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Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

SCROLL DOWN

Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

The Repeal Changed Everything

Dan Misch entered the U.S. Naval Academy under Don't Ask Don't Tell, and struggled for years to keep his sexual orientation under wraps. He endured the oppressive silence and slowly it ate away at him. When the repeal went into effect, a weight began to lift.

Read Dan's story.


Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet

War Horse writer and Marine veteran William Gehrung killed himself in late August 2017. His friend and fellow Marine veteran and War Horse writer, Nate Eckman, wrote about their friendship and how Gehrung was the last person Eckman expected wou commit suicide.

Read Nate's story.


RELIVING MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA ON HER LAST DAY OF ACTIVE DUTY

Joy Craig's retirement ceremony was set to take place that day, but first, she had to sit down with an NCIS agent on base and relive sexual assaults she'd been scared to report for fear of retaliation.

Read Joy's story.



BALANCING AUTHORITY AND UNDERSTANDING AS A YOUNG LIEUTENANT

Nina Semczuk worried that as a new second lieutenant she wouldn't strike the right balance between enforcing the rules and being a compassionate, understanding officer. One private's lunch paid the price. 

Read Nina's story.


HIS CLOSEST BRUSH WITH COMBAT WAS A DRAMATIC HELICOPTER LANDING

Sam Gisselman was confident of his ability as a rifleman. He'd trained for war and looked forward to going on combat patrol and to proving himself, but it wasn't mean to be.

Read Sam's story.


HE CRAVED NORMALCY, BUT HE COULD THINK ONLY OF GETTING BACK TO WAR

When his kid brother came back from war, Marine veteran Drew Pham recognized in him the conflicted yearning to go back and desire to stay away. Drew's brother rejected terms like PTS, calling what he had a "soldier's heart."

Read Drew's story.


ARMED ONLY WITH COLORED FLAGS, HE AND HIS FELLOW MARINES COMBED THE WRECKAGE SITE

When two aircraft collided in midair above North Carolina, Adam Stone and dozens of fellow Marines were tasked with identifying bits of the wreckage, including their brothers.

Read Adam's Story.


SHE STAYED QUIET WHEN MARINES' WIVES CALLED FEMALE MARINES "SLUTS." THEN SHE MET JOY

A chance encounter with a female Marine veteran brought back memories for Liesel Kershul of what it was like to be on the outside of the Marine wives' "sorority."

Read Liesel's story.


MARINES' WIVES ARE ALL THE SAME, SHE THOUGHT. AND THEN SHE MET LIESEL

Marine veteran Joy Craig writes an open letter to a new friend and Marine officers' wife, Liesel, about the chasm between the two groups of women—and her desire to change that.

Read Joy's story.


The Army She Knew Wasn’t Orderly or Disciplined. It Was Filled With Messy Humanity

Nina Semczuk struggled during civilian job interviews to translate how managing soldier drama while leading a 25-soldier platoon more than qualified her for the job.

Read Nina's story.


Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD

Jenny Pacanowski tried to drown out PTSD's screams with heroin. She realized she'd have to work on her internal monologue, or die.

Read Jenny's story.


Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don't Change

There was only so much prep work Tenley Lozano could do before Dive School. But how could she prepare for the additional scrutiny women endure.

Read Tenley's story.


When Life as a Military Spouse Got Hard, Amber Was Always There

Liesel Kershul weathered three deployments with her now-husband, Tom. When they moved to Germany the isolation became to much, until she and Tom adopted Amber.

Read Liesel's Story.


The Army Was Hard, Finding a Soul Sister After Returning Home Was Harder

Life in D.C. was impossibly lonely for Elizabeth O'Herrin. She looked to church for community, but struggled to find female friends, until Gina.

Read Elizabeth's story.


War Trauma Spread Through His Family Like a Virus

When John Sims suffered a severe panic attack, he realized he needed help. But he feared that people would think he'd cracked.

This essay is the second in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


After 30 Years and Four Wars, One Explosion Opened the Floodgates

Before he could heal, John Sims needed to understand that 30 years of service had taken its toll—not just on him, but on his family. 

This essay is the first in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


They Were Supposed To Be Fighting a War. Instead They Picked Up Gravel.

Dustin Jones prayed for contact, just a little bit of fire, to liven up the day. Imagine being at war in an unprotected position, hoping to draw a little gunfire.

Read Dustin's story.


I Leave Out the Part Where We Catch the Man

When he came back, Drew Pham told civilians traumatic stories from his time at war. He learned that people didn't know how to respond. The story he tells has changed.

Read Drew's story.


Circumstances, Misfortunes, or Fortunes

At the time, Teresa Fazio was a lapsed Catholic, hiding her beer beneath a tissue in India—polite women don't drink. She received prasad, like communion, and searched for salvation and connectivity amidst memories of Iraq.

Read Teresa's story.


SAILING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – 2005

Tenley Lozano watched the Barque Eagle's bow cut through the Atlantic Ocean's night waters, swelling with bioluminescence and dolphins.

Read Tenley's story.


Photographing Innocence Admist the Chaos and Silence of War

"I saw them about a hundred yards away, amid a sparse herd of goats. They were playing, running, chasing each other. I wanted to see them close up. I wanted to photograph them," Dan Bellis writes, "but really, I just wanted to see them. I guess I wanted to play, too."

Read Dan's Story.


An Attack From Within: Males Marines Ambush Women in Uniform

The Defense Department is investigating the orchestrated stalking and the deliberate collection, and distribution of photographs of active duty and veteran women. Dozens of victims were identified by their name, rank, and duty station.

Our exclusive investigation.


His torch beckoned like a searchlight

"The days began to run together," Ryan Mallek writes. "Wake up around 1500, eat, shit, bullshit. Head to the work area about 1845; avoid the sewage, but still puddle through it. Fire up the MCTWS, cut, bend, weld, pile. The heat was unbearable."

Read Ryan's Story.


How one man found peace in free fall

BASE jumping helped Brian Donnelly release anxiety and reset during his Army career. But if he talked openly about it, he risked everything. 

Read Brian's Story.


You Don't Know, and I Don't Wanna Tell Ya

Civilians are always asking what war is like. Dustin Jones wonders what to tell them about his deployment, or if he even should.

Read Dustin's story.


LEARNING TO LISTEN ON DENALI

"It's the prostitution of experience, man," Roger liked to say. He’d go on about how so many vets can't stop posturing and letting the world know that they really were in the shit, as if their characters couldn’t speak for themselves.

Read Pat's Story.


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LOSING THE FEAR THAT HE ABANDONED HIS MEN

He told me how he felt his heart drop when he heard what some of the other guys had said about thinking he’d quit.

Read David's Story.


SUNFLOWERS AND STEEL RAIN

It felt menacing: the head looming down, the wide petal-fringed face contorted into a cruel smile. I couldn’t shake the association. It frustrated me that a once-cheerful flower had come to mean something so dark.

Read Elizabeth's Story.


IN THE ABSENCE OF TRUST AND CONFIDENCE

He lost respect, trust, and confidence in his Marine leaders. William Gehrung describes the misdiagnoses and maltreatment of injuries in the military.

Read William's Story.


THE QUANDARY OF PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY

The women couldn’t tell anyone else or risk all of us getting a bad reputation. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t let those onboard the ship dictate what I could or couldn’t do.

Read Tenley's Story.


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Nothing prepares you for war

About halfway through deployment the Taliban delivered a memo to the village saying they would begin attacking the Americans and that the locals ought to leave. A few weeks later Katyusha rockets began raining down.

Read Noah's Story.


The Day I Held My Fire

Then, the JTAC said this on the radio: “The air’s got cold feet.”

Maybe it was impossible for me to understand a soldier’s mindset from an air-conditioned cockpit.

Read Eric's Story.


When Tearful Goodbyes Were Foreign

New Marines were being made on the other side of that fence. On this side, I held my DD-214 and headed home for good.

Read Robert's Story.


SERVICE, SEXUALITY, AND STEREOTYPES OF A FEMALE VETERAN

She faced discrimination then, and she can handle the presumptions now. She is proud of her service, and doesn’t regret it, regardless of the invisible injuries it caused.

Read Tenley's Story.


guns, booze, and suicide:
How 'stupid' saved a life.

He feels guilty sometimes too about some of what he did and saw, but unless he’s had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.

Read David's Story.


Remembering 9/11.
15 Years Later.

We asked active duty service members, civilians, and veterans to write about 9/11 and how it has changed their lives.

These are their stories.


My Afghan Friend Could Be Murdered Soon

He quietly departed his village alone and traveled to Kabul, where he began sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. Without a job, he couldn’t afford to bring his wife and daughter with him, so they remained with Zabi’s father, who swore to protect them.

Read About Zabi.


Losing sense of self One Suicide At A Time

Damn the terrorist groups. And damn the suburbanites back home and their parades of glitter, as if glitter could fill the holes in us or mend the gaps in our platoons when we died in the war, or now, back here, when we died at home.

Read Gerardo's Story.


The Redemptive Power Of Lying

Coming home in itself can be retraumatizing. Veterans tell their loved ones massaged truths about what they’ve been through and who they’ve become, as they struggle to find out themselves.

Read David's Story


Relics Of War And The Stories They Share

Brandon's children have endured moves every few years and experienced their father leaving for long periods. They've visited countless battlefields, monuments, and war museums. Brandon's children have been at war their entire lives. 

Read Brandon's Story
 



My Religion Of Death And Praying To Kill

The Marine Corps taught Peter that despair and violence were renewing. In boot camp he shouted "kill" 100 times a day, and went to two church services back to back on Sundays. He prayed to kill and believed that, in some way, it would save him.
Read Peter's Story


The afghan girls I couldn't save

As long as the Afghans he encountered thought it was OK to treat women like property, like killing a woman was equivalent to killing a goat, Tim Patterson writes, then they were never going to understand higher-level concepts like voting, or free speech, or feminism. 

Read Tim's Story.



BECOMING A VETERAN WITHOUT WAR

"To Nate Eckman, veteran" was synonymous with "warrior," and because he hadn't seen combat, he feels strange owning the title "veteran." But the idea that only warriors or those directly affected by war in obvious ways can speak to war's effects with authority isn't true.

Read Nate's Story.


A WAR THAT BEGAN AS CHILDREN

Wars were small, quick affairs involving special operators, U.N. peacekeepers and long-range bombers.  A decade later, I found myself going back and forth with an antiwar protestor after covering a rally at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the student newspaper. I was learning an early lesson in journalism: admit personal views at your own risk.

Read Derrick and Ian's Story.



The man with half A head

The man with half a head had a wife and two sweet little children. The children were playing on the floor of his hospital room while his wife looked out the window. She didn’t say anything when I rearranged his pillow, or even when I left the room.
Read more.


YEARS LATER, LOSS AT WAR RESONATES AT HOME

“I hate war,” he said.  “I don’t have my dad.” Anthony’s father was killed in Afghanistan five years ago. Anthony is now eight.

Read his story.


A CENTURIES-LONG BATTLE TO SOLVE THE AMBIGUITY OF WAR

by Natalie Schachar and Thomas J. Brennan

What do war crimes, Sun Tzu, General James N. Mattis, and Enhanced Interrogation have in common?
Read and find out.

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I’ve Never Looked More Dignified on a Hike


After Sweden enacted gender-neutral conscription in early 2018, Teresa Fazio traveled there to ask how it works and what the U.S. can learn.

I’ve Never Looked More Dignified on a Hike


After Sweden enacted gender-neutral conscription in early 2018, Teresa Fazio traveled there to ask how it works and what the U.S. can learn.

By Teresa Fazio

Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In a pine-scented forest on an army base in northern Sweden, 58 recruits stampede to their packs, breathing heavily. Sweat streaks camouflage paint down their cheeks; they rip off body armor and don Gore-Tex jackets against chilly September drizzle. They’ve been in the field all week, learning to shoot rifles and move through the forest in pairs. A small pickup truck putters toward the platoon, bearing dinner provisions.

“Good news!” an instructor tells me, smiling wryly and pocketing his cell phone. “There is no bus.”

So much for the planned ride back to the barracks. As a former U.S. Marine-turned-journalist, I’m in Sweden with this mechanized infantry unit to learn about this year’s reactivated—and now gender-neutral—draft of 4,000 19-year-olds. Sweden is nearly 30 years ahead of the U.S. in allowing women to join combat arms units. Women comprise nearly 8 percent of servicemembers in the Swedish Armed Forces and about 8 percent of the U.S. Marine Corps, a number recruiters in both places are trying to increase. I was curious to see how these recruits’ experiences compared to mine.  

 Two corporals debrief a platoon of mechanized infantry recruits after a day of training in movement to contact. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

Two corporals debrief a platoon of mechanized infantry recruits after a day of training in movement to contact. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

There is only one female recruit in this platoon; she stands slim and quiet, with her hair in a thin brown braid. Before dinner, she digs a hard plastic spork from her pack and pops open a collapsible mess kit. Laughing along with the guys, who pelt each other with pinecones and pebbles, she throws bug repellent to a buddy. A male recruit with a dark crew cut glowers, imitating her laugh as a high-pitched giggle. She looks at him, her smile fading in a quiet beat, and rejoins the flow of the other recruits’ conversation. They straggle into the chow line, offering a loud “huzzah!” after the announcement of each menu item: creamy salami stew, potatoes, fruit, hard bread, and juice.

The deputy platoon commander, a female noncommissioned officer with rank equal to an American staff sergeant’s, deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 as a tactical air controller for a mechanized infantry unit. She calls the lone woman recruit “reserved,” which is understandable, considering she shares a room with 13 male conscripts. A lucky barracks layout affords her a private bathroom; typical Swedish barracks have coed showers. Their room is “pretty relaxed,” says one of those roommates, a bespectacled, five-foot-few-inch conscript named Lucas Strandlund. The female recruit herself offers me only her hometown of Boden. I try not to single her out any further, knowing what it’s like to want to blend in.

 The author as a young lieutenant in an urban combat training exercise in Quantico, Virginia in January 2003. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

The author as a young lieutenant in an urban combat training exercise in Quantico, Virginia in January 2003. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

As one of four women in a 40-odd lieutenant training platoon in Quantico, and one of five in a 150-Marine company deployed to Iraq, I’m well acquainted with the tactics of fading into the background or speaking only when sure of an answer in order to join, tolerate, or escape the camaraderie that often evolves in male-dominated military environments. I ignored bathroom humor, dodged wrestling matches that got out of hand, and smirked in a corner at masculine chest-pounding. I also said nothing a fair bit of the time, resorting to silence except when telling a popular joke involving a Scotsman and a goat. After chow, I feel slightly self-conscious bounding 40 yards through springy underbrush and ducking behind a mossy boulder for a quick pee break.

When I rejoin the formation, the staff sergeant offers me a ride with a few sick conscripts; the rest of the soldiers will make the impromptu march five kilometers back to the barracks. When I tell her I’d rather walk, she skeptically flicks her low brown braid. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks. “It’s an hour.”

“Ask me in an hour and a half,” I say, thankful for the caffeine tablet I’ve fished from my jacket pocket.

The air holds a sand-and-mud petrichor, which I recall from Quantico with what I’m sure is disproportionate fondness. I velcro a borrowed green reflective strip around my ankle. My business-casual boots, caramel leather by Franco Sarto, have felt slightly too big the entire two years I’ve owned them. Through pounding city walks and freezing bike commutes, I’ve worn the lining down to bare leather, and the left boot’s stitching is coming undone. Oh well, I rationalize, I was planning to destroy these in Sweden anyway.

Given the option of a cozy van, the hike wasn’t something I would have volunteered for in 2003 when I was a second lieutenant at The Basic School. Then, as now, all students went on conditioning hikes—also known as forced marches, or humps—the most memorable of which was a 20-miler during which it rained the whole time. My roommate and I weighed ourselves afterward. Me, sopping wet: 119 pounds. Me and all of my gear, sopping wet: 198 pounds. Now, at age 38, carrying two-thirds of my body weight sounds like a bad idea.

Fortunately, I carry only a leather briefcase that—mercy of mercies—I’ve configured as a backpack. The Swedish recruits’ load weighs about 33 pounds: a full backpack, flak jacket, helmet, and rifle. As the mist lifts, I detach the hood from my waxed-canvas Barbour jacket. I’m wearing belted brown-and-gray wool business trousers, a long-sleeved button-down shirt, and a thin gray blazer better suited to a summer office. This is the most dignified I have ever looked on a hike.

 On a hike with the Sweden military, the column picks up the pace. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

On a hike with the Sweden military, the column picks up the pace. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

Stepping off, the recruits sing American songs: “Sexual Healing” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” hamming up the falsetto parts. I recognize their summer-camp vibe; they’re looking forward to a half-day of weapons maintenance tomorrow before a five-day pass home. The female recruit does not sing along. Neither do I.

All Swedish recruits, whether male or female, must pass the same occupation-specific physical standards. Part of these Swedish recruits’ test is a two-kilometer run while carrying a weapon and wearing boots, flak jacket, helmet, and a load-bearing vest. To prepare, Recruit Oliver Olofsson, who is 18 but looks younger in a strawberry-blond buzz cut, worked out in the gym. “Mr. Spaghetti Arms,” laughs Andrew Andersson, a chunky, black-haired buddy behind him. Andersson tells me he’ll soon train to become a motorcycle messenger; Swedish military motorcycles have tiny skis on their sides, the better to balance on snow. When I was in the Corps, being a motorcycle messenger was the rumored holy grail of cool training gigs. I never got to ride one, not even at communications officer school. Faced with his straightforward claim to a job I’d always assumed was mythical, I wonder if Andersson’s bullshitting me.

Yellow-leaved birches and pole-straight conifers line the road. Despite an extreme summer heat wave that required Swedish Home Guard soldiers to fight wildfires within a hundred miles of here, the trees on this base look well nourished, their canopies unfolding 30 feet in the air. The air is cool and humid; wet needles carpet the ground. As sunset tints orange clouds, I can imagine motorcycles speeding through evergreen backcountry.

I burp my salami dinner, along with hints of a reindeer-stew lunch, and remove my blazer and coat. The latter’s plaid cotton lining has dampened with sweat, and I adjust my gait to avoid a potential heel blister. The female recruit neither runs nor slows down, in perfect step with the men. Strandlund’s short legs churn twice as fast. One recruit falls out: the red-faced, sweaty leader of the second squad, who tugs at the thermal collar under his Gore-Tex jacket. The back of the column accordions, and Olofsson, Andersson, and I have to run to keep up. Tonight’s hike contains some of the pain I remember from Quantico, but unlike those dirt hills, the path here is flat, and beds await us, and once the packed dirt turns to asphalt, I know it will be over soon.

 Recruits wait to turn in their weapons at the end of the night. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

Recruits wait to turn in their weapons at the end of the night. Photograph by Teresa Fazio

At the barracks, the recruits change into dry coveralls and give their weapons a once-over. An instructor shows me a YouTube montage of snow motorcycles, complete with miniature skis, to prove Andersson wasn’t kidding. The faint odor of weapons lubricant drifts our way as troops clomp by to lock up their rifles. The female recruit’s efficient stride and quiet fortitude mean she’s on her way to finding her role in the platoon, a dynamic I saw with my former women colleagues. At double these recruits’ age, I now know how quickly their time in service will fade to something they recall only in snippets. I walk gingerly to my hotel and feel grateful for this impermanence—and, unlike my Officer Candidate School barracks, some privacy.

The next morning, hotspots prickle my pinkie toes and heel. I pull on old camouflage trousers and lace up the desert boots I wore in Iraq. Today I’m slated to be with a different platoon of mechanized infantry recruits—another 10 hours on my feet. Though I’m now more appropriately dressed, I’ll accept a ride back if one is offered. Especially if it involves a motorcycle.

•••

Teresa Fazio served in the United States Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2002 to 2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, among other outlets.

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Carry Me Home


In the VA’s emergency room, Molly Pearl and her husband made the imperceptible shift between soldier and patient, wife and caregiver.

Carry Me Home


In the VA’s emergency room, Molly Pearl and her husband made the imperceptible shift between soldier and patient, wife and caregiver.

By Molly Pearl

The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. …[It] is governed by five constant factors … The Moral Law; Heaven; Earth; The Commander; Method and Discipline.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

When he learned he had cancer my husband said two things: First, “I wish I had died in Afghanistan,” and then, “I should have been better to you.” He sits on the edge of a hospital bed, his hunched shoulders swaddled in an oversized medical gown. I am lost between his first statement and everything that follows. My heart does not race. I do not panic. Instead, I ease into myself, breathing deep against countless years of holding it in. He speaks truth and I see us then two unwilling participants in a hastily brokered peace deal, enticed by relief of duty and a promise to lay down arms. It occurs to me that this is the closest he will ever come to apologizing. I lean forward and he falls into me, his weight crumpling into my chest, sobs wracking his body. This is how we make the imperceptible shift between soldier and patient, wife and caregiver.

The resident on call at the emergency room is named Dr. Goud.* He is a distractingly attractive South Asian man with a tattoo of a snake that peeks out from the cuff of his scrubs. He is young. Young enough that in another life, under different circumstances, we might have exchanged goodbyes at college graduation, him leaving for medical school and us for the Army.

It is clear that Dr. Goud does not want to be responsible for saying that my husband has cancer. Instead, he explains white blood cell counts and symptom clusters. Yes, it could be cancer. It could also be an infection, not unlike those seen in AIDS patients. The pattern of the lymphocytes will determine this, but he must consult a pathologist first. He leaves and my husband Googles “white blood cells high count” on his phone. Another doctor arrives to take blood and administer painkillers. He has my husband bend over, pokes a suspicious red patch on his buttocks, and declares it an abscess. Each person enters quickly and leaves just as fast, gingerly closing the curtains that envelope us in a corner of the ER. I am sure that the room has grown quieter since we arrived.

Some hours in, the attending pathologist arrives. She wears her authority in her stern expression and white lab coat. Directives flow from her mouth, what we must do and how we should prepare. I cannot digest the message, though my stomach twists against its own emptiness. What about a viral infection? I remind her. It is cancer, she says. Definitely acute, probably lymphoblastic, she adds, as if the details lessen the absurdity of the moment. She may as well have handed me orders.

Molly Pearl

1. The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

My college years introduced me to critical analysis and Marxist theory, cementing my disdain for the economic disparity that a prestigious education, and its cost, only deepened for me. I protested the war in Iraq. I occupied school buildings and agitated for trade unions. I exhibited a severe distrust for authority. My boyfriend shared these sentiments, despite being an ROTC student. What began as a chance encounter at a party turned into a date, then a dinner, and grew into an exchange of books and ideals. In dorm rooms with dimmed lights, we debated the ethical implications of using microloans to rebuild conflict-torn nations. His conviction endeared me to him. But what I debated, he lived. I did not yet understand the desperation born of obligation—that he had signed and dated in ink.

My education followed a slower path. I held no romantic notions about being a military spouse, no intentions to become a mechanism in the system I loathed. Only love breeds such contradictions. Those first years I willfully avoided my duties, first finishing school and then choosing to pursue a career in teaching far away from the military base. Still, I mailed carefully curated packages to Afghanistan, a carton of Marlboro Menthols tucked between magazine pages. I listened too closely to breaking news. I wished on every fallen eyelash and every heads-up penny. Mostly I waited.

But the military is a jealous lover, and the war his most expedient tool. On a bright afternoon, while I sat grading papers, my phone rang with the familiar jumble of numbers that began with +93. My husband’s voice sounded tinny against the thin signal but I could hear the desperation in his words. He was supposed to be coming home soon, and he wanted me to know that his nightmares and shaking hands were already verging on a diagnosis. He didn’t want to leave. He was not finished, and he was planning on staying. He had put his name in for a voluntary extension, seeking another six months, and only told me after he’d done so. I could not comprehend what answers he would find, what they were worth in exchange for our lives together. We did not end up debating it. Command rejected him outright.

Not quite a year before we had lain on the floor in my room holding each other gently and speaking about the future. What will we do if you are hurt? I had asked. I don’t remember how he answered, only that he grew quiet and still at the implication. So when he called I came, leaving behind career and comfort to claim my role.

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2. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

Trauma flattens time. I do not remember many details of the life we led after deployment. The persistent sense of waiting remained and grew to be as unbearable as the Louisiana heat. The state’s entire seasonal cycle was drawn out like an endless New York summer, a perpetual fighting season. I watched as my husband’s emotions flattened in accordance, measured only by degree of anger. A sink full of dishes might elicit a five-minute slew of obscenities. A trip to the grocery store merited an hour of sharp silence. A misunderstanding among friends meant we should cancel our weekend plans in New Orleans.

In those days I begged him to open up, to fill the hole within myself that I had carved away over months of separation. He obliged, recalling in a steady tone how the sun would set behind the jagged edges of a mountain, the purple stain of twilight bleeding across the qal’ats. He picked the label off a bottle of Abita and told me about helicopters. About guns and knives, and the sweet, soft-shell crab smell that accompanied burnt bodies. And as he filled me to the brim I consented, shouldering the weight of a life not lived but one that must be carried.


3. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

Our therapist accuses me of having far too much patience. The truth is that I like to play the long game. It is not that I did not understand how service, and deployment, would change us. No, I willfully stared into the distance, relying on the inevitability of movement that I only understood as forward. Hundred-meter targets, my husband would say, and I would smile and crack a joke. Here’s the actual truth: I could never be with someone I can’t argue with.

Our 400-meter target was New York, home. Back there, far north of the swamps and valleys we never staked claims on, we expected to discover everything where we’d left it. Friends with their noses buried in books, huddled in the smokers’ corner, clinging to each other’s alcohol-warmed bodies. All time travelers have learned this fallacy of hope. With high hopes, we settled in a Brooklyn apartment where the circuit breaker tripped every time we ran the air conditioner while using the microwave. We had a roommate to split the rent with. We had new dress clothes and a history to build on. We would make it work. I went back to school; a prearranged agreement that, this time, my career would take precedence.

Six months elapsed before the war found us. It first arrived in the form of a rejected application for unemployment benefits. It came at night, in vivid terrors, and more troublingly during the days, which were marked by tense exchanges, or silence. It gained definition in a disability rating from the VA. And then, when the war had eaten through his bones and regenerated itself a thousand times over, the cells multiplying beyond comprehension, it came in the form of a diagnosis.


4. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.

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The paperwork says his lymphocytes are 99 percent cancerous. As they prepare to transfer us from the ER to the ICU, the nurse comes to place an IV. She seems to pause, surveying our circumstances. I do not know what she sees, what prompts her words or how we are being committed to her memories. But she leaves with a gentle statement, You did the right thing, coming to the hospital. We thought he had the flu, but he had no health insurance, so I had assured him we could simply walk into the ER at the VA for a checkup. I do not know how to tell the nurse that choices don’t exist in this place.

Being admitted means giving up freedom, even to walk unaccompanied to the elevator and arrive at your single-occupancy critical care room, its sliding glass doors angled into the hallway to ensure observation. So we wait dutifully for the transport and arrive via wheelchair. Proper lifting technique is applied. A new gown issued. Samples taken, IV bags hooked up. The monitors begin their gentle beeping, a single sound that will grow into a cacophony over the next year. A proposed chemotherapy schedule is taped to the whiteboard below a welcome message: Today is February 2nd, 2014. Your nurse is Yvette.

We don’t look at each other as we survey our new surroundings, he from the bed, me from the plastic-coated armchair. If I lean back a footrest emerges, suggesting the slightest comfort for a sleepless night. I do not intend to stay. Somewhere in the past, five years or five hours before, leaving meant something else. Something I lacked the courage to do. But here, in the middle of our war, I know what to do. I announce my departure, gather my things, and kiss my husband goodnight. I can still see his face, the gutted expression, his helplessness pushing into the spaces I’d cultivated years before. I do not forgive myself for leaving. I think of all the times he’s left and wonder if he ever forgave himself for those.


5. By method and discipline are to be understood the marshaling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

I step out into the funnel of icy wind on 23rd Street and balance a cigarette on my cracked lips, cupping my hands around the end and inserting the lighter to protect the flame. It is a field-tested method, just like my husband taught me. I find my phone and call my mother. It is dark out, and I have no concept of where I am between dusk and dawn. I call again. On the third try she wakes and her sleep-croaked voice calls out, familiar and comforting, What’s wrong?! I tell her, folding into the space I know is there, carved out by the pain of my birth, that she always holds for me.

Over the phone I hear her get up from the bed, my father’s half-sleeping questions and her curt reply. She is moving. I hear the creak of the stairs and a rustling, and I know she is reaching for her nursing textbooks, flipping through pages to check blood results and hypothesize prognoses. Are they sure it isn’t viral? she asks. Yes, I say. The white blood cell count is over 100,000. It is cancer.

I must move too. I chain-smoke my way down First Avenue, my exposed right hand an icy burn, my boots soaking up melting snow. It’s nine blocks, down the stairs, and into the echo of the subway station. A train arrives and I sit, eyes straining against the unnatural fluorescent lights. My comrades and I stare into the darkness of the tunnel, avoiding each other’s presence in that way only New Yorkers can, the way I am always grateful for. We speed under the East River toward Brooklyn, to my apartment where the cat hasn’t been fed since morning. Toward the Social Security office, Medicaid forms, the packing and moving and planning that I know must be done. Not out of obligation, or choice, but love.

•••

Molly Pearl is a social worker and veteran spouse/caregiver. She is passionate about economic justice, dis/ability, and exploring the space between science fiction and reality. She resides in Brooklyn with her husband and cats.

*Editor’s Note: Dr. Goud is a pseudonym.

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Let the Waves Make Me


Liz O’Herrin Lee finds peace in an unknown future in the presence of Australia’s living memorial built by and for the country’s World War I veterans.

Let the Waves Make Me


Liz O’Herrin Lee finds peace in an unknown future in the presence of Australia’s living memorial built by and for the country’s World War I veterans.

By Liz O’Herrin Lee

My new husband and I are driving the Great Ocean Road, adventuring west from Melbourne along the southern coast of Australia, for our honeymoon. One hundred and fifty-one miles hug the liminal space between cliffs that drop to the southern sea and thousands of gum trees rising to the north hiding koalas and kangaroos. The forest is not silent; more than 2,000 varieties of cloud-shaped eucalyptus trees pulse with squawking magpies, sulphur-crested cockatoos, and crimson rosellas, all competing to be heard over the crashing waves below. The panorama looks like it dropped out of a magazine spread, but the road itself is a miracle in its own right.

We were researching for our honeymoon when we’d learned of the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s top tourist destinations and the world’s largest war memorial. It was built as a homage to more than 60,000 Australians who lost their lives during the Great War. Far from the nation’s capital, 3,000 returning World War I veterans constructed the road as a tribute to their fallen comrades. Because so many ships had met their ends dashed against these cliffs and in response to the wave of soldiers returning home, the government had developed a solution: one part employment and reintegration scheme for returning veterans during the Great Depression, one part government plot to connect distant seaports by easier means than the Shipwreck Coast, and one part memorial.

 A view of the Twelve Apostles in Twelve Apostles Marine National Park. Courtesy of Liz O’Herrin Lee

A view of the Twelve Apostles in Twelve Apostles Marine National Park. Courtesy of Liz O’Herrin Lee

My husband and I have both caught terrible colds, and our senses are marred by Australian cold medicines containing ingredients whose names we didn’t recognize. After initially being delicate with dosing, then realizing much of it was homeopathic, we’ve thrown the pharmacy’s kitchen sink at congestion.

We’re exhausted from driving on the “wrong” side of the winding road. Keepy-lefty, let the righties go firstie, we sing aloud to ourselves at every traffic circle entrance to keep our foggy American brains from short-circuiting. It feels like a piece of comforting poetry to end up on this road, a giant war memorial, to mark this life milestone. My new husband and I had met through Team Rubicon, a veteran-centered disaster response organization, where we both were working to make good happen in response to the ways we and our loved ones had been profoundly impacted by war. My husband is a civilian and lost a close veteran friend to suicide, which spurred him to help other veterans. I’ve spent the better part of 10 years working on veteran benefits, policies, and programs after my deployments. If not for the wars, we would never have met.

 Liz O’Herrin Lee and Mike Lee on the Great Ocean Road. Courtesy of Mike Lee

Liz O’Herrin Lee and Mike Lee on the Great Ocean Road. Courtesy of Mike Lee

My mind turns to the men who built the Great Ocean Road, and I wonder if they were thankful to have made it home and to have found something to keep themselves busy. Were they happy to be out in the bush, away from civilization? Were they simply grateful for work and food during the Great Depression? Did they feel like Sisyphus, chipping away inch by inch, resting blasting caps on their knees to absorb shock during bumpy rides over the cliffs, only for another landslide to occur and to begin all over again? Did they believe it was a fitting tribute to their dead?

I believe it is.

Near the end of the coastal scenery on the Great Ocean Road lies the famous limestone pillars of the Twelve Apostles, remnants of millennia of coastal erosion. The natural monoliths are notable both for their height—some are taller than 150 feet—and their close proximity to one another. They feel immediately recognizable from computer screensavers and attract visitors from all over the world. We stretch our legs as we walk down to the coast’s edge, dodging swarms of buses carting tourists, careening minivans filled with squealing children, and pretty young women wearing yellow sneakers and miniskirts who pose for Instagram stories. If the embattled men could see us now, what would they make of today’s crush of visitors?

Studying the bone-crushing waves below, this very coastline home to iconic surf brands Quiksilver and Rip Curl, I’m reminded of the Big Sur stretch on the Pacific Coast Highway, its striking cliffs with coast live oaks emerging from mystical lavender sand. It dawns on me as the wind whips my hair that the aural environment of the sea conveys a powerful energy; this memorial feels so much more alive than any other war memorial I’ve visited. And I’ve visited many.

