Monday, April 13, 2009


It has been over eight months now.

Eight months, I think--nearly a year now since I left the Army. It still doesn't feel completely real. I cleared my post in Germany in late June of 2008. It would have cost the Army too much to move me and my wife to Knox with my unit, when my ETS would have been a month after my report date. So instead, I stayed back, helping the community close itself down there. It was strange to watch the people vanish, the buildings slowly empty out. When we left, our kaserne was nearly deserted. A host of memories and friends have been left behind in that place. Someday, I'd like to return there.

I feel like I've finally moved on. Anne and I are still happily married and going strong--going better than ever, in fact. We're living now in a college town in the American Northwest, both working for the same major electronics firm. It's an office job, to be sure, but I like the people, and I like what I do. We live in a townhouse in a quiet residential neighborhood, with a fenced-in backyard and pleasant neighbors. It's small, but pretty, and Anne has done a good job of sprucing it up, making it feel like home. On Sunday mornings, we've taken to heading downtown for bagels at a local cafe. Now that spring is finally here, I'm thinking about picking up another bicycle, so we can ride instead of taking the car.

It's still strange, to look up and find myself here.

I won't talk much here about how this all came to be. I could talk about the return--about the strange and strained reunion with my parents. I could talk about my last days in Port Austin. I could talk about the roadtrip which took us across four states, and nearly two thousand miles. I could talk about a lot of things. But I won't. I don't think about the past as much as I used to. I look back now, and think to myself: there's nothing for me there. Still, there are times when it is good to remember, even if I don't want to.

Remembering keeps us grounded.

Things have changed, for all of us. Oz is out of the Army now. He rebased to Knox about two months before I cleared out, but not before I stood up as the best man at his wedding. He got married to a German girl named Saskia, and I stood beside them as they exchanged vows in a private ceremony at a local castle. Theirs was the final marriage performed in Hanau between an American soldier and a German national. After that, they went on leave together, to spend some final time before Oz had to ship back stateside. It was the last time I ever saw him. 

About a month after he arrived in the U.S., Oz got busted for drinking again. The unit was under a new commander by that time, and this one had a zero-tolerance policy. Oz was mustered out less than a month later. He spent a few weeks crashing at his stepfather's place in Missouri, before finally moving back to Germany to be with his wife. They're still there now--living in a place called Steinheim. Saskia's talking about getting into school, and Oz--Dave, I can call him now--is working as a groundskeeper. It's simple work that gets him out in the sunshine. He's taking care of his wife, and by all accounts they're quite happy together. It seems that getting out of the Army was the best thing that ever happened to him. I'm glad. Dave is as close as I've ever had to a brother, and I love him dearly.

As for Brooks... he's still with the Deuce, now promoted to E-5. He's happy, I think, but that's partly because he's in the process of getting a med-board. The last few years have been hard on his body, and on his mind.  He got hurt when a .50-cal mount swung down and hit him in the forehead, and he spent most of our time downrange battling depression and anxiety.   I don't honestly know which diagnosis they're looking to use to separate him. All I know is that Brooks is ready. He's been ready for a long time, it sounds like. He won't be deploying to Iraq again.

This is the essential story of our generation, I think.  The ones who gave their all, they broke. They let themselves get driven into the ground, and let themselves get tossed aside like broken toys.  Broken bodies, broken minds, broken relationships.  And the ones of us who wised up and got out while we could? We're the ones they want back.

That's right--they want me back.  

The Army has started calling around again, and they sent me muster orders a few months back. Based on the stories I hear, this is usually a prelude to IRR call-up.  Bridgers are in short supply, and since so many get mustered out either broken or drunk, the Army will do anything it can to shore up its numbers in my MOS--even recalling those who've already separated.  

Still being involved with some of my IVAW buddies, I wrestled around with how to handle it. Technically, I'm not subject to UCMJ until I actually show up with orders in hand.  On the one hand, I considered reporting to file an objector packet. At the same time, I know how hard that is to accomplish from civilian status. I've never known anybody who had a packet go through. I also considered calling up to state that I would be refusing to report. While there are certainly precedents for that, such a gesture is really more of a political statement, and I really don't know if I'm ready for that again. The last I did that, I was trying to put down my thoughts and feelings on the war here, that became political, and look where it got me? Threats, accusations, harassment.

So what have I done? Well, for now, I'm just laying low. The window for my report date has come and gone, and when the Army called my house a few days ago, I told them they had a wrong number and hung up. Then I changed my phone number. If they want me, they're going to have to come and get me.

In looking back, it occurs to me that I spent most of my time in the Army trying NOT to be a political tool, for either side. And I failed. The old saying is right--the personal IS political. And unfortunately, I just wasn't ready for that. It was a lesson learned, I suppose. There are more people out there who believe me a fraud than actually believe my words. Not surprising. There's been a huge effort to silence or discredit dissident bloggers.  Even my own parents don't completely believe what I tell them.   But I still know the truth, as does my wife. Every word of this has been true. The only things that were changed were the names and places. But I'm still not ready to bring that down on my wife and I again. We barely survived the deployment, and I'll never do anything to jeopardize what we have again. And my wife supports me, every step of the way. If for nothing else, I am at least grateful for that. Whatever else happens, we have each other, and the life we're working to build.

