"I'm sorry I must leave, but I must do what is asked of me by my God, my Country, and my Corps.. and so, the war blog begins, again." ~B

31 December 2009

The Ticking Clock

Happy New Year.

I have found a corner away from the celebrating going on at my house...a quiet little place to be in the moment.

Tomorrow, I will wake up and enjoy my day off. I will enjoy my family and laugh with them. But in this moment, I am sad. I have just said goodbye to the best friend and the best friend-in- law. They are leaving early tomorrow to go back to the base across the country.

It is the last time I will see him until 2011.

It was the last time I got to see him, got to hug him, before he goes back to war. Afghan-style this time.

Since he arrived, the clock has been counting down to this moment. Never audible, but always ticking. During every board game, every video game, every movie, every laugh, every toast, every meal, during every moment- the clock was ticking.

There is never enough time to do all that you want to do, to say all the words you want to say...

It has been about 20 minutes since I said goodbye.

I have decided that it wasn't any easier this time than the last time. My heart hurts just the same. I feel a little nauseous. I feel the same pressure behind my eyes from tears that want to fall, if only I would let them. One or two may have snuck out, but I'll never admit to it if you ask. I feel apprehensive and raw. If I was willing to admit it, I'd also say I was feeling a little scared.

War ripples, like a stone dropped in a lake.

I think war has a physical weight you can actually feel if you are paying enough attention. Maybe it is the result of all the stones that gather at the bottom of the lake....

The Marines and Uncle Sam are about to borrow my best friend for a year. He is a lot of things in this world. Among them, he is a husband, a son, a brother, a daddy to a new kitty who he adores, a musician, a gamer, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, a bearer of the title United States Marine.

Each of these things is important, if only a partial list.

But to me, he is the best friend in the whole world. He is the keeper of my secrets, the sharer of my history. He is the ear I borrow when I have a tale to tell. He is my partner in crime and provider of near-death experiences. He is compassionate and reliable when I need him, and also tells me the hard truths when I need to hear those. He listens without judgment. He shares my eclectic taste in music and love for Ring Pop candy. He threatens to (quite possible does) background check my dates, just to be sure. He is the person I call when I am full of excitement. He is the person I call when I am pissed off and need to vent. He is the person I rode my first rollercoaster with.

He is not expendable, nor replaceable.

If it is not too much to ask, USMC, please return him in the condition he was lent...

It would make my heart hurt a whole lot less.

23 December 2009


I love Christmas. I love being around family and friends. I love the songs, the smells, and getting cards in the mail. I love the sense of peace it brings me.

This Christmas is one that is spent with the bestie on the eve of deployment. Because of this, each memory is even more precious, even more cherished. It is excitement, tinged with a hint of uncertainty.

It is that hint of uncertainty that reminds me to remember.

After many years of war, there are many homes with an empty spot in their Christmas traditions.

At the bottom of my blog, there is a list of names. In some way, I have a connection to each of them.

So here's to Gunnar, Jessica, Jonathon, James, Chris, Joe, Aaron, Jonathan, and Will. Here's to each of their families. May you have peace this holiday season, your loved ones are not forgotten.

17 December 2009

Carl Sandburg

I AM singing to you
Soft as a man with a dead child speaks;
Hard as a man in handcuffs,
Held where he cannot move:

Under the sun
Are sixteen million men,
Chosen for shining teeth,
Sharp eyes, hard legs,
And a running of young warm blood in their wrists.

And a red juice runs on the green grass;
And a red juice soaks the dark soil.
And the sixteen million are killing. . . and killing
and killing.

I never forget them day or night:
They beat on my head for memory of them;
They pound on my heart and I cry back to them,
To their homes and women, dreams and games.

I wake in the night and smell the trenches,
And hear the low stir of sleepers in lines--
Sixteen million sleepers and pickets in the dark:
Some of them long sleepers for always,

Some of them tumbling to sleep to-morrow for always,
Fixed in the drag of the world's heartbreak,
Eating and drinking, toiling. . . on a long job of
Sixteen million men.

12 December 2009

Rays of Light

It is easy to get caught up in the tragedy of war. There is certainly enough to go around. Broken lives, broken bodies, broken minds, broken nations.

But war, at least war as we presently wage it, also presents an opportunity. It is an opportunity to help improve the lives of those citizens of the countries in which we fight. Our soldiers push their guns to the side and embrace humanitarian efforts with the same, if not more, spirit than they do for combat operations.

Recently, an Air Force unit put out a call for school supplies. They were rebuilding schools, but there were few, if any, supplies to fill them. The families of the Airmen were sending some, but they broadened the effort, and sent the word back in mass to the States. I bought supplies, my work and church donated supplies, six boxes in all. Each one filled with folders, scissors, chalk, markers, pencils and sharpeners, just about anything you can think of.

The thing I love about my country is that almost without fail, if people know about a need, and have a direct way to help, they will do so with enormous genorosity.

We sent them with love and well wishes to the Airmen who organized the effort.

The Airmen thanked us in return, and sent us pictures of themselves making supply packets to hand to the children. I looked up pictures of these types of humanitarian efforts in southern Iraq to create a picture of what happened to all those packets.

There is the hope that these types of humanitarian efforts will help. If that means they help stabilize a country, or they mean inspiring one child, maybe change one negative opinion about the American people, it remains to be seen. Maybe they will sow the seeds of peace.

In the midst of the darkness that is war, light can shine through.

These Airmen are those rays of light.

09 December 2009


I found out yesterday that a Marine from my hometown was wounded in Afghanistan.

He went to the rival high school, graduating not long after I did.

I wish the wounds of war were like the wounds you see on tv. A cop is shot on duty, but its only a deep tissue wound, an FBI agent grazed in the head by a bullet. All wounds easily fixed by next weeks episode.

The thing about war is that nothing about it is easy.

This Marine faces at least two years of reconstructive surgeries and rehab. He has facial wounds that may be permanently disfiguring.

It is a reminder that each moment you have with loved ones in the armed forces is precious. You might not get another one, or the next one you get may be under vastly different circumstances than the last.

I am praying for him and wish him a speedy recovery.

I am praying for all the soldiers and Marines who are headed to Afghanistan in the coming months, and those who are deployed around the world now.

Hug your favorite Marine today, and if you don't have one, hug your favorite soldier, sailor, or airman instead.

01 December 2009

Holidays in Afghanistan

As the President prepares to announce his strategy in Afghanistan, and pundits on cable news argue about numbers and troop increases, it is important to remember the individuals that allow any strategy to be successful.

These individuals fighting in Afghanistan are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, cousins, and best friends. They are American, British, Polish, Australian, and Canadian- among others. They have favorite movies and post-deployment vacation plans.

Those that will make up a troop "surge" will probably take pre-deployment leave soon. They will visit family and friends, or some exotic locale, and try to make as many memories as possible before they leave. Behind each one of those numbers on the tv screen is a person.

Many members of our military are far from home this holiday season. More soon will be. It is important that we remember them, as well as their families, who face an empty place at the table, and a picture in place of a loved one.

We must also remember the families of the fallen, whose empty seat during the holiday season is permanent.

Remember our troops. Pray for them. Give them the support they have earned.

30 November 2009


When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. You can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means... that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.-- Frederick Buechner

24 November 2009


Lead with the heart, your instincts are usually right. The rest ...the cerebral can only be attained once the heart knows what's what.

22 November 2009


That's why I want to speak to you now. To say: no person, trying to take responsibility for her or his identity, should have to be so alone. There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors. I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history, if we are not to give ourselves away.~ Adrienne Rich

12 November 2009

USMC Birthday

Last week I had the opportunity to spend the Marine Corps Birthday with a group of local USMC veterans.

I have had the privilege of developing a relationship with them over the past 4 years and they have really taken me under their wing. I love working with warriors; it doesn't matter the branch of service, but Marines are special to me. This group of old warriors taught me the customs and traditions of the Corps. They taught me their values and their legacy. Most importantly, they trusted me with their stories.

