across the border into Iraq on highway one [now MSR Tampa], we started seeing the cost of war in its fullest. The roads were lined with cars, most of them either destroyed by aerial bombing or abandoned. A number had burned completely, leaving the sickeningly black husk of a human being literally melted to the steering column. Some of the bodies on the ground were burned, too. Every now and then we’d see one still on fire; the smell was god awful. Their clothes were incinerated completely, and they were just lying in the road, beside it, or in the small hamlets that are all over southern Iraq.

But what I remember the most is their teeth. Even though they were blackened beyond recognition, their teeth stayed a stark white or off-white. I think that’s when I first understood why they use dental records for forensic identification. Apparently teeth can survive anything. After a time, I didn’t really see bodies, I saw another set of teeth. Seeing the corpses everywhere was a real wakeup call, though. I realized how fragile life was – and how tough teeth are. It was weird.

When we got into the small towns and little villages, there were bodies everywhere in those areas, too. Not as many burned bodies, but still…bodies everywhere. It was like driving through a cemetery where they completely neglected to bury anybody. But it was amazing. There, with people lying dead all around, were Iraqis lining the roads and cheering as we drove by. I have no idea where they got them, but a bunch waved little American flags. I had a hard time understanding it; how they could be surrounded by absolute death and carnage, people laying dead where they fell, and still parents and children alike cheered us and welcomed us. On the edge of one small town, there was a huge stone mural of Saddam, and there was crowd out there throwing rocks at it and trying to knock it down. That’s why they were happy, I guess. They weren’t living under an oppressive dictator anymore.

As we drove by them standing there in a sea of bodies, as they cheered for us, it felt amazing. It felt like we were doing great things and God was watching us, like He was with us, and that He honored what we were doing, too. I sort of felt ordained. We wanted to help them. Even though we were running out of food and water of our own and everything was rationed, we’d still give the kids whatever we had. We could do without for a little while. They’d lived without their whole lives.

Pushing north was truly a wave of emotions, and I’d say this was the highest point. I was elated. As they were cheering us and trying to properly say “USA,” I think it was the closest I’ve been to altruism. We had a purpose, and it was good. We weren’t doing something for reward or even for good pay – God knows we don’t get much. We were doing it because it was right

A lot of the dead were Republican Guard. You could tell it by their uniforms – the olive drab with the black helmet. I think just as many were innocent though, like they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was hard to say, since we started seeing uniforms lying all over the place. Some of them were stripping off their uniforms and still fighting. Either way, the extent of the carnage was daunting.

I remember passing an oil well that had been set on fire. It was a good distance off the highway, but you could see the soot and oil smoke sending up a dark plume that filled the whole horizon. We’d been joking and acting stupid before we saw that, but then we just went silent and stared. I remember wondering why the hell we all found a single, burning oil well so incredibly mesmerizing, but whatever. We forgot to pay attention to anything else but that oil fire. If they’d attacked us right then, we’d have all died. We forgot to maintain our perimeter for a while, which was stupid. Thankfully, though, we didn’t get hit.

But that was right along the southern border. The second we started moving further north, it all changed again. People started hating us.

It was a complete reversal from the cheering and the crowds directly along the southern border. Either there were refugees walking south and trying to surrender to us, or it was combatants fake-surrendering. They’d walk up to us with their hands up or just looking relaxed, and then they’d pull out AKs from under their clothes and start spraying us. Thank God they can’t shoot straight, or a lot more of us would be dead. They never aimed. We did, though. And we didn’t miss.

We also started to see our own dead and wounded, which normally would have been awful, but we didn’t have the luxury to think about it. We had to push, we had to keep our heads in the game, and we had to be alert. Don’t stare, don’t think about it. Put it aside for later. We all did that. It’s the only way you can endure seeing your own dead and dying brothers and not completely lose it. We’d be driving along and see a humvee or some other vehicle shot up, and Marines lying on the side of the road with a few corpsmen [medical personnel] policing up the bodies. Sometimes we’d have to stop and help them “spread-load” the gear on the disabled vehicles.

