Category: US military

It’s just one damn thing after another.

And then you die?

Did you see the recent stories and pictures of climbers stuck in a human traffic jam trying to get to the top of Mount Everest?  I saw them while on my recent trip to Scotland and England.

At least 11 people died attempting to scale Earth’s highest peak this year.  Some of the “mountaineers” clambered over dead bodies in their desperate attempt the “bag” summit.   I hesitate to describe all of these folks as mountaineers because I’m convinced that at least some of them pay tens of thousands of dollars to be largely dragged to the summit by their Nepalese guides.

One of the casualties, an Austrian, was survived by his wife and children.  Another, a 62 year old Coloradan, died on the way down from the top.  He thus became a short lived member of the “7 Summit Club”-a group who’s members have scaled the highest peak on each continent.  Surviving family members were uniformly quoted as saying that the deceased “died doing what they loved.”

Adventure?  Or mere dilettantism?

There can’t be much question that climbing Everest is an “adventure” in the dictionary sense:  “a bold, risky undertaking with an uncertain outcome.”  But is that really enough?  Is it really enough just to be frightened half to death?  Or even fully to death?  Doesn’t  real adventure require that there be a higher purpose?  A reason other than cheap (or very expensive) thrills?

It’s not, after all, that Everest hasn’t been climbed before.  What’s going on there now isn’t remotely connected with “boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before”.  Since the first serious efforts to scale the peak were made in the early 1920’s, over 300 people have died on its slopes.  Which means who knows how many thousands of others have successfully or unsuccessfully made the attempt-but lived to tell the tale.

Real adventure

By contrast, think, for example, of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Yes, Huck had his share of heart thumping, life threatening adventures rafting down the Mississippi.  But it became more than that; it was a quest for nigger Jim’s freedom (don’t blame me, blame Mark Twain).  Think of Harry Potter.  Or the Biblical accounts of Abraham or Moses.  Or Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey.  Jesus.  The list goes on and on.  Sure, plenty of narrow escapes.  And sometimes lethal failures to escape.

But success or failure really isn’t the point.  To put your life at risk, shouldn’t there be something really important at stake, a quest?  Adventure for it’s own sake is just amusement.  Go to Disney World for tittilation; it’s a lot cheaper and you’re not going to leave behind a widow.

“But,” you might ask, “how can someone like me get involved in real adventure?”

Well, try this.  Join the Army or Marines and volunteer to go to Afghanistan. I’ll bet you’ll get to see and do some things that get your adrenaline going.  And, depending on your point of view, you’ll be involved in a something that has a higher calling.

Or how about this?  Some old friends of ours, Roger and EvaJean Dockum, have been missionaries with tribal people in Bolivia for many years.  Some of their predecessors, a group of five men, pioneered the work in Bolivia with what they knew to be a dangerous and virtual stone age tribe in the 1940’s and ’50’s.  During one of their first encounters, there was a misunderstanding and the five men were murdered.  Like the Everest climbers, they left behind wives and children.  But their calling was much higher than a mere mountain top.  

Education?  Or amusement?

Of course, this was all brought to mind by my recent trip to England.  “What,” I asked myself, “is the point of a trip like this?”

First, let’s be honest, this is nothing more than amusement.  Sure, we went to museums and saw ruins beyond counting.  We dutifully read many of the countless explanations of the displays we saw on exhibit.  Hadrian’s Wall.  What’s left of the Roman Baths in Bath.  Bewildered and overcome by the sheer volume of information, I listened to the audio guide of Windsor Castle.  (Where I was dismayed that I saw exactly none of the Royals!)

But educational?  Sorry.  I ain’t buyin’ it.  You might as well claim that the best way to build a strong body is to do nothing but eat.  And never work out.  Sure, you’re going to build flab.  But muscles?  Not unless you somehow make the information your own.

Adventure.  Without leaving home.

One of the ways I tried to make things my own was by attending church services.  See how people in England worshiped.  Or, even better, meet some of the locals.

We attended an Evensong service at the ancient York cathedral.  But my sense was that most of the other attendees considered it yet one more stop on the de rigueur tourist circuit.  I got a similar feeling when I attended mass beneath the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London.  Both structures spectacular.  Both services solemnly beautiful.  But with tourists wandering around, chattering, and snapping pictures on their cells, something, including anything like a true “local,” was missing.

But that wasn’t the case in the lovely little town of Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds where, one Sunday morning I attended a service at the Campden Baptist Church.  They meet in a school gymnasium.  No, the building wasn’t ancient and beautiful.  In fact, it was nondescript.  But neither were there tourists wandering around yakking and taking pictures.  Instead, I met locals whose hearts were in the service-and who seemed to be pleased that I was there.  The sermon was something I needed to hear:  “Pray as you can, not as you aught.”  I met a guy who’s a shepherd and his young family.  And a CPA on the side.  Don’t ask me exactly how that works.  But that’s my story-and I’m stickin’ to it.

Campden Baptist has a great history.  In the ’70’s, the “congregation” had shrunk to three elderly folks sitting in a chilly back room praying for new members.  But, as James puts it, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  Now, the church has grown to three different locations.  And for my money, that’s a real quest.

On the road again?

So, would I do a trip like this again?  Probably not-and certainly not for three weeks.  Too many museums.  Too many ruins.  Too many sheep.  Too many miles.  Too much living out of a suitcase.  Too many undigested experiences piled on too many undigested experiences.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s’ not as if there weren’t positives.  It gave me the opportunity to see the world from a very different perspective.  And, on a few occasions, to write about them.  But, for this dreadfully slow writer, it was like drinking at a fire hydrant; heck, here we are two weeks out from jet lag and I’m still pecking away!