These are the stories I hold dear to my heart. One man fought in the naval campaigns around Guam in WWII. He said that he is getting to the age where he worries that no one will remember what they did there. I told him he could tell me his story, and I would remember. He has, and I do.

The group of Vets that I spent the Birthday with are individually remarkable. Together, they tell the collective history of the Corps. From D, who is a veteran of the Pacific island-hopping campaign of World War II, to C, my personal hero and one of the Chosin Few- who had a bullet graze the top of his head on his 17th birthday- and who later served 3 tours in Vietnam as a Recon Marine, to B, a Vietnam vet with more than a few pages in his service record that remain blacked out, to L, who served in the Desert Storm, and our new, young vets of the GWOT...

Each one of these men are heroes. They will resist the label if you try to attach it to them, but it is the truth. Despite their accomplishments, they are humble. They are the kindest, most compassionate, most loyal, most honorable, most decent group of men I have ever met.

I am proud to call them friends. I am proud to receive their hugs and listen to their stories.

I am thankful that such men live.

05 November 2009

Ft. Hood

My heart is with Ft. Hood tonight. Praying for the wounded, the families of the fallen, and all those on post who have had their sense of security shattered. I have no words.

31 October 2009

American Son

I stumbled onto Nick Cannon's indie film American Son recently. I am always a little skeptical about Iraq war films, as they tend to be politicized or just laughably bad. (Home of the Brave- I'm talking to you.) However, I was surprised by this one.

It was actually pretty good.

The story follows Mike, the main character, a boot Marine on leave before his first deployment to Iraq. He is about as green as he can be, an infantryman who just finished SOI. The film is an intimate look at the mix of emotions that is a young man's last trip home before heading to war. It shows the tension, the melancholy, essentially the shadow that hangs over such visits. Iraq is in the main character's head during everything he does. When he finally reveals to those he cares about that his deployment is emanate, you see how Iraq becomes a part of everyone around him.

The film shows Mike's internal journey, as his last hours at home count down. The film does a good job of showing the very personal journey each warrior must go through on these trips. You know each Marine is trying to fit as much life as possible into the next 96 hours. There are a million things he has always wanted to do, a million people to see one more time, a million conversations that need to be had, a million fears to push away, a million questions to answer. Does he rush a new relationship he doesn't have the luxury to develop slowly? Does he make peace with the family issues from his past that hang over him? Does he explain to his beloved little sister what is about to happen? Does he meet with the young, wounded, wreck of a Marine who lives near his new girl and longs for the camaraderie that was ripped away from him, when her family asks? Can he afford to put those images of the worst case scenario in his head?

The film shows the changes that happen in a Marine that are made evident for the first time when he rejoins his old crew. He is now a little more mature, a little more controlled, a little more somber. He sees his old life in a new light, and must reevaluate his friendships, and himself.

You go on this journey with Mike, gradually coming to realize with him that there simply isn't enough time to resolve all he needs to resolve. The world he left to become a Marine has changed while he was gone, and will continue changing when he leaves again, and he will be left even further behind. Mike, and the audience, must decide if this is a good or bad thing. Maybe it is a little of both.

I found the final 1o minutes particularly moving. He says goodbye to his family, convinces his mother for the first time that he will be alright, then attempts to reconcile with his stepfather as he comes to realize and give voice to the idea that he might not come out of it ok after all.

As his leave comes to an end, he packs up and prepares to say goodbye to his family. The film captures that awkward, heavy, aching moment where one has to choose what to say, when you are essentially saying goodbye. But there are a thousand things left unfinished, undone, and unsaid. The film ends on that uncertainty as Mike finishes his journey home, and begins a journey of a whole other kind.

Really my only complaint involves the special features. Why is it that so many people find the military so complicated, particularly people who make movies? They refer, on many occasions, to scenes on the "Army base," or to "Army guys," or "Army uniform." Specifically, when talking about a shot in the commentary, one of TPTB exclaim, "That's not really an Army base, that's a school." Hello! Your main character is a MARINE! Why would a MARINE be living on, and subsequently leaving an ARMY post?! Does that really make sense in your head!? You refer to the character being stationed at Camp Pendleton. I've been there. Camp Pendleton makes it easy. They put United States Marine Corps on the sign for you, just in case you forget what branch of the service you are dealing with. And how hard is it to hire a military technical advisor that can correct this ignorance? I know you had one, you showed him in the behind the scenes feature! If you can't find the advisor, can't you ask the family whose house you shot the film in who has a son in the Marines? I'm pretty sure they will tell you their son deploys from a Marine Corps base. That is my pet peeve. Stupid things that are easily corrected if the filmmakers were willing to put a little bit of effort into learning about the subject they are making a movie about.

I guess I find it hard to believe there are people in the world that are so disconnected from the military that such a mistake wouldn't seem unfathomable to them.

But other than that, pretty good movie. And they keep the politics out of it, which is such a difficult thing for Hollywood to do.

28 October 2009


Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925:

...."war is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get."

24 October 2009

Soldiers Angels

Consider supporting Soldiers Angels. Deployed service personnel need all the support that they can get. I made this video and it reflects my experiences with the organization.

23 October 2009

Beirut Barracks Bombing

Today is the anniversary of the bombing of the Marine Corps Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

241 American service personnel were killed, 220 of which were Marines. The blasts led to the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping force from Lebanon, where they had been stationed following the Israeli 1982 Invasion of Lebanon.

A couple of years ago, I was at a campaign event where I met a Marine veteran. As the evening progressed, he began to open up about this time in the service and what his experiences were. Then he told me about his son. He told me about his love for motorcycles and how he followed his father's example and joined the Marine Corps as soon as he was able. The man told me about the deep pride he felt in his son, and about how he turned into such an honorable man. He told me about how his son's smile could light up a room. He told me about the many friends his son had all over the world. I asked if his son was still in the Marine Corps.

He stopped, and his eyes were overtaken by the kind of pain that could only mean one thing. This gruff man cleared his throat a couple of times and told me that his son was no longer with us. He had been killed in Beirut.

He told me the story about how his son's Marine buddies had dug through the rubble, trying to get him out. But it was futile, his son was already gone. He told me about the Marines who cared for his son's broken body until it was returned to him.

He told me that he still goes to see his son, every week, in the place where he is buried.

In honor and memory of this man, and this man's son, I remember the Marines killed in Beirut on this day, in 1983.

19 October 2009

The Good Soldiers

I read David Finkel's The Good Soldiers this weekend.

Finkel's coverage of Battalion 2-16 as they deployed and executed "the surge" strategy is remarkable. He writes with compassion as he captures the personalities of the 2-16. The Ranger Battalion lost 14 men KIA, with many more being wounded. Finkel uses the framework of presidential speeches to compare the macro and micro events in the time period he is with the soldiers of 2-16.

Finkel truly captures the brotherhood these soldiers have. He does not shy away from covering the mental aspect of warfare and how each of the soldiers responds to it differently. He covers PTSD and "survivor guilt" within the unit with honesty and without judgment. He manages to cover both the leadership and the enlisted men without a preference for either one.

Good book, but a tough read. These soldiers were in the thick of it, and have the stories to prove it.

18 October 2009

Getting My Feet Under Me

A week ago, Knapp had broken her long public silence with a statement on her website, saying that she had been "traveling mostly" during her time away from music. She wrote: "My experiences have been both wildly exotic and extraordinarily mundane. But mostly I will say that I have had a chance to get my feet under me. I took that time to discover more about myself and my own faith without the veil of expectations to a cause. Without writing a novel at this point, I'll just say that I'm starting to think that I might actually be a songwriter, musician, or artist of some kind … So, maybe I should do something about it?

One of my favorite music artists recently returned to the stage after a long time away. She spent several years pouring her heart and soul into this thing called the music industry, and then walked away. No one really knew where she went or why she disappeared. I was one who clung to the hope that one day, she might return.

