The Taxman

“Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes”

Among a thousand wonderful lines in the Revolver album, this one always stood out, even as a teenager listening to his mother’s vinyl record.  Then, because miracles abound, Stevie Ray Vaughn recorded a cover that blew the original out of the water.

If you’ve followed me on Twitter for any length of time, you may have gotten a hint that I am not the President’s biggest fan.  You’d be correct, but I won’t belabor the point since I believe my Twitter timeline speaks for itself.  What has stuck in my craw almost since the moment he announced his candidacy are his obstinate refusal to disclose his taxes despite promising to do so (among myriad other promises) after the election; the imperial attitude that we lowly serfs needn’t worry ourselves with the finances of a president who sold his business acumen as all the experience he needed to run a country of 300 million people; disregarding this historic petition (full disclosure, I signed); and simply not giving a damn about this alarming poll.  Even his erstwhile helper gnomes at WikiLeaks pushed back against this broken promise.

On 29 January, the military executed the first publicized counter-terror attack of the Trump administration.  The raid on a purported Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) compound in Yemen resulted in the death of Chief Special Warfare Operator William Owens, and the loss of one MV-22 Osprey aircraft.  The President, as is his wont, took to Twitter to claim a great victory over terrorists.  Interestingly, he also took the time to attack those who questioned any aspect of the raid, from its inception, planning, execution, and the disturbingly high number of civilian casualties.  Silly me, but I never equated criticism of the mission, or its planning, with denigrating the immeasurable loss of Chief Owens.  If anything, I believe that we – as a military, as a society, as a country founded on morals – can and should do better.

Chief Owens, like over a million of his comrades in the American military, swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  More telling, the oath of enlistment, but not the oath of office, includes “I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the officers appointed over me.” (emphasis is mine)  When I was a young soldier, we had several officers and noncommissioned officers counseled about derogatory comments towards the new President, Bill Clinton, punishable under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  One of the kinder things said about him at the time, at least to me, was why on earth did I vote for “that draft dodging dope smoker who hates us (the military).”

There appears to exist a similar rift in the force today, but now I see the lines drawn more starkly, between those who question President Trump’s policies vs. those who seem willing to blindly follow him.  Neither is a bad thing, necessarily.  Soldiers love clarity, in their government, those in charge of it, and that government’s policies.

What remains chilling is the lack of anything resembling clarity in this administration.  In light of President Trump’s refusal to release his taxes, and the business interests from which he has not been proven to divest, who can authoritatively say that future military action might not benefit the President’s business ventures in the Middle East?  Will my comrades, acquaintances, and friends, die so that the Trump Organization can turn a profit?  How would we even know without substantive proof to the contrary?

How can the nation’s commander-in-chief, a man who is a living breathing antithesis of the Army Values, be trusted when he orders another mission like Al-Bayda last month?  What will he tell the widow and orphaned children when Daddy died on a mission to protect a the Trump property in the Middle East?  I’m sorry for your loss, but here’s a comp weekend stay and meal vouchers for Mar a Lago?  Since it’s been proven that anything that affects the President’s businesses also affects him personally, wouldn’t the natural extension of our foreign policy be to protect those businesses from the UAE to Kuwait?  Our new Secretary of ExxonMobil State doesn’t seem like the kind of person who could implement a foreign policy not guaranteed to protect the President’s business interests.

I’ve been telling folks that, in some respects, I feel like I’m reliving the early 1990s.  As the 90s opened, I was just another protesting college student in Lafayette Park with a sign that said “No War For Oil.”  Regardless of anything then-President Bush said about how he wouldn’t “let this stand,” or that the coming war was about containing aggression (true, as it turns out), it was also ultimately about making sure oil continued to flow freely from the Arabian Gulf.

