Saturday, January 9, 2010

Totally Unrelated....

The following post is completely unrelated to the usual content of my blog. It is an email I received from my cousin who is serving in Iraq, and I think that it is important to share. It isn't pro, it isn't against (which frankly is my own opinion), it just shows the daily trials of someone growing up as a soldier in a war. I get these emails from him every few months, and am going to start posting them. If you are interested, read, if not then just skip over this post and look forward to some lighter fare coming soon! (If you are interested in reading some of his other emails, post on the bottom of this entry and I will forward them to you.)

"Do not forget the sorrow...

I often said early on in writing this blog that it was getting harder and harder to write. While my original intention was to provide a nearly daily account of my experiences, this has surely, over time and much to my regret, degraded to the point that many of the experiences have been neglected and, I fear, lost altogether. Some I don't remember, some I don’t want to remember, but all being said, the only true and accurate record of my experiences will surely be my recollections while the memory is still fresh, and therefore the maintenance of this blog becomes important. I knew full well, given the nature of the situation I was walking into, that at times this was going to be a difficult thing to do.  However, I owe it to our citizens, as Americans who not only lack an understanding of what it is we go through, but also do not have the opportunity to live this life in order to come to understand. I also owe it to my future self, despite the feelings of myself at present, to have a record to remind me of this journey. And I owe this to our guys, the men I serve with, and a promise I made to a dear one of them to never forget the sorrow...

Thank you to everyone for the abundance of love and support [and Christmas packages] over the holidays. You have all made a profound impact on the success and survival of me and the guys around me. The thanks which we carry are not ones which can be conveyed with words and witticisms, but rather held in our hearts to be thought of fondly for years to come, and may hardly be explainable at all. So we will leave the weight to bear on overused social graces, with the understanding that it cannot compare to the feelings which motivate it, but for lack of better options, it will suffice.

Thanks to all of you, from all of us...

Putting out Fires
It has been three months since the move. Three months since we lost one member to a gunshot wound to the leg, one for pulling the trigger, and two others for being in the room when it happened. As if running from the painful memories and the black mark it placed on us, it was just day or so after that we picked up everything, uprooted ourselves from the sand, and made the journey up here. A new venue helped to put away the feelings of pain and guilt felt over the incident to some extent for all of us I think, and I can only imagine how much harder it would have been everyday to pass the rooms – once full of life, happiness, and brotherhood – now blood-stained and silent. If only moving could have stopped us from thinking about it too… But the reality of the lives that changed that day remain the ever-present splinter in our feet – with each step pushing its way into our conscious.

Shortly after moving was when Crenshaw was taken from us as well. He moved to shield, and with him left my own means of support. Life was decidedly darker, and our times here began to drag and wear on us. As the investigations surrounding the incident swelled and dragged on, we began to realize that it would not soon be over. The investigation caused a "No Contact" order to be passed between those involved, and with Crenshaw moving to shield, this meant that the only person that was still allowed to talk with any of our friends was me. I am proud and thankful to have been able to be there for my friends through this situation, but to say it hasn't been painful and at times burdensome would be a lie. I would love to say that I was able to support them with heroic stoicism, but that certainly wasn't the case.

Along with the natural stressors of the environment, the stressors added by inadequate command [no longer called leadership], missing my wife, and the evolution of my son from a drooling baby into a toddler full of life and personality, came the overwhelming stressors of the others upon being forced into effective isolation. I would stay up late, hoping to spend time with Kristen and Sean on webcam, get up early for work, come home exhausted, and be the only one for any one of the three remaining to talk to. One would come get me, talk to me for hours about the case, and I would listen as he dissected each detail to infinity. I would reassure him that, in the grand scheme of things, all of this was just a blip on the radar, or some similar marginalization that made it easier to stomach the idea that he could soon be leaving his wife and kids for a year or more to go to prison. As soon as he would leave, the next would seek council, and ask innumerable unanswerable questions, not rhetorically either, but genuinely seeking answers that I could not provide and did not have the slightest clue of where to find. I would do the best I could, mostly to listen, but at times to push the wisdom of truths which I already knew him to know inside himself. Pacified, he would leave and the third, my roommate would want the chance to talk out his issues as well. They talk to me about things like if his wife is really going to want to stay married to a felon, what it was like to see a grown man writhe and cry in pain like a child, the sights sounds and smells of the incident, and the feeling of their hearts racing when they have to touch a weapon. It all weighs heavy on my soul, and heavier still when the knowledge that I can do nothing to help them reaffirms itself in my mind.

