Saturday, January 31, 2009

Not So Peaceful

As we ate, he explained a situation where he almost got into a fight recently. It wasn’t a terribly unique scenario. In fact, were I in his position, I would have done the exact same thing – perhaps with less delicacy than he had handled it. Somebody had attempted to do something inappropriate to a friend, and he had stuck up for her, suggesting that the guy leave now before there was any trouble, but then getting more unpleasant when the guy didn’t.

“I always try to avoid fights,” he told me. “First of all, I hate being punched. It hurts. I’d rather be shot. Gunshots just sting [he knew that from experience], and then they dope you up with morphine and you don’t feel anything. Well, sometimes. But anyway, I just don’t like to get hit.” But he also didn’t like getting into fights, either. Not so much because they were unnecessary violence (sometimes they aren’t), but because he worried about himself.

“Here’s the thing: I try to be diplomatic for as long as I can, but then, probably after being too nice for too long, I just snap. And then, I don’t want to throw punches, I want to actually kill him. So if I start hitting him, I’m not going to just stop when he’s down. I’m going to finish him off. I guess I’m not really afraid of my rage or anything, but I respect it. I know what it could do.”
I asked him if it was rage, or if it was training, which was my first hunch.
“Yeah, good point. It’s probably training. It’s what we’re trained to do. Kill them. Eliminate the threat. Neutralize the target – or whatever you want to call it.”

In Marine Corps boot camp, we had been taught a number of martial arts moves where you get the person on the ground, but then always end with a killing blow. Not breaking the neck or anything pretty like that, but actually a boot stomp to the face. And it was always (at least in training) delivered as a double stomp accompanied by two loud, “Marine Corps” shouts. During training, we thought it was beyond lame. In fact, I still think it is. But it stands that these were the first moves we learned in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. And lame as it may have been, it stuck.

What he did not stay, however, was that these tendencies (and the associated fear of them when we’re not supposed to “need” them) aren’t so much training as they are consequence of practical application. Meaning this: once you’ve been in combat, you realize just how easy it is to kill somebody. It sounds horrible, but it’s a fact. With proper conditioning, only some of which comes from military training and the rest coming from social conditioning in our culture, the mechanisms that would normally innately tell us that this is to be avoided are easily, and perhaps permanently disabled. To him, and many others, killing is still easy.

I have never feared for my safety around him, not just because he’s a nice guy, but because I also know that he is fully aware of what he is capable of doing, and therefore works hard to ensure that he doesn’t do it. Nevertheless, the abilities still remain, and they’re something he monitors closely. He’s not a murderer, or particularly violent. None of us are. We just know how to use violence to accomplish things. And the reality is that the ability – though carefully controlled, still exists.

In fact, I don’t consider him any more dangerous than any other guy I know, and nor do I consider myself dangerous. We may not be exactly well-adapted civilians, but we aren’t lunatics, killers, and criminals. We were warriors once. That’s all, and the skills, and perhaps the character itself, persist s long after our part in the conflict has ceased.

I’m almost afraid to write this, since it paints him, and others, and perhaps even me as a threat to the security of society. Yet it was society that we swore to protect – and in many way still do now. We’re latent. Sleepers, if I can borrow the expression from terrorist cells. But we’re not criminals. And if I convey nothing else, that’s what I want to stick with people. Don’t fear us. Help us adjust.

What I have wondered personally, and I know others have as well, is if these abilities or tendencies ever go away. I’m sure they’re tempered with old age, poor health, and weight – since a 400 pound man on a motorized scooter isn’t going to be doing much, for example. But the mentality may still be there. I’ll bet that if I asked a Vietnam vet, he’d tell me that it never goes away. You just learn to live with it, and certainly don’t act on it. Ability means nothing. Character means not exercising that ability – at least until a situation absolutely requires it.

Perhaps the better question is this: do we really WANT these abilities to go away? In some regards, I don’t think so, since they kept most of us alive once, and are now still useful in harrowing situations. Yes, it may mean that we battle with ourselves in subdual for the remainder of our days, but I’d much prefer that than to ceding the mentality and living instead in fear or paranoia. I don’t think anybody should ever live in fear. We do not, but that shouldn’t necessarily be hinged on the capacity to kill. Such reasoning is a full reliance on self, not trusting God at all.

Yet even in this, as difficult as it may be individually for him, me and others to constantly have an internal struggle to not act in a way that now comes naturally, our presence, I firmly believe, benefits the nation. When calamity strikes, whether it be terrorist attack, natural disaster, riot, or just a situation requiring the use of delicate negotiating skills, veterans are probably best equipped to handle it. They know how to lead, to hold up under pressure, and if a terrible scenario arises where action must be taken, they can handle that, too.

For the same reason, the country is safer from foreign attack. We would be a highly successful insurgency. The men and women with the skills to accomplish a mission with little regard to personal safety. The dormant warrior, simply waiting on his war. Due to training, due to conditioning, and due to experience, we’re still ready, and we’re still able. Yet for the time being, however, our skills have no place. They just sit there, and rear their ugly heads when we least desire them to. We were of great use at least once to our nation, however, and we may still be again. Just don’t piss us off, I guess.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

In Their Stead

My return from my second tour wasn’t terribly exciting. After we’d gotten off the buses, I fairly quickly figured out that nobody was there to greet me yet, so I busied myself helping my Marines find their gear, locate their families, and even helped the Lieutenant’s wife track him down. Once everybody found their families, they wanted to disappear immediately, so the crowd dwindled quickly and I wandered inside to eat cold pizza which the command had provided for the families.

A guy I didn’t recognize came slowly limping up to me. He had a big “boot” on one foot, and still favored the other leg too. He shook my hand. “Welcome home, man. How was it?” he asked quietly.

I explained how it had been – which really wasn’t all that bad. Certainly not like the first time. He listened, looking far away and, though he was definitely paying attention, he was clearly somewhere else. Only then did I remember how I knew him.

Dave was the sole survivor of the last catastrophic IED that some guys in my battalion hit before leaving Iraq in early 2005. In fact, it was their last mission. They were going to drive around as usual, try not to get blown up, and then head back to base to start turning in ammo and preparing for the long, miserable drive down to Kuwait.

During that mission, Dave was in the turret, manning a 240 [medium machine gun] as they patrolled route Martinez – to our west. The IED wasn’t really even an IED. It was a death-trap. For days, insurgents had been tunneling under the road and creating a hollowed-out spot which they loaded with old artillery shells and rigged with a detonator. Not only would it create a huge explosion on its own, but it’d also add an abundance of dirt, rocks, and asphalt to the shrapnel. It would be huge.

Tragically, the triggerman detonated this one right as the vehicle was traveling over the hollowed-out section of road, and the whole vehicle was consumed in a dust, smoke and shrapnel filled cloud that mushroomed upwards. The humvee was completely destroyed – what pieces of it could be found. The engine block landed in one place, piece of the frame in another, and Dave, the gunner, was shot out like a cannon directly upwards by the blast. As pieces rained down around him, he landed a moment later in the crater itself, which was still smoldering. Nearby, the frame of the humvee started to burn, with ammunition inside of it sympathetically exploding and shooting out in all directions. Amazingly, the grenades rolling around the remnants of the floorboards didn’t detonate. Unable to move, both his legs mangled, Dave lay in the crater, where his buddies soon found him and began working on him as best they could. Everybody inside the humvee was killed instantly.

When Dave shook my hand, he had the demeanor of somebody who missed the Corps and missed his brothers even more. I, one of the dwindling numbers who were also around on the first tour, was a familiar face to him. I guess he’d seen us out on other missions to assist him and his guys. Yet now, he was quieted, and still limping.

The doctors had amputated one leg above the knee, and he was still getting used to walking with it, which was made worse by the fact that the other foot was virtually fused from repeated surgeries, and now tightly wrapped in a cast. He told me that they’d given him the option keeping it and walking with a pronounced limp, or amputating it and eventually learning to walk quite smoothly with a prosthetic. He sorta wanted to keep his foot, though, he said. At least until it was so bad that he couldn’t walk anymore.

We talked for a little while about how my tour went, and how his treatment and recovery was going – which was slowly. He was ready to be done with all the surgeries and rehab. Even if he couldn’t serve anymore, I could tell he at least wanted to be around his brothers.

My unit had gotten called out for that mission – one or our last, too. We heard what happened, and went out there, expecting the worst. We found it, too. That was the mission where Doc [Navy medical corpsman] used his poncho to cover a body, and years later the USMC still wouldn’t give him a new one. The kept insisting he had carelessly lost his. I was on the back end of that cordon.

We were blocking traffic while in front of us EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] struggled to figure out what happened and perhaps profile who did it. I remember that a car approached, and we told them to stop, but they just kept edging forward. I was already angry with what had just happened to Dave and his buddies, so I just shot their engine in fury and went over to yell at them. Of course, they didn’t understand. But they should have known that stop meant stop. Well no kidding. I just yelled at them until they backed up and drove away. That, I believe, was the last time I fired my rifle that tour.

What impressed me most that Dave took time to come welcome us home is that I, we, and the country still owe HIM, not me. He gave up all luxury of a normal life when he lost one leg and stands to still lose the other. That, to me, is like a WWII veteran thanking me for my service. I’m the one that owes HIM a handshake, free drink, and a clap on the back. It’s those guys that deserve my gratitude. Not them thanking me. I almost feel guilty accepting it.

