It doesn't matter where on the political spectrum any of us are, one thing we can all agree on is that things aren't quite right, and haven't been for some time. While I have no all-encompassing solution to our ills (and I'm skeptical of any who claims they do), my military and post-military experiences have given me a unique perspective that I'd like to share with you.
I've served in two branches of service (active duty), USMC and Army, and deployed with both. My first deployment was to Fallujah for the second assault on the city with 31st MEU (SOC). The bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. My second was with the Army to Kirkuk with 212th MP Co., which was also a hotbed of activity during our time there (08-10). This is not me "tooting my horn", this is me validating my perspective to you. I am not proud.
First of all- for those of you who may be considering enlisting in the military- a word of caution. I, like so many others, joined because I had no better prospects. I didn't come from money, I had no access to college funding, and the best future I could fathom in front of me was to move up the ladder at KFC. Fast food is a terrible job, which serves terrible "food" to people who are often terrible to the employees. And it never once paid enough for me to survive on. Out of any foreseeable options, I enlisted with the Marine Corps into the MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) of Aviation Electronics.
A few days after arriving to Boot Camp, everything was chaos. That's how it's supposed to be. The point is to disorient one to the point that they no longer feel as though they can make sound choices. This forces one to no longer rely on themselves, but the leadership placed above them. While this makes sense in some ways, it is also exploited. I was told my High School diploma wasn't valid (which it was), and was forced to sign an "open contract" enlistment while being threatened with fines and jail time by a Master Sergeant, just a couple days into my training. In the information bubble I was surrounded with, I had no idea or indicator that I had any choice in the matter. Weeks later, I was informed that I was assigned to be an MP (Military Policeman). I was livid, but under contract. Nothing I could do.
So, would-be enlistees, be aware that you may not get the job you sign up for, and putting up a stink can land you in jail, a hefty fine, or a less-than-honorable discharge that harms your career opportunities for life. Once you sign the dotted line, you are PROPERTY, not a person. You are no longer under the Constitution, but the "UCMJ" (Uniform Code of Military Justice). They are very different animals. The first is democratic, the latter is not. As a member of the US military, you do not have the same rights as a civilian, you have less, and it will be exploited by your superiors if it suits their wishes. This is referred to as "Needs of the Marine Corps" or "Needs of the Army". Many veterans know these phrases well.
I completed my MOS training and was issued orders to Okinawa, Japan. Within a few weeks, I was issued new orders to report to 31st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), which was also stationed there. Frankly, I was relieved; I never liked the idea of being a "cop", and the 31st was a field unit. No police work and lots of travel. Compared the prospect of writing tickets and policing people around all day, that sounded pretty good. I was a very willing participant. After a few months (maybe a year) of bouncing around, meeting and working with lots of people and cultures I would never have otherwise experienced (all training and humanitarian in nature,which was amazing), we eventually got orders to Iraq.
Those of you who know combat veterans are also likely aware of how little we're willing talk about it. This is a complex dance, and it's for good reason. Many of have yet to fully process what we've been through; We're told we should be proud, and should hold our heads up for the rest of our lives.
The rest of our lives.... That's one hell of a double edged sword. Everything I tell you now, I saw with my own eyes.
We arrived at Camp Fallujah under the cover of night, and the convoy through Iraq went smoothly with no attacks. As we pulled into camp, there was a Marine at the gate waving a sign that read "Welcome to Hell". The next day, we found out quick that being "on base" meant very little in the way of security; Mortar rounds and RPG's were dropping in multiple times a day. As Military Police, our job was escorting convoys through the region, resupply missions to the infantry units, raiding weapons' cache's in the city, escorting EOD to potential IED sites, and transporting POW's. However, our unit's first injury, as a matter of fact, was a "Fobbit", who's job was administrative. No one was safe, not even civilians- such is the nature of War.
Prior to the assault, fliers were dropped in the city, telling civilians to leave- that is, unless one was a military-aged male (meaning 15-55). Women and children could leave (some chose to stay- what other home do they have?), but the vast majority of males were not allowed to leave. Within a few days, our assault on the city began.
We staged near the city prior to the assault, just on the other side of a major road that was raised up on a berm, so that those in the city could not see us. Infantry (obviously) were the first to go in. We stayed at our staging area, listening to the radio, scanning frequencies. KIA. MIA. KIA. Medevac requests. We could hear the battle raging not far away. This was the first indicator to me that war is indeed hell, but at that time I was only seeing the perspective of my own people and country. The months that followed deepened that perspective. And I've never been the same since.
Mission tempo was ridiculous. We often got no more than four hours of sleep before receiving another mission. We were shot at with RPG's, small arms (meaning rifles and pistols), and IED's were everywhere. During the elections in Jan. 2005, we spent close to 20 hours going from one IED site to the next. But it's not what we went through that left the strongest impression with me; it was the damage to the local population.
Our rules of engagement were rather simple, as they were explained to us. All one needed was a "reasonable" suspicion of hostile intent; meaning, literally, a 51% suspicion- an incredibly subjective term- that a civilian had hostile intentions toward coalition troops. I believe this rhetoric likely resulted in far more deaths than was necessary. And there were a lot. Artillery doesn't differentiate civilian from enemy, and artillery was going around the clock. We flattened a significant portion of the city. When buildings fall, everyone dies.
Just outside of the city was a facility we called "The Potato Factory". I don't know what the original intent for the place actually was, perhaps it really was for potatoes. But during the assault, the facilities' massive coolers were used to store the dead. Not our own troops, but those in and around the city who had been killed. I saw some of the doors open, with piles of bodies, placed with no seeming rhyme or reason, just piled up, nonchalantly. It did not sit well with me, I still see those coolers on the rare occasion that I dream. And those dreams are always violent- either I'm issuing violence, or it's being issued upon me. It's been at least a decade since I've had a dream that didn't leave me feeling drained and depressed for days at a time.
