Archive | May 2007

Assignment guilt?

You know, for years I’ve seen people with cush assignments. I wondered how they got them—who they knew, all that. I still run into people who have had a bunch—one after another, never deployed, 12 years in, on and on.

“I definitely can’t complain,” is the usual line, with a knowing smile that life has dealt them pocket aces.

After a good, long spell in a place like Fort Hood, you tend to look down on people who have had seasons of easy assignments. It’s not outright hate; more like jealousy. The idea is that eventually you’ll get a good assignment. You hope it’s sooner rather than down the road, obviously; but the good ones are out there. How else would anybody stay in at all?

There are some poor bastards at Fort Hood who have been here for years and years—no hope of getting reassigned. “Job’s too crucial,” command says as they themselves ship out for other assignments. “The Army will keep you right here.”

Some of the young kids wanted to see the world, but have naught but a half decade of Iraq and Texas. They’re fed up of the place, but what else is there? The cush assignments go to other people, after all.

So what do I do when I become one of those who gets a cush assignment? Not that I did much bashing of cats who landed good jobs, but I heard my share. How should I feel, knowing a lot of guys are in line for their third or fourth deployment away from their families, whereas I’ve just had one?

Do I feel guilty being a deployment lightweight? I mean, Iraq for a year wasn’t a flippin’ picnic; but it hardly was as socially and emotionally arduous as three rotations.

Now that the Army has gone to 15-month deployments, I feel that my share of the load was inadequate. Just 12 months? “Meh,” they’ll say. “Try two, 15-month rotations.” And they’re right.

Is it my fault that the Army wants me to teach at Fort Meade? Challenging in its own right, to be sure, but hardly war. How do I wrestle with the fact that a lot of my friends probably won’t have spouses after this next deployment? When I’m sipping Johnnie Walker at Christmas and my bros are sucking sand again, I wonder how I should deal with that?

I did, after all, try to volunteer for a second straight year of Iraq; but the higher-ups said no, strangely. I’m not one to shy away from hardship; but I don’t have any shame about taking this new gig in D.C. There’s just part of me that wishes we all could bear the load more equally, I suppose.

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Memorial pt. 2

Because it absolutely moves you.

Executive Mansion, Washington
November 21, 1864
Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
Abraham Lincoln

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Memorial

There was this student blog I saw the other day—”Run by students, for students.” Some such. High schoolers, looked like. Maybe a class project. It’s last entry was a send off before the big weekend, saying “hey” to a couple of named people and wishing everyone “fun during all the barbecues.”

This morning on the news, the business reporter was reporting on the mercantile hopes for the holiday. “Tends to be a big weekend for summer clothes, appliances…. There are signs that it could rebound the slower past month.”

I suppose its the cycle of things—that holidays lose meaning. I mean really, when was the last holiday anybody actually thought about? Not that I’m bemoaning some larger degradation or social slip-up, just saying.

Martin Luther King’s birthday? Slow day for civil rights. All I know is I have a day off. Woohoo! Same for this one, I suppose. Same for Christmas, on and on.

Do you wonder what families who have lost loved ones to war think on days like today? I’d like to hope they’re surrounded by friends sensitive to the situation. Maybe there is a small service or moment of silence at the picnics. Or maybe it’s Irish style and the party doesn’t ease up at all. The family, sans loved one, goes round and round, the laughter blending perfectly with what has become the social celebration of summer’s liberation.

I’m sure there are some embittered too—angry at the slip-n-slides or the bulk sales mailings. I wonder what they think when they watch the kids playing out back, or when they hear someone glibly comment how Memorial Day was “finally” here and how summer can “finally” start. Like there was this big downer that everyone dreads about May’s end that keeps fun from flourishing.

To the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and others touched by the severe grip of war, my heart finds little rest today. It’s hard to live happy when others are hurting. You’re in my thoughts.

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What’s in a name?

DVD goes in. Preview starts.

Rated “R”. Alright.

British guy from “Snatch” and “Transporter”…what’s his name? Dunno. Don’t recognize the main guy. White guy, American. Something about drugs. Flashy montage, bing, bang boom. American guy’s ex going to a party he’s supplying. British guy’s there. Few girls. Drugs. Tension. Blah blah—ooh, Jessica Biel’s in it too, and Dane Cook? Hrmm, heh, looks kind of funny. What is this flick? “Some ends are only the beginning.” Uggh, but alright…what’s the title?

