23 December 2011

Peace on Earth? Listen Through the Static

"What? They are still having WARS?!" asks my backseat conscience. Seven-year-old Lena sounds exasperated.

Mentally, I quickly tune in to the car radio. A Medal of Honor recipient is describing his actions in World War II: "My commanding officer asked me, as the last flamethrower operator that he had in his company, because the others had either been killed or wounded, if I thought I could do something about some of the pillboxes ..."

War can be a heck of a way to start the day. Especially if you're only in elementary school.

So far, it is a snowless winter in Iowa. Starting in darkness, my pre-writing routine involves troop transport: First daycare, then first-grade. During a short suburban commute to school, our days unwrap themselves in purple-gray light, then quickly warm to cornflower blue. Trees and houses on the horizon silhouette themselves like paper cutouts, back-lit in pink and apricot.

I have never been a morning person, but this is my favorite time of day. It is calm and peaceful, even with the radio on.

I remember dashing to weekend drills in the National Guard, waking up at oh-dark-thirty to speed along zippers of interstate highway, the sun rising to reveal the snow-dusted corn stubble rolling and rippling alongside my car. I'd have a stainless-steel bullet of scalding coffee in one hand, steering wheel in the other. Life was good.

Happiness is a 0700 first formation and a couple of hours to get there. Better still, an AM radio spouting sad tales and news of the world, country music stations bleeding into BBC World Service.

Bonus Sherpa tip: Bursts of static mean there's a thunderstorm on the way.

Army communications training taught me to mentally push past the white noise, and to sort and separate snippets of simultaneous conversation. Stations are always talking over and on top of each other, like it's a cocktail party. Or a Twitter feed. Get into the zone, and you can regulate the radio mentally into the background, until you hear something of interest. Like your callsign. Or your daughter.

As part of a family budget-cutting move, I recently cancelled the subscription for my car's satellite radio. That means no more commercial-free, kid-friendly tunes at the punch of a pre-set. Usually, I remember to turn off the radio while shuttling the kids around. That way, I can avoid topical potholes such as roadside bombs and robot planes, and people getting killed.

When I forget to turn the radio off, morning drive-time can become an exercise in addressing Lena's hard questions.

I try to answer honestly and simply. Lena knows that I used to be a soldier. And her classmates have friends and family who are still in uniform. Even though most every Red Bull soldier we know personally is back from Afghanistan (but not from Iraq), she's still quick to pick up on war-related news.

Like my Mama Sherpa would say, back when Sherpa was still in short pants: "Little cornstalks have big ears."

She wasn't kidding.

Recently, for example, Lena zeroed in on a report about burn-out rates of U.S. Air Force drone pilots. While such pilots are sitting safe in cockpits here in the states, they're also omnipresent witnesses to events downrange: Watch a guy for days or weeks. Establish his habits and routines. Then, if and when necessary, pull the trigger.

Imagine how jarring it would be to then be able to drive home as if nothing happened.

Physical distance can create emotional dissonance. Ask any radio operator who's been located the safe end of the conversation, while his buddies are in contact with the enemy. It can feel pretty impotent to be armed only with words.
"Why are they hurting?" Lena asks about the drone pilots.

"Because pilots are like soldiers. They don't like to hurt people. But, sometimes, they have to shoot their weapons."

"Why do they have to shoot people?"

"Sometimes, they have to shoot people--bad guys--in order to keep other people safe."

"How does shooting someone make us safer?"
Good question, kid. One that more of us probably need to ask, given the state of the world, and the sentiments of the Christmas season.

I'm conflicted. While I'd like Daddy's little warrior-princess to keep believing in Santa Claus and pixie dust, I'd also like her to keep asking the tough and critical questions. If Lena has to grow up--and Household-6 says that she will, regardless of my efforts--I'd like it to be in a world in which war is considered the exception, and not the rule.

Peace on Earth? Put your ears on. Listen through the static. Watch for the dawn. And consider the tough questions.

Especially if they come from your kids.

15 December 2011

Red Bull in Iraq: 'Crossing the Finish Line'

As yet another American administration attempts to close a symbolic door on war in Iraq this month, the soldiers and families of the U.S. National Guard's 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are, no doubt, waiting for the next boot to drop. They've sacrificed many months and miles, lost friends and family, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And many of them are still in the fight, regardless of speech or ceremony.

The 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (1-34th BCT) was there in 2007, during the "surge" in Iraq. Its extended 22-month Iraq deployment is the longest of any in the U.S. Army.

Now, the Red Bull is again present at the historic critical point, facilitating the drawdown from Iraq, as the 1-34th BCT moves and protects U.S. military personnel and equipment moving into Kuwait, currently deployed to Kuwait.

The following essay—"Crossing the finish line after eight long years"
was released through Army public affairs channels, after being written by a soldier traveling with Delta Company, 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment (1-194th "CAB"). The 1-194th CAB is part of the 1-34th BCT.

The 1-34th BCT is anticipated to return to Minnesota in summer 2012.

For video and text coverage of convoy security mission conducted by the Red Bull's Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry (2-135th Inf.), click here.


By Capt. Michael Lovas
1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division
Minnesota Army National Guard

CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait, Nov. 11, 2011--The war in Iraq has most certainly been a marathon. As any distance runner knows, even though you finish the race and cross that line, you are not done yet. You need to catch your breath and reset before you leave the race area. Welcome to Camp Virginia, one of the bases in the Kuwaiti desert where soldiers and equipment come to catch their breath and await their flight home. While the fight continues in distant lands to our east, after eight long years, the guns here will soon fall silent and it will be all quiet on the western front.

Eight years of war has led to a large, well-established footprint by U.S. and coalition forces. A significant amount of equipment and resources that were moved into Iraq now needs to be moved out of Iraq. To accomplish the largest draw down of military personnel and equipment in nearly four decades, convoys are organized, gun truck escorts are spun up to provide security, routes are planned, and equipment is packed. Think of it as Uncle Sam's moving crew with an armed security force.

I rode along in one of the gun trucks, as part of the Convoy Escort Team (C.E.T.). This is a group of armored gun trucks in the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected ("M-RAP") family of vehicles, itself a product of eight years of war. The group I'm traveling with is Delta Company, 1-194th CAB, based in St. Cloud, Minn., and led by the CET Commander 1st Lt. Christopher Bingham, an armor officer from Sartell, Minn. This is their story:

We started on Nov. 13 at 10:30 a.m., having already received an intelligence and pre-mission briefing the night before. We arrive at the trucks to load our gear before moving to the weapons vault to draw our weapons for this week-long journey. The destination for this mission is Contingency Operating Location (C.O.L.) Warrior, a round-trip journey to Kirkuk, Iraq over 1,000 miles in distance. To get there we'll travel by Main Supply Route Tampa, a well established paved highway and one of the main highways through Iraq. We'll travel up through Kalsu, Taji, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, before arriving in Kirkuk.

