My Sept. 11 Story

The Army’s Facebook page asked people who joined after Sept. 11, 2001, to share their stories today, and it struck me that while it’s a story I’ve shared with several people, I don’t think I’ve ever written it down. So when I got home tonight, late after a long day of preparing my boss’ Sept. 11 remarks and preparing strategic communications for the newly-energized hurricane season, I thought I’d try to share the story of how that day turned my life around and led to where I am today.

So, before I begin, it’s important to set the scene. My dalliances with the U.S. Army were many and varied before I finally signed a contract. My grandfathers were both veterans of World War II and Korea with Bronze Stars. My dad spent four years in the Pentagon and left as a Specialist 5 and a Bronze Star. I didn’t know it then, but I’ve got a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolution. But here are the results of my initial shots with the Army:

  1. Tried to get into West Point my senior year despite being a mediocre, yet really smart, student. Secured a senatorial nomination, fell short by an unspecified number of pull-ups.
  2. Earned an ROTC scholarship for college. It didn’t pay for my freshman year. At the end of my freshman year, they closed the program at UTC. Instead of taking it elsewhere – WHICH I COULD HAVE DONE – I gave it up to stay at UTC because I was convinced I had a future in sportswriting.
  3. Went to a recruiter my fourth year in college to look into being a pilot (flight warrant officer) after graduation. Never followed up during my fourth or fifth years.

So there’s all of that. Then I graduated on Aug. 13, 2001. I think most people who knew me thought it was a miracle. I know I took my sweet time. And taking that time had me graduating into what was kind of a crap economy. The jobs weren’t plentiful, and I, honestly, didn’t do the things you’re supposed to do in college to set yourself up for the future. So I kept on bartending and scouring the classified ads to find something that would get me out of the late-night grind and into a job that would pay enough to handle my student loans – taken because I’d given up a great scholarship – and put a roof over my head. That’s where I was on Sept. 9, 2001.

That was a Sunday. I don’t remember every detail, but I remember I was driving along I-24 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, from my apartment in Red Bank to my job at the Chattanooga Billiards Club. I was talking on the phone with my dad; there was no hands-free option, and we didn’t care back then.

He decided that was the day to broach the idea of me joining the Army again. He told me it was a good job. As a college graduate, they’d make me an E-4 – SPECIALIST! – and the pay would bump about $250 in 2002. He told me they’d pay off my $25,000 in student loans, which seemed insurmountable at the time. He told me they had journalist jobs. That’s what I’d been going to school for!

It seemed like a decent idea. Five years, experience, loans covered. Not bad. I told Dad that I’d go talk to a recruiter on Tuesday.

Sept. 9, 2001, was a Sunday. I told my dad I’d talk to a recruiter Tuesday. Now let’s fast forward about 48 hours.

At the time, I had a girlfriend. We were having issues. In fact, we were broken up. LAter, we were together again. Eventually, we went our separate ways. But for some reason, we stayed together the night of Sept. 10. 

We woke up to her phone ringing. Off the hook. Several times. I remember being hung over. Finally, I told her to answer the phone. Then I remember her saying “BABY, TURN ON THE TV!”

So I did. We watched the North Tower smoking. My first thought was “What the fuck?” I remembered the original attempt at destroying the World Trade Center in 1993, but at the moment all I knew was a plane somehow crashed into the WTC. Then, within minutes (I think), we saw the second plane crash into the South Tower. Any doubts were instantly erased. We watched it. My mind raced. I knew what I’d told my dad. I was incredibly conflicted. 

At some point, because she knew, she asked me if I was still going to the recruiter that day. In the moment, I only had one answer:

“I kinda have to.”

Here were my thoughts in that moment: What kind of man would I be if I told my dad I would go today, and then failed to do it when this happens? Could I look myself in the mirror if I did that? Fuuuuuuuuuuck.

So she went to class, and I headed to my apartment. I listened to the radio. I remember how weird it was that there were no planes in the sky. I got home. I watched and/or heard about the plane at the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed in Shanksville. I watched – this I’m certain of – both towers crash to the ground as I got ready for the day. It was a day that went from “I told my dad I’d talk to a recruiter, but really, who cares if I get around to that?” to a day in which I only had one thing to do: Go to the recruiter.

So I finished getting myself ready and, doubting whether anyone would answer, I called the recruiter in Hixson:

Me: “Hi, I don’t want you all to think I’m crazy, but I was wondering if you’re open today and if I can talk to you about joining the Army? I was planning to come in today. Are you open?”

Them: “We’re open. Come on in.”