“London.”

Wait…that’s it? “London?”

You can’t name a film “London.” You just can’t do that. You can’t boil down the whole culture, history, and significance of one of the world’s premiere cities and slap it on a film. You can’t lay claim to all that in a movie. What the…?

Is the character’s name “London?” I’d buy that. Maybe the dog? Maybe the girl? No? Not the movie. Don’t try to capture the essence—or really, try to trick us into thinking you can capture the essence of the capital of the United Kingdom in this little movie about guys and girls and drugs and sex.

“The Queen”—a recent movie, telling the story about a significant moment in modern British history, involving the Queen. It needed to capture the scope, the majesty and the history of the monarchy—thus the need for such a succinct and blunt title.

But this? Seriously. I’m bothered. I’m going to have to write a letter. “Thank you! Thank you! We really don’t need any more movies about London. Go ahead and take the name. We’ll be fine. We’ll leave some other chap to figure a title for his future work. In fact, the historical documentary, chronicling the founding and flourishing of the UK’s capital, needed a better title anyway—something longer, such as ‘London: Not the One About the American Kids, but More About the City Itself.'”

Who does that—just comes out of a meeting with the script writers and throws that title down? “Call it ‘London.’ It’s edgy. It’s hip.” You’re a doofus.

…oh, wait, the girls’ name IS “London?” Ah, disregard. Carry on. (Thank God for Internet Movie Database…saves me from mouthing off on this stuff in public and making a menace of myself).

Still, in all seriousness, how about “Winning London” or some such, but not something that’s going to pop up on Google when the kids are doing their Social Studies homework.

Stories need small titles. That way they can be married off to the specific dramatic circumstance and sent on their way when the credits roll. How many people do you know named “Human,” “Man” or “The Human Race?” Seriously, it’s a bit much—a bit too sweeping of a title. “Hi, I’m Joshua Human. No need to meet anyone else. I’m good. Just sit and look at me.”

No, that’s why we have our little names, so people can see us and remember us if they want to. The same should apply to stories.

I don’t call this “blog.” I don’t call this “entry.” Put some blasted thought into things! Otherwise, just call every movie “Love” or “Fighting” or “Earth” or “Story.”

Meh.

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Pain in la cabeza

Aaaaah. Eyes drawn into slits. My hand is on my forehead, trying to push the radiating agony back in—don’t know what that would do, but it’s something.

I get crazy-bad headaches every few months. I can’t predict the patterns and, in fact, I can only remember three, maybe four, in my whole lifetime. One was when I was a kid in Japan, wanting to play at recess. My head hurt so much that I remember being woozy. I couldn’t go out to play, which really was a bummer to a six year old. I think Mom came and got me, writing it up to one of those thousand random “sick” moments in a child’s life. Still, I remember that pain. My vision closed to a narrow tunnel. I couldn’t stand up straight. I had to take a knee, and it took what was left of my rationality to go to the teacher, forgoing my recess.

There was one in Maryland a few years later, I think. The two that are most recent, however, are the ones that I remember the best.

They both happened while I was stationed here at Fort Hood. The first was when I first got here, before the deployment and all that. I was just settling in to my apartment and, of course, didn’t have any pain medication in the house (look, I didn’t have bowls for a while either, so medicine was really stretching it). I remember it was evening and the pain sort of crept in, arraying itself behind my eyes and pushing outward. There was this intense, vice-grip pressure on my head that sharpened around light. Luckily, the sun had set, otherwise I probably would have been knocked out.

I tried to bear it during the evening, feeling in no condition to drive down the street to the store or Walmart, but eventually I couldn’t take it any more. I squinted, and grit my teeth through the pounding, throbbing, intense pressure. I thought that if I screamed maybe it would relieve some of the pain—vent it out into space, something. I restrained myself, but had to rock back and forth, like I was nursing a broken arm.

I walked outside, not fully cognizant, locked my door and made my way to the car. Walmart was just two blocks down a side street—I wouldn’t have to enter any high-traffic areas. If I kept my speed down and hugged the curb, I’d make it. I just hoped a police officer wouldn’t pull me over, thinking I was drunk. That flashlight in my face would be the end of me.

By God’s grace I made it to Walmart and walked up. The air was warm and the humid, orange fog from the parking lot lights was a-buzz with whatever sound those damn lights make. It didn’t help the headache.