But for Dave, the brotherhood extends beyond personal trauma and collective tragedy. To him, we were still brothers. We were still both Marines, and still wore the same uniform and fought for the same cause. He simply paid more for it – yet there was no trace of regret in his voice. I think he was glad to be alive, and still wholly grieved that the other three in his humvee were not. Maybe he came to honor them, because they paid still more for our cause. For many of these men, living and dead, the unbreakable bond has been anointed with their own blood. Only some lived to enjoy it. As for the rest of us; we can offer little more than a pathetically weak, but heartfelt thanks. And live fruitful lives devoted to the memory and honor of those who are unable to do the same.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fight Pretty

One of the best things about the military is that, no matter what you do, you’re going to get yelled at – especially when you’re a bunch of miscreant, criminal assholes like we are. Constantly testing to see what we can get away with, constantly learning that it isn’t much, forgetting the less, and trying it again. Hope, or maybe stupidity, springs eternal.

It wasn’t so bad in the rear (stateside), but overseas it was another matter altogether. When your primary focus is to successfully conduct combat mission and destroy the enemy, you’d think that everybody’s concern for your rigorous adherence to grooming standards would diminish, but no; it doesn’t. You still get yelled at, and we still do stupid things.

In hindsight, I have concluded that when you’re forced to abide by strict rules, you feel like some sort of accomplished rebel if you can bend them a bit, or even break them. But heaven knows there aren’t many areas where you can do that. Failure to behave a certain way means you’ll probably get charged. Failure to be on time means you WILL be charged. Failure to offer salutes will also get you in trouble.

So what do we do? We gripe about and question the most ridiculous minutia and see what we can get away with. First thing: rank chevrons. Obviously we wear in them in the states, because it’s grossly obvious if we don’t. But Iraq, why bother? We spend most of our time either hiding in our rooms/tents/racks(begs), or wearing a flak vest – which completely obscures them. There’s really no point. In fact, there’s good incentive to NOT wear them. The weight of the flak vest continually grinds their metal backings into your collarbone. So forget it. We stopped wearing them.

Well, then we got yelled at, so that didn’t work out so well. But for some reason, people tried it anyway – again and again. A few of these guys were clearly immune to being yelled at. I guess we all were to some extent, but they could take an ass chewing like a champ and just keep on doing what they were doing. They knew – perhaps better than us – that no NCO or Staff NCO in his right mind would charge them with anything, though they certainly could: disobeying a lawful order. Maybe disrespect, too, or something like that.

Another big issue was blousing our boots. Sure, it looks less ratty if we don’t, but after hours on end wearing those things (like every waking hour), it got old, and extremely uncomfortable. So some guys stopped wearing those, too. Curiously, it was also the same guys that tried to get away without wearing chevrons. If it was dark, they usually got away with it, but never out during the day. Somebody would yell at them, they’d pretend they hadn’t even noticed, and quickly blouse them back up. It’s too obvious to overlook.

And then there were the cuffs of our blouses (shirts). According to regulation, we could not just cuff them over once to keep them off our hands and wrists, no matter how annoying they were. That was one of those rules that we followed when higher ups were around, and quickly broke as soon as they were out of sight. We didn’t like being encumbered.

Perhaps the worst matter, overall, was haircuts. In the states, it’s simply a matter of walking or driving the short distance to any one of a number of barbershops. And the one on base used to give us cuts for a mere $4.50, which was awesome. They were usually pretty good, though I knew guys who swore they could tell I got my cut at the PX barbershop. They gladly paid three times that much out in town – and looked just as stupid as I did. Maybe they went there for the whole barbershop experience. Beats me.

But in Iraq, it’s another matter. Every Tom, Dick and Harry with a set of clippers suddenly considers himself a barber. And if he even mentioned once that he knew how to cut hair, Marines would crawl out of the woodwork like rats, scrounge up a pair of clippers, and proceed to demand every second of his free time with haircuts. None of the, by the way, looked good. If they were really crappy, we called them barracks cuts – sure sign that the wearer had been too lazy to get a haircut over the weekend, so lopped it off with moderate assistance in his room Sunday night. They looked awful. But, on all the bases I’ve been on, there were never any barbers to be found. Some chopped off all their hair, some shaved their heads, but a number of us just neglected it altogether.

Without fail, we’d receive warning that they were approaching too long.

“Hey Marine. That when you get back on base, you need to get that shit on your head cut. You’re starting to look like a real shitbird. You got that? If you don’t, I’ll come cut it for you, and you’re not going to like that.”

We assured them that a cut would be our first order of business. Right. The warnings continued, and nobody really ever did anything. The yelling just got louder. But eventually they’d no longer yell at the Marine, they’d go find one superior or another and yell at him instead. Then we’d have to do something about it – it all rolled back down onto us.

I knew a guy that was so desperate to rebel against the Marine Corps grooming and uniform standard that he rotated between offenses. If they yelled at him to get a haircut, he’d do it, but then stop wearing his chevrons. Then they’d yell at him to put them back on, so he would, and deliberately unblouse his boots. That would be spotted and corrected fairly quickly, so he’d be in good shape for a few days, at which point his hair would be out of regulation again and the cycle would start all over again. He did this almost continuously for seven months. On a side note, he was also a convicted murderer.

A few months into our first tour, I gathered that my unit wasn’t the only one struggling to get Marines to wear their chevrons at all times. It was base-wide. So common, in fact, that the battalion commander himself issued orders that trickled all the way back down to us: get caught without your chevrons, and you WILL be charged. Period. The easiest solution for these guys wasn’t what you would think. Instead of just putting them back on and not worrying about it, they adjusted their lifestyles to no longer go around people that would write them up and charge them. I consider it working ten times harder to break the rules than just actually follow them. The allure, I suppose, we that we were sticking it to the man. We called the magic chevrons. They command had gone so far as to claim that wearing them would help improve our chances of not getting hit. I have no idea where they conjured the idea of saying this, but it may have had something to do with the notion that a prepared Marine – that is a properly-attired Marine – is less likely to get blown up. IEDs, however, shred you no matter how stupid or sharp you look. Shrapnel, like bullets, do not discriminate.

I discovered some time later that these were by no means major in comparison to what was taking place in other units. One friend’s platoon, I learned, worked hard to carry melee weapons everywhere they went – to include maces, battle axes, hatchets, ice picks, and gurka knives. A number of them also discarded their own gear and wore Iraqi load bearing vests. And even carried AK-47s instead of M-16s. My rebellious addition of a “thank you for not making me kill you” sticker to the door of my humvee paled in comparison to their antics.

The second tour brought its fair share of similar problems, but they weren’t as pronounced or absurd as the first. This time, it was the magic throat protector – the flak vest attachment that strangled the lower portion of your trachea. Uncomfortable, yes, but truly helpful against the SMALLEST pieces of debris and shrapnel. Against bullets however, forget it. You were going to get hit.

We did one mission when we escorted the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) commander to the middle of nowhere. When we got there, the MEU Sergeant Major sought me out and started screaming at me. Initially I had no idea why, until he bellowed that one of my Marines wasn’t wearing his throat protector. If he caught him like that again, he’d run ME up a flagpole. I took it like a champ. “Yes, Sarn’t Majr.” When he stormed away, I walked over to my Marine. “Dude, you’re killing me. When they’re around, just button it up, okay?” They were horridly uncomfortable, and restricted movement. In fact, we’d repeatedly turned down additional personal body armor because it so restricted our range of motion that we couldn’t even aim our rifles correctly, much less move about the truck with any sort of ease. 60 pounds of crap was plenty, I thought.

One piece of “flair” that I was not anticipating would cause any problems was a little US flag I glued to my humvee door. We were, after all, Americans, right? Well, I was told to take it down after awhile. And the entire MEU was told that we were forbidden to fly American flags on our vehicles or our persons. I am not entire sure why. That became a major point of contention on my third tour when we were no longer permitted to fly US flags on BASE. The commander’s explanation was that we were now no longer victorious conquerors, but visitors on Iraqi soil. They hoisted the Iraqi flag on our base, and put the US flag below it. At our training center we held out for as long as we could, but when the MEU sergeant major came by for a visit, that was the first thing he noticed – and ordered us to lower our own colors. We did, but then put them back up as soon as he left. I wasn’t serving in the Iraqi army, but the US Marine Corps. If I couldn’t even fly the flag, what was the point in even being there?

I saw a photograph recently of some Russian troops in Ossetia, and their appearance drove him to me just why these various people were so concerned with our uniforms and physical appearance. The Russians had beards, disheveled and long hair, and wore a wide assortment of boots, white socks, gray socks, and even tennis shoes. They looked like idiots – or maybe uniformed terrorists.

And in reality, if left to our own devices, half of us wouldn’t have worn shirts, would have preferred shorts or no pants at all, flip flops, headbands, peace t-shirts, long hair, and an assortment of decorations indicating our religious preference, opinions on necrophilia, war, and even how much we hated everybody else.

As much as I truly hate to admit it, the higher ups were on to something. If they gave us an inch, we’d have taken well over a mile and run around in medieval armor with spiked clubs, looking like the rebels from the movie “Waterworld.” That would have been behavior and appearance unfitting a Marine. We’re not angry peasants brandishing burning torches and pitchforks, we were professionals. Unfortunately, we needed to be reminded of this often.

Seen on a Hungarian machine gunner’s helmet in Iraq: “Fight Brave, Die Last.”
Seen on a Marine’s fleece beanie: “Arm the Homeless.”

But I say this: “Fight Pretty, Die Anyway.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mail Woes

During my first tour overseas, any mail was good mail. It momentarily propelled me out of Iraq and sent me home, provided me with ample food and books to keep me entertained, and even helped supply things that we couldn’t get through our own supply lines or PXs on other bases. It was, in short, a lifeline.

New to the whole deployment thing, I wasn’t terribly prepared for the vast assortment of interesting, strange, or even outright wrong mail we received. I’m still amazed at the stuff people wasted their money sending.

I think the most universally useless items that arrived were mountains of Christmas ornaments. Just where we would hang these developed later. But this is Iraq. Christmas ornaments? Don’t people usually save these things? Especially when they’re carefully handmade? While I felt guilty at first, I started just throwing them away after a time. Not only were they useless for where we were, but even if I was in the states I’d be hesitant to display some of those that were sent.