Now we go long story short. I went in. We talked. I decided to go after it. On Oct. 1, I signed my contract. On Nov. 7, I reported to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I did it all: two tours in Iraq, garrison duty, joining in humanitarian assistance efforts after Hurricane Rita. I left active duty, and 10 years later I continue serving in the Army Reserve. As a civilian, I’ve become a trusted advisor on strategic issues that affect where our military is going in the future.

Sept. 11 changed my life. I’ve said that before. But remember, I called that recruiter because I didn’t want to let my dad down. It was absolutely the best decision I’ve ever made, but I wouldn’t call it the bravest. Everything I have in this world – my family, my career, my passions – came from that decision.

I’m not a hero, but I’m part of the post-Sept. 11 generation.  Now I’m a relatively senior leader of Soldiers. We should all share our stories.

Posted in America, Army, History | 2 Comments

An Open Letter to USAA

Dear USAA,

It’s not me, it’s you.

I know, you “know what it means to serve.” You tell us that all the time on your advertisements, on which I’m certain you spend a lot of money to ensure you’re corporate sponsors of the worst professional sports league on the planet. I bought in for a long time, especially given how your advertising capitalizes on how generations benefit from the service of their forefathers.

My mom, who earned her membership because her father fought in World War II and Korea, talked to me about USAA insurance pretty much as long as I knew how to turn a steering wheel. I mostly ignored her, because my stepmom and dad took care of my insurance when I was young. When I joined the Army, I did what all good junior enlisted Soldiers do and bought a new car ( don’t get excited; it was a 2002 Dodge Neon, soon to be dubbed “the Fratmobile”).  I called my current insurance – Allstate – for a quote. They wanted me to pay about $350 a month.

I was an E4. That was about a quarter of what I made after taxes. I panicked. Mom said, “Call USAA.”

You saved me. You got me down to about $100 a month. I survived and thrived over 17 years. I added my wife to my policy. For all of those 17 years, we got one ticket. I performed a really bad rolling stop and was properly ticketed by the police officer on enhanced patrol. What are you going to do? I paid it.

But that wasn’t the problem. Last fall, my wife got inadvertently winged by an ambulance. Not her fault – they had an unsecured equipment door that swung open as she got out of the way, and it put a nasty gash in the side of her brand-new van. We waited months for you to work it out so we could get the van fixed. Your best answer was, “get it fixed, pay the deductible, and we’ll figure it out.”

Those months got us to the holidays, and I had time to do some research. I ran a quote on GEICO, and they could save us a lot of money – hundreds of dollars every six months. But I still held on and gave you a chance. Then I had to practically yell at someone, “I WILL SWITCH TO GEICO IF YOU DON’T FIX OUR VAN!” in order for you to make the phone calls to get the ambulance’s insurance company to pay its share.

That was a pain in my butt, but I stayed on. A month later, I bought a new truck, and watched as our insurance went up again, to almost $1,200 every six months. I thought, “What the actual hell?” And I decided I’d see what’s out there after talking to a lot of GEICO members.

What was out there, according to the web estimate, was about $800 a year for the same policy; GEICO’s quote was $400 less every six months than the “We know what it means to serve” charlatans I’d been throwing money at for 17 years.

How could this be? I compared the two policies several times. I called you, and the best you could do was, “Well, you had that one ticket, and sometimes GEICO raises their rates after you start paying.”

Which, honestly, smelled like bullshit. So I hung up politely and called them. They underwrote the policy on the phone. The savings went down to $350 ever six months, which still comes out to about what I pay for water every year. We locked it in, and I’m done.

Which leaves me a little sad. Even though I didn’t activate my policy until after I’d enlisted, I’m one of those “legacy” types that all your ads brag about. I didn’t earn my membership invading Iraq in 2003; my grandfather earned it fighting in Europe and Korea long before my mother was born.

So shut up and stop with that crap. Because it’s fake, and it’s you spending money you don’t have to on advertising in a pathetic attempt to drive up revenue that you’re already stealing from your members. I was one of your biggest advocates. I told every Soldier I could how great you were, and now I intend to do the opposite.

Think about all that money you’re spending; then think about all the senior personnel (yeah, I’m one of those) who’ve had experiences similar to mine. Think about what they’re telling their Soldier, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines. Think about it. Now ask yourself, “what’s more important, and ad on Sunday, or the good word of mouth we get from people who have real influence.” Because I’ll tell you the truth – which feels sacrilegious to a guy who grew up thinking USAA was a weird bumper stick on Grandpa’s car – you get a lot more done not alienating your core audience.

I’m a 17-year member, and the fact that GEICO can save me more than twice what it advertises for no reason at all – on a family with one moving violation in two decades – makes me think I need a homeowners insurance quote as well.

And maybe a new bank.

P.S.: I don’t care who’s in charge; when you’re draping yourself in the flag while carrying the NFL’s water, just stop.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Track Your Money!!!