 The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Courtesy of Liz O’Herrin Lee

The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 2011. Courtesy of Liz O’Herrin Lee

During the years I lived in D.C., I spent my fair share of late nights contemplating the black wound in the earth that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, running my fingers over names. Early mornings training for a marathon, pausing my run to observe the glory of a World War II memorial empty of visitors. Even the benches at the veterans memorial in tiny Bellaire, Michigan, where I spent this past summer preparing the lakehouse for our wedding, command solemn reverence.

But none of those memorials feel very alive, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe the men who built Australia’s Great Ocean Road prefer that we contemplate life rather than death when we visit the memorial to their fallen. The monument lives and breathes, ebbs and flows, allowing visitors to bask in native flora and fauna. It feels a meaningful tribute to contemplate the gift of life, the passage of time, and the laws of nature.

One thing here on the Great Ocean Road is certain: The limestone structures will one day all fall, beaten down by the sea, destroyed by the very means that brought them to life. But scientists predict that in the millennia to come more pillars may emerge from the coastline, as the waves continue to lick away at the softer sediment while harder rock resists, leaving more Apostles that will ultimately succumb to the same process that bore them. Birth, life, death, birth.

The Twelve Apostles marks the halfway point of our celebratory road trip. After observing the magnificent towers we turn back to Melbourne, then a long flight home, and continue our journey as life companions. I do not know what joys and sorrows and adventures the future holds for us, how long we and our loved ones will withstand the beatings of life, but having my husband to face it with feels like the comfort of a heavy blanket. We’ve managed to establish something profoundly beautiful through the conflict of life, much like the coast presenting its incredible landforms despite the beating waves. Or is it because of them?

•••

Liz O’Herrin Lee served with the WI ANG from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16s. She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. She resides in Denver with her husband, Mike, and she is a Tillman Scholar.

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Pop Bangers and IED Explosions


Augusto Giacoman danced to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” as his convoy patrolled Mosul, Iraq. And then the IED exploded.

Pop Bangers and IED Explosions


Augusto Giacoman danced to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” as his convoy patrolled Mosul, Iraq. And then the IED exploded.

By Augusto Giacoman

The synthesizer music started playing. Oh, snap, I thought, picturing myself in a German club, dressed like one of the guys from Saturday Night Live’s Sprocket’s skit. Here come zee party, boyz. The banger kicked off with two bubble-gum pop voices speaking in slightly accented English:

Hiya, Barbie.

Hi, Ken.

Do you wanna go for a ride?

Sure, Ken.

Jump in.

A guttural voice came out of nowhere, “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party.” The beat dropped. Standing in the air hatch of a Stryker on patrol in Mosul, Iraq, I couldn’t help it, I had to start dancing. I kept my rifle at the ready, my head on a swivel and my eyes looking for foreign objects, but my body was rocking.

We weren’t allowed to listen to music on patrol because it could distract us from focusing our full attention on the work. The problem was that tunes were about the only thing that kept you from going insane.

Our vehicle commander would rig up an iPod to the Stryker’s internal radio system so we could put on our helmets and listen to music. Most of his playlist was red-blooded infantry music like Marilyn Manson, DMX, and Iron Maiden. But every now and then we had a dance party, as we were now with Aqua’s 1997 hit, “Barbie Girl.”

The music took hold, and I couldn’t help but shake my hips to the sick beat. A second later my torso caught the virus and I began swaying left and right; the movement was made a bit more difficult by the confines of the air hatch and the M4 in my hand. Finally, my brain caught fire and I nodded up and down to the music. Halfway through the next gravelly “Come on Barbie, let’s go party,” the improvised explosive device hit us.

 The author, Augusto Giacoman, is pictured here on his first deployment with 1-5 IN Deathmasters leadership. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

The author, Augusto Giacoman, is pictured here on his first deployment with 1-5 IN Deathmasters leadership. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

We were enveloped with smoke and flames. Air whooshed around us. The heat was intense on my face and hands, the parts of me not covered by my uniform. My eyes burned and watered, stinging from the heat. I couldn’t breathe. Then all the air came back and I sucked in a lungful of air mixed with smoke. I started coughing and gasping, tears streaming from my eyes. The heat and smoke dissipated, and I breathed in and out for a moment. I was alive. I focused on calming myself when every nerve wanted to stand up and start firing my weapon in the dark.

Smoldering ashes and bits of shrapnel covered my uniform. They looked like little red-hot embers from a fire. Most were burning themselves out on top of my uniform, leaving small brown circles. But some of the shrapnel was solid bits of metal. As though I were covered in fire ants, I wiped my arms down from shoulder to wrist to get off the burning debris.

I checked for casualties and vehicle damage—none—and then stood up out of the vehicle. There was a crater 20 meters away from my Stryker. No one saw the spotter or the triggerman, and we determined there was no secondary device.

It was my first IED attack, and it was over. But a powerful high coursing through my body and mind was just getting started. It was like I had just done an intense workout. Exhilaration and adrenaline flowed, as if I had just stepped off a steep and violent roller coaster. I was no longer tired; in fact, I was more alert and ready to rock than I had ever been—I wanted to do a few wind sprints and then run 10 miles. I was focused like a razor.

In a few minutes, we realized there was no more danger. The high stayed a bit more but my focus was destroyed by a mental and emotional jumble. My first thought was that I would get a Combat Infantryman’s Badge by satisfactorily performing infantry duties (not running away) in the face of an armed enemy (the IED). I felt happy and even laughed to myself a bit; I just got blown up, I had been a target and I felt so happy.

My next thought was why did someone just try to kill me? What had I ever done to them? This was accompanied by rage at the unknown terrorist that I had not had the chance to kill.

The mental chatter and the emotions subsided after a few minutes.

The blast hadn’t been close or powerful enough to do any damage. All the vehicles and people were fine, so we continued our mission. We went door to door around the area, questioning people. Had they seen anything? Why was there an IED on their street? Where was Ali Baba? It was slang most used to mean terrorist. The windows of all the nearby houses had been shattered; we figured that had they known about the attack, they would have opened their windows beforehand to avoid them breaking in the concussive force. But who really knows?

We searched and patrolled for a few more hours and then drove up to high ground in our area of operations. We faced the Strykers outward and set up a watch, while those not on watch dozed a bit in the vehicles. I figured music on patrol was probably a bad idea going forward, but I couldn’t let “Barbie Girl” be the last song I listened to. I smoked a cigarette, an Iraqi brand called Miami, and listened to Johnny Cash’s “Burning Ring of Fire.”  

•••

Augusto Giacoman was an Army infantryman. He currently advises companies on people and organizational issues for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. He is a director with PwC US based in New York. 

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My Battle Buddy Was Always Smiling


J.P. Lawrence thought he knew his happy-go-lucky friend from deployment until he learned that Belland had struggled with addiction and died by overdose.

My Battle Buddy Was Always Smiling


J.P. Lawrence thought he knew his happy-go-lucky friend from deployment until he learned that Belland had struggled with addiction and died by overdose.

By J.P. Lawrence

On July 16, 2009, a mortar strike killed three soldiers from my unit. We named a gym, a clinic, and a store on base after them. But another soldier from that deployment died too, years afterward, and his death is one I’m still trying to process.

His name was James Belland, and he was one of my closest friends on a year-long tour to Basra, Iraq, where we were both privates on a base with too many officers, in a war where nothing awful happened until it did. Belland was a dude with a friendly roundness to him, a head like a peeled potato, and on that face, always a grin.

 James Belland and his aunt, Pam Laughlin, who came to his graduation from Basic Training in 2007, post for a photo. Courtesy of Ashley Belland

James Belland and his aunt, Pam Laughlin, who came to his graduation from Basic Training in 2007, post for a photo. Courtesy of Ashley Belland

I remember, one night, walking through the base trailer park, I heard strumming from the guitar he had brought to Iraq from Minnesota. Belland saw me, told me to pop a squat, join the circle of a few of his friends, and listen to some gentle acoustic song. He asked me what I thought and I told him; the song was sweet, like one of those fun late-night summer beach parties I was never invited to.

But now, 7,000 miles from home, Belland had gone out of his way to include me, to invite me to his party out by the blast walls.

I found out about his death via Facebook, and the comments didn’t tell me what I really wanted to know—which was why? I Googled for news and got a few cold, clinical facts: “Police were called by the victim’s wife,” “report of a possible overdose at 9:08 p.m.,” “officers kicked the door in,” “pronounced dead on arrival.”

Earlier this year, four years after his death, I called his wife, Ashley, and his younger brother, Zach, and they generously shared with me their memories of Belland.

Belland spent his childhood playing hockey and beating up his younger brother, his younger brother joked to me. The elder Belland signed up for the Army as soon as he could, at 17. He sent his younger brother letters from basic at Fort Benning about his newer, buffer self.

Belland met his wife, Ashley, while he was helping recruit potential Guardsmen at a Best Buy in the Twin Cities suburbs. He asked her if she’d like to join the Army. She didn’t like that idea, but she liked him OK.

They liked the same music. As a teen, Belland had gone through a pop-punk phase, the whole deal: the big blue mohawk, spikes, eyeliner. His head was shaved for the Army when Ashley met him, but they could headbang together, although it wasn’t quite the same without the blue hair.

She got pregnant with their first child as he was training to head to Iraq. She had the baby while he was on the other side of the world, on a National Guard deployment he had volunteered for because he wanted one crazy experience before growing up.

Deployment was where I met him. He seemed to know everyone in our unit on our quiet POG-year abroad, which was interrupted only by mortar strikes one day that killed three of us. Their names were Specialist Carlos Wilcox, 27; Specialist Daniel Drevnick, 22; and Specialist James Wertish, 20. Belland knew them too.

 James Belland irons a flag while deployed to Basra, Iraq in 2009. Courtesy of J.P. Lawrence

James Belland irons a flag while deployed to Basra, Iraq in 2009. Courtesy of J.P. Lawrence

Belland had a job on deployment that he hated. He answered the call to join the U.S. infantry, but on deployment, he spent his time babysitting VIPs, generals, and politicians. They’d fly in for photo ops, and he’d small-talk with them as they waited for their flights out. He was cynical about the bigwigs and would tell me this as he ironed flags. At the time, he thought his job was pretty useless.

Then he got home. We had a unit dinner as a big finale, TV cameras profiling us as we went our separate ways to chase our dreams, to become bikini models or rappers or Twitch streamers. Belland and I went bowling once, and then I left for school, and we said we’d keep in touch. We would send messages on Facebook from time to time. He’d talk about his growing family, and I’d send nonsensical musings about Paul Ryan’s abs. He seemed to have a fondness to him whenever he spoke about his “battle buddies.”

His brother said Belland called him shortly after coming home from Iraq. Belland wanted to hang out, get a beer. The younger Belland figured his older brother missed that band-of-brothers feeling, so, logically, he called his actual brother. Though Belland had hated what he was doing when we were in Iraq, now he missed it, because at least it was constant. He got home, and, like a shark, he couldn’t stop.

The two met up and began working out together, barbells and rope pulldowns, Belland going so hard, his brother said, that he puked trying to keep up. To me, it seemed as if the gym was where Belland could try to become the other, better self he still wanted after joining the Army and going to Iraq. Because where do you go for transformation when you’ve already run away and joined the circus once?

He began to close up like a clam, his wife said. Belland had always been so open with her, but when he shut up, she didn’t want to pry him open with force. She waited for the happy-go-lucky kid to reemerge and tell her his secrets again. They had a second kid, another daughter. They bought a house bigger than the home where Belland had grown up. That was always Belland’s dream, his brother said.

Anxiety attacks bit him, more and more of them. His family had a history with anxiety, his brother said. Belland got out of the National Guard and got a job at a bank, which he quit. His brother got him another job at the steel plant where he worked, but Belland left after three hours. One day, as his wife drove him down the highway, an anxiety attack hit him. She stopped the car on the shoulder of the highway so he could throw up, his vomit splattering on the side of the road.

He started to drink more and more, his brother told me this year, to take the edge off. On the first anniversary of the day of the mortar attacks, he hit the bar and slammed down his favorite 100-proof liquor, Rumple Minze, a schnapps that his brother always thought tasted medicinal, like mouthwash. Belland did the same thing on the next anniversary. His coworkers said the deaths of the three soldiers—Wilcox, Drevnick, Wertish—hit him hard.

 James Belland holds his daughter, Riley, 1, in a photo taken in 2010. Courtesy of Ashley Belland

James Belland holds his daughter, Riley, 1, in a photo taken in 2010. Courtesy of Ashley Belland

The worse the anxiety got, the more Belland stayed in the basement of his dream home, playing video games and watching movies and feeling useless. His brother would play video game hockey and watch dumb comedy movies with him to pass the time. Just being in the same room seemed to help.

Belland told his brother once that he was thinking of suicide. His brother drove him to the VA hospital after that, and Belland spent a night there. “I don’t know why he was feeling suicidal. It wasn’t because of any particular reason. He said, ‘I don’t feel right, I just can’t do this,’ but I could never get a good reason why.’”

Then Belland started doing heroin. His wife found out about it and left and took the kids with her. His brother speculated that maybe Belland thought drugs could help him revive the happy-go-lucky guy he used to be, bring him back somehow. His wife would ask why he kept using but got no good answer. “I know he wished he could be a better person,” his wife told me. “That he felt useless.”

Belland begged his wife to come back, told Ashley he would quit heroin. And he did, and she came back.

The day of his death came the day before his brother’s birthday. His brother had called Belland and made party plans. An hour later the brother got a call from Belland’s wife: He was using again—secretly, for two months. His brother saw an ambulance barreling down the highway on his way to his brother’s house. His wife said the cops came and kicked down the locked bathroom door; Belland’s body was inside. An overdose: His tolerance was down. He was 26 when he died; it was on Aug. 15, 2014.

Even now, years later, his wife still talks to Belland. She tells his daughters that their father was sick. She has his name tape where his daughters can see it.

 A photo of the two brothers stands next to the Xbox where XX and his elder brother played video games on the days James Belland couldn’t go outside. Courtesy of Zach Belland

A photo of the two brothers stands next to the Xbox where XX and his elder brother played video games on the days James Belland couldn’t go outside. Courtesy of Zach Belland

She told me: “I think there was a select few people who knew what was going on, but nobody was really his friend until after he died. ... I don’t think he told a lot of people.” I felt ashamed that there was so much I hadn’t known. I was content with my image of him as my happy-go-lucky deployment friend. He was sick and I didn’t even know about it, let alone help.

I wondered what I could have done, had I known. His wife, too, still wonders if there was anything that could have been done to prevent his death, but she doesn’t know the answer.

I think sometimes of how the deaths of Wilcox, Drevnick, and Wertish seemed at the time a bolt from the blue, as unlikely as a lightning strike. I think of ways their deaths could have been prevented, but perhaps that’s just a way of wresting back control from a universe that takes away lives without giving a receipt. I feel compassion for Belland’s family, who only want people to know what a light their husband and brother was.

In the years since, his brother has had a child and given him the middle name James, after his older brother. The smile on Belland’s round face still beams from the wall of photos above the Xbox where the two brothers would play video games, during the days when Belland couldn’t walk outside. His brother told me, those photos of him seem to stand at just about the right place.

•••

J.P. Lawrence was born in the Philippines, deployed to Iraq with the Army, schooled at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, and is now a reporter with Stars and Stripes in Afghanistan.

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Hold My Housing Until I'm OK


David Chrisinger learned to treat a writer’s words with the proper care before publication after a student veteran was pushed to the brink of suicide.

Hold My Housing Until I'm OK


David Chrisinger learned to treat a writer’s words with the proper care before publication after a student veteran was pushed to the brink of suicide.

By David Chrisinger

“Believe me,” he said as he reached into his back right jeans pocket, “I know this is a big ask.” His left hand gripped by their necks two bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He focused his gaze on the concrete floor in front of my workbench, one of the few spots in my garage that wasn’t cluttered with delicate stacks of boxes, storage bins, and bits of furniture. My wife and I had recently bought a small post-war single-family home with good bones less than a block from the university where I was teaching a writing seminar for student veterans.

He pulled out of his pocket something dark and metal looking, about the size of his palm. “I don’t have anyone else,” he continued, handing me what I quickly realized was the trigger housing for his M-14 rifle. I recognized its look and feel only because I had been to a shooting range with him and another student of mine from a previous semester the weekend before. He had let me fire what he said was one of his most prized possessions. His other two treasures were his dog, a black lab named Duchess, and a glossy black Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I don’t remember if it too had a name.  

“What do you want me to do with this?” I asked, the crackle of the fluorescent light hanging above my head suddenly coming into sharper focus, then fading as my attention turned back to the cold metal of the trigger housing.

“Just hold on to it for me for a while,” he replied, now looking me in the eye. “I don’t trust myself with it right now.”

That was back in the early months of 2015. I hadn’t yet earned my various certifications in suicide prevention. I didn’t know how to help someone who was thinking of hurting themselves. I didn’t know the right questions to ask or how important it is not only to persuade them to seek help but also to hand them over, personally, to a qualified professional.

He never blamed me for how he was feeling that night. But a couple of days after his visit, it became clear that I was at least partly to blame. A few hours before giving me the housing, he had texted me and asked if he could come over to talk. I found out the day after he handed me his housing that a Marine whom he’d served with in Afghanistan, a man he had looked up to and aspired to be like, had read what my student had written—what I had edited and posted to our class website—and told him that everyone who knew my student would be better off if he swallowed the barrel of a pistol.

 The author, David Chrisinger, taught a writing seminar for student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

The author, David Chrisinger, taught a writing seminar for student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

On the first day of class that semester, about a month before my student left the trigger housing with me for safe keeping, he arrived before most of the other students and sat in the second row. He was wearing a baggy flannel shirt and jeans, and looked like a Seattle grunge rocker, minus the long hair. The fitted gray baseball cap he wore and his three-day-old blond chin scruff made it hard to make out the angles of his bone structure. As the other students shuffled in and jockeyed for the seats in the back row or against the wall, he told me he’d been thinking a lot about all these stories he had inside him and that he was excited to finally have a time and place to let them out.

Later that week, during an interview I recorded with him for the Veterans History Project, he told me that years before, he had found out he was likely headed to Afghanistan even before he had finished his advanced training and reported to his unit. “I was freaking out the whole time,” he explained to me.

“My instructor had this graduation poster of everyone from a previous class,” he said, miming like he was holding a large poster above his head, “and one day everyone was fuckin’ around. He grabbed the poster and yelled at us, ‘Hey, fuck faces, come here and look at this. You know what this is? This is my class from two cycles ago.’ There were all these fucking X’s through most of the faces.” An X through the face was a crude way of showing which Marines had been killed or wounded in their first deployment in Afghanistan. “I can’t wait until I get your fuckin’ class’s poster,” he said, imitating the salty instructor, “and I can start crossing all your fuckin’ faces off.”

He paused, like he was collecting his thoughts, looking for the right words.

“I didn’t deal with any of the shit that well,” he said.

He told me more about his fears and anxieties, about the psychological toll IEDs take on a young man. He said he had seen enough guys lose legs to know that if he had to be wounded, he’d prefer being shot to being blown up.

Then his tone and demeanor changed. He sat up tall in his chair, his face deadly serious. “It’s a privilege to be able to shoulder that burden and allow civilians at home to be ignorant of all the terrible shit in the world,” he said, pausing for effect. “Ignorance is bliss, and it’s a fucking privilege and an honor to carry that weight for them. That ignorance—of having to face your own mortality—is one of the greatest gifts we give to civilians.”

 The author, David Chrisinger, teaches in his classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

The author, David Chrisinger, teaches in his classroom at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Courtesy of David Chrisinger


Talking with my student about his experiences was exciting, intoxicating even. I learned much too late, however, that there is a fine line between intoxicating and painful, especially when stories are handled indelicately. Not knowing then what I know now, I urged him to write, even if his stories came out as garbage on the page, something many first-time writers fear. “All first drafts are shit,” I told him reassuringly. “But that’s why I’m here, to help you say what you need to say.”

The short essay he had me read a few days later was about a recurring nightmare that plagued him most nights and tormented him in his waking hours as well. The essay was deeply confessional and achingly sincere, but it wasn’t a coherent tale with a beginning, middle, and end. It was more like a collection of immersive fragments, a detailed stream of consciousness. Still, the rawness of the writing had impressed me, and I thought that with some light editing his story would be ready to post on our class website.

Shortly after I published his essay, he shared a link to it on Facebook, tagging friends, family members, and other young men he’d served with and under back in Afghanistan. Within hours, dozens of positive comments stacked up below his post. I wasn’t the only reader who had been intrigued by the harrowing, raw, and intimate nature of his story, and I was happy to see it was being so well received.

Before too long, though, the comments turned sour. It began with a threatening message from a Marine he had once looked up to who thought my student was blowing his trauma out of proportion. My student’s deployment had been cake, according to this other Marine, who compared it to his own deployment to Fallujah in 2004 and Marjah in 2010, and for the next couple of days, this Marine tagged dozens of other Marines who chimed in to question my student’s account and to harass him on deeply personal levels.

 The author, David Chrisinger, met his student at the University of Wisconin-Stevens Point while Chrisinger was teaching there. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

The author, David Chrisinger, met his student at the University of Wisconin-Stevens Point while Chrisinger was teaching there. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

After deleting his original post, along with all the positive comments his story initially received, my student texted me that he needed to talk. That was the same night he handed me his trigger housing and told me he couldn’t be trusted with it. Once he told me what he had experienced, I felt simultaneously responsible and irredeemable. An editor’s job, as I view it now, is not simply to correct comma splices but rather to humbly enter a writer’s story and to help them prune what isn’t needed and to find what is needed to strengthen it.

I should have pushed him to reveal what he had learned, how he had changed, and in what ways he had grown. I should have coached him to present his own truth, not to persuade the reader, but rather to gently challenge the reader to draw their own conclusions. But I didn’t do that.


His story wasn’t that he went to war, survived, came home, and struggled with a debilitating and recurring nightmare. That’s just the plot; it’s not what the story was actually about. With a little coaching on finding the story underneath the story, the final draft of my student’s essay, which was subsequently published in an edited collection, flowed directly from how he made sense of his dream and what he had experienced in Afghanistan and how he measured what mattered most to him.

About a month after the edited collection was published, after my student read his story to a crowd of 200 friends and family members, after he had made peace with what he had written, he came to my house one night after suppertime and knocked on my back door. I answered and invited him in, but he declined. “Still have that housing?” he asked. “I think I’d like it back now.”

•••

David Chrisinger is the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. In 2016, he edited an essay collection—See Me for Who I Am—that bridges the cultural gap that divides veterans from the American people who have not served.

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Line of Departure


Jackie Munn and her husband quietly said their last goodbyes before she boarded the C-17 headed to Afghanistan and her Cultural Support Team assignment.

Line of Departure


Jackie Munn and her husband quietly said their last goodbyes before she boarded the C-17 headed to Afghanistan and her Cultural Support Team assignment.

By Jackie Munn

Dense clouds filled the sky, suffocating all the light trying to break through. The February air that morning was cold and uninviting. He was standing in front of me in the parking lot at the flight line. Like the typical Mainer he is, everything about his demeanor was stoic. His body was lean; his face quiet; his mood calm, but reassuring. The C-17 loomed in the background. In just a few hours I’d be on that plane, heading to a combat zone—a land mired with IEDs, small arms fire, and mortar attacks.

I curled my hands into fists, clenching them against the bitter cold air, imagining various outcomes—mostly versions of what his life would be like if I were killed or wounded. I couldn’t help but to think of my fate, questioning this deployment.

 The author, Jackie Munn, changings a magazine during M4 training for CST pre-deployment training. Courtesy of Army Public Affairs

The author, Jackie Munn, changings a magazine during M4 training for CST pre-deployment training. Courtesy of Army Public Affairs

What the fuck am I doing? He’s the Green Beret. Aren’t I supposed to be sending him off? Did I make the right choice?

I had written a parting love letter for him, tucking it away in my journal knowing my teammate would give to him in the event something happened to me. I prayed he’d never get a chance to read it. No one goes into war without questioning their own mortality at least once. At the very minimum, you’re required to plan your own funeral before a deployment—an effort to ease the burden on the military and family in the event the worst comes to pass.

We stood alone, isolated in the recesses of the airfield parking lot. He took my hands, held them tightly, pulling me closer. I just kept staring at my worn-out boots, taking note of their scuffs and frayed laces, tears welling dangerously in the corners of my eyes, one sad thought away from breaking down. I willed myself not to give into my heartache, sadness, or fear. If I gave in to my emotions, I would somehow bring shame to women in the military—my tears and heartache a form of weakness and proof that women don’t belong in combat or amongst elite Special Operations units. I’d heard countless times we didn’t belong. We had a place, and it wasn’t on the battlefield. We were weak. Inferior. Emotionally unfit. We’d impede the mission, cause a distraction. Crying tears over leaving my husband behind would just be ammo for their arsenal. On top of this imagined shame, I was also afraid if I gave into my worry and sadness that I would lose myself and my purpose, that I would forget exactly why I had signed up for this deployment in the first place.

Staring at my boots, I thought back to the first time I’d learned about the Cultural Support Team (CST) Program. It was midmorning in my Washington, D.C., office. I was a company executive officer for the Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed and was checking emails after my morning meeting. I can remember the sun warming my back, shining brightly through my floor-to-ceiling windows when I noticed an email from my best friend. She normally sent messages to my personal account, so my interest was piqued.

She’d forwarded the message with a PDF flyer meant to recruit female soldiers interested in working with Special Operations units—U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets in Afghanistan. She was currently in the process of applying and thought I should look into it too. Reading through the volunteer requirements, I knew I had what it took not only to succeed, but likely to thrive in such an environment.

 The author, Jackie Munn, and her husband celebrate their wedding. Courtesy of Visionari Photography

The author, Jackie Munn, and her husband celebrate their wedding. Courtesy of Visionari Photography

Aside from meeting all of the prerequisites—female between the rank of E4-E8 or O1-O3 (I was an O3), secret clearance, PT score of 210 with at least 70 points in each event, and able to carry 35 pounds for six miles in at least one hour and 39 minutes—I knew I had the same ambition, tenacity, and professionalism as the men that filled these units. And yet, I also knew that same ambition and tenacity would bring me into an unknown world where the stakes were high and actual lives would be on the line. Unlike my previous deployment to Iraq—living on a large, drudging forward operating base—I’d be living in squalor in an unknown Afghan village on the Pakistan border as a CST. There was no such thing as front lines; no, instead, we’d immerse ourselves into the thick confusion of rural Afghan life, where we wouldn’t always be able to distinguish the friendly local shop owner from the neighboring budding terrorist.

Sitting in that sunlit office, I suddenly became aware of my body and surroundings, as though electricity had just jolted me awake. My heart pounded, my fingers tingled, and my mind focused on one singular thought: This is it.

The day I read the CST PDF in my office seemed a lifetime ago. Between then and now had been a blur of sleepless nights, midnight ruck marches, unknown-distance runs, classroom lectures, weapons training, language lessons, and so much more to prepare us for the CST mission. Fast forward six months after I received the email from my best friend, and there I was standing in the flight line parking lot. The line of departure.

 The author, Jackie Munn, after the completion of a ruck march for CST training. Courtesy of unknown CST member

The author, Jackie Munn, after the completion of a ruck march for CST training. Courtesy of unknown CST member

Staring down at my tan Nike boots, frayed and worn from countless miles, I kept avoiding his face. I knew the moment I caught a glimpse of his beautiful blue eyes I’d lose it completely. Instead, I focused my attention on my tattered laces while thinking the same tedious thought: Every day I’m out there will be an opportunity to lose everything I love; it’s also a chance to live each day to its fullest.

My entire universe felt perfectly paused in that one moment—the ominous clouds crowding the sky, the sleek and sterile C-17 waiting, and my husband standing before me. My past, my present, and my future all neatly compressed into that singular breath.

And that’s when the first tear broke free, speeding furiously down my cheek like a bullet aimed at my heart.

He pulled me into his chest, holding me tightly as the universe stood still. Fear, excitement, anger, hope; each heartbeat slowly overcame each emotion, and for a moment, I felt free. For a moment, there was no shame, no fear, no fate. Just the two of us hugging in a parking lot.

My fists loosened as I sank deeper into his chest. I closed my eyes, letting the tears flow freely down my cheek onto his neck. He pressed his face onto my forehead, wrapping himself tightly around me, and I felt the warmth of his tears as they washed me in loving absolution. And in that moment, I felt resolved. Come what may, I knew love. Real love.

Suddenly, we were jolted back to reality as my Timex watch beeped, my eyes opening to the reality of the moment. Its beauty and serenity fading into the clouds.

Loosening our grasp, we pulled back slowly to look at each other, the first rays of the morning slyly making their way through the oppressive cloud coverage, fighting their way to shine through.

I looked up at him. Warm smiles crossed our faces because we knew. And so, together, hand in hand, we walked toward the tarmac, the sunshine caressing our backs.

Our time was up.

•••

Jackie Munn is an Army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a logistics officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.

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I Think About Bosnia


M. L. Doyle deployed to Bosnia, in 1997, two years into the NATO peacekeeping mission. Today, she reads about “widening ethnic cracks” and wonders when conflict ends.

I Think About Bosnia


M. L. Doyle deployed to Bosnia, in 1997, two years into the NATO peacekeeping mission. Today, she reads about “widening ethnic cracks” and wonders when conflict ends.

By M. L. Doyle

Lately, I’ve been lying awake at night remembering those days, the people, the stories I produced while in Bosnia. I stood in the middle of the public square in the center of Brcko, Bosnia, the weed-choked cracks in the cement, the line of Humvees we’d arrived in, and the hatred in the faces around me. I knew then I’d never understand ethnic cleansing, the use of rape as a weapon, the reasons for random targeted sniper fire and frequent market bombings. At the time, I wondered how long it would take before peacekeepers could leave and return home with any surety that the smoldering fire of war that had ended the year before had finally been put out.

 Members of the 364th Mobilic Public Affairs Detachment boarding the plane from Germany on our way to Bosnia. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

Members of the 364th Mobilic Public Affairs Detachment boarding the plane from Germany on our way to Bosnia. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

We’d known in advance that the crowd of ethnic Serbs and Croats that swarmed around us in the public square could easily turn into a violent mob. It was 1997, the second year into the NATO peacekeeping mission, and my Army Reserve unit had been in country about four months. The main road we took each time we left the confines of McGovern Base where we were stationed twisted through a hamlet of Brcko, called Brod. Once the home to ethnic Muslims, a year after the war, Brod was still block after block of ruin, explosion-cratered roads, empty brick shells, scorched walls, and bullet-pockmarked stone. In the Brcko town square, the people who encircled us had heard that representatives of Brod’s refugees, who’d been forced out during ethnic cleansing campaigns, were coming to town to speak with UN officials about rebuilding and returning to their homes. The announcement of the meeting had been like throwing gas on a well-kindled fire.

In the middle, I stood with other U.S. NATO peacekeepers. As an Army broadcaster, it was my job to tell American taxpayers what their soldiers were doing for the NATO mission in this war-torn place, and this mob scene was a perfect example of the mission they’d sent us to do—keep the peace.

My video camera captured the teeming mob that jostled us, pushing, shoving, furious, nearing, but not yet reaching, an ignition point. Women and men elbowed each other out of the way to get in front of my camera, their faces so close their spittle hit the lens. The crowd so outnumbered us that, had they wanted, they could have overwhelmed us before anyone could get off a shot. I felt their anger like a deep pulse beneath my skin.

They looked like grandmothers, grandfathers, the neighbor down the street, teachers, shopkeepers, the mailman. Most of them had lost sons, husbands, sisters, children in the war.

Later translated, I learned they’d shouted things like, “They killed my son. They are murderers. They have no business coming back here. They are monsters.”

They, they, they.

 The author preparing to conduct an interview with a Serb soldier and a Bosnian translator. The Serb, along with American troops, had been searching for land mines emplaced during the war along the banks of the Sava River. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

The author preparing to conduct an interview with a Serb soldier and a Bosnian translator. The Serb, along with American troops, had been searching for land mines emplaced during the war along the banks of the Sava River. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

It was a year after the war, a year of clearing rubble, removing land mines, uncovering mass graves; a year during which people had returned to work and school and to living next to neighbors who had taken up arms to war with each other. The war had finally ended when NATO bombed the hell out the Serbian army until they finally agreed to negotiate for peace. Now, one year after the Dayton peace accords were signed and still, the people surrounding us needed only a tiny spark to unleash a conflagration.   

Now, I see that no matter the war—Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria—the aftermath lingers for generations. Fourteen years after the conclusion of the NATO mission in Bosnia, the political landscape in the country remains fractured along ethnic lines. Bosnia still doesn’t have a constitution. Russia and Turkey are prowling the fringes, testing the country’s resolve and looking for ways to exploit their own economic and political interests. I know this because I can’t help but follow the news of Bosnia Herzegovina. The current headlines use words like teetering, divide, bitter, fear, and phrases like “widening ethnic cracks.”  

Reading those headlines today leaves me sleepless, wondering if ever there will be a time when former hot zones like Bosnia, or current ones, like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, find some kind of reconciliation.

Twenty years ago, when I stood as a peacekeeper in the center of that mob, in a country where hatred had spread like wildfire, I had to tell the story of the mess left after war. Somehow, I would have to piece these images and sounds together so others could see it.

When the buses carrying Bosniaks arrived and rolled through the streets, the energy of the already excited mob shifted to boiling as its hatred seethed and surged. They threw rocks they’d been clutching, shattering windows. I stood behind the phalanx of my fellow peacekeepers and shot video over their shoulders, their weapons at port arms as the buses stopped. I aimed my camera on the riders as they hustled out, their faces down, shoulders hunched as they pressed forward through the mob. One man held a bloodied handkerchief to his forehead.