But then the Christmas trees starting arriving – lovely, plastic sizes of all shapes and colors. I guess to get us in the festive mood to better enjoy our “special crawdad dinner,” which was interrupted by a mortar attack. One guy, when I was complaining about all the trees we were getting, put it in perfect Marine Corps perspective:

“Yeah, they’re not good for much, but ours sure burned well. Once you light ‘em, they’re gone in a matter of seconds. I thought we were going to burn down the place. Wanna see the pictures?”

I did not. While he burned his, a number were smaller, and people actually put them in their rooms and elected to NOT incinerate them. They were still gaudy, though.

I knew a Navy nurse who, while stationed in Guantanamo Bay, went through similar experiences.

“Every year,” she told me, “they’d cut down live tress in the states and put them on ships for Gitmo. Forty days later, when they arrived, we’d buy them, and the second we touched them, all the needles fell off. They were dry – and dead – as a bone. That led to a lot of jokes.”

We weren’t getting the live ones. Just the fake, inflammable ones.

Our company XO, perhaps as a joke, or perhaps in protest of all the wasted garbage being sent to us, elected to put up a tree of his own. It was positively stunning. Little more than sparse, bare, dead tree with about four branches. He hung random Easter eggs and other crap from the branches, and I think there may have been some pumpkins and fake spider web stuff, too. It was propped up with rocks at the base, and fell over a lot – especially since it was between our barracks and the nice little pile of palm trees everybody liked to piss in instead of walking to the porta-jons. We’d run into it, curse, then go leak in the bushes. On warmer days, the whole area reeked so badly that we didn’t want to admire the tree, anyway.

But Christmas junk wasn’t the only junk we’d received. There was plenty of it, even letters.

I’m still trying to figure out who released the false information, but folks in the states were all told that they should never send us chocolate. It melted in the harsh desert sun, and made a mess of things. With that went my favorite treat: chocolate chip cookies. While I made every effort to refute the incorrect briefing, I never received enough. The idiot that told them all no chocolate had left his mark.

Other items were well-intentioned, but became ridiculous with quantity. Apparently we were all dying of cancer in the same desert sun that ruined cookies, so we were sent literally cases of lip balm, sun screen, and dry skin lotion. Half of these things blew up in transit, and the rest were picked through methodically and discarded. For a long while, we had boxes of unwanted things sitting in a spare room. If you wanted it, just take it. We sure as hell didn’t. We used most of the other toiletry items, or at least found somebody else who needed them. I replaced my toothbrush once a week, and could have tried a different flavor of toothpaste every day if I was so inclined – though I was not.

Candy was also a nice gesture, but by the time we had about fifty pounds, we had to do something with it. Rather than throw it way, we chose instead to toss it to the Iraqi kids as we drove around the AO [area of operations]. Before long, however, that too caused problems. Kids, knowing we were going to throw candy, would line the sides of the road and wait for it. We always threw enough (well, I did), but they’d end up fighting over it anyway. The boys would shove the girls, and then the boys would get punched by bigger boys. Everybody was firmly convinced that the other side of the road had more candy, so they’d go streaking across the road directly in front of us. Several were nearly hit. Before long, we weren’t allowed to throw candy at all, so we threw it away. Lord knows we’d get tooth rot if we ate it all.

Though I did not do it, I have a hunch that a couple of my associates would routinely find a crowd of kids and then carefully throw only a couple pieces – then stand back to watch them scrap. I never did this. Nor did I get creative and cruel like some of our other counterparts who, instead of throwing candy, threw the individual, metal fruit cups – at peoples’ heads. Those incidents were undoubtedly the deciding factor in us being forbidden to throw anything at all.

The letters, above all else, took the cake as being the strangest. I remember one I received from a stranger in South Carolina, which read something like this:

“Hi this is so and so from South Carolina. My husband was a Marine Gunnery sergeant, so I’m familiar with deployments and having him gone a lot. He’s retired now, but still thinks he’s a Gunny. He just runs around the house screaming orders at everybody like we’re Marines, too. We just ignore him. That’s our Gunny. Signed, the Gunny’s Wife.”

Nice. My friend, however, received undeniably the worst, from a package of letters written by an elementary school class.

“Thank you for being in the war. I know that most of you die, so you may not actually get this. But if you don’t die. Thank you for protecting us. I hope you don’t die anyway.”

Whoever filters their students’ writing should do so a little more carefully. At least they left out handy, illustrative drawings to prove their point. Nevertheless, the letter really bothered my buddy, and he talked about it for days. In fact, had he an address, he would have sent back a response:

“Dear snot-nosed kid; No, I have not died yet, and am also hopeful that I do not. And while I’m at it, f**ck you. Thanks a freakin’ lot. How old are you? Are you hot?”

That one, to my knowledge, was never sent. Most of the others were friendly, encouraging, and fun to read. Though I had little time to thank more than a handful, I appreciated their thoughts and prayers – however anonymous they may have been.

One of the problems that quickly surfaced with military mail is security. While the post office was very careful to get things to us reliably, once they arrived in the hands of military mail clerks, that went out the window. The pricks would read the packaging labels, and if the boxes contained anything interesting, they’d steal it – routinely. A lot of DVDs, electronics, cigarettes, and other expensive items never reached their destination at all. I remember one card that was opened, the single piece of candy removed, the wrapper replaced, and a label on the envelope stating, “this package has been opened.” Well thanks guys. They’re all a bunch of thieves. Nobody ever took things that weren’t expensive.

To combat this, I informed everybody that if they wanted to send me anything at all, the label, regardless of content, should state that the contents were books and baby powder. Those always seemed to arrive. I’ve received many a tin of brownies, electronics, tools, coffeemakers, and other sundry items all disguised as books and babypowder.

Just never put soap in the same box as food. No matter how many times you wrap it, the brownies still taste like Lever 2000. And even though we still eat them, it’s not with quite the same enjoyment.

The most vicious rumor that nobody in particular started and everybody spread around was that our mail shipping containers had met a terrible demise by either falling off a ship, getting lost, or blown up by IEDs. We’d fret and worry, and think about our lovely tins of brownies now either being eaten by fish or burning in a heap on the side of the road – and they always arrived anyway – though sometimes well over a month after they were sent. I never figured out who started these rumors, but they’re worse for morale than eating crappy food overboiled by the most apathetic military cooks. Combat cooks. That’s another stupid term. But anyway…

Regardless of the scores of items that never arrived, the food that tasted like soap, the flammable trees, and the disheartening mail, we were well supplied with any number of items we needed – mostly by strangers who took the time to pick out things, buy them, and wait in long lines to send them to people they would never meet. While I have certainly kept in touch with a few, most will never hear a thank you. So, hear it now: Thank you. You kept us alive, well-fed, and eager to come back to a country we knew would welcome us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I Still See

A few months before I got out of the Marines, I got a call from a friend who had gotten out a short while ago, and he and another veteran friend were going to come down for a visit. He tried to warn me what to expect.

“Just a heads up,” he told me. “Kyle’s isn’t in the best of shape, and I don’t want you to be shocked or anything when you see him.”

I assured him that I’d be just fine, and we’d have a grand time. I was looking forward to seeing him. I’d been to Iraq and back since I last saw him, and I figure any friend of his would be a friend of mine.

When John introduced me to a buddy from his platoon, I was taken aback – despite his warnings. This buddy, when he was hit by an IED [improvised explosive device], was virtually shredded. His scalp was peeled back, his skill fractured, face shattered, limbs mangled, and organs eviscerated into his lap. And he lived – with significant injuries.

Three years after this incident, when I first met Kyle, he had no eyes, an immobile and mangled hand, walked with a limp, and his skull was held together by at least one large plate. One eye socket was sewn shut, and the other was fitted with a jewel-encrusted false eye.

They had both come down to visit me and a few of their other friends – relive the “gory” days, and perhaps partially because they both missed it. My friend had brought his blind buddy.

Typically, any event involving young Marines devolves into a cussing and shoving match as each vies to out-shout, out-cuss, or even out-offend the others. They’re rowdy. These two: my friend and his blind buddy, were not.

John had served during his first tour with Kyle, during which Kyle was so badly mangled that they didn’t think he’d make it at all. The corpsman had tried to delicately preserve his entrails hanging out, but they figured that, like so many other guys with injuries as extensive as his, he wouldn’t even make it back to the hospital. They said goodbye to him. But he did survive, and made a remarkable recovery – with what’s left to recover.

I met the two of them at their hotel and we were going to go out and get dinner at some place. I hadn’t met Kyle before, and though I wasn’t going to pry into how he was doing, I was still curious to see how he was handling being half lame, totally blind, and dependent on others for most of his needs.

As we walked to the car, John would walk a half pace in front of Kyle so Kyle could rest a hand on John’s shoulder and guide him along. He warned him about steps, narrow doorways, and a host of other obstacles that lay between us and the car. I unlocked the door and opened it for him, and he struggled in, collapsed his cane, tucked it next to the seat, and I started driving down the road.

“So where you guys wanna eat?”

Kyle wanted a steak. Jacksonville, NC is replete with steakhouses, so I asked if he had any preference. He told me.

“Um, I actually don’t know where that one is.”

Based off of nothing but memory before he lost his sight three years prior, he told me how to get there – accurately. He knew Jacksonville better than I did, and he couldn’t see anything.

We ate well that night, and John respectfully guided Kyle’s hands to his silverware, drink and I think he even told him where everything was on his plate so he didn’t have to touch anything to check. During dinner, a girl a couple of booths away came over, sat next to him, and introduced herself. She was actually a Marine, too, and particularly gorgeous.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

He would permit that. And, without cue, explained what she would never ask, but still wanted to know – how he wound up blind, crippled, and stitched back together with modern medicine. He recounted it graphically – while eating. She listened in silence, all but forgetting that a number of people at her table were staring at her uncomfortably.

