Monday, August 31, 2009

Keep Them Flying (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When the weather’s bad out here, the choppers don’t fly, nothing breaks, so we don’t have anything to fix.  It’s nice for a little while, since we like a break every now and then, but it gets boring quickly.  I like fixing things.  It’s what I joined to do.  So as far as I’m concerned, get those birds back in the air.  It’s why we’re here – to make them fly.

I can’t remember the exact dates, but some of the components on these aircraft date back to the tail end of the Vietnam War.  For all I know, some of the airframes were over there, and maybe over here back in Desert Storm.  We’re the last unit to get all the equipment upgrades, so we may have the oldest fleet of helicopters in the entire Army.  The 58s may be the slowest chopper out there right now, but everything still works well.  I guess it shouldn’t come as any surprise, either.  After more than 30 years in service, they have the kinks worked out on the systems.  In fact, our fleet has the easiest maintenance schedule of all the rotor wings out there.

Our job is pretty straightforward.  We keep the helos airborne.  That’s it.  If something’s wrong with the radios, we fix them.  If the parts wear out, we replace them.  If they get shot up and need the skin repaired, we fix it or put on a new panel.  We even maintain the weapons systems, too.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as scrubbing a little dirt out of a rocket tube.  Other times, it’s dismantling an entire machine gun and getting it back online.  Whatever needs work, we take care of it.

What’s humorous, however, is that the electronics are antiquated.  The newest computer technology still dates back to the early 90s.  If they actually updated it, something like an iPhone could handle all the computations.  But that’s not how it works with military equipment.  If it ain’t broke, they don’t fix it, and they don’t upgrade it either.  It makes sense, but it does mean the aircraft are weighed down with heavy systems.  Eventually they’ll upgrade, I guess.

It’s different for us, being aircraft mechanics.  I’ve been here almost eight months, and I’ve only left the FOB [forward operating base] once.  The rest of the time, I’m here.  It has its perks.

For one, everybody’s wife, girlfriend and family is happy that we’re relatively safe.  We only get the occasional mortar or rocket around here, but that’s about it.  We don’t have outrageous schedules, either.  My shift come to work in the morning, fixes or maintains whatever needs attention, and then we head back to our trailers, to air conditioning, and either get on the computer or play video games.  So long as the job gets done, we’re off.  When we leave, another crew comes on to relieve us.

Nobody has ever suggested that I’m not doing my part out here, but if they do, I already have an answer for them.  It’s remarkably easy.

Everybody out here has a mission.  For the infantry, it’s go kick in doors, operate outside the wire, and kill the enemy.  That’s essential.  Whenever they’re in trouble, or they need any sort of medevac or aerial reconnaissance, the pilots are up there talking them onto targets, chasing down cars, providing heavy firepower, or flying out the casualties.  I know for certain that they appreciate that last one.

We’re the ones that keep those pilots in the sky.  If the birds didn’t work, they couldn’t fly.  We’re not out killing the enemy, but we’re enabling the guys on the ground to do it – and as safely as possible.  I can’t count the number of times that we’ve bailed them out.

The whole Army is like that.  Everybody has their job, and everybody’s job is essential to somebody else.  The mechanics make sure the trucks run, the supply guys make sure the ammo gets to the legs [infantry], the cooks feed all of us, the comm guys keep everybody talking, and so on.  Everybody has a job out here, and at some level, we’re all reliant on each other.  If it doesn’t have a purpose, it’s not in the Army. 

People sometimes think that the only thing we do out here is run around with guns and shoot things, but it’s more complex than that.  For every one guy outside the wire, there are probably more than ten that get him there, keep him there, and keep him fed, safe, and supported.  We’re still out here fighting the war, just not in the sense that people typically think about.  But it doesn’t matter.  They need us, we need them, and before long we’ll win it and go home.  I like my part in all of it, and I intend to stick around.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 30, 2009


*Retold with permission.

One of the biggest disadvantages of being on a vehicle recovery team last tour is that they only called you out if something has gone wrong.  It’s not so bad if a vehicle is simply broken, but more often than not you go out when a vehicle has been disabled by an IED [improvised explosive device].  In many cases, they’re hardly recognizable as vehicles.  More than anything, being vehicle recovery means you see a lot of disasters.

When it’s all happening, you try not to think about it – besides what’s necessary to get the job done.  Since it’s so godawful, you construct a defense mechanism and basically steel yourself.  You have to complete the mission, so it’s in your best interest not to think about it.  It starts to hit you a few days later, but only somewhat.  Even after the first tour, I knew I was coming back over here again, so I continued to not think about it.  To be honest I probably still haven’t actually dealt with it.  I don’t think I will until I’m out of the Army.

I remember one morning last tour.  It was about 0830 and I was showering, and I needed to be at work at about 0900.  As I showered, my team chief came in.

“Hey, we got a catastrophic kill.  Hurry up and get out of there.”

A catastrophic kill basically means nobody survived, and there’s hardly any vehicle left to recover; or it’s in pieces.  I asked him who it was, and he gave me the bumper number, which didn’t really help.  I can’t ever remember who rides in which truck.  Who was it, I asked again, and this time he told me.  They were my three closest friends in the infantry.  None of them had made it.  It was devastating, but we still had to go get the vehicle.

When we got on scene, everything was silent.  It was in an area of town they shouldn’t have been in, on a road where everybody always gets hit.  I remember seeing the Bradley, or what was left of it.  It was ripped open at the seams.  The ramp was down, the turret was on the other side of the street, the engine was down the road, and there was a huge hole in the middle of the vehicle.  Everything was blackened from the blast.

In the chaos of the situation, they’d made a mistake about who was in the vehicle.  One of my three friends they said hadn’t made it was actually sitting on the FOB doing just fine.  There was a third, but they didn’t know who it was, and they also didn’t know WHERE he was.  They hadn’t found a body yet.  They just knew he was dead.

I pulled the 88 over [M88 A1 Tank Recovery Vehicle] and started lifting all the pieces onto the truck, one-by-one.  When I lifted the turret, though, we found the third body, completely unidentifiable from the blast.  They had to use his dog tags to figure out who he was.  I didn’t know him.  I felt immediately relieved that it wasn’t my friend, but then I felt awful for feeling relieved.  It was still one of our guys.  It’s a shitty feeling.

As we inspected what was left of the vehicle, I remember seeing a single boot, wedged into a crevice in the reactive armor.  That’s all.  Just a single, twisted, mangled boot.  It was black instead of tan.  I’m always going to remember that.

This second tour isn’t like that, thank God.  It’s nothing now.  It’s waiting.  We hardly do any recoveries anymore.  The IEDs are too small to do any real damage to the vehicles, so the units are mostly able to self-recover and tow them back without our help.  If we do get called out, it’s because somebody got stuck, which is no big deal.  You just go and pull them.  In truth, it’s boring.

But I’ll take boring.  Nobody’s dying out there.  I’d rather be bored than lose friends.  Our company alone lost fourteen on the last tour, so it’s a relief to not have to go through that again.  Boring is fine.  And at any rate, if this was like it was last time, I’m not sure I could do it.  I still haven’t dealt with it all, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like when I do.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something To Chew On

If you were at home one evening in the states, and a man came to your door and told you had twenty-four hours to leave or he would kill you and all your family, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to reach the end of your sidewalk. Such threats are generally poorly received in America. For the sake of this scenario, however, let us presume that he escapes with his life.

Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, you may call the police. Many, particularly in the southern states, will not bother, instead preferring to sandbag all their windows, call friends and relatives with guns, and then assemble to make a final stand in the house. It is, after all, your house, your land, and nobody is going to remove you from it, forcibly or otherwise. Generally speaking, we as a nation and as individuals are willing to fight for things. It’s how we "earned" our country.

Now let us propose the same scenario takes place in an Iraqi household. From innumerable conversations, personal observations, and speaking with leadership in both Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces, this is the outcome: they simply leave. And this is not a generalization. Ask nearly any Iraqi, and he or she will quickly agree.

Some will immediately argue that the Iraqis are fearful police will punish them for firing weapons, but this is a remarkably flaccid rebuttal. Police forces in the past have been either slow or absolutely apathetic about responding to gunfire in their areas of responsibility. In the past, the night sky was often lit with tracers. Not from sustained firefights between US or Iraqi Security Forces and insurgents, but neighbors shooting at each other. It was, at least at time, incredibly common. Ask any US veteran of Iraq who has done his or her fair share of night patrols. The police are hard to find.

Others will say that there is a lack of ASSISTANCE of the local constabulary, but in reality the Iraqis don’t need their help. Since nearly the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqis have been permitted one rifle (and this can include an AK-47 automatic rifle) per military-aged male. I, and thousands of other US military personnel, have searched homes, inspected their weapons, complimented them on how well they’ve cleaned and cared for them, and promptly handed them back to their rightful owners. Every population deserves the right to defend itself against tyranny, whether governmental or not. It is also fairly safe to assume that for every one weapon I was voluntarily shown, at least two or three remained will concealed. In reality, this population is armed to the teeth. Rightfully, we have allowed it.