Thing is, to my American eyes, the people who spilled from the buses, the people who had lived in Brod, whose homes now stood in ruin, looked very much like the rock-wielding crowd, and I knew they had similar horror stories to tell. They had faced executions, rape, torture, and starvation, and the angry mob who faced them had been their neighbors. The crowd quieted for the hour or more during which negotiations took place inside. Their fervor spent, many left.

 The 364th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment mobilized from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for a nine-month peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in Jan. 1997. This photo was taken at the end of their mission. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

The 364th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment mobilized from Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for a nine-month peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina in Jan. 1997. This photo was taken at the end of their mission. Courtesy of Luis Iglesias

Civil affairs soldiers and translators worked their way through the remaining groups, talking about reconciliation, reminding members of the mob that peace had been officially declared,  shops had reopened, kids had returned to school—all signs of normal life returning. Didn’t they want more of that? Some in the crowd seemed willing to say, “I will if they will.” Most were too angry to listen. Others patiently waited, and when the Bosniaks returned to their buses, the smaller mob that remained threw insults, rocks, and bricks again.

It took decades, but, eventually, a string of politicians and military leaders would be found guilty of war crimes in the Hague for the rape hotels, the genocide, and for turning neighbor against neighbor in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When Radovan Karadzic, nicknamed the Butcher of Bosnia, was convicted, I felt great satisfaction. When Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, died alone in his cell, I felt his ending well deserved.  But all these years later, their verdicts and deaths don’t explain what happened in Bosnia. And no one will be tried for continuing to stoke the hatred they left behind that led grandmothers, sisters, husbands, and sons to throw rocks at us and the Bosnians from Brod that day.

So I lie awake at night, thinking about Bosnia and Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, knowing that each death, each rape, each atrocity is a new excuse for war to continue. And I wonder if hate always leaves seeds of past outrages lying dormant and waiting. No matter how long the seeds remain buried there, all hate needs to germinate is for someone to sprinkle a bit of water on it. In which case, I pray for it not to rain.

•••

M.L. Doyle has served in the U.S. Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian. She calls on those experiences in her award-winning Master Sergeant Harper mystery series, her Desert Goddess urban fantasy series, erotic romance writing, and co-authored memoirs, which all feature women who wear combat boots.

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The Girl in the Little Blue Jumper


Melissa Thomas held the little girl in her lap as their Humvee sped to meet the helicopter, uttering “English-nonsense” to keep the child from passing out.

The Girl in the Little Blue Jumper


Melissa Thomas held the little girl in her lap as their Humvee sped to meet the helicopter, uttering “English-nonsense” to keep the child from passing out.

By Melissa Thomas

She must have stepped on a roadside bomb, although I didn’t remember hearing a blast. IEDs had been almost a daily occurence in our brigade’s sector that summer. “Put her in there!” someone yelled as a soldier burst into the room carrying a young, dark-haired girl whose bloody leg dangled over his arm. Male medics from the other side of the clinic and a few of the security forces from outside crowded into the dusty exam room already filled with our female medics and physician assistant, who gathered around the table where he laid her.

 An interpreter attempts to comfort the injured girl as as medics attend to her wound. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

An interpreter attempts to comfort the injured girl as as medics attend to her wound. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

Her feet were splayed across the end of the table; a white knee-high sock was pulled high on one leg, and the other was covered with dirt and blood. A bone looked to be protruding above the ankle. “How can I help? Should I pull traction?” I asked the busy room. In the chaos of stabilizing her, no one heard. I grabbed her ankle and pulled her leg straight. Tears poured from her scared brown eyes, as she gasped and grimaced between cries. My fingers felt the warmth of wet blood through my latex glove. I tilted my head to glimpse the side of her leg to view the injury and realized my middle finger was pressed up against bone. Sweat accumulated on my brow and I willed myself to focus on the patient, not my queasiness.

While the morphine dripped through her IV, I helped two medics place a makeshift splint on her leg, made of two wooden boards and a cloth bandage we’d brought in our medical kit for this community outreach mission. A few minutes later her tears and cries slowed and mellowed.

Stabilize. Package. Prepare for evacuation. It was clockwork for the medics from my company.

The security forces scrambled in surprise when we let them know she was ready to be evacuated. I stepped back from the table and suppressed a smirk, nodding at the medical team’s rapid job well done and listening to the din outside the room as the security forces hurried to catch up, determining they’d need a helicopter to evacuate her to the nearby hospital in Baghdad to more thoroughly stabilize her leg. A soldier came into the room to collect the girl and asked who would go with her. I hesitated and then announced to the medics I supervise as I fastened my helmet, “I am! You need to keep seeing patients here, I can’t do that anyways.” I grabbed her IV bag and followed the soldier, who carried the girl in his arms, out of the clinic and past the crowd assembled outside, still waiting to be seen by our medical team.

One bearded man standing to the side looked particularly distraught and I learned he was the one who had accidentally hit the girl with his truck and then brought her to the clinic. So not a tragic result of war after all, just a simple accident that could have happened at any time; we  Americans just happened to be at that clinic that day. I got into the backseat of a Humvee and the soldier placed the small girl in my lap. She weighed little more than the flak vest I wore. I didn’t know until later that a nearby combat cameraman took a picture of us—her lying on my lap, the Humvee preparing to leave.

 A line of local Iraqis waiting to be seen by the U.S. providers and medics forms outside the Mushadah clinic. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

A line of local Iraqis waiting to be seen by the U.S. providers and medics forms outside the Mushadah clinic. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

The heavy door to the Humvee closed and I looked out the window at a group of soldiers and a panicked teenager pointing and talking in Arabic to an interpreter.

The American soldier in the passenger’s seat turned and told me that the young man was her brother. “We told him he could come with us,” the soldier told me, “but he’s scared to be seen getting in a vehicle with us.” “Oh,” was the only reply I could muster at the thought he wouldn’t join his sister for fear of being seen as a collaborator.

It dawned on me then that until we met the helicopter and I had executed the handoff, she was in my care. My patient. Her eyelids began to droop. “Hey! Stay awake!” I said more forcefully than necessary; she blinked a few times. I tried again in a more soothing tone, “Hey little one, I know you can’t understand me. I know you don’t know English and you’re really scared. But please don’t go to sleep on me,” I pleaded. “I know enough to know that I don’t want you to pass out just yet.” I struggled to find words but continued to ramble so she’d have something to focus on. She remained silent, but her eyes stayed open.

I took in her disheveled appearance and appreciated the cuteness of her outfit, a white T-shirt with blue jumper skirt and knee-high socks. She looked like she was dressed for her first day of school or a church outing, not for playing on the side of a dirt road. She couldn’t have been more than seven. I hoped my female face underneath all that Army gear offered at least a bit of comfort.

“So, little girl, it’s just you and me for a while. I’ll keep you company.” The vehicle started up with a loud rumble and we headed north toward a spot on the road with enough clearance for the Blackhawk to land. My heart began beating faster in my chest once we’d stopped. “Ok, we’re going to get out now and take you to a helicopter. They are going to take really good care of you.”

 The author, Melissa Thomas, and the girl from Mushadah await transport to the helicopter landing site. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

The author, Melissa Thomas, and the girl from Mushadah await transport to the helicopter landing site. Courtesy of Melissa Thomas

The soldier in front picked her off my lap and laid her down on a litter. She continued to hold my gaze with occasional long blinks. She lay limp and relaxed as we strapped her on. As the midmorning sun continued to roast, I squatted down, using my body to shade her face. I spoke English-nonsense to her, “I hope you’re doing all right, it’ll be here in a minute.” She lay quietly, not reacting to my words, but staying calm. “Whop, whop, whop,” and I watched as the Blackhawk came into view and settled the length of a football field up the road from where we had parked. We knelt next to the litter, grabbing the edges. “One, two, three.” We stood up and off we went. The flight medic appeared as we approached, and I waved my hand so he would come my way for the medical synopsis. I spouted off the information I’d rehearsed, shouting over the running motors. My heart raced as we slid the litter onto the helicopter. The flight medic climbed in after her, and just like that, my job was done.

The relief was short-lived as I glanced around and saw the three soldiers who had carried the litter with me kneeling with rifles drawn up to their shoulders, pointing away from the helicopter, prepared to respond to an attack on the bird. I looked down and gulped and knew my rifle was not slung on my back. We weren’t within the confines of our “safe” operating base and my rifle leaned against the Humvee’s door 100 yards away.

Still too loud to hear over the rotor blades, we made eye contact and moved back toward the truck. I ran a bit faster, scolding myself for my rookie mistake. Perhaps my officer status, or the fact I came from a medical company, protected me from ridicule; no one mentioned my rifle gaffe. I climbed back into the Humvee, ready to be taken back to the clinic. I watched the helicopter lift off for Baghdad, unsure of what would become of the little girl in the blue jumper.

Today, that nameless girl from Mushadah would be about 18 years old. If only that photo of her in my lap had been published then and someone had tried to find her name, leading to a reunion. Maybe then I could learn if what I did in Iraq mattered. But instead, like most veterans, I’m left to wonder.

•••

Melissa Thomas graduated from West Point and received her MBA and MHA from Baylor University. She served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2015, including two deployments to Iraq. She is attending medical school at Yale University and is a 2016 Pat Tillman Foundation Scholar.

ENS Tenley Barna about to jump off of USCGC Midgett_s flight deck into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Canada in January 2010 for a morale event Polar Plunge. USCGC Midgett was tasked with security for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.JPG

Diving Shipwrecks of Future Past


Tenley Lozano dove the retired aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, encountering great barracuda and memories of the ship she’d been serving on six months prior.

Diving Shipwrecks of Future Past


Tenley Lozano dove the retired aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, encountering great barracuda and memories of the ship she’d been serving on six months prior.

By Tenley Lozano

We jumped off the dive boat and descended through the water column, swimming down toward an American flag blown outstretched by the current. The star-spangled banner hung proudly by the bridge of the former USS Oriskany aircraft carrier, now living another life as an artificial reef. The ship was 888 feet long, and roughly 2,600 people at a time had worked onboard while the vessel was at sea. The red stripes of the flag were muted by the depth of the water, rippling in varying shades of blue. Red is the longest wavelength on the color spectrum and the first to be absorbed when descending underwater; 80 feet below surface, only blue remained.

I checked my air pressure and depth as a reflex and looked to my dive partner. Kyle was wearing scuba gear from the 1970s that he’d bought online and rebuilt, cleaning or replacing rusted parts until the rig was usable. We were Navy Dive School classmates, training as military scuba and surface-supplied divers, able to work underwater for hours at a time. Our class was nearing graduation and had a long weekend off from school and military duties, so we’d decided to spend it diving just for fun. Kyle had only one breathing regulator connected to his air tank, no backup or emergency regulator. Even though he’d made the decision to use antiquated equipment for a 130-foot dive, I felt responsible for him, knowing he’d need to breathe off of my tank if his equipment malfunctioned. Learning in class about the various ways we could die diving made me more cautious, while the experience seemed to make Kyle bolder underwater.

 USS  Oriskany  off the coast of Southern California on January 27, 1955, with four F2H Banshee jet fighters on the flight deck. Courtesy of U.S. Navy.

USS Oriskany off the coast of Southern California on January 27, 1955, with four F2H Banshee jet fighters on the flight deck. Courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Kyle took one look at the ship’s bridge and swam into the compartment through an empty doorway. I followed him inside the ship, a little annoyed that he didn’t bother to ask me with hand signals which direction I wanted to go. Only the top area of the bridge was accessible. Hatches and doors to the lower decks had been welded shut to prevent adventurous divers from going deeper into the Oriskany. I let air out of my buoyancy compensator vest to stand on the steel bridge and looked out over the flight deck stretching into the blue haze. We were 60 feet above the flight line where F-8 Crusaders had launched during the Vietnam War. In 1966, a terrible ordnance fire had ripped through the ship, killing 44 men and injuring 156 more. My flippered feet stood on the top level of the island structure where the Navy sailors had navigated, managed the flight deck, and performed air traffic control. Now the Oriskany was home only to ghosts and fish.

 The author, Tenley Lozano, served on the USCGC  Midgett  six months before diving the USS  Oriskany . Courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The author, Tenley Lozano, served on the USCGC Midgett six months before diving the USS Oriskany. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security

I imagined someday diving on the sunken wreck of the Coast Guard ship that had been my second home for two and a half years, more than 12 months of which had been at sea. The USCG Cutter Midgett was a 40-year-old vessel when I sailed aboard her just a few months previous, and we’d worked to exhaustion to keep her afloat and moving forward, fighting against rusting steel and engine room fires. Thousands of sailors had traversed the oceans aboard the Midgett, riding out storms and chasing drug runners. The ship is one of the last in her class still operating in the U.S. Coast Guard, the older vessels sold off to foreign nations and traded for newly built ships.

Turning around underwater, I realized Kyle was swimming out through a window hole on the other side of the superstructure; I’d have to hurry to keep him in sight. Finning hard into the strong current, I swam through the window and saw that this side of the ship was guarded by a school of great barracuda. I grabbed the edge of the ship with a gloved hand and stared into the face of a five-foot-long fish with a gaping mouth filled with jagged teeth longer than my fingernails. I held still, not wanting to draw attention. They were all floating, stationary, faces to the current, eyes and mouths open, seemingly asleep. Their slender silver bodies were four to five feet long, with bright white stripes at the top. Over 20 fish were spread throughout the area, like sentinels in formation, waiting for the command to strike.

 Lieutenant Tenley Lozano getting ready for a Coast Guard dive. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

Lieutenant Tenley Lozano getting ready for a Coast Guard dive. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

I wondered if barracuda attacked unprovoked, or if they could sense fear the way that sharks can read the electric signals of frightened fish. I hadn’t known that barracuda schooled like this, or that they could get so big. The only thing I could remember about the species was that a prolific novelist from Florida had used them as an amusing way to kill off a villain. The character had been wearing an expensive, shiny watch that he’d stolen, and when pushed in the water by the novel’s hero, the local barracuda bit off his hand. I wondered if I was wearing anything flashy, ran through a quick visual check, and then focused back on the fish. Maybe they were asleep. They didn’t even seem to notice my presence, and it was a relief they weren’t interested in me. I followed Kyle downward, releasing air from my buoyancy compensator vest to sink toward the flight deck.

Without any aircraft, the ship seemed empty. What had been a flight path was now just hundreds of feet of rusty metal. I wanted to dive inside the vessel, explore underneath the steel skin where the men had lived in the days before military women were given billets on ships. I wanted to discover its secrets, if the Oriskany had any left after being stripped of contaminants and valuables.

Working in the engineering department onboard the CGC Midgett, I had joked about wanting to see the ship become a sunken wreck. I thought it would be fun to explore underwater through the shroud of darkness and depth, to see the vessel stripped bare of all that made it functional. Then I saw how empty the Oriskany was without aircraft or people; the ship felt like the skeletal remains of its former self. After earning battle stars in both the Korean and Vietnam wars launching fighter jets high into the air, it had now become a destination dive for sunburned tourists. But maybe it’s right that these ships should rest at sea. It certainly seems like a higher honor than being sold to shipbreakers in Asia and torn apart for scrap metal.

 USCGC  Midgett  intercepts a narco-sub in January 2010. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security

USCGC Midgett intercepts a narco-sub in January 2010. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Checking my gauges, I saw that I was running low on air. Kyle was already heading up for our decompression stop. I gave the old ship one last look and kicked to catch up with him. A few minutes later as we climbed out of the water and back onto the dive boat, I wondered what would become of the Coast Guard cutter that had shown me so much of the world.  

Six years later and the replacement National Security Cutter Midgett is being built in a Mississippi shipyard; and I am now a civilian working as a ship design engineer in San Diego, California. I spend much of my time at work imagining crews at sea fighting fires onboard ships not yet built. I think about keeping them safe even before the first steel plates are laid in the shipyard. Using my experience as a military shipboard engineer, I anticipate how people will react during emergencies, designing for fighting fires safely and stopping flooding from spreading. I stand next to those crews in engine control rooms and on bridges, thinking about how they will survive at sea when disaster strikes. I only hope the ships we design today can last as long as the Midgett and the Oriskany.

•••

Tenley Lozano is a former Coast Guard shipboard engineer and deep-sea diver. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College and lives in San Diego, where she works as a ship design engineer. www.tenleylozano.com

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She Needs a Background Check and a Day Pass to Visit Her Father’s Grave (Part 2)


Kelly McHugh-Stewart picked up her ritual black coffee and red carnations, one for each member of her growing family, to lay at her father’s gravesite.

She Needs a Background Check and a Day Pass to Visit Her Father’s Grave (Part 2)


Kelly McHugh-Stewart picked up her ritual black coffee and red carnations, one for each member of her growing family, to lay at her father’s gravesite.

By Kelly McHugh-Stewart

This is the second story in a two-part series by Kelly McHugh-Stewart about visiting her father’s grave on Fort Leavenworth.

I had survived the Boy Scouts. I had made it through the Visitor’s Control Center and received my ticket to get on post. The gate guard had seen my little green pass and waved me through, and as I made my way down oak-tree lined Grant Avenue, I felt suddenly at home. Despite how much I dread the late-spring month because of the memories it holds, there’s no doubt May is the prettiest time of year on Fort Leavenworth. Spring flowers are in full bloom, trees and grass are deep green, and the weather is simply perfect. This Army post, the oldest military installation west of the Mississippi River, has always been kept in prime condition, and from its historic officer houses to the Buffalo Soldier Monument to the gorgeous views overlooking the Kansas River, it’s the perfect mix of Army prestige and “Hooah.”

I continued down Grant Avenue and turned into the Post Exchange (PX) parking lot. After my father’s death I kept each visit to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery exactly the same: coffee, flowers, cemetery. It was my ritual.  

My family moved to Fort Leavenworth from the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the week after I graduated high school in May of 2009. That the PX had recently added a Starbucks to its food court made my family’s latest move that much more exciting for my dad and me.

 Colonel John M. McHugh pictured here on his 2007 - 2008 deployment to Kuwait. Courtesy of the McHugh family

Colonel John M. McHugh pictured here on his 2007 - 2008 deployment to Kuwait. Courtesy of the McHugh family

He and I both really, really love coffee. My mom didn’t want the caffeine and my younger siblings were too young to drink it, so, naturally, it became our thing. My dad and I were by no means coffee snobs; as a matter of fact, he preferred McDonald’s brew to almost anything besides a styrofoam cup filled Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee. Folgers was his jam; he didn’t mess with the funky vanilla- or hazelnut-flavored coffees I’d bring home to brew in the mornings from time to time. This chip on his shoulder for plain, boring coffee came, I think, from his two-plus decades in the Army and his years and years of drinking the instant stuff that’s packed inside MREs whenever he was deployed or in the field training.

When we were stationed in Carlisle, my parents had opted to live off post for the first time during dad’s military career. They’d rented a big farmhouse surrounded by corn fields and silos in the rolling Pennsylvania countryside. Often, on his way home from his morning classes at the Army War College, my dad would pick up Starbucks. I’m sure he would have preferred to swing through Dunkin’, but, without fail, he’d show up with a decaf latte for my mom and caramel or vanilla or whatever fancy drink I was in the mood for for me. For him? Grande Pike, black. When we moved to Fort Leavenworth, I knew that the Starbucks in the PX meant he’d go out of his way to pick up coffee for me at this duty station, too. I was 17 years old then, unaware that that year in Leavenworth would be our last year together; I don’t think I really appreciated the gesture at the time.

I thought about this as I stood in line at that same Starbucks six years—almost to the day—after his death. It was just like old times, but with a little green get-on-post pass in my pocket and without him. The barista pressed the white lid on my Grande Pike, black, and handed it to me. In high school I could never understand how my dad drank black coffee; now as an adult, it’s all I drink. I took a sip and burned my tongue on the hot, dark liquid. I wanted to tell him that I’ve grown to enjoy black coffee, too.

 The McHugh family in front of their house on Fort Rucker, Alabama, winter 2007. From left to right: Brothers David and Michael, Kelly, mother Connie, sisters Maggie and Kristen, and Colonel McHugh. Courtesy of the McHugh family

The McHugh family in front of their house on Fort Rucker, Alabama, winter 2007. From left to right: Brothers David and Michael, Kelly, mother Connie, sisters Maggie and Kristen, and Colonel McHugh. Courtesy of the McHugh family

I walked through the PX’s food court and into the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s flower shop. The year after my dad was killed in action I started a tradition of bringing one red carnation for every member of my family to his gravesite every time I visited. I was a sophomore at Kansas State University at the time and the only member of my family—which then included my mother, four siblings, my sister-in-law, and my niece—left in Kansas. When I first started the tradition I had planned on buying roses, but eight red roses were far more expensive than eight red carnations, so, in true cheap-college-student fashion, I opted for the carnations.

I knew the drive to the cemetery from the PX so well it was as though I’d never moved away from Fort Leavenworth. I drove past the bowling alley where my family spent many a Friday night, past Harney Gym where I used to work as a lifeguard, and past the greens of Trails West Golf Course where my father took his brother, my Uncle Frank, every time he visited. I saw the cemetery in the distance. The marble headstones, sparkling in the sun, placed in their perfect, straight lines had me in tears all over again.

I parked my car in the “K” section of the cemetery just before the tall oak tree whose roots spread in all directions. In the fall, the tree keeps the grounds crew busy as it drops piles and piles of leaves and acorns on the headstones surrounding it; but in the spring, in the spring the tree’s leaves are a deep green, and the grass surrounding it is green and lush. In the spring it’s beautiful. My sneakers left footprints in that thick grass as I walked up the small hill. It was a straight shot from my car through the aisle of marble leading to my father’s grave.

“Hey Dad,” I said as I laid the flowers down before his headstone and pulled up the few tall blades of grass that blocked the words etched in the marble. I had sat in this same spot so many times before, but this time was different. This time I was leaving him, moving away. I felt a twinge of guilt. I was the one who brought the wreaths at Christmastime, who came to the Memorial Day cemetery services, who, every visit, brought the eight, then nine, then 10, 11, and now 12 red carnations representing our ever-growing family. Maybe Fort Leavenworth felt most like home to me because it was where he is; from the moment I was born in Nurnberg, Germany, throughout my life as we moved from Alabama to Colorado to California, back to Alabama to Kansas, back to Germany and so on and so on, wherever he, Colonel John M. McHugh, was was where I called home.

 Colonel McHugh’s gravesite at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, photo taken spring 2017. Courtesy of the McHugh family

Colonel McHugh’s gravesite at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, photo taken spring 2017. Courtesy of the McHugh family

Home is where the Army sends you. Army wives have this saying embroidered on pillows, stenciled on their walls, painted at the top of little wood plaques with an ever-growing list of places the family has followed their soldier etched underneath. Growing up, the saying was one we had hanging on a plaque and used in our own Army houses so often that it stopped feeling like a saying and became a fact. Wherever the Army sent us was home. I thought about that phrase as I stared at the date etched into his marble headstone: MAY 18, 2010.

Besides the cemetery and the memories I had of living on the post, I no longer had ties to Fort Leavenworth. The rest of my family and all of our Army friends had since moved away. Fort Leavenworth wasn’t really my home. And yet, it still felt like home; leaving it was still difficult. I was following a dream by moving to New York City for graduate school to become a writer, an author, and I knew he’d be proud. But moving to New York meant moving away from him, away from my Army home, from the Army culture he gave me.

I took a sip of my coffee.

“I’m going to miss this,” I told him.

•••

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a New York City-based writer currently working on a book about her father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, who was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.

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She Needs a Background Check and a Day Pass to Visit Her Father’s Grave (Part 1)


Kelly McHugh-Stewart lost her military ID when she turned 21, and in turn, the ability to easily visit her father’s grave at Fort Leavenworth.

She Needs a Background Check and a Day Pass to Visit Her Father’s Grave (Part 1)


Kelly McHugh-Stewart lost her military ID when she turned 21, and in turn, the ability to easily visit her father’s grave at Fort Leavenworth.

By Kelly McHugh-Stewart

This is the first story in a two-part series by Kelly McHugh-Stewart about visiting her father’s grave on Fort Leavenworth.

Boy Scouts raced through the parking lot of the Fort Leavenworth Visitor Control Center in their tan button-ups and disheveled blue neckties. They shouted, pushed each other to the ground, and wrestled while their middle-aged chaperones stood in the gravel parking lot, waiting. I cringed at the sight of their two yellow school buses. I was in for a long wait.

My father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, is buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. He was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 18, 2010. The week following his death, the entirety of Fort Leavenworth showed up to line Grant Avenue, the historic post’s main road, as hundreds of Patriot Guard Riders roared their motorcycles down the street leading the hearse carrying his flag-draped coffin. I held my breath during his 21-gun salute; I cried alongside my family as a long bugler played taps.

 The funeral procession for the author's father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh, pictured here driving down Grant Avenue on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Courtesy of the McHugh family

The funeral procession for the author's father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh, pictured here driving down Grant Avenue on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Courtesy of the McHugh family

But that was six years ago, and now no one at the Fort Leavenworth Visitor Control Center knew I was a Gold Star daughter when I showed up that morning in May of 2016. During those six years, I’d turned 21 and lost my military identification card. Now, instead of driving onto any post easily like I’d been able to my whole life, I had to get a background check and a one-day pass like all the other civilians.

I pulled a number and sat down in the waiting room where more Boy Scouts and their chaperones, mostly somewhat-out-of-shape dads, had congregated along with a few other agitated people sitting in the hard plastic chairs waiting for their numbers to be called.

“56!” a woman shouted out the door of one of the three tiny offices.

I glanced down at my number: 79. I sighed and rolled my eyes.

When did this happen? I thought. When was I cast into the same civilian category as these Boy Scouts and their dads who looked at Fort Leavenworth as nothing more than a fun field trip?

 The funeral procession for the author's father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh, pictured here driving down Grant Avenue on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Courtesy of the McHugh family

The funeral procession for the author's father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh, pictured here driving down Grant Avenue on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Courtesy of the McHugh family

As I watched two boys chase each around the waiting room screaming BANG BANG BANG, pretending to kill each other, I pictured them at home, circling “ARMY DAY” on their calendars with hunter green crayons, excitedly anticipating this adventure to visit real-life soldiers on a real-life Army post. The stop through security only adding to the day’s novelty.

Protocol. I kept telling myself. Stupid Army protocol.

The waiting room was cold, sterile. Goosebumps dotted my arms, but my cheeks were red with heat. I should have been free to visit my father, who’s buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, whenever I pleased. I bit my lip to hold back my tears of anger and hurt that had made their way to the corners of my eyes.

I lost my father when I was 18 years old; that was hard enough. I had anticipated that I would bear that hurt for the rest of my life, but I hadn’t anticipated the hurt of losing my culture, my identity when I lost my military ID, and, ultimately, free and easy access to visit my father. I had never had a real hometown; rather, I had the numerous military bases I grew up on, each one of which I considered “home.” Sitting in that waiting room, waiting to get on a post where I had once gone to elementary school, made best friends, worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor, and, ultimately, buried my father, I felt like I was no longer welcome.

Nearly an hour later, after the Boy Scouts and their chaperones and troop leaders had filed out, my number was called. I was summoned into a small corner office by a short, slightly stocky, uniformed man with a classic Army buzz cut. High and tight, like my dad always told his barber. The security guard soldier didn’t look at me as he plopped down behind his computer and motioned for me to sit in the chair across his desk. After an hour of dealing with background checks on excited 10-year-old kids and their equally giddy dads, this guy looked about as miserable as I felt.

“Valid driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance,” he said as though he were functioning on autopilot.

I knew the drill. I placed my already-prepared paperwork on his desk and leaned into the hard foam back of my chair.

“Reason for visit?” he asked. His voice monotone. “Cemetery,” I said, matching his tone. He glanced up from his computer and gave me a sympathetic nod before continuing my background check. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t like all these other people coming in and out of his office. I wanted to tell him that I had had a military ID for the first 21 years of my life, that I hadn’t always been a civilian. I wanted to complain about the Boy Scouts and the wait and the pass system to get on Fort Leavenworth, but I knew it would get me nowhere. This new, lengthy protocol—the waiting room, the paperwork—wasn’t this guy’s fault; I couldn’t imagine he joined the military to do background checks on frustrated civilians. I fidgeted with my keys instead.

 The author, Kelly McHugh-Stewart, pictured here with her father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh on Mt. Evans, Colorado in fall 2009. Courtesy of the McHugh family

The author, Kelly McHugh-Stewart, pictured here with her father, U.S. Army Colonel John M. McHugh on Mt. Evans, Colorado in fall 2009. Courtesy of the McHugh family

After staring at his computer screen for what felt like ages, he passed my license, registration, and proof of insurance across the desk and pulled a green visitor’s pass out of his desk drawer.

“If you don’t mind me asking, who are you visiting at the cemetery?”

I didn’t mind at all.

“My dad,” I said. “He was killed in Afghanistan.”

The soldier paused.

“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,” he said as he slid my green pass into his notary seal and pressed its silver handles together. He stood up from his desk and handed me my paper pass, donned with the circular, raised Fort Leavenworth seal.

“I gave you a week pass, just in case you need to come back,” he said. “So next time you don’t have to wait.”

I didn’t tell him I only needed a day pass, that this visit was my final visit to Fort Leavenworth for a while, because the next day I would be driving away from Kansas to my new life in New York City—but his small act of kindness meant the world.

“And thank you for your family’s service,” he added.

I smiled, thanked him, and choked back tears as I left his office and headed to buy flowers to lay on my father’s grave.

Read the second piece in Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s two-part series.

•••

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a New York City-based writer currently working on a book about her father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, who was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.

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Review: "Fight Like a Girl" by Kate Germano with Kelly Kennedy


Teresa Fazio reviews Kate Germano’s new memoir, in which the retired lieutenant colonel makes the case for the reforms she made at Parris Island, which ultimately got her sacked.

Review: "Fight Like a Girl" by Kate Germano with Kelly Kennedy


Teresa Fazio reviews Kate Germano’s new memoir, in which the retired lieutenant colonel makes the case for the reforms she made at Parris Island, which ultimately got her sacked.

By Teresa Fazio

Marines learn unspoken rules at boot camp. Never go see the corpsman, lest you be labeled “sick, lame, and lazy.” Don’t piss off an adjutant, or she’ll tell you at top volume and in 12-point Times New Roman precisely where you’ve screwed up. Mind over matter: If you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Ignore what hurts. We see how well that’s working.

"Fight Like a Girl"

With the #MeToo movement and the Marines United nude photo scandal in the background as combat arms occupational specialties open to women, Fight Like a Girl, by retired Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano (with reporter and Army veteran Kelly Kennedy), makes the case for the reforms the author tried to implement when she commanded the Marines’ all-female Fourth Recruit Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, the most gender-segregated boot camp in the U.S. armed forces. While the Army, Air Force, and Navy have integrated men and women side by side at boot camp (with separate sleeping and hygiene facilities) for decades, the Marine Corps keeps Fourth Battalion on its own separate corner of Parris Island.

This book is the first to describe women Marines’ initial training in minute detail. Other full-length books by women veterans have so far been memoirs such as Shoot Like a Girl, Hesitation Kills, Eyes Right, and Love My Rifle More Than You. (A plea to publishers’ marketing departments: Please retire the search-engine-optimized “Like a Girl” franchise! Our stories involve more than just the novelty of our gender!) Germano’s narrative retains the conversational tone of an interview and forms a counterpoint to her 2015 relief from command, in which it was alleged that she created a “hostile, repressive, and unprofessional command climate.”

She came to Fourth Battalion in 2014 after two D.C.-based tours, including one as aide-de-camp to the secretary of the Navy. She’d also won a Recruiting Station of the Year award for turning around the performance of Marine Corps Recruiting Station San Diego, using metrics-based recruit evaluations. Parris Island, she writes in Fight Like a Girl, “almost felt gang-like in how territorial it was.” Her descriptions of drill instructors slapping, pinching, and cursing at recruits make dysfunctional training companies sound like a perpetual Stanford Prison Experiment. She offers pitch-perfect illustrations of hypermasculinity: Male staff assume women bring “drama” and use them as negative examples to berate male recruits. According to a 2014 RAND study, nearly a third of women Marines surveyed were targets of sexual harassment or gender discrimination. Germano, recognizing lower standards for women Marines as institutionalized sexism, advocated for change. But even in the all-female staff of Fourth Battalion, she asserts that women leaders faced a common double bind; they often didn’t help each other or ask for help due to the fear of making women as a whole—only 7 percent of the Marine Corps—look bad.

 "Fight Like a Girl" author, Kate Germano. Courtesy of Joe LeBlanc/Ars Nova Images

"Fight Like a Girl" author, Kate Germano. Courtesy of Joe LeBlanc/Ars Nova Images

Around the same time as Germano took command, the Marines began a study to integrate women into combat arms units—the Ground Combat Element Integrated Task Force (GCEITF). (I have written about the GCEITF, and I served four years as a Marine Corps officer a decade earlier.) As the GCEITF progressed, Germano submitted an article to the Marine Corps Gazette describing her unit’s marked progress improving female recruits’ rifle qualification scores at Parris Island. As she mentions in the book, the publication scrapped her article when she was fired. With the Corps already under a microscope regarding women’s integration and training, the media swiftly covered her relief in June 2015.

Germano spoke out in The New York Times a month later, offering sections of her paper on performance double standards. In September 2015, the Marine Corps selectively released results from the GCEITF, making it initially look like a failure. Shortly after, the commandant of the Marine Corps requested an exception to former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s mandate that all occupational specialties be open to women. In Fight Like a Girl, Germano implies that her relief was part of a thinly shrouded plot to keep combat arms occupational specialties closed to women.

