Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Closing

In August of 2004, while on a mounted patrol outside of Mahmudiyah Iraq, an IED struck two trucks in front of mine, causing concussions and severely injuring the gunner in the turret. While Doc dragged him out and went to work, insurgents in the nearby buildings and treeline started firing on us. When Doc discovered he was still in the line of fire, he dragged his patient to the other side of the truck and continued working. The rest of us fired back, gathered our casualties, and ran a chaotic ground evacuation back to base. It was my first firefight. I think I’ve done a poor job of describing it to people, but I’ll keep trying.

In 2006, while attached to US and Iraqi Special Forces, my squad conducted a targeted hit on a high-value target west of Ramadi. After turning over the package to other US forces for interrogation, we retreated into the desert wadis to sleep. In the morning, we warmed ourselves with coffee while huddled around trash fires. When it started to rain, we were miserable. While on watch that night with a friend, I had one of the most memorable conversations of the deployment. I’m still in close contact with him, too. In fact, he e-mailed me this morning.

In 2007, we and scores others assisted with the casualties of a carbomb that detonated directly outside the base, killing dozens and injuring unknown dozens more. In their haste to evacuate some of the living, the Iraqis unintentionally ran over a few of their dead. Our Doc helped save a few, but better remembers those he couldn’t save, especially one little girl. I think I’ve talked about it more than Doc ever has. It may be years before he’s ready.

About two months ago, a rocket landed about 35 feet from where I stood. Thankfully, for me and the Soldier standing next to me, it failed to detonate. Less than a month ago, the Stryker in which I rode struck an IED, totaling the vehicle. None of the passengers, however, sustained any serious injuries. I have been fortunate. Most of my friends have been through far more. A few of them are dead now. They were all under 30. We rest of us are now tasked with telling their stories.

I’ve navigated through night vision goggles as my driver roared through the desert and prayed I didn’t lead him off a cliff. More than once I nearly did. I’ve slept with a rifle. I’ve awakened in a puddle of water, surprised by unexpected rain during the night. I’ve cooked food over trash fires. I’ve fired most of the common weapons in the Marine Corps infantry arsenal and seen the others fired on various occasions. I’ve expended more than my fair share of $70,000 missiles. I’ve been fired upon.

I’ve helped arrange weapons caches for detonation and rigged them with explosives so powerful that our safety standoff is more than a kilometer away. I’ve heard rockets whine overhead and seen the damage they cause on detonation. I’ve experienced more than enough mortar attacks. I’ve been in firefights and other situations where I’m forced to make a kill/no kill decision which may have determined if my comrades lived or died. A number ARE dead, and I, like many others, still sometimes wonder why I was spared and they were not. I have to remind myself that bullets and shrapnel don’t discriminate.

I’ve missed home so badly that I didn’t care about anything else, potentially at the expense of my leadership decisions. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Even still, I’d do it again if my country so called me. So will millions of others veterans. Some of this never leaves you, regardless of how much you hated it at the time.

By nearly all western standards, these are horrifying events and experiences, and they come with more baggage than any of us could have anticipated. These, as well as the loss of friends, are the brief occurrences that will permanently shape a servicemember. They are the short ten minutes of a deployment that stick out above all else. Everybody’s experiences are different. Believe it or not, mine were comparatively tame.

Many still wonder sometimes if they’ve made a difference at all in the grand scheme of things. Depending on how it’s defined, victory is either very distant or very near. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to agree to its definition. I find some comfort in my uncle’s sagacious remarks: “The warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.” He’s entirely correct. Where we served is far less relevant than the fact that we volunteered to go. That we stood up, in a crowd of Americans unwilling to leave the comfort of their lives; that has made all the difference. It’s difficult to define patriotism. It’s more of a sensation; or perhaps a belief.

For some, because they are young, this is first great thing they have done with their lives. They will return, move forward, and do other great things. For a few, this may also be their last great thing. Either they will fall doing it, or they will return to lives that don’t interest them. Much of it is mundane – even in the military. And after traveling hither and yon with a rifle, calamities at home are unimpressive. Those out here are always well-remembered, though poorly articulated.

And there’s always more to think about, too. There’s the challenge of how to internalize one’s service. Are we victims, or are we battered servants? Were we well-employed, or were we misappropriated? Do we choose bitterness, or do we stand proudly? Do we let grief overwhelm us, or do we find reason to smile through tears? We freely gave something, yet something else was taken. We viewed it simply at first, but walk away astounded with its complexity. Our own thoughts are muddled.

We were youthful once, and enthusiastically fought a war. The public lost interest and some forgot, yet still we fought it. We’re still fighting now. For those veterans deprived a resolute victory, the war may never end. Or at least not for quite some time. It hasn’t settled well with us.

But beneath the layers of emotion, the trauma, the loneliness, the complexity, excitement, confusion and grief, there’s one hell of an adventure, for better or for worse. Five years and four tours later, I still struggle for words; and I’m not the only one. People need ears to hear, though. Not to idolize the military or aggrandize war, but because these stories are our nation’s history, and we won’t be around forever to tell them. It’s a virtual race to write it all down. Still, I have to try.

The friend who e-mailed me this morning wrote me with devastating news. Two days ago, another one of our veteran friends took his own life. After all his years in the military, all his combat deployments and all his adventures, I wonder if he found words to tell his story. I wonder if anybody was listening when he did. Finally, I wonder if it would have made a difference.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two Perspectives

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.


*Retold with permission.

Without a doubt, we all get a lot of attention out here. People stateside go out of their way to take up donations for us, pack boxes, send us things, pray for us, and put yellow ribbons all over the place. While I think that’s good and I certainly appreciate it, they’re not doing so well in another area: supporting the families of those deployed. In fact, I think our families are virtually neglected.

The reality is this: when we deploy, it’s such a dramatic change from what we’d doing stateside, we stay plenty busy – occupied with learning and excelling in our new mission. Sure, it’s lonely, but we’re often too busy to think about it. Families, however, undergo enormous change, endure absent spouses, and still have to function. They often do so with little to no support.

I know the military is making an effort to assemble a support network within the FRG (family readiness group), but there’s only so much that they can legitimately do. The fact still remains that an essential player in a household is missing. The hardest thing out here for me is separation from my wife. She’s my better half, of course. And that’s the hardest thing for her, too – and actually more so than it is for me, since she still has to keep the family running. Out here I have little part in that.

Back in the states, I would get up and go to work, and when I came home, I’d cook dinner. As necessary, I’d also take care of “handyman” chores. Everything else my wife already managed: bills, banking, everything. My absence only means she has to cook one more meal a day and maybe some fix-it stuff. But that’s not entirely accurate. We aren’t merely two people who cohabitate; we are one – and my wife and I are both operating at half capacity as a consequence of our separation.

I think that deployments are harder for the families of reservists, mostly because they’re accustomed to our status as reservists. We’re gone one weekend a month, and then two weeks a year. They’re used to that, not to having us disappear for well over a year. It’s a shock, because you never really know when it’s going to happen, and then you only receive fairly short notice. Surprise, your spouse is leaving. Then we depart with lots of people in the states supporting us, and they’re left to their loneliness, silence, and a home and family that still need to function smoothly.

The number of detriments to all of it begs the question why I volunteered to do this. I have easy explanations. First, it’s for my family. This is a reliable, honorable job, and it provides an income to support them. Second, it’s something I can do for my country, and something I’ve always wanted to do. Third, this is for my children. Not in the conventional sense that I’m trying to pay their college funds, but something else.

Here’s how I look at it. I want my children to know what military service is like. I want them to know that it pulls away mom or dad at random intervals and puts them in harm’s way. I want them to know that while it’s something to be proud of, it comes with a number of costs – potentially high ones not only for me, but for them as well. I want to be a hero for them, and right now that means doing something difficult for all of us.