Some of my friends like to give me a hard time because I watch my bank accounts like a hawk, even going so far as to keep a personal balance sheet in an age where almost every transaction posts immediately. I’m glad I do, and here’s why:

Just 30 minutes ago, I was sitting on the deck, bored, and clicked into my USAA app. I immediately noticed that my checking account was significantly lower than I expected it to be. I looked, and there was a random charge from for $140.99. I don’t go to; Melissa Boyer doesn’t generally even go to WalMart the store. I asked her if maybe she’d gone to the website and bought something and forgotten to put it on the balance sheet; she said no. Uh-oh.

I called USAA right away. They told me someone had used my debit card from Arizona. I told them I haven’t set foot in Arizona since 2013. Within about 20 minutes, they cancelled the charge – telling me I’d get my money back within a few days – and had a new card on the way after I assured them there were no outstanding charges on the account. Fantastic customer service.

I say all this because sometime this week, I saw something making the Facebook rounds about how a veteran had her entire savings account drained before she noticed anything, because a thief got her information and USAA was honoring charges in the absence of a complaint, shifting money from savings to checking every time in line with the way her accounts were set up. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars. Now a whole investigation is needed and she’s upset.

I’m not going to put anyone on the spot, but if you monitor your accounts, that kind of crap isn’t necessary. Someone likely stole my information somehow. I’m careful, so I’m not sure when it happened. But the moment I noticed something weird, I called my bank and they fixed it. We live in an era where most of us have apps on the phones in our pockets that make it ridiculously simple to check in and make sure our financial houses are in order.

Basically, if you’re more worried about your Candy Crush score than you are about paying attention to your money, you get what you deserve.

Posted in Life, Money | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Murica! The Column

Two hundred thirty-nine years ago on July 4, our founding fathers signed and delivered a document declaring the 13 colonies to be free from British rule.

On that same day 227 years later, Army Spc. Jake Boyer, a young public affairs specialist, was on a convoy from Baghdad to Fallujah. It was kind of a bummer. I woke up that morning in one of the Green Zone’s occupied McMansions. I was photographing and writing about an engineer unit that was going to have a great party in the pool that came with the McMansion later that day. It’s weird to think about it now in light of everything that came after, but things were still pretty good in Iraq that summer. Going from Baghdad to Fallujah didn’t carry the nasty connotations that it did later; I just wasn’t sure if the engineers I was going to link up with in Fallujah had a pool.

When I arrived in Fallujah, I realized that I needn’t have worried. There wasn’t a pool, but there was plenty of party for those who weren’t on patrol. A firefighting unit had set up a kind of “tug of war” in which they were using conflicting fire hoses to push a cooler back and forth along a line it was attached to. The familiar smell of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers filled the air. Everyone in sight smiled and laughed, celebrating 227 years of the United States’ independence.

There are all kinds of things to ponder on Independence Day: the founding fathers who bravely put their names to paper and started an experiment we continue to tinker with today, the brave men and women who have fought and died for this country from that day forward, fireworks, apple pie, baseball; the list is endless. But I always think about that day in Fallujah and how important it is to celebrate this great country if you have the opportunity. If a bunch of Soldiers on a deployment to a hot, arid land for an indeterminate amount of time can let their buzz cuts down and enjoy the day, than so should the rest of us.

America is a lot of things to me. It’s those things I already mentioned. It’s the promise of a land where we’re all judged by our merits, not any number of easy discriminators. It’s holding on through a hot baseball game hoping something great happens in the ninth. It’s loading up the car and heading on a cross-country trek not having any idea of the beauty and wonder you’ll see along the way, especially the first time. It is all of those things and more, and it all started 239 years ago. It continues to be defended by brave men and women deployed all over the world, likely doing something to mark the day, whether they’re in Kabul, Camp Zama or Baghdad. Let’s make sure we all spare them a thought Saturday, and hope they at least have a pool.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally prepared for and also appeared on the Defense Logistics Agency’s website under the title “America! The Column.”

Posted in America, Army, Humor, Iraq, Murica, Operation Iraqi Freedom | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Same-sex marriage decision impacts more than those allowed to marry

I was a very young man when I first realized my mother was in love with the woman that she, my brother and I were spending a lot of time with. It was the late 80s, and I could still count my age on two hands. I have a distinct memory of hearing the word lesbian for the first time and assuming it was some kind of alien.

Those of us who were there – even if we were still in elementary school – likely remember that time period as not a very good one for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Society was still wrapping its collective head around AIDS being more than a “gay disease.” Ellen DeGeneres was a standup comedian still more than a decade away from coming out on her nationally televised sitcom. I remember my immediate reaction to learning my mom’s secret and later talking to her about it being one of accepting love but public shame; I was terrified of what would happen if someone found out my mom loved women.