But, I promise, you’ve heard your last about “This Scepter’d isle, This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars . . . This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The more things change: Scotland

The more they stay the same:  Palestine

Our intrepid Gang of Seven tourists is now down in Bath, England.  But I’m still catching up on our trip through the narrow byways of Scotland.

There, forbidding, windswept peaks rise out of gorse covered moors that plunge into a restless North Sea.  On the Isle of Sky, more sheep than humans.  And, of course, we sample the wares at the island’s only distillery, the Talisker.

Bonnie Prince Charlie versus the “Butcher” Cumberland

But if it’s Tuesday, this must be when we visited the site of the 1746 Battle of Culloden.  Although not much to see now, this lonely Highlands plain is the site of a brutal battle that also marks the beginning of the nearly as ruthless suppression of Scottish national aspirations that followed.

Like most European conflicts of this era, it’s complicated and, in the end, is a squabble between the French and English monarchs.  For our purposes however, it’s enough to know that Bonnie Prince Charles was a surrogate for the French crown.  He managed to persuade some Scottish clan leaders to support his claim to the British throne.  Naturally, the British king, George II, objected.  And it was game on.

With his Scottish clansmen allies of 7,000, Prince Charles enjoyed some initial success, at one point even threatening London.  But faced with unrest among his own troops, Charles retreated north toward the Scottish highlands.  Pursued by English forces under the Duke of Cumberland, the opposing armies clashed at Culloden.  The clansmens’ primitive ardor and arms proved no match for English discipline and superior weapons; in the space of an hour the Scots suffered a crushing and bloody defeat.

After the battle, Cumberland ordered that no quarter be given to survivors.  The killing of wounded continued for two days after the battle, for which action Cumberland earned the sobriquet “The Butcher”.

Ethnic cleansing

But the war on Scot nationalism didn’t end there.  Fearful that rebellion would again rear its head, the English initiated the policies of clearances and transportation to, as Scrooge notoriously put it, “decrease the surplus population.”

Clearances resulted in the eviction of many Highland farmer tenants to make way for landlords to more profitably graze sheep and cattle.  While it’s true that the marginal soil and harsh climate of the Highlands made farming a chancy proposition, pushing people off the land caused widespread misery, famine, and the forced emigration of Highlanders over the entire globe.

Penal transportation to British colonies, such as Australia, was also widespread as a way of subduing the Scots.  It was liberally used against any who had the remotest connection with “the ‘Forty Five,” as the uprising of Prince Charles became known. While more humane than the former practice of capital punishment for even petty criminal offenses and unpaid debts, it nonetheless had the same net effect: breaking the Highlanders’ spirit.

Palestine: Repetition with variation

As I walked over the battlefield, it was difficult for me to figure out exactly what happened where in what is largely a featureless sea of thatch and gorse.  And the recently constructed visitors center, with its “360-degree battle immersion theater” didn’t help much; true, there was plenty of sound and fury, but the flickering images signified little for me.

But taken together, the day reminded me that history, like art, often repeats itself-but with variation.

And so it was that I thought of Palestine on the field of Culloden.  Again, it’s complicated.  And the details remain controversial.  But for our purposes, from 1947 to 1949 Palestinians and Jews fought a bloody war that led to the “clearance,” or, more conventionally, “The Exodus” of more than 700,000 Arabs from their towns and homes.  Four hundred Arab towns and villages were “depopulated” and the homes of many displaced Arabs were taken by Jews.  About 10,000 Jews also fled their homes as a result of the war.

While they agree on little else, historians on both sides reckon that more than 20,000 died, Arab and Jewish, military and civilian.

Known by Arabs as the “Cataclysm,” Jews refer to the conflict as the “War of Independence.”

As at Culloden, there were no shortage of atrocities in Palestine.  Again, while the facts are disputed, the weight of historical evidence indicates that the majority of massacres were perpetuated by Jews.  Arabs contend that the atrocities were part of a Jewish plan to force them to leave their homeland.   The Israeli government, of course, denies this.

The victors write the history books

Again, I’m no expert. But here’s what I find persuasive.  In the 1980’s both Israel and Great Britain (who had unsuccessfully tried to maintain peace in Palestine after WWII under a United Nations mandate), opened their archives to historians on the whole vexed topic.  A group of Jewish researchers, who became know as the “New Historians“, examined these materials and then recast the traditional, heroic vision of Israel’s founding and the Palestinian Exodus in a light significantly less favorable to Israel.

Which, still, can be dismissed as a case of “he said, she said.”

But not this.  While the New Historians were initially dismissed in Israel as cranks, their views were widely considered legitimate by the 1990’s.  At which point the government reclassified as Top Secret” accounts of Israeli “expulsion[s] of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment.”

What could be more convincing proof of putting inconvenient facts down the Orwellian Memory Hole?  And then trying to keep them there.

The similarities only go so far

While I was on my Scotch odyssey, I re-read Arthur Herman’s informative history, How the Scots Invented Modern World.  For a small, impoverished land, the Scots punched far above their weight intellectually and in trade.  Their contributions in science, medicine and business began in the Scotch cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but were rapidly spread world wide by the Scottish diaspora that grew out of the clearances and penal transportation.