But after going through all this, tell us, he’s doing pretty well. He’s still sport shoots, is licensed to and carries a concealed handgun, and I think he was also studying in college. And living alone. And judging by how the conversation was going with the female Marine now sitting next to him, he still maintained a robust social life.

I was guilty that I had eyes.

After the meal, we hung out for awhile, and then I drove them back to the hotel room. Kyle drank too much, so he was getting talkative. And referring to himself constantly as an IED detection device. Maybe it’s how he deals with it. When we walked back inside, John repeated the process of walking in front and guiding him down the hall back to the room. Kyle, in case we had forgotten, gave us the room number. When he got inside, he spent the next several minutes arguing on the phone with a woman I presume was his girlfriend. I tried not to pay attention, but I think she was mad that he wasn’t terribly devoted to her.

I’ve never known Marines to be particularly tender people, even when they’re not playing Marine. They’re still fairly firm with their kids, probably yell too much, and perhaps expect them to exhibit the instant obedience to orders that they observe in their troops. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad parents, but they’re pretty strict.

The younger the Marine, the more likely he is to be rough, garish, and macho – especially the single ones. But war changed that.

Every other time I’ve gone out with a bunch of Marines, there’s a feeling of reverie about us. Celebrating, eating good food and drinking too much, telling stories, and continuing the conversations to the car and back to the rooms. Lots of laughing, smiles, and horrid jokes. But that night, none of it. We were quiet as we walked, so Kyle could hear John’s direction, and really because there wasn’t a damn thing funny about the situation. There was a lot to think about: guilt, grief, and in at least some of our minds, gratitude for surviving in once piece.

Every day, I forget how nice it is to have legs that work and eyes that see. Every day that Kyle lives, he remembers blowing up. He told us that. And I don’t know if he’s glad he survived.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Russian Sanitarium

VA [Veterans Affairs] facilities have never been known for being warm, inviting medical centers teeming with well-trained doctors and solutions. In fact, they’re usually known for being horrid places – like hospitals for “the rest of us.” Those too poor to go to real medical care. That conviction was firmly driven home when I sat in the records office of a VA medical center one day As the man there took a break from hitting on me and telling me stories about misdiagnosed CODs [causes of death] all the time in the VA morgue, he leaned in and whispered, “I’ve been working here ten years. I wouldn’t take my DOG to get treated at this hospital.” His admission didn’t provide any reassurance that I was receiving quality medical care in the least.

While I can only speak for the part of the VA medical system I have seen, that hospital, at least aesthetically, is bloody awful. In what I presume was a massive attempt at improving their image in the community, the hospital underwent a thorough renovation of their main corridor – complete with friendly banners pointing you down the right halls, signs offering you helpful health tips, and even a nice little dining area with attached shop to buy veterans paraphernalia. (The one thing they didn’t sell was the one thing I would have purchased, though. A t-shirt that read, “Crazy, washed-up veteran.” I’d definitely wear that).

As a consequence of the renovations, the main corridor of the veterans hospital in question looked almost modern. But the cheery aura ended abruptly when you followed one of the signs into the bowels of the building. Until about six months ago, the corridors were painted a pale, awful, minty green. If I had to guess, they bought it as overstock from the Soviets when they realized they had no further need for Ukrainian Orphanage Green. But that was just the walls.

The sad, buzzing, flickering lights overhead illuminated similarly ghastly floor tiles – also bought from the Soviets: Russian Sanitarium Blue. The only thing missing was patients in ratty gowns sliding listlessly along the walls, or perhaps wheeling themselves along in 50s-era wheelchairs. And honestly, they had a few of those, but they somehow were allowed to “escape” into the main corridor. I’m sure it was bad for business. But hiding them was equally bad for business. It meant hiding the cost of war – and freedom.

I have certainly spent my fair share of time sitting in dank waiting rooms, wondering where on earth any sort of receptionist may be. For some reason, the VA will often schedule an appointment for me at high noon. I dutifully arrive 30 minutes early and check in, and am promptly informed by random passersby that nobody will be in the office from noon to 1PM. They’re on lunch, I’m told. So why was I told to be there at noon? Nobody could ever explain.

I will not comment on the professionalism of the medical staff there, since I’ve had equally unpleasant experiences in more mainstream facilities – doctors running into doorways, nurses unable to draw blood and routinely jabbing the needle all the way into my elbow joint – then panicking. I guess, in comparison, the VA docs aren’t any worse. So far, I haven’t seen any of them wearing googly eyes or a Patch Adams red nose. In fact, I’ve had a number of good dealings with VA staff.

In order to help reduce the traffic and burden at major VA facilities, and also to help accommodate the rapidly growing numbers of veterans entering the system, the VA began constructing a series of outpatient clinics throughout more local areas. They handle what they can, act as general practitioners, and screen any patients for more advanced care at the hospitals. Thankfully, I’m able to drive thirty less miles to one of these, and receive what I consider to be excellent care.

Since the building is new, an effort was made to improve the ambiance of the place from one of perpetual, eastern European depression to a cheery, inviting place to get your checkups and be done with it. And, they’re nice people.

Since I began using the facility in late 2007, I have been thoroughly pleased with the doctor there. In part because she has a smaller patient load and also because she’s just good at what she does, she actually remembers patients and their histories.

After I check in with the cordial ladies at the desk, I’ll sit in the waiting room and watch the handy flatscreen TV until I’m called back for some initial triage nonsense – with a friendly nurse. They record everything, determine that I’m not on the verge of death, type it all out at breakneck speed into the system, and then shuffle me into an examination room to wait on the doctor.

She’s always punctual, polite, and courteous. I find this particularly admirable because veterans, as a whole, are probably the single most self destructive patients a doctor can counsel. They tell us to do something, we promptly do the opposite. It may cause them to pry a little less into our behavior, but that’s probably so they don’t rip their hair out in frustration when they learn what we’ve been doing with (and to) ourselves.

When I was diagnosed a year ago with knee problems, the doctor prescribed me a PILE of painkillers, which I promptly put in a cabinet and did not take. I don’t want to take pills until I absolutely need them. When I came back some time later, she asked if I’d been taking them. I told her no, and received a very gentle scolding. She gave me good medical reasons to take it on certain occasions, and I conceded that she was correct. I left, and haven’t taken any still.

I recently scheduled an appointment for some other joint problems. That visit was supposed to be this morning. An hour before I was going to leave for the visit, I received a call saying that they strongly recommended that I not come in because of the ice and sleet on the road. I told the receptionist that I was sort of looking forward to going somewhere today.

“You can still go somewhere, but just don’t come here.”

I see. Rather dejectedly, I hung up. And then went to the appointment. Why? See the remark about veterans being stubborn. At any rate, they saw me anyway.

So, without consulting the records, the doctor reminded me that since I’d been prescribed so many painkillers a year ago, I should be taking it for the joint problems I have now. Again, I told her I had not. And again, the frown and gentle scolding, accompanied by a number of good reasons that I should listen to her advice.

Even the diagnosis amazed me, though. She remembered that I’d only recently returned from a lengthy motorcycle trip (from my last visit in December), and quickly determined that the problems I was now having were due to my body adjusting to inactivity, sitting on a motorcycle, and now suddenly starting to become active again. All this without looking at notes. In fact, the only time she looked at her notes at all was to confirm just how many painkillers I should take on any given day. Aside from that, it was all memory.

Since I highly doubt I’m an unusual patient at her facility (with the possible exception of my age), I assume she has the same sharp memory for all her patients, which is commendable. She gives the impression – most likely rooted in fact – that she actually cares about her patients. I like it, and her professional, caring attitude has greatly reduced the unease of going to see a doctor about anything at all.

She represents a turning point for the whole VA medical system. In the past, they were laughably inefficient, frustrating, and inclined to waste as much of your day as they possibly could. But that’s changing. Even our records are entirely digitized so any doctor at any facility will see the exact same diagnoses and treatments immediately. What’s more, this is now even available to US.

With little more than a few clicks of the mouse, we’re able to go online and access our own medical record and look at our own x-rays, MRIs, diagnoses and prescriptions. We can chart our own cholesterol levels, our own health, and even order new prescriptions without ever leaving the house and waiting in a long line of impatient vets eager to get their pills and escape the horrors of a VA hospital. According to an article I recently read, this new system is an attempt by the VA administration to set a trend in veteran care. And thus far, it seems to be a great system.

While many have undoubtedly complained about the VA healthcare system, my personal experiences have been relatively favorable. So much so, in fact, that I’m probably going to send a thank-you letter to the VA doctor and thank her for her outstanding treatment, professionalism, and care. And tell her that I’m still not taking my medication.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 26, 2009


The USS Pittsburgh, a Baltimore-Class heavy cruiser, didn’t enter the second world war until early 1945, when she sailed with two carrier groups destined to support the invasion of Iwo Jima with wave of air strikes on the island and any surrounding enemy fortifications. During the early days of the attack on the island, plans from the Pittsburgh’s carrier group routinely provided close air support to the Marines floundering in heavy fighting in the island’s black, volcanic ash. Well before the 35-day battle had even ended, the entire carrier group was reassigned to pound airfields and other targets on the Japanese-held island of Kyushu.

