Archive | October 2006

A new type of war

“So THIS is where all the good furniture went,” said our battalion commander, popping his head into the brigade admin office on his way to a meeting.

“Wow, nice office,” say several people a day. “A lot of room.”

The comment is made in disdain because most sections are crammed two or three to a desk, while the admin office is spread out over two rooms.

Hey, I’m not admin, I was just told to work out of their office. There is a lot of room in the new office, that’s for damn sure. The brigade admin officer, or, as the Army calls him, the S1, apparently worked some political gerrymandering during the time everybody was on leave, snatching up the best stuff.

That’s typical of him and typical of attitudes in the Army these days. We’re practitioners of Machiavelli’s Un-Golden Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you. We came, saw the stuff, and took it from them before they took it from us.

Well, not “we” per se, and not “them.” We’re “Army Strong” after all (our new Army motto), you know, “one team one fight” and all that crap. Yeah.

Be all that as it may, we’re locked in to a new struggle now that we’re back from war: a war of make believe. We don’t have enemies to kill or bombs to dodge, but we can show everyone how hardcore we are by the svelteness of our PowerPoints, among other things.

“I want you all to start calling ‘at ease’ whenever any sergeants major or lieutenant colonels come in,” our major said. “We’ll show them how disciplined we are.”

Calling the room to “at ease” (that is, standing up, placing your feet a shoulder’s width apart and clasping your hands behind your back to wait for instructions from the entering person) is courtesy, but usually very impractical in a brigade setting, where we have a dozen sergeants major and light colonels stepping in and out every few minutes.

Still, we have to show “them” how disciplined “we” are.

“Don’t get attached to your chairs or desk, the CIC (command information center) is getting priority on all furniture,” the major said today. In Iraq, the CIC is the heart of the goings on of the unit. Typically they get all the nice stuff since the higher-ups spend all of their “back when I was fighting the war” time there. You have to make it as cutting-edge and plush as possible.

But when there are no radios to monitor or convoys to track, why are we setting up a CIC in the states?

Apparently that’s just the beginning, they’ve ordered all manner of projectors and screens to emulate the setup we had in Iraq with telemetry and data streams filling the CIC sky like the starry heavens.

“They really need to let it go,” said a former drill sergeant colleague of mine. Agreed.

“Salmons, we need your help,” came a call in mid-morning–the third such call in the prior two days. While at first I thought it might include a dangling participle or misplaced modifier, actually it was just to help move a desk into the office.

“We’re getting a civilian safety guy in here and he needs a desk,” said one of the admin staff sergeants…one of nine soldiers who now made up the section, now that all the formerly-pregnant and broken soldiers have rejoined the family.

“What happened to all the desks that the major said we didn’t need and had us take out?” I asked, rhetorically.

“Well we need another one.”

We moved three desks in and back out over the course of those two days. None were ever good enough, as per the major. One didn’t match; one “was a table, not a desk” as it didn’t have built-in drawers; and the third was something else that I wasn’t privy to. I just remember lifting heavy particle board to and from the various parking lots and buildings of our unit footprint.

The safety guy came through today. “Don’t you guys have a cubicle I could use?” he asked the admin master sergeant. “No sir, it’s just an open room for all of us.”

“I’d actually like THAT area,” he said, motioning to me at my desk. Guess I’m on the chopping block.

But I’m confused. The command should really put out a rules of engagement for this new type of fight. Is this civilian guy “them”? He’s working with “us” which would make me think he’s part of the team, but he’s acting aggressively toward “us,” right? And he gets to wear blue jeans every day. And all he does is tell people to wear their seat belts and read driving fatality statistics from the Department of Transportation. And he’s a G12!

I’m making the call, he’s one of “them.”

I’ll list it in the PowerPoint we have to start presenting to the command in the new meetings that they’re scheduling. Command and Staffs, Morning Stand-Ups…they’re all going to start up again. Hours of my life sacrificed on the alter of freedom. Hours of my life I can’t spend with my future grandchildren. “Sorry little Johnny, Grandpa has to go hang with Jesus, if only I had those few days of my life back, I’d be able to tell you how much I lo–…”

All there is to talk about at the meetings is how we don’t have any soldiers to command, any dining facilities to run, or any motor pools to manage. Heck, I get five or six people a day stopping by my desk saying how they’re bored out of their minds with no job to do.