With a statement on her website, she answered a few of the lingering questions. She put into words something that I have spent the last year doing. She describes it as "getting my feet under me." That is what I have been doing. I spent 4 years of high school and 4 years of college trying to do what everyone else expected of me. I worked harder than maybe I should have at that. I worked too many hours at a place that didn't appreciate it, and took what I would call challenging (others call insane) course load at the university. I succeeded at it too. Kicked academic butt.

I poured my soul into volunteer efforts that I felt were worthwhile. I gave up too much of myself until I hit empty. But I learned a lot about life.

I left college, degree with honors in hand, completely and totally spent. I had no idea who I was anymore, or what I wanted to do with myself. I worked a job that was everything I never want to be. I'm at a better place now, but not somewhere with the word career attached to it. I get tired of the questions, and the vaguely disappointed stares. I get tired of the accusation that I am not putting my "incredible potential" to good use.

It has taken me over a year to feel like I have any gas in the tank to give. I have spent that year trying to find myself. It has meant trips to southern California and campouts in the woods where I can just sit with nature and try to listen to myself for once. I am trying to rediscover the fire, the passion, and self confidence that used to define me and is still in there somewhere. I'm not sure when I lost it but I did.

It has meant deep conversations with close friends and mentors. It has meant questioning everything I have ever believed to be true. A lot of people have hung in there with me, but there are some voices I have learned I don't have to listen to anymore. It has meant discovering the voices that affirm me when my belief in myself wanes.

It has meant drudging up the buried, dark places, and holding them up to the light. There are many people who would claim that "our perfect Wendy" doesn't have any darkness. To you, I'd say maybe that says something about how well you know me. Can anyone who deals intimately with those who deal with the darkest of human darkness-war-ever come away unscathed? Can anyone who has seen the Church fail come away with their faith untarnished?

It has meant healing.

It is easy to put a smile on your face, make up some BS life plan, and say that you are fine. Truth is, I'm not quite done with my sabbatical yet. Given that I've never taken one in my life, I think it is justified. I'm at the point where I am "starting to think I might be a _____." I'm not there yet. But I'm getting there.

I will be at the "maybe I should start doing something about it" stage soon enough.

15 October 2009

Pfc. Steven, USMC

Congratulations to my cousin Steven on his completion of USMC Basic Combat Training. He has earned the title of Marine. Way to go Steven! We are proud of you!

"THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS... is over 225 years of romping, stomping, hell, death and destruction. The finest fighting machine the world has ever seen. We were born in a Bomb Crater, Our Mother was an M-16 & Our Father was the Devil. Each moment that I live is an additional threat upon your life. I am a rough looking, roving soldier of the sea. I am cocky, self-centered, overbearing, and do not know the meaning of fear, for I am fear itself. I am a green amphibious monster, made of blood and guts, who arose from the sea, feasting on anti-Americans throughout the globe. Whenever it may arise, and when my time comes, I will die a glorious death on the battlefield, giving my life for Mom, the Corps, and the American Flag. We stole the eagle from the Air Force, the anchor from the Navy, and the rope from the Army. On the 7th day, while God rested, we over-ran his perimeter and stole the globe, and we've been running the show ever since. We live like soldiers and talk like sailors and slap the Hell out of both of them. Marine by day, lover by night, drunkard by choice, MARINE BY GOD!!! OORAH!!!"

"Marines are about the most peculiar breed of human beings I have ever witnessed. They treat their service as if it were some kind of cult, plastering their emblem on almost everything they own, making themselves up to look like insane fanatics with haircuts ungentlemanly short, worshiping their Commandant almost as if he were a god, and making weird animal noises like a band of savages. They will fight like rabid dogs at the drop of a hat just for the sake of a little action and are the cockiest SOB's I have ever known. Most have the foulest mouths and drink well beyond a man's normal limits. But, their high spirits and sense of brotherhood set them apart and generally speaking the United States Marines I have come in contact with are the most professional soldiers and the finest men I have had the pleasure to meet." Anonymous Canadian Citizen 1969.

07 October 2009

Ford o' Kabul River

Ford o' Kabul River
Joseph Rudyard Kipling

Kabul town's by Kabul river --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
There I lef' my mate for ever,
Wet an' drippin' by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
There's the river up and brimmin', an' there's 'arf a squadron swimmin'
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

Kabul town's a blasted place --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
'Strewth I sha'n't forget 'is face
Wet an' drippin' by the ford!
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
Keep the crossing-stakes beside you, an' they will surely guide you
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

Kabul town is sun and dust --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
I'd ha' sooner drownded fust
'Stead of 'im beside the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
You can 'ear the 'orses threshin', you can 'ear the men a-splashin',
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

Kabul town was ours to take --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
I'd ha' left it for 'is sake --
'Im that left me by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
It's none so bloomin' dry there; ain't you never comin' nigh there,
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark?

Kabul town'll go to hell --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
'Fore I see him 'live an' well --
'Im the best beside the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
Gawd 'elp 'em if they blunder, for their boots'll pull 'em under,
By the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

Turn your 'orse from Kabul town --
Blow the bugle, draw the sword --
'Im an' 'arf my troop is down,
Down an' drownded by the ford.
Ford, ford, ford o' Kabul river,
Ford o' Kabul river in the dark!
There's the river low an' fallin', but it ain't no use o' callin'
'Cross the ford o' Kabul river in the dark.

01 October 2009

Historical Moments

I have been rereading Nathanial Fick's One Bullet Away this week.

His story is interesting due to its connections to HBO's documentary Generation Kill, as well as the Evan Wright book by the same name. It is interesting to hear his perspective on the portrayed events.

I specifically chose to reread it because of work I am doing with my alma mater's newly formed Office of Veteran's Affairs. Fick breaks his narrative into three parts: Peace, War, and Aftermath. It is the Aftermath that I was interested in rereading, as he relates his experience reentering academia after the Corps. As often happens though, another scene grabbed my attention.

On the last page of "Peace," Fick describes being in port, in Darwin, Australia on September 11, 2001. He and his fellow LTs learn about the attack in a bar, joining the crowd around a big-screen tv. This is the moment their world changed, and they knew it. He quotes one Lt: "Fellas, history just bent us over."

He then describes the scene, as thousands of Marines and Sailors flood the streets of Darwin, heading back to the docks and their ships. He describes an Australian couple who pull up to see if they need a ride, which he and his friends accept. They are dropped off at the pier, where the ships are lit by floodlights and armed sentries stood along the rails. The scene ends with the driver shaking their hands and remarking: "Guess you blokes are headed for war."

What an image. What an historical moment. What did the Australians think, watching all these young men and women streaming from the nightclubs and bars, suddenly sober and deadly serious? To be members of a foreign military, in a foreign port, when your nation is under attack, and it is your job to defend it... Fick does a captivating job of nailing this moment where their lives changed. No longer were they serving in peacetime. When they stepped back onto their ships, they knew they would lead their men in war. And the Australian couple who drove them to the pier...do they wonder if all the men who rode in their car made it home? Do they know how they feature in this memory?

24 September 2009

What's Worth Doing

Yet strip me bare and you will see
A worthy warrior I be;
Although no uniform I've worn,
By wounds of labour I am torn;
Leave them their ribbands and their stars
...Behold! I proudly prize my scars.
~Robert Service, "Decorations"

When you start a journey, you do not know where it will lead. You cannot foresee how it will change you or how you will grow from it. You simply put one foot in front of the other and go.

I have come to the realization that I am unique in a lot of ways. How many people can say they have stood with warriors through five years of war. But I am not so different, in a lot of ways, from Vera Brittain or the Red Cross Girls of Vietnam. They are my sisters in history.

I have had countless amazing and positive experiences. I believe passionately in providing support for our armed forces and continue to actively do so in many ways. I have a strong conviction that this is an absolutely necessary thing. I made a promise to a soldier. I will keep it. And so my work continues.

But nothing worthwhile is easy, without cost. It has taken me awhile to grasp this concept as well. Working with warriors- immersing yourself in the experiences, history, language, mindset, emotions-of war, is hard. I have been emotionally spent.

