22 June 2016

Saying Good-bye to a Friend and Sergeant Major

A personal note today: An old friend and former Iowa citizen-soldier died last week. James "Jim" Edwards McEntaffer, 65, lived in Atlantic, Iowa. He'd fought cancer for two years. He died June 17, 2016.

I first worked with him when he was the command sergeant major for the Iowa Army National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. Later, he was my civilian boss, after he and I had each retired from military service.

As the top enlisted soldier in a unit of more than 3,000 of his fellow Iowans, McEntaffer was friendly and effective in his role as an advocate for the rank-and-file. Despite the sputtering, @$$-chewing stereotype of sergeants major, I don't remember him ever visibly losing his temper. Instead, he'd individually address the stakeholders of each part of a problem, bring about consensus, and establish a unified effort toward the commander's objectives.

That's a long way of saying this: He got things done by helping others get things done, and didn't care who got the credit.

One year, during Annual Training at Camp Ripley, Minn., he posted two interrogatives as a banner in the unit's Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"). Later, I'd incorporate those questions into Sherpatude Nos. 1 and 2. They are:
1. Continually ask: "Who else needs to know what I know?"

2. Continually ask: "Who else knows what I need to know?"
McEntaffer was also indirectly responsible for Sherpatude No. 8: "Know when to wake up the Old Man. Also, know how to wake him up without getting punched, shot, or fired." I'd been on night shift in the TOC, and had chosen to execute the brigade commander's wake-up criteria for reporting significant incidents. At the next shift-change to the day crew, his joking validation—something about how I was lucky to still be alive—was the best kind of praise.

He had a smile. And his eyes smiled, too.

When he wasn't around, his fellow soldiers—even the brigade commander—called him "Mac." In uniform, rank comes easier than respect, and love hardest of all. Mac more than earned all three—from his peers, his leaders, and his subordinates. The nickname was never uttered with sarcasm or malice.

In the field, one of my great joys was to encounter Command Sgt. Maj. McEntaffer enjoying a reflective morning cigar. The blue light of dawn, the second-hand tobacco smoke, a couple of smart remarks around the circle before starting the day? It was better than breakfast.

When I worked for him as a civilian, it was for a contract job, writing and developing instruction materials for the military. He demanded our products deliver the same care for soldiers that he had demanded of us in uniform. The best part of the job, however, was that if I timed my morning arrival to work just right, I'd get a chance to again walk through the smoke, and call him "sergeant major." Just like old times.

See you on the objective, sergeant major.


An obituary is here.

Family and friends can pay their respects on Thurs., June 23, 2016, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Hockenberry Family Care Funeral Home in Atlantic, Iowa.

A private graveside service and interment will be held at the Iowa Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family prefers memorials to the Unity Point Hospice of Cass County Memorial Hospital in Atlantic, Iowa.

15 June 2016

iFanboy: 'Sheriff of Babylon' Comic was First a Novel

Cover artist: John Paul Leon
In a June "Talksplode" interview with Josh Flanagan of the iFanboy comics podcast, writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads discussed their creative collaboration in producing the critically acclaimed series "Sheriff of Babylon."

The 72-minute interview is full of technical and personal insights. Flanagan, King, and Gerads are long-time acquaintances, and the conversational vibe is relaxed and candid. The interview stands as a must-hear primer in military- and comics-writing how-to. Podcast listeners can access "Talksplode No. 67" via iTunes and Stitcher, as well as directly via the iFanboy website here.

Set in 2004 Iraq, "Sheriff of Babylon" is a wartime crime drama published monthly DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. A 160-page trade paperback collecting the first 6 issues is scheduled to be released July 19, 2016. The volume will also be available digitally on Comixology and Kindle. The series is currently scheduled for 12 or more issues.

The story is loosely based on writer King's experiences as a former operations officer for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The series is located in a very specific time and place, King told Flanagan:
I try to describe everything in the book as someplace that I've actually been or [...] seen. The book nicely gets approved by CIA, so I know I'm not going to get […] arrested. Part of this is just me, having gone through that, and working those issues out. Which is what I think all good comics should be: It should be bleeding onto the page, and putting your hopes and fears into it.

