Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I left the Guard almost three years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday. I want to share a little story that has me feeling pretty satisfied right about now.

Our AMMO shop does this little thing where when someone leaves, they typically get tackled, duct taped to something immobile, covered in whatever filthy contents are in the shop's fridge, and then hosed off.

Exhibit A:

This is pretty timid compared to like, what the Marines or Army do to you, or so I hear. Except when you consider the fact that we once had bear meat in our fridge for over 3 months and no one would claim responsibility for it, so no one would throw it away based on (some abstract) principle.

SO. My previous posts mention a little rivalry I had with one of my supervisors, D. Rab, where he tied my bike to the rafters, etc etc. On my last guard weekend he was one of the primary guys who trapped me, duct taped me to a picnic table, and proceeded to water board me with 8 month old sour cream and salsa and ranch salad dressing.

I attempted to clean up and meet the rest of the gang out for the post-guard-drill obligatory beers in celebration of it being my last ever guard drill. I realized I was one of the last people left in the bomb dump. I realized D. Rab was gone. I realized it was August, a sweltery month in Wisconsin. I realized I had in my possession one soiled BDU uniform covered in rancid condiments.

I marched out to the equipment tent where we keep our gas masks and chem gear in big bags. I stuffed my soiled uniform in with his gas mask and chem gear, knowing he wouldn't discover it for at least 2-3 months, at which point it should have been solidly covered in mold growth and hopefully a great abundance of mice dung or other vermin.

I smiled, because D. Rab is a notorious one-upper. Anything you do to him, he'll do back to you 100-fold. There's no winning with this kind of unreasonable person. You always lose. But this time, I would be long gone, in Washington DC, and there's no possible way he could retaliate. This was so greatly satisfying I really can't even do it justice in words.

Except, i never heard about it. I regularly get texts from my guard people every guard drill weekend. usually some inside joke, or a gossipy update, or some complaining about some ridiculous new regulation. But I never heard one word about my soiled uniform getting discovered. Could it be that he actually found it, and kept it quiet? There was that one time I squirted ketchup and mustard into all of his work glove fingers, and I never heard about him finding that. That was greatly unsatisfying.

After awhile, I gave up, convinced he quietly disposed of it and didn't let anyone in on the fact I got the best of him.

That is, until I got this picture texted to me this past weekend. THREE YEARS after the fact:


But I am not sure what this says about the general maintenance and upkeep of Wisconsin Air National Guard equipment, if D. Rab has not examined his gas mask or chem gear in nearly three years.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"How can God forgive us if we can't forgive ourselves?"

I've been thinking about forgiveness a lot lately, mostly because I've come across two stories lately that speak to the difficulty of combat veterans accepting forgiveness for their actions and finding peace after their experiences in war. Both of these stories happen to be relayed by men with very very Irish names, Patrick and Shannon. Although it's also called Catholic guilt, and I'm not Catholic, given my own guilt issues I think there really might be something to the whole phenomenon of Irish Guilt. I won't get into Patrick's story now, maybe in another post. For now I'll talk about Shannon.

I spent this weekend at a conference for a national security fellowship that I'm part of. This weekend marked a year since I've been part of this fellowship. Also a year since I've been continually humbled by how amazing and accomplished some people are. Some of the moments in my life when I've felt the smallest has been at events related to this fellowship. Mainly just because on one side of me is a White House speechwriter, on the other side is an Iraq war veteran who created an organization dedicated to helping Iraqi refugees, and we're all listening to CIA director Leon Panetta talk about being a first generation Italian immigrant. It's humbling stuff.

One of the sessions was run by my good friend Karen, a former C-17 pilot and a general ginger-haired firecracker, and our mutual friend Richard...a totally awesome guy who is a fashion designer and geospatial intelligence officer, who is interested in making art about surveillance (like I said, he's awesome). We broke out into small groups, were assigned roles like Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, head of the Red Cross, Director of the CIA, and talked through the implications of drone use in Yemen. As a group, we basically concluded that drones are fine for surveilling, but things get complicated fast when you use them for strike capabilities (duh). I got to be the Secretary of Defense and had fun with that.

Toward the end, we got our groups back together and discussed what we came up with. Opinions were wide ranging on the legality and necessity of using drones for both surveilling and striking terrorists (which is one thing I really love about this fellowship--the ability to bring diversity together under the umbrella of ideology).

One guy piped up toward the end. I had noticed him because he looked kind of Army-ish, and when I looked closer I saw he had a metal bracelet on his wrist, the kind that's etched with a name and a date.Then I noticed that he had a tiny cochlear implant behind one of his ears, and I immediately knew he probably had a TBI. So when he spoke up, I paid close attention. Even if I hadn't already been paying attention to him, what he was about to say would have still hit me like a ton of bricks.