I have felt emotions that I didn't understand. How can you hear 200+ war stories without taking them into your soul. How can you remain unaffected by the tears, the loss, the death, the pain, the struggle, the intimacy, the insanity, the joy of it all. It took a long time for me to understand that it is ok for me to feel these things. I don't have to feel guilty, because this is my war too. These are my experiences. This is what it is like for me. And sometimes, I have bad days. I haven't physically been on the battlefield, but that doesn't take away the truth of my experience. The truth is, I have been emotionally deployed for awhile. It is ok to admit that these things are hard. It is ok to admit it hurts. It is ok to feel. It is ok to acknowledge that I have scars of my own. I do not have to be ashamed of them. They are not weakness. I can be proud of them. I can be proud of what I have done, too.

This is a work in progress. I am coming to grips with my own role in this war as I help others come to grips with theirs. I am only now able to talk in any depth about it comfortably. I owe many people a debt of gratitude for their role in that- in helping me understand that I need to heal as well- and then helping me do so. To those people, thank you. You know who you are.

I have spoken more about my experiences working with warriors this week then I ever have before. For the first time, I feel like I have little pink scars to show, instead of jagged, open emotional wounds. And I am proud of them.

It has been worth it. I have helped warriors. That makes it all worth it.

For that reason, I'll get up tomorrow and start again.

21 September 2009

The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers

Last week's book of the week was Delia Falconer's The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. I don't usually read a lot of military fiction, but this one fell more into the realm of historical fiction with its focus on the inner life of Captain Frederick Benteen — the man who saved Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn.

Benteen is prompted to reflect on his life, especially the days leading up to the battle, after he receives a letter from a young man.

What I found moving about The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is how human the characters are. As Benteen eulogizes his men, his friends, the reader is allowed a glimpse into the inner circle. Circumstances, technology, even tactics change over time, but men at war do not.

Benteen has to deal with the reality that he lived while so many of his friends did not. He thinks, " It is a myth that we prove ourselves in war; we test ourselves in silence."

How many men and women must test themselves today, in the silence?

Benteen writes to the young man:
"If you truly wish to understand the battle and my place in it, you must understand the dreams and jokes and stories that we bore within us. You must see how, as we shared them, they formed a kind of landscape."

How true. And what landscapes are being formed in the mountain and desert battlefields of today?

17 September 2009

SFC Jared Monti- Medal of Honor

SFC Jared Monti was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor today.

Thank you SFC. Jared Monti. You will not be forgotten.

Sgt. 1st Class Jared C. Monti - Medal of Honor Operation Enduring Freedom

Official Citation

Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti

United States Army

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty:

Staff Sergeant Jared C. Monti distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty while serving as a team leader with Headquarters and Headquarters troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Calvary Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, in connection with combat operations against an enemy in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan, on June 21st, 2006.

While Staff Sergeant Monti was leading a mission aimed at gathering intelligence and directing fire against the enemy, his 16-man patrol was attacked by as many as 50 enemy fighters. On the verge of being overrun, Staff Sergeant Monti quickly directed his men to set up a defensive position behind a rock formation. He then called for indirect fire support, accurately targeting the rounds upon the enemy who had closed to within 50 meters of his position. While still directing fire, Staff Sergeant Monti personally engaged the enemy with his rifle and a grenade, successfully disrupting an attempt to flank his patrol. Staff Sergeant Monti then realized that one on his soldier was lying wounding in the open ground between the advancing enemy and the patrol's position.

With complete disregard for his own safety, Staff Sergeant Monti twice attempted to move from behind the cover of the rocks into the face of relentless enemy fire to rescue his fallen comrade. Determined not to leave his soldier, Staff Sergeant Monti made a third attempt to cross open terrain through intense enemy fire. On this final attempt, he was mortally wounded, sacrificing his own life in an effort to save his fellow soldier.

Staff Sergeant Monti's selfless acts of heroism inspired his patrol to fight off the larger enemy force. Staff Sergeant Monti's immeasurable courage and uncommon valor are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit upon himself, Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 3rd Squadron, 71st Calvary Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, and the United States Army.

The Army put together a video of Jared's life. See it here.

11 September 2009

Never Forget

I pause today to remember the 2,819 people who died on 9/11.

I also pause to remember the heroism of the 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York City Police Department officers, and 37 Port Authority police officers who lost their lives that day. I remember those who lived, and continue to serve.

I will never forget September 11, 2001.

I was at school and was taking a test. The teachers made us finish, but after we were done they had the coverage playing on the tvs in the classrooms all day. When the Pentagon was hit, there was a boy in the room who started yelling that his uncle was in the building. He sat down, kind of stunned, and said, "We're at war. This is war. And we are going to be the ones who fight it." There was discussion about a draft, would they have to go from high school to the war?

I sat in the chemistry room as the towers fell, the teacher sobbing at her desk. It was the worst feeling, like the world no longer made sense. The adults could offer no comfort as they struggled to comprehend the day themselves.

In my memory, the day is a blur of tv coverage, snippets of conversations, and emotions- fear, sorrow, confusion. My grandfather picked me up from school that day and said we were going to his house, he wasn't dropping me off to be alone in mine. I resisted this. I wanted to go home. I remember feeling that if only I could get home, everything would be normal again, like it was when I left it. But he was adamant that I not be alone. So I went to the grandparent's house and we sat in front of the tv, watching the latest news together until my parent's got off work. My grandparent's couldn't fathom who would have such hatred in their hearts to do such a thing either. But they were clear that the nation was going to war.

Seeing the time 9:11 on a clock still gives me pause.

I had a history teacher, who on the one year anniversary, said he'd like to fast forward 10 years and see how this changed our (the students) lives.

It changed the way I look at the world. It led to an interest in politics and world affairs that I took to college. It put many of my friends on the path to military service. Many of them are in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Many more are veterans of one or both wars. I joined Soldiers Angels in Feb. of 2004 because if felt like a way to do something- to make a difference- and to help those doing the fighting.

One of the students in the school the day that teacher was pondering our future is no longer with us. He was killed fighting a war; the path was set in motion on 9/11.


God Bless the families of the fallen, those who live with injuries suffered that day, and those who struggle with the memory of the horrors they witnessed.

9/11/01- Eight years on.

08 September 2009

Peace Corps

But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace."

John F. Kennedy

I had a fantastic Labor Day weekend. Part of what made it great was that I was able to spend it with my family. I have a very large, very extended family which happens to be pretty close. We spent one day at the VFW, having a going away lunch for my cousin and his wife.

The thing that made this one unique is that they were joining the Peace Corps rather than the military. Usually if there is a Corps involved in my family, it is the Marine Corps. But we are proud of our Peace Corps volunteers, just as we are proud of our Marines.

Both organizations have noble missions and the cousins will be doing important work where they are going. They have chosen to step outside their comfort zones and give of themselves in a struggling part of the world. I am thankful for the advances in technology that allow us to keep in touch. I wish them all the best and pray that God keeps them safe. Good luck guys, have fun!

"Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem." ~Ronald Reagan

07 September 2009

Here, Bullet

I'm a fan of Brian Turner's Iraq War poetry. Check it out here.

This is one I think is particularly moving:

Here, Bullet
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

30 August 2009

"War Reporting for Cowards"

When the destruction was finally over, everyone in the Humvee was shouting. This, I thought, is what the will to live sounds like.'YEAH! YEAH! Oh, YEAH!' we all howled in union like the animals we were. 'Targets destroyed,'said the monotone on the radio.

Book of the week is War Reporting for Cowards by Chris Ayers. I don't usually enjoy Iraq war books by reporters. Most of them take themselves a little too seriously. Ayers, self-deprecating throughout, does not have this problem.

Ayers describes himself as an accidental war reporter. Writing for The Times of London, he makes his name as a business/financial reporter more familiar with stock prices than NBC gear. His first taste of war came when he had the misfortune of living in New York and covering Wall Street at the time of the September 11th attacks. He also was in the right place-if you will- to cover the anthrax attacks when they befell his office building. Hoping to move towards a life of more glamour and less terror, he makes a move to LA to cover the celebrity beat for The Times.