We all want to believe in something, to know that sacrifice is worthy and serves our country.  The sacrifice could be to depose a Panamanian strongman in an extreme interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, contain an Iraqi dictator, or to secure food convoys for starving East Africans.  But now?  I don’t know.  I’ve attended a dozen funerals in the last 24 years and honor each sacrifice.  I mourn them.  I miss them.  We want the loss to stand for something, to be worthy of what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

But without a fully transparent divestiture from the Trump Organization, without releasing his taxes, we can and will never be certain that future sacrifices will not be in vain.

Storify #7

If I’m not writing, which is sadly usually the case, I’m usually ranting on Twitter.  I can hear you now – duh, Dan, we know, we found this blog via Twitter.  Still, it is difficult as hell to get Storify tweet storms to cross-post here, so I won’t bother.  Come for the lede.  Stay for the tough love for younger veterans.

https://storify.com/danielmkim/your-entitlement-is-showing

Old Storm Troopers Never Die, They Just Fade Away

2nd Company, 501st Legion, in formationThey used to call me RL-one-six-niner-six; some called me Sergeant Major, or just Smaj for short.  One gray bar and three black bars on the rank placard on my helmet.  Now I’ve got a moisture farm that oddly smells of charred meat from eons ago, a growing family, and a garage full of droids, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.  I retired after giving the Empire and First Order thirty long years, from a harrowing rookie tour on Jedha; Hoth; a bitter loss on a forest moon; to Coruscant, Starkiller, and one final op on Jakku.  See that round crest above the mantel?  That’s my old unit, Vader’s Fist, the 501st Legion.  We were kind of a big deal.

I was bred for this life.  I know, that’s oxymoronic – I mean, it isn’t like the Emperor had envisioned RL-1696 growing up to be a TIE pilot, or a star destroyer captain.  I went where they sent me, fought whom I was told to fight, and won more often than not.  That’s more than many of my peers can claim.  At least I survived.  By the time I left the academy on Coruscant, I was ready to take on anyone who dared question my emperor’s authority.  Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

If you ever see two old former storm troopers together, they’re usually laughing.  You see, the joke’s on us.  Blasters produced en masse by the lowest bidder – many troopers’ weapons were never zeroed properly and were consequently worthless, except as clubs.  Armor that might withstand one blaster shot, if you were a prayerful type and if the moons of your home world aligned a certain way.  And those execrable helmets that limited your field of vision, with built-in communicators that could barely transmit past five meters.  Like millennia of soldiers before us, however, we made do.

“Hey, FNG.”  At first, I wasn’t sure if it was some new designation, but that was how veteran troopers addressed me until we received a shuttle load of replacements from Iridonia.  I was a squaddie, sweating my bone marrow away on the Jedha desert moon, all of us hunting for a group of violent insurgents led by Saw Gerrera.  You kept your guard up at all times unless you wanted to suddenly find gear and/or crew-served weapons missing.  If you took so much as one incoming blaster shot, you replied with every weapon on an AT-ST.  You hoped that you had air support in the very likely event that you got hit with a proton grenade attached to a tripwire.  I patrolled the streets of Jedha City for a year, before I learned that the moon had served as the base for some Force cult that Lord Vader crushed.  We lost some real fighters there, warriors who could’ve helped us in succeeding years and battles.  TK-6458 was my closest friend in that platoon, and we never saw the insurgent who hit his hovertank with a thermal detonator.  I cheered Jedha City’s destruction from the porthole of a shuttle as we flew away.  After we landed aboard Death Star 1, my platoon sergeant slapped 6458’s sergeant placard on my helmet.  “I see you finally learned how to hate, 1696.  Good.  You’re taking over Third Squad.  Meet me at the hangar in two hours for an orders brief.”

Hoth, three years later, was arguably the highlight of my career.  Ever ride into battle in an AT-AT?  It sucks.  The troop compartment is cramped and dark, you can smell your squaddies’ fear percolating from under their armor.  There’s all sorts of banging from incoming fire hitting the armor plate a few centimeters from your head, a ton of deafening outgoing fire, comm channels clogged with a thousand voices speaking at once but making no sense.  With no portholes, troopers routinely puked inside their helmets from all the jerky movement.  I asked the AT-AT commander what was going on, but the insufferable upper crust officer went mushroom on me: kept me in the dark, fed me shit.  It took no small amount of willpower to not hit the emergency ramp release above the troop leader’s seat.  When the ramp finally opened, though, holy Sith, it felt like your very bones would freeze instantly.