A few will contend that the "threatened parties" lack sufficient numbers to successfully repulse an attack, but this is inaccurate. Iraq is a tribal country, where most hamlets and sections of villages are populated by one tribe. They are all related, and all family. They are frequently led by sheiks from their own tribe, too. Family and tribal ties have always been important in this culture. Given this, an Iraqi should never be without an ally. Armed family members, under their own cultural philosophy, should flock to the aid of their kin.

Having thus explained away the most common reasons why an Iraqi would be unable to defend himself and his land, we are left wondering one thing: why? Here I venture away from rhetorical argument and present a few ideas of my own. Well, actually only one idea: Fear.

Three days ago, I stood, unarmed, without body armor, out in the open, speaking with a Christian Iraqi in an exclusively Christian village near Kurdistan. The area was incredibly peaceful, though such things are always tenuous in Iraq. The man, in English, was explaining to me how fearful he was.

While the neighborhood was safe, a Muslim Iraqi police officer had been recently stationed in their town, and this Iraqi man told me repeatedly that, "he is making trouble for all of us." Just what exactly that meant he never articulated, but he spoke with fear. Naturally, I inquired why somebody had not gone to this police officer’s superior and filed a complaint.

"The major helps him, or maybe he is afraid of him."

Did he have neighbors that felt the same as he? Yes, he told me, but they were all afraid to speak up, and so was he. They, individually, collectively, and as an entire community, are terrified for their lives. He told me this. He fears he will be killed if he speaks with any Iraqi police superiors about this matter. I cannot confirm if these fears are legitimate.

What I find absolutely baffling is that an entire community can be paralyzed by the presence of but two opponents or threats, but it is commonplace in Iraq. Nobody comes forward in a community of thousands and identifies the one person "making trouble" in their community, because they fear death. When they are threatened and told to leave (as is a common tactic of Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups in Iraq), they simply pack their belongings and depart. Some don’t even pack at all. Many interpreters, as a matter of fact, have simply fled, leaving behind everything: cars, money, possessions, etc. They are trapped in a pattern of survival, not self-defense.

At one time, I thought this was strictly an affliction of Iraq proper, where sectarian violence has run rampant for some time, and everybody seems to have a good reason (in their minds, at least), to hate or fear everybody else. I am discouraged to see this same impotent behavior in Kurdish territories, since I have been hopeful that Kurdistan is today is what Iraq as a whole may be in fifteen years time. This optimism, however, may be misplaced. Apparently, people in Kurdistan are still governed by fear, not a strong desire for self-determination.

And this matter as a whole is perhaps the biggest hurdle Iraqis face: not an inability, but a DISINTEREST in standing up for themselves. I have spoken with hundreds, if not thousands of US personnel stationed in Iraq, and many have stated this problem in their own ways A refusal to take ownership of their own lives. A lack of national pride. A lack of personal pride. A lack of tenacity to stand up for something worth preserving. Apathy. Lack of dignity, and so forth. I can’t say I disagree, either. Iraqis would rather subscribe to fear, ignoring the obvious fact that they possess the ability to band together and transform their country into something hegemonic, safe, and free. They are content to look to the US for help.

Yet while the US and other countries continue to pour billions into this country in the hopes of creating sustainable enterprise, wealth, and longevity, the one thing Iraqis need is the one thing we cannot buy them: heart – an ambiguous character trait that nobody can offer them, but they must find within themselves. Yes, there are legitimate reasons to be fearful, but refusing to confront those who they fear permits the cycle to continue.

I bring this up not to crush whatever hopes Americans may have about a free Iraq, but to illustrate the sharp contrast between our country and the country of Iraq. Where we will quickly fight, they will quickly run – and live. Where we find certain freedoms and rights so inherent to our lives that we are willing to jeopardize personal safety to secure or maintain them, Iraqis are often more concerned with self-preservation. Nor is this a trait limited to strictly one ethnicity or religious group. All feel this way here, including Kurds, Turkomen, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Yazidis, and other ethnic minority groups. It is truly a national, if not international affliction. Most find very little about their lives worth fighting to preserve, and thus they flee the smallest of threats.

Still, I do not believe that all hope is lost, because one of the finest aspects of joint missions, bases, and operations is that the Iraqis are seeing first-hand how Americans will ferociously battle to preserve something that they deem important. In short, US forces are demonstrating character traits which have begun to rub off onto their Iraqi counterparts. But such things take time, which unfortunately is the one thing the Iraqis do not have.

The US continues its "responsible drawdown" throughout Iraq in the hopes that the indigenous forces and local populations have received ample training in self-governance and self-determination to continue unaided in the future. But I would argue that more time is needed to revolutionize a culture. Not eradicate it, "westernize" it, or purify it, but encourage it to become better. These things will take time. Until they are fearless before the small numbers of insurgents in this country, they will remain prisoners of them. The one thing we need them to have, alas, is the one thing we cannot purchase for them: heart. We can only hope they summon the courage on their own. Very shortly, we won’t be here to help.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved 

Friday, August 28, 2009

A Proud Soldier (by Ben Shaw)

Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When I got back from my first tour, I was sort of surprised at how many people came up and shook my hand and thanked me for my service. I guess it shouldn’t have been a big shock, since I wore my dress uniform fairly often. I was proud to be a veteran. Not exactly proud of what I had done individually, but proud of us. Proud that we went through something challenging, potentially deadly, and we performed unflinchingly. In retrospect, though, I’m sort of humbled to be called a vet. Many more did far more. I just did a little. But I don’t think the term “veteran” is quantifiable. There’s no magic number of battles you have to participate in; one is enough. What makes you a vet is your willingness to serve – not how much you served.

Sometimes I chuckle to myself when people thank me, because when it comes down to it, I didn’t do it for them. None of us did. That’s just not how it works. The thoughts of noble service to country and whatnot begin when we consider joining, peak when we’re sitting in a recruiter’s office signing the papers, and then pretty much fizzle out after we take the oath. No, we don’t renege on what we’re doing, but other thoughts occupy us, like, “my God, what am I doing?” That horror lasts through boot camp, and then it’s replaced by other convictions.

You see, none of us sits around waiting to head in thinking about country, patriotism and all that. Those are the beliefs that encouraged us to join, not ideas that sustain us through a deployment. We’re thinking about how we don’t know a whole lot about the future, but we’re confident it’s going to be tough. We’re thinking about the mission: kill the enemy, and bring each other home alive. That’s what occupies us.

Whenever there‘s a lull in a firefight, the first thing everybody does is holler out to the closest man and make sure he’s okay. When I was a driver, I’d yell up at my gunner and see if he was alright. When I was on the ground, I’d run back to the truck to make sure he was okay. Nobody’s thinking about how what we’re doing is benefiting America; we’re thinking about each other. It might sound somewhat strange, going into a fight to keep each other alive, but that’s what we do. We’re there to make sure we all come home, and make sure the enemy doesn’t.

I guess that after a time we don’t even think about the war itself. It’s not ours to manipulate or control. But we do think about our small part in it. One mission at a time, one firefight at a time. We concentrate on making sure each other is safe, that we have one another’s backs, and that we do our very best regardless of our circumstances. The rest is God’s business. So when people thank me for my service, I think to myself, “I wasn’t for you, man, it was for my brothers; my dysfunctional little family.”

We always had a few guys in our unit who I didn’t really like. In fact, I detested a couple of them. I never wished them any harm, though. During combat, it didn’t matter at all. We all wore the same uniform and fought the same enemy. But during my first tour, these guys were the ones that didn’t make it home, or at least didn’t make it home in one piece. I know it’s not my fault, but I still felt badly. After that, I checked my emotions. I focused on what was more important: making sure they were okay.

People used ask me my opinion of the war a lot. Well, actually, more often than not they’d tell me their opinions. But either way, I’d try to give them a lengthy explanation about how one aspect is going well while another area needs work. Or I’d talk about how I think it’s important that we be here or how Iraq is more stable, or even how a US presence in the Middle East was perhaps inevitable. Now, though, I don’t do that. There’s no real way I can know all that. My part in everything was small. We rode around a lot, got blown up a lot, and did our best to complete the mission. I didn’t observe the war as a whole, so I can’t speak about it with any sort of intelligence. My take is myopic. I really don’t think asking a veteran his or her opinion of the war is even a particularly good idea, anyway. We don’t have an opinion on it; we’re just sent to fight it. Any opinion we do have is rooted in ignorance.

If people ask me about the war now, I have a different answer than I used to. I don’t go into the long diatribe about my opinions on US foreign policy. The truth is I don’t know much about it. Instead, I speak from my own experiences. I tell them that there are a few things I know. I’ve seen the enemy, and I know he’s real. I’ve seen what he does to us and civilians alike if given the opportunity. And, I know that he needs to be stopped. That doesn’t come through trying to make a friend of him, because he will murder you. It comes from killing him. I know it doesn’t really answer their question, and it sounds awful, but it makes an important statement: wars exist because evil people exist, and they need to be stopped before they carry out that evil on others. So, if the war is intended to stop those evil people, I guess it’s a good thing. Aside from that, I hold no opinion. My part was small.