I’ve entered a new chapter. It’s Office Space meets the DMV, and I am one day closer to death.

###

The Quest for Stripes: Catching Up

Legwork.

Where is the personnel service battalion? What are their hours? Closed on Mondays? Lunch at 1130? What documents do I need for an update to my Enlisted Records Brief? Do you need my diploma? Where’s my weapon’s card? You don’t have copy paper? They say you can’t buy any? Where’s the commander? Well, do you know when he’ll be back? Try back tomorrow? Where’s Staff Sgt. E? Dentist? When’s a good time to catch him? Hello? Is he there today? Do you know when he’ll be back, I had some papers to give him? Will you call me? Do you know when the board is? Has there been any guidance as to what will be asked on the board? Are you even planning on having a board? Okay, can you let me know when you find something out? In fact, I’ll just call back in a few days, okay? What will the uniform be? Will I need to get my dress uniform ready? It’s going to be in ACUs, are you sure? Is there someone who is sure? Well, the board should be in just a week or two, shouldn’t someone know? They’ve left for the day already? What time will they be in tomorrow? Meeting’s until when? What about after lunch? Is there something I’m missing? Yes I went to the personnel service battalion, yes they updated my stuff, is there something else? Okay, are you going to be there for a few minutes? Well, don’t leave just yet, I’ll be right there.

So I sprinted next door to the battalion once I heard Staff Sgt. E’s voice on the phone.

“Here you go,” I said as I plopped down a stack of papers.

“This everything?” he asked, flipping through the papers. “Weapon’s card, PT card, awards, transcripts…everything?”

“Yes, and those are for you, I’ve already made copies.” Should I slip the guy a $20 for “safekeeping”?

“Alright, we’ll let you know when we hear something.”

Whew! Got the paperwork in for them to START the packet. Now, the naive soldier would just go back and wait for the call, but I’ve been burnt that way before. Come Monday, I’ll continue pounding on doors and making phone calls to ensure nothing was lost along the way and everything is tracking.

Hopefully I won’t have to resubmit the paperwork; but, from past experience, I’m ready to do so if needed.

###

By a tooth’s skin

I was in the restroom at the new brigade building. The winds were whipping by at 40 to 50 miles per hour–not an uncommon thing on the border of the plains, as I recall similar weather in my college years on the Ohio tundra. The torrents of air created strange whistlings through the cracks and joints of the building.

Our unit is a command element. When we’re at war, we have subordinate units placed under us. Now that we’re back, there are hundreds of leaders with nothing to lead, the subordinate units are gone. Our three tiers of command: company, battalion and brigade; are essentially the same people. Three sets of majors, lieutenant colonels, and captains; outnumbering and all in command of the same few soldiers.

At brigade, we hop to whatever new project the colonel yells for. This week, for me, was posters for the walls–nothing too major. At battalion and the company, just a scant few hundred feet away, there’s less and even less-than-less to do.

Which is why I was standing in the bathroom listening to the wind whistles on a Friday afternoon and why my company commander was washing up on his way out at two.

“Sargen Sal Mons,” he began in his thick accent. I wanted to say Puerto Rican, but I’ve been wrong about that sort of thing before…and I can’t say “Latino” or “Spanish” since that offends all manner of people (I’ve been wrong there too). So I’ll just say “thick.” “When are you going back?”

“To Iraq, sir?” I asked. I got this a lot. Remember back when I was trying to volunteer for a second year in Iraq and how that fell through? Well, there were still a lot of people who thought I was leaving. No big deal, I would let them know I wasn’t going back whenever I ran across someone who didn’ t know. “Oh, that fell through, sir. I’m staying here.”

“That’s a good thing. Those guys are getting shelled all the time. We got out just in time.” He said it in a relieved sort of way.

I’ve heard about the guilt that a lot of Vietnam guys felt when they got back–that they survived when their friends didn’t. What are you supposed to feel when you didn’t lose anyone–when you could have; and that you could easily have been the poor bastards that were over there now, as things get a lot worse, while guys in stateside bathrooms count their blessings before heading out on the weekend?