I don't mean for a minute to complain. They didn't ask for any of this, not even those at fault. None of them wished this situation on any of us, and they would all feel terrible if they knew how much it weighed on me. But any time it got difficult, I just tried to think how much harder it must be for them. If it is this hard for me to listen to, then how painful must it be for those whom are living it. And if they are the ones who must live it, then listening is the very least I could do – and try as I might, and fight as best I can, it is also unfortunately the most I can do as well.

Worse still was the complete bungling of the entire situation by the whole of our chain of command. I have probably talked about that enough before now, but the situation from that perspective has not improved. It makes my job even harder when they feel mistreated and need a place to vent, or get torn down for stupid things. In all reality, our unit has someone who should be doing this job. A First Sergeant really should be in charge of morale and welfare of the troops, if nothing else, and she has not checked on these guys even once. I'll let you guess if she has ever checked on me. At the end of the day the truth is we only have each other, and the only way we will make it through all of this is together. It is unfortunate but true. And then our command wonders why our unit has know espirit de corps, or pride in our unit.

So we do the only thing we can do, and press on with the only hope being that one way or another we all will wake from this dream in seven months. We will wake up in a different place, at a different time, and I often wonder if we will wake as different people.

Escapes in Paint
At a certain point, our command got wind I was an artist. For a while they had me doing painting for them in my free time, as if I had too much of it. But there is certainly a general attitude within the officer corps of our military that the enlisted folks are there to serve them at their leisure, and we all know that there is little an officer likes more than self admiration. So, many little paintings that make him look official and impressive and important were commissioned and were like gold to our commander. I did the tasks without complaining, but only for the fact that from them I drew some form of catharsis.

I did what I could to take my time knowing that there wasn't much they could do about it; they wanted a service from me, this service takes time, and in this small way I can have a small victory. Eventually, they wanted a big enough painting that I told them I couldn't get it done in my free time, and they gave me two weeks off to do it. This seemed like a great deal, and while I was able to make my own schedule, and come and go as I pleased, two weeks proved to be less than adequate time to finish a large mural with substandard supplies, paints, [and morale]. I ended up working longer hours than I was before, working more days, and worked through the 24th, and on the 26th of December, though I took Christmas off regardless. The rest of the unit had all three days off, but I did my best to enjoy the fact I was painting. I would put my headphones on and drift off into my own universe of sticky colors, millions of miles away from the manual for courts-martial, or the UCMJ.

For all the paintings, I have not even heard so much as a thank you. But that's fine, because I didn't do it for them. The word is that a medal is in the works to "thank” me, but I will believe it when I receive it, and even if I do, I doubt I will appreciate it. Excuse the analogy, but as I recently explained to my flight commander, if someone kicks you in the balls and then shakes your hand, are you going to say "Man, what a great guy, and how nice of him to shake my hand." No... you think about the kick.

But as I said, the paintings weren't done for them, they were for me, and for all of our guys they have stepped on as if that is the right conferred on them by the university of their choice. With each slow and deliberate stroke, with each stretched timeline, and each small victory, a little retribution for the pain and anguish they have given us in their hypocrisy and dereliction of their duties as our command section. Small and insignificant though it was, my handiwork now stands a brilliant twelve foot tall example of their misplaced priorities and glaring egocentrism. They stand in pride and admire the marvelous monument to the unit they have in their command, and we laugh with scorn at the display they make of themselves – in some small way, it is almost worth it.

The Transmogrification of Wood
June of last year, whilst blissfully drinking a beer and playing with my son in the grass behind our house, I got news of a new troop coming to our base. One way or another, I worked with him a few times, and saw quickly he was what we call in the AF, "high speed." In other words, he was a quick learner, motivated, ambitious, and an overall good troop. I took him under my wing and taught him all the ways of being a cop at our base. He quickly excelled and won Airman of the Month not long after being there, then won Airman of the Quarter his very first quarter on post – amazing. He and his wife were often at our house, and we would watch movies and take turns making dinner. A strong friendship formed between us as we both continued to shine brighter and brighter and receive further recognition. They ended up being in a bad situation with a creepy landlord, so I worked with him to pull some strings and get him moved in next door to us. While the women packed up the trinkets and what not, and the men did the manly stuff like moving furniture and backing the U-HAUL truck up into their car [that was me, no I was not drunk.]

We had our ups, and our downs, and even a falling out, but in the end we all were able to overcome our differences, and in reality, it only made us closer. I had been chosen for one deployment, and Wood another, and so we decided to volunteer to be moved to this one, to take on the journey together. Partly because I felt a responsibility as his mentor, but mostly I made this decision because if I am going to deploy I would rather deploy with someone I know is an excellent troop, a sharp troop whom takes pride in his job, and to whom I can trust my life. There is a special bond formed with a man when you talk to him about what to say to your wife, your son, and your parents, if something were to happen to you, and this was the kind of bond we have. To say I know him well would be an understatement.

