Where Were You on 9/11? From the School House to the Sandbox

By: Peter Sessum

It was, admittedly, an inauspicious start to the day the world changed. So, there I was, at the Defense Language School (DLI), no shit. I was on the unit volleyball team, practice had ended and I had just changed into my duty uniform. I saw a group silently gathered around the lobby television on my way out. I stopped to look at what had everyone’s attention and saw a plane crash into the second tower. My first thought was, “We are going to kill a lot of people.”

I didn’t know any more than what I had just seen on the screen, I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew it was bad and that our response was going to be far from a “proportional” response. While I had never been to New York, it never occurred to me that the skyscrapers were anywhere other than America. In my head, this was America, we had been attacked, and we were going to respond. By killing a lot of people.

“We are going to kill a lot of people.”

Class was about to start, and I didn’t have time to get the details as I headed to my car. I listened to the radio as I drove the Asian School. My unit was Pacific theater focused, and I had been there for only the first few weeks of the Thai language course.

As I arrived to class, like the rest of the world, our TV was tuned to news. I remember a lot of misinformation and unconfirmed rumors being reported. This was the biggest news story in recent memory and a lot of unchecked information was making it on screen.

One report that a building in Washington DC was hit. The major in the class was trying to get a hold of his father who worked in the building. There was a lot of chaos and it took most of the day for him to get word that, yes, his father was okay, and that particular building wasn’t a target. The Marine captain had friends in the Pentagon so that became our concern.

Like most of the rest of the country, nothing got done that day. We were glued to TVs until the end of the school day. I don’t remember how the day ended, but those first few hours are cemented in my head.

In the chaos, there were conflicting reports about what buildings were targets. People were frantically trying to reach family members of alleged targets.

I called my unit back home and asked if I needed to return. When they said no, I asked if I had to change languages, and again, they said no. I was, in effect, just to go about my life as if nothing happened. DLI did, however, change overnight.

When the land DLI was on in Monterey was given to the government, there was an agreement that the post would be open to local travel. Overnight, gates were closed and manned. Vehicles coming on to post were inspected. The locals were furious because it added at least 20 minutes to drive around what had been less than a mile drive through DLI. Agreement or not, we were at war and the rules changed.

Naturally, there were no combat units at DLI, so the only pool of bodies they had to pull from were students. All the enlisted had to rotate through inspecting vehicles at the gate and doing nighttime patrols of the military housing on nearby Fort Ord. it was, of course, an exercise in futility since we were unarmed. Fortunately, they had proper guards before I left.

The days and weeks following 9/11 were strange. On the surface, we were studying languages that had nothing to do with new Global War on Terror (GWOT) but there was an undercurrent of getting ready to go. I can’t speak for other veterans, but for me there was a sense that it was time to go to work. I had been Infantry for over six years before I reclassed to Psychological Operations, this was what I was trained for. It felt like we should be getting ready for something bigger, but too many were still worried about the minutia. As if 19 men hadn’t just completely changed the world.

First assignment in Afghanistan. With a conventional unit operating in Khowst Province.

I do remember Jon Stewart’s tearful speech on The Daily Show his first day back on air. He talked about how the view from his apartment used to be the Twin Towers, and then was the Statue of Liberty and what that meant to him. It didn’t take long for him to start making fun of soldiers that were training to deploy. Unlike the politicians that voluntarily go on his show and often looked stupid, soldiers don’t have a mechanism to defend themselves. Poking fun of training soldiers preparing to do the thing you aren’t willing to do is easy, and in my family, we have a saying, “no points for the easy ones.” That was when I stopped watching his show.

It would be a few years before I touched down on Afghan soil. It felt like spinning my wheels. I gave 90 percent of the tactical classes for my PSYOP unit, using mostly the tactical SOP I wrote. I was denied going on the invasion of Iraq because the results of my five-year physical were going to be available in two weeks and the unit had to submit names in one week for a deployment that wasn’t going to happen for a month. They literally had one of the most experienced soldiers sit out because the unit administrator didn’t like me. He hated me so much, he wouldn’t send me off to war. I was later assigned to a different unit that was short handed and for their Afghanistan deployment.

While the unit sucked, my time in Afghanistan was life changing. I was lucky enough to deploy all over the country, in a number of different roles. I was with conventional forces in eastern Afghanistan, then I traveled to southern Afghanistan and worked with a Civil Affairs teams focused on village assessments and reconstruction efforts, last I was attached to a Special Forces (SF) team as part of their PSYOP support.

I was lucky enough to not just see Afghanistan from behind a gunsight. I have been to hundreds of villages and met thousands of Afghans. Pashtun hospitality has no equal, and I took a few positive things I learned from the culture to enrich my life back home. I got to know many Afghans and liked to think I earned the respect of some. it is why I don’t like it when people disparage Afghans, I know there are many honorable Afghans that are worthy of our respect.

Last assignment of my deployment. Having lunch with Afghans while providing PSYOP support to Special Forces in Kandahar Province.

My unit only had one casualty, I took his place and was on the mission that captured the Taliban bomb maker who planted the four-daisy chained anti-tank mines that killed two SF soldiers, a Navy SEAL and the PSYOP soldier.

Out of everything I did in Afghanistan, the most difficult thing I did was walk away from my interpreters. I knew that soon I would go home to a nice warm bed, a family that loved me and a peaceful country. I was sure these great men, ones I trusted with my life, would keep working for the military, possibly until they were killed. The war was on their doorstep, not mine. I was happy to find out that most made it out before the U.S. pulled out of the country.

My respect for the people and desire to help is why I applied for and accepted jobs on two different counter narcotic programs in Afghanistan. My time as PSYOP qualified me to be an international advisor for the Afghan led drug eradication programs, and later as a liaison officer between the teams that cut poppy and the military. It was in that last role that I would meet the only Navy aviation officer I don’t hate who was, at the time, a reserve officer and full time FDNY Captain.

He brought up that the collected group of friends were brought together only by the events of 9/11. He proposed, and we all agreed, that we commemorate our meeting by symbolically returning to Ground Zero. That was the first “Freedom Run.” Since then, it has become an informal event to remember the lives lost in GWOT since 9/11. We log one mile for every life lost since the morning of 9/11. Any exercise done under our own power counts. One mile counts for every 15 minutes of activity that doesn’t track distance.

A few years later, I was writing a college paper when I heard the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I went to a local bar and had a few drinks alone, in silence.

It has been 20 years since that morning in 2001, Afghanistan is back to being U.S. military free with the Taliban running the country. While it might seem like things are back to the way they were, I know that I am changed from my time there, and I hope it is for the better.

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The Afghanistan exit was a Charlie Foxtrot; Because of course it was

By: Peter Sessum

Like many other veterans I have been asked what I thought about the recent events in Afghanistan a lot in the past week. My response is always the same, “America’s pull-out game is weak.” This was always going to be a cluster fuck and, honestly, it should have been done a long time ago. Military officers, politicians and the goldfish attention span of the American people doomed the efforts in Afghanistan long ago.

Army officers like to act like they are students of history, but if they were, the Afghanistan exit wouldn’t have looked almost identical to the fall of Saigon. I would love to place blame on a sitting or past president, but the truth is, they just give the go/no go order. They were trusting the SecDef, Joint Chiefs and all the officers between them and last pair of boots getting on a C17. I imagine that the Commander in Chief asked a four-star general if he had a plan, that general asked a three-star if he had a plan, and so on down to some captain who just wants to go home.

You would think that students of history wouldn’t make the same mistakes of the past.

The president wasn’t assigning flights out of Kabul, that buck got passed down, but he had to ultimately reach back from the White House and grab that bill to say, “it stops with me.” It is a great line, but not accurate. Some officer wanted to get a bullet point on his OER that he redeployed his unit ahead of the Sept 11. deadline so he popped smoke as fast as he could. Naturally, it happened so fast that the Afghans on Bagram didn’t know they were gone until long after they were wheels up. There is not a single good reason to abandon a base without partner forces knowing. I hope you got that positive OER sir.

