30 March 2016

'Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home'

Book Review: "Incoming" edited by Justin Hudnall, Julia Dixon Evans, Rolf Yngve

Exploring themes of home, homecoming, and finding one's place in the world, the anthology "Incoming" hits a sweet spot on the terrain of contemporary veteran-voiced literature, and is certain to expand and enrich future conversations between civilian and military populations. The 190-page trade paperback delivers 36 short narratives—mostly essays, with a few poems and possible short fictions thrown in—and features authors from a diverse range of eras, genders, and military branches.

The book is a product of "So Say We All," a San Diego, Calif.-based non-profit publishing, performance, and education effort focused on telling the stories of marginalized populations, including military veterans. A companion podcast for the "Incoming" project is here.

In his introduction to the book, editor Justin Hudnall writes:
What was it like to return? We gave one line of guidance in our prompt, that the writers could speak to any subject matter they wanted, but were not obligated to anything. The result, this book, contains responses from activity duty and veterans alike, men and women, gay and straight, across the multitude of ethnicity. In total: our military as it serves, free of politics, free of censure, a citizen army.
Some of the authors are previously published in books and literary magazines, while others are entirely new to print. Most of the pieces are short—only a few pages in length. Nearly every work, however, contains something—an image, a metaphor, a turn of phrase—that invites re-reading or considered contemplation.

Former Marine Benjamin Busch, for example, narrowly escapes injury when falling through a rotten floorboards in an abandoned training site building. While on a creekside jog, Air Force officer Brandon Lingle shares a murky exchange with another veteran, an Army artillery guy chucking beers off the pier. Brent Wingfield is celebrating getting his squad out of Iraq alive, when a negligent discharge cuts short his reverie.

With a humorous how-to, almost field-manual style, Coast Guard veteran Tenley Lozano issues "49 Steps to Owning a Service Dog." Benjamin Rothman—a former member of the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division—speculates on why many veterans hit the road on two wheels, after they get back to the world. Military police soldier Mariah Smith describes trying to catch connections off Kandahar in order to make her husband's Purple Heart ceremony.

There is, in short, something for everyone in this book: the profane, the sublime, and the mundane. There is also death, and divorce, and drugs, and domestic abuse. There are moments of great joy, and revelation, and relief. All are worthy, and all are shared here without the usual pomp and drama that sometimes surround the "homecomings" you see on YouTube, or during football games.

This is clear-eyed. This is heart-felt. This is the real deal.


A website for the San Diego, Calif.-based non-profit "So Say We All" is here.

A Facebook page for the non-profit organization is here.

23 March 2016

Build Your Own 'Spring Break on FOB Sherpa' Kit!

As part of EXERCISE SPRING BREAK 2016, Task Force Sherpa recently conducted convoy ops into the heart of AO RED BULL, vicinity Mall of America (M.O.A.), Bloomington, Minn., conducting resupply at FOB IKEA and FOB LEGOSTORE. Via a village kiosk, we discovered an additional target of opportunity in the BRICKMANIA store, and quickly moved to exploit.

Headquartered in Minneapolis, Brickmania produces military-themed kits and items that are compatible with the popular Lego brand of plastic construction blocks. Under the BrickArms sub-brand, Brickmania offerings include a wide range of weapons, helmets, tactical vests, and other military equipment for Lego-style mini-figures.

The kids and I spent a few hours—and (ahem) a little money—figuring out the components to a Charlie Sherpa mini-fig. They were already somewhat familiar with my stories from Afghanistan: Media embed rules stipulated that I couldn't wear camouflage in country, so I couldn't use my old uniforms. Two of my shirts were slate blue; one was olive green. (I did laundry out of a 5-gallon bucket every couple of days.) My bulletproof vest was solid "coyote" brown. Using a stencil, I wrote "press" on the front of my light green helmet.

Here's what we came up with at Brickmania store. To make your own Charlie Sherpa, you'll need:
  • Male head with glasses
  • Lego camera and coffee mug borrowed from kids' previously purchased Lego sets
We also assembled and purchased a U.S. media escort soldier mini-fig. Originally, we were going to make her look like Sgt. 1st Class Ashlee Katz, the Public Affairs NCO from my media embed with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. Instead, he ended up looking a little like Spc. Slim Cheery, a Red Bull videographer that I hung out with for a few days on FOB Mehtar Lam.

