When Dan Met Daniel

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My first encounter with the then-living legend that was Daniel Inouye occurred at the Punchbowl, aka the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  We were burying one of his brothers, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT) whose name, sadly, now escapes me twenty-four years later.  It was a late spring morning, with the sun unhindered by a single cloud, and the scent of frangipani filling our noses.  Underneath the polyester blouses of our Class A uniforms, we were sweating into our drawers and undershirts.

From my vantage as the leader of the firing party, no one could miss the entrance; everyone in Hawaii knew Senator Inouye, so the handshakes, hugs, and glad-handling caused a delay in the funeral ceremony.  My platoon sergeant, an old Hawaii hand, had told me to expect this, but that day was my first introduction to the inconceivable bond between veterans of the Four Four Deuce.  During the chaplain’s sermon, you could see all the old 442nd RCT veterans in the front row, many wearing VFW garrison caps or medals, or both – holding hands.  The strongest of men, who’d conquered a continent on behalf of a nation that incarcerated a hundred thousand of their fellow Japanese Americans, sitting silently.  Crying.  Sending their mate home.

When the time came, my platoon leader gave me a slight nod.  We were already at attention, and we’d practiced the sequence so often that we could’ve probably executed it in our sleep.  I gave the orders at a volume higher than regular speech, but not at full parade ground bellow.  “Half right.  Face.”  Seven riflemen made a 45-degree pivot, took a half step back with their right foot, and almost imperceptibly flicked their M16s from safe to semi.  “Aim.”  They brought their rifles to their right shoulder, aiming at a 45-degree angle towards the clear sky.  “Fire.”  Instead of the random popcorn noise of an unprepared funeral firing party, the first volley of blanks sounded simultaneous and echoed across the green.  “Ready.”  They brought their rifles back to port arms, and pulled their charging handles to the rear.  Seven expended blank rounds ejected from the rifles.  “Release.”  Seven instantaneous snicks as the riflemen released their charging handles.  “Aim.  Fire.”  And again for the third volley.

Without a verbal order given, the riflemen faced half left, came to attention, and presented arms, rifles held vertically in front of them.  I made my own facing movement and rendered a hand salute, just as the bugler began playing Taps.  Then the part I hated most.  A bagpiper played Amazing Grace, a song I can no longer hear in church without thinking of the several dozen military funerals I’ve either been a part of, or attended as a mourner.  I chanced a look at the guests, and the sight of a man saluting with his left hand caught my eye – then I remembered that Senator Inouye had lost his right arm on the Gothic Line.  Tears ran down from behind his glasses and dripped from his jowls, but he stood rooted at attention and held his salute like the soldier he’d once been.

“Order.  Arms.”  The firing party returned to port arms, and I marched them away from the funeral, to the waiting van.  Most of us took advantage of the mini-break between ceremonies to grab a smoke.  To hell with water, I needed nicotine.  In my case, because I hated when others mooched cigarettes from me, it was unfiltered Lucky Strikes.  I was leaning against the rear bumper when I saw an older man in a dark suit ambling towards us.  I field-stripped my cigarette in record time, stuffed the remaining paper in my trouser pocket, came to attention, and saluted Senator Inouye.  He acknowledged my salute with a nod, and reached for my right hand with his left.  “Good job, Corporal,” he said, voice almost breaking, tears still in his eyes.  “I just wanted to thank you and your soldiers.”

“No, sir,” I said, so star-struck that I could barely form words with my mouth.  “Thank you.”  I couldn’t have been more sincere in thanking a man who’d literally fought and sacrificed his arm for my right to serve in an integrated force.  It wasn’t until several years later that this struck home: the fact that the leader of the firing party and one of his riflemen were Asian American had undoubtedly left an impression on the senator that morning.  Senator Inouye introduced himself to everyone milling around the van as if he were just some anonymous musubi vendor on King Street.  “Good morning,” he’d say in his rich baritone, “I’m Daniel Inouye.”

My platoon leader crept up behind me as I watched the master politician at work.  “Hey, Kim.  You know when seniors talk about command presence?  You’re getting a master class on that right here.”  Indeed, by the time Inouye left, we all felt two things: that he truly felt a connection to each and every one of us, and that we’d collectively run into a brick wall without helmets or body armor, if the former Captain Inouye only gave the word.

A few years later, I had left active duty and lived in Washington, DC.  My then-girlfriend had wanted sushi, so we went to a Japanese restaurant on 21st Street, NW, that I’d known before I enlisted.  I was about to order another bottle of sake, when the restaurant’s entire crew lined up at the entrance to greet the incoming guest.  We were the only other guests, and apparently unworthy of such obsequious attention.  Not Senator Inouye, who, the owner proudly claimed, visited once or twice per week.  I’ve seen heads of state greeted with less genuine deference.  It was the senator, along with a younger man I assumed to be a staffer of some sort.  My date, a rare Washingtonian who didn’t stay abreast of the news, wondered what the fuss was all about; yeah, that relationship didn’t last very long.

I wanted to approach Senator Inouye, if only to thank him again, but I didn’t.  More’s the pity, because it was the last time I would see him in person.  We just finished our meal on the opposite end of the restaurant, paid the check, and left.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried while watching this hero, my personal hero, receive his long-delayed Medal of Honor on tv.

If I had had the stones to interrupt his meal, I would have told him what a role model he’d been for a teenager in East Texas.  My dad was watching the Iran-Contra hearings, and the hardest hitting questions were coming from the Asian man on the dais.  I was fifteen years old and had no idea that such a thing as an Asian American US Senator existed.  But there he was, jabbing at the witness (I think it was Admiral Poindexter), demanding accountability and integrity from our public servants.  I went to the library the very next day to look up anything and everything I could about him.