Which raises the question:  what have Palestinian Arabs done since the 1948 exodus, their Cataclysm?  Unfortunately, and in comparison with the Scots, not much.

Much of their energy has been devoted to largely futile efforts to undo the Cataclysm.  Despite repeated wars with Israel and diplomatic initiatives in the United Nations and other forums, there are over 5 million registered Palestinian refugees in squalid Middle East camps.  There, they ceaselessly lobby for the Right of Return to the homes and property that they lost in their various conflicts with Israel.  While it’s true that Palestinians also have a significant world wide diaspora-and notable figures have emerged from it-one wonders what Palestinians could achieved had they been less focused on “what could have been.”

Is demography destiny?

By population and land mass, Israel is a tiny nation.  Swimming in a vast ocean of Arab Muslims.

Of Israel’s 9 million inhabitants, about 75%, or 6.7 million, are Jews.  Most of the rest are Arabs.

But that, perhaps, is not the real issue.  The greater Arab world extends all the way across North Africa and through the Middle East.  It has a combined population of over 422 million inhabitants, most of whom are under 25 years of age.

It’s true that Muslim nations in the Middle East are notoriously fractious.  Conflicts between them are rife.

But what are the odds that, eventually, they will effectively unite with their co-religionists and successfully take on Israel?  Maybe not this year.  Maybe not in the next ten years.  But in the next 100 years?  That’s a long time.  And Israel has sewn the wind in the Arab world.  How long can the whirlwind be delayed?

Maybe Israel is counting on it’s obedient lap dog, the United States, to continue to meddle in the Mideast and provide it with the latest and greatest weapon systems.  And most of the money to buy them.

But how long is that going to continue?  Judging by my admittedly unscientific polling, not forever.  The great majority of Americans that I’ve talked to have had a bellyful-and more-of bloody, endless, costly and futile war in the Mideast.

And now our Washington war mongers are beating the drums for taking on Iran?  In my humble opinion that’s the perfect illustration of insanity: doing the same thing over and over.  And expecting a different result.

Do they really think that Americans are going to get on board for yet another Mideast war?  I’m betting no.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pity of War

750x450 commanders

Old Beyond Their Years

I met Forrest and Lakin Huckabey at the recent Project Sanctuary Retreat where, again, I did K.P. duty.  And trust me, I’m not complaining.  Before the week was over, I got to know the couple well enough to ask if I could interview them for my blog.

When I called Forrest, all I got was a monotonous beep.  When I tried Lakin’s cell, she picked up.  “Yes,” she said in answer to my question about whether she remembered me, but, “Forrest is out picking mushrooms with the boys.  This spot in our home is about the only place around here we get cell reception.”  Before we’d hung up, we’d set a time to try again the following day.  I didn’t get through then either and even when we did finally connect a few days later, the reception was terrible until I called from our second floor bedroom.

Ranging in age from ten to one, the Huckabeys have five kids, all girls except four boys.  And you wonder why Lakin is studying to be a social worker?  Pregnant with their first child when she and Forrest were 16, they married when they graduated from high school.  Two of their children were born to his sisters who, according to Forrest, “are both junkies.”  The family lives lives 5 miles from Independence, Kansas, a slowly shrinking town of 10,000 tucked away in the far southeast corner of the state.  So, while you may not be exactly in the middle of nowhere from the Lakin’s front porch, you can see it from there.

A Soldier’s Story

Slight of build, Forrest signed a four year contract with the Army when he was 19.  Basic was at Ft. Benning, Georgia.  By age 20 he was at the front edge of a year long deployment to Afghanistan; click here to see Forrest as a young trooper.  While he was “down range,” another child was born.  Because of “shitty leadership,” he didn’t get a two week leave to be with Lakin when the baby was born.  Between deployments and training, he was rarely home with the family.

And then things really started going to hell in a hand basket.  While walking down a narrow alley in an Afghan village, “a grenade sailed over the mud wall next to me.  There was an open door nearby, but the platoon medic got to it before I could.  When I was 5 feet away, the grenade exploded.  My right side, including my elbow, was peppered with shrapnel.”

“Did you go to the hospital?”

“No.  I finished the patrol.  But I still have carpel tunnel.  And shrapnel kept working its way to the surface for weeks.  When it poked through my skin, I’d just pull it out.  And then,” Forrest continued, “there was the time a couple of weeks later when an RPG hit the other side of the rooftop parapet I was on.  I was out cold for a while,” he told me over the staticky connection.  “In total, I served two deployments.  During the second, I was a sniper.  But in the end, I had both PTSD and TBI.  I was finally given a medical discharge.”

A quality decision

What do you do with a story like this?  Told, at least as far as I could tell, without so much as a trace of self pity.  For my part, I changed the subject.

“How did your and Lakin’s marriage survive?”

“We saw what was going on all around us.  We saw all the marriages falling apart.  But we made a commitment to stick it out and not get a divorce.  We also found out about Operation Heal Our Patriots.  We applied and got accepted.”

“What’s Operation . . . ?”

. . . Heal Our Patriots.  It’s a ministry designed specifically for wounded vets.  It’s run by Franklin Graham and it tries to help the marriages of people like us by getting God into their lives.  We started with a retreat in on a lake in Alaska.  Since then, we stay in touch regularly online.  And have face to face meetings 2-3 times a year.”   (A high percentage of those pictured on the website’s photo gallery are either using canes or have artificial legs.  And those are just the visible injuries.)  