We’d move quickly. A team of us would jog up to the disabled vehicles, form a chain, and then just stack everything in our trucks, slash the tires, cut the fuel lines, and leave. Considering how completely messed up the situations were, it still amazes me how flawlessly we moved. It was automatic. Nobody bitched or dragged their feet. We all knew what we needed to do, so we did it. Period.

Not only were there more of our own dead and plenty of fake surrenders, but they also started shooting at us. We’d be just driving along not bothering anybody, and suddenly a head would pop up from behind a small berm and a Bedouin would fire a shot or two at us. Mostly inaccurate potshots. Sometimes we fired back, and sometimes we were sort of like, “they’re too far away to bother with. Forget it.” And we’d keep going. We always kept going. We moved almost continually for 37 days or so. Just driving, sleeping in little 15 minute powernaps, then somebody would wake us up and we’d take a turn on watch. We’d sleep at night, but that was only 2-3 hours and I don’t think it really constituted sleep. It was like a nap that just left you more tired. If it wasn’t for the adrenalin, we would have all just passed out from exhaustion.

As we got nearer to Nasariyah, the hostility towards us intensified. We were driving through a small town once down this narrow road between high buildings. There was a long straight stretch, and then the road took a sharp turn to the right and kept on going. Sure enough, we got ambushed in there, and we started taking concentrated fire.

I remember seeing this dead Iraqi lying in the street with an AK-47 next to him, and then all of the sudden a woman runs out of a nearby building. She was wearing a white hijab and bright blue skirts. I remember wondering if that dead Iraqi was her husband, her brother, her son… I didn’t know. Then she dashes over to the body, picks up the guy’s gun, and starts running and firing at another part of our convoy. I wasn’t myself then, and neither was she. She became a target and I became the shooter.

I remember everything being quiet in my head, and looking through my sights at her. She was running perpendicular to me, so I gave her a 2-3 inch lead and pulled the trigger. The head exploded with a splash like the kind you get when you stomp in a puddle. The body dropped immediately. I didn’t think about it for a long time after that. I’d think about it plenty later, though.

I never regretted shooting her, or anything else I did, because I knew it was the right thing to do at the time. But, I do regret that it had to be that way. I felt badly, though. We weren’t just shooting targets, we were taking lives. I personally had ensured that some child was now motherless, and another mother was now missing her daughter. I don’t glorify what I did, because it wasn’t glorious. It’s unfortunate that circumstances had to come together as they did.

It’s strange. There in Iraq, the close brush with my own death and seeing the death of others – this was when I started feeling the most alive, and where I developed empathy. Those dead men on the ground had mothers, and even though they may have been trying to kill us, I somewhat respect that they stood up for something. I respect that they believed in their cause and willingly put it above their own wellbeing. I obviously don’t agree with them, but they were still human, and they had souls. Now they’re dead for their beliefs.

The part that bothers me the most is that if things were different, if circumstances weren’t as they were, I’d be sharing tea with these men and women. I’d be passing a hookah pipe around the room and we’d be laughing and talking. We would be friends, not sworn enemies trying to kill each others. I’m not sorry about anything I did, but I’m sorry that it had to be that way. They were people, too.

As we kept moving north around Baghdad, there were other firefights, and more random shots fired at us, and some our guys were injured and a few were killed. Our health started to fail from weeks with insufficient sleep, but life was simple. I remember when they announced that Baghdad had fallen. My sergeant said, “Well, Baghdad fell! Let’s get the hell out of here boys.” Obviously, we didn’t. The mission continued.

But even as I got more and more sick and I started turning yellow from jaundice, it was good there. People loved us in one place and hated us in another. They shot at us sometimes, or stood in a field of their own dead (killed by us), and cheered us as we drove by. My emotions followed our reception, actually. When they cheered, I felt justified and right. Like we were welcome and wanted. When we were being shot at and I shot back, I felt like a demon for a moment and I hated myself. Then I buried it and kept gunning. I chose to think about it later. It’s amazing what the mind can do to your body. You can tell yourself almost anything and believe it.

I’ll remember the experience for the rest of my life, but not the parts that people might think I would. Yes, I’ll think about shooting that woman sometimes, or I’ll think about the other firefights. I’ll damn sure miss my friends I made in the Corps – especially those that didn’t make it home. God knows there’s enough of them.