“Thank you for your service to our country.”  That, ultimately, is what I would have liked to have said, in a Japanese restaurant in DC more than two decades ago.

 

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Starbird Force

Author’s note: I spent the bulk of my twenties in Army light infantry, both on active duty and the National Guard.  During the Paleozoic pre-beret Era, most scenarios for the light infantry company in a deliberate attack involved what we called the “Death Star” objective.  These were chock full of mines, triple-strand concertina wire, automatic weapons with interlocking fields of fire, trenches, and all manner of joint-twisting pleasantness.  I even saw it referred to as “Objective Death Star” or OBJ DS during planning, because we lightfighters were nothing if not imaginative.  Following my last few posts of speculative Star Wars fan fiction, here’s a go at the deliberate attack, from the point-of-view of the Rebel Alliance’s equivalent of 1990s light infantry.  For the many who’ve previously pointed out discrepancies between my writing and the Star Wars liturgical canon, I can only say, “sorry/not sorry, it’s a story not a concordance.”

Quick missions like this hurt the worst.  They always miss that little detail in the heroic holovids trying to draw recruits for the Rebel Alliance.  Combat hurts; not the pain of being wounded, necessarily – though that can indeed be excruciating – but the niggling pain of not seeing that branch you tripped over, while lugging a mortar’s baseplate; running across an objective with your eyes on an A280 rifle’s scope, not the hole in the dirt that could tear knee ligaments if you fell into it the wrong way; the stress on one’s knees and ankles after tabbing through a temperate forest like Endor one week, a jungle like Naboo the next, and a desert like Jedha the following week.  In the two years I’ve commanded Shafaq Company of the Mobile Infantry, I lost more Rebels to joint injuries than I did in battle.

This was what we’ve always done best.  Infiltrate into a contested area in restrictive terrain, ruin some Imperials’ day in close combat, then melt into the countryside before becoming decisively engaged.  Obviously, the enemy gets a vote, too, which is why our fitness and training regimens are so rigorous.  Barely one in four recruits graduates from the Training Center with the round patch of the Mobile Infantry.  Some gnome from General Rieekan’s staff had tried to add “stability and support operations” to the syllabus, but we laughed him and his slide deck off of Dantooine.  We’re a raiding force.  If you want to secure a planet, or establish a star system’s constabulary, send the regular infantry, or one of those ragtag Middle Rim militias.

“Six, this is Blue.  Yavin, over.”

I pushed the transmit button on the side of my helmet.  “This is Six.  Yavin.  Out.”  My 3rd Platoon had reached Shafaq Company’s first phase line.  To confirm, I looked up at my visor display and saw 3rd’s icon crossing the stream that marked Phase Line Yavin.  Our drop ships had brought us to a landing zone far enough away from the Imperial command center to avoid detection, which meant a long night’s slog through the jungle.  We were only about a hundred strong, but this objective was both lightly defended, and so far in the arse end of the Outer Rim, that we reckoned we could complete the mission and jump into hyperspace before the nearest star destroyer could assist.

3rd Platoon had deployed in a wedge, with one squad forward and two back, looking like an arrow from above.  But with our camouflaged shawls, which also masked our thermal signatures, you couldn’t see us at all – we hoped.  The order of march behind 3rd Platoon consisted of 2nd, then 1st Platoon.  Stolid old Lieutenant Andras and his Weapons Platoon berserkers always brought up the rear.  Andras was out for blood – clone, human, non-human, droid, it didn’t matter much – after having recently missed out on Cassian’s mission to Scarif.  Many of the Pathfinders and infantrymen with whom Andras had joined the Rebellion perished there.  We’d all lost people on Scarif, a hundred years of experience and institutional memory wiped out in one day, but we couldn’t afford to dwell on the loss.  Instead, a grim determination to finish Rogue’s job had taken hold among the Rebellion’s infantry.

We trudged north through a lush valley, towards a mountain with three summits that dominated the southern part of this back-assward planet’s only continent.  From the south, the three summits lay side by side – from right to left: Alpha, Beta, Gamma.  Alpha on the western side was a secondary objective, a mostly automated re-transmission site for Imperial communications; Beta was the primary objective, the banner of an Imperial Navy’s rear admiral flying atop a fifty-meter flagpole; unmanned Gamma, to the east, would be our support-by-fire position.

We had to get there first, though, and that sucked.  Every Shafaq Company trooper was soaked through with sweat.  Our medic droids ranged up and down the company’s column, trying to make sure the troopers stayed hydrated.  3rd Platoon, in the lead, even had troopers with one rehydration IV hooked into each arm.  Every trooper brought six liters of water on this op, knowing that the heat and humidity, not to mention climbing a jungle mountain, would sap their bodies quickly.  As each platoon passed the stream at Phase Line Yavin, troopers refilled their canteens.  The built-in purifiers treated each full bottle in less than thirty seconds.  We would need all of this water for the trek up the mountain.

Our route took us up a draw, between two spurs that led almost to the triple summit.  The chatter of birds and other animals ceased as we passed through.  The night vision displays on the inside of everyone’s visor helped us navigate the jungle, even at night, with minimal sound.  The moons were on the far side of the planet tonight, so we had no ambient light besides what the stars provided.  We could barely even see the stars, since the canopy was almost fifteen meters high and concealed much of the sky.

2nd Platoon had replaced 3rd on point.  “Six, this is White.  Wobani, over.”

“Wobani, out.”

