The View From Wicker Park

 

by Andrew Miller

by Andrew Miller

I resolved to quit the army over a cigarette in a Chicago alley. Nine months into my second deployment, I caught up with my best friend over R&R. We hopped bars a few blocks East of the Blue Line station on Damen & Milwaukee. The disconnect was familiar. A week earlier I wore camouflage and a pistol on my hip; the Wicker Park neighborhood uniform was tattoos, beards and denim vests. I didn’t feel alienated by a city partying through my war; I wanted to party too. Five years of active duty wore me out. I returned to find my war didn’t wait; I missed an entire major combat operation. I felt even further separated from my colleagues who fought while I was on R&R.

On that deployment, my second, I had the bird’s-eye view. Often literally: I rode-along on helicopter flights for “research” missions. My colleagues flew every day and I spent my daylight hours leading a team of intel analysts and briefing the Taliban’s threats to our pilots. I’d set search terms, queue drones, and read reports. Then, throw it all on a map and make predictions. The pilots would listen politely, or skeptically, or throw fits. Daily intel briefs get old. Hollywood-style intel “tips” don’t happen in real life, and anything short of that wasn’t stopping our lifeline deliveries and support.

I missed the grunt’s-eye-view from my first deployment. Calling artillery for an infantry company was fun, rewarding, and sexy. It was also dangerous, soul-rending and heartbreaking. It was much closer to the “war” experience veterans are assumed to always have. The diversity of my military experiences isn’t the only false assumption I’ve experienced, though. I joined the army with selfish motives; I first considered it before 9/11 but signed the ROTC contract afterwards. The prospect of going to war sweetened the bargain: more travel, experience and excitement. I believed leading other men into war would make me into one.

Back in that Chicago alley: Jeff asked me what I thought of the war in Afghanistan. I shared my perspective garnered from Eastern Afghanistan at the grunt-level and the mid-level. I told him about living on a remote base with 90 infantrymen and the insanity that overcame us. Every day was another Kobiyashi Maru situation with life-or-death consequences. That was 2008, and by 2011 it was the same on the ground but reporting was twisted to show “progress”. It wasn’t getting better in any fashion that I could understand.

Jeff has no military experience; he’s an engineer. He’s settled, rational and unshakeable. Jeff is the guy you pick to witness your DNR. Few civilians without a military connection have impartially heard my story. When I got it all out, I knew, and Jeff didn’t say much. The scope was narrow: we weren’t solving a geopolitical crisis that night, though we often do. I discovered the way things needed to end and I couldn’t have done it on my own.

You can read more from Andrew at his blog. andrewhmiller.wordpress.com

Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans.  Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.

Warriors on the Hunt

by Jack Erwin

by Jack Erwin

My wife handed me the pink slip of paper from the courthouse. “Our final hearing is Monday, March third. One PM. Are you going to show up this time?” PTSDivorce! That’s what I call it these days. ”I’ll be there this time.”  I need closure.  My wife of 23 years and my kids walk out the door as she picks them up to go over to “Mom’s house.”  It used to be our house. The house where our kids learned to walk, where they learned how to ride their bikes for the first time, where my wife stood on the front porch, 3 months pregnant, crying at 3AM as I threw my duffle bag up on my shoulder and left for the first deployment; the place where I came home to yellow ribbons and a “Welcome Home Daddy!” sign, where I left again for the second deployment, and then the third… And so now here I stand in my “Man Room” which is actually the place I’m renting, close by for now.

“F***********************@%K!!!” I scream to no one as they pull out of the driveway and leave again. Why couldn’t I change?  Why couldn’t I control my temper? Why weren’t the pills from the VA enough to make me better? Why wasn’t the counseling good enough? Why won’t God help me fix this? It’s my own damn fault. I cranked up “It’s Time Again” and “Fallen Soldier” by SSG Nathan Fair on my iPhone for the umpteenth time as I lifted open the laptop to check my email again.  I couldn’t get a hold of my counselor at the VA, but I kept trying.  My battle buddy, a Brittany Spaniel, leaned in close, and lay by my feet, as if to say, “It’s OK, Daddy.  I’m here for you…” Up popped an email from the Wounded Warrior Project guy.  Do you remember that pheasant hunt retreat that you signed up for a while back? Three spots just opened up at the last minute. Do you still want to go? My divorce is gonna be final on Monday, and now I’m going to be all alone this weekend before the big day. I really don’t want to be alone right now. Sure. OK, call this guy Mark with the local Pheasants Forever chapter and he’ll hook you up with all the details.  Will do.  Thanks. “Hey, Mark, Can I bring my hunting dog too?” Sure.

