The End

 

Our memories are mostly memories of memories. We can trust the big ideas. The details are more suspect.

We pave over the particulars of our past with things from other events or things other people have told us about their experiences of the same event. It’s one of the reasons, besides the fact that people are fantastical liars, that we get caught telling tales so often.

Our past exists in a Gordian Knot of stored data in a biological wet organ just big enough to grow inside our skull. And so over time, all that’s left is the general idea of something that once happened to us. And even then only if we all agree on what that idea was and write it down. So that’s what I’m about to do, lest I forget this one and it vanishes like Roy Batty’s teardrops in rain.

Trust the big idea of this one. The details are post script constructs.

Ten years ago this week, I sat staring at a clip board at my desk in my troop space. On it was a long list of things that needed to get done.

Weapons inventories. Manifest check sheet. Will. Power of Attorney. Classified hard drive storage.

There was a line through each of them already.

The phone in the middle of the desk I shared with my Troop Master Chief rang. He picked it up, muttered a something inaudible and hung up. Then he looked at me. Of all the things I remember that day, it was the look.

We were due over at the North Island Naval Air station with the rest of my troop to get onto a C17 headed for Balad, Iraq in about an hour. But something had happened and we had to head over to the meeting room in SEAL Team ONE. And that something could really only be one thing.

Dan Cnossen, one of the Team’s platoon commanders, was injured in Afghanistan. He was a part of the team that had left the week before with some of my operators and analysts. I knew Dan a bit. Not that well. He lost both legs but survived.

We were about to say goodbye to our families on the tarmac, but the Skipper wanted us to know what happened to Dan. And to remind us that no one says nothing to no one. There was a process underway to let those who need to know, know.

This was the work.

As for Dan, he’s since gone to grad school at Harvard and won two Para-Olympic Gold Medals in the Bi-athlon. It’s true what Ruth said about people you know. If they never quit, they’re damn hard to beat. And there’s clearly no quit in Dan.

I left my wife and three kids on the Tarmac that day. It was the last time I would see my middle son before he was diagnosed with Autism. It was the last time I would see my youngest before he could walk. I slept on top of a conex box in a sleeping bag for the next 15 hours or so before we landed in Iraq.

I felt as bad as I’ve ever felt in my life. For a few minutes and then I buried it.

Those are the details of the day.

The big idea was that it was the end. Whatever I had built myself to be able to do, was done. All that was left was six months to play the game I’d spent the previous 15 years preparing for. And while many, maybe even most of my generation will tell you that the most important time in their lives was when they served, I won’t.

Because the most important time in my life was the ten years since I stopped.

None of us, no matter who we are, can fight forever. And few of us can find a market that fills up our lives talking about what it took to fight. The rest of us need to move on.

I put my family back together. I put myself back together. I found that kid that raised his right hand on the courtyard in Annapolis 20 years earlier who saw that world through bright eyes. Who hadn’t yet buried a lifetime of pain in the desert. Who hadn’t yet clung to countless unsustainable life hacks to numb the pain.

I founded a non-profit with my wife to help families with special needs.

I found a career in an industry that let me build on the experience I had but insisted I grow beyond it.

I found my voice in writing; a few million visits to this site, articles in the Washington Post, Playboy and a dozen other online venues.

I found faith. And in it, I found the strength to walk the next leg of the journey; the journey of a special needs father.

This blog is winding down. I’ve said most of what I need to say about politics in America. It’s not going anywhere. If I need to, I’ll say something here from time to time. But there’s work to be done. There are men out there on the same journey I’m on, in pain. Men who don’t know how to be who they are through the grinding task of special needs parenting.

It’s an unfair task. But I think I can help.

This September I’m launching a blog to provide some words of encouragement, hard lessons learned and a little salt and light to the fathers of special needs children. I know they won’t ask for help. I know they won’t tell people they’re hurting. I don’t need them to. I’ve been there.

And I’m coming to them.

Thank you all so much for the years of following this blog. You are all the reason I wrote. I hope it helped.

And if you’d like to follow my new page, I’ll send one last post with the info when we get it out.

These 20 Years

20 years ago today I walked across the stage at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis and received my diploma and commissioning certificate from then Defense Secretary William Cohen. Tucked neatly inside the flap of the blue folder I’d been dreaming about for four years was a notice that I still had an outstanding library book. And that they, the United States Naval Academy, would be forwarding this delinquency onto my next command.

