22 April 2014

WWII Vet Joe Boitnott, 92, Conducts Final 'Attack!'

2011 photo by Army Staff Sgt. Ashlee Lolkus
One of the remaining 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division veterans of World War II, Monty Joe Boitnott, 92, died on April 12, 2014, at the VA hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. Tomorrow, April 23, would have been his 93rd birthday.

Boitnott was a welcoming and lively presence at the annual 34th Infantry Division Association reunion and dine-out. Fellow veterans and "Red Bull" family members—young and old—looked forward to seeing him wearing in his Red Bull blazer, and hearing him share his stories.

Boinott grew up in Maxwell, pop. 811, where his mother ran a restaurant. His father was the town postmaster, and owned a jewelry and optical repair shop in the front of the restaurant.

Boinott joined the Iowa National Guard's 168th Infantry Regiment while he was still attending North High School, Des Moines. He started the war as as infantryman, and made three amphibious landings in North Africa and Italy. In September 1944, he transferred to the Army Air Force and served as as a tail-gunner on B-17 "Flying Fortress" bombers, serving until victory in Europe. He continued to serve throughout the Korean War, and retired from the United States Air Force in 1972 at the rank of master sergeant. In total, Boinott served in uniform nearly 30 years.

A full obituary and other funeral details are posted here.

In addition to participating in memorials, museum displays, and television documentaries, Boitnott wrote a short memoir that is available for reading on-line here. (Caution: Music plays as webpage loads, but does not repeat.)

Boitnott was present during some of the "Red Bull" division's greatest milestones, including place-names as Algiers, Salerno, and Monte Cassino. An excerpt from his on-line memoir shows how he could bring history to life:
After Christmas, our unit relieved the 36th Division at San Pietro near the Rapido River at the entrance to Cassino dominated by Mount Troccio, two miles from the town.The river was icy cold. The Germans had the opposite banks loaded with land mines. Plus they blew some ditches and flooded the low area to the rolling hills from the Rapido tributaries of water. My unit's objective was some old Italian military barracks that had shelter from sleet and snow we were encountering.

It took us four days to cross the river due to heavy fighting with the Germans. Finally we reached our objective, and here my squad went close to 70 hours without rations and water.

Our losses were staggering. I really don't know the head count but my unit alone was down less than half strength in manpower. My unit never did reach the town of Monte Cassino, but units of our other regiment, the 133rd, was engaged in hand-to-hand fighting in the town.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials to be directed to:
The 34th Division Association
c/o The Iowa Gold Star Military Museum
7105 N.W. 70th Avenue
Johnston, Iowa 50131
Visitation will be held today, Tues., April 22, 2014 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Hamilton's Funeral Home, Westown Parkway, 3601 Westown Parkway, West Des Moines.

Burial with military honors will be held on Wed., April 23 at 2 p.m.Iowa Veterans Cemetery, Van Meter, Iowa.

On-line condolences may be expressed here.

21 April 2014

Book Review: 'Seriously Not All Right'

"Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years" by Ron Capps

Military and U.S. State Department veteran Ron Capps likes to say that he served on the ragged edges of civilization, including tours in Central Africa, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Dafur. In a newly available memoir, he describes how that service nearly unraveled him personally, professionally, and, most of all, psychologically.

Pieced together, his book also illuminates the limitations of ad hoc diplomatic and military efforts in a world challenged by terrorism, poverty, and genocide. Finally, his work serves as an example of why creative non-fiction/memoir is a vital tool in bridging the societal divide between military and civilian audiences. Everybody has their own war, and we are best served to remember that not every soldier's story fits into a neatly packaged narrative arc of home-and-back-again.

Seriously—you should read this book.

Capps was both a U.S. Army intelligence officer and a civilian Foreign Service Officer. Whether in military uniform or State Department mufti, Capps describes his roles as a something akin to that of a reporter. "I've joked over the years that, at its core, my job was to talk to people and write down what they said," Capps writes. "It sounds simple, and it is to a point. But it becomes exponentially more interesting and difficult if there is shooting and burning and killing and dying going on around you." [p. 4-5]

Bespeaking his State Department training, Capps is obviously master of the pointed understatement. Despite the harrowing circumstances of some of his tales, his authorial tone is always friendly and conversational, and he delivers his stories with a club-chair confidence of clear-eyed reflection. Between emotional slugs to the gut, you can almost hear the clink of ice in the glass.

That's not to say that Capps is world-worn and -weary, and incapable of idealism. When a general officer tells him that it is too late for an observation mission in Rwanda to do any good for people, for example, Capps' response borders on insubordination. "General, we're talking about a hundred thousand people," Capps says. "They need help, and you have the power to save them." [p. 97] When the general subsequently challenges Capps' method of counting the population, Capps shames him out of the room. All he has to do, he tells the general, is "count the feet and divide by two."