It is from the Hollywood scene this young reporter is picked to cover the war in Iraq. You follow Chris, a man who had never even been camping, to the mud and dust of the Iraqi desert. He covers the artillerymen of the US Marines at the start of the invasion. With the sound of the guns in the background, he attempts to explain what life is like for the men on the ground, and what life is like for him as well.

What impresses me about Ayres is his humor and his honesty. He does not flinch away from his own failings or exaggerate his experiences. He conveys a respect for the Marines he rode with and the complexity of the lives as warriors. He acknowledges that they were his protectors and that his presence often put them at risk.

This is a basic fact that other reporters seem to forget.

26 August 2009

Don't Panic

I had a gut check moment today.

I put on the playlist with Coldplay, The Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, and Rise Against. Believe it or not, that mix works.

As the best friend marches to the beat of the pre-deployment drums, it is easy to let that particular reality slip from mind. I think while the Marines get ready to go back to war, the people that love them do as well. Slowly, bit by bit, you build up the walls again that you will need when he is off in the scary places.

I hear lots of the bits and pieces of the deployment preparations.

I don't think I am ever prepared to hear they are updating their wills. As much at we pretend deployment is a chance at world travel, give the deployments names from bad teen movies, and make jokes about Kipling and opium, we can't get away from the truth.

Wills = possibility of death. That is what I hide from as I stare at the pictures on the bookcase. Cousins joining Cory in Marine blues. All grim, all young, all impossible to image life without. Yet all three have created their wills.

There is something about that I'm not sure I have words to describe. It's just a feeling.

But I'll be ready, I'll be strong, when the time comes to send ya off. We all will. We know how to do it by now! Some things just cause you to pause.

Love you boys. Biggest hugs.
When you got love and we got family
Keep 'em close and don't forget
To hold them right there in your heart
When you got love and family
(I'll remember you today)
Dropkick Murphys

21 August 2009

"The Terrorists Ate My Homework"

Book of the Week:
As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard
Author: Christian Davenport

Davenport is one of the few reporters to take full advantage of the embed process. Not only does he follow the unit at war, he follows them home. While he covers the wartime experiences, his true interest is the return home. This is made clear from the first page. He quotes Tim O'Brien's research into the Greek origins of the word nostalgia: "The pain of returning home."

The book's strengths lie in the characters he has chosen to follow. All six individuals are at different points in their lives. From a Vietnam vet headed to Iraq and his wife, to a sorority girl, a VMI grad, a young LT, and a twenty-something looking for direction, each character demonstrates the difficulties and special challenges faced by the Guard.

Because of its focus on citizen soldiers who are also college students, or returning to complete their educations, As You Were is an important book for college professors and administrators to read. College students who balance the academic and military worlds face challenges that need to be understood by those interacting with them.

The title of this post comes from a chapter focused on Miranda. She is in a sorority, a good student, and a Black Hawk door gunner. When she is called up, she has to convince her professors to allow her to complete independent studies, while at war, so that she can graduate on time. Some refuse, insisting she must be physically in the class to get credit. Even those who agree to the independent studies probably do not grasp what she is undertaking. She describes trying to complete a paper for a class while under mortar attack. These are facts that academia needs to consider for their student/soldiers.

Additionally, all of the characters who return to a campus after deployment speak of their difficulty fitting back into college life which mirrors the general experience of Guardsmen trying to step back into their civilian lives. They speak of feeling as if they are the sole representitives of a war that their peers don't seem to remember exists.

One character tries to discuss her GI benefits with the university administration, and they do not know who their mandated-by-law GI benefit counselor is. These types of stories are a failure of the universities to understand the needs of veterans. These stories underscore the need for the list of "military friendly" schools.

Davenport's book is an informative look at what we as a nation ask of the members of our National Guard and what is often "the pain of returning home."

17 August 2009

Coming Together

Yesterday was the two year anniversary of Cpl. Will Powell's death in Iraq. Amidst the grief, loss, and shock I learned something important.

Communities have a remarkable capacity for uniting in the face of a crises.

The community responded when Will's family asked people to come out and show their support. People lined the streets from the airport to the funeral home when his body was returned. They lined the streets around the church the funeral was held at. They lined the streets as the funeral procession headed to the burial site. Firefighters, construction workers, EMTs, and police officers lined the intersection and saluted the hearse as it went by. Old men from the VFW stood with flags. One old man looked into each car as we slowly drove by and nodded at the occupants inside, his eyes shining. It was as if he was saying, "I know."

It was a powerfully moving sight.

I went to the airport when Will's body was returned. I went to the funeral home and I went to the funeral. People whose only connection was knowing Will were able to draw comfort from each other.

I took friends with me when I went to these places. Some knew Will, a couple only went to provide moral support for the rest of us. One of those people was so impressed, so moved by the way the community came together, he said somebody should document it. He didn't know Will, so he had a level of detachment the rest of us didn't have. Respectfully and discreetly, he took a few pictures. I looked at them for the first time just a few days ago. They confirm what I remember and speak to the goodness of people when they come together.

These are the pictures he took.

16 August 2009

2 Years

Lest I continue my complacent way,
Help me to remember that somewhere,
Somehow out there
A man died for me today.
As long as there be war,
I then must Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?
~prayer carried by Eleanor Roosevelt

It has now been two years since Will was killed in the war. I was at work when I found out. Remember Cpl. Willard M. Powell.

Here are some links to news articles that will tell you more about Will.

Tri-State Soldier Killed in Iraq

Female insurgent among 13 killed in battle on Baghdad outskirts

Reitz Graduate Killed in Iraq

Unit Losses Now at 19

Soldier's Body Arrives Back Home

Family Asks City to Honor Soldier

Stryker Brigade News: Cpl. Willard M. Powell

Final Respects Paid

Ft. Lewis pays respects to 2 killed Strykers

Honor the Fallen: Cpl. Willard M. Powell

15 August 2009

Meet Cpl. Willard M. Powell

August 15, 20007 was Cpl. Willard M. Powell's last day on this earth.

He joined the Army in Feb. of 2006. He was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), Fort Lewis, Wash. and died Aug. 16 in Balad, Iraq, of wounds sustained when the enemy attacked using small-arms fire during combat operations in Taramiyah, Iraq. He was posthumously awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and Good Conduct Medal.

This was a man who grew into a hero, but I knew him best as Will, a super-competitive kid who often annoyed the crap out of me in 3rd-4th grade. I was a super-competitive kid too. We had many battles before and after school in daycare. Recesses were also fair game. We played on competing soccer teams in the school league. I took great pleasure in beating him. At anything.
Whatever it was-basketball, soccer, checkers, the card game War with Uno cards, redlight-greenlight, or heads up seven up- we seemed to face off. He didn't want me on his teams much, as I was a just a girl, and a small one at that. That just made me angry and all the more determined to beat the living daylights out of him.

One day in childcare, we were playing basketball. I was on the opposing team, the only girl. He gave me crap the whole game, wouldn't shut up. I ended up with the ball as the teacher was calling everyone in. It was the last shot and the score was tied. I got a shot away- while being knocked down by one the boys- and ended up with two bloody knees and a bloody elbow. But I made the basket. My team won. My mom wasn't happy with another pair of torn pants, but my team won.
As I was picking the gravel out of my knee and contemplating a trip to the nurse for some bandaids, Will offered me a hand up and said, "you can play." That day, we went from being rivals to friends. We recognized in each other a certain fight, a stubborn determination. After that, we teamed up together a couple of times. We never lost.

Will transfered schools at some point, maybe a year later. It seemed like one day he was there and the next he was gone. He was going through some family stuff, and that probably had something to do with it. The playground wasn't quite as frustrating without him, or as fun.

