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.

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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.

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.

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