We began our journey by heading north to
Camp Buehring to link up with the transportation battalion we'll be escorting, as well as the trucks contracted to assist with the draw-down driven by third country nationals. Known as "white trucks," these trucks are flatbed trailers used for hauling equipment, shipping containers or vehicles out of Iraq. Bingham described how working with TCN drivers can be challenging, "We have drivers from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, countries in Africa, so there's definitely a language and cultural difference. Having to work with them in the event of an emergency, whether it be a breakdown or altercation with the enemy, how they react is different every time and some of the things we've seen them do just kind of makes you scratch your head, they'll definitely keep you on your toes."

After nearly three hours at
Camp Buehring, we headed up the road to Khabari Crossing, known as "K-Crossing" or "K-X." Khabari Crossing is the border crossing into Iraq where convoys are lined up and checked by both Kuwaiti and U.S. Navy customs going in and out of Iraq. As we pulled in we topped off our fuel as well as the spare fuel cans, known as Jerry Cans, we'd need to top off in Iraq during the journey between bases. With the draw down taking place, there are fewer places to stop for fuel, so you have to bring extra in case you are delayed reaching your destination. Once complete, the vehicles are lined up, checked, weapons mounted in the turrets, and a final coordination meeting held.

We go through the route, latest intelligence information, go over safety procedures and say a group prayer for protection before crossing into Iraq. We put our body armor on, weighing about 65 pounds. We don our Kevlar helmets, eye protection, flame retardant gloves, and strap in for the first leg in the long journey. To equate what this feels like, drive from Minneapolis to Chicago with a two year old child strapped to both your chest and back with a sack of potatoes on your head, and you can't take them off. After all is set, Bingham gives the command to move out. As wheels begin turning, he calls out the procedural security checklist, ending by confirming we are all buckled in with our NASCAR-style 5-point harness seat belts, playfully stating, "And the kids are tucked in."

At 5:30 p.m. we cross the border and enter Iraq, loading magazines of live ammunition into our individual weapons. Inside the truck you can hear the click of the magazine being seated in each of our weapons. You instantly recognize that this is not a training range back at Camp Ripley, Minn. with green inanimate pop-up targets, this is the real thing. Welcome to war.

Three hours later, we stopped on the side of MSR Tampa to conduct a "hot splash," adding fuel from Jerry cans with the truck running. Stopping in Iraq is full of concerns for possible threats. While we stop, our gunner, Cpl. Andrew Matthews, an infantry sniper from Elk River, Minn. is actively scanning in his turret, the truck crew's external eyes and ears. "I like it," he says. "I can see what's going on and if something happens I can handle it properly."

Fueling procedures entail holding the fuel can with one hand while keeping the other hand on your rifle. Once complete and back in the truck, we find out there is an issue with one of the white trucks, prompting what turns into an hour-and-a-half unexpected delay. The truck crew keeps the mood light and passes the time with conversations ranging in topics from Christmas music, to the best dining facility in Iraq (waffles made at Camp Adder was the winner), to sports and the upcoming Monday Night Football game featuring the Packers playing host to the Vikings, to the history of the area and current events.

Finally, at 3:00 a.m., we arrive at Forward Operating Base Kalsu. We are given a large tent with no working heat. On this cold desert night, we dress in layers and lay down on our cots. We're told the dining facility caught on fire the day prior, so we have to eat prepackaged military field rations called Meals Ready to Eat (M.R.E.). Delta Company's 1st Sgt. Dale Klitzke, a tank soldier from Woodbury, Minn., adds a surprising comment about the draw down: "I've had two deployments to Iraq, and this is the first time I've had to eat an MRE."

It's also a blackout base, meaning that to prevent sniper and mortar risks, no lights are turned on at night, causing everyone to travel with a flashlight to find their way. We stay at FOB Kalsu until 8:47 p.m. As we leave, we hear over the radio a convoy was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) with casualties on the road we will travel through in Baghdad. The level of alertness increases even more while our thoughts, and prayers, turn to those hit.

Driving through Baghdad means traffic, just like any large city in America. Unlike in America however, Iraqi drivers often decide they don't want to wait and will cross over into oncoming traffic, throw on their hazard flashers driving against traffic before crossing back over. We drive past bullet riddled street signs and mosques adorned with fluorescent lights, similar to those seen on casinos in Las Vegas. We sit in stopped traffic while the scene of the IED strike is cleared; carefully scanning all around our trucks for signs of what the crew dubs "shenanigans." It's serious business, and you can tell the camaraderie of this crew is strong.

From time to time, someone will make a radio call pointing out their observations; movement on the side of the road, vehicles approaching, and description of people seen in the area. Cars cross from the northbound lane we are in over to the southbound lane to travel against traffic while southbound trucks, cars, multiple High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles ("Humvees") full of Iraqi army soldiers, even a scooter with two Iraqi soldiers on the back travel south, heading right at these impatient drivers as they try to navigate their way north, erratically dodging each other. Meanwhile an Iraqi policeman shines a green laser at drivers to get their attention while all this is taking place. We all just wait for what seems like an inevitable crash.

Tension is broken with comments of disbelief in what we are seeing on the road, "Imagine this happening during rush hour on 35-W (I-35W is a major Interstate highway in Minneapolis). We witness a near miss between a car trying to wedge its way between two southbound vehicles traveling in neighboring lanes, causing swerving all over the road to avoid a head-on collision. Someone keys the radio adding his commentary, "You just can't make this stuff up."

We reach Taji in the early morning hours, grab a bite to eat at the dining facility before bedding down in a barn-like heated structure where soldiers are gathered around a TV to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. We leave Taji at 6:30 p.m., traveling through areas with young military-aged males standing around in groups while our gunners scan attentively in their turrets. They notice every detail, every person, and after traveling these roads multiple times, notice even when rocks and garbage are moved. We get word we have a friend upstairs, an Apache helicopter gunship is following us, providing a security blanket in the air. Suddenly, a white truck makes a wrong turn off the road causing the convoy to stop while a gun truck diverts to turn them around, another unexpected delay in travels.

Different areas of Iraq have different feelings towards the United States. Some are favorable, some are not. Tikrit, home to former dictator and president of Iraq Saddam Hussein, is the latter. We are greeted with an Iraqi Police checkpoint, one of many of these along MSR Tampa, and a sign written in both Arabic and English welcoming you to Tikrit City. It is calm, almost seeming too calm for 11:00 p.m. We continue to be attentive to our surroundings, relaying observations throughout the convoy. We drive past a riverside palace Saddam had in Tikrit, cross the Tigris River and drive through some sort of marketplace area. Suddenly, we are called to stop. A fist-sized rock has been thrown through a white truck's window, hitting the driver in the head and he needs medical attention.

Rock-throwing is regular threat. We are not talking about pebbles you skip across a calm lake on a warm summer day. These are usually big rocks, bricks, chunks of broken concrete or cinderblocks, varying anywhere in size from fist size to bowling ball size, or even larger. Calling it a rock is metaphorically like saying the Titanic bumped into an icy object in the night. Boulder tossing may more accurately describe this act. They are hurled at the white trucks in anger that the drivers are assisting Americans. They also know their rocks will do little if any damage to the armored behemoths we drive. Our combat medic sprang into action providing medical aid to the driver. As a young specialist, Tyler Sparks is a motivated soldier from St. Cloud, Minn., who loves his job and that he can help people in need. He assessed the situation and treated the driver for a cut that will need stitches at the medical facility at COL Warrior once we arrive a few hours later.