“The Army’s individual counseling just isn’t helpful,” Forrest told me.  “Those counselors don’t know what guys like me have been through.  And local churches?” Forrest said, “We’ve tried them. We’d like to be part of one.  But the several we’ve gone to just seem to be after your money.”

The conviction of things not seen

It wasn’t comfortable, but I did it anyway.  I asked him his opinion of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have dragged on nearly 20 years.  With no apparent end in sight.

“They’re tragic,” he answered.  “But they’re necessary.  I wanted to do what I could to help the kids and the women and the elders.”

And who am I to argue?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still coming home

750x450 endthewar

Fiddling while Rome burns

I spend many hours blogging at my local library.  They regularly host events on a wide variety of topics.  I rarely take one in; its tough enough for me to keep on track without one more distraction.

However, recently a program called “Still Coming Home” caught my attention-so I attended.  Organized by the Colorado Humanities council, it was billed as a program featuring veterans reading what they’d written about their war experiences.

In a small, dimly lit auditorium, the barrel chested first speaker read his account of a drunken brawl he’d been involved in after Marine basic training at Camp Pendleton before he shipped out to Vietnam.  The second, also a Marine and a Vietnam vet, read his account of how he, again drunk, had taken down and properly disposed of a giant but tattered American flag that was being used as a mere advertising device by an auto dealer on Havana Street, one of Denver’s main drags.  The third, this time a younger Marine and vet of one of our current, perpetual wars, read about how his experience had led him to enroll in a Catholic seminary.

But what about . . .

The was a brief time for questions and answers after each speaker.  Before asking mine I waited till everyone else in the audience had their chance.  And, to be frank, the questions from other audience members were softballs; about writing style and whatnot.  So then, a bit nervous, I asked each speaker in turn, “What’s your opinion of the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria?”  Then I shut up.

To a man, they opposed them.  But the last speaker-by then he knew what was coming-asked me a question: “But what’s your opinion of the wars?

“Well,” I responded, “initially I was an enthusiastic supporter.  But now I’m completely opposed.  After nearly 20 years, I can’t see that we’re doing any good.  As far as I can tell, about the only thing we’re doing is making a bunch of defense contractors wealthy.”

At that, one of the previous speakers, exclaimed, “Amen!”

I didn’t, but wish I had added, that Israel is probably the main beneficiary of our wars because they do such a great job of deflecting Muslim anger away from the Jewish state. And turning it on us.  Oh well, this won’t be the last time I suffer from delayed intelligence.

Whatever happened to “Peace Now!”

I came of age during the 1960s, the height of the Vietnam War.  The country bristled with anti-war rage:  kids burning their draft cards on college campuses, protest marches, riots, rock concerts.  And the protests played a big part in bringing our involvement in Vietnam to an end.

So, 20 years on in our current perpetual wars, what’s changed?  Why have we become a nation inured to war?  It’s certainly not that the death and misery have gone away.  Either for us. Or, for that matter, our enemies a half a world away.  And these wars are every bit as futile and costly as Vietnam ever was.

But here’s one thing that has changed: the draft is gone.  Sure, they’re still protesting on college campuses.  But not, as far as I can tell, about our endless wars.  Instead, college students are fiddling about “big” issues-like the largely imaginary slights to the LBGTQ community.  And the countless other whiney groups that indulge in identity politics.  While their largely white country and urban poor cousins join the Army, travel to distant, sandy lands.  And get their legs blown off.

And, as far as I can tell, things aren’t likely to change so long as things don’t change.

 

 

 

 

Join the army. Go to distant lands.

5280 Magazine cover

Making War Cool

Meet exotic people. And kill them.  Even for women!

5280 magazine is the cool magazine for Denverites. Which, if you believe our press clippings, is among the coolest cities in the nation.

The magazine’s usual beats are Colorado’s pricey ski resorts. The latest and greatest on Denver’s foodie scene.  All things culture.  The groovy health trends. The best Colorado workouts (and those are different from the best Iowa workouts how?).

But, because I tend to come down on the cranky, old curmudgeon side, I usually don’t pay much attention to the publication when I see it in the checkout line.

But the November cover picture made me take a second look.  An attractive woman, in full battle rattle, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, her helmet tucked under her arm.  The headline?  “On The Front Line:  Embedded With American Female Combat Soldiers In Afghanistan.”  And, even before I’d read the first line of the article, I picked up a copy.

Why we fight.  Who knows?

9/11.  Does anyone besides me have trouble remembering the third two numbers in that now talismanic combination of digits?  They’re 01.  Or, to put it in plain English:  September 11, 2001.  That’s nearly 20 years ago.

And still we fight on in Afghanistan.  The human toll is staggering.  Over 2,300 dead U.S. soldiers.  (And, as of a few of days ago, 3 more.)  More than 20,000 maimed and wounded.  Countless others dead by suicide as a result of the mental trauma of war.  Who knows how many families shattered by repeated deployments.

And dare I mention the toll on the Afghan people? While estimates vary in the fog of war, the number of killed or wounded Afghanis ranges in the hundreds of thousands.  And we wonder why so many Afghans have made common cause with the Taliban?

Making war cool

So now 5280 puts out a puff piece that makes this conflict look like the latest front in a noble struggle for equal rights for women.  Rather than a ruinous war that will, at some point, inevitably result in this country finally admitting that the conflict can’t be won.  And, like the Soviets once did, coming to our senses and leaving.