Some of you will be happy for me. Others will be critical. But before you criticize anything I've done, remember what I've told you. I still stand by those things I said. This war was still wrong, and the way we still think about war is wrong. This war was not just some national jaunt for liberty and democracy. No--it was a farce. We went over there because it was expedient to the interests of a few, and a lot of people, on both sides, have suffered and died for it. I got luckier than most, but I still saw a lot of suffering, a lot of misery. And to this day, I still feel like I was the cause of it.

I still suffer from guilt--guilt for going along in the first place, and now guilt for refusing to do it again. Am I a collaborator or a coward?  I still don't know.  There are days when I don't know which way is up. But I'm trying to make sense of it all. All I know is this: I'm not afraid of dying back there. No--what I'm afraid of is having to live like that again, to be a prisoner to a force whose principles I reject, and to have to throw away everything I value to be a part of it. Say what you will--when it comes down to it, when people ask me why I left, my answer is still this: my country wanted me to be someone I'm not. I'm not that person. I'm not Milo Freeman. I can't go back to living in that world. And I'm sorry, but I've feel like I've given up enough for my country, only to be spit on or accused of hurting my fellow troops.

I gave up things over there that I can never get back--my belief in human nature, my faith in something greater than myself. I've lost all of that. And for the Army, for my family, for those who don't agree with me, it still hasn't been enough.

It will never be enough.

Still, there is much for me to look forward to.  Today is my twenty-sixth birthday. It's my first birthday as a civilian in over four years, Anne and I will be going out for dinner to celebrate. For what it's worth, I'm happy. I am.  I have a peaceful life now, with a wife who loves me, and for the first time I'm free to make my own choices, to contribute to my community however I see fit.

I stood out on my back patio this morning, enjoying a cup of coffee and a morning smoke. The trees are starting to bloom here, and after a hard rain last night, the air was sweet and thick with the scent of growing things. Life is returning to this world, and to me. As I stood there this morning, with the screen door open, my two cats came out to join me. They sat there in silence beside me, Allie and Schrodinger, and took in the sounds of the birdcalls. The sun was peeking out a bit from behind the clouds, and as a breeze picked up I thought I heard a familiar sound from down by the river. A keening, high and clear. 


We're still a good distance from the Pacific coast here, but even so, the sound of the gulls, coupled with that warm breeze, reminded me just a little bit of home, of those endless summer mornings out on the docks of Port Austin. For a moment, just a moment, the world felt new again.

And as I stood there, I felt a lightness of spirit, a sense of goodness in the world, that I had once feared I'd never feel again.

Somewhere in me, a voice spoke. We are home, it said. We are safe.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Endings and Beginnings

My real name is Seth. That is as good as you're going to get.

My name is Seth, and I am twenty-five years old. I come from a small town in rural Michigan, on the shores of Lake Huron. I am an aspiring writer. I consider myself a follower of Zen Buddhist philosophy. I have a wife of three years, whom I love very much. We have no children.

In the spring of 2004, I enlisted in the United States Army. At the time, the war in Iraq was still in its early stages, and I had a number of friends--some active-duty, some reserve--who were just coming home from their own stints fighting in the War on Terror. Why I joined, exactly, is hard to explain. Suffice it to say that I come from a long line of servicemembers, and that some part of me found myself lacking in not having partaken of the experience. Though I was always somewhat dubious about the true place of war in our society, some part of me felt guilt at seeing friends come home, bearing stories of a far-off place I had never seen. I felt guilt at not having shared their hardship. I found myself lacking for having not offered to share the burden.

So I joined. I enlisted in the Army Reserve, and in April of 2004 reported for Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Fourteen weeks later, I reported to my Reserve unit, located in the Michigan city of Marquette. I was young--a new soldier, proud of myself and my service. For a year, I did my duty with honor. I relished the pride my occupation gave me, and even lamented the days when I would return home from drill weekends and go back to my civilian job.

For that first year, things were good. I did my job to the best of my abilities. I argued with my friends about the value of military service, even in a time of war. But something was missing. I still felt as though what I was doing wasn't quite enough. I became aware that friends of mine on the active side were currently serving in Iraq. Finally, following a long series of discussions with my then-fiancee, we agreed that action had to be taken. I put in a Request of Conditional release, and re-enlisted as an Active-Duty soldier. I married my wife, "Anne," in late June of 2005. Four days later, I reported for active-duty, and was promptly sent to Germany.