I loaded my hunting gear in the back of my truck, “C’mon Mr. Poke,” and my battle buddy climbed in the front seat. We headed off on a road trip to Mineral Point, Wisconsin.  Three hours later, I drove over the crest of the hill approaching Tanglewood Ranch. I took in the view: the Golden Brown cabin nestled in the hillside, the green metal roof gleaming in the morning sun.  I shook hands with an old timer decked out in Carharts and hunters’ orange. He would be one of our hunting guides.  I could park my truck over there by his, and Tommy would help me get settled into the cabin.  Tommy was an eight-year-old kid. “Let me help you with your suitcase!” He grinned and held out his hand for me to shake.  I dropped my gear off in the cabin with my new roommates, Chris and Jason.  Both of them were from the Wounded Warrior Platoon at Fort Knox.  They drove in the night before.  Chris had a scar on the side of his head, blast marks on the side of his face, and walked with a bit of a limp.  Jason was taller than me, bald like a cue ball, confident and competent as any NCO would be.  Battle Buddies.  I immediately felt the old kinship kick in.  John was more my age, with a long black beard like Duck Dynasty.  He wouldn’t touch a shotgun, but he’d go on the hunt with us.  Mason, the quiet young Marine, Adam, and myself sported red beards and camouflage, looking like a bunch of Special Forces wannabes. I think John was the real deal.  There were fourteen of us altogether.  Some were on active duty, most were in the National Guard, a few others in the Marines.  All had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some with visible wounds, and some without. We were a little shy at first, but after a while it was like a family reunion.

Mark gave us our in-briefing and safety briefing.  We were treated with kindness, respect, acceptance, hospitality, and camaraderie.  It was more than a thank you; it was an expression of love from complete strangers, thankful citizens, regular everyday people who care.  The boy was Mark’s son, and his wife helped with the cabin.  Another guy catered our meals. We ate steak on the first night!  Some of the local VFW and American Legion guys stopped by to shake hands with us and show their support also.

After everybody settled in, the first thing we did was shoot clays.  I shot pretty well and didn’t embarrass myself.  They provided free ammo, free clays, and even let you borrow a shotgun if you didn’t have one of your own.  If you were a first timer, they were happy to provide you with instruction. It was relaxed, no pressure or anything, just fun.

After everybody was warmed up from shooting clays, we geared up for the first hunt.  We all piled into the metal building for Mark to give us our safety briefing and lay out the mission brief for us.  We would get on line and push through the valley, with “blockers” posted at the end and along the left and right flanks.  We had “flankers” on the left and right limit push ahead about a hundred yards in front of the main line of “drivers.”  We had to follow the “Blue Sky” rule, don’t shoot unless the birds flush up high enough for you to see “”Blue Sky” in the background.  Also, absolutely no shootin’ birds on the ground that haven’t flushed up yet.  Keep your safety on in case you slip and fall, and keep your muzzle awareness in check.  Simple.  We loaded up with two boxes each of free ammo, and if anybody needed hunting vests, orange hats, etc. we all shared since some guys brought extra gear for the beginners to use.  No sweat.  They also gave us some sweet shooting glasses, which we could keep, and hearing protection if you needed it.  We had about five trained dogs, with guides to help out.  Most of those guys were from the local Pheasants Forever Chapter, from the ranch itself, or other volunteers- all of them were just awesome.  Mr. Poke was on his game: pointing, flushing, and hunting close. There was an English Setter that joined in too.  The other dogs included some Labs, which are great at retrieving too.  We piled into some ATV’s and took our positions both on the way in, and on the way out.  If anybody had mobility issues, they were accommodated just fine.  It was tough going in some spots because of the snow, but nothing we’re weren’t used to.

