Sunday, December 30, 2007

First Impressions

Machine gun fire crackled in the distance as I sat down to type this. Fitting, in that “for real, dude?” kind of way. Yes, for real. Dude. Machine guns. And not the ones that fire blanks.

Here are a few additional, often unrelated, thoughts, after my first day spent in the combat zone of Iraq. (Apologies, some serious sleep deprivation is keeping me from organizing these into a more literary-pleasing form of thematic structure.)

-- I’m not sure what this means in the larger socio-political sense, so I’ll just state the facts: Baghdad International Airport, the place that served as the epical climax of Third Infantry Division’s Thunder Run in 2003, and the place where SFC Smith earned a Medal of Honor in that same year, now has Subway and Pizza Hut. Take that however you see fit.

-- Being able to fall asleep in bizarre places and in bizarre positions is an absolute must for an individual to succeed in the military. I can now check C-17s and Chinook helicopters off my list of “Military Transports to Fall Asleep In.” (Big ups to the Chinook pilot who turned on the seat warmers halfway through our flight – that was absolutely clutch. Huddling for warmth in between SSG Bulldog and SPC Haitian Sensation didn’t have quite the same effect.)

-- From the air, and under a blanket of midnight darkness masking the various destructions of war, the countryside of Iraq offered an odd sense of tranquility. With the scattered lights of various townships all dotting a high desert landscape, I couldn’t help but think of rural Nevada. The steady crooning of the chopper’s blades quickly snapped me back to reality, though. 80-pounds worth of Army equipment on my back ensured I stayed there.

-- According to The Army Times, the average soldier gains ten pounds when deployed to Iraq. After visiting the dining facility here, I can see why. Ever seen the movie Hook? Picture that dinner table scene with the Lost Boys, just without the “having to imagine the food into being” part.

-- Most of my NCOs who have been here before are confused, bordering on disgusted, with the amount of development on our FOB (Forward Operating Base.) I’m inclined to agree with their point – it’s difficult enough maintaining combat focus, without the distractions of Little America clouding our minds. Bastogne, this isn’t. On the other hand, I didn’t make the rules, and if the military industrial complex sees fit to grant me access to free internet, an Olympic-sized pool, and ever-flowing fountains of Pepsi Cola, who am I to shun it? I may be ready for misery, but I don’t feel compelled to force it upon myself. I’m certain it will arrive in due time.

-- Near-beer – it’s just not the same.

-- SFC Big Country and his fellow platoon sergeants have been dumpster-diving daily, collecting all kinds of treasures for our vehicles that previous units discarded in their haste to get back home. Words cannot describe the oddity of seeing large, grizzled NCOs emerge from a dumpster, giddy as a child on Christmas morning, proudly holding up an antenna base. Scavengers, the lot of ‘em.

-- New Man Law: While slightly homoerotic, huddling together with 50 other scouts for body warmth in the predawn hours like penguins in an Antarctic storm is not gay. It’s also fascinatingly Darwinian, as a constant struggle evolves for a position in the middle of the appropriately titled “Dodo Bubble.”

-- Good news, Momma G – the nearest bunker is literally ten feet away from me and SFC Big Country’s front door. That means when the mortar rounds come in the middle of the night, I can run to the bunker in my underwear, boots, and helmet, run back to my room in just a few seconds to grab my pants out of the hamper, and then scamper back to the bunker with my decency intact.

-- My platoon and I cannot get out to our combat outpost quickly enough. Even with the perks of the nigh-2008 Iraq War, the FOB is still bursting with Brass, 2-hour meetings that last 1-hour-and-45-minutes too long, mind-numbing regulations, and Fobbits. (See updated military terminology.) I’m not saying there’s not a place in the Army for those things, I’m just saying that that place isn’t where the Gravediggers want to be.

