Category: US military

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.