Shafaq Company split up at Phase Line Wobani, where the draw ended.  Weapons Platoon and Andras continued on to the eastern summit, Gamma.  The assault force, consisting of 1st and 3rd Platoons, along with my command group, veered left to climb the spur that pointed directly at the middle summit, Objective Corellia.  2nd Platoon had the longest trek, circling the entire mountain to the northern side; there, they would block the lone road that the Imperials had cleared for their AT-ST walkers.  I made a quick check of the time on my visor: just one hour until the sun would begin to peek over the horizon.

With just minutes left before dawn, all elements reported in, either via voice or text.  Andras had the support-by-fire force emplaced on Gamma, the eastern summit, facing west towards the objective; proton mortars set up on Gamma’s reverse slope, ready to hurl “warheads onto foreheads.”  I’ve never understood mortar humor, never will.  Alas.  2nd Platoon had deployed on both sides of the road on the northern end of Objective Corellia, and had planted anti-walker mines.  As for the assault force, we sat hidden inside the treeline on the southern side of the objective, visors switched from night vision to clear as the sun rose.  I simply looked over at the leaders of 1st and 3rd Platoons.  They nodded, so I sent the planned support request to Thunder and Promise, orbiting high overhead.  A quick text reply: ETA four minutes.

“Six, this is Five,” Andras said.  He was positively gleeful.  “I have eyes on a dozen speeder bikes parked near the south gate, but no activity near them.  No visible patrols outside the perimeter.  A few heat sources from the bunkers and the walker hangar, but no movement.  Looks like they’re asleep.  They don’t even have guard droids on patrol.  Over.”

II flicked the transmit button twice to acknowledge, then gave my final order.  “This is Six.  Execute as soon as the fast movers clear.  May the Force be with us.  Out.”

I looked past the trees at our objective.  Closest to us, on the southern end just inside the electrified wire fence, sat the speeders Andras mentioned.  Sturdy low-slung bunkers with turret mounted automatic blasters dotted the perimeter, connected by a series of shoulder deep trenches.  Further in, we saw two wide single-story barracks for the security force, topped with anti-Starfighter guns that – thank the Force – weren’t manned.  A fifty-meter flagpole that served as a wonderful target reference point sat in front of the three-story glass enclosed headquarters building.  A Lambda shuttle, its white paint already gleaming in the predawn light, was parked on the landing pad just east of the HQ.  Behind all of this, on the northern end, were two hangars, one each for AT-ST walkers and shuttles.  Neither Andras nor I saw any TIE fighter revetments, either during our orbiting recce or in person, so we knew this installation didn’t have air support. 

It started with a faint sound like nails on an ancient chalkboard: an X-wing fighter’s fusial engines.  Then all hell broke loose.  Bombs launched by our mothership Thunder literally fell out of the sky.  They obliterated many of the perimeter bunkers, punched gaping smoking holes in the headquarters and barracks, and damaged the walker hangar.  Concussion blasts from Thunder followed close behind, a twin line of staccato detonations from the speeder bikes to the flagpole, to the headquarters, to the shuttle hangar.  Promise‘s two X-wings then conducted a strafing run from east to west, the sound of their cannon almost overpowered by the alarm sirens at Objective Corellia.  Stormtroopers in incomplete armor streamed from the barracks, many throwing their helmets on while running to their positions on the perimeter.  Several tried to man the anti-Starfighter guns on the barracks roofs, only to be atomized by the X-wings.  The fighters’ final run destroyed the walker hangar and one of the AT-STs that had managed to rumble out.

The X-wings climbed, banked west, then turned their attention on Hilltop Alpha, the communications site and secondary objective.  They made quick work of the comms site and soared away, back into orbit in case an Imperial ship responded.  Andras immediately put his support-by-fire troopers to work.  A sizzling sound, a gray smoke trail, and a blue plume of exploding plasma marked the second AT-ST’s death at the hands of an H12 missile launcher.  Then every automatic weapon on Hilltop Gamma opened fire, deafening even from my position a kilometer away.  Belt-fed M35s, similar to the one carried by Baze Malbus, chattered next to much older D19 automatic blasters that had seen better days in the Clone Wars.  The company sniper team scored head shots from 1,400 meters, using rifles designed for use against vehicles.  Mortars joined the fray, smart warheads tracking and hitting moving targets from directly overhead.

I saw stormtroopers filleted by mortars, ribs sticking out from under charred white armor.  Limbs separated from torsos by automatic weapons.  Traumatic decapitations from direct hits by mortars or snipers.  None of this would bother me until later, in my stateroom aboard Thunder, when my mind would replay it on an endless loop and deprive me of sleep.  In the meantime, every Imperial trooper killed by the support-by-fire element was one less that our assault force had to face.

3rd Platoon’s Lieutenant Arzam grabbed my arm and pointed.  “Captain Torian, walkers inbound!”  I used eye motions on my visor to mark the AT-STs’ positions for Andras.  I only half-joke that Andras is so old, so wizened, that he served on Master Yoda’s personal security detachment when Yoda was a Padawan.  The old warrior’s experience showed, half his guns shifting fire to the walkers, the other half continuing to suppress Objective Corellia.  The guns barely registered against the AT-STs, orange plasma bolts bouncing off their armor, but the fire diverted the walkers’ attention long enough for the assault force to launch four rockets.  Two hit each walker, which crumpled to the landing pad and completed the destruction of the Lambda shuttle.