For a time after that, there wasn't much to tell. I received sponsorship for my wife, and she soon joined me overseas. For the next year, I served with my unit as a 21C (Bridge Crewmember), training to build, maintain and inspect all classes of military bridge. I also served with distinction as my unit's Tax Advisor. It was sometimes a stressful life, with long hours, but I didn't complain. When we received orders to deploy to Iraq in the summer of 2006, I was afraid, of course, but I did not object. I resolved to be strong for my comrades, and for my wife. I put my affairs in order as best I could, and after a brief stint home visiting my family, I said goodbye to my friends and loved ones, and prepared myself for war. I deployed to the Middle East in September of 2006, and soon found myself stationed at Logistical Support Area Anaconda, just south of Balad, Iraq.

At first, I did my best. I was scared at times, but we all were. I did my best to be a good soldier, and I served with honor at places like Gator Swamp, Baqubah, and Taji. I even tried to record my experiences, and show them to the world at this blog--my blog. At the time, I knew that strict restrictions were placed upon soldier-journalists, and so fearing that my liberties might be constrained, I chose to post under pseudonym. My nom de plume, Milo Freeman, soon became my nom de guerre. I was proud of all I was doing overseas, even though the fear and separation were difficult to deal with. I trusted in my friends, and I hope that they trusted in me. We relied on each other to come back safe, and in this bond we survived. We all survived.

However, such survival did not come without cost. Our hours were long, and our workloads strenuous. The demands of the modern environment in Iraq are brutal, and so on many occasions my friends and I labored on with bad equipment, with poor leadership, and without sleep. At first I thought I was just complaining too much, but little by little I began to see things that disturbed me: poor mission planning, corruption among the NCO corps, a command chain that openly neglected our families and denied us spiritual support. I watched friends be repeatedly denied access to spiritual and mental health resources, only to have those friends be later ostracized when the demands of war became too much. I walked in to find my friend Brooks carving on himself with a knife. I watched friends' marriages crumble, while leaders and commanders stood glibly by, doing nothing. I watched soldiers be LIED to, deceived about why they couldn't go see a chaplain.

And it only got worse. I deployed several months before the start of what we now call "The Surge," that extra boost of 30,000 troops intended to pacify the region. It was a joke, and we all knew it. Those extra troops were us, simply extended for another three months, on top of all we had already suffered. The blow to our collective morale was crushing. Meanwhile, the months wore on, and the situation outside the wire grew ever more stark. Mortar and small-arms attacks jumped, and soon insurgents began to target the very structures we were put in place to maintain: bridges. With only two companies in theater to deal with the offensive, and one of those handling 80 percent of the workload, our injury, illness, and mental collapse rates soon skyrocketed. Missions where we worked 70+ hours without sleep became routine. We were worked to the bone, and crushed into the dirt, and when we objected, we were scorned, or even punished. Leaders neglected our safety and health, even as injury and attrition rates skyrocketed to over thirty percent. Eventually, the job became more likely to kill us than the enemy.

And it got worse for me, too. As I mentioned before, I am a Buddhist. I believe in the impermanence of all things, and in the power of Compassion to end Suffering. It was in this belief that I entered the warzone. I was a builder of bridges, I told myself. I was a healer, I was a doer of good. I soon came to realize that I was not. Outside the wire, or in the tower, or on "haji-watch," I came to see an Iraqi populace brutalized by war. They were poor, and sick, and hungry, and every day their casualties came rolling into our hospitals. We were always told not to trust the Iraqis. We were told that they would use our goodwill against us. And they no doubt did. But my experiences with those people--hungry, belabored, staring at us with sunken eyes and baleful glares--spoke to my very spiritual charter. I had to help them, I thought. We had to help them. But time and time again, we heard the litanies. Do not buy, sell, or give items to local nationals. I stood silent as men, women, children, even soldiers begged me for food, for clean water to drink, for basic hygiene supplies. All the while, inside the wire, civilian contractors made quadruple my income, annually, to say nothing of what they made over the locals. When I struggled to find a spiritual outlet for the conflict of interest I saw here, I found that there existed none. There is no room for a Buddhist in today's military, no matter what the recruiters tell you. And worse yet, as I struggled to reconcile my spiritual conflicts with my duties, I found that I could not. I became lonely, angry, bitter. I began to grow disillusioned. What am I doing here, I asked myself? Is this justice? Is this Compassion?

As it turns out, it didn't matter. The months dragged on, and by May I found out that we had been extended. The leadership didn't trust us to tell our families: no, they told our families for us. The feeling of that phone call, of hearing Anne sobbing on the phone, made me want to scream and rage at my command chain. All this work, all the hours without rest, without sleep, and for what? Nothing changed in the Fertile Crescent. Insurgents attacked our bridges, we worked to restore them, only to have them destroyed again. Nothing changed, nothing got better, and all the while I found myself powerless to do anything to really help. People still died outside the wire, while inside people grew fat and rich. Soldiers still struggled, died, and watched their families collapse. And on the news? Nothing. A blurb on the ticker about Iraq, at most. The American people forgot about us; they saw what we went through and then changed the channel to American Idol. The only sign that they remembered us? An occasional package in the mail: snacks, hygiene supplies, crossword puzzles. I didn't know these people, and they didn't know me. An occasional halfhearted care-package effort from the American people, and then what? Nothing. Eventually, I began to throw these packages away, save those sent to me by my family. I left them in the day room, unopened, hoping someone might get some use out of them. I certainly didn't.