The reality is that at any time in the states, I could be run over by a bus and killed. There is an inherent risk to life, and it’s unavoidable. And yes, there are added risks out here, too. But, I’d rather go out doing something meaningful than any manner of accident or “tragedy” in the states.

So why do I want my children to know what military service is like? It’s simple. I want them to be equipped with enough information and insight to make wise decisions about whether or not they wish to serve. They will have an intimate knowledge of the separation it causes. If they determine that they accept the downfalls and choose to do it anyway, I will support them. If they wish to never go through it again, I will support that decision, too. At least now they will have the information to know what it does to a family.

People like to talk about how we’re doing such great things for the Iraqi people, but they’re not part of the equation for me. This is not a part of the world about which I particularly care, and nor do I have any expectation that they will thrive under democratic leadership. That’s not my concern. This is for my family, and for my children. The hard part is what it does to my family.

During the Family Readiness Group briefing, we learned a bit about programs available for our loves ones in the states, mostly our children. There are organizations that collect donations and cover the expenses of involving our kids in some sort of extracurricular activity. They’re not so much trying to train athletes as keep the children of deployed US troops busy – and therefore less fixated on familial struggles or the absence of a parent. Thanks to one of these programs, my son will begin learning to box fairly soon.

Despite the programs available, there’s entirely too little available for the families of deployed servicemembers. We get all the care packages, the prayers, and media attention. They get virtually nothing. It’s assumed that because they’re not in harm’s way, they must not be going through much – which is untrue. They’re trying to sustain a broken, long-distance marriage. I’d say that merits some attention.

How can they be helped? More support, more awareness of the sacrifices they make while we’re overseas, more programs for our children, and assistance with whatever minutiae their spouses handled when he or she was home. That’s just the beginning. How about prayers? How about a nation devoted to encouraging and caring for them in our absence. We’ll be okay out here. We’re busy. They need the help back in the states. Unfortunately, though, the nation can help with everything but the one thing they want: to simply have us home. Only time can resolve that one.



*Reprinted with permission (from email interviews).

First, thank you for speaking with my husband, and for what you said about our marriage. He and I are indeed very close. We are one, as you will see. Also, thank you for taking the time out to speak with me. I will try to answer your questions as best I can.

For the most part, people who I don't know very well, yet still know my husband is deployed, have been supportive. They ask how we are doing and how my husband is doing and then reassure me that we are all in their prayers. The conversation usually turns to something else fairly quickly.

The one thing that angers me, though, is when they follow all that up with, “our troops shouldn't even be over there, getting involved in all that mess; they don't even want us there." But people have lost sight of why these brave Soldiers are there and what they are doing for us. They mistakenly think they have all the facts, when in reality they have but few. They’re impatient, and I don’t think any of them understand that our entire way of life as Americans is in jeopardy.

When my husband went back in to the Army Reserves after being out for thirteen years, and after serving in the Persian Gulf War [Desert Storm], I remember somebody asking him, “why would you do that? You have a family.” His response was that he would rather be over there [in Iraq], than have them [the terrorists] over here.

He is doing this not only for his country, but for his family to be able to sleep soundly at night, to play outside during the day, and never fear that we may face another 9-11. All the protestors speaking out against the war have forgotten where their right to speak freely and openly came from. Somebody fought to preserve that. The whole world over, people are dying for speaking their minds, but here they do not. They take it for granted, but it came at a high cost – especially to the military and their families.

Yes, the families of the troops might not be fighting a war. But in order for our Soldiers to concentrate on THEIR jobs and on coming home safely, they need to have total confidence that things at home are being taken care of without any worry to them. That’s our war back here – keep everything running flawlessly, so the Soldiers can concentrate on what’s important to them out there. I tease my husband by telling him he's on vacation. He laughs, since he knows I don’t seriously believe that. My better half, my lover, my best friend, and father to my children isn't here. That's my reality.

We have three children, two of whom are teenagers, and Daddy’s girl is seven. Every responsibility we shared as partners: bills, raising a family, the house work, cooking, cleaning, homework, sports, taxi service (for the kids), taking them to school, picking them up from school, and much more – that’s now solely my responsibility.

I don't allow people to see me at my emotional worst. I cry, scream, curse and hate life for a few minutes, but then I pull myself back together. I have to for the sake of my kids. I don't complain to people how hard it is on me. I tell them I'm doing fine. That's because someone once said to me, "Well he joined, it's not like he didn't know he was going, right?" I don’t think anybody has any interest in listening.

I honestly feel people just don't give a damn about what the families go through back here. Or perhaps they do, but they’re too busy with their own lives to consider somebody else’s. I know everybody has a hectic life; not just us. I’m sure someone completely unaffiliated with the military can easily tell me what kind of horrible day they’re having. Not only military families are busy. Everybody is.

This is absolutely the hardest thing my kids and I have ever endured. My husband is the love of my life. We are ONE, and yet I have to live without him for a year. I worry about him every day and I pray every night for his safety. As hard as this is for us, he is our HERO. My kids and I are so proud of him and what he and all the other brave Soldiers are doing for us. I proudly display my "Army Wife" sticker on my car because I truly believe I am immeasurably blessed to have such a brave man as my husband.

I guess, in the eye of the public, you could call us military families "The Forgotten Ones". Though overlooked, we are the backbone to the Soldiers fighting for our country. Without us, they would fall.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Photo

When they stepped off the Blackhawk, it was difficult to resist the urge to run over and help them. Several were limping badly, yet nobody moved. Despite the sincerity of the offer, it would be received as an insult. Still proud, and still persevering, none would consider himself crippled. They walked to the trucks unassisted and climbed in.

Four lost limbs to IEDs or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). One suffered a hip disarticulation from an RPG attack. One is missing an arm, another an eye, and the last suffered severe Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). All eight are back in Iraq to observe first-hand the products of their sacrifice. A number are still on active duty.

The battalion commander first showed them the Wall of Heroes, the building’s foyer dedicated to their men who have fallen in the line of duty. Before their medical evacuations, two of the Soldiers visiting were once stationed on that base. One limped over to observe their photographs. The other Soldier leaned close enough to see with his one remaining eye. The photos were all of friends. One choked back tears. Camera crews from the media pool scrambled for photos. The last unit’s section of the wall is noticeably empty. They lost none in an entire year of operations.

Next, the battalion commander drove the group to the Iraqi side of the base to meet their division general. Outside, the Iraqi troops stood at attention, while inside the general greeted each man individually, thanked each for his sacrifice, assured him that they had not served in vain, and that, “your blood having mixed with ours,” he was forever welcome and honored in Iraq. Two Soldiers, standing awkwardly on prosthetics, fought back tears. The Marine announced how much of an honor it was for him to serve with the Iraq army. Two years ago, he and I served together in Habbaniyah, Iraq. We have several of the same friends. After repeated TBIs spread over multiple attacks, he awakened one morning unable to read or write. After extensive rehabilitation, he’s working on a degree in journalism and plans to become an officer.

Following their formal greeting from the Iraqi general, the wounded warriors reconvened outside to receive a greeting from his soldiers. One-by-one, the entire Iraqi platoon walked the line of injured warriors and shook their hands. Many, in quiet, respectful English, whispered “welcome” or “thank you.” One Soldier shifted his weight uncomfortably from his one limb to his prosthetic.

The next event was a briefing in the newly-constructed joint communications center where US forces and their Iraqi counterparts coordinate joint operations, share intelligence reports and collaborate to maximize battlespace security. The US battalion commander explained just how much of his operations are now channeled through the Iraqi general before execution.

When the brief was complete, the whole group went to lunch and reassembled for an intelligence in-brief. The US commander wanted to update the wounded warriors on progress in the region. The two who had served there on previous tours listened attentively.

Years ago, to help deny Al Qaeda vehicular access to a particular area, the Soldiers had dragged old, destroyed Iraqi tanks into a few small roads. Al Qaeda would drag them off and into the canals. Each time, the Soldiers would reposition them. This July, as one of the battalion’s first projects intended to improve the area through humanitarian missions, the US removed those three tanks. One took eleven hours to load and move. A wounded Soldier apologized for the inconvenience he caused, drawing laughter.