“All Shafaq elements, this is Six.  Upsilon, over.”  1st and 3rd Platoons, each arrayed in a V formation (2 squads abreast, one in trail), ran from the treeline directly at the southern gate, firing as they went.  Upsilon was the code to begin the assault, but that an explosive breach of the wire was no longer necessary; Thunder‘s cannon had shredded both the southern wire and the generator that had electrified it.  The last mortar round hit the bunker closest to our breach point, and the support-by-fire element shifted fire northward, perpendicular to but still away from our advance.

Another thing the recruiting holovids miss: the plasma of a blaster shot is excruciatingly slow.  I mean, you can track it with the naked eye.  But when you see an iridescent orange bolt coming straight for your head and feel the heat when it misses by mere centimeters … well, now you know what “pucker factor” means, no matter how often you’ve had that sort of “significant emotional event.”  Lieutenant Azram and her platoon sergeant ended the stormtrooper who fired at me, then had to grab me by my body armor and drag me inside the wire because I’d frozen in place.

Once inside, however, I was fine.  I set up a temporary command post under a wing of the shuttle’s smoking remains.  Between communicator reports, text messages from subordinates, and demands for information from the navy captain commanding Thunder, I was nearing sensory overload.  I tracked the ground battle on my visor, and relayed orders through my communications sergeant.  3rd Platoon fanned into the outermost trench and were destroying the remaining perimeter bunkers with thermal satchel charges.  1st Platoon sent one squad each to the remains of the barracks and headquarters, in search of priority intelligence requirements and high-value prisoners.  From hard experience, we knew that no one below the rank of captain would know anything substantive, so we concentrated on unarmored senior officers in dark grey tunics.

A text from Lieutenant Havarr from 2nd Platoon coincided with a raging firefight on their side of Objective Corellia: they were engaging stormtroopers and Imperial officers trying to escape on foot.  Hopefully, 2nd Platoon was only shooting to wound or stun the officers, but I didn’t keep my hopes up considering the volume of fire.

“Six, this is Red,” 1st Platoon’s leader screamed over the company net.  “Omega omega omega, over!”  I pumped my fist, almost weak with relief.  Our last report was that the admiral commanding this system was off-world, but 1st Platoon had somehow bagged him alive.  In the excitement of the capture of such a high-value target, it took me a while to realize how quiet the mountain had become.  All firing had ceased.  Debris and body parts littered the objective.  The shuttle hangar had become a pyre, thick black smoke rising several kilometers in the blue sky, and occasional explosions when fuel cells ignited.

Within five minutes, the entire assault element, plus manacled and blindfolded prisoners, consolidated at the assault position outside the southern gate where we’d entered.  Our medic droids had thankfully been bored since the attack began, with just a handful of minor wounds to treat – and no dead.  The two serious casualties strapped to hovering litters were enemy prisoners, each overseen by a medic droid and a rifle-toting trooper.

“All Shafaq elements,” I said on the company net, “this is Six.  Take up PZ posture.  One zero minutes to pickup, over.”  It actually only took three minutes; amazing how fast drop ships can fly, not just when an objective is secure, but also when escorted by a pair of X-wings.  One lumbering craft landed at Andras’s position, another picked up 2nd Platoon, with the last two for the assault force.  By habit and tradition, my security team and I boarded last.  Once the rear ramp closed, the trip to Thunder’s landing bay seemed like a leisurely joyride in an open-topped landspeeder.

We’re scheduled to refuel and rearm on Alderaan, transfer our prisoners to General Rieekan’s intel pukes, and presumably receive our next mission from Senator Organa.  What happens after that is anyone’s guess.  My one hundred twelve infantry soldiers have heard at least a hundred different rumors on the subject.  Home, Dantooine, would be nice, but we launched the day before Team Rogue’s demise and probably won’t see our families for awhile.  What I do know, however, is that my time commanding Shafaq Company is ending soon.  Lieutenant Andras, who helped found the Rebellion’s Mobile Infantry ten years ago as an already grizzled sergeant, will take the reins.  What I’d like next is a cushy job after crisscrossing the galaxy for much of the last decade.  Maybe I could command Leia’s security detail.  She seems like a smart kid.  I’ll ask Bail when we land.

Getting Right in the Head

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From a BBC article 1 January 2017

I saw this tweet from Louis Leung a week ago, and immediately thought of a half dozen Asians and Asian Americans whom I know have suffered silently for years, if not decades.  I was one of them, but no longer.  A friend finally convinced me that admitting I had a problem, like an alcoholic does at an AA meeting, was braver than trying to gut it out alone.  That seeking and finding professional help for mental health issues was not, as I’d long mistakenly thought, an admission of weakness.

Around 20 years ago, I never went to sleep without first checking my nightstand.  Inside the top drawer, next to three loaded magazines, was a .45-caliber Colt 1991A1.  First, lock the slide back.  Load one of the magazines, then hit the slide release with my thumb.  Hear the satisfying “snick” as the slide jumps forward and chambers the first 230-grain round.  I’d pull the slide back a half-inch, enough to make sure the round sat in the chamber, then let the slide go forward.  Drop the hammer, push the safety up, replace the pistol in the drawer, then try to sleep.  “Try” is the operative word; sometimes I could zonk out, other times I couldn’t without the help of a pint glass of whiskey and a Percocet.  If I spent the night at my girlfriend’s place, the pistol came with me, inside a holster at the bottom of the bike messenger bag that held a shaving kit and change of clothes.  The weight of it in the bag, the heft of it when I held it in my hand, was in itself a drug that numbed any number of neuroses that then plagued my waking mind.