Politicians have been using the military and international conflict for their own ends since the first one was elected. Forgetting the past 20 years for a moment, the rhetoric from politicians in the past few months have been contradictory. The same politician that was supportive of the exit, is now critical of it depending on which way the political winds blow, or if they love or hate the current person sitting in the Oval Office. Whatever fits their narrative now is what matters, not what is good for Afghanistan. None cared about the Afghan people in the past 20 years, the current suffering is only an excuse to grab headlines.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Aug. 15, 2021. The initial count of 640 passengers included only adults, inadvertently leaving off 183 children seated in laps as passengers were transported from the flight line. The correct total passenger count of 823 is a record for the C-17. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

And take the spotlight they will, until the American attention span moves on to something else. If half the people who cared last week, cared half as much 10 years ago, this would have ended differently. Veteran organizations have been screaming from the rooftops for help getting interpreters out for over a decade; no one cared. Now, when it is splashed across front pages, everyone is wondering why we didn’t do more. Where were you last year when the exit was planned? Where were you six months ago when the president announced the May deadline had been extended to Sept? Your concern/outrage is disingenuous at best. The bigger deal about it you make now, the more contempt you will get from veterans when your apathy returns. You didn’t give a shit a month ago, you won’t in another month.

Afghanistan was not one failure, and for sure not a recent one. The current state of Afghanistan is the result of two decades of systemic failures on just about every level. The politicians, military service members and yes, even civilians, that wanted to do some good in Afghanistan were drowned out by the negative words or actions of the ones who were fucking it up for everyone else.

So yes, the pull out of Afghanistan was completely botched by too many hands. But don’t project your outsider perspective on a veteran you know. Some might be having a tough time not knowing the fate of people they liked, trusted and respected. Especially, knowing the outcomes are most likely not good. This might be like a sudden death in the family. Some veterans are reeling, and are deserving of compassion. For others, it is like a death after a prolonged illness. While not a relief, it was expected and we mourned this moment a long time ago. However they are handling it, give them the space to do so. This isn’t your moment.

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Boba Fett was a POG

boba fett rotjFile this under “things troops talk about on guard duty” but with the launch of The Mandalorian on Disney+ this is a timely topic to write about. I understand that some might have strong feelings about Boba Fett being a POG, but if you objectively consider my reasoning, you will agree with me.

Why we think he is cool

There is an overwhelming belief that Boba Fett is awesome, and the reason is simple; we, as kids, made him awesome. He was the only Star Wars action figure with a jet pack! I had the Boba Fett action figure as a kid, I saw Empire Strikes Back in the theater and the mysterious bounty hunter had all kind of bad ass imaginary adventures with my other action figures. He had rockets, he could fly, how could he not be the mot awesome character that wasn’t Jedi trained?

His mystique only added to his inherent coolness. We filled in the blanks for all the information we lacked. He was awesome because we all agreed that he was awesome, but that in itself does not make one awesome. Strong, silent type with a jet pack and missiles, he must be some kind of former Special Forces Delta Ranger SEAL SWAT Commando right? The idea that he was awesome became part of our culture that no one really questioned. We all just knew he was bad ass, that is all there was to it.

Looking back, there really is no evidence to support the idea that he is a former operator, in fact, quite the opposite.

Why he is a POG

For the uninitiated, POG stands for Person Other than Grunt. Infantry are grunts, the stereotypical hard charging, life taker and heart breaker kicking down doors and taking down bad guys is a grunt, cooks, mechanics, paper pushers and the like are POGs. In popular culture, Echo company from Band of Brothers; grunts, the guys maintaining the planes in England, POGs. Spartans; grunts, the guys discussing the actions of the 300 were POGs.

Disney is the man reason why Boba Fett is a POG. When they bought Star Wars they made all previous material except the movies no longer canon. As far as the Star Wars universe is concerned, the only things that happened were the movies and maybe the Clone Wars cartoons. It is that limited evidence that points to Boba Fett being a POG.

He is one of many bounty hunters hired to find the rebel heroes, and while he figures out that Han and Leia are heading to Cloud City what does he do? Does he stealth in and bag and zip tie them? Nope, he calls Vader to set up a trap at dinner. Not very operator of him. That’s it, his big capture is done by someone else.

boba fett jabba the hutt jawas

I’m pretty sure it went like this: “So there I was, at Cloud City, no shit. I tell Vader, I don’t care what you do with blondie, I’m taking Han Solo and that’s that. Unless you want to start something.”

The next we see him in in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. The lag between the two movies is about a year. So he isn’t out bounty hunting around the galaxy. He is hanging out with Jabba. Not exactly the life of a galactic bad ass. I’m sure he told Jabba that he threatened Vader to give him Solo or some nonsense. He is that guy at the VFW bar telling the same tall tales to anyone within earshot. So more freeloader than operator.

Boba fett ROTJ-Fett-flirt

She’s a slave girl Boba, she has to be nice to you. He’s like the private at the strip club that thinks he has game because strippers keep talking to him.

When another bounty hunter, Leia in disguise, shows up and reveals a thermal detonator, he draws down, but any sharpshooter would have dropped her with a well-placed shot between the eyes. Instead, Boba Fett is freaking out under his mask wishing he had worn his brown pants.

Next we see him, most likely drunk, on Jabba’s skiff when a fight breaks out. He clumsily flies over gets into close quarter battle with a Jedi armed with a lightsaber. Something he should know not to do from personal experience. He is unceremoniously knocked into the Sarlacc pit by a blind Han Solo. That’s it. No sniping from the rail 100 meters away, no rocket, no vibroblade between Han’s ribs. Nope, his POG ass get accidentally hit with a rod and over the rail he goes.

Boba Fett Luke duel

Couldn’t think of a good reason not to get into close battle with a Jedi? No, nothing comes to mind? Maybe if you didn’t believe your own hype you would have shot Luke from a distance.

“But Mandalorians are bad ass hunters,” I imagine you saying. They might be, that isn’t canon, but maybe they are with the new streaming show. But Boba Fett isn’t a Mandalorian, he is the clone of a Mandalorian. Don’t get me wrong, if you are going to make an army out of any genetic material, Maoris are a solid choice. But Boba Fett wasn’t raised on Mandalore, he was orphaned on Geonosis when his “dad” decided to go toe to toe with one of the strongest Jedis in the galaxy. I guess forgetting you have a fucking rocket on your back runs in the family.

Since Mandalor Child Protective Services didn’t come get him and put him in foster care, he wasn’t raised with or by other Mandalorians. He had his dad’s armor and ship, which is what he uses later as a bounty hunter. So, if anything, he is less of a POG and more of a case of stolen valor. If anything on the armor represents anything in Mandalorian culture, he is banking on his dad’s exploits. Just because your dad was a bad ass operator doesn’t make you Specials Forces once removed.

As a veteran, this is more than a fun thought exercise. I have met Boba Fetts in my life before. A prime example is a guy named Troy. He would introduce himself as a “Marine machine gunner.” Like Boba Fett, he wanted people to fill in the gaps and think that he was a grunt, kicking down doors in downtown Baghdad as part of an Infantry platoon.

The reality is that every unit down to the platoon level, even POGs, have machine gunners. During the convoy, someone has to ride up top and pull security. Usually the lowest rank or the dumbest guy. The truth was, Troy was a jet mechanic. They don’t put F18 fighter planes out on a firebase in the middle of nowhere, they are either on ships in the gulf or on the huge airbases. Troy wasn’t kicking down doors, he was turning wrenches. Any operations he claimed he was on was because he was a grease monkey for the planes providing close air support for actual ground pounders for that operation.

Delta Doug

Grease monkey Troy thinks this Special Operations (but not Special Forces) soldiers isn’t a “real vet” compared to him. That is more delusional than normal trash talking.

Of course, Troy believed his own hype. Claiming that women and anyone that didn’t deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom weren’t “real vets.” Once, a Vietnam vet with a Specter gunship patch on his jacket came around, Troy made a show to shake his hand and thank him because they really “saved our ass over there.” Yeah Troy, when did insurgents swim to the ship or overrun the airfield, past many levels of security to get to the point where the only thing that could help you was gunships providing close air support?

What can civilians do with this information? When you find a blowhards in Gruntstyle shirts trying to tell you how bad as they were, politely smile and nod. Honestly, they most likely need the attention. Consider it your good deed for the day. If you want to hear stories from real troops, look for the vet that tells stories that buildup the people he or she served with, not themselves, or the guys talking among themselves at a table with a full beer in front of an empty chair.

 

Full Disclosure: I haven’t seen any of the episodes of The Mandalorian.

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Hero’s Journey Home Step 5: The Turning Point

2017_06_16_14_39_400001

The progression of the hero’s journey in movies and myths. Hopefully, for the vet it ends at home.

By: Peter Sessum

This is from five weeks into the Hero’s Journey Home project, a therapy program at the Seattle VA. I’m starting to see some benefits of this long term look at my military service. When I think about my entire military service, certain big issues pop out, but when examining a narrow view at a time, more specific details are seen. It is the difference of looking at a collection of snapshots and watching a miniseries documentary.