The battalion commander responded quickly: “That’s okay, son; we still haven’t found a way to rebuild the bank you guys blew up.” Laughter again. During the heaviest fighting of 2007, the bank had been used as an insurgent position.

Back in the Wall of Heroes again, the nearly-blind Soldier removed his prosthetic eye and showed it to me. The set is a small purple heart. As he replaces it in the socket, he half grins and tells me that children often stare at him.

Operation Proper Exit, a pilot program sanctioned by the Department of the Army and Surgeon General and sponsored through private donors, the USO, and a non-profit organization called Troops First, strives to assist in the emotional rehabilitation of troops severely wounded in the line of duty. They do this by flying selected volunteers back to Iraq to their previous area of service, showing them changes and improvements, providing a degree of closure, and demonstrating that their profound sacrifice has brought about lasting change. Due to security risks today, hosts were unfortunately forbidden from giving the wounded men a tour of the areas outside the wire. Other bases throughout Iraq have permitted it.

The gym on this base is named after a US Soldier killed in 2007. His surviving wife is now married to one of the visiting wounded Soldiers. Tomorrow, he and his brothers will fly to Ramadi, and the wounded Marine will see the areas where he once patrolled and was eventually gravely injured. Ramadi, like Baqubah, is different now. The whole country is different, to varying degrees.

For thousands, it’s over now. For tens of thousands, it’s only just begun. For our nation, it still continues.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 12, 2009

Here's Your Letter

To Whom It Doesn’t Concern;

With our nation at war on two fronts, it’s understandable that years of news from a combat zone will mostly fall on deaf ears. People are losing interest in the subject. For your disinterest, you are forgiven.

Few Americans having relatives or friends serving in a combat zone, so it is understandable how little they may think about the war on any given day. In their minds, it doesn’t affect them. More immediate matters do, like bills, work, and social lives. For your lack of familiarity, you are forgiven.

Since few of you are able to distinguish a general from a private, it is understandable that you often approach low ranking troops in airports and bombard them with questions about the war. You see a uniformed servicemember and see an opportunity to learn more, or at least voice your own opinions. For your inappropriate questions, you are forgiven.

Because it is an inexplicable aspect of human nature to be drawn to the obscene, it is understandable that you want to see photos from a war zone, however, graphic they may be. In some ways, we all do this. Because of your disconnection from the conflict itself, you do not view these victims as national servants. Your interest in such images, however vulgar, is forgiven.

Since it is an indisputable fact that no media outlets are accurately and thoroughly portraying the two fronts for what they really are, it is also understandable that you are mostly misinformed about the course of the war, its successes, failures, progress, and lessons learned. You have few options for learning the truth, aside from asking a veteran. You are forgiven for being misinformed.

For not caring, however, you are unforgiven. In fact, damn you for your apathy. When your country is engaged in war, a 7,000 mile separation from the conflict itself is still no license to forget.

For looking at a photograph of a Soldier burned down to the muscle from an IED blast and thinking little more than, “ooh, that sucks,” you are not forgiven. That man is somebody’s son, father, husband or brother. If he lives, he will return home severely disfigured and unrecognizable to his loved ones. Many others are missing limbs, or carry colostomy bags, or blind. Thousands more are virtually deaf. Their service has not been for your entertainment, but to safeguard your way of life.

For approaching a returning servicemember in an airport and ridiculing him, you are unforgiven. He is not an instrument of war, but a warrior. When have you last done something for somebody other than yourself? He didn’t join for a war, but to serve his country. And at any rate, he was sent by the political leaders you elected.

For hoping that the deaths of more servicemembers encourage the government to quit the war and come home, you are unforgiven. It is a disgraceful abuse of the freedoms they have sworn to defend. Their service and sacrifice is the very thing enabling you remaining ignorant and apathetic of the threats this nation faces. If they did not serve, you would impotent with fear.

For claiming that you are too busy to worry about the war, you are unforgiven. You may have a life, job, and loved ones, but it is so hard to utter a prayer every now and then? Is it so hard to mail off a care package or a letter of encouragement? Did you really need that last gourmet coffee? Somewhere, on some distant combat outpost, there are troops who would rejoice at being mailed a pair of socks.

For viewing the war as simply a poor economic investment, you are unforgiven. Do you presume to put a value on human life? What is the cost of NOT waging war? Does your apathy extend to the fundamental human rights of others? There are incalculable millions who have benefitted from US military action. Ask a Filipino, a South Korean, a Jew, a Gypsy, or other nationals from around the world.

For believing that there is no such thing as a war worth fighting, you are unforgiven. War is certainly an evil, but one undertaken to halt an even greater evil. You don’t know this because the military has successfully held the enemy at bay. Had they not, you would live in fear for your life.

For presuming that all veterans are inherently unstable, dangerous, and potentially criminals, you are unforgiven. Despite recent reports by the Department of Homeland Security suggesting otherwise, veterans pose no greater threat to the peace of this country than any other group. Considering that many of them know how to kill, the fact that they do not indicates superior character. They choose not to.

For preferring not to think about it all because it’s stressful, you are unforgiven. You’ve shown your true colors as inherently selfish. You enjoy all the fruits of the military’s labor, but you are unwilling to consider their purchasing price: blood, fear, unbelievable loss, loneliness, and at times death. Your ingratitude is profoundly inexcusable.

Not too long ago, an inebriated VFW commander confessed to me that he doesn’t want to know the names and stories of the troops overseas. He reasoned that, “it’s too much like losing my own children every time.” Caring may be painful, but citizenship bears more responsibilities than merely voting. Voting gives you the right to complain when the other candidate gets elected. Caring means you have a heart beating in your chest. If these men and women can sacrifice their lives, you can sacrifice a few tears.

Those who take freedom for granted are quick to either lose it or cede it as a small sacrifice for comfort. Its loss, however, is quickly felt.

Do you fear bombing while you shop at the supermarket? Are you concerned that somebody will run you out of your home in the middle of the night? Have you had any family members disappear only to be found days later decomposing in a ditch? Do you adjust the course of your day to accommodate fearing for your life? No. The military has ensured that.

What have you done for your country? What sacrifices of comfort, family, and safety have you made? Have you done anything extremely beneficial for countless millions, but inherently jeopardizing to yourself? Have any of you sacrificed a clean conscience or spent months and years away from home, only to realize that part of you never fully returns? Have you spent years trying to find peace with your own actions, service and sacrifice, but certain you have done something good? No, you have not. And nor have you felt the searing pain of your fellow Americans stabbing you in the back.

If something, God forbid, were to happen in the states, all these men and women, however disappointed they may be with their country, however betrayed they may feel, will once again answer their nation’s call. They don’t do it because they like you. Many of them don’t, and I don’t like you either. They do it because it’s right. Nobody expects you to fully understand, but they do expect you to try.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 11, 2009

That's the Plan

In about three weeks time, I will be touching down somewhere in a United States airport. As the day of my departure grows closer, I struggle to maintain interest in what I’m doing here, in my mission, in genuine concern for the troops, and concern for the war as a whole. For lack of a better way to put it, my head may no longer be in game. I’m elsewhere already. The overriding desire to get the hell out of here and go home has drowned out all my other interests. Every day, I schedule a few more things to do when I return.

First, I’ll turn on my cellphone. There are a number of people I have promised to alert when I’m safely stateside, and they are most easily contacted via phone. Additionally, talking on the phone helps keep me awake while I drive, and I plan to do a lot of it. There’s a great deal of catching up to do. Then there are the plans.

Initially, my time will be spent with my family. I’m sure I’ll see them all in one place at some point, but I still intend to sit down with each of them, see how they’re doing, catch up on their goings on over the past four months, and generally return to a more proactive involvement in their lives. I get along with all of them, so this is probably the one thing I’ve missed the most out here.

