31 May 2012

FREE: National Arts Workshop for Veterans, July 5-7

The Military Experience and the Arts Symposium will be held July 5-7, 2012, on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, Kent. At the event, more than 100 veterans from across the country will share ideas, experiences, and new ways to tell old stories.

Participants in the free event will receive three days of lodging, meals, textbooks, and workshop instruction. Participants need only pay for transportation to and from the symposium.

Eastern Kentucky University is home to The Journal of Military Experience, a literary and scholarly publication, as well as the Veterans Studies Program—a first-of-its-kind multi-disciplinary program dedicated to educating non-veterans about veterans issues. The university's "Operation Veterans Success" soldier-to-student program was recognized by the Student Veterans of America as the 2011 Program of the Year.

The second issue of The Journal of Military Experience will be released during the symposium.

Through workshops, lectures, and demonstrations, practitioners and artists will help veterans to communicate experience through writing, drawing, painting, acting, dancing, and other creative acts.

Charlie Sherpa, the writer of the Red Bull Rising blog, will facilitate one of the workshops, focusing on how veterans can document and share experiences through online tools such as blogs and social media. Here's the workshop description:
Military-themed blogs, also known as “mil-blogs,” are unmediated presentations of experiences and opinions. Often, they are first-person narratives of military service-members, veterans, or family members. A mil-blog can be way to explore emotions and memories, document personal history, and/or establish connections with others who share similar interests. 
A mil-blog can additionally serve as a platform through which to collect, collate, and even market one’s fiction, poetry, photography, and other artistic efforts. After learning mil-blogging terms, tools, and tactics—including how to optimize output by publishing across social media channels—participants will brainstorm how to generate a blog based on their respective backgrounds and interests.
For more information on the symposium, click here.

To register for the free event, click here.

28 May 2012

Remember the Names; Tell Their Stories

This new Red Bull Rising post originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Iowa City (Iowa) Press-Citizen May 28, 2012:

I joined the Iowa Army National Guard because I wanted to serve God, country and community. What I didn’t realize was that, in addition to paying for my education and giving me a part-time (and sometimes full-time) job, I’d receive a lifetime of “war stories” in return.

In 1993, I slung sandbags in Cedar Rapids. My wedding in 1997 was nearly postponed by a deployment to Bosnia. [The wedding happened, the deployment did not.] In 2000, I monitored levees on the Mississippi River, protecting some of my old high school haunts. In 2003, I ran a movie theater, and radio and TV stations on a beach in Egypt. During the blizzards of 2007, I worked the night shift in the state operations center. In 2009, I helped prepare 1,000 troops for a short-notice mission to support a U.S. presidential inauguration.

When I first raised my right hand to enlist, I couldn’t have predicted any of that. Lots of stories.

In 2010, I prepared to deploy with 3,000 Iowans of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry “Red Bull” Division (2-34th BCT). It was the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard troops since World War II. Paperwork got in the way of my deployment, but I went later as a civilian reporter. That, too, makes for a good story: "Middle-aged Midwestern Boy meets Afghan deployment, boy loses deployment, boy goes to Afghanistan anyway."

Some war stories I tell to entertain others. Some of them I don’t. Sometimes, I change the names, especially on the goofy ones. Sometimes, however, the names are the essential part of the story: 
  • Spc. Donald L. Nichols, 21, of Shell Rock. Killed April 13, 2011, in Laghman Province, when an IED detonated under the vehicle in which he was traveling.
  • Staff Sgt. James A. Justice, 32, of Grimes. Killed April 23, 2011, by small-arms fire in Kapisa Province, during an helicopter-borne mission to secure the position of a downed U.S. attack helicopter. 
  • Sgt. First Class Terryl L. Pasker, 39, of Cedar Rapids. Killed by small-arms fire July 10, 2011, when a rogue Afghan security officer attacked at a makeshift traffic stop in Panjshir Province
Maher was a husband, a father of three and worked an Omaha auto dealership.

