battle-weary soldiers get a mixed welcome back to the Inland Northwest
It’s always the things they carry into war: not just the survival gear and non-combat items they stuff into rucksacks, but also the fears, hopes, family narratives, broken and supposed whole selves they hold to when looking at themselves in the mirror at 4 a.m. right before heading out for a patrol . . . fire-fight . . . Apache helicopter run … or drone session. The really heavy things they haul into war aren’t M-60 machine guns and RPGs but memories and pasts, and for some, a big blank fog that is their future.
It’s both an easy and supremely difficult story to understand – the effects of war, combat, and just military life on young people with a few combat missions under their belts and those separating after decades of military service. As the lyrics below demonstrate, the killers and the killed are universal in so many respects: they are the tools of broken diplomacy, victims of the machinations by the neocons and war hawks, and causalities of corporations and politicians raking in all the unholy profits of a military industrial complex.
He’s five foot-two, and he’s six feet-four,
He fights with missiles and with spears.
He’s all of thirty-one, and he’s only seventeen,
Been a soldier for a thousand years.
He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain,
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew.
And he knows he shouldn’t kill,
And he knows he always will,
Kill you for me my friend and me for you.
–Donovan, lyrics to “Universal Soldier”
Complicated too, since I’ve been around the military almost all of my life – my father was in the Air Force and then Army, 32 years, taking his family with him to the Azores, Maryland, Albuquerque, Munich, Paris, the UK, Arizona and other states. I instructed the highest ranking non-commissioned officers from around the world at the Sergeant’s Major Academy; taught literature and writing to military and their dependents at Fort Bliss, and on air force bases in New Mexico, Arizona and Spokane: Holloman, Davis Monthan and Fairchild.
I ended up in Vietnam in the mid-1990s working as a journalist and logistics guy for an international science biodiversity team. I learned quickly that Vietnam is a country, not a war. I met incredible people in 1994 and later who no longer saw me or my father (served twice in Vietnam, shot twice, too) as enemies.
“I just want to head for the Colvilles and sink into nature. Get away from people. Traffic. Civilization. Away from all the reminders of that day. Get into the mountains to forget what I had to do in Iraq on Thanksgiving Day.”
The entire military “thing” and the “war is peace” doublespeak initiated by Bush and then continued by Obama, well, these are some of the most troubling times teaching returning combat vets who as civilian college students are in no way taken care of, respected or healed. The quotes in the boxes come from a former college student who grew up in Cheney but who ended up in the Marines at age 17 and in the Battle of Fallujah at eighteen and a half.
Stories, Camaraderie, Booze, Bingo and Cannabis
It’s one of the oldest VFW posts “this side of the Mississippi,” and it will be celebrating its centennial April 13, 2015. I spoke with Al Hulquist, 82, retired with thirty years in the Air Force under his belt and having served in Occupation Germany and Japan as well as two tours of duty in Vietnam.
He pointed out that Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 51 just accepted a World War Two veteran. That would make this newest member one of the oldest members at 90.
“We aren’t seeing younger people coming in, but then it’s usually when you get older when you get more interested in joining things,” Hulquist said, noting he is from Minnesota and Iowa but ended up retiring at Fairchild in 1976 and never left. He’s been a member of VFW Post 51 since 1980.
He was quick to instruct me that a local fellow, John R. Monaghan, from Chewelah and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is the source of his VFW’s namesake. “We have Ensign Monaghan’s uniform here. He won the medal of honor, after being beheaded in Samoa while fighting alongside his wounded superior.”
That was 1899.
Now, Easter, 2014, on the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Fallujah, my Cheney friend, ex-Marine, is having trouble with dreams.
“We were amped up on amphetamines, steroids. I don’t know, something like 36 firefights we were into. No prisoners. Top Sarge just basically yelled at us if we encountered wounded insurgents, that shooting to kill was the order of the day. We never stopped for dogs or civilians when plowing through Fallujah in our Humvees. Pedal to the metal was the SOP. We hit one civilian so hard that the blunt force decapitated her. I was ordered to find her head to bring it back to her body. She reminded me of my mother back in Spokane.”
Talk about PTSD, readjustment issues, TBI (traumatic brain injury) and focus problems, well, as a college teacher, I am faced daily with vets attempting to put an assignment ahead of all those things rolling inside their brains tied to their combat experiences. In the scheme of things, a Tim O’Brien literary analysis on his Vietnam story, “The Things They Carried,” isn’t the top item on their to-do list.