I spent years of my life keeping my mom’s secret as my secret, even flatly denying it when my dad pointed it out to me while I was in middle school. My dad, being my dad, was telling me a truth I still wasn’t ready to fully grasp, a truth I’d already discussed with my mom, and my natural reaction was “That’s not true.”

A couple years later, I lived at Mom’s house here in Northern Virginia. At the time, she was living with her girlfriend, and I got to be really OK with all that entailed, lucky enough to be in a loving household no matter which parent’s roof I lived under. But even at that, my fear that others would know remained. Kids in the neighborhood knew, and teenagers being teenagers, I suffered plenty of insults related to Mom’s sexual orientation. I still had that public shame, and I guarded the secret fiercely when I could.

After the Supreme Court decided June 26 that same-sex couples had the right to marry nationwide, I posted a message of support for my mom and all the LGBT people in my family and circle of friends. Several good friends of mine from the high school I attended when I lived with Dad told me they never knew my mom was a lesbian; it hammered home how much that shame kept me from sharing something important about my life even with people I was close to.

Even as an adult, a period during which I’ve befriended many amazing LGBT people all across that spectrum, I’ve swung like a pendulum on oversharing that information and keeping it close to the vest. When do I tell a girlfriend? Will she think it’s weird and go away? These are questions I asked myself even after I started dating my wife.

Why was I feeling that shame? If I was proud of my mother and loved her unconditionally – I was and I did – why did I care if my friends knew she was at a gay pride parade? Society itself, back then and even now, has looked down on LGBT people and treated them as different. I know the bullying that came from just being the child of a gay woman; I can’t imagine what it’s like for an LGBT person.

That’s why moments like the Supreme Court’s decision matter. As someone who has been closely attuned to the issues LGBT folks face throughout my life, I have been constantly amazed by the progress that has been made over the past three decades, from allowing gay men and women to serve openly in defense of our nation to the first states allowing same-sex marriage. But the decision written by five of the court’s justices floored me. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so happy to see justice come to this country I’ve loved all my life. I talked to Mom that day and tears came to my eyes.

No matter how an individual views LGBT people, our government is supposed to be open to all, and denying one group the right to have their love recognized by the state they live in flies in the face of principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. “Liberty and justice for all” is a phrase so important that it ends the pledge schoolchildren still recite throughout this country, and it means a little more now that families can be families in the eyes of the law.

Yes, this decision means a lot to the LGBT people it immediately affects, but there are ripples spreading ever outward. The acceptance that I have seen come in my lifetime inches ever forward. Kids growing up in same-sex households already don’t seem to deal with the shame I hated in myself. Pride isn’t just about parades or TV shows; it’s also about living life authentically, and a step like the one that’s been taken allows people to do just that.

Over the weekend, I thought a lot about my daughter. She’s growing up in a world that’s changed dramatically over the past 30 years. I grew up hearing about equality and the dreams of the great civil rights leaders, but at the same time my mom, my uncle, my cousins and millions of others still had a long way to go. But for my little girl, I think about how she gets to live in a world where she loves her grandma and is proud of her wherever she goes, not worrying about who knows or what she’ll have to put up with if they do. Thinking about how that will be so much different than my own experience fills my heart with joy.

A whole lot of people woke up in a better America.

Posted in Equality, Life, parenthood, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Disgusted About Ray Rice? Skip the NFL

As a man – a father, husband, son, grandson, nephew, cousin and friend to many wonderful women – I’m quite frankly disgusted with how Roger Goodell and the NFL have handled the Ray Rice situation from the start. That disgust has only grown with the past two days’ news. If Goodell and his sycophants either saw or ignored that video, it’s time for them to go.

How do fans get that point across? Remember, they need us a lot more than we need them. I love football; it’s in my blood. I love it so much that I continue pulling for a team with an owner who has never shown anything more than contempt for his customers. But I don’t really NEED football, especially not the NFL. I’m not proposing a long-term boycott, though. I’m proposing one week. This week, stop going to adjust your fantasy teams. Keep the TV off – or on some other channel – when the hype kicks up over the weekend. IGNORE THE NFL. If you’re lucky enough to have tickets, skip the game. Show the owners and leadership of this league where all their money and power comes from: the fans.

All sorts of people were outraged and disgusted with the NFL yesterday. I wonder how many of you will harness that outrage and disgust into something productive. Something that, if it gets big enough, would truly get the NFL’s attention. Instead of giving them your eyeballs and your cash for just one weekend, give your time and effort to the women in your life, or volunteer to help women who need it.

It’s just one day. I challenge any of you who were yelling and yammering about this issue yesterday to just say no to the NFL this weekend. I know I am.