The carrier group launched their attacks on the 18th of March and planned to continue throughout the next day as well, were it not for a fierce retaliation by Japanese fighters that left the carrier Franklin ablaze, halfway destroyed, and powerless. After fending off the fighter attacks, the Pittsburgh, with the assistance of a sister ship, the light cruiser Santa Fe, plucked 34 sailors from the sea. Yet then the Pittsburgh executed an historic feat of securing a tow line to the still-burning Franklin, and slowly towed the mammoth, crippled ship to safety while her crew fought to restore power. Over 700 sailors died on board the Franklin that day – more than a quarter of her crew.
(Official U.S. Navy Photograph - National Archives Collection)

As the little ship fought to tow off their companion big deck, she and the Santa Fe also had to contend with holding off two additional waves of Japanese fighters, returned to finish off the Franklin. The Japanese were unsuccessful, due in large part to the constant gunning from aboard the Pittsburgh and Santa Fe as they churned the sea, hauling an 872-foot ship to safer waters.

Captain Gingrich, aboard the Pittsburgh, spent a continuous 48 hours at the conn during this ordeal, retiring for rest only after they had achieved some degree of safety, and restored power to proceed slowly elsewhere for repairs. Three days later, they left with the carrier group to support the invasion of Okinawa.

For over a month, the Pittsburgh and her sister ships repeatedly held back Japanese fighter attacks and rescued downed pilots with her scout plane. By June, she was caught in a typhoon with winds exceeding 70 knots and 100 foot seas. During the storm, her starboard scout plane broke lose from its catapult and rammed into the deck, eventually causing the front 104 feet of her bow to buckle and break off.

Still under power, still battling high seas and now a potentially sinking ship, her crew performed emergency repairs and began a 6-knot steam towards Guam. They had lost not a single man. (See pictures below)
(Photo from US Naval Institute)

(Photo is in the public domain)

Aboard this ship for all her perilous exploits, was William Russell (Peanut) Bingler Jr, of Charlottesville, Virginia. As a shipfitter and deep sea diver, he probably found himself hanging over the exposed end of a ship in gale-force trying to weld shoring to a vessel carrying well over 1,000 men. At any rate, his efforts, and those of the men aboard, saved the ship, which eventually made it stateside without further incident. The hull, incidentally, then humorously nicknamed “McKeesport,” a suburb of Pittsburgh, was spotted by another vessel and later towed into Guam.

Peanut died on the 17th of this month, leaving behind a large family who, for the most part, was unaware of the details of his service during World War II. He was a loving, gentle man with a decidedly odd sense of humor that many of us found endearing. I enjoyed what little time I spent with him, and regret that no further opportunities are now possible. His whole generation is fading quickly – good men who, having survived the impossible, are now aged, feeble, and disappearing rapidly. His loss will be keenly felt by his family, but also the halls of the locals VFW and American Legion posts – they're also my posts.

His obituary reads as follows:

William Russell "Peanut" Bingler Jr.

William Russell "Peanut" Bingler Jr., 86, of Charlottesville, died Saturday, January 17, 2009.

He was born on October 11, 1922, in Charlottesville, the son of the late William R. and Florence Maupin Bingler. Sisters, Waverly Bickers and Mildred B. Delozer; and two brothers, Hugh A. Bingler and Johnnie Bingler, also preceded him in death.

Peanut served in the Pacific with the United States Navy aboard the USS Pittsburgh as a shipfitter and deep sea diver during World War II. He was a life member of the USS Pittsburgh Association and a member of the VFW, American Legion Post #74 and the Cherry Avenue Christian Church. Peanut had a long career as an untrained visionary artist. His work received awards at numerous art fairs and exhibitions throughout the state and he was honored to be included as a part of the opening exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. He retired from the Martha Jefferson Hospital as the Director of Plant Operations, with over 30 years of service.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Merle Addington Bingler; their children, William R. Bingler III and his wife, Vickie, of Charlottesville, Steven Bradford Bingler and his wife, Linda, of New Orleans, Louisiana, Deborah B Shifflett and her husband, Steve, of Charlottesville, Harold Timothy Bingler and his wife, Sharon, of Charlottesville, and Sharon Kaye Drumheller and her husband, Larry, of Charlottesville; 13 grand-children; 10 great-grand-children; and his siblings, James T. "Monk" Bingler and his wife Fredell of Charlottesville, Alice B. Eades and her husband, Walter, of Earlysville, Joseph L. Bingler and his wife, Betty, of Ivy, and David Bingler and his wife, Betty, of Charlottesville; and many beloved nieces and nephews.

Peanut had an unwavering love for his wife and family and a warm humor that will be missed by everyone.

A graveside funeral service will be held 11 a.m. Wednesday, January 21, 2009, at Monticello Memory Gardens with Scott Carter, Senior Minister of Cherry Avenue Christian Church, officiating.

The family will receive friends from 6 until 7:30 Tuesday, January 20, 2009, at the Cherry Avenue Christian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Those who wish may make memorial contributions to the Hospice of the Piedmont, 675 Peter Jefferson Way, Suite #300, Charlottesville, VA 22911 or the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad, P.O. Box 160, Charlottesville, VA 22902.

Friends may send condolences to the family at

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 25, 2009


“The only reason I drink,” he told me, “is because I can’t ever get to sleep before five in the morning. This is only way I can; getting hammered.”

This wasn’t the first time he’d told me this, and I’d certainly heard it from others, too. In some ways, I’ve been there myself.

For him, and many more in a similar position, the “college experience” is proving far less enjoyable than was expected. “Nobody cares where you came from” he lamented. And he’s right. Nobody cares that you, at least at one time in your life, took an oath and carried a rifle into harm’s way. Unless you walk around showing off a photograph of you in uniform; and that’s when you realize you’re too dependent on everybody else acknowledging you, stow the photograph, and retreat in self-imposed shame – probably to sulk.

But even more than recognition of your exploits, you’d be interested to see that people your age actually care about the world in which they live. In reality, they truly don’t. Somehow, in ways that I cannot understand, they simultaneously think no further than whose party they will attend on Friday night, and also arrogantly assume they will change the world. Yet they haven’t even seen it.

Some would chalk it up to an apathetic generation, yet in their defense I’d say a lot of it has to do with limited exposure. Between thirty-second sound bytes about which celebrity is breaking up with whom and lengthier diatribes about how awful the economy may be at the moment, their age group is left with few opportunities to see, first hand, how the world really works (poorly).

He raises a good point, however. Veterans, for a wide variety of reasons, frequently do not comfortably fit into any social category or generational description. They are a breed unto themselves – hence the profusion of such organizations where they can find other, like-minded friends: VFW, American Legion, IAVA, AmVets, etc. Though I must sincerely question if such camaraderie heals wounds, or keeps them perpetually open. That is something I’ve wondered a lot lately. Are they helping the wound, or is collective lamenting forbidding any significant improvement?

One thing is certain. He, and all the rest of us, very much love our country. Had we not, we would not have volunteered to do what we did. Nor would we closely follow progress on every front, or pray for the safe return of our brothers and sisters still fighting. Yet when they return, they will face disappointment similar to ours.

After the traumatic adjustment to chaos, where violence, action, and even death become the new norm, civilian life is terribly uninteresting, unstimulating, and a monumental let-down. We’re feared by some, scorned by others, and respected by many, but truly understood by few.

Oddly, it is as if the very things he fought for – peace, stability, and some sort of “normalcy” – are the very things he can no longer enjoy. They are fantastic concepts, and true blessings to those that have never experienced them, but they are now just as foreign to us as they are to the oppressed we liberated. We fought for peace by ceding our right to taste it – for, at best, it is shaky. We remain alert and ready, poised for the next disruption of it, domestically or abroad, and thus fail to bask in what we now experience.

And meanwhile, worldwide, oppression continues, whole nations live in fear of their dictators or some other aggressor, and we still see their plight. Frankly, we always will. To ignore such things is to kill an innate sense of justice, right and wrong, and a desire that others live without terror. The draw to protect them, too, is strong, but also infeasible. They are not battles we have been called to fight, at least yet. They are simply a group of people the world cares little for protecting. We still think of their situations, though we can do little about them.

He told me that he’s lost his sense of purpose, and I can certainly understand that. We’ve fought our war, and now it’s over. We did our part, and for a number of reasons chose to walk away from it. War is hell, indeed, but for a percentage of those that fought them, peace is similarly uninviting. It requires the total ignorance of fact: that war still continues. And the character of a warrior is not driven out when our participation in it ceases. We are misfits.

His complaint is nothing unique, by any means. If it was, then why does the Veterans Administration estimate that more than 5,000 veterans will kill themselves this year alone? Suicide rates among veterans are twice as high as they are in non-veteran populations. The veterans feel – more than any single other group – that they do not fit in.

I, as a veteran, still don’t know how to reach out to these guys. I, too, have struggled with a sense of purposelessness. I, too, have felt like an outsider. All I know to do is pray for them, but that seems wholly inadequate. They’re still dying – more to self-inflicted wounds than to those caused by the enemy. And few people seem to notice.

I encourage him whenever I can, call him to make sure he’s okay, and offer suggestions whenever I can think of them, but it changes little. He, they, WE, are still ill-adapted warriors in a country that, though grateful, has no clue how to accept us. And we have no idea how to pursue acceptance. We’re different.

We defended our country and hated war, and returned unable to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The warrior is still there, yet for us the war is not. The battle now is for contentment, and the casualties are high. We fought for our country, but lost our place in it. Collectively, we yearn for a solution, but none quickly comes. We find no enjoyment in peace. In one voice, we cry for help.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Left, Right, Kill

When I look back on the Marine Corps physical training (PT), I get the impression that, while it was cleverly designed with the purpose of keeping Marines in extremely good physical condition, in practice it manifested as little more than a couple people stroking their own egos.

The Marine Corps definition of fitness is high performance on the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT), which tracks time on a three-mile run, 100 crunches (like situps, but with your hands crossed on your chest) in a two-minutes time frame, and a count on maximum pull-ups. Each of the three events is applied to a 100-point scale, with the best overall score being 300 (100 for each event).

