I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Goodbye Blue Sky

This morning I put on the uniform for the last time - at least for a while.  I thought it would feel bittersweet but I felt like I have every single morning since I got my first set of "bulletproofs" back at OCS.  It's not a feeling with a name, like "proud" or "confident" or "happy" though it has elements of all those and others.  If it had a name, it would be something like goodrightready.  We don't usually talk about it but I think every Marine knows the feeling.

Whatever you want to call it, it was no different this morning than any other.  Bittersweet came later, just a few minutes ago, when I realized I'd be taking it off for the last time (I haven't yet).  I used to think I would use an old pair of woodlands - sans name tapes - to go hunting.  Now I know I won't.  Don't get me wrong, the uniform itself isn't some kind of sacred object and I don't put it on a pedestal.  It's just that there are two types of people in the world - those who have the right to wear it and those who don't.  I will always be a Marine but for now I am turning over the everyday burdens and challenges of life in the service to my brethren who remain on active duty, and so I will only wear the uniform when I too am conducting Marine business, or when ceremonially appropriate. 

The uniform, of course, is a symbol - and what it symbolizes is sacred.  There is no way I will ever do anything in my professional life that will be as gratifying or fulfilling as the last four years.  So I will miss the sense of meaning.  Where the Marine Corps gave me purpose I will have to give myself purpose, especially in the near future when my plans are to travel and spend time with family in Israel and volunteer but not to get a "real" job.

Aside from that, what are some other things I will miss about the Marine Corps?
  • My friends, most of whom remain in CA for now but will soon enough scatter to the four corners.  Thank goodness for Facebook (and for my love of road trips).
  • The unique opportunities, whether it's deployment or a week on the rifle range or flying around in USMC helos or watching big things go boom and turn into little things.
  • Training and leading Marines, though I won't necessarily miss all the stupid stuff they get into
  • The fact that it is perfectly normal - not even noticed - to drop a steady stream of f-bombs in even a formal briefing or presentation
  • Three-poling
  • The PRC-117 
What will I not miss?
  • The stupid f$@#ing rules, and the idea that all rules are created equal.
  • The MST - though I will miss how its ingenuity and resourcefulness take my breath away
  • Being cold down to my marrow.  The heat never bothered me as much.
  • Shaving every morning
  • Duty.
  • Juuuust a few other things that I will skip in the interest of discretion
I realize that I owe you a much broader catching up on the last few months - getting back to the states from Afghanistan, the September road trip, the Presidential Traverse and camping out in the peaks of the White Mountains, the family's experience during the recent flare-up in Israel, the process of extricating myself from the Gordian knot of military red tape.  It's been busy!  Hopefully I'll at least find the time to post some pictures of the last four months.  But over the next six weeks I'll be seeing most of the people that I imagine ever read this blog, so we'll do our catching up in person!

Until then, Happy Holidays and...

Semper Fidelis

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Did you know? Much more unites us than divides us

This is what I posted on Facebook last night after President Obama won re-election:
    Congratulations to Barack Obama and his supporters on a hard-fought victory. Democrats, no gloating please. Republicans, no whining please. We need leaders with the courage to compromise to find solutions to the major economic and foreign policy challenges we face.
That is, I believe, the most important sentiment for the nation right now and its most pressing need.  But I also got myself thinking.  Where might such compromise be possible?  Are we not a divided nation, as exemplified once again by a popular vote split almost exactly in half?

I believe we are divided, but our division is artificial.  I think what divides us is parties, not positions.  What I mean by that is that if you pick almost any issue you will find more of a consensus than is reflected in recent popular Presidential votes.

Consider for starters two hotly debated topics today: the role of government and gay rights. 

The role of government was a – perhaps the – defining element of the election.  It gave rise to two popular if not equivalent movements: the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.  Slim chance of a consensus on this issue, right?