After the hunt, we headed back to the rustic dream of a cabin and kicked off our boots and relaxed.  We met the owner who donated his place, the caterer, the volunteers, and put our autographs on a big sign thanking all the donors.  We finished our steak dinner and then just enjoyed a group gab session.  It started with stories of the hunt’s best moments, and then we broke off into talking about our war experiences, the good times, funny stories, and all the other male bonding stuff we normally do- there were no female warriors who came on this trip, but they would be welcome if they’d been there- and we made new friends with each other.  The only downside was- no beer! But OK, that was the rule I guess.

We liked it so much that we woke up the next morning and did it again.  We had a hot breakfast, took care of our safety briefing and mission brief, loaded up with ammo and gear, and then moved out on the ATVs again.  This time we switched sides or switched “flankers,”  “drivers,” and “blockers” so everybody had a fair shot. The guides were so awesome, that they even planted some more birds for a couple guys who wanted to have another go at it.  In the end, everybody was happy, safe, and thankful for the experience.  We took some group pictures and then set off on our separate ways, each with some fresh pheasant breast to take home and cook up for the family.  I made schnitzel with mine.  The kids love it.  You heat up some oil in a pan, dip the breast in some flour and Bay’s seasoning, dip it again in some egg wash, then dip it again into some Panko bread crumbs, and fry it up on both sides until golden brown and crispy.  Serve with rice or taters, maybe some pea pods or green bean casserole, and a nice cold beer.  Repeat, over.

Naturally, Mr. Poke was steadfast and loyal.  He sits there patiently waiting for me to accidentally drop some pheasant on the floor.  And naturally, since he is my battle buddy, I “accidentally” drop some on the floor, just for him.

If you are interested in your own “battle buddy” or service dog, check out www.givingindependence.org down in Peoria, IL, or check out Assistance Dogs International at http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org/ for a list of trainers across North America.  Mr. Poke is a hunting dog, but being a service dog just comes naturally to him.  You know, when I got home, I felt a lot better. Sorry, gotta go, I think my new girlfriend is calling me.  Stay tuned, I’m gonna check out this “Boots and Hooves” horse therapy for PTSD out in Maple Park, IL.  I have a couple of veteran book reviews coming up too.  I’ll let you know at the next blog briefing.  PEACE OUT.

Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans.  Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.

Do They Know It’s Christmas Time At All?

by Chris Lyke

by Chris Lyke

Along the dirt paths that connect and ring the villages of Gode and Kebri Dahar there are American built generators half buried in sand. These carcasses dot the region and stand as advertisements for a more altruistic time when Boomtown Rats raised money for starving Africans and not a damn soul was going to play Sun City. In the spring, during the Ogaden’s two weeks of rain, the generators sink into the mud and grass begins to grow around them. After the two weeks of rain, the Ogaden again becomes an East African lunar-scape and the grass dies and red sand again assaults the green monoliths sent there to provide diesel driven power to the Tigres, Amaras, and Somalis that all converge in that part of the world.

The Ogaden is a region that overlays the border between Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The border, even on modern maps, is a dashed line instead of a solid one. Even Sheba and her boys didn’t want to live there, and took another route to the sea, and Solomon, and the Ark. In the thirties the Italians slaughtered several thousand Ethiopians there near Jijiga. Decades later the Soviets armed the region and in the seventies there was an awful little war there between the sides. I heard tales of anti-aircraft gunners depressing their auto cannons to fire into on-coming infantry. This is a terrible tale told by the war-addled, elder men of Gode. Once our mission there was shut down, and we were confined to the outpost, the Ethiopians used the Ogaden like a cloak to mask their armored column that sped into Somalia, moved on Bedelweyne, and then Mogadishu.

As I said, our mission had been shut down. Most of what we tried in Africa was shut down; at least most of the operations I was on. Six months later, in Uganda, we were supposed to train the UPDF for operations in Somalia. Our proxy army didn’t yet want to fight who we pointed them at, maybe they were thinking more about chasing their own Bogey-man in the north, and so training operations ended and I spent a few glorious months getting paid to do pull ups and drink Club and Nile on the shore of Lake Victoria. We’d occasionally conduct rifle ranges or head to O’Learys in Kampala. It was certainly better than Gode, but the point is, I don’t think we were helping.