Two hours later we stop again, another white truck is having mechanical troubles in a very hilly area in this more-northern region. White trucks frequently break down because they are not well maintained, are often jerry-rigged in some fashion and regularly run on bald tires. Their standards are significantly different from U.S. standards. We have also now lost our air cover and we see lightning in the distance. At 3:07 a.m., we finally arrive at COL Warrior, but it takes 2 hours to finally get through the gate. There is a language barrier and confusion between us and the Ugandan TCNs contracted to secure the gate. Frustration builds as we sit waiting hungry, cold and tired; however knowing we are safely at COL Warrior helps ease the tension.

We park our trucks and head into the dining facility for breakfast. At 6:07 a.m. sirens suddenly sound, warning that incoming mortar fire was detected. Eight mortar rounds land in COL Warrior, one only about 300 meters away from the reinforced dining facility that we safely sat in waiting for the all clear to sound. Later we see explosive ordnance disposal clearing the mortar that landed near us.

Our convoy came to COL Warrior to haul equipment out of Iraq. With the shifting of the draw down timeline over the last few months while the US military presence in Iraq was discussed, adjustments to the plan to leave Iraq have been frequently made. This has led to confusion over what equipment to take, when to take it, and what equipment will simply be left behind and turned over to the Iraqis. Cost-analysis is conducted to determine what it would cost to haul items out and ship them elsewhere in the world, including the risk to soldiers' lives, rather than leaving it. But everyone is still amazed by the amount of stuff left behind. Only half of the white trucks and transportation trucks are loaded; there will be more to pick up as we travel south in Taji or Kalsu.

Information reports indicated enemy mortar attacks were likely in the morning; stemming from tribal disagreements. We are told senior U.S. commanders have recommended that anyone that can leave tonight do so, even going so far as to line up F-16 and F-18 planes to provide air support for those convoys that can head out the gate tonight. This information convinces us that we will need to leave COL Warrior earlier than expected, even though it means traveling through areas that are unfavorable to the U.S.

We decide to mitigate any additional risks by leaving quickly, at midnight, in order to avoid morning traffic in Tikrit. The leaders hastily assemble the best plan possible based on knowledge and experience. No one doubts the plan, confidence is high. Everyone is rolling tired, but there is no option for more sleep. Everyone is on high alert nonetheless, hoping for a calm drive, but not fully convinced we will have one. Welcome to life in a convoy escort team.

"I'm constantly war-gaming in my head how I'm going to maneuver my trucks and how we're going to react to any possible scenario that might come up‚" states Bingham. He is active on the radio, maintaining contact with his gun trucks and with the transportation unit we are escorting. Cpl. Matthews, our gunner, is actively scanning, checking every object on the side of the road, every bridge, relaying his observations. The other gunners do the same, sharing their observations over the radio.

The smell of burning tires fills the air. Tires are regularly burned in large batches and the smell is easily identifiable with how common the practice is. To our relief, we arrive at Taji at 6:55 a.m. after a calm, non-eventful drive. We clear our weapons and refuel our trucks. You always fuel your truck and prepare it in case you need to leave quickly or react to a situation. We sleep and prepare to leave later that evening.

As we get ready to leave we learn we would not be rolling out tonight and we turn around and head back to get some more rest. In the Army, change is constant, and soldiers constantly adapt and overcome, adjusting to always accomplish the mission. Soldiers start joking that as soon as we lay down we'll get word to leave tonight. It's almost like they experienced this before.

True to form, not 15 minutes into unloading the trucks, we get word to pack back up; a change in plans now has us pushing to FOB Kalsu tonight to pick up a load there instead. The soldiers look dejected, yet you could tell they saw this coming. Lt. Bingham comments, "We haven't had a hard [start] time yet, especially lately." This has led to frustrated soldiers and challenges in mission planning. But they are used to this by now and there is no time to dwell. What might have been is quickly forgotten about as attention is immediately turned to what needs to be done to prepare, and conversation shifts to other topics.

We don't have a time yet as to when we'll leave, but we sit waiting. Soldiers comment how the draw down seems very reactionary in nature; loads aren't prepared or fully allocated. The previously light-hearted and high-spirited mood faded quickly as fatigue sets in. Yet despite all of this, soldiers find humor stating that this is the Army and nothing new to them. One jokes, "This plan probably briefed well in a good-looking PowerPoint."

We finally leave Taji at 11:22 p.m. and get to FOB Kalsu three hours later. Seven convoys arrived at FOB Kalsu, so we sit at the gate waiting our turn to enter. We learn we will stay at FOB Kalsu for 24 hours. It is a nice extended rest that is needed by all. Some take advantage of the extra time and go to the gym ahead of the eight to ten hour drive back to K-Crossing. We leave at 3:54 a.m. traveling south, ready to be home.

Almost three hours later, a white-truck driver signals he has a breakdown. The third-country national (T.C.N.) drivers got out, looked at the truck, then almost in a pre-planned choreographed manner, they knelt down and began praying. We realized we were duped; the break down was a feint in order for the drivers to take a prayer break. Chuckling, we decide to make the most of the stop and conduct a hot splash.

Prayer time finishes, fueling is completed, and we begin to move again. We are within eye sight of the Ziggurat of Ur. Dating to the Biblical times of Abraham more than 4,000 years ago, the Ziggurat of Ur is one of the oldest buildings in the world still in existence. It is impressive to see, even in the distance. We finally reach K-Crossing at 11:08 a.m., Nov. 19, six full days after we left Camp Virginia. Days have run together, only separated by legs of the journey and timelines rather than what a calendar says the day is. We clear Navy Customs, refuel our trucks and leave for Camp Virginia 40 minutes after arriving at K-Crossing. The convoy will take the equipment we escorted to Camp Virginia or another base in Kuwait to await movement out of the region.

In a few days, these soldiers will do this process all over again, going to another base in Iraq, providing security for equipment leaving after eight years of war. "I really enjoy it," says Lt. Bingham. "It's always different when we go out, we're always stopping at a different base, meeting and working with a lot of different people when we go out. We've been all over the country of Iraq. It's never boring; it's never the same mission twice."

Along with the other Red Bull soldiers, Bignham has observed many changes during the draw-down process. "The bases have become very bare-bones. Before, the bases we'd stop at would have a fully functioning PX (Post Exchange, an on-base store), gym, eating establishments on the base, billeting was always guaranteed. But now when you go up, you never know where they are at in their closure period, whether hot meals are available, showers, so it forces us to be proactive in what we bring. We never used to have to bring cots or MREs, but now that's a staple we have to bring."

These soldiers have a front row seat in history, witnessing the biggest military draw-down since the end of the Vietnam War. Every day more soldiers and equipment cross the finish line, one step, one convoy closer to the end. After an eight-year marathon, soon it will be all quiet on the western front.