Following this, there are a few local friends who I need to see. There is the former boss and now mentor and friend I need to visit. He’s been busy this summer, so I know little about the details of his life at the moment. I’m hoping for good news, but more realistically I expect a mixed bag. Such is reality. For him and most everybody else, there are always difficulties.

In my absence I also missed a wedding, so I’m eager to congratulate the newlyweds (both friends of mine), see their new house, and see photos from the event. Their wedding party, comprised mostly of people I know, would have been a fantastic reunion.

My media sponsor also deserves a visit, since it was his implicit trust in me that permitted my travel to Iraq in the first place. As a veteran himself, I’m sure he has a number of questions about Iraq. It’s been a good eighteen years since he was last here. Much has changed. His editor has also promised me lunch. I’ve yet to turn down free food.

Across the entire United States, I have been guaranteed shelter should I come for a visit, and I hope to visit at least a few. There are two volunteer editors in Kentucky who have set aside more pressing matters and provided me critical feedback on pieces prior to my posting them. There is another faithful volunteer in New Orleans, though I doubt I will have time to make it down there for a visit.

There are two Iraq veterans who have provided me invaluable encouragement while I’ve been gone, and both have promised me free drinks if I make it up their way. One even promised be food. Coincidentally, both will be in one place soon after my return. With a little luck, I’ll catch them both in Detroit. Flatteringly, they both consider me a brother.

In all the initial excitement of being home, I will take a break from writing. Seeing as it’s basically all I’ve done for the past fourteen months, I look forward to having no deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, no pressing responsibilities, and nobody particularly concerned about my silence. I will sleep late every day and not feel guilty about it.

There are a couple local restaurants whose cuisine I’ve missed while out here, and I can’t wait to sit down in their crowded dining areas, observe nobody in a uniform, and chat with friends I’ve known for years. I will make at least one trip to the local coffeeshop, buy an overpriced gourmet drink, tune out the background chatter around me, and play solitaire on my computer.

When I have settled in and finished all the greetings, I plan to head into the mountains. I’ve longed to see something other than scraggly palm trees, and there’s no better place for that than in the Appalachians. I hope to hike out there at least weekly, carry in all my gear, stay out overnight, and stretch my legs. After riding in military vehicles for so long, I need the exercise. It’ll be nice to not have to be on the alert for anything more than the occasional bear.

At some point, every conversation will invariably turn to Iraq. People will have questions, and I will try to answer. Many I will be unable to answer. I have too many questions of my own.

And then, after somewhere between three and five weeks, I will miss Iraq and want to come back, as will many servicemembers returning to the states. Part of me will still be here.

I will still have friends over here, many of whom have long months still remaining on their tours. I will have other friends who are preparing to deploy to Iraq in the near future. There’s still a war going on, and its outcome is still uncertain. I will want to see its closing first hand.

I will miss the mission briefs before each excursion outside the wire. I will miss the troops I accompanied. God forbid it, but some of them may never see home again. Regardless, they will still need a voice.

I will miss combat boots and rifles, and thousands of men and women uniformly dedicated to the same cause. I will miss hearing their stories. I will miss being around those who get it and who don’t ask difficult questions I still can’t answer. I will miss the conversations over headsets as we drive a boring road to some town with an unpronounceable name. I will miss the chai we’re served when we get there. I will miss the potential for every mission devolving into an IED attack or a firefight.

I will miss this place because it’s grown on me, but most of all I will miss my fellow Americans who have answered their country’s call to serve here. I will miss introducing them to other Americans. I will miss the adventure. Home life, after some initial excitement, will be disappointingly boring. Though every situation is different and every servicemember has his or her own unique outlook, many will feel this way, too. National service, and more specifically combat service, is memorable. Like little else, this never leaves you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 10, 2009

They're Not There Yet (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Last tour out here, they put me on suicide watch, even though given no indication of wishing to hurt myself. The command would probably argue that they’d rather be safe than sorry, which is legitimate, but the way they went about it wasn’t appropriate. They were acting off too many assumptions.

When I enlisted in the Army, I took advantage of the “Battle Buddy” program, which guarantees that you and a friend who enlists with you will train through boot camp together, and remain together in the same unit for a certain length of time. I’d joined with a friend I’d known for a good three years prior to enlisting, and we remained in the same unit well into my first deployment into Iraq. In fact, we were on the same patrol when things went horribly wrong.

Just like most every other US base in Iraq, whenever we took incoming rocket or mortar fire, a point of origin would be quickly calculated, and a unit would be sent out to investigate that coordinate – maybe they’d even find the perpetrators. Either way, it was the standard operating procedure: take incoming, go out and investigate. We’d done it at least fifty times before.

As we got ready to roll out, I remember our platoon sergeant telling us that instead of varying our route and reducing our “predictability,” we would drive straight out to the site, check it out, and drive straight back. He told us he wanted to be back in time for chow. We shouldn’t have made that compromise in tactics, but it wasn’t our call.

I have long questioned if what happened would have been avoided had we been smarter about our route planning. I have also struggled with the temptation of blaming my platoon sergeant for something that may or may not have been his fault. In this case, the enemy knew our standard operating procedure through and through. They weren’t around when we arrived at the point of origin of the incoming fire, but IEDs were, which detonated, killing two Soldiers. One of them was my battle buddy. I was actually the one that loaded him into the bodybag.

The unit leadership had known that the two of us were close, so they watched me intently over the next two days. Yet what I knew to be grief (relative isolation, lack of interest in talking to people, and restlessness), they presumed to be potentially suicidal behavior. Based off of what they saw, they made their judgment call. Not only was I going to be considered a combat stress case, but I was also going to be placed on suicide watch.

The command took away my rifle, lest I do myself harm to myself or others with it, placed me under 24 hour watch, insisted I wear a reflective safety vest, and attend daily combat stress classes. Needless to say, it was humiliating. I didn’t want to kill myself at all; I was grieving over the loss of a close friend.

Whenever I went to the chow hall, without my rifle but with my suicide watch vest, I was followed by Soldiers who watched me intently. Naturally, dressed as I was and unarmed, everybody else watched me too. Everybody that saw me labeled me a head case. In the combat stress classes, we all sat around while the facilitator soothingly invited us to talk about what we were feeling. I had little to say, obviously.

I understand the command’s concern, since suicide is a problem out here, but I think they overreacted in my case. I think it would be MORE concerning if I showed no emotion at all when my friend was killed. Grief is a natural and appropriate response to devastating loss. Aside from the personal humiliation, my biggest objection was the fact that what they did caused a loss of confidence with the rest of my peers. They assumed, based upon the command’s response, that I was unstable. I was monitored for two months, and it took a few weeks before my fellow Soldiers treated me as an equal again.

The Army has since changed their policies on how they respond in these situations, which is encouraging. For starters, rather than taking your weapon away from you, they simply take the bolt out. You may still be suspect, but at least your peers aren’t as aware that you’re being monitored. The Army is also working hard to improve their combat stress courses. In fact, the chaplain recently conducted an all-hands series of courses about suicide awareness and prevention. They’re making changes, but they still have some distance to go. I’m thankful they’re at least trying. In my case, though, I’m fairly convinced that the command made the situation worse. I wasn’t dangerous to myself or others; I just wanted my friend back. That, however, nobody could provide.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Reveiw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It Began With Rocks (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When we first arrived in Sadr City in early 2004, we were informed it would be a peacekeeping mission. The city itself was quiet, the locals were glad we were there, and Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi militia forces were keeping everything in check. The unit we relieved said they basically just drove around the city every now and then, nothing happened, and that was about it. We would begin the reconstruction. The war was over, and we were there to rebuild the infrastructure.

The RIP [relief-in-place] was extremely uneventful. In fact, with the threat being as minimal as it was, none of us was carrying more than three or four magazines of ammunition. Our first movements alone into the city were equally dull. We just drove in, found key leaders, and started asking them what they needed to get the city back up and running, and how could we best assist them with it.