But when you get out there, your mind is remarkably clear. You’re not even really worried. You might be edgy, but that’s because you’re expecting something to go wrong. You know what you have to do, how to do it, and you just pray you don’t lose any friends in the process. Backing down isn’t ever an option; you just get it done. It’s not fear of consequences if we don’t, or mindless obedience to orders, but because we know it has to be done, and we’re the ones that volunteered to do it. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, too. Not what we accomplished or how big the operation was, and certainly not how many of the enemy we killed. That’s something we only do because it’s necessary, not because it’s fun. No, I’m proud that we know what we’re doing is dangerous, that we may not all come home, that we may never see our families again, and the only thing we’re worried about is the man next to us. I think that’s what makes us good. It’s not about us; it’s about somebody else.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 27, 2009


*Retold with permission.

When the raid went wrong that time, a man died in my arms and I lost a friend. Now, months later, I’m stuck thinking about it still, and knowing it was completely preventable. It was the consequence of bad leadership.

This particular frag-o [emergency mission receiving only a “fragmentary operations order”] was to bring in a high value target (HVT) who intelligence reports had just learned was hiding in a house in Mosul. We had to act swiftly, since once we received intel, it was usually on a short time until THEY somehow found out, too. Without much preparation, we threw together a joint mission of US and Iraqi Police personnel and headed to the raid site.

Since US forces are shifting from the forefront of operations to instead assisting and enabling Iraqi forces, we would provide the secure cordon [perimeter] for the raid while Iraqi Police actually entered the building and apprehended or eliminated the target. This man would, after all, go directly into Iraqi custody – not ours.

We went out there with a sizeable force – more than enough to completely surround this man’s home with heavy firepower – and the Iraqi Police came similarly prepared with a number of officers to conduct the raid itself. As we raced to get into position around his house, I got on the loudspeaker and made my announcement.

I told the guy that it was over, that he was completely surrounded, and that the best solution for him was to surrender and come out of the house with his hands up. If he did not, we would come in and get him, and he would probably die. It was over for him. There was no way to escape.

He responded that he was going to send out the women and children first, for their safety, and he would come out after them. When we agreed to this, the door opened and about seven women of various ages filed out, along with one boy. After we moved them out of harm’s way, I found the man’s wife and asked her if he was armed. She said yes, he was wearing a suicide vest, carrying several grenades, an RPG [rocket propelled grenade launcher], and a pistol. Great. It looked like he wasn’t going to give up at all.

As if on cue, the guy started shooting at us from the house, so while the Iraqi Police took cover, we fired on the house with the 25s from the Bradleys [25mm main gun – which fires high explosive rounds]. Each Bradley put a short volley into the house before stopping. After a few moments of silence, the guy starts shooting at us again. Once more, the Bradleys fire into the house, and once more, he starts shooting back.

After the third time, the guy didn’t fire back. Presumed he’d been killed or wounded, the Iraqi Police got ready to kick in the door and grab him. But, my captain intervened. He wanted US to move in, not the police, even though that was neither the plan nor Coalition Force policy. No, he felt that it would be better if we did it, not the Iraqis. Though they protested, they eventually agreed to stand by while we pushed in onto the target.

The captain had ordered my sergeant to take the lead, and I was close behind. We would enter and clear the building room by room. Kicking in the door, he rushed in. He wasn’t three feet inside the door when I heard gunfire and watched him fall. Behind him, everybody took cover, including the captain.

As I reached into the doorway and grabbed his ankles to drag out my sergeant, the man inside starting shoot at me, too, but we somehow managed to pull him back outside. When we looked him over, I could see the bullet went straight into the center of his forehead. I sat on the ground and cradled his head in my arms. He was still alive – barely.

“Gillum,” he muttered weakly, and then he died. I knew what he meant: “kill him.”

And we did kill him. Backing away from the house, we radioed for helicopters to demolish it completely. Sifting through the ruins later, we discovered that the guy’s wife had lied to us. There was no RPG, suicide vest or grenades. There was only a pistol; the weapon he’d used to kill my sergeant.

If the captain had let the Iraqi Police do their job like they had wanted to and he was supposed to do, my sergeant would still be alive. I still don’t know why he made this call, but I personally think he wanted to be part of the action. But, he made is sergeant go in first – who paid for his commander’s ambition with his own life.

The Soldiers all knew what happened, and so did the Iraqi Police. And they knew it was the result of our captain’s mistake. He’d taken their job from them, needlessly endangered his men, and his decision resulted in one’s death. His mistake was obvious to all of us – even to me as an Iraqi interpreter.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Other Time

*Retold with permission.

When I flew home for R&R [mid-deployment “Rest & Relaxation”], I had a layover in a stateside airport for a few hours, so I settled down inside the terminal, put in some headphones, and tried to unwind a bit. I was eager to get home and get my mind off of Iraq for a couple weeks.

No sooner had I found a good spot and kicked up my feet when a guy and girl approach and start asking me questions – obvious questions.

“Are you in the military?” I was wearing my uniform, so yes, obviously. I politely respond that I am.

What followed next was a barrage of questions about what was “war life” like. What’s it like to be in Iraq? What’s it like to be hit by an IED? What’s it like to arrest or shoot somebody? Have you ever been shot at? And then, without waiting for an answer, they launch into a tag team of, “…because this is what I heard in the news...” In other words, they didn’t want to hear my opinion, they wanted to tell me theirs – based on a new reports which, in my opinion, very poorly depict the conflict over here. Nobody ever has a “boots on the ground” perspective, and few seem to be interested in hearing it either.

I always try to politely answer these questions, since I know many of them are asked out of genuine curiosity, but the reality is that I don’t want to talk about it. R&R, after all, is my time to get AWAY from Iraq and relax – not dwell on where I was and what I think of it.

To worsen matters, these two weren’t the only ones who approached me. It happened repeatedly while I was in the airport, and other airports, too. The audience was often college-aged people, but by no means limited to them only. As for me, all I wanted to do was not think about it, but people kept bringing me back to it, and sharing their uninformed opinions on it.

Here’s a thought: if a guy in the states loses his dog, people will carefully avoid the subject out of respect. Same if somebody loses a relative. They’re considerate of it. Why, then cannot people do the same thing for us?

The most frustrating are the college kids that have taken one course in political science or military history and now consider themselves experts. They are extremely arrogant, often condescending, and attempt to talk down on me or AT me, giving the impression that they know what I’m seeing out there, and are fully versed in international diplomacy and current events. Few, if any, talk WITH me.

The reality is this: few of these people really want to hear what I have to say about it. They’re far more concerned with telling me what THEY think of it – under the very weak guise of approaching to ask my thoughts on the subject. Usually, their opinions are very negative, too, and the product of being fed (or deliberately pursuing) misinformation.

Only once did I hear something positive and polite; when an older man wearing a USMC had with some medals came up, shook my hand, and said, “I know you’re on vacation, but I wanted to say thank you.” And then he kept walking. He knew I didn’t want to talk about it, but wanted to express solidarity all the same – without trying to initiate an unwanted conversation. War, he knew, had unpleasant factors, and neither of us really wished to talk about them.

Out of respect to these people, and out of respect to the military and my uniform, I always answer as patiently and politely as I can. Usually, though, there’s a point when it’s easier to just tell them I don’t want to talk about it, as dismissive as it sounds. I’m really on the verge of blowing up, but I refrain. But, every now and then I just get weary of listening to them and make up a horror story (completely fake), to convey that I don’t want to talk about it. It’s only when they’re disturbed that they get the message. I really don’t want to talk about it. I often find myself just trying to run away from them. And run to get out of uniform to hide from the public as a whole.

When I tell them that I’m actually on “stop-loss,” they immediately want to talk about the movie “Stop Loss,” which is a terrible representation of the military and an enormous deviation from fact. No, we’re not all nuts. No, the feds do not send black helicopters after guys who go AWOL. And no, we are not all trying to sleep with our best friend’s girlfriend. In fact, not all of us are unhappy to be here. It’s part of the contract, so if we don’t know about it, it’s our own fault for not reading the details of the paperwork. I volunteered to serve, and this is what they’re asking of me. So, I’ll do it, and I’ll do my best at it. Eventually I’ll get out and move on to other things. There’s nothing to be gained in complaining about it.

I’m often torn when people approach me. Part of me really has no interest in talking about what’s going on, because it’s not the sort of thing you simply discuss with strangers, or even friends and family. Part of me wishes they’d stop talking to me. Another part of me wants to correct all their misassumptions about Iraq and combat. But ALL of me wants some peace and quiet. We wouldn’t have R&R in the Army unless we needed to unwind and get some rest. When I’m trying to get home, that’s what I want to think about – not continue dwelling on my time in Iraq. R&R means “rest and relaxation,” not “go home and listen to the public tell me what they think about Iraq.” When I want to talk about it, I will. Some other time.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

*Retold with permission.

When the Army released their latest suicide prevention program several months ago, I and other chaplains throughout the Army were sent out to ensure that all personnel received exposure to the new material. Frankly, it’s the best program I’ve ever seen, and it really helps Soldiers (myself included) identify potential concerns and address them before they develop into something more dire. It also gave me an unexpected glimpse into the different mindsets between various MOSs [military occupational specialties] in the military. They view things through very different lenses.

