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.

28 Comments:

Blogger Aaron Jorbin said...

My Friend, it is good to have Seth back. I hope to see you soon.
-Jorbin

2:12 AM  
Blogger lizardly said...

We have been honored by your words,actions and deeds. My husband's deployment was made less horrible by my fortunate discovery of your writing. Many thanks.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Hayden said...

I am honored to meet you, Seth. You are an honest, brave and honorable man.

I wish you health - mental and physical - in your new life stateside. Our country has much need of voices like yours, you are an inspiration.

3:42 PM  
Blogger plez... said...

Every person in Congress (especially, the Democrats who were sent to Congress to end this war) should read your post! I plan to forward it to my Congressman, because I wrote him last week about my displeasure with his continued support of the war.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Seven of Six said...

Welcome home Seth! I'm glad you're safe.

Anytime you need to talk, about anything, please contact me.

I guess some things never change about the Army: shitty NCO's, inability to reason with Chain of Command, being used as a tool by powers you can't touch, escapism through alcohol, not being able to do the right thing for the people of the country you are occupying.

Yes, welcome home my brother in arms. A new journey for you is starting.

My invitation to come for a visit here in AZ and a trip to Mexico still stands.

5:29 PM  
Blogger toadman said...

Milo will be missed...but I welcome Seth.

I may not always comment, but I always read. I'm also looking forward to any book you may write about your experiences.

6:45 PM  
Blogger tinalouise said...

Beautifully expressed Seth - not anger, but passionate determination and insistance.

I am a writer from England and I protest the war as best I can through Arms Against War - I also write for COunter Punch and would suggest you submit this powerful piece of writing to them.

There is also a site I find so gentle, therapeutic and supportive to soldiers in the USA that you may find worthwhile to visit http://journeyhome.ning.com/
I would like to post this their as well if that's ok?

The world since this war is an unusual place that looks a bit like it did, yet reamins currently unrecognisable - your voice shouts for those of us that want our world back. Thank you Seth, thank you.

Namaste,
Tina Louise
www.armsagainstwar.info

8:25 PM  
Blogger Milo said...

To all who have supported me here...

Thank you. Your words mean the world to me. You have been my strength, my purpose. You are why I have kept up the fight. So long as I have you behind me, my strength can never fail.

Tina, you may post anything of mine you wish. I trust you to give credit where credit is due. As for your other suggestions, feel free to email me at falco_sparverius@hotmail.com, and I will gladly consider submitting my work there. Thank you for all you have done, and continue to do. I hope to hear from you soon.

As for the rest of you, in the words of Murrow, "Good night, and good luck."

Sincerely,

Seth S. Marlin

8:35 PM  
Blogger Aprillini said...

Dude...Buddha does not resemble Ronald Reagan. Blasphemous.

In any case, Seth, it has been an AMAZING STATE OF GRACE to be able to read your posts. I cherish every word. Truly.
Aprille

1:17 AM  
Blogger Long-time RN said...

Welcome home Seth. Best to you and your wife as the journey continues.

12:57 PM  
Blogger The Earth Bound Misfit said...

Seth,

Take care of yourself and your bride. It was a pleasure to read your writings and I look forward to a day when there is a book out with your byine.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

Well I guess this was it. I enjoyed reading this a lot, mostly because it told me that you were still alive over there.

Either way, I'll pass this on to someone who will, with all hope, be the next Congressman from NY.

The Tom Brown

2:37 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

welcome back seth. unfortunately, in my experience, the trip back can take a while. putting boots on american soil is the beginning.

if you would be interested in the experience of another bhuddist soldier's service i highly recommend the sutras of abu graib by aidan delgado.

he experienced his own enlightenment in one of the shittiest shitholes. he somehow managed to transcend and in that inhuman place find the center of his humanity.

4:39 PM  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Dear Seth,

This was passed along to us by a reader. I am deeply moved, and can feel your profound disgust and transformation. Let not your voice be silenced. We write at "Rangeragainstwar." Your voice is always much welcomed.

Very best wishes to you and your wife.

--Lisa

6:08 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

Be happy, and be well, you and Anne both.

8:54 PM  
Blogger crookedsmilee said...

Thank you for the truth.
You had the courage that so few flag waving Americans have...to bear witness to the atrocities in a abSOULute way. There are many americans who have not forgotten, who each day suffer the agony of helpless ness and a sense of purposelessness.
we have not forgotten, we try to bring things to the light...but it is very dark in America these days.
Stay real. thank you.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Mike Kretzler said...

Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Good luck with what comes next, Seth.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Marty said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences Seth.

It's been a difficult journey for those of you who have fought this war and the families you had to leave behind. We are all changed. Never again will any of us be the same people we were before you rolled into Baghdad.

Take care.

Peace.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Peter Attwood said...

I'm an evangelical Christian, and I want to say you make a whole lot more sense and seem a whole lot more acquainted with trutht than almost of all of my fellow "Christians." It's hard for Americans to face up to the things you've taken a long look at. It's been hard for you, and there's a lot more of that ahead. But it makes me a little less lonely to know there is one more in the world.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Terrible said...

Seth, I found your blog last week via rangeragainstwar. I wish I'd found it sooner. Yours is a powerful honest voice. Use it often, use it loudly and never stop speaking out. As a veteran myself (who was also stationed in Hanua many years ago) I thank you for this post and will spread your story to all who will listen. I hope to see more of your writing soon. Please let all of us commenting here know of your future writings if possible.

9:08 PM  
Blogger AirmanMom said...

May God bless you and your family, Seth. Both of my sons are serving in the USAF, your site has been a necessary read for me. You will be deeply missed.
~AirmanMom returning to her blog...

2:45 PM  
Blogger Peter Attwood said...

I saw and listened to this, and this post of yours which I'd read last week came to mind. I realized that nationalism/patriotism really is an addiction closely related to sex and love addiction. I hadn't quite seen that before.

http://no-words.com/2004_05_23_reticence_archive.html

8:17 AM  
Blogger ~:*:*:Pixie:*:*:~ said...

*sigh*

I love Seth and I love Anne.

Welcome home.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

Everything you say is so important for everyone in the country to hear. My son told me many of the same things you did. I really don't think Americans understand. They just don't get it. Thank you.

4:00 AM  
Blogger cameo said...

seth-
i hear you.
and i understand.
be well on your journey.
your words and your spirit shine.
namaste.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Aprillini said...

Well here it is Dec. 15. Do you think you could give us a little update? Please. Throw us a bone,babe.
Aprillini

2:11 AM  
OpenID masterspork said...

I am finding my self in disagreement over much of what is said about his accounts and what I have seen in mine. Almost every point that he has made I have a direct experience to counter. So I wonder if there is more here then just what is been said.

5:29 PM  
Blogger NWlambear said...

I hear you and appreciate your words! I have a grandson over in Afghanistan and I find that I want to support my grandson...support the troops, but I find I do not support "the war". I see our people...our troops...dying...for what? A civil war (that's how I see it). My grandson says to not believe anything your read in the media..only believe what we hear from him, BUT....then he cannot speak freely of what he experiences. I've seen the dramatic change in my grandson when has come home on leave between deployments. He's losing himself in this thing...this "horror" called "service" and "war". My heart aches for him....I just want them home!!! The very best to you and your wife...and God Bless you both.

10:42 PM  

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