Nichols was engaged to be married; his brother, a U.S. Army Reserve soldier then also deployed to Afghanistan, escorted the body home.

Justice—his nickname was “Juice”—was a hardworking NCO who fought to go on the deployment even after the Red Bull had left Iowa in August 2010. He arrived in country in February 2011. He had a wife Amanda, and a daughter named Caydence.

Pasker? After a year in the “safest province in Afghanistan”—U.S. soldiers in Panjshir didn’t drive armored military trucks, out of respect to their local hosts — he was planning to retire, go back to building homes, and start a family with his wife, Erica. His unit was just days away from returning to Iowa when he was killed.

People don’t have to visit a cemetery to celebrate the lives and sacrifices of our citizen-soldiers, nor should they forget the friends and families who bear scars and burdens long after the trumpets play. They do, however, have to remember. And people can’t remember if we don’t talk about the fallen. We have to say the names. We have to tell their stories.

The 2012 feature film “Memorial Day”—available on DVD and Blu-ray May 29—tells the story of a Minnesota boy who confronts his grandfather with a dusty World War II footlocker, filled with souvenirs. Actor James Cromwell’s character tells 13-year-old Kyle: “I didn’t loot. And I didn’t steal. I collected things that would help me remember.”

Me? I collect stories.

Kyle grows up to wear the same 34th Division “Red Bull” patch currently worn by many Minnesota and Iowa National Guard soldiers. Like thousands of other Midwestern veterans and citizen-soldiers, I proudly wore that patch on my shoulder. So did Maher, Nichols, Justice and Pasker.

After I retired, I packed my own footlocker, after my wife asked me to rid the house of my surplus Army baggage. Into a single government-issue box, I put 20 years of uniforms and boots, along with patches, pins, and other paraphernalia.

One day, I’ll tell my kids about what’s inside. I will tell them about the Red Bull. I will tell them about giving back, and putting your life on hold to serve country and community. I’ll tell them about making each day count, and never taking anything for granted.

Especially coming home.

'What is Memorial Day Even For?'

Scene: Waiting for take-out pizza on a hot Sunday afternoon. The Sherpa kids are in the back seat.

Lena, age 7: "What is Memorial Day even for?"

Me: "It's for remembering anyone who has died who has also served our country in uniform—all the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen."

Lena: "Like Nathan's dad?"

Me (surprised): "Yes ... Like Nathan's dad."

24 May 2012

Operation Footlocker

A recurring theme on the Red Bull Rising blog is encouragement for citizen-soldiers, friends, and families to document and share their stories of deployment. Too few of our fellow citizens—including those we have elected to office—have directly experienced the sacrifices of service and war. Rather than being a nation at war, the saying goes, we are a nation at Wal-mart. We have left the fighting to our soldiers. Attention must be paid.

The movie "Memorial Day," available on DVD and Blu-ray starting May 29, tells the story of a 13-year-old Minnesota boy who challenges his veteran grandfather to tell the stories contained in an old footlocker.

According to "Memorial Day" press materials released this week, the film was inspired by the experience co-executive producer Jeff Traxler, a veteran and historical reenactor. Traxler once discovered a military footlocker in an abandoned house, which caused him to contemplate the stories inside that must have been locked away for years—and would never be told. From the same document:
"Talking about the war can be an emotional journey filled with memories that are both joyful and difficult," said Tara Staver, a neuropsychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of active-duty soldiers. "But the value of sharing our stories—our experiences—not only for veterans, but for us all, creates a meaningful connection with others and allows us to live in the present while understanding how to learn from and honor the past."
Coincidentally, I've written about packing my own footlocker. After I retired, Household-6 told me I needed to reduce my 20-years of Army baggage down to a more manageable size.

Here's a small challenge for this Memorial Day weekend: Find your footlockers. Open them up. Take one object and 15 minutes. And tell your story.