This particular suicide prevention program is unique in that it’s essentially a “choose your own adventure.” Soldiers watch a video introducing characters and situations, and as the plot progresses, they are asked at what point they would consider the Soldier’s behavior concerning, and how they would respond to it (if at all). Depending on their choices, they are shown one scenario or another. Ideally, Soldiers quickly identify the characters in need of counseling, and make an informed, careful choice to best help them. The intent is to prevent conditions that could encourage a Soldier to consider suicide, and quickly intervene when a problem is spotted. For the most part, they do quite well.

From my observation, support units are very savvy in promptly identifying problems and working to rectify them. When we went through the videos, in fact, that wanted to intervene before the program even offered it as an option. They were sharp, and after running through the whole course with them, I was confident that a troubled or unduly stressed Soldier would not escape rapid discovery in their units. It was relieving.

Artillery units also performed similarly well, though admittedly they weren’t as insistent on early intervention as were the support units. Still, however, I left confident that they would quickly handle any situations within their ranks. Like the support Soldiers, they had an eye to recognize a potential danger.

But then there were the infantry guys. Only one platoon was bluntly honest with me, while the rest told me “what I wanted to hear,” no doubt to get the presentation over with as soon as possible. But the honest platoon’s responses were surprising, and not something I’m entirely certain I understand just yet.

As they watched the videos and were presented with options for the next step, they told me what they believed OUGHT to happen, but then also told me would happen in reality. The two were radically different, too. I remember even giving them a chance to change their minds. “Are you SURE this is what would realistically happen in this situation?” Yes, they said, so we proceeded with the less-than-preferred option. They usually chose to ignore the problem.

To make a long story short, the end result was that their character did not receive any of the treatment he needed, and wound up brain dead and wheelchair bound from a failed suicide attempt. They universally agreed that this would be the most likely outcome. The guy wasn’t going to get help from his peers or leaders.

I’ve put a great deal of thought into why this is, and also why their responses varied so drastically from those of the support and artillery Soldiers. The conclusions I’ve reached are only tentative, at best.

Unlike the rest of the Army, infantry troops are relatively unforgiving of their peers, their subordinates, and themselves. It is well-known, and often stated, that their job is to kill people and break things. In their own minds, this requires a high level of fortitude, toughness, and immunity to stress and personal problems. Those who whine too much are told simply to “suck it up.” After all, it was they who selected infantry. Nobody strong-armed them into doing it.

While better judgment may suggest that a Soldier needs to get some help, he is often told to deal with it. To admit overwhelming stress is to admit weakness – a trait that has no place in the ranks of infantry. It is, above all over areas of the Army, a machismo culture. They aren’t susceptible to emotion; it’s simply not part of their job description. They may know how to best help a Soldier, but they are more likely to tell him to grow up, stop complaining, stop acting weak, and do his job. Tough guys aren’t supposed to shatter.

The next question is how I can best reach these men, or how anybody can reach them, for that matter. Considering their decreased likelihood to identify troubled Soldiers, they deserve more attention. Especially since they, perhaps above all over MOSs, face exposure to greater stress, tragedy, and carnage. Thankfully, I have a few ideas.

The company commander here has joked about what he refers to as my “cigarette ministry,” which is little more than approaching a lone, unspeaking Soldier and asking to bum a smoke from him. He quickly hands me one, and I sit with him. Somehow, in their minds, I’m not actually counseling them if we’re both smoking. I don’t claim to understand it, but I know it works.

The best response distills to this: build a personal relationship with these men. Talk to them and present myself as approachable, which begins with the personal relationship. I also work to overcome the assumption that they’re hard infantry Soldiers and I’m a soft chaplain who will never understand them. It means face time, joining in their activities, smoking a cigarette or two, and developing a level of immunity to their infamous profanity.

And in truth, it doesn’t bother me. I’m developing a thick skin. These men are my charges, obviously, and I enjoy my time out there with them. They’re by all means a rare breed. It is my hope that, in time, they will understand that getting help isn’t weakness, but a demonstration of boldness and strength. It is also unnatural to NOT have some degree of struggle with what they do and see out here. Until this happens, though, I’ll just keep choking down cigarettes. The Soldiers are far more important to me, to the Army, and to the country.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Evolution

*Retold with permission.

We sustained a grenade attack back in May that, in my opinion, had a very unusual outcome. Foremost, we sustained no injuries, for which I’m quite thankful. Also unusual to random small attacks in Iraq, we saw it coming and were ready for it. Lastly, we got the guy. But even that doesn’t accurately explain what happened. There’s a lot more to the story.

In and around Mosul, the biggest threat we face is from grenade and RKG3 (stick grenade-style shape charge) attacks. They run the full gamut in terms of lethality, but the RKG3s are among the few weapons that can penetrate an MRAP vehicle (mine-resistant ambush protected) and cause catastrophic damage. In this situation we were lucky. The device was a homemade, crush-wire grenade loaded with ball bearings.

As we were driving, my gunner (in the second vehicle) noticed a man who, unlike most other Iraqis when we roll through, was walking towards the curb and towards us. He also had one hand concealed behind his back. My gunner, already tracking him on the 240 (7.62 machine gun), waited to see what he would do as we passed. Nothing.

But as the third and final vehicle neared where the man stood, he reared back his concealed hand to reveal a device. As he threw it, my gunner engaged, and the rear vehicle – also watching him, slammed on the brakes in an effort to not drive into the device’s detonation. They were halfway successful.

The improvised grenade exploded on the unarmored hood of their vehicle, clipping antennas, peppering armor, and blowing off a large piece of the hood itself. It also disabled the vehicle as the ball bearings tore through the engine block and associated cables. The thrower, now dragging himself around a corner and down an alley, was clearly wounded.

We quickly dropped the ramp on my truck and ran out to find this guy, who we found hiding unarmed behind a vehicle in the alley. He’d been shot through the upper thigh, so Doc immediately applied a tourniquet and stabilized him as best he could. The Iraqi, in perfect English, was frantically apologizing for what he’d just done. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! This is the first time I’ve done this.” I believed him, too. He’d done a horrible job of it – thankfully for us.

We quickly contacted local elements of the Iraqi Army and explained that we’d just captured and injured an Iraqi man and they needed to come pick him up. He was going to need medical attention, too. By the time they arrived, the suspect was medically stable, on a stretcher, and still going on about how sorry he was. He also begged that we would take him; not the Iraqis. That wouldn’t happen, however. He just broke an Iraqi law. Onsite, IA commenced questioning, and prepared to book him under guard in an Iraqi hospital. So far, the chain of custody was working superbly.

Over the next couple weeks, every one of the key players, to include the Soldiers in my truck, my gunner, and the occupants from the one behind us, all wrote sworn statements describing the event in full detail. These were turned into the Investigating Judge for review. Based upon our written and verbal statements, and those from the suspect, the judge would determine if the case would go to trial. He determined very quickly that it would.

Here is where we were helped by our battalion Law Enforcement Professional (LEP). Each battalion has one; a civilian contractor (almost always with extensive US law enforcement experience) who is an expert in the complexities and intricacies of Iraqi Rule of Law. He also helped with statement preparation, but the bulk of his work was to prepare us for testimony under oath in court, to answer questions to the satisfaction of the judge, and also maintain the chain of evidence to the standards of Iraqi Rule of Law. As far as I’m concerned, he’s an absolute expert, and he provided invaluable assistance.

Due largely to a lack of training in forensics, Iraqi courts rely predominantly on witness testimony, ensuring that they corroborate the scenario beyond all shadow of a doubt. Our LEP prepared us for detailed questions about the suspects’ clothing, actions, height, identity, and our various roles in the incident. It went flawlessly, the case went to trail, and the suspect was convicted. At present, he is in Iraqi prison awaiting a sentencing trial.

This is my third tour over here, so it’s been truly amazing to watch the evolution from what once happened to what happens now. Rather than arresting the guy, putting him in a US hospital and allowing him to wait, without charges, in a US detention facility, we’re doing far better. We detained the man, provide lifesaving medical care on site, relinquished custody to our host nation security forces. Rather than being freed on a bribe or a threat, he remained in custody following his medical care, went to trial with a lawyer of his own (a female lawyer, interestingly), was tried, found guilty based upon our sworn testimony in court, and will soon be sentenced. And we have had the privilege of observing this from the point of capture, throughout the trial, and to the present where he awaits sentencing.

I’m pleased our part was small in all this. Iraqi Rule of Law may be complex, but it’s straightforward. Chain of evidence and custody were maintained, the man received fair trial, and we are not stuck housing him indefinitely in some detention facility. I’m also pleased that none of my Soldiers were injured. Many commanders have not been so lucky. And equally pleasing is this: everything worked; we just stood back and watched. I’d say this is a very overt step in the right direction.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Number of Hats

Not long ago, a National Guardsman joked with me that he believed it requisite that a Guardsman never function in the MOS (military occupational specialty) for which he or she was trained. As an infantryman, he was currently serving as a military policeman. Nor is his situation unique.

I also remember speaking with a Soldier in a quartermaster unit whose job in laundry services had been dissolved, so now she and her Soldiers would be manning machine guns for convoy escort. Just yesterday I spoke with a man who, after nineteen years as an artillery officer, now found himself overseeing public sanitation operations for a large sector of a major Iraqi city. He seems to be doing well. In fact, they ALL seem to be doing well.