Their response was water, power, and sewage. With power and water down or intermittent as long as they were, the streets were overflowing with raw sewage. It was simple. While we worked to get the water and power running, we would escort a sewage truck throughout the city and begin cleaning up the streets. The locals seemed happy enough with this.

But after two weeks, however, the residents realized that we weren’t really going away like they assumed we would. We would be there for a long time, assisting in the reconstruction, yes, but still conducting patrols throughout the city. Apparently they didn’t like this, either. We were out on the day they began to express their opposition.

We were patrolling along, minding our own business, but as we slowly advanced, a crowd formed behind us. Before long, the crowd grew to a mob that filled the streets from one side to the other, thick enough that you couldn’t see the street itself. They were yelling at us and gesturing. Whenever we turned out backs, they pelted us with rocks, but when we turned back to them, they stopped. As per our rules of engagement, I considered it a hostile act, but I remember my squad leader screaming at all of us, “DO NOT FIRE ON THEM!” So, we’d turn our backs and get hit with rocks again. Frankly, I’m still amazed how effortlessly an Iraqi kid can wing a cinderblock from one side of the street to the other – at us.

As Sadr militiamen and civilians started lying in the street to thwart any further movement in humvees, Charlie company made the decision to head back to base. There wasn’t much else anybody could do without inciting a riot. We, too, returned and gave our report.

Another unit (a sister platoon) was still in the city, though, a platoon-sized mix of mounted and dismounted Soldiers. They were having problems with crowd control like us, and when they started taking fire (and casualties), they occupied a building at the end of a side street and elected to wait until the situation deescalated. Unfortunately, their communications were also completely down. Completely cut off from any support, medical evacuations or other assistance, their location completely unknown to any other unit, one humvee remained in the street outside the house, while inside the vehicle the platoon sergeant worked on the radio.

As he tinkered with the radio (unsuccessfully), the mob began moving down the street toward them. But this time it was different. They weren’t merely throwing rocks or firing sporadically. Instead, women and children rushed forward, while behind them men fired over them at the humvee. After a quick assessment, the gunner made a difficult, but wise decision: fire back.

I was on base at the time, getting ready to go on tower watch, when I heard the fourth of July open up inside the city. Turning to the Sergeant First Class in charge of the guard mount, I told him sorry, he was on his own. Those were our guys in the city. I was only a Specialist, but he wasn’t even my chain of command. We were supposed to be replacing his guys. It wouldn’t kill them to stand one more guard shift. What was happening in the city, however, might kill quite a few.

As the firing in the city intensified, Soldiers on base started crawling out of the woodwork. Cooks ran from the chow hall. Mechanics ran from the motor pool. Alpha company was being spun up as QRF [quick reaction force] to go find and help the platoon pinned in the city. While they prepared their vehicles and scrambled to find more, all these Soldiers asked if they could come along too; those trapped Soldiers needed help. The commander agreed, and soon they headed into the city to search for the missing, isolated platoon. They would never arrive.

As the convoy of humvees, Bradleys, and even an LMTV [flatbed, unarmored utility truck] moved closer to the pinned platoon, a large, coach-sized bus suddenly pulled in front of the lead Bradley and stopped. Moments later, a few cars pulled up to reinforce it. Somebody threw burning tires into the mix, too. In the rear, a similar blockade was driven in, effectively trapping the Alpha company QRF in a gauntlet. As they rolled to a halt, Sadr militiamen and other fighters appeared in every second story window and on every rooftop, firing down on the Soldiers. On the ground, children ran up to the vehicles and placed small IEDs or threw grenades at the vehicles. One hit the Charlie company commander’s vehicle. Of all the occupants, he was the only one that escaped injury or death.

In the ensuing ambush, Soldiers did the best they could, but with the odds stacked against them. From their elevated position in and atop the buildings, the insurgents began picking off the troops.

One of my buddies out there later told me that as he was firing, he looks over at his gunner in the rear of the unarmored humvee. He was jerking his machine gun back and forth from one target to another. As he sees his squad leader staring at him, he grins, holds out his left hand with three fingers up, and yells “third squad, baby!” He was missing the other two.

On the LMTV, originally packed with troops, Soldiers started dropping from injuries until only two remained uninjured, one of whom was a crusty old Staff Sergeant. He’d been in forever, and had already submitted his retirement papers. I’m sure he was thinking he’d just gotten into more than he’d bargained for. He scrambled throughout the wounded (and dying), plugging bullet holes, dressing wounds, and still firing. He tried to drive out the LMTV, but it was disabled. Thinking quickly, he commandeered a local bus and packed his crowd of casualties into it.

As the Bradley in the front finally pushed through/over the bus and cars, this Staff Sergeant climbed into the bus he commandeered and drove the injured back to base. He later was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. I’d say he deserved it, too.

I was on base during all this, and commanders were assembling whatever was left of my company (myself included) into another QRF to go out and help the initial QRF. We were told to get out there, help them out, and recover the down vehicles. By the time we departed the base, the aid station had a chest-high stack of boots from all the wounded. All told, 40 were injured that day, and ten were killed. It was later reported that we’d killed about 800 Iraqi fighters.

Later, I remember seeing the LMTV sitting on our FOB. In the back, empty water bottles floated in the pools of blood. When we finally went out, it was with orders to locate and recapture all five Iraqi Police [IP] stations in the city. Every last one of them was being occupied by Sadr militiamen. So, one-by-one, we attacked and cleared them.

As darkness fell, my unit halted at the third station and we were instructed to hold it, commencing the longest five days of my life. Every night, they’d hit us hard, and all day long we waited for another assault. By the end of five days with no sleep, I was a zombie. Tired, but still high on adrenalin, gaunt, but still puking. Eventually we were relieved and returned to base.

After all this, things quieted a bit in the city and we resumed normal patrols. Every few days, we’d get hit, ambushed or IEDed, so we’d cut power and water into the city, Muqtada Al Sadr would announce another ceasefire to his Mahdi militia, and things would be peaceful for a few days. Then it’d start up again.

As our tour continued, we did eventually make a lot of progress in the city, and by the end of things, we were more or less concentrated on reconstruction. Sadr, we presumed, had been tamed. But it didn’t last. Just as we had been “tested,” the new unit was as well. The very day we arrived in Kuwait on our way home, we learned the new guys were taking casualties. In reality, Sadr City didn’t calm down until we basically began to avoid it. I’m not sure if anybody’s in there these days.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Bowling Alley

*Retold with permission.

When we were doing clearing operations last tour, we’d frequently move through whole neighborhoods that had been cleaned out and abandoned – many of them abruptly, if not violently. I imagine that many were killed before they had a chance to flee. We spent a fair amount of our time in a town called Gazalia.

Just looking around, you could see that it used to have beautiful streets with lavish homes, but six years of war, neglect and poverty had taken its toll. The buildings were often abandoned, the walls riddled with bullet holes, and once-gorgeous yards now covered in trash. We called one neighborhood the “Bowling Alley.”

Every AO [area of operations] has place like this; a stretch of road or a neighborhood where US forces are always get fired upon or blown up and the aggressors could quickly retreat into the alleys and disappear. In our case, the bowling alley was two streets divided by a long, open field, which I presume at one time was a well-kept lawn. After years of conflict, it’d been transformed into nothing more than a trash dump. On the outer edges of the streets to either side of the field, were large, two-story houses. Though many showed overt signs of war, it was obvious that the area used to be beautiful. Now, many homes were abandoned, and those few who elected to stay had somehow survived untold violence.

As we’d sweep through, we’d occupy a house for the night. There were always more than enough to choose from. Once we’d settled in I always tried to figure out what happened to the occupants. Because so many had left in a hurry, there was more than enough evidence. With a little patience, you could learn their entire story, up to a point. One house in particular sticks with me.