The best time (for score) on the three-mile run is 18 minutes. I have only know about three people that could do this. I knew a few more that couldn’t run it in 28. The best score for pull-ups is reached if you do 20. For many, that’s extremely difficult. Even 100 crunches are, actually.

Oddly, however, the bulk of our near-daily PT was devoted to running. For some reason, if a guy could run quickly, every other limitation he had would be overlooked. It’s all the more odd considering that a Marine is taught to NEVER run from fire, but actually run into it. (We cleverly call this suicide attack, “assaulting through the objective.”)

For reasons that I never understood, our platoon sergeant was always among the fastest among us, and would lead the speed of the run as the rest of us would run behind him and sing cadences. I suppose, in theory, that singing cadences helps build lung strength – and gives us an opportunity to improve our thoracic muscles. Right. So we’d be running along gasping for oxygen, and the platoon sergeant would slow down every mile or so to pick up all the “turtles” that had fallen far behind the formation. We’d do little circles, stumbling over each other and trying not to fall, and wait for them to catch up. Then we’d take off again. One of the reasons that the platoon sergeant may have been more energetic than us is that he didn’t sing cadences, allowing him to devote all his oxygen to breathing – like normal people do.

What I found simultaneously humorous and exasperating is that we frequently had a few sergeants in the platoon that were overweight and hated to run. They would ALWAYS volunteer to fall back and run with the slow people while the rest of us just kept heaving and suffering. It was very noble of them. Sure, sure. It was an excuse to run slower. And they leaped at the opportunity. There were times when the platoon would be stretched out for well over a mile. It was ugly, and more than once we were accused of looking like, “a bag of smashed assholes.” I’m still trying to wrap my mind around a visual image of that.

As the Marine Corps has changed from gross and innately obscene to more socially acceptable, they have required an evolution in their cadences from awful to dull. In the days of yore (as few as five years ago), most cadences used to center on killing people, stabbing things, crushing skulls, and an elaborate recitation of coital experiences. The idea was to be as disgusting as possible – which took your mind off the fact you were starving for air, exhausted, and hating the fact it was thirty degrees and you were outside wearing nothing but a shirt and shorts – and miserable.

While a number of cadences dealt with women and doing awful things with them, to them, and on them, the more humorous ones pertained to killing things. One cadence celebrates the fun of mowing down kids on a playground with a machine gun. Another, the fun of luring birds to your window with bread, then crushing their heads (please note the eloquent rhyming scheme here). My personal favorite had the line, “Napalm sticks to kids.”

“Gather kids as you fly over town,
By throwing candy on the ground,
Then grease 'em when they gather 'round,
Napalm sticks to kids.”

It don’t get any funnier than seventy men all chanting that as they run. Well, besides when they get next to a non-infantry platoon and start singing something about “never let your dingle dangle dangle in the dirt. Take your dingle dangle and….” well, you get the picture. Or the one about killing your girlfriend and throwing her body in the river, then yelling at it until it slips below the surface and sinks.

Yeah; good times. Even in reading some of these cadences recently, I can’t decide if they’re funny or just horrible. Maybe it was situational.

By the time I’d been in the Corps a year or so, the commands were really trying to cut down on our public, swine-like behavior. Initially, we fought it tooth and nail. We would wait until we had run further away from high-ranking officers of staff NCOs, then start belting out the worst possible lines we could conjure – though admittedly half the fun is other people hearing them – and cringing.

Invariably, within a matter of seconds, some officer would appear from the woods, from down the road, parachute from the sky (it seemed they did), or just storm out of a building and start screaming at us. After a time, we just gave up altogether, which presented problems of its own.

The fact is, Marines aren’t the brightest guys in the world. Filth sticks with us – well, just like napalm. But boring cadences, the only ones we were now allowed to sing, were mundane, overly motivated (with a bunch of oorah crap interlaced in the lyrics), or nobody could remember the words. Tragically, the single cadence that we remembered without fail was the one that had zero practicality on our unit.

“Up from a sub 60 feet below,
Hit the surface and I’m ready to go.
Side-stroke, back stroke, swim to the shore;
Hit the beaches and we’re ready for more.”

And so on. Well, that’s just dumb. We are a ground-mounted anti-armor platoon, not a bunch of Navy SEALS launched from a submarine. Heck, even our own special forces guys don’t do that. It was stupid, and only had about two verses. Then the caller would switch to something even more pathetic:

“lo righty, lo right.
Lefty, righty lay-o
Lo righty lay-o
Lefty, righty-lo”

And we’d do that for great distances. Grown men (well, some of us) singing pieces of songs that would have definitely been cut from the Barney and Friends soundtrack if anybody had tried to sing them. We felt stupid, we looked stupid, and everybody probably THOUGHT we were stupid, too. And we probably were. But having been weaned off our filth, there wasn’t much left. Just some “left, right” nonsense that appealed to nobody.

And God forbid us run in silence. That’s sacrilege. If you’re running in a formation, dammit, you have to sing cadence. You have to strengthen that unit integrity, form stronger lasting bonds with the men to the right and left of you – as you try desperately not to trip over them, as the one in front of you lags back and you push him, as the one behind you pukes on your ankles, or one tries to blow his nose and ends up getting snot on the back of your neck. Or the one that trips halfway up the ranks and takes EVERYBODY behind him down, too. Or the guy that stops in the middle of a run to curse at a puddle. Or half the platoon that has booze seeping from their pores. Yeah, we were definitely investing in a lasting brotherhood. And we’d continue to foster it throughout the day by fighting with each other.

“Look to the right and what do I see;
A bunch of f***ing fags tryin’ to be like me.”

That went over really well. More screaming. One guy tries another;

“Staff Sgt, Staff Sgt, can’t you see;
This PT ain’t shit to me.”

But then the staff sergeant ran us even faster, so we all bitched at the guy for trying to be clever. Idiot. Thanks.

If I were to ever go back into the Corps, and I will not, I would make it my personal mission to bring back the disgusting cadences. They’re funny, and you learn just how easily people are offended. And that should change. If you have thin skin, if you gross out easily, if your ears hurt whenever you hear bad words, don’t join the Marines. Skip their office and keep on walking to the Air Force recruiter. They could probably find you a paper jam to fix – while wearing gloves, safety glasses, a reflective vest, and combat fatigues. The rest of us will be doing all the combat work – and probably something gross.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 23, 2009

An Unwelcome Question

Written approximately one year ago (so some sentiments expressed may be now inaccurate):

Well, it’s 10:23 PM on a Friday night. For lack of something better to do, I will attempt to tackle one of the more difficult subjects to discuss about The Burning Question. My sister asked me a reasonable question today – asked why I was being so vague and evading an answer. Well, I will tell you.

“How many people have you killed.” Let me be more specific why it is a difficult question to answer, to give a simple number.

Because if I have killed a single person then I have been responsible for ending a mother’s years of investment, for canceling a father’s life-dream, for likely robbing a family of a father, a wife (or wives) of a husband. Am I suggesting that he did not deserve it? That is between him and God. I do my job, and this is all that has been asked of me.

It’s difficult because I don’t ever want to be proud of the number of human lives I may have taken. It’s also difficult because I don’t want people to respect me more (or less) for answering.

And the water is cloudy, folks. Never cut and dry. This isn’t the Revolutionary War. This isn’t Europe where there were clear machine gun nests in fortified positions. This is guerilla warfare. This is terrorism. Terrorism, by the way, is the use of force and violence against military and NON-military personnel (innocent civilians) to promote political changes, governmental changes, and the perpetuation of a cause (usually an extreme one). Guerilla warfare is similar, but these non-uniformed, unconventional combatants restrict their aggression to regular military forces. They do not target civilians. Well, Iraqi fighters target whomever they damn well please. It could very well be their neighbors, another tribe, another family, a man who has more than them and therefore must be the enemy and in cahoots with the Baathist party, a Sunni against a Shiite, or the other way around. Take your pick. They all, however, universally hate Americans. We, the Zionist pigs, we great evil Satans spreading our poison of free speech and universal suffrage. How dare us. We are always the targets. Men who have been targeting their neighbors for years will momentarily unite to shoot at us. And when we pass, they’re back at it. They’re stupid. But I digress.

Who is Charlie? Who is the enemy? Where did those shots come from? Which direction? What window? What floor? Did you hear anything?

“No,” they say. “This neighborhood is safe. We love Americans. We would never shoot at them.” We step outside and promptly get ambushed.

I have fired numbers of times. I have rarely seen Charlie.

I have maybe only once or twice caught a glimpse of him who is our decided enemy. I see him as he may have fired a couple shots (which I never saw) and fled. They never stick around, because it means death. They run. Where’s Charlie? Running away after pissing us off. My fire has been mostly suppressive, a show of force, supportive, rarely directed at a specific human target, enemy or otherwise.

I did not go through Fallujah. That would have been a different story. We weren’t fighting the dedicated freedom fighters, those that chose to make their final stand in that disgusting city. We were fighting cowards who ran all the time.

So have a killed the enemy? I don’t know. I’ve fired a lot of rounds into a lot of buildings, through a lot of windows, in the general direction of received fire, into a lot of cars…


Drivers in Iraq are, by far, the most foolish in the universe. And they frequently pay for it with their lives.

Here is where I have done the most shooting, and must now live with it.

The roads are dangerous places. We, the US Marines, own them. The Army did not, so we had to “reteach” the locals that they were ours. It took a month of ramming cars off the road, destroying humvee bumpers and hoods, smashing headlights, waving our guns, and firing warning shots. But they learned. We owned the roads because it was safer for everybody. If you pull over and get out of the way when we come, you’re not going to ram into us and blow up. It’s simple. Move out of the way, and we know you’re not a threat (at least until you try something stupid).