We were the third AT-AT in the lead formation, lucky for us since the first two were taken down by snow speeders.  Thank the Force, the insurgents only had a handful of those.  Once on the ground, I had to literally kick a few of my guys to get them to move.  “Come on, damn it, the rebels are just as cold and scared as you are.  Move out!”  Two of my guys were so new, so nervous, that they fired most of their plasma packs instead of remembering how I’d trained them.  My platoon sergeant on Jedha was a proponent of well aimed single shots at close quarters, since the E11 blaster wasn’t accurate past 150 meters.  Use your helmet’s aiming reticle, line up your shot, then adjust your aim point low and right, or you’d do what 85% of troopers did: miss.  Did I mention how much I hated our weapons?  Ragtag insurgents without a pot to piss in could jerry-rig sniper rifles, while we – the Galactic mother loving Empire – couldn’t outfit troopers with a blaster worth a damn.

We breached the insurgent perimeter with a proton rocket launcher (damn, those things are heavy), and charged the first trench while most of the scum still lay stunned in their fighting positions.  I took the lead because I had so many new troopers.  To be perfectly frank, during the assault I was more worried about an FNG shooting me accidentally-on-purpose, than an insurgent using some antique Clone Wars weapon against us.  Another quick stroke of luck: rebel infantrymen weren’t wearing anything heavier than cold weather snivel gear.  Crappy weapon or not, a parka and a balaclava aren’t stopping a center-mass blaster shot.

Who came up with the defensive plan on Hoth?  I remember hoping the rebels didn’t execute him or her, because we’d need more of that epic stupidity in the future.  During the assault, it was almost laughable.  Fields of fire didn’t overlap; some heavy weapons like their ion cannon pointed skyward rather than towards us, against whom those weapons could have been merciless; retreating rebels didn’t coordinate their movements, which turned the first two trench lines into routs that stained the snow red.  Our surviving AT-ATs would rumble up, suppress a trench line or turret cannon, then we would clean up under a curtain of supporting arms.  We secured the inner band of trenches so far ahead of schedule that the Legion’s commander didn’t believe me when I called the AT-ATs forward.  All that was left was the mountain, and it looked like we’d become the lead element by default.  A few insurgent ships took off as we advanced, but as long as they weren’t turning back towards us, I didn’t care.  Let the Fleet handle those, that’s why they get paid the big credits.

Insurgent mechanics, headquarters pukes, and other assorted support personnel shoot worse than rookie storm troopers.  If a blaster shot melted the snow within an arm’s length of you, that was just blind luck.  My guys, thankfully, hit what they aimed at.  You didn’t see many stray blaster beams from 1st Platoon.  Even my new guys calmed down, settled in, and became the unfeeling killing troopers they’d been conditioned to be.  2nd Squad started a fire in the hangar when they hit a plasma tank, and that’s when the remaining rebels broke.

Some raised their weapons, barrels down, to signal surrender.  No time for prisoners who didn’t look important.  The only insurgents worthy of capture were a leader named Rieekan, an Inner Rim princess who advised him, and a pair of mercenary smugglers; Lord Vader said so himself during the operations order, and you don’t defy him if you enjoy breathing.  We continued our advance in bounding overwatch as we entered the mountain/hangar; one squad fired while the other two moved forward, then we switched off.  I left XN-8250 in charge of two squads to dispatch the steady flow of prisoners, while I took one squad into the hangar bay itself.  It was an ugly ship, a Corellian freighter that might’ve seen its best days during the Republic, and its engines were revving.  Damn it!  Its ventral turret fired, killing two of my troopers, then it took off.  I fired on it, but it flew out of range quickly.   Then I heard him breathing behind me, and I didn’t dare look, lest I be blamed for not accomplishing the objective.  I’ve seen him Force choke senior officers, it’s messy, and I didn’t want to be the first Legionnaire to be honored in that fashion.