13 December 2011

Nat'l Guard Slogans for the Next 375 Years?

The U.S. National Guard celebrates its 375th birthday today!

First established in 1636 by the Massachusetts General Court in Salem, your friendly neighborhood militia predates the U.S. Army (June 14, 1775), Navy (Oct. 13, 1775), and Marines (Nov. 10, 1775).

Bonus trivia: Perhaps in keeping with the modern tradition of conducting drills on weekends, Dec. 13, 1636 fell on a Saturday.

In honor of this day, here's a quick list of possible National Guard recruiting slogans for the next 375 years, suitable for fish wrap, T-shirts, and bumper stickers:
  • "The National Guard: You can't go to war without us!"
  • "Freedom isn't free, but it can be a part-time job!"
  • "The National Guard: Freedom's first-responders!"
  • "The National Guard: 'Citizens' before 'soldiers.'"
  • "The National Guard: Defending the Homeland since before there was one."
  • "The National Guard: The most fun you can have while wearing cargo pants."
And, finally, a suggestion specific to the National Guard's 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division units, which proudly graze (when not deployed overseas) in the American midwest:

02 December 2011

Contest No. 6: 'Magic Bag of Awesomeness'

We haven't had one of these "Red Bull caption contests" in a long while. It's about time we brought the funny.

Iowa National Guard photo release, Dec. 1, 2011:
Spc. Derick Morgan, 28, of Troutdale, Ore., models the “Ironman Pack Ammunition Pack System for Small Dismounted Team,” the high-capacity ammunition carriage system that enables a Mark 48 machine gunner to carry and fire up to 500 rounds of linked ammunition from a rucksack-like carrier.
Morgan and two other members of the Iowa National Guard’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division, Staff Sgt. J. Winkowski, of Nevada, Iowa (a Belle Plaine native), and Spc. Aaron McNew, 22, of Cedar Falls, Iowa were recently recognized as part of the U.S. Army’s greatest inventions competition, after a panel of combat veterans voted them part of the most innovative advances in Army technology.
Captions, please:
  • "I'm up ... They see me ... They're scared."
  • "WARNING: Ammo in backpack may be larger than it appears."
  • "Does this ruck sack make my weapon look big?"
  • "This is my boom stick! And this is my boom bag! Shop smart. Shop S-mart."
  • "Embrace the Ruck."
  • "Don't make me open my Hefty Bag of Whoop-@$$!"
  • "Oh yeah? Ruck. You."
Make your suggestions and additions in the comments section of this post!

30 November 2011

Book Review: 'We Meant Well'

Department of State employee Peter Van Buren is reviled by some, celebrated by others. Earlier this autumn, he published what some angry diplomats consider a piss-and-tell book, a memoir of his time leading an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (an "e.P.R.T.") in Iraq, from 2009-2010.

The PRT mission is a familiar one to 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division soldiers. In 2004-2005, nearly 1,000 soldiers of the Iowa National Guard's Task Force 168 deployed across Afghanistan to provide security at PRT sites in that country. More recently, PRT soldiers worked alongside the Red Bull's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2-34th B.C.T.) in Afghanistan's Parwan, Panjshir, and Laghman Provinces, as did as 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment (1-168 Inf.), operating in Paktia Province.

Despite his not-so-diplomatic detractors, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" covers ground familiar to soldiers. It describes how nation-builders can fall into traps of their own making. How well-intended efforts can spiral into spending big money on crack-hits of short-term good feelings and publicity, without developing local and long-term ownership, consensus, or even understanding. As a bonus, the book also accurately captures Army life downrange: The boredom, the sex, the loneliness, the almost total lack of privacy. And how death makes appearances as unexpected as they are unwelcome.

In fact, one might argue that Van Buren has succeeded in writing a most accessible and plain-spoken book about America's efforts in Afghanistan. It just happens to be about Iraq.

Bottom line up front: If you've ever served in or alongside a PRT in Iraq or Afghanistan, or wanted to know more about the "build" part of "clear, hold, build" counterinsurgency ("COIN") strategy, Van Buren's your scribe. He's something of a jester, too. Particularly in the Speaking Truth to Power Department.

Van Buren has more than 23 years in foreign service, and multiple career experiences working shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers. The arm's length familiarity pays off. As an inside-outsider, he deconstructs, for example, how the military talks to itself and makes decisions, in word and deed and PowerPoint. Van Buren also observes that the war in Iraq is all about tribalism--not only in the world outside the wire, but within it. "A [Forward Operating Base] was a village," he writes, "populated by tribes who rarely intermingled except on business and who had little in common except for the fact that they were all at this same place at this same time ..." [p. 37]

A stereotypical diplomat hides behind meaningless words, but Van Buren's approach seems almost matter-of-fact and candid, like a soldier. Plain-spoken and pithy, profane and profound. While he often seemingly shoots off his mouth, he also chooses his shots carefully. During his deployment, he noted:
  • Projects favored new construction over sustainable change.
  • Projects were started without adequate analysis of local traditions, business practices, and inter-relationships.
  • Projects were often subverted by tribal leaders, who sought to take things and money off the top.
  • Progress was often measured only in hope.
All this leaves me wondering if Van Buren's critics are taking on the mantle of Casablanca's constabulary: "Shocked, shocked I am to find that gambling is going on here."

Playing parts in Van Buren's morality tale is a rogues' gallery of ne'er do wells, ranging from short-term deployers from the Dept. of State ("people aggressively devoted to mediocrity, and often achieving it," he quips) to a carousel of military leaders searching for quick fixes. "Had anyone bothered to read those Kilcullen and Nagl war-theory books, they would have learned that haphazard charity had nothing to do with counter-insurgency," Van Buren notes. "It worked pretty well-promotion, however, and if publicity were democracy, this place would have looked like ancient Athens." [p. 127]

Or, more philosophically: "One of the difficult parts about counterinsurgency was that it was hard to tell when you had won. You measured success more by what did not happen than what did, the silence that defined the music." [p. 130]

Van Buren sends up a list of well-intended projects that seem predestined to turn to dross. Some are jaw-dropping and punchline-grabbing, such as an effort to teach disadvantaged Iraqi women how to bake French pastries.

Does the once-Fertile Crescent really need a chain of croissant shops?

More telling, however, are the big-ticket projects that failed to account for local conditions and traditions. Take, for example, the construction of a collection center for cows' milk in Van Buren's province. It turns out that modernizing milk distribution not requires reliable electricity but refrigeration, but trucks and fuel to distribute the milk, as well as a market to buy and consume the milk. Iraq didn't have those things, didn't work that way. "The processing plants were expected to sell to the farmers' neighbors, who would surely be waiting around wondering what happened to the friendly farmer who used to bring fresh milk daily." [p. 81]

No use crying over spilt money, right?