The exceptionally subjective requirements for killing, coupled with the macabre display before me, lead me to believe that the US government had very little concern for the damage we were doing to these people. We were, after all, occupying their country, patrolling their streets, setting curfews, and bombing the "never-loving" SHIT out of their homes. I later learned that the US doesn't collect death statistics on civilian casualties, so there's almost no accountability for the destruction we wrought.
Another major eye-opener for me was when I ordered the shooting of civilians in a fog-of-war situation. We were months into our deployment, and about to head home in a few weeks. As any combat vet will tell you, those last missions can be nerve-racking. No one wants to make it through most of the battle, just to get popped at the end, just before making it home. As we were heading out of Camp Fallujah, it was my job to block traffic to the north, so the remainder of the convoy could turn south on the road with no interference. As the other vehicles are passing by, my gunner informs me that a large truck had pulled around the stopped traffic and was continuing towards us on the shoulder. I asked him to verify one last time that it wasn't stopping. It wasn't. I then issued an order: "light em up!" I heard the 240G bolt rack back, and a burst of fire.
The vehicle blew past us, smoke billowing out of the engine compartment, clearly moving on it's own inertia to the side of the road, where it came to a stop. No explosion. Two males exited the vehicle. Upon closer inspection, the vehicles brakes had failed. These folks had been in the worst position possible- to either run their dump truck into unsuspecting civilians waiting in traffic, or avoid those people, and risk death by crossing the Americans.
Fortunately, the son was unharmed, and the father only sustained some light shrapnel to the leg. No one died, some light bandages were applied, and they were sent on their way (without a working truck, and these folks are POOR, so....). The event shook me. How many others had died this way, and how would any of us, military or civilian, ever know how unnecessary those deaths were? The military doesn't log those statistics, and the media won't report them. How many families KNEW their father, mother, son, or daughter to be innocent, just to see them killed anyway? How would any of them consider being an ally to us after that? If you want to know how ISIS came to be, consider that point. Consider how you would view a foreign invader on US soil, patrolling our streets, setting your curfew, killing your neighbors. You'd become an insurgent too, while the invading country would label you as a terrorist over their own networks. I don't agree with ISIS's methods, nor the religious rules they exert over people. Unfortunately, I can say the same exact thing about our military occupations. Religious rules should never apply to a country- yet we have "Christian law" rearing it's head, right here in the US. I'll fight it tooth and nail, just as hard as I'd fight against Islamic law. Any other stance is, in my opinion, completely hypocritical, and outright un-American.
When I left military service, it was the first time I was able to conduct research and have conversations without being ostracized or labeled as a deserter. This is my failing as a human being. It took years, and second enlistment with the Army (largely due to my inability to find gainful employment) for me to come to my current understanding of what we were actually doing.
I was courageous enough to wade into war, but not enough to speak out against it at the time. I internally warred with this for a few years, and it almost killed me. My relationships deteriorated, and I developed a longstanding alcohol problem as I wrestled with constant frustration with not only myself, but a country that doesn't care AT ALL about the damage they're supporting, because they don't know, and very few on "our side" are willing to talk about it.
Quite the opposite, in fact, most civilians I know are quite proud of the destruction, and peace has become a very dirty word. I can't see the moral footing they place behind that stance, and I refuse to continue to play into it. We can never fix it- but we CAN start to act with more compassion, with a lighter touch. If we continue to fail to do so, we will also continue our trend of making more enemies than friends. And THAT, my friends, will inevitably lead to collapse, as no person, nor any nation is an island anymore. We're interconnected, and to dismiss that fact opens the door for the callousness that empires are made of. And I won't serve an empire- I'll work to tear it down.
It was only once I started making amends that I began to really heal. Everyone deals with stuff differently, but, for me, the solution started with taming the nasty anger beast within. To do that, I had to learn how to care for people again, how to foster caring relationships. It took a couple of years living at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, utilizing non-violent communication techniques, and steeping myself in a new sense of community and shared purpose.
Ultimately, what I found I missed most wasn't the military, nor War itself- it was the brotherhood, the sense of shared purpose- POSITIVE purpose. I've been fortunate to find that outside of the military, so my self-esteem and sense of self worth are no longer tied solely to my enlistments- I think that's been an incredible source of strength for me, and has allowed me to understand the ridicule from former friends I served with, without allowing it to eat me up as much as others, who may not have found a new anchor since leaving the military.
I met my partner there, Brooke, who is incredibly intelligent, and is an environmental anthropologist. Her perspective and patience knows no bounds, and she's going to make an amazing mother come August (we're expecting a girl). I hope to be a good father, but I am ashamed of the nation she's being born into, and I'm still ashamed of myself for helping damage the world she'll inherit. So far, I've made it worse, not better. Perhaps, with time, I can change that. I owe it to her, and to every American growing up right now. We must be better than this.
In honor of those who have died in these wars (and those who have yet to die, but will), I decided to "plant" my medals as a "seed" of sorts. What good is that time at war, if it can't be used as an argument for peace? Last month, at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, my home for over two years, where I learned to find my heart again, I completed construction of a Labyrinth for the community. At it's heart, in the center, I buried my medals. It is my hope that my time at war becomes a seed for the voice of peace, and I hope to do more of this in the future, planting seed after seed, until folks see the forest, not just their own personal trees.
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