I didn’t get choked.  I got a promotion and a cushy job instead, sergeant major of the security battalion on Endor.  For a few years, my biggest concerns were speeder bike accidents, Ewok hunting (to this day, still my favorite meat), and keeping the shield technicians safe.  Long story short, we lost.  Headquarters Troop got rolled up so fast by a rebel SOF team that I didn’t even fire my weapon.  I spent three years as a prisoner of war on Yavin before being repatriated to a Coruscant I didn’t recognize.  There was no shortage of folks in the new Republic who’d refuse service, lodging, or employment, the instant they discovered you’d been a storm trooper.  Some of the desert worlds we’d subjugated, lost, then subjugated again, increasingly looked like good places to start anew.

Then I heard through the 501st veteran grapevine about this thing called the First Order, in an uninhabited system past the Outer Rim, led by a Sith no one had seen except in a hologram.  The Fleet was gathering there, and the reactivated 501st Legion needed training cadre for an influx of new troopers.  Before I could shuck my old/new name, I was RL-1696 again.  It’s the only thing I was ever good at, and my boys needed a sergeant major to train them, make sure they survived to train still others.

Starkiller was cold, desolate, and the best stretch of a storm trooper’s career I could have imagined.  I ran thousands of troopers through the new Academy, and they’re now deployed in over fifty star systems.  I revamped the curriculum so the rookies wouldn’t be so damn raw when they hit the Fleet.  I stressed the Big Four: marksmanship, don’t blindly spray and don’t waste plasma packs; small unit tactics stressing lessons learned on Endor, Hoth, Jedha, and Tatooine; fealty to the Supreme Leader; and a callous disregard for life.  Having someone like CPT Phasma as Legion Commander on my side, as we literally rewrote the book on training, was immeasurable.

Jakku was our final shakedown, intended as a validation of our years of preparation.  You know the old saying that a good plan never survives contact with the enemy?  Just before takeoff, headquarters sent us a Jedi to be in overall command, some kid who could wield a lightsaber but didn’t know jack or shit about leading storm troopers in combat.  Phasma was pissed!  The last time I’d seen her this angry, she shot a trooper cadet just so his peers could practice casualty evacuation.  Still, she was a professional to the core and didn’t let it show, except around me.  She trusted me, because how can a senior enlisted adviser serve the officer if he doesn’t know what she’s thinking?  We accomplished our objective and captured a rebel – sorry, (air quotes) Resistance – pilot, but not his droid.  The village that we air assaulted into?  Well, it doesn’t exist anymore.  Another hard lesson learned from Endor. I hear later that some stupid FNG couldn’t handle the blood on this op and defected. I hope we find that traitorous bastard soon.

We returned to the destroyer after the headquarters Jedi got his fill of killing.  I took off my body armor for the last time, each section marked with the name of the storm trooper I was giving it to.  I felt naked and out of balance, especially once I changed into civilian clothes I hadn’t worn since my Coruscant days, after Endor.  That night, I just couldn’t go through with the retirement ceremony that CPT Phasma had planned.  I apologized to her, because I knew she had gathered elements from the entire Legion, even a few old retirees with whom I’d served long ago.  We had a quick drink in her command center in gross violation of First Order regs, then I boarded on the next shuttle to the Inner Rim.