Dead Guy Quote (4)

"Many will call me an adventurer – and that I am, only one of a different sort. One of those who risks his skin to prove his platitudes." – Che Guevera

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happiness is Diggity

I have a retro tee shirt, with a smiling Jamaican DJ, powder blue, with three simple words etched onto the front: Happiness is Diggity. Don’t ask me how I got it, I don’t remember. I probably found it at a Goodwill on the cheap, like most of the keepers in my wardrobe.

Downtown Waikiki one night last year, I was strolling around with my friends, admiring the antics of the street vendors, embracing the environment of endless possibilities in liquid form. Normal Friday activity for the single junior officers in the Cavalry, you know. Anyways, this old Hawaiian woman came up to me out of nowhere. She was all bones and cigarette smoke, waving a finger in my face, and jabbed at my chest with her other hand.

“You,” she says. “You! That is the new American Dream, isn’t it?” She was pointing at my retro tee shirt with the smiling Jamaican DJ.

I swear, I didn’t blink an eye before I responded. “Naw, lady. It’s the oldest one there is. The only one, in fact.” And then I kept walking, leaving her dumbstruck with her bones and her cigarette smoke and her small jar she used to pander for change.

I can be slightly profound, apparently, when the right mixture of freedom, Guinness, and slapdash blend together into a Smoothie of Insight. LT Demolition ran back and gave the lady five dollars, just in case she wasn’t as impressed by my verbal gift as we had been.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dear John

The first of my guys received a Dear John letter the other day. (Well, to be completely accurate, it was a Myspace message. Whatever. Same concept, new century.) While I'm not surprised it happened, I am a bit perturbed that it happened in the first freakin' month of our deployment. Who knows how many more Dear Johns await the Gravediggers. Here's hoping that my illustrious and beautiful girlfriend, City Girl, at least has the decency to Facebook my Dear John letter - a Facebook message is WAY more classy than a Myspace message. (I kid, I kid ... not about Facebook being more classy, though.)

Anyways, if you're unfamiliar with the contents of a Dear John letter, or are interested in penning one yourself, I've gone ahead and drawn up a composite sketch. All you have to do is fill in the specifics. You are more than welcome. Remember, I'm here to serve you. And yes, I'm aware that my writing can occasionally slip into the anachronistic and mysoginistic. Sometimes such is fair, sometimes not. This definitely falls into the former category, given the situation that sparked this post.

Dear (insert rank and name here):

Hi. I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve gotten all your letters … it’s just hard, you know? With you in (insert foreign nation here) fighting in (insert war from American history here), it’s not like things back home have been easy. Or simple. I don’t really know how to say this, so I’m just going to tell you like it is: I’ve met someone else. His name is Jody. I swear to God, I wasn’t looking for anything like this to happen – it just did and now we’re in love.

I know you have to hate me. I promised that this would never happen to us, but it did. Life’s funny like that, isn’t it? While you’re half a world away, getting shot at for a living by (insert enemy here), protecting freedom, justice, and the American way of life, I’m discovering my inner concubine, getting penetrated by Jody’s inferior geothermal thunderstick on a nightly basis. But he’s a far better cuddler than you ever were, he flatters me every morning, and he communicates with me! Imagine that, you insensitive prick.

What else needs to be said? You’re probably going to go crazy now, so you should recommend to your C.O. to take away your weapon for a couple of days. Suck it up, tough guy – remember, like you always told your friends, you can’t make a ho a housewife.

From your former dream forsaking you to a lifetime of what ifs,

(Insert every horribly negative term for a female here)

P.S. I’m keeping the dog.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dead Guy Quote (3)

"If I'm free, it's because I'm always running." -- Jimi Hendrix

Monday, December 17, 2007


Tobacco is the lifeblood of the Cavalry scout. It doesn't matter what form it comes in, my guys will smoke, chew, dip, and inhale their way into a tobacco-laced escape. Hell, I'm pretty sure that they would freebase it if they needed to. Never underestimate the creative ingenuity of a 19-Delta.