For past Red Bull Rising blog-posts regarding ways to document and share stories, click here, here, and here.

For some other ways to remember citizen-soldiers, click here.

21 May 2012

First Days and Worst Fears

In 2010, while preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, my biggest dread was missing the first day of kindergarten. I worried about what it would be like to leave my young children for a year. I was worried more about how they might change, rather than how I might change.

A recent Minnesota Public Radio story about post-deployment parenting quoted Kevin Ross, 31, about how he hardly recognized one of his daughters when he returned from an 18-month deployment to Iraq in 2009. At the time, Ross was a member of 682nd Engineer Battalion, Wilmar, Minn.:
"The night I got home I remember we are standing in that final formation in the armory," he says, "and I looked out and I saw a little girl sitting on the floor crying. As I got closer I hugged my wife and realized that that was my child."
That sounded a little like my own worst fear.

The strange thing about worst fears is that they seem so different in retrospect.

The way things worked out, I didn't deploy. I didn't have to miss kindergarten, although, ironically, my Army job at the time eventually kept me away from the Lena's official first day of school.

Turns out, however, the first day of school was just another day. By the time kindergarten rolled around, Lena had already spent a summer in a school-based "camp" program. Drop-off at the school building was just another day at the office. A non-event.

The last day of the 2011-2012 school year was last Friday, so, for us, today was the first day of summer. On the school rolls, Lena is now counted as a second-grader. Rain is preparing for kindergarten. Both kids went off to school "camp" this morning.

Rain is more of an introvert than his sister. While dropping him off this morning, he skirted the perimeter of a large room of kids and adults playing tabletop games, promptly found a set of toy tools, and set to building something by himself. I hardly got a good-bye out of him. He was wearing a hard hat when I left him, ready to get to work.

I wasn't expecting it to be so easy. Or so hard.

Walking outside to my car, I suddenly felt like I'd been smacked by a ball peen hammer, right between the eyes. That hasn't happened for a long time. Still, it made me remember everything that's happened in the past couple of years. And also to appreciate that I've been around to see most of it happen.

Time passes. Fears change.

And kids grow up, no matter what.

16 May 2012

'A Sergeant in Motion Outranks an Officer Who's Not'

More than once or twice, I've mentioned my admiration for the work of Howard Tayler, the writer and artist of "Schlock Mercenary." Every day (for free?!), with tongue in cheek and plasma guns set on ominous hum, Tayler explores strange new worlds, intricate plots, and military-themed humor. In the past, I've likened it to a combination of "Hammer's Slammers," "Starship Troopers," and "Red Dwarf."

The title character, the fun-loving and Ovalkwik-consuming Sgt. Schlock, is a little harder to describe. The closest 21st century analogue I've found is a claymation character from a toilet commercial on Japanese TV. Let's ... not go there.

I thought I'd again mention "Schlock Mercenary" on the pages of Red Bull Rising today, if for no other reasons than these:
  • Tayler recently reiterated his Mercenary Maxim No. 2—"a sergeant in motion outranks a lieutenant who doesn't know what's going on"—in glorious Sunday multi-panel comic form. (See inset for excerpt.) In that particular strip, Tayler even suggested this corollary: "If you have to ask whether you're having a Maxim No. 2 moment, then, yes, you're having a Maxim No. 2 moment."
  • I'm obviously a sucker for epigrams and maxims. Remember Sherpatude No. 26? "Humor is a combat-multiplier. Except when it isn't." I rotate a set of 12 Mercenary Maxims—a digital bonus from the Schlock Mercenary 2012 wall calendar (now on sale at reduced price!)—as pictures on my computer desktop. (For the record, May is "Close air-support and friendly fire should be easier to tell apart.")
  • It affords me another opportunity to once again publish a picture of Tayler (above), who gamely posed for an Army buddy of mine at Gen Con 2011. Some people go to Disney World when they come home from an Afghan deployment. Others put on their riding leathers and go out on the road. My friends? They go to gaming conventions. Forget combat! Roll for saving throw!
"That tingling? That means it's working!"
    Check out "Schlock Mercenary" today!