Part of being an occupying force is a mission tasking known as “presence patrols.” Just drive or walk around and get blown up. Look for trouble; stir it up. Travel in vulnerably small groups so as to attract fire. Look weak, prove them wrong. Just be out and about.

We got those missions all the time. They tried to hype them up and call them “counter mortar patrols,” but we all knew what they really were. Boring. Very long, uneventful, and boring. We hated them.

Inevitably, we would stop at some point and just begin random searches of oncoming traffic. Reinforce the front end, the rear end, search cars, and either turn them around or search and let them through after determining them non-threats. Very boring.

But there were a few times when this was not the case. Those were the times when the cars didn’t slow down, when we were holding a defensive perimeter around an area and traffic was not permitted through. They’d inch close. Or they’d never slow down. They just keep coming at you. There are just a couple of seconds that the machine gunners and the boys on the ground have to make a decision: how close before we shoot. Are they a threat or do they simply not see us….how are we to know?

We make what seems like the best decision at the time. There is a line at some spoken or unspoken distance from us when we know that they clearly see us, have ignored all our signals and commands to stop, so we shoot. And it’s ugly.

It’s typically a gun/tow team. This is two humvees. One usually has a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in it, the other has a TOW missile system (rarely used). Those TOW trucks also have a M249 SAW (a 5.56mm light machine gun). And all those on foot have rifles. When the decision to shoot is reached, we usually all open up. It is an absolute mess.

When the vehicles roll to a stop (as it always does, riddled with bullets and destroyed), we quickly perform a precursory search and check for obvious weapons, for survivors, and for possible reasons why they might be trying to run us down.

And herein lies the tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen a single hostile vehicle approach my position. The humvees in front of me, yes. Those behind me, yes. Those a kilometer down the road, certainly. Me: no. My “aggressors” were all simply unobservant or didn’t think a humvee roadblock applied to them. Some will insist that they never saw us. Those few that survive.

Now what? We have a car full of civilians who don’t appear to have guns, bombs, or other questionable material. But they ran our checkpoint. We were met with an ugly choice: Us or Them. We choose Them and choose wrongly, we all die, blown into small, unrecognizable pieces. It’s certainly happened before.

We choose Us and we are wholly justified in doing so. But it may also mean that we have chosen to take innocent lives. But what are we to do? Take a risk and let them pull up to us and say hello? We cannot do that. I am charged with the protection of all the Marines, Sailors, and civilians around me. I cannot take make that gamble. We play US versus Them and we always win, at the expense of Them.

THIS is why I don’t to answer this question. I have no moral qualms with dispatching the enemy. It’s necessary, it is the result of their own aggression, not mine. But to wrestle constantly with the decision to shoot/don’t shoot is difficult and stressful; and those who are cut down as a result of their own foolishness haunt my memories.

I remember when an ambulance came speeding towards us late one night. There was a firefight going on, but we weren’t a part of it. It was taking place between Iraqi forces and Iraqi insurgents. All we did was shuttle up the Iraqi National Guardsmen (who were later referred to as Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, and now as the Iraqi Army). So we’d shuttle these guys to the fight. They were terrified. Scared. And we dropped them off and held back. Even then, having never fired a shot before in a combat zone, I felt that we were abandoning them in their hour of greatest need. If nothing else we could have set a good example and run towards the fire, assaulted through the objective. But we did not.

So we hung back, as ordered, and waited.

This was OIF II. During OIF I, the initial reinvasion of Iraq, the Iraqi Army Forward Observers (FOs) used to hitch rides in ambulances and travel around US positions to mark them for artillery and mortar fire. It was rotten, but highly effective. The end result is that veterans of that push to Baghdad lost complete confidence in the neutrality of the Red Crescent (Muslim symbol that adorns all ambulances)…

This ambulance refused to stop that night. We ran out, screamed for them to stop, and eventually they started to come to a halt and turned off their headlights. As we started to approach the vehicle to search it (and ensure that there were no insurgents, wounded or otherwise) in the vehicle, they turned on their headlights and began to accelerate again. I ducked. I knew what was coming.

Four Combined Anti-Armor Team vehicles opened up on them. That’s two .50 caliber machine guns, two M249 SAW light machine guns, and half a dozen rifles. The vehicle was quickly halted. There were two survivors, but they didn’t live long.

Before they were taken away (by other Iraqis, to an Iraqi medical facility, where they most likely died), I remember hearing them cry for help, beg for our assistance. Yet we had just shot them.

But what are we to do? It’s dark, there’s a firefight going on, there is shooting, flashing lights, and one of the most heavily-armed Marine infantry units standing by to intervene. And there is one unarmored, thin-skinned civilian vehicle not complying with our orders.

There’s your firefight. Those are your casualties.

Was this the experience at all checkpoints? Every car shot up a non-threat? Not at all. There were some cars and trucks that blew up. But most did not. Yet the occupants always died.

So don’t ask me how many people I’ve killed, because I don’t exactly know. What I DO know, however, is that a sizeable percentage were non-combatants.

I remember the car that kept creeping closer and closer to our front position of my guys. He wouldn’t stop. For some reason none of us chose to shoot. He stopped maybe 30 feet in front of us. Had he been hostile and detonated, we would have all died. For some reason we did not shoot him.

We quickly ran up to the vehicle and inspected it, ordered the driver out. We didn’t need an interpreter. He spoke English. He was also extremely upset.

“Do you realize that we almost killed you?”

He stuttered out that he understood – very shaken – and understandably so. He had two beautiful children in the back seat of his vehicle. His little daughter, maybe six or so, was among the cutest child I have ever seen. All little brown-eyed girls with sun-coppered hair are cute. She had almost died.

“Why didn’t you stop?”

He didn’t know. He didn’t think he needed to. He was a doctor. A dermatologist. He almost died. We told him to go away.

He, and his lovely children, were almost casualties.

These are the shootings that stick with you.

I am not haunted by all this, as surprising as it might sound. I am not wallowing deep in despair because of these tragedies or near-calamities. What I cognizant of, however, is how much events such as these prolong the whole conflict. Incidents such as these generate enemies at a rapid rate. The trouble is, however, I don’t know what can be done about it. Our benevolence, our patience, our hesitation at a checkpoint may cost us our lives. Yet our caution may reward us with more enemies. You go right ahead and take your pick.

I got out.

But there’s more…

I would have much preferred enemy everywhere. Because then it’s incredibly easy. It eliminates the moral dilemma, simplifies conflict, and would hasten everybody’s return home. There would be no protracted war, no dithering with attempts at humanitarian efforts, no infuriated civilian population. But, we had no such fortune.

I do prefer to live with some questions than with the knowledge that my hesitation at a checkpoint caused the death of my friends. I thank God that this is not the case, indeed. I did my job, for what it was worth, but I would have liked to do more.

Don’t ask me how many I’ve killed because I don’t like my answer. It’s ignoble. It’s complicated. It’s ugly. I’d love to say, simply, “lots.” But it isn’t that easy. I’m ashamed with my answer. I was an Infantry Marine; I want to say I did more, because then there would be fewer enemy. There are many who can say they definitely did their job. I was rarely afforded the opportunity. I wish I was more observant, more watchful, more alert, more savvy. I was always looking the wrong way, in the wrong place, or on the wrong side of town. And I am ashamed.

So every time those around me, with truly good intention, attempt to rank me among the great heroes, the proud-serving fighters of ages past, I grow frustrated. I feel I have not earned the title. I did and saw but little. They endured hell. And I am still humbled in their presence, though not entirely one of them. Yet nor am I entirely a civilian. I’m caught in the middle.

Why do you think I was insane enough to volunteer for a third tour? Because I love flying around the world on military chartered flights? Because I love the desert in the summer? Because I love getting shot at? Hardly. I was giving it one more go. One final effort to actually earn the title that I had been given upon my return in 2005. Veteran. I had hoped that maybe I would have the opportunity to kill enough to actually deserve that hallowed label, if nothing else but in my own mind.

Yet I did not. I was confined to a base, which turned out to be a great experience, but I didn’t see it as such at the time. All that effort to extend my contract, the volunteering, writing a 75 page research proposal that put me in the most dangerous places, the most dangerous vehicles in the most vulnerable units. A clever ruse to soften my self-dissatisfaction. Maybe there I would have an opportunity to kill the enemy.

But how many is enough? What’s the magic number? When would I have been satisfied that I earned my title? 10? 100? One confirmed kill?

Perhaps it is just as well I have been forbidden this opportunity.

What would have been enough? Selflessness, whatever that means. But I have little.

I do not feel any better having shared this. I have horrified my readers, distanced myself from them, and accomplished little more than frustrating myself. Don’t ask me this question, because I don’t like my answer, and neither will you.

But you may set down your phones now. There’s no need to call and have them take me away. I am not a deranged veteran, a deeply disturbed warrior returned to fit in but poorly in a society that reveres me and is simultaneously repulsed. I’m not going to run out and hurt others, nor will I hurt myself. I am simply frustrated. I had joined the Marines with high hopes of satisfying my OWN burning question – am I a warrior? a hero? a man? But I was unable to answer that to my satisfaction. That is why I’m frustrated. That question, MY question, is not so easily answered by participating in a war. It is only made more confusing.

How many did I kill? Not enough.

Copyright © 2008, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 22, 2009

We Blew Up Things

While it’s certainly fun to write about the more exciting missions I ran in Iraq and the firefights, the chaos and the adventures, they only represent a small fraction of the actual missions we completed.

During my first tour alone we ran more than 250 mission. That’s only about six solid months in country. Needless to say, we were busy. And our missions, by the way, only represented less than a quarter of those in my company. All said and done, I think we ran well over 1,000. Most of them, I must admit, were pretty damn boring.

One of our main functions as a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) was escorting Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) personnel safely around our Area of Operations (AO) and securing an area while they handled whatever ordnance had been found. These missions were either very interesting, or very dull.

