"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 May 2010

Price of Freedom



Wonka Bar.

Chocolate Chip Cookies.


When men are old, and their friends die,

They are not so sad,

Because their love is running slow,

And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;

And they are happy with many memories,

And only a little while to be alone.

But we are young, and our friends are dead

Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;

So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead

--But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.

~Margaret Postgate

28 May 2010

Memorial Day 2010

I have been working with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines deployed overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan for over 6 years. That is a really long time. There are times where I feel each and every day. One of those days where I feel it most acutely is Memorial Day.

Memorial Day has always been associated with a picnic that brings the entire extended family network together to celebrate the beginning of summer. There is joy, laughter, swimming, horseshoes, and baseball in the field. It is a small town and it is well known that this spot is ours on this day, yet occasionally we still have to fight off those who would swipe the tables...even then, we always end up sharing our food with them.

From the early days of my adulthood, Memorial Day has also become something else. It has reverted to its historical origins and become a day that brings with it the sharp twist of mourning. It is when I feel each and every day of the six years in the ache of my heart, the set of my jaw, and the bags under my eyes.

It is a fact that when nations go to war men and women will die. They will most often be young. Their deaths will cause a ripple effect that rips across the nation, tearing the hearts of brothers in arms, parents, spouses, siblings, children, grandparents, best friends, relatives, school mates, teachers, caregivers, pediatricians, neighbors, former employers, the guy that used to deliver the pizzas on Friday night, and any number of people that cross paths in the course of living.

These deaths also rip into those who care deeply for their nation and their nation's armed forces, the people that join military support organizations. People like me, who build relationships with these men and women, knowing there is a chance that this new friend may not make it back. Knowing that the more people you befriend in a war, the greater the chances are.

I have not escaped this phenomenon. When I first started writing soldiers I was a bit naive about it. It would be cool to write soldiers and they are doing this brave and noble thing. I knew people could get hurt, even killed in a war, but it didn't seem real. I didn't really think about it happening. That naivety shattered with that first name I recognized on a casualty list. Then I recognized another, and another, and another. As Lucas Holt wrote: "nothing threatens the romance of war more effectively than war itself."

I have my list of people to visit, names to engrave, when they get around to building memorials for our war. It has been six years and it seems that each year the list grows longer.

They are "My Guys." The funerals I have represented at. They are the people behind the sacred stories I have been entrusted with. They are the Fallen. They are my fallen.

It is not my place to judge what their deaths mean in terms of big-picture war or policy strategy. I don't really care how history judges the conflict in which they fought. They lived lives of honor and service. Many died for something they truly believed in. That is enough for me. Each one has taught me something in life or through their death about living. I have had the chance to meet some of their families, something I am humbled and honored by. It is a reminder that behind each name, each number, is a unique individual.

Each and every individual deserves to be remembered on this Memorial Day weekend. I encourage you to visit a site like Honor the Fallen to do just that. But if you can't or won't do that then borrow a portion of my list and remember them.

They were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Each name means something specific to me.

One is a childhood friend. One was the first military funeral I ever attended. One was a name on the letter I never got send. Each one I am connected to in some way.

Even if I didn't know them in life, today I miss them.

I will carry each of them, and many others, in my heart forever.

It is our sacred duty to remember. We must not forget.

May you have Peace and Rest, my friends. I remember you.

Pfc. Gunnar Becker
Sgt. Jessica Housby
Pvt. Jonathon Pfender
Pfc. James Brown
Pfc. Chris Dixon
Spc. Joseph Ford
Pfc. Aaron Gautier
Pfc. Jonathan Hamm
Cpl. Will Powell
Lt. Miroslav "Steve" Zilberman

We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.
~Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

26 May 2010

103 Days

We are now 4 months, about 103 Days into this deployment. It always amazes me how much time really goes by and how many things change in that time. I know I try to keep Bestie updated on the happenings on this end, as does the Bestie-in-Law on hers, and he to us and his dad, but there is no way to cover everything. Our worlds keep turning. So many significant changes have already occurred since he left.