Don't ask why, it's just a part of the camo culture. It definitely helps them stay awake and alert longer, and then there are always those urban legends about scouts who smoke on their two-mile run to propel them to a faster time, or the scouts who keep the same monster dip in their mouths over the course of a 72-hour dismounted OP (observation post) mission.

SFC Big Country has managed to get me hooked on black coffee - the less taboo vice of the military - and swears I'll be dipping and smoking like an addict three months into our deployment. He figures I'll have to, to salvage some sanity over the long hours. It makes sense, as I am prone to addictions (see sugared cereals, Guinness, the DeaconSports Quad), but I'm going to make a concerted effort to resist. The buzz from smoking doesn't do much for me, and the two times I've dipped before (given to me by my NCOs after late night missions, as in their expert opinions, I needed it to settle me down before I started tweaking), my head span for five minutes before I crashed out on whatever flat surface I could find. Not exactly my definition of a good time. I didn't vomit either time, though - something I take great pride in.

Anyhow, I'm sure the PC Fascists won't like this particular piece. Sometime between Woodstock and Y2K, smoking became a faux pas worthy of societal scorn. Smokers are like lepers now, complete with isolated colonies in public buildings. I'm not trying to celebrate the scout's never-ending quest for more and more tobacco, I'm just pointing out that it is a staple of our culture - just like reverence for the fallen, male chauvanism, and fart jokes. We all have our vices, and trust me, there are plenty more vices that soldiers have and deserve. Not all are as humorous, or as printable, as this one.

How not to initiate an assault

I don't remember much from my freshman year in Army ROTC. I remember dreading Thursday afternoons because of ROTC lab, and the overwhelming sense of freedom that arrived upon our release some three hours later. The rugged pride I now have for my vocation had yet to develop; it was a nuisance then, a club I didn't want to be a part of, but had to participate in to placate my parents. ($160,000 price tags for a college education tend to have that effect.)

With all of that said however, one of my favorite IrishSlim (LT G's collegiate persona) stories transpired that year. We were lying on the ground of the Water Tower field, learning how to assault through an objective - combat arms 101. I wasn't really paying attention - I remember being more concerned with my nightly pledge duties for my fraternity. I think I was sober driving that night, and I was not interested in either driving or staying sober. I was also trying to hide the fact that I was wearing my dress uniform belt again instead of my field uniform belt. CPT Ryan was a stickler for uniforms, and fully aware that "I couldn't find it in the cluster of chaos that is my closet" would not qualify as a suitable excuse, I kept my movements to a minimum.

Anyways, the aforementioned stickler snapped me out of my daydreaming.

"So, Cadet IrishSlim, what would you do to initiate this assault?" The nasal crispness of military decorum rattled my mind back into reality.

I wasn't trying to be funny. Honest to Allah, it seemed like the right answer at the time. Looking back on it though, I can kind of understand how I earned the reputation of a smartass.

At least I yelled it. There was no question or doubt in my voice.


(For the record, the correct answer would have been "by opening fire with the primary weapons system." Ehh. I was kind of close. I guess it was just my inner Cav scout asserting himself.)

Friday, December 14, 2007

11 things worse than being in Kuwait

Kuwait sucks. Envision the oppressive heat of Death Valley, but with much finer sand, and no mountains in the distance promising that something else, anything else, exists beyond the horizon. Then add layers upon layers of mandated micromanagement and bureaucratic inanity. Now add a litany of kiddie-glove pogue-tastic regulations and the infinite reach of the American military industrial machine, and The Suck forms, both as a theory and as an actual place. Hunter S. Thompson isn't streaking across the Mojave in an open convertible here, smoking up on the Madness and the Fear, searching for a new freedom. The desert in Kuwait offers only endless waves of tinted-window mystery, comortably tucked away in luxury SUVs. Sometimes they drive on paved roads, most of the time not, but their horns are always honking. (Quick aside: who needs a freakin' SUV in Kuwait? Haven't they heard of carbon emissions here? And no, they aren't hybrids. I checked.)