Outwardly, I was adjusting well to life as a pseudo-civilian after my active duty hitch in the Army: college student by day, waiter and bartender by night, National Guardsman on occasional weekends.  I seemed to fit in as a twenty-three-year-old sophomore, and while I wasn’t making any friends on the military side, no one could question my tactical or technical proficiency.  My enemy was the six- or seven-hour stretch between closing the pub and my morning alarm.  Suffice it to say, I was struggling at the time with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress and, like legions of Asian Americans before me, I compartmentalized it – buried it deep, in the mistaken notion that once it was buried, it could never escape to hound me again.  My attitude towards mental health then was fairly indicative of that of the Asian American diaspora: only pussies admit weakness, and only the weakest of the weak seek treatment for it.  If you must, then self medicate, but don’t bother the rest of the world with your troubles.  Seeing a mental health professional is a waste of time, and a shame on your family.

Alcohol and opioids were my drugs of choice, one naturally followed by the other like the inserts and shells of the old Army gloves I wore in winter.  I lived in such a perpetual fog that almost two years passed before I could blink.  My other drug was fighting.  It isn’t enough to seek or start a good fight.  You first have to accept the possibility that you might get your ass kicked, show up to work or class with a black eye, experience pain when you breathe because of a cracked rib or two.  You also have to go into a fight knowing in your very bones that there is no way this son of a bitch can best you.  You go into a fight foreseeing how you’ll beat him so badly that he’ll always fear the memory of the big Asian dude.  When it’s over, he’s lying bleeding on the sidewalk, and endorphins are racing through your bloodstream like a narcotic, you feel … oddly at peace.  You find another bar, drink the physical pain away, chase the whiskey with the Perc in your jeans watch pocket, and somehow find a cab back to your apartment.  Back to your pistol and its false promise of safety.

I left DC to visit a friend’s grave, the kind where you place a dime on the headstone, and salute your friend after you weep over your misspent youth.  For some reason, that visit shook me to my core, far more viscerally than previous visits.  I suddenly remembered details I hadn’t thought of since he died: how goddamn heavy live ammo was, compared to the blanks I had carried during field exercises; the sound of Velcro when I undid the front enclosure of my body armor after a long patrol; the exhaustion that can only come from constant vigilance; the smell of burning human excrement mixed with diesel fuel; how much red and green tracer rounds at night reminded me of a battle scene from Star Wars.  I popped a pill, then walked all the way from Union Station to my apartment in Arlington.

Once home, the first order of business was to make sure my pistol was where I’d left it.  I passed out for a few hours, visited by another old friend, my recurring nightmare.  Many people know this friend.  Many people hate this friend.  This friend has visited me now and again for about two decades, returning for nightly gigs beginning on 12 September 2001, then tapering off a year later.  I was black (all out) on ammo during a firefight filled with smoke, screaming, blood, and explosions.  My ammo pouches were empty, and every ammo pouch of every dead soldier I searched yielded nothing.  Even the dead enemy’s weapons and ammo pouches were empty.  The nightmare’s last gift was the sight of a rocket-propelled grenade coming straight for me, and I jolted awake like I always did.

When I woke up this time, however, my pistol was in my hand.  I’d somehow gotten it out of the drawer, flicked the safety off, and cocked the hammer – while I slept.  All it would have taken to end myself was about five pounds of pressure on the trigger.  Just make that damn dream stop, I thought.  I didn’t want to deal with real life, which always seemed to kick me in the balls.  The last time I had felt anything resembling a sense of purpose, I’d been on active duty.  To hell with all of it.  I put the muzzle against the bridge of my nose, the pistol angled so that the bullet would take the top rear of my skull with it as it exited.  “What the hell are you doing, Kim?”  Took me a second to realize that voice was mine.  I put the pistol down like it was made out of glowing slag in a steel mill.  After I got my wits about me with a pot of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes, I did what had previously been unthinkable for me: I unloaded the pistol and locked it in the carrying case I had never used.  I eventually sold the pistol to help finance my wedding, but until then it stayed in the carrying case unless I was at the range.

The week after my trip, I met my former history professor, who took me out for a midday beer.  Full disclosure, we had considerably more than one beer each, but I hadn’t seen him in a while and needed his advice.  He was the only Vietnam veteran in my circle, but more importantly, he was Asian American, and I needed someone with the same cultural baseline.  When I told him how I’d woken up that night, he wrote something on a cocktail napkin from memory.  It was the number to his therapist.  “Dan,” he said, “you remind me a lot of me in 1970.  You’re angry but you don’t know why, or even at whom.  So you get to feeling that maybe it’s the whole world that isn’t right, not you.  Go see this guy.  He helped me come home from Vietnam.”  This wasn’t a military issue, necessarily, he said.  He’d seen too many young Asian Americans like myself fall into the same spiral of self-hate, anger, and despondency because we so steadfastly refused to seek help.  Benny died of a massive heart attack in 2001.  I owe him a debt I can never repay, for the gift of my own life.

I was initially the polar opposite of a model patient.  What jarred me enough to keep coming back was that Dr. Gillen was the first non-military adult to call me out on my bullshit.  “If you’re going to be an uncooperative asshole, then it’s probably best that you leave my office.”  Then I noticed the shadow box on the wall above a credenza; the top two awards were the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device for valor, and the Purple Heart.  He was also a Vietnam veteran, having served as a Navy corpsman assigned to the Marines in Hue.  The good doctor had walked the walk.  My reaction was a lot like Keanu Reaves as Ted Logan saying “whoa.”  This not only rocked my world, it earned my immediate respect.  From that point on, I spilled my guts.  I rearranged my work schedule around my biweekly visits, damn the cost since my shitty insurance didn’t cover mental health.  Self care, difficult enough for a single person but damn near impossible for one in the restaurant industry, became a new goal.  I measured success in weeks, then months, elapsed since my last fight.  Weeks, then months, since my last “God, please kill me with an asteroid” hangover.  Later still, weeks, then months, since the last Perc ingested for a reason other than pain.