I was walking down the hallway at my high school, I believe at the beginning of the year, turned a corner and almost walked into him. This was a surprise, not many kids from our small Christian school went to this high school, ever. It took us a second to recognize each other and from where. We caught up, laughed, and then rushed off to make it to class before the bell rang.

We saw each other in the halls often after that. I had a class or two with him, and we were friendly. Didn't really run around with the same people though, after classes. But he always had a smile for me in the hall. We joked around about teachers and assignments. Sometimes even about those games on the playground when I kicked his butt (or he kicked mine). He never failed to notice if I looked sad or upset. He'd crack a grin and tell me to cheer up.

Will is one of the last people I saw before I left the building the final time on the last day of school as a senior. I was in the business hallway, and he was too. He was at a locker, his or someone elses, just standing around. He flashed a giant last-day-of-school smile and said "Good luck, have a good summer. I'll see ya around."

We went our separate ways after that. I regret not keeping in better touch. I guess I thought we would fall back into each others lives at some point, as childhood friends seem to do. That image- of Will holding onto a locker at the end of the hall, rocking jeans and a white shirt, huge grin plastered on his face- is the memory I hold onto.

Cpl. Will Powell is a hero who gave his life looking out for other people. It will be two years tomorrow. His story should be told. He deserves to be remembered.

RIP Will.

14 August 2009

Remembering the Fallen

The war has also placed me in a new relation to Homer's ambivalent epic, for I have awakened, after all, to find myself a woman like Penelope, who sits at home waiting for news of of soldiers who have gone to war. I can tell myself I am not a mother-not a listener and watcher left behind- I can weave that tapestry every morning, but at night it all unravels to reveal that the fates have conspired to cast me in the the most ancient woman's role of all. ~Elizabeth Samet, Soldier's Heart

When one works closely with the military in a time of war, be at in a volunteer capacity or some other role, there are certain realities one must face. Chief among those is the fact that you are building relationships, often close relationships, with people who have a higher than average risk of being killed. Nothing you do, or say, or hope, or hide behind can change that.

If you live in a community like mine, you will also find your family members, friends, classmates, church friends, and acquaintances heading to the same wars while you head off to college. The people you start a class with may not be there towards the end of a semester- called instead to face a real life crucible in the sands of the ancient epics we read about. They may return in a year, or disappear into life as an afterthought to the rest of us as we slog on towards graduation.

Sometimes the soldier you volunteer to support is a friend from home, or might as well be. Sometimes it is your best friend.

Hiding in the shadows is reality--these people you knew as playmates, rivals, or just "that guy" might just disappear forever.

While working with Soldiers Angels, I have had several soldiers and Marines I knew in various ways who didn't make it back home. Each of these is difficult. These losses are also hard to explain to most people. If I express grief or sorrow, they often retort: "But you didn't really know them, right?" Technically, this is true. But it still hurts.

My hometown has lost 6 of its sons in the war. If we count the surrounding counties, that number grows larger. If we count the whole state, well, the number swells to over 100.

In one of my last undergraduate classes, the prof asked the question: "How many of you know someone who as been killed in the war?" There were 40ish people in the class. Roughly two-thirds of the hands went up. That number may be skewed by the demographics of the student population, the type of class it was, presence of ROTC and Guard units in the area, and a specific time frame-the high school friends we graduated with who went into the military finished their training and were hitting the ground when Iraq operations were hot- but that is what it was.

My hand goes up for a childhood friend and classmate. This is the loss that is most raw for me. I pray to God that this does not change.

The anniversary of his death is coming up soon. As is nears, the sense of sadness grows. These things always make me stop and reflect.

I think of all things I have done since it happened. These are things he won't ever get to do. Like the soldiers in Laurence Binyon's poem from the First World War, he will not grow old. He will always be the same in the pictures. His face will not gain the subtle changes brought on by maturity that I am just beginning to recognize in my own.

I plan on writing more about him in the coming days but suffice it to say:

He is missed.

10 August 2009

Deployment Best Wishes

A few hours ago, a classmate of mine deployed to Afghanistan with the National Guard.

Task Force Cyclone, 38th Infantry Division, will be gone for at least 9 months, but with pre and post-deployment commitments, it will probably be closer to 12.

When the Guard deploys, they take many quality members of our community with them. I really think the Guard has one of the toughest jobs of the war, stepping in and out of the role of warrior while their civilian lives continue.

We will be praying for you every day.

God Speed everyone.

*Photos belong to the US Army

09 August 2009

What If(s)...

My cousin is finishing his Basic Recruit Training at Parris Island, SC.

He is so close to earning the title of Marine. We are immensely proud of him, but with each step closer to a duty station, he also a step closer to deployment and all the mixed feelings that brings.

A few days ago, sitting around the living room with my Aunt and Uncle, cousins, and grandparents, conversation turned to Stephen. We passed around pictures from a recent family wedding, and he is not in them. There is a blank space where he should be. He is just gone to BCT, but it was jarring.

Haltingly, hesitantly, the topic turned to what Stephen will face in the next few years. It is almost certain he will go to one war or the other. Maybe even a new one altogether. Chad is in the Navy, but with Stephen, danger seems much closer.

The day was a reminder that when an individual joins the armed forces, entire families do as well. All across the country, pictures are being taken at family reunions and dinners and birthday parties that a man or woman in uniform won't be in. When those pictures are printed and reflected in, lurking in the background is the present makeup could become permanent.

I wrote this based on something my uncle said.

What If:
What if tomorrow, on the TV news,
two Marines are reported killed-
blown up or shot in your province.

What if the dark government sedan
pulls into your dad's drive
with the regrets of a greatful nation.

What if you return, as promised,
but in a flag covered shipping container
instead of the red truck.

What if the rifles volley
and the bagpipes play 'Amazing Grace'
while the trumpet announces God is nigh.

What if your plans are disrupted,
put on hold by a broken mind or body.
What if, What if, What if.

03 August 2009

A Hero Retires

This past week, a hero retired after 34 years in the Army.

I got to know BD through Soldiers Angels in my first year volunteering. He was one of "my" first soldiers. Years later, he is family: beloved "Uncle" BD. He has been there for me during triumphs and crises alike. I have been there for him through 4 deployments to bad guy land.

BD would argue with me on this, but in my eyes, he is a true American hero. This isn't a word I throw around lightly. I could tell you the tale of his exploits, but that story is his to tell. The highlights are impressive enough. He has seen the worst of war and humanity during two conflicts, but went back every time he was called. When he wasn't helping warriors, he was helping many in his community. His compassionate heart led him to the toughest job in war: caring for the wounded and fallen. He has seen things no one should see. Sometimes these ghosts come back to visit him at night, but his faith keeps him strong. He carries the burden of having defended this nation against all enemies, but does so willingly, with a true sense of calling.
The Army will miss him.

BD is simply the most noble, brave, and humble man I know.

Capt. Dick Winters, of the famed Easy Company, 506th PIR, remarked after D-Day, (as recounted in the Band of Brothers series and the book by Stephen Ambrose,): "That night, I thanked God for seeing me through that day of days and prayed I would make it through D plus 1. I also promised that if some way I could get home again, I would find a nice piece of land and spend the rest of my life in peace."

BD made it through the Day of Days many times. He has found his way home again. Now I pray that he finds that piece of land and that sense of peace in which to live out the rest of his life.

Love you BD. You are the greatest. Congrats on the retirement.

Chocolate Chip Cookies this time?

23 July 2009

Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq

The chosen book of this week has been Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq by Mike Tucker and Charles Faddis.

I have always enjoyed Mike Tucker's books, especially Hell is Over and Among Warriors in Iraq.
This one has an interesting premise, covering the actions of the intelligence community before and during the Iraq War. I found Operation Hotel California to be engaging and well written. Its format basically takes shapes during the author's conversations with clandestine operatives who have returned stateside.

The content of a book like this is inherently unverifiable. I can't confirm through research much of what is said, specifically the harsh line the author takes towards a particular military commander and elements of CIA headquarters. Additionally, the events of any memoir are clouded through the lens of personal experience, which makes me take accounts with a grain of salt.

