Sunday, April 06, 2008

Blue Falcon

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

For years, I defended him. For years, I tried to argue his virtues, his professionalism, his loyalty as a friend. For years, I covered for him--even went before the commander myself and pleaded with him not to chapter Oz from the Army. Now, with the unit moving to Knox and my ETS date rapidly approaching, I find myself in a place I had hoped never to be. I've become caught between two very different definitions of friendship, and not sure which one is worse.

I've had to cut ties with Oz.

Oz is an alcoholic--"recovering," anyway. I've known it for a long time, and so has he. His problems started not long after I arrived at the unit, just as the main body was returning from downrange in '05. At the time, he was sidelined by a knee injury, sent home early, and so he was subjected to a great deal of scorn by his compatriots for "shamming out," for "being a shitbag." For a long time after the redeployment, nobody wanted anything to do with Oz, and even if nobody else saw it, I certainly did. Wracked by guilt, isolated from his peers, Oz began to drink more often, and more heavily, until before long he was showing up to formations reeking of vodka.

I saw it, of course. People laughed, called him a drunk, on top of everything else. I tried to defend him, tried to argue that he was under stress, but perhaps I just wouldn't see it. Can I be blamed? He was the first person to actually make me feel welcomed into the unit. Could I be expected to simply leave him by the wayside? Perhaps. But that's not how I wanted things to end.

He got busted, of course. I tried to get him away from the barracks, tried to get him help, but nobody listened, least of all him. He ended up in the Krankenhaus for alcohol poisoning, and so he got stripped down to E-1. He was on extra duty for so long that we barely got to hang out until just before our deployment in '06. A lot of things happened for him during that time, and he went through some pretty emotional periods. He got involved in AA, met a German girl who was supportive. Little by little, he came to acknowledge that he was an alcoholic. He became serious about his meetings, became serious about maintaining contact with his sponsor. Myself, I've never been a heavy drinker, so it was easy for me to abstain from beer when he was over at my house. Things were rough, sure, but all the signs suggested that he was getting better. He was, as we say, "taking the hit and driving on."

Then we deployed. Soldiers in combat are prohibited from drinking alcohol, and so for a time, it was good. I won't lie--it sucked. We were in the same squad at first, with the same incompetent crew chief. We hated life, but we made do. Then he got transferred to Support Platoon, Recon Section, and I followed a month later. With a new mission and longer leashes, Oz and I did pretty well. Oz became a star performer. He earned over 11 separate awards, and gained all of his lost rank, plus one, inside of a year. Now SPC Oz, there soon emerged talk of sending him to the board. He certainly had the time in service, and more than enough of the experience. None would have denied him the rank. Even I, as jealous as I was, had to admit that he would have made an excellent NCO.

And so it was. Cut away from the booze, with a better chain of command and better resources available to him, Oz managed to make a name for himself. He became known as a hard charger again, if perhaps one fueled by too many Monster energy drinks. He gained the respect of his fellows within the unit, and by the time we returned home, it was easy to see something in his bearing, his eyes, which had never been there before: Pride.

I'll say it again: we got lucky. No kills, no deaths, and over 150 missions out the wire, some as long as two months. Neither I nor Oz saw anything which should have permanently warped us, though to be certain we had our scares. So why am I left feeling like a fool?

Came back to Germany, Oz got orders to Leonard Wood. He proposed to Saskia, invited me to be his best man. Of course I accepted. As was his right, finally free of the stressors that had once fueled him, Oz allowed himself to cut loose a little bit. I didn't necessarily like it, but despite my concerns he handled himself well. A beer here, a glass of wine with dinner. Nothing major. I raised my eyebrow, but he never gave me any cause to doubt. Time passed, the unit began to shrink, and Oz informed me that Saskia was pregnant. My best friend was going to be a father. I was ecstatic of course. Plans for the wedding were made, preparations for his move to Leonard Wood set in motion. We all hoped he'd get a few years with his wife as part of the training battalion there, but we all knew he'd be going to 50-Boat. Oz said it didn't bother him,

I went off to my old job at the Legal Office, working as my unit's Tax Advisor. Oz and I saw less of each other, which saddened me. But come on, I told myself--we work in different offices, we both have women at home. It bothered me, but I wasn't about to complain--after all, I have a wife as well. But then Oz gets busted again for Drunk on Duty. He has a relapse. I'm upset of course, not least of all because he didn't call me for help. But making it worse, not two days later I call him up--his fiancee miscarried. Horrible, of course, but I'm on it. I cancel my plans for the day, talk him into coming over to visit. And then it hits me, halfway through our conversation. He's drunk. He's drunk again, and arguing with me about his right to be so. And then I find out that he had help from the guys in the barracks.

It's eight a.m., and a bunch of guys in my unit are playing beer-pong with a known alcoholic There is no curse vile enough to describe my contempt for these people.

