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
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