Rumors abound about the military’s rigid adherence to by-the-book doctrine; yet while there are probably situations where there is a lack of necessary compromise, I’m not seeing it out here. More clearly, I’m seeing astounding flexibility to a different mission. Such is the nature of counterinsurgency operations (COINOPS). There are a lot of “hats” the military leadership must wear.

On COB Brassfield-Mora, an entire infantry company is dedicated to reconstruction project planning, micro-grants, and facilitating communication and collaboration between various Iraqi security elements. On FOB Marez, a brigade does nearly the same thing. None of the projects, clearly, involve any sort of combat operations. Instead, they pertain to school reconstruction, medical service improvement, utilities, and encouraging the tourism industry. Additionally, they oversee road paving, street cleanup, parking lot construction, and a myriad of other non-military projects. The micro-grants are even more non-military; they’re intended to jumpstart local economies with sustainable, local business ventures. Frequently, they’re orchestrating the construction of greenhouses.

Wait, aren’t these infantry Soldiers? Yes, and just as many are military police and artillery. Moreover, they have received little to no training in the mission they now find themselves fulfilling. And on top of this new mission, they also maintain MOS proficiency – even though the likelihood of them needing it has diminished.

Many will probably ask why the US military is assuming responsibilities for which they received little preparation, and in some regards, this is a legitimate question. I think there are three primary explanations.

First, while the State Department Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) also conduct parallel (and overlapping) operations in these regions, the fact still remains that they are understaffed. Yet, there are more than 130,000 US military personnel in-country. They recently found themselves with a lot more free time. Second, these roles are relatively new (at least in their current complexity) for the military. Prior to June 30th (the date of US pullouts from Iraqi cities), these units were operating in capacities more aligned with their training. With the June 30th drawdown from the cities, these units are freed from the heavy burden of city security (which demanded the vast majority of their forces). Third, and perhaps most important, combat operations (and security threats) still persist – just on a reduced level.

A State Department element may have the personnel necessary to oversee micro-grants, but they lack the logistics and “bodies” necessary to maintain their own security and move about the country. The military remains vital to that aspect of the mission. US troops are still attacked, and they still respond with the ferocity befitting their basic combat training. Until Iraqi Security Forces demonstrate an ability to fully control their own battlespace, the US military will be needed to augment their efforts.

I find it humorous when I see an infantry officer soothing ruffled feathers between Iraqi Police and Army commanders, and funnier still when they inspect building projects. I can only imagine what’s running through their minds. Probably something to the effect of, “this isn’t what I signed up to do.” But that is never articulated. They have their orders, the mission needs completing, and they devote themselves fully to it.

In time, I imagine the mission will evolve into something different, requiring further “hats” be donned by combat troops – probably even further from combat arms. But I remain confident that they will do quite well. And should the artillery officer-cum-statesman be redeployed somewhere like Afghanistan, he will quickly return to his role as an actual artillery officer. The infantry officers, naturally, will be back out in the sand, humping a rucksack, and patrolling. That’s a mission they know thoroughly.

But it doesn’t seem to matter what their actual training and MOS designation may be. They seem uniformly equipped and ready to serve in whatever capacity is required of them. Call them rigid if you wish, but clearly they are not. They are creative, they are flexible, and they’re among the most capable achievers the United States has to offer. I don’t think there’s much they can’t do. To my knowledge, no other military force in the world is this adaptive. I wonder what “hat” we’ll have them wearing next.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, August 21, 2009

And We're Off

“In the second truck we have Adams driving, LT, Fernandez on the gun, and dismounts will be Gangluff, Calloway, and the reporter.”

Everybody stares at me. Damn. I thought they knew my name. Later I learned that they DID know it, but they enjoy bugging me. Fine; I bug them right back.

It is often difficult to tell somebody’s story, since at best I am seeing it through the foggy lens of the storyteller’s selective memory, withheld grief, unarticulated frustrations, and because I was not there. No doubt, every time I tell one, I leave out something that was important to them, and readers are left with an even more broken and incomplete picture of what actually happened or who they are. I fear I do them all a great injustice.

Similarly, I am baffled as to how I introduce the more than 120 Soldiers of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. I could tell the history of Tropic Lightning (25th ID), that of Bronco (35th Brigade), Cacti (2nd Battalion), or the Ace of Spades (Charlie Company). I have no idea where to start. I don’t know enough. Besides this, I’m not here to tell unit histories or combat prowess. I’m here to introduce people, but I suspect I do that poorly, too. I’ve known these men for less than a month.

So what I will do is present brief glimpses into their lives and personalities. They are not “the troops;” they are the sons of America. Few exhibit character like theirs, but it is commonplace among the ranks.

The company commander here told me he looks forward to coming back to Iraq some years from now with his family. He wants to know that the grueling effort that he and his Soldiers have put into this country has amounted to something. He hopes our nation has shed its blood for good cause. A free Iraqi would satisfy that.

When I walked into one Soldier’s quarters, I observed that he writes to-do notes on his markerboard in Korean. He’s white, but his wife is Korean. Another Soldier is covered in tattoos – in Hawaiian. More than once I have betrayed my poor language skills with conversations in Spanish.

These Soldiers come from the Navy, the Air Force, National Guard, Africa, Mexico, the Pacific islands, and other places, but they’re all American now. Some only recently swore in. Nobody cares where they came from, because they’re all here together. Most of the officers are graduates of West Point.

I have observed that the biggest hulk of a Soldier here is also the biggest marshmallow. He attacks people frequently, insisting that, “no, I don’t do steroids,” but then they get back to work and he does it all quite cheerfully. He’s one of the most patient men I’ve ever seen, but his wall locker displays enormous dents reminding everybody how bad an idea it would be to piss him off. I’ve never seen him angry, though.

There is a Soldier here who many used to call short, stumpy and fat, until he outran them all in a recent race. He’s a pack mule, and the first guy I’ve met who’s been yelled at to walk slower during ruck marches. Even with his short legs striding twice for everybody else’s step, he’s somehow built for the Army. He calls his machines gun Irene. All of them.

Some Soldiers have shown me photos of babies, wives, or a small cadre of girlfriends. Children, however, seem to be the most common photographs displayed on computers. Photos are also taped to steering wheels. Everybody misses their kids. One showed me a photo of “his baby,” which was his car. Just a couple days ago, I observed a conversation where a grunt counseled another on the best baby book to read if you have a child on the way. The other sharply disagreed, waving his preferred baby book. His wife had told him not to come home until he’s read it.

One Soldier’s little brother is a movie star, and other Soldiers rarely talk to their siblings. Some will return to great marriages, and others to a mountain of challenges. This deployment has solidified a few relationships, but potentially broken just as many. Like anywhere else, there are problems. But out here, there’s little they can do about it. They’ll deal with it when they return.

Some of the Soldiers here get too much mail, and live in rooms packed with junk food and amenities from home, but a few have received hardly anything at all. Every unit has a few like this. They’ve slipped between the cracks back home, families have forgotten them, and friends don’t know what to say. It’s lonely for everybody out here, but exceedingly so for those who will return to little.

I’ve been regaled with stories of bar fights and boxing, and seen plenty of Soldiers limp back to their quarters bleeding (but smiling) from martial arts training. A few have trained with professional fighters, but it’s rare to hear about it. It’s not important out here.

One Soldier described his Native American background to me, while another, also of mixed Native American descent, told me how much he misses hunting in moccasins in the Pacific northwest. Later, when discussing who won the “Indian Wars,” one remarked that he’s not entirely sure that the white man won. How’s that? “Casinos. They’re getting rich off the white man now.”

I waited for a patrol brief one morning while listening to several Soldiers debate the best way to manage their investment portfolios in the market. Come midday, they were telling stories about encounters with their girlfriends. In the evening, others were debating politics and the absurdity of their current uniform color. Opinions were varied.

Some Soldiers are in this for the long haul, and are eager to return stateside for further training, while others mull over what they’ll do when they get out. Many are weary of deploying. For one, his sixth tour will begin a few months into 2010. Another has been deployed constantly since 2002, save for about four months of each year. He looks forward to getting out. He’s considering college, as are many others. This battalion will be losing a full 40% of its members to either orders elsewhere or the civilian world.

One Soldier has been medically evacuated since I arrived here, and last anybody’s heard he’s in the states. He won’t be rejoining them out here, but will meet them in Hawaii. Even as he lay on the stretcher waiting for his flight, his military bearing shone through as he courteously answered the medical officer’s questions. Humorously, his primary concern was that the runner who packed his bag had also remembered to throw in his dip.

At least two Soldiers in this company conduct regular Bible studies attended by a rotating crowd of other Soldiers (and non-military personnel on this base). Plenty more wear crosses, or images of patron saints. Others hold no opinion, but at least one is Wiccan.

There are scores of Soldiers here who will be receiving medals for actions during the deployment, and I know the stories of a few whose hard work will probably go unnoticed. They were just doing their jobs, and they’re not here for the medals, anyway, but because they chose to be. Few talk about their accomplishments, but one told me what it was like to shove somebody in a bodybag. It was the first time he’d done it, and he prays the last.

I’ve lost money in card games here, invariably trumped by somebody who plays more poker, and learned a new game called “corn hole,” where a beanbag is thrown at a slick piece of elevated plywood with a hole in it. On “company fun day,” they had tournaments with both games, with carefully monitored results. If you and your partner lose badly, you’re never allowed to play as a team again. Period.