What are you supposed to feel when someone throws out a “better them than us” type of comment? Are you supposed to be glad? And what should you feel when someone who never left the safety of the wire says something like that to you?

“So you’re over here for good, eh?” he asked.

“Well, we’re waiting to see if division snatches me up when they get back,” I explained. “If so, then I’ll go back with them in a few months.”

“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Go out and find yourself some p*ssy. Have a good weekend.”

“You too, sir.”

If you can’t enjoy your time not in Iraq for the guilt of being stateside, then it’s not worth enduring the years there. But I still can’t escape the feeling that when my turn comes again, I’ll be the poor jerk some other guys are joking about while staring at the urinals. “Better him than us.”

So do you hope not to go back? Do you pray not to go back? Bringing God into it seems a little selfish, since someone will have to go. Why not me? No one else is stepping up.

###

The last and longest day

*Warning! Longest post EVER…good gawd*

Saturday. The last day of Michigan.

The alarm went off. It was a good bit into morning: 0900–enough to shake off the “evenings prior” to elate the aches of typical “mornings after.”

At least, late enough for me, normally a forced early-riser due to my militant condition. Granted, most others plow through the day with dreams until the Sun runs downhill, but I was cool with enjoying the quiet while the rest of the block slumbered on.

Nikos was up north with his girl, Emily (more north than Michigan? Yes, it is possible, Google “Michigan UP”) and Sonny was still away in Spain, leaving me free reign of the crib.

I’d kick it with Seth and Sally soon-ish. No need to rush. We’d hit lunch or something, maybe a movie.

“What you in the mood for, ol’ Seth-y-boy?”

“Well, Sally just left for work, so I’m up for whatever.” Oh yeah, she worked through the afternoon on Saturdays. Guess it’d just be the boys for the matinee.

We had landed on the idea for seeing the new Eastwood flick “Flags of Our Fathers,” but not before quaffing some BW3s (that’s Buffalo Wild Wings for the newcomers, but old-school fans remember when BW3 was the name: Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck…keepin’ it real).

I spun off toward the miniature village that was Celebration North, a 25-screen terminal surrounded by all manner of coffee and desert shops, eateries and even an Armed Forces Recruiting center (stay away, kids).

I saw Seth’s Lumina in the lot (215K miles and counting, Chevy. Good job), went in and had some lunch. Talk turned to Iraq after a few and returned after seeing the movie.

For the “get to the *#&@ point” cats, was it good? Yes, I’d recommend it. It’s more of a character study on how everyone’s hero worship f*cks with our minds after we get back from war, rather than a pure “war movie.” I’ve seen a few conservative blogs saying it’s “liberal crap.” What movie isn’t? Yikes. Way to seriously serious-ify the issue, Repubs, just watch or don’t watch.

Anyway, evening rolled in with the slow, soaking drizzle that makes Michigan waaaaay better than every other place in the whole world, period.

Sally was free by then, so we jaunted over to the S&S crib to link up with her, the Lumina on point with the M3 providing rear security–sorry, still in Iraq convoy mode.

“What’s next?” I asked, now that we were all rip-roaring down the road in the BMW.

Back and forth cha-cha went for a bit and we smacked up a satellite branch of Kava House for some coffee before grabbing dinner at the next-door Uno’s (S&S had never been, so I figured it a good time as any).

Night was in the queue, that was for sure, now considerably darker than pre-Uno’s. Rain was queued too, it seemed, and things were settling in to a slow, cold evening. By the scant traffic, most were putting their hopes in Sunday, having one more shot at greatness for the weekend, but I had to move! It was the final day, by God. We’d push through and find “it,” for sure.

There were plans to hook up with our boy Billy, a friend of Sonny’s and Nikos’–well, my friend too dammit. Damn good guy, that one. A little loud when drunk, but otherwise a solid cat. Somewhere in town was a casino night to benefit a city charity. Billy knew the proprietor and extended the invite to Nikos, S&S and myself. Sally wasn’t feeling it, but wished Seth and I good fortune as we dropped her off and steered toward the city lights.

So newly formed “S&J,” formally of “S&S feat. J,” drove past the right turn a few times in the rainy city evening before finding Billy’s house “just next to the church, up the hill.” Yeah.