Week five was about turning points. There are examples, The Greek story of Psyche, Apocalypse Now, The Truman show, and they look at turning points in the characters. When looking through the lens of this program, I had a number of turning points in my military career.

First, let’s look at the reflection questions.

  1. Can you identify a turning point in journey through the military?
  2. What did this turning point lead you to face in yourself?
  3. Were there ways you felt a part of you died? That you felt part of you was reborn?
  4. Psyche also contemplated suicide numerous times, despairing in her journey. What were times of your greatest despair in your own journey? Did you have any support to assistance the way Psyche did?
  5. Was there a clear moment you knew you were going to leave the service?
  6. When have you tried to avoid things in the civilian world? Did you have any temptations with the “blue pill” of drugs or alcohol? How have these effected your journey?
  7. Write a one-page about your turning point in your military service.

My interpretation of turning points was not just where, after being in the military for a while, I decided to leave the service. Turning points are decisions you make that alter the course of your life, career or the story narrative. In the movie Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen, faces Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Willard is drinking himself to death in a Saigon hotel room when he is forced to sober up so he can be briefed on the mission. That isn’t a turning point, even though he is sober, it is just a continuation of his descent into darkness. His turning point is when he faces Kurtz and makes the decision to turn away from the path that will lead him into Kurtz’s footsteps. He kills the darkness in front of him to stop the darkness inside of him from growing. My turning points were not that extreme, but I had a few in my life.

I remember the exact moment when I cost myself my career. I had screwed up a few times as enlisted, but nothing I couldn’t recover from. I had worked my ass off to be a good soldier, better than I had been before. I was in charge of a mortar squad and loved the responsibility of leadership. I chose to do what I believed to be right, even though I knew it would it cost me. As a leader, I thought I had to set the example and live by my own words. Based on what I knew, I was doing the right thing, and it cost me.

squad live fire range

Protecting one of these soldiers cost me my career.

To be specific, so there I was… at Fort Lewis, no shit. We were still in formation and the platoon sergeant asked the squad leaders who deserved to go to the Combat Lifesaver course. I led fourth squad so we were in the back of the platoon. Each squad leader called out a name of someone in their squad and I could see this train coming, but I couldn’t get out of the way.

I knew the perfect, safe, political choice was Private Willis. He was brand new to the Army and was pretty much a puppy. He didn’t know shit yet, but he was enthusiastic. It would have been simple, the platoon sergeant would have been happy, the other guys were not stellar soldiers or had reputations so no one would have blamed me. But the question was who deserved to go, not who would be safe to suggest. Words matter, and forgetting the platoon sergeant, how could I look my troops in the eye and tell them to do the right thing when I wasn’t willing to do it myself. There was a clear choice of who deserved to go so I gave his name. The platoon sergeant wasn’t pleased, he hated that soldier. Had we been in private, I am sure that he would have directed me to make a different choice, but I said it in formation and he couldn’t take it back without looking like an asshole. But I knew it would cost me. And it did.

Some turning points you choose; some are made for you. I was having fun being involved in the Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers (BOSS) program at Fort Lewis. I was the rep for my brigade and would regularly report to the command sergeant major about programs and progress in his units. I was on a path to be the president of the post BOSS program, but Sergeant Major Gannon, the garrison sergeant major hated me. Even though I was voted by the soldiers in a overwhelming majority he gave the position to an unknown. I wonder what my time in the military would have been like had I been given that opportunity.

Getting back to the discussion questions, these turning points led me to face that I was prepared to do what I needed to do for what was right. My troops recognized that I was willing to sacrifice for them and that I had their back. That means a lot to me when you consider a lot of people in leadership positions do not have the trust of their subordinates.

I really believe that if you can’t be trusted with the little things, you can’t be trusted with the big things. If you aren’t willing to take a hit for your people, you aren’t going to step up when lives are on the line. Any one that says they will do the right thing when it counts it lying to themselves. They will still be a weasel; they will just find a way to justify it to themselves when the bullet start flying. When some leaders say to never leave a soldier behind, they really mean to not leave them behind. Because that Blue Falcon will leave you to die if it means risking himself.

Death and rebirth

I feel like there are times a part of me died in the military, but I never really felt reborn. I kind of felt that way when I got my Infantry blue cord or my Airborne Wings. Like I was now something different than before. Being Infantry was a part of my identity for a long time, but outside of “turning blue” I can’t think of a feeling of rebirth. I did feel like a part of me died a few times. It pains me when someone would hold me to a standard they didn’t hold themselves to. Or being betrayed by your command. Unit command are the biggest proponents of doing the right thing, but seeing them screw over a soldier or be shady was always disturbing.

I can only speak for myself, but there wasn’t one moment that made me want to leave the service. It was the death by a thousand tiny cuts approach. After a while, you get tired of trying to swim upstream. Overall, I was a decent soldier, not perfect by far, but I was tired of fighting the system. There isn’t any one thing to pin my decision to leave. I don’t blame the Army as a system, I think it is more accurate to say that the conditions I found myself were not right for me. I think it is like surfing, sometimes the conditions are not right. It doesn’t mean that isn’t a good surf spot or that you are a poor surfer. I am sure that I would have had a different experience had a been stationed elsewhere, or had a different MOS.

22 too many

The positive part of this reflection question is that it asks you to look at your deepest despair in the military, but also the support systems. I am fortunate to have a good support system. I learned, the hard way, that not everyone can handle hearing about the things that trouble us. For some people, our world is “too real” to hear. There are things in the world that people don’t want to know, or admit exist. When you have been removed from the military for long enough, people in your life might not know that side, so vets like me hide that darkness in their past. Knowing what I have been through would change how some people see me and I don’t want that to happen. Fortunately, I do have a couple people I can call when things are bad. I am also that friend that will drop everything if someone is hurting.

I wish more vets thought they had a friend that would be there for them, no matter what, and without judgement. A few lives might have been saved if they had. I know some must have had that support system, but didn’t know it. A few years before I joined the Army I had a veteran friend that took his own life. He was my best friend and roommate. He killed himself in our apartment while I was at work. We talked briefly, he called a mutual friend, everything seemed fine, and he was just gone. That was 27 years ago and it still bothers. Knowing the pain it would cause others has made me take that option off the table.

That didn’t stop me from being self-destructive after my deployments. It wasn’t a conscious decision to drink more, but it was more a part of my life then. There was no red pill/blue pill moment. But there is a moment of clarity that comes, usually through reflection or therapy, that you realize you are hurting yourself. Now, I know that using alcohol as an escape, only entraps you more. Most forms of escape are only temporary and the problem is still waiting for you. I am fortunate that I didn’t go to the extreme that it cost me everything. Compared to other people, it wasn’t that bad. I just didn’t know how wound up I was post deployment and took longer to “decompress” because I didn’t know what the issues were.

For the Hero’s Journey Home, this chapter was more of a reflection and less of an “A-Ha” moment. But you need the ebbs and flows to make waves so it was still progress. How would you answer the questions?

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Hero’s Journey Home Step 4: Mentors, Challenges, Trials and Descent

By Peter Sessum

Week four of the Veterans Administration therapy program. So far in our Hero’s Journey we have answered the call to adventure, crossed the threshold and now found mentors. Using the Matrix example, as the book often does, Neo has answered the call to adventure, taken the red pill, crossed the threshold from the known world (the Matrix) into the unknown (the real world) and Morpheus is mentoring him. Some mentoring is helping them learn the hard way.

Reflection Questions for Step 4:

  1. What was your acculturation process like in the military?
  2. Can you identify the positive and negative mentors in your acculturation?
  3. Has your attitude toward your mentors changed over time?
  4. What kinds of external darkness did you encounter in the service?
  5. What kind of internal darkness did you encounter in the service?
  6. What did you learn from your journeys into darkness?
  7. Write a one-page about your mentors, challenges, trials and journeys into darkness.

Acculturation

I had a difficult time getting acculturated into the military. Part of that is situational, part of that is my fault. On paper, I was exactly the kind of solider the Army wanted. I arrived with the mindset that the warrior is a complex being. Ready to work hard and with foundation beliefs in honor and integrity. However, personally, I struggled to fit in.

I was a little geeky for most of the Infantry. There was a bar across the street from my first unit and I would go and drink cheap beers and write poetry. I wasted an entire weekend locked in my barracks room painting because I had some ideas I had to get out of my head. Not exactly the hard charger expected in most grunts.