    14 May 2012

    A Jump Straight into the BAF

    Mother's Day 2012 fell on Sunday, May 13. In 2011, May 13 was a Friday. It was also the day I launched into Afghanistan as an embedded civilian reporter. In doing a little personal archeology this weekend, I came upon this never-before-posted Red Bull Rising blog entry. I thought I'd share it now. File it under "Where Were We One Year Ago ..."

    MAY 13, 2011—Having cashed in some 95,000 of my wife's airline miles, it cost me $63 U.S. to get to Dubai.

    Further opening the family wallet, it cost another $1,000 for a round-trip ticket straight into Bagram Airfield. A jump into the "BAF."

    In my research into civilian routes to Afghanistan, I'd talked to a couple of Midwestern journalists who'd also recently made the Afghan trek. An Ohio TV crew reported they'd almost been escorted off the plane in Kabul, with officials citing their allegedly illegal possession of body armor and helmets. A U.S. State Department rep on the scene had advised not to fight it.

    A newspaper reporter buddy had his protective equipment "confiscated" at an Afghan police checkpoint outside of Kabul International Airport (K.I.A.). One of the hard-and-fast rules for embedded media is: You need your body armor and magic helmet to board any military aircraft or ground vehicle. Lucky for my buddy, he was on his way out of the country—transferring from military to civilian transportation, rather than the other way around. Still, it was a sticky-fingered situation. "Not allowed," he was told with the wag of a policeman's finger, as that same policeman began to take the reporter's stockholder-funded gear. The police offered this compromise: "I give back to you when you come back to Afghanistan."

    Yeah ... right. Or maybe I can by it back by watching the Taliban Home Shopping Network?

    I regard travel like I do baseball—I've never really been a very strong fan of either, but it seems somewhat un-American to say so. For me, however, both activities seem full of questionably prepared foods, unthinkable latrines, uncomfortable seating arrangements, and arcane languages. Plus, I get the sneaking suspicion that the guys with the money make up their own rules. You want me to pay my hard-earned money to subsidize all that?! I think I'll stay home and have a beer. I can make my own nachos.

    To extend the sports metaphor a little: In planning my Afghan travel, I've got the problem of transporting $2,500 of personally purchased equipment to my next away game. In fact, it's my own Big Show. My Kelvar stuff is heavy, but still breakable. And it's illegal in a growing number of countries. I buy the wrong ticket, make the wrong move, go through the wrong airport, and it's a potential show-stopper.

    When Uncle Sam is your travel agent, everything is easy. You are told what to pack, when to show up, and to wait for the next flight. You are escorted and eased through customs. Nobody steals your stuff. When you go free-agent, however, you get the bum's rush. "Hurry up and wait" turns into "you can't do that here."

    Consider this cautionary language from the U.S. State Department:
    All US personnel - to avoid violation of Emirati laws by the intentional or accidental transport of any arms or items considered as law enforcement equipment or military gear. UAE airport personnel will x-ray all baggage - checked or carry-on - and cargo shipments, including household goods, both incoming and outgoing. UAE authorities will confiscate any weapons, weapon parts, ammunition, body armor, handcuffs, sensitive electronics, cryptographic devices, and/or other military/police equipment transported to or through a civilian airport. Persons found to be carrying such items will be arrested and face strict criminal penalties, including imprisonment and large monetary fines. One such incident involved one bullet, found in the bag of a traveler who had unknowingly left the item in his bag. [Emphasis added.] This individual was detained by the police and now faces a possible jail sentence and large monetary fine. In other similar incidents, U.S. defense contractors transiting the U.A.E. with weapons were arrested and are now serving jail sentences of several months.
    Do I have anything to declare? Why, yes, that I'll do anything to avoid traveling through your country, thank you.