My mother sought help after she divorced my father, unbelievably brave acts and selfish for all the right reasons.  In seeking the help of a therapist, however, she was an outlier, and didn’t even admit this to me until years later.  My mother had so subsumed her own identity in that of her husband, my father, that she initially didn’t know how to even proceed with the daily inanities of life.  Divorce was so outside her friends’ experience, so outside their comfort zone, that they weren’t much help to her.  I was less than no help to her at this time, consumed in my own spiral of booze and opioids.  My mother’s immeasurably bold fight against depression and the after-effects of a miserable twenty-three-year marriage bore fruit; the woman she was twenty years ago wouldn’t have been capable of being the loving, giving grandmother she is now to my children. 

As for me, my own depression was finally diagnosed, in addition to the post-traumatic stress that I’d been trying and failing to keep at bay.  I now viewed therapy with a fervor that the American Taliban evangelical Christians save for the revival tent.  I was lucky, too, in that my therapy occurred outside the military.  I was too horrified of it showing up on my Army medical record, should I seek help from either the VA or a military psychiatrist – thereby blackballing me as less than mentally strong enough to renew my membership in the tribe.  All too sadly, many soldiers still feel this way today.

This stigma also applies to the Asian American community, both the immigrant and succeeding generations.  Less so with American-born Millennials, thank goodness, but the resistance to help for mental health issues is still fierce among Boomers and my own American-born Generation X.  My cohort and I were raised by our parents to “never let them see you sweat,” as if we’re collectively allergic to showing any hint of vulnerability.  We don’t want to allow any opening for someone else to eat our lunch, either in a personal or business setting; this leaves untold thousands of emotionally stunted people who lead lives out of sync with their own feelings.

Only speaking for myself, both as a former soldier and also just as a human being, I regret that it took me so long to seek and find meaningful help.  I still need what I glibly call a mental health tune-up now and then, with a therapist I found through my health insurance after moving the New York.  With one exception, it’s been fully twelve years since my last fisticuff.  Thanks to yoga and a realization that I was fast becoming hooked on Perc, I haven’t had an opioid for anything besides pain management in fourteen years.  As for my old friend, the nightmare still visits me on occasion, but I’ve grown to accept it, not actively try to shut it out of my psyche.  The credit for much of this belongs to the mental health professionals who’ve helped me over the years.  I can only hope that as the stigma of mental illness dissipates over time, more Asian Americans will see that there is no shame to it; that their very survival may depend on getting the help they need.

Where Are You From?

If you’re Asian American, the chances are, you’ve heard this question more than once. You probably smiled, more to cover up your horror at the questioner’s ignorance than to put them at ease.  Or, if you’re like me, your eyes almost roll out of your head, because you know the questioner is expecting an answer different from, say, “Texas.”  Maybe the questioner is actually being sincere, and this does happen, albeit rarely.  I raised my guard once, only to have the questioner tell me he asked because I don’t sound like a New Yorker.  Thank you, I guess?

In the wake of last week’s all-too-believable report about the President, a ton of old suppressed slights resurfaced as if they just happened yesterday.  My Twitter rant about it begins here.  This expectation for Asian Americans to be white people’s model minority, to docilely accept what I have without seeming so uppity as to demand a meritocratic parity with my colleagues, has and will continue to gall me until my dying day.

There very likely isn’t a single AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) who hasn’t had this asked of them, hasn’t gritted their teeth upon hearing this, hasn’t thought, “my God, what else do I have to prove that I’m just as American as a white person who was born here?”

As a child in New York City, a town where your ethnicity often dictates your very identity, you grow up with this question.  You get so damn tired of the question because of the frequency with which it’s asked.  In elementary school, before we moved to Texas, my standard answer was always, “Manhattan,” because The City always had sway over racist bullies in Staten Island.  No, where are you really from?  New York Hospital, I’d say, knowing full well that the answer would earn me a punch that I might or might not be able to dodge.  These bullies would grow into men with the tricolors of Ireland and Italy on their car bumpers without ever having visited their ancestral country, while I never made a big deal about my three trips to Korea during my childhood.

“Where are you from, Private Kim?”  This, from a staff sergeant in charge of a live fire range at Fort Drum, in the frozen tundra of the North Country.  “New York City, Sergeant.”  Not good enough for this guy, who interrupted the safety brief – you know, the kind of boring but important “don’t do this or you’ll get blown up” warning everyone receives before being cleared onto the range with live ammunition.  “Naw, Kim, I bet you got some friends or relatives in the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army, dontcha?”  What the actual F?  We were freezing our asses off, waiting for this guy to do the one thing the Army probably trusted him to do without screwing up too badly, while he reminisced about ROK soldiers he’d known with my surname.  Great, that’s only about a third of the ROK Army.  “You’re not a KATUSA on some kind of exchange tour, are you?”  By this point, I just wanted to puke the MRE I’d just eaten.  Korean Augmentations to the US Army are Korean soldiers assigned to American units; their role is a mix of translator and cultural guide at almost every echelon.  My platoon sergeant, a crusty veteran of Grenada and Panama, finally told him to shut up and do his job, or he’d plant a size 13 boot sideways up his fourth point of contact.