While Brickmania does make decals for Multicam uniforms, the kids and I opted to issue the mini-fig soldier some pre-made Universal Camouflage Pattern pieces, a three-color desert helmet, and some rockin' eye-protection. He also got a Plate Carrier Vest with a walkie-talkie pocket, and an M-16 with grenade launcher. Because the real Slim didn't have enough to carry, if I recall, what with the video camera and all. He was also assigned as a grenadier.

After determining that Brickmania does not (not yet, anyway) offer a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected ("M-RAP") truck kit, I successfully resisted the urge to drive away with a Humvee kit instead. I might have to go back for an Ultra-Light Tactical Vehicle, however, given that we drove Gators around Bagram.

Finally, at the the Mall of America's Lego store, the kids and I picked up a beige baseplate, and enough tan and brown bricks to make a passible hootch. We made ours a little battle-damaged, and used the brown bricks to make T-walls. Next time, we'll use dark or light gray for the blast-barriers. My daughter installed a Lego "boom box" stereo she repurposed from another playset—because troops gotta have their tunes. She also planted some Lego flowers. We further accessorized with a Brickmania footlocker we'd purchased.

Now, FOB Sherpa is always just a few clicks away!

16 March 2016

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' Delivers Media Embed Insights

Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thornton star in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." PHOTO: Frank Masi/Paramount Pictures
Movie Review: "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," currently in theaters.

With good natured and insightful humor, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" shines a snarky light into some of the dark corners and cracks in U.S. military-media relations. The movie stars Tina Fey, a brilliant comedian who first came to national attention as a writer for "Saturday Night Live." She also does a mean Sarah Palin impression.

The R-rated movie, a "war-journalism-comedy-drama" as written by frequent Fey collaborator Robert Carlock, accurately points out some of the land mines and tripwires of covering war as an embedded reporter, while also reinforcing some recurring reporter-at-war tropes.

The script is based on the "Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan," a 2011 memoir written by former Chicago Tribune bureau chief Kim Barker. The book has recently been reissued under the movie's title. Leaving other contrasts aside, the movie makes Tina Fey's version of Kim Barker a cable TV news journalist. This is understandable, given the visual medium—TV makes for good pictures, while print is harder to capture. The overall tone is a happy blend of "M*A*S*H" (1972) and "Broadcast News" (1987). It's not parody, but it does have a comedic point.

Here are 5 (spoiler-free!) things about embeds that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" gets right:

War is filled with color and language. When Barker shows up with a bright orange backpack, a Marine sergeant quickly and forcefully tells her where to put it, and what to do with it. It's an anecdote reminiscent of one Chris Ayres told in his 2005 fish-out-of-water Iraq War memoir "War Reporting for Cowards." Ayres showed up packing a bright yellow tent with a fluorescent red cross atop it. Also, during my own brief embed in Afghanistan in 2011, reporters were not allowed to wear camouflage, causing me concerns about how to color-coordinate my war as a civilian.

Embedded relationships are inherently imbalanced. In the movie, Barker politely declines a challenge coin offered by a Marine commander—"I can't accept gifts," she says, reciting the old J-school mantra of objectivity. The colonel responds by asking whether, since she can't accept gifts, she can still accept the food, transportation, and security his Marines will provide. The relationship isn't entirely lopsided, however, once Barker realizes that some missions won't happen unless there's someone there to report it. That, too, is a comment on the practice of embedding media.

Coverage can have consequences at the soldier-level. After an affable Marine is transferred to a more combat-intensive zone, Barker suspects that he was punished for appearing on camera. I encountered similar situations during my brief time in Afghanistan, when I was advised that photographs of U.S. personnel not wearing the proper uniform on camera—gloves, helmet, eye-protection—would result in delays and and even denials of favorable actions. "Favorable actions" means things like promotions and medals.