However, in the name of that troublesome trait burgeoning in the human spirit known as optimism - sometimes referred to as delusion - some of my guys and I figured there are at least 11 things worse than our current station. This was the end product. I mean, is there anything more American than a countdown list? Or the number 11? Throw in a dash of Gen Y's rampant abuse of hyperbole, and awesomeness is bound to ensue. These are all in addition to not getting shot at yet, of course. That's the obvious one.

11 things worse than being in Kuwait

11) Being Michael Vick right now. 15 months is less than 23 months, and feel free to insert dropping the soap in the shower joke here.

10) Having to embrace this part of The Suck in July, rather than in the far less demanding winter.

9) Being a Russian soldier at Stalingrad in World War II. It turns out things like "training," "guns," and "a plan" can be beneficial in battle.

8) Having to watch The Sopranos finale again. Worst. Ending. Ever.

7) Being trapped in a bear pit, ala Ron Burgundy in Anchorman. "I immediately regret this decision ... these bears are massive!"

6) Being stuck in that steel sardine can of a plane that brought us here in a 32-hour spastic joyride, whose flight pattern resembled Hellen Keller's coloring book. Again.

5) Being one of the star attractions at the La Brea Tar Pits.

4) Being the guy who introduced Lindsay Lohan to cocaine. Seriously, when I find out who you are, I will hunt you down personally and play your skull like a bongo drum with Guinness bottles. LiLo got me through the epical ice-storms of 2004, and she will be avenged for her rapid decrease in hotness.

3) Four words, six syllables: Married to Ike Turner. (What? Too soon?)

2) Being associated with the Warren G. Harding administration, in any form or fashion.

1) Being a Cleveland sports fan, eternally doomed to a black hole of what ifs and almosts. Oh wait. Damn it.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dead Guy Quote (2)

"We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves any good or evil; yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took from us our victory, and remade it in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace. When we are their age no doubt we shall serve our children so."
– T.E. Lawrence, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Gravediggers

(Note: Due to operational security – a buzzword I’ll use frequently over the coming months – I’ve substituted nicknames for the real names of my soldiers. In the modern American military, the environment of austere professionalism is occasionally tested, but never crossed. Either way, this isn’t some Vietnam spoof, and we don’t actually go by these nicknames. We are almost always “(Insert Rank/Insert last name),” except when we’re in the field and by ourselves. So accept the illustrious acronym OPSEC and accept the pseudonyms. You never know who’s reading, after all. Except for Uncle Sam. You can always count on him, and not just because he works for the NSA now.)

When you visualize the pack of collective undertaking and resolute efficiency that is The Gravediggers platoon, I want you to picture them the way I remember them when I stumbled into our office as a brand new platoon leader. Wide-eyed and self-conscious, I decided to allow them to do all the talking.

There’s the platoon sergeant, SFC Big Country, a corn-fed giant brimming with competence, military bearing, and a no-nonsense brand of Midwestern keenness. The senior scout, SSG Bulldog, struts around, intimidating the junior soldiers into any form of work they can find. Only a deep, Southern rumble when laughing betrays his otherwise flawless manifestation of a Hollywood drill sergeant. My other section sergeant, SSG Boondock, issues instructions with the deadpan earnestness of a Joe Sixpack everyman. The team-leading buck sergeants, they that make the Army go, bark with the power they’ve tasted while still hungering for more; SGT Chico moves in silent effectiveness, while SGT D-Wizzle jolts in frustrated amusement. Our soldiers worship these men, and do so with good reason – on a daily basis, my NCOs teach them how to walk that subtle line between victory and defeat, how to shed that post-boyhood buzz in the name of something far less fun but more profound, and how to listen to the instincts that lead to survival rather than the other instincts that lead nowhere but a tomb in Arlington.

