Sunday, May 31, 2009

To Be Heard

I’ve never really liked it when people come up and tell me thank you or try to shake my hand. I can’t prove it, and maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think a lot of them are condescending. Somehow, thanking me “makes it all better” or something. And with a lot of them, you can tell that they’re not thanking you because they’re thankful at all. They’re shaking your hand because they feel so badly for how the Vietnam veterans were treated. They’re trying to get over their guilt. So supposedly shaking my hand just erases the abuses endured by an entire generation of veterans? No way. I actually don’t usually even talk about being in the military. It’s my private life, and my private story – not something I’m trying to get attention for doing.

On Veterans Day one year, I did wear my desert digital trousers and a USMC hoodie with my ribbons on it, but that’s because it’s sort of our day. Besides, the VA director encouraged veterans to wear our medals proudly. I just wore the ribbons to class that day – stuck on my sweatshirt. I walked into class I little late that day so everybody was already there. As I stepped in the door, everybody fell deathly silent and stared at me. And you know, not a single person in that class talked to me for five weeks. Nobody. That sort of bothered me.

Usually, though, I’m minding my own business and things just happen to me. There was a student protest one day on campus – the one where they draw chalk outlines of bodies on the concrete to represent innocent people killed in war. They held this thing two days after my buddy Troy was killed in Iraq, too, so I was pretty frustrated when I saw it. But I was polite. I went up to the lady in charge and told her that while I do understand they message they’re trying to convey, it’s one of the unfortunate aspects of war. People die, innocent people, too. It doesn’t make it right, obviously, but it’s the way war works. She looked pretty annoyed at me for a second, but then I told her that one of my good friends was just killed by an IED over there two days ago. To my surprise, she told me she’s sorry and hugged me, which I thought was pretty respectable.

Then she offered me a piece of chalk and asked if I wanted to write something for him on the sidewalk, so I did. I wrote out his name, “KIA,” and “OIF.” Just as I was finishing, some dude wandered up and asked, “is that your friend?” I told him it was; that he was just killed in Iraq. “Good, I’m glad he’s dead, and your other friends, too. They’re killing innocent women and children.” My friend dragged me away before I could do anything stupid. As we were walking away, he said to me, “Dave, we took an oath to protect these people, even if they’re ignorant, stupid and unappreciative.” As much as it hurts to admit it, he’s right. We served so they could stay innocent.

We had a Veterans Day parade once in town, but there were protesters all over the place waving signs and yelling about all these war crimes we’ve supposedly committed. A bunch of us went over to them and politely asked if they could just leave us alone for ONE day, so they started hollering and chanting at us even louder. Eventually, they just wandered away. I guess their cause is one they get bored of quickly.

A lady told me once that she supported the troops, but not the war. I told her that, since we all volunteered for this, that most of us knew that we’d be going to war, if she was supporting us, she was also supporting our decision to play a part in the war. She rolled her eyes and told me, “you don’t get it.” I didn’t know what else to say. Either you’re for us, or you’re against us.

My professors weren’t much better, either. I was discussing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam with one of them and telling him how even though it was horrible and by no means right, sometimes guys just snap. They lose so many friends and it starts to get to them. Not that it made it acceptable, though. It didn’t. It was still completely wrong. This professor said, “well, it SHOULDN’T happen. And it CAN’T happen.” I told but yeah, but it does. So he glares at me and says, “I know more about war than you do,” which baffled me. How, I asked him… He told me he’s studied war a lot. Right. But I went through one.

Another professor told our class that all the troops joined because they came from economically disadvantaged families and they couldn’t do anything else. Their choices were either poverty, or the alternative of the military. Never mind you’re required to have a college degree to be an officer. Apparently it’s the best we can do. We were all forced in – that’s what he said.

One professor, who was a self-described Marxist, told the whole class that he supports the troops because, like he, they’re the working class. They’re like brothers to him, he says. But then he announces, “I just don’t want them to fight and die in a war based on lies and misinformation. The government is taking advantage of them.” I told him we all volunteered, but he still insisted we’re being fed a bunch of lies and sent off to do the government’s bidding.

There was a girl in one of my classes who said that all the Guantanamo detainees should be released because they’re POWs and the Geneva Conventions say we have to let them go. I pointed out that the Geneva Conventions state that POWs are released at the END of the war and that this one is still going on. “You’d want OUR guys released, wouldn’t you?” Sure, I told her, but they’re not taking POWs. They’re beheading our guys, burning their bodies, and hanging their desecrated corpses in the cities. They don’t have any POWs to exchange. “Well, we still support our POWs,” she said. “We wear bracelets and say prayers for them.” I told her, “how about you send our guys some socks, or something. Bracelets aren’t going to bring us home. How about you write your congressman and demand that they give us better armor. Something like that.” She rolled her eyes at me.

You know, the person that’s been the nicest to me was actually my yoga instructor. A few weeks after I had a seizure, passed out, and screamed some stuff about Iraq, she invited me to Thanksgiving at her house with a bunch of other people. I was flattered, so I figured I’d stop by. We were sitting there alone and she asked me, “you were in the military, weren’t you?” I told her I was. Then she gently asks if she could ask me a few questions about my service; I said she could.

She didn’t ask me anything rude like did I kill anybody. She didn’t ask me about weapons of mass destruction, or about politics. She just asked about my experiences. She noticed that I was getting tense as I answered, so she sat behind me, wrapped me carefully in a bear hug, and quietly told me to breathe with her – slowly and deeply. It worked, actually, and I talked to her for a long time. It felt good to just have somebody listen.

When I was done talking, she simply said, “my opinions on the war aren’t important. I know you followed your heart, that you believe in what you did, and I also know that you’re a good man. You have a good heart. That’s all that really matters. You did a good thing.” I think that was the first time somebody had actually listened to me. It’s all I really wanted.

I don’t want people to feel sorry for us, or to apologize like the government or the military dealt us some great injustice. They didn’t. We volunteered to do what we did, and we believed in it. All we want, all I want is for somebody to listen to my story and not judge me. But it only happens rarely. It’s like we have to fight another war when we get back – one just to be heard.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dave's Story

We didn’t get into Kuwait until mid-February, 2003. Then all we did was just mope around in tents and hate life, bored out of our minds, waiting to go north, or wondering IF we’d even go north. Then they issued us our MOPP gear[mission-oriented protective posture chemical warfare clothing] – which was woodland camouflage. It was the stupidest thing you’d ever see. A bunch of Marines in desert camouflage, huddled under tan cammie netting, wearing woodland camouflage. Not only did it look idiotic, but it absorbed all the heat, too. One night I looked out and we could see all the scud missiles flying over and around us. I pretty much decided right then that I wasn’t coming home. Actually, it made me a better Marine. I figured I was dead, so mission really came first.

We started pushing north on March 19th, moving towards Al Nasariyah. We rode in ridiculously long convoys right up highway one. In southern Iraq, the whole highway was littered with blown out cars with the bodies burned and slumped over the steering column. There were oil rigs billowing smoke and fire in the distance, darkening the horizon in all directions. Whenever we drove pass little villages, we could see that half of the buildings were leveled and some were still on fire. There were refugees everywhere – all trying to get down into Kuwait. Before we saw them we were joking and just being stupid as usual, but when we saw them, everybody grew silent. I remember precisely what my buddy said then: “I know why we’re here now,” he said. It was a good way to put it, and we all agreed. We felt so sorry for them. They had nothing. I was thankful to be an American.

As we rode out of the total desert of the south, we started getting shot at a lot. We’d be just driving along, and then these Bedouins would pop up from behind the berms and fire a few potshots at us. Then they’d disappear. We weren’t really allowed to shoot back at them, which was bullshit. They were more irritating than threatening, though. They couldn’t shoot worth a damn.

One day we halted and set up camp some distance off of highway one. They’d put us next to a minefield for some reason. EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] had put out those signs that said don’t advance beyond this point or something. Way out in the minefield, one lone camel wandered around lost. And for reasons I cannot explain, they ordered us to load up a humvee and drive into the minefield to chase away the camel. I remember thinking, “hmm. Here’s a whole humvee full of Marines, driving through a minefield, just to chase away a camel. This is absolute bullshit.” And it was, too. If the camel was that disruptive, just shoot it. It’s not as valuable as a truckload of Marines. We got pretty close to it, too. It had the largest lips I’ve ever seen on an animal. It was pretty weird.

Right before we drove through Nasariyah, we’re driving along and suddenly we feel this enormous gust of wind, then we see a literal wall of dust and sand coming at us from the north. Everybody’s screaming, “get in your bivvie. Get in your bivvie.” And a moment later, we get hit with this sand and dust storm that permeated everything, filled our clothes and gear with shit, and choked us all day. We hunkered down for hours in this – completely blinded. Everybody was filthy and we looked like hell. Then it poured rain for the next day and a half. It was so bad we’d get vehicles stuck in the mud and have to abandon them, put all our crap in other trucks and keep going. Our convoy got split up into three groups by accident, got stuck a lot, and then the rain suddenly stopped. That was it. Now everything was covered in a layer of mud. We looked like pigs.

When we were just south of Nasariyah, we were out in the middle of nowhere and we got mortared badly. They walked the rounds all up and down the convoy, and we didn’t have much of anywhere to take cover. I didn’t get hit, but I did get knocked out and got a concussion from one. Somehow the shrapnel didn’t hit me. We had a couple of guys get shrapnel in the arms, and one of my buddies now has permanent damage to his frontal lobe. I think he’s a vegetable, actually.

We rolled through Nasariyah just after the initial forces pushed through, and it was still bad. We were rolling through streets littered with debris, bodies, burned-out cars and buildings, and all the sudden we ambushed from all sides by small arms. I remember like it was in slow motion. The gunners on the 50s and on the mark [Mk-19, 40mm grenade machine gun] never slowed down. You could feel the rounds pinging off the humvees, too. We were firing constantly, just trying to keep their heads down a little. There were guys in the windows, guys on the roofs, ducking into the alleys. Everywhere. But Nasariyah wasn’t our mission. We were supposed to get our convoy to northern Iraq. We had to keep going. I remember seeing bodies of Marines lying in the streets.