I should caveat, however: I feel that some of our audience is people who have served in Iraq, and served there for years. I was there for […] five months, in the spring and summer of 2004. So I only write about the exact time I was there […] It felt like you were in a weird, Casablanca place, like the normal rules of human society don't apply here, but we're all trying to apply them here, so it's this weird double-standard. Like, "We don't have laws, but we kind of have fake laws. How real are those laws"? That's why it's called "Sheriff of Babylon," because there is no sheriff. There is no law there. And how can you have a crime story where there is no law? There's no government. There's no one there to tell you not to do things.
In news releases earlier this year, DC Comics has announced that King and Gerads were each signed as creatives working exclusively for that company. King is slated to take over writing duties at DC's flagship "Batman" title. Although Vertigo titles are not strictly "creator owned," as briefly covered in the interview, King and Gerads apparently each have a partial ownership stake in "Sheriff" as intellectual property,

King's first novel, "A Once Crowded Sky," was a literary book-length story about superheroes published in 2012. In an iFanboy exclusive, King revealed to Flanagan that "Sheriff of Babylon" had been written first as a literary novel, which remains yet unpublished. He typically does not write from an outline, he said, but the novel's manuscript provides him the structure for the comic's first narrative arc.

"I sort of had a choice, whether to publish it as a novel or as a comic book. I chose comic book," King said. "The outline for the first 12 issues is a novel I've already written. So that makes it both easier and harder to write. It's a bizarre transcription, with me deciding what to leave and leave out, of me editing myself."

Originally from Minneapolis, artist Gerads is celebrated for his realistic depiction of military action and equipment—in the interview, King called him the greatest military artist working in modern comics. While he has never served in the military, he notes he does have immediate family members who have served in the U.S. Army and Air Force. Nobody in his family was Rambo, he said, and he doesn't consider himself a military brat. Still, he takes the responsibility of telling military-themed stories very seriously.

Along with writer Nathan Edmondson, for example, he was co-creator of the 2011-2015 Image Comics series "The Activity." In early 2015, the series, which focuses on U.S. special operations forces, was reportedly being adapted into a screenplay. Gerads is also well-known for his 2014-2015 run on "The Punisher," which focuses on a paramilitary vigilante character in the Marvel Comics universe.

"Originally, when 'The Activity' started out, it was going to be way more science-fictiony," Gerads told Flanagan ...
It was going to be more "Mission Impossible"-esque. We were going to come up with all of these crazy gadgets. In issue 2 or 3, we had some sort of crazy gadget where a guy was driving a little drone-thing with an Xbox controller. We just thought that would be cool. We got an e-mail from someone in some branch of the military, saying "Hey, super cool—that was my job when I was over there." We sat down and realized […] the reality is so much more interesting than the stuff we were coming up with in our heads."
However cutting-edge, the stories in "The Activity" became more non-fiction. "The challenge then was to keep it as real as I could, while also keeping it as entertaining as I could. And that's still the rule, through 'Punisher' and into 'Sheriff.'"

Gerads compared "The Activity" and "Punisher" to producing big, bombastic action movies. However, he said, "Sheriff" demands more nuanced story-telling: "Giving respect to the characters, and giving respect to the fact that this is […] a 'real' story, a time and place that actually happened." Gerads has to infuse the characters found in King's scripts with unique physical identities and facial expressions. He gives each character "some little trait so that you remember them, even if it's subliminal," he said.

King said that the team's ultimate objective is to deliver a compelling story without value judgments. "I think people feel that's it's going to be preachy, that it's just going to be 'War is Hell,' 'War sucks,' or it's just going to be 'Republicans suck' or 'liberals suck.' I don't want a message in my comics. It's not about the politics. It's not about the [Weapons of Mass Destruction] or 'Mission Accomplished' or anything like that. It's just about the day-to-day of what it was like. It's not about winners and losers. It's about a good story."


Gerads and Edmondson's "The Activity" has been previously mentioned on the Red Bull Rising blog here and here.

08 June 2016

Book Review: 'A Hard and Heavy Thing'

Book review: "A Hard and Heavy Thing" by Matthew J. Hefti

In his debut novel, former U.S. Air Force bomb technician Matthew J. Hefti delivers a carefully observed, intricate exploration of interconnections among three Wisconsin friends before, during, and after a deployment to Iraq.

