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.
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?
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.
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.