Not long after, we were going to cross the river, but because almost all the bridges were blown out, we all waited for hours in a traffic jam of military vehicles. Hundreds of them. We were just stopped in the wide open, parked. I remember wondering when we’d get attacked. Not if, but when. That was when I started crapping blood. I had doc check me over, and he said, “Dave, you’re looking kind of yellow, like you’re jaundiced. How do you feel?”

I told him I felt just fine, which was true. I guess between all the adrenalin and whatnot, the only symptom I was showing was the blood in my stools. I was still hyped up from the combat, I guess.

“Am I okay, though?” I asked him.

“Yeah, just be careful. Keep an eye on your condition” he told me. I was relived; I didn’t want to leave. I’d feel like I was abandoning my family. Some crusty gunny [gunnery sergeant – E-7] laughed at me and said, “Live to fight another day; you can die then.” It was funny at the time, but now that I think about it, it’s a really screwed up thing to say.

Eventually we crossed the river and headed up to Tikrit, and while we were supposed to stay there for awhile, we only did couple days of patrols in the city. It wasn’t much, but it was long enough for my buddy Jordan to get killed by a sniper round to the neck – right in front of all of us. It was pretty rough.

Next thing I know, we’re out on a patrol and I just collapsed. I guess my body decided it had had enough abuse. My eyes were completely yellow, I was bleeding from my mouth, my ass, and the blood was pooling everywhere. My platoon sergeant says, “Dave, you’re getting medevaced.”

“Like hell I am” I shot back. I guess I shouldn’t have been saying that to a staff sergeant, but whatever. He got quiet and told me, “You can either get out of here with a perfect record, or you can get out of here with an NJP [non-judicial punishment]. Either way, you’re going.” So I went; I had to, but I felt like I was betraying everybody.

They had to drag me to the CH-53, since I was so weak I couldn’t walk. I was still bleeding from everywhere, too. As we were flying south, you could hear the rounds hitting the chopper and then the gunners would engage them back, so there was brass flying all over the troop area and making a mess.. I had an IV in both arms and was just lying on a stretcher, feeling helpless.

They’d switch us from chopper to chopper because of refueling issues, and eventually we landed in Basra [southern Iraq], where they dropped me outside of a hospital tent. They were so packed with people that they couldn’t even put me inside, out of the sun. They just started stacking us outside. Well, the base got rocketed and there I was, too weak to stand, just lying on a stretcher in the open, IVs in each arm, feeling completely vulnerable. I felt like a paper target on a shooting range, though. Like it was only a matter of time. Somehow, I didn’t get hit.

But the British took a bunch of casualties from the rockets, so they stacked them outside the tent with me – lining up like bodies just waiting to die. And the British guy right next to me did, too. He was gasping for air. All I could do was watch him go. Just watch him go… He’d try to moan or speak, and instead he’d just gurgle. Little by little, he got weaker and just died right there. Nobody came out to help us, not him, not the other British wounded, not any of us. They were too busy with the wounded guys inside I guess. I was completely alone, just lying on a stretcher outside a tent. Nobody talked to us, and I didn’t know anybody anyway.

Finally they put me on another chopper and fly me Kuwait, and then on another chopper out to sea – to get on the Comfort [hospital ship]. While we were flying along out to the ship the bird hit some sort of air pocket and started fishtailing. We dropped fast and hard, like we were going to crash. One of my IVs ripped out of my arm then; I still have the scar from it. I remember looking at the crew chief and he was grabbing a hold on anything he could and he was mouthing ‘oh shit, oh shit.” He caught me staring at him, though, and I guess he saw how terrified I looked. I really got to give him credit. He managed to pull off a smile and mouthed the words, “we’re gonna be fine.” I needed to hear that right then. I was scared out of my wits, sick as hell, doped out of my mind, and convinced we were going to crash, too.

When we landed on the Comfort, they put me in quarantine with all the other guys who had crazy, undiagnosed illnesses. I heard a lot of screaming and moaning, and all around me were stretchers with the sheets pulled completely over and covered in blood. As they started to work on me, they cut off all my clothes since they didn’t want to pull out my IVs. They cut my boot laces and pulled my boots, cut my trousers, then my blouse too. Then they ran me through the shower, and all I remember was this huge puddle of mud and filth in the drain as they washed me off. I was completely disgusting after that sand storm, all the rain, and just riding in an open humvee for hundreds of miles.

I stayed in quarantine for two weeks. They wouldn’t let me eat with anybody, talk to anybody outside of quarantine; nothing. Then they gave me a weird diagnosis. Apparently I had jaundice, jaundice, hepatitis A, anemia, and I’d lost 35% of function in my kidneys and liver and my intestines were so inflamed that they weren’t working at all. Why? They had no idea really, besides exposure to some unknown toxin. That’s all they could tell me.

When they had me stabilized, they announced that they didn’t have the right equipment to treat me, so they flew me back into Kuwait, then to Rhoda, Spain, where I stayed a month. After that, as I slowly improved, they flew me to Bethesda, then back to Camp Pendleton. Then they announced they were going to discharge me for a personality disorder; I have no idea why. I asked them why, after I was medevaced from a combat zone for toxin exposure, why they were going to kick me out for a personality disorder. Nobody could give me a good answer, obviously. They ended up giving me a medical discharge under honorable conditions in the end, and that’s the end of my Marine Corps story.

Three years later, I was sitting in a History of Africa, Post 1800s class in college, and the professor asked us what we thought of war. Nobody answered. “What do you all think of war,” he asked again, and then he singled me out, knowing that I was a vet. “Dave, what do YOU think of war.” So I told him.

“Sir, I think war is evil but necessary, awful but productive, unfortunate but essential, and for as long as humankind continues to exist, war will continue also. It was needed to stop people like Hitler and depose Tojo, to halt Napoleon, and to end slavery. It’s not perfect, and it’s full of atrocities, but it serves a valuable purpose.”

You know what he said back to me? He seriously said, “I don’t agree with you. I think your opinion is invalid. What do you know of war?”

So I responded: “Sir, I have been in combat, and I have lost friends. I have seen men do horrible things to innocent people. I have seen others blow themselves up for their cause and take children with them. I have had friends shot and killed in front of me and seen soldiers bleed out unattended as I, too, lay helpless on a stretcher next to them. I have been medically evacuated from Iraq and nearly shot down, nearly crashed, and had IVs ripped from my arms. I have been quarantined on a hospital ship and watched more death around me. I have been diagnosed with diseases most people have never heard of and nobody can explain how I got them. I have been exposed to foreign toxins that to this day continue to affect me and prevent me from living normal life. I have been discharged from the Marine Corps for being permanently and totally disabled, and I can’t continue with the life I once had. I can hardly walk some days from the pain. I have a whole bag of medications I take daily.

"After I was discharged and my unit went back for a second tour, I lost more friends than I did on the first. One friend survived two tours and then came back and killed himself. Part of me died over there, yet part of me was awakened. I volunteered for what I did, as did we all, and even after all my medical problems, I tried to go back again. I have watched my father kill somebody in front of me and seen a child killed by stray bullets from criminals. I have seen horrible things, and I have seen war. Not only that, I have experienced it, too. Sir, what war have YOU survived?"

When I finished, he just shook his head and turned his back to me. So I got up and walked out. I couldn't believe he said that...

If I don’t know about war and tragedy, then who does?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Those We Collected

“We had this guy in our unit once; the sort of person who makes you want to go out and strangle a recruiter for letting him into the Marines. None of us had any idea how he stuck past all the psychological screening and interviews. Spend five minutes with him and you want to go out and read a book or something just to feel smart again. Not only was he slow, but he didn’t even have heart to make up for it. He was a liability. To make matters worse, he’d been in the Marines for about twice as long as I had been, held the same rank as me, and still didn’t seem to have any idea what he was doing. Come to think of it, we had a lot of these people. Bozos that slowed us down.

“One dude was really quiet, but that may have been because he either recognized that he had no idea what he was talking about, or because his wife was a great deal larger than him and beat him a lot. It was so bad he called the cops on her once – which has to be the most embarrassing thing in the world. But she was scary, though. Even our platoon sergeant was afraid of her.

“He was one of those guys we called ‘retreads.’ In hindsight, almost ALL of the problematic troops in our unit were retreads. Those are the Marines that do four years and somehow escape with an honorable discharge. Yet then they get out into the real world and quickly discover they can’t hack it, and so they come running back into the Corps. But they’re basically useless to us, too. They were too unmotivated and clueless to hold leadership positions, but because they had the rank for it, they somehow ended up in charge of something – which is unbelievable. They were incapable of formulating a complete sentence, much less being combat leaders.

“So this jackass was out on an anti-tank rocket range one time, and instead of waiting for his a-gunner to clear the backblast, he fired before they gave him the command, and ended up knocking out a bunch of people him. A few, I’ve been told, were medically discharged for permanent, life-altering injuries. Then they sent him to us, which was a waste of our time. A few months later, he fell out of bed and broke his wrist. Yeah, I suppose we could have been disappointed to be down a man, but we were glad that we didn’t have to supervise him in a combat situation. He might have shot us by accident, too.

“There was this other guy who I swear had fetal alcohol syndrome – right down to his facial structure and mannerisms. He was always talking about smoking up and he’d end every sentence by punching you in the shoulder and saying, ‘you know what I’m saying?’ Thing is, we never had any CLUE what he was talking about. He mumbled too much. You’d swear he was drunk, or maybe high.

“We were in Iraq during one tour, and this idiot’s convoy gets hit with small arms and RPGs. Well, he’s so panicked and confused that he empties his machine gun in the OPPOSITE direction – into the desert. Later on, he insisted he heard something over there. I don’t know how he could have heard anything, what with the maevent that when one of my friends asked him about it, he pointed his machine gun at him and threatened to kill him. Naturally, they took it away and shipped him home in short order.