To his credit, Van Buren takes pains to admit that there were glimmers of success. At least, there was one:
After almost a year in Iraq for this ePRT, the 4-H club was still our most successful project, maybe our only genuinely successful one. We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not disrupt the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible, and got out of the way.
The kids' selection of officers for the club was their first experience of grassroots democracy. The powerful sheik's son went home crying because he lost the race for the presidency to a farmer's kid, and the sheik did not have anyone's throat slit in retaliation. The things the club had to look forward to, pen pals in Montana and more animals, were real and could be done without any money from the outside. There remained the tiniest possibility here, where in most everything else we had done there was none, that a year later there would still be a 4-H club in Iraq. [p. 228]
Believe it or not, there's a sort of clear-eyed optimism in Van Buren's work, a similar vibe to that which might be found at Rick's Café Americain. No matter how sharp-tongued and bushy-taled he gets, he doesn't hesitate to let his guard down, and to document the transcendent, disguised as the mundane.

"The next morning I awoke with a vicious headache," Van Buren writes about an evening back on the FOB, after he and his teammates smuggle a few brews back from the Embassy, "and the realization that someday I would come to miss being with those men as much as I now missed the smell of pillows on my bed at home or kissing my wife when we both tasted of coffee. It was already over 100 degrees, a Thursday." [p. 177]

See? Snarky, but true. And not without a heart.

We meant well. Maybe we still do.

In other words, "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

(Editor's note: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog was provided a review copy of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.")

28 November 2011

What's There to Say of Iraq, Afghan Wars?

"You don't want to know why I think we went," Warbuck tells me. It's late summer, he's back from Afghanistan for good, and we're meeting in a favorite burrito shop of mine. Most of the talk is about his swag and booty from a recent gaming convention held in Indiana, but there are pop-up targets of post-deployment politics, too. "I think it had something to do with keeping certain people in power. There ... and here."

"You know, I'd be OK with even that," I reply. "If only someone would man up and say that was the case."

Both in war and after war, there are few rules and even fewer answers. You get to make them both up as you go. Even when the game seems mostly played out, like it may now.

(To get a sense of this month's end-of-conflict vibe, check out this Nov. 27 retrospective from McClatchy Newspapers: "As U.S. troops leave Iraq, what is the legacy of eight years of war?" Or this Nov. 28 Associated Press article: "Drawdown wreaks havoc on Guardsmen's lives.")

On his "Best Defense" blog at Foreign Policy magazine last week, Tom Ricks presented this question: "'Just what did we fight and bleed for?' I think that as the United States leaves Iraq and shuffles toward the exit in Afghanistan, we need to think about how to answer that question when veterans of our wars there pose it."

I like Ricks' question, because it seems to put the proverbial boot onto the other foot: Rather than ask the soldiers of our grand republic to provide the meaning of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other 21st century military actions, it asks its citizens.

While I invite you to consider Ricks' first draft, as well as the many comments made to the post, here's an update of something I offered up to that particular online conversation:
We, through our elected leaders, asked you to do this: We asked you to leave your families and friends, and the comforts and freedoms of home. You did the missions you were assigned, and did them well. You and your families made sacrifices both large and small. We thank you for this. We honor your service. We welcome you home. Now, you may say we owe you nothing--that you were just doing your job, or your duty, or that you only did it to help pay for school, or just to pay the bills at home. Still, we would like to know: How can we help?
Like Ricks, I'm still playing with the language, but I think I'm on a right track: While it doesn't assume that everyone who comes back from deployment is somehow tragically damaged, it also doesn't shirk from recognizing that some may be permanently changed by the experience.

It avoids assigning glorious intentions in the contexts of grand historical schemes. It avoids using deflated labels such as "hero": Those words have more value when spent by peers and buddies--those who were actually there. Civilians tend to use the term too cheaply. Not every soldier is a hero, or wants to be one.

It also avoids diminishing the service of someone who might not have had cause to shoot or get shot at, but who still sacrificed a year or more of life to the deployment. Everyone has a different war.

It leaves open the questions about civilian employment, mental and physical health, and reintegration with family, friends, and society. Of course, it also leaves open the possibility that a returning soldier may just want to be left alone.

What do you think? What am I missing? What else should we be prepared to tell our soldiers?

24 November 2011

Post-Deployment Thanksgiving

Citizen-soldiers often report coming home with fresh perspectives and clear-eyed priorities. They might, for example, appreciate the stuff that other citizens of these United States (or developed countries, more generally) take for granted. Churches and shopping malls never looked so good.

They might lump everything into one of two categories. Things are either "A potential threat to life, limb, or eyesight" or "Not important in the big scheme of things."

The trouble is, daily routine and distraction can chip away at that blissful post-deployment Nirvana. The indiscretions, inconveniences, and even the unthinkable bits of war fade in memory, but so does the good stuff. Unless you keep reminding yourself.

Offered on this (U.S.) Thanksgiving Day, here's an attempt to recapture some of my personal post-deployment clarity, delivered in machine-gun bullet-form:
  • I am thankful for my family. Everything else can go to Heck.
  • I am thankful for my daily bread and potable tap water.
  • I am thankful for clean latrines and flushing toilets.
  • I am thankful for building codes and cement sidewalks.
  • I am thankful for clear skies and secure perimeters.
  • I am thankful for the gift, the freedom, the rights and the responsibilities of speech.
  • I am thankful for those who serve in uniform, those who have served, and those who will serve.
  • I am thankful for plenty, and for my newly acquired awareness of scarcity in the world.
  • I am blessed. You are, too.

18 November 2011

Capt. America vs. The Red Bull

No, not "the Red Skull". Believe it or not, I said, "the Red Bull"!

Household-6 and I watched "Captain America: The First Avenger" for the first time last weekend. Most of the movie's storyline takes place during World War II. During some battle scenes, I half-recognized a background character fighting alongside the star-spangled superhero. He was depicted as a British or American soldier, and wore sergeant's stripes on his bowler hat.

For some reason, that got my old Spidey sense tingling. The next morning, with a little super-Google-boost, I managed to figure out why my long-dormant comic-book memory banks had sparked at the sight of a silly battle-hat.

Turns out, the character was Timothy Aloysius Cadwallader "Dum Dum" Dugan, a long-named character originally featured in an equally long-named Marvel comic: "Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos"!

The story goes that Marvel Comics president Stan Lee came up with the ungainly phrase on a bet, gambling that any comic written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby would sell, regardless of a purposefully ungainly and silly title. Here's how Stan Lee described the title's origin:
First of all, it was too long for a title—we didn't have any that were six words. And "Howling" was a long word, and "Commandos"was a long word. I got the name "Howling Commandos" because in the Army there was a group called the Screaming Eagles. And I loved the sound of that. So I figured we'd have the Howling Commandos.
Are you ready to play the Red Bull Division version of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"?

Here goes:
  1. In the recent movie, Captain America fought alongside "Dum Dum" Dugan, Jacques Dernier, James Montgomery Falsworth, Gabriel Jones, Jim Morita.
  2. In the Marvel Universe, Dugan, Falsworth, Jones, Morita were part of Sgt. Nick Fury's "Howling Commandos."
  3. In reality, the "Howling Commandos" were named after the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" Division.
  4. During its deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-2011, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division was attached to the 101st Airborne Div.
There you have it, True Believers: From Captain America to the Red Bull in four easy steps!