After we’d moved in that evening and set up the guard rotation, I started looking through some of the possessions the occupants had left behind. In this case, there was a surprisingly large collection of photographs.

In the beginning of the albums, I found old childhood pictures of a boy, shot in a background not too dissimilar to the one we were now in. From those, I more or less concluded that he was a native of Iraq. But he didn’t stay in Iraq.

I found a number of photos of him attending college – somewhere in Europe, actually. It would be him and a few of his friends; typical college shots of them hanging out somewhere or getting dressed up to go out for the evening. There were photos of him receiving his degree, and eventually photos of him earning certification as a doctor. He always looked happy in those shots. Then there were more of him back in Iraq.

Those photos showed him in Spartan conditions again, in a small house with meager furnishings, but as the timeline progressed, his surroundings improved. There’d be shots of him in his clinic, then with nicer clothing, then shots of him with his clinic staff, him in a white coat, and eventually a few where he was wearing a suit. He also apparently moved to a lavish home, too.

From other photos mixed in, I could also see that he’d met his wife and gotten married at some point along the way, and in time there were photos of the two of them with children, infants at first. By the end of the album’s record, there were two adult sons, the doctor’s wife, and maybe a younger daughter, too.

As a doctor, he must have been making a good living, too, because I found photos of them touring in Europe, and even a few of them visiting the United States. And then abruptly, the timeline, the records, and the photos just stopped.

From the photos, and also from some of the other papers I found, I could tell that this man and his family rushed to leave. After all, who, when moving methodically, leaves family photo albums? Not only this, but I even found his degrees and medical license among his possessions. No doubt, they’d left hurriedly. I wanted to know what happened to them, if they were alive, and if they were safe.

Whenever we first entered any area for clearing operations, we’d receive a pretty cold reception. It was understandable, since we were blocking roads, walking through homes and interrupting personal lives, but we always made every effort to do it respectfully, disturb as little as possible, and treat the locals with dignity. And because of that, they’d usually warm up to us fairly quickly. One family went so far as to invite us in, offer us chai [tea], cheese, bread and dates. They were relieved to see us in their neighborhood. After a time, I asked them about the doctor’s empty house. It was like opening a floodgate.

They explained that a few years back, one terrorist organization or another came through and started threatening a number of the locals. Many left in fear of their lives, and many more were approached and given deadlines. If they didn’t leave within the allotted period of time, they would be killed, as would their entire families. That, this family explained, is what happened to the doctor and his family. About three years ago, he was approached, told to leave, and with little more preparation than packing a few clothes, he fled with his family. His whereabouts since then were unknown, but he was probably out of the country. He’d left nearly everything. I still think about him, though, and many others.

When people think of the Army, they often mistakenly think of one word: “kill.” It doesn’t occur to them that we have other purposes, like preventing violence. While we may have been sent here to conduct a war, we were also sent to help prevent several more. At the time of that clearing operation, sectarian violence was at its peak, and the slightest provocation would commence regular kidnapping, killing and bombs. In many ways, the purpose of our war was to prevent a sectarian war from consuming the country. And personally, it was a rewarding mission.

We weren’t here just to kill people. In fact, we never were. We’re here to preserve the lives of the innocent from brutality, fear, and coercion. I enjoy what I do, I enjoy leading Soldiers, and I’d like to think we’re making a difference. I want to leave here knowing that these people are safe at least in part because of our efforts. Ideally, I want those who fled to feel safe enough to come home. When all those who fled have been safely and voluntarily repatriated to their own homes and properties, I’ll feel satisfied that we’ve completed our mission. As it stands, just 30 minutes ago, a car bomb detonated outside the Iraqi base here with a handful of deaths and several wounded. Though drastically reduced, the violence continues. And so, we still continue to work.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Absentia

*Retold with permission.

Not long ago, I sat down and wrote my daughter a letter. She’s only seven months old right now, but there’s going to be a point when she’s older and notices that all the photos and videos of her as an infant and toddler don’t have me in them. When she took her first step, I was in Iraq. The same thing when she said her first word. In a few months, I’m going to miss her first birthday. Eventually, she’s going to wonder where Daddy was when she was a baby. Hopefully, the letter I wrote will help answer her questions.

Basically, I wrote down everything to explain why I’m in the military, and why I was in Iraq while she was little. As for why I’m in the Army, I wrote that I wanted to do something greater than myself and to serve my country. For lack of a better way to put it, I wanted to live an honorable life. Military service seemed like an ideal way to do that.

I also wrote that, for now, the Army has taken me to Iraq. It’s not because I WANTED to be here, because I didn’t. I would have loved to be with her every step of the way, from the moment she was born onwards through adulthood. But, for good or ill, this is where the Army needs me to be. I need to finish what my brothers before me started. Unfortunately, it takes me far from home, from my wife, and from her. As much as I don’t like it or what it does to my family, I’m doing a job that others wouldn’t do.

I have no idea if she’ll understand all this. I think a great deal of that depends on what age she is when reads the letter. But I’m hopeful that it’ll pique her interest. And rather than reaching conclusions based off the media’s slanted coverage of the war, I’m hoping that this will encourage a dialog between the two of us. Maybe she’ll ask me questions about it, and maybe she’ll actually listen to the answers. Maybe she’ll understand. Even if she doesn’t, I’m not apologizing. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to.

I suppose it’s possible that she’ll be interested in joining the military herself. If she’s 18 years old and announces that she wants to follow in my footsteps, I’ll probably try to talk her out of it. And if she’s her father’s daughter, she’ll also completely ignore me. I might try advising her to join the Air Force. I don’t wish this life on her.

In many ways, I also did this so there’s no need for her to serve. Years ago, my grandfather said something which still holds meaning to me: “you always want a better life for your children.” He’s right. I’m serving in the hopes that she won’t have to. One family member is enough. I also don’t wish this on her family, and I don’t personally want to ever worry about my daughter serving in a combat zone. My service is enough.

While I certainly want her to grasp why I did this, she may never get it, but that’s okay. None of this is intended to vindicate myself. I wrote the letter to start her asking questions, to help her realize that I’d be glad to talk about it, and also to know that my absence wasn’t by choice, but by necessity. And hopefully this will permit her to make informed decisions based not off of whatever she reads and hears in school or from friends, but from her own father, who she loves and trusts.

And, God willing, this is the last war we have for awhile. I’ll have already missed the most pivotal landmarks of her early childhood; I don’t need to miss anymore. I’m hoping this is the last time. I want to watch her grow up in person, not write more letters to explain my absence.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 5, 2009

Still the Empty Plate

“Ben, aren’t you ever going to find other things to write about? There’s nothing you can do about all this. I mean, you’re not even in the military anymore. It’s over for you.” I’m wasting my time, they argue.

It may be over, but it isn’t done.

There are still men and women who awaken regularly to nightmares. There are still men who can stand quite calmly in a sea of corpses without losing their minds, but break down with they smell trash fires that remind them of the IED that destroyed the humvee in front of theirs. There are still men who feel vulnerable without a firearm at their sides. There are still many who rarely leave their homes.

There are still servicewomen who after repeated concussions from IEDs along roads in Iraq return home with their brains permanently scrambled. Many can’t find a partner who understands them. A number can’t remember things sufficiently to succeed in school. A few cut themselves regularly.

There are still VFWs and American Legions packed with drunkards who desperately seek the company of other veterans, but don’t talk about their experiences when they’re together. There is still an empty plate, an upside down glass, a spoonful of salt and a lime in every VFW hall. There are still 74,000 men missing in action. There are still an alarming number of homeless vets. Seventeen veterans a day still take their own lives.

There are still bent old men who inexplicably straighten when a flag passes before them, and younger men who still salute it when they think nobody is looking. There are still men who bear the physical scars of objects thrown at them when they stepped off the planes after an unbearably long tour overseas. There are many more who bear the emotional scars of something said to them.