Wrong.  Over the last twenty years, the Gallup organization has consistently found that a solid majority of Americans think our government does too much.  Those that think government should do more are actually a distinct minority.

Americans consistently see big government as the biggest threat to the country.

What about gay rights?  Most Americans support openly gay people being allowed to serve in the military, and have since before the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  

And while views on gay marriage are in fact split fairly evenly at this moment in history, to see it as a wedge issue is to wear blinders.  The trajectory is clear:

Not convinced?  Let’s look at two more supposedly controversial issues: health care and immigration.

Since the passage of Obamacare the country has been more or less evenly divided in support/opposition.  But delve a little deeper into the healthcare issue and you find a startling consensus on the key elements:
  • Should government ensure that everyone has health care?  Yes, 62.3% to 34.4% on average in the years 2000-2007, before the specifics (and politics) of Obamacare came into the picture.
  • Should that health care be government-run or provided by the private sector?  Even after Obamacare, private sector by a large margin: 58.5% to 36.5% over the last two years.
  • Individual mandate?  Unconstitutional, 72% to 20% before the Supreme Court decision.  As close observers will recall, the Court actually agreed that a mandate was unconstitutional but upheld the law by interpreting the non-compliance penalty (the mandate) as a tax instead.
  • Repeal Obamacare?  52% say yes in whole or in part, only 38% say leave it as is or expand it.
On immigration the story is even clearer: Americans seek a compassionate application of the rule of law for illegal immigrants and firmly support immigration as a whole.

More recently, after Obama decided over the summer to stop deporting illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, numerous polls found that two-thirds or more of the population supported that policy while less than a third opposed it.

Certainly there are issues where no definitive consensus exists now or in the recent past.  Abortion is the obvious one that comes to mind:

But as you can see, the comforting cliché is actually empirically true: there is much more that unites us than divides us.  Here are a few more issues in case you still aren’t persuaded.

Gun control: Americans oppose a handgun ban by a 73%-26% margin, though we are more evenly divided on assault weapons.  By a 60%-35% margin we believe in enforcing existing laws over passing new ones.

Education: by a more than 2-1 margin we support charter schools and by a nearly 3-1 margin we want parents to be able to “petition to remove the leadership and staff at failing schools.”  We oppose vouchers, though by a much closer margin.

How about the atrocious state of America’s balance sheet?  This is such a broad category encompassing so many politically charged issues such as taxes, entitlement programs and defense spending that you’d hardly expect to find much consensus.  Have faith.
  • What is most responsible for the deficit problem?  Too much spending: 73%; not enough tax revenue: 22%
  • How to solve it?  Focus on cutting spending: 50%; focus on raising taxes: 11%; an even mix of both: 32%.  Looked at another way, 69% of us favor both spending cuts and tax increases in some combination, only 24% want it fixed exclusively with one or the other.
  • Tax the wealthy more?  Yes, 66%-33%.
  • What spending to cut?  At first this seems to be the catch.  We narrowly oppose cutting defense (47%-51%) and are even more opposed to cutting Social Security and Medicare (42%-56%).  There is broad consensus to cut other programs, 66%-33%, but that’s less than meets the eye.  Those first three items are 50.6% of our budget and another 9% consists of mandatory interest payments on our debt.  “Other programs” seems like a cop-out that doesn’t leave much room for real reform.
  • But then comes the key: we’d rather see a compromise than have our side hold out, by a remarkable 66%-27% margin.
We.  Want.  Compromise.

True, we may be fickle as voters and punish those who sign on to a grand compromise because they gave in on some specific measure we care about.   This why I made the observation above: we need leaders with the courage to do it anyway.  What’s the worst that happens?  You have to trade your government job for a higher-paying consulting gig?

The bottom line is that on issue after specific issue, there is far more consensus in America than I think most people realize.  Perhaps it is drowned out by the “wing warriors” or the hyperventilating media, but I think the biggest reason we are divided in spite of our unity is because our two major parties split the issues.