The book refutes the Marine Corps’ case against her; nearly every chapter begins with supportive emails from former comrades sent in the wake of her relief. By the third or fourth email, I thought, “Okay! Okay! I believe you!” Whether or not readers find this defensive posture off-putting, the fact that Germano felt the need to protect herself with a chorus of support illustrates an important point: Women leaders are often penalized more than men holding the same positions, especially when women have direct communication and leadership styles. The 2014 RAND study showed that women were 10 times more likely than men to have their competence disparaged because of their gender and eight times more likely to be insulted because of it. Germano writes, “I had to contort my countenance to combat ‘resting bitch face,’” and her directness was often interpreted as “being mean.” To gauge her leadership, her superiors commissioned a command climate survey, which Germano asserts may have been compromised by a handful of subordinates who disliked her making multiple exaggerated, negative submissions. Male leaders, on the other hand, are expected to be direct, even harsh. Germano contrasts her relief with that of Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Kissoon, her former colleague and antagonist, whose firing was announced just after a recruit in his command died. He pled guilty to dereliction of duty, making false official statements, and conduct unbecoming of an officer— far worse crimes.

 U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Kate I. Germano, battalion commander, addresses the audience during the 4th Battalion relief and appointment ceremony aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 18, 2014. Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Allison Lotz MCRD Parris Island Combat Camera

U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Kate I. Germano, battalion commander, addresses the audience during the 4th Battalion relief and appointment ceremony aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., July 18, 2014. Courtesy U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Allison Lotz MCRD Parris Island Combat Camera

Fight Like A Girl also describes a perfect storm of complicity between a male-dominated culture and the women who have so far survived it. At Parris Island, when Germano pointed out flaws such as systematic understaffing or interpersonal friction within companies, her boss, some male peers, and some female subordinates ostracized her. If the only way to be a “warrior” is to demonstrate physical strength and group loyalty, then women who are not overtly being harassed don’t speak out, continue to get by, and become willfully blind. As a product of this system, recalling jokes I cracked and comments I tolerated 15 years ago, it is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge this.

Germano’s husband Joe Plenzler (a retired Marine whose tours include head of the San Diego Drill Instructor School and press secretary for Headquarters Marine Corps) contributes several chapters in the last third of the book. While his voice is entertaining—the story of his and Germano’s early courtship provides welcome hilarity—his chapters underline the book’s defensive tone. The editorial hedge to include a male voice (as if to say, Really bros, she’s cool) highlights Marine culture’s—and our culture at large’s—baseline discomfort with outspoken women.

In tandem chapters, Germano and Plenzler push back against the “go along to get along” style of some senior leaders, who remain bulwarks of misguided tradition in hopes of getting promoted. Plenzler shows how Germano was treated differently from him when they both served in 29 Palms, California, and offers color commentary on negative reactions to her Parris Island work gleaned from his former Pentagon contacts. Germano says her former boss “didn’t want the friction that comes with forcing change.” This treatment of her wasn’t limited to officers; in a heartbreaking line, her otherwise supportive female sergeant major, hoping to quietly earn a retirement pension to support her children, declines to speak out on Germano’s behalf during her relief. Germano assembles these incidents into an insistent case for institutional betrayal. She also admits to contemplating suicide, illustrating the risks of being a high performer suddenly at odds with one’s institution.

She and Kennedy, her co-author, devote many thoroughly absorbing chapters to her efforts to reform training using measured observation and data-driven analysis. To improve drill instructor performance, she implemented deep breathing and yoga, requested (but was denied) extra staff to lessen their sleep deprivation, and rejiggered the duty schedule. For the recruits, she encouraged a growth mindset that focused on learning from failure and overcoming challenges, rather than using pseudoscientific, sexist assumptions to excuse women’s failures on the drill field, rifle range, and obstacle course. She instituted simple fixes such as breaking runners into ability groups, enforcing stretching, and eliminating the mental waffling that comes with the presence of “fainting chairs” in the back of a formation. In coed classes, women recruits could also learn from male drill instructors, who were more likely to have been in ground combat situations and therefore to transmit real-world knowledge of what recruits might face in war.

 "Fight Like a Girl" co-writer, Kelly Kennedy. Courtesy of Shala W. Graham

"Fight Like a Girl" co-writer, Kelly Kennedy. Courtesy of Shala W. Graham

Germano also observes that giving women the exact same training environment as men would require investment in engineering and logistics. Fourth Battalion’s current small barracks, with its own nearby chow hall, beauty salon, and classrooms, artificially limits the number of the women entering the Corps, and female recruits walk narrow paths with their rifles slung instead of marching everywhere with rifles aloft, as the men do. This arrangement made sense half a century ago, when women Marines largely did administrative tasks—they didn’t even shoot rifles in boot camp until 1985. But now, it systematically denies female recruits opportunities to practice drill and build upper body strength. By contrast, at the Corps’ Officer Candidates School and The Basic School, male and female officers have used the same facilities, slept in neighboring barracks rooms, and trained alongside each other for years. Female junior officers report lower rates of gender-based discrimination (though similar rates of sexual harassment) than female junior enlisted. It’s at least an opening for change.

In Fight Like a Girl, Germano outlines useful prescriptions for training female Marines to more fully contribute to national defense, especially now that combat arms occupational specialties are open to them. This is not a literary memoir; on the page, the wounds she suffered during her tour remain raw. Still, this book offers a brutal and necessary view of how attitudes ingrained at Parris Island hurt Marines, and it shows why Corps leadership must pay closer attention to the standards to which both genders are physically and mentally indoctrinated. This book made me deeply uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing. Exposing a flawed training system to air and sunlight is the first step to healing it.

•••

Teresa Fazio served in the United States Marine Corps as a communications officer from 2002-2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, among other outlets. Her website is www.teresafazio.com.

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Shedding the Shame of "Dependa"


Liesel Kershul faced crushing shame feeling that being a military spouse has kept her from fulfilling her potential. After 15 years, she’s found peace.

Shedding the Shame of "Dependa"


Liesel Kershul faced crushing shame feeling that being a military spouse has kept her from fulfilling her potential. After 15 years, she’s found peace.

By Liesel Kershul

The black-and-white shapes on my phone formed letters, and their sequence, I knew, formed words, but, for several moments, my mind refused to make sense of them. If I understood what she’d written, I’d be forced to deal with it, and this was a reckoning 16 years in the making.

My sister has a unique talent: She has a nose for people’s insecurities. The deepest misgivings of one’s heart—the thing one loathes most about oneself—are readily apparent to her. Easy ammunition for when someone in the family, or her circle of friends, needs to brought down a peg or two. That afternoon, her derision arrived in the form of an innocuous ping from my cell phone. I read her text several times, trying to comprehend its cruelty—and many times more to absorb its truth. We’d been debating her newfound enthusiasm for Jordan Peterson (a recently popular psychologist from Canada whom I find offensive), and when I accused her of intellectual laziness for not reading the original works he was critiquing but instead just adopting his opinions as her own, she lashed out.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband, Tom, take a selfie before the USMC Ball 2017. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband, Tom, take a selfie before the USMC Ball 2017. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

“I work sixty hours a week and don’t have the liberty of riding my man’s coattails since I was nineteen—i.e., all the time in the world to read books and do whatever I please.”

In one stinging sentence, she deflected the entire argument and instead unearthed and laid bare more than a decade and a half of my own disappointment, shame, and insecurity. It was masterful.

In the military, there is a term for this genre of insult. It’s called “dependa-shaming,” and as a longtime military spouse, I have dealt with my fair share. My point is neither to air my family’s dirty laundry, nor to belabor an already-forgiven argument between siblings, but rather to acknowledge that no matter how painful it was to read, her criticism was accurate. As an educated woman raised in a feminist, affluent household with unyielding expectations to “fulfill my potential,” I recognize that I have failed to do so. I inhabit a world so far from my family’s (and American society’s) measure of success—a distinguished, independent, and lucrative career—that I might as well be living on the moon.

I didn’t go to law school. I don’t teach philosophy at a ritzy university. I’m not a practicing psychologist. I am nothing more than a Marine’s wife.

It’s true that I have ridden Tom’s financial coattails. He has always made more money than I have, and he has a relatively successful career. He often tells his Marines that the Corps is a family business. This isn’t to enforce some archaic notion of wives wearing pearls and bringing calling cards to formal luncheons, but rather a reminder that being a Marine affects your family like few other jobs.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, in her happy place. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

The author, Liesel Kershul, in her happy place. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Some spouses are less affected than others, and no two families’ experiences are the same. But for me, 12 moves have meant 12 different job searches. Hardly fertile ground for building a distinguished career, and a reality that can be overwhelming when you have been raised to believe that work is your identity.

What people who aren’t affiliated with the military may not realize is that although this lifestyle can steal opportunity from a spouse or a child, it also creates a sense of community—a closeness and bond like few others. If you ask a recently separated Marine and their family what they miss most about the Corps, more often than not they’ll say it is this sense of community. This knowing in your blood and bones that we’re all in it together. It’s not easy to recreate in civilian life, and over the years this sense of community has helped change my outlook on what makes life meaningful.

When we started out in life together—yes, I was 19—neither of us foresaw what was ahead. Tom went to college on a ROTC scholarship, so he owed the military four years. He expected to fulfill his obligation and then move on. But he was commissioned in April of 2001, and life was turned on its head that September. At the time, he didn’t know how well the military would suit him, or that his calling would become leading Marines. Like so many others, this was not the life I had expected, and over the years I have struggled with crushing personal disappointment and shame as I’ve watched college friends build successful careers while my own has withered on the vine. I don’t have any less potential or education than they do, but I have made different choices and they have led me down a different path.

These choices have occasionally put me in the crosshairs of family, friends, and coworkers who find my status as a “dependent” distasteful. But more often, they’ve elicited in me my own merciless condemnation. The snide remarks labeling me a “dependa” are nothing compared to the feelings of self-loathing I’ve experienced over the years for my lack of any measurable career success. I used to fill pages of journals with angst and despair over my inability to find what I considered to be meaningful and important work. I have picked fights with Tom for accepting orders to places where we knew I would struggle to advance my own career goals. I have made myself miserable worrying about how I looked to everyone else—particularly to my family. I wasn’t supposed to be just a wife. I had impeccable grades and reams of honors. I was supposed to do something with my life.

 Little Liesel Kershul poses for a photograph. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Little Liesel Kershul poses for a photograph. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

But here’s the thing: My yardstick of a successful life has altered drastically from then to now. To me, a successful life now means building community and relationships, rather than building my bank account or CV. At 35, I have shed the suffocating, career-oriented ideology of “Lean In”-style feminism as the sole litmus test of success, for an understanding that supporting my Marine in his career is every bit as valuable as pursuing my own, and that although it may seem old-fashioned, it is far from anti-feminist. These days, my idea of “feminism” is more expansive. It no longer simply means doing everything my husband does, nor does it involve relinquishing my femininity; but rather, it means having my personal contributions as a partner valued equally. It means having both the masculine and the feminine elements of relationships respected, and, although Tom and I model a traditional marriage, I don’t think our respective sexes have anything to do with it. Most marriages I’ve witnessed are a little lopsided, with one partner sacrificing more than another. Mine is no different. But where I used to think that I was making the sacrifice, I now believe that that burden lies with Tom.

Today, I know I am blessed that our life allows me the flexibility to drop everything and sit with a friend in the hospital, to spend a Friday boosting squadron morale by making and serving food for Tom’s Marines who live in the barracks, for having ample time to be involved in my neighborhood community council and my church. To have the ability to support causes I find meaningful. And, yes, for being able to take my dogs on a hike with a picnic and book tucked into my backpack, and to simply enjoy a long afternoon, pursuing my own education and interests in the places I love best.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, hangs out with her pups. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

The author, Liesel Kershul, hangs out with her pups. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

I have made these choices, and after so many years of insecurity about being a failure, I can finally say that I have rejected other people’s ideas of who and what I am supposed to be. It’s been a long time since anyone has “dependa-shamed” me to my face (or to my phone in this case), and it’s been several years since I’ve given up on the idea of having some sort of flashy career instead of simply a sequence of jobs or volunteer pursuits. But after my sister sent that text, I sat down to reckon with all the shame and insecurity that I expected to bubble to the surface. But, to my surprise, it didn’t. After the initial sting, I realized that I no longer feel shameful and insecure about the life I have chosen.

I have searched my heart and found gratitude for the marriage I’ve built with Tom and for the community we’ve fostered. I don’t know where we’ll go or what we’ll do when he retires, but, for now, I am happy with my identity as wife and friend and volunteer and neighbor. I feel no shame for the decisions that have led me here—they were made in love. I do the best I can within the confines of our lifestyle and my ability, and I finally believe that that is enough.  

•••

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She is the proud wife of a U.S. Marine.

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I Volunteered to Be the Hot Sauce Man


A midnight raid on a West Point dorm in which Augusto Giacoman was armed with hot sauce prepared him for war better than West Point’s rigid rules.

I Volunteered to Be the Hot Sauce Man


A midnight raid on a West Point dorm in which Augusto Giacoman was armed with hot sauce prepared him for war better than West Point’s rigid rules.

By Augusto Giacoman

“First, call me Mr. Black,” one of the firsties said as he gestured to the other upperclassman. “This is Mr. Red, Mr. Green, and Mr. Pink.” The goofiness of the Reservoir Dogs reference was lost on me; I just thought it was cool. He continued, “And we are fucking sick of the Air Force’s bullshit.” The room erupted in a cheer. We were also sick of the Air Force’s bullshit. Until this moment I hated West Point and all the spit and polish that came along with it. Now, I finally had something that felt like the Army I’d known as a child.

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

My dad had been a Green Beret, and I had grown up surrounded by hard-charging soldiers who would get off some mission in El Salvador or Peru or Bolivia, hop on Harleys, and go drinking. They would talk about fighting, killing, blowing shit up. This was the Army I had thought I was joining, but in my first year at West Point it seemed like the only things that mattered were tightly made beds and shiny shoes.

It was Army-Air Force week, the week before the two teams would face each other in football, and shenanigans were afoot. The Air Force cadets on exchange to West Point had stolen license plates off the first-class cadets’ cars; they had hung insulting banners across our barracks and dumped buckets of water on us as we’d marched into the chow hall. Bristling at how chickenshit West Point was, I jumped at the chance to participate in a special, retaliatory mission.

A few upperclassman called all of the plebes in my company to meet them in the community room on the ground floor of our barracks. We showed up eager to hear the plan and sat in chairs in front of four upperclassmen who stood before a chalkboard. They were all leaders we looked up to, fit, a little crazy, what we called “good dudes” who took the rules seriously, but not too seriously.

Mr. Black laid out our mission: get back at an Air Force cadet who was the alleged ringleader of the zoomies who’d been running amok during Army-Air Force week. Two teams, he said, would enter the cadet’s room, an assault team and a spirit team. The assault team would go in first with the hot sauce man on point. Hot sauce man would splash a few drops in the Air Force cadet’s face to stun him, then two or three cadets would jump on top of the airman and render him immobile and speechless by duct-taping his arms and legs together and his mouth closed. The assault team would then pick him up, take him outside, and tie him to a laundry rack. Simultaneously, the spirit team would come in and spray all the clothes in his closet with silly string. After our leaders discussed the plan, they asked for volunteers, and I volunteered to be the hot sauce man.

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

We gathered outside the barracks around two in the morning, wearing balaclavas and our uniform shirts inside out so we couldn’t be identified. I had my bottle of hot sauce from the mess hall: Tabasco, the official hot sauce of the U.S. Army since 1949. We jogged to the airman’s room, arriving without incident, avoiding those still on duty or up studying. We spotted his room and stacked up outside it. I was point man.

We burst in, flipped on the lights, and the plan went out the window. Instead of the standard two people who were supposed to be in the room, the airman target and his roommate, there were six. On the bed to the left were a guy and a girl. Two cots sat to the right of the bed, and on each of them lay another man. On another bed on the far right lay a guy and a girl. I froze in place at seeing this taboo tableau. Women and men were forbidden to share the same horizontal surface, much less have sleepovers. Much less have some kind of orgy. How did the girls get here? I thought, Why haven’t I been getting any girls?

I was prodded into action by the rest of the team streaming into the room. The tangle of bodies seemed to shock them less. I spotted the target airman on one of the cots and dove across him, my body and left arm wrapped over him. With my left hand, I grabbed the end of the cot to keep him down. With my hot sauce hand I started vigorously spraying his face with Tabasco.

He started hollering. I kept up with the hot sauce. Where is the duct tape guy, I thought as the duct tape guy moved into position. He pulled a strip from the roll with a rubbery ripping sound. But when he went to place the tape over the airman’s mouth, it wouldn’t stick. He ripped off another piece. No luck. There was so much hot sauce on the airman’s face that the tape kept sliding off.  He kept up with the hollers. Then a meaty hand came out of nowhere and smacked the airman on the side of the head. I raised my head and saw the room in utter chaos. Out of the disorganized mess, our mission commander yelled, “Everyone get the fuck out.”

We aborted the mission and ran from the room, and as I did it occurred to me that I didn’t want to be caught with a half-empty bottle of hot sauce on my person or in my room. I hurled it against the wall, shattering the bottle and leaving a splash of hot sauce on the wall and glass sprinkled on the floor.

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

We ran to our barracks and I hopped into bed. I lay in bed wide awake and full of exhilaration until the sun came up.

The next day West Point was abuzz with the news.

An Air Force cadet got beat up last night.

Did you hear about the zoomie?

I hear he had to go to the hospital, apparently someone ruptured his eardrum.

I heard he won’t be able to fly.

Uh-oh. We hadn’t wanted to ruin a career; we were just getting them back for dumping water on us and stealing license plates. The rumors flew around all day. Sometime after lunch I went back to my room and found military police waiting for me. They took me down to the station on base where I saw the rest of my band of brothers. Someone had turned us in.

A plain clothes police woman questioned me. From a young age, however, I had been trained by Green Berets never to speak to a cop without a lawyer and always to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. I refused to answer any questions without an attorney. “I don’t know who told you to say that,” she said, “but that doesn’t work here.” I didn’t talk. I was sent back to the holding room, and a bit later, we were all sent back to our rooms.

The Air Force cadet recovered after some time in the hospital, and we were all punished. I received a regimental board and something like 80 hours of punishment. Later most of these were absolved by a foreign dignitary, the sultan of Brunei. Though that’s a whole other story. Looking back, that midnight mission to the Air Force cadet’s room trained me better for the confusion and chaos of a raid than much of my West Point education.

•••

Augusto Giacoman was an Army infantryman. He currently advises companies on people and organizational issues for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business. He is a director with PwC US based in New York.

Cover image: U.S. Military Academy cadets stand during their 2018 graduation ceremony. Courtesy of U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann

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Go in for a Haircut, Leave With a Beating


Augusto Giacoman went in for a haircut, high and tight. Then things went terribly wrong.

Go in for a Haircut, Leave With a Beating


Augusto Giacoman went in for a haircut, high and tight. Then things went terribly wrong.

By Augusto Giacoman

Sharp haircuts are the hallmark of a disciplined army, I was taught. In training at West Point, in infantry schools, in Ranger training, and even when deployed, an officer was expected to keep his or her hair to exacting standards.

 Courtesy of TKTKTK

Courtesy of TKTKTK

It was with this goal top of mind that I walked into the Turkish barber shop on base shortly after having become a platoon leader downrange. On my right as I walked in were three empty barbershop chairs and on the left, a row of wooden chairs with thatched seats. A couple of barbers stood smoking, while a third swept around his chair. The empty chairs seemed a bad omen, but the men, olive-skinned and extremely thin, all had thick hair and moustaches. If they maintained those whiskers as they did, I thought, they must have some skill with shears. They offered me a chair, and I sat.

Our conversation was light and friendly; their English was good, and the haircut proceeded in fairly typical fashion, some scissors, mostly buzzer work. As the cut came to a close, I felt proud that my hair was high and tight, and reassured that although the base smelled like a dumpster fire, not all things on it were hot garbage. But things changed rapidly when the barber put his meaty, hairy-knuckled palms on my back and shoved forward, bending me over nearly 90 degrees. Am I about to be attacked? My hand moved swiftly toward the knife at my belt. He began pounding hard and rhythmically on my body, taking the knife-blade of his hand and chopping hard at my back and neck. Each blow vibrated down my spine, shaking me and sending waves of pins and needles down the nerves of my arms and legs. I wasn’t being attacked; I was being massaged. My hand kept reaching for the knife for a moment, and then I surrendered to the beating.

A minute or two after the forceful, rhythmic karate chops began, he pulled me upright in the chair. But as soon as I’d breathed a sigh of relief and silently congratulated myself for not openly weeping, the gorilla paws were back, this time firmly encircling my head. He wrenched my head to the right. My poor neck tendons cried out under the assault. He rained four or five karate chops on my left trap, sending shooting pain down my arm. He grabbed my head again and shoved it this time to the left, creating the same stretching agony before punching my right trap. He brought my head upright, but then pushed me forward again and gave me two more mighty blows that made my teeth click together and pushed the air out of my lungs. Then it stopped. I waited, steeling myself for the next attack. Then, I leaned back into the chair, stunned and exhausted.

 Courtesy of TKTKTKTK

Courtesy of TKTKTKTK

I took deep breaths, recovering from the beating and wondering about all the mistakes I had made that landed me in this chair. Wanting a sharp haircut had been a very bad choice. Special Forces guys had long hair, right? I was almost a first lieutenant; I could probably get away with some flowing locks. I ran through images of my colleagues on base; they did have long hair, didn’t they? Had I missed a clue?

 The author, Augusto Giacoman, poses for a photograph, wearing his uniform, on his wedding day. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

The author, Augusto Giacoman, poses for a photograph, wearing his uniform, on his wedding day. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

I thought it was over and started to get up to leave, but the hand was back on my shoulder, pressing me down. The barber walked back around in front of me and pulled a large Q-tip from a glass jar full of them. Before or since, I have never seen a Q-tip quite like it: about three and a half times the length of an ordinary Q-tip and much, much thicker. It had a wooden shaft, unlike the plastic I was accustomed to, which lent it a sense of heft and importance. It looked like a tiny spear with a bit of cloud stuck to the pointy end. I imagined some angry sky-dwarf hurling down Q-tip spears. Funny how the mind can turn a peaceful object into a tool of war. I stared in wonder as he plunged the cottony part of the Q-tip in rubbing alcohol.

Wonder transformed into horror as he pulled a lighter from his pocket. I wasn’t sure of his intentions, but I certainly didn’t like where this was headed. He clicked the lighter to flame and touched the Q-tip. It lit up with a whoosh, briefly illuminating his face and making him appear like a crazed priest ready to light the village witch. He came nearer to me with his Q-tip torch. I opened my mouth to protest but could only manage strange, semi-mewling noises as though I were hypnotized by the flame, or it had sucked all the air out of my lungs. He took my stuttering mumbles as questions, to which he calmly replied, “Burning stray hair, better this way.” He then began to whack all around my ears and the back of my neck with quick blows of the torch. They were rapid, less-than-a-second touches. I could hear the sizzle of singeing and could smell the foul stench of burnt hair, but, thankfully, I didn’t feel very much heat. After about a minute of being flambéed, it was over. Maybe instead of a butter bar I was a crème brûlée bar. I got up and stumbled out of the shop on wobbly legs, beaten and burned, but unbowed. After that, I decided to have my roommate cut my hair.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the US Military Academy at West Point. As an officer in the US Army, he served as a platoon leader, an executive officer, and an operations officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005 and to Sadr City in 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

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Putting Down Our Guns for a Tray of Hummus


Nathan and his unit traveled to Oman in 2013 to train with its military. Quickly, training evolved into an experience the Corps had not prepared them for.

Putting Down Our Guns for a Tray of Hummus


Nathan and his unit traveled to Oman in 2013 to train with its military. Quickly, training evolved into an experience the Corps had not prepared them for.

By Nathan Eckman

Jordan and I crept toward the door frame. My rifle was raised over his shoulder, aiming down the end of the hall. In front of me, Jordan focused his sights on the entryway of the room to our left. He paused before exposing himself to anyone that might stand inside. I braked at his heels, keeping a steady aim down the hall. We paused until two more Marines joined us; training dictated that we enter a room in teams of four. A silent nudge, a knee to the back of my legs let me know two more had arrived. I gave Jordan the knee. He exploded beyond the frame. He took the left corner. I went right. We shouted bang at an enemy that was make-believe. Room clear, we all shouted. Exercise complete.

Our squad leader, Corporal Collopy, looked at the Omanis who had been watching our performance. “Just like that,” he said, “I want to see you guys run this through just like that.” The man my team and I thought was in charge instead started to rub his stomach. The other nine in the room followed suit. All at once, the Omanis headed toward the exit, rubbing their stomachs as they disappeared from site. The Americans stood, stunned. We had been tasked with conducting bilateral training with the Omani troops all morning, but not one hour into our exercises they had vanished. Our confusion turned to amusement as we realized their priorities: Training must wait. It was 9 a.m., time to eat.

 Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

At 9 a.m. the day before, I had been seasick and wanted nothing to do with food. My entire company, comprised of some 240 Marines, had departed the U.S.S. Carter Hall in a caravan of amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs). Each was built to fit 12 Marines, but we’d managed to fit 19 in mine. “Budget cuts,” the staff sergeant grumbled, insisting we “stuff one more in.” My AAV was one of the first to load, and after the other dozen had too, we’d plunged off the back off the ship and into the waters of the Arabian Sea.

The 19 of us had carried into the AAV our packs crammed with everything we’d need for the next two weeks. The space was so tight, so overfilled, that claustrophobia began taking hold of men who’d never experienced it. Fumes from burning diesel fuel billowed into the cabin. Each breath felt shorter, shallower than the one before it. Breathing became my singular focus. My watch read past noon; it had been hours since we’d last seen the sun, since we’d seen anything beyond the AAV’s steel walls. I closed my eyes, searching for some thoughts that would anchor my innards and quell my motion sickness. Saliva hiked up my throat. With nowhere else to throw up except on someone, I politely removed my helmet, sent my sickness into it, and placed it back onto my head. I’d have a canteen shower later, I reasoned.

 Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Not three minutes after I’d puked, the AAV arrived on shore. Whatever incapacitated state we were in from seasickness and fume inhalation vanished. The AAV quickened on land and soon after came to a sudden halt. Two clicks. Both locks were undone. Like the sound of a roller coaster’s first ascent, the back gate began clanking its way to the ground. Before it had hit, we leapt off its edge and ran into the Omani desert.

We had practiced this hundreds of times before. Offload. And in a fury, assemble into a horizontal line. Without pause, begin maneuvering toward an enemy position in buddy pairs. One covers. The other moves.

McCarter covered for me. I began to battle the sand. Attempting to sprint, I pushed myself forward, but the ground proved fickle. The harder I pushed the deeper I sank. There was a 100-plus-meter assault ahead, and a few meters into it I was already out of breath. After I’d run far enough for McCarter to escape my peripherals, I lay down and began to cover.

A few hundred yards in front of us stood the sultan of Oman, Sayyid Qaboos Bin Said al Said; his entourage; and a host of U.S. officials. They were there to witness us, but I never got close enough to see anything but their silhouettes. This had become commonplace in our deployments. At times it felt like we were like an elaborate parade float being deployed across the globe.

 Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Just as quickly as we’d run from the AAV, the exercise was over. In undramatic fashion, the photographer documenting the raid said to me, “I think you’re done.” Tactical formations morphed into small social circles as we waited for our tour buses to arrive to take us to an isolated outpost in the desert where we were to spend the next two weeks working alongside and helping to train our Omani counterparts.

The geography was Mars-like: horizons broken by jagged, rocky, mountainous faces crusted with red sand. The sun burned so hot that I wondered if every would-be cloud was evaporating before it could form. As we pulled up to our outpost, I noticed from my window a small village in the distance. During the two-hour ride there I had seen every shade of red and orange, but I don’t recall seeing any blues or greens. No waterways or vegetation.

Left to our own devices, we all—both Americans and Omanis—resorted to sharing pictures on our phones and taking new ones together. We traded food with one another, our MREs for their freshly delivered pitas and hummus. Most military of all, we posed with and eventually shot each other’s weapons as a way to fill the silence left by our language barrier.

The first morning of training began, and we broke into our respective teams. One American team to every Omani team, consisting of about 12 people each. An American noncommissioned officer led the lesson, speaking in English but mimicking every action himself. The Omanis followed his instructions, albeit stumbling through halls while crossing each other’s line of fire. But their sloppy performance didn’t seem to bother them.

 Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

At precisely 9 a.m. Omani teams across the compound ran out of the training facilities and toward a silver truck making its way toward us from the open desert. Workers filled dozens of silver trays about half as wide as our rifles were long with hummus, surrounded with pita, and then handed a tray to each Omani team. The Omanis invited us to sit with them, cross-legged on the desert ground around the food.

Eating with the Omanis felt like eating at Grandma’s house—slow in pace and abundant in offerings. Every meal was an event unto itself; it was sacred, it was communal. Eating, an afterthought in the Marine Corps, now occupied a large portion of our training day, which seemed to fluster senior members of our unit. They had a long checklist of tasks they needed to complete. Chatting with the locals, showing pictures of life back home, and trading MRE packs for bites of hummus weren’t on that list.

 Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

Courtesy of Cpl Lockett, Combat Cameraman

I was never fond of their regimented decrees anyway; those lists always assumed that the serendipitous was for the unprepared. The Omanis, on the other hand, invited and welcomed the unexpected. To them, there was no day to seize; it was the other way around.

Our hellish commute to the country’s shores was eclipsed soon by the sweet, nutty flavor of the hummus they served and the community into which they welcomed us when they bid us join them on the ground to share in their meal. I felt that community again after lunch, when an Omani and I stood, backdropped by the red-crusted mountains, and warmly smiled together as we posed for a camera belonging to someone else whom I’ve never seen again. My rifle in his hands and his in mine.

That picture is somewhere, on a mantelpiece in a home in Oman, I hope. And, I hope, when someone asks who the American is posing with the man, he says, “I’m not sure who that is, but I’ll call him a friend.”

•••

Nathan Eckman served as an infantry Marine from 2011 to 2015. After his time in service, he studied the history of U.S.-Iran relations and the Farsi language at Columbia University. Nathan now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Emily, and works as a consultant.

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So We're Famous, So to Speak


Michael Carson talked philosophy and tragedy in a Mosul coffee shop. Back in the U.S. he’s still asking questions for which there are no answers.

So We're Famous, So to Speak


Michael Carson talked philosophy and tragedy in a Mosul coffee shop. Back in the U.S. he’s still asking questions for which there are no answers.

By Michael Carson

I. Mosul, Iraq (2007)

When off duty at FOB Marez in 2006, I often went to a coffee shop across from the chow hall. A young Turk served coffee to another officer, two enlisted men, and me before sitting down with us at a green plastic table and smoking our American cigarettes. To the north, the city of Mosul blinked periodically, but otherwise appeared peaceful.

One night one of the enlisted men told us about the time he’d slept with a farmer’s wife. The farmer caught the soldier and wife, and chased the naked, freckled, soon-to-be U.S. Army sergeant through an alfalfa field. There was no gun. Thank God. Only a hatchet. The sergeant showed us a pink scar that ran along his freckled calf all the way up to the soft spot in the back of the knee.

“What happened to his wife?” I asked.

“Who knows?” the sergeant asked, unrolling his pant leg back over his boot.

 The author, Michael Carson, hands out soccer balls to children in Mosul and tries to coax the boys to look at the camera. Courtesy of Michael Carson

The author, Michael Carson, hands out soccer balls to children in Mosul and tries to coax the boys to look at the camera. Courtesy of Michael Carson

Later that night, my company commander complained about my coffee-shop sessions. His arms were crossed against his chest, over his holstered chest pistol, in a relaxed way that said, Look, non-chest-pistol-havers, I have a chest pistol.

“What do you do there, Mike?” he asked.

“Talk philosophy,” I said.

“I knew a girl who talked philosophy once, Mike,” he said.

I thought he was going to say something else. But this seemed to be the entire story.

He adjusted his chest pistol significantly. I shouldered my M-4 significantly. Because why was I there, in Mosul, if I did not believe in the significance of my M-4? Unfortunately, the rifle slipped and clattered on the duckboards. I picked it up with dignity.

“Look, Mike,” the Captain said. He put his hand on my shoulder. Looked me in the eye. “At a certain point you have to stop talking and get to work.”

He nodded at Mosul. I looked at Mosul. I looked back at him. He took his hand off my shoulder. Wiped it on his chest pistol.

“You stink like cigarettes, Mike,” he said.

 

II. Houston, Texas (2018)

Now I teach high school English. Last year I attempted Socratic seminars. I imagined that I would gather the eager young learners around my desk, and that we would ask questions like we did at the Turk’s coffee shop. I pictured Dead Poets Society. But with more diversity and a less depressing ending. The smart girl asked for a rubric. It’s philosophical, I explained. There is no rubric.

The day of the first Socratic seminar:

We sit. Stare at each other for 30 seconds. A few students check their phones in case they’ve missed any texts since they sat down.

“Do you have any questions?” I ask.

I had seen them copying the smart girl’s questions before class. I know they have the smart girl’s questions right in front of them. Why don’t they ask the smart girl’s questions?

 Iraqi Special Operations Forces conduct shooting drills with the 249 and 240 machine gun to simulate combat situations, Baghdad, Sep. 28, 2017. Military Information Support Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve is the global coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photography by Spc. Johnathon Carter/U.S. Army

Iraqi Special Operations Forces conduct shooting drills with the 249 and 240 machine gun to simulate combat situations, Baghdad, Sep. 28, 2017. Military Information Support Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve is the global coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Photography by Spc. Johnathon Carter/U.S. Army

Finally someone speaks.