Go Navy…Beat Army…

That story doesn’t have much to do with the rest of what I have to say other than it’s one of a million stories my class could tell about the uniquely common experiences we’ve had. Unique in that they were our own. Common in that there was the sort of thread that binds them all together the way things really only can be when people are from the same place. Like brothers and sisters in a family. Like friends who grew up in a small town together only to drift away. The thread is never completely broken. It endures in its own way. In stories of library books. Or of war. And of all the beautiful and painful things in between.

The benchmark for a military career is 20 years. That’s how long one has to serve in order to retire and so that’s the date most of us carry in our heads when we start. What none of us could imagine, was where these 20 years would take us, how the world would change in the time that we served, and what it meant to have the responsibilities we would have as world history played out in front of and often through us.

We applied to Annapolis when philosophical battlefield of the Cold War was still smoldering. As the 90’s progressed, the threat of war was as far off as it had been for America in generations. Our parent’s war, Vietnam, had been over for decades. The receding tide of communism made a repeat impossible. The first Gulf War exposed the type of domination Americans could expect to have against a world without an existential enemy.  The Pax Americana was upon us.

Those that went in the years before us got a free education, saw the world a bit and then went on to mint money in the first dot com boom or trading off the growing economy it fed on Wall Street. And so many of us believed we would have a similar path.

We were wrong.

In October of 2000, while many of us were still completing training in whatever warfare school we’d selected, the USS Cole was attacked in the Yemeni harbor of Aden. A fellow 99er was onboard. He survived.  Less than a year later, while on my first deployment to the Gulf, the 9/11 attacks rocked the world. The first shot in war came in by way of Tomahawk cruise missile from my ship. War was back; one that would last 18 of our first 20 years in service.

99ers took part in the airstrikes and ground war in Afghanistan in the years that followed. We were part of the invasion into Iraq as ground forces pushing west over the desert and as the air power that provided the “shock and awe” of 21st century warfare. We were at Fallujah, Haditha and Basra. One of the SEAL platoon commanders from the legendary TU Bruiser at the first battle of Ramadi was a 99er. One of the first Iraq Air Medals, with valor, was awarded to a 99er.

When our initial commitment of service was up, many of us separated into the teeth of the great recession. I worked for Merrill Lynch when it claimed bankruptcy and found shelter from the storm in the form of a recall to active duty and one more trip back to Iraq. Like me, many 99ers learned the lesson that if all else fails, there’s always the war.

By now, most of us are out. Many haven’t gone too far, staying attached to the military industrial complex that’s grown into the fabric of America over the decades of war. We’ve had people serve in the Obama and Trump administrations. We’ve had entrepreneurs start tech companies. Our brigade commander is an astronaut testing the next manned American flight vehicle.

During our time we’ve seen women allowed to serve on submarines and in infantry combat roles and in war zones where long dwell deployments make the distinction between support roles and combat the domain of policy and paperwork, not reality. We served through the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” and realized the true identity of some of our classmates and come to terms with the pain and fear in which they’d been living all along, and the part we, as a culture, played in it.

Somehow, we lost no one to direct combat. But we lost more than our share to the unbearable silence that came after.

Those that still serve have taken command of ships, fighter squadrons and SEAL Teams. And now they’re about to transfer into the unimaginable realm of major command and soon, dare I say, flag rank.

20 years is a long time. Perhaps these 20 years have been longer. What worlds we’ve seen this that day. What worlds there are yet to see. We were together 20 years ago today. All coals drawing heat from the same fire before we went off to the corners of the earth to watch it change. And to watch how it changed us.

Happy 20th 99. I hope you all are well.

On Service

Early one morning in June of 2005 I received a panicked phone call from the wife of a friend of mine. She asked me if I had any information on the rumors of casualties that were starting to circulate within the families of deployed members of the Naval Special Warfare community.

Her husband was deployed. It her first experience as the wife of a deployed Navy SEAL. And she was worried.

I gave her the line I was trained to give her. That I had no information that I could share. That if anything had happened to her husband, she’d be informed, in person, by a representative of the command. And that if rumors were already out there and no one had contacted her formally, it’s safe to assume he’s fine until she hears otherwise. She was skeptical but satisfied.

I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and got sick.