Republicans, pressured by the Tea Party, are willing (or say they are willing) to take significant political risk to address our long-term insolvency.  They have put forward budgets that not only touch the “third-rail” entitlement programs but wrestle them with both hands, while the Democrats for three years running have been too craven to put forward a budget at all.

On the other hand, the Democrats have been willing to take traditionally risky and unpopular positions on immigration, gay rights and other social issues while the Republicans seem determined to alienate almost everyone who isn’t white, straight and married.

Granted, these are generalizations – ones that only touch on a few of the issues voters consider when picking a candidate and a party.  I haven’t even broached the subject(s) of foreign policy.  And perhaps most importantly as caveats go, consensus – even broad consensus – does not automatically equate to good policy.

But as the famed writer and Pulitzer-prize winner E. B. White suggested, democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time.  It is not an infallible system but it is, as Winston Churchill observed, “the worst form of gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

What I wish most for our democracy is that one of our parties, or a new one failing that, would take a step back from dogma and adopt positions more broadly reflective of the will of the people.  Doing so is not pandering; it does not require abandoning one's principles.  But it does require adapting them to reality.  It means modernizing the party platform to accept what previously made us uncomfortable, be it the right of gay people to fall in love and marry or the fact that we are robbing our children blind to pay for our lavish entitlement state.

Whichever party realizes this first and acts accordingly will not only win but win emphatically, and find itself governing a remarkably United States.

(All graphs and numbers come from Gallup.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A hundred pics (or less)

As we approached Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan yesterday afternoon, our flight crew gave us the local time and told us it would be hot.  Well ok.  Everything's relative, I guess.  It's certainly warmer than last time we were through here:

Manas in January

Manas just now

On the other hand, humidity is just 23% according to weather.com but it feels like a rain forest to me.

Yesterday I was asked twice what it felt like to be out of Afghanistan.  The truth is I don't feel anything in particular.  If you've ever sat in the waiting room of your mechanic or car dealership, watching the second hand tick by in complete and utter boredom for hours on end in anticipation of the moment you can finally drive home, that's about all I'm feeling right now.

Last time, my mind was pretty much fried when I got back.  Fourteen hours a day (or more), seven days a week for twelve months (minus 15 days of R&R), the same powdered eggs for breakfast and low-grade beef for dinner, the same rote morning routine and night routine and broken sleep...well Sebastian Junger nailed it in his book War about the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan:
    "Forward Operating Bases are a special kind of hell, none of the excitement of real war but all the ugliness: rows of plywood bee huts and weapons everywhere and Apaches jolting you awake at all hours running the flight line ten feet off the ground."
This description is if anything even more accurate for Lashkar Gah, where helicopters literally thunder right over your head at 50 or 100 feet at all hours of the day and night.  And yet I feel none of the mental fatigue of last time (though ask me again when I've been home a week).  I may have had just one day off in six months but I worked only an eight-hour shift in a more relaxed (b/c British) environment and I had reliable hot showers and my own private cot space and most of all I knew it would be over in half the time of the last one.  Maintaining a positive attitude and low level of stress was easy.

Consequently, I'm eager but not desperate to get back.  I'm more excited about what's coming up: my road trip in September, the (partial) sequel in December and my move to Israel in January.  But that said, I do have to take a quick look back at the last half-year, because I finally have an Internet connection fast enough to upload some pics and I've been promising to do so for months.

So here it is - my deployment in 100 pics or less:

Weigh-in at Camp Pendleton.  Think I came in at around 380 lbs or so.  The max was 450. 

Marking my gear.  Orange tape to indicate unit and destination.

Loaded up and ready to go...in style.

 Arriving at Manas: it was fuh-reezing that morning.

Chow, USAF style

Inbound Afg

My first living space

 Shortly after arriving in Lash

Just inside the main gate

The famous garden at Lash

For the first two months or so we had no ability to call home and our mail was getting backed up for weeks on end.  When I saw this huge pile of British mail I might have gotten a bit carried away.

