Weed and War: Getting away with smoking in the Army and why the military should lighten up

Definitely the worst part about joining the military was when I had to stop smoking weed.

I don’t really smoke anymore. It’s more of a casual thing. But I used to. A lot.

It was maybe the hardest part of enlisting in the Army, first because I had to pass a drug test, but secondly because I had to make a decision that changed the very essence of my 19-year-old self.

No weed? What kind of idiot would subject themselves to that kind of fascism? Me, apparently. My reasons for doing so are complicated and dumb. The truth is, I never quite gave up on Mary Jane in the military.  Continue reading

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Capturing the Übermensch

What makes a man?

This is a question that plagued my journals during my teenage years.  One that I struggled with for years. One that I thought I knew when I left the Army. It is a question that maybe influenced me to join the Army. I was sure I was beyond it. But after finally reading Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” I am certain I don’t know anything.

“Where Men Win Glory” follows the life of Pat Tillman, an NFL football player turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. Without opening the book, Tillman’s story seems to follow a typical martyr trope: a young man who leaves money and fame behind for a greater purpose – a patriotic purpose. But this is not the case. Tillman’s purpose was far higher than nationalism, according to Krakauer (although military authorities and elected officials tried to ensure Americans otherwise).

Tillman was real, in the truest sense. He never pretended to be something he wasn’t, or to believe in something that was false. He was intelligent and an avid scholar, constantly seeking new knowledge and perspectives, even if he didn’t agree with them. He was also a physical powerhouse, whether he was blocking tackles as a linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals, or running marathons and climbing rocks with friends. He was strong both physically and emotionally. He was compassionate, empathetic, self-critical, and often sensitive. Certainly complex.

And Tillman’s complexity is what makes him such a unique, yet relatable, character.

In the aftermath of 9/11, he enlisted in the Army, leaving behind an NFL contract to become an infantryman. His family pleaded him to reconsider, but it was already in him. His reason for joining seems convoluted and even contradictory, but it’s one that I understand on a very basic level.

Continue reading

War movies

The sound of the engine was unbearably loud. I stared at the plane and waited in line to get on, trying to take it in. I tried to form words that would capture the moment, but none of it felt real.

The plane looked like a giant eggplant with wings decorated in Christmas lights. It was the only thing visible on the Kuwaiti horizon.

Contrary to what my drill sergeants told me, war actually was how the movies portrayed it, and I was a lead role. I saw myself through the lens of a camera on the long bus ride to basic training, doing pushups in the rain, and in Fort Riley, Kansas, wandering around in awe, contemplating how I came from the progressive culture of the West Coast to a Midwest wasteland.

Here I was again, from a different camera angle, lined up with my backpack on backwards and my rifle slung to my side, waiting like everyone else to get on a giant eggplant. When I try to remember it, the military is a big weird dream where I had no control and did things I did not want to.

The plane’s giant engines grew louder, accompanied by a high-pitched whine, and then faded. Over and over again.

My platoon sergeant jumped around the line. He inspected each soldier, slapped our helmets together and punched us jovially on the shoulder. He was the big brother you didn’t want. He inspected my rifle and made a playful threat to me if I vomited on the plane. He threw a playful punch into my right shoulder, twisting me 45 degrees. I heard him bouncing around the line, making the same comments, happy as ever. He wanted to get on the plane.

I didn’t.

The plane was a C-130 Hercules, in service since the ‘50s, primarily as a cargo transport. One-hundred feet in length and 40 tons in weight. From where I stood, all I could see an empty grey shell with blinking lights. It was hard to imagine a something so big and ugly being safe.

There was no signal to begin boarding, but sure enough, like dominos, the line began to move. We waddled toward the gate that doubled as a boarding ramp at the plane’s rear. I stepped on. The closer I got, the more rickety the plane looked. Its bare-bone interior gave the impression of riding in a giant tin can. Cargo netting was draped from the plane’s ceiling. There were maybe 80 seats in the center and maybe half of that along the sides. As the center seats were filled up, I was assigned one of the roomier seats along the side. (Sometimes having a name at the end of the alphabet has its perks.)

As I got comfortable, I saw Ronnie climbing up the ramp. We usually called each other by our last names, or by a dumb nickname. How Ronnie became known by his first name is beyond me.

Maybe it was because he just looked like a Ronnie.

We gave each other a mutual nod and he sat next to me. His helmet hung low on his brow, just above his crooked wire-frame glasses. Gear dangled loosely from his chest. His face was hard, but there was always a goofy-kid-smile hidden on Ronnie’s face. It was apparent that Ronnie liked being a soldier, but he never really fit in. I guess that’s why I always liked him.