Platoon rivalry is serious business, as bands from one platoon randomly accost loners from the other. When it’s time to work, the games stop quickly. They take their jobs seriously, because they have to.

I’ve learned that some of the Soldiers here absolutely love Iraqi cuisine, while others won’t touch it. Even those that do like it have confessed that it caused a series of digestive problems that take forever to go away. Still, they eat the local food and drinking the local “chai” tea. As they sip, they joke about what diseases they’ll get from it.

During the fun day barbeque, the meal was briefly disrupted by an incoming rocket landing about forty feet from where we ate, but it didn’t detonate. In moments, we resumed eating and watched Soldiers from EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) pick up the pieces of the warhead and haul them away for safe disposal. It serves as a reminder that this is still Iraq, and there are still people that wish them dead.

And it is thus that most, if not all these Soldiers have lost friends and comrades over the years and during this tour. Several wear bracelets honoring fallen comrades, and plenty more have photos of friends they’ve lost.

Prior to missions, Soldiers brief every aspect of the mission, rehearse immediate actions and standard operating procedures, and ensure a rigid adherence to professional conduct as directed by the rules of engagement. They are read, in full, before each patrol. As their tour winds down, the company commander reminds them to stay sharp. They have two months left, and he wants them all to finish strong and safe. Ramadan begins on Saturday, a notoriously violent time in this country.

Should I ever visit Hawaii, I have been assured of a dozen places to stay, and invited to plenty of bars, beaches and other attractions across the island. I have been invited to churches, on motorcycle rides, and fishing, too. In truth, if I had served with a unit as professional, hospitable and motivated as this, I would probably still be in the Marine Corps. After years of horror stories about low morale, it’s nice to see something different. This company, in fact, leads the entire 25th Infantry Division in reenlistment rates. They have done well with their mission, and I have been honored to briefly witness this first hand.

And so, as fragmented and incomplete as this piece and my other writing may be, it is my hope that readers will now see men, fathers, husbands and sons where they previously saw sunglasses, flak vests and uniforms. It is also my hope that they see men laboring for their country where before they viewed anonymous players in a contentious war fought in a faraway land. It is my hope that they see people.

Here is what I see: stories, humor, hope, frustration, weariness, loneliness and enthusiasm. Well over one hundred lives lived out in radically different places and unique circumstances, drawn together by a single, uniform oath. I see that oath taken seriously. I see servants, companions, and leaders. I see tactical competence and the potential for combat ferocity. I see men and Soldiers. I see brothers, and I see friends. Welcome them home, for they are your sons.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Few Plans

*Retold with permission

I’ve spent nearly a year compiling a list of things I’m going to do when I get back. It’s a strange combination of things, but everything has a purpose. Most of them are simple, too, but you don’t realize how much you miss those things until they’re gone. Out here, they are. I have a lot of catching up to do.

The first order of business is to take my daughter to Chuckie Cheezes, hand her $20.00 in quarters and tell her to just have fun. I’ve missed her. I’ve missed watching her play.

I’m going to cook my own breakfast next, at whatever hour of the day I feel like eating it. I intend to eat a real omelet with real eggs, bacon, biscuits, and probably a hardboiled egg, too. I’ll eat it slowly. Then I’ll drink a beer. Why? Because I can.

I’m going to enjoy using a real porcelain toilet for the first time in forever, and not having to wear socks and shoes while I’m in there. When I’m done, I’m going to take a shower – without shower shoes. After I’m finished, I’ll just sit down in the tub. You can’t do that here. You’ll catch something. Or perhaps many somethings.

When I’ve determined that I’ve lounged in the bathtub for long enough, I’m going to get out, throw on a towel and air dry. Then I’ll sit on the porch in my towel and smoke a Marlboro Red. Maybe I’ll have a beer then, too.

When I get back to Hawaii, I’m going to “the spot” along the beach. My spot, actually. On the coastline, there’s a small hill of sand, maybe three feet tall. Then there’s a ledge, and a steep drop of more sand right into the surf. I’m going to sit up there for a time, alone, drop my shoes, and tumble all the way into the surf.

When I’ve knocked off all the sand, I’m climbing back to the top of the hill again and riding down on my boogie board. When I reach the breakers, I’ll do a couple barrel rolls and hit the water. This time, I’m staying in. I’m not setting a schedule.

When I get back to my home in the states, I’m going to take the Harley out and ride it to the lake. Not many people know about it, but there’s a trail that runs along the shore. Some distance down, there’s a short break in the bushes on the bank where you get a full view of the water. I’m going to sit there for a long while and not talk to anybody. I’ll have brought a fishing pole and a can of worms, so I’ll do some fishing, too.

You can’t walk anywhere on this base without running into somebody you know. They’re nice people, but I need my quiet time. You never get that out here, or the nice porcelain toilets. When I’m done sitting and fishing in peace, I’ll get back on the bike and ride until I don’t feel like riding anymore. It doesn’t matter how long or short that is; it’s my decision to make, not somebody else’s.

Aside from these few things, I don’t have many plans. I’ll see my family at some point, and a few friends, but more than anything I’ll spend my time alone or with my daughter. She’s the only important one. Every day that I go into work is for her. The rest of my life is devoted to raising her. Out here, that’s mostly been on hold.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 17, 2009

I'm Still Thinking

“In reading all your posts, it seems to me that most, if not 90-95 percent are positive and about people serving their country and doing good blah, blah, blah. But where is the dissent? Where is the bitching? Where are the people just tired of all the bullshit, being led by people who have been [consumed] by stupid?” Surely, he surmised, at least one person here has a problem either with his leaders, his peers, or his mission. As a veteran himself, he has experienced it all personally. In many ways, we all have.

This was the email that I received a few days ago. I have been expecting it, from one source or another. And in truth, these are all legitimate questions.

His inquiry brought back memories of some of my own experiences in Iraq. Days where I am convinced we existed and thrived on anger alone. They were tempered with days we were relieved to simply sleep, or be alive, or have all our limbs. But yes, we were angry.

During my first tour, I remember carrying out orders and missions that made no sense and seemed to needlessly endanger myself and my fellow Marines. I remember belting out a litany epithets at whomever would listen about how what we were doing was an absolute waste of time. I remember being involved in firefights and other shooting incidents where the first order of business upon our return to base was writing statements about precisely what happened. I remember fearing that we would be charged with murder, even when we clearly acted in self-defense.

I also recall wondering why we were issued rifles if our actions were going to be deemed inherently suspect, and concluding on more than one occasion that the Rules of Engagement (ROE) seemed more concerned with protecting the Iraqis than protecting us. I remember muttering that my commanders had fixated on their own careers and reputations at the expense of every one of their subordinates. I remember wondering aloud why I was in Iraq, when it seemed like every effort we made to kill the enemy was checked, watered-down, or altogether halted.

I remember writing emails home to friends and family about some of these matters, venting frustrations about orders and command decisions that, as far as I was concerned, led to the deaths of some of my friends. I also remember being sharply rebuked for doing this – by a family member. In fact, the only people who were interested in entertaining my gripes were various reporters who were hellbent on identifying and publicizing controversy. Fearing repercussions, I said nothing to them.

To make a long story short, when the time arrived for me to either stay in the military or leave, I ultimately left. It was a solid year before I began to see beyond my anger, and another year before I could articulate it with any intelligence. Even then, the best I could state was that I hadn’t yet formed an opinion. I needed to think about it further. That statement also applies now, too.

But, there are several things I have learned since I first set foot in this country more than five years ago. When combined, they form a very solid, clear answer to the question that was posed to me. Here is what I have learned:

I have learned that wars are imperfect situations at best. They are waged by imperfect men and women against a substantially more imperfect enemy, and serve as evil intended to defeat an even greater evil. They are extremely imperfect solutions, though often the only one remaining. Regardless of how well they are conducted, men will die, innocents will die, families will be torn apart, and many more will be driven into poverty as a consequence of the circumstances. I, and everybody else out here, volunteered to participate in war. It helps rein in the anger, to a degree.

I have learned that wars are also chaotic, and unlike other fields of work, a small mistake here may easily translate to one’s own demise, or similar harm befalling another. By virtue of the fact we are human, mistakes will be made. None of us is perfect. To include myself, the United States military does not summon the able, but the willing. Naturally, we will err from time to time. We simply try to keep it to a minimum.

I have learned that reporters, writers, or whatever you wish to call representatives of the media, all have personal agendas. It is innate, and cannot be helped. I, too have an agenda. My only defense is that I have made it clearly known from the very beginning of my writing: to reacquaint the public with the men and women of the United States Armed Forces, to share their experiences, and to remind the nation that, for all their faults and shortcomings, they routinely demonstrate astounding acts of selflessness. I am here to tell stories of their character, because it is inherently good.

I have learned that complaining about the mission and/or the military is usually altogether misconstrued by whomever hears what I say. Conservatives will most likely see it as a betrayal of the ranks and the aforementioned good men and women. Liberals will probably regard it as further ammunition to their argument that this war was unnecessary in the first place. Neither conclusion is correct.

I have learned that people like to demonize somebody, just as they like to find a scapegoat. After the initial shock and response of 9-11, the entire United States saw to blaming somebody for the “security oversight” that permitted such an attack on US soil. They forget that our government, too, is comprised of humans.