After some pretty angry complaining we got the mail sorted out, and we also got a sat phone.  Of course, by then it was so hot out that standing outside sweating on the phone wasn't the most appealing thing to do. 

Talking to my brother and snapping a self-portrait.

New digs

I'm not much into visual art but when I saw this stuff laid out on my cot (it was around Passover time and I was doing some spring cleaning) it seemed like a still life worth capturing:

Part of our job at Lash was standing Sangar Duty.  I wrote all about this for my latest CDS article, which doesn't seem to be online yet.

A Sangar guard tower
 Manning the 240


Another still life.  What can I say, I'm inspired.

Some kids trying to get my attention

As I've said before, Lash was pretty cush all in all.  The chow hall did get monotonous but there's no denying the food was great.  We had a...

 Sri Lanka night

and of course the 4th of July night I wrote about earlier.

 Note where it's made

I got to observe some indigenous wildlife...

Small lizard

Big bug

...and gain useful insights in the most unexpected places.

I especially like the wisdom in the top right corner.

Port-a-john graffiti literary reference (in Manas).  Wonders never cease.

And that's what I've got for you.  You may have noticed I whited-out some parts of some pics, and that there aren't a lot of wide shots either of inside or outside the base  I got some good ones - Afghan sunsets are great because of all the dust in the air - but you always need to be careful not to post something online that might help the enemy learn about the layout of the base, the fields of view (and possible blind spots) from the Sangar towers, etc.  So if you want to see those I'll have to show them to you in person.

At any rate, the six months flew by as I said, and before I knew it I was back at Leatherneck.  On my last night in Afghanistan, I was walking back from Bastion when these ANA guys pulled up and through their gestures indicated they wanted my permission to take some water from a nearby pallet.  I don't know what the rules are (though I have no doubt there are rules for this as for everything) but it seems to me when someone in the desert asks for water, you give it to him.  So I helped them load up a bunch of cases in their truck and then we did a lot of laughing and smiling and hand-shaking since neither of us spoke a word of the others' language. 

I suppose I'll have some arrival pictures to add later, though we're expecting to get into CA in the middle of the night so that may not work out.  But for now, it's dinner time...and you know the Air Force has great chow!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on heading home

Last night, we lifted from the Lashkar Gah LZ on an MV-22 Osprey.  It was tough to say goodbye to people that I’ve gotten to know and admire and work with through some difficult situations and who I will in all likelihood never see again.  Being in Lash these last six months was a great experience – enjoyable, enlightening and meaningful.

At night you can often see the static electricity along the rotor tips

This being a V-22, in nearly the blink of an eye we were transitioning back out of airplane mode and touching down at Camp Bastion/Leatherneck.  Once the scramble of unloading all our gear onto the tarmac was complete and we sat down to wait for our ride, I looked around. 

When I first landed here in March of 2010, Bastion airfield as it exists today (the new flight line) was little more than some preparatory earthwork and a bunch of blueprints.  The old runway was shorter (it now serves as a taxiway), the aircraft aprons were crowded, the structures were all temporary.

I will never forget stepping off the C-17 here for the first time.  I was wearing sunglasses but the wind-blown dust and the intense glare of the desert sun had me squinting anyway as I followed the pack in front of me off the tarmac.  It was noisy, slightly disorienting and a bit chaotic.  I was, of course, excited.

C-17 Globemaster

During that deployment one of my big projects was to design and oversee the security plan for the new airfield, so I became intimately familiar with its layout.  Last night, though it was dark and we off-loaded at the V-22 apron instead of the rotor wing terminal, it was easy to get my bearings. 

