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.

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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?