If there is a “cool kids” clique, I am not going to be in it. I was a true believer in the “we are all one team” idea in the Infantry. So not being accepted as a member of the platoon was weird to me. I didn’t care where people were from or what their background was, if you are in my unit, you are part of the team. It was a little disillusioning to find out that was all B.S.

I also had bad timing. I arrived to Germany when my unit was in the field and not long after they returned from a deployment. Those shared experiences brought them together and the new arrivals were outsiders. Right after I deployed with them, I did a PCS move to Fort Lewis so I didn’t benefit from the relationships build over deployment.

Since I grew up an hour north of Fort Lewis, I would go home every weekend. That did not help me fit in with my new unit. I would take friends with me, but most of the single guys in the platoon were under 21 and I would go to clubs when visiting Seattle.

One day they carved “fag” in my door. No one would own up to it but it felt like a huge betrayal that my own platoon would treat me like that. I later heard from a soldier that the younger guys did it and their logic was that the never saw me with a woman. The guy who told me did not face that same scrutiny, even though he was a virgin. I didn’t feel like I had to explain to myself to those assholes that they never saw me with a woman because I was dating women in Seattle and the local women I did date I didn’t want to spend time with in the barracks.

Mentors

I had a number of mentors in my time in the Army. The best ones were the ones that were not my direct supervisors. Sergeant Armour is the first that comes to mind. I learned more from him about Fire Directional Command (FDC) as a mortar than I did from my own squad leader. I was envious of his team because I wanted to be on it instead of my own squad leader Thibodeaux, who was an arrogant POS. Armour demonstrated that he would look after his troops, Thibodeaux would sell you out in a heartbeat. Corporal Aldrich was another. He was one of the universally liked people in the platoon and was the epitome of cool to me as a young private. Over time, and after having a lot of negative leaders in the Army, I have appreciated what they have done for me and what I learned from them.

External Darkness

It isn’t difficult to find external darkness in the military. Depending on your definition of darkness, it is almost everywhere. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is, in my opinion, the greatest internal threat to the military. It takes a special kind of evil to target one of your own. That is someone that just wants to do evil and whatever their reasoning is to help them sleep at night is bullshit.

When I was in Afghanistan, I understood why the Taliban wanted to do me harm. I was the invading infidel, coming at me wasn’t personal, it was business. I get it. But every time you hear about a suicide bomb in a market, it isn’t about repelling invaders. It is just evil expressing itself. What is the benefit of killing Afghans who have nothing to do with the war effort?

PHTO0018

Are any of them bad guys? Unfortunately, the Taliban didn’t wear uniforms. And a sleepy Taliban looks exactly like  sleepy villager when you wake them up at stupid O’clock.

I have met evil. Sometimes it is subtle like the mullah that wouldn’t sit and drink tea with us one week, but when he had the female sit out the following week, he was happy to sit and talk with the men. Other times, it was easier. We lost one soldier in my deployment and I did not mind being part of the mission that captured the IED maker.

Internal Darkness

Everyone wants to think they are a good person, and I try to be one, but you need to embrace some darkness to be able to do what you might have to do in war. I don’t know what worked for other people, but I compartmentalized who I was when I was overseas. I thought that on a mission I can’t be the man that picked up his kid from school and when I was picking up my daughter from school, I couldn’t be the man that is going to drop the hammer on a bad guy. The problem is that it is that once you left he darkness in, it is difficult to remove it all.

It took me a while to be able to articulate, but I think I have it now. I envision it as walking into a control room. There are switches, dials and levers all around. Some switches you turn off, and some you turn on. You dial down the fear and turn up the alertness. When you come back, the light doesn’t work and all the labels are missing. There are a couple you remember, but which dial did you turn up and by how much? It feels like guessing and then leaving to go about your life.

You don’t know how much your hyper alertness is dialed up until you almost draw down in the middle of a mall over a balloon popping. I had my hand on my pistol, but hadn’t cleared leather, when I realized what I was doing and pulled my shirt back down. It happened so quick, no one around me noticed, but that was my sign to not carry for a while.

In Afghanistan, Captain Brooks with the 1/501st was the cause of a decent into darkness. You can’t walk into a Tactical Operations Center and swing a dead cat without hitting three captains that don’t have a job. He was the S39 air. He spent the first part of his deployment trying to arrange for a “combat jump” into Afghanistan. I used the quotes because the plan was to have trucks standing by to pick up the troops to drive the rest of the way on the mission. He was just trying to pad his OER and he found his chance with the PSYOP and Civil Affairs (CA) troops. He got the commander to assign us to him, even though that is not how it works. Of course, no one in our chain of command did anything about it. They loved to talk about how PSYOP is only attached to other units, but we report to our own higher, but when it comes down to it, they didn’t have the stones to take care of their troops. Our command was too busy trying to find a way to get their bronze stars for achievement than to look out for the boots on the ground.

Herbig's picts 014

This was the perfect scenario for Brooks, poor security and limited friendly folks made for an attractive target. He never got his firefight, but the entire battalion was given their CIB and he immediately stopped going on missions.

Brooks wanted to get his Combat Infantry Badge so he made us an easy target. He wanted us to stop and assault if we were shot at in an urban environment with only two unarmored vehicles. He fired a warning shot at a kid that had stolen a bag of school supplies that we were going to give to Afghan kids. But he didn’t fire it into the air, I think his intent was to fire near the kid, but from the local’s perspective, he was aiming at the child.

Going on those missions, I knew I was going to die in Afghanistan. Honestly, if had just been me I would have refused to go on the missions. They had no PSYOP value and I had no obligation to go. He wasn’t in my chain of command so he couldn’t order me to go on his ego missions. The problem is that it wasn’t just me. The rest of the team was going, and as prior Infantry, I had the training if things went bad. One guy on our team was able to see his baby be born and was back on a plane the next day to finish mobilizing with the rest of us.

When we say we go to war for the person to the left and right, we mean it. So, I went on these stupid, pointless missions. One day, I went to the chaplain to talk to him out it. I told him that I already knew I was going to die; I had accepted that. I had lived a full life and had been able to spend time with my daughter but my teammate just barely met his son and I was angry that some stupid captain was going to get us all killed. I asked him for help working through that so I wouldn’t be beating the shit out of an officer in the middle of a firefight. The chaplain had some great words of wisdom.

“I’ll pray for you.”

Honestly, I think I broke the chaplain. He was used to people saying they are scared, or they want to go home. I don’t think he was ready for my particular issue.  I still have a journal from that time and I couldn’t read it for years without going right back to those days in my head. There is a switch I turned off when I was in Khost and I don’t know where it is to turn it back on.

Lessons from the darkness

I learned the depth of human darkness and that the rest of us need to work harder to keep the external darkness at bay. I know that people don’t have reasons to do evil. They just are evil and find reasons to justify it. I love how people talk about Mr. Rogers, Bob Ross and Steve Irwin bring the trinity of goodness and we need more people like them in the world. But we also need some good guys that are willing to do bad things to bad people to protect that goodness. I just wish the goody goody people would help those of us that embraced evil transition back int the good world rather than treat us like the bad guys. I know that I am the most dangerous person some people in my town have ever met, but I am not the most dangerous person I have ever met and I don’t like that they look down on people like me for protecting them from meeting those dangerous people.

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Not exactly the face of evil. Terry sharing bubbles with local kids.

The thing that helped me most come out of my descent into darkness was my daughter. She was my light in the darkness and that helped me find my way back to who I needed to be for her.

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Why Dog and Pony Shows Suck: The Veteran Perspective

As I lay awake in the wee hours of the Fourth of July, I can’t help but think of some poor private pulling guard on a Bradley Fighting vehicle in the middle of D.C. While politicians and the media are focusing on the cost of a military parade on our nation’s birthday, I can’t help but think about the enormity of BS that the troops are going through to pull off this Charlie Foxtrot. Here is why these dog and pony shows suck for the troop on the ground.

Fête nationale, Belfort

How do you say “I demand your surrender in French?” “Guten Tag.” The idea for the military parade came after a visit to France. Not sure they are the best example of military might.

I don’t know what is happening at the president’s parade, I can only go off my personal experience. I’m sure that when Trump says, “I want to have a military parade.” He might think it is just a matter of getting a bunch of soldiers on a bus, dropping them off down the street and having the walk by him a couple hours later. But before we can get the troops there, someone has to choose what troops to get.

Selection

At any given time, the president has a high-level officer near him that doesn’t have a real job and looking to pad his Officer Evaluation Report (OER). Hopefully, he will pull from nearby units but I have a feeling he will go with his favorite unit. Whatever combat patch he wears is the division getting the call. Or, alternatively, whatever unit he has a hard on for.