“When’s the last time a philosopher made a billion dollars?” he asks.

I say nothing. This is a rhetorical question.

“It’s important to ask questions,” I say. “Like Socrates.”

They do not ask who Socrates is. I tell them the Athenian democracy killed Socrates for asking too many questions. They look up from their phones.

“Killed him killed him?” they ask.

“Yes,” I say. “Killed him killed him.”

There’s a long pause during which they debate the appropriate amount of time they have to wait before checking their phones again. I take advantage of the pause. This, in the business, is what we call “a teaching moment.”

“Why do you think the Athenians were afraid of questions?” I ask. “Are we like the Athenians? Are we afraid of questions?”

We are in a building. But I swear I hear crickets.

“I just live my life and whatever happens happens,” a boy says.

“Maybe this is true,” I say, attempting Socratic irony. “Epicurus, a philosopher, said something similar. What do you think of what Epicurus said?”

“I think I don’t care,” a girl says.

“I think I don’t care?” a boy corrects.

I say the Socratic seminar is over. We are going to write an essay instead.

“About what?” they ask.

“Questions,” I say.

III. Mosul, Iraq (2007)

A week after our talk, the captain ordered me to evacuate a Mosul neighborhood. Someone, he explained, was making IEDs there. Therefore we were going to destroy every house in the area with bombs. This is what we call in the military business “a show of force.” Think of the broken-window theory for urban crime deterrence. Then think of the exact opposite: Destruction will bring change.

“Why do we have to go?” asked an Iraqi civilian 30 minutes before the planes dropped bombs.

“What a stupid question,” I said to the interpreter. “Because you sit around and do nothing when bad people do bad things.”

“Because you sit around and do nothing when bad people do bad things,” the interpreter told him in Arabic.

 Reconstruction projects flourish in Mosul, June 28, 2017. The Government of Iraq continues to restore the infrastructure of Mosul so that businesses can re-open and economic life can prosper. Photograph by Sgt. Dennis Glass/U.S. Army

Reconstruction projects flourish in Mosul, June 28, 2017. The Government of Iraq continues to restore the infrastructure of Mosul so that businesses can re-open and economic life can prosper. Photograph by Sgt. Dennis Glass/U.S. Army

The Iraqi man said he preferred to risk it. I tried again. “It’s not a risk thing,” I explained. “There will be nothing left,” I said, and moved my hands like a magician after a lame card trick. “Big bombs. Boom.” I looked at my interpreter. My interpreter blinked. I looked at my noncommissioned officer. My noncommissioned officer stared back at me through his sunglasses. Or not. His eyes could have been closed. “So. You want to move this guy or what?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question. My noncommissioned officer moved the Iraqi guy.

Later that night, at the coffee shop, I asked if Marx was right about history. If the first time is tragedy and the second farce, what about the third time? Does the third time become tragedy again? Or some kind of super-mutant farce? Or is it really tragedy the first, second, and third times? And if it’s always going to be a tragedy, why do anything? No one said anything. They knew it was a rhetorical question. I lit another cigarette. I was glad my noncommissioned officer had forced that Iraqi man to leave the neighborhood before we blew it up. I had saved one life. This was good. Not Mother Teresa-good. But kinda-good.  

“You know what’s really tragic?” I asked.

“What?” they said.

“I never got a chest pistol,” I said.

“No,” the Turk said. “That’s not tragic.”

 The Nouri Mosque as it stands in Mosul, Iraq, May 14, 2018. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was destroyed by the Islamic State on June 21, 2017. It was on the steps of this mosque that ISIS was announced as a caliphate. Stabilization and restoration efforts are in place and progressing now that ISIS is defeated militarily in Iraq. Photograph by Sgt. Dennis Glass, U.S. Army

The Nouri Mosque as it stands in Mosul, Iraq, May 14, 2018. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri was destroyed by the Islamic State on June 21, 2017. It was on the steps of this mosque that ISIS was announced as a caliphate. Stabilization and restoration efforts are in place and progressing now that ISIS is defeated militarily in Iraq. Photograph by Sgt. Dennis Glass, U.S. Army

IV. Houston, Texas (2018)

A month later we are still writing about questions. A student asks if he’s written enough. I tell him no. The bell hasn’t rung. Keep writing.

Everyone’s phone lights up. Another school shooting. The attacked school is not far from my school. It’s in the same neighborhood. So to speak. So we’re famous. So to speak. The students stop writing. One student raises his hand. He starts to say something about the shooting.

“No,” I say. “No bathroom breaks.”

Their phones ding. I read the headlines on my phone. The number of dead children is unknown. So is the cause. Reporters speculate about the shooter’s politics. They publish screenshots of posts from his Facebook feed.  They say that this is the face of evil.

The smart girl raises her hand.

Politicians say enough is enough. They are sick and tired of violence. They want to defend America’s youth. Some want to arm teachers, to give us all pistols. Even English teachers.

“Did you see what happened?” the smart girl asks.

I decide I’m tired of pistols. Chest pistols and otherwise.

“Why did this have to happen?” the smart girl asks.

“Because it happens,” I say.

“What?” she asks.

I want to move my hands like a magician after a lame card trick.

“You don’t have to feel bad if it had to happen,” I want to say.

“Big bombs,” I want to say. “Boom.”

But I don’t say anything.

They all stare at me now. No one is writing. They look like baby birds.

“Why don’t you get back to work?” I ask.

The smart girl gives me a funny look. But she gets back to work. We all do.

•••

Michael Carson deployed to Mosul with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment in 2006.

A patrol of 10th Mountain Division soldiers, Wardak, Afghanistan.JPG

How to Lose a War


Drew Pham saw his refugee parents in Afghan civilians. Compassion, he thought, was the answer. But a part of his soul hardened as he learned to love war.

How to Lose a War


Drew Pham saw his refugee parents in Afghan civilians. Compassion, he thought, was the answer. But a part of his soul hardened as he learned to love war.

By Drew Pham

This part is important. Start with good intentions—and a couple of givens: that you’re an idealist, the son of war refugees. You see another conflict fomenting on TV, you see those civilians suffering, and you can’t help but think of your parents. You want to help. On paper you’re middle class—your parents both have degrees, you go to a fancy liberal arts school—but truth is, you’ve been hungry. Dad’s left, Mom’s bankrupt, and when you come home there’s always a stack of past-due notices on the kitchen table. And that fancy school? You can’t afford it. So you join the Army—they pay for college, and when you’re done, you owe them four years.

 The author, Drew Pham, poses for a photograph with village children in Wardak, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author, Drew Pham, poses for a photograph with village children in Wardak, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

At school, you argue with your classmates about joining, about the war. They’re also idealists, but what do they know about hunger—about drinking pickle juice and eating instant ramen every night? A hunk of Spam if you’re lucky. And those peers, with their toilet bowl-white skin, have never been handcuffed to a chain link fence because they were too dark—you have. Never watched people like themselves mowed down by the hundreds in an Oliver Stone flick. You think that what you’ve lived will save you when you go to war. You think you can use your compassion as a weapon. In your senior year of college before you start active duty, you meet your wife, and you fall in love because she can see straight through your bullshit. You share books and your minds and your bodies. But you don’t let that distract you.

You get married young. At the wedding, your little brother confesses to your new brother-in-law that he’s joined the Army too. You ignore this for now and bask, instead, in your young marriage. Your honeymoon is one night in an expensive hotel and ends with you driving two days to your assigned unit. The Army takes all your time, and you never see her. Get used to it, your commanders and sergeants say.

 The author's wife poses for a photograph in Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's wife poses for a photograph in Brooklyn, New York. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Something else brews in your chest. This is what they do with young men like you. It’s in the air when you go on runs—the men sing odes to murder. They beat it into your muscles until you can shoot a man without thinking. They call people across the sea names like raghead and hajji and camel jockey. There are worse names, but you’re an idealist and you refuse to repeat them. Soon enough, though, you yearn for a good fight, to be the first kid on your block to get a confirmed kill. That’s your trade, and the colonel might dress it up with talk of hearts and minds, and you want to believe him, but that’s not what soldiers do. You want to be that idealist who makes your wife proud, you want to be that warrior your men look up to, but you worry you can’t be both.

So you go to Afghanistan. Try to win those hearts and minds, but doubt yourself every time you visit a village covered in graffiti telling you to go home. Kids pelt your gun trucks with rocks, and the villagers give you hard stares that make the mission seem impossible.

 Afghan girls attending school pose for a photograph. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Afghan girls attending school pose for a photograph. Courtesy of Drew Pham

You look for things to sink all that compassion and good intention into. When you befriend an Afghan lieutenant, you worry for him. You think of your grandfather, that handsome colonel of the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. He died in a reeducation camp after the war, and you cross your fingers your friend won’t share that fate. But hoping isn’t enough. The lieutenant wishes his countrymen were educated, so you go to the girls’ school. You put in new windows because the old ones were shattered by AK bullets and roadside bombs. The children are beautiful, and you want to give them school supplies and coloring books and toys and all the things little kids should have but that they do not. You meet a young mullah who you know is Taliban, but cannot arrest for lack of evidence. His fervor reminds you of your mother’s when she told you stories of resisting the most powerful nation on earth. Your interpreter guides you through it all, and you tell him that one day, when the war is over, you’ll return to visit him. Your wife writes to say she’s proud of you.

When the fighting season starts, the veterans say that you must stifle the soft thing that is your heart. You won’t listen. But when you discover the drug of combat, you know that they were right. Being that close to death is better than liquor or speed or sex—and 10 times more addictive. There will be days that getting into a fight is all you can think about. Your good intentions get swallowed whole when you start to use the word hajji the same way GIs used to use the word gook. Your friend, the Afghan lieutenant, turns away from you when he hears you use those toxic words to refer to his countrymen.

Then one night the man who’d incited your country’s wrath is killed; the next day and the day after that, the war goes on. Your doubts grow. You vaporize three men with a mortar strike—one of them is a newlywed, and you think of your wife and wonder if she’ll still be proud of you.

 A ruined vehicle burns after being struck by a roadside bomb. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A ruined vehicle burns after being struck by a roadside bomb. Courtesy of Drew Pham

When the Taliban occupy the girls’ school that you poured so much love into, you rake those windows you installed with machine gun fire, undoing all of your work.

And there will be a firefight. Pay close attention to the man playing dead—he reaches for a grenade. And you do what had been beat into your muscles without thinking. Remember the summer sun, the heat of the day as you stand over his body—this will be important later. You tell your wife; she says that she’ll always be there for you. She says this, and you worry if she’ll recognize you when you get home.

Remember the young mullah you knew was Taliban? He gave you a gift—an amulet of Quranic script. For health, he said. To repay him you follow a company of Rangers into the valley to kill him. They order an airstrike, crushing him beneath the ruins of a safehouse.

Then you return home. That first week will be heaven—good sex and hot chow and shitting on an honest-to-God porcelain toilet that flushes. It doesn’t feel like you’ve failed your country or yourself or the Afghans you sought to help, not yet. Not when your platoon disperses and you’re alone, not when you pass out by the curb with an empty box of wine in your lap, not when your wife tells you that being around you is like walking on glass.

 The author's wife walks ahead of him in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's wife walks ahead of him in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Drew Pham

When summer comes, your body remembers the fighting season, and you learn to hate summer forever. Because you’ve seen combat, because you’ve killed a man, they send you away to train West Point cadets. You wonder if a single one of them is ready, if you could bear the idea that they might one day lead your little brother into battle; he’s in Afghanistan now, continuing what you started. Here, you try to whip the cadets into shape. On exercise, you feel the simulacrum of war, the burnt gunpowder and artillery blasts and the breathless rotor wash of a Chinook. You can’t bear it, and on a weekend pass you fuck a woman who reminds you of your wife but isn’t. When you return to your unit, you steal from the supply room and get caught and dump all your antidepressants into the toilet and your wife learns what you’ve done.

You wonder if you planned all this, pushing everyone away, sabotaging your career, giving yourself a reason to finally do it. This is when you try to kill yourself. You wait until you’re alone, but your wife walks in on you, and you push her away, but she persists, grabbing the needle in your hand, and you pin her to the wall trying to get it back, but she’s crying and you’re crying and next thing you know, the police come, guns drawn, to take you away to a psych ward where you stay drugged for a week. There are days you wake wishing you’d died over there.

 A Brooklyn, New York stairwell, after the author's redeployment. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A Brooklyn, New York stairwell, after the author's redeployment. Courtesy of Drew Pham

But you go on living. The base general gives you a slap on the wrist for stealing government property. You get off easy because you’ve seen combat, because you’ve killed a man. It doesn’t feel right. You’re surprised when your papers read Honorable under the Character of Service block. They send you home with a salute, and your mother, who faced American bombs, frames your Bronze Star Medal, and your friends and coworkers won’t say anything for fear of triggering you—you, the crazy veteran; you, the almost-statistic of 20 suicides a day. And your wife remains beside you.

You get your first real civilian job at the local refugee agency. There, you see droves of Iraqis and Afghans who’ve fled just like your parents. This is what failure feels like. You sing to a bald little girl whose cancer your military brought to her country, and this will be the first time you cry all year. This is what defeat feels like. And then you get sick. Cancer, just like that girl. In the hospital room where they wage a scorched-earth campaign on your insides, your interpreter calls you, frantic, begging you to get him out of Afghanistan, and you tell him you can do nothing. In the hospital room, you watch CNN as Iraq burns and Afghanistan experiences what your doctors might call an aggressive recurrence—metastasizing, terminal. And to cure you, the doctors steal your one last chance of redemption, your one last resort to make up for the lives you ruined and took. You can’t have children anymore, but the doctors are optimistic because your five-year survival rate has risen to 85 percent.

Let’s say you make it through all this. Let’s say you learn and grow and learn to love the war less than your wife. Let’s say there’s hope. One three-day weekend down the road, at the end of May, your little brother posts photographs of his dead friends on social media. When you call him, you talk about the month’s casualties—today, a dead paratrooper who was five when the war started—but you can’t bring yourself to tell him you’re afraid for him. You hang up without saying I love you, and in your regret, you wonder if your Afghan friends are still alive. You wonder if the man you killed had children—a little girl like you’d wanted. You wonder when the first soldier who wasn’t alive when the war began will become its latest casualty. You wonder if it would’ve been better to die over there than to live with all these questions—as if wondering could save those children and resurrect the dead and remake you into the man you were before the war.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.

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His Eyes Lifted Toward the Sky


Sarah Holzhalb wonders if the migrants she and her Coast Guard boat scooped out of the water are alive today, and what lives they returned to.

His Eyes Lifted Toward the Sky


Sarah Holzhalb wonders if the migrants she and her Coast Guard boat scooped out of the water are alive today, and what lives they returned to.

By Sarah Holzhalb

He was no more than 10 years old. His slender face was tilted skyward, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes as I told him I was going to remove the contents of his pockets. From the back pocket of his dirty jeans I took a yellow toothbrush. That can be filed down into a weapon, I told myself, and tossed it into the confiscation bag. From his front pockets I pulled out some pieces of hard candy and three condoms still in their gold foil wrapping. My gaze flew from my left hand holding candy, to my right holding condoms, to his young, silent, unquestioning face. Throwing the condoms into the ever-growing confiscation bag, I tried not to think of the reasons why a boy his age had them in the first place. None of the stories I told myself were good ones.

 A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti. The photograph was taken on an operation the author, Sarah Holzhalb, conducted. Courtesy of USCG photo by PA3 Stacey Pardini

A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti. The photograph was taken on an operation the author, Sarah Holzhalb, conducted. Courtesy of USCG photo by PA3 Stacey Pardini

I told him he could keep his candy, and I shoved the jewel-colored pieces back into his pocket with my latex-gloved hand. Besides his baby face, the candy was the only thing that reflected his age, given his other confiscated possessions and the striped polo shirt and jeans that hung off him. I stared after him as our lone interpreter, who was himself Haitian born, escorted him away to ask him further questions. His parents weren’t in the group, nor did he know any of the hundreds of adults he was traveling with.

My roommate and I were the only females among our shipmates that made up our 100-person crew. Perhaps because we seemed less intimidating, we were tasked with searching babies and children, and ensuring they were reunited with their loved ones. A little less than a week later, we delivered the little boy and the approximately 350 others we’d rescued from their unseaworthy vessel back to Haiti, where they were ferried to shore in small groups via multiple trips made by our small boats. Our ship remained at anchor in Port-au-Prince Harbor.

I never found out whether he was an orphan or how he found himself on the dilapidated sailboat in the first place. The vessel, with its rotten wood and grimy, torn sails flapping uselessly in the wind, also carried a small family that was offered asylum in a country other than the U.S., but they refused: “The United States or nothing.” They received the latter, and I thought of how reckless a decision this was on their part. Any place had to be better than Haiti if escaping on that near-shipwreck of a boat seemed their only option.

We would remain at anchor for days in the often breezeless Port-au-Prince Harbor as a security presence, the constant, putrid odor of burning rubber, dirt, and garbage coming from land permeating all corners of the ship and our clothes. With not much to do and anchored with nowhere to go, I had too much time to think about what all those people we had taken care of for days were doing now. A part of me was happy not to be patrolling the Caribbean Sea searching for more migrants to return.

 Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

I’d joined the nation’s oldest seagoing service because its primary mission is saving lives. My first tour as an officer in the Coast Guard was on a 270-foot cutter, a ship that conducted search and rescue missions and law enforcement operations, narcotic and migrant interdiction. Though the drug traffickers eluded us, we did interdict a lot of migrants. Most were Haitians fleeing the deplorable human rights conditions, police violence, and unrest that began under the rule of Haiti’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and that continued even after he resigned and fled to exile in February 2004. Some of the migrants we picked up were Cuban nationals fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist rule, as thousands and thousands had done in the decades since he’d initially come to power. Each time we’d return migrants to the countries they’d been fleeing, I wondered what might happen to them. Haitians walked up the shore back into their chaotic and crumbled city, as if no one realized they were ever gone. Cuba welcomed home its fleeing migrants with fear and implied threats of violence.

“Socialismo o Muerte”—Socialism or Death—graced the cracked concrete sea wall in bright red and blue graffiti as our patrol boat entered the small canal to Bahia de Cabanas. At the territorial sea line, a drab, gray Cuban Navy patrol boat met us to escort our ship into Cuban waters. We motored along at a few knots, maintaining a courteous speed so as not to create a wake that would bounce between the maze of green, tangled mangroves lining the canal. The blue-mirrored lenses of my silver Oakleys hid my watchful eyes. We kept watch on our passengers sitting on the deck, facing aft so they couldn’t see where we were going, to make sure they didn’t jump overboard in one last attempt to escape. I’ve wondered how many of them already knew where they were, how many of them had been through this same exercise with us before. As we got closer to mooring, I tried to eavesdrop on their whispered Spanish but couldn’t understand much. The captain maneuvered the ship alongside a cement slab that could barely be called a pier, and on it waited a military-style van manned by two uniformed Cuban men holding AK-47s.

 The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck. While the migrants were onboard, they were housed on the flight deck. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck. While the migrants were onboard, they were housed on the flight deck. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

“We see again, gracias,” the migrants said in a jumble of two languages, laughing slightly, as they disembarked our boat and walked toward the men with guns. What happens to them, I wondered, after they get into the van? I wonder today if they’re still alive, and if they got a chance to try again as they said they would.

We had plucked these fleeing souls from the overpacked sailboat that seemed on the verge of breaking and delivered them right back to the hell they’d tried to escape and to an unknown fate. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to want simple freedoms so much that I would get on some scrap of material—a rubber dinghy, a vessel made of empty plastic gasoline cans screwed together, anything that appears it can float—with nothing more than a phone number in my pocket to bob around on the vast, unforgiving sea with no shelter from the elements, hoping that the currents eventually would bring me to the U.S. How bad, I wondered, would your life have to be that you would take such a chance?

•••

Sarah Holzhalb was a Coast Guard officer from 2002-2007, serving both afloat and ashore tours. She received her B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.P.S. from the George Washington University. Sarah works for Team RWB, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. She lives in Louisiana and enjoys reading, running trails, and being outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter @SarahHolzhalb.

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Finding Herself on a Cross-Country Run


Maggie Seymour set out on a cross-country run to reconnect with herself and find the ground under her feet. Along the way she found a sense of home.

Finding Herself on a Cross-Country Run


Maggie Seymour set out on a cross-country run to reconnect with herself and find the ground under her feet. Along the way she found a sense of home.

By Maggie Seymour

My route took me through the plains, teeming with bugs, the heat unable to suppress the constant yet ever-changing buzzing. The sun beat down on the windswept plains, and the stalks of wheat that had bent and been warped with each gust were baked by the late summer heat. Each time a stranger stopped me along the route, slowing their massive pickup trucks to the shoulder to politely offer support or to ask questions, I was jolted out of my head and back to a world with people, as though a circuit breaker had flipped. Until finally I didn’t want to see anyone.

 The author, Maggie Seymour, photographed the setting sun over the Henderson's cattle ranch in Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

The author, Maggie Seymour, photographed the setting sun over the Henderson's cattle ranch in Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

I’d set out across the country in July to find a part of myself and to reconnect with the small-town middle American I had left so many years ago, before college and then the Marine Corps bounced me between coasts and continents. I craved isolation beginning the very day I set out. Staying with strangers required energy I didn’t have left; it meant putting on my Run Free Run face, the outgoing, cheerful Maggie the civilized world and the nonprofit I was running for seemed to demand. It meant smiling as my right foot continued to scream from what I could only imagine to be 100 tiny tears and waxing on about how lucky I was to be able to complete such an adventure.

But halfway through my cross-country run—48 days in—I realized I felt more disconnected from myself than I had when I started. Thinking it would be good for me to relax and recover in the company of loving Texans, a mutual friend set me up to spend two days at Terry and Brad Henderson’s ranch in Canadian, Texas. By the time I got to the eastern Texas Panhandle, I wanted to be alone in my feeling of disconnection. But the Hendersons, who became Gold Star parents in 2006, brought me back.

Brad and Terry greeted my support drive and me with smiles and hugs, and helped us bring our bags into the house. “Your rooms are upstairs,” they said. I tried not to let my face betray anything less than the gratitude I didn’t fully feel. Climbing even a few stairs felt like running a marathon, the pain in my foot matched by the tightness in my hips and knees. Anything that didn’t get me closer to the Atlantic Ocean had begun to feel like wasted work. They ushered me into their daughter’s room. Brad and Terry assured us they wouldn’t be a bother and that we could spend as much time alone as we wanted. I tried to ignore how thankful I felt, because I was overcome with guilt for wanting to be alone. I showered and tried to wash away the miles, and then reluctantly I headed downstairs.

As I waited for dinner, I hobbled around their house, thinking about how different my dream home would be, until I noticed the round pegs that held the support beams together. I quietly snapped a photo to send to my mom. She and my dad had finished their dream house just a few years back, a cabin-styled home in which my father had used pegs to cover nails, a fact he proudly boasts to anyone who visits. Maybe it was that detail or maybe it was the restful quiet I finally felt, but in an instant the family I had just met felt familiar. And for the first time during the run, I felt like I was home.

 The author, Maggie Seymour, relaxes during her tour of Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

The author, Maggie Seymour, relaxes during her tour of Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

On the first night, over a meal of stir-fry and homemade ice cream, Terry and Brad shared stories of the hours their son had put into training for football and academic teams when he was in high school. He compensated for any lack of natural talent with determination and a down-home Texan work ethic, eventually graduating salutatorian of his high school class. With that same doggedness, they said, he had pursued flight training with the U.S. Army, where he became Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson and began flying the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. He died in an aircraft crash in Balad, Iraq, in 2006; the military ruled it the result of bad weather conditions.

His parents reminded me of my grandparents: the way they told stories that they’d been telling for 30 years; Terry’s no-nonsense way of speaking; and Brad’s mischievous grin when he shared a cooking secret or helpful household hint: “Did you know if you spray some vanilla on a paper towel and throw that into the cooler, it’ll stop that musty smell?”

With every bite of peach cobbler and every story they told about their family, a calm settled. I felt a little more myself, and my self-pity melted away and my leg muscles began to release. My persistent loneliness, a partner for over 1,000 miles, felt less profound as Brad and Terry told a story of driving 14 hours round-trip to get Miles to a wedding that had meant so much to him. Their stories of Miles and how much they loved him reminded me of long trips my own parents made to support me. And I heard my mother’s voice when Terry said, “Miles wasn’t always the most naturally gifted person in the class, but he was determined. Nobody would outwork him.”

Their stories of Canadian, a small Texas town, felt familiar too. We stopped by Terry’s mother’s house on the second day to pick up the newspaper, and I smiled, thinking about how my own mother and grandmother had shared a paper before my grandmother passed away. It was a different town with the same stories.

 On a tour around town with Brad Henderson, the author stopped by a field house that the community had dedicated to the Henderson's son, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

On a tour around town with Brad Henderson, the author stopped by a field house that the community had dedicated to the Henderson's son, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

Eight years after Miles’ death, the Hendersons began thinking about leaving Canadian. “The town had changed,” Brad told my support driver and me while he showed us around the next day. “We didn’t really tell anyone, but we were looking at property in Montana,” he said. Shortly after they had begun considering the move, the community dedicated the field house next to the high school football field to Miles, a surprise to the Hendersons and a reminder that they weren’t alone in their grief and their love for their son. “I guess we didn’t realize how much Miles meant to this place, and how much this place meant to us,” pointing to the fieldhouse. With that neighborly gesture, Canadian began to feel like a community the Hendersons hadn’t known they had. It was yet another story that reminded me of my own home.

Terry joined me for a couple of miles when I started out on the road the following day. She was already dressed for a run by the time I mosied down the stairs in the morning. As we begin our quick pre-run routine—couple of sips of water, the beginning of the day photo, undirected stretches—the fear and anger that had coursed through me in the week prior felt like a distant memory. As I took off from that day’s starting line, laughing with Terry about her old bones compared to my beaten joints, I felt only echoes of that pain and isolation.

•••

Maggie spent 10 years on active duty as an intelligence officer with the Marine Corps. She transitioned to the reserves by running across the country (www.runfreerun.com). She holds a PhD in international relations and is currently studying journalism at Mizzou.

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Irish Mist Adrift in the Fog of War


Brendan O’Byrne returned home from the Korengal to a chorus of civilians calling him a hero. For years he’s struggled to define that word for himself.

Irish Mist Adrift in the Fog of War


Brendan O’Byrne returned home from the Korengal to a chorus of civilians calling him a hero. For years he’s struggled to define that word for himself.

By Brendan O'Byrne

A small line of people formed in front of the stage; some of them offered a handshake or a thank you, a few wanted to tell me a story about their own experience, and others asked a question or two. An older woman approached alongside a tall man who hunched at the shoulders and wore a beard that hid any expression. They both wore casual clothing. Light blue specks of splattered paint polka-dotted her pair of faded jeans. She wore a light-colored fleece and thick-framed reading glasses. She had aged kindly. The corners of her eyes and mouth wrinkled to show years of smiles and laughter. It seemed like some of those small lines were damp. Gray streaks highlighted her black hair. She carried a copy of War, by Sebastian Junger, with my face on the cover staring out at nothing. She’d tucked the book under her arm to keep both her hands free to grasp mine.

 The author of this piece, Brendan O'Byrne, is pictured on the cover of  War , Sebastian Junger's book about his time in the Korengal Valley with Battle Company 2-503rd’s story

The author of this piece, Brendan O'Byrne, is pictured on the cover of War, Sebastian Junger's book about his time in the Korengal Valley with Battle Company 2-503rd’s story

“I just wanted to thank you for your service and your honesty up there on stage today,” she said as she took my hand with both of hers while maintaining direct eye contact. She wore a small, sad smile and didn’t blink. “The fighting you boys did for ... us ... ” Her voice trailed off as she tried to find words. “Well, no one should have to go through what you and your friends did.” It humbled me into awkwardness for my experience to be honored by my elders. I quickly thanked her as I studied my dress shoes. I may have even told her it wasn’t so bad out there just to make her feel better. I was aware that she was old enough to have possibly said the same words 50 years earlier to an entirely different group of returning veterans, maybe even to the man standing beside her. “It would be an honor if you could sign this,” releasing my hands and untucking the copy of Battle Company 2-503rd’s story.

She made small talk about my speech and said she’d watched the documentary, “Restrepo,” as I signed my name underneath the big block letters of WAR. “I have to admit, from the movie, I thought you’d be bigger.”

I finished signing the book and handed it back while thinking of how to respond. Her kind eyes told me no harm was intended, it was just an observation, yet I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell her that the bigger the guy, the bigger the target. I wanted to tell her how the men who could walk like goats through the Hindu Kush mountains with 100 pounds on their backs were shorter than her, which I guessed to be just a few inches over five feet. I bit my tongue when I began to tell her that “Restrepo” wasn’t a movie and there were no actors cast for the part.

 RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

My emotions in check, I told her that most of the men I had served with were no bigger than me. I added, politely, that the legendary Spartans averaged five-foot-six.” With more people in line behind her, we said our quick goodbyes.

But her observation bugged me the rest of the day, and I couldn’t understand why. It bugged me so much that I began my next speech by asking the audience, “By a show of hands, who thought I would be bigger?”

Between the chuckles, dozens of hands raised. I laughed with them.

 Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and Ross Murphy (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo – the outpost is the focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and Ross Murphy (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo – the outpost is the focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Around this time, 2013, I was speaking regularly around the country about my combat deployment and the journey back home to a range of people: veterans, college students, mental health professionals, and anyone else who would listen.

After the encounter with the woman, I began each speech with that question and received the same response. At the end of each speech, the little line formed with the same kind of questions and the same kind of praise, “Your friends and you are our country’s heroes.” Or something very similar.

 Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films

Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films

The almost universal reactions, observations, and questions from the audiences exposed a misconception in our country about veterans, and more broadly, about how we define “hero.” It wasn’t just the audiences that were confused about veterans and heroes. I was, too.

I had strong mixed emotions about what service to my country meant to me. I served six years in the Army, and in May 2007, I deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, for 15 months. I lived those long, hard months with my own well-being and needs second to those of the group. That is the mentality in combat; it is always “we.”

I was and am proud that I served honorably.

Yet, at the end of our deployment when a Bronze Star was given to all the men who had served the full 15 months, to all the men I had fought alongside for 15 months, I was given a lesser award. An Army Commendation Medal. There was no explanation why. I have repeatedly asked my former leaders for a reason, but the closest thing to an answer cast blame on Army bureaucracy.

 Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

I didn’t care about the award itself, I cared about what the award represented: the Army recognizing the sacrifices and honoring the job we did. I was there doing the same job and sacrificing the same as everyone else, but when the Army recognized me with a lesser award, it effectively told me that my service wasn’t equal to theirs. It shattered my idea of what my service meant to me and to the Army I’d fought for. I felt betrayed, making my last few months of service more miserable than any war could.

I left the military in December 2008 with an honorable discharge and a lot of questions about what my service meant to me, the Army, and my country. It helped me to see that the crowds I spoke to were filled with a lot of the same kind of questions.

“A man can stand here and put all of America behind him.” –David Thoreau on Provincetown

 Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. – focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. – focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

A couple of years after finding out I was too small to be me, I was living on the eastern edge of the U.S.A. in Provincetown, Cape Cod. The small coastal town, as old as America’s story, was port for the Mayflower before the ship continued west to mainland Plymouth, Massachusetts. Nowadays, the visitors come to Provincetown by road rather than by sea. Provincetown is at the end of the 60-mile-long island, which draws two distinct types of people to the small town by the sea: ones who are incredibly lost or ones who have made the choice to be at the terminal point of a 60-mile island.

I was both as I dealt with a failed marriage, coped with the death of my father who’d died a year after my return from war, and tried to get a handle on a crippling alcohol problem, all while trying to find meaning in my now peaceful life. With combat’s constant deadly threat, to be alive and keep each other alive is meaning enough. Without that pressure, meaning became harder to define. While living in Provincetown and dealing with those issues, I continued to search how best to honor my military service, which had become harder to do as I struggled to reconcile being called a hero by the public, knowing what the Army thought of my service. I didn’t know who was right or if they were both wrong.

I was living illegally inside of an old, bare building that had been a ship-refitting wharf until a bunch of returning WWI veterans who wanted to make art and hang out with each other bought it and turned it into an artist club. They’d hardly changed the inside of the building, besides adding a huge fireplace, some long dinner tables, and a pool and billiards table. Nearly 100 years later when I lived there, the walls still hadn’t been insulated. During the winter it became so cold in the building that the top layer of the toilet water froze; I kept a stick next to the toilet to break the ice in order to go to the bathroom. I was given a studio with free room and board in return for taking care of the place and cleaning up the weekly dinner that had been eaten every Saturday since 1916. I slept in the studio’s loft on a worn mattress. From my window, I had a view of the harbor and the boats moored in it. I tried to create beautiful things from chunks of wood and stone; I sculpted the moored boats, figures of nude women, and primitive wooden clubs. It is the most healing place I have ever lived.

 The view from the author's studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The view from the author's studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

I also spent a lot of time on my leaky 25-foot fiberglass sailboat, The Irish Mist. When I lay in the boat’s damp cabin bed, rolling on the protected harbor’s swells, I felt so far from the country I had fought for and the questions about my service and honor, and so far from the feeling that my country and I didn’t know what the word hero actually meant.