Posted in Sports | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where Babies Come From

So a guy meets a girl …

Hold on, I promise that I think I’m going somewhere other than where you think I’m going.

So a guy meets a girl, and they like each other. They hang out a lot. They make out a lot. Things progress. They go to fancy dinners and fall in love. They go to beaches or mountains or wherever it is they find their bliss and fall in love.

The love grows. Sometimes it gets tested. The girl wants a moped. The guy wants a motorcycle. Whatever. They work out differences and make each other shiny. Eventually, it comes time that they may as well spend their lives together because, hey, what’s forever? So the guy buys a shiny ring. Then they move in together. They get a dog after a while, because that’s what you do. Who doesn’t love puppies? They work so great in an apartment. Then they get married.

So now the guy loves the girl and the girl loves the guy and they’re together forever and they have a puppy who’s growing like a weed. Their lease runs out and they re-sign because they like their apartment, but all the sudden the rent goes up and that sucks. They get bored one day and start looking at real estate websites. Why keep throwing all that money down that hole? They’re together, and they’re happy and in love, and why not buy a house? The dog isn’t getting any smaller and walking him all the time is getting to be a pain in the ass. Yards are great for big dogs that you don’t want to have to walk all the time, right? RIGHT?!?!?!

So they buy a house. Everyone’s happy. The dog has places to run. There’s all kinds of money to spend because all the sudden there’s all kinds of rooms to fill up with furniture. The dog poops all over the yard, but who cares? Every bathroom break isn’t a walk down several flights of stairs! Huzzah!

But wait: There’s all kinds of rooms. There’s all kinds of yard. Someone has to clean those rooms, and yard work – no matter how much the guy is starting to agree with his father’s philosophy of keeping the sticks picked up – is getting repetitive. There are only so many times that weed pulling and picking up sticks leads to a profound sense of accomplishment. They’re still weeds and sticks. Windows don’t clean themselves, do they? And who wants to keep cleaning up all this dust? You know what we need? Little people to entice to do chores in return for – what was it called? – oh yeah, an allowance.

That’s where babies come from. 😉

Posted in Humor, Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jake’s OIF War Journal 22: The Only Good Iraqi (Bat) is a Dead Iraqi (Bat)

I’ve almost hit the end of my war journal, but I realize there were about three months that I didn’t write a thing about in it, so I’ve decided that some of those stories should be shared. Some are funny, some aren’t so funny, but they’re all stuff I want to remember a long time from now, so I’ll put them in here and maybe one day when my memory’s fading I can actually find the url and read them again. Here’s the first one.

Sometime in May 2003

After the 3rd Infantry Division’s headquarters and aviation brigade settled in at Baghdad International Airport, I spent a number of weeks still attached to the aviation brigade and living in the former corporate headquarters of Iraqi Airways with the brigade’s troops. A number of specialists and sergeants lucked out and got a room on the fourth floor, which was the level on which you could find the balcony.

At the time, the building was known by two nicknames. The first, “Khobar Towers,” came when a major whose name I’ve forgotten pointed out what a great target the building would be for Iraqi RPGs in those days when we were still fighting regular Iraqi forces. You may recall that the Khobar Towers were building in Saudi Arabia that were attacked by terrorists in 1996, when a truck bomb killed 19 U.S. airmen and injured nearly 500 other people. It was an unlucky nickname.

The Hotel California, aka Khobar Towers, aka the Iraqi Airways building at Baghdad International Airport. The part of the sign that's missing there was Saddam with a rifle. My room was right behind the torn-off piece of sign. Courtesy photo

The Hotel California, aka Khobar Towers, aka the Iraqi Airways building at Baghdad International Airport. The part of the sign that’s missing there was Saddam with a rifle. My room was right behind the torn-off piece of sign. Courtesy photo

Another angle of the Hotel California, this time pre-sign teardown and when the tourism banner was up. Courtesy photo

Another angle of the Hotel California, this time pre-sign teardown and when the tourism banner was up. Courtesy photo

The second, the “Hotel California,” has an origin lost to time, but I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that we all checked in whenever we wanted and had no idea when we would actually leave. At one point, there was actually a banner proclaiming this nickname. When I returned to Iraq in 2006, “Hotel California” referred to another part of the massive Victory Base Complex that surrounded Baghdad International Airport. I’m still uncertain what went on there, but it couldn’t have been as great as whatever we got up to after missions.

Playing cards in our room at the Hotel California. Photo by me.

Playing cards in our room at the Hotel California. Photo by me.

We had it good there, especially the handful of us who ended up in a room on the balcony. We could sit out on folding chairs at night, drink water and watch Iraqi antiaircraft fire futilely try to reach up for American aircraft, only to get knocked out by that aircraft in the the Baath regime’s waning days. From the fourth floor, we commanded a pretty good view of the huge loop that brought ground vehicles to the airfield, and when we got tired of that we could hook a laptop up to a generator and watch whatever movie we were missing back home on a pirated disc someone acquired somehow.

