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.