Time passed. The extension wore on, and things only seemed to get worse. An acquaintance of mine, Garrett Knoll, was killed by a truck-bomb explosion outside of his patrol base. He was two months into his deployment. Meanwhile, the stream of inane, worthless "news" coming from the States continued to bombard us here in Iraq, and with it came two revelations: 1) That Administration flacks were now threatening war with Iran, further endangering myself and my peers, and 2) That Democrats in Congress, having been elected on the promise of ending this miserable thing, this war of choice, this sham meant enrich old men's pocketbooks, had promptly caved on their stances. Nothing would change, I realized. Nobody wanted anything to change. All we were to the American people, I realized, were just pawns--heroes and sacrificial lambs, something to drum up a tear to swells of patriotic music. We were toys, bright and shiny, but when we came home broken or misused, we were forgotten. Meanwhile, I'd just gone three days in a row without sleep, and just found out I had a bridge recon in Baquba. Again.

I snapped.

I'll admit it--I was angry. I think anyone would be. This was not how I had imagined we would be used. But that was the truth of it: we WERE being used, used to wage a war that was pointless and cruel, and was only hurting my family and friends. We were being used to justify horrible things, and used as a symbol to silence dissent. So yes, I was angry. And with this journal, I vented my anger. I cried out my fear and bitterness, castigated the armchair warriors for glorifying what they didn't understand. I criticized the leaders who had forgotten us, and appealed to the American people for redress.

And how I was greeted? With scorn. I raised my voice against this thing, and what did I receive in return? Scorn and threats. Threats against my life, my family, and my military career. People told me I should be shot, told me I deserved to die, even as I served as a symbol of their right to say such horrible things. People even accused me of being a fraud, a liar, as if SURELY a soldier could NEVER say such things. It became so bad that I dreaded opening my inbox. The people HAD forgotten us, I realized. This was my country, my home, my people. Support the Troops, as long as they support the War. So much for free speech, so much for the right to dissent. Question the leaders, and be told you deserve to die. Very nice, America. I'm sure Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. But hey, who cares about all of that? Chuck Norris is coming to see us on Anaconda! Surely THAT will make everything better.

Eventually, I decided to stop blogging. It became too much: the harassment, the threats, the fear of being punished. I caved in to weakness and allowed my voice to be silenced, and I am ashamed of that, even now. Relish that victory, America, for it will not happen again. For a time, I put down the name of Milo and was contact to work on more personal projects. I wrote poetry, and began work on a novel for young adults, which I finished this past May. The time passed, the sentence ran out, and finally I was able to return home safely to my wife. We came home, safe in body if not in mind, and for a time all was good.

Except it wasn't.

Come home, and it's like somebody shut off the war. People go on with their daily lives, bitch about gas prices and secret muslims in the presidential race, while overseas people suffer and die, on both sides. People glance at the headlines, decide that "there's just too much bad news out there these days," and then shut us off. Well, guess what, America? Shutting it off doesn't make it go away. You can't just close your eyes and pretend that everything is fine. Not after every sin you've allowed to be carried out in your name.

And so it is, America. I have decided, after much careful searching, that this is it for me. My contribution to this effort is over. I am closing the blog. I am on Terminal Leave as we speak, and in a short time I will officially be a civilian once more. I will not be re-entering the service, and I will not be supporting the war any further, in any shape or form. I can't--not after all my friends and I sacrificed, for nothing. I will not stand by and feign pity at new names on the list of dead soldiers. I will not speak up about the glory of my service, about how "The Surge is Working." It isn't, it hasn't, and it won't. You cannot bring "freedom" to a people who don't want it exactly as you offer. Nor can you bring it as a token from people who would fight to deny us the same.

I'm done, America. This is it for me. It's been too much, for too long. Don't ask for me back, because you can't have me. And what's more, for every little yellow-magnet-sticker I see on the back of every SUV, I'm going to stop and turn those stickers upside down. You don't have the right to say you support our troops, not while my friends struggle with divorces, with alcohol, and with the demons in their own heads. Not while the VA conceals how many soldier suicides occur each month, or deny veterans access to the rights they FOUGHT to earn.

Do you understand me, America? I will not enable you anymore. I served, and I did my time with honor. Let that be enough. If you choose to ask for me back, you will not get me. You will not find me, and if by chance you should, you will find a very different man from the one who signed up a few years earlier. You will not deceive me again, and you will not deceive other young men and women on my watch. For every effort you make to spread the lie, for every poor soul you try to recruit, I will be there to undermine you. I want my country back, America, and there's no way I can get that unless I stand up and speak out. So here I am.