Back in Ethiopia, the Shebelle River turns to a stream in the middle of the summer as the heat and the red earth slowly win the battle of the elements. Still, the crocodiles remain and begin to interact with the people that live along the river. Despite having a pump station built that pulled water from the river and out of a spigot that ran along the wadi, the local villagers continued to send their children to the Shebelle shores to get water. We began to hear of children being gobbled up by crocodiles and despite reaffirming everyone that the pumping station would be a fix for that horrendous problem, the children were still sent to the river’s edge for water. The people asked us for more help. “You have rifles and grenades,” they said to our human intelligence guy, “can you come and kill the crocodiles?” The answer from Camp Lemonier, hours away, was no. We were accountable for every bullet in the Horn of Africa, this wasn’t Afghanistan after all, this wasn’t a shooting war, this was an effort of good will and we were there to bolster belief in the western powers amidst a very large area infested with Al-Qaeda affiliates like the AIAI. Blasting the wildlife to Kingdom Come was not on the agenda. In fact, when a couple of wayward, non-infantry types went out in land rovers and shot a local fowl they were snatched up and thrown in the slammer; a dirt-floored, East African, clay-oven of a slammer.

Our ally in this mission was the Ethiopian military. They enjoyed the liquor we’d buy at the whorehouse, and they certainly enjoyed our ability to ignore their campaign to root out members of the ONLF. The ONLF was a rebel group with whom they would engage from time to time. The ONLF wasn’t tied to the AIAI but with all of these acronyms rolling around I think they’d take help from anyone in their quest to retake the Ogaden. Apparently the townsfolk were invested to some degree with the rebels and it was the two AM gunshots we’d hear on guard duty that marked the Ethiopians attempts to arrest them. People would be missing for days. We heard about the beatings and worse. I’m not shocked by this at all. Cynically, I don’t even really care, but if we’re there to help, there to convince the masses of our righteous cause, then I’m not sure what the fuck was really being accomplished. Other soldiers from our company were training other Ethiopians at a camp in Addis to invade Somalia and destroy Al-Shabab. The twenty-five or so of us, living in a sandbagged, malarial compound, two hours from rescue weren’t about to kick the apple cart.

It’s the nature of the help that seems to be the issue. The people that we interact with: the villagers, the poor, the rebels, the soldiers, the prostitutes, and the gangsters are not those in real power. But if our big-picture attempts to help are off the mark then those people are exactly who will be conducting the surveillance, pot shots, ambushes, and filling the ranks of whomever it is we’re trying to counter in that part of the world. The question that keeps bothering me is “does any of this really serve our interests?” Later, in Afghanistan it got even muddier, but one was in danger and aggressively patrolling and the act of preserving yourself and your comrades could push the big picture questions out of the picture in all but the most boring moments. But in the Horn, where it was only the hint of violence that reigned, one had plenty of time to mull these things over. This is even more poignant when your mission gets shut down and you’re watching the clock.

There was a point, in May and June of ‘06 that we were essentially stranded there in the Ogaden. The shooting war had kicked off in Somalia, and the reprisals against the ONLF increased there in Gode. We were told by Camp Lemonier (in Djibouti) to stop operations with the Civil Affairs team, stay within the borders of the fort, and reinforce the place with as many sandbags, Hescos, and firing positions as we could. So build we did. Everyone was bored so it wasn’t too terrible a proposition to obsess over the penetrating power of a 7.62×39 round, the thickness of the cheap brick used on the compound’s original wall, the depth of sandbags behind it, fields of fire for the machine guns and so and so on. It was all a mute point anyway as we’d only been allowed to bring the bare minimum of ammunition. This meant that they only gave us enough to last for twenty minutes or a half hour, while reinforcements were hours away. We didn’t even have a 60 mortar. Big Army, correctly, did not want a bunch of combat veterans traipsing around the Somali border with enough ammo to mix it up with people who looked at them sideways. While all of this was true, and in most of our opinions galling, we tried instead to focus on the “solvable” problem of building an Alamo in the Ogaden wasteland; solvable problems easily being the most preferable.