16 November 2011

Photog Depicts Red Bulls and Golden Light

For two months in early 2011, Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald photographer Alyssa Schukar embedded with Nebraska and Iowa National Guard troops deployed to Afghanistan, including those of Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" division. In a recent Veterans Day editorial package, the 27-year-old Lincoln, Neb. native reflected upon her experiences downrange:
I met dedicated soldiers who worked relentlessly to improve Afghans’ lives. The soldiers often told me that their efforts were aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the people. It wasn’t like war video games. Rather, their mission was humanitarian.

People often ask if I feared for my life during that time. Though my heart pounded hard a time or two, I never felt more safe than in the company of those soldiers.
As may have been mentioned previously in the Red Bull Rising blog, Schukar shoots with almost fine-art sensibility: Her big-sky landscapes, golden illuminations, and character-infused portraits often evoke something of the American middle west, as much as they depict life and death and waiting in a strange land. For Veterans Day 2011, she presented an online gallery of her Afghan work. Much of it is museum-worthy.

Just as notable, however, are Schukar's behind-the-scenes descriptions of some self-selected favorites. Be sure to check it out here on the still-active Omaha World-Herald "At War, At Home" blog.

14 November 2011

Sounding Off and Listening Up

Think of it as a mix between "Why We Fight" and "Why We Write": Veterans Day 2011 proved not only a time to reflect upon military service, but to consider sharing memories and experiences with others.

Alex Horton, a U.S. Army veteran and now a blogger for the Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote "Oh, the (War) Stories You'll Hear" for Time magazine's "Battleland" blog, cheekily evoking the title of a Dr. Suess book before telling a story about when he and his Army buddies literally found themselves in the s---.
I can't quite place why I'm willing to share so many of my war stories with civilians. Some of my friends keep their service hidden and move on, like the Army and the war were scenes from a long forgotten movie. Not me, though. Perhaps I'd rather think of myself in a moment in time where I didn't quite know how those stories would shape my life after the war. Or why I stumble madly in the dead of night to double check the locks that keep out enemies without form or figure.

In a fractured existence of countless stories, I still watch the Stryker labor in the muck under its own weight; I see gunships in the distance burp heavy fire and hear the delayed chatter of the guns; I feel the savage fury overtake me as a friend is stuffed into a body bag. I can't escape the grinding machinery of the present, no matter how bafflingly unpredictable and scary and bizarre it is compared to war. But each story I tell puts those moments to rest. If we come home in fragments, it's the stories that make us whole again.
Reporter Carl Prine is a former Marine and Army National Guard soldier, and a Kaybar-sharp analyst of current events at home and downrange. In a Veterans Day post titled "Fathers and Sons," he writes:
Perhaps because the war in Iraq is coming to an end, many of our most conscientiously bright and articulate combat veterans have been mulling what their service there meant. [...] They’re campaigns deep into the soul nevertheless, and I suspect Few and West shall keep marching behind the caissons of regret and pride, courage and pain for decades, with no flag to capture or hill to hold, but that really doesn’t matter, does it?

It’s the march that counts.
And later: "[...] I know a truth, a truth you also know, even if most civilians don’t. Time makes our memories, and changes them, and we don’t know yet what they shall mean."

In his essay, Prine mentions the Nov. 4 reflections of Phillip Carter in the Washington Post, regarding the latter's struggle and reconciliation with the drive-by sentiment, "Thank you for your service." Here are Carter's words:
[...] I began to understand the sincerity underlying most gestures of gratitude toward the troops. I also began to empathize with those who had no personal connection to the military, but who still wanted to say something or do something to support those who served on their behalf. There is genuine respect behind those thank yous, and after a while, I came to accept that.

I also believe that this collective gratitude may serve a deeper purpose. Whether civilians fully realize it or not, the simple message of thanks sends a powerful message to veterans—that the nation will take responsibility for our actions in her service. In some small way, this collective acceptance of responsibility helps veterans to transfer some of the psychological burdens of wartime service to society. Such gratitude will not eradicate combat stress nor address every veteran’s experience. However, these small gestures do make a difference.
Psychologist Paula J. Caplan, author of "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans", wrote an opinion article urging members of the public to consider actively—and non-judgmentally—listening to veterans' stories:
Civilians tend not to ask veterans if they want to talk, because they fear that they won’t know what to do. In our profoundly psychiatrized society, many people mistakenly believe that only therapists know how to heal those veterans who are experiencing grief, fear, shame, anxiety, loss of innocence or moral anguish. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mere act of listening is often deeply healing.

There are three reasons that veterans don’t offer up their tales from the front lines: They don’t want to upset civilians by telling us what they have seen and done; they are afraid we will think they are mentally ill; and they fear that if they tell us, we might not understand—and that the chasm between them and the rest of the community will become even greater. [...]

The veterans said that just being given a chance to tell their stories and be listened to intently made it possible for them to speak, to feel respected and sometimes to say things they had never told anyone. Such listening makes the environment safe: Veterans know they will not be criticized or grilled–and the listener’s silence gives them permission to tell their stories in the way they choose.

For the civilians, the experience was transformative. Whether it was bonding over the sadness of losing a loved one, a sense of powerlessness in not being able to help someone in danger, or a shared understanding of the fragility of life, civilians who had thought they’d have nothing in common with veterans were surprised by how easily they could relate to their experiences. [...]

As veterans open up in these listening sessions, they can more easily give voice to what else they need — from practical help finding jobs, shelter or medical care, to grappling with moral and existential crises, to turning from a culture of defense, attack and destruction to one of connection, creativity and care.

09 November 2011

2 TV Docs Focus on Guard Soldiers Nov. 10

A 28-minute documentary featuring citizen-soldiers deployed with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division premieres on public television stations statewide in Iowa tomorrow (Thurs., Nov. 10) at 7:30 p.m., Central Daylight Time.

Titled "Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan," the documentary was compiled from Iowa Public Television (IPTV), Des Moines (Iowa) Register, and Department of Defense video, and will air three additional times on Veterans Day Fri., Nov. 11.

On-air schedule for "Iowa Soldiers Remember Afghanistan":
  • Thurs., Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m. on IPTV
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 5:00 p.m. on IPTV World
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 8:30 p.m. on IPTV World
  • Fri., Nov. 11, 10:30 p.m. on IPTV
Also premiering on public television stations nationwide is "Where Soldiers Come From," an 86-minute documentary focusing on three Michigan National Guard soldiers deployed to Afghanistan's Khost Province in 2009.

According to press materials: "As it chronicles the young men's transformation from restless teenagers to soldiers looking for roadside bombs to 23-year-old combat veterans trying to start their lives again, the film offers an intimate look at the young Americans who fight our wars, the families and towns they come from--and the way one faraway conflict changes everything."

In discussing challenges citizen-soldiers face upon their return from deployment, the film covers topics such as Post-Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.