Overall, the collection of essays is full of similar wry humor, keen observations, lessons-learned and truths told. This anecdote, for example, will resonate with anyone who has ever dealt with a distant headquarters: Rousted out of bed by a long-distance call from the State Department Operations Center about news reports of a bomb blast in Pristina, Kosovo, Capps tells the over-eager caller that it will take a few hours for him to confirm the incident:
"Can't you go now?"
"No, you see, a bomb just went off down there."
"Right, that's why we want you to go."
"Right, and that's why I want to wait a few hours, just in case another one is sitting there ready to go off."
"Oh." [p. 73]
The book's title is taken from Capps' daily system of rating his own mental health while downrange, a scale downhill from I'm All Right to I'm Not All Right, past Vaguely Not All Right, to Seriously Not All Right or worse. Having weathered years of dispassionately and diplomatically documenting shocking displays of humanity's inhumanity, Capps finds himself facing a personal Catch-22 dilemma: Does he ask for medical help to address his symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), so that he can continue to do his job? Because, if he does, he'll likely lose his security clearance ... and his job.

He writes from Afghanistan:
The Taliban have launched a couple of rockets toward the base during the week, so we are all a little on edge, but that isn't what's keeping me up. I am bundled into my sleeping bag, trying to control my racing heart, and trembling because the dead have come to talk with me. [...] The night before, it was the dead from the village of Racak [Kosovo]. Forty-five of them, shot in the back of the head and left to die in that rocky ditch on a frozen January morning in 1999. They dropped by for a chat. "Why didn't you do more to save us?" they ask. Why, indeed. Night after night they appear on the big screen of my mind in oversaturated Technicolor, writhing and imploring. [p. 123-124]
Capps finally did pull the proverbial pin on his dual-hatted career—after nearly pulling the trigger in a suicide attempt downrange—and asked for the medical help he needed. After retiring, he used the G.I. Bill to complete a Masters of Fine Art (M.F.A.) in writing. He now leverages his talents as founder of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Veterans Writing Project. There, he helps other military veterans and family members share their experiences through non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and other writing. He also helps study writing as a potential therapeutic intervention at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Bethesda, Md.

In other words, Capps is all right. And he's helping others get there, too.

*****

Disclosures: The Red Bull Rising blog received a review copy of this book. For a 2012 Red Bull Rising interview with Ron Capps, regarding his work with the Veterans Writing Project and its O-Dark-Thirty literary journal, click here. The organization and publication have been featured regularly on the Red Bull Rising blog. Finally, Capps was a presenter at the March 2014 Great Plains Writers' Conference, Brookings, S.D., at which the writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was also a presenter. They shared a drink or two.

18 April 2014

'Restrepo' Filmmaker Launches 'Korengal' Kickstarter

One of the producers of the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary "Restrepo" is crowd-funding the theatrical release of a second film focused on a platoon of U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Taking its name from the eastern Afghan valley in which it was shot, "Korengal" is the third documentary project from Sebastian Junger, author of "War" (2010) and "The Perfect Storm" (1997).

The Kickstarter page, which includes a 3-minute video trailer of the already-finished film, is here. In 2007 and 2008, Junger and "Restrepo" co-producer Tim Hetherington repeatedly embedded with a platoon of 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (173rd A.B.C.T.) soldiers in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.

Where Junger describes "Restrepo" as immersive and experiential, he says the follow-up "Korengal" is intended to help make sense of—or at least reflect on—that earlier experience. On camera, its subjects talk about fear, and courage, and what it takes to make it through a combat deployment.

Readers of the Red Bull Rising blog may recall that the 2010 release of "Restrepo" occurred just as the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division was preparing to deploy to Eastern Afghanistan, including the adjacent Laghman Province. In fact, the "Restrepo" promotional team arranged for some Red Bull soldiers to preview the film while at annual training 2010, Camp Ripley, Minn.

In his recent Kickstarter launch, Junger writes:
Korengal picks up where Restrepo left off; the same men, the same valley, the same commanders, but a very different look at the experience of war. Korengal explains how war works, what it feels like and what it does to the young men who fight it. As one soldier cheers when he kills an enemy fighter, another looks into the camera and asks if God will ever forgive him for all of the killing he has done. As one soldier grieves the loss of his friend in combat, another explains why he misses the war now that his deployment has ended, and admits he would go back to the front line in a heartbeat. Every bit as intense and affecting as Restrepo, Korengal goes a step further in bringing the war into people's living rooms back home.
"Korengal" is Junger's third feature-length documentary film. His second, 2013's "Which Way to the Front Line from Here," commemorated the life of photojournalist, author, and "Restrepo" co-producer Tim Hetherington, who was killed during fighting in Libya in 2011. Following that death, Junger started the non-profit Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (R.I.S.C.), which trains freelance journalists in combat life-saving techniques.

For the official "Korengal" movie website, click here.

For the Kickstarter page, click here.

For a Facebook page for the "Korengal" film, click here.