I wasn’t ill. I wasn’t lying either. I simply had no information on her husband. I had no information on anything. I didn’t hear the rumors. I didn’t even know that there was an operation or casualties. I knew less than her; less than anyone. And I was about to spiral headlong into a reckoning of all that it meant to not be a part of anything anymore.

I was not prepared.

Seven months earlier I had returned from a deployment attached to SEAL Team ONE and separated from the Navy six weeks later. It was a quick departure, but it was all part of the plan. I’d done my five years after Annapolis; five years that started before 9/11 and ended after two wartime deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Six months later, I was working for a marine engineering company in San Diego. I was applying to business schools. My wife was pregnant with our first son.

Everything was going according to plan.

The plan, however, hadn’t accounted for something — the reaction I had to that phone call.

In the days and weeks that followed, news of Operation Redwings circulated in the media. 19 Special Operations personnel had been killed in Afghanistan, including eleven SEALs. At the time, it was the deadliest single day in the history of the SEAL community. Following along in the headlines, I sank deeper and deeper into a funk; a funk I wouldn’t come out of until I was recalled back to active duty two years later.

What surprised me most about my reaction to the first time I separated from active duty, clearly illustrated by my reaction to that phone call, was that I’d done the work to avoid exactly what was happening to me. At least I thought I had. I knew I wasn’t a lifer. I never pretended I would be. I was sure to take the endless appreciation for service one receives these days in stride. I didn’t buy into the narrative that I had endured heroic suffering and selfless sacrifice. I had gotten a free college education. And the job of Naval Officer paid well. By 28 I had a home, no college debt and a hell of a resume.

I focused on the reality of all that serving in the military had done for me. Less what burden I bore for the greater good of America. And so I viewed the transition in minimalist terms. It was, after all, just a job. I had little problem leaving a life of honor and public prestige, as I didn’t really think of it as such. What I didn’t account for was the overwhelming diminishment in purpose, a gap made acutely clear to me when I took that phone call as I was getting dressed to go into the office to sell marine engineering service contracts that morning in June of 2005.

For years, in fact, for my entire adult life, I existed as a small part of something that was much bigger than myself. It was more than being a small cog in the machine with the worthy mission of defending America. Rationally, that was easy to reconcile and walk away from.

What’s one less lieutenant in the grand scheme of things?

What went on in the background of my time in the navy though, was harder to leave behind. It was the role of a teammate. It was the role of a servant leader. It the role of a husband who had come to expect that he would go months without sleeping in the same bed with his wife. A brother who would miss weddings. A son who wouldn’t be there for a cancer diagnosis. And it was, no matter how hard I tried to downplay it, a life of risk and danger.

I’d risked myself and my teams with enough regularity to need to believe that what I did was worth it; that it mattered. And I learned to put myself behind the needs of nearly everything the life of service put in front of me. In turn, I devalued my own needs so exhaustively, that I didn’t know any other way to be. It wasn’t conscious. And didn’t feel like much of a burden. Yet it was clearly heaped upon me. And though I never could bring myself to manufacture the persona of a tortured hero, when my life of service was over, I tried to put whatever came next in the same spot.

It didn’t work.

Marine engineering service contracts, as decent and honest as that work was, wasn’t going to fill the void. Neither was being a stock broker. Neither was pursuing an MBA. Or even coaching my kid’s T-Ball team. Once one commits to the life of service, that service becomes the purpose. And when that service is important enough to shrink everything else about you to an irreversible minimum, it’s tough to pull the nose back up.

Purpose is everything.

Above all, we are beings who crave purpose. We can live healthy, adjusted lives without success, recognition or resources beyond our basic needs. But without purpose, we wander into the dangerous territory of feeding the lesser angels of our nature.

My class from Annapolis will hit twenty years this May. And so many of my classmates are about to embark on the same journey I did, twice; now as forty somethings who have left much of their best years and best efforts in far off places doing important things soon to be lost to the distant reaches of their memory.

My advice to them?

Find a way to continue to serve. Most understand that a departure from the life is a shift in purpose. Few understand what living a life where that purpose was service actually does to those living it, until they stop.

Next week I’ll be participating in a panel at the Brookings Institute with other vets who have found a way to continue on in a life of service of a different kind. From non-profits, to government to political office, there’s ways to stay engaged.  I’m looking forward to the discussion.

For info, click here.

The Cost of Veteran Value Signaling

The 22-a-day number is not real.