The Iowa on-air schedule for "Where Soldiers Come From":
  • Thurs., Nov. 10, 2011 9:00 p.m. (IPTV)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 7:30 a.m. (IPTV World)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 1:30 p.m. (IPTV World)
  • Wed., Nov. 16, 2011 6:30 p.m. (IPTV World)
  • Sat., Nov. 19, 2011 11:00 a.m. (IPTV World)
For local listings elsewhere, use the Zip Code-based locator here.

07 November 2011

Aim Your Words at the Write Targets

Documenting personal and family stories of military service is a long-running theme in the Red Bull Rising blog. What follows in this post is a list of venues through which citizen-soldiers, veterans, friends, and family members can share words, stories, and perspectives. These venues are presented in alphabetical order, and range from informal online exchanges to more traditionally edited print publications. Some even provide opportunities to communicate through visual arts, poetry, and fiction.

Remember, you don't have to write for a living to write about your life.



Website: www.americanveteranscenter.org

According to the organization's website, "the mission of the American Veterans Center is to preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from World War II through Operation Iraqi Freedom." Veterans, friends, and family can place a personal stories on the Online Veterans Tribute, via the website, e-mail, or postal mail.

E-mail: tribute AT americanveteranscenter.org

Mail submissions to:
American Veterans Center
1100 N. Glebe Rd. Suite 910
Arlington, VA 22201

Submissions sent via e-mail or post should be submitted in Microsoft Word format, if possible. According to the website, any story that is not submitted in a format that can be electronically copied and pasted onto the site will take 4 to 6 weeks to transcribe and post online.




A series of Eastern Iowa stage performances in November and December 2011, "Telling: Iowa City" presents the individual experiences of nine veterans, as performed by those veterans. A component of the performance is an opportunity for others to share their own thoughts and experiences regarding military service.

According to the website: "'Telling: Iowa City' is only a small collection of the hundreds and thousands of stories across Iowa of veterans' service to our country. We invite you to tell your own story to us. We will collect them and archive them with the rest of our 'Telling: Iowa City' narratives."



Website: va.eku.edu/volume
Facebook: Click here.
Print publication: The Journal of Military Experience
Deadline for submissions: Dec. 31, 2011

Edited and published on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Ky. and started in Fall 2010, the Journal of Military Experience "reflects the struggles service men and women across the nation, a process that has helped them come to terms with what they experienced and educate those who have not served about the nature of war and military service. Many of the [writers featured in the first issue] have expressed a therapeutic effect from sharing their stories and all are motivated to move forward with their new lives."

Proceeds from book sales go toward publishing future issues, as well as toward funding an "Operation Veterans Success" scholarship and retention program at the university.

Click here for guidelines.



Website: mowarriorwriters.wordpress.com
Facebook: Click here.
Deadline for submissions: Dec. 30, 2011

The Missouri Warrior Writers Project is seeking submissions for a national anthology of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction by veterans and service members about their wartime experiences regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the organization's website:
This experience includes deployments and those who have never been deployed. Transition back into civilian life is also a topic of interest for this anthology. The contest will award $250 each to the top entries in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. All entries will be considered for publication in the anthology. There is no entry fee.
Click here for guidelines.



Website: www.realcombatlife.com/share-a-story/
Twitter: Click here.

The purpose of this Minnesota-based online effort is "to provide an online forum for our brave veterans to share their experiences and to educate the public on what life is like in combat from a first-hand perspective."

The website continues:
Writing your thoughts down has long been a method for individuals to help deal with stress. Military members have the most stressful job in the world and it is important that we do not ignore those signs within us. Sharing your story may not help heal all the pain we have inside but it helps you know that your story is out there and not bottled up inside.

It is also important to educate the public on what life is like in combat. The media reports what they want you to hear. This is your chance to educate the public on what life is really like in combat and to let them know what you have done for our great country. Not all stories have to be about getting shot at. We want to hear your funny stories and what you do to fight the boredom. The story can be as long or short as you want ... we just want to help you get your voice heard!

04 November 2011

Midwest Vets to Tell Their Stories on Stage

In a series of November and December performances, Working Group Theatre will present "Telling: Iowa City," a play taken directly from the stories of Eastern Iowa veterans, and performed by the veterans themselves. The creative process is based on a project founded in Eugune, Ore. by Jonathan Wei.

The cast comprises nine veterans of various ages, ranks, genders, and experiences both overseas and stateside. As the theater group's publicity materials note: "The veterans’ service to our country spans over half a century, from the streets of Baghdad to the jungles of Indochina."

Performances are:
Nov. 8-10, 7:30 p.m.
University of Iowa Theatre Building, Theatre B
Tickets are free
To reserve ticket, e-mail: info AT workinggrouptheatre.org

December 2-4, 7:30 p.m.
Riverside Theatre, Iowa City
Tickets are $12 to $15
To reserve tickets, call: 319.338.7672
Hosts, partners and sponsors of the event include:

03 November 2011

Vets Write Their 'Ways Back Home'

Blog-editor's note: This post is based on pre-event press materials regarding "Writing My Way Back Home," a free writing workshop for veterans conducted in Iowa City, Iowa, Oct. 14-16, 2011. The event was sponsored by the University of Iowa Veterans Center. Contact information regarding future such events appears below.

The day after Emma Rainey finished organizing and teaching a writing workshop for veterans in 2010, she received a letter from her father—a U.S. naval officer during the Korean War—describing a war trauma he suffered and never mentioned to anyone in the family. "The irony did not escape me," said Rainey. "I barely understood my passion to help veterans—mostly I was driven by news reports of returning veterans committing suicide and knew writing could help. To discover my father had suffered an ungodly trauma—and never mentioned it till now—sent me reeling."

"The workshop’s primary aim is not to generate work of literary quality—although this may happen and certainly did in our first workshop,” said Rainey, a 2009 graduate of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program co-facilitated the workshop with John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center coordinator. “The workshop begins the powerful process for veterans to write their stories and reflect on events they experienced in war in a way that may lead to greater insight, creativity, and healing."

Writers from UI's Nonfiction Writing Program and Writers' Workshop, poets, playwrights, and veterans volunteered to teach blocks of instruction. Topics ranged from the use of descriptions and dialogue, explorations of poetic and visual forms of expression.

"Our first workshop was full of surprises," said Rainey. "First, half the veterans were women—I didn’t expect that. Also, I was overwhelmed by the determination of disabled vets to journey to Iowa City—a blind vet flew in from Minneapolis and a paraplegic took the Greyhound bus from Chicago—to write their stories. But what struck me most of all was the camaraderie—it didn’t matter which branch of service, age, rank, or war had been fought. They veterans were just glad to be together."

Following 2010's event, Rainey and Mikelson had noted many veterans wished to participate, but found traveling to Iowa impossible. Rainey has since incorporated and is finishing the application process for non-profit status to conduct writing workshops throughout the U.S. The name "Writing My Way Back Home" came from correspondence with John Lavelle, a Vietnam War vet from Bettendorf, Iowa. "John used the expression: 'writing my way home' in our e-mail communications," Rainey said. "This phrase was an ideal metaphor for what the vet faces when returning stateside, as well as how they must reconnect—and come home—to themselves. So when it was time incorporate and fill in the name of our organization, John Lavelle gladly gave his permission to use it."