“But when we got back months later, he was still there. And you know what? They’d promoted him to sergeant. God only knows where he is now, but I pray he’s not in charge of anybody. He had no business being in the Corps. Or holding rank.

“There was another guy that used to sneak off all the time while we were on ship, burrow into the trash heap, and sleep away the day. He did it for weeks before anybody noticed he was gone all the time. When they finally found him, his muscles were atrophied, he smelled awful, and he even had open sores festering on his skin – mostly from being hunkered down in garbage all day. They had to supervise him showering for the rest of time we were on ship. Then we went into Iraq and they gave him a gun, which was just awesome.

“Of course, I had the guy in my unit that tried to exorcise one of the other Marines, but I’ve already told that story. He was a real whack job, to say the least. He did other stupid stuff, like lose his gear, not know what to do when we stopped the humvee, etc. He’d just stand there right in front of the missile tube, until somebody yelled at him to do something. Then he’d backtalk and say, “you don’t have to yell at me Corporal.” But we DID have to yell at him.

“We had one kid who I swear believed in werewolves and werejackals. In fact, he told people he’d refuse to go to Iraq until they let him buy a silver dagger to fend them off. He was terrified of the werejackals. He also thought he had a goblin living in his barracks room and stealing all his stuff. Obviously, it was his roommates hiding it from him, but he swore up and down that it was a goblin that followed him from his parents’ home into the Marine Corps and continued to haunt him. I can’t begin to describe how unbelievably retarded this guy was. He did too many weird things. He did a lot of mopping and sweeping for us. That was the only thing he really knew how to do – for five years. They’d sent him to us after he spit in some sergeant’s face. Maybe they sent ALL the dumb people to my unit.

“There was one young Marine who heard a rumor that if he had ten children in the state of North Carolina that they wouldn’t make him pay child support, so he was seriously aiming to have ten illegitimate kids. I think he had about six, last I heard. He’d drive around in a low-riding pickup truck with a turtle-top in the back. The whole thing was spraypainted gold, too. You know what he had in the back of the truck? A mattress; complete with red, satin sheets. You could seriously just walk out to the parking lot and stare at it. The funny thing is that as weird as he was, he was still a good Marine. The rest of them were just morons, though.

“We had other useless members of the unit, but none were quite as awful as these guys. Sure, we had a Marine that used to hide his trash in his wall locker during inspections. Then the locker would crash open during the inspection and spew trash all over the floor. Or the other guy that caught a fungus on his head from not bathing ever (in the states). Or the one who wore his helmet backwards sometimes (by accident). Or the one who lost his rifle on another base and forgot about it for a few hours. But they were all actually decent Marines when it came down to it. It was only the special ones that were detriments.

“I guess what I really want to know is this: with Marines like those in my unit, the wrong-way shooter, the abused husband, the exorcist, and the trash boy; how the hell do they consider us America’s finest? How the hell do they call us the tip of the spear? And how in God’s name have we won any wars at all? Seriously? We’re still better than the other guys? How? We’re chock full of idiots.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Farms Are For the Bees

Although I have never claimed to be a farm boy by any means, it still stands that at various times in my life I have found myself laboring hard on fence lines, mucking barns, or mowing fields. Yesterday found me mowing, raking, and pitching hay long overdue for a cut.

With the rains being what they were this spring, the grass in two small fields had reached an outrageous length and direly needed cutting. Furthermore, the clippings were so thick that they would require prompt removal to prevent smothering the live grass beneath. While tedious and at times arduous, it was a straightforward project. Mowing can only be so complicated.

But one of the sad facts of living in Central Virginia is the profusion of stinging, biting wasps and bees, many of which enjoy the seclusion of old logs, overgrown fields, low-lying branches, etc. Nearly every time I have undertaken a large mowing project, I have encountered a nest of these awful things – the hard way, which means not seeing their nest, mowing over it, and then getting immediately accosted by hundreds, if not thousands of bees all looking to singularly punish me for destroying their home. To say the very least, it is extremely painful. If I were to have a serious bee sting allergy, these attacks would easily kill me. Long story short, after years of accidentally mowing over yellow jacket nests, unintentionally disturbing old logs full of Japanese hornets, bumping branches with hornets nests, and even a few years of bad luck as a beekeeper, I am truly terrified of bees. I believe I would rather be shot at. Bullets hurt, just like bees stings do, but at least bullets aren’t mean and don’t chase me.

With this terror looming over my head, I undertook mowing yesterday. Thinking ahead, I wore long pants, boots and a thick shirt. Bees, yellow jackets especially, always manage to find their way into shirts, down pants, and occupying every shred of fabric one wears, commencing an elaborate dance that involves simultaneous sprinting and stripping. Though I cannot explain how, I have managed to move a few hundred feet in a matter of seconds, all the while clamoring out of a pair of pants. My hopes yesterday were that the pants I wore allowed no access to bees. I had tucked the cuffs into my boots. Clever me.

Though I was extremely skittish every time I saw any sort of winged insect, no bees attacked me as I mowed, leading me to the startling conclusion that after years of being stung here, they must have finally moved on. I should have withheld such presumptions until the end of the project. Three quarters of the field completed, I felt the familiar sharp pain of a sting to my arm, punctuated by another on my back a moment later. Next, the inside of my thigh. Panic set in. Run, drop clothing and kill whatever bees are still on me. Run FAST…

When I was a small child, our home would be frequented at random intervals by Jehovah’s Witnesses compelled to tell us about their faith. We always politely expressed disinterest, but they’d still persist. After a time, we discovered it was easier to simply let the Saint Bernard out and not answer the door. The dog, extremely big and loud, would keep them pinned in their car until they gave up and drove away. After a few more attempts met only with a large dog (which they never learned was a sweetheart), the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave up visiting us altogether. If I had to guess, they’d get together and say, “yeah, don’t bother going to that house; they have a huge, vicious dog and they never answer their door.” I realize it sounds discourteous, but it worked.

Well, after a 20 year hiatus, the Jehovah’s Witnesses chose to reattempt a visit to the house yesterday, and two well-dressed men and one woman were stepping from their car just as I streaked by, fleeing bees in terror.

When being chased by bees, I instinctively run for the house. There are fly swatters there, mirrors, showers, changes of clothing, and usually people there to assist me with getting the bees off of me. Yesterday, unfortunately, there were Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I had not simply shed my shirt this time. I was wearing pants that, while tucked in at the cuffs, had a button fly which apparently invited bees to swarm in. In horror, pain, and panic, I had flung them down to my ankles, beaten my groin with my hands to kill whatever I could see, and then proceeded to drop my shorts to kill those that I had missed. All this at a dead sprint, and my pants flailing out behind me. They were, after all, still tucked into my boots.

So when I ran through the parking lot, this is what the nice Jehovah’s Witnesses saw: a tall, pasty white guy, naked save for boots and inside-out pants flopping behind him, flagellating himself mercilessly with open hands, shrieking, cursing, and racing for the house. Additionally, I’m covered in Latin tattoos, so I look like a Vatican billboard.

So consumed I was with slapping bees off myself, I didn’t notice them until I was virtually upon them. In embarrassment I turned around immediately and headed back towards the field and the swarms of bees. I wish for no accusations of being a pervert. I heard but one remark behind me as I ran: “Oh my LORD!”

After some more running, smacking and stinging, I mostly got rid of the yellow jackets on me. I sought refuge in some bushes until the Jehovah’s Witnesses opted to leave (which was quickly), removed my inside-out pants (I could still hear the occasional bee in there), jumped up and down on them brutally, and stumped back to the house naked to nurse at least three dozen bee stings.

This is not the first time this has happened, by any means. Nor is it probably the last. This is, however, the first time that the whole ordeal has been witnessed by people who are completely unaware of what is happening and what I am doing. The stings certainly hurt, and between that, the Benadryl and the painkillers, I’m feeling dopey and disagreeable. But the worst part is that I’m fairly confident that the Jehovah’s Witnesses won’t be visiting for another twenty years. Yet there’ll be no mention of a dog. No doubt they’re saying, “don’t go to THAT house; naked people will chase you.” And that, alas, is not how I wish to be remembered in this community.

*This post is fiction.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Coming Soon...

Farms Are For the Bees

Monday, May 25, 2009

We, The Memorial

While listening to the radio last week in the midwest, I heard an advertisement reminding listeners that Memorial Day is a time to remember our loved ones and that we should honor them by giving blood. Yesterday, another ad frenetically raved that this weekend heralded their annual “tent event,” and they would be selling cars at deep discounts. A third announcement reminded us all to be safe as we kicked off our summers with a cookout. A fourth admonished us to buckle our seatbelts. All I could think about was Eddie.

The mission went completely to hell when one of our humvees was engulfed in the fireball from a carbomb, but we were relieved to learn a few minutes later those inside sustained only relatively minor injuries and had been evacuated. Eddie, before the debris even settled from the explosion, had led two more humvees off in search of a triggerman, tearing north along the Euphrates River and quickly searching any suspicious persons as they continued. Moments later, both of their vehicles were devastatingly hit by a “daisy-chain” IED. As the survivors tried to save the dying, one humvee lay burning and the other badly damaged, we lost radio contact.

An hour later, the platoon commander gathered the remnants of our unit for debriefing. We were missing multiple humvees, personnel, and unsure what had happened to them all. He began to speak quietly:

“Anthony took a piece of shrapnel into the back of his head, but he’s going to be okay. Jake got some in the face, but he’ll be fine, too.”

He paused and looked completely miserable.

“Ron got hit with shrapnel and a bullet in his shoulder and they’ve already evacuated him. He’ll be alright once they dig out the metal. But Eddie…”

His lip trembled.

“…Eddie didn’t make it.”

He had died doing what he loved and for those he loved - many of whom he never met.

It is written that, “greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.” How much more his love, I should think, that a man lay down his life for a stranger. I can fathom no higher honor.