Social rules are different downrange. Soon after her arrival to Kabul, a female colleague introduces Barker to the "deployment queen" concept. That, given their relative scarcity, individual women downrange are said to be more sexually desirable than they would be in the United States. "In Afghanistan, you're a serious piece of a--," Margot Robbie's character Tanya Vanderpoel tells Barker in the movie trailer. "You're like a what, a '6' or '7' in New York? Over here, you're a borderline '9,' borderline '10.'" While played for laughs, the exchange illuminates the nearly constant male gaze that American women—civilian and military—encounter when deployed.

Of course, armed with Tina Fey's sarcasm, the movie is also able to squeeze off a few rounds at gender issues in Afghanistan, too. As she puts on the blue burqa familiar to Southern Afghanistan, for example, her character says sardonically: "I feel so pretty, I don't even feel like voting!" The movie is obviously not an exposé on how poorly women are treated in Afghanistan, but it does successfully engage its targets.

News gets old fast. One of the movie's touchstones involves the disposition of a village well, a new source of water installed by coalition forces. When the Taliban apparently return again and again to destroy the small piece of infrastructure, the Marines express frustration regarding the Groundhog Day nature of trying to help the Afghan people. "We are definitely losing this war, as far as this well is concerned," one observes.

The mystery is later resolved when Barker learns from an unexpected source why the well is so routinely targeted. More than that, however, the events surrounding the well foreshadow her own later frustrations with getting airtime for her Afghan reports. From the media perspective, a well getting blown up once is news. Getting blown up twice is nearly a trend. And getting blown up more than that is just old news.

09 March 2016

Another Consequence of Fear: Loss of Humor

Blog editor's note: Consequence magazine—a publication that regularly explores aspects of culture and war—recently featured a series of non-fiction "flash-essays" by literary magazine editors. The essays ranged from approximately 50 to 300 words each. The theme, perhaps unsurprisingly, regarded "the consequences of fear." Installments in the series included humanity, callousness; parsing texts; knowledge and compassion; cloaking; and "the story of our time."

Using the theme as a personal writing prompt, I offer some quick scratches of my own:


A Consequence of Fear: Loss of Humor
By Randy Brown

A college-era friend of mine once gave me this dipstick check: After graduation, when Joe and I were each single and living in different cities, we kept each other sane via monthly marathon phone sessions. Once, after I had delivered a long monologue involving a general lack of pay or sex or happiness, he asked, "Yeah ... But are you still funny?"

That cracked me up.

The phrase became shorthand for quickly assessing if the other guy was really hurting, or just kvetching. It proved to be a good self-assessment tool, too. Whenever I found myself without a sense of humor, at work or at home, I knew things had gotten serious—maybe too serious. I could then stop digging myself any deeper, and start the work of filling in the emotional potholes.

It's like that Catch-22 about sanity: "If you're sane enough to ask yourself if you're crazy, you're probably sane." Maybe, if you can still ask yourself if you still have a sense of humor, you're sane. If you can't, it's time to regroup. Maybe even seek professional help.

Comedy is a high-stakes game, I know—always one step away from tragedy. No, I'm not advocating bottling it all up, or always viewing life through Groucho glasses. Graveyards are littered with jokers, after all, who kept their pains all to themselves. Remember Freddy Prinze Sr. Remember Robin Williams. Remember the punch line about the depressed clown:

"But, Doctor, I AM Pagliacci!'"

Alas, poor Yorick.

The physiological engine of all humor is surprise. Or, more accurately, the recognition and relief that a new thing isn't going to kill us. Don't believe me? Play peek-a-boo with an infant. First, he startles. He makes eye contact with his mother. Mom's calming presence (I'm assuming that you haven't chosen to experiment on a stranger's child, and that parents are nearby) says it's OK for him to laugh.

Bottom line: The kid learns to laugh by learning that you're not a mountain lion. That you're not a danger. That you're supposed to be funny.

After 15 years of war, we seem danger-close to losing our capacity for collective good humor. Our pockets are empty. Our skins are stretched thin. We are no longer surprised. Neither are we entertained. Instead, we're making jokes at each other's expenses: Playground bully jokes. Vulgar, short-fingered jokes. Racial jokes. Meanwhile, 9-1-1 is a joke. Our social fabric is torn, our civil bonds broken. We seem no longer capable of laughing with each other. We're laughing at each other.