He started talking about the danger of the sanitization of war, which is one of my primary concerns with drone use. But then he said you can check all the boxes in person, and still be wrong. Just damn wrong. He stuttered a few times, and then explained that he had been a platoon leader in Iraq and came across a house they believed to be booby trapped. Rather then send his men to clear it and potentially lose them, he decided to call in a mortar strike. Boom. Obliterated.

Inside, an innocent family had been huddled. Boom. Obliterated.

He said he lived with it every day of his life. It haunted him. But that we needed to be careful about sanitizing war and not being able to see the consequences, even if it is easier that way.

I didn't know Shannon's story prior to this weekend. As far as I could tell, he spit it out with such emotion that it was the first time he was telling anyone about his ghosts. He is carrying his guilt, depression, and anger so bravely. I just want him to find his peace by speaking about his experiences.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bright bright light

A fellow journalist who was in the triage tent when they brought in Tim Hetherington said he was bleeding heavily from his leg and was very pale. They called it 15 minutes later. Perhaps this is disturbing, but I can't stop thinking about his handsome face, so pale.

He was so vibrant, earnest, and full of life. He was a warrior for warriors, striving to tell stories of those in the most remote corners of the world. The ones that most Westerners don't care about: Liberians. Child soldiers. Rebels. Filthy American soldiers. I am so thankful I got to attend one of his lectures on Veterans Day last fall, when he shared stories behind his frighteningly beautiful pictures from Liberia and Afghanistan. I think a little piece of me fell in love with him that day, it didn't hurt that he had a charming British accent, was over 6 feet tall, had striking eyes, and spent his days seeking out danger not as a killer but because he clearly loved other human beings.

Tim Hetherington did not have to repeatedly travel to the most dangerous valley in Afghanistan, just to be able to tell a story that wouldn't otherwise be heard. He didn't have to walk miles on a broken leg, so that the men he was with could get off the mountain safely. He didn't have to dodge bullets and RPGs, completely unarmed except for his hand held camera, just so that we could catch a glimmer of war from the comfort of our suburban sofas. He wanted us to understand. He wanted us to care.

We lost a light yesterday. A bright, bright light who strove to shine on the stories of the forgotten and the voiceless. I'm thinking of the men of the 173rd today, who shouldn't have had to lose yet another brother.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Fair winds and following seas.

I heard some very bad news yesterday. A man named Clay Hunt took his own life.

I didn’t know Clay. Our paths crossed once last year, we were introduced, and I remember thinking he had a really great smile. But I had heard of him before I met him. Several years ago my friend told me about this blog that a Badger football player was writing. A former Badger football player named Jake Wood, who enlisted in the Marines after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, and was deployed to one of the most volatile parts of Iraq. Interest piqued, I checked it out. This guy wrote well. Really well. And not just for a football player. Or a Marine. His writing was visceral, relatable, funny, and raw. I checked in on him regularly, prayed for him and his platoon often.

He wrote several times about his close friend Clay Hunt, who had been shot in the wrist by a sniper and had gotten involved in veterans advocacy during and after recovery. The veterans advocacy world is actually quite small. And let’s be honest, Clay Hunt is a really great name. It sounds like an invented pen name. It just stuck in my head. Clay had inspired Jake to also get involved in advocacy, to DO something to help change the world after their mission in the Marines had run its course. Jake founded something called Team Rubicon, an incredible humanitarian organization comprised of an unlikely partnership between Jesuits (some call them the Special Forces of the Catholic church), doctors, and Marines.

When I read my friend’s message that Clay had taken his own life, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. Clay Hunt? Not him. Not the one I met. Please let it be another Clay Hunt.

It was the man I met last year. Clay killed himself after wrestling with the demons of depression and PTSD, the demons of feeling displaced and disoriented after returning home from combat. His story could be the story of so many I know, close friends that wrestle with those same demons on a daily basis. After throwing my laptop on the ground and breaking into sobs, my next inclination was to call up every veteran I knew and make them swear to call me when they found themselves in that dark place again.

My grandfather once wrote, “War is one stinking, terrifying hell. There are no heroes in war. There are only the survivors, the dying and the dead.” I’ve had long conversations about whether or not there are heroes in war. I believe that there are. But they are not superheroes who gallop through a hail of bullets and bombs because they are “brave”. They are simply human beings who selflessly love the man or woman next to them. And the brave things they do are driven by that one simple rule of humanity: love for your brother.

Today my heart goes out to those who love Clay as a brother, who stood with him but ultimately could not save him from the battle. May he find the peace he so desperately sought, and may his loved ones find comfort in this time.

In a disturbing, seemingly cruel twist of irony, Team Rubicon announced a new initiative designed to help veterans readjust upon return home from combat…on the very same day that Clay killed himself.

There is so much work to be done.

Donate to Team Rubicon here:

Read another blog post about Clay here: Blackfive