The boys already there included Gabe and Bob, with Billy hosting, leading the whole gaggle of us three houses farther up the hill to the venue.

“Uh, are we under dressed?” I asked, seeing the suits of the patrons and tuxedos of the dealers. Honest to God blackjack and roulette tables filled the house’s very large bottom floor. Poker was upstairs.

A foxy minx with a sleeveless tux shirt, superb skin and amazingly tight pants (dear Lord, help me not to covet my casino night’s host’s girlfriend) asked us what drinks we wanted, and we were let into the evening. Again, Billy knew the guys running the gig–a band of GR’s social elite that got together for little events like this now and again.

Uncle Jack was Billy’s main “in” to the whole scene. Uncle J was the former owner of the house, but now a permanent guest of the house’s new owner, Jim. Jim loved Uncle Jack so much after getting to know him, he couldn’t bear kicking him out (the house had partially burned down and Uncle J had to sell it to break even or some such, nearly being evicted from his home of decades). Now he was the social planner of these sorts of gigs and roommate of Jim.

Uncle Jack…dude, seriously one of the most awesome people I’ve ever met. He’s an older cat–he’d never say, but he was in the Air Force during the Korean war, so he’s getting up there. He was comfortably drunk, the kind of drunk you earn after your 4,000th evening past the legal limit, and was puffing down cigarettes every few minutes.

“Seriously, I don’t know why he’s still alive,” Billy said after introducing us. Uncle Jack was in the middle of another talk but, after a few seconds I was in the embrace from this slightly haunched, finely dressed man. “Thank you for coming! Thank you for coming to the party! Get a drink. Have fun! Win some money!”

The proceeds would go to the city charity, but you were allowed to cash out any money you actually made. The whole lot of us plopped down at a blackjack table and started in. $20 for me, to start, and in an hour and a half I’d trippled it. Wow.

“Josh, it’s 10:40, we’d better get going,” Seth reminded me over the fun. 10:40 p.m. is 2240 hours for the military cats still holding on through this epic.

“Where you guys going?!?” The encroaching intoxication of Billy forced a few decibels more than necessary out of the boy’s mouth. Out! Out demon! The power of Christ compels you!

“We have to get Sonny from the airport,” I said. “Sucks that we have to go, but we’ll give you guys a call when we get him.”

“Definitely! You guys DEFINITELY should give me a call. On my cell phone!! CELL PHONE!”

Seth and I cashed out: $60 for me and $28 for him. We couldn’t take money from charity, though, and just gave it back to the surprised cashier. Weird taking from a charity.

Zip-Zam-Zoom (insert “Snatch” movie U.S-to-England montage), and Sonny was picked up, taken home to change and given back the keys to his beloved M3 to whisk us again into the night.

Billy was still down, but the other cats had bolted for some ’80s cover band in a gig downtown. Our modified crew had time for one more round of blackjack before the evening was officially packed away and the monied cats sent away.

But that’s when we started having a blast. Jim and Jack let us stay afterward and just chill. We talked the whole night–about Jack’s time in the service; the times in Europe; his radio career; how he introduced the Beatles to Grand Rapids, “at 8:10 in the morning, on some day in the ’60s”; his love of jazz; our backgrounds; Seth’s graphic design job; Santino growing up in Spain; my Army stuff; Jack’s time in business; how the charities work; Sonny dancing with Kristen (formerly known as “foxy” and or “minx”) to the house jazz pouring overhead.

It was the sort of evening that changes you–the sort of soul-searching, old bequeaths knowledge to new, sipping on life and taking it in, God is in laughter, sort of evenings.

Jack said that he just likes being friends to people and loves the “long, full life” he’s lived. I sure as hell felt welcome after seeing him. He was a treasure.

Unbeknownst to us, turned out Jim was a fan of Nooma, Santino’s gig. I had Sonny come in and give a few diatribes about the state of things. Jack was super interested, especially in how the Flannel crew (the company that makes Nooma) was not trying to accomplish an agenda, but just trying to communicate with people.

We stood in the kitchen forever, just going back and forth on the heavier things of life–God, justice and all that. Jim cooked us some Philly cheese steak sandwiches and we stayed in that room for the final couple of hours before I had to leave.