    Safety is another factor, although one with ever fewer clear solutions. One of my favorite passages regarding travel to Kabul comes from Lonely Planet:
    Flying into Kabul has always been a bit of an adventure. In the 1980s and ’90s, approaching planes had to steeply corkscrew when approaching the airport as an antimissile defence, while as recently as 2006, new arrivals were greeted by the sight of the ‘Ariana Graveyard’, a twisted and shattered junkpile of destroyed airliners. The same year also finally saw the installation of a radar system at the airport.

    Poor maintenance has been a worry for Ariana flights, and the UN and many embassies ban their staff from flying with the airline, which has also been barred from EU airspace. Much of the fleet are second-hand planes from Indian Airlines, but these are slowly being replaced. Kam Air uses newer planes and is generally regarded as being better run, but it has Afghanistan’s one recent fatal crash to its name: a flight between Herat and Kabul crashed in February 2005 with the loss of 104 lives. Snowy conditions were blamed.
    I'll take "Travel Insights I Won't Tell My Wife for $200," please, Alex?

    If you're flying a charter, you can often make up your own rules. One of my more surreal deployment memories? While returning from a deployment to Egypt in 2004, I field-stripped my M-16 rifle so that I could stuff it under my airline seat. The smaller parts went into an air-sickness bag. Waterproofing bonus!

    Back when I worked at the Better Magazine Factory, my fellow workaday editors and I would roll our eyes at our snooty editors-in-chief, who were rumoredly too posh to carry-on or check-in their own luggage. Such high-roller-bag behavior might fly at Condé-Nasty New York, but here in River City, Iowa? Allegedly, they'd overnight-express their goods to their next night's destinations.

    Still, while the Devil may wear Prada on the plane, however, she never wears Kevlar. I swallowed my Midwestern carry-it-myself pride, and mailed my body armor to a Bagram buddy via the U.S. Postal Service. I flew through Dubai, and flew a chartered 737 directly into Bagram. The name of the outfit--Middle East affiliate of "Diplomat Freight Services"--made me feel like I was about to cuddle up in a romantic cargo bay alongside some ambassador's in-bound stash of Johnnie Walker Blue.

    The reality of it turned out to be far more pedestrian: A 737 full of contractors, ex-military, one Middle Western media guy, and other ne'er-do-wells. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

    My original itinerary was to fly American Airlines from Des Moines to Chicago, and Chicago to London; then British Airways from London to Dubai. Due to storms over Chicago, however, I was delayed getting out of Des Moines, and rerouted to Dallas-Fort Worth.

    When I got to Texas, the next flight to Los Angeles had been cancelled. So I spent the night circling DFW in a tram, launched to Los Angeles in the morning, then made a Los Angeles connection to Dubai via Emirates Airlines. From Los Angeles, it was one excruciating no-hitter of a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Dubai: Up the West Coast, over Canada and the Arctic Circle, down Eastern Europe. I think we even flew over Iran, but I may have been hallucinating by that point.

    The in-flight entertainment on Emirates 218 was exceptional, however, with on-demand video served to each and every seat—even those of us in the nose-bleed section. Over the course of 16 hours or so, I watched a series of recent-vintage movies, including: the Coen Brothers' remake of "True Grit", the unnecessarily bromantic update of "The Green Hornet", and "The King's Speech"

    Only in retrospect did I realize that each of these selections involved unexpected heroes: Rooster Cogburn, Britt Reid, and Lionel Logue. A lawman turned drunkard, a newspaper publisher turned "criminal," and a ne'er-do-well thespian turned speech therapist.

    For the rest of the trip, I thought myself in characteristically good company.