We are, in short, no longer funny.


Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He is the poetry editor of Military Experience & the Arts' As You Were literary journal. Brown authored the poetry collection "Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire" (Middle West Press, 2015). Also in 2015, he received the inaugural Madigan Award for humorous military writing from Negative Capability Press, Mobile, Ala. As "Charlie Sherpa," he blogs about military culture at: www.redbullrising.com.

02 March 2016

Mitch Gerads' Original Comics Art Gives Me Butterflies

Original art by Mitch Gerads
Despite yesterday's dusting of snow, it's beginning to feel like springtime in the American Middle West. That means red bud trees and Easter and Sherpa kids' soccer tournaments are just around the corner. In the meantime, I'm pleased to report on something else that has me giddy and feeling younger than I am: the recent acquisition of a page of original work by a favorite comic book artist.

The page is from issue No. 11 of "The Activity," a 2012-2014 Image Comics series that artist Mitch Gerads' co-created with writer Nathan Edmondson. The series, which tells realistic stories of various military special forces and governmental intelligence teams, is currently under development as a feature film.

Usually, "Activity" stories take place overseas. Published in 2013, Issue No. 11 is a story of terrorism on U.S. soil. In "The Butterfly Effect," Team Omaha is dispatched to Minneapolis, where terrorists threaten to detonate a bomb somewhere in the city. Why Minneapolis? "A city big enough for it to matter, but not a city on the lookout for an attack." Eventually, the team figures out they're searching for someone with a large quantity of C-12 explosive. An expert is called in from Colorado, along with a fragile, experimental cargo.

"So how does it work?," asks a member of Team Dallas.

"You just open the crates. They do the rest. You might say we've programmed them. From day one, they're exposed to a variety of chemical explosive compounds. They won't have any problem with C-12. Just don't lose sight of them."

"This is crazy," says one FBI guy.

Says Team Dallas: "At least it will be pretty."

I love the page that follows—the one I purchased—because it tells a nearly complete story, even without the word balloons: The ground team radios that it's in position. An FBI agent takes a crowbar to a crate. Butterflies begin to escape the box. Ground team looks up, through the windshield, the butterflies reflecting in the glass. Finally, the butterflies continue to disperse across the city. There is skywalk—a fixture of Midwestern urban architecture—visible in the background.

To me, the figures on the page seem hopeful, filled with wonder, despite a crazy world and the threat of terrorism.

To me, it feels like spring.

And I can't wait to frame it and hang it in the office.

After graduating from the the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a fine arts degree in graphic design, Gerads started out illustrating for cereal brands in Minneapolis. From boxes of balanced breakfast product, he jumped into the gritty world of military-themed storytelling. He's got an eye for the perfect shot, an attention to technical detail, and a sensibility that lends itself to stories of shadows, subdued colors, and moral shades of gray. For more on Gerads' career, click here.

"The Activity" is collected into three trade paperbacks volumes, available here and here, and here.

In addition to his work on "The Activity," Gerads drew a 2014-2015 run on "The Punisher," a vigilante character owned by Marvel Comics. That run was also written by Edmundson, Gerads' partner from "The Activity." Those comics have also been collected in three volumes of trade paperbacks here, here, and here.

Make sure to check out his original artwork, including pages and covers from "The Punisher," at his on-line store. There's also a great "process" story here, about how Gerads develops his artwork, panel by panel.

Most recently, Gerads has been the co-creator of "The Sheriff of Babylon," a fictional-but-realistic crime story of post-war Iraq, written by former Central Intelligence Agency operations officer Tom King. For an interview with Gerads about "Sheriff," click here.

Coincidentally, the fourth issue of "Sheriff" is due out from today, Mar. 2, 2016, from DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. The critically acclaimed series has recently been extended to 12 issues. It is a dense, layered, and confusing tale—sort of like the place that inspired it. Call it "Iraq Noir." Be sure to check it out!

You can read a free, multi-page preview of "Sheriff of Babylon" No. 4 here.