Part clandestine war memoir, part commentary on the military/ intelligence strategies put in place at the outset of the Iraq War, Tucker leaves you with with plenty to think about. For me, three things stuck out:

1. Finishing the Job
Tucker and Faddis recount moment after moment where, due to bureaucracy, apathy, service/departmental/agency rivalry, or simple incompetence, known terrorists are allowed to escape. They claim that the opportunity to eliminate significant numbers of Ansar al-Islam and Al-Qaeda in Iraq was passed up time and time again, to the dismay of clandestine teams on the ground who spent the time gathering intelligence at great risk to themselves.

They recount another episode at the beginning of the war in 2003, where Kurdish peshmerga with the aid of clandestine teams, were set to destroy a rail line that was vital to the transportation network of the Iraqi Army. Headquarters decided that the Iraqis had to be warned of the impending attack before it took place, putting the covert operatives in great danger.

Personally, one thing I don't understand, is fighting a war while tying the hands of your war fighters. Either you are at war, and the powers that be have the stomach to do what needs to be done, or not. Fighting half-halfheartedly just seems to get a lot of people killed unnecessarily.

Tucker and Faddis are of the opinion: "Dead terrorists build not cells. Dead terrorists open no offshore accounts. And dead terrorists do not kill Americans and our allies."

2. The Kurds
Mike Tucker has written about the Kurds before, and I have great respect for the warrior spirit. I had not realized before this book what a significant role Kurdish peshmerga played in military operations and clandestine operations in Northern Iraq. Reading this account of their actions in Northern Iraq in 2002-2003, that respect only deepens.

Despite the fact that the U.S. has made many promises to the Kurds in the past and failed to live up to them, Tucker and Faddis report that they fought bravely beside us to take down Saddam. They aided the clandestine teams by providing supplies, weapons, ammunition, intelligence, manpower, and networking with important players in Northern Iraq.

Tucker and Faddis also report that many players inside the Beltway took Kurdish support for granted, and continued to make promises to them that they did not keep. They also did not take seriously Kurdish concerns about what the consequences would be for them to support the Americans. The Kurdish generals wanted reassurance that the Americans had a plan to deal with Saddam's surface-to-surface missiles in range of heavily populated Kurdish cities. After all, the Kurds had more than hypothetical experience with Saddam's brutality and use of chemical weapons. According to Tucker and Faddis, they got little more than lipservice, and it was up to the Kurds themselves, with the clandestine operatives and limited number of special operators, to come up with a plan of protection.

Despite this, from the early preparations for war in 2002, to the March-May 2003 period where combat operations officially began, Tucker and Faddis state:
"The Kurds were brilliant and did not fail us."

3. "The Lost Surrender of Mosul"
The final point that stuck with me was the discussion of the possible, ultimately failed, surrender of the Iraqi Army essentially as the war began.

Tucker and Faddis claim that "getting the 5th Corps Iraqi Army to surrender was one of our core objectives, since March 2002, and necessary to the surrender of Saddam's Northern Front--150,000 Iraqi Army soldiers." They claim such a surrender would allow Iraqi Army elements not willing to fight for Saddam in Southern Iraq to fall in line, reassured that the Americans would finish the job this time. This was essential to the whole Iraq war strategy, as it would allow the smaller fighting force Rumsfeld insisted on using to be effective. The Iraqi Army, police force, and other administrative elements hypothetically would be under American control and could be used to keep law and order intact.

Elements of the Kurdish peshmerga, and clandestine operatives operating in northern Iraq had no contact with US military units in the area until the 173rd Airborne dropped in. They had not been notified of the clandestine activity in the area or received any of the intelligence the clandestine teams had spent so much time gathering. After initially working together with these teams in the area, Tucker and Faddis claim that a Lieutenant Colonel with 10 Group Special Forces cut off all communication between the clandestine teams and the military on the ground in the area. They could only communicate with command elements. Faddis claims this was due to a select few individuals with in the military structure and in Washington that "did not want the CIA to get credit for the surrender of the main force of the Iraqi Army."

After at least 14 months of work, the Kurds and counterterrorist teams set up a meeting between the "Iraqi Army 5th Corps Commander, the mayor of Mosul, key tribal sheiks, and former senior Baathists to offer the keys to the city to the United States and the Coalition....verbal surrender was already agreed on." The Lieutenant Colonel with 10th Group Special Forces was to come and accept the surrender because back in Washinton, SecDef Rumsfeld had decided the CIA could not accept the surrender of any Iraqi Army elements.

Tucker and Faddis claim that on April 11, 2003, the LtCol went into this meeting with a belligerent attitude and with little to no understanding of Iraqi/Arab/Near East culture. He then set forth a series of bureaucratic conditions to accept the surrender and issued demands to the mayor and commanders, without consulting those who had been working with these individuals. Tucker and Faddis claim that no consideration was made for cultural norms and this caused to the meeting to break down, and ultimately, the surrender of the city of Mosul and over 50,000 Iraqis and their accompanying military apparatus to be lost.

Faddis states: "They went from happy to surrender to us, to very unhappy to be in our presence, at the drop of a hat." Tucker and Faddis claim that this type of action, along with the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by Paul Bremer, as well as a general lack of cultural knowledge, contributed to the roots of the insurgency in Iraq.

For Tucker and Faddis, the lost surrender of Mosul was key to the failed Iraq strategy and the development of the insurgency. It symbolized how ego, lack of cultural knowledge, petty rivalry, and a power structure back stateside which was divorced from reality on the ground got a lot of good people killed. They claim because of this event, the U.S. lost years and billions of dollars, as well as a lot of good men.

If this happened as they claim, it really makes you stop and consider "what if." How could this one event have changed the whole course of the war? How many men killed in Mosul and northern Iraq could still be alive? Once again, it forces you to consider how the actions of those in control effect those that have to execute those orders. People who do not have their lives on the line, who are not on the ground, so often get lost petty rivalry and personal concerns. These things often have catastrophic consequences, whether it be the intelligence communications breakdown that contributed to 9/11 or the loss of a potential surrender of significant numbers of enemy forces in a shooting war.

Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War Inside Iraq is an engaging look at what was going on in the shadows in the early days of the Iraq war. Had me wincing at several points with the "what ifs" and "no ways." Worth the read.

22 July 2009

"How Could I Know

Hat Tip to Mudville Gazette:
How Could I Know?

From Robert Stokely:

Eight years ago I took a ride out I-20 from Atlanta headed to Augusta GA and along the way stopped to pick up Mike as he had first been to our house to visit while home on leave and then back to his mom's for a few days. Mike was given a four day pass to come home from AIT at Ft. Gordon where he had been for a few months after his graduation from high school. Mike was a member of the Georgia Army National Guard, having joined in March of 2000 as junior in high school on the split entry program, doing his basic training at Ft. Benning that summer and then finishing his senior year of high school.

I had never been to Ft. Gordon although I had ridden by it a number of times. I wanted to take Mike back because it would be an unknown time before he might get another pass and the several hours it would take us to drive there would be valuable time together. It was strange to go through the gates and drop him off at his barracks - although I have to admit they weren't the type barracks you might imagine compared to basic training. They were more like apartments. Mike greeted some fellow AIT buddies as we got there. He showed me around and then it was time for formation and I had to leave. I remember the hug goodbye, the "I love you dad" and straining to see him as long as I could in my rear view mirror. Funny how the ride home was a lot longer than the ride there.

Today (Tuesday) I made the ride out I-20 again and while I didn't go to Ft. Gordon I was headed to Augusta to take a Soldier's Angels supplied computer to a wounded soldier from the local National Guard Unit / Newnan GA where I live. SPC Charles Benson was wounded in Afghanistan in a fierce firefight taking a bullet to the lower body and suffering serious hand wounds from an RPG that hit his battle buddy CPL Jonathan Morita in the hand and wounding him seriously. Both survived and their wounds are non-life threatening with SPC Benson going to Eisenhower Medical at Ft. Gordon and recently being transferred to more long term care and rehabilitation at the VA Hospital in nearby Augusta (GA). CPL Morita is at Walter Reed and I hope to go see him soon, maybe even next week, and stop and check in on the seriously injured SFC Mark Allen who was shot in the head in the same firefight. SFC Allen is at Bethesda.