    11 May 2012

    A White House War Story

    This weekend is the 2012 Milblogging Conference. While I wasn't able to swing the trip to Washington, D.C. this year--Household-6 jokes that I'm still paying off last year's airline ticket to Afghanistan, plus a few thousand dollars' worth of ballistic sportswear--I wish those gathered there peace, love, and understanding. And, of course, the festive adult beverage of their choice.

    There are a number of potentially interesting panel mil-blogging discussions scheduled for tomorrow, Sat., May 12, which will be live-streamed by the folks at You Served. Events include:

    • "The Military and the Media"
    • "Benefits: Promises Delivered, Delay, or Dismissed?"
    • "Q&A with Scott Waugh, producer and director of 'Act of Valor.'"
    • "Panel 3: Rise of Social Media in the Service Branches"
    • "The Pen and the Sword: MilBloggers Who Had An Impact"

    For times and access to the video feed, click here.

    A few of the usual suspects have already arrived in the District of Columbia, and are blogging, Tweeting, and Facebooking details of their travels. More than a few have placename-dropped the White House, although it's unclear whether its for business or pleasure.

    Their mention of the White House reminded me of this personal war story from the media trenches:

    Back in the late 1980s, I took a leave of absence from school and the Army to participate in a semester-long internship program funded by Sears Roebuck and Co. Because the program was designed for journalism and communications majors, each of us was assigned to work in a Congressional press office. Every week, we also attended various press conferences and other events, in order to get a feel for how each organization and agencies interacted with media.

    On one such morning, we were standing outside the White House at a small booth and gate, waiting as the guard checked our names off a list to attend the daily press briefing. As we waited, reporters whose names and faces we knew shuffled by. I must've mentally gone into soldierly "hurry up and wait" mode, standing straight without locking knees, eyes straight ahead but taking it all in.

    That's when David Broder walked by, flashing me his press pass. Other members of the press started doing the same.

    During the de-brief, I mentioned the strange incident to the program's coordinator. "It was the military haircut and the black trench coat," he laughed. "They thought you were Secret Service!"

    Like any good war story, however, someone's always got a better one:

    Apparently, I wasn't the first Army cadet to have been accepted into the Sears Congressional Internship Program. The year before, the story goes, the Sears fellows were loitering at the U.S. Capitol, and the vice president is about to enter the building. Secret Service comes in, asks for tourists to clear a path. It's still a little crowded in one area. The agent in charge turns to the Sears intern with the high-and-tight haircut, and assumes he's also on the security detail: "Can you get these people to move back?"

    The intern doesn't miss a beat, and immediately pivots to address the civilians: "Ladies and gentlemen, can I please have you move back to this line?"

    Everything else goes as planned. The vice president arrives, blows through the hallway, and the security detail starts moving to follow behind him.

    That's when the agent in charge did a head-count of his team.

    He had one more agent than he started with.

    04 May 2012

    The Things We Carry Still

    When I was in either high school or college, my kid brother and I were nosing around in a basement storage area of the Sherpa family home. In the dark, there were a few bags stuffed with Vietnam-era military gear, surplus left over from our father's time as a navigator on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

    By the time of our basement explorations, Dad had left active duty, and was flying with the reserves. Unlike my brother Rain, I remember our family being in the active Air Force. I remember my shock when schoolyard playmates laughed at the way I said that just now: "My family is in the Air Force."

    They laughed, didn't understand what I meant, said I couldn't possibly be in the Air Force.

    I, in turn, didn't understand why they didn't get it. Didn't figure it out until I was an adult.

    Now, a couple of decades and deployments later, I can better articulate the sentiment: One person wears the uniform, but the whole family serves.

    Rain was born on a base in Florida, but probably was barely out of diapers when we left the Air Force. He didn't remember the flight suits and the black boots, the big cube bags and the poncho liners. Come to think of it, in the basement that day, I might've been foraging for those poncho liners. I might've already signed up with the Army by that point, to help pay for the back-half of college. Rain and I used to build tents out of the camouflage-patterned, quilted nylon blankets. When I joined the Army, I'd wanted to take them to the field.