For some people, the right to heal away from all the opiates and other meds the VA doctors prescribe is a basic human right. Rick Rosio is on a shoestring budget, in Spokane, attempting to launch his Clare Center for Peace, a behavioral health care facility using cannabis therapy vis-à-vis a 28-day program to help veterans reduce the toxic levels of prescription medications. The current site is in Deer Park. Rosio has experience with medical marijuana programs in Montana.
His proposed center is about providing “a sanctuary of healing and hope again for our Veterans to return to life after their service to this nation.” We are talking about 50,000 vets in this state alone. Rosio has visions of vets from other states where medical pot isn’t legal hooking into his program.
That dream could be turned into a 20-bed facility using a Veterans for Compassionate Care program that will be a conduit for job opportunities to the veterans community, providing help ranging from professional services to hands-on agricultural work, Rosio says . His model is holistic, tied to the legalized medical and recreational marijuana laws in Washington and robust research around cannabis as a healing substance to get people “to kick” habits like prescription drugs and booze as well as breaking negative behavioral patterns and abating intractable pain associated with one or sometimes six combat tours in the Middle East.
Growing organic food, outpatient programs and occupational therapies, that’s Rosio’s model. It’s embedded in the utmost respect for vets:
“I would like people to understand that this is about grief and the need to heal from the collateral damage issues that so many of our military were forced to deal with in their war time service to this nation. How do you take an 18 year old and teach them to kill . . . then put them into the battle field where they experience death and destruction for years on end…. and then ask them to return to society and pick up where they left things?”
One Too Many Speeches Turns the Soldier Cold
Do we blind ourselves to the suffering, collectively, as a nation, as communities? There sure is a lot of rhetoric spinning around “respecting, loving and caring for our combat vets.”
We gather tonight knowing that this generation of heroes has made the United States safer and more respected around the world. —President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, January 24, 2012
For Rosio, who is 57 and looking for seed money to advance his Clare Facility, the speeches are hollow and without action: “ How can we not see that those young men and women live in our neighborhoods…. they are suffering right next door to many of us and we are blind to that suffering? Only a few have sacrificed for this nation’s wars in the Middle East. Then they come home and are left to fend for themselves being fed toxic levels of prescription medications that cause so many negative side effects. And, then we simply send them into the criminal justice system and forget them once again, out of sight, out of mind.”
He took the 9 mm semi-automatic pistol out of his waistband, and pointed it to his head: “I should just get it over with and get it done.” He repeated this several times. Calmly. With that steely glare that got him through Fallujah. It was two days before Christmas. He had just been in jail 18 days for taking on bouncers and then Spokane cops. Then they’d win, I kept saying, don’t let them win. Survive all the crap by living. Put the Glock away.
Comprehending the ground truth of veterans who are now working to stop some of the other ugly sides of veterans’ treatment in this country, I was able to see the documentary, Grounds for Resistance, a 2011 film produced by folklorist and English professor Lisa Gilman of the University of Oregon. She showed it in Portland as part of a documentary conference.
It’s a labor of love and dedication to the peace movement, based on the veteran-supported coffee house right outside the Fort Lewis Army Post and Lewis-McChord Air Force Base, considered by many as one of this country’s “most troubled” military compounds.
I’ve been to Coffee Strong several times, and Gilman’s work centers on veterans who provide both support for current members of the military and discharged vets. The larger goal is to capture the hearts and minds of high school youth to show them a different option other than military service for their sometimes troubled lives.
“I was interested in these former soldiers who identify as vets and also as anti-war,” she said. “The obvious question is why not get as far away as you can from anything associated with their military experience and memories of war, but what I found at Coffee Strong was this activism can be the best way to heal. The place is right outside the gates of a military base.”
Set right in the face of a huge military system, but these Coffee Strong men and women are also trying to make sense of those war experiences while pulling shots of coffee.
Strength in a Coffee Shop
“I didn’t spend the entire four years in the Marine Corps thinking about how screwed up it was and how wrong it was to be in these wars,” says Coffee Strong co-founder Andrew Wright, 31, from Commando Island, east of Whidbey Island. “You had to be there every day, mentally, to survive not just the military, but sometimes war, so it made sense not to tell yourself every day that the war is wrong and that you shouldn’t be here. You have to survive.”