Three airports and six hours later, I was back in Texas. It’ll be a long time before I get to Michigan again, especially if I’m the lucky winner of another year in Iraq, but I really hope Jack is there when I get back. Those are the kinds of people guys write movies about.

###

The Quest for Stripes: Starting Over from the Last Place We Started Over

When we last left off our hero (i.e. me…trust me, I’m awesome!), his quest for promotion to staff sergeant (E6, not like the Air Force, who call their E5s “staff sergeant”…weirdos) was just beginning.

Before going on leave to Michigan for a couple of weeks, I had made every effort to get as much of the leg and paperwork done. Woe to the one who leaves his career in the hands of anyone else! In the Army it is up to everyone to look out for him or herself, as everyone will straight out f*** ya as much as notice you walk in for help.

Anyway, in those final few days, as the first waves of personnel were already leaving for our “block leave” break, I was meeting with my friends from the admin office. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me since the rear-detachment troops (i.e. those who were hurt or pregnant and didn’t go to war) were still in charge. I would have to meet up with the admin sergeant there.

And I tried for three days to meet up with said sergeant (an E6, actually…confusing, yes, how we call E5, E6, and E7 all “sergeant”…sorry). I would check in the mornings. “Umm, she’s out on errands…better to catch her in the afternoon,” said her supervisor. I would check in the afternoon. “Ummm, she’s still at lunch, maybe try a little earlier.” And, on Friday, my last day of people at their desks before I left the next Monday…I came in just before lunch. “Umm, she’s out on errands, but she should be back soon.”

So I waited until 1300 when I was joined by several people drifting in, all trying to find something out from the same admin sergeant. 1500 came and went and those cats left. Finally, at 1545, she rolls in. I let her know my situation (in under 30 seconds, any longer and you immediately get the “I can’t help you. Go see XXXXX”) and she shook her head and said, “I can’t help you. Go see Staff Sergeant E” (sometimes you get the brush off anyway).

Problem was, Staff Sgt. E is famous for not helping anybody. In fact, today, he apparently JUST picked up promotion paperwork that was supposed to be submitted weeks ago. He said he was “too busy” and now several soldiers who should have been promoted October 1st have to wait longer; to say nothing about his alleged fake-transcript scam. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to before Michigan, I left the rear-detachment admin sergeant’s office and called my combat-veteran admin friend anyway, knowing she wasn’t in charge of things, but just for advice.

“Well, let me see what you need updated and I can at least get that in to your records so you’ll be that much more ahead when you get back,” she offered over the phone.

“Wow, thanks! Will I be able to make the deadlines?” I asked.

“For November? Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem. Just pick things up when you get back.”

“Cool, no problem.”

Then came Michigan. W00t.

Then came today.

“I couldn’t update your records, they’ve taken away all my permissions. I can’t access EMILPO,” she explained. Don’t ask about acronyms in the military. We don’t know either.

“Crap, now what?” I asked.

“Well, you’ll have to start by taking your stuff to the PSB and go from there.” Ah, the Personnel Service Battalion, I knew that one. They were closed on Mondays and had “training” on Fridays, essentially giving them a four-day every week. Not bad. Kind of like Congress.

To make it through to them, you had to arrive with every scrap of paperwork you needed put into your records. Remember that packet that was mentioned in the last post? Yeah…all that crap. You go in and they MIGHT see you, or they might make an appointment for you to come back when things are “open.”

“Go right at 0900 so you aren’t there all day,” my boss said. You see, when you make it a point to only see one or two people an hour, people pile up. Once the lines get to a certain length, people get frustrated and leave. That’s the beauty of military shops; if you work really slow, things don’t pile up, they just go away. Nice, eh?

Anyway, all that to say that there has been no progress whatsoever in the Quest for Stripes. I have just a couple of weeks until the board convenes–that is, if it convenes at all. The colonel’s secretary has a guaranteed spot, in fact the brigade admin staff was ordered to make sure his packet was put together for him, but the rest of us might get the shaft if Staff Sgt. E decides he doesn’t feel like doing anything. Not that he’d say that, but he’d find a problem with our packets–which is entirely possible since I might or might not be able to get through to the PSB cats. Then he’ll filibuster until the deadline passes. Sunk.