When I think of Memorial Day, I think of Eddie, and the roughly 623,000 men and women who have died similarly violent, premature deaths in service to this country. More than a sea of tombstones, though, I see an irrevocably changed nation.

I see children growing up without a father, wives painfully aware of how empty their houses have suddenly become, fathers overcome with grief as they bury the broken bodies of their sons and daughters – legacies that were meant to long outlive their parents. I see a nation bent in mourning for her youngsters but standing proud for having produced men and women of such selfless character.

This holiday doesn’t mark a long weekend, a huge sale or a backyard cookout. Instead, it is a solemn day of freedom, one purchased at high cost. Yet those who deserve the honor are no longer with us to receive it.

We, this land, the flags on tombstones and flying in parades, the families of the fallen, the widows and widowers – this free nation is the memorial; a living, breathing one. We dwell in a place of perpetual gratitude and debt.

Let us remember today, let us fall silent, let us set an empty place at our tables for those still missing. Let us mourn the great expense of our freedom, and celebrate those who were willing to pay for it. And in our somber quiet, let us pray for peace, make ready for war, and always remember.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Tragically, he is correct. In the past week, more than five patriots have paid the ultimate price. Today, I will be thinking of Eddie.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that the government : of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, PA, Nov 19th 1863

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I'm Home Now

The highway exit’s dining selection was scarce, so I opted for the non-chain restaurant of the two. An enormous egg adorned the side of the building – and it was wearing an apron, had arms, legs, a human face, and was waving invitingly to all enter. The lighted sign overhead read “Egg Shoppe.”

Despite the extremely late hour, six employees move hurriedly throughout the place – busying themselves with unknown tasks. At the far booth sit out-of-towners. They have no accents, dress oddly, and though there appears to be two men and three women, they actually have only one woman in their midst. Inexplicably, an oversized moleskine notebook sits on their table. Complete with elastic band and black faux leather bindings, it was the size of a photo album – and what one might expect to see in a Dr. Seuss story. They break into giggling frequently. They’re definitely not locals. At the far end of the restaurant, an old man sits bolt upright in his booth and stares at me. I do not stare back.

The diner door swings open roughly and a drunk man staggers in singing. Maybe 25, covered in tattoos and earrings in both ears, he’s immediately followed by a girl in jeans and a Realtree camouflage coat. She and another friend – an extremely heavyset girl still in her mid-teens (and wearing a spandex outfit), closely supervise Daryl as he slumps heavily into the booth behind me. As he lands, he rams his elbow into me unintentionally and begins the first of four sincere, drunken apologies. I inform him it’s no big deal and he begins to prattle.

“Is that a Dodge?” he says hopefully, staring out the diner window.

“Oh,” he growls a moment later, “it’s a goddam Chevrolet.”

“Daryl, SHUT UP! We shoulda’ just took you home.”

“Why, woman?” He directed his attention to the waitress behind the counter.

“Can I get a Bud?”

“I WISH we done had ‘em here” she called back.
Realtree camouflage girl walks over to the jukebox with spandex girl and five minutes later the entire diner, excluding myself, is singing along to Hank Williams, Jr. Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman” plays next and this time Daryl makes up his own lyrics, sufficiently crass that Realtree camouflage girl clamps her hand over his mouth. I can still make out the clever lines, which very involve private acts in very public places. He switches to singing about runny eggs.

“Where’s MY plate,” he whines to the waitress.

“It’s comin,’ sweetie. Real soon.”

The girl in the Realtree camouflage jacket leans forward yet again.

"Shut UP, Daryl! There's cops coming in!"

The group with the giant moleskine notebook started roaring with laughter again. Something about pickle races and vomiting onto Baby on Board signs. The out-of-towners pay and leave as the four cops take their seats by the bathroom door.

"It ain't no thing. I'm gonna go over there and piss."

"Like HELL you ain't. You're damn drunk!"

"They'll never know."

"You been sangin' about beer and runny eggs since we got here. They'll know."

“My uncle’s a cop.”

Another man sitting nearby felt the need to pipe up at this point. “It don’ matter, son. They’ll still jail your ass. Hey, y’all goin’ south tonight?”

Realtree girl indicates that they were.

“Well, watch out up through there. They got some real nasty law dogs up down [sic] there.”

Daryl wanders off to do his pissing, and ends up standing, swaying, and reeking of booze right next to the cops’ table. They smile and greet him and he somehow avoids a “dumb in public” citation. Realtree is still paranoid and continues talking to spandex in his absence.

“We should just pay and leave. I got money. I’m so scared of cops.”

Spandex girl whispers something incomprehensible and then I hear, “shh! He’s a MARINE!”

Daryl returns to his seat and attempts to tell our end of the diner about his bathroom experience and how he fooled “them cops.” More “shut ups.”

The guy across the aisle pipes up again. “Y’all goin’ up down [again, sic] to the river this weekend to fish and drink?”

Daryl moans. “Aw hell no. I’m never drinking again. I just wanna drive home and sleep.”

“Like shit you drivin,’” Realtree camouflage interjects. “I’ll drive, and you’re parking your truck.”

“Aw come on. Everybody drinks and drives around here. Everybody!” He starts getting loud. Realtree hits him and he amends his argument.

“Um, whenever we drink around here, we always walk. It’s safer.”

The doors opens again and a middle-aged man wearily trudges in. His baggy jeans look several sizes too large, and they’re tucked into his enormous rubber boots. His face is blackened with coal dust and streaked with the occasional stream of sweat from his temples. He looks exhausted. His son, covered in tattoos and piercings and probably 17 years old, sits across from him in silence. Neither of them utter a word for as long as I was in the restaurant.

Daryl also quiets, prompting sarcastic remarks from spandex girl.

“You gonna throw up now? You had enough?”

I wonder if it’s occurred to her that Daryl, sitting directly across from her, will be throwing up onto HER. It’s time to go.

As I pay, the four cops, ignoring the drunks and everybody else, stare at me intently. As I leave the Egg Shoppe, a fifth police officer pulls up hurriedly. Leaping from the car, the attractive female officer slams the door, lays her hands on her sidearm, and storms into the diner. Daryl must have just thrown up.

It’s 2:47AM and I’m home now.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Coming Soon...

The girl in the Realtree camouflage jacket leaned forward yet again.

"Shut UP, Daryl! There's cops coming in!"

"It ain't no thing. I'm gonna go over there and piss."

"Like HELL you ain't. You're damn drunk!"

"They'll never know."

"You been sangin' about beer and runny eggs since we got here. They'll know."

The group with the giant moleskine notebook started roaring with laughter again. Something about pickle races and vomiting onto Baby on Board signs.

"Daryl, shut UP! He's a Marine!"

Coming soon: "I'm Home Now."

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Day My Soul Died

As my whirlwind driving adventures continued eastward, I stopped in Chicago to visit my good friend Sarah, whose troop support organization kept me well-supplied through three tours in Iraq, and who has now come to be more of a second mother and confidant. She’d been inviting me up to Chicago for years, and for the first time, I took her up on the offer. She always serves good food.

Sarah has informed me repeatedly that Chicago is THE best city in the world, and that if I ever made it up this direction, she would give me a grand tour of the Windy City. I was anticipating a day of sightseeing, famous attractions, and an intimidating skyline cluttered with high rises. I was completely unprepared for what awaited me.

“When I was with my friends yesterday, I asked for their advice on how to see the most of the city in a single day. What to show you, where to go, and so on. Almost all of them said to do what we’re doing.”

When I inquired just what exactly we would be doing, she told me it was a surprise and I’d have to wait. The reality, however, is that she didn’t want me to shriek in horror, grab my bags and leave immediately. In hindsight, she was right to withhold information. While trapped on the train into Chicago, she broke the news.

“Ben, we’ll be touring downtown Chicago on Segway scooters!”

I was mortified immediately. For those who don’t know it, Segways are the strange-looking, electric, two-wheeled upright scooters that use gyroscopic balance to keep riders from wiping out (click here). They are also probably the largest source of dork jokes I have ever seen. Nobody with any shred of dignity would be caught dead on one, myself included. Yet now I was not only about to ride one, but do so in public, in a major city, while wearing a safety helmet, and accompanying a herd of other self-shaming dorks. I politely choked back my anger, as Sarah informed me of her life philosophy:

“You’ll never see these people again.”

All good and well, but I will remember being laughed at for the rest of my life. This would be better if I was drunk.

After a safety brief and helmet assignment, we all dragged our Segways outside the tour company’s storage room and commenced a lengthy operating lesson. To her credit, the tour guide made it look simple. Yet even she, petite, highly attractive, and well-attired in a short sundress, still looked like a dork. She, as an “expert,” was also not wearing a helmet. Still fighting to urge to run, I stepped on, nearly fell off once, and immediately felt my self-image deflate. As I timidly rolled forward a few steps, two Asian tourists on the walkway above immediately turned expensive video cameras on me and started filming. They were laughing. I had nothing to throw at them.

Twenty minutes later, we were rolling along the sidewalk and conducting more “training,” most of which is geared towards keeping us from panicking, which will most certainly cause a wipeout. When it was complete, we began the three-hour tour, which I would describe as an inglorious parade of a once-proud combat veteran through a sea of chortling pedestrians. I would have preferred roller skates and short shorts.

As our guide effortlessly trundled down the sidewalk, I utilized now-wasted combat observation skills to immediately notice that everybody was staring at me. Few looked curious. They were laughing. As we cut through a park towards the road, we passed several benches full of locals enjoying the scenery. They weren’t staring at the guide or the other riders, but at the 6ft 3in, helmeted man who wouldn’t look them in the eye. I looked away or down, and made every effort to pretend I didn’t notice their gaze. All I could think about was reading a fake advertisement for Segways years ago that boasted an optional “dork deflector” which projects an image of a ferocious Klingon onto nearby walls. I wanted to wear a mask.