It’s astonishing that in this lengthy article there is only the briefest mention of what these women, who serve in an artillery unit, actually do:   [Her] “greater concern had less to do with gender and more to do with the actual job she was carrying out: She was killing people.”  This particular woman reconciled herself to this grim reality with the thought  that, “If I didn’t like the idea of killing people I shouldn’t have joined the Army-because that’s what the Army does.”

So, join the Army and grow to like killing people?

Bleeding Air Force blue

Picture of Mariah

Making War Uncool

While writing this post, I happened to meet a young woman named Mariah.  Twenty seven years old, her appearance reminded me of the woman on the cover of 5280: striking red hair pulled back in a severe bun.  But while she also shared the military background, the rest of her story is anything but cool.

A self described “Air Force brat,” her dad put in 30 years in the service.  While she was still an infant, the family was transferred to Buckley airbase in Aurora, where she grew up.

Her dad was deployed repeatedly.  “Which,” according to Mariah, “was pretty negative; my mom had severe abandonment issues. However,” she continued, “it was a also a benefit because there was no abuse at home while dad was gone.”   Domestic violence, as is well known, is a risk of multiple deployments.  So is divorce; Mariah’s parents separated after 30 years of marriage.

To escape an intolerable home life, Mariah enlisted in the Air National Guard after high school; the Guard provided her with the financial resources to make the break.

But as her LinkedIn profile reveals, it’s been anything but a smooth flight.  While she’s earned an I.T. degree and become an articulate writer, she’s also flirted with suicide.  And had a run-in with the law.  Which resulted in a seven month jail sentence; something to do with sending an ugly email to a counselor that violated a restraining order.  Which, in turn, caused her to lose the V.A. benefits she’d been awarded as a result of the Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) she says she suffered at her father’s hands.  An appeal’s pending, but with the V.A.’s enormous claims backlog, who knows how long it’ll be before her case is resolved?

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow

And now, with winter closing in, homelessness.  How she manages is hard to fathom.  Crashing on friends’ couches some nights.  Sleeping in her car others.

I’ve suggested several possible resources in the Christian community with which I’m familiar.  Also some in the secular world that I became acquainted with during my service in the legislature.  Do they have room for her?  Has she applied to get in?  I’m not sure.  At one point, she described the shelters with which she’s familiar as “sketchy.”  That’s easy to believe.

Go west, young woman. Go midwest

She expressed her determination to move to the midwest, where the cost of living is lower.  Given Denver’s fevered economy, it’s not difficult to imagine that a place like Des Moines would be cheaper.  But I had to ask: “Does it really make sense to go to an entirely strange city to start over?”  She had a ready answer: “I can’t take the chance of running into my dad. And,” she says, “the criminal justice system in that part of the country tends to be more lenient than it is here.”

So, just another chapter in an old American story?  The one about those who are sufficiently adventurous (or sufficiently desperate), to pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.

Or something more sinister?  A tale about yet another desperate attempt to escape the pity of war.

Gimme Shelter.

Sunset photo of Colorado State Capital buildingProject Sanctuary At The Winding River Ranch.

Rand Case.  Now there’s a name you don’t hear everyday.  And neither had I until I met Rand during my last door to door campaign for the Colorado House about four years ago.

Of course, after doing it thousands of times, I pretty much had my line of front porch patter down cold:  small business owner, Colorado native, all three kids graduates of Cherry Creek schools, a son that served eight years on submarines.  Something, almost invariably, made a connection.

In Rand’s case, it was the Navy and submarines:  he’s a graduate of the Naval Academy. And served on subs.  And, for good measure, he’s also a Colorado native: grew up in the profoundly land locked little tourist town of Grandby, just south of Rocky Mountain National Park and west of some of the most rugged peaks on the Continental Divide.

Not Just War Weary.  But Actually Doing Something About It.

But by then in my political life, when I met someone with a military connection on the campaign trail, I usually couldn’t refrain from saying something about my weariness of our endless wars. The broken bodies.  The broken minds.  The broken families.  And for what purpose?  To enrich defense contractors and to justify Congressmen’s boasts about bringing home that tainted defense “bacon.”

And that’s probably why Rand also told me about Project Sanctuary.   Run by and for veterans, it’s an organization that recognizes, as it says on the website, that “The whole family serves, and the best way to ‘support the troops’ is by supporting the entire family.”  Rand serves as board secretary.  Most of the other board members are vets as well.

True Grit.

But the real impetus for the organization came from registered nurse, Heather Ehle, who, in 2007, saw the need, set up a card table in front of a local grocery store, and began asking for money for 6 day family retreats.  The retreats focus on three aspects of the lives of returning vets:  assessing the need for help, reconnecting families at the 6 day retreats, and offering up to 24 months of ongoing support.  All services are free of charge.  In their effort to take soldiers from “combat ready to family ready,” they now offer programs all across the country.

My wife and I had our first in person exposure to Project Sanctuary at their annual fund raiser.  Heather, I’ll confess, spent a good deal of time in the spotlight that evening.  And the program planners seemingly lost track of the maxim that the “brain can absorb only so much as the rear end can endure.”  Heather, especially, was a bit too much for my wife.

But it was also clear that Heather was a hero to the many vets and their spouses in attendance that night.  Moreover, who but someone endowed with enormous self confidence and grit, could raise an organization from nothing to one that has now impacted 1,000+ families in just over 10 years?

KP.  Babysitting.  And PTSD For Kids!

So, I decided to volunteer for a retreat-the 149th since PS began.  But I started by dipping my toe in the shallow end at a nearby retreat at the Winding River Ranch, just outside Grand Lake, Colorado.