There were the rest of the V-22s, lined up in perfect parallel outside their huge hangar bay.  There, across the runway, was a C-130 taxiing onto the cargo ramp.  Behind me, though I couldn’t see it at night, was the eastern perimeter of the base, along which I had rocketed my old Toyota Hilux (The Beast I & II) on rutted dirt roads at speeds I’m still a bit hesitant to admit publicly. 

But not as fast as a C-130 Hercules

Shortly after we landed our ride showed up – a dilapidated micro-van with 7-inch rims into which we stuffed ourselves and all our various bags and trunks and body armor – and before long we were in the transient tents, which have AC, electricity, a fridge and a jacuzzi.  I unpacked a few things, balanced my laptop on my deployment bag, plugged in the head phones, turned on an episode of Top Gear, and was out cold before the end of the opening credits.


This morning I slept late: till 0630.  For the past few weeks I’ve been up by 0330 or 0400 and out running by 0500.  I remember this strange phenomenon from the last deployment too: as it wore on I inexplicably (and paradoxically) needed less and less sleep before I woke up, naturally, ready to start my day.  I haven’t woken up to an alarm in at least a month now.

But anyway, I got up, took a shower, met two other Marines for breakfast and we went to medical where I got the paperwork started on my neck injury.  Then I walked back here to the tent and started typing this. Later, I'll walk over to one of the morale buildings where there is wifi and upload it.

Landing at Bastion last night was the first time I’ve ever been happy to see this place, since it obviously is step one on the long trip home.  By this morning, though, the feeling was gone.  Considering this place has the amenities of a five-star resort, I have to wonder why I hate it so much – and I do.

It’s not just because I spent a long year here and was, uh, relieved when it was finally over.  That’s part of it, but everyone I talk to hates this place, regardless of how long or how often they’ve been here. 

It’s an annoying place, to be sure.  It’s loud: I counted twenty-six industrial generators – each the size of a semi trailer – next to just one of the large chow halls.  Maybe they're refrigeration units.  Whatever.  The base is still one huge construction zone, even with all the improvements that have already been made.  It's crowded and congested and there is an unbelievable amount of traffic.  It’s sprawling, so getting anywhere is a minor expedition.  It's much dustier than Lash; the moon dust just accumulates inside your eyelids like snow on a window sill.  And the entire base smells like poop; the only variable is how strong the smell is depending on the wind and where you’re standing. 

But none of that is it either.

I think it’s because – and this is going to sound horribly cheesey and moto but bear with me – we’re Marines.  The two most salient features of Camp Leatherneck are the “softness” of it – coffee shops, mattresses, paved roads, pool tables, 24-hour chow halls – and the “garrisonness” of it – the speed limits, the crosswalks, the regulations and pointless rules and uniforms and safety and just properness in every microscopic way.

Common sense?  Nonsense.  The signs will protect you.

What does this even mean?

What is the point of becoming a Marine and deploying to a war zone if your experience – from the food to the weekly hair cuts to the Sergeants Major yelling at you to get your hands out of your pockets when it's five degrees out to your daily routine of sleeping in a bed and working behind a desk – are indistinguishable from garrison life?  As I've said a few times in the last few years: they put me on a plane and 24 hours later I got off.  They tell me I’m in Afghanistan…but I can’t prove it. 

No loitering.  No credit, no problem.  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  No shit.

So why go to Afghanistan if it’s no different from Twentynine Palms or Yuma? 

In my deployment experiences, I got a little bit lucky.  I never patrolled with 3/5 down the bloody streets of Sangin (not that anyone would call that lucky) but at least I got to patrol some place and interact with the locals in their environment, not just the transplanted Camp Wilson that is Leatherneck.  And I worked with coalition partners (not that Lash was that much more austere than Leatherneck of course) and went to a few outlying FOBs and stood post on a perimeter and talked with Afghan kids and in other ways experienced a little more of what I envisioned being a Marine to be, compared to the thousands who have been drawn into this gravitational vortex base, done their job for six months or a year and gone home, never seeing an inch of the real Afghanistan.