I want to avoid blaming that staff sergeant, because he was only one of many noncommissioned officers who straight up asked me: why was I an infantryman, not working with computers or intelligence; why did I enlist as a private, not join the Army as an officer after receiving a degree from an expensive university, like so many other Asian Americans; when did I come to the United States; why didn’t you request assignment to Korea so that “you could be closer to your own people;” I could probably kick ass in a bar fight because I know kung fu.  And that’s just a sampling of the tamer things I was told, signaling that I could never be accepted in their eyes as a fellow American.  Forget American soldier – they could not bring themselves to see me as a fellow American.  The same went for the good ol’ boys at Fort Polk who wondered why the visiting unit (to which I was assigned) had so many gooks; let’s just say we had words, and I have a scar on the third knuckle of my right hand as a permanent reminder.

“You can’t be from here, Orientals don’t work in wine.”  Thanks for showing your true colors, Prominent TV Chef I Once Worked With.  Yes, Chef, I’m here, in a restaurant that serves dry-aged steaks and updated American classics – not sides of fried rice – and improving a list that just received Wine Spectator‘s Award of Excellence.  Even now, over 15 years later, I continue to see that my two decades of experience working with wine can never quite trump some self professed wine professionals who happen to not be Asian American.  Guess what those folks look like?  Not like me.

“Your English is so good!”  Thanks, it happens to be my first language, and my Spanish is better than my Korean.  “Let me guess: Chinese/Japanese/Chinese/Filipino?”  Try New Yorker, but thanks for playing.  And please, for the love of every god in the known world, don’t try to impress me by greeting me in what you think might be my native tongue.  Where would you like me to be from, in order to satisfy your preconceived notions of me upon meeting me for the first time?  Where should I be from, if not New York and Texas?  Do I ask you when your European forebears landed at Ellis Island?  Demand to see the passenger manifest from the steamer that brought them from Limerick or Bremen?

Where am I from?  I’m from about ten miles from here.  If we can start with that baseline, I’d be thrilled, but I ain’t holding my breath.

The Deliberate Attack on Christmas

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(above: most recent intel photo of the HVT from his social media accounts)

Around 2130 Zulu on 24 December, the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Infantry conducted a deliberate attack on Objective Yeti at grid SC69641519.  The mission was to capture or kill a high-value target (HVT) with many aliases, among them Babbo Natale, Julenisse, and Saint Nikolaus.  The following is the account of Lieutenant Colonel Chris Noel, commander of Task Force 3/25 during Operation Insensible Havoc.

I’d love for one of these chickenhawk armchair quarterbacks to wear my Danner boots for just one minute.  Try juggling the air assault of two companies onto a contested landing zone, the movement of two dozen helicopters, supporting artillery, and close air support – all while flying above the battle space in a command and control helo and talking on four radios.  The full moon and bright shimmering Northern Lights negated the need for night vision devices.  I was so absorbed with making sure my ground element landed safely, that I didn’t hear the warning from my pilot.  “What was that, John?”

“Gold Six just got shot down, sir.  Last thing he said was, watch out for the red light.”  We began wide orbits above the two rifle companies.

The staff captain next to me chimed in.  “What the hell does that mean?”

“Nothing, Gish,” I said.  “Continue as planned.  What’s A Company’s status?”

“Their commander was hit on the landing zone, sir.  The XO is taking over and encountering heavy resistance.  To their east, C Company still hasn’t made contact with the enemy.”

“Annan,” I told the Fire Support Officer, “I want artillery to paste everything to the west, north, and east of A Company.”

“On it, sir.”  She was one hell of an artist with artillery.  In five minutes, I looked out the window to see a horseshoe of explosions around my embattled A Company.  To their northeast, C Company cut the miniature train line connecting the factory at Objective Yeti with the elves’ barracks, and was almost at their assault position. Still no enemy contact for C Co.; this was worrisome.

“Crazyhorse Six, this is Abu Five,” A Company’s acting commander called me.  She had to yell into her radio mike to be heard over the background noise of a raging firefight. “We’re advancing again, but it looks like some leakers escaped north towards Yeti, over.”

“Roger.  Keep an eye out, I think Red just shot down Gold Six.”

“Crazyhorse, this is Abu Five, be advised, my Blue element just got hit by suicide sleigh borne IED, but minimal casualties, over.”

“Basher is on station, sir!”  My terminal attack controller looked like he’d just won the lottery, announcing that the AC-130 had finally arrived.  The four-engine transport plane bristled with cannons that could flatten one city block every thirty seconds.  Looking up, I saw him enter a shallow left turn to bring his guns to bear.  Then I saw three much smaller specks appear out of a cloud.

“Crazyhorse, this is Basher – damn it!  Departing station – looks like we found Donder, Dasher, and Blixem.  Ten to twelve points on their antlers, big sons of bitches.  One of them just tried to ram my starboard -”  A high-pitched squeal over the radio net. Then a fireball that cascaded down from 15,000 feet, leaving a greasy trail that marred the aurora.

I didn’t have to say anything to John, who wrenched our bird as low to the snowy steppe as he dared.  The TAC threw up all over himself and his radios.  Annan looked paler than usual and held the side supports of her seat in a death grip.  Gish stared at the Blue Force Tracker as if divining something from the screen.  I’m not too proud to admit, I almost wet myself while we plunged from 4,000 to 50 feet above the ground in what felt like only two seconds.

“Annan, tell the guns to cease fire so the jets can come in.  TAC, I want fighters here like yesterday!  Make it happen.”  Both got on their radios.  A flash and thin stream of white smoke streaked past my helicopter, then a roar audible even through my noise canceling headset as two F-22 Raptors chased the marauding reindeer.  But where the hell was Red?

“Splash one,” an exultant Raptor pilot said.  One of his missiles connected, leaving a small black cloud and smoldering pieces of reindeer meat.