Initially, I thought I might be helping with cooking-something I’m pretty good at.  But fortunately, they had that covered.  Cooking three meals a day for 50 some people for 6 days is no mean feat.  So I did KP:  putting out food for the cafeteria style meals, washing dishes, sweeping floors after meals.  You know, the glamorous stuff.

And, while parents were in sessions where heavy topics like Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were discussed with trained counselors, I helped babysit the younger kids.  Sharon Harris, a licensed play therapist, did a great job coming up with diverting games that usually managed to sneak in a lesson about family team work or some similar moral.

It was heartbreaking to learn that there was a session for kids to help them cope with the PTSD that’s sunk its claws into their families.

When the lights went out at 9 pm, I slept the sleep of the righteous.  Despite a stuffy, far from luxurious room and a roommate I’d never laid eyes on before.

Husband Caregiver.

Two of the little kids at Winding River were beautiful, blond twins who rode in the back seat from Georgia with their parents who, after going through the program themselves, were now back as volunteers. Although you wouldn’t know it if you saw him on the street, the father’s among the walking wounded.

At breakfast one morning, I had the opportunity to speak with the wife-who described herself as a “husband caregiver.”

“How,” I asked, “is the care you get from your local Veterans Administration?  The VA hospital they recently built here has been a scandal.  About a $1 billion over budget and years behind schedule.  Has President Trump’s effort to introduce choice into the VA helped?”

“The choice program might be a good idea” she answered, “but it’s still snarled in red tape.  The GP we’re assigned to has about 7,000 patients.  There’s no was they can keep up with it.  And with that kind of workload, there’s a lot of turnover among doctors.  That’s why,” she concluded, “PS is so important to us.”

Walton’s Warriors.

Bonnie Walton was another PS staff member that I met.  When I started speaking with Bonnie, I had no idea of why she was on staff.  So I asked.

“Because my husband, Brian, and I went through the program. And it was great.  But, despite that,” she concluded, “he ended up committing suicide.”

Talk about a gut punch.  And Brian is only one of what the VA estimates could to be up to 20 service members per day who commit suicide.  But there is some hope; Brian is the only Project Sanctuary graduate who has taken his life.

And, to try to make sure that Brian is the last veteran that kills himself, the organization started Walton’s Warriors.  Although the program is multi-faceted, it’s built around “peer mentors”: vets who’ve wrestled with the same demons that have lead so many to despair and death.  Who then volunteer to be trained and ready to help others.

“Get Out Now!”

Colorado House of Representatives

When I served in the Colorado House, the Iraq and Afghan wars were still raging.  And the vet suicide issue was rapidly making its way to our attention.

In response, a bill was introduced that set up a state program providing “early intervention” mental health services for returning vets.  For obvious reasons, it was one of those bills that got unanimous support.  Members lined up to speak in favor; the phrase “early intervention strategies” was uttered repeatedly.

But while I had every intent of voting for the bill, I sat at my desk, stomach churning, a scowl on my face.  I was debating whether I should speak.  And what I should say.

Finally, mind made up, I got in line to take my turn at the mic.

When I got there, I first turned to my left to thank the sponsor, Dave Young.

“But,” I went on, scanning the entire chamber now, “how about this as an early intervention strategy?  GET OUT NOW!”  With that, my “speech” was done.

The Colorado House of Representatives operates under certain rules of decorum.  One of those is that members and spectators should observe a respectful silence when we are in session.

My fellow legislators observed the rules after my little talk.

But before I’d left the podium, a small group of spectators, above me and to the left, erupted in cheers and clapping.  I still don’t know who they were.  But the Speaker of the House, presiding over our deliberations from just behind me, immediately gaveled down the gallery, crying “Order, order!”

The Real Question.

So, here we are, nearly 20 years on from 9/11.  And we’re still not entirely out of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Not to mention all of the world’s other hot spots where our military’s presence will probably do no more to insure this nation’s peace and security than all the blood and treasure we’ve squandered in the Middle East.

And even when we do finally get out, the horses have already left the barn-and we’re not gettin’ ’em back: the vets whose lives and families have been shattered.  Whose wounds, both mental and physical, have left the VA hideously overtaxed.  And have left organizations like Project Sanctuary to pick up the pieces.  Whose efforts, although valiant, are little more than a drop in the bucket.

So what’s the real question?  Just this: Have we, finally, learned our lesson?  Yes, it may be an old saw, but we can’t be the world’s cop.  Nor, and just as importantly, does much of the world want us to be.

America, it’s time to come home.

Our Strategy For Ending Our Endless Wars?

The Peace Of Exhaustionmilitary bomb disposal

If you, like me, have osteoporosis, you know that weight-bearing activities help prevent your bones from melting away.  So, I’ve started taking short walks once, and even twice, a day.  Retirement does that for you.

Often, I’m strolling around our neighborhood.  Thus, in addition to building stronger bones, I’ve  been reconnecting with a few neighbors whose kids, like ours, have grown up and moved away.  Young kids, between school, Scouts, sports and their other activities are often the glue that holds suburban neighborhoods together.  True, random encounters during neighborhood walks are less “sticky” than regular kids’ activities-but at least they help.

On two recent walks, at virtually the same location, I ran into a woman walking her frisky, English sheep dog puppy-thankfully on a leash.  I recognized her from some long ago connection with our kids, but, of course, I couldn’t remember her name.  To make matters worse, she, of course, remembered mine.