He misses his wife deeply, with an intensity that at times has surprised him. He says deployment is significantly different with a spouse waiting at home. He wishes he could keep her from worrying and wishes he were there to take care of the life little challenges, like fixing the truck and sorting out problems with the phone company. So much of deployment is distance and fear of the changes distance can lead to.

Overall, Bestie has had a better couple of weeks and I am happy to report that communications have been more consistently restored.

Bestie and Co. are recovering from the large fire that broke out at the main base last week. It is very fortunate that no one was killed or severely injured in the attack, though supplies were lost. After the recent attacks in Bagram, I am thankful that he is safe. Like many people, I want to create an image of the bigger bases as being invincible, but this is another reminder that nowhere at war is completely safe.

Bestie is trying to remain focused on the future to remind himself that this deployment is only temporary. He has asked for music theory workbooks to be sent to him so he can begin preparing for life after the Marines. He is working with the Bestie-in-Law on plans for their church wedding and his mid tour R &R.

He has been a great encouragement to me in the past week after some difficulties. There is nothing like knowing your best friend has your back. It is even more comforting when that Bestie happens to be well armed at the time he is offering assistance. Just adds a little extra something.

As in Iraq, music is his outlet and his way of filtering and processing things. This past week, he sent the lyrics of a Camera Can't Lie song. He had a chance to see them open a Straylight Run show before deploying.

Since he sent it, I haven't been able to turn it off. It really applies to all of us who are counting the days. For the extended military family, there are always days to count, be it towards leaving, towards coming home, towards getting out, getting better, or something else.

I am counting the days until my best friend comes home. Counting the days until I call him up whenever I want to talk about the important things in my life. Counting the days until he is reunited with his wife and they can begin the next chapter of their lives together. I am counting the days until my cousin joins him in Afghanistan. I am counting the days until Memorial Day, when I will head to Will's grave to remember and count the days since he was KIA. I am counting the days since Pfc. Gunnar Becker was killed-- a young man who taught me the meaning of sacrifice.

I am counting the days since I sent my first letter to a soldier at war, since I got my first response, since I made my first friend who was fighting a war.

One hundred and three days have passed since the Afghan Adventure began. Two hundred sixty two days, give or take, remain, God-willing, until it is over.

Days and Days- Camera Can't Lie

I've been missing you for days and days
I don't know how much this heart can take
A kinda feeling you can't explain
Like I'm lost along the way
Like I'm lost along the way
Come take me home
And unchain my soul
You could break my heart
If it meant that you would never be alone
Come take me home

I've been thinking about this game we play
Its a silly thing with much at stake
I don't know why we choose this pain
Without you I'm lost along the way
Without you I'm lost along the way

So, come take me home
Unchain my soul
And you can break my heart
If it meant that you would never be alone
just take me home, home
Just take me home, home
Just take me home, home

Come take me home
Unchain my soul
And you could break my heart
if it meant that you would never be alone
Come take me home
I've been missing you for days and days
I don't know how much this heart can take.

24 May 2010

John Reyes Rides for the Wounded

Yesterday I had the chance to meet John Reyes.

John Reyes is a cyclist who is riding from San Antonio to Boston and back to raise money for Fisher House, an organization that provides the families of wounded soldiers with a place to stay while their loved one recovers.

I met with some other Soldier's Angels and we had a chance to welcome him to town and talk to him over dinner. One of the neat things about being a Soldier's Angel is the chance to participate in experiences like this one. I get the chance to meet amazing people who I never would cross paths with otherwise. It is a privilege to experience the closeness that comes when a diverse group of people come together, united in one purpose. In this case, we all are working to aid the men and women who serve our country. There is a trust, an openness, and a general willingness to lend a hand amongst those in the extended military support networks. It is truly an honor to work hand in hand with groups like the Patriot Guard Riders, Rolling Thunder, and individuals with a good heart and a persevering spirit who seek to make a difference in the lives of those who serve.