As luck would have it, nearly every intersection was packed with cars – all of the passengers laughing. Every two or three blocks we would encounter a tour group with dozens of children. Lacking any sort of tact (and I can’t blame them), a number pointed at me directly and laughed. While I would normally glare back and intimidate them, I lacked the dignity, and a Klingon. I hung my head and tried not to wipe out, which would have been the epitome of soul death.

The picnic table loaded with young men also laughed, but with my pride completely departed, I called out to them with a cheery voice and a heavy lisp. “Oh, these things are wonderful, guys. You’ll be on them soon!”

As I passed, one muttered a reply: “Oh, I’m right behind you.” Crap. Fine.
In another park, I took my Segway up to its top speed of 8.5mph, tore into the grass, and chased away a flock of seagulls. The tour guide looked at me in irritation and Sarah asked what on earth I was doing.

“I wanted to see if SOMETHING was still afraid of me.” She cracked up and returned to taking pictures of me behind my back, no doubt for later blackmail.

When pretty girls shyly steal a look at me or smile, I usually smile back. But now, unsure if they were smiling at the humor of a tall moron on a Segway or because they just wanted to smile at me, I looked down in shame. I can’t hit on pretty girls when riding a Segway. It’s the antithesis of cool. Another group of Segway tourist passed us. The guide rolled into the middle of the intersection and hollered cheerfully at us.

“Woooo! Segways! Alright! Aren’t these things awesome? Segway nation! One world, two wheels!”

I wanted to shoot either him or myself; I was undecided. To boost my self-esteem, I attempted some offroading on a hill, almost wrecked, and received another glare from the tour guide. I don’t think she liked me. “You’re the ONLY guy who won’t admit he’s having fun,” she remarked.

How COULD I have fun? My masculinity was being sucked from my body. I missed my uniform, or any form of dignity, for that matter.

More guys pointing and laughing. I give them an extremely effeminate wave and look away before they can taunt me to my face. I didn’t want to see their reaction. Passing well-dressed professionals on the sidewalk, I concluded I was not properly garbed for such an excursion. If I’m going to look like an idiot without even trying, I should have completed the image altogether with a cape, a feather boa, or an animal costume. Maybe they’d stare at my outfit instead of my face. Maybe they’d feel sorry for the special needs man on the Segway. More pretty girls smile – probably laughing at me. Hooray. Segway Nation. I pretended not to notice them. Having a man smile at you while he rides past on a Segway is as awkward as a bezitted teenager waving adoringly at a bikini model. They’re not in the same league.

To make a long story short, I survived this undignified ordeal. I told nobody my name, distributed no business cards, and recovered my masculinity by writing an e-mail to a friend about guns, watched some videos of Marines blowing up some stuff, and later I will do some pushups. Tomorrow I will radically change my haircut, start to grow a beard, and leave the state before I can be humiliated any further.

When I returned to Sarah’s house, I checked voicemail messages on my phone. There was one from my little sister:

“Hi there! I just wanted to make sure you would be back home by Sunday. They’ll be running the Special Olympics torch through town and I don’t want you to miss your favorite event!”

Maybe I should reenlist in the military. So far, the Marines don’t use Segways. Some other special units do, but NOT the grunts. God help me; I’ve turned into a goober.

For humorous photos of Segways, see the links below:

Self-shamed cop on a Segway
Segway tourists looking lame
Asian SWAT police on Segways
SWAT officers training on Segways

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ghost Chasers

On April 10th 2009, Army Corporal Samuel C. Harris Jr. of Rogersville, Tennessee was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He and several others had been reported missing on November 27th, two days after an intense firefight near Hill 222, Korea. He had been listed as missing in action for 58 years. The search for thousands more is ongoing.

Perhaps the most frustrating but occasionally highly rewarding areas of work undertaken by the US Department of Defense (DoD) is the painstaking search for the remains of servicemen who died on foreign soil during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. Due mostly to the chaos of battle, limited technology, enormous troop movements, shabby records in prisoner of war (POW) camps and the passage of time, the fate and final resting place of more than 84,000 US servicemen remains unknown.

Tragically, many perished in POW camps, killed by Japanese and German captors merely to set an example, others were bayoneted during forced marches, many starved or worked to death in labor camps, and a number were killed during allied attacks on those facilities and operations. Those killed on marches were frequently abandoned when survivors, slowed with the burden of carrying their fallen comrades, were given the option to either die themselves or leave their friends’ remains along the roadways. Those killed in camps were tossed into mass graves and forgotten, and countless more were tortured, underwent gruesome medical experimentation at the hands of their captors, and later joined their brethren in the pits.

The vast majority, however, lay forever where they fell in far off jungles, on islands, or somewhere in Europe as their units pushed into Germany. From World War II alone, more than 74,000 families have been denied the right to know how their loves ones died and where they were buried – if they were even buried at all. They are ghosts, and the vast majority will most likely never be discovered or identified.

The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) oversees investigations worldwide in the continued search for our nation’s missing men – now all presumed dead. In conjunction with archeological digs, intense interviews, and cutting-edge DNA laboratory testing, the DPMO pieces together biological, geographical, and circumstantial evidence to locate these men. As World War II quickly fades from memory and stateside survivors are dying at a rate of thousands per week, the likelihood of pinpointing the missing is diminishing rapidly. As hopeless as their efforts may appear, however, there have been a few recent encouragements that keep these men and women laboring unwaveringly.

In Vietnam, for example, as those who endured a brutal war on their soil near the ends of their lives, many have stepped forward to clear their consciences – at times confessing that they killed US troops and indicating where they buried the bodies, all with the hopes of absolving their guilt over past actions. Their admissions have proven invaluable to locating a few of the more than 1,000 servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War. Monsoons have come and gone, landslides have buried some gravesites, and many remain missing, but every so often a few more servicemen are identified and finally reunited with their surviving kin.

To lose a loved one in war is devastating enough, but to wonder for years, and perhaps even half-century the fate of a family member is a lingering pain. Though working largely unnoticed, the efforts of the DPMO and other partner organizations are followed closely by men and women eager for any news of their loved ones. They won’t see them again, most likely, but perhaps they can receive closure to years of protracted grief. Progress is understandably slow.

In order to identify with certainty the remains of Army Air Corps Staff Sergeant Jimmie Doyle, who was shot down near Japan, divers with the US Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Teams conducted three investigative missions down to the wreckage of a submerged aircraft off the southern coast of Babelthuap Island. They resurfaced with machine guns, biological samples, and even old ID materials found on three of the crewmembers within the wreckage. With the assistance of scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratories, serial numbers from the recovered weapons were matched to those that were assigned to the B-24J Liberator bomber known to have been shot down on September 1st, 1944 and mitochondrial DNA was matched to these crewmembers’ surviving kin.

In conjunction with these data, circumstantial evidence and even old dental records, a solid conclusion was reached: after 50 years of searching and five more years of research and legwork, Jimmie Doyle had been located. The Army’s Mortuary Affairs Office soon thereafter contacted his next of kin, and on April 25th 2009, Doyle was buried in his hometown of Lamesa, Texas. The exhaustive search had taken more than half a century, but finally ended solemnly, but positively. Doyle made it home.

Few, if any countries in the world go to such exhaustive lengths to recover their war dead, yet few countries remember her heroes so fondly. Nor do many take so seriously the expression, “leave no man behind.” This nation, recognizing the sacrifice of these men, hunts for them willingly and tirelessly. These men gave us everything, so the least we can offer them is peace. They are gone, indeed, but never forgotten. We are a nation who remembers, for the nation itself was purchased at immeasurably high cost. We chase ghosts.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To The Dogs

*If you have not done so already, please read the following before continuing:
"Hitting the Beaches"

At the time that Cole went through it, there were two types of dog handler training. One, conducted by the Air Force, was for sentry dogs. The other, scout dog training, was overseen by the Army at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Soon after the completion of training and now a Sergeant, Cole again found himself in Vietnam.

“We were walking along one day and I guess I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been. I had my M-16 in one hand and the dog’s lead in my left – and I was just sort of gazing off into nowhere. The dog sort of skirted around something, but I didn’t see, so I just walked straight down the little path. Next thing I know, I take a step and hear a loud metallic clank. I froze in place.”

Scout dogs, unlike sentry dogs, are not trained to attack, guard, secure perimeters, or even look particularly intimidating. In essence, their purpose is to replace the point man on a foot patrol. The scout dog will walk point, led closely behind by its handler. The handler, already extremely vulnerable to ambushes, booby traps and a host of other threats, intently watches the dog.

“You watch the dog for any unusual movement. If he smells something, there are probably VC waiting to ambush us. If he pricks his ears, he’s heard something, and we react accordingly.”

Handlers were trained to never remove their eyes from the dog. Cole learned the hard way that there were consequences for failing to do this. As he stood frozen in place atop the booby trap, he thought, “this is it. I’m done.” The squad’s Vietnamese scout crept forward and began poking beneath Cole’s boot with his knife. He expected to find a landmine that would detonate the moment Cole stepped forward.

“He didn’t find anything though. Just mud. The VC had dug a hole in the center of the path, put a tripwire through it, then covered it with a piece of metal and sprinkled some dirt and leaves over it. But I guess it just wasn’t my time. It’d rained the night before, and the hole had filled with mud, so when I stepped in it, the mud kept me from sinking far enough to trip the wire.”

The tripwire itself was secured to a stake on one side of the path, and a rigged artillery round on the other, hidden in the bushes. Once he determined the type of trap set, the Vietnamese scout cut the wire, disabled the detonator, and wound the tripwire up on its stick. He handed the wire and stick to Cole, jabbering away in Vietnamese.

“That night, when I was lying on my cot in the tent, some crusty old Marine captain barged in. He was the quintessential old Marine: big gut, cigar, and really old. He hollered my name.”

“Over here, sir.”

“Son, I don’t know if you’re a religious man, but I think I’d be in church this Sunday if I were you.”