There are still men and women of all ages who walk out of theaters when the war movie gets too real for them and the street battle too similar to their own experiences. There are still millions with a drawer, closet, or box full of military paraphernalia or ribbons that family members will never see or understand. There are old dogtags and helmets and boots which invoke more emotion than any photograph or conversation.

There are still national cemeteries running out of room as one generation of warrior quickly expires, buried amongst the friends and brothers who went years before them. There are still grandchildren at the funerals who don’t know what grandfathers did. There are infants now who don’t know what their mothers or father did, and why a US flag is always flying in their front yard. There are still 180,000 US citizens serving on combat zones.

There are still millions in the states who don’t understand the concept of national service and won’t appreciate their freedoms until they’re all gone. There are still a few million more who, regardless of the thanks they may or may not receive, will stand to prevent that from occurring. There are millions who still think the troops are pawns in a misguided US foreign policy, or collectively the brutal killing end of the government’s unnecessarily aggressive agenda. There are millions who still ask inappropriate questions that have no good answer. There are millions of veterans who still don’t how to articulate how vile war was for them but how quickly they’d do it again if the nation needed them. There is still an enemy, but there are still people who want grow impatient and want us to quit.

There are still almost 3,000 civilians who, while doing nothing more than touring, traveling or working, were burned or crushed to death for no other reason than they were different from somebody who hated them. There are still nearly 5,000 dead in the global war on terror, and more than 30,000 missing limbs and eyes or who need assistance to complete everyday tasks. There are still 5,000 families enduring the bitter misery of a missing loved one and more than half a million more from other wars. There are still thousands who make annual trips to gravesites for brothers and sisters they knew only briefly.

When those graves have crumbled and the rest of us dead and gone, it will be done. When children know what their parents did in the face of chaos and imminent danger, there will be no more stories to tell. When this nation uniformly learns gratitude, there will be no further need for understanding. When there is no more enemy, there will be no further need for sacrifice. When there is no more war, there will be no warriors volunteering to fight them on behalf of millions they will never meet. When everybody is home, there will be no need for care packages and mail. When there is no more fear, there shall be no requirement for bravery. When all this happens, there will be nothing more to say. But this is not utopia, but real life. And oftentimes it is manifestly ugly.

So, I’ll keep talking. And when I fall silent, others will take my place. We don’t accept defeat.

“Can I see you on the webcam, honey?”

“I don’t know; I just woke up.”

“Honey, I’ve been wearing the same uniform for two weeks. I piss in a tube behind my room. I have sand in everything and shower in a stall without a showerhead. Even after I’m done, I still don’t feel clean. Every other day, I eat the same thing at the chow hall and on most mornings I don’t have time for breakfast. I had my hair buzz cut and call it a haircut. I have a sunburn. I don’t care that you just woke up.”

“Point taken.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hoot Said It (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission of the Fluvanna Review

*Retold with permission.

I’m growing weary of sitting in airports and bars and hearing some guy regale a typically female audience about all the missions he’s been on, how many times he’s worked with special forces, and how many people he’s killed. I’ve asked a few what their MOS [military occupational specialty] was, and they usually say something like “cook.” That’s when you know they’re lying. I don’t even bother correcting them, though. What’s the point?

People that feel the need to measure their self worth by the number of missions they’ve run or how many people they’ve killed have something wrong with them. My calling their bluff isn’t going to change them, either. They’ll just say I’m a poser or accuse me of being jealous. Far from it. I’m not jealous at all.

The reality is that the people who HAVE done something aren’t going to talk about it much. There’s nothing to say, really. It’s not an experience we have much desire to dwell on, much less remember for the rest of our lives. Only the liars talk about it openly, no doubt to make up for personal insecurity. But none of us really want to discuss it. It doesn’t accomplish anything.

I know what I’ve done out here, and while I take pride in knowing that I have what it takes to accomplish the mission, there’s nothing to be gained in telling people about it. For one, they’ll never understand unless they were there. More than that, though, they’ll probably be horrified – even though they’re often the ones who initiated the conversation.

Perhaps the most inappropriate question I’ve been asked is, “did you kill anybody?” I have several problems with that, though. Why do you want to know? Isn’t that a sick thing to ask? Will it change your opinion of me if I have? Also, only a small number of the troops overseas are serving in combat positions. The rest are support. They’re not all out there engaged in glorious combat. That’s not how it is out here. Yes, my service is honorable, but there are certain aspects that you just don’t share with people.

It’s kind of like a burden, living with what we’ve done and now do. And it’s a burden that I don’t want others to have to carry. I definitely don’t want my siblings over here, and I don’t think anybody else does either. We’re doing this so they don’t have to. I don’t wish this on people.

People like to pressure us to talk sometimes. No doubt because they read all the time that veterans need to talk about their experiences to be able to move beyond them and get on with life. That might be true, but it’s not a subject you just chat about with a stranger at a bar, or even with your own family. They won’t get it, and they may very well presume you’re a monster.

In a strange way, combat experiences are akin to lovemaking. If you love the woman you’re with, you’re not going to run out and tell all your buddies about it. What happened between the two of you was a private, intimate act. If it’s discussed at all, it’s only between the two of you. The same applies to combat. Talking about it to somebody who doesn’t understand either cheapens or aggrandizes what happened. Talking about it to somebody who was there, though, is acceptable. You bore the same burden together.

Some may think we’re cocky, but they’re mistaken. It might look like arrogance, but it’s confidence. It’s the knowledge that we’ve been through a furnace and we lived to tell about it. We learned what we were made of in there, and we’re pleased with the results. What we’re not pleased with is the burden that comes with it. We’re stronger than most people, which is certainly something to be proud of, but there are consequences. Combat changes you. You keep most of it to yourself.

I see old veterans from time to time back home. Old men wearing trucker hats with the Combat Infantry Badge on the front. I don’t care what their MOS was or where they served, I know they’ve gone through hell. Whenever we spot each other, we just nod briefly and keep on walking. I know what they’ve done, and they know what I’ve done, too. There isn’t much else to say about it. We may be one, maybe two generations apart, but we carry the same burden. In fact, they carry a bigger one, since they saw things none of us have seen or ever want to see. The conduct of war itself has changed, too.

More than once I’ve stood in lines at stores and listened to the person in front of me complain rudely that the express checkout is moving too slowly. I want to yell at them, but I don’t. I don’t say a word, but I’m thinking how ungrateful they are, and how small their lives must be. They have all they need, money to burn, and plenty of ways to spend it. They’re also safe, too. You have all day, lady. Stop complaining and wake up. I’m just thankful to be home.

Personally, I love the Army. I love the operations tempo, the training, and even the deployments. I like everything about it. This is what we do. We’re grunts. I don’t think I could go back to being a civilian even if I wanted to. Sure, there are bad days – plenty of them – but I still love what I do. I’m in this for life.

I think everybody in the United States should serve in the military, maybe three years or so. If they deploy, great, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. They’ve earned their mantle and done their time. It’ll help them understand us a little better, at least. Besides this, service itself changes you, if nothing else because you learn to do things that sometimes you really don’t want to do. That’s why it’s called “service.” It’s not easy, and there are plenty of risks. We’ve all lost friends out here. Ideally, though, we’ve done this so nobody else has to.

It may be overused and even misquoted, but I like what the character “Hoot” said about the military in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” He really hit the nail on the head for all of us. Every man I know feels this way.

When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is. 

He’s right. We fight so the man next to us goes home, and hopefully we’ll go home too. None of us loves war.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Military working dogs and their handlers relax after a joint IA/US operation to locate weapons caches. Both the German shepherd and his handler were in a vehicle struck by an IED today. Despite having just survived an IED attack, the dog clamored out of the disabled vehicle before any Soldiers, and cleared the area of secondary devices. Although the vehicle was totaled, there were no injuries.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, October 2, 2009

Everything Changes

*Retold with permission.