I have learned that the product of these investigations and inquiries are often fellow US citizens who at some point or another may have made a mistake or misjudged a threat. Despite their limited responsibility, they are tangible, they are relatively close, and they will often shoulder more of the blame than is appropriate. I have learned that we quickly forget that it was the enemy who hated us and attacked us in the first place. We prefer to attack something more palpable: ourselves.

I have learned first-hand that the military is composed of men and women who answer to the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Congress, and the White House. In other words, the gravest decisions being made are taking place in the continental United States, in many cases by men and women who have never set foot in this country. Those beneath them, from generals all the way to privates, are left with the task of carrying out those orders.

I have learned that despite the fact that orders are coming from mostly civilian leaders in the states, the men and women who volunteered to serve are bearing most of the blame in the public eye. A “concerned citizen” will have a hard time getting his message heard by the President or his congressional representative, but he can easily approach a Soldier or Marine and voice his opinions on the conflict. The President has an entire organization devoted to his safety. US servicemembers have no such thing. It is they that will be screamed at, called baby killers, have food thrown at them, or mocked publically for their service to country. I have learned that blame is being poorly cast.

Finally, I have learned that complaining about something without providing a viable solution degrades the complainer to no higher position than gadfly, an annoyance that has no better suggestions, but is content to merely fuss with the status quo. Problems are not solved with complaints, however, but solutions.

So why have I elected to restrict my writing to predominantly positive stories about the good troops, blah, blah, blah? Because that is my mission. Why have I chosen to ignore or simply not report the negativity, the injustices, the low morale and lack of belief in the mission? Because I refuse to be responsible for any more negative opinion of the United States military. As is, they are already receiving undue blame for decisions in which they took no part. They carry out orders. They do not dictate policy.

Why am I comfortable with the fact that I am effectively silencing the voices of thousands of men and women who I claim to be reacquainting with the public? Because I am protecting them from those who will not understand them – at least not yet. They are already considered ignorant, mindless automatons who gleefully carry out heinous acts against innocents. I will provide no further “evidence” for that baseless accusation.

Why am I not sharing the numbers of troops who oppose the mission and doubt it will work? Because it is not relevant – at least not yet. They did not join to complete a mission, they volunteered to serve their country. It is the decision of our elected and appointed political leadership how and where they will serve. Nor does opposition to the mission in any way alter their dedication to it. Their country called them and they answered. If this is how the county wishes them to serve, they will do so to the best of their abilities, regardless of their conviction that it will work. And that is what I WILL write: they exhibit superb character.

Something more important needs to be remembered right now, and learned, and taken to heart. Tonight, more than 130,000 United States citizens, all of whom volunteered to serve their country, will go to sleep alone, missing their spouses, children and families. Tomorrow, they will awaken and return to duty. That is what the country needs to know.

What is my opinion on the war? I don’t know yet. Ask me later. It’s still waging right now, and the men and women serving in it deserve our fullest attention. I will complain when I have a solution.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Or, We Starve

*From a conversation elsewhere in Iraq.

The reason I’m here is because my children were starving. This certainly wasn’t what I’d planned to do with myself. But, between no work, no money, and a pressing need to feed my family, the Army was the only solution. Even still, how I arrived here in this unit specifically is a long story. It began more than seventeen years ago...

Before I was ever in the Army, I was a Marine – like a lot of Soldiers out here. Just after Desert Storm and fresh out of high school, I enlisted as a Marine LAV Crewman [infantry]. Ans to be honest, it wasn’t what I had expected. A military during peacetime is vastly different from what is in time of war. It’s not as fast-paced, and it’s easier to lose sight of what you’re doing why you’re doing it. I enjoyed certain parts, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a career. After four years, I elected to get out and pursue other things. It wasn’t the life for me.

But I still had an itch. Yes, there were aspects of the Marines that weren’t very appealing to me and a few things I outright hated, but there was plenty more that I missed: the uniform, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, and the knowledge that you’re involved in something greater than yourself. Rather than keep missing it, though, I did something about it. Less than three years after I’d gotten out of the Marines, I enlisted in the Army National Guard – again as an infantryman. It was a good supplemental income.

After years of typical Guard duty, unit was activated to augment Department of Homeland Security personnel at airports, putting me back on active duty from 2003 to 2005. With that, of course, came the aspects of active duty that I didn’t particularly like. When the tour ended in ’05, I chose to get out again. Itch or no itch, it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.

Things were tough for my family and me in southern California. After several unsuccessful attempts to find work, I talked with a cousin in Chicago. He promised me a job, and a place for my family until we got on our feet. They had room in their house, he said. Packing everything we owned into a moving van, we headed to Chicago.

My cousin, however, had not been particularly truthful. There was no guaranteed work, and he hadn’t even mentioned to his wife that we’d be coming to stay. Nor was there any room, at any rate. For lack of anything better, I moved my family into a motel room. I needed work.

Job prospects in Chicago weren’t much better than they were in California, though. In desperation, I started doing day labor, but it wasn’t really fruitful. I had a hard time getting a ride to the pickup point – especially at six in the morning.

Day labor, hard and honest work though it may be, doesn’t provide income sufficient to feed a family – at least not one living in a motel room. My paycheck was mostly spent on the motel bill, leaving entirely too little for my wife and children. And if I were to buy all the food we actually needed, the motel bill would go unpaid, and we’d be literally homeless. We’d spent all our savings on the move from California.

So come 2007, in total desperation, I enlisted into the Army – active duty – this time as a Refueler. Infantry tends to wear you down, so I needed to “reclass” into something different. I’m not as young as I used to be, either. It was by no means what I really wanted to do, but it was work, a steady paycheck, and it would certainly provide for my family. My children needed to eat.

So two years into my “latest enlistment,” I’m in Iraq on my first tour as a Refueler. Thankfully, it’s much more relaxed than the infantry. Unfortunately, though, because of all my broken time, I’m only a specialist [E-4]. That’s even after four years active duty Marines, eight years Guard, and now another two years active duty Army. Basically 18 years on and off. I’m hopeful it’ll change soon. We could use the extra income.

If I’d known that I’d end up here anyway, I’d have never left the Marines in the 90s. I’d be two years from retirement, and a hell of a lot higher rank than I am right now. If I’d known, I’d have done things very differently.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Somehow We Win

“Everybody likes to tell stories about how great they did in combat,” a Soldier recently remarked. I would agree. It’s a matter of pride. I like to recall a time when we were young and did great things. They’ll be tales for the grandkids someday.

He continued: “But usually, we get out there and dumb things happen. We’re not tough and impressive; we’re clumsy and we fall down a lot. It’s hard to be proud when you look like a dumbass.”

I can personally attest to this, too. After a time, you don’t mind telling the story anymore. Personally humiliating though it may be, you learn to see the humor in it. Below is a collection of potentially motivating, dangerous combat situations that had unusual endings…

A friend of mine was on a foot patrol though a small town when the urgent need to attend to business hit him. Finding an alley as secluded as possible, he squatted against the wall, dropped his trousers, and relived himself.

As he leaned against the wall, a bell started ringing. To his total horror, the gate next to him crashed open, and he was greeted by several dozen school children filing out the door into the street. They were met by a Marine whose pants were at his ankles, beads of sweat rolling off his forehead, slowly realizing that he probably just cancelled out the efforts of a hundred public affairs missions. Trying to be polite as possible, he greeted them in Arabic as they slinked past him in total disgust.

“No wonder they hate us,” some will say.


During one tour, a Soldier recalls his unit receiving repeated intelligence reports of a suspect frequenting a certain house. Five times they assaulted the house, each time not finding the target. Except for the time he rode by on a scooter and waved to them. Another time, they kicked in the door, and were surprised to find that the family had prepared dinner for them. They were expected each time.


A Soldier I know was involved in a high-speed air assault wherein two choppers would unload a slew of troops into a landing zone by night, they would quickly reconsolidate, and move on to their objective. It sounds like the stuff of Army commercials.

Well, that is until they determined that the choppers had landed in a field with head-high reeds and interlaced with small canals. They poured out the rear of the birds and sprinted through the weeds to provide perimeter security. Most of them soon found themselves in tangled heaps in small ditches, disoriented, in the dark, and completely covered in mud. Even after the choppers took off they had a hard time reorganizing. It was like playing Marco Polo in the dark, in a combat zone, in high grass. So much for the element of surprise.

Their extraction a few days later was a perfect shot at redemption. In a CLEAR field, the helicopters would land, and they would all collapse their security as they loaded up and flew away.

Unbeknown to them, the field was extremely dusty, and recently fertilized with manure. As the rotors kicked up dirt, rocks and other debris, the Soldier raced out to climb aboard. Breathing hard, they swallowed a lot of dirt. One Soldier recalls an incident with the man next to him.

“As we ran along, this guy made the mistake of running with his mouth open. The dirt and sand was bad enough, but then a huge piece of manure flew into his mouth so hard that he accidentally swallowed it. He slowed down immediately.”

“Oh no! I think I just ate shit!”

“Are you okay?”

“No.” He began gagging, and then vomited all over the LZ – into the wind. So much for redemption.