I call up my crew chief, of course. I talk him into not punishing Oz. I get him out of the barracks, get him to my place where he can sleep and sober up. He gets busted again, of course, but he takes the hit this time. His orders are coming up, and so we don't have much time left. His wedding day is near, and we agree to make plans to go out sometime before the bachelor party.

So where does he want to go? The Irish Pub.

Go out, play pool. He drinks. We talk about the bachelor party, and he tells me what he wants. He talks about wanting to go out one last time with some guys from the barracks. "Are you going to drink?" I ask him. He doesn't answer. When I press him again, he gets defensive. For the next three hours, I try to gently nag him on the subject, pointing out that he's not had a good record with the demon rum. He doesn't want to hear it. Meanwhile, next to him his fiancee, who isn't exactly a model of temperance herself, works on her fifth Jack and Coke, saying nothing even as I remind Oz that he currently has FIVE alcohol-related offenses under his belt.

"That's a full-house, bro," I say.

"I'm fine, dude," he replies. "I'm cleared out of the unit. They can't touch me until I get to Leonard Wood."

This isn't quite the response I was going for.

I let it go eventually, but here the first whispers of guilt begin to fill my mind. I'm worried--is this the right thing? Am I asking too much to insist that he NOT drink at his own bachelor party? I spend a day or two mulling this over, while I sleep it off. Things go back to normal, and I decide I'm going to call him about it, one more time. As it turns out, however, I'm not going to get that chance. Oz calls me up, last night, already drunk. He says he's getting ready to come over, that he wants to hit up Pure Platinum by around nine. "What are you talking about?" I ask. He says: "The bachelor party, bro."

"Dude," I say, having to pause my game of Half-Life 2. "The party wasn't supposed to be for ten days yet. I haven't even sent out the invites yet, or made the reservation."

"Well, everyone else thinks its tonight," he tells me. "Come by the barracks when you're ready, I should be there around 8."

A pause. I tell him I have to call him back. A few minutes go by, and finally I dial him again. My first words: "Who exactly is 'everybody else?'"

Inside my brain, something snaps. He's drinking again, he's asked me to be his best man, he's talked over and over about how I have to pay for everything (it's CUSTOM), and now he wants to change the DAY on me? On top of which, he tells everyone BUT the HOST? I don't want to be rude here, but I have some stuff on my mind. I proceed to give him a polite but pointed earful, telling him that he can't just change things on me, that he has to let me play the host and handle this myself. He doesn't want to hear it. He whines that I never call him, and I point out that he never answers his phone. I tell him, "Look, I'm already compromising with my morals here by letting you drink at the party I'm hosting you, but now this shit? I'm starting to feel a little taken advantage of."

Silence. Over the phone, I hear his fiancee, yelling in her broken English for Oz to refill her drink. I start to fume. I resume the upbraiding, until finally Oz tells me, "All right, look dude, we'll do it on the 12th, like you wanted."

"Look," I say, "you want to just go out and get drunk, we can do that. You want a fuckin' PARTY, you gotta let me arrange some shit, okay?"

"Whatever, dude, it's fine," he says. "Look, man, I gotta make some calls yo. I'll talk to you later."

"All right. Hey, thanks for understanding, all right?"

He burps. "Whatever." And then he hangs up.

Relief. My worries are growing though. What does he think he's doing? Does he think he can just sweet-talk me into giving him his way? Is that it? This isn't the Oz I remember. I try to shrug it off. Brooks and my friend DeSoto from Legal come by for dinner. We spend a good couple of hours talking and laughing over beers, and then by 9 o' clock first Brooks, then DeSoto bid us adieu. All is quiet for perhaps half an hour after they leave, until at last the phone rings. It's Brooks.

"Hey, man," he drawls. "I just ran into Oz and Kenneth. Them and Stein're goin' out to Pure Platinum. I think Oz's been drinkin' again."

I can feel myself biting the inside of my cheek. "No shit," I say. "All right, man. Thanks." And I hang up.

We have a term in the Army: Blue Falcon. Among the rank and file, it's usually pronounced "Buddy Fucker," and it can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to one who, for whatever reason, goes out of one's way to betray a fellow soldier. However, most of the time it refers to one who, through either ignorance or sheer laziness, leaves a battle buddy out in the cold, either through lack of information or simply by not policing up his friend's performance. This is the term that I am left with.

Who is the true Blue Falcon: the one who drinks with a known alcoholic, or the one who tries and fails to save him? I come to the realization that night: I can't support what he's doing anymore. I've tried my best, and no, I didn't want it to be this way, but I'm getting ready to leave the Army. He's getting ready to move to Leonard Wood. We only have a few weeks left, and I wanted to try and part ways with him on a positive note, but I see now that he's just sliding down too far. I have to do as SSG Mueller said: Cut my losses.