The number publicized to show how many vets commit suicide every day is not real. The actual number is something less than that. And a deeper look into the data shows that the overwhelming majority of vet suicides are happening decades after service as men reach their 50’s and 60’s.

The hypothesis that military service is the primary driver behind that high number would not survive any serious analytical scrutiny.

That number is a part of a deluge of value signaling on social and mainstream media, corporate marketing campaigns and within personal relationships that washes over Americans, unchecked, every day. Often it’s well intentioned. Sometimes it’s fishing for praise. And other times it’s straight politics or marketing.

It generates a wellspring of good will. But it comes at a cost.

Yesterday morning a Marine Corps veteran charged into a country bar in Thousand Oaks, CA and murdered 12 people. This morning the President of the United States characterized him as a veteran suffering from PTSD. And now we’re likely going to have a national conversation about how to handle our unstable vets wandering around America.

This conversation will be the cost of years of veteran value signaling.

A lesser stated fact is that most vets haven’t, won’t and never have seen active combat. Our Vietnam vets are in their 70’s. The heaviest fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been over for a decade. We’ve been engaged in low intensity conflict for longer than there has been daily combat. An unpopular and perhaps insensitive reality is that our dearth of PTSD diagnoses are as related to the removal of the requirement for a specific traumatic event from the disability criteria as they are anything else. And while this sounds like I’m about to jump full throttle into a “we all need to be less sensitive” rant, I’m not. I am going to insist we remain sensitive. But be sensitive to the right thing or we’re going to do damage to those we’re trying to protect. And the right thing, is not millions of American veterans walking around America with PTSD.

It’s not the reality.

In 2004, I walked off a plane and out of the military after serving as a detachment commander of a special operations unit deployed to Africa. I had three weeks to transition out of the military. Six months later, Operation Red Wings took place, the mission that would eventually be made into the movie Lone Survivor. 19 Special Operations personnel were lost.

The day that it happened, the wife of a deployed friend of mine called me. She asked me if I had any information about the operation or who had been involved and if her husband were ok. I couldn’t tell her anything because I didn’t know anything. I was out of the loop. I was away from the life, getting my information from the news, just like her. I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom and vomited.

In the few years after that, I behaved in ways I never had before. I made bad decisions, developed destructive habits and nearly destroyed my marriage. In fact, if not for a graceful forgiving wife, I would have. In reflection on that time in my life, I was quick to assign my problems to PTSD. And I found welcoming arms and belonging in a world that valued my service, gave me sympathy for what I went through. And made me feel like I belonged again.

There was one problem though. I didn’t have PTSD. Not in any real diagnostic sense.

Years later, my wife did an internship as a counselor for alcoholic and drug addicted homeless veterans. These were not the lonely Twitter mavens signaling to others for belonging. These were people who had destroyed their lives and reached the last stop on the train.

My wife’s opinion of the root cause? Was it PTSD? For a few it was. But the one nearly universal theme was that all of them had some kind of mental health issue before they went into the service that they couldn’t manage after they got out. Anxiety. Depression. ADD…other.

For the first time in their lives, they were alone. And no one was responsible for their well being. And they spiraled off the tracks.

My truth was that I came from four generations of fall down drunks self-medicating their anxiety. And at 27, for the first time in my life, the training wheels were off from a personal behavior perspective. And I couldn’t handle it.

Turns out, the Marine who murdered 12 people yesterday, is alleged to have attacked his high school track coach. The trend is intact.

Which takes me back to where we are on the arc of the discussion. I’ll button it up with three quick thoughts.

1-We have to stop feeding the narrative that all vets are wandering around with deep hidden wounds. Some are. The overwhelming majority are not. While it may feel like we’re being respectful and appreciative, we’re perpetuating something that is not true and in turn doing harm by characterizing a broad group of people as something they are not.

2-The DOD has to focus on treating people’s mental illness while they are in the service and doing more to eliminate negative career outcomes for those who seek help…while they’re in. Transferring accountability of that to the “cost of war” and trying to treat people with a genetic predisposition to depression or mental illness by telling them they have PTSD leads to bad outcomes when they release into the outside world because they’re treating the wrong illness.