And then there are the Joes, who watch me in questioning regard. PFC Twanger, unimpressed with my college-boy credentials, explains the nuances of the gunner’s cupola in the Stryker. The other gunners, SPC Flashback and SPC Spot, hang on to every word of technical expertise being passed down from the NCOs, while darting quick glances my way. One of the drivers, PFC Big Ern, tries in vain to silence PFC Twanger from talking to the new lieutenant, while SPC Prime, a former trucker, goes into painfully-specific detail about the machinery in a Stryker’s engine. The resident joker, PVT Cold-Nuts, waltzes in ten minutes late with a litany of excuses, and gets verbally power-bombed into submission by SFC Big Country. I quickly realize my life perspective will forever be altered by working day-to-day with these people. Not long after I decided such would be for the better.

Nearly every single one of these men are from Rural America, be it the South or the Midwest - America’s heart and backbone, respectively. While I don’t necessarily convey prototypical West Coast cool, most of the Joes find my Reno heritage interesting, nonetheless. The NCOs have served in the Army long enough to stop caring about the whims of the American society they protect so effectively; the Joes are just removed enough to not fully recognize how the same society that reared them has naturally detached itself from the war we’re all destined to fight. In a volunteer military, we fight for the nation, not with it.

To borrow an analogy from one of our sister unit’s emblems, we were and are wolfhounds bred to keep the wolves away from the masters we’ve sworn to protect. But that doesn’t matter to them, just as I would come to realize it didn’t really matter to me, either. We find honor and sacrifice through one another, and that is enough. More than enough, actually. Even if I was just a new butterbar, still sparkling with collegiate polish and absolute lack of military pragmatism, every single one of my men were still professional enough to call me “Sir” and mean it. They had the muscle, the brains, the passion, the efficiency, the pure American fury. All they needed was a LT smart enough to leave them alone and let them do their thing after my whole planning gig, but dumb enough not to become a glory-hound when it became clear I happened to lead the greatest scout platoon this side of Jeb Stuart’s raiding cavaliers.

I’ve fit the bill, thus far.

Most of those guys are still with the Gravediggers. Some have left and have been replaced by new faces; such is the cyclical nature of any military unit. But mentioned or not, all of them are the men we tend to celebrate in the abstract. Although I desire to have them honored specifically and individually, they wouldn’t want it that way. That’s not what the inheritors of Sparta seek. So I’ll do it for them. I have no such pretensions against shameless self-and-group promotion, and stoicism has never been my style.

Sleep soundly tonight, America. Because we probably won’t – and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dead Guy Quote (1)

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it.” – Thucydides


Due to a series of technical transformations and bureaucratic futility, it has been a solid three years since my unit has deployed. Given the current state of the U.S. Army, that’s more than just an extended break between deployments. Myself, I’ve been in Hawaii for about a year-and-a-half now … I don’t know, all I can say is that it’s disturbing watching the most powerful fighting force in the history of the world slowly bleed out while you drink Mai Tai’s at Duke’s at Waikiki Beach and shamelessly flirt with morally casual female tourists, just waiting for your turn to join the fight.

I don’t mean to convey that my soldiers and I are eager - just anxious. Quelling a guerilla war half-a-world away isn’t exactly a black cloud one enjoys hanging over them, no matter how tropical a paradise your holding pattern may be. Hell, I feel like I’ve spent the last 15 months stuck in the Hawaiian delusions of December 6th in From Here to Eternity.

Might have something to do with the fact that the Schofield barracks haven’t been renovated since they filmed the movie there some fifty years ago. Or that my house is literally five minutes from where that famous beach scene took place. Or that I’ve drank all over the island with an eclectic collection of honorable and profound mother fuckers, just the type the world always seem to relish destroying in war. Whichever way, I keep looking to the skies over Kolekole Pass, but the Japanese planes never come.

I guess when you’re bringing the fight to the enemy, the twisted romance in it all changes somewhat.