I’m here now.  The planet is hot, but it’s quiet and no one really cares about your past.  At night I’ll look up at the band of stars that mark the Outer Rim, and try to guess which ones I’ve been to.  Will we win this war?  Who knows?  It isn’t up to me anymore.  If I have my druthers, neither of my children will go off to fight.  I’ve done enough of that for a thousand families.  My fight is here, eking out a living out of this farm to supplement a meager pension, worrying about the raw deal the Jawas will offer for the droids I just refurbished.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take the lady of the house on her weekly shopping trip to Mos Eisly.  Just in case, though, my old blaster (a parting gift from CPT Phasma) is under my cloak.  You just never know.

support-our-troop-stormtroopers-star-wars-funny-darth-vader-empire-t-shirt-tank-hoodie-design-300x300

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/

 

An Asian American Soldier Reflects on Private Danny Chen

The subtitle to this should be “The Death of the NCO Corps.”  This is a post I didn’t want to write, if only because of certain memories I knew it would stir.  I’ve thought, what could I possibly have in common with two kids half my age, whom I’d never met, and who killed themselves in the place “where empires go to die?”  Quite a lot, actually, and it took another person I’ve never met to help me see the similarities.  Thank you for that, Captain Srinivasan.

Here I’ll concentrate more on Army Private Danny Chen than Marine Lance Corporal Harry Lew, mainly because the allegations of what happened to Lew, while shocking, are far less egregious than what happened to Chen.  This doesn’t make the situation surrounding Lew’s suicide less tragic by any means.  I’m no apologist for the Marines who hazed Lance Corporal Lew, but you just don’t fall asleep on guard duty while you’re in enemy territory, which could potentially jeopardize your unit.  You might deserve some punishment and extra duties or training, but as corrective action, not demeaning like what Lew had to suffer.

No one who has ever spent any amount of time in the infantry (not the 2 million or so in all ranks in all services, but the roughly 5% of those who fight their enemy in what we euphemistically call “close combat”) will tell you that it’s easy.  Far from it, and we even had a darkly funny motto: life is hard, welcome to the infantry, wear your helmet.  We take pride in marching 12 miles with a rifle, helmet, and rucksack in less than three hours, training unrelentingly during field exercises with live ammunition, hitting 36 out of 40 targets out to 300 meters away with an M4, knowing by heart all nine lines of a  medical evacuation request.  As one of the few all-male specialties in the Army and Marine Corps, this is a place for Type-A personalities who lead either by personal example or “size 11 motivation,” occasionally both, though leadership by screaming is not unheard of.  The infantry is not for the imaginative, physically or mentally weak, or faint-hearted; this sort is usually culled in a pitiless military Darwinism before deploying, and might find gainful employment in a support specialty.  It is an unforgiving environment where strength and physicality are valued and respected, but also remarkably welcoming once you’ve proven yourself.  One of the proudest moments of my infantry career is when I was first called a “mother******,” the ultimate term of endearment and acceptance.

Let the “pogues” (People Other than Grunts) have their sprawling forward operating bases (FOBs) with air conditioning, dining facilities with salad bars and soft-serve ice cream, shuttle buses, even Starbuck’s and Pizza Hut.  The average infantry soldier or Marine lives outside the FOB, sustained by only what he can carry in his assault pack, not even bathing or brushing his teeth because that precious water will be needed for drinking; besides, water is heavy, trust me.  It’s almost a Lord of the Flies existence, but by necessity.  The weak link who can’t meet the unit’s standard for push ups, or falls out of a five-mile run in garrison, might not have the stamina or intestinal fortitude to carry a wounded 200-pound mate out of the line of fire.  That under-performer might not be able to hike over two mountains with a 100-pound pack, plus 60 pounds of body armor and ammo and weaponry, then engage the enemy in a firefight at the end of the march, when he’s so tired that his very bones hurt.  We are not the heroes of a Tom Clancy whiz-bang high-tech thriller, and we will never kill someone with our bare hands like some ninja or super-spy.  We’re the guys with uniforms so nasty they could stand up by themselves, who would fight with our teeth and toenails to keep the boys in our platoon alive, who fight secure in the knowledge that the guy next to us will, if need be, take a bullet for us.

I mention all this because it informs non-infantry people what “grunts” do for a living.  It isn’t all dress green (now blue, alas) uniforms, drill and ceremonies, or even the now-passé tradition of shined boots.  Let’s also not forget, most importantly, that anything deemed out of the ordinary, not “normal” for that unit or in that moment of time, is easy fodder.  This appears to be what happened to Chen in an almost all-white unit.  For Asian American soldiers like me, it could mean getting pummeled by good ol’ boys at the Hidden Door bar at Ft. Benning, GA, because they could, and because I wasn’t one of them, a white Southerner.  It could mean the snide or malicious comments that many of us withstood for years, because we actually exceeded their low expectations of any Asian American soldier.  As much as I hate quoting my father, he was right in that you have to be better than them, for them to see you as an equal.  And when that happens, as it did for me (mostly), I just became Sergeant Kim and that was the end of it.

I see young Chen, and see myself twenty years ago.  Maybe not the best runner, maybe not the most tactically or technically proficient, but certainly not the worst and deserving of the treatment he received.  From all accounts, he was, like me, a kid who tried, and could have only gotten better with time and better mentoring.  Thankfully, I was never hazed because of my race; many of the noncommissioned officers (NCOs, corporal and above) who brought me up were either black or Hispanic, and didn’t have the time to tolerate such stupidity in their units.  This didn’t prevent the odd bar fight here or there, but that was always off-post, never part of any official duties.  What this signified, at least to me then, was that it was just a few knuckleheads – not the US Army as a whole.  Once I became an NCO myself, I hardly ever encountered it, and would come crashing down on anyone who tried to mess with an Asian American “joe,” or junior soldier.

And that brings me (finally) to the point of this post: where were Chen’s NCOs?  Digging deeper, what happened to what we call the NCO Chain of Support, which is supposed to mirror the Chain of Command and be a guiding/calming force for any unit?  The closest civilian analogue I can think of is that of a foreman vs. manager when describing NCO vs. officer roles within a unit.  When I first became an NCO, I had to learn this creed by heart, and I still have that in me as much as the Ranger Creed.  As one of my instructors at “Sergeant School,” or PLDC, said, the first stanza of the NCO Creed differentiates us from any jumble of so-called sergeants as can be found in most of the world’s militaries.  At the risk of sounding like an old fogie retired soldier, NCOs took pride in being NCOs in my day.  We would think nothing of ensuring our words and actions could only be perceived as the standard to which our junior soldiers should aspire.  If I maxed the push ups in the physical fitness test, I expected my joes to match that; if my joes didn’t have the skills or knowledge they needed, then I as their NCO and primary trainer was responsible.  What happened, then, that there are no less than four NCOs among the eight charged in Chen’s death?

From the available sources, it seems as if the NCOs in Chen’s unit either turned a blind eye or took an active part in what might have started as hazing, but became infinitely more sinister and crushing.  Indeed, Chen’s entire platoon chain of command, from team leader to squad leader to platoon leader, has been charged in his death.  If the charges prove true, that begs a deeper question.  Above the platoon, which is roughly 30 soldiers led by a lieutenant and a midlevel NCO, comes the company.  The company can have three or four platoons, is led by a captain and a senior NCO, and if a platoon can be likened to a family, then the company is your extended family and the battalion is your clan.  And nothing happens in 2nd Platoon that you don’t eventually hear about in 1st or 3rd, even if the platoons are separated by up to ten kilometers and live on separate FOBs.

Since this is the case more often than not, I would like to see if the company’s commander and first sergeant are or are not being held accountable along with the 8 men who’ve been charged.  If a platoon leader and platoon sergeant, the two most senior men in that subunit, are charged, then wouldn’t it be fair to assume that their superiors, the commander and first sergeant, had some inkling of what was happening?  They are, after all, responsible for the company as a whole, which included Private Chen’s platoon.  Above even them are the battalion’s commander and command sergeant major, each with up to twenty years’ service and supposedly old enough to remember what goes on at the platoon level.  Who are they and will there be any kind of accounting for their actions or inaction?

Soldiers and former soldiers talk about a “failure of leadership” all the time.  I’d heard of such failures, but had never seen one or read about one until now.  If my boy were to follow in my footsteps and join the Army, what should I tell him about the leadership of the service I still cherish?  What should I tell him about the service I love, which allowed this utter failure of leadership that leaves me sad and disappointed?  Should I, twenty years hence, tell him to be twice as good to be seen as a white soldier’s equal?  Should I tell him to become an officer so that he won’t have to experience anything like Chen or Lew as a junior enlisted man, and in doing so perpetuate the endless Asian American class discrimination against enlisted folks?  Or will he, as I did, not worry about all that, and serve his country anyway?

Veteran’s Day or one-day sale?

Quick post, writing this before I go to work at oh-dark thirty.  Happy Veteran’s Day to anyone and everyone who ever served their country or community.  I add community, because after volunteering at the Pile on 9/11, I’ve felt like I shared this day with guys “on the job” and “blue shirts” (cops and firemen).

Granted, this day doesn’t mean as much for me as Memorial Day, but with each passing year I’m troubled by the growing chasm between those who’ve served and those who haven’t.  90% of this country probably thinks today is another reason for a one-day sale, a reason to put a yellow ribbon on your bumper, something to honor those nameless faceless worthies who serve us.  For others, it’s a day to reflect that the War to End All War ended on the 11th (actually the 23rd) hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918.  We know how well that worked, how much peace ensued after the Armistice.

I’m not asking for non-veterans to walk a mile, figuratively speaking.  I’m not even looking for empathy, because that starts us on the road to being the cliche of an emotionally dependent, soul-searching vet.  Just have our back, honor the service but don’t cheapen it.  Do something about it, hire a young veteran who might or might not have any transferrable skills, because shooting someone with an M4 carbine at 50 meters does not have a civilian analogue.  But that young veteran will bring devotion, unparalleled work ethic, and a rare focus on your company’s mission unlike anyone in his age-group.

Like many veterans, I don’t want to be thanked for my service, because really, how are we supposed to respond?  You’re welcome?  Or, where were you?  Still, it’s always preferable to “did you kill anyone?”  My favorite, by a a knucklehead who used to work with me, was “what did you feel when you shot someone?”  He had just overheard one of my squad leaders tell a typically conflated story that made us sound like the Rambonator.  I answered, “Recoil,” because not only was the story false, my coworker just had no idea how to relate to us.

If you must thank a veteran, please don’t just thank them blandly for their service and be on your way.  Thank them instead for being the kind of person who volunteered to serve the country, because we are less than 2% of this country’s population.  Thank them for spending their youths overseas so that the rest of us can have cheaper gas and electronic devices.  Thank them for risking life and limb.  Thank them for being sheep dogs protecting the greater flock.

Thank a veteran for defending our country.

 

So long, Staff Sergeant Rooney

Andrew Aitken Rooney

Andrew Aitken Rooney

Like many people, I was saddened at the passing of Andy Rooney last weekend.  What was truly disheartening, though, wasn’t the loss of an iconic journalist, but the loss of a true gentleman I had the honor of meeting and once, even sharing a drink with.  Back in the mid-00s, I was a manager at Vong Restaurant, Jean-Georges’ Thai-French fusion restaurant in the Lipstick Building.  We also catered Madoff Investments’ holiday parties every year I was there, and thought highly of him, too, but that’s for another post.

Mr. Rooney would visit us about once a month for dinner.  He was usually accompanied by a lady I always thought was his wife, but since she passed in 2004, I suspect she was just an old friend; good thing, too, since I called her “ma’am,” not “Mrs. Rooney.”  We never asked, it was just accepted that when Mr. Rooney came to Vong, so did she.  I wish I could remember her name, I mainly remember how gracious and charming she was.  Our rule was once they arrived, invariably without a reservation, have the bartender start on a Maker’s Mark on the rocks for him, Stoli up with a twist for her, and meet them at table 23 (semi-secluded corner banquette) with the cocktails.  Someone else requested 23 or 24 tonight?  Bump them to 4B or 40, we’ll make it up to them somehow.  It wasn’t as if JG needed or wanted the notoriety of having the journalist at his restaurant; Chef had bigger fish to fry, celebrity-wise, and we managers just took it on ourselves.

I’ve been doing this long enough that I hardly ever get starstruck, except also at Vong when Charlie Watts had dinner with his jazz bandmates, and Stones fans virtually blockaded our door.  Mr. Rooney was just a nice guy, but until I met the small (in stature only) man, I’d always thought of him as larger for his intellect.  He said to me once, “I try to not be an SOB, but my kids would probably argue otherwise.”  I found it utterly charming, the anachronistic and un-self-conscious way he used the acronym.  As I discovered over successive visits, the curmudgeon we all saw on Sundays at 7:53 was not the courteous old man who ate at our restaurant, and who always had a moment to chat with well-wishers visiting his table.  He never minded waiting for his table, and wasn’t above bellying up to the bar for one last Maker’s Mark while waiting for his car after dinner.

What truly impressed me, even before meeting him, was his writing, particularly his work for Stars and Stripes during World War II.  My introduction to his work was not CBS, but a high school project where I unearthed some old microfiche articles from 1943 and 1944.  It was only later that I made the connection between “Sgt A. Rooney” from the byline and his famous TV line, “I’m Andy Rooney.”  He’s the reason (not Joker from “Full Metal Jacket”) why I briefly considered military journalism – not realizing that today’s ersatz version are automatons who exist only to regurgitate whatever the Department of Defense wants them to.  When I mentioned this to him, he waved his hand at me and said, “What did I know, I was just a scared kid.  Uncle Sam wanted me to be an Army journalist, who was I to argue?”  I’ve been in any number of hairy events that should have left me six feet below Arlington National Cemetery, but I don’t think I would have had the stones to do what Mr. Rooney did – not once, but ten or twelve times: ride as a passenger aboard a B-17 bomber during a strike over Germany.  Then write about it in such a self deprecating way.

Over the almost three years I worked at Vong, I might have seen Mr. Rooney two dozen times.  He recognized the miniature CIB on my lapel, and asked me how and where I got it.  I told him, and wound up blabbing that I’ve always been jealous of his generation, that at least theirs was, as Studs Terkel put it so well, “a good war.”  I had messy UN-mandated interventions, humanitarian operations, stability and support operations, and peace enforcement during my military career, inspiring names like Uphold Democracy or Noble Eagle.  He told me he thought I was cracked for saying that, but he also said he understood, he got that from soldiers of any other era but his.

Mr. Rooney had a theory that soldiers all yearn for some great cause to fight for; in combat, in the moment, he’ll fight for the man next to him, or his unit, or some small group like a squad or bomber crew.  But when he has time to reflect, that soldier will have a greater sense of personal fulfillment to counteract the demons that may or may not visit him down the line.  He said he’d seen this theory born out in the 60s, when observing how Vietnam vets reintegrated into society with a difficulty several orders of magnitude beyond what his generation experienced.  His take was that, with the nation not behind the war or the veterans, with uniformed servicemen even being spit on at bus terminals and airports, many servicemen were ashamed of their service.  This had untold long-term effects for that era’s veterans, and as Mr. Rooney said, grinning, “That’s why Reagan was such a shot in the arm for this country, he made us proud of our military again.  We still feel it, and I hope it lasts through this war.”

I will always remember him saying to me, “Wear that badge with pride, Dan.”  I still do, for myself and now also for Staff Sergeant A.A. Rooney.  Another nugget of advice he gladly offered an aspiring writer: “Tell the story as if you were trying to impress a lady over a drink.”  So long, Mr. Rooney, it was an honor to know you and talk to you.  I hope God has enough Maker’s Mark stocked up.