3-We have to be serious about how to transition veterans into the outside world. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was a shock I was not prepared for. And our programs are window dressing. They are presently the least we can do without stepping on corporate toes or actually insisting on things from our citizens. Finding vets meaningful work is an investment that requires hard platforms of education, increased financial or legal incentives to hire and even entire government run companies to employ people and teach them skills. (Crazier than a 300million single fighter jet…?)

As much as I want to hire a vet, I can’t hire a computer engineer who can’t code, an analyst who can’t do data science or a product manager who can’t release a product. I say that as a vet.

And if you can’t find the right thing to put your energy into after war…you will find the wrong thing.

If you have PTSD and this rubbed you the wrong way, it wasn’t my intent. But there’s work to be done to get this conversation into a more productive domain. Because it won’t be long before one day, we’re not so appreciative of our vets. And it’s going to matter how much stock we put in just how damaged we all are because of our service.

Can We Question Someone’s Service?

We’ve already had a few dust-ups over the claims of service that some veterans running for congress have made. Over 400 have run or are running in this year’s midterms, a significant surge over previous years. It’s bound to come up again.

Most of the issues raised so far have been around the specifics of slogans like “combat proven” or claiming to have “fought in Iraq.” It’s mostly semantics. It does raise a reasonable question though.

Is a candidate’s service record fair game for political fodder?

My answer? Yes…but it’s complicated.

If a vet is going to pursue office, a noble but voluntary endeavor that comes with prestige, privilege and platform, that vet’s time in service is open to scrutiny. I also believe that the degree to which one’s service is central to their campaign platform matters too.

If one is touting oneself to be a war hero, one ought to be a war hero in broadly accepted terms and be willing to field challenges to that distinction.

If one’s opponent is touting themselves as a war hero, one should feel free to challenge that distinction. All the common risks of political strategy apply. Service distinction shouldn’t inherently hold sacred ground.

What gets complicated, though, is what we find when we actually try to apply scrutiny to early 21st century American military service. We’ve been at war with global, non-state actors for nearly twenty years. The result is that the details around one’s service can get a little murky. Fighting ambiguous wars against ambiguous enemies in ambiguous locations leads to ambiguity that opens up holes large enough for political operatives to drive a straight talk express bus through. Those running on their service records should be wary of both political opponents and the campaign advisors pitching them. It’s extremely easy to slide into exaggerations.

Last year, I wrote an article for the Washington Post. It was my first for that platform. The draft byline referred to me as a combat veteran. I asked them to strike the term combat veteran because I wasn’t comfortable with the distinction. I wasn’t comfortable with it because I don’t really know what it means.

The most obvious definition of a combat veteran would be someone who received a combat action ribbon. Even that gets murky though. The criteria for that award is relatively narrow and has limitations on communities and rank. A combat nurse working on combat wounded in a combat zone on a location regularly attacked would not qualify unless their precise location were targeted.

How precise? Somewhat. I think.

It’s possible that the award alone is too narrow a definition of combat veteran for modern warfare.

Like I said, murky.

The result of me erring on the side of understatement was hundreds of comments on the article about my opinion not mattering because I never saw any “action”.

Now, I’m reasonably confident stating that I’m a combat veteran is some level of exaggeration, though I led combat elements on combat missions in combat zones. Part of the point, and what we’re likely to get a heavy dose of in the coming months, is that I don’t know how to accurately describe my service in a way that either is inaccurately over or understated.

For Example:

I conducted the initial air strikes into Afghanistan in October of 2001. My team fired the first shot in the war. This is a true statement.

I was a surface warfare officer on a ship that happened to be in the Arabian Gulf on 9/11. We were first on station off the coast of Pakistan and fired the first Tomahawk into Taliban territory. I was on the bridge of the ship when we launched. My roommate was in the combat information center planning and actually firing the missile. We literally conducted the first air strikes in the war. True.

We then ate bowls of ice cream and watched Joe Dirt on the MWR channel in our state rooms and were asleep before the missiles reached their targets. That last detail probably isn’t making it into a campaign speech but it’s an important descriptor of my experience.

On my second deployment, after transitioning to a special operations community, I didn’t deploy to a combat zone or even one that entitled me to hazardous duty pay. I was nowhere near Iraq or Afghanistan. I received no awards or formal recognition.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

My team was the first one on the ground in the area and DOD had not yet classified it a combat area because there was no one there before us. Months after we left it would be.