With my four-year degree, I’ve had enough promotion “points” to make E6 since I joined the service. I’ve just been waiting for the requisite “time in service” months to pass. Now that those have been accomplished, I just have to surmount the huge precipice of human laziness to be awarded something I’m entitled to, based on the Army’s needs, my wants, and my abilities.

###

Down to the wire

I’m nearing the final couple of days in Michigan before I head back to Texas.

I’ve been meeting with the last few people on my list of “we should get together sometime,” hitting all manner of restaurants and coffee spots.

Things have been good. It’s been a very good visit. Time with Uberpeeps (see column at right) such as Seth and Nikos are always very grounding. I have a tendency to fly off the handle a bit, idea wise. Having people in my life who can give me some perspective is such a boon in tricky times.

While I’ve been up here I’ve had the chance to talk about “how I feel about the war” a dozen or so times. That helps too, having to articulate things. Even when I can’t put it all down or figure it all out; just the effort helps relieve some of the pressure–which is needed since I don’t have a wife or GF to confide in down south.

I’ll miss these boys. Of course, everyone wants to know when I’m coming back (well, I guess I shouldn’t say “of course” like it’s expected, I’m flattered at the interest, since it means I might not be a total a-hole); I can’t say, but probably not for awhile.

So, I’m soaking up the last few days of hanging with friends before I go back to prison. The Michigan weather has been a little temperamental–hitting 60 and 40 like clouds mask the sun off and on.  It makes me glad to go back to Texas…okay, not really. At least we’re getting into the winter months down there, so there will be a bit of a reprieve as we start training to go back to Iraq.

I’ll be out of the loop until Monday, friends. Have a good weekend!

###

Oh, that’s rich!

Driving around a borrowed car worth more well more than a year’s soldier’s pay makes me wonder about a lot of things.

Firstly, it’s very strange seeing how people react to me as I’m seen in such a car. There’s almost a sense of awe or admiration you get when guys stop, take a second look and give that “must be nice” vibe. I get a lot of extra smiles from ladies, strangely–whether it’s from the car’s status or my confidence from the perceived social boost.

The car is a symbol of greater wealth. Driving something like it makes me seem like someone with a lot of disposable cash, like someone who’s doing well and is fairly well off–which has become the overall goal of most people nowadays.

Right? Isn’t it fair to think that most good boys and girls in the U.S. just want to have wealth–to have toys and enough in the bank to get whatever they want. It’s a goal to have money.

But what does the money represent? Is it happiness itself? Does money supposedly equal comfort which equals harmony which equals happiness?

There was a bit of a jump there, the one about harmony. Please pardon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently–what it is to belong. I think we all wonder about what it takes to feel like we’re accomplishing something–that our lives have purpose. We’ve sold ourselves in this country to thinking that accomplishment and wealth are tied into each other and that if one has wealth, then one has accomplished something. Achieving milestones feels good.

But aren’t we confusing money with achievement? Wealth with harmony? Would you honestly rather be rich or happy? One doesn’t automatically lead to the other and there are thousands of examples of lottery winners and “successful” and “accomplished” (i.e. rich) people who have miserable lives.

If you had to choose just one, would it be wealth or happiness? Happiness, right? I mean, that’s what we strive for, isn’t it? To be happy? And one of the big contributors to happiness is a daily affirmation that we have value, that we matter. Sure, crack can make you “happy” for a bit, but it does nothing to give us value.

So what gives us value? We are created beings, made in the image of a creator, and we like to create. Be it art or a table or a spreadsheet–each of us is wired in a certain way to figure things out and make stuff. Some people LIKE to write computer code–nuts, eh? Some people LIKE to figure out mathematical systems, others the melodies of a song, others meters of poetry, still others with construction or anything.

It makes me wonder if we all were created to do a specific thing. You hear about it every once in a while–that someone found their “calling” or some such. Some guy might have been a businessman for 20 years, only to find his “passion” in wine making. He gladly ditches the suit and literally goes tromping through the dirt and stomping on grapes, but he’s happy.

That’s really the crux of the issue: finding what we’re made to do. I’d rather be poor and working a job I love rather than miserable pulling in seven figures.

Finding our place, our calling, helps us slip into the role we were made for. It helps us find harmony with life. Not that we’re ever completely in tune through just that, but we get close when we get honest and let ourselves examine our lives.