I’ve only done three tours out here, but it’s changed dramatically each time. On the first tour, we knew who the enemy was. It was easy. The second time, you didn’t really know who was going to shoot at you. Now I’m not sure who the enemy is because I don’t go outside the wire anymore. I couldn’t tell you what it’s like out there. It’s always changing, anyway.

They said that we’d change, too, but I’m really not aware of it. My wife said I was different when I got back, but she couldn’t really tell me how exactly. Just different. The only thing I’m aware of is that I don’t talk to people as much anymore.

When I was training in 2003, I remember some kids coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying thank you. I told them I really hadn’t done much in the Army but it didn’t matter to them. “You wear the uniform. You serve,” they said. That was enough for them. Two and a half years later, the public has changed, too.

As we readied for my second tour, we had to convoy all the vehicles to port to load them on ships. There was a really anti-military town our route carried us through, and they briefed us not to talk to the protesters, not look at them, and sure as hell don’t start anything. Just ignore them. Once we do something, they can’t help us. Just keep driving. Sure enough, protesters were lining the streets.

It was kids, mostly. Kids and college students. The college students are the worst, because they think they know everything about the world and about life. They’re bold in their ignorance. As we drove through town, a number of them held up signs saying things like, “Fuck You, Army,” or “We Hate You.” Some said, “You Kill for Oil.” But I’m thinking, “what oil?” I sure haven’t seen any. We get all the hatred overseas, so we don’t need it from home, too.

Some of them threw rocks at us and a few threw bottles. I saw a kid toss one, and then suddenly a group of cops descended on him with batons. That’s what you get for attacking the military, I guess.

In that same town, if somebody saw the military installation sticker on your car you were liable to come back to the parking lot and find it keyed or smashed in with baseball bats. We avoided that town as best we could. Strangely, it’s gotten better now, but I have no idea why. Maybe they got tired of protesting all the time. Even still, I hear occasional reports about Soldiers getting their vehicles vandalized out there. Some people get their hands shaken or somebody says thank you, but I’ve mostly been just cursed at or stared down. Whatever. I’ll keep fighting for their right to protest, but only because it’s my job.

As we pushed north during the invasion, my truck kept overheating, requiring us halt all the time to let it cool. During one stop, I remember seeing a decrepit little mud home in the desert outside of a city. There was a father, two older brothers, and a little girl, too. I’m guessing that nobody liked them very much. They were impoverished and skinny, and riding around in a donkey cart because it was all they had.

The little girl was wearing a shirt that used to be pink and a calf-length skirt that used to be white. Both were torn and smeared with dirt and her shirt was faded out from the sun. That’s my question for people: have you ever seen a starving little girl with rags for clothes begging for food? Most have not. It made me think about my own little sister, and it broke my heart.

That was the invasion, so our water was severely rationed. We couldn’t get any more of it, or food, either. But, when we saw the starving little girl, we all pooled what we could and gave her dad some MREs and a case of water. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had. He gave us maybe 50 cents worth if Iraqi dinars as a gift, and we gave him all the money in our wallets. It was probably only twenty bucks, but better than nothing. “Buy something for your kid,” we told him.

We had visited a PX not long before and bought as much candy as we could, so we gathered it all together and gave it to the little girl. I’ll never forget how much her face lit up when she saw it. She was absolutely thrilled. That little child, walking around in rags, matted hair, malnourished and destitute, was probably the most disheartening thing I’ve ever seen. The firefights, the explosions, none of it bothers me as much as seeing that little girl. Even now it still brings tears to my eyes.

My daughter back home plays with a soccer ball we bought her. I sit out back as she runs all around the yard having a blast, and all I can think about is that little girl. I wonder how she’s doing now.

Don’t tell me we didn’t make a difference, because we have. On a local level, we brightened one little girl’s life and helped her family as best we could. We made friends. On a grander scale, that little girl and other girls can go to school now. No doubt some of them will go to college, too. The ones that didn’t have electricity are starting to get it now, and the ones that didn’t even have light bulbs now do. Call us what you want and claim we didn’t do anything, but we all know what we did, and we’re proud of it. It’s what we couldn’t change that still haunts us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Misplaced Hostility

*Retold with permission.

I remember Christmas of 2003 when it seemed like half the commercials on TV said something about supporting the troops during the holiday season. The next year after that you still saw them, but not as many as before. Now, though, you don’t see any. People have forgotten. It’s not news anymore over here. Nothing that happens in Iraq impacts them.

My great grandmother tells me stories about how she and all her girlfriends would use a marker to draw a black line up the back of their legs to simulate wearing silk stockings. They didn’t have any, and neither did anybody else. In her day, all the silk was going to make parachutes. I’ve seen photos of Boy Scout troops walking down the streets in columns pulling old Radio Flyer wagons full of scrap metal. The war, the rations, the recycling, the sacrifice, the victory gardens; it was a national effort. In those days, they cared what happened in the war. Maybe it was because so many of them had fathers, husbands or sons overseas. Now, though, the numbers are much lower.

I think people don’t care because they have no vested interest in what happens out here. Hardly anybody has a loved one serving anymore. Only those that do actually give a damn about Iraq. To everybody else, the war, which was once a headline news item is now lucky to be a byline – if that. It’s not America’s war; it’s the troops’ war. To the public, the casualties are just numbers, not sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives who were killed in service to their country. More than four thousand times now parents have buried their sons or daughters. No doubt it’s the most terrible grief they’ve ever experienced. The war only concerns those fighting it and their families back home. The numbers are too low for the public to care. But, forgetting is human nature.

I know people forget, and I’m sure I’ll forget, too. But more than just disinterest towards us, there seems to be hostility. People hate the war so they take it out on the Soldiers. They think that I chose to be here. The fact is, I didn’t want to come. God knows I’m not doing this for any sort of self improvement. Iraq sucks, it’s dangerous, and we’re only here because our country sent us. We’re doing this for somebody else; not ourselves.

When they hand a flag to the family of the bereaved, they always say something like, “On behalf of a grateful nation…” They should update that, though. “On behalf of an ungrateful nation…” That’s how most of us feel the public views us.

I have a friend who stopped at a gas station only to get heckled by the owner. “Don’t come around here anymore,“ he told my friend. Whatever happened to respecting somebody who did something honorable? Most people don’t have the boldness to serve, but they don’t even care that we did.

And what about the people who protest the military funerals? When I heard about what they do, I experienced more contempt than I do for even the enemy. How can they justify depriving the loved ones of at least an honorable burial? That man or women died to preserve their right to protest. Just because you have the freedom to do something doesn’t make it necessarily right to do it. If I run into any of those people, I’m probably going to go to jail for what I do to them.

It’s hard to put to words. It’s emotional. It’s anger, disappointment. I’m more sad about it than anything else. Here some young man or woman’s last memory is of being far from home, lonely, stuck in a sandbox, then their lives are taken from them. And back home people are more concerned about politics and foreign policy than the fact that another US family is devastated with grief. From what I can see, people are divided between hatred of the military or total lack of interest.

Even my old friends don’t really care. Every now and then they’ll check to make sure I’m okay, but then they go right back to their XBox games – mostly war games, oddly enough. Everybody wants the thrill of a war game, but few want the sacrifice of war. To most of them, nothing is worth fighting or sacrificing for.

I’ve wondered for quite some time why people are so unwilling to do something besides watch out for number one. I’m afraid that even if the country was in a state of crisis that most still wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice or fight. They’re too busy entertaining themselves. They forget that somewhere on this planet, maybe here or elsewhere, there is an “Ali Baba” trying to get his hands on a nuke to blow it up on Americans. It’s a credible threat, and it’s not going away, either.

I know the country is changing; it’s inevitable. We’re not going to see a culture of honor, discipline or patriotism like we did in World War II. Those men are mostly gone now. But what about simply caring about the course of our country? Most don’t, and I have no idea why. I also don’t know why they seem to hate the few of us who do choose to serve. For a society of people who seem to care for nothing but themselves, they sure do invest a lot of energy in hating us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved
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