We didn’t say much. I held my hand out low. We clasped our gloved hands together and shook them as he settled in to his seat. He plugged an earbud into his skull and put a stick of gum into his mouth. I watched as the other soldiers did similar things. They spit wads of chewing tobacco into soda bottles and unbuckled the chinstraps on their helmets, like John Wayne. One or two of them pulled out paperback novels. Ronnie kept his helmet on the whole time. He stared at everyone while I stared at him.

The pilot’s voice boomed and crackled from an intercom. He sounded like any other pilot: male, relaxed, witty. He made a joke about an in-flight movie and then one about getting shot down by Iraqi anti-air guns. It wasn’t really funny.

The gate began closing, but stopped short of sealing the interior from the outside. I swear I could still see the night sky from where I sat. I was on a roller coaster and my seatbelt wouldn’t fasten.

I didn’t say anything, but it seemed I was the only one who noticed it.

Maybe I was.

Ronnie was still in outer space, chewing his gum like a cow. I wanted to talk to him, but he was focused on something else. I yelled his name, but nothing was audible above the plane’s engines.

The plane began to bounce around and roll forward as the brakes were released. Within minutes we were airborne and gaining altitude fast. It shook violently as if we were about to break through the atmosphere. The slightest tilt of the plane’s axis made my innards writhe.

I’m probably going to vomit, I thought. My sergeant will probably make me do pushups for it.

When the C-130 leveled out, the interior lights blacked out and red lights switched on. My heart skipped a beat and my face was hot. I looked to my left and right. Everyone else did the same. Ronnie and I stared at each other for a second. He shrugged, as if to say “that was weird.” Flashing red lights are usually a sign of imminent danger. I thought we were going down. But the red lights remained on the rest of the way. The plane’s crew didn’t make any announcement about the lights. Everyone just sort of sunk back into their seats. Informal. Strange.

C-130 OND Airlift
Soldiers pause for a break inside a C-130 Hercules over Iraq. (U.S. Air Force Photo.)

I tapped Ronnie on the shoulder and yelled:

“WATCHA LISTENIN’ TO?”

“WHAT?”

I tapped my ear. He gave me his other earbud and I plugged it in. It was “Welcome to Paradise,” by Green Day. It’s fitting for going to a war-torn country for a year. I leaned back against the seat and tried to relax, maybe even sleep. But I couldn’t. Rock and roll in one ear and the deafening sound of machinery in the other. I leaned my head against the wall and my whole face vibrated with the engines. There weren’t even any windows to space out at.

I spent the rest of the trip in the ominous red light, staring at the intricacies of the plane’s interior: the airmen reading their books and not wearing their seatbelts, the sleeping faces of those around me, the ladder up to the cockpit. What are all the cargo nets for? I think about the guys in Special Forces who probably have to ride C-130s all the time.

I thought about Bob. A family friend and a WWII vet who was shot down over Germany while in the back of a transport plane. How the hell did Bob live anyway? I wondered what was going through his mind when he went down. The German’s took Bob prisoner and held him at a POW camp for more than a year. He ate nothing but rotten cabbage and potatoes before his release. I couldn’t imagine.

We were descending and we didn’t even know it. The plane bounced a little bit as we landed and eventually stopped. I expected more of a plummet straight into the earth. The big broken door lowered and the sound of the engines began to die. We put our backpacks on backwards again and picked up our rifles, waddling off the plane the same way we waddled in. It was after midnight when I put my boots down in Iraq. The concrete under my boots felt warm. The air smelled like a mixture of rotting eggs and burning rubber.

A strange smile crept across my face, but I didn’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with finally being here. Up until that moment, war had only been something on TV. I felt like Charlie Sheen, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise.

From a different camera angle, I saw Ronnie marching behind me. His face was scrunched into a mixture of “fuck this” and “fuck, my bag is heavy.”

We were just like movie actors. Maybe not as handsome.

A tough “Son of a Beach”: Manpower or training?

As WWII veteran George Butenschoen tells me again and again, “it was something far different than you ever saw.” He refers to my time-in-service in the Army and in Iraq. That distinction might be obvious to anyone with a vague idea of the length or the intensity of either the Iraq War or WWII. But when Butenschoen talks about contrast, he refers to an entirely different concept of war.

Today, service members volunteer in a highly trained, yet smaller military force. Seventy years ago, