My Old Battle Buddy

Before I get started, I need to thank 3 men I follow on Twitter for their own writing, which prompted my return to this blog after two years.  If I hadn’t read the work of @inthesedeserts, @CombatCavScout, and @pptsapper, and thinking “hell, I can do this too,” I might have have never gone back to writing.  Thank you, gents.

I’ve known former Major Seivirak “Rock” Inson, US Army, since we were privates in the same basic training platoon 20+ years ago.  For a week at the 30th AG Battalion getting in-processed, followed by 13 weeks of One Station Unit Training at Fort Benning, GA, we suffered under the combined weights of our platoon’s three drill sergeants.  Rock was, incongruously, from Wisconsin, with some of the Upper Midwest’s long vowels mixed with a Cambodian accent, which led to few being able to discern what the hell he was saying when he got excited – which was often.  We got through, we talked about anything and everything like trainees do: families, cars, girls, school, aspirations.  He quickly became the big brother I’d never had.

Where does the damn time go?  Two days ago we were in neighboring bunks shining boots before lights-out, forced together by the proximity of our last names’ first letter and a couple of shared secrets.  Today he’s the father of four, divorced, and convicted by a court-martial of handing classified materials to the agents of a foreign country – among other charges.  I tried to send him an email and a Facebook message in early 2013, then saw that his email and social media accounts had all been deleted.  Funny when that happens, it’s almost like you’re a character in Orwell’s “1984″ and have been declared an unperson.  By the time I Googled him, he was already in the Disciplinary Barracks at Ford Island, awaiting transport to Fort Leavenworth.

His family name is In, but he adopted Inson (accent on the second syllable) to honor his father, when he and his sister came to the States in the late 1970s.  He’d attended the University of Wisconsin, was a cardinal-and-white sports junkie, but possessed neither the patience nor wherewithal to finish.  That similarity, a fellow college dropout, was one of the first things to bond us.  He wanted to be a US Army officer like his father had been in the Royal Cambodian Army, and in that he eventually succeeded, but first we had to get through our first enlistment.  He wanted to prove that an Asian American could hack it, not be held up as an example of a weak sister, in the rough world of the infantry.  Hell, I did, too, and most of the time I daresay we succeeded.  Other times, not so much, but show me a young private who doesn’t screw up and I’ll show you a “spotlight soldier” whose nose is up a superior’s fourth point of contact – ask anyone with jump wings what that last one means.

Our deepest, darkest secret, though, one that hounded us all through basic training and which we were stupid enough to announce to the other privates in 3rd Platoon: we’d been in ROTC.  Drill Sergeant B acted like this was tantamount to us saying we wanted to know his daughter biblically.  Rock had been in the Pershing Rifles, Army ROTC’s drill team; I’d been in the Navy ROTC’s version, both teams possessing severely pressed uniforms and impeccably shined shoes, able to either twirl an M1 Garand rifle or recite the 1st General Order, both skills utterly useless in the fleet or an Army TO&E unit.  Needless to say, B put Rock and me to work because he wanted 3rd Platoon to be Charlie Company’s honor platoon for our training cycle; this meant drill and ceremonies, even if we had to practice in the parking lot after lights-out at 2200, digging into precious sleep because first call was always at 0500.  I understand now why B wanted this, but at the time, our platoon mates cursed us mightily, even while Rock or I yelled out another preparatory command, or command of execution, around midnight.

We won, the prize being an afternoon off for our drill sergeants, and a self-supervised trip to the Sand Hill PX.  It’s amazing, in retrospect, how much we wanted it.  I mean, big deal, right – a 10 minute walk down a 2-lane road to a dreary satellite PX that catered to the Infantry Training Brigade, not the Walmart-sized PX on Main Post.  No beer allowed – none of us had the stones to try that, as tempting as it was at the time.  But pizza and Cheetos instead of mess hall chili mac and sheet cake?  I’ll have seconds and thirds, please.  I remember toasting Rock with my first Dr. Pepper in months, which tasted infinitely better than anything the Busch or Coors families could make.

Fast forward 2 years, and we’re specialists with the 25th Infantry Division (Light) at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.  We wound up in different companies of the same infantry battalion.  I found that he was his company commander’s radio/telephone operator, as was I for my CO.  During field exercises, and on deployment, it wasn’t rare to hear someone ask Crazyhorse 6 Romeo (the Charlie Company commander’s radioman) to “say again – and slower this time – over.”  His accent hadn’t gotten any better, but he could still smoke just about anyone physically, and was pound for pound one of the most fit people I still have ever seen.  He studied the craft and profession of being an infantryman whenever he had a scrap of free time, often to the detriment of me seeing if he wanted to go into Wahiawa for a beer.  His single minded pursuit of an officer’s commission influenced my own ill advised application to Officer Candidate School – which was, deservedly but politely, declined.

I learned from him; what, if anything, he might have learned from me, I can’t say, even 20+ years on.  Even if he couldn’t fully articulate his point, he could whip out the proper reference from his dog-eared stack of field manuals and correspondence course textbooks, so you could see for yourself.  He listened to English lessons on headphones that fully covered his ears, and recorded himself talking late at night, to try to rid himself of his accent.  He wanted to be the first American of Cambodian descent to wear a colonel’s eagle.  I just wanted to make sure I didn’t screw up too badly, and get through my enlistment back to aimless scraggly-assed civilianhood.

Then one night, while I helped him study for a Soldier of the Month board (he recited answers to my questions while I drank beer in his barracks room) he literally slapped me.  Anyone else, I would have taken umbrage, but not this kung fu student who looked like Bruce Lee when he took his shirt off.  I’m 6-foot-3, and probably had an eight inch height advantage on Rock, who could have easily kicked my ass.  We called each other by our nicknames.  Mine was Hamchuk.  “Ham, when are you gonna get off your ass and stop just getting by?”

I was full of unearned righteous indignation.  “What the hell are you talking about?”  I wasn’t exactly a slouch or malingerer myself, having recently gone in front of the promotion board for sergeant – but with little expectation on my part that I would actually pin stripes on before I went back to The World.

Finally, after three years, he opened up.  Some of it was about me, and it hurt because I knew he was right, but it was mostly him.  I let him talk, because I’d always been the loquacious half of our Batman and Robin team.  He talked about regaining his family’s honor, which he felt the Khmer Rouge stole when they took over Cambodia, killing his parents and making him a young orphan refugee.  He admitted that he thought he could do this by becoming an officer like his father, and living as cleanly and forthrightly as he possibly could.  We talked about his difficult childhood, he and his sister growing up in Wausau with Anglo foster parents, learning English on the fly.  He mentioned words like “integrity,” “values,” and “professionalism” the same way Baptist preachers call for the Holy Spirit, with such fervor I couldn’t help but believe him at the time.

Was I so inspired that I became Basil Plumley overnight?  Hardly, but I did step up my game.  I became a corporal, then a sergeant, before transitioning from the Regular Army to the National Guard.  While my technical and tactical proficiency had always been above average, I forced myself to improve.  Rock correctly predicted that more young Asian Americans would be enlisting, some even to the 25th – and more importantly, they would need mentors who looked like them, an advantage Rock and I hadn’t had.  I saw that I needed to improve, not only for myself, but also for the handful of Asian American soldiers in my charge.  He did that.  He forced me to see that I was a better soldier than I thought I could be, forced me to see I might be a positive influence on young Joes coming up.  I owe him a huge debt for that, because it continues to inform the man I am today.

I left active duty, but after a few letters (this was, after all, the Paelozoic mid-90s), we lost touch.  The last I heard, he’d been accepted to OCS, but then … nothing, until I joined Facebook.  I looked up Rock, of course, happy to see that he was a captain by 2009, and we linked up on Facebook.  We might have corresponded a half dozen times via Facebook messenger over the next three years, but he had his family and I had mine, his in Hawaii and mine in New York.  Our lives had diverged, but I held on to that fraying old bond almost out of habit.  Suddenly he disappeared everywhere – Facebook, LinkedIn, email, vanished into the ether.  Then I saw his name in the news.  I want to believe that my old battle buddy lived up to his nickname and wouldn’t knowingly share classified materials with a foreign agent; that as a self-professed man of “honor” he would neither cheat on nor physically assault his wife, both of which were among his court martial charges; or that he wouldn’t gather information on other soldiers of Cambodian descent, which he intended to hand to the Cambodian government.

It only took the jury four days to return a verdict and recommend the maximum sentence.  Ten years of pounding rocks next to the likes of Hassan Akbar, Bradley Manning, and Nidal Hassan.  My heart cried for his wife and kids, whom I never met and now probably never will.  What happens to them now – especially after Rock pissed away the family honor that once meant so much to him?  It isn’t often that one of your closest friends in the military earns notoriety as a convicted spy, and an irrational fear that I might be the victim of guilt by association popped up.  I googled him again recently, which prompted this post.  He filed an appeal – on what basis, I couldn’t tell you, but part of me is rooting for him, hoping against hope that he wins, if only because he once believed in his own integrity.  So did I.

Good luck, Rock, I hope you’re right, that you’re innocent, and you win your appeal.  But if, as I’m almost certain, you’re wrong, and the conviction stands, then this post will be the last vestige of a friendship that began in the space between two bunks in basic training.

http://www.raysemko.com/2013/06/15/us-army-major-convicted-of-espionage-for-cambodia/

 

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