Like many young folk, Wright went into the military (2000-‘04) because he wasn’t doing well in high school and really had no confidence he’d do much better in college. He got out after a year combat tour in Iraq, “a war I did not agree with.”
He ended up with a degree from Evergreen State University, in philosophy. “Why philosophy? I spent a large part of my time working through the process and experiences of war. Trying to get a handle on the world, and thinking through the right and wrong of participating in a war that’s wrong.”
The work they do at Coffee Strong (started in 2008) includes working to help veterans get a better status on their discharge papers, securing health and education benefits, and, in some cases, how to navigate filing for conscientious objector status.
“Their military experience impacted the Coffee Strong veterans profoundly and is shaping their lives as they create futures for themselves,” Gilman writes in an article on her experience filming guys like Wright and others titled, “Oppositional Positioning: The Military Identification of Young Antiwar Veterans.”
Interestingly, the 45-year-old Gilman, whose parents were not military and were very liberal, grew up around Army brats in Clarksville, Tennessee, as her high school was made up of more than 90 percent children of Fort Campbell service members. She knows her white middle class status also adds to the skepticism of some watching her film and reading her words.
“It was hard enough to bring home two buddies in body bags on Thanksgiving. But the captain just ordered me to go to the mess hall and participate in Thanksgiving dinner. I just wanted to go back to my hooch and sleep. I’ve hated the holiday ever since. Nothing but rotten memories of losing buddies and this sadistic treatment by an officer.”
Serve, Shut Up, Deal with It – PTSD and Military Justice
Since my friend and former student first met me in the college English classes I taught at SFCC, he’s learned how hard the military academy graduates who wear all the brass are on soldiers and the enemy. Colonel Ralph Peters, illuminating his vision of eternal war, gave his take on democracy to his troops in April of 2004 in that “battle against insurgents”:
“We must not be afraid to make an example of Fallujah. We need to demonstrate that the United States military cannot be deterred or defeated. If that means widespread destruction, we must accept the price. Even if Fallujah has to go the way of Carthage, reduced to shards, the price will be worth it.”
Other Ivy-League generals have said things such as, “Don’t get shaken. The sound of those bombs are the sound of freedom.” Tell it to my Marine friend.
“I have trouble keeping girlfriends. I was out with my most recent one. She was driving. Then, pop, she ran over something, a bag or soda can. I just freaked out. Started punching. Grabbing the steering wheel. She ended up with a black knot under one of her eyes. I’m telling you, it’s like IEDs are out there, on Spokane streets. All the bags laying around the streets. I don’t think any woman could understand that.”
When I speak with the veteran support folk at colleges and universities in Washington, I notice a common thread for the large mental and emotional changes a veteran makes transitioning into civilian life. “The lack of structure and support network can be a challenge when leaving the military – the veteran has to move mentally from the battlefield/military mind set to the civilian/academic world,” said David Millet, Veterans Resource Center director at EWU.
Millet, like many others serving in his capacity, has military experience and has faith in a system that for many has been broken or used against vets to deny them their due process. For me, teaching in several states for over a dozen institutions, the bending over backwards for vets is a recent development, in educational settings. For many vets of the conflicts so generously called Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom (OIF and OEF), they do not avail themselves to campus veteran groups like Millet’s, nor do they want to identify themselves as war vets.
Coffee Strong deals daily with harassed veterans, and unfortunately, as former Marine Andrew Wright points out, in 2008, when they started their non-profit, extending tours (up to 6 combat assignments, called stop-loss) was not unusual. “You couldn’t get out in 2009 but now, with the downsizing of personnel, the Department of Defense is kicking out as many as they can.”
It’s a question of unit readiness, Wright emphasizes, wherein if a war hero who has a few purple hearts and some physical wounds and disabilities is in a unit and that company or battalion gets dinged for men and women who are not up to snuff physically, then, the military – Army and Air Force – is doing some dirty dealing by “badgering, harassing, mistreating these active duty vets to cause them to react or do something that then warrants a non-judicial punishment.”
That includes general discharges – a barrier to the GI Bill – and other-than-honorable “separations” from the military, such as a bad conduct or dishonorable discharge, both of which punish vets by taking away medical and retirement benefits.
“It doesn’t matter how much you believe in the Army or the mission. The military is doing whatever it can to kick people out,” Wright laments, even while the Pentagon’s budget is a big as ever. “What we are seeing now is downsizing of people but not a downsizing of the toys the military is buying. They have a great disregard for people’s humanity.”