My Provincetown P.O. box had a surprise waiting in early 2015, when the town was dead and there was hardly any news at all besides the howling winds of approaching nor’easters. The letter was from Cape Cod’s American Red Cross. Eight years separated the last time I had received a Red Cross message. The previous message found me at the tail end of a fighting season in the Korengal, October 2007, informing me that my younger sister was seriously hurt and that I needed to come home to possibly say my goodbye. Eight years later a dread washed over me as I opened the letter in the post office lobby. Luckily, the envelope contained no threat of possible goodbyes; rather, it shocked me to find a note congratulating me that I would be honored by Cape Cod’s Red Cross as a “Local Veteran Hero.”

I received the news with trepidation.

Before I could accept it, I needed to know what they were giving me the award for. If it was for my military service, I didn’t want it. Not that it wouldn’t have been an honor; it would’ve been. But it would have come from the wrong people. The Army should have honored and recognized my service to the country. I hadn’t reconciled those mixed feelings when the Red Cross letter came in the mail, but by that point I no longer wanted any award for the violence of war.

The Red Cross award started unraveling years of confusion for me about why being called a hero for my service hurt instead of feeling good. That woman with the book tucked under her arm, and all the ones who followed her, the audiences, and the country in general had a perception of me and my service. They thought I should be bigger, and they thought what I did overseas had made me a hero. On the other side of the spectrum was the Army, to whom I was just another number.

But to the local Red Cross, and my community, I was more. Through phone calls and emails with a Red Cross representative, I was relieved to learn they didn’t want to honor my military service directly. Instead, they wanted to honor my honest speeches about war and homecoming, the volunteer work I’d done with returning veterans, and the peace I worked toward in myself and my community.

 The author, Brendan O'Byrne, accepts an award from the American Red Cross. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The author, Brendan O'Byrne, accepts an award from the American Red Cross. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The award helped me clarify what a real veteran hero looks like and what it takes to become one. Serving honorably during combat, I’ve come to believe, is only the beginning. The next step starts when you return home, bringing with you the lessons you learned. In war, I learned that the most human thing we can do is put our own needs, wants, and ego second to the community we live in. The fallen in war have learned combat’s most profound lesson, and their deathly silence demands that we learn the cost of war. The living have valuable lessons about war’s toll as well, though, and I’ve hardly been asked about mine.

It finally clicked as I was writing my speech for the award ceremony that I hadn’t served the Army; I had served my country, the United States of America. To honor my own contribution, I’ve started taking my own advice and reminding myself that my service isn’t over yet. What I have learned is that I don’t want to be recognized and honored only for my contribution in war. We veterans have so much more to give and teach our country than just what we did overseas. To honor our service, civilians who haven’t served need to ask what we’ve learned, and veterans need to speak.

•••

Brendan O’Byrne is an Army veteran who served with the 173rd as an infantry sergeant in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. Since being home, he has worked to understand what it means to serve. O’Byrne uses speeches and writing to convey his war and homecoming story.

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As Iron-Filled Tears Stained the Deck


He bore his son’s body to the Americans’ base and let the blood drip and congeal on the wooden deck. And then he left, and left the blood behind.

As Iron-Filled Tears Stained the Deck


He bore his son’s body to the Americans’ base and let the blood drip and congeal on the wooden deck. And then he left, and left the blood behind.

By Jackie Munn

The body was lying on an army field stretcher, nestled between the olive green metal bars, drooping lifelessly on the black mesh fabric. I could see black tufts of hair sticking out from the blue tarp they’d used to cover the body. Congealed blood and dirt sprinkled throughout his hair like a deathly version of confetti. Slowly, small pools of blood began collecting underneath the stretcher, each drop clinging to the body in vain before succumbing to gravity. Drip. Drip. Drip.

An elderly Afghan man wearing a dusty brown shalwar kameez stood over the stretcher. He mumbled Pashtu while one of his stubby hands rubbed the back of his neck exasperatedly, gesturing aimlessly with the other. He kept pointing dejectedly between the lifeless body and desolate land outside the combat outpost’s HESCO walls.

He paused, soaking in the translation. Our interpreter explained to our small gathered group—a military physician assistant, a few infantry medics, and myself—that the man was the father of the deceased. He was looking for compensation for his son who had died at the hands of a neighbor after disputing land rights. The father had brought the body to the outpost in the hopes that it might garner sympathy from the Americans. Maybe we’d help with retaliation or possibly provide a payout to help alleviate the burden the family now faced—one less set of hands to help out in the fields.

 A security checkpoint along the Pakistan border. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

A security checkpoint along the Pakistan border. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

The weary old man grasped the end of the blue tarp, snapping it back to reveal the lifeless face of his dead son, whose bloodshot eyes stared blankly at the endless Afghan sky. The son’s mouth was gaping open, the expression of horror from the moment he’d taken his last breath set on his face. I could see now that a sizeable chunk of his scalp was missing; his brain matter, flesh, and bone were mangled in a thick, mushy mess. The father gestured again between his deceased son and the barren land beyond the outpost’s walls, imploring us, it seemed, to intercede, to pay up.

This was the first dead body I’d ever seen. Standing mere feet from the corpse, I was struck by an awful ambivalence. Certainly, people die every day; and yet, being so close—physically and chronologically—to the death of this farmer who had died for disputing his property lines felt surreal.

Unlike back home, where death feels sterile and hidden from public attention, or combat KIAs, where emotion and chaos fill every space with immeasurable density, this felt uncomfortably normal. As though untimely death was so rampant and expected in Afghanistan that bartering over your son’s freshly dead body barely merited a raised eyebrow or a second thought.

As our interpreter finished translating, everyone became fixated on the stretcher and the dead Afghan corpse. The drops of blood continued to slowly drip, staining the wooden deck below. Drip. Drip.

The silence was eventually broken by the physician assistant, his words snapping my attention back to reality, shocking my senses awake. His voice was focused, deliberate, but tinged with remorse. He explained through the interpreter that it wasn’t U.S. policy to intercede in tribal disputes, and that the U.S. made payouts only if U.S. forces were involved in the death. That’s fairly well known in Afghanistan; the father had to know that.

Looking at the father, the physician assistant shrugged his shoulders, his lips slightly down-turned, cocking his head to one side as if to say, My hands are tied, I’m sorry.

The elderly Afghan man stared at the physician assistant, his brown shalwar kameez flapping loosely in the gentle wind. His hand stopped rubbing the back of his neck; his other lay limply by his round torso. He seemed frozen, or at least at a loss for words.

The physician assistant recommended the father speak with the local Afghan elders and district governor—perhaps they could help? The interpreter initially matched the tone and tenor of the physician assistant’s intention, but by the end of his translation, the words seemed to come across hurried and impatient.

 HESCO walls lining the Combat Outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

HESCO walls lining the Combat Outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

Again the group froze, transfixed by the corpse lying on the wooden deck outside the outpost’s trauma center, a modest plywood hut. Watching the blood continue to drip, I kept imagining all the little droplets that marked the journey from his small farming village to our little base. His blood continued to seep from his gaping wounds, staining the ground like iron-filled tears. Drip.

The father hung his head for a moment, as though he were deciding whether it was worth it to push us harder or to just give up. He snapped his head up and began hurling impatient Pashtu at the Afghan men who’d driven him onto the outpost in their ragged old Toyota Hilux. The men moved deftly, grabbing the ends of the stretcher then whisking the dead body away to the bed of the truck; the blue tarp whipped in the breeze, snapping back and forth like the rapid movements of Afghan men who departed with obvious indignation.

They were gone in the blink of an eye. One minute we were witness to a father bartering over his son’s dead body; the next, we were watching the trail of dust as their broken-down pickup sped away.

I stared at the pool of congealed blood on the wooden deck. It looked so mundane, like red wine the father had spilled and left behind for someone else to clean up.

•••

Jackie Munn is an Army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a Logistics Officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.

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Gold Star on Graduation Day


Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s father died in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. Since then she’s had two separate graduations—both were on the anniversary of his death.

Gold Star on Graduation Day


Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s father died in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. Since then she’s had two separate graduations—both were on the anniversary of his death.

By Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I held it together pretty well. I smiled and laughed with my classmates the morning of our graduation ceremony. Surrounded by giddy undergrads in bright red robes, we wore our all-black regalia, setting us apart as graduate students, proudly. I didn’t cry when my classmates and I lined up and marched into the tennis stadium-turned-auditorium to our cheering family and friends, and I didn’t cry when the commencement speaker, award-winning photographer Camilo José Vergara, shared a picture he took of the smoky New York City skyline following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even though it was events following those attacks that led me to New York City in the first place. My eyes began to mist, nose began to run, but I bit back my tears; I could fall apart later.

 A young John McHugh during flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1988. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

A young John McHugh during flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1988. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I graduated with a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from the New School on May 18, 2018—exactly eight years after my father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Tuesday, May 18, 2010, a Taliban suicide bomber drove his explosive-packed vehicle into my father’s convoy, killing him, four other American soldiers, and a Canadian Colonel instantly. My father wasn’t deployed; he was only supposed to be there for 10 days. As a member of the Basic Command Training Program based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was in Afghanistan to survey the area in order to better help prepare Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division for its deployment that fall.

As I sat at my graduation ceremony exactly eight years later, I thought of my dad. I thought of the two soldiers who showed up at my family’s doorstep to break the news and the confusing days that followed his death. I’d felt this way before, though. My graduation from the New School wasn’t the first graduation day I’ve shared with the anniversary of my father’s death.

The week he was killed, I was home in Kansas preparing for finals week of my freshman year in college. I had good grades that semester and felt confident going into finals week, but I wouldn’t wind up taking them. I don’t know who notified my school of my father’s death, but they exempted me from tests that week and gave me “as much time as I felt I needed” to make them up.

In the days and the months following May 18, 2010, my education was the last thing on my mind. I dropped out of the summer classes I had planned on taking and stopped looking into all the schools my dad had spent hours researching for me; I had intended to transfer that fall. When it came to college, my dad had done everything for me. Without him, I was lost.

I wound up transferring to Kansas State University in the spring of 2011. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the G.I. Bill or about the numerous scholarship organizations available to Gold Star children, a title I was still getting used to after spending the first 18 years of my life referring to myself as an Army brat. All I knew was that K-State was a quick two-hour drive from Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, where my father is buried, and that its journalism program was a good fit, mostly because it took the majority of my transferred credits.

 Kelly (left), her youngest brother David (front), her mother Connie and her sisters, Kristen and Maggie, pose for a photo following her graduation from Kansas State University on May 18, 2013. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Kelly (left), her youngest brother David (front), her mother Connie and her sisters, Kristen and Maggie, pose for a photo following her graduation from Kansas State University on May 18, 2013. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

During my time at K-State I got to know a fellow Gold Star child, Josh Harrison, son of Army Colonel James Harrison, who was killed in action at Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. Josh helped me figure out the Gold Star child chapter of the G.I. Bill and introduced me to an organization that would change my life, Children of Fallen Patriots. Fallen Patriots offered more than a scholarship; it offered me a safety net and a community of other Gold Star families with whom I could share my struggles. With Josh and Children of Fallen Patriots behind me, I had a support system again.

I was proud of myself when I found out that, despite transferring and despite dropping summer classes, I didn’t have to take a fifth year of college and that I’d graduate from Kansas State in May of 2013 as planned. I didn’t know that would mean graduating on the three-year anniversary of my father’s death.

As I walked across the stage of Bramlage Coliseum and received my diploma on May 18, 2013, the local news station, Topeka’s WIBW, had its cameras fixed on me. Diploma case in hand, I flashed a smile at the camera then looked up into the bleachers and saw my mom and siblings. I began to sob. My story headlined WIBW’s broadcast that evening.

“It’s like he was right there with you,” I remember a family friend saying as she draped her arm over my shoulder during my backyard graduation party.

The first time I graduated on the anniversary of my father’s death felt like fate. A passion for learning, for education, was something he and I had shared. I wouldn’t have made it through undergrad without the preparation and guidance he’d provided me in the years leading up to his death. I wouldn’t have graduated without the scholarships offered to me because of his sacrifice.

But I didn’t want to share the date the second time around. My husband and I took a leap of faith when we moved from Kansas to New York City so I could pursue my master’s degree in creative writing and spend two years fully focused on writing a book about my father. I’ve spent two years absorbed in his life—in notes, news articles, photo albums, and interviews with friends and family and colleagues—and when graduation rolled around, though it was fitting, I didn’t want to share that date again. I’d already spent one graduation balancing being happy and being sad; this time, I just wanted to celebrate.

 Kelly McHugh-Stewart celebrates her graduation with her husband, Mark Stewart, outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on May 18, 2018. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Kelly McHugh-Stewart celebrates her graduation with her husband, Mark Stewart, outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on May 18, 2018. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I’ve come to learn that when you lose someone you love, the hurt shows up stronger during the happy times. I felt it during my wedding when I hugged my older brother before he walked me down the aisle, and I felt it each time I found out I’d soon be an aunt to a new niece or nephew. There’s an underlying sadness that comes with the joy.

Dad would be so proud.

I know that the sadness I felt during my graduations would have still been there regardless of the date. Even if I had graduated on a different day in May, the tears still would have formed as I looked up at my family cheering me on and thought about the absence of my father.

Sharing my graduation date, twice now, with the anniversary of his death has been bittersweet. Both times it has been emotional, but it has also been a powerful reminder of the strength it took to get back on my feet. It’s a statement: I did not let the terrorist who took my father’s life defeat me, and I am far from done when it comes to living my life to make my father proud.

After saying goodbye to my classmates, my husband and I, hand in hand like when we had first moved to New York, headed to catch our train home.

“My dad would have thought this stadium was so cool,” I told my husband. We walked past walls decorated with photos of the tennis greats who had graced the courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium and toward the stadium’s big, gated exit. My dad was, still is, the biggest sports fan I know.

My husband put his arm around me and squeezed, and it was then I finally let myself go.

•••

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a New York City-based writer currently working on a book about her father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, who was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.

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Unclear All-Clear and a Requisite for Air


One night stuck in a shipping container during an air raid drill is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Problem is, Yvette Pino already was.

Unclear All-Clear and a Requisite for Air


One night stuck in a shipping container during an air raid drill is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Problem is, Yvette Pino already was.

By Yvette Pino

I always felt claustrophobic in my gas mask. My breathing would become stunted, like food going down the wrong pipe. To prevent hyperventilating, I had a ritual when masked: search for the built-in drinking straw with my tongue in an attempt to drink water. I’d unsnap my canteen holster with my left hand and unhook the exterior drinking tube on the mask with my right. My tongue would dance inside my mask, and I’d begin to produce an excess of saliva, another disruption to my breathing; my frustration would grow when I couldn’t wrangle the straw. It would jostle, flip, and stick to the top of my lip. My tongue would lunge out to capture the rubber tube, I’d bite down, and wedge it up between the one-eighth-inch gap between my front teeth. I would inhale my spit, snort air in through my nose, and tilt my canteen upside down, angling my head to get the best flow of water, and my gas mask asana was then complete. It was the right amount of distraction to make the claustrophobia less acute.

We’d become accustomed to hearing the air raid siren throughout the day, but we were especially aware of it at night. Interrupted sleep had become the norm, and the notion of a good night’s rest was nothing but a fairy tale. That night started out like they all had. We’d received our briefing, reviewed the guard duty schedule, and coordinated wake-up calls. Individually prepared uniform piles lined the aisles and were arranged in a firefighter style with boots unlaced, pant legs placed inside and scrunched down so we could lunge into them and be ready to move. At the foot of each cot sat rucksacks with butterflied flak vests resting on top. Kevlars were balanced strategically to be plucked suddenly. There were several camps located within a short distance of one another, and sometimes we could hear sirens faintly, in the distance, and would debate whether or not it was for our camp. Eventually the volume would reach the right decibel to confirm that the warning was for us—or not—and we would act accordingly.

 Soldiers of the 101st drive by the shipping container that was used as makeshift shelter in the desert of Kuwait prior to entering Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

Soldiers of the 101st drive by the shipping container that was used as makeshift shelter in the desert of Kuwait prior to entering Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

It was lights-out, and most of us had faded off to sleep. Around midnight, the faded howl of the siren began; I wasn’t sure if it was real or if my sleep-deprived mind was playing a cruel game of air raid tinnitus. No one else seemed to be reacting. False alarm, I thought, and slumped back down, closing my eyes. Within seconds the warning cry, this time at the right decibel, found its way to our horns, and we were jolted from our slumbers in an instant rage of seek shelter, seek shelter, seek shelter.

Sergeant Quetot and I had it perfectly timed: 25 seconds from siren to tent flap. We slept on opposite sides of the tent and had agreed that we would be each other’s battle buddy each time we made the mad dash. The shelter was a 20-foot shipping container hugged by five rows of neatly piled sandbags. This is where all E-5s and enlisted soldiers from the headquarters platoon and the 101st Band were assigned to go. Every time the alarm would sound we assumed the threat was real and dispersed hurriedly, filling the container’s entire square footage, in full battle rattle, woven together like human chainmail.

Sergeant Quetot and I were one of the first groups to arrive, but we were separated moments after completing our canteen ritual as the soldiers surged into the shelter. I was pushed to the back as bodies piled in, and soon found myself compacted between soldiers with no room to move my arms. I panicked when I realized I wouldn’t be able to drink water as a way to calm my breathing. I would have to close my eyes and accept this fate. I convinced myself that it was only temporary and that soon I would be outside, with my mask off, taking in the sand-crusted air once more.

There came a dull screech, and the knuckled moan of metallic hinges bearing too much weight slowed time. I heard the pin rotate, the reverberating verification that open was now closed. The door was forcibly aligned and the judder of the latch, rotating downward, pushing into the locking fasteners, sealed us in with a finality that hushed the room as we collectively paused to comprehend what we’d just heard.

“Did they just seal the door?” someone up front said.

“They know better than that, right?”

“Everybody just stop!” I heard someone yell.

“They will realize it and open it back up, just calm down and shut up.”

It was silent with the exception of muffled breathing. We were lit by the subtle glow of the green clip lights fastened to our vests. It was like we were all counting down in our heads how many seconds it would take to walk away, for them to realize what they’d done, to turn around to correct their mistake.

We waited.

No one returned. There we stood, stuck inside this corrugated metal box, contained, but so exposed.

Reality started sinking in, and some people ignored the plea for silence. I drank in the details of the moment, standing in the cargo container, memorizing everything I was experiencing. My knuckle scraped against the front-end sight of someone’s rifle, and my ammo pouch snagged on the handgrip of another. Every time someone tried to adjust positions, my shoulders would shimmy. I became a little weeble-wobble hoisted around, hovering in imagined elevation.

 “We were lit by the subtle glow of green clip-lights fastened to our vests.” Drawing on paper, 2018. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

“We were lit by the subtle glow of green clip-lights fastened to our vests.” Drawing on paper, 2018. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

After a few minutes, an uproar of sighs and aghast exclamations from the front end started a second wave of panic.

“What is going on?”

“Oh, that’s disgusting.”

“Do not take off your mask! Do not, YOU CAN NOT TAKE OFF YOUR MASK!”

Soon the shock turned to concern, to reassurance, and back to concern, and finally to guilt.

“I know it’s hard, but you cannot take off your mask until the all-clear.”

“She won’t be able to breath anyway, she’ll choke on it.”

“Try to relax.”

“You try to relax! She’s trapped inside that thing with a pool of vomit.”

A collective gasp of disgust and sympathy sighed out in the acknowledgement of what was happening. Our posture slumped in unison. Time passed with only sporadic reassurances from the front. I wondered if she had stayed masked, or if all caution had been thrown to the wind.

And then the siren’s cry was muted.

We waited a few minutes more.

 The author, Yvette Pino, kept always kept a sketchbook with her. She drew this image the day after her group was locked inside a shipping container used as a makeshift shelter. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

The author, Yvette Pino, kept always kept a sketchbook with her. She drew this image the day after her group was locked inside a shipping container used as a makeshift shelter. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

Never had the reverberation of swiveling metal been so resonant.

We had never been locked and sealed in that container before. I doubt the personnel on the other side anticipated the bellowed charge of the trapped soldiers as we spilled out in a furious rage. We must have looked like a scene from one of those horror movies where maggots emerge from punctured decaying flesh and swarm in every direction looking for their next place to nibble. It certainly felt like that. By the time I reached the front, it had already been established who was to blame. If ever there were a time to show disrespect to a non-commissioned officer, this was it. As soon as I stepped down and felt boot to sand, vignettes unfolded before me in a montage of accusations, consolations, ramifications, and explanations. Fury mixed with indifference mixed with fear.

I glanced to my right, and there she was, the soldier who had thrown up in her mask, being held up by the medic in an unrequited embrace. Her limp torso curved inward and her flaccid arms dangled to the side, and yet, she held onto her soiled mask. I wept without tears and was asphyxiated with melancholy. It was my friend and fellow cook. She was hard as nails, a tough single mother who’d distanced herself from stupidity and naiveté.

Looking back, I wonder if, in this moment, she was more horrified by the miserable experience of being trapped in her own vomit, or by the realization that her body’s vulnerability had betrayed her sturdy façade. Our core group gathered in an effort to comfort her, and we were dismissed, told to give her some space.

I walked away, thinking about her, thinking about all of us, and hoped that the masking and unmasking, this life of alarms versus all-clears, would soon be over and we wouldn’t have to live this way forever.

•••

Yvette M. Pino served with the 101st Airborne Division from 2002-2006. She earned a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011 and will receive a certificate in museum studies from Northwestern University in 2018. She currently works for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum as the traveling art exhibit coordinator, serves on the Madison Arts Commission, and sits on the board of the National Veteran Art Museum.

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Dress Blues and Triple C’s


Scott Reel learned quickly that he could resist the Corps’ structure and suffer, or he could play the part of the good Marine, do his time, and then leave.

Dress Blues and Triple C’s


Scott Reel learned quickly that he could resist the Corps’ structure and suffer, or he could play the part of the good Marine, do his time, and then leave.

By Scott Reel

I arrived at Fort Meade the day after the Twelve became 11. Number Twelve had drunk bleach and hanged himself with an extension cord. So my first day of MOS school, where I was training to become a combat correspondent—like Full Metal Jacket—was spent in a chapel.

The Twelve, as they were called by the platoon, had gotten into serious trouble for committing crimes involving drugs called Triple C’s. It seemed likely that the Marine Corps would discharge all of them—except, of course, the Marine we were going to see, who would now, ironically in death, forever be claimed by the beloved Corps—but that was all the information I could glean about the situation before entering the funeral service.

 Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, during Exercise Koolendong, August 2014. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, during Exercise Koolendong, August 2014. Courtesy of Scott Reel

I stood at attention in a pew next to two female Marines who had relinquished their bearing to emotion, allowing themselves not only feeling but also expression, which fascinated me. For that hour, they were not privates first class but rather Janelle and Casey, two normal grieving people in a uniform that, for them, didn’t suit the occasion, only detracted from it, even exacerbated it.

Staring into the eyes of the private’s portrait—which stood as erect and cold on the easel as he stood in the photograph itself next to his coffin—I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know him. I noticed, perhaps for the first time in four months, that I didn’t feel anything.

Taps began. The photo taken only a few months prior was nothing if not ironic. The dress blues that he wore, the same that every Marine wears for that exact photo in boot camp, were not his at all, nor were they real: They were actually more like aprons, cut in half in the back and tied around him. Appearance was more important than truth in that other world. Only a day ago, he was a criminal; today, lying frozen at attention in his eternal wooden rack, all that mattered was his title, Marine.

That night I cried on the six-inch mattress of my wooden rack, which was always immaculate, for the sheets and the blankets were bootbanded underneath such that no matter how hard one slept, the bed would always remain ready for inspection.  

I’d been given the top bunk by the same lance corporal who taught me the bootband trick, and I let the tears fall as they wished. I didn’t cry for that private first class, though; I cried for me, for both relief and horror. On the one hand, my bunk and I sat above it all, not only the situation—the Twelve and their fallen member—but also the eyes of every Marine at the MARDET, none of whom I felt I could yet trust. On the other hand, I lay just a few feet below the same ceiling from which, only a few doors down, that private first class I never knew had decidedly taken his own life.

The next morning Gunny addressed the platoon, standing at ease in formation, and told us that we were now on restriction: no off-base liberty, no recreation room, and no gym. Private First Class Pyle, a tall, lanky kid from Utah, leaned over and said, poignantly, with a psychotic grin, “One puppy pees on the floor, and they punish the litter.” A shiver ran down my spine, but right then I knew I could trust him.

Over the next five months, after our journalism classes, Pyle and I would sit on the smoke deck with the remaining members of the Twelve, where they could always be found. Usually one played a guitar, a few would dip, and a few others might smoke, but everyone would collectively attempt to identify the essential quality that made the MARDET, the building and all that came with it, insufferable.

 Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, participates in Marine Corps Martial Art Program training while at completing his Military Occupational Specialty school in Maryland. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, participates in Marine Corps Martial Art Program training while at completing his Military Occupational Specialty school in Maryland. Courtesy of Scott Reel

One day, after Pyle and I had achieved off-base liberty status, granted with seniority and good behavior, he asked me if I wanted to try Triple C’s and Delsym—the same drugs that had been the Twelve’s undoing. I said, “Yes,” unhesitatingly, without expression.

Pyle called Taxi Mike. He’d take the Marines to Baltimore strip clubs, buy them alcohol, allow them to buy drugs. He was our in, our key to the door of illicit opportunity.

Pyle told me to buy the Delsym; he’d buy the Triple C’s. In the back of the cab he dumped a handful of small red pills into my hand. I stuffed them all into my mouth and let the orange, viscous cough syrup carry them to my stomach. I set the empty bottle on my knee, wiped my mouth, and licked my lips, tasting the remnants of the sugar-coated pills and the orange-flavored Delsym. We went to the mall and waited.

After a few hours, I still felt nothing. Pyle, who sat next to me in one of the mall’s black massage chairs, giggled with his eyes closed. “Do you feel it? You should see it, man.” I felt nothing but agitation. I wanted to see what he saw, whatever came with the high we were chasing.

An hour later, I stood in front of the Marine on duty and signed the both of us in, talking calmly and lucidly, while Pyle snuck upstairs to our room. But as I attempted to place my foot down on the first step, I missed—reality unhinged. I stood half suspended from the railing, staring at blue-stained carpet only a foot from my face.

“You all right, lance corporal?” I heard from the duty. “Fine! I’m fine,” I said and rushed upstairs.  I sprinted down the hallway and bounced off of the walls trying to keep my balance. Reaching our room, I slammed the door and stared at Pyle with a wide-eyed grin. “Pyle, oh my God, I’m dying.”

 Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, presenting his thesis prior to graduating with a degree in english and philosophy at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2017. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, presenting his thesis prior to graduating with a degree in english and philosophy at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2017. Courtesy of Scott Reel

For the remainder of the night, locked in the fetal position, I danced in my mind, round and round with violent, vibrating colors and deep melodic sounds that filled me with exultation and terror. Would they catch me and discharge me? Would I be Number Thirteen? Would I wake up dead?

At this point, after four or five months at the MARDET, I had succumbed to both my depression and anxiety. I took Pyle’s prescribed “medicine” as well as those prescribed by the base’s medical—Ambien, antidepressants, something for nightmares—but none of it helped. Only after being imprisoned in complete darkness, only after being absolutely alone in my unbounded mind, swirling in a midst of confusion, did it become clear.

There was no way out, no escape from here or the Marine Corps. I looked down at my nametape, Reel. This is what I had signed up to do, so I’d better do it. Shortly thereafter, I became squad leader, acquired my green belt, and finished my second MOS.

Pyle changed MOSs and, I heard, was institutionalized. Finally, after being released back to his MOS school, but not before piloting an uprising, Pyle was separated from the Marine Corps. I’m sure his father, a sergeant major, didn’t understand.

As for me, when my master gunny first looked at his lance corporal—over a year into my enlistment, with a green belt, a first-class PFT, and a second MOS—I’m sure he didn’t understand either, the difference between Lance Corporal Reel and Scott Reel. Appearance mattered more than truth.

•••

Scott Reel is a former Marine Corps sergeant, serving four years as a combat correspondent and broadcast journalist. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in literature at New York University.

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Running Home After a Marathon of Funerals


Sarah Holzhalb endured a marathon of funerals shortly after separating from the Coast Guard. All these years later, the month of March still sucks.

Running Home After a Marathon of Funerals


Sarah Holzhalb endured a marathon of funerals shortly after separating from the Coast Guard. All these years later, the month of March still sucks.

By Sarah Holzhalb

With every step they would watch me, as the suffocating humidity of Louisiana summer drenched me in salty sweat. I’d like to think that they were silently cheering me on, smirking humorously at my idea of “fun”—training for my first marathon.  

A fiery red cardinal, the state bird of my beloved Virginia, turns its head in measured ticks as I sprint by. Hi, Grandpa, I smile to myself. A squirrel hesitantly crosses in front of me, pauses, doubting its path, before scampering up a tree. I roll my eyes and snort out a giggle at the same time. Frank, you’re a spaz. I wish you would have just called to talk. In the stagnant air, a whisper of movement from an amber butterfly brushes my forehead before it continues into the ether. Thanks, Aunt Sarah. A great blue heron, critiquing my form, stands motionless. I know, Coach. I know.

 The author with Master Chief Petty Officer Carlos Najera.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author with Master Chief Petty Officer Carlos Najera.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

I’d been out of the Coast Guard nearly two years when the deaths began. My shipmates and friends feeling the same inconceivable loss were dispersed around the country. I had moved away to the Big Easy, where I worked in a job representing the industry my former military branch regulates—on the “other side.” Seeing my former shipmates at mutual business meetings dressed in the uniform I’d proudly worn every day for half a decade made the feeling of separation more acute. I attempted to rock my Banana Republic skinny pants and leopard-print flats bought during my latest civilian shopping spree, hoping I would look like I knew what I was doing. I was still adjusting to civilian life when the first person died.

I lived in a constant state of “Who will it be next?” after Aunt Sarah passed away that continued long after I learned about Frank’s suicide. My Pearl Jam ringtone was no longer cool to hear, making me wince like a Q-tip pushed too far in my ear every time someone called. The bold print of a new email from a friend screamed with the possibility of bad news. After weeks of countless phone calls, emails, and text messages, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I sought refuge away from my devices in my monthly issue of Runner’s World. About a month after the marathon of funerals, I found myself mindlessly snapping through the latest edition. I had been thinking of completing a marathon for the past few years, and I wanted my first to be the Marine Corps Marathon. As with many things in life, I just hadn’t gotten to it. As I turned the magazine’s page and caught sight of the full-page ad for the 34th Marine Corps Marathon, I snatched my hand back to my chest, as though I’d slammed my finger in the kitchen drawer.

“If not now, then when?” a voice in my head demanded. Grandpa had served as a Marine in World War II in the Pacific theater. It was as if he, Frank, Coach, and Aunt Sarah were speaking to me, telling me to focus my energy on a positive challenge instead of my grief.

 The author’s Grandfather, Jack Whitehouse, who served on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa with the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author’s Grandfather, Jack Whitehouse, who served on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa with the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

February 5, Grandpa. He taught me some of life’s most important lessons when I was growing up in rural Virginia: patriotism, how to fish, how to drive a tractor with a trailer loaded with firewood, how to shoot the .22 caliber from the front porch at the groundhog eating the vegetable garden. “I just don’t see what you find so fascinating. It was just something I did,” he would say when he would catch me engrossed in looking at the sepia and black-and-white pictures of him and his war buddies, tucked away in a velvety, worn manila envelope in some forgotten cabinet.

March 14, Coach. For a few years at the Coast Guard Academy, I played basketball, which was my first love. My head coach became my mentor, and he and his wife were like second parents. He loved me like a daughter and said that I could do no wrong in his eyes. He was tough on me, because he saw potential and expected my best. “You’re a point guard. You’re just like me. You’re born to struggle,” Coach used to say. It took me years to understand that this was the ultimate compliment. The man who bestowed this praise, whether it was with his arm around my sweaty shoulders after a loss or in an email that reached across thousands of miles to my lonely corporate laptop, died by suicide. I can’t miss the irony on how this shared characteristic was supposed to be one of my strengths, and yet it was his downfall. I wish he could hear me now when I tell him that I’m no longer angry.

March 23, Frank. One of the smartest and craziest people I’ve ever known, he offered me a tequila shot the moment I walked into the apartment he shared with my college boyfriend in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where their ship was stationed. A surfer kid from Los Angeles, Jack and Cokes were his hydration plan of choice; he drove a Harley, listened to Enya endlessly, and enjoyed regular pedicures. The enlisted personnel that worked for him loved and respected him; his commanding officers trusted him implicitly. Being a Coastie was all Frank knew. The last time we spoke, I had just returned from Coach’s funeral. Frank had asked me to help him find an apartment in New Orleans; he was moving back to the city he loved so much. Coach’s suicide was on the tip of my tongue our entire call, but the conversation was jovial and exciting, and I hesitated to tell him my depressing news. It could wait until we were in person. What if I had told Frank during that last conversation? Would it have prevented him from shooting himself in the head five days later? Frank was buried at sea, fitting for a career sailor.

 The author’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Sarah, on their wedding day, 1985.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Sarah, on their wedding day, 1985.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

March 24, Aunt Sarah. The loving wife of my Coastie Uncle Mike, she was stunningly beautiful, ridiculously intelligent, fiercely independent; she loved her husband, their two kids, and family more than anything. During my two years deployed at sea, she sent me numerous care packages with my favorite snacks. When my ship returned to its Boston home, docking right next to its sister ship, which my uncle had served on, they came from their home in Pennsylvania to visit their favorite city and to treat me dinner in Little Italy. She never let anything get in the way of what she wanted to accomplish, including the advanced ovarian cancer she fought while remaining at the top of the inaugural class of Drexel University School of Law. Her degree was posthumously awarded. There’s a perseverance award named after her—for a damned good reason—granted to one student who shows commitment and grit through adversity.  