“Yes sir. I will be.” Apparently the entire camp knew about his brush with death. From that point forward, he watched his dog more closely. Forty years later, he still carries a piece of that tripwire on his keychain. The rest of it, still wound to the stick, is framed and hanging on the wall in his home. Whenever his children were young, they’d ask about it. “I’ll tell you someday,” he always responded. When they were much older, he explained it significance.

Dog handlers didn’t operate independently in Vietnam. They were individually assigned to infantry units as requested.

“We’d do a couple weeks with a grunt unit and then they’d chopper us south for a couple days off. Sometimes they’d tell me to be out on the helipad at 10PM or something. I’d show up there, just me and the dog, and then a bird would land and pick us up and it’d just be us on the chopper, which was weird. I’d ask them where I was going, but they’d just say, ‘you’ll find out when you get there.’ I hated that. The longer the flight was, the more I thought, ‘shit, they’re taking me north into the DMZ.’”

During one memorable period of time, Cole and his dog were attached to 9th Marines, informally known as the “Walking Dead.”

“That was the first time I really witnessed the thousand yard stare. All the 9th Marine guys were positively listless. They’d just gaze off like they were somewhere else all the time. After a few days with them, I worked up the nerve to ask one about it. I asked him why everybody stared off into space like that. The guy looked at me forlornly and said, ‘because every one of us is going to die. It always happens to 9th Marines. They send us someplace and we get brutalized. Every time. None of us is going home again.’”

Sure enough, before long Cole witnessed firsthand the Division’s historically bad luck.

“They were doing an operation on line, and I can’t work my dog when they were like that, so me and this other guy took up rear security and started digging in. Then my buddy got bitten by a scorpion, and he starts sweating and shaking in the hole, completely miserable. I called our Doc over and right as he climbed into the hole, we started getting mortared. We couldn’t all fit in the hole either.

“Doc threw my buddy down into the hole and put his flak vest over him, and then he climbed on top of him to shield him with his body. Trouble is, that didn’t leave enough room for ME in there. All I could do was hunch in the corner and constantly turn a little bit as the rounds ‘walked’ right by us. Once again, I knew that was it.

“You ever felt shrapnel hit your flak? It feels like somebody’s throwing little rocks or something at you – but really hard. My entire upper body was exposed because Doc and the other guy were filling the hole. As the rounds walked by us, I’d rotate to keep them to my back. The whole time, I’m thinking, ‘all I have to do is hold out my arm, get hit by something little, and they’ll send me home,’ but my luck a big chunk would have come by then and taken off my whole damn arm. I just hunched down and watched shrapnel open up Doc’s arm, then my buddy’s leg got opened up. But nothing hit me, though – at least not big pieces. Again, I guess it wasn’t my time.”

Caring for a dog in Vietnam was more complex than one might imagine. Not only did handlers pack their own equipment, but they were required to carry two weeks provisions for the dog, as well as tremendous amounts of water. Cole explained the problem:

“The dog’s brain sits in the top of its cranial cavity – just under the fur and skull. They cook easily, so we’d have to keep them cool. I’d have maybe one canteen for myself, and literally fifteen for the dog. All throughout the day, I’d pour water over his head to keep him from frying. The grunts hated me for it, too. They’d get resupplied and get issued barely half a canteen per Marine, and there I was just pouring water all over my dog just to keep him comfortable. They hated me for it, but I had to do it. The poor animal still passed out once on me, which was awful.

“Other guys weren’t very nice to their dogs, though. Some of the handlers in my group would deliberately feed their dogs a little bit of C4. Of course, the dog would get sick and then the handler would insist that they needed to be relieved. The veterinarians knew about it and hated those guys for it, but they couldn’t ever prove it. It pissed me off, and I never did it. It’s pretty embarrassing to even tell you about it, actually.”

Following his tour through Vietnam as a dog handler, Cole again returned to the states.

“It was the early 70s then, when airplanes were getting hijacked left and right in the Middle East, and the US Marshalls didn’t have enough guys to plant on every flight through the area. So they borrowed a bunch of guys from the military, sent them through Sky Marshals school, and then we’d fly all over the place. The pulled about 800 guys from the entire military, and only about 88 from the Corps. They didn’t call us Air Marshalls though, but Sky Marshalls. I did a couple world tours on flights, and then I got promoted to Staff Sergeant and they sent me back to regular units again.”

Sure enough, with his extensive and recent experience as a dog handler, Cole was assigned as a “coordinator” for a dog handler unit – and shipped back to Vietnam for a third tour.

“Basically what would happen is that the handlers would get sent all over Vietnam, and then I’d just travel around and check up on them, deliver their mail, make sure the dogs had plenty of food, and coordinate their relief to give the dogs some R&R and. They had to come south every three weeks or so for vet checkups and rest. Then they’d send ‘em out again. So I’d just wander around the country trying to keep up with all of them, which was pretty fun. I’d get to bases, and the commanders would insist I stick around an extra day for the USO show or something. ‘Course, then I get back south and my 1st Sergeant would yell at me, but he was going to do that anyway so it really didn’t matter. I had a pretty good time though, just traveling around with special orders that let me fly anywhere.”

After a short tour, abbreviated because he declined to reenlist again, Cole returned to the states for discharge. He’d given the Corps seven years, three tours, and served in a myriad of unusual positions.

“I had a few hard days when I wondered what the hell I was doing, but you know, I loved every minute of it. Every single minute. And I wish I’d stayed in. I had so much fun.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hitting the Beaches

“When they launched the trac [Marine Corps amphibious assault vehicle] off the back of our ship, the thing actually sunk and water started pouring in the driver’s open hatch. I have no idea why he didn’t close it. But after a moment it came back up, and we started circling in the water until all the other tracs were ready to push, too.”

Cole and his unit, as well as two other Marine Infantry battalions, were part of Operation Starlite; as General Westmoreland put it, the first hostile amphibious landing since the Korean War. It was also the first strictly US military offensive action of the Vietnam War. Intelligence reports estimated that they were attacking a Viet Cong estimated to be 2,000 strong, on the beach, with Naval gunfire sailing overhead, air support strafing the enemy lines, and under withering fire from the Viet Cong. “I was just a PFC [private first class], you know. It was ‘65 and I was only 19. I wasn’t scared, exactly. But I was thinking, ‘wow.’ That’s all that ran through my head most of the time. ‘Wow.’

“As we rode towards the beach, the trac driver still had his hatch open. We’d crest a wave, then ride into the trough and the next swell would wash over the trac. Every time, the driver would get swamped as we took on more water. He’d frantically smear his sleeve and hands across his face, fight with the steering controls, and keep on going. We were all crammed in the troop transport area so tightly that as we sat there, our knees were interlocked with the guys sitting in the row facing us. The water was so high in the back that it was soaking the seats of our pants. I figured we’d never make it to land.

“Right about the time that I’m thinking that archeologists are going to find our corpses and our trac at the bottom of the ocean 5,000 years from now, the treads touched sand and we went tearing up onto the beach.

“When we got up in the sand, the doors came open, all the water spilled out, then we came running out right after that. Under fire, of course.”

Cole’s position was on the far right extreme of Kilo Company’s inland push, bounding, taking cover, and bounding some more.

“To my right about 500 feet or so, Corporal O’Malley from India Company was winning the Medal of Honor for jumping into a VC trench and killing a bunch of ‘em – then he refused a medevac until all his squad was safely out of harm’s way. To my left, not 100 feet away, there were fierce firefights with other squads and platoons. Overhead, the jets strafed the VC positions and bass rained down through the canopy all around us. And you know what, running up that beach, stopping when they told us to, rushing forward when they yelled at us, I never fired a shot through my M-14. Not once. Our lane never had any gooks in it to shoot at. All around me, yes, but you couldn’t see through the canopy and foliage. That was their business in their lane. We just didn’t encounter anything in mine. We had to be careful, though. Most of the VC were underground, and as soon as we’d advance past their trap doors and tunnels, they’d pop us and shoot us from behind. I feel sorry for the bastards in India Company, though. They pushed right through the VC command post – and they got torn up too. Two actually were awarded the Medal of Honor in that company – and somehow lived to receive them.”

After three days of sporadic heavy fighting, attacks and counter attacks, reinforcements started to pour onto the beach. Supply convoys, however, were repeatedly ambushed as they pushed towards the front lines. Each time, Marines on the front lines further depleted their ranks and dispatched elements rearward to “rescue the rescuers” – taking heavy casualties along the way. Eventually, however, Marines from 3/7 were finally deployed to relieve the main elements of Cole’s battalion holding the front lines.

“They went forward all gung ho with their spit-shined boots and pressed cammies. Apparently they were clueless, though. Not an hour later or so, I was sitting there eating some food and resting, and Marines started walking by carrying ponchos all wrapped up. You could see clean, spit-shined boots sticking out the end. Those kids didn’t make it six hours in country.”

After completing his tour through Vietnam, Cole returned to the stateside Marine Corps and soon found himself among the first “Redeyes” of the military – a unit few are aware even existed.

“The Redeye is actually just the predecessor for the Stinger missile – a heat-seeking missile fired from a shoulder-mounted launcher. We were the first guys. Whenever we went out for a test shoot, all these Generals from the Pentagon would be there, the General Dynamics contractors that designed them, and even politicians. We always gave them a show.

“But the trouble was that all we did in that unit was conditioning humps [hikes]. We’d have to haul all our gear plus the 37 pound launcher everywhere. It’s all we ever did. When I saw that they were looking for dog handlers, I leaped at the opportunity. It looked interesting…”

To Be Continued…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We Brought Our Preacher

We had pulled out into the Iraqi desert for the night, scouting out a wadi far from town and hopefully also far from any night ambushes or IEDs. After we coiled the vehicles, each vehicle commander set to securing the humvees for the night as the Marines made sleep arrangements either in the vehicles, on their hoods, or dug into holes (ranger graves) around the trucks. Only a few of us had tents.