No more lies, America. No more apathy, no more sound-bites, no more lies.

I probably sound angry as I write this, but I'm not. If anything, I am sad, and disgusted, and ashamed that the honor I sought doesn't actually exist, save as a cheap trinket next to someone's license plate. Do you understand that? I am ashamed for having contributed to this, to an America whose Jesus looks like Chuck Norris, whose Buddha looks like Ronald Reagan. I cannot even trust my own family, should the callback letter come, not to sell me out. After all I have said, all I have written, the only son still matters less than the criminal war. You cannot imagine my disgust, my shame, my guilt.

Yes, America, you read that correctly: my guilt, guilt because of the fact that my friends are still over there. More of my friends will go back there, and there is nothing I can do to help them save that which I find unconscionable, unforgivable. And you know something, America? That guilt, I've learned, will never go away. Not for as long as I live. It is mine to bear, even as others die and people continue to tell me I deserve to die for what I believe.

So this is it, America. The end, and hopefully, a beginning. There will be no more Milo Freeman. From now on, there is only Seth: husband, brother, son, author, veteran. There is no more Milo Freeman here. That person is gone, and he will not be coming back.

For those of you who read me, fear not: I will not stop writing. I will continue to focus on my other projects, the ones that matter to me. You can still find me there, at the places I have listed above. Thank you, my fellow Americans, the faithful, the supportive. Your words gave me strength when I had none. I will carry your kindnesses with me always. As for the rest of you, America, well... don't bother thanking me for what I did. I did none of it for you.

Goodbye, America. Thank you for reading me. It has been an honor. I pray you find the strength to do what is right, and I pray that your friends and loved ones come home safely. There can be no peace before they do.

My name is Seth. I am twenty-five years old.

And I am Milo Freeman.

Friday, July 04, 2008

"Call It."

It's cool today in Hanau, Germany. Partly cloudy, with a stiff breeze from the west.

Pioneer Kaserne is nearly empty. The Hanau Community is in the final stages of base closure, and with all but an MP detachment remaining in the area, the Kaserne, maybe the size of my hometown, is strangely empty. I don't even have a unit anymore. They left for the states months ago. For a while, I was attached to the local JAG office, but now they're closed down too.

Having chosen not to re-enlist, I've been left here to finish out my time. I finaled out yesterday. Anne and I have moved out of our apartment, and now the building where we made our home for three years stands silent and empty. We were the last tenants in the building. A blue Ford Windstar sits abandoned in the parking lot, baby-windowshades still plastering the interior.

It's over. I'm on my way out. In a few days, I'll be back stateside, and a new phase of my life will begin. This moment, this place, is an ending. A chapter of my life is closing, and in the background, a chapter in my nation's history overseas is closing, too. Here in a sleepy mid-sized suburb of Frankfurt, an era is ending, and soon only the old vets and their German widows will be left to remember. There is relief for many in this, to include myself, but also a sadness.

I walked by my old apartment this afternoon. The pinwheels my wife stuck in the flowerbeds are still there, along with the old picnic table under the ornamental apple-tree. The feuerkorb still contains the charred remnants of peat logs we burned the other night, sharing a bottle of prosecco with our friends the DeSotos. In the branches of the young tree over the table, the mason jars my wife hung as lanterns. Late at night, their candles glowing, I used to sit at that table with Anne, talking over the crickets, and think of fireflies. She always knows how to insert those little touches, the small things that made a place feel more friendly, feel like home. So it was with this. Preparing to move our things to the hotel, I came out to the picnic table and found my wife there, trying not to cry. Seeing those homemade lanterns, the way they swing in the breeze, I finally understood her pain. I shook my head and allowed myself a sad smile, saying a silent goodbye.

It is a strange thing--the life I have lived for the last three years is ending. I am grateful, I am relieved. But I am sad, too. It occurs to me--soon I will no longer be called Soldier. There is a bittersweetness to this. On the one hand, it means I will have my freedom back; on the other, it means I will have given up my wings, the thing that made my countrymen admire me. I will be just a man again, and after three years plus one combat deployment, I know longer know just what sort of man I am. I have the clues, of course--I am a husband, a son, a writer. I am the voice of Alina. But beyond that, the rest is a mystery. I am excited to solve that mystery, but at the same time there is a mourning in me.

I will miss passing under the oak boughs in the early mornings, staring up into the green as I walk to PT.

It is ending now. I am coming back to myself, even now. I am older than I was when I started this journey, and I'm a different person as well. I'm no longer "just a kid;" no, for the first time in my life, I can look in the mirror and truly see a man. But what sort of man is that, I wonder? Who will I be, now that I no longer have the fences and protocols to contain me?

And how long will I have to fear their return?