What if we changed our viewpoints on wealth? What if, instead of measuring how close we are to buying a bigger house or a nicer car, we looked at how close we were to finding what it is that resonates with our souls? If, for me, that calling or passion is writing, then instead of jockeying for a promotion or a posh job, what if I invested time in learning how to write more effectively? Wouldn’t that bring me closer to harmony with life? To happiness? Wouldn’t that make me a richer man?

Moreover, it would be a selfless wealth, easily sharable with others, meant to be a blessing to anyone who saw it. I’d think that the businessman turned wine maker would feel so much more pride when handing off his first bottle to a friend than any series of performance evaluations to a boss. And, likewise, the friend accepting the bottle made with love, would feel a lot more apt to appreciate it than he would an entry on a restaurant’s menu.

###

What just happened?

The passing of the past two weeks apart from uniforms, formations and generally most other reminders that I am in the military, has made me begin to come to terms with the fact that I was away from home for a year.

A year. Wow. Was it that long? Not that it was all some grand ol’ time that passed without me noticing, but now that it’s done, I remember it more like a fuzzy memory–a time at the bar not having fun that I’d rather forget.

But it is important to try to wrap your mind around things like that. There it was, 10 to 12 hours a day–sometimes more, for seven days a week, all year long. It was one long Monday, one never ending constant drain on the psyche. Like Purgatory.

A year! I hear about all that went on over here and I can’t put the same measure of accomplishment to the time in Iraq. Maybe we were just focused on our small snapshot of the war and not privy to larger facets of the whole expanse of the conflict. Maybe we just didn’t care.

Now I’m back and everyone’s a year older, a year farther down the path. A year? Wow.

Would I do it again? Not willingly, but that’s hardly a consideration in the whole warmongering gig. We’re all volunteers, “Nobody put a gun to your head to sign up” is the saying we hear on a weekly basis when we start to grumble about preparing for the field or a million other frustrating aspects of our time “in”. And they’re right, there’s no escaping that memorable moment when each of us sat at a desk and signed over our souls and physical likeness to the United States government.

But a year just went by? Like that? Yikes. “How are you doing?” and “How are things over there?” are questions I get almost every day.

I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m doing, really. Good. Can’t complain. Have all 10 fingers and toes. I throw those out there to prod the conversation.

How are things? It wasn’t a picnic. I usually shrug off that one. It’s a question that has several layers to understand its context and when you finally explore several of those, there’s still really not one answer. You might as well ask “How are things on planet earth?”. It’s complicated.

When I have more than just a few seconds, I do try to explain some things. It’s definitely MY perspective, not to be confused with THE perspective. As a journalist, I had the privilege of visiting all manner of groups of troops–mechanics, aviators, drivers, clerks; in addition to the myriad of situational briefings and officer-led meetings. Talking to everyone from colonels to privates let me see a few things.

Some sat in stasis, having never left the states, living each day gripping pictures of loved ones, counting the minutes until they could call home and put the war on hold. As the months progressed, this chosen drug began to lose its potency, and they started to look almost haggard in between calls and emails–not in any sort of crystal meth sense, but in the jitteriness and irritability of a junkie without his fix. Instead of shakes and cold sweats you’d get sighs and “Man, X more months…”.

Some went out to the smoking area every hour or so and bitch about why we were there. Yes, soldiers wonder why we’re asked to die too, weird huh? We’re everyday people enticed to enlist for self-serving reasons like college money, thrown into a situation of incredible self-sacrifice…yes, that; but we do think of larger things than ourselves sometimes. We never did figure anything out though.

Some didn’t say a damn thing. You’d come to find out they were banging a young specialist after shifts. Guess that was their outlet. You’d hope the wives weren’t too pissed.

Some were overly funny, crass, or cynical–like the war was some frat party that needed a pickup after everyone started falling asleep. They were good to have around, at least for while; but the jokes always wore thin after a few months, and there wasn’t any beer to hype up the laughs.

Others did other stuff, by the time we got back, we were all shocked to see life hadn’t waited for us. Wives had left, friends had moved, what had happened?