Comer, one of my vehicle commanders, directed his Marines to restow all the gear in his truck, which most of them began promptly. Wilber, his assistant gunner, had deposited half-empty Gatorade bottles and opened MRE snacks everywhere around his seat. Comer, already irritated about being wet, cold, and now about to hunker down for the night in a squalid, desolate wadi in the middle of nowhere, started yelling when he spotted the trash. As the gunner standing in the turret, he hadn’t observed it earlier.

“Wilber, clean this shit up before I kill you! Can’t you FINISH a drink before cracking another? God, you’re a slob!”

In his slow, Georgian mountain accent, Wilber mumbled something about there being no need to yell, and began apathetically picking up the trash strewn about his seat. He had never understood that silence was often the best course of action. He felt compelled to retort, in his own way.

“Corporal Comer, the Bible talks about us not using profane language,” he drawled. “We’re not supposed to use no harsh language.”

“Oh yeah? What does the Bible say about being too freakin’ lazy and irresponsible to clean up after yourself? Isn’t there something about the merits of hard work?” Comer was accustomed to these one-sided debates. Wilber always grew flustered and gave up – mostly because he couldn’t think of a retort to somebody quoting scripture right back at him.

Comer continued. “In fact, Wilber, you have said more than once that you feel Jesus called you into the Marines to evangelize us unwashed masses, but what’s your excuse? You’re the most worthless Marine I’ve ever been in charge of. Actually, I think you were sent by the DEVIL to beguile me. You’re not doing God’s work, you’re working for Satan and you’re too damn stupid to know it.”

Wilbur twitched like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of vinegar. His lips curled into a momentary sneer, and he closed his eyes. He turned his head upwards and stretching his arms towards Comer, he began to speak.

“In the name of JESUS, come OUT of this MAN!! Get behind him, Satan! Get out of his heart and liberate his spirit. Demon, you hold no power over him, or this earth, or over God. In the name of God, get out of him!” He slumped into the humvee seat and bowed his head.

Comer stood motionless, dumbstruck. “Did you just exorcize me, you asshole?”

Wilber, head still bowed, breathing hard, said nothing. Comer went to find me and apprise me of the situation.

As he recounted his apparent exorcism of a demon he was unsure he had, our platoon commander took a break from digging his ranger grave and walked over. “Sergeant Shaw, what’s going on here?”

I explained the situation: in an act of evangelical inspiration, our good friend Lance Corporal Wilbur, fighting through a thick twang, had banished the demons from Corporal Comer – demons none of us were aware he possessed. The young officer stared at me with a blank look. He turned to Comer; “are you okay, Corporal Comer?”

“I think I’m just fine, sir.”

“Okay.” He heaved his E-tool shovel and started wandering back to his ranger grave.

“Sergeant Shaw, you need to tell me these things,” he called back.

“Tell you what, sir?”

“That we have a prophet in our midst.” He resumed digging.

As I told my sister this story, she frowned and asked me an excellent question: “Do they have some sort of IQ test you have to pass to get into the Marines?”

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Friday, May 15, 2009

Diner Chats

Were it not for the “Vietnam Veteran” hat he wore, I would have never known he was a vet. Having heard stories here and there about men who, even now, have yet to receive a genuine, unsolicited thank you for their service in Vietnam, I have made it my goal to do my part whenever I encounter one. It’s because I am thankful, and I wish to tell them that although many of their countrymen may have forgotten, we still remember them, and more than most, we know what they’ve endured and how truly devastating their return to the states proved to be. We still owe them for that, and just as many thank you’s as apologies. I walked over, greeted him, extended a hand, and thanked him for his service. He nodded solemnly.

“Were you in the service, too?”

I told him I was, and rattled off the units I served with over the years. He had been with Army Combat Engineers while in Vietnam.

“Actually,” he continued, “I just finished filing some more paperwork with the VA here recently. The local place isn’t helpful, so I went down to Albuquerque where they’re pretty nice. But I haven’t heard anything back since I went there in October. They did a bunch of tests on my knee, screened me for Agent Orange, and also for PSD or whatever they call it. I haven’t gotten the results, though.”

Nor is his case a unique one. By some estimates, the VA is backlogged on processing more than 512,000 veteran claims, many of them from older vets. Perhaps out of guilt for how poorly Vietnam veterans were treated, extensive media coverage of this new conflict, or an aggregation of reasons, OIF and OEF veterans are being pushed to the front of the line at VA facilities – often at the expense of those whose service, though years ago, far exceeded ours. Oddly, however, as he told me this, I caught no trace of anger or frustration in his voice. He seemed resigned to the extensive delays. He shrugged.

“I dunno. They don’t move quickly down there, I know. But I’ve had known a bunch of other guys that tried to get help and were turned away. A lot of them committed suicide. I joined the American Legion in town here to see if they would help me, but they only have about six guys at their post. And they just drink all the time.”

I suggested he join the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), since they had done wonders to expedite my VA filing process.

“I might try that. Maybe the VFW here will help me.” He shrugged again.

I told him how I was embarrassed that OIF/OEF veterans could get rapid claims processing but his generation could not. I also expressed some hope that the VA’s new director and larger budget would help speed up the process for everybody. He didn’t appear terribly hopeful, however. He slowly finished chewing, swallowed, and wiped his mouth.

“Son, I got out of the Army in ’74. We got shit on then, and we get shit on now. I don’t imagine any new director or budget is going to change that. After 35 years, you sorta get used to it.” He went back to his plate of pancakes…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

They Remember

Midmorning, the principal announced over the public address system that all classes should adjourn and relocate to the high school auditorium. “We have a special program today.”

The teenagers shut their books, bickered with each other, told jokes, and made their exodus. No doubt they were all going to get in trouble for something they didn’t do.

As they filed into the stadium seating of the auditorium, they immediately quieted. On the stage were a dozen older men, all seated, staring back out into the audience. They were known, mostly: grandfathers and the occasional father. A number wore traditional Navajo jewelry. The turquoise was dazzling against their leathered, sun-darkened skin. They wore their hair long, though it was now graying or completely white, and western-style clothing. Old VFW post hats perched on the heads of two of them, and two more sported ballcaps indicating the military branch of their service. The rest wore t-shirts with military logos. One man, perhaps the youngest of the group, wore a camouflage jacket. They sat in a row on stage and faced the audience quietly. The students, unsure, awkward beneath their gazes and uncomfortable in their stoicism, sat silently and stared back. All of the men were Navajo, or as they prefer it in their original tongue, Diné

An ancient man walked out onto the stage. Stooped and slow moving, he made his way to the single microphone at center stage and paused. He was dressed in full Marine Corps green service alphas, every button shined, his brass buckle polished, and every ribbon and medal stood out starkly against the green fabric over his breast. And there were many of them there, too. His hair, also white, fell over his shoulders and framed a thin, gaunt figure. In a moment, he summoned energy from an unknown internal reservoir and straightened magnificently. He began to speak.

“My name is David Bít’ahnii, and I was code talker. There were approximately 419 of us. We were all Diné recruited by the United States Marine Corps during World War II to provide an unbreakable code to US forces operating in the Pacific. Our language, our oral heritage, unwritten, unrecorded, and at that time spoken by no more than 30 non-Diné in the world, was perfect. The Japanese never deciphered our codes.”

Over the next twenty minutes, mostly with his eyes closed and in a quiet voice, David retold his story to the Diné high schoolers in the auditorium who listened with rapt attention. These were not accounts many had heard before. David was taking them back in time with him as he relived the most pivotal, challenging, and historic period of his life. He shared himself, and without a trace of arrogance. He was humbled and honored to be part of this amazing project, to be among the six Diné code talkers who in the first two days of the Battle for Iwo Jima flawlessly received, transmitted, and deciphered more than 800 top secret messages between commands. He was proud of his people, and of his country, and the Marines. He was humbled to be essential to the security of hundreds of thousands of servicemen in theater. He was proud of the United States. Pulling himself straighter for just a moment, he opened his eyes and stared directly into the audience.

“Thank you for hearing my story.” He turned wearily and walked to the empty seat with the other veterans on the stage. There was no applause.

Five teenage girls walked out and moved to the microphone. The eldest stepped forward.

“I am of the clans Kinlitsonii, and Naasht’ézhí Dine’é, and Hasht’ishnii, and K’aa’ Dine’é. My name is Yanaba Tsetaa’aanii. My grandfather was a code talker. Drawing in a deep breath, she told his story. She told of his birth, his parents, where he grew up, and when he left for the Marines. She told the story of the time he almost was shot through the seat of his pants, and how thankful he was that he didn’t go home with an embarrassing war wound.

She described his character next, and her voice began to shake. “When I was a little girl, he would play with me for hours, and weave me little dolls from the grass in the back yard.” She stopped again, as tears welled in her eyes.

The other four girls stepped forward and huddled closely about her. They spoke softly to her. Two took her hands as she returned to the microphone. In a few more sentences, she finished her story.

“My grandfather was a code talker, and I miss him. You have heard his story.” She stepped back.

One-by-one, the other four girls also spoke of their grandfather, his life, and the fond memories they had of him as children. The gentle man that loved them so immensely, the war hero that occasionally told them stories about the war, leaving out the tragedy and focusing on the successes and the role the Diné played in service to their country. They spoke of missing him and they spoke of celebrating his life. The youngest, finishing her account, closed the presentation beautifully:

“Before you are our fathers and our grandfathers, our heroes, our storytellers, our past, and the progenitors of our future. We will hear their stories, and we will remember. Please stand for our national anthem.”

Walking back to the old code talker, they took his hands and helped him to his feet. The other warriors also stood, and solemnly placed a hand over their hearts. With barely a rustle, the students of Kayenta high school rose as well, and the anthem played. Some of the old men had tears in their eyes.

As the last notes died away, a few hands clapped, and then more, and the whole auditorium shook in applause as the deep notes of traditional drums began to pound in the orchestra pit. A dozen female dancers, attired head-to-toe in ceremonial dresses and regalia ran onto the stage and began to dance. In moments, the aging veterans maneuvered down the steps towards the audience. Lining the front, they grasped the hands of students, and soon formed a circle around the auditorium. The girls helped the code talker down the steps and they, too, joined the circle. As the drums grew louder, they all began to move. Students, dancers, granddaughters, veterans and old code talker in a great ring, they began the dance of peace; and one of celebration, and victory, and remembrance. It was Veterans Day, and there was much to remember.