“Hi, Spencer,” she led off, restraining the lunging dog.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” I replied.  “But, please forgive me.  You’ll have to tell me your name.”

“Christy,” she said with a good-natured smile.  “Our sons were in Scouts together.  How’s Byron?”  Not only my name, but my son’s to boot!

“He was in the Navy on a sub for eight years,” I replied, “and then used that job as a springboard to get a job at Google.  How’s your son?”

“He’s in the Navy too,” she replied.  And then, very matter of factly she added, “He works in EODU.”

“EOD . . ?”, I asked, squinting quizzically as the sun declined in the west.

“Yes,” she replied, her lips still smiling, but a shadow falling over her face, “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit.”

Great-the bomb squad.  You know, The Hurt Locker, a movie about the EODU guys in Iraq that I had to turn off at the thirty minute mark-I couldn’t bear it.

“Lord, have mercy,” I said, “where’s he deployed?”

“Well,” she responded, “right now he’s in Florida for training.”

My mind pretty much went blank after that.  I just remember thinking as I finished the walk home, “How does the woman ever sleep at night?”

Who’s Fighting All These Endless Wars For Us?

Yes, I know that Christy’s son, like all of our service members, volunteered for the military.  But that begs the question: why did they volunteer?

Because they’re patriotic?  No question-and God bless ’em.  But is it right to be fighting endless, dubious wars halfway around the world in the interests of what threatens to descend into mere displays of chest thumping jingoism at NFL games?  And how long before the patriotism well runs dry? And all that’s left is cynicism?

Or is it because Christy’s son and his buddies are adrenaline junkies?  Certainly possible.  Or just bored?  Also possible.  But maybe it’s because they need a job.  Any job.

Frankly, that’s what I suspected.  At least until I began doing the research.  But it turns out that, at least from what I was able to glean up through about 2008, enlisted recruits were more likely to come from middle and upper class neighborhoods rather than poor ones.  And since wealthier recruits are more likely to be white, the same data showed that whites are disproportionately bearing the burden in terms of fatalities and casualties.

Christy’s son fits right into that demographic.

The Army Is Too Big

The active duty strength of the U.S. military is nearly 1.5 million soldiers.  Over a third of those are in the Army.

Such a gargantuan force may have made sense when we were squared off against the former Soviet Union in Germany’s Fulda Gap during the Cold War. (Unless the Europeans, as can be easily argued, should’ve been defending their own countries.)  No longer.  All the men, women, equipment-and expense-required to sustain a force of this size is a classic example of the truism that generals are great at planning to win the last war.  But are much less capable, as they’ve amply demonstrated in the “War on Terror,” at winning the next one.

A few things can be said with confidence about our half million man Army:

  • It’s a standing, professional army.  And, as such, and as many of the Founding Fathers warned, they are more likely to become a law unto themselves. And a threat to the rest of us and our liberties.
  • Second, the great bulk of them are doing, in effect, garrison duty.  In other words, they have lots of time on their hands.  Not to mention, lots of very nasty weapons.  And, as the old saying has it, “Idle hands are . . . “

Although written before 9/11, this article by Tom Ricks, who’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of defense issues, is a thoughtful look at the growing, worrisome gap between the military and the nation that it’s called on to defend.  With considerable justification, the military perceives much of our society as alien and very different, increasingly decadent and ill-disciplined.

Now, with the advent of the War on Terror, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the gap between our military and civilian worlds has done anything less than grow to a yawning chasm.  While we party-hearty on the home front, soldiers, during interminable deployment cycles, get their legs blown off.

While lengthy, you should read the Ricks article for yourself.  Among other things, it points out that military’s top brass has, increasingly, disregarded the historic taboo on inserting themselves in the political realm. Which, heretofore, has been the exclusive province of our elected, civilian leadership.

Further, relative to the population at large, the military is also much bigger than it used to be.  In 1933, it numbered about 240,000-a mere one-sixth its current size (the U.S. population has only doubled in the same interval.)

In the past, the military shrank dramatically at the conclusion of a conflict.  For example, within two years after the end of World War II, total U.S. armed forces went from over 12 million to about 1.5 million, a cut of nearly 90%.  In contrast, when our last “major conflict” ended, the Cold War, the force only shrank by about 35% from 2.1 to its current 1.5 million.

Again, unlike in the past, when the military was seen as a temporary interruption of “real” life, our all volunteer force nows looks upon the profession as a career.  Many of them have families to support.  Like employees of any other large organization, how will they take to “downsizing”-should it come to that?  Talk about having a tiger by the tail.

You think an uprising of disgruntled, “laid off” soldiers couldn’t happen here?  Think again.  It already has.  And not that long ago.

In 1932, during the depths of the Depression, a “Bonus Army” of over 43,000 veterans descended on Washington demanding immediate payment of a “bonus” from service in World War I. Technically, the money wasn’t due until 1945.  The reliably ham-handed President Hoover refused the demand.  When the vets ignored orders to disperse, Hoover called in the troops and the protesters’ “Hooverville” shanty town was burned to the ground.  Two marchers were killed in a clash with infantry, cavalry, and tanks.

Not long ago, I chanced to sit next to the furniture magnate, Jake Jabs, at the Capital Conference, a wonky policy confab for the hoi polloi on international affairs in Washington, D.C.  It won’t surprise you that I managed to steer the conversation toward the subject of our endless wars and the size of the military.