What I’ll remember the most, though, is my family, my brothers. I’ll remember the surreal experience of having very little, but being content with what I had. We didn’t need iPods and computers; we needed each other, and we had that. Those men were my family more than any other.

We’d be perched on MRE boxes or ammo crates, talking, laughing, sharing stories and telling jokes. We’d play spades or euchre and share the crap we called food. We were surrounded by bodies and death and tragedy – including our own – but we were safe somehow. We had each other. I had my brothers, my rifle, my platoon sergeant. I belonged, they belonged, and we all accepted each other. We didn’t need anything else. I felt alive for the first time, because now I knew what death was.

It was beautiful that all the petty squabbles that Americans dwell on were forgotten. We didn’t fuss about politics anymore. We were at war. We didn’t argue about celebrity news, because we were trying to stay alive and keep each other alive, too. It didn’t matter our backgrounds, or that one of us grew up rich or that another grew up in completely fucked up homes.

We had a Mexican in my team, and a Jew, a black dude, and I was the white guy. Nobody cared. We all wore the same uniform and bled the same color. They were brothers, and they would die for me just as quickly as I would die for them. There weren’t frills, and we liked it. We made fun of each other constantly, slept in holes and smelled like barn animals, but we loved each other, and we were wholly united towards a single cause. I wish America was like that – people getting along and caring about each other.

But as for me, I became simultaneously human and humane over there. In the midst of death, I found life and I grew to cherish it. I don’t take it for granted and I wish others didn’t, either. We are all mere moments and small circumstances away from death, horror, and permanently altered lives. I received my baptism in hell out there, and now I can appreciate heaven. For now, that’s amongst my brothers; my dysfunctional family. We’re one body with many parts. Only one thing torments me about that road north. One thing. It’s that I’m still alive – a single guy without a wife or family – yet my friends – loving fathers and loyal husbands – are not. I wish heaven had taken me instead.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Here's the News

As of approximately an hour ago, I have received word that I am formally approved for return to Iraq as an embed journalist. This has been a long and frustrating process, but now extremely rewarding. I have a little more than three weeks to make any final (all) preparations.

Many will probably wonder why I, having somehow survived three tours already in Iraq, wish to return there at all. As I have stated before, it draws me – powerfully. And this return is different. No longer am I making any valuable contributions to the war effort; instead I am telling stories.

The precise details of my embed are limited at present, but I will be spending at least three months in the northern provinces of Iraq embedded with combat elements operating in those areas. I am uncertain with which branch(es) of the military I will embed. Though I may be partial to the Marines, I am unconcerned about this. They are all human beings, all Americans, and all doing participating in something far greater than themselves. That is the fundamental draw. I want people to know them, to know their stories, their struggles, successes, adventures and horrors. This, above all else, is my passion.

The fact, however, is that I am doing this “pro bono.” I am not earning a paycheck in the slightest. I will pay for my own flight, my own body armor, “press” uniforms, photographic equipment, paper, communications devices, and so forth. I do not begrudge this, but it is going to hurt my wallet to an extent. Body armor alone will gouge me at least $2,000. The flight to Kuwait is the second largest expenditure. I consider this a superb use of my savings, frankly, and I intend to keep doing this until I go broke.

This being said, here is my request: if you like what you read on this blog, if you enjoy the stories, the profiles, the heartfelt emotions from veterans who have struggled for a voice, I ask that you consider donating to help fund my journey. I am not going for myself, for profit, publicity, or for fun. I am going for the stories that need to be told. While I will not rely on donations, they would certainly alleviate an enormous financial burden as I pay my own way to Iraq as a photojournalist. The “donate” link is now plastered all over my website, my three blogs, and you have my utmost assurances as a man on a mission that any donations I receive will be directed specifically and solely to the funding of my overseas embed. This is where my heart lies. It just so happens it’s not where the money lies. I’m following my heart, however, now cash.

The fact that this opportunity has presented itself at all is fairly astounding, considering I have only seriously pursued any sort of writing for seven months, and casually for only a few months more. I will speculate (with confidence) that God’s hand is heavily involved in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. I am praying He also goes with me. I’ll need Him.