Four deaths in a little over a month; three in 10 days; two of those by suicide. I dread turning the calendar page at February’s end. The month of March still sucks. Such a simple transition from one day to the next weighs heavy, like a pile of wet towels I carry alone. There are moments I forget they’re all dead. Like when the light awakens me and I open my eyes to greet a new day. Then my brain catches up, and I remember they’re gone. I still have the urge to call them when it randomly occurs to me that I haven’t heard their voices in a while. It’s been years since I’ve talked with them, in the flesh at least. My mind still spirals with questions and prayers for answers, but sends nothing in return.

I found some relief in running, and every step of training for the Marine Corps Marathon was therapeutic. I welcomed the burning pain in my quads as evidence that I was getting stronger, replacing the aching string of obsessive thoughts that got me nowhere. Headphones in, Zeppelin, Brandi Carlile, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, Alice in Chains, Van Halen, Bon Iver, Lionel Richie. Songs specifically chosen to make me cry, nod my head, grit my teeth, as I stubbornly challenged the running gods to bring it on. Bring the pain, I’d think. I can take it, outlast it. The miles rolled on. As the months of training went by, endorphin-induced gratitude for these four people attempted to replace my sadness and disbelief. The ache will never go away. But, like training for the numerous marathons and ultramarathons I have finished since, the discomfort has become familiar, easier to manage.

•••

Sarah Holzhalb was a Coast Guard officer from 2002-2007, serving both afloat and ashore tours. She received her B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.P.S. from the George Washington University. Sarah works for Team RWB, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. She lives in Louisiana and enjoys reading, running trails, and being outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter @SarahHolzhalb.

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River City


The day was quiet, but why, Jerad W. Alexander didn’t know—until David said, simply, “River city.”

River City


The day was quiet, but why, Jerad W. Alexander didn’t know—until David said, simply, “River city.”

By Jerad W. Alexander

Shannon said nothing as I stepped into the battalion administration office on the first floor of the big command center—the Headquarters—on the plateau that overlooked the desert to the north. I had just returned from a nine-day operation in the Euphrates Valley, commanding a Humvee of wayward Marine lance corporals stuck between jobs and plugged into the dubious task of escorting a videographer to the Marine battle positions that dotted the Iraqi urban landscape—dusty outposts of the Empire—canning footage for some dubious video project cooked up by an officer with more ideas than practical understanding.

 A portrait of the author, Jerad W. Alexander, taken within weeks of the story. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

A portrait of the author, Jerad W. Alexander, taken within weeks of the story. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

Whatever the case, we were finished. I walked into the administration office to check in. Normally the office was a raucous place. The men inside all knew each other intimately, having spent six months very close to one another, and Shannon, though in charge, had made the place fraternal, even to me, a functional outsider. Today it was quiet. Behind his desk, Shannon barely acknowledged my presence. David, his second in charge, offered a solemn nod, but little else. He sat at his desk repacking tobacco into a Black & Mild cigar. At first I didn’t consider the silence, or at least register it as anything other than a mute day. One of those drooling afternoons in the Big Routine that just seems out of phase somehow. But when I began to take a seat behind the communal computer to check my email, David looked over his computer monitor—

“River city, dog,” he said.

I shot erect with my rifle in my hand before I could fully sit. River City was code—someone had been wounded or killed. All communications with the Homefront were terminated until next of kin had been notified, usually within 24 hours.

“Who?” I asked.

“Phillips. India Company.”

“Steven Phillips?”

David nodded. “Know him?”

“I did.”

David gestured toward Shannon and spoke softly. Shannon had not looked away from his computer once. “Staff sergeant had to go identify the body,” David said.

I sat down in the chair.

It’s true I knew Lance Corporal Steven L. Phillips, but not in any real way. We had never hung out, at least not socially. I only knew him within the context of Iraq. We had worked together, loosely, during a house-to-house operation the previous fall and had been through a few firefights together. He was an “anti-tank assaultman,” as the Marine Corps referred to it, but mainly he lugged around a large rocket launcher, along with a shotgun, and shepherded another, much newer lance corporal through the alleys and streets of Husaybah, blowing locks and hinges off the doors anyone, or at least anyone other than the homeowners, deemed appropriate. He did shoot a rocket once, though. We’d been ambushed by insurgents from an Iraqi house. Phillips shot a rocket into it that burned everything inside. We were grateful for that. I interviewed him about it later, after the operation, for a small Americana-apple pie story for the hometown newspapers. “We have the resources to take targets out without going in bodily,” he’d told me, as if it were a clinical procedure. He’d said it softly, but with confidence. He’d also told me that he wanted to leave the Marines and become a civilian pilot.

“What happened?” I remember asking David.

“Vehicle roll-over,” David said. “He was in the back of a high-back Humvee. The driver rolled it going down a slope too fast. He was thrown out and the vehicle landed on top of him. I think he was alive for a few minutes. I don’t know.” Shannon remained fixed at his computer, plugging numbers into some eternal matrix of personnel and logistics, administrative flotsam. His face was stony.

After a moment I stood and left the administration room and the big command building. I stopped along a bench on the side of the building that faced the open desert to the north and east. I sat down and rested my rifle across my lap. I lit a cigarette. The desert was brown and ugly, and though it was sunny I wanted it to all vanish behind a mist. My knee rattled up and down, making the sling of my rifle clatter against the scuffed black buttstock. I toggled the cigarette filter with my thumb—off and on, off and on. I finished it and tossed it away, and rose and left. I walked toward the chapel, built as it was inside a defunct and abandoned passenger train car. I wove through the sun-beaten wooden huts where Marines and soldiers palled outside under the chaos of camouflage netting, drinking Red Bull, shooting the shit.

I walked somewhat aimlessly, absentmindedly, but in the notional direction of the mess hall. I meandered through a gap between the giant mechanic’s bay and the pavilion that hid all the gear for the combat engineers. A helicopter clattered overhead; halfway down the narrow gap, a Marine helicopter crossed the crystal blue sky above—twin-rotored, ugly gray. The long airstrip where helicopters normally landed and refueled was on the far end of the base, nowhere near where I stood, looking up. But the chopper circled as if to land somewhere close by. I knew what was going to happen. I dreaded it.

 An Army medevac helicopter coming to collect a wounded Marine. The photograph is from a different incident. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

An Army medevac helicopter coming to collect a wounded Marine. The photograph is from a different incident. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

I began to run as the helicopter lowered and settled into a hover. I reached the end of the alley where it burst wide into a landing pad outside the battalion aid station. The helicopter settled on the pad and idled its engines. The back ramp lowered. The crew chief stepped out onto the concrete dressed in a long, tan flight suit and a large camouflaged helmet with the sun visor pulled down and tethered by the spiral intercom cord still plugged somewhere inside the chopper’s guts.

From inside the aid station, a line of Navy corpsmen emerged and made two ranks on either side of the large wooden door. Most had stripped down to their T-shirts and baggy camouflage trousers. Some wore baby blue latex gloves. The rotor blades whirled dust devils on the concrete and disturbed the gravel in the cracks. The crew chief remained near the ramp.

The doors of the aid station burst open as four corpsmen pushed a large green stretcher into the sunlight. The stretcher had large wheels affixed to it. Gone were the days of manhandling the dead and wounded with the wooden poles of M*A*S*H-era canvas stretchers. As the four corpsmen pushed past the corpsmen flanking the door, each row saluted, as did the crew chief. I stood a little straighter and saluted too, the requirements of military protocol. I was here and the corpsmen were here and Phillips had come here of his own free will. America was here of its own free will too, and for its purposes Phillips and many, many others, on every side, were dead. Some were in shallow graves or decomposing along the length of the Euphrates and Tigris. Others were shredded by high explosives, others atomized. Some died later, at home, by their own hand, as if a bullet or bomb had been caught in a gust and tossed into some unseen future to strike later. Some were carried out on stretchers to the maws of waiting helicopters, crushed by the stupidity and hubris of the Empire.

While the corpsmen remained in their places with their salutes brushing against their temples, the crew chief stepped into his bird and raised the gate. After a moment the engines revved and scattered the desert around it and around us in buffeting gusts of wind. The corpsmen remained with their salutes, pummeled as we were with rocks and old trash, unwilling and unable to find shelter or run from the storm. But not me. For a moment I watched as the helicopter tottered on its wheels before I turned away, into the alley, beating my fist into the tan, ugly wall for all the dust in my eyes while the helicopter turned in a wide arch and clattered across the desert and was gone.

•••

Jerad W. Alexander is a New York-based writer focusing on politics, history, war, and American culture with works published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Narratively, Ozy, and elsewhere. He is also a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute literary reportage program. A list of works can be found at jeradalexander.com. He can be followed at @jerad_alexander.

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Gridlock Gets You Killed


As traffic slowed to a stop and the color drained from his face, Liesel Kershul began to see that Tom had changed. Then he tried to kill her in his sleep.

Gridlock Gets You Killed


As traffic slowed to a stop and the color drained from his face, Liesel Kershul began to see that Tom had changed. Then he tried to kill her in his sleep.

By Liesel Kershul

There was the happy-go-lucky man I knew who laughed at everything, and then there was the man who tried to break my neck in his sleep. Tom wasn’t the same when he came home from his second combat tour. Not in any obvious way—you couldn’t tell by looking at him; it wasn’t tattooed on his forehead.

It was not a disorder. It was a normal reaction to his experiences in Afghanistan. At first, even I couldn’t tell there was anything wrong. He went to work, hung out with friends, went to the gym, made me carne asada and served it outside in the San Clemente sunshine with a couple of Mexican lagers and limes.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom would run along the pier near the old home in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom would run along the pier near the old home in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

We went for runs on the beach. He told funny stories about the Afghan soldiers he’d trained, and one in particular that still makes me laugh about a pet monkey he couldn’t get to quit humping his arm. Tom has the enviable ability to always see the sunny side of life, to laugh rather than worry. He wasn’t actively attempting to suppress his symptoms; he simply isn’t the type to dwell on the bad, so they trickled out slowly over time.

The first time we noticed, we were on the freeway. He’d been home for about a week and we were taking a day trip to San Diego. The traffic was horrendous, and we were stuck in that heavy, congested, multiple-hour-delaying gridlock that you rarely see outside of Southern California or the D.C. Beltway. It didn’t bother me, though; we had the windows down, the radio was on, and Tom was home. I could have idled happily in that car for hours. But as we slowed from a crawl to a stop, I looked over and saw Tom’s hands were gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. His face had drained of color, and he was sweating profusely even though the day was mild.

I clicked off the radio and asked him what was wrong. I’d never seen him like that. He didn’t answer at first, and it scared me. He was agitated and kept glancing at the mirrors, looking for a way out of our lane and onto the shoulder—anything to get moving again. He looked like a cornered animal. He wasn’t saying anything, so I put my hand on his shoulder and gently asked him if I needed to drive. I tried to make it a joke and told him we could do a Chinese fire drill like a couple of goofy teenagers in our parents’ minivan. He didn’t even crack a smile. Finally, he looked at me and said that just a few days ago, being trapped and unmoving in traffic like that in Afghanistan could have gotten him killed.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom lived at this intersection in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom lived at this intersection in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

Talking about it, however briefly, seemed to break the spell. He took some deep breaths, shook his head, and laughed at himself for being the cliché veteran home from “the war” with PTSD. He mellowed, but he also rolled up the windows and didn’t turn the radio back on.

Weeks passed without another episode, and I didn’t think much more about his reaction to the traffic—until one night when he tried to kill me in his sleep. I woke up to him halfway on top of me, one of his arms was wrapped around the back of my head, the other pressing against my chin. I don’t remember being jolted awake by the violence, but rather that my eyes fluttered open almost tranquilly as he tried to break my neck. The room was dark as pitch and I couldn’t tell who was hurting me until I recognized Tom’s scent, and then his voice as he repeatedly mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep. To this day neither one of us knows what it was.

It was nothing less than surreal to have my best friend—the happiest, cruisiest person I know—try to kill me in his sleep. It still feels more a dream than reality, and I have a hard time reconciling what he was doing to me with who he was and who he is. Tom didn’t (and doesn’t) have anger issues. This is a man who laughs nearly as often as he breathes. Who holds doors for strangers. Who routinely rescues baby birds and even once a baby bunny. Who has literally given a friend the shirt off his back. At the time, he wasn’t even hypervigilant, although he would become more so over the next year before his symptoms would simply disappear as abruptly as they’d arrived. Beyond that brief incident in the traffic, there were no signs that he would become violent, and when he did, I didn’t know how to respond; the military doesn’t hand out manuals for that sort of thing.

 Tom in Afghanistan with his interpreters. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

Tom in Afghanistan with his interpreters. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

So, as I lay trapped beneath a nearly 200-pound Marine having a post-traumatic stress episode in his sleep, I did the only thing I could think of: I tried to kick him in the balls. Then I beat him as hard as I could with my closed fists and yelled, “Tom! Wake up! It’s me! It’s just me!” His eyes flew open, and he looked at my face and at his arms wrapped around my neck. He realized almost instantaneously what was happening, so he dropped me, sat bolt upright, and apologized over and over. He had this look on his face of utter disbelief, and, to me, it seemed as though he didn’t know himself in that moment. I told him it was okay. I wasn’t hurt, just scared, and everything was going to be fine. He enveloped me in a bear hug and held me until we finally fell back asleep. He’s never once laughed about it.

He was violent only one other time after that, again in his sleep, but instead of trying to break my neck, he catapulted me out of the bed. As my head hit the nightstand and I landed painfully on the floor, I remember thinking, Well, better bruised than broken.

The thud I made didn’t even wake Tom. I was scared to get back in bed with someone who was being violent in his sleep, so I shuffled over to our futon on my knees and timidly shook him by the shoulder. I didn’t know if he was going to lash out, and I considered sleeping on the couch and simply letting him be, but when I touched him, he opened his eyes sleepily, smiled at me, and said, “Hey sweets.” He had no idea what had just happened, and at that moment I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I crawled back under the covers, curled up against him with my head on his chest, and didn’t sleep a wink.

••• 

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

No Use Crying


Jackie Munn spilled hot chai on her lap and the girls erupted in giggles. They danced, smiled, asked why Munn had blue eyes. Then came the whip.

No Use Crying


Jackie Munn spilled hot chai on her lap and the girls erupted in giggles. They danced, smiled, asked why Munn had blue eyes. Then came the whip.

By Jackie Munn

I remember feeling the sun’s warmth on my face, my neck growing sweaty thanks to the headscarf I’d wrapped in careful layers around my head. It didn’t help that our Afghan hosts kept feeding us boiling-hot chai milk. Not one to shirk customs, I smiled as I drank sips of the intoxicatingly sweet drink, careful to hold the cup with the tips of my fingers in an attempt to avoid completely burning my hands off. No one seemed to notice my discomfort, thankfully, while our Afghan hosts busily offered us plates filled with sweet treats. They asked us about our families, our health, and the weather, as is customary in rural Afghanistan—never jumping directly to business or pressing matters. Always time for pleasantries and a treat.

 School age children near the Afghan-Pakistan border loiter outside their school. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

School age children near the Afghan-Pakistan border loiter outside their school. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

Placing my glass of scalding tea beside me on the grass, I slowly adjusted the ends of my headscarf wrapped tightly around my neck, careful not to expose my hair too much. In that moment, I noticed a group of girls peering at me from behind a walled compound. When I caught their gaze, they screamed in a fit of giggles, excitement exploding from behind the brick walls. I gave them a small smirk, chuckling under my breath as I picked up my tea, much too quickly, spilling it all over my lap and yelling out in pain. The scorching warmth seeped through my dirty MultiCam uniform, and I knew instantly that I would find a lovely first-degree burn on my leg later that night.

Once again, I heard the excited shrieks and giggles of girls from behind the compound. Shaking my head over the excitement that my clumsiness had apparently incited, I stood up and attempted to wipe away the remnants of sticky milk tea from my pants—in vain, of course. Apparently my gasp only merited a shameful sideways glance from my teammates and the elderly Afghan men, who quickly returned to their talks about security and the local police force. Since the damage was done and I was not actively a part of the conversation with the village elders, I made my way over to the compound to meet the group of curious, giggling girls.

They peered once more from behind the safety of their brick wall before finally bounding out in throngs to greet me when they realized I was heading their way. They huddled closely around me, taking turns holding my hand and asking me questions. With the help of an interpreter who’d followed me toward the compound, I was able to answer their questions and gained a glimmer of an idea about why they were so excited to see me.

Are you married? Do you have children? Can we be friends? Will you visit us tomorrow? Why are your eyes blue?

Their questions came like a flood, and I did my best to answer each curious inquiry. In between doling out answers and handing out bracelets and candy for everyone to enjoy, I eventually got around to my own line of questioning. I found out they had been at school that morning, but class had stopped because their teacher was taking part in the meeting with the Americans and the village elders. I explained that I was working with local teachers in nearby villages and would love to make my way back to see them and their teacher again soon. This sent them into a fit of giggles, and they began dancing. Everyone smiled, and in that instant, I was infected with their enthusiasm and jubilation.

Suddenly, in the midst of their joy and excitement, I heard the loud crack of a whip, and the sounds of pure happiness turned into shouts of pain and terror. A young man with a switch burst into the walled compound, hitting the girls on the sides of their faces, their backs, and their legs. It was like a watching an angry cook beating back hungry stray dogs with a broom: the girls hungry for attention like poor dogs begging for scraps, the cook infuriated with the presence of the filthy and menacing nuisances.

 A little Afghan girl watches a U.S. military convoy depart after she received her very first book. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

A little Afghan girl watches a U.S. military convoy depart after she received her very first book. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

My instinct was to react. Do something! You can’t hurt these sweet, innocent little girls just for being curious and inquisitive. Can you?

You can in Afghanistan. And I knew this. And in that instant I hated myself for approaching the girls in the first place. I should have known this could have been a possibility. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen girls and women pushed, beaten, or battered; it never got easier to witness.

I showed myself out of the compound just as my interpreter turned to have a conversation with the young whip-bearing boy and an older man in a white shalwar kameez who suddenly had appeared out of nowhere.

Finishing their conversation and walking over to me with his head hung, my interpreter said that the boy was punishing the girls for bothering me, explaining that the girls needed to be disciplined for failing to wait patiently and silently for their teacher—the older man in the white shalwar kameez. The teacher disapproved of the boy’s force, but he agreed that the young girls knew better than to display such flagrant jubilation and folly.

I was appalled. “Did you tell them that it was my fault? That I was the one who approached the girls?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the interpreter said, shrugging his shoulders. “Here, it’s expected they behave as proud Afghan daughters and not like giggling fools.”

I looked at the compound, the heat of the sun blazing down on me, my headscarf soaking up the nervous sweat from my neck. The only audible noise was the murmurs of the conversations wrapping up in the distance and the ambient sounds of rural farm life: donkey whines, chickens pecking the ground, and young boys running around. The girls had been silenced.

I stared down at my feet, catching sight of my milk tea-stained pants. I gritted my teeth, thinking angrily about the saying, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” No, I thought to myself, unless a girl’s beaten because of it.

 

•••

Jackie Munn is an army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a Logistics Officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.

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Recall and Regress


Nathan Eckman wonders what a recall to service would mean for the life he’s built since exiting active duty, and if he’d answer that call.

Recall and Regress


Nathan Eckman wonders what a recall to service would mean for the life he’s built since exiting active duty, and if he’d answer that call.

By Nathan Eckman

It happens most nights. I’m running through the jungle, sometimes the desert. Jordan is by my side—it’s always Jordan. There are enemy, none I’ve ever encountered before in real life. None I ever will. They’re inexplicable. The whole experience is, until I awaken and realize it was just another dream.

The episodes recur enough to make me wonder if I actually want to be back in the military. But however tantalizing that thought is at night, the day sobers such fantasies. I have a new life now. One separate from the military. Or, at least it seems so.

Like nearly every service member, I signed an eight-year contract, which is divvied up between active duty and a service component known as the Inactive Ready Reserves (IRR). Usually contracts are split 50-50. Four years spent on active duty. The remaining four years spent in the IRR, which requires nothing of an individual yet prioritizes his or her name for recall should another large-scale conflict or national tragedy call for mobilizing a mass amount of troops. It’s a system designed to stall the institution of a nationwide draft.

 Nathan Eckman served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. He did not deploy to a conflict zone, and he struggles now with what his service meant. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Nathan Eckman served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. He did not deploy to a conflict zone, and he struggles now with what his service meant. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Each day that I read about another escalation between the United States and North Korea or Iran, or hear about the intensifying situations in the Syria and Yemen conflicts, I think my days are numbered until I have little choice but to throw on a uniform again.

I was young enough when I first joined the military to leave everything behind and not think twice about it. Then, I built my life around that responsibility; and once Emily and I married, we did the same. There was nothing unsettling about being away from our home most nights, in part because we knew those days would end. Now we live under the illusion that my commitment to the military is over. Technically speaking, it’s not. Until the end of 2019, I am part of the IRR.

In the time since I exited active duty, Emily and I have built a life for ourselves and have dreamed of the family we’ll start, the community where we’ll root ourselves, and the careers we’ll build. My sense of what duty is has morphed since I was 19, and military service won’t satisfy it anymore. I left the military to regain a sense of personal agency. Were I to be recalled, I’d be forced to accept that since I “left” I’ve had only the illusion of control. And whether I would accept or deny the call to serve, the call itself would change my life; I’d have no way of stopping that.

I’ve already given up some of life’s privileges once. The thought of returning to service and doing it again feels daunting, if not impossible. Knowing what it’s like to make that sacrifice, the life I’ve built now is all the more precious to me. As simple as falling into a morning routine at a local cafe; eating leftovers while standing at the counter; styling my hair, shirts, and shoes until the mirrored reflection is “me.” Those are a few of the small things that bring me comfort and remind me that I’m home, and that this indeed is my life. And while those parts of life are nice, I could go without them.

 The author, Nathan Eckman, and his wife, Emily, have moved away from the base where he was stationed to start their new life together. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

The author, Nathan Eckman, and his wife, Emily, have moved away from the base where he was stationed to start their new life together. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Then there are the parts of life I’d vehemently oppose surrendering. Living my life beside Emily, each and every day, tops that list. Second, I think, would be my freedom to think and question whatever I pleased, without fear of retribution from those who outrank me.

This is where it gets even more complicated. The more I value these liberties and privileges, the more I should be willing to fight to defend them, right? Regardless of the personal sacrifice. After all, wasn’t that the point of my service the first time around?

But having worn the uniform once already, I can’t help but feel that I’ve done my part, and that now it’s someone else’s turn—but not “the someone else” I’ve become since leaving active duty.

The man I’ve become since leaving active duty has something else to add to the world, both because of and in spite of my military service. Starting in high school, I thought I would achieve my greatest life accomplishments in uniform. Now that my uniform’s off, I know that my service was just the start. Finally, I see the society that I swore to protect is as valuable as the society of its defenders. I can imagine myself writing books, hiring employees, and attending city council meetings, and today I think that’s just as important as the service I’ve already completed in the Corps.

This, perhaps, reveals my greatest worry. I’ve realized my identity does not depend on my relationship to the military. Returning to its ranks now would mean sacrificing not just the things I gave up the first time around but the life I’ve built since leaving active duty. This second life, though, is young, fragile; there’s no telling if this new man would come back from a second term of service. Come Aug. 15, 2019, when I exit the IRR, I’ll never have to wonder again.

•••

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.

 Illumination rounds float over Mosul, Iraq.

Those Are the Eyes of a Demon


Augusto Giacoman parked his Stryker under the streetlights and then the bomb exploded. What happened next is a hazy mixture of memory and nightmare.

Those Are the Eyes of a Demon


Augusto Giacoman parked his Stryker under the streetlights and then the bomb exploded. What happened next is a hazy mixture of memory and nightmare.

By Augusto Giacoman

Those are the eyes of a demon. The unbidden thought flitted through my mind as my eyes swept over two streetlights about 300 meters ahead. We slowed to a smooth five to 10 miles per hour, our heads swiveling, looking for signs of enemy activity during curfew hours or anything out of place, like boxes, wires, irregular shapes—anything indicating an IED.

 Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

As we drove on toward the streetlights, my Platoon Sergeant radioed that he’d spotted a car on a street about 50 meters to our right. I radioed back, telling him to dismount and check the vehicle. My Stryker and the one behind mine parked under the streetlights while he stopped the car violating curfew. I continued to scan the neighborhood, enjoying the coolness of evening. Ten minutes later he radioed back. The driver was an old lady needing medication; he was going to let her go. Roger, I said. Then my body collapsed. I folded backward like some kind of war yogi, knees buckling and back arching like a bow.

I didn’t hear a blast. My memory of what happened next feels vivid, but memory’s a tricky thing, and I don’t know now how much is true. But I know what I remember: Flames whooshed up and around me and then vanished, and I was surrounded by thick black and gray smoke. The oxygen in the truck had been displaced or consumed by the explosion, and I gulped for air, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water. My head swam and my vision blurred. A grueling moment later, sweet oxygen rushed in and filled my lungs. I pulled myself into a more upright position and yelled to see if anyone was hurt.

I struggle now to distinguish between what is nightmare and what was reality. Blood washed the walls of the vehicle, coming down like a waterfall and crashing together like red rapids on the floor. The sheer volume of blood shocked me—as if it were a hot summer day on the streets of New York City and someone had opened up a fire hydrant for kids to play, except the fire hydrant gushed blood. A lieutenant who had been riding along with me moved rapidly to place a bandage on one of my Squad Leader’s legs. I called for our medic on the radio and moved to the injured man.

He was conscious. The blood streaked in little rivers down his fish-white and hairy leg from the wound on his thigh. The other Lieutenant placed a pressure dressing on him, but it wasn’t enough; we needed to get him back to the combat support hospital right away or he would bleed out.

My Platoon Sergeant’s Stryker caught up to us, and our medic hopped over, coming in through one of the top hatches; the ramp on the back of the truck was too badly damaged to open. He double-checked my Squad Leader’s pressure dressing and scanned the rest of the team—miraculously, no one else was hurt. Could all the blood I saw have come from him, or has my imagination amplified reality?

 The author, Augusto Giacoman, and his Platoon Sergeant from Giacoman's 1st Deployment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

The author, Augusto Giacoman, and his Platoon Sergeant from Giacoman's 1st Deployment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

We sped to the combat support hospital, pushing our Strykers to the max. As we approached the gate, we popped some red chemlights, signalling an emergency and to clear traffic and let us in ASAP. We rushed into the hospital, and my radio operator and I entered the makeshift operating room. My Squad Leader lay on a steel table, clothed on top but naked from the waist down. The back of his upper thigh looked like someone had used an ice cream scoop to take a scoop three inches deep out of his flesh. We watched the combat surgeons begin work. Later he told me he hadn’t felt much pain, only embarrassment that he hadn’t shaved his balls in a while and there were pretty nurses around.

While we watched the docs, my radio operator lurched toward a big plastic trash can and started violently vomiting. Like most of the guys in the vehicle, he’d been seriously concussed, but had held it together long enough to make sure I was physically and mentally OK; as Platoon Leader and radio operator, we were attached at the hip. Some nurses came over to help.

I sat down as the nurses cared for him, and replayed the event. Did I do everything right? What had I missed? I was on my eighth or so replay when I remembered my stray thought, the eyes of the demon. I had seen the lights, I had thought of demon eyes, we had parked under the lights, and then we were hit with an IED. And then it came to me: In about two months in Iraq, with at least a dozen or so night patrols under my belt, those lights had never been on during previous patrols. Whoever had placed the IED must have turned on or fixed those lights and used them as aiming posts to know when to trigger the device.

I had parked our vehicle right on top of an IED.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As an Officer in the U.S. Army he served as a Platoon Leader, an Executive Officer, and an Operations Officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005, and to Sadr City 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

•••

Cover photograph from Mosul 2015. Courtesy of 138th Public Affairs Detachment

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Even Butterflies Go to War


Elizabeth O’Herrin found solace in writing about her war, and she wonders and wishes she could ask her grandfather if he felt relief in writing about his.

Even Butterflies Go to War


Elizabeth O’Herrin found solace in writing about her war, and she wonders and wishes she could ask her grandfather if he felt relief in writing about his.

By Elizabeth O'Herrin

A desert butterfly perched on my leg as I rode through dusty terrain on the back end of a truck, bumping out into the desert to perform maintenance work on bombs waiting to be loaded on their jets. It looked like one of those butterflies that perched on cauliflower in my mom’s garden when I was a kid. I had never paid them much attention. They were common. Ordinary. But here in the Iraq desert, it was so beautiful. Peaceful and magical with its white flitting wings. I observed it like I used to watch the sparrows in basic training: envious of their freedom to come and go as they pleased, unthreatened by their surroundings. Go far away from here, I urged the butterfly silently.

 William O’Herrin, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment on Eniwetok, Guadalcanal, and Guam, attends a 6th Marine Division reunion. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

William O’Herrin, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment on Eniwetok, Guadalcanal, and Guam, attends a 6th Marine Division reunion. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

While I was deployed to Iraq, I wrote updates for friends and family, but also for myself. After writing about the butterfly’s visit, I received a note from my grandfather. I saw those butterflies too, he said. They were so beautiful. Not the same ones. Different. But the same. It had taken him a long time to write about his butterflies.

Before dawn on Dec. 7, 1984, he awoke in a sweat despite the frigid Wisconsin winter. This wasn’t unusual for him, even so many years after he’d returned from the Pacific. But on this Pearl Harbor anniversary, he’d finally had enough. He roused himself, made black coffee, pulled off the typewriter’s cover, and began pecking. When he finished, he made four copies—one for each of his children—licked the stamps and envelopes, and dropped them in the mail.

The letter was largely one single sentence. Seven hundred and seventeen words long, in fact; I counted. Tumbling thoughts twisted and turned. The stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence full of haunting memories concluded with a final paragraph: “War is one stinking, terrifying hell. There are no heroes in war. There are only the survivors, the dying, and the dead.”

He wrote that he wouldn’t speak of it again, but that at least now we knew his story. Implied: Don’t ask me any questions. I was less than a year old when my parents received the letter.

 The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, and her sister Colleen with her grandfather and grandmother in Wisconsin. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, and her sister Colleen with her grandfather and grandmother in Wisconsin. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

My uncle Bill managed to persuade my grandfather to keep writing, gently offering that World War II veterans were a vanishing breed and that family records would be incomplete without it. My grandfather finally conceded and began typing again. Rather than simply purging like he had that night in December, he researched history of the atolls he landed on, detailed descriptions of dehydration and jungle rot, copied and pasted crude pictures of elephantiasis of arms, legs, even testicles. He wrote about Chamorro culture that he witnessed on Guam, where he fought to liberate the island from the Japanese. He resurrected buried memories of friends named Tommy and Jimmy, who were mowed down by machine gun fire. Some stories would never make it to paper, he admitted. Weren’t meant to be told.

Another 15 years passed before my grandfather finished. After I read his completed memoir, I wrote him an email. I didn’t ask him any questions. I was a young teenager and his story moved me to tears, and I wanted him to know it had profoundly impacted his granddaughter. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he had been through, I told him, but I was eternally grateful he chose to trust us. It touched him enough that he printed off my email and included it in the sparse copies of his memoir that he ran off at a print shop and gave away to family and a few old war buddies who were still alive. I didn’t understand why he included my email, but I found comfort knowing that it had resonated with him.

I’ve returned to his memoir over the years, studying the pages back and forth, memorizing sentences and even a few paragraphs. Although the memoir indicated a willingness to share his history, I never brought it up after that email. I feared prying and making him dig into abscesses that he didn’t want to revisit. It never felt right: Holiday gatherings were loud and full of dark beer; early bird Friday suppers were lighthearted; and Packer and Badger games demanded our full attention.

My enlistment date into the National Guard fell on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the planes hit. I hadn’t intended to join the military in the wake of an attack on American soil, like my grandfather had after Pearl Harbor, but my path began to resemble his. Only I wasn’t called up right away, so I continued on with college, serving one weekend a month. But when I would visit my grandparents for lunch between classes, constantly wondering if and when I would be deployed, we mostly skipped over the wars. Instead we talked about the books we were reading, avoiding the elephant in the room that dredged up painful memories for him and stirred deep anxieties in me. If we neared the topic, he shook his head and waved off, and we went back to our lunches. I could tell how much he hated that I would be involved in the war.

When I eventually deployed, I found it difficult to speak about my experiences, but it was easier to write. And I was inspired by my grandfather’s willingness, although initially resistant, to do the same. Whenever I posted an update, or sent an email or letter home, I’d get little notes in return from my grandfather. Sometimes a quick email, sometimes a short letter: Keep your head down. Stay safe. We’re thinking of you. We want you home. That was about the extent of it. No questions, even after I returned home from each of my three deployments. Perhaps he didn’t want to ruin our tuna salad sandwiches.

 The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, demonstrates a new toy for her grandfather at their home in Wisconsin, in the summer of 1991. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, demonstrates a new toy for her grandfather at their home in Wisconsin, in the summer of 1991. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Despite writing while I was deployed, in the months after returning home I clammed up, unable to make much sense of my experiences. My father encouraged me to keep writing, just as my uncle had encouraged my grandfather decades earlier. Dad told me that after my grandfather wrote the pre-dawn letter, he had stopped having night terrors. He had kept things bottled inside for four decades, not wanting to uncork them. He hadn’t known putting words to paper would be so therapeutic. For me, I found that my thoughts slowly began to feel less like a lottery ball machine, and when they started to settle they wiggled back out onto paper.