I’ll be good later and I’ll have some good laughs, but for now I’m just damned confused at how to reconnect. That’s cool, though. I’d rather soak in the whole experience rather than pop a couple of pills to feel super great. Maybe the year away was just tilling the soil and now it’s time to finally plant something.

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Thinking food

Grace and peace to you from the snowy grip of Michigan.

What follows is the inspired Culinary Canon of Grand Rapids, approved and compiled by the Council of Salmons, having met and officially transmitted these long-standing staples of his visits to an eternal binary list, set adrift in the magical nether of cyberspace.

When arriving in Grand Rapids, peeps always ask, “So, what do you want to do?” and I have an answer for at least part of that–where I want to eat.

So, after a dozen or so visits to each establishment over the course of the past five years, I’ve decided on several entries to what will be the permanent canon of the city.

1) Penne Pasta al Salmone @ Tre Ciguini in downtown. (Early manuscripts make the spelling of the restaurant’s name unclear. In addition, the varied pronunciations circulating among residents further confuses the issue. Pilgrims would do well to ask for the “Italian place across from the outdoor theater.”) Penne pasta with a tomato cream vodka sauce with hunks of Salmon (Salmon…hunk? Mmmmm, must be good!)

2) Baker Jr. @ Wolfgang’s in Eastown. Several eggs Benedict with fresh-cut tomatoes and crab meat…wha?! Wolfgang’s is in Eastown (a GR neighborhood) and is a local favorite. Even in the snowy, contemptible mornings of GR’s seven-month winters, you’ll see crowds of people standing outside to get in to this place. Amazing.

3) Vegetable Korma @ Bombay Cuisine in Eastown. Love Indian food! Mmmmmmmmmm.

4) Pork Don Don @ Schezwan Garden in Eastown. Little Chinese joint that has a great Don Don–noodles with peanut sauce and the normal smattering of vegetables and bean sprouts. A great mix-up to the typical “Chinese” lineup.

5) Mint Mocha @ The Kava House in Eastown. Kava a local coffee shop that has amazing stuff! I’m not normally a fan of coffee, but this place keeps it real with fair-trade coffee at awesome low prices (fancy stuff still only costs a couple bucks, compared to the escalating prices of other huge chains). I like how there’s always a mass of people here–from students to old cats who just come to talk. It’s really a part of the town.

6) Krautdog @ Yesterdog in Eastown. Yesterdog is a landmark of Eastown, old wood interior, random stuff hung everywhere. Hot dogs are just a few cents, boiled and piled high with onions, chili, sauerkraut, or whatever. Then they’re put on wax paper and given out. This place is just a place to enjoy good dogs and to hell with everybody who might think it not a place of “fine dining.” They don’t need “those kinds” of people anyway. Google it. It’s famous.

7) Lunch Buffet @ Bombay Cuisine. What can I say? I love that damn place.

So if you’re ever in the GR area, hit ’em up. As you can see, I have a deep connection to Eastown, which is an awesome little corner of the city. It’s made up of a lot of college kids and other peeps who just love the area. Everybody walks everywhere and all these crazy-good places are just a block or two away.

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Just in for a few days

You step off that plane and want everything to be like home. It’s supposed to be like some baptism or something. But is isn’t.

People have moved on. Lives are different. You’ve stayed the same–the civilian you, not the warrior made to go off for months and months.

People marry, people divorce. Scenes shift. There’s still the hugs and the enthusiasm, but there’s a distance in every conversation. There’s a year gone–a year of fun and frustration, laughs and cries–stuff you’ll never see.

I guess that’s why they spend so much time preparing you to visit home. “Go back to your friends,” they say, “but remember that they’ve continued to change.” They tell you not to put expectations on any visits. They say to try not to be disappointed.

I know a group of 20-somethings is hardly as dramatic as, say, a single mother who has just missed out on 1/3 of her child’s life during an Iraq year, but I don’t have much “home” apart from my family and friends, so it’s a tricky thing for me to feel so out of place with people I used to vibe with so well.

It’s a bummer to hear about all these plans and projects going on, knowing you can’t be in the loop–that you’re just a tourist, stopping by for a few days of polite toleration, before life here recommences. I suppose it was a little presumptuous to think I was a part of things here, even if in spirit.

Soon it will be back to the Army and the soul-crushing weight of routine and bureaucracy.

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