Eventually we ran out of wood. This was a bad thing as almost everything we used to stand or sit on, to hold up tripods, or bracket the main gate, was made by us, out of wood, there on the camp. We needed lumber and there was only one lumber store in Gode. The owners of the store were, and of course this was the case, of course, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The workers were the young toughs that populate the AIAI, AQs chief offshoot in the Ogaden. We weren’t to leave the compound with rifles and armor so we went to the lumber store with Boony caps and Berettas shoved in our belts like thugs, or gunfighters. The whole interaction was probably 30 minutes long. It felt like we were there all day. After entering the shop, really a hut, the AIAI boys, two or three of them in the front and Allah knows how many in the surrounding huts, stared at us with confusion on their mugs, not anger, and not fear. They stared at me and G and E and the navy petty officer who had the money as though we appeared out of the mist, out of the shimmering heat that came off of the ground in the African summer. Once they realized we weren’t there for them they sneered at us, sneered through the hazy, drugged eyes and mouths ringed with green spittle, flecked from the day’s Chat binge. The drug plane that comes to the little airstrip at the edge of town every day had arrived two hours prior to our foraging expedition. By this time most of the men in the village (and some boys and some women) were stoned to bejeesus on the Chat plant, and walked, like zombies, through their miserable afternoons, each carrying a bouquet of the leafy, green plant wrapped in a plastic bag.

So, the young, high, AIAI toughs sneered at the Americans: the ones there to help the Ogaden people with wells, and schools, inoculations, and water purification. We were there to help them get generators up and running to supply power to the village itself. Light the impossibly dark sky! They sneered and puffed out their skinny, hungry chests, and began to haggle for the plywood and two-by-fours we needed to load up in the little Hilux pickup. As the haggling neared its end another worker walked in from the back, another young man who stood, agog at the presence of Adan Shaitan standing in his store. He was wearing a black concert T-shirt. A lot of folks in Gode had them, bootleg concert Tees with Tupac, or Marley, or Hailie Selassie plastered on the front. But this character, struck dumb, staring at four Americans in his shop had a concert T-shirt with a giant picture of Osama bin Laden on his chest.

It was probably at that point when I realized the entire mission was likely a futile exercise. I agree that one has to try to improve the things around oneself. That goes for people as well as nation states: to stay fit, and to work, to keep learning, to “pitch in.” For us to function and continue to grow we need to protect our interests wherever they may be. In this case, however, we were not “creating a desert and calling it peace,” we were already in the desert, amongst the crocodiles and vipers, the orphaned little boys who we’d play with until they disappeared (We miss you, Thomas!), the malarial shower tent, the beautiful, damaged prostitutes in floral pattern dresses, the acronym-laden factions, and the army that alternately hunted and tolerated them.

The computer chip-laden generators sent during the time of Reagan and Geldoff and We are the World were now Western Obelisks joining the stone Ethiopian ones. Those folks could do anything with a combustion engine. I saw it. They were resourceful and as hard as Woodpecker lips. What they couldn’t do was run diagnostic checks with a computer. Were we, the West I mean, making only a gesture, one to make us feel better about ourselves?

American big business, western big business I should say, is what it is. A shark is a rose is a shark.  But aside from that, we are a reluctant empire, and we, the people, the G.I. Joes and the Jarheads, are the ones that must protect and fight for its survival. Plans for real success, calculated, planned-for success, an end-state, that leave our national goals and human life protected, should be in place.

I don’t have a solution for all of this talk of impotent American policy and good intentions gone bad. The hearts and minds campaign didn’t work so well in either the Philippines, a hundred and ten years ago, or in the sixties in Vietnam. It perhaps met with more success in Central America a hundred years ago, and Iraq and Afghanistan recently, but the end results haven’t been extremely promising. Al Qaeda has occupied Fallujah once again and the valley me and mine fought for in Eastern Afghanistan had as much to do with Kabul as it did with Chicago.  In fact, after chasing one particularly creepy man into a village not a kilometer from our Afghan outpost, the village elders came out and asked if we were the Russians and would we be so kind as to get out. How do we address that in a meaningful way? Can Americans here at home understand the implications that lurk within that total disconnect? Do they understand the competing and dissonant frequencies of our truth and of theirs? We returned to the same village with Human Assistance: radios, beans and the like, a few days later. I hope it helped them understand why the Taliban, who had a pretty spotless record of leaving collaborators cut to shreds on hilltops near their homes, should be spurned in favor of the foreigners in sunglasses, armored vehicles, and good teeth.

Line of Advance is the digital literary journal for the creative writing of military veterans.  Subscribe today to read the best in veteran writing.

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