When we arrived at training for this deployment, we found out we were on the same fire team, along with Crenshaw. We became infamous quickly because we always had a lot [maybe too much] fun but when it was time to get work done, we were recognized as the sharpest fire team we had. We had a great fire team leader, and the four of us were brothers. It was our bond, great work ethic, and commitment to each other that enabled us to shine above the rest. Wood had let it be known early on that he wanted to be a gunner. He felt confident in his abilities and was eager for the challenge and responsibility of protecting our fire team. Our fire team leader decided otherwise, but Wood never complained. I was the driver, Crenshaw the gunner, our fire team leader was on navigation and communication, and Wood was... everything else. He was a passenger, a decidedly less glamorous position, but an important one nonetheless. He had an approach to doing this job that took it from important, to essential. He worked hard to get our truck ready in the morning, to account for all our gear, to keep our equipment handy prioritized by what we might need, and made himself an expert at CLS [first aid], as it would be the passenger, called the back pax, that would perform this duty if anything were to happen to us. Even in less than an ideal position, he was the type of person to take it and make it the position to be in.

When they took our fire team leader from us, it hit him hard. It hit all of us hard. They split us up and broke up a family. There were plenty of fire teams that didn't even bond, didn't even like each other, and they could have taken anybody, but they took him and split us up. We all went to different fire teams, but Crenshaw and I were lucky, out of circumstance, to end up together again, back in a truck together and as roommates. Wood on the other hand, was on a different fire team and even a different squad for a while. This and the fact that he didn't live near us, he was largely on his own, but he soon made new friends. Wood was the type of guy that all the interpreters knew by name, always had someone hanging out in his room, and always had a stocked fridge, with sodas for his friends. Crenshaw and I would even walk over there and hang out there at times. All around, he is a fun person to be around, generally positive, and when he is negative, he makes it hilarious.

Well one such time, when people were hanging out in Wood's room, something happened. No one knows exactly what, [or can say at this time due to pending litigation] but one way or another, one man was shot, one was holding a gun, and two were struggling to catch up and understand what had happened. Wood wrote an official statement stating that he had not seen anything because he was listening to his headphones and chatting on the computer oblivious to the goings on in his room. As I said before, people were constantly going in and out, at least one of the people in there was there to see his roommate and not him, and this was Wood's usual state you would find him in, so I find no reason to doubt it.

However people did. Many people apparently. People that didn't see or know that Wood's room was an open door to all our friends. People who didn't know that it was hard to get Wood to pay attention to anything when he is listening to music and chatting online. Regardless, he was swept up in the windstorm of the investigation. The investigation itself was understandable, as that he was in the room when it happened, however, the big question I kept hearing was not "Why am I under investigation?" It was, "Why are they treating me like a criminal?"

Wood was interrogated for hours on little sleep through the middle of the night, directly after a traumatic event occurred just feet away from him, as if he were party to some conspiracy to assassinate someone's knee. Even if he had seen something, there wouldn't be much to tell, as the victim and the perpetrator gave a very similar account of what happened. Over the following months, Wood was treated like absolute garbage. Interrogated several times more, tucked away in an out of the way "special post," and mostly treated as if he didn't exist. Even our squad leader, of infamy, acted like Wood had recently contracted some kind of ultra contagious disease. It broke my heart every time he would bewilderedly ask, "Why does he act like I'm not part of the squad?" I tried to explain to our squad leader once that Wood had not been proven to have done anything wrong, and we had not in fact even heard of him being charged with anything. His response to my plea for empathy literally made me nauseous. With no qualms about it, he explained to me that he HAD to treat Wood that way. That it was HIS responsibility to make him remember that what he did was wrong, so that it could never happen again. Am I nuts, or is that not a magistrate's job. Isn't that why we have a legal system at all? Because it is NOT our job to punish, place blame, or to judge, especially when no one likes you enough to make you privy to any of the facts.

I watched as this had a profoundly negative effect on Wood. I fought hard to make him keep that positive spirit, and to tell him that this stuff isn't important anyway. He is a brilliant guitar player, and brilliant guitar players don't need the military. Even if he went to jail, that would just give him more street cred as an artist. But on some days, I couldn't even buy my own BS, so I could hardly expect him to either. The one thing we kept holding on to was his upcoming leave – that soon he would be back home, with his family in California, and then return ready to handle whatever comes of this.