    Eventually, when I found them, Dad told me I'd have to get my own. The tactical blankets had gotten him through Vietnam, he said, and he wasn't about to give them up.

    That day in the basement, we also found a couple of presentation cases containing medals and citations. Rain didn't know about these. I'd found them once before. There's a Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.) in one of them—an award recognizing "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight"—and a narrative about how, as a young man, my father used his sextant to monitor the damaged tail of the C-130 Hercules in which he was a crew member. The tail had been hit by lightning.

    To this day, I have yet to ask my father about that medal. Or that moment in the air, when he might not have come home.

    I remember not wanting to know for certain. While the just-the-facts citation made it all sound almost routine, Dad might've been a hero. He might've also had a close call. At the time, I preferred to imagine the former possibility, and to ignore the latter. Young men are immortals, after all, and their fathers should be, too. As long as they can.

    I should ask my father about that medal someday soon. I have my own footlocker now. My own war stories. My own military baggage.


    In keeping with director Sam Fischer's objective that the movie "Memorial Day"
    become a catalyst for conversations between generations, social media efforts regarding the film's upcoming release have often posed the question: "What's in your footlocker?"

    The movie centers on a conversation between a 13-year-old boy and his grandfather, about the latter's World War II experiences. In the publicity trailer, the grandfather narrates:
    I kept things from the war. And then I kept them from my family. Myself, too, I guess. Some people call them 'souvenirs.' ... I don't know. To me, a souvenir is a foul ball at a baseball game. These are fragments of memory ... shrapnel.

    In combat, you start to question what's real and what's not. You take things along the way. Because if those things were there, then ... you were there. And it really happened.

    I didn't loot. And I didn't steal. I collected things that would help me remember. What I didn't count on was: They don't let you forget.

    In a recent essay that appeared on Doonesbury's "The Sandbox," Iraq war veteran and author Colby Buzzell talks of finding stacks of slides his Vietnam-veteran father had taken while on foot patrol. His father was still alive, and they walked through some of the images together:
    The dusty photo projector we were ready to give to Goodwill miraculously fired right up, so we decided to take a break from packing and go through the photographs. Beaming onto our living room wall were these beautiful shots of the Vietnam countryside, and shots taken from my father’s point of view while on foot patrols. He narrated the slides for me and as he saw different guys in his platoon, a warm smile would come to his face as he recalled old friends that he hasn’t laid eyes on in decades. We came to a shot of four or so young soldiers casually smiling, proudly standing around a bunch of captured weapons that, my father said, they discovered while searching a village.

    His smile slowly disappeared. He remained silent for a second or two as he just furrowed his brows and studied the photo. Then he told me that all of the guys we were looking at were killed two days later during an ambush.

    After that, it was time get back to work and look at those slides some other time, which of course we never did. I’ll always wonder what else was there. I imagine my father and I are part of a tradition of soldiers who have gone to war, taken a series of photographs and returned home to file them away, never to be looked at again.

    Stars & Stripes has launched a campaign to collect stories of service inspired by physical objects. The newspaper plans to publish the stories to celebrate Memorial Day 2012:
    After more than a decade at war, chances are someone you knew, perhaps someone you loved, has given their life in military service to this country. But they aren't gone, not entirely. You have memories to call upon to bring them back to you, and you have physical objects that are a constant reminder of your fallen service member. Maybe a set of dog tags, an old T-shirt, a pickup truck or a tattoo.

    To mark Memorial Day, Stars and Stripes wants to hear about your mementos and the people and stories that will forever be linked to them.
    Click here to share your stories.


    The Omaha World-Herald is collecting stories and pictures of Nebraskans and Western Iowans who served in the Armed Forces during the Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, Strategic Air Command, Germany, and elsewhere. Some of the narratives will be featured in a book, similar to one published on World War II, while others will appear in the newspaper and online.

    Click here to share your stories.