When asked why he would ride all those miles on a bike, John answered-for the freedom. The reason he has chosen to raise money for Fisher House while on the ride is for that very reason. He understands and acknowledges that there are brave men and women who stand the line for us and allow us the freedoms we have in this country. If that sense of freedom moves you to ride your bike across the country, all the better. It must be an incredible way to meet people. It certainly will be a journey for him to cherish forever as he learns more about himself and the people that make up the United States of America.

Go here to donate to John's cause:

Good luck, John. May you have safe travels, no hard rain, and absolutely no run ins with stolen cars or crazy sheriffs.

18 May 2010

Love in a Torn Land and Paradise General

Of the books I read last week, two stuck out for me. One was Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter's Escape from Iraqi Vengeance by Jean Sasson. It tells the story of the life of Joanna, who grew up in Baghdad during the rise of Saddam. As she grew, so did the tensions in her country. She lived through the Iran/Iraq War and saw many of her relatives forever changed by conflict and torture. She narrowly dodged run-ins with Saddam's security forces, made harder as she embraced her Kurdish identity. As she grew into a woman, she fell in love with a Peshmerga, a Kurdish fighter. Their love took time to develop, but grew deep in the face of hardship as she gave up her relatively comfortable life in Baghdad to live as a fighter in the mountains. She survives chemical attacks and bombings, as well as the treacherous and rugged mountain living, before seeking asylum in England.

Her story is a beautiful one, despite her hardships. It is a tale of someone who is committed to her people and her belief that they should be free from the oppression of Saddam's government. It is also a rich love story that challenges perceptions of relationships in the Middle East. One is left with the impression that Joanna is a complete woman, who knows herself and what she wants in life. She accepts the life she chose, even when it is unpleasant. Hers is a story that should be told and remembered.

That was the book I was going to write about but another grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq by Dr. Dave Hnida is a window into the world of military medicine. I completed the book in two days and couldn't put it down. As a reservist who signed up in his late 40s when he heard the military needed doctors, he stumbles a bit with the soldier aspect of his soldier/doctor role. The book mostly covers his second deployment, where he is at a combat support hospital with a team of other doctors and medical personnel. As he shares his war stories, he is part Hawkeye from MASH and part Baghdad ER. It is a look into the lives of the doctors who must treat the horrific injuries that war creates. These experiences bond the men and women who work on our soldiers in a way few can understand. Do we realize what we ask of these doctors and medical personnel? Their dreams are filled with the moans and the wounds of soldiers young enough to be their children. They, along with medics and corpsmen in their twenties fight death all day, every day, but will inevitably lose some. They carry those losses with them forever. Dr. Hnida makes it clear that behind the professionalism, confidence, and calm veneer is an endless second guessing and self criticism after each case, with doctors wondering if they made the right calls.

Each chapter tells a distinct story from his deployment, yet he weaves them together into a smooth, cohesive whole. I particularly enjoyed the chapters "Dante's Infirmary," " Rebels with a Cause," "The Wounded Wore Aftershave," and "A Picture Worth a Thousand Tears."

Favorite passages:
"What about my penance? I felt a duty to those I had failed in the past--the kids of Columbine, my daughter Katie, my own family, and the memory of my father (68)."

"But when done...Jesus. You were forced to watch a mental rerun of your every move and decision, and your movie snack wasn't popcorn, instead an overflowing tub of adrenaline-soaked fear (164)."

"I knew people back home saw and heard about the deaths and the wounds, but a screen or in writing it was all sanitized and sterile. Just numbers...They didn't see, feel, or smell what a broken body is like up close and personal. And they didn't have to make the decisions we did. Save the arm? Save the leg? Save the soldier? (165)."

"We were wounded by what we did and what we saw. But no more than those we cared for. (165)."

"We were leaving the war, but the war couldn't care less. All we could do was feel guilty about leaving the twenty-year olds behind in a war that would not have a Hollywood ending. No war ever does (276)."