Tom Nacey is so mad he's flipping me off with a Gerber in the Hotel California. Photo by me.

Tom Nacey is so mad he’s flipping me off with a Gerber in the Hotel California. Photo by me.

One night, I don’t really recall when, we were all sitting out on the balcony, drinking apricot brandy (that’s what I’m told it was) and telling stories. I was sitting near the door back into the room, which was also near this huge, metal sign that depicted Saddam Hussein with a rifle that dominated the front of the building. Naturally, it also shaded a good portion of our balcony. I was telling a story about something that I don’t recall, and I got to the line “And then she said …”

There was a loud thunk on the Saddam sign. something landed on my lap. I looked down and finished my sentence.


Now before you think I go around telling stories about beautiful women and bats, let me assure you this was not where the story was going. I looked down to the sight of a bat laying on my crotch, looking up at me. I instantly sprang into the air, throwing both hands down in an effort to remove this foul creature from my man parts. Everybody to a man looked and ran into the door. In hindsight, there are few things funnier than a bunch of men and women who just went through an actual all-out war running indoors at the sight of a bat.

Once we got back in the building, we looked at to see that the winged rodent had hurt itself on its inbound flight to my desert-camouflaged crotch. Its wings were flapping, but it was having a hard time getting off the linoleum. It was quickly decided that we should put it out of its misery, but who would go back on the balcony and do the deed? Obviously, it was the fault of the guy who’d had a bat land on him, and he should finish the beast off. The only problem? I didn’t want to go out on the balcony, and I really felt bad about the idea of stepping on a poor dumb bat.

“I ain’t going back out there.”

“Yeah you are. You have to do it. He landed on you.”

Much as I hated to admit it, the logic made sense, but I still didn’t know how to wrap my brain around euthanizing a bat. A paper towel! I cracked the door, leaned out and looked at the creature. Then I dropped the paper towel and promptly closed the door. Step 1 was complete.

I steeled myself for the next part, which I thought at the time would be the worst. Again I cracked the door and slid out there. The paper towel was pitifully bouncing across the tiled balcony. It was obvious this critter wasn’t flying any time soon, and for all the stories I’ve heard of people nursing things back to health, I’ve never heard of anyone taking the time to bring a bat back. It had to be done. I walked over with my near-worn-out combat boots, raised my right leg over the barely moving paper towel, and dropped judgment on the beast. Without getting too graphic, it was kind of crunchy, and I felt pretty awful about the whole affair. That thing didn’t mean to land where it had.

Then I went back inside. I’d done the deed and decreed that someone else should dispose of the remains. There were no volunteers. Again a plan. I grabbed a broom and went back outside, sweeping the now-dead creature of nightmares toward the edge. The only problem was at that edge there was a bump, and sweeping him over was a chore. Finally I reached down, picking up the remains while ensuring my fingers touched nothing but paper towel – it could have been rabid for all I know – and lifted the carcass. I tossed it lightly over the concrete railing. I watched it spin for a minute before it landed with a thunk on top of one of the communications trucks four stories below. The beast had been vanquished.

I slept well that night.

Posted in Army, Iraq, OIF War Journal, Operation Iraqi Freedom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What I Think About on Memorial Day

Eleven years ago, I was a specialist who had been in the Army just barely more than six months. After finishing basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and journalist training at Fort Meade, Md., I reported to Fort Benning, Ga., for Airborne School, an exciting three weeks during which I’d run a lot, learn to jump out of airplanes and earn the $3,000 bonus I’d signed up for after learning the $8,000 I thought I’d get for having a bachelor’s degree expired the day before I reported to the military entrance processing station in Knoxville, Tenn.

Through a series of circumstances I really don’t want to get into here, I quit. There’s lots of places I could place the blame if that’s the kind of person I was, but ultimately I was a coward. After looking forward to it for half a year, I couldn’t wrap my brain around jumping out of an airplane.

Wasting the Army’s time and money is bad enough at any time, but it really sucks when you’re a solider who has yet to report to a proper unit and your entire enlistment contract was built around you jumping out of airplanes and reporting to Fort Bragg, N.C. When you’re that guy, they send you to a holding company where you’ll get to spend your days doing anything necessary to justify your pay while the Army figures out what to do with you. Having stepped back from the path of the paratrooper, I’d given myself to the needs of the Army, and from other soldiers in the company I learned that it might be a while until I got new orders and I’d be lucky if I wasn’t sent to Korea.