I used to think that war was hard. It isn't, not in the sense I understand now. You do what you're told. Nor is being in the Army all that difficult. Show up every morning, in the right uniform. But I've heard the stories about soldiers who come back from Iraq and find themselves rootless; now, preparing to enter into a new life out West, I fear that the same fate may befall me. Adjusting back to life with my spouse was easy, but this, this new beginning... this will be hard.

One chapter ends. Another begins. Today, I'm the man with one foot out of the airplane. I'm the man with a grip on the ejection handle, counting to three. I'm the man who sees his cards, sizes up the other players, and then pushes all of his chips toward the center. This is it, I tell myself. No going back. It's time to see where you stand. What's it going to be?

I have to smile. It's a cool day in Hanau, Germany, and on Pioneer Kaserne the buildings all stand nearly empty. Beneath a blue sky spotted with clouds, the cottonwood boughs whisper softly with the breeze. Walking underneath the canopies of oak, I smile and allow myself to breathe in the shaded air, smell the unique green that is the Hessian Rhineland. When I open my eyes again, my mind is clear. I am sad, but I am also eager. I push my chips forward, and smile.

Call it.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


It has been over four years since I joined the Army. Three since I moved from Reserve to Active-Duty.

It's been a long, strange experience. Who knows why I joined? I had friends who were just coming back from the first phase of the war, and part of me felt guilt at having not shared their burden. I came from a long line of military, and so it only seemed natural that I should join. Sure, I didn't know if I was comfortable with the thing, but I went in anyway, thinking perhaps I might learn something.

I did learn something, I think. But I'm not sure what that is.

This last few years has been hard on my marriage. I've endured a lot of stress, a lot of fear, a lot of loneliness. I endured fifteen months in a warzone, returning thankfully intact to my wife, but with a lot of feelings that I still don't understand. For years, I've been thanked by strangers for my service, but after hearing it so many times I'm no longer sure what that means.

Thank me for what? For leaving my family behind? For punishing myself daily with fear and anger, praying every day that another mission wouldn't come up, that another bridge wouldn't go down If I had felt like I had actually done something, it might have mattered. But I don't. I languished for fifteen months, told I was doing good things, only to find that nothing changed. Nothing good came of what I did over there. Nothing ever improved, nobody's life was made better. Instead, things only got worse. With every month I was down there, the mortar and small-arms attacks only got worse. Our motor pool was shelled with increasing frequency and accuracy. It might have made a difference, but even when I WASN'T on mission, the reality of my situation was inescapable. I neglected myself and my marriage for fifteen months, and for what? Nothing. A bridge goes down, another comes up, only to be destroyed a week later.

A lot of soldiers turn to their faiths in times of war. So did I. But again, for what? I'm a Buddhist, have been since I was fifteen. My command in life is to end suffering. So it was with me. I was a builder of bridges. I was supposed to heal the wounds. But I healed nothing. Instead, my faith became ever harder to hold on to, and when I DID find time to practice I did so in solitude. Such alone-time is more precious than water in that place. You cannot know the price I paid for it.

Ease suffering, first your own and then that of others. This is the directive of my faith. But how did I do that? Every time I went up in the guard tower, went out on mission, went to the MHE yard for haji-watch, the same thing. The same dirty, battered, gaunt people, begging me for food, for clean water, for hygiene supplies, trying to sell me any damned thing they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, all over Iraq, every dumpster, every latrine, every DFAC emblazoned with the logo of a company whose contractors make $90,000 a year, tax free. People grow rich, I grow comfortable on fat combat-pay bonuses, while outside the gate the people I'm supposed to be helping are starving and dying. See the lines of Iraqi women outside the gate, some sick, others waiting to be allowed in to where their husbands or children lay mangled in an Air Force Tactical Hospital. I pat down their neighbors and search them for contraband, me with my M-16 at amber, blind to their sufferings.

I have the power to aid a man with parcel of food of my MRE, with a drink from my water bottle, or even from the comfort of an American cigarette, and still my command chain tells me to stand by and do nothing. I always knew that service meant sacrifice, but I never thought I'd have to sacrifice my faith, my ideals for that.

And again, I did this not for 12 months, but for fifteen.

I got angry--of course I got angry. I began to question the wisdom of what I was doing there. I began to hate my situation, began to hate the place I was fighting to save. I began to doubt the wisdom of my service, and I said as much. I spoke up--I objected to the war, on this blog, because I knew I couldn't do it openly in the line of duty. And for what? As soon as I opened my mouth, I was shunned, reviled. I received death threats, threats to my career. It got so bad that I feared I might be compromised. Instead of thanking me for my service now, I had people telling me I deserved to die, deserved to suffer for my "treason." Suddenly, my service no longer mattered. I was just an enemy. To hear these things, all while news about the war disappeared from the networks, and after a THREE-MONTH-EXTENSION no less, made me feel like I was forgotten by the American people. I felt alone. I felt abandoned. I felt like nothing was going to get better.