Thank you, Julie, for telling your story…

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon...

"They Remember"

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Nation

Monday’s drive through New Mexico and beyond proved difficult for a number of reasons – beginning first with the fact I dropped off Annie and Josh early and the morning, returning me once again to the drudgery of traveling alone. After nearly a thousand miles of their conversations and wit, I was keenly aware of their absence. I dropped them off south of Santa Fe, shoveled down some breakfast, and continued towards the western edge of New Mexico (specifically Gallup).

While there is something attractive about the high desert, buttes, canyons and washes, there is a point at which I, as a tourist, quickly grow tired of it and look forward to other scenery. Usually this is several hours, if not days, before I have moved to another area. From nearly midday to 7PM last night, I was trapped in the high desert. I had also made the mistake of wearing a black shirt, which did nothing but suck in the sunlight all afternoon.

West of Albuquerque, I was hustled – for the first time in quite awhile. Sara Morales was nervously pacing the parking lot of McDonalds when I pulled in. As I stepped out, she briefly explained that her boyfriend was, “being an asshole,” and she needed to call a friend to take her back to Albuquerque…could she have a dollar. To my amazement, I actually had one, so gave it to her. Unlike most hustles, however, she didn’t disappear immediately. She asked where I was from, what I thought of the desert (she declared that it sucks), and why on earth I’d want to visit the southwest.

She is actually from Chihuahua, Mexico, but immigrated north with her family when she was only three. She’s lived in Albuquerque since then. At barely 32, she is about to be a grandmother. She told me how surprised she was that her daughter made the same mistakes that she did. As she walked off and I walked in, she told me to avoid El Paso, Texas at all costs.

“It’s SO windy down there, and desolate.”

She walked off, her long, black hair blowing in the 40mph high desert crosswind.


The remainder of New Mexico was astoundingly disappointing, and as I headed further west, billboards spent less time advertising products and more time telling the reader to show leadership, not let your children drink underage at home, buckle up, don’t beat your wife, don’t beat your kids, etc. Even the ads on the radio had evolved into public service announcements: mostly about identifying if you’re in an abusive relationship. Road signs every couple of miles reminded us to buckle up. Some may have been double-captioned in Navajo, too.

My chosen route from out of New Mexico into Utah carried me through the full length of Navajo Nation land in the northwest corner of the state. Right outside the nation to the south (in Gallup), I was met with higher-than-average gas costs, an ugly bloom of payday loan businesses, pawn shops, and other evidence of economic hardship, mismanagement, and despondence. Then I entered Navajo land and it only grew worse.

Hwy491/Rte666 directly north/south is the only major road connecting northwest New Mexico with Cortez, Colorado. It also travels through what I consider to be the most depressing portion of the country I have yet seen.

At the southern end, another pawn broker occupied sprawling acres. There wasn’t just a building with odd trinkets and valuables; there was another lot across the field (at least 4 acres) full of cars, trucks, and an equal number of horse trailers. They were all available for purchase.

On the nation’s land there is virtually nothing between the southern end and Shiprock, 80 miles to the north. There are scattered trailers and shacks, most of which have the roofs weighted down with a profusion of used tires. At least half are abandoned, and the other half have parking lots full of cars. There was evidence of agriculture at one time, but most fields, still fenced, lay fallow, and all the barns and corrals have long since collapsed. There were a few horses, a few cattle, a dozen sheep, and one llama. All this over 80 miles of high desert ranch land. The fences mostly serve another purpose now: collecting tumbleweeds and trash.

Missionaries may have visited the Navajos at one time, but every evangelical church I saw along the roadsides had since fallen into total dilapidation or was converted to storage for an old car or two. The missionaries were probably chalked up as more white man nonsense and quickly dismissed.

Shiprock itself, the only town in New Mexico Navajo land, is a hillside covered in government shacks (mostly about half the size of a mobile home), government schools, medical centers, and trash. At least half the buildings were abandoned, missing doors, broken windows, etc. People stood around in the vacant parking lots, mostly older women, no doubt only in their 40s or 50s, but looking much older, stooped, and scorched by desert sun. Every place of business besides a single gas station was closed, boarded, and vandalized. US flags were decidedly scarce. I saw one shack proudly flying one next to a stop sign patching a hole in the fence around their yard. There were also several small ones in the graveyard beside the highway, a forgotten little smattering of crosses, trinkets, and sundry fabrics tethered to sticks – surrounded by 2,500 square miles of desolate buttes, high desert, and sparse grasses. There was no evidence of commerce anywhere, or initiative, plentitude, or even hope.

While it sounds extremely insulting, I need to say it: I see more potential, hope, and promise on the IED-ridden streets of Iraq than I do in Navajo country. I drove through the entire area without stopping – intentionally. And I’m now left with a number of questions I want answered. Was this the Navajo natural territory before it was a reservation? Could the US have “assigned” them land any more useless than this vast tract? Does the US think they’re helping the Navajo with subsidized living? What do the Najavo think of living off a government check? What would they say is the purpose for their existence? Do they call this satisfactory living? Why is there more hope (to me) in Iraq than in Navajo country?

I have no answers for any of these questions, and I’m certain that responsibility for this condition lies with lots of parties – most of whom are now dead and gone. I just needed to escape, which I did – onto Ute Indian reservation land in Colorado. Before long, however, I was in Cortez, CO.

Driving through familiar country from Cortez to Durango for the evening, I stopped to pick up another hitchhiker. His name was Albert, and he answered a number of my questions.

Himself a Navajo from Shiprock, he soon turned down the subsidized reservation life and departed for Salt Lake City. I asked him if he missed the reservation at all. “Hell no. Everything’s controlled by the government there. Everything. I don’t like it. You don’t have any freedom. I want to work, I want to earn what I make. America is about doing what you want to do, not having somebody dictate it for you.” He loves his country.

He and a dozen other Native Americans all enlisted in the military in 1971, Albert ending up in the 101st Airborne division, and deployed to Vietnam. A year after his first twelve-month tour, he volunteered for a second. After being dropped into the jungle on one mission, they were all ambushed, where he was hit by enemy fire repeatedly between his knee and hip.

“I thought, ‘this is it. I’m gonna die.’” After his leg gave out and he crawled for awhile, he doesn’t remember much, except waking up in a hospital. He has worn a leg brace ever since and limps slightly. The VA, despite his purple heart, combat injury, honorable discharge, etc, lists him at 50% disabled. I, without a legitimate injury, am rated at 60%, which makes me feel awful.

When Albert was discharged in 1974, he returned to Salt Lake City, stepped off the plane, and was immediately pelted by anti-war demonstrators throwing things and calling him a child-killer.

“I politely saluted, and tried to just walk away, but then I got hit by something. I don’t know what it was, though. But I felt the blood trickling down.” He still carries the scar above his left eye. He showed it to me. Thirty-five years later, he still wonders about the dozen other Native Americans with whom he enlisted. He never saw any of them again.

Albert met his wife, a Canadian Creek, at a Crow festival in Montana. She died in 1996, leaving behind Albert and their five children. Though he rarely has much contact with them, they’re scattered throughout southern California, west slope Colorado, and Utah. He and his children are all devout Mormons. One son, a Marine, is currently in Afghanistan. Albert hasn’t seen him since he enlisted almost four years ago.

“They keep sending you guys to war, Ben. It kills me. And then you come back and get treated awful. It truly hurts me. It hurts my heart.” When he thanked me for my service, I felt even worse. I, and we as a nation, are the ones that owe his generation of warriors.

When the economy took a downward turn a few years ago, Albert’s 401k dropped in value to $84, and he soon found himself living in a shelter in Salt Lake City, but still working. “I WANT to work. That’s why I’m going to Durango. I hear there’s a good bit of work there. Do you get high?”

I told him I did not.

When we arrived in Durango, I asked around, made some phone calls, and eventually found a shelter where Albert could stay for the night. Taking a wrong turn, I ended up at a ex-con halfway house across the street – occupied by the most courteous, friendly lot of 20-something convicts I’ve ever encountered.

The shelter itself is operated by the Volunteers of America, and filled with men of all ages (though mostly older middle-aged). Albert would have taken their last available cot, were it not for the fact he could not pass a breathalyzer test. Very sweetly, the young, single, well-dressed woman working as the shelter counselor explained that he couldn’t stay, but welcomed him to come back in the morning when he had no more alcohol in his system. “I can give you some blankets for the night if you want.” They expected him to simply hack it somewhere in Durango for the night.

“That’s okay. I have a Navajo blanket, and a jacket, too. I’ll be okay.” He asked if I could drive him somewhere he could sleep for the night.

As we walked back outside, an ancient golden retriever wandered up to the building, immediately drawing a crowd of homeless men eager to talk to her and pet her. “Hey there, sweetie. I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you lost?”

The dog loved the attention, and I felt more certain of the safety of the young woman working alone upstairs. These were all good men.

When I dropped Albert off at a nearby city park, he leaned back in the car. “Ben, every time I’ve been hard up, it’s always been grunts [infantry] that’ve helped me out. You guys are all angels. And you’re a sweetheart. You’ve done so much for me.”

Shaking my hand, he heaved his pack onto his shoulder and limped off to find a darkened corner to sleep. Soon thereafter, I found a darkened parking lot and curled up in the back seat of my car to do the same. I’m 29, camping in my car (and complaining about it). Albert, at 56, is nearly as old as my father, far more a veteran than I, and sleeping in the elements. And he has no home, a disinterested family, a war injury, and a lower disability rating than me. I’ve hardly helped him. I’ve successfully passed him off on some other city, some other shelter, and some other person more compassionate than I.

But if a grunt doesn’t know how to help another grunt, how can I expect anybody else to?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved
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