So I woke up most mornings and underwent the most grueling physical training I’d encountered to that point under the leadership of a grizzled Vietnam veteran of a sergeant first class who spoke with the thickest, most unintelligible backwater Louisiana accent I’ve ever heard. We’d do situps and pushups until we’d puke before running uncounted miles. The infantry guys in our group hacked it okay, but for me, it was the first time I truly appreciated the differences between basic training at different sites. I was close to a stud at Jackson, but these infantry guys made me feel like I belonged on the bottom rung.

After getting physically crushed, we’d all get sent out for whatever the day’s work details were, usually with whatever squad we’d been assigned to. I quickly became everybody’s favorite in my squad because I was the guy who got to be a specialist without “earning” it (please grasp my sarcasm here). So I’d go out with a group of guys who didn’t like me much and do things like paint fences and pull weeds out of sidewalks in front of one unit or another’s headquarters building. I’m telling you, those two weeks or so were the life (note again my sarcasm).

About this time eleven years ago, on the Friday before Memorial Day, it seemed like everyone at Fort Benning – even most of us quitters and injured troops in the holding company – got the day off. I say most of us because my squad had to work that day. We drew the assignment of placing flags on every grave in the Main Post Cemetery.

At the time, with everything going on in my life and career, I really just wanted a weekend off to go home, so I’m sad to say I didn’t go into that detail with the reverent attitude one should have when doing a job that important; I was annoyed. Instead of being on the road to Chattanooga, I was stuck with a bunch of Joes who didn’t like me much meticulously sticking flags in what seemed like uncountable graves. The corporal who was put in charge of us didn’t make it too bad a day, but still I was in a bad mood.

I look back on that now and realize what an honor it was to perform that duty. I think I knew it then, deep down, but my (at the time) selfish, broken heart wanted nothing to do with it. I look back at that 24-year-old boy and feel a little ashamed of him. He didn’t know what he thought, and he didn’t know the years ahead would fill him with heartbreak worse than what he felt that day. He didn’t honor those dead the way he should have that day. He learned more later.

The last time I deployed to Iraq, from late 2006 to early 2008, was during a pretty pivotal phase of the war: the Surge. As an entire division’s worth of troops were added to the battlefield, casualties climbed. I was a fobbit – one of those folks who might cross the wire once if at all, and among many other duties, I was responsible for the Coalition Chronicle, the official magazine of Multinational Corps-Iraq, the three-star command responsible for conventional ground operations throughout the country.

Every month, I typed the ranks, names and units of those who’d died over the war’s previous 30 days for a two-page spread that went in the back of the magazine. As the Surge progressed and more and more men and women fell, I shrunk the font size of those names and added columns to those pages to make sure they’d all fit in those two pages. It was a depressing task, seeing all those faces and typing all those names, but one I was proud to fill. Someone had to do it, whether he remembered all those names and faces or not, and it was my honor to be that someone.

I also watched as, later in 2007, the numbers of names rapidly decreased. What had been six columns in near-agate type across two pages shrunk to two columns across a single page. In a small way, it felt like a victory, seeing the numbers of fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and coalition allies dwindle in such a graphical way.

In addition to the warriors I was honored enough to know who never got to come home and know the fruits of their labors, these are some of the things I think about every year when Memorial Day comes around. Remembering is important. It is an honor and obligation that those of who do know those fruits must live up to every day, but even more so on the one day dedicated to it. So if you didn’t this year, do so next year, and every year after that, whether you’ve served or not. It’s important that this country’s citizens always remembers the brave men and women, volunteers and draftees both, who have put themselves between them and the wolves.

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Jake’s OIF War Journal 21: Blowed Up

So at this point in the journal I skipped about three months. That’s how exciting it was. There were good days and bad, but Tom Nacey and I spent a lot of time driving and flying around the country doing battlefield interviews with the division’s leaders and key warfighters to document it all for history. We did that mission with the New York Times’ Michael Gordon, who was collecting information for his book, Cobra II, at the time. Then I spent weeks transcribing the lion’s share of those interviews. It’s here that I’ll note this was about the first time I’d transcribed anything, so more than 24 hours of tape took a L-O-N-G time and yielded many pages. I gave plenty of it to Mr. Gordon and expected at least an acknowledgement in the book, but that never happened, so whatever.

After that, I was supposed to take over the division’s weekly in-country magazine when SGT Clarke rotated back home – which actually did happen back in the early days of the war – but I got pushed out to Fallujah in early July to work with the division’s engineers on some stories. It wasn’t the ruined town it became in later years at the time, but there had been problems out there. Both the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and a unit of the 82nd Airborne had attempted to calm tensions and been moved on before 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division came to town. My friends in the 28th Public Affairs Detachment had been in town with them the whole time, so I knew some people where I was going.