While there, I was on-scene tactical commander for hundreds of hours of operations “outside the wire”. Though we took no confirmed fire from enemies, we were under regular IED threat. I was in constant danger and risked my life and the lives of my men more times than I can count. I was even emergency med-evac’d out of a remote location after suffering kidney damage do to lack of water.

I separated from the navy two months after returning. No time to process awards.

Still, not combat proven.

On my last deployment to Iraq, after being recalled to active duty, I was awarded the Bronze Star for leading a team that executed over a hundred successful direct action raids against enemy insurgents. I served in Ramadi on a base that was attacked while I was there.

That is a true statement.

The following is also true.

As a Lieutenant Commander, I almost never left the tactical operations center, my duty station, during a single operation. I watched a lot of football on the Armed Forces television network and ate ten thousand Thin Mints.

All true. Still not combat proven.

This level of ambiguity is not unique to my service. My record doesn’t look that different than many others. Now, imagine trying to explain to an excited campaign manager or speech writer, that you ought not say you “fought in Iraq”.

Additionally, try to explain to a woman who, at the time, was not technically allowed to serve in a combat status but was in dozens of convoys through the bomb laden streets of Fallujah, that she didn’t serve in combat because none of the bombs hit her exact vehicle.

The reality is that service in these wars breaks down in a few ways. There were rare, no shit action hero war experiences that have mostly been made into movies or self help , corporate leadership books by now. There were larger groups that served in the earliest three to four years of the wars where there were regular combat operations experienced by the broad population of those that deployed. And then there’s been about a decade of low intensity conflict where troops went away to war zones, were less exposed to conventional combat, but were regularly exposed to things like roadside bombs or sniper attacks for long periods of time and have no idea exactly how to express the experience they had to others.

This ambiguity leads to more than bad campaign slogans. It contributes to the struggle of transitioning out of the military as past service members can’t pinpoint the cause of the emotional trauma the service and ultimate separation caused, since they did not, in fact, “see combat”.

One of the secrets we vets know about being a hero is that the most significant variable that leads to heroism is circumstance; something that has little to do with the hero in question. There is no choice in it. The choice, the one that matters, the one that makes one worthy of representing other Americans in government,  was in the decision to serve. The decision to “go”.

If running for office, applying for a job or simply sitting in a bar stool at your local pub, it’s sufficient to simply say that you went. And that you did what was asked of you for your fellow American.

That message holds up. I hope to see many candidates say it. And then lead in congress with the lessons they truly learned.

Honest Thoughts on Military Service

There are more. Here are 13:

1- I’ve never duplicated the relationships I have that came out of serving together. No matter where or when, seeing someone I gutted out a deployment with brings a smile to my face and a feeling of attachment I don’t have with anyone else. Even though it’s been decades in some instances, I still feel an innate responsibility for those that trusted me to lead them. I hope that never goes away. I’m told it doesn’t.

2- Counter to common narrative, on the margin, I got more than I gave for my service. This is a common reality for those that served over the last 20 years.

My undergrad, grad school and my wife’s second grad school were all payed for by the DOD. The best medical care my family has ever received was in the military. I stayed in the reserves for five years after separation because care the DOD provided for special needs families was something I couldn’t duplicate on the outside. I transitioned out of the military twice and took substantial pay cuts both times.

By the time I was 26 I’d been around the world twice and had command of a combat element. I was financially independent and owned my house.

No benefit received was dependent on anything other than minimum service requirements. Not performance. Not number of deployments. Not pay-grade.

3-In 2004 I completed a deployment with no internet, no mail and only MREs for food.  It was the only experience I wish I could repeat.

4-Physics and my own judgement were the greatest risks to my safety on every deployment. Sometimes the bad guys got a say but that came and went. The other two were always there.

5-Chicken Cavetelli and Chicken with Tai Sauce were the best two MRE meals and I will fight anyone who says otherwise… No one did anything with the meal heaters except make explosives. Tabasco makes everything better. And by better I mean it makes it taste like Tabasco.

6-Being cold and wet is the worst sort of torture. Life’s whole purpose, any life not just human, is to stave off entropy.  We are complex systems designed for one purpose–to keep our cells organized. The first type of disorganization is to lose the heat that separates us from our surrounding temperature. Being cold and wet accelerates that. It’s entropy. It’s the great equalizer of man.