The day of his leave came. He went to report in, and to head out for his flight, only to be told he might not leave that day. He was told he should go back to his CHU and wait there, where someone will come to let him know if he was leaving or not. For much of the time I sat with him, and the situation degraded parabolically toward the hour of his flight. When the time came, the two of us hit such a low, as his last chance at sanity and at least temporary freedom, and my last string of BS I had to feed him, was shattered. He did not know where to turn anymore and I had no idea of what I could do to help, which was equally maddening to me. No one came to his room that day. We talked about what if he should do for work the next day. We talked about the fact that if they told him to wait in his CHU for someone to come and tell him what was going on, and no one had, then he should continue to wait. No one had told him to go to work the next day, and so he didn't. I, however, could not miss work. Over the next few days, still no one bothered to tell him to go to work, and so still he remained in his CHU, not so much because he honestly did not know what he should do, but rather out of the sheer gall of our command, not to ensure he knew what was going on with his leave.

Let's take a moment here to break down the situation. Wood is in Baghdad, an obviously high-stress situation. Wood witnessed a traumatic event. Wood was never questioned as to his mental status. Wood's ray of hope was just making it to his leave. Wood was told to wait in his CHU for someone to tell him if he was going on leave. No one came. No one told him he would not be going on leave, nor that he should go back to work. Wood didn't go back to work... for six days. No one came looking for Wood, or asked why he wasn't at work. On the sixth day someone finally asks a question about Wood, they figure out he was left in a gray area, and he is charged for being AWOL, [absent without leave]. Does this seem just to you? Well how about this: It was offered to Wood that it could be kept quiet, but Wood knew that their silence on his misdeed would surely be in exchange for his own silence of their obvious errors. Wood chose to maintain his integrity, and demanded to talk to the First Sergeant about what he had done. The entire time, he did not make excuses for why he did what he did, or what motivated him to do so, but rather focused on taking responsibility of what he did do. For this they took his rank, dropped him to an E2, which essentially is a pay cut and sets back any professional progression at least a year, and probation. After this they have the gall to tell him he is lucky not to have gone to jail. Why did no one tell him he would not be going on leave? Knowing he has been under an extreme amount of stress for the past 3 months [without ever being checked on] why was this issue not handled with more sensitivity? Is this Just? This is corrupt, plain and simple.

Now for a lesson in military culture: If you receive an article 15, what Wood was ultimately charged with, you are looked at as a piece of garbage criminal. He would have come home from this deployment a decorated veteran, and a Senior Airman, a rank higher than when he left. Now he will come home an Airman, a rank lower than when he left, and no decs. He will essentially be looked at as a waste of space, all because of our incompetent command. I hear from people often, that you have bad bosses in the civilian world too, and anywhere you go. Not to sound rude, and I know people mean well, but are any of your bosses literally in a different social caste than you? Do any of them have the power of a judge, to charge and sentence you? Could any single person at your work have this much influence on your career so easily?

Even if they did there are channels where you could complain, or even sue. I assure you we have no such channels. I have watched over the months, a beautiful and promising new airman, be transformed into this caricature of his former self – an ugly lie which they have put upon him.

I will get out of the military at my earliest convenience, because I feel like it would honestly be irresponsible of me to ever allow the fate of my family to be put in the hands of an incompetent moron, ever again.

What lies ahead
After Saturday we will stop pushing missions. It will be a six week hiatus for us as our squad goes to work at the TLEA, which is the Iraqi Police Academy. We will be observing while others teach them how to be cops. Essentially, this means regular schedule, a break from missions, a little more free time, and plenty of time to read during the day at the academy. Not to mention, I could use a little break from pushing missions. As things develop, and I see what things are like there, I will update again soon. This time I promise...

This email isn't pretty. It is definitely not what I thought I would be talking about. I think it is almost crazy that I never end up talking about what the missions are like. Mostly this is because I feel safer in many ways than I do here. Out there, a small minority, with little power and a lot of hurdles to get through to get to me, want to do me harm. Here, a small group of a select few with complete control over my destiny have completely screwed everyone around me. Which do you think is more discomforting to me?

I wish I could write some amazing story about glory and valor. But this is what is real. The military is by no means the glorious heroic life of chivalric lore. It is a difficult, dirty and often thankless job, full of injustices, mistreatments and abuse. Hopefully this helps you to understand why exactly our thanks are so hard to convey, or why your letters, cards, or packages mean so much.

But the military is full of something else as well. No matter what or where the conflict, or how bad the command, our military has always been full of young, hardworking, selfless men. We may not be the heroes of action movies, we may not come home with many fancy medals pinned on our chests, but we are still your people, and we still do this for you.

I am so proud that so many of the people I know get it.

Thank you all again and..."