Strangely, through all of this, even during the invasion, my actual exposure to immediate danger was all but nonexistent. That all changed the last day I was in Fallujah. I was leaving the next day to go back to Baghdad International Airport, and the rumors were thick that the 3rd Infantry Division was about to head home. I went on one last mission with Col. Ed Cardon, the Engineer Brigade commander, down to the mayor’s office in town.

Quick editor’s note: I don’t recall taking a lot of pictures during my time in Fallujah, but the photos in this post are from that time, though not necessarily the day we got blown up.

22 July 03

Today started typical. The usual jerking around. Are we going home? Are we not? The question’s gotten old in the 3 months since I’ve added to this record. I’m still in Iraq, as is most of the division and, for that matter, a good portion of the Army. I’ve been in Fallujah for 3 weeks after about three mostly dull months at BIAP [Baghdad International Airport]. I could go on and on whining about how we’ve been jerked around, but I haven’t yet so why start now?

3rd Infantry Division MPs demonstrate tactics to a class of Iraqi policemen in Fallujah. Photo by me.

3rd Infantry Division MPs demonstrate tactics to a class of Iraqi policemen in Fallujah. Photo by me.

It started (and went) normal-like. Went with the engineers to the mayor’s office to write stories about all the great civic projects here. Just like the past 20 days. At about 2:30, all that changed.

I was joking with all the Iraqi translators about pop culture and cultural differences (it’s kind of my schtick here) when I heard something like a large piece of sheet metal being dropped. An explosion. It sounded far off, but a glance out the window showed Iraqi police and American security scrambling every which way. I debated grabbing my camera.

Col. Ed Cardon, commander, Engineer Brigade, and Taha Bedewi Hameed, Fallujah's mayor, inspect the new generator at the Al Shudada Water Treatment Plant in southern Fallujah. Photo by me.

Col. Ed Cardon, commander, Engineer Brigade, and Taha Bedewi Hameed, Fallujah’s mayor, inspect the new generator at the Al Shudada Water Treatment Plant in southern Fallujah. Photo by me.

“Get your shit and go guys. We got incoming.” SFC Hernandez had appeared in the office’s door out of nowhere. No time for questions. Act. Vest and kevlar on. Can’t carry my backpack. Need a gun hand. Two shoulder it. Get the camera.* Is my weapon loaded? Yes, I didn’t clear it when we arrived. Out of the office. Out the front door.

We’d left the vehicles in the northwest corner of the compound this morning, behind the building. I was running that way. Around the corner, there was confusion. Humvees moving out fast. I was running.

BOOM! Not metal this time. An explosion. Death’s possibility right in front of me, more immediate than at any time since I’ve entered this damn country. People were screaming. I didn’t see the vehicle. Carlson and I exchange glances. 1LT Elmoe, who left his gear in the truck this morning [BRILLIANT junior officer, right?], runs past us back toward the front of the building. We do the same.

Me on top of the dam in Hillah. We were there to help the Iraqis figure out how to work out water usage issues with Syria and Jordan.

Me on top of the dam in Hillah. We were there to help the Iraqis figure out how to work out water usage issues with Syria and Jordan.

At the door. SFC Hernandez tells us the trucks moved outside the SW corner of the convoy. We run for the front gate, the LT between us. People are scrambling everywhere. Get to the truck. Throw my bags in. Weapon up, eye looking through the sight post. Everyone’s ready. A quick U-turn in the awful Iraqi traffic. I point my M-16 right at a cab driver’s head to secure the maneuver. We’re in the lead, swerving past Iraqis who would never be licensed to drive in America. Heart’s pounding now. It does all the way back to the MEK [don’t remember what that stood for, but it was a forward operating base] gates.

No one was hurt, thank God. There were a lot of folks there today. It could have been real bad. Now I know, though. That was terror, but I stayed cool. I did my job. I threatened death to those in my way. My mind has never been so focused. I’ve never felt so aware. God, I needed a cigarette. Even that little bit felt like a lot. It really gives me respect for those who’ve seen more and less and what else. It gives me more respect for myself. I’ve been right there now.

A pair of Iraqi doctors performs an operation on a man's leg at Fallujah General Hospital. Photo by me.

A pair of Iraqi doctors performs an operation on a man’s leg at Fallujah General Hospital. Photo by me.

There really is nothing more terrifying than the random indirect fire. Explosions from the sky. Death from above, 3 months after it [the war] was supposed to be over]. I’m going back to BIAP tomorrow. I wish they’d hurry up and get all of us home.**

To Be Continued …

* And, for the last time, forget the notebook that had like four stories’ worth of notes in it.

** This day was pretty much the end. Within a week – give or take a day or two – of getting back to the airport, we were on a convoy back to Kuwait to get moving home.

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