The officers at every level will treat this like a personal request from on high and take it far more seriously than needed. The division level commander can’t say no to the president even though the president doesn’t care which units show up, as long as someone marches past him. All officers that won’t be on the reviewing stand with the big guy is looking to pad their OER and aren’t giving their troops a second thought.

For a captain to look good to the colonel, he has to have a crack set of troops looking all spit and polished. Should be easy to get volunteers, right? After all, who is more patriotic than the American service member? In this case, just about everyone.  Don’t get me wrong, we love the flag and all that stuff. But this is a day off and no one wants to be in a major dog and pony show on their day off.

I’ve been selected for a presidential visit. They asked for volunteers, a dozen or so raised their hands. Then each platoon leader was instructed to select about 20 troops. My platoon had two very strict criteria.

  1. Who will not screw up (intentionally or not) and embarrass the unit, and by extension the entire U.S. army, in front of the president?
  2. Who is left?

Thank God that was just the divisions standing in formation. We did that in a day. A parade is a whole other level of bullcrap.

North_Korea_Stages_Show_of_Force_with_New_Missiles_during_Parade photo Tasnim News Agency

This is what I think of when I think of “military parade,” Doesn’t exactly sing “Freedom” to me.

Practice

A parade is just walking. In formation. One would think that is easy. Marching is taught in Basic Training. Meaning it is one of the most basic soldier skills. Ask any soldier about the command “Counter column. March!” and the words “soup sandwich” will likely follow. I have never seen a unit execute it right on the first try and usually ends up with the first few soldiers running into each other like idiots and the maneuver stopped so they can unfuck themselves. There is always someone that forgot how to right wheel and so they have to practice until they get it right.

That is about the first hour. But they will keep practicing because all other work was cancelled and there is nothing else on the schedule. After a while, the company commander will want to see and it will be performed for him. Then the companies need to be combined and the cluster starts all over again. Then they have to practice until the battalion commander gets to see, and then on other the brigade.

Meanwhile, the troops are being inspected, as if anyone more than 10 feet away is going to be able to see them. I was once chastised by a first sergeant because my camouflage uniform during a practice had a black spot near the knee. A black spot. On a camouflage uniform. In a crowed of camouflage uniforms.

Logistics

Troops you can put on a bus, vehicles you have to ship. There are already images of tanks on the backs of flatbed trucks in D.C. Loading them isn’t a big deal, but someone is going to have to watch them. 24 hours a day. There is some unlucky private, walking around a 70-ton Abrams just counting the hours until his relief shows up and thinking about how bullshit the entire situation is. And there is some NCO that has to listen to that private bitch about it for eight hours.

First you have to load the vehicles on the trucks, then get them to D.C., then find the vehicles and then start pulling guard. If the soldiers are lucky, some agency in D.C. will cover security. But I am guessing that no commander wants to leave it to anyone that doesn’t have a vested interest in the tanks. Because if one graffiti artist tags a tank, someone is losing a career.

And let’s not forget about the bands. I can’t imagine it will just be the Marine Corps band. Every service will want their own. That is just going to add a layer of complexity. The good thing about having a band nearby is that the beat makes it easy for everyone to stay in step. What sucks is when you are in the trail of your unit’s formation and the band I the next unit is not in step with you unit. A number of bands competing for your ears is not fun.

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It just isn’t a parade until the Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles go by.

Hurry up and wait

Every single veteran can relate to this and has a story about it. The concept of 30 minutes prior is the source of a many a soldier’s rage. Whatever time Trump says to start the parade, General Nuisance is going to require the troops to be there 30 minutes prior. That in itself makes sense. Gives the troops plenty of time to get formed up and ready. If that was it, life would alright. But each layer of command will put their own “30 minutes prior” which pushes the arrival time earlier and earlier.

Division wants brigades 30 minutes before the general said. Brigades want the battalions 30 minutes prior to that. At least when it reaches the company level is shortens to 15 minutes. Companies want platoons 15 minutes prior to battalion formation. Platoons want squads 15 minutes prior to that. Squads want team 15 minutes prior to that. It honestly gets that stupid. A noon start time can have a soldier arriving at 0600.

I actually had a battalion commander order the leadership that no soldier could be forced to show up more than 15 minutes before his stated start time. It was seen as revolutionary and he enforced it for as long as he cared about it.

Then once the troops are all formed up, it is a lot of waiting around. All those concerns about pretty uniforms goes out the window as bored soldiers find a quiet spot in the shade to nap. Modern soldiers should thank God they have smartphones to entertain themselves. It makes the time go faster.

Recovery

Hopefully, they are pulling units from the area and not tasking the 101st from Fort Campbell or some nonsense. Maybe the troops can get back home in time for dinner and fireworks. But someone is getting the short end of the stick and has to load the vehicles, or guard them until they get loaded because the shipping company has the holiday off.

Other types of dog and pony shows

The Change of Command: I 100% understand why we have those. It is part tradition and part common sense. It is a way for the outgoing commander to say “here are the troops and equipment I am passing to you.” The two commanders do a review of the troops with the outgoing showing that he is passing off a good group of soldiers and the incoming getting introduced to his or her new troops. I don’t deny that it makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

The change of command rehearsals are drawn out. They run through the entire ceremony a number of times. At the part where the commander is going to give a speech, they just say “remarks complete.” It is space filler for where their speech will be. After the unit has been through the entire ceremony half a dozen times, they have to endure it one more time. The only difference is the addition of the next higher unit commander, their wives and their speeches.

I had a commander thank everyone in his speech. He thanked the chow hall workers, he thanked his first dog for teaching him friendship, he stopped just short of thanking the first girl to give him an awkward handy for giving him the confidence to succeed in the military. It was excessive. It was made all the worse that it wasn’t a CoC for my unit. For some reason, some of us were pulled to fill in for another unit’s CoC. I guess there just weren’t enough soldiers to make it look good.

Gen D two fer

Same day outgoing speech for one unit, incoming speech for another. Mercifully, he kept both short and sweet.

The worst one was a general level change of command. It started with a promotion of one general from one star to two. Then he took over command from the other general. And he gave long speeches at both! Two ceremonies, back-to-back, two separate speeches. We were about 5,000 soldiers, on an airstrip (the only place that could accommodate the formation), in mid-summer Germany, with full battle gear. This was 1996, nowhere near the Global War on Terror. Why are we wearing helmets?

Even better, we are at fixed bayonets. I’m sure it was all to look tough, but having unsheathed knives in the sweltering heat is a recipe for trouble. What happens when some poor sap locks his knees and passes out in formation? He takes out the person in front of him. There are medics floating around the rear of formations ready to attend to the fall outs. The battalion to our left and right had soldiers dropping like flies. One was easily down one third of their troops. My battalion commander yelled at us later because one soldier fell out. Because we are Infantry goddammit and we are better than that.

The Retirement Ceremony: I get it, you want to send one of your senior troops off well. If it was just the people that loved him or her it would be great. But the post had a monthly ceremony for every soldier retiring that month. The ranks were filled with random units so it is possible no one in attendance knew who was being recognized. Pomp and circumstance, I get, the military is a organization deeply rooted in tradition, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

The worst was a retiring one-star general change of command. He straight up said it was going to be his last military speech so he was going to make it worth it. It was easily the longest speech I have ever heard and it was mostly him patting himself on the back. The only good thing about that one was that I wasn’t in formation for it because that guy droned on forever.

The exception to the rule

Major dog and pony shows suck, but there are times when it is kind of fun. Of course, these are instances where the time requirement is minimal. When I was part of the I Corps Color Guard we did a parade in Tacoma. We arrived a few minutes early, walked the mile route ahead

Color guard 2

A different kind of dog and pony show. Presenting the colors for the national anthem before a professional baseball game was fun.

of the military units, and were back in the van heading home in short order. We also presented the colors for the national anthem at a Mariners game. Immediately after, we changed into civilian clothes and watched the game for free. That did not suck.

I honestly think that a military parade on the Fourth of July is the least patriotic thing you can do. Forcing military members to work on their day off, on a day that our great nation told England to fuck off, just to placate on man’s ego is really against what we fought for. When I think about military parades I think of Russia, China or North Korea. The only U.S. military parades I think were positive were troops returning from WWII and Desert Storm. And the last one mostly because there were most likely senior officers and enlisted that had been in Vietnam and got a horrible reception.

What the president should do is invite some BBQ pit masters to the White House, get a pallet of domestic beer, have all his staffers turn in their cell phones and let them get drunks and blow off steam without media, or camera phones, around recording anything. If he really wants to celebrate the true holiday of the spirit, maybe drunk dial England later.