My grandfather passed not long after I returned from my last deployment, nearly a decade ago now. I would trade just about anything to sit down with him to talk. Maybe not even about our wars—just about writing them. I wonder if he felt lighter after he wrote things down. I wonder if he pulled the pages out when he finished typing for the day and felt resolution. I wonder if he felt like vomiting while writing, like I sometimes do. Every once in awhile, I find memorized phrases from his memoir drifting through my mind when I read the news. War is one stinking, terrifying hell. But I also remember that I saw the butterflies, and it brings me some peace that I know he saw them too.

•••

Elizabeth O'Herrin served as an AMMO troop for the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16 fighter jets. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She’s is a Tillman Scholar and the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Director of Programs & Scholarships. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post Checkpoint blog, Foreign Policy Best Defense blog, The Hill, The Association of American Colleges & Universities, 0-Dark Thirty, the Badger Herald, and the Starbucks Medium Collection. She is a member of Foreign Policy's Council of Former Enlisted. 

You can find her on Twitter here and on Medium here.

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Her Name Is Fern And She Taught Me Gratitude


Anxiety over the military sexual trauma she withstood plagued Rachael Harris when she came home. Her adopted dog, Fern, barreled through those walls.

Her Name Is Fern And She Taught Me Gratitude


Anxiety over the military sexual trauma she withstood plagued Rachael Harris when she came home. Her adopted dog, Fern, barreled through those walls.

By Rachael Harris

I read somewhere that before you get out of bed in the morning you should think of three things you’re grateful for, and Fern is always on that list. She taught me about gratitude. Whether it’s half of a dirty tennis ball or a fantastic new toy that’ll last only two minutes before she rips it to bits, she’s elated to have whatever I’ve given her. And she shows gratitude to the universe by rolling in the dirt at the dog park and kicking her long rabbit legs in the air. The cats have forgiven me for bringing the beastie into their house, but they still haven’t quite adjusted. My bed remains the only “safe space” where no one gets offended or threatens a squabble. Each party picks a corner and retires.

 Fern offered her paw to the author, Rachael Harris, when the two first met. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern offered her paw to the author, Rachael Harris, when the two first met. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

She avoided eye contact and snarled like a beast of Old Norse lore at anyone who looked in her direction when we first met. I told the front desk woman that our original choice, Fern, might be a little too aggressive. But she asked us to just wait a second, said that she’d go get the pup and that we could go on a walk in the woods to calm her down a little. I had seen Fern online a few weeks prior while I was still living in D.C., in the midst of a weeklong anxiety frenzy, thanks to recurring nightmares I was having about being sexually assaulted while serving in the Navy. Something about her face had made the storm stop for a moment; a few days later I made the decision to move to Staunton, Virginia, hoping that I’d be able to find some peace there. Let it be known that moving away never makes the anxiety or PTSD go away, but I breathed a little easier. Two weeks later, after calling to see if she was still there, I talked my little brother into driving me to the pound to check out the dog I’d seen online.

Fern trotted out of that wall of deafening sound, tail tucked, cowering, and giving us some major side-eye. I bent down and gave her a treat the caretaker had given me, and she took it; maybe I wasn’t so bad. When we ventured outside, she clung to her caretaker’s side, but she looked back to make sure I was coming too, and suspiciously huffed at my brother. Once out in the leaves, she hopped around and allowed me to give her more treats, and when I asked her to sit, she did. She sealed the deal when she sat in front of me, made soft eye contact, and offered me her paw. I held it, and that voice in the back of my head that never leaves me alone said, It’s gonna be all right, honey child.

She hung her head over the backseat of my Jeep, looking back at the shelter, as we drove away. At home we barricaded the cats in my office, and my biggest—the 21-pound terror—knew something was up. We settled Fern in the guest room that evening, where she promptly made peace with my brother and fell asleep with him in the guest bed.

 The author, Rachael Harris, took a photograph of her and Fern the first time they really cuddled. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

The author, Rachael Harris, took a photograph of her and Fern the first time they really cuddled. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern and I slept all the following day, waking only to eat. She’d come into the shelter at 40 pounds when she should’ve been at least 60, and I was determined to put meat on her bones. The snarly beast from the day before was gone, and now she was terrified of the cats. I hadn’t quite realized the depth of my current state of anxiety; even a living being sitting next to me was a little too much. I established boundaries that I thought I needed—her corner of the couch and mine—and Fern pushed right through them. By the end of our first full day together, Fern and I were spooning.

By the second week, Fern and I had developed: Sitting side by side on the couch, she’d lean her head against mine. I protected her from the snarly cats, and she leaned on my legs when I wasn’t feeling my best. She was especially persistent on mornings that weren’t so good.

Ten days after she came home, Fern met my dad, and I instantly became chopped liver. The next day was Thanksgiving, and while my brother and dad watched football, Fern and I walked to the dog park and started playing. A few minutes later, a man on his cellphone rolled in with a 130-pound German shepherd “puppy”—his owner’s word. The man retreated to the picnic tables to continue his phone conversation, and I watched in horror as the the dog tried to mount Fern.

As a survivor of military sexual trauma, I can get pretty squirrelly when it comes to things such as consent or the way females of any sort are treated—my dog included. My blood pressure rises, and a buzzing starts in my head. The look on my dog’s face as that giant mounted her said, Here we go again ... and in my head I screamed, NO! No one or thing is ever going to make you have that look ever again! I ran over and heaved him off her, and she hid behind my legs while I repeatedly pushed him off both of us, me being outweighed by at least 15 pounds. The owner gave no help, and Fern and I escaped to the small-dog park, separated by a fence. We were still agitated, and a short time later we headed home.

 Fern plays with her first squeaky toy. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern plays with her first squeaky toy. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

As the days passed, she came out of her shell. She learned to love squeaky toys and peanut butter, two things she’d had no idea existed. We went for a ride to Petco. Men always seemed drawn to her and asked to pet her, and together we began to learn that not all men are so bad. Four days after she came home, Fern and I met my best friend, her husband, and their furchild, Sven, at the farmer’s market. My sweet girl charmed old-man apple sellers out of their jerky snacks and let herself be adored by packs of little boys and old ladies alike. And as I saw the way Fern took her new world in stride and with grace, I began to see a world outside of my anxiety-brain. Over time she came to understand that when my brother and I had to leave her at home, we weren’t leaving her forever.

We went to the dog park recently, like we do every day, and the scourge of the park was there; I took a deep breath and thought, Maybe this time will be different. His owner retreated to the picnic tables for another phone conversation, and I watched as my sweet girl went right to that big dog, rolled him over, and played like he was her best friend. Like nothing bad had ever happened, and I was awash with gratitude to have met such a good teacher.

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Nepal Tried to Claim Her Too


Two years after a helicopter carrying Marines crashed in the Nepali mountains, Marine veteran Teresa Fazio encountered the wilderness that had claimed them.

Nepal Tried to Claim Her Too


Two years after a helicopter carrying Marines crashed in the Nepali mountains, Marine veteran Teresa Fazio encountered the wilderness that had claimed them.

By Teresa Fazio

On vacation, I like to hike predictable trails that leave me feeling competent, independent, and pleasantly exhausted. But as I trekked through the Nepali jungle, legs bloody and socks soaked with rain, it seemed the hills and cliffs were colluding to kill any wayward intruders.

Back home in New York, I’d mapped a steep but well-trafficked route for a three-week backpacking trip with my boyfriend, Boyan. A few days before we set out, he’d pointed to a dashed line, far from roads or villages. “Let’s take this one,” he’d said. “It’ll be more interesting.”

 The meeting of the Sunkoshi and Bhotekosi River Valleys, on the way back from the author, Teresa Fazio, and her boyfriend, Boyan Penkov's, hike. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The meeting of the Sunkoshi and Bhotekosi River Valleys, on the way back from the author, Teresa Fazio, and her boyfriend, Boyan Penkov's, hike. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The first night, he peeled a leech from my hip; several more strained toward us from our tent’s mesh, searching for flesh to bleed. The next day, we walked in a downpour on trails that had barely recovered from lethal earthquakes two years prior, to which the US military had responded. We picked dozens of leeches from our ankles, shins, and thighs. Boyan carried a secondhand rucksack patterned in digital camouflage. It had been my gift to him, though I was the one who’d earned a Marine Corps commission back when he was an Eagle Scout. Between us, we carried a hundred pounds: rice, water, tent, pressure cooker, long johns, sleeping bags. Our second afternoon of climbing, we lost the trail. My glasses fogged and rain sluiced sweat into my eyes. Naïvely, I’d tucked a novel into the top flap of my pack back home. At a waterlogged pound and a half, it was too heavy to carry further. I yanked it out, dumped it into a patch of greenery, and tried to ignore the irony of its title: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

As the second day’s sunset loomed, we found a rock overhang under which to camp. I accidentally broke a piece off the tent’s top while setting it up, and one side caved in.

In the morning, after finding the trail, we saw an empty hut surrounded by prayer flags, and just beyond it, the remnants of a landslide. We’d have to cross it to reach our destination: a pass a few kilometers away. Boyan led, and I bear-crawled sideways across sandy rockfall. When my heavy pack shifted, panic rose in my chest.

We made it to a small hollow in the middle of the landslide, the size of a couple of bathtubs. Five feet away, the slope dropped off sharply. I didn’t look down.

Boyan volunteered to scout the way ahead while I caught my breath. I sat, terrified, looking only at the rocks next to me, not following the pebbles that skittered into pine treetops and thin air. Though I’m not normally afraid of heights, I didn’t want to see how far up we were, how much my safety depended on my balance and the strength of my grip.

This landslide was the likely result of a 7.3-magnitude aftershock of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake two and a half years earlier. The quakes had killed over 8,800 Nepalis. The day of the aftershock, a helicopter carrying six U.S. Marines, two Nepali soldiers, and five civilian evacuees had crashed about 10 miles from where I now sat, shivering. The Marines had just delivered 3,000 pounds of blankets, rice, and tarps to a nearby town, Singati. According to the U.S. military’s accident investigation, the pilot had picked an unfamiliar but more direct route to Kathmandu—not because it would be more interesting, like Boyan had, but more likely because the injured needed urgent medical attention. Hindered by rapidly changing air currents and clouds, they’d crashed into a ridgeline near Kalinchowk mountain.

Kalinchowk was a few ridges over from us. We’d reached 3,100 meters, the same altitude as where the helicopter had gone down. It had taken three days for rescuers to locate the wreckage in the thick jungle. Now I knew why. As clouds moved in toward my little gully, I started panicking. This was a real-time tutorial in how quickly visibility could drop. A minute later, I saw Boyan’s arm wave over a dirt mound, and he yelled that he’d found a route across the landslide. Still, I feared for my life. I had to speak up.

I told him I wasn’t going any further, that I wanted to turn around. To his credit, he didn’t argue. We carefully backtracked over the landslide, to a three-room hut encircled by prayer flags. A tarp stamped USAID protected one room from the intermittent drizzle outside. We hatched a new plan to walk north and find the main highway.

 A tarp stamped “USAID” provided one wall to repair a shelter, with landslide remnants in the background. Both USAID and the Marine Corps had rendered aid in this area. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A tarp stamped “USAID” provided one wall to repair a shelter, with landslide remnants in the background. Both USAID and the Marine Corps had rendered aid in this area. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

After an hour’s hike, thunderstorms turned to hail. We bushwhacked through stinging nettles and crossed a thigh-deep river where I gashed my leg. As twilight threatened, the trail disappeared; steep rock faces sidewalled the water. We backtracked to flat ground, slid our last sets of dry clothing from Ziploc bags, and spent that night on the riverbank, rain pelting our sagging tent.

I’ll admit I’d approached the trip with more blithe assurance than I should have. Since my service ended 12 years prior, I’d always assumed I could throw a pack on my back and out-hike my partner. Yes, back at the Basic School, I’d slept in freezing puddles, and in Iraq, I’d managed five hours a night on a nylon cot. But now, I needed ibuprofen, rest, and to be reasonably sure I wouldn’t fall to my death or drown. In the Marine Corps, I hadn’t had a choice of whether or not to do something I knew was dangerous. Now I had the privilege of choosing to admit defeat.

 Fog rolls in over an abandoned village. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

Fog rolls in over an abandoned village. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The following morning, we retraced our steps through still-wet jungle and followed a path we’d missed two days before, glimpsing Tibet’s snowcapped mountains five miles north. Hours later, three men strode by us with logs slung over their shoulders. They’d hand-felled trees into timbers for new houses. Their younger brother, Sunil, carried nothing, but spoke English. When he learned we were American, he said, “allo-ca-tion,” sounding out the syllables with care. “My brother. He got an allocation. USAID.” He walked us back to their tiny village, a collection of stone cottages.

We sat on a low wall and removed our wet boots. Blood streamed from our leech-bitten shins. Boyan’s feet were white and wrinkled, the beginnings of immersion foot. Sunil’s mother handed us buffalo milk tea in metal cups. On the grass sat a toddler girl who must have been born after the earthquake. Wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned “New York,” she pulled apart a fist-sized marigold blossom and tossed petals into the air.

 Teresa takes a break on the trail, knee bleeding from leech bites. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

Teresa takes a break on the trail, knee bleeding from leech bites. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

As the sun dipped into a yellow sky, Sunil’s older brother offered us a place to stay. His house comprised a single large room with a corrugated metal roof. His wife squatted over the cooking fire, wearing a traditional long black skirt and apron. She blew the flames to life and made us dal bhat, or lentils and rice, and set chunks of fried ox meat on a tin plate. Sunil handed us small green fruits, tart and citrusy. Then he pulled a cracked smartphone from his pocket and offered to friend us on Facebook.

Late that night, snug under blankets, I listened to rain patter on the roof. Humbled by the same land that had claimed my fellow Marines, I said a silent prayer of thanks that the villagers had taken us in.

Later in our trip, on our way to altitude, we braved a 12-hour bus ride from Kathmandu through Singati, the bazaar town from which the ill-fated helicopter had taken off. The driver navigated tight switchbacks on half-paved roads, our bus wheels so close to cliff edges I didn’t look down. When we arrived in Singati, wood-framed storefronts lined the streets, carrying the same off-brand coconut cookies and sacks of rice for sale as in other roadside towns. Weeks later, back in the States, I saw photos of Singati from just after the earthquake: a mess of scattered pick-up sticks. From there, a helicopter flight to Kathmandu would last just shy of half an hour. One could be forgiven for thinking it’s easier to fly over this rugged terrain than hike or drive.

Most days, it probably is. But not every day.

The Marines performing humanitarian assistance in 2015 did not have the option of turning back when the going got rough. In their attempt to save lives, they accepted the risks of an unknown, but more expedient, route. When Boyan and I stumbled from those same hills, bleeding and famished, we were helped gladly by those who could afford it in part due to the efforts of Americans who had died rendering aid. These days, I am learning to be patient when I run into trouble along an unexpectedly difficult path; even “more direct” ones, like the Marines took, can have catastrophic consequences. It turns out I’m always on an unpredictable trail, one along which I must periodically admit defeat and accept help. It’s not a simple vacation hike. But it is more interesting.

•••

Teresa Fazio was a Marine Corps communications officer from 2002-2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the New York TimesRolling StoneTask and PurposeVassar QuarterlyConsequence Magazine, and Penthouse, and the anthologies Retire the ColorsThe Road Ahead, and It’s My Country, Too. She lives, works, and occasionally skateboards in New York City.

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My Heart, a Fallow Field


War poisoned his body and threatened his life. To survive, Drew Pham had to lose all chance of fathering a child.

My Heart, a Fallow Field


War poisoned his body and threatened his life. To survive, Drew Pham had to lose all chance of fathering a child.

By Drew Pham

Dear Daughter,

I miss you already, though we’ve never met, though you never had a chance. I’m writing to say hello. To tell you all the things fathers must tell their children—I believe in you, I’m proud of you, I love you. I’m writing to say I’m sorry I’ll never be able to tell you those things. Above all, I’m writing you to say goodbye.

Let me explain myself. I was a soldier and I fought in a war. After my small part ended, I carried the things soldiers bring home with them—duffel bags full of uniforms that no longer fit, notebooks full of memories of people I fought for and against, and medals that mean nothing compared to the people in those notebooks. I carried other things home, things that lingered in the air from pits of burning refuse and bombs dropped a decade or more before. I carried those things in my genes, which ruptured and frayed, and I became very ill. To save me, the doctors fed my veins poison and irradiated my skin, my loins. The price of saving my life was taking yours. That’s why I never met you, never had you.

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Your mother and I used to wonder what you might look like. You would have loved your mother. She made a whole life out of giving to others, and I know she would have given you everything. She said there was a chance you’d have red hair, through some trick of recessive genes. Your grandmother’s grandmother had hair the color of raw sienna. She was half French, and your grandmother used to say how beautiful she’d been, but illiterate, a pariah for reminding our people we’d been conquered, colonized. I’d hoped you would look more like your mother than me—an elegant nose, wavy hair, and sleepy eyes. I’d have less to offer—a broad flat snout, stiff bristled hair, and a mouth of skewed teeth.

Your mother and I talk about you less now, though I still try to make out the landscape of your character. Her heart is open to other children now—abandoned, donated. With time, mine might open too, but you’re my child, and now that you’re gone I can’t help but linger on you. I imagine you, and I see a woman who bends to no man. You would be kind, giving like your mother. You would be wrathful—my contribution, and one you can’t escape. I have better qualities I hope you’d inherit too. You’d have loved the world, as I do—how autumn sets fire to the trees, the warmth of skin on skin, and the way story leaps out of something so simple as a breath, a tongue. I like to think you’d have become an artist, like I wanted to be. But there was a war to fight, so I became a soldier. These days, a woman can take her rifle to meet the enemy just the same as any man, and I’d fear the wars not yet declared, because fighting is in your blood. My side of the family, we’re fighters, and I fear you’d have become one of us.

I know you might have been, or chosen to become, a son. That too frightens me, not because I’d have less love to give, but because I know my heart well, and I know nothing would make me prouder than to see my son put on yet another uniform. I’d feared fathering a son because I’d want to make you a man, and making a boy into a man is a terrible thing. My wrath would become your wrath, and in time you might cling to it, as I cling to it, a sword that can never be put down, never be broken. If you were a son, I’d want to save you from me.

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Maybe I’m afraid because my heart, like my father’s, is buried in the past. You’ll find mine in a fallow field in Afghanistan. If you’d been born, you’d never have known your grandfather. He left us to chase after his heart, left behind in Vietnam. Part of me is glad that you’ll never see me as I saw him: those distracted eyes always looking backward, the way his bedroom smelled of defeat, and yes, that inescapable wrath that overtook him when he battered my mother, when he abandoned us. You’ll never have to see me when the past floods back in the summer months, and a backfiring engine hurls me into a rage; or stumbling through the house late at night, a strange smell on my breath; or my distracted eyes always looking backward. Fearful as I’ve been at the prospect of fatherhood, I would have had you. Now I can only imagine who you might have been.

The things I’ll never see—your face for the first time, fresh from the womb and in your mother’s arms. I’ll never see you grow, crawling across wood floors, those first teetering steps. I’ll never hear your first word—mine was applesauce—and I’ll never get to remind you of it constantly, just as your grandmother constantly reminds me. And you’ll miss a wealth of firsts—your first bike ride, your first sleepover, your first dance, your first kiss. Because fighting’s in your blood we’d fight; you’d tell me you hate me, like all teenage daughters do, but don’t worry, this too would pass. I’ll never see you become a woman. You’ll never find your life’s passions; you’ll never feel all of the disappointments, failures, and betrayals that, in the end, make us stronger. You’ll never meet the love of your life or have your own children. I’ll never know how it feels to look at grandchildren and know, no matter how much or little I’ve accomplished, that their presence means I led a good life. I may never know what it means to raise a child, but I know what it means to be a father, because I’ve lost you before I ever knew you.

Sometimes I think I should be thankful you never had to see this world of ours. People are gunned down on the street for the color of their skin, treated like property by powerful men, and told No, we will not take you, we will not grant you refuge here. Our world is cruel; I’ve seen it, taken part in that cruelty. Maybe it’s best you never met me, never learned what I’ve done in the name of empty words like “freedom.” There are days I think that losing you was payment for the man I killed. Even if you’d been born, you’d inherit more than a mouthful of crooked teeth. Who knew you could inherit trauma the same way you inherit freckled skin or colored eyes? Your body would know the dread of B-52s razing the fields and Saigon burning on the horizon and the eyes of a dead man, milky like the pale flesh of oysters. I would have given you fire, and you would have no choice but to accept. This is a woman’s lot in our world, and war, I fear, will always be waged on women’s bodies. And because no one knows how dioxin, depleted uranium, and chemotherapeutic poison might pass between us, were you to be born malformed or blind or crumbling from the inside, would I then be waging war on your body too?

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When we talk about war’s costs, we use words like veteran suicide, civilian casualties, and mass migration. We talk about numbers—kill ratios, migrant quotas, rates of suicide. In this way, we make sense of the price. It seems the cost has been negligible enough to let these wars go on for more than 16 years. Where do you belong in the tally of the dead? I think of the empty space you’ve left in me, and I believe there can be only one fitting tribute to this war. I propose an eternal flame in every American town and city. Let them dig pits in the parks and squares; let there be piles of 16 years’ worth of war trash—all the rotting food and lithium batteries and severed limbs and human shit. Let the fire feed off jet fuel, and let the hydrocarbons infiltrate every lung; let the carcinogens assault every gene, and like a biblical plague, let everyone be robbed of their children forevermore, because this is what losing you feels like.

No, you’d say; That isn’t justice, you’d say. You’d say this because you are your mother’s daughter, and you have her giving heart. I imagine your shape in the doorframe, as a little girl, a teenager, a woman. I’d say the things all fathers must say to their daughters—I believe in you, I’m proud of you, I love you. You’d hear me, and walk out that door. Goodbye, I’d say. Like the sword I can’t put down, the wrath to which I cling, and the fallow field where I buried my heart, I have to let you go. Goodbye, I’d say.  

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.

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Until He Saw the Terror They Sowed


Augusto Giacoman almost jumped for joy when he was assigned his first midnight raid, but what he saw that night quickly changed his mind. 

Until He Saw the Terror They Sowed


Augusto Giacoman almost jumped for joy when he was assigned his first midnight raid, but what he saw that night quickly changed his mind. 

By Augusto Giacoman

Abu Ahmed was asleep when our squad slipped into his shack. He slept through the room clearance. He slept on as one of our soldiers approached, waking as he was thrown to the ground. He shouted in alarm as they rushed to zip-tie him. I ran over with the interpreter to interrogate him. I jittered with the adrenaline of my first raid since I’d deployed to Iraq and the rush of finally getting to do what I had been trained to do. As I moved toward Abu Ahmed, the tip of my rifle made contact with his forehead, making a decent-sized gash. He cried out again and looked at me in shock. In that initial moment, he didn’t look afraid, just really confused. I apologized and called the medic to come wrap his forehead.

As the medic worked, I questioned Abu Ahmed. The reality of the situation started to hit him, and his fear response kicked in. His eyes widened, and he struggled to breathe normally and began to shiver. Who would run the generator, he asked, as the squad tore up his shack looking for any evidence of bomb-making materials. We found none but took his cell phone, his notebook, and some other belongings in a couple of sealed bags, and then we blindfolded him and took him back to the Stryker. We had the target. We didn’t find anything during the sensitive site exploitation, I reported back to higher headquarters. Hit the house where he lived as well, they radioed back. Awesome, I thought, I get two raids in one night.

 A Stryker with a mine plow from 1-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

A Stryker with a mine plow from 1-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

As we headed to his house in the Palestine neighborhood of south Mosul, Abu Ahmed began to weep.

On a raid, with 40 soldiers at my back, bristling with weapons, stacked with body armor, and ready to kill anything in my way, I felt like a god. We hoped and prayed our Commander would send us on raids—exhilarating, action-packed, and so unlike the normal tedium of a 12- to 14-hour patrol through filthy streets where I felt like a walking target. We conducted raids usually in the dead of night, out of Iraq’s hot midday sun, letting us work in more comfort than during our blistering daytime patrols.

Three weeks into my first tour, I led my first raid. I could have jumped for joy when my Commander gave me the mission and said to pick up Abu Ahmed’s target packet at our intelligence shop. The intel guys greeted me with a sneer they reserved for the infantry—no way they could know that I was a secret nerd. They handed me the packet and I dug in.

The intel on Abu Ahmed had come from the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, and the packet contained a description of him and his legitimate and alleged illegitimate activity. He ran the local generator and was also a bomb maker. There were two addresses—his place of business and his home—and the packet contained a few maps of where these were.

Abu Ahmed worked in a 400-square-foot shack sat in an open field, making it easier for us to move in and carry out the raid quickly. Intel didn’t know what the inside looked like, but from our patrols in Mosul we knew most of those places had a cot for the operator to sleep on, maybe a nightstand, and an old, toxic, smoking generator. Abu Ahmed was its operator. He ensured it had fuel. When the generator broke, he would fix it. He slept next to the oily monstrosity. And he worked nights, so we decided to hit there first. We rehearsed the mission a few times that afternoon, ensuring the Squad Leaders and my Platoon Sergeant were clear on everything, and then we rolled out.

At 2 a.m. we spotted the shack, which sat in near-total darkness. We owned the night. The Strykers moved swiftly into place. The vehicle drivers let the ramps down, careful not to lower them all the way lest the heavy doors clang against the ground and wake the neighborhood. First squad rushed out of the vehicles, each one a trained killer with violence in his mind. I followed behind.

The squad stacked alongside the building, and as the last soldier in line, I held my rifle behind us to ensure no enemy snuck up from the rear. Strykers with 50-caliber machine guns looked on, monitoring all sides of us, ensuring no forces would amass away from our field of vision. The might of our empire focused on the tip of a spear that was about to seriously ruin this alleged bomb maker’s sleep.

The Squad Leader motioned for one of the soldiers to check the door. It was open, saving us the need to breach with a shoulder or a small explosive charge. The squad rushed in.

Abu Ahmed sat zip-tied in a Stryker weeping when we turned our sights on his house. We lined up against the wall and sent a soldier up and over the gate to open it from the inside, and then we rushed in. The house was filled with men, women, and children, probably 20 people in all. What the fuck. Why so many. Abu Ahmed had been relatively quiet during the previous raid, before and after he’d woken up, but the house erupted with wailing as we rushed in with our guns.

The women flew to protect the wailing children. The air filled with Arabic. We continued to clear the house, separating the women and children in one room and the two men—Abu Ahmed’s brother and his dad—into another as we tried to quiet everyone down.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt gathering energy, like lighting was about to strike. The air was heavy and thick with all that had just happened. I sat down with the men. They were sullen with rage, tight-lipped and drawn into themselves; they stared in my direction without looking at me. I got one-word answers when I asked about Abu Ahmed. From the next room, hot waves of fear radiated from the women and still-crying kids. The rest of the platoon tore apart the house looking for evidence, but found nothing.

I reported what we’d found up to higher headquarters: two military-age males, a house full of women and children, no evidence. Their response chilled me. Bring the males in. I reported back. We didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. As we grabbed the men they started shouting. “Shut the fuck up,” we told them, and they did. We zip-tied and blindfolded them, and put them each in a different Stryker. Before we left, the interpreter, a fire team, and I went into the room where the women and children stood, fearful, apprehensive, and confused. We’re detaining the men, I told them. They started keening, shrieking cries of distress, and I stumbled backward. Their cries were like physical beatings, like baseball bat after baseball bat was being slammed against my chest and my stomach. Overcome with nausea, I wanted to cover my ears and run away. Waves and waves of suffering battered me. They are banshees. They are trying to kill me with their screams, I thought. The children’s cries mingled with the women’s screams. We fled the house.

Their chorus of grief followed us outside, but as we mounted the Strykers, they drowned out the women’s screams. The last thing I saw as we drove off was the women clawing their own faces.

The sky began to lighten as we drove the men to the jail on the base to drop them off and fill out all the paperwork. The blindfolded men were stiff and afraid as we dragged them out of the trucks. One of my soldiers shouted in disgust, The haji pissed on the fucking seat.

Don’t call them hajis, I said.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As an Officer in the U.S. Army he served as a Platoon Leader, an Executive Officer, and an Operations Officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005, and to Sadr City 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

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They Weren’t Supposed to Die Here


Nina Semczuk arrived at the National Training Center in California prepared to train; she wasn’t prepared for a fellow soldier to die.

They Weren’t Supposed to Die Here


Nina Semczuk arrived at the National Training Center in California prepared to train; she wasn’t prepared for a fellow soldier to die.

By Nina Semczuk

I thought death would touch me overseas when I joined the Army, but not during routine domestic training. Then a soldier in my brigade died in our first week at the National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert. Fear and foreboding replaced my initial shock. I had focused so much on the mundane logistical tasks to get us there; I’d forgotten training could be dangerous.

We’d arrived from the prairie—Fort Riley, Kansas—after months of training for our unit’s rotation through the Training Center, what we called NTC. The 1,000 square miles of mountainous desert, roughly the size of Rhode Island, allows for brigade-size simulated battles in an area that’s so remote there’s little chance of noise complaints. Miles of space means room for large tank maneuvers, as well as entire shanty towns that approximate Afghan villages. Our unit had spent the summer and fall prior to our February rotation in the field, day and night, simulating the battles we might fight in the Mojave Desert.

 The sun rises over Kansas, where the author was stationed before her unit's rotation through the National Training Center. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The sun rises over Kansas, where the author was stationed before her unit's rotation through the National Training Center. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Our first week at NTC we spent in the staging area, a sand-colored holding pen filled with tents, gravel, and soldiers, getting our vehicles and intelligence satellites working. At night, we’d sleep on cots in huge hardstand tent hangars. It felt safe, like an Army version of summer camp. I’d fall asleep listening to soldiers whispering back and forth in the dim light. We knew any danger we might encounter would start once we left the confines of our staging area a day later, when we would traverse steep, unrelenting desert mountains. But at worst I thought we’d face dehydration, cliffs, and unknown territory where we might get lost.

A day or so into the first-week hustle and bustle, my soldiers began chattering about news of a “training accident.” Companies and platoons exchanged details as the soldiers went about finding equipment and prepping our gear for the field. No one knew what had happened, except that it involved a vehicle and a soldier and that it sounded serious.

We asked soldiers in other companies for more details, but the immediate to-dos took precedence. Our 3,500-person brigade worked to get our vehicles and systems up and running as chaos consumed my day—my Platoon Sergeant refusing to leave his cot, another soldier dealing with his wife’s miscarriage, and the flurry of activity getting my six ground intelligence and satellite vehicles operational. But the question remained in the back of my mind: What had happened in that “training accident”? In quiet moments throughout the day, an uneasy feeling crept over me. I hated not knowing what was going on—for myself and my soldiers, but also to clear the air with truth.

Bits of news about the incident trickled through the brigade over the next 12 hours. According to rumor, a soldier had been standing on a Bradley, a 30-ton infantry fighting vehicle, during routine maintenance when the turret had turned and crushed him. Our Company Commander verified the rumor some time later, but nothing more was said or done officially. No moment of silence, no official acknowledgement. As if his death were nothing more than a routine hiccup. An unfortunate hiccup, but one that we had to push through to keep our momentum strong going into our three weeks of simulated battles.

 The author photographed the motorpool staging area during her unit's rotation through the National Training Center in 2013. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author photographed the motorpool staging area during her unit's rotation through the National Training Center in 2013. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I thought back to my college R.O.T.C. years spent preparing for Iraq and Afghanistan under the tutelage of crusty Sergeants. Suicide vests and car bombs, even green-on-blue attacks and friendly fire—we’d talked about those combat and noncombat deaths, but not the mundane, almost pathetic ones. We digested the news as we continued packing trucks, checking weapons, and setting up our computer systems in the hive of a staging area. Then we set out into the desert.

Apart from a brief halt on the way, we arrived at our first tactical operations center location without issue. Later that day, after the tents were set up, my company Executive Officer told me and the other Platoon Leaders that we’d had another “training accident.” An HET vehicle carrying a tank had flipped, severely injuring the two soldiers inside. One Sergeant’s face was almost entirely ripped off. He and the other injured soldier were in critical condition and quickly airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital over 200 miles away.

Our First Sergeant later confirmed the rumor my Executive Officer had heard. Accidents happen, the battalion Staff Officers I worked with told me; imagine if that had happened while we were under enemy attack. In a way, they said, we were lucky, getting to buff out our operations on domestic grounds before deploying. Both of the soldiers injured when the tank flipped left the Army through a medical board; they no longer were physically capable of performing soldier duties. If there were others involved in that accident, I don’t know what happened to them.

I struggled to wrap my head around what felt like sad, almost pathetic ways to die and be injured. It seemed unfair—it still does—dying in the desert of California, rather than at war. I don’t know if the soldier who died when the turret hit him had deployed; I wouldn’t have been surprised. It’s always the Sergeant who’s survived six or so deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, it seems, who dies domestically, doing something routine.

•••

Nina Semczuk is a former Army Officer who served in various locations and units from 2011 to 2016. She earned a B.S. from Boston University prior to military service and now lives in New York, and works as a writer and editor at a financial tech startup. Find her work on SmartAsset, The Muse, itscomplicated.vet, Fast Company, and around the web. Nina is also a teaching associate with the Voices From War writing workshop and an outdoor yoga instructor for NYC Parks and Rec.

Say “hi” on Twitter @ninadawdles or check out her site: ninasemczuk.com.

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For the Love of Machine Guns


Jerad W. Alexander fired his first machine gun at 12 and was hypnotized. Not many years later, patrolling Iraqi streets, he learned the weapon's power.