I sacrificed my safety, my health, my sanity, my spirituality, and almost my family, and for what? To be told I wasn't welcome. Just like Vietnam, I found myself spat upon by portions of the American public. But this time, it's wasn't some long-haired protester. No, no... it was the very people cheerleading the war.

What is the point?

I'm getting out now, and I'm glad. I'm so tired, and I have so many pent-up emotions left to deal with. I feel like I strained myself to the breaking point, and still feel guilt that I didn't do enough. My friends are still over there, some have died. More will die. And all the while, nothing back in the States changes. We're still just a soap-opera and horse-race. We don't actually mean anything to anyone who matters.

And now I have to come back home, struggling with the emotions I carry, and when I return I know that people will see my IVAW T-shirt, my beard, my shaggy hair, and they will think me worse than someone who didn't serve at all. They will think me a traitor, an enemy to my country.

I sacrificed all I had, and for what? For this?

Keep it, I say. I don't want it anymore. I'm not going back. I never thought that anyone could make me regret serving my country. But I do. I wish I'd never signed up.

I wish I could take this all back.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Names on Rosters

My time with this record is coming to an end soon. You need to know that.

I have less than a month left. I have a lot going on. I have to start clearing soon; I need to start updating my resume. I'm getting ready to leave Germany, and when I touch back down in the States it will not be as a soldier, but as a veteran. I'm going to Michigan to see my family for a few days, and then I'm going to be moving out West to start my new life.

Things for me have changed. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War--I've added them to my blogroll, and several of my compatriots are listed there as well. I feel good about the decision--after all, it's time I stood up for what I believe in--but still, it makes me sad that it should have had to come this.

I'll be honest: I'm scared. For four years, the Army has been a part of my life, three of that on Active-Duty. There is a comfort, a routine to things in this life, even when you're miserable. Field problems, deployment scares, and long hours be damned, there's comfort in at least knowing that you're getting paid. There's comfort in knowing that the medical bills will be handled. Now, I'm getting ready to leave that. After who knows how long, I'm finally getting out from under that umbrella. Soon, the Army won't be able to tell me who I am anymore. And I am grateful for that.

I'm tired of this way of life. It's not who I am. It's not the person I want to be. I did my time with honor, and in turn it strained my faith in the government, in the Army, in my fellow Americans to the breaking point. I have dreams, goals, a life of my own. I have a wife who needs me; I have a family to start. I have a bond with my Buddhist faith to re-establish. I have a book to try and publish, plus any number of others to begin writing. I'm planning to write a travel memoir about my trip West, covering the transition back to a civilian existence. I don't know where I'll be in a year, I don't know WHO I will be. But I do know this: the life I've lived for three years isn't the one I want anymore. It's just been too draining, too hard. It feels like I've been rucking it forever. I need to take a knee. I feel like I've earned it.

But will it be enough?

I'm in a small and highly specialized MOS. Our workload is brutal, our turnover rates high. Like every other soldier, when I joined I knew that I would spend several years after my tour in what is called the Individual Ready Reserve. Though I may be a civilian; though I may have any number of other obligations, all of that can be upended at any time by a letter from Department of the Army. At any time until early into the next decade, I can be called back for another year in Iraq, plus the five months it takes to train. Theoretically, they can do this as many times as they want. It doesn't even have to be in my MOS. They could send me out with Infantry, they could send me out as Convoy Security.

Once, when speaking to my recruiter, my wife asked him about this IRR thing. His response? "You'll basically be National Guard--you'll only get called up to handle stateside emergencies. But that's never even happened. Y'all don't have anything to worry about."

Looking back, maybe he believed it, maybe he didn't. But I know now that, in my MOS, the chances of me being called up are close to a hundred percent. The good SFC was wrong. Make no mistake: I WILL be called back. It's just a matter of when. Doesn't matter that I've come to reject this war, doesn't matter that I've come to reject war in general. In the eyes of the Army--indeed, in the eyes of most Americans--I raised my right hand. I signed the contract. I took an oath to both the Constitution and then the President of the United States, and I'm bound to uphold that, even when the two contradict each other.

It is clear to me now that I made a mistake.

The war was wrong. All right? It was wrong, and we allowed ourselves to be fooled into going along. The blood is on all our hands. People are starving, people are dying, and if you think that anyone who matters will actually stop this, you're fooling yourself. Part of this is why I joined IVAW. I don't like it, but what other choice do I have? I'm either part of the problem or part of the solution. In truth, I'm sick of being angry. I'm sick of protesting things. All I want is to live my life with Anne at my side. I want children. I want to write books for young people, and I want to pursue my faith.

But you know what else I want? I want to stop feeling guilty for having not done enough. I want the headlines to not affect me, every single day. I want one man's decisions to stop having a direct impact on my future, on my family's future. I want someone to see my name on the roster and pass me by. I want them to think: "Hey, this guy shows he's married. Did his time, got out. Maybe he got out for a reason." That would be nice. It would be nice to think that we, as soldiers, are viewed as people too. Not as heroes, not as idol figures, but as people.