Two friends, Levi and Nick, find themselves at war, and there's a girl back home, too—Eris, the boys' personal goddess of discord. The book is written from the perspective of Levi, and the reader must constantly triangulate to new information and insights about the narrator, as well as the people he encounters.

The chapters are quick and punchy, and book reveals itself and its characters with the quickening pace of a beach-time thriller. Nothing is black and white. Call it a "Midwestern Noir."

"A Hard and Heavy Thing" is available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle e-book versions.

Author Hefti is a veteran of two deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. The soldierly details of suffering fools and friends and unspeakable heat will ring true to anyone who has walked in those boots, and gone on those patrols.

Especially worthy of note is Hefti's accurate depiction of a non-commissioned officer's running calculus in managing his soldiers. At one point, for example, a platoon leader asks acting sergeant Levi for input into two courses of action. One would take the truck-mounted patrol the long way back to home base, but would allow an overnight stop for pizza and milkshakes at one of the more luxurious Forward Operating Bases ("FOB"). The other would be more direct and faster, but present greater exposure to Improvised Explosive Devices—bombs buried in the road.

What Levi chooses to keep from his officer is that prisoners captured on their patrol have been roughed up by junior soldiers under his command. Returning via the larger FOB would mean delivering the detainees into the hands of those most likely to investigate the abuse.

However, "if they took the prisoners back to [their home base] to sit for a few days, any bruises and lacerations would have faded into signs of a simple struggle and nothing more by the time they took them to the main base," Levi thinks to himself. "By that time, any complaints by the detainees would be the baseless and desperate pleadings of some bomb-setting terrorists …"

In short, Levi is caught between protecting his fellow soldiers from potential criminal charges, and protecting them against injury and death. To this dilemma, Hefti cannily adds the trust and professional expectations of Levi's officer, and the undermining muttered chorus of Levi's younger subordinates. Levi is presented with no good choices, only decisions to be made. Feels like real life.

Those decisions, of course, have consequences—on Levi, on Nick, and on their lives after deployment. Hefti does a masterful job disarming reader expectations and the usual tropes, and guides readers on an unpredictable journey toward an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

The philosophical fulcrum for the work is this: As he is shipping out for Iraq, Levi asks his war veteran father for any parting advice. "Just do the right thing," his father replies. "Worry only about what you control. The rest is war."

01 June 2016

Lit Journal 'As You Were' No. 4 Available FREE On-line

"Hunter or Hunted?" by Josh King. oil and pastel
The fourth and latest issue of the on-line literary journal "As You Were" lands today, Jun. 1, 2016, disgorging stories and art via the non-profit organization Military Experience & the Arts. The journal is published twice annually, and includes poetry, short stories, non-fiction, and visual art produced by veterans, family members, and others with connections to military service.

The journal can be read on-line for FREE here.

In the international "veterans lit" publishing space, the journal uniquely packages its submissions process as something akin to a virtual writing workshop. Unlike the thumbs-up-or-down approach of other journals, writers of all experience levels may engage in multiple drafts with peer editors and readers, while preparing pieces for publication. Regardless of whether a piece is accepted after one edit or many, however, the objective, however, is always the same: Help writers find new ways to document and communicate the military experience.

