"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

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?