But I did all these things, minor though they were, not by being on Camp Leatherneck but by escaping it.  And that is why I hate being back here so much. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it as a base.  Marines here are generally secure and all their needs are well met.  It’s just not the real thing, if you get my meaning.  It’s cushy and it’s safe and it’s regimented to the nanometer and it’s just not what Marines do – not in a war zone, anyway.

Oh come on now. Seriously.

But whatever it is Marines do in a war zone, I’m almost done doing it.  In about a week or so we will leave here.  A few days later I’ll be back in California.  A month later I’ll be on post-deployment leave and two months after I get back from that I will be complete with my active duty service.

That's because I submitted a letter - actually an Administrative Action NAVMC (5216.19) 10274 Rev. 3-93 form, naturally - to the career designation board, asking not to be considered.  I sent it in a few days late but if I do get offered CD I will decline it.  Hence the form: why take a spot that another Marine might want and deserve.

As I've said many times before, joining the Marine Corps was the best decision I have ever made.  I can't even begin to describe everything I've gotten out of it: it has changed me for the better in fundamental ways.  But at 32 years old, I admit that I'm feeling the itch to settle down.  The house in the burbs, mowing my own yard every weekend, staying in one place for more than a few months at a time - these things are definitely beckoning.

But...I'm not going to pursue them right away.  First, I'm moving to Israel for a year (or so).  My biggest reason for doing so is - obviously, for all who know me - to hopefully meet that special someone.  Odds of meeting a nice Jewish girl in Israel: better than anywhere else (even Afghanistan!).  Aside from that, I just want to relax for a bit, devote many hours a day to writing instead of just a few hours a week, do some traveling here and there and spend quality time with my Israeli family including my mom, brother and sister-in-law. 

So that's the plan, in a nut shell.  I've already bought my ticket to Israel: I arrive on Wednesday, January 11, 2013.  Can't wait to start the next chapter.

Meanwhile, I've got a few days to kill here.  I'll try to post some pics from the last six months - I know I keep promising but the Internet here is even slower than Lash. For now, though, here is one that will definitely stay with me...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy 236th!

Just a quick note, which I won’t be able to post for a while anyway since we’re in Op Minimize.  But it’s the 4th of July and for the past two years I’ve posted something on here so I thought I’d keep up the tradition.

Last year I was sitting on my couch in comfy southern Cali.  The year before I was sitting on my tuchis in the moon dust on Camp Leatherneck, four months into my year-long sentence exile deployment. 

Tonight, I’m in my cot listening to a kid who can’t be older than 9 years old doing the call to worship over the loudspeakers from the nearby mosque.  It would be cuter if he weren’t so tone-deaf and didn’t have such a nasally, high-pitched voice.  Sorry, kid.  Better luck after puberty.

I just got back from the chow hall, where my resolution to have a light dinner went out the window as soon as I saw the Independence Day feast they’d prepared for us.  Think Thanksgiving, with an American flag cake for dessert.  The whole thing was really nice and unexpected.  Also ironic in a Twilight Zone kind of way: Happy You-Kicked-Our-Butts Day.  The ops-O (operations officer) in the JOC actually tried to argue with me today that tactically speaking, we didn’t really defeat them.  Counter-insurgency, I responded.  It’s a bitch.

I took a few pictures of the decorations at the chow hall (cook house, in British terminology).  With any luck, I’ll be able to post them when we come out of Op Minimize and this goes up.  Otherwise, I’ll be at Camp Leatherneck in a few weeks (on my way home) with a whole lot of nothing to do, so expect a bunch of pics then.

As far as deep thoughts, reflections on once again being deployed on my country’s birthday, single-handedly defending truth, justice and the Fall Classic, I don’t really have any.  I’m glad to be here doing my little part in a good cause, and I’ll be glad when I get home.  I hope that wherever this 4th of July finds you, it’s some place you want to be.

 Happy Independence Day, America!