Marine Corps EOD guys are, as a general rule, completely insane. I believe they are the only EOD team in the entire United States military that will ever approach a pile of unexploded ordnance and look at it. Everybody else sends a robot. They did sometimes, particularly when somebody had spotted an unexploded IED and had managed to get away from it in time, but occasionally they’d just walk up to the bombs and look at them.

I guess that their personalities combine criminal pyromania with an equally criminal fascination with things blowing up. They always use too much explosives. And most of the guys I knew were completely deaf. They are, without question, absolutely nuts. So we liked working with them – when they didn’t drag ass and take a long time to do something stupid and simple.

At any given time, day or night, a unit would come across an IED, cordon off the area, and call EOD to come disable it. If an IED had blown up already, they were still called out – not only to do a post-blast analysis, but also ensure that no unexploded ordnance remained in the area – either as a threat, or to be used for any additional bomb making. They would also come out to collect and blow up and weapons caches that a unit had found. With engineers combing the ground with metal detectors, and considering that Iraq had the fourth largest military in the world, weapons and ordnance are buried almost everywhere. All you have to do is look for it. We would just safely escort them out there, cordon off the area, and sit – like idiots, while they did their thing. At times, we cursed them for their patience and caution. Other times, they were a lot of fun.

Whenever we were called out to do a post-blast analysis, it meant that we’d be walking up on the aftermath of a unit getting hit by IEDs – which meant we frequently arrived on grisly scenes with carnage, demolished or damaged humvees, civilian casualties, and even our own dead and wounded. More than once we would help them evacuate the unit's wounded and reinforce their reduced numbers. Or our doc (Navy medical corpsman) would assist them with the wounded. I remember one time when he used a poncho to cover a dead Marine. A year later, the Marine Corps still refused to give him a new poncho. He ended up buying one with his own money. He also had nightmares for a long time.

Those missions were typically chaotic at best, and not fun at all. They took us to scenes of death. But those were less common than somebody simply finding an IED and calling EOD out to get rid of it.

Everybody would park at a safe distance, and EOD would deploy their robot (which had a bunch of stupid names, depending on who you asked. R2D2, Johnny #5, Car Ramrod, etc). Their robot had a camera, and they’d go up, look at the IED, try to figure out the best way to disable it, and then usually drop an entire stick of C4 on it. This packs more punch than a stick of dynamite. And it’s entire purpose was as a clearing charge. While it usually wouldn’t detonate the device at all, the force of the blast would knock away whatever wires or detonation cord (det cord) was hooked into the IED. And now, rendered little more than a heap of old artillery rounds, it was safe for the EOD guys to approach and start pulling out the rounds to remove them.

Sometimes things went wrong, however. The stupid robot broke down all the time, which was a pain in the ass, and they’d either have to fix it, use another, or try to “sneak” up on the IED and put a charge on it by hand. The latter was the least preferable of the three. There was one time when the EOD guy walked up, expecting to find that the clearing charge and disabled the IED, but discovered that it was fully intact and capable of killing him. But you know what; he didn’t run. He just jumped into the hole and started ripping wires out of the artillery rounds. So there he was, yanking maniacally, and then he suddenly stopped and knelt down – wiped out. He’d managed to get everything ripped out before anybody could detonate it on him. He knelt there for a second, regained his composure, and then started stacking up the rounds to get rid of them. I think this only happened once when we were around, but there were probably a lot of close calls that they’d consider all in a day’s work, and we’d consider purely insane.

Whenever an IED was recovered or they examined an already-detonated site, they’d usually find whatever electronics operated the thing and take them back to study them. Each IED-building, interestingly, has his own specific ways of doing things. One only uses a certain kind of detonator, or a certain color wire, or even a specific type or radio or cell phone. Using the materials they found, the EOD guys were able to figure out how many people were building IEDs in our area, and even who was training others to do the same thing. I was amazed they could figure all that out from looking at a jumble of wires, but they were extremely talented, and most of them had been doing it for awhile. They knew what to look for. Later on, they’d write up reports and send them up the chain so everybody knew what to look for. If they collaborated with neighboring units, they could figure out how large an area some of the bomb makers operated. One city, or maybe even one entire province. Most of them were local though.

After collecting the rounds, or showing up on a cache site (some of which were absolutely huge), they had to decide if they wanted to bring them back to a secure area on base, blow them up in place (if they were unstable to move), or make an enormous pile of ordnance and detonate it right there. The big piles were the most fun.

We had patrols find caches sometimes with hundreds of artillery rounds, cases of ammo, rifles, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) and an assortment of things that blow up. A lot of it was unstable. You could handle it carefully (sometimes), but you certainly couldn’t throw it in a humvee and take it back to base. So, they’d stack it all up and blow it right were it stood.

There’s an art to laying explosive charges on heaps of ordnance. You can’t just put a charge down and then stack a bunch of things on top of it. That would just detonate the lowest things and then send the rest high in the sky – which would have to be picked up and detonated again, which was a real pain (we’ve done it). What they would do is stack the smallest things on the bottom – like ammunition. That way, the bullets wouldn’t go everywhere. They’d just blow up into the dirt. On top of that, they’d stack the artillery rounds like firewood until they had a large pile. Then they’d lay blocks of C4 all the way from one side to the other – overlapping the blocks so they’d be sure to have proper detonation. They took some other measures to ensure full detonation, but they’re pretty technical, and I probably shouldn’t be repeating them, anyway. When it was all done, though, there would be a continuous line of C4 from one side of the heap, all the way across the top to the other. And when it blew, it would direct the explosion down, which would cause the rounds to detonate directly below them – and those would in turn set off the layers below. This chain reaction continued all the way to the bottom of the pile where the smallest things lay. The idea was to direct the force of the explosion down – not up or out. It also reduced “splatter,” when the rounds break open, but don’t actually detonate.

Quite a few of these heaps were so large that we had to back off as much as a kilometer to detonate them safely. They always double primed them – meaning that there were two lengths of time fuse burning (equally long), and they would both reach the detonators at the same time. If one failed, we hoped the other one would not. The last thing we wanted was neither to go off, and then some poor bastard would have to go back and set another charge – which was potentially suicide.

Depending on what was being detonated, the explosions could be extremely loud, extremely colorful, or create an enormous fireball. I liked all three – and my hearing isn’t so hot because of it, actually.

Occasionally we ran into a white phosphorous artillery round, which created a fireworks-style explosion, with burning arcs pouring from the blast. Standard artillery rounds were just loud. Anti-aircraft ammo also looked like fireworks as the bullets burned and rained down in a beautiful show of color. Some things made fireballs – especially when they had fuel involved – mostly homemade stuff.

When they had started the primers, everybody backed off the appropriate distance, and we counted down to detonation, ducked (sometimes), and waited for the whole thing to go up. A lot of guy filmed it, which was pretty neat. Then, after a few minutes of safety, the EOD guys would go BACK to the site and make sure everything had blown up all the way. If it hadn’t, they’d wait for it to cool, then stack it again and blow it. There were multiple times when we had incomplete detonation – especially one particularly strange IED.

Some asshole had put an old refrigerator on the side of the road and literally filled it with artillery rounds. Because it wasn’t really safe to get close to, EOD just laid some charges around it and then blew it up. And it just scattered everything. We waited FOREVER for things to cool down. When they finally did, they reset the charge and took care of it. That one, by the way, we weren’t far enough way from. Crap landed all around our vehicles, on us, and all over the pavement. None of it had any velocity, since it was just raining down, but it was still extremely hot and burned – especially when I tried to pick up a piece, which was exceedingly stupid.

When the EOD guys were going through Fallujah during the fight for the city, they had to work fast, not only because of the number of caches that were being found, but because kids would run out and take the charge off the IED and throw it away – they were petulant little shits. It got so bad that the EOD guys would just throw a SHORT fuse on it and run like hell to get out of range. Nobody came up to those, and if they did, that was it. But they had other problems in Fallujah, too. They had to do most of this while under fire. Yet, crazy as they were, they’d just ignore it, smoke cigars, and stand there in the open like morons.

If they found weapons caches in people’s houses, it was pretty obvious that they were insurgents, so they’d just detonate the caches INSIDE the house, which I think is pretty smart. Serves them right for trying to hide ordnance and use it to blow up troops. Now they’ve lost their house.

I did feel badly though that sometimes we’d find caches out in palm groves. They’d detonate them where they found them, leave huge craters, and knock down dozens of palm trees. I felt badly for the trees – which is probably an indication that there’s something wrong with me. Whatever. I guess they shouldn’t have hidden weapons in their palm groves. But since trees are so scarce in Iraq, I felt sort of badly blowing them up. Something’s obviously wrong with me. I’m not worrying about peoples’ houses, but about the trees. In Iraq.

Anyway, the EOD personnel often needed an extra hand with all their stuff, so we’d help them stack weapons and rounds, and then lay out the charges. I still have a couple satchel charge bags I grabbed after I laid out the C4 inside of them. They’re pretty handy things, though I’m sure that I’d get arrested if I went through an airport with them. They’re probably still covered in explosives residue. I try not to bring them with me for that reason whenever I fly.

Blowing stuff up was an everyday thing for us, and something we certainly enjoyed. I considered getting into EOD, but there are a number of disadvantages. First, you have to be completely crazy. I think I’m only halfway there. Second, you spend a LONG time in EOD school learning about every single landmine, missile, and round made in every country on the planet. Fourth, you have to enlist for a LONG contract. And finally, they are the most deployed MOS (military occupational specialty) in the entire United States military. You will never have a normal life. They’re always gone, always in short supply, and get blown up on a fairly regular basis. They do a dangerous job – and accidents happen. But for many of them, exploding things is their life, and they’ll always love it. And struggle to understand people because they’re completely deaf. Well, and insane, too.

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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