Another Soldier recalls a night mission where he leaped across a small canal, but was unaware there was another directly beyond it.

“I cleared the first trench, but then I started to fall into the next one. I tried to push my SAW [light machine gun] away from me, but I forgot I still had the sling around me. It was just like a cartoon. I slid down and in, through the mud on the bottom, up the far side, and then I went airborne right back into it face-first. My night vision goggles smashed into the side of my head, and my face hit my SAW. I also messed up my back pretty badly.”

His injuries were concerning enough that the mission was temporarily halted to assess his condition. The medic thought he’d need to be evacuated, since he was having trouble walking. He radioed back to base.

“Who was it,” came the reply, and Doc relayed his initials and last four.

“Oh, him? What a dip shit. Keep moving. I’m sure he’s fine.” In time he was, save for a bruised back and an equally bruised ego.


As is becoming quite obvious, canals are the source of much trouble. It was in 2004 when, running along one trying to halt a car, I found myself flat in another ditch, up to my chest, still aimed in at the car. They stopped, thankfully, but started laughing at me.

I remember dejectedly wandering back to the humvee, hoping nobody had seen me. Of course, we had a key leader with us that day.

“First Sergeant, you didn’t see what just happened, did you?”

“I did, but I knew you had things under control.” He turned away, laughing.


And finally, this:

As a friend was on a patrol through some farmland, they came to a canal and located a section shallow enough to wade across. After a few crossed over, my friend jumps in to do the same. He missed the shallow section.

“As soon as I jumped in, I knew I was sinking. I raised my SAW above my head, and then sank into the mud – completely underwater. I couldn’t get out, either. We were weighed down with too much gear. All I could do was shake my SAW and hope somebody heard the links rattling together. If they didn’t, I’d drown.”

Moments later, they heard him, scrambled into the muck, and extracted him. Gasping, he had one thing to say:

“Don’t cross there. It’s deep!”


If we’re the best, how incompetent must everybody ELSE be?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, August 14, 2009

When We Walked In War

*Retold with permission.

During my last tour, we patrolled into a relatively untouched area and were ordered to scout out and build a patrol base from scratch. We were coming to stay, not just pass through. With the threat being what it was in that area (arguably among the worst in Iraq), we were still expanding our presence.

Midway through the patrol, we stopped in a house to rest, posting guards on the roof to cover all the sectors. It was a hot area, we already knew, so Abrams tanks were on the way in to reinforce us.

No sooner had we gotten comfortable on the roof when we start taking pretty accurate small arms fire from across the road. There, making little attempt to hide himself, a man ran from building to building, fired a few rounds, and then moved again. Whenever he popped into view, the 240 gunners opened up on him until he ducked away again.

“Jack, Tommy, can you guys see him?” my platoon sergeant called to us. I don’t know about Jack, but I couldn’t see the shooter from where I was on the roof, so I low crawled along the knee wall to another vantage point. On the ground, a squad of Iraqi Soldiers stood there, for some reason not shooting.

“Hey, Jack, go with your team leader. You guys are going to be the maneuver element and flank him while we keep firing.”

“Roger.” We ran out of the building as the firing stopped. Nobody was shooting back anymore.

Sprinting down the street, turning, and carefully patrolling back up along the edge of a small palm grove, we found him lying on the ground. We called the medic. As Doc started working on him and patching his wounds (he’d been strafed pretty badly by one of the gunners), we hunted around nearby and eventually found his AK in the palms under a bunch of leaf litter. Doc’s immediate assessment was not good. This guy would need a medevac flight if he was going to make it. A ground evac wasn’t going to be fast enough. Several of us wished we’d been better shots.

In short order, the bird arrived, picked up the insurgent (with Doc as his escort on the flight), and flew off. We would keep patrolling on foot.

As we walked, we were attacked again with small arms, but this time the shooter was being less obvious about his location. As we took cover in a nearby house, one of the riflemen on the roof spotted him and took a shot with his M4. The firing stopped again.

Executing another flanking maneuver, we eventually came upon him. He was bleeding badly. We called for a medic again.

Doc kept him alive and marginally stabilized him, but he was going to need a med flight, too. So, we called in another bird and fanned out to provide perimeter security when it landed. When they had taken off, the CO [commanding officer] made a decision. We would clear the whole village, building-by-building.

By that time, the Abrams [tanks] had arrived, and they’d scan for an hour or so and rotate back to base for refueling. While they guarded the road, we moved through the whole village. We approached a small palm grove and cleared it. Then houses. Then more houses. I remember the CO asking, “you guys walked this far?” Yes we had, and we were suffering, too. And that was only the first time we cleared that village. By the end of things, we’d done it at least three times.

Anyway, we stayed in that house for two weeks before relocating to better one a short distance down the road. We also got mortared all the time in that position – most of it coming from somewhere inside Jenog village.

As we guarded one day, I heard a whistle through the air and a mortar round crashed down about 200 feet from our position. Before the dust had even settled, one of the sergeants grabbed me and we moved out to the impact site to do a crater analysis. The sergeant took some measurements, made some calculations, and called in a counter fire grid to the base. If they were still in that spot, they were in for a surprise. Moments later, we felt the earth shake as artillery shells pounded their position. That’s what they get for firing on us.

That same week, the engineers arrived with two conex boxes and a pile of Hesco barriers. They would be building our permanent patrol base for us. Just as they began to install the guard tower, they started taking fire, picked up their personnel, and just drove away, leaving us with a heap of building materials we had no idea what to do with. The CO ordered us to go clear the village again, which we did, but we didn’t find anything.

As I manned the guard tower one day, a blue bongo truck approached from a distance and wouldn’t slow down, ignoring our commands to stop or turn around. Defensively, we fired a few rounds and it completely disappeared, which was puzzling. After closer inspection of that area, we discovered that there was another road on the far side of the river, complete with another small village we hadn’t cleared. It was obscured from view by the river and some palm groves. Eventually, we were sent over to clear that village, too.

I remember approaching a house over there and seeing a girl out front completely covered in flies. You could tell she was mentally disabled. Through an interpreter, her mother told us that it was just her and her daughter living there with her husband. As we searched the house, we found det cord [explosive cord used to detonate IEDs], as well as a bunch of washing machine timers [commonly used to initiate IED detonations].

“What does your husband do again?”

“He’s a farmer,” she told us. We couldn’t find him anywhere, but detained three or four other suspicious males in the vicinity. While on a nearby roof, we started taking fire, yet again. As it continued, the CO wanted to move to a building some distance away that had better cover and overwatch. We would use that position to launch a flanking maneuver. Getting to that building, however, meant a dead sprint across more than 100 yards of open terrain.

“Jack, you’re in charge,” the CO hollered at me.

“Sir, what about the detainees?”

“Take them with us!” he roared, and ran off to shoot some more. I was only a private.

I found my sergeant and told him what he CO had said.

“What! That’s bullshit!” He quickly devised a better plan.

In small groups, we would “bound” across the danger area. One squad would remain in the original building as the base of fire, another squad would be assigned to haul the detainees, and when everybody else had gone across, my teammate and I would carry up the rear.

I have bad luck, though, so as the CO was sprinting across and I was firing, my SAW [M249 Squad Automatic Weapon] jammed. Silence. For a brief moment, I could hear the CO screaming at me as he kept running towards the far building. “WHAT THE HELL, YOU ASSHOLE! KEEP FIRING!” The 240 gunners on the roof, realizing what happened, picked up the slack and started firing to cover him while I worked on my SAW. That’s one of the things I don’t like about SAWs: they always jam when you need them to fire.

I got the gun back up fairly quickly, and before long, it was just me and my team mate Arnold left to run across the danger area. When he tapped me, I got up, and we both took off at a dead sprint.

Farm fields in Iraq have pretty uneven terrain, however, due to a crisscross pattern of irrigation ditches. As we ran, I stumbled in one and fell.

“Oh shit!” Arnold yelped, and doubled back, hauling me to my feet. Thankfully, we arrived without injury.

“Jack, why the hell did you fall back there?”

“I didn’t mean to, Sergeant.”

“I sure as hell hope not!”

Before long, the shooting stopped and a team of scouts arrived to help us find whoever it was firing at us. While they flanked around the palm grove, we would push through it and hopefully flush him out. We’d collapse on the objective.

When we did, though, neither team found anything, so we kept moving towards some huts in the distance to clear those too. By this time, we’d basically given up. Whoever he was, he was long gone. We were mistaken.

As we approached the huts, we saw some movement in the tree line – a guy crouched low and moving cautiously with an AK. As I raised my SAW to fire, Arnold fired first – right next to my ear.

“Why the hell did you do that!?”


When we ran up to the guy, we found him on the ground, shot in the head. Doc tried his best to save him, but he died right as the medevac chopper arrived.

“Brown, you took my shot.”

“Sorry.” It didn’t really matter. We’d gotten the guy.

When we had wrapped things up, we started back to our patrol base. We’d walked, patrolled, or run a good 10-12 kilometers.

That’s all we did on that tour: walk. House-to-house searches and foot patrols. And it’s not like that anymore, either. We used to walk everywhere, but now we just drive around in armored vehicles and try not to get blown up. Aside from planned stops, we really don’t even get out of the trucks. It’s a lot different now.

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