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Hero’s Journey Home Step 3: The Call to Adventure

By Peter Sessum

Week three of the Hero’s Journey Home project. The process remains more of dipping a toe into the process rather than jumping into the deep end. Last week, we talked about what was our call to adventure. For me, it was subtle, but for many that joined after me, the attacks on 9/11 were their call.

This week, we reflect on crossing the threshold from civilian to military life. Of course, this part of the journey applies to everyone, not just those in the military. Especially if the transition requires a cultural shift. This can be entering the police academy, taking a corporate job after working in a small business, moving from a big corporation to a non-profit or moving away to take a job. Even a high school grad making the transition to college crosses a threshold. So, while civilians can’t relate to crossing the military threshold, they can relate to making transitions of their own.

Alright, let’s get after it. And yes, number seven isn’t a question, but I didn’t write it, I’m just doing it.

Reflection questions for Step 3:

  1. How did you imaging joining the service would change you?
  2. What did you gain from your service?
  3. What did you lose?
  4. When did you realize you had crossed the threshold into another, unknown world?
  5. What stands out as your most important initiation rite (or its negative, hazing)?
  6. If you received a new name, what do you think its significance was/is?
  7. Write one-page on your call to adventure using some of the questions above.

How I imagined the Army changing me and what I gained from service

I think Command Sergeant Major Kline said it best when he said that the Army won’t make you anything you aren’t already. He resisted the idea that the military would make a young guy into a man.

“If you are a punk, it will just make you a punk that knows how to shoot,” he would say.

I didn’t have any illusions of a great transformation. In fact, I didn’t have any real expectations. I saw it as an option to get out of the rut I was in. So, I don’t think the military changed me, but joining the Army put me in a different environment which let me express myself differently.

Growing up, I had a great imagination and loved to read about ancient cultures. As stated in Step 2, I was kind of invisible in my family. Being mixed race in an all-white town with my black family on the other side of the country forced me to find my own identity. I dove into books and comics and loved reading about ancient or tribal cultures.

That actually made my transition into the Army pretty easy. I already had a belief system based on a system of honor. So, I thought I had found my people in the military. Unfortunately, that was not the majority position in the Army. They will talk about honor, loyalty and integrity, but only as a system of control, too often, the leaders didn’t possess those qualities themselves.

That doesn’t mane it was all negative, I did gain a good sense of self. Finding something I was good at that others wouldn’t do gave me a sense of pride. I enjoyed pushing myself. Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it and I think how we suffer shows who we really are. Despite being messed with, I didn’t become a bully when I became strong. It made me want to protect the weak more. Too many leaders treated me poorly, so when I gained rank, I tried to be the leader I needed instead of following in SSG Thibodaux or SGT Berklund’s footsteps and treating my troops like shit.

What I lost from my service

What I lost was the connection to the people of my country. I love my country, and despite its history and flaws, I think it is pretty great. But I don’t feel connected to the people I thought I was protecting. It isn’t the major stuff; it is little things. Like when I see someone undercut a colleague it makes me not trust them. I know, intellectually, that “throwing someone under the bus” is not a big thing in the civilian world. It is a way to get ahead. But in the military, we call them a Blue Falcon and that is lowest form of life.

I believe that if you can’t be trusted with the little things, you can’t be trusted with the big things. The piece of shit soldier won’t suddenly rise to the challenge when bullets are flying. Anyone that says, “I’ll do the right thing when it matters” is either fooling themselves or lying to you. I know I the business world that lives are rarely on the line, but I have difficulty working with the kind of person that would get us all killed.

It is also difficult to relate to some civilians. Especially when it comes to stress or suffering. The military is long periods of boredom broken up with very short periods of chaos. So seeing people stressing out over something they have no control over it funny. But the problem is that civilians don’t think I’m taking things seriously. I had a boss that would get mad that I wasn’t stressing over a project. Or I wasn’t working on a bigger project with a looming deadline. My reasons were simple.

  • I wanted to get project X off my desk so I could focus on project Y.
  • Project Y will only take four hours to do.
  • Project Y is due Tuesday
  • Today is Friday
  • The Tuesday deadline is an arbitrary one we made up, the client doesn’t expect it anytime soon
  • Under no circumstances will anyone die or be injured regardless of the outcome.

That boss always hated me for stuff like that. He would also constantly move back the deadlines showing that they truly didn’t matter. He would say we needed more time work on it even after I would clarify that it was only a couple hours of work and I had two days to do it. That whole office was wound too tight as a reflection of his management.

Initiation rites

Moving on, my most important initiation, to me, rite was getting my Airborne Wings presented to me by a man who jumped into Normandy. He punched my wings into my chest and it was a proud moment for me. I was welcomed into the Airborne Corps by one of the founding members.  I didn’t have much in the way of hazing. Only one incident stands out.

So there I was, at Fort Knox… no shit. We were in the motor pool doing command maintenance. Just like 90 percent of the vehicles in the military that week, none of our tracks had moved sine the last maintenance day. Per usual, when soldiers get bored, shenanigans ensue.

I never went through any Army driver training , my squad leader just pencil whipped our licenses so I didn’t really know how to do a proper Prevent Maintenance Checks and Services (PMCS). So, when Sal offered me tips to better checks I went along with it. He crawled on the ground and tapped a spot in the armor and then another and marked the second.

Yes, he helped me find “soft spots” in the armor.

“Here, you try,” he said handing me the hammer.

I tapped one spot, sounded like his first tap. When I tapped another spot, my critical thinking kicked in. Something didn’t feel right. When I looked over to the rest of the section they started laughing. I wasn’t embarrassed, Sal got me good and I can laugh at myself. I don’t think I would have fallen for it if his delivery wasn’t so good. I’m glad I wasn’t the trooped that marked up an entire vehicle without every figuring it out.

That was the good-natured stuff you do to welcome a kid into the platoon. Everyone gets fooled at some point, that was just my turn. What I never understood is intentionally segregating members of your unit. Unfortunately, it is a commo theme in my life. I was never one of the “cool kids.” It doesn’t bother me that some people feel the need to feel “cool” or better than other people. That is usually more about their own insecurities than the quality of the excluded. What does bother me is when it is done to the detriment to the unit.

Infantry training in one of the few trainings in the Army that is all done at the same location. We do basic training and our Infantry AIT in the same barracks, the same drill sergeants, everything. So there I was, at Fort Benning…no shit; a few trainees started calling themselves the Motivated Privates. It was like their own little gang inside a basic training bay. What they missed is that we were supposed to all be part of one unit and not be separated.

This cub was a popularity contest based on who they thought were “cool” and had nothing to do with ability. Like many that judge who is cool and who is not, they favored those they thought were worthy and undercut those that they determined were not. They were literally Blue Falcons to their fellow soldiers.

I was 22-years-old in basic. While today I think of the maturity difference between 18 and 22 to be negligible, at that time, in that environment it seemed to be a great divide. I just wanted to do my job and get to my unit, but they insisted on messing with me. These BFs told the drill sergeants I cheated on the final PT run. Not because they thought I had or had any evidence, but because I got the fastest time and how could an unmotivated private beat a motivated one? I think one of the MPs, as thy called themselves, was booted out for being lackluster and another was recycled because he couldn’t qualify with his rifle. They might have been motivated, but they sucked as soldiers. That is what happens with you put popularity over ability.

Receiving a new name

Being called Sessum was a good way to help the enculturation process. It separated me from the civilian me in the known world and helped establish me in the new, unknown world. But it didn’t hold any particular significance that I can think of. It most likely had an effect that I didn’t notice.

I nth military, your rank becomes part of your name and identity. So being Sergeant Sessum had a significant impact. I loved the responsibility of leadership, not the power. I felt it was an opportunity to improve my little corner of the Army rather than react to it. I tried to mentor young soldiers and it felt good to me that soldiers form other teams would often come to me for guidance. It meant I had eared their respect, but it also meant that they had lost confidence in their own leaders. Something I never wanted to do. The respect of my subordinates was paramount to me. This doesn’t mean I was the “fun” sergeant. I was kind of a hard case, one of the “hard but fair” knuckleheads. Looking back, I did okay, but I could have used better mentors and a little more maturity to reach my full potential as a leader.

The renaming that most stuck with me was being renamed “Tim.” There was a medic in Germany that didn’t like to use last names but never knew what my first name was so he just started calling me Tim. I knew he was referring to me, so I went along with it. After a couple weeks I asked him why Tim, he said it was because I looked like a Tim to him. I said he looked like a “Joey” so for the rest of my time there we were Tim and Joey.