Walking in to the store, awash in Walmart lights and smells, nearly sent me to the ground. There wasn’t a greeter, masha’Allah, otherwise he’d of thought me drunk and turned the cops on me.

There, in the entryway of the Walmart, I stood, squinting, grimaced, holding my hands out in front of me and stumbled over to the Pharmacy section. Again, this was 10 or so at night, so it wasn’t overly crowded, thankfully.

I made it to the pills section, past the hair-care and lotion crap, and stood, scanning the rows of medicines, unable to focus beyond a couple of feet. I finally found the “head stuff” section and leaned against the shelves with one arm over my head while I groped around in the blinding light for the right box. Dayquil sinus? Sure. Extra-strength Tylenol? Yes. Store brand sinus medicine? Two boxes.

By this time the pounding had increased so much that I thought I was going to lose it. I’d collapse and be a prostrate, screaming man in the middle of a Walmart Pharmacy. Not the end I had in mind.

I tore in to the boxes and took the recommended doses for each—I little bit of an overkill, I’m sure, but considering how close to the edge I felt, I didn’t care. There was this mother and child with a cart nearby, who saw me clawing at the boxes, tearing through the packaging and those cursed layers of foil on the backs of the sheets.

“I’m paying for these,” I muttered, two pills in my mouth, squinting and trying to stand erect. She was a blur, but moved off. Had she heard me? Were “they” coming to get me?

The pills stuck to my dry throat a bit, sending me into a short gag/swallow/gulp/gasp routine. With my medication ingested, I shambled back to the registers, trying to play it cool.

“Did you open these?” the lady at the register asked.

“What? The pills? Yes, yes, I needed them, you see? I needed them now! Aaaarrrgghaaa!” (Ok, I think I just said “yes” but that would have been funny, no?)

By the time I fell through my front door, kicked it closed and sprawled out on the carpet, I began to feel the first tendrils of medicated relief working on my agony’s periphery. As the pain abated, I shed a tear, and sang a hymn before I passed out in the living room.

Fast forward to today, where I have a similar life-changing case of pain in my head. Luckily, I’m clearing, which gives me leeway on how often I go into work. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made it. It’s just too bad that going on sick call in the military requires driving three different places, interviewing with your command to ensure you’re really sick, and waiting in rooms for four to six hours…just to get some Aspirin.

Praise God for clearing. I’m going to take a nap!

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What makes an expert?

What makes someone an expert—an authority at something? You know, what milestones does a person have to accomplish before his/her opinion is taken as fact or at least a credible source?

If I were to go see a movie and walk up to a group of strangers, saying, “I didn’t like it;” they might shrug their shoulders and ask me to bother someone else. However, if Ebert walked up and did the same, people would ‘ooh’ and ‘aaahh.’

What sort of credentials should a person possess before he/she spouts opinion in public? If I wanted to teach someone how to write, for example, how would I know I’m ready? What is the basis for competence? How far back do you have to go to prove you’re genuine?

I think this is what Descartes is getting at with the whole “I think, therefore I am” thing—he just is desperate to find a starting point. It’s sort of a cop-out, I think. “Why are you qualified?” “I just am, ok? I said so.”

And there’s something to that as well. I think that a lot of people morph into this self-perpetuating authority when they stick with something long enough. So-n-so might have crap talent, but if he/she teaches or critiques long enough, with a smidgen of borrowed finesse; then that person might be regarded as an expert someday.

All of this came out during a military ceremony I attended last week. A lieutenant colonel started speaking to me about the differences between officers and enlisted—an interesting topic for a light colonel to broach with a staff sergeant, out of the blue. He went on about how enlisted men do and officers think, how one devises and ponders while the other plods and toils…

…And about five minutes into his monologue, I started to pour through these “Who does this guy think he is?” questions. Not that I outright agreed or disagreed with him, but I had to wonder: what level of self-worth or event sparked notions in this man’s mind that, of all the countless soldiers who have struggled with this particular problem for centuries, he had found the secret formula; and that if only the world were to absorb his take on things, all would make sense.

And then I remembered how often I’ve heard other people talk about “how it is” on this or that—how easily they have distilled the problems of our time and are ready to implement the solutions, if only they were in charge. Then I remembered the times friends of mine deferred to my rants, agreeing with me and saying the topic of recent deliberation was solved.

I wondered how many differing viewpoints on the same topic had been reached by others, each with their cadre of friends, all in agreement to the differing courses of action. And I thought of the light colonel, me and the billions of other minds on Earth, each working things out in our heads: who are any of us to figure anything out, ever? Who do we think we are?