To do otherwise, as Frank Blake cautions in his poem "I Didn't Keep a Diary," runs risk of losing the war:
[…] The mission was accomplished
so we moved into an abandoned school house in between attacks
The war was young and our true enemy wasn’t born yet.
I sat down to write but how could I
the depth of a few weeks without running water made my memory too cloudy
I couldn’t recall the amazing detail I felt I needed
So I didn’t
"Camouflage" by Susan E. Kashmiri, 
mixed media on paper
The issue's fiction section delivers a wide range of images and voices. Not surprisingly, the stories often center on themes of loss and homecoming, and are driven by memorable and compelling characters. Seth Harp's "Jeremiad in Nuevo Laredo" tells the story of a possibly AWOL soldier motorcycling in Mexico, who encounters a prophet who sounds like something from a post-Apocalyptic fever dream. In "The Gadfly," Christopher Lyke tells of Eugene, a much-loved, good-natured Hoosier who suffers from a potentially terminal case of the hooahs:
He’d come to us straight out of basic training. And that had come directly after a lackluster four years in high school. He was light, and tough, and easily wore the smallest uniform in the platoon. Sometimes he’d ask out of the blue, "Sarn't, permission to smoke myself?" Then he’d jump to the ground and bang out fifty push-ups or mountain climbers and pop up laughing at the big joke and at being so hooah. His buddies were also super gung-ho and had a sense of humor about it too. They started copying him with the whole push-up thing when they felt like it. When he insisted on being on a gun team, his friends did, too.
Kyle Larkin's "The Night Before Christmas" introduces a background character who brings to life the careful routine of memorial services downrange. Consider this vignette:
I notice a young soldier setting everything up. He’s obviously done this before, and has a specific routine. He even looks bored as he brings out a green wooden stand, which I’m pretty sure was built specifically for these memorials, and stacks MRE boxes on top of it, which are probably the same boxes used for each ceremony, and then he covers this all with camouflage netting. He laces a brand new pair of boots and places them on the wooden stand in front of the boxes, adjusting them slightly until they are just right. He brings out a rifle and attaches a bayonet, clicking it into place. He turns the rifle upside down and sticks the bayonet into a pre-cut slot on one of the MRE boxes, confirming my guess that the same boxes are used each time. Then he pulls a set of dog tags out of his pocket and hangs them from the pistol grip of the rifle. A clean, new-looking helmet is placed on top of the stock. He walks away for a moment, and then comes back carrying a table with folded-up legs. He stands it up, sets a laptop on the surface, and attaches two small computer speakers with some wires. He looks at the screen, clicks a few times, and then walks away and lights up a cigarette.

It occurs to me that this might be his actual job. I want to ask him if there’s a closet where they store all of this stuff—a dead guy closet; and I want to ask him how it is that he got stuck doing this; if maybe he got suckered into the first couple ceremonies, but then they decided to just keep tasking it to him since he already knew how to do everything. I want to ask him how often he does this; if he wakes up and looks at his schedule and says, "Son of a bitch. Five memorials this week."
"Wall and Trench" by Seth L. Lombardi, digital
In non-fiction, the issue's offerings provide just as much drama and energy as the short fictions. In "Why Not Me?", essayist Howard B. Patrick provides a clear-eyed reflection on the vagaries of war, in which the author carefully interrogates more than a handful of times he or his soldier buddies should have been hurt or killed in Vietnam. Patrick's tone is neither boastful nor incredulous. Helicopters crashed. Duds impacted at their feet. On one patrol, Patrick writes:
During the night we heard noises all around us, but no voices. The flares were not tripped, and we didn’t see any movement on the trail, in the bushes, or in the trees behind us. I made sure every man maintained extra vigilance, with rifles ready and hands on the Claymore plungers, but told them not to detonate them unless we actually heard voices or saw movement.

Luckily, we never set off any of the Claymores, and in the morning we realized just how fortunate we were. The noises we heard were indeed the enemy – hoping we would set off our Claymores, because they had managed sneak up and turn them around to face us.
Patrick's titular question is as matter-of-fact as it is full of wonder. These things happened. And the worst did not. And neither luck nor God may have had anything to do with it.

In "Friendly Fire," Jim Bryson illuminates the uneasy relationships between an aircraft carrier's assigned crew and the itinerant air wing personnel that fly in and out of ship life. In the 1980s, Bryson was a supervisor of electrical shop charged with maintaining the catapult and arresting gear on U.S.S. Nimitz. His prose is full of grease and steam, and lands with a satisfying bump:
Imagine a thirty-ton jet crashing onto the deck, jerking a steel cable connected to a hydraulic piston below decks that absorbs the momentum of this massive bird plus the thrust of its engines raging for the sky. Failure to blast the engines can mean a quick dip into the sea. Jets sink fast and pilots are notoriously poor swimmers.

The good ones never miss. The bad ones forget they are fallible.
Disclosure: The writer of the Red Bull Rising blog is also the poetry editor of the journal "As You Were."