Beard lunch

“Tim” on a village visit in “somewhere” Afghanistan.

That would have been the end of it, but when I deployed as PSYOP they said we had to wear sterilized uniforms and go by first names or nicknames for OPSEC. I told my team that I would answer to Tim so that is who I became. Psychologically, it made it easier to be overseas as Tim than as my true self. When I was later hired to work on a counter narcotics program in Kandahar, I went back to using Tim. Again, for the sake of security, but also because my contacts there knew me only as Tim.

Crossing the threshold into the military was an interesting process. I knew I was in a different world as soon as I signed my final contract at MEPS. We were sworn in and waiting to be taken to the hotels to fly out to basic training the next day. I had been on “official” soldier for all of two minutes when a solider at the recruiting station yelled at me to take my cover off. It seemed a little extreme to me to yell at someone over something so small. Also, it is good to inform a person of a standard before you chastise them for failing to follow that standard.

The joining the military hero’s journey was not the one that made things the most difficult. I think I ultimately rejoined the civilian, or known world easily. I feel like I was able to rejoin the civilian world easily. That is because my first discharge was prior to 9/11. I think starting another journey of going overseas was the return that was much more difficult.

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Hero’s Journey Home Step 2: The Beginning

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The progression of the hero’s journey in movies and myths. Hopefully, for the vet it ends at home.

By: Peter Sessum

There is a feeling of déjà vu as I write this because I initially started the Hero’s Journey program two years ago. Unfortunately, at the time, life got in the way. I was able to complete all 12 weeks, but I didn’t keep up on the chronicling the journey. Unfortunately, now, I am not working and have the time to do another cycle of it. Which, when you think about it, is in line with what Joseph Campbell said about the hero’s journey.

I am in a different place in my life, in just about every way, now versus the last time I did this. Like any form of therapy, I believe it is good to revisit to see if you can glean something new or apply a lesson in your life that didn’t apply the last time. So, let’s get right to it.

Each week there is a reading and some reflection questions. This week’s questions are:

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Where did you enlist?
  3. Why did you join the service?
  4. What was your dream for your life after the service?
  5. What was most surprising to you about your service?
  6. From your perspective now, what would you say to your younger you about to join the service?
  7. Write a one-page story about your joining the service using some of the questions above.

Okay, so the last one isn’t a question, but here goes.

I grew up in a small town just north of Seattle, Wash. I was the youngest of four, and instead of being treated like the baby of the family, and all the benefits that come from it, I was kind of invisible. My oldest siblings were so challenging for my mother and step-father that the third child was a dream. They put all their eggs in her basket and I was left to fend for myself. This was also the time before ADD was a thing so you were just considered a bad student. I dropped out and kind of drifted. When I turned 18, my mother kicked me out.

One night, a couple years later, I was awake in bed thinking of what I was going to do with my life. I was a high school dropout, working minimum wage jobs and no better prospects in sight. Like many others, I had bought into the myth of college being challenging so I didn’t even consider it. I knew I wanted more, but didn’t know how to get it. The next day, a recruiter handed me his card.

I think, to this day, that had he handed it to me weeks earlier I would have ignored it. But based on my contemplation the night before, I thought I would give it a try. Needless to say, my feminist mother and hippy step father were not impressed when I arrived at their house with a man in uniform to pick up my birth certificate. As a kid I wasn’t even allowed to play with toy guns and had to smuggle GI Joes I bought with my allowance money into my bedroom. I’m sure they thought of military service as a form of rebellion, but really it was an opportunity to shake things up in my life. In the post Cold War – pre GWOT window the military seemed like a thing you could do to figure yourself out.

I think what was most surprising, and most disappointing, was how hypocritical the Army was. The people that most talked about honor and integrity had none of their own, but would hold you to the standard they pretended to adhere to. I arrived at basic training with a strong honor belief system. We were mixed race kids in my family and since my mother and step father were both white, we each had to find our own identity. I dove into books and reading about ancient cultures and their systems of honor really spoke to me. So I found a home in the military, or so I thought. As much as they talk about it, the Army really doesn’t care about honor and loyalty. As long as you don’t do anything to get your fellow troops killed, your moral character doesn’t matter.

If I could talk to my younger self, I would advise him to not tell that asshole Marine recruiter to fuck off. Or maybe still tell him to fuck off, but find another recruiter and join the Marines. I think their adherence to traditions would have been a better fit for me at the time. Looking back, I would have been that moto Marine dumbass, but I might have been happier. Or I would have told that little fucker to volunteer for Ranger Indoctrination Program right after Airborne School instead of going home on leave.

Overall, joining the Army was a good choice for me. In the Campbell narrative, receiving the recruiter’s card was my “call to adventure” and the start of my hero’s journey.

And since I know this needs clarification, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t necessarily mean someone that does heroic deeds, it is using the definition of hero to mean the protagonist. You are the protagonist in your own story, even if you don’t feel heroic. I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on myself, and while I do not feel heroic, I feel I have a pretty good grasp of who I am. If life was the movie Die Hard, I am Sgt Al Powell, not John McClane and I’m okay with that.

Up Next: Step Three: Crossing the Threshold, The Call to Adventure

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Three Guiding Principles of Enlisted Leadership

By: Peter Sessum

Photo: three soldiers on top of a mechanized mortar vehicles.

My first squad, mechanized mortars. SGT Brennamen (right) was one of my top 3 worst squad leaders.

I’ll bet if you put the authors of books on military leadership in one room you would get a bunch of former field grade officers jacking each other off about how great they are. Every book on military leadership I have read was some officer patting himself on the back when really all most ever did was get out of the way of their NCOs. Honestly, military leadership, as well as in the civilian world, isn’t that difficult, just follow a few simple guiding principles.

Inept leaders always say they have inept soldiers

Have you ever noticed that the worst leaders always seem to have the worst soldiers? Whenever you hear someone in a leadership position say their have crappy soldiers, know that it is the leader’s fault. There are so few “lost causes” in life, especially in the military. Anyone that can’t get the most out of a subordinate, or thinks their subordinates are substandard is lacking in good leadership.

If you were to ask my former team/squad leaders you would find a mix of reviews. Some, the ones that were recognized as good leaders, would say I was a great troop. The ones that everyone hated and thought were pieces of shit would say I was a poor soldier. There is a direct relationship between the leadership soldiers receive and what kind of soldier they are.

SGT. Brennamen was my first squad leader. He was one of those NCOs that constantly contradicted themselves. If you ever say, “I thought…” he would interrupt and tell you not to think. Then later, he would yell at you for not thinking. It was like the movie Office Space, you would work just hard enough to not get yelled at. His squad would never take initiative and would wait for orders even when they knew what needed to be done.

Compare that to (then) CPL Tieman. Everything got done without him having to say a word. His squad was always one step ahead of him. On a Hohenfels field rotation it became a game for him to try and actually give us an order. He would come back from a briefing and give us a list of tasks and we would respond, “done, done, working on that now.” In the end, we had to leave one easy thing undone for him to notice and tell us to do it. For us, it really wasn’t a competition, it was just having fun among the team. This was his first field exercise as a mortar squad leader, and at the conclusion he was selected from the platoon to receive recognition from the battalion commander. He later told me that he didn’t deserve it because he didn’t do any work, that I made him look good. That was enough for me, as long as my supervisor recognizes my hard work, I’m good. I don’t need the big man to know my name.

If you ask the two, what kind of soldier I am, Brenamen would say I sucked, Tieman might say I was squared away. Tieman went on to a successful career, last I heard Brennamen was in jail for stealing military computers and got caught by bringing them into a computer repair store to be fixed.

Attitude reflects leadership, not the other way around

When I hear a solider has a bad attitude, I always look to their leadership. More importantly, when I hear a sergeant say his troop has a poor attitude, I always suspect the sergeant’s leadership style. Bad attitudes rarely come put of nowhere. Unless that soldier is short-timing, there is a reason they have an attitude. If you think your soldier has a poor attitude, and when they move to a different team that NCO loves them, you need to check yourself. The problem might be you. This guideline is also universal when it comes to morale. Whether in the military or civilian world, anytime there is low morale, it is always directly connected to leadership. Even in high performing teams, if they are not happy it is because the leadership is doing something wrong. Teams that perform well but have low morale are often afraid of their leadership. Unfortunately, far too many leaders equate positive results with good leadership.