My visit today with SPC Benson at the VA in Augusta GA was a good one. He looked well for a young man who came closer to death than any parent would want their child to come. More striking is how good his spirits were. Laid back and take it as it comes is how I would describe it. Honestly though, he looked younger than even the young man he is and has served a year deployment in Iraq four years ago and came home to go to the University of Alabama where he was but 14 credit hours away from graduating when he was called up. I thought to myself how such a mild mannered young looking man could be such a rugged soldier fighting for America, and a medic on top of that. I guess it is true, looks can be deceiving. We talked and laughed in a way that few might have understood or dared go "there". He described how they had been on foot patrol all night about 12 miles from their base. I kidded him that they didn't even get one of the junker HumVees like they had in Iraq and he said no. Guess they didn't have it so bad in Iraq after all I said. He laughed. He kidded he might just not wait to get a pass and I said "so what could they do to you if you left - send you to Afghanistan..." And we talked about the battle and how he got hit and he was so down to earth matter of fact "I took a bullet and then the RPG came in and got me and Morita...." like it was no big deal. He has the bullet, thanks to a fellow soldier "digging it out" for him.

Then we talked about a mutual friend - one I didn't know four years ago and one he came to know two weeks ago. MaryAnn Phillips, Soldier's Angels Germany. Need I say more. But, yes I will. Just let it suffice to say that SPC Charles Benson and his family love MaryAnn because she was there at Landstuhl and checked on him constantly and saw him off on the flight to Andrews AFB. MaryAnn made a real difference in his life, such a difference in two days that it will last a lifetime, just as she has done for me and so many others. Thanks MaryAnn for looking after our soldiers when they come into Landstuhl and providing their families a measure of comfort to hear your compassionate voice right by their wounded loved one's bedside.

As I drove home today I thought how I was making this trip to begin with, how I have met and come to have so many new friends these last four years and how they give so much to our soldiers like SPC Charles Benson. It traces back to Mike, for if Mike had not been killed in Iraq, I would not know the many wonderful people like MaryAnn Phillps, Patti Patton-Bader, Mr. and Mrs. G, the Blackfive bloggers, David Marron at Thunderrun, like how many Soldier's Angels across the world, and so many others. I wouldn't have been riding to Augusta today and I wouldn't have been taking the computer sent by Soldier's Angels for CPL Benson. And, on my way back, I wouldn't have been stopping by to check on Mike's grave.... I wish Mike had not been killed by a roadside bomb, but was a choice I didn't get to make and I will just be thankful for the many good things that have come out of his death - blessings I call Romans 8:28 blessings.

As I stood at Mike's grave late this afternoon, I asked myself this question - "How could I have ever known that day eight years ago..."


Robert Stokely
proud dad SGT Mike Stokely
KIA 16 AUG 05 near Yusufiyah Iraq
p.s. - thanks Mrs. G for going to see CPL Benson last week
and Co-chair Bravo 2 / 121 INF 48th BCT GAARNG Family Readiness Group

20 July 2009

Captured Soldier

This weekend the Pentagon ID'd the soldier who was captured in Afghanistan. I am praying for his family and his safe return. I am also praying for those undertaking the difficult tasks involved in looking for him.

Pfc. Bowe R. Bergdahl, 23, was serving with an Alaska-based infantry regiment earlier this month when he vanished, just five months after arriving in Afghanistan. He was serving at a base near the border with Pakistan in an area known to be a Taliban stronghold.


16 July 2009

Things I cannot get out of my head

When my grandpa finished talkingWe went walking, he and I
I was thinking of the future and how scared I was to die
Now my best friend’s overseas in the desert where it’s dry
Fighting for our country and I need a reason why
I Remember When he was a younger man
Now he’s a soliderFighting in a foreign land
Now we’re older
God bring him home again

I had a friend send me this song recently and I cannot get it out of my head.

War and music are so intimately tied together and this song really hits home for me. It is haunting. The lyrics capture the uncertainty, doubt, and worry that go hand in hand with conflict. It is told in the form of a story by a WWII vet, who has shared it with his grandson, who now sees his own grandson go off to fight a war.

With the best friend headed off to scary places soon, it really hit me in the gut. Hearing it created this moment where the world just stopped. It was one of those moments where you are fully conscious of the fact that it is a moment and take stock of the details.

This happened once before the first deployment. He had just received the firm date and it was earlier than expected. He had just had a short leave, and we thought he would get another one before he left. All I could think about was that I had not given him a proper hug before he left. I was sitting in a lecture hall listening to former Congressman Lee Hamilton speak. He talked about his philosophy on foreign policy, how important he thought diplomacy was, and how politicians always have to be cognizant that when diplomacy fails, it will be boys from Indiana doing the fighting and doing the dying. I felt sucker punched, because it was the moment where reality set in for me. The best friend was going to fight. in a war.

With the final verse, this song did that for me again.

I know we have some time yet, but I'm praying for you already.


13 July 2009

Haim Watzman's "Company C"

I just finished Haim Watzman's book Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel. Watzman is a journalist, translator, and editor who also spends a couple of decades in a combat reserve unit. The book spans the two decades he spent in the reserves, as well as his relationship with his family, friends, and brothers in arms. He wrestles with religious, moral, and ideological questions regarding the occupation of the territories. He thoughtfully recounts his time recalled to active duty and provides a good background on the political situation in Israel in each period. Watzman's book is a good primer on the precarious position Israel often finds itself in. He discusses political actions, peace accords, operations, and elections from the perspective of a fighting man who must react to or implement their outcome.

I have found myself increasingly interested in the Israeli military, not only for its general proficiency, but also because it has been dealing with terrorism a lot longer than the United States has. I think there are a lot of lessons the US can learn from the Israelis.

Watzman fleshes out and wrestles with the moral and ideological dilemmas that counter-terror actions and even warfare generally evoke. He leans left politically and is committed to peace, but is also a pragmatist who believes one must deal with the realities of the day.

This reminded me of conversations I have had with a peace activist recently. I often find myself frustrated when friends of mine want to debate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and it devolves into a split along party lines. Both the peace activist and the politically minded friends who paint the military and all military action with a broad brush refuse to deal with the realities of the day.

Watzman writes about a discussion he has with a young woman at a peace demonstration at the end of the book and how his views have evolved since his twenties. He says:
Facing such dilemmas is not morally execrable. What is wrong is to refuse to face up to the choices your life in your country requires. It's wrong to decide to keep yourself pure while letting others get sullied in the muck of moral uncertainty. A man who refuses to enter a morally ambiguous situation out of fear that he might make the wrong decision is not pure. He is cowardly.

In the Epilogue, he reflects on his time as a soldier, now that his oldest daughter has begun her stint in the army and his son is soon to follow.
As a father must be, I will be frightened. I'll fear for their physical safety, and I'll fear for their moral compass, because I know that when you're a soldier it's all too easy for that compass to go awry. I'll also be proud of them, because I know they will face challenges and problems and dilemmas and overcome them, and be better people for having done so.
My cousin is at Parris Island earning the title of Marine. I think of his mom, stepmom, and dad who struggle with these complex emotions. It is like this for all military families I think- the worry and pride intermingling. Watzman closes with some words of advice for his children that I think my aunt and uncle would pass on:
Be loyal to your friends, determined but cognizant of your actions. Do your duty toward God, if for no other reason than it gives you the right to argue with Him and with those who claim to know exactly what He wants. Consider the moral implications of everything you do, for God expects that of us. But don't let your moral concerns paralyze you, for a person who makes no choice cannot make the right choice.
Watzman's book is not only a soldier's memoirs; it is an intellectual exercise. As he wrestles with his faith, his duty, his political views, and his actions, he makes you wrestle with your own as well.