    You can also e-mail your memory and photo to: atwar.athome@owh.com

    Or mail to: Dan Sullivan; "At War, At Home" blog; Omaha World-Herald Building 1314 Douglas St., Suite 700 Omaha, NE 68102-1811

    01 May 2012

    Movie Review: 'Memorial Day'

    Less than 30 days remain until the release of "Memorial Day," a Minnesota-based feature film starring Jonathan Bennett, James Cromwell and his son John Cromwell.

    Originally titled "Souvenirs" and filmed in 2010-2011 by a Minnesota-based production company, the movie alternates between the fictional stories of U.S. Army Lt. Bud Vogel, an 82nd Airborne Division "All-American" soldier fighting in World War II Holland, and U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kyle Vogel, a Minnesota Army National Guard "Red Bull" soldier fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The narrative is driven by a front-porch conversation between grandson and grandfather that takes place on a summer day, after the 13-year-old boy finds a G.I. footlocker full of memorabilia.

    In the "Memorial Day" publicity trailer, James Cromwell's character tells his grandson:

    I didn't loot. And I didn't steal. I collected things that would help me remember. What I didn't count on was: They don't let you forget.You found the footlocker, Kyle, so ... I'll make a deal with you. Pick any three, and I'll tell you the story behind each one. God willing, you won't have to experience any of these things yourself. But if you do, you'll be ready.
    The film is itself a memory-provoking artifact, a device by which someone might unlock conversations with a family member or friend about their military experiences. In press materials, director Sam Fischer writes:
    In the bigger picture, I want this film to enhance the very meaning of the Memorial Day holiday in America—so that in addition to being a day of remembering, it also becomes a day of sharing memories. Veterans from World War II to the present are rarely forthcoming in telling their stories. We need to ask—almost insist—that these brave men and women share their experiences, and then we need to do them the honor of sitting back and listening. [...]

    I hope [the film] can serve as a conduit to opening footlockers around the world and releasing the amazing stories locked inside. As one Army major said about the movie: "I don’t know when I’m going to tell my kids about my combat experiences, but I’m going to start by showing them this film.”
    The $4.2 million film was shot using often-regional actors and extras, locations, and equipment. Production quality is excellent, and performances are generally above-average. Occasional moments feel a little stiff, but the overall movie is propelled forward by a lot of heart. Were it to air on cable television, it would easily feel at home on either the Hallmark or History channels.

    There are a few scenes involving bloodshed, but the action is kept tight and small. (The Internet Movie Database lists the movie as Rated "R" for some war violence.) Media-savvy junior-high and high-school students should have no problem digesting the scenes, and moving on to consider the larger moral questions embedded in the story. Without spoiling the narrative, here are a few starter questions for the classroom or the front porch:
    • How did the grandfather's experiences in WWII Holland compare/contrast with those of his grandson Kyle?
    • How do you think 13-year-old Kyle's conversation with his grandfather affected his own decision to enlist?
    • How did his grandfather's stories inform Kyle's actions or opinions as a citizen-soldier?
    History buffs will find little to complain about. The helmet patch sported in 2005-2007 Iraq by the Minnesotans and Iowans of 1st Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division are nowhere to be seen on screen, but Red Bull enthusiasts will still thrill to see many actors wearing a bull patch on each sleeve—the so-called "steak sandwich" or "double-bull." Plus, there's at least one classically bullish line of dialogue: "Talk like a Red Bull, yo."

    So, pull up a footlocker. Pre-order "Memorial Day" via Amazon as a DVD and Blu-ray. It ships not later than May 29. According to the film's Facebook page, you may also be able to find it via AAFES, Barnes & Noble, Netflix, and Walmart.

    Most of all, start talking about the movie. Like a Red Bull. Yo.


    For more Red Bull Rising background and links regarding "Memorial Day," click here.

    Disclosure: The Red Bull Rising blog received a copy of this film for review.