As the distance between us and the base continued to grow, we realized we would never really leave. We'd revisit this place often in the years to come, traveling back in sweat-soaked dreams on our darkest nights. I now knew what my father, what every other man and woman who has seen the horrors of war, knew: you may leave the war, but it never leaves you (276)."

06 May 2010

Love in Condition Yellow by Sopia Raday

I stumbled across Sopia Raday's Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage this week and could not put it down.

As the subtitle suggests, it is an unlikely love story. A liberal, Berkeley educated peacenick falls in love with a police officer/West Point graduate/Army Reserve officer, despite her intentions to keep the relationship casual. It is the story of a marriage that bridges the cultural-political divide in this country of left and right.

Above all, it is a beautiful account of learning and growing into a relationship. Of learning to listen and learning to make oneself heard. It is an example of how our differences can ultimately make us stronger when we make the effort to embrace each other as we are.

The writing is spectacular and are phrases that are simply lyrical. It is filled with little life lessons that I know I can take and apply to my own life. There is a depth to Raday's writing that speaks of someone who had done the hard work of discovering her true self.

Love in Condition Yellow is a story of love,war, conflict struggle, success, acceptance, and ultimately joy. It is a book I think I will be rereading in the future.

Favorite passages:
"Perhaps we need to confront our fears in order to find our strength. Perhaps we need the darkness to help us see the stars (196)."

"Maybe true love is not having the same beliefs or even having the same goals, but supporting your mate in striving for his or her best self (196)."

"...completeness is not bestowed upon you by a perfect partner. It does not come from your lover figuring you out and taking perfect care of you. It comes from facing adversity, and through it, discovering your own inner strength and wisdom (198)."

From Tibetan Buddhist Lama Surya Das:
"To loosen my own attachment to opinions, I remind myself that if I really know everything there was to know--past, present, and future--about any particular person, subject or situation, my opinions and feelings about them would be quite different. Since I don't know that much, I have gradually learned to not be so judgmental and invested in my own views, although I certainly do have them."

03 May 2010

E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed

I am trying to read all the books by the men who are depicted in the HBO series The Pacific. The latest one I finished was With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge.

It was another powerful account of the war in the Pacific. Again, it makes we wonder why we did not learn these stories in school. I am fairly well versed in both WWI and WWII, but I did not realize I had such a gap in understanding the horrific nature of the island campaigns.

Sledge writes honestly and gives the reader a clear picture of his world with the Marines in combat.
I found that he was particularly insightful in the way he explained the mental aspect of war. He wrote, "fear is not just of being killed or wounded, it is the fear of something even worse- fear of not being able to take it and exhibiting the symptoms of cowardice to an audience of men who have trusted you (xiv)."

Many times he mentions the mental strain on men who were good combat soldiers, they simply had reached capacity for the amount of trauma they could absorb. They had had all that they could take. His stories make it clear that we should treat these men with an abundance of compassion. We cannot truly understand what they went through and should give them the benefit of the doubt in matters related to post-traumatic stress.

Sledge's account of his war is a remarkable one. One cannot read it and not be reminded yet again that the heroes of the Pacific were heroes, but they were also just men.

I have had the great privilege of meeting a Marine, who served in numerous island campaigns with the 1st Marine Division. Sledge's book gave me an even deeper appreciation for the man and his efforts. This humble, gentle, remarkable man was a part of something historic, for both its brutality and its ultimate success. But like Sledge and Leckie, after the war he built a life for himself. Despite a full, successful life, the war remains an ever-present shadow.

Like Leckie, Sledge closes by attempting to figure out what his war means to him. He concludes, "War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades incredible bravery and their devotion to each other...But it also taught us loyalty to each other--and love (315)."

If there is one thing I have learned about Marines from my family, my best friend, and the incredible men of the Marine veterans group I worked with, it is that Marines know how to love, each other and those they embrace.

Marines are a special breed.

Sledge shows us that the Marines of Peleliu and Okinawa were more special than we could have imagined.