This also means that when they see poor results, they think it is due to poor performers and not poor leadership. There is no one size fits all style of leadership. Even within the same team, different soldiers respond to different leadership styles. Some need more accountability and others need a free hand. Micromanage some, and you will only get exactly what you ask for. Give them top cover and a free hand and they might impress you.

The one thing most successful thing I did as a squad leader was to ask, “what do you think?” Privates, especially in that platoon, were not used to being asked what they thought. This was in direct conflict to what I was taught, but it yielded great results. They stopped coming to me with problems they could solve, they just fixed it.

I had a soldier that was considered a shitbag by the platoon. My platoon sergeant even said he wanted five minutes alone with that kid with a baseball bat. Six months later, that same platoon sergeant made me sit down and put that kid in for an award. My time in the Army up until then taught me to keep a shitbag constantly under your thumb. Instead, I put him in charge when I was away. He got to see it from the other side and it is better to give a PFC pride in a job well done rather than feeling like a shitbag every day. Unlike officers writing about military leadership, I understood the best way to help the kid was to get out of his way and let him turn himself around. He went on to a successful military career because he was given the opportunity to succeed.

The more rank and position you have, the more people you work for

Captain Kolb said those words in his change of command speech. Those words have stuck with me. If there is any justice in the world, he became a general. That view totally changes how many would view their subordinates.

photo: four soldiers by a mortar tube. One hold a mortar round.

81 mm mortar squad. My first leadership position. Smitty doing the thing he does in the back. There is always one.

In a mounted/mechanized team, the driver is responsible for the vehicle. That is it. If the vehicle is good to go, he is done. But it is the leader’s job to make sure that soldier is taken care of. Leave, pay, awards, punishments, promotions, etc. If the leader sees him/herself as working for their soldiers, they are more likely to take care of their soldiers. When you think of soldiers as working for you, they become resources for your own selfish needs and not careers to be cultivated. They also become interchangeable and disposable which makes the previous two guiding principles come into play.

This also doesn’t work if you only do this with a select few. Cultivating the careers of your favorite doesn’t make you a good leader. If you can’t get the best out of everyone, or at least put in your full effort, then you are still a shitty leader. Which brings us to another good point.

Just because it is working for you don’t mean it is working

Not necessarily a guiding principle of leadership, but something for everyone to keep in mind. There is usually one that is happy on an otherwise unhappy team. They are the favorite. Of course, they think things are going great. Just like rich kids, with old money, they think that everyone can succeed if they only applied themselves. They totally neglect to factor in the advantages they have. It is easier to think that you are getting ahead because of your own abilities than the favor of another.

There is nothing wrong with being a favorite. Someone has to be. It is just a blue falcon move to not recognize that fact and use your favor to help your fellow troop. Trust me, no one is mad that you are the favorite, they are mad that you being the favorite is screwing them. Giving un-earned rewards to the favorite and overlooking the hard work of others is a shitty leadership thing to do.

Unfortunately, they never write about that kind of thing in books on military leadership. Have you ever noticed that the books are really just long pats on the back? They never talk about the soldiers they failed, just how successful they are. Sometimes they mention a setback, but only as a plot device to demonstrate how awesomely they overcame the situation.

I wish I could do that. But I have to admit I failed a soldier. I was more old school and he was a young kid that I thought wanted to be coddled. If you smoked him for screwing up he would complain that he was a person and shouldn’t be treated that way. I don’t think the embraced how the Infantry worked. I wasn’t able to get the best out of him. That isn’t to say I didn’t try, but nothing I tried worked. I was only his squad leader for a few months but I guess someone got a hold of him that was able to speak his language because he went on to make rank and become a sergeant. Unlike the other writers of military leadership, I can’t claim to be perfect.

If you ever meet an author on military leadership, ask him about these guiding principles. If they don’t know anything about them, don’t buy the book. It is just going to be a couple hundred pages of a former officer stroking his own ego. I, for one, saw enough of that in the Army, I don’t need to pay for it now.

 

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Sometimes the Military Does Some Good: Healing Over Hurting

Sometimes the Military Does Some Good: Healing Over Hurting

DSC01244

Captain Geise, through an interpreter, sees an Afghan at the temporary aid clinic.

By Peter Sessum

Hollywood loves a good war movie. They focus on invasions or combat, but the reconstruction doesn’t make the box office, or headlines. Like many other vets, I can name a number of soldiers, units and commanders that set back the reconstruction efforts. But people like (then) Captain John Geise were doing a lot of good.

– Sometimes the Military Does Some Good –

So there I was, in Kandahar…no shit. For a few months of my tour I was part of a group trying out the “Team Village” concept. The idea was to would send out Civil Affairs (CA), Psychological Operations (PSYOP) and Counter Intelligence (CI) to visit villages in the area and talk to the locals. In a meeting with village elders, the team would conduct an assessment of the village and its demographics.

CA would compare the number of villagers to the number of wells and decide how many they would have to dig to reach their target ratio. They would also want to know how many school age children and look at the schools to see if the buildings needed repair.

PSYOP would be finding out how the village got their information and distribute radios and PSYOP product. We would also have our loudspeakers blast messages to the village during our visit. One PSYOP soldier would stay out of the meeting to conduct PSYOP product analysis. In other words, making sure the leaflet or poster made sense to the locals. It is mildly embarrassing how ineffective our products were.

– When Hearts and Minds Fail: The Infamous Matchbooks –

We didn’t have CI on the team, but we did do passive intel gathering. If the number of people went up, then people were moving in. Depending on their tribal affiliation, it could mean that the Taliban was staging a force in the area or that members of a minority tribe felt safe to return. Our route took us to roughly 300 villages every 45 days.

We filled out daily reports, but once a week we would identify the village with the most need we had visited that week. That village would get a second visit, and this time we would bring the docs. The medical team trusted us to tell them where to go and they would do the rest.

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Team Village with the medics. The Afghan National Army was just starting up and would go to the villages for recruitment.

There was a little coordination that went into it. We had to get out early, before the people were out in the fields or it got too hot. We had to line up our vehicles, go to the Romanian compound to pick up their nurse, then grab the interpreters. Geise was in charge of the mission and before we would roll out he would give the same speech.

“If you think someone is faking, it is because they are. Don’t get mad, just carefully explain how much medication to take for the symptoms they are claiming and give them what they need. I brought plenty of extra just for this reason, we won’t run out.”

Sometimes, in America, we take our access to resources for granted. If my child has an upset stomach, I can find something in a couple rooms in our home. If there isn’t any, a bottle of Pepto is minutes away at probably a dozen places less than a mile away. There are no drugstores in rural Afghanistan. Some villages had not seen a doctor in years and have no access to over the counter medications. So when we would tell the village elders that we were setting up an aid clinic for the day, everyone in the village showed up. Each person in a household had a different “ailment” looking for treatment.

For security purposes, Geise limited us to two hours on the ground. That line of medics had a sense of purpose I had never seen in a battalion aid station. Some villages were lucky enough to get an optometrist, veterinarian or dentist to tag along for the day. Getting your first set of glasses at 50 years old would be a life changing experience. The eye doc would do an examination and we would deliver the glasses on our next time through the village.

It wasn’t without challenges. The Romanian nurse didn’t speak English and our interpreters didn’t speak Romanian. She was also part of the female treatment team and all our interpreters were male. So Sweet, who was a doctor in Afghanistan before taking the more lucrative job of interpreter, would sit outside the door and listen to the Afghan woman. He would translate that into English for a female Romanian officer, who would translate that into Romanian for the nurse. Questions and answers would go back and forth like that. Until each woman was treated.

Soldier gives an Afghan child his first stuffed animal.

Introducing an Afghan kid to Beanie Babies. Team Village was a collection point for donations from the U.S. I did the math and figured I passed out about 1,000 stuffed animals to Afghan children.

Kids would get vaccinated and families would have medicine for the next time someone got sick. Occasionally, a person even got treated for an actual ailment. Before rolling out we would drop off humanitarian assistance and pass out stuffed animals and school supplies that were donated from the states.

In the six months I was with those medical missions we never took a fire. We did it without ever getting into contact. Those days also did more to combat the Taliban’s message than just about else the Team Village was doing. Who would you trust? The person holding a gun to your head or the one that would show up with docs and help your village and ask for nothing in return?

I don’t know how much official recognition Geise received, but those missions made a difference. This is one of those times when you leave a legacy, the people will remember your actions but never know your name.

That time later gave me some comfort in college. Anyone on campus critical of President Bush or the war would transfer their hatred to us veterans. I would ignore them knowing I did more for my fellow human than those entitled brats. It still feels good to have done some good.

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