But we're not. And I know it. To the people who matter, we're all just another name on a roster.

We'll never be more than names on the roster. Rosters of the deployable, rosters of the fallen. Rosters of the ruined.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Support the Troops, Indeed.

"You raised your right hand."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard this phrase, I wouldn't need a regular job. In today's environment, servicemembers who speak out against the war are roundly shouted down with a similar response. Since we volunteered during a time of war, conservatives say, we have no right to complain about the abuses we endure: lengthening deployments, foreshortened dwell times, increased strains on family, substandard medical care. Personally, I think that the demand should be higher simply BECAUSE we volunteered, but many on the American Right don't seem to agree with me. Apparently placing patriotism over principle isn't enough to qualify as a "Real American."

And now, it seems that the statement applies to our education.

Here's a phrase: "Support the Troops." Anybody remember this? Look, I'm the last person one will ever hear demanding deferential treatment. If anything, the effusive shows of gratitude often creep me out. But it is galling to me, hearing the warmongers in our midst shriek about full backing for our Armed Services, only to then turn about and say that we don't deserve adequate benefits because, well, "we volunteered." These, by the way, are the same people who threatened me for speaking out.

This is your movement conservatism, America: a cabal of corporate-media shills and the well-funded interests who control them. There is no "conservative intelligentsia," only a group of tanned pundits, drowning in a sea of Aqua-Net, who say whatever they're paid to. They'll beat the drum of war as long as they can, and then abandon those who answer the call.

These are your gods, Joe Six-Pack. These are your priests, your patriots. These are your emperors, and they have no clothes.

More to the point, they have no souls.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


War is ugly.

I cannot stress this enough. War is cheap, and ugly, and there is not an ounce of beauty to it. Endless days of fear and loneliness, of missing one's family, one's friends. Every meal, the newspaper reflecting Truths you don't see. Every night as you go to sleep, the sound of distant gunfire. That explosion you heard this morning during PT? Car-bomb. BONGO packed with 155s. Drove into the North ECP and exploded. Killed five people.

I forget these things sometimes. I get caught up in the daily rhythms--going grocery shopping, barbecuing with friends, making love to my wife--and for a while, it's easy to forget it all happened. But then it's something--the smell of diesel fuel, the pop of a holiday firecracker. It's never a flashback, but it is a sense-memory: I know this thing, I've experienced it. Innocuous stimuli take on a weight of their own, become significant in ways that the Uninitiated can never know. And when I think about these things, I am right back there again: Hot, lonely, bored, scared. I'm back to missing my wife, and feeling like I've been abandoned by my leaders.

True story: I walked into a DFAC one morning in Iraq. FOX News was playing, showed Cheney calmly talking about first-strike military action against Iran. We haven't even finished the second war, now he wants a third, I think? Eurasia is the enemy. Eurasia has always been the enemy.

People I know are scarred for life. People I know are dead. Garrett Knoll is dead. People's marriages have crumbled, people like Oz have slipped into alcoholism and self-destruction. All around us, the toll of this ugliness, this shit, exerts itself. It goes on, even now, and you think that a parade and a four-day weekend is supposed to make it better? You are numb to war. You embrace it. We all are. People are dying as you go about your daily business, and not because they have to, but because you do nothing.

There is no room for beauty in war. There is no time alone, no inner peace. There is no Dharma that matters in that place. There is only ugliness, dull and neverending, and we make it pretty by dressing it in the flag. We dress it in the same colors we bury our fallen in, and all the while we can't even be bothered with ending this thing. No--we have to plan the next one.

You cannot honor the dead while their bodies cool in the dust across the ocean. You cannot pay homage to their sacrifice, whilst you send their brethren to their deaths tomorrow. To pretend that this is honor, that this is Memorial? No. I will tell you what it is. It is shit. It is empty promises on paper. It is defilement. It is sacrilege. I would not accept such requiem, were it I. And I will not insult my peers by helping you carry it out.

What does it mean, to memorialize the war dead, when you have no intent of ending war? When was the last time you--any of you--thought about the news not in terms of war, but of peace?

When I am out, I will turn away from all of this. I will turn that ugliness into something beautiful. I can. I have. The book was my first attempt at that, and it succeeded. When I am out, I will live a life of beauty with my wife, and whatever children we might bring forth. They will be loved, and happy, and will learn about a world that is theirs to explore. They will be taught to question, to think, and if that leads them to feel differently than I, then so be it. My job will be done. I will have lived a life of beauty, and in so doing I will have shown that this was unnecessary.

Do you understand? This war was unnecessary. The ones you memorialize, you who did not fight, their blood is on your hands--not on mine. In a month's time, I will devote my life to erasing this ugliness, and you will not be a part of that, because you have looked at the ugliness so long you no longer see it.

I will not help you glorify this. It is not yours to glorify.

Not anymore.