Rainey recently completed a course titled "Recon Mission" at the Therapeutic Writing Institute, Wheat Ridge, Colo. She also conducted two writing workshops this past year for Operation: Military Kids, run by Iowa State University for military children with parents about to deploy. "I think the National Guard has it particularly hard since they are not full time. And though I wasn’t born when my father served in the Korean War, I remember how difficult it was for our family when he was out to sea, sometimes for a year at a time. I’m impressed how organizations are recognizing that family members need supportive attention, too."

The writing workshop was open to all current and former military personnel—whether they were in combat or not.

One lunch was donated by Bread Garden Market, Iowa City. "Eating together—the vets and writers and volunteer therapists—helped deepen the bond in the writing community during the weekend."

Rainey also mentioned Karl Marlantes's 2011 book, "What It Is Like to Go to War" “Marlantes bravely looks into the heart of the warrior and demands our society recognize the healing work needed for our returning warriors.”

Marlantes writes:
This book is my song. Each and every one of us veterans must have a song to sing about our war before we can walk back into the community without everyone …quaking behind the walls. Perhaps it is drawing pictures or reciting poetry about the war. Perhaps it is getting together with a small group and telling stories. Perhaps it is dreaming about it and writing the dreams down and then telling people your dreams. But it isn’t enough just to do the art in solitude and sing the song alone. You must sing it to other people. Those who are afraid or uneasy must hear it. They must see the art. They must lose their fear. When the child asks, "What is it like to go to war?" to remain silent keeps you from coming home.
This year John Mikelson is setting aside a time slot for veterans to read their work during this year’s Veterans Reception on Nov. 9 at the Old Capitol Town Centre. "The one component missing from our last workshop," Rainey recalls, "was a venue for the veterans to read their writing to civilians. It’s a transformative experience, both for the vet and the audience, to hear and understand the warrior’s experience. It’s part of the healing process for the vet and the civilians."

Rainey believes it is essential we reach out to the veterans we have sent to war to help integrate them back home. "After reading my father's war narrative, I began to write an essay about it and realized how his unspoken trauma became an intimate member of our family—an unnamed sibling—and would have been rendered invisible if not for its explosive echo powerful enough to erupt, to this day, the lives of my sisters and mother. More than ever I am committed to helping U.S. military personnel find their way back home through writing."

For more information on "Writing My Way Home" offerings, click here.

Visit the project's Facebook page here.

Or contact:

Writing My Way Back Home
P.O. Box 3470
Iowa City, Iowa 52244

John Mikelson, UI Veterans Center: john-mikelson AT uiowa.edu

Emma Rainey, Writing My Way Back Home, Inc.: emma.rainey4 AT gmail.com

02 November 2011

'The Forever War' on the Prairie

Home of the University of Iowa, the municipality of Iowa City, Iowa is also a UNESCO City of Literature. The designation recognizes the regional confluence of academic, private-, and public-sector activities and events centered on writing and literature.

From June to October 2011, libraries, businesses, and others displayed more than 25 "BookMarks" statues in public venues throughout the Iowa City metro area. Shaped like open tomes, and painted on themes ranging from "Moby Dick" to "A Book is a Present You Can Open," the statues will be auctioned off at a Coralville Center for the Performing Arts event, Thurs., Nov. 10, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Registration for the event ends Nov. 5.

Coincidentally, it was during a short October walk
between the university library and the UI Veterans Center that I first encountered a BookMarks statue celebrating Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War". I was in Iowa City to attend a series of seminars on writing about war, which was recently hosted by the vets center. More on that event tomorrow.

According to a press release regarding the "Forever War" installation:
This ground-breaking novel is one of the most influential works of science fiction written in the last 40 years. It was completed while Haldeman was attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and published in 1974 while he was living in Iowa City. He submitted a copy of the first edition as his Master’s thesis.

The Forever War is an oblique depiction of Haldeman’s experience as a soldier during the Vietnam War, and a mind-bending treatment of the concept of time and space, the ways in which human experience is forged by our perception of the times in which we live.
In the novel, William Mandella is sent many light years across space to engage an enemy species known as the Taurans. Due to time dilation caused by faster-than-light travel, Mandella and his fellow soldiers age two months while time on earth advances by a decade. Haldeman uses this scenario, which most science fiction conveniently avoids, to depict the concept of future shock in tangible terms. The novel becomes a meditative examination of the senselessness of war and the immensity of time and cultural change, with a love story stitching the pieces together on a human scale.
The novel won every major award for science fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula, and it is considered an important work about the Vietnam War. Haldeman wrote two sequels, and the original novel is currently being adapted to film by Ridley Scott. The sculpture, by the artist Jim Kelly, depicts the powered suit of armor that the soldiers in the novel wear, while the interior of the sculpture invites viewers to step inside the suit, by stepping inside the book.

01 November 2011

Iowa City Center is Outpost for Student-Vets

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs blogger Alex Horton recently observed:
When veterans return from deployments and get out of the military, the campus can be an attractive place to start the next chapter of life. It can also be a place with unique challenges of reintegration, like a younger peer group and the juggling of family or career life. So, veterans are usually called nontraditional students, but that doesn’t mean universities understand or always prepare for their needs. But some schools have started to understand the need for veteran-specific programs and services on campus.
The University of Iowa, for example, has a Veterans Center located on the first floor of the UI Communications Center on Madison Street, downtown Iowa City. The center serves a growing population of students who are serving, or who have served, in military uniform. Currently, the veterans number more than 400 on campus, and enrollment anticipated to increase to more than 600 students next year.

Think of it as an outpost, where people speak fluent military-ese, don't flinch at mixing camouflage patterns, and may have even once walked in your boots for a time.

According to the center's website:
  • The center is staffed by veterans and is designed to ensure that student veterans at the University receive all benefits to which they are entitled. The center is home to the University of Iowa Veteran's Association (UIVA), which serves as liaison between the university and student veterans, and works to address issues specific to student veterans.
  • Assistance and information can be provided regarding issues and benefits such as: housing grants and loans, medical services, and credit hours awards for military service, among others.
  • In addition, the lounge offers comfortable seating, several networked computers, fridge/freezer, microwave, big screen TV, and pop/snacks are available for purchase.
  • The center is generally open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but calling ahead is advisable: 319.384.2020; 319.335.3152.
The website further describes the University of Iowa Veterans Association (UIVA) as:
[A] group of veterans and supporters interested in helping veterans and returning reservists at The University of Iowa adjust to and integrate into university life. Additionally, the group aims to support persons still serving as well as their families, and to raise awareness among fellow students of the daily sacrifices made on their behalf.

This is not a pro-war or anti-war group. It is a pro-service member group for veterans, reservists, and supporters. People of all political ideologies are welcome.