I’m reminded of Christian Scripture that says “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” I suppose it starts with listening.

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A season for farewells

There are a lot of us who are leaving. Our colonel is leaving this week, our executive officer soon thereafter, the S1 soon, the S2, various NCOs; and that’s all in addition to the swaths of people already somewhere else.

And, wouldn’t you know it? I’m about to leave too. Ha!

I guess the biggest deal is the colonel’s departure, as that involves the hallowed tradition of the change of command ceremony—a tremendously turbulent affair involving programs, seating charts, marching rehearsals and dozens of hours of undue stress. You wouldn’t believe the amount of senior and general officers who can get involved with word choices in ceremony narration scripts. I think we finally settled on “dedicates,” rather than “deffers” “has dedicated” or whatever else took so long to hash out. Being on staff is far closer to “Office Space” than I ever wanted to get.

With the colonel’s exit, so goes his regime—his atmosphere and his ability to influence awards for guys like me. So that’s why, after I brought it up to my S1 (personnel guy), I asked if I was even going to get an award before my exit.

Mind you, awards in the Army are a terribly inflated and backwards affair. In other services, you do something extraordinary, you get medals. In the Army, you show up to work, and there are various medals and awards you’re expected to receive, especially at certain points in your career.

So, again, as the S1 was bragging about the Meritorious Service Medal he was scheduled to receive, I asked, “Sir, will I get something?”

It was a bit of a rhetorical. I of course was deserving of something. I asked to prod and remind him of his duty, as my de facto supervisor, to put me in for something before he got too comfortable with his status as “almost leaving” and ceased to be of any use to anyone.

“Oh yeah, Sergeant Salmons, you need one too, I guess,” he rolled the idea around with his eyes. “Go ahead and put yourself in for a Meritorious Service Medal. Have it into me by the end of the day.”

The Meritorious Service Medal (MSM), a pretty high-level award. Well, it used to be.

The Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM) occupies the rung below the MSM, below that is the Army Achievement Medal (AAM). Privates and Specialists are expected to get an AAM upon completion of an assignment, with the ARCOM being the, “This soldier was exceptional!” award.

Sergeants, staff sergeants, sergeants first class and junior officers get ARCOMs as ‘gimmies’ for completing a tour of duty, with the MSM as the “This guy was great!” award.

It’s ridiculous how it works, but that’s the way it is. People, when they go over your awards for promotion or a quick judge of character, can count up your medals to see if your command thought you were average or superior.

So my major wanted to recommend me for an MSM? That was pretty sweet.

I had, after all, received a lot of external kudos while I was at this unit. A couple of units on Hood look at some of my stuff for examples on how to do such-n-such, which is very flattering! FORSCOM selected me as their Journalist of the Year for 2006, meaning out of all the active-duty journalists in the states, I was picked as the top guy. The Army selected the newsletter I created as the best publication produced in a combat theater, which is an amazing honor, Masha’Allah! The Department of Defense selected me to teach at their school for journalists. All that, and I had designed unit emblems, posters, taught soldiers how to take pictures and write stories, was working alone and in a position of responsibility above my rank. I gave up a lot of spare time, working weekends, working late at night, etc.

So, yeah, why not an MSM? Up until now I had received squat from my command for my two and a half years of service, save a downgraded award at the end of my Iraq tour (where my boss had put me in for a Bronze Star, but I was deemed undeserving, and pined the lesser award…ironic, as the Army titles I won were from my Iraq work).

My personnel people helped me write out the award citation, bullets and all that. And it was submitted with the major’s. Two days later, mine was returned, marked “downgraded.” Again, I would pin the, “Eeeh, he was average” award.

I’ve taken picture after picture of troops getting medals for funeral details, serving as color guards, making sure things looked nice for generals; but the journalist can’t get any love here, it seems, for performing at a level which puts him near the top of his career field, all while promoting the unit, the officers, their ideas, the accomplishments of the troops…. Hell, I’ve never received a coin from this damned command, which is the basic token of “Hey, good job!” that troops get scores of as they go about their jobs.

I know it seems petty, and it is, the whole damn thing is petty. I just get a little irked that I spent so many nights and weekends making these officers look good so they could get their promotions and was left with a quick “Well…see ya!” on their way out.

I guess it really is time to get out of here.

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