The lead Raptor zoomed up, silhouetted against the moon, chandelled back down, and literally shot Donder in the face with another Sidewinder.

The third reindeer clawed its way towards the wingman. “The hell, he’s trying to chew my stabilizer off!”

“Monster, I can’t get him without shooting you.”

“Shoot, Irish!  I’m ejecting!”

Irish’s Sidewinder obliterated both Monster’s $200 million jet and one murderous reindeer.  Monster floated down towards C Company in his parachute.

“This is Bone.  Bombs away.”  God love the B-1 bomber crews.  They were so high you couldn’t see them, but they laid waste to the house and factory on Objective Yeti with thirty 2,000 pound JDAMs. It looked like Hiroshima in the Arctic.

As soon as the smoke on Yeti began to clear, all hell broke loose around C Company.  Elves in red and green striped footie pajamas emerged from underground bunkers that had hidden them from our recon drones.  They rushed headlong into C Company in a Christmasy version of the human wave attacks my grandfather fought off in Vietnam. The elves opened fire so close that C Company couldn’t even call for supporting arms.  The little bastards threw everything at C Company: rocket propelled grenades, machine guns, rifles, even pistols that were supposed to have been presents for cops.  It would’ve been an absolute slaughter, but thank Odin, elves have never been the best marksmen.  C Company methodically returned accurate fire despite being outnumbered five to one, and slowly gained fire superiority. The elves left a colorful trail of casualties as they withdrew from their failed ambush.

“Abu Five,” I called A Company, “can you move northeast to help Claymore, while also blocking the road to the west?”

“That’s affirm, Crazyhorse.  Detaching Abu Red and White to support Claymore – BREAK, BREAK!  RED IS IN THE AIR, COMING AT ME FROM THE WEST!”  And that was my last radio contact with A Company.

“This is Irish, I have eyes on target!”  Another missile shot out from the remaining F-22.  We watched it hit with a tiny explosion, watched Red’s front left leg separate from his body, then watched the beast’s nose light up.  Irish didn’t have a chance.  Whatever directed energy weapon Red had in his snout tore Irish’s wings off, and she spun into the steppe without ejecting.

“John, get us the hell out of here,” I yelled at the pilot, who was already doing just that.

The crew chief next to me pointed past the tail rotor.  “Colonel, he’s behind us!”

“Can you get a shot?”  John leveled the bird and turned right so the crew chief could bring his machine gun to bear.  He got off one quick burst before our world became bright red for a second. In the next second, the engines started winding down, and the acrid smell of burnt wiring filled the cabin.

It took all of John’s skill to autorotate, not crash nose down at ninety knots. We hit the ground so hard that everyone’s seat collapsed on its support struts.  The burning smell was replaced by the smell of jet fuel spurting from ruptured tanks. “Everybody off the helo!  Right now!”

My staff, such as it was, unassed the bird in record time.  The crew chiefs brought their machine guns, and the pilots hauled as much MG ammo as they could.  Gish, Annan, and I removed the working radios and regained communication with the rest of the task force.  Even the Air Force TAC lent a hand, scanning the skies for the crew chiefs and pilots.

Our HVT was down to six reindeer, but intel showed that he only needed five to take off with a fully loaded sleigh.

“This is Bugs, you kids need some help down there?” Bugs (it stands for Boobs Under G-Suit – don’t ask, or someone might lodge a SHARP complaint) was an A-10 pilot who had supported my units so often over the years, I reckoned I knew her voice almost as well as my wife’s.  What I knew even better, however, were the whine of her jet’s engines and the sound of that wonderful GAU-8 cannon.

BRRRRRRT.  It was like Thor’s hammer slapping reindeer, but with 30mm depleted uranium shells, which is infinitely better.  BRRRRRRT.  One more reindeer turned into mince pie for the polar bears. Red’s nose would shine no more.

“He’s in the air!”

“Who’s in the air?”

“The HVT – Sinterklaas.  He’s got four – no, five – reindeer.  Looks like he’s dropping bombs on Abu.”

“I see that fat SOB at the controls.  Bugs is in hot.  Rogue Eight, follow me in trail.”

BRRRRRRT.  Then BRRRRRRT.  Then BRRRRRRT again, as the Rogues made repeated gun runs.  Through my binoculars, I could see that they’d shot one skid off, and two of the reindeer hung limply in their harnesses.  The sleigh began to fly erratically, without enough reindeer power to remain airborne.  The next pass settled the HVT’s hash for good.  I swear I saw pieces of white beard through the mini explosions of 30mm DU rounds hitting the sleigh.  Gaily wrapped presents, a red stocking cap, and chunks of lacquered oak were all that were left after the Rogues climbed away.

B Company, which I’d held in reserve, finished the fight.  They air assaulted astride the most likely ratline for the HVT and his helpers, and blocked the elves’ escape with four platoons of pissed off infantrymen.  Even though they’d missed most of the fight, they made up for it on any elves who didn’t seem to want to surrender.  The resulting one-sided fight was like watching a baby wildebeest fight off a whole pride of hungry lions.

We spent the rest of the night consolidating and reorganizing, and combing the ruins of Yeti for actionable intel on other HVTs.  The noose was tightening around a Middle Eastern rabble rouser who was building an insurgent force on the banks of the Jordan.  This HVT, whom we only knew as the Carpenter, had know he was next.  He and his twelve guerrillas would undoubtedly meet me and my soldiers on some dark Gallileean night.

Sherman was right.  The war on Christmas is hell.  Happy holidays from Task Force Crazyhorse.