For Rick Rosio and his Clare Center dream, compassion involves end-to-end medical, counseling and occupational support: “The good news is that Washington State has a compassionate base of citizens who care about the veterans community statewide. We see a common sense approach to the medical cannabis issue from within the VA and support from the Veterans organizations throughout the Inland Northwest.”
“I left the VA with a bunch of pills I wasn’t going to take. But you know what I saw? Some old guy, he must have been 80. I asked him, and he was a World War Two vet. The VA just wheeled him out and left him there at the bus stop. I helped him onto the bus. He was incoherent. The VA never called anyone to pick him up. I found a phone number in his pocket. I called it. Helped him off at his bus stop and waited for a granddaughter to pick him up. This is how my government treats a decorated World War Two vet? You think I trust them to give me meds that will help? Bull.”
Music – You Are What You Listen To
The wars have produced very deep wounds, like sexual assault/rape, dehumanizing of individuals, the machismo posturing, and teaching people to murder and then expecting them to come home and be upstanding citizens. All of this is never easy to slough off once a vet turns civilian, Gilman says. Unfortunately, as Gilman just recently screened her film in a college class, the young people had no interest in going to Coffee Strong or learning anything more about the wars.
Yet, the non-veteran Gilman has undertaken a rarified study of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, through music, the vibes listened to by Americans in battle and in war time, through those tiny ear buds and razor thin iPods and MP3 players.
Heavy metal as a way to rev up and hyper-masculinize to go into battle. Rap and hip-hop to block out the sound of bullets and bombs. Rock ’n’ roll to construct a place of healing, self-therapy, and delay confusion. An academic press soon might be publishing her book, titled, My Music, My War: The Musical Listening of U.S. Troops in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
“We’ve been in these wars a long time,” Gilman says. “There’s been a lot of documentation of the politics, but really, not much on who these people are.”
“I’m not expecting special treatment. But there’s gotta be something my professors can learn about me when I go missing for days on end, and then want to cram five weeks of school into one day. That’s how some of us lived our lives for years. No sleep for days on end, and then, crashing. Just remember that’s how we lived . . . and that doesn’t change overnight just because we are in college. It takes a lot of music and self-medicating to drown out the noise of war.”
Editor’s Note: First time since I started writing for another magazine a story has been rejected, AFTER turning it in and working with the editor on what it is I was writing, pitching. This is a time when ALL journalists need to think hard about the bad reasons they might have for not running a story like this: too graphic, too hard for readers to grasp, too opinionated, too, too, too whatever. In a time when the veterans’ administration in Phoenix is getting mainstream media attention for those separate (secret, death panel) lists of former soldiers who are put on the back-burner, and, well, how many deaths are attributed to lack of treatment at ONE VA? Forty? In Phoenix, another rot-gut LA-wannabe Western City.
Look, I am never surprised at Capitalism’s and America’s true believers, or the journalism profession as it is in its many iterations. The stomach of Americans to tell the truth, and the devaluing of editors’ gate-keeping never surprises me. But, out of the blue, especially after publishing two parts on school to prison pipeline and another two-parter on downwinders and Hanford and the Manhattan Project, well, I would have never thought this piece would be questioned. That’s a whole other area of my early roots, in the 1970s, journalism student at the university, facing conservative J-professors, newspapermen and women, and, well, they have gotten us into this mess, really — lies and lies and corporate lies and a day when people think NYT or NPR are liberal bastions? I was a small-town reporter with truth seeking in my blood, and I ran into the smallest minds in the world, in the news business! It’s been downhill since, in many ways. For me, I was right at 19 years of age. Well, now, that is both good, and, foreboding!
So, DV readers, here, my piece, free of charge, since I got it rejected and got no pay for the work I did.This is the reality, folks. Every dollar or $20 or couple of hundred dollars DO count, but in this world of devaluing, a world of dog-eat-cat, this world where fear rules, and where we are PC-ed and ID politicized to death, a world where men are not men, and women are knee-jerking into the power corridors acting just like white male dominating racists, well, this is a flogging, nanny-state, fearful, inside the box, self-deluding world. America. Whew, every single bead of sweat, right from the center of fearing capitalists, fearing loss of readers, fearing their ire, fearing advertisers, fearing their own demons? What a sad day for me, but a bump in the big road I use to throw pedal to the metal.
Do something — go to Coffee Strong, Veterans for Peace, other places.