7-I struggle when people thank me for my service. I appreciate it, but it takes conscious effort not to correct them in saying it should be me thanking them for the opportunity to serve. I don’t say that to signal some kind of over zealous stoicism within me. I say it because there’s no competitive market for those of us wired with the urge to do the things one can only do in the military. That’s what it is. It’s an urge. It’s an urge to identify with and do the types of things one can only do in the military. There is no other way to do it.

I served most of my time in Special Operations around men who could do anything that they wanted to do. The only thing any of them ever wanted to be were SEALs, Green Berets or Rangers, or at least former SEALs, Green Berets or Rangers. If not for the unique opportunity of service, where does one live that life?  There is no alternative to SOCOM. Or Naval Aviation. Or the Marine Corps. Or 101st Airborne. None of us chose to play for America over another team.

8-I’m incapable of choosing where to eat.

9-Combat service and combat related mental injuries are rare relative to the broad scale of the military community. What is not rare are the impacts of deployment cycles and the rigor of normal military living. A life knowing you are never more than 18 months out from leaving your family or your home for months or years takes its toll. There’s an impending pain that one simply lives with. And there are things that shut off when one goes away that don’t necessarily light back up again.

Once the externalities of that cycle go away, the internal strife remains. The most common risk for vets when they separate is not what most think. It’s not the bad memories of friends dying in their arms, mostly. It’s the inability to spin down from the cycle and the order. It’s more Brooks from Shawshank Redemption than it is Deniro from Deer Hunter.

We do a terrible job of telling people it’s hard to stop. It leaves the overwhelming majority of service members spared from the worst of combat operations wondering why they’re struggling and feeling shameful for that struggle when they separate.

10-There is no short term beating like what an 11 Meter RIB can deliver to the human body. And there is no more grueling beating than life on a ship can deliver to the human mind.

11-The line between a culture that holds its military in high esteem and one that uses support for the troops to divide politically isn’t that fine.

12-There’s something to the dehumanizing of the enemy that’s more specific than dehumanizing an entire culture. Service in a war zone doesn’t create malformed views on other people and cultures. It magnifies what was there already.

13-Every operation I ever participated in didn’t matter to the interests of the United States of America ten years after it happened. All territory was either never in question or lost several times over after we won it. All wars have continued without end, America or not. No Americans, other than the ones executing the missions, were safer as a result of what I did.

I can’t be honest about the rest of this without being honest about that.

A Story About a Band

Navigating the half dozen outposts between where I had spent the last six months in Iraq and the last checkpoint out of theater took me a day and a half of helo rides, praying a dust storm wouldn’t come and lock me down.

One stopped me in Ramadi on the first leg. I laid on the dusty plywood floor for a day with my head on my bag spitting Copenhagen into a taped-up water bottle knowing that if I wandered too far off I’d miss the next bird.

The God awful dust stayed put for a few hours. Finally, I got out.

I made the last long leg on a commercial flight from Kuwait to San Diego.

In March, when the rest of the group attached to the Team headed back to California by way of a “decompression” stop in Stuttgart, I got permission to head straight home.

I’ve heard that those decompression stops were helpful. It was a chance to let the war out a bit before it was time to assimilate back into “normal” western culture. There were counseling sessions and cognitive tests and some time to let the desert sand wash out of your hair.

I’ve heard they were good. For one reason or another, I never made it to one. My family was in a bad way. Every second of decompression for me was compression for them. And they’d had enough.

When I touched down in San Diego there was no welcome. No one had any idea where I’d just come from. I wandered out of the war for the last time and into the night air in San Diego dressed like a SOF guy trying not to look like a SOF guy. I tried to jump into a cab. A woman on the curb snapped at me and pointed at the long waiting line behind her.

“Um, there’s a line.” Sigh. Head shake.

I hadn’t noticed.

While I waited, I took a knee on the pavement and got to work on the task of consolidating my gear. Before I left Iraq, I’d stuffed everything I could into my DHB and hopped on a convoy to the next airfield.  DHB was short for “Dead Hooker Bag”. They were large black equipment bags that were so big one could fit a dead hooker in it—in theory.

Those weren’t my words. That’s just what we called them. And the fact that we threw those words around so plainly tells a tale of the distance I’d just traveled.

In Kuwait, the bag was too heavy to go on the plane. So I had to buy a box from the attendant at the check in counter and put some things in that box, tape it up and check it. Those things that I had to put in that box were my body armor, my ballistic helmet and a pile of other tactical gear I had to wear out of the war zone.