“The Army has all these men and equipment,” I began, “often lying around doing nothing.  You know,” I continued, “how business owners hate to see idle equipment.  Why would it be any different for the military and our politicians?  To me, it must be a constant temptation to put it to use.  And what do you use it for?  Fighting wars.”

“You’ve probably got something there,”  Jake replied, who, for all his zoo animals and “ah shucks” mannerisms, is smart like a fox.  “I sure do everything I can to keep my trucks out on the road.”

What makes us think it’s any different for our enormous, professional and standing army?

The Army Is Too Small

The great majority of the fighting that is now being done in the War on Terror is being shouldered by special forces, elite units that total about 70,000 soldiers, a mere sliver of the Army’s overall force of 1.5 million.  According to a recent Time Magazine story, at any given moment, about 8,000 of these troops are deployed in 143 countries, or nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations.

While in the past these units were a supplement to conventional forces, that’s no longer the case.  In small, specialize teams, Washington tells us that these soldiers are doing tasks that sound innocuous: “nation building,” “training” foreign troops to defend their own nations, winning “hearts and minds” through diplomacy.  (By the way, how did that “Hearts and Minds” thing work out in Vietnam?)

The reality, according to former Navy SEAL and now Virginia Congressman, Scott Taylor, is very different.  “They’re not ‘trainers’ and ‘advisors.’  That’s bullshit.  They’re constantly engaged in kill-or-capture raids against known terrorists.  They’re combat boots on the ground, everyone of them.”

Of course, making war on most of the world is a big job for 8,000 troops.  Or even 70,000. Regardless of how good they are.  One result is an endless war for them.  Sargent Major Chris Faris, who was profiled in the Time article, was a member of the Delta Force.  He was home for a total of 89 days between 2002 and 2011.  Before yet another 6 month deployment, his 18 year old daughter asked him if he remembered the last birthday he was home for.  “No,” Faris answered.  “I was 10,” she said. Before walking out of the room.

Not surprisingly, endless war is taking its toll on the nation’s toughest soldiers.  In 2017, 11 special operators were killed in four countries.  That’s the most deaths that have occurred in that many countries since the Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Despite comprising less than 5% of the total military, they are now suffering virtually all combat casualties.

The disfunction attendant on this non-stop war has led the Pentagon to create a task force to address family crises, alcohol abuse, and suicide.  There is an open investigation into the murder of a Green Beret by two Navy SEALs and and the killing of civilians in Somalia by special operators.

Michael Repass, a retired general who formerly commanded special forces in Europe, says it best: “Our special operators aren’t just frayed at the edges,” because of their constant deployments, “they’re ripped apart at the damned seams.  We’ve burned through this force.”

To make matters worse, the tactics of choice for special operators, drone strikes and covert night raids, have probably inadvertently killed thousands of civilians across several countries, according to Andrea Pasow with Human Rights Watch.  How that magnitude of collateral damage has anything to do with making this country safer, rather than simply enraging our opponents and spurring terrorist recruitment, is a mystery to me.

Am I suggesting that the solution to these pervasive issues is to expand the force of special operators?  Absolutely not.  Rather, we should dramatically shrink the scope of the wars we’re fighting.

Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t had their bellyful of war yet.  Instead, according to Time, the latest brain storm is to shift the “training” function of foreign militaries to conventional U.S. forces by creating “Security Force Assistance Brigades.”  And how long, one wonders, before these brigades, like their special forces brethren before them, morph into “combat boots on the ground?”

Come Home, America

My son-in-law served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.  When I saw him recently, I told him about Christy’s son with the bomb squad.

“Yeah,” he responded, “we had those units with us once in a while.  But they could never keep up with the demand when I was there.  One time, I heard that a unit’s commanding officer got impatient for the bomb disposal team to show up.  So, he ordered one of his regular guys to go over and pick up a suspicious object and move it out of the way.  The guy,” he continued, “took about 10 steps and vanished in a cloud of black smoke.  The officer,” my son-in-law concluded, “was dismissed.”

Google tells me that it’s 5,966 miles from New York City to Iraq.  The bulk of that distance is over the Atlantic Ocean. The distance from Los Angeles to Beijing over the Pacific Ocean is even greater:  6,248 miles.

While our current crop of politicians seem to be ignorant of the significance of these elemental facts of geography, our Founding Fathers weren’t.  In The Federalist Papers: No. 41, James Madison wrote,

“Being rendered by her insular situation and her maritime resources impregnable to the armies of her neighbors, the rulers of Great Britain have never been able, by real or artificial dangers, to cheat the public into an extensive peace [military] establishment.  The distance of the United States from the powerful nations of the world gives them the same happy advantage.”

Correct me if I missed something, but last I heard the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are still there.  And, like 18th century Great Britain, America’s vast, watery moats are dominated by our unrivaled naval power.  We’re impregnable to a seaborne invasion.

So why do we maintain an army of 1.5 million and spend more on the military than the next 8 nations of the world-combined?  

Is it to protect our southern border?  Obviously not.  The invasion of illegals continues apace, the Wall remains unbuilt, and our D.C. elites, of all political stripes, have repeatedly demonstrated they couldn’t care less.  In fact, they cheer it on.

So we use our vast military power to invade and “manage” the rest of the world.  As if poking hornets’ nests in 143 countries is “management.”  When, in reality, it can’t be anything other than a costly exercise in the futility of making more people mad at us.

And when will it end?  Who knows.  But perhaps what’s in store for us is not real peace.  But a twilight peace of exhaustion.