I welcome questions of any sort, and will do my best to answer them as promptly as I am able. Please consider that these next few weeks will be somewhat hectic as I make preparations to depart for a fourth tour. Please also pray for my family, who while wholly supportive of my endeavors, is now preparing to watch their only son depart for another tour in a combat zone – this time unarmed. I wouldn’t mind prayer, either, to be forthright. The destination may be the same, but everything is different. I am no longer part of the brotherhood; I am the enemy: a journalist poised to misquote their personal conversations and use them for profit. This will be my biggest hurdle in-country.

So, this is the news. I have just over three weeks to get my affairs in order (again). I will make every attempt to keep writing throughout this, but I can offer no guarantees. Writing habits in-country will also necessarily change. I will provide updates and further elaboration as I am able.

*The "donate" link is at the top right of this blog

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why Do We Bother?

In a move which by most standards is wholly counterproductive to the success and credibility of their nation’s government, Iraq released on Sunday an Iraqi militant (Laith al-Khazali) held in connection with a 2007 attack that left five US servicemen dead. (Read article here).

The incident, in Karbala in January 2007, involved twelve gunmen in five SUVs, attired in “American-looking uniforms" and carrying "U.S.-type weapons,” who after navigating perimeter checkpoints, opened fire on US troops. One was killed outright, and four other servicemen were taken hostage by the gunmen, who fled the scene. A short time later, three of them were found dead in a neighboring province, and a fourth was found with a grievous gunshot wound. He died en route to the hospital. The Iraqi government, however, is apparently not particularly concerned with this.

Laith al-Khazali was detained by US troops in March, 2007, and at some point turned over to the Iraqi government for imprisonment and trial. On Sunday, an Iraqi government spokesman stated that he was released in a “gesture by the Iraqi government as part of the national reconciliation process with militant groups.” Yet according to the US military, the militant group al-Khazali represents, (League of the Righteous, also known as Asaib ahl al-Haq, or AAH), has no quarrel with the Iraqi government. AAH militants instead ”oppose foreign military forces in the country.” What reconciliation, therefore, does the Iraqi government expect to accomplish by this gesture? Accepting AAH has a state-sanctioned militia?

Additionally, AAH may now be contributing to sectarian and regional division in Iraq. AAH militants were at one time in good standing with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, but their recent cooperation with the Iraqi government has branded them an enemy to Al-Sadr and his enormous militia. Will these two groups now focus their activities on each other? If so, then the Iraqi government has accomplished nothing more than inciting further acts of violence by its own people and against its own people. And now, one more known fighter (from a group which incidentally has ties with Iran) is free to contribute to this chaos.

The inexplicable decision to release this militant speaks volumes about the Iraqi government, their poor choices, and potentially a total ineptitude at self-governance. For a culture that proudly claims the Babylonian Hammurabi as their own, a man reputed with establishing the philosophy of “Rule of Law” (and that no single person is above it), they are boldly demonstrating their total disregard for due process and justice. This incompetent government, mind you, is the very one under which US security contractors now fall. Will they receive similar clemency in a “gesture of goodwill” towards the United States, or will they be somehow subject to a different standard? Ignoring justice once severely undermines, if not destroys the credibility of the entire system. For lack of a better way to put it, the Iraqi government is now negotiating with terrorists – specifically those that have proven their lethality and intent on violence. Why would they wish to gain the allegiance of such a group?

The collateral damage from this gesture will be immense. What incentive does the US military now have to exhibit any confidence in the Iraqi justice system? Why should the US hand over militants at all, if odds are these same men will be soon back on the streets committing heinous acts against whatever victims they choose to hate? How do the Iraqis intend to appease the five families now missing a loved one?

At its core, this decision is a blatant insult to the efforts of US servicemembers to improve a country long plagued by corruption, ruled by dictators, and subdued by fear. Does the government’s disinterest in justice fairly represent the country as a whole? If so, why aid those who don’t wish for any aid? If a freely-elected government clearly indicates they don’t care about those that ensured their freedom, then why bother preserving it? Finally, why help a country that is completely unwilling to help itself? This is not a gesture of reconciliation; it is devolution to shameless sycophancy.

To Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, and Pfc. Johnathon M. Millican: rest in peace. A few of us still give a damn.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved
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