Holster. Magazines. Flashlight. Compass. War.

Kneeling on the smooth polished floor, in the Kuwaiti Airport, alone, piling body armor, a ballistic helmet and tactical gear into a box as the fine Jazira desert dust spilled out of it, taping it up and handing it to a smiling Kuwaiti gentleman behind the counter for him to check was an uncomfortable feeling.

He was the last person I talked to “in theater”.

Later, curbside in San Diego, tired of lugging the cardboard box around, I did it in reverse. I broke down the box. I stuffed my gear back in my bag. A hand on my shoulder snapped my head up. A man pointed to a cab waiting at the front of the line.

“Hey, take mine. And welcome home man.” he said.

I jumped in. I don’t remember thanking him. All i could think of was getting rid of that Goddamned box.

The cab dropped me off at my door a little after midnight, about 48 hours or so after I’d left my unit in Ramadi. My wife had left the door unlocked. I came in, laid my bags down at the door and sat down at our kitchen table.

In the room I’d pictured every day since I’d left, I was alone in silence for the first time in months. There was no dust. And there was carpet. If deployment is life without one thing it’s life without carpet. Just boots on dust on plywood.

Eventually the kids woke up. We were reunited. They were excited. Aidan didn’t really notice I was there.  He didn’t really notice anything. He was diagnosed Autistic when I was gone. I still feel guilty about it today.

I tried like hell to be present. But I wasn’t.

One foot in. One foot out.

I ran down the street in the morning to wait in line to register my oldest for kindergarten. It was the first thing my wife had gotten help with in months. The school nurse chastised me for not having his immunization records.

I think I told her to “take it fucking easy”.

Life began again.

It was hard to sleep at first. It was impossible. This deployment, I wasn’t out on patrol every night like I was the last time I went out. I was senior. Too senior to go outside the wire much. I was back on the FOB, staring at targets through “kill TV” every night, strung out on Copenhagen and Rip Its and one slide PowerPoints.

I was safe, relatively. And I didn’t think the transition out this time would be as hard.

I still couldn’t get any fucking sleep though.

When my family was down for the night, I would walk down to the park next to my house and do box jumps on a picnic table until I couldn’t jump any more, music blaring into my headphones.

The band Titus Andronicus had an album that came out the week I got home. It was full of tortured songs about the Civil War. It was perfect.

I knew their front man. He was the younger brother of my roommate at Annapolis. I’d known him since he was a kid. Not the way you know someone by spending time with them. The way you know someone by spending time with someone they know.

Annapolis was great for storing your memories in other people. The experience depravation that was life locked inside a fake ship for four years led you to tunnel into the lives of your friends. Their families become your families. Their hometowns became yours. Their memories became your memories.

It was perfect training for deployment.

Peej, as his older brother called him, had more practice at the tortured soul thing than I did. His music showed it.

He’d told Rolling Stone in an interview lauding the new album, “When we weren’t on tour or whatever, I got really obsessed with Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. I would stay up and obsessively watch it all night.”

Now I was staying up all night doing box jumps in a park with no shirt on in March, listening to his music.

One night, while blasting To Old Friends and New into my ears so loud it hurt, jumping on that stupid concrete picnic table, I slipped and ripped open my shin. It didn’t hurt that badly but the blood was everywhere. I’d just started jumping though. And I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I just kept jumping.

Soon the blood soaked my shoe red. Then a puddle formed on the table. It splashed each time I jumped. Then I noticed that some tissue had shaken loose and was hanging out of the front of my leg.

Somewhere between the last jump, and the hospital getting stitched back up, I realized something.

I wasn’t alright…

Why We Served

A few weeks ago, a reader posted a question in the comments section of an essay I wrote on the topic of Confederate monuments. I’ve said just about all that I think I should on that subject. If you’re interested in my perspective, you can find it here. I’m not interested in old statues today. Today I’m only interested in the question. Continue reading

The Art of the Aggressive

A few weeks ago, I sat down to do a podcast with retired SEAL, fellow writer and friend Andy Stumpf. He asked me a good question. And I gave him an ok answer. I’ve thought about it quite a bit since and I feel like I left a lot on the table. I write answers to questions like the one he asked a lot better than I say them. So I thought I’d give myself a second chance at it.

It’s worth the time I think. Because it’s one of the most important thing I ever learned.  Continue reading