Even now, it's a bitter feeling. I could just leave it be, maybe long enough to say goodbye, to see him happily off into the world of marriage and his next duty station, but now I see that I can't. He's gotten to this place because he was surrounded by Blue Falcons, Buddy Fuckers, who knew his problem and yet did nothing to try and stop him. He may be getting ready to leave, but even after I'm gone, maybe he'll look back and see what a friend he had in me. Maybe he'll see what I tried to do, and maybe it might dawn on him.

Or maybe it won't. Maybe I'm the Buddy Fucker. Maybe we all are. All I know is, I've tried to do the right thing, tried to show integrity, and failed. I failed him, failed my best friend. Fifteen months and a safe return home, and I couldn't pull security when he needed it most.

I'm calling him. Right now. Going to tell him that I can't be his best man anymore. It ends here.

I'm sorry, Oz.

Crossposted at Low and Left: Part Deux)

9 Comments:

Blogger Beth said...

You have done the right thing - it's called "tough love". When you've tried everything else, sometimes the shock of realizing how far he's gone will be the thing that turns him around. I've had to do it myself; once it worked and once it didn't - at least, not yet. The most important thing you can do is not be an enabler, a BF.
Good luck to both you and Oz.
Beth

10:37 PM  
Blogger The Earth Bound Misfit said...

Milo, please don't take this the wrong way, but I have a lot of years on you. One sad lesson I've had to learn is that there comes a point when you're dealing with someone who is intent on creating a trainwreck of his or her life, that all you can do is step back and let it happen.

Oz is on his spiral down, assisted by the asswipes who are enabling his drinking and his (current) wife. You've tried, you surely have, but it's not enough.

You're going to have to let this one go, I'm afraid. You proved your worth as his friend in making the attempt.

Cold comfort, I know, but that's all there is.

12:07 AM  
Blogger Long-time RN said...

Have dealt with substance abusers over the years. Yours is a familiar and sad story of a friendship which is on diverging paths. There comes a time you are either an enabler, offer tough love, or must walk away. You've attempted to help in the past. It would be most difficult to be a support or positive influence from the distance you two will be apart. He is still rationalizing, surrounded by enablers daily, including his future wife apparently, so your influence would be negligible. He's not ready to change, you are not comfortable with his destructive behavior and do not need to take on the anxiety or stress of being involved in the wedding. It is what it is, and hopefully everyone moves on. If he is angry, he's angry. Hope some day he is able to enjoy sobriety once again and remembers what a friend you've been. Take care.
Cathy B

12:51 PM  
Blogger Gillian de Chelseye said...

If you want to talk, hit me up on AIM.
-delia

7:36 PM  
OpenID archanger said...

You may feel like crap now, but you did the right thing. You can't save those who don't want to save themselves. Right now it's a choice between going down with him or saving your skin.
Later, when he's hit rock bottom and wants to swim back up, he'll remember you. You'll have used that time on yourself, you'll be stronger, have a more stable situation with your family and in life, and the help you'll offer then will be considerably enhanced.

Hang on. Bite the bullet on this one, turn your attention to your family.

ps: on a side note, a Freeman playing half life is too much irony to ignore. If one day you're offered a job at a facility named Black Mesa: Run !

8:14 PM  
OpenID jeg43 said...

Thanks for sharing. I know it hurts to lose a friend. I also know that you don't lose friends, only those you hoped were. Look out for number one. Nobody else will.
Take care.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Aprillini said...

man. tough one. I agree with the others. For what it's worth. It's very troubling and sickening to see this in a friend and not be able to help. But, the cliche is true...it has to come from within, the need to be better. Could n intervention be arranged? Heavy sigh. Be strong and take care of yourself and Anne. We cannot always help the one(s) we love. The corollary is we cannot always love the ones we help.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Pookie Sixx said...

You are not the Blue Falcon here Milo. You did what you could but the bottom line is that you cannot save a drowning person who is not willing to save themselves. He has a woman who is allowing him to behave this way and he sees nothing wrong despite the fact that he probably will lose his career over it. You are not his responsibility. You can only do so much before they drag you down with them. You have done the right thing.

9:12 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

Had a friend I haven't talked to in years who had a similar problem. JS dropped out of college in part because of a bad drinking problem. I tried to hang with him because he got in less trouble when I was along to take the edge off of his stupid. (I'd taken over this role from another friend who already gotten fed up with him.) His life was a mess when he decided to sign up.

He graduated top of his class in boot. He made rank. He went to Germany. His dad (a strict disciplinarian, a lifer, a Master Sergeant from Korea) was proud of him for perhaps the first time.

He fell off the wagon in Germany and ended up getting kicked out of the Army after he came home drunk one night and threw his roommate through a second story window for having locked the door.

JS had forgotten his key.

His dad had to pull in all sorts of favors to get him a General Discharge.

Not a damn thing you can do for Oz. He has to stop his own freefall.

All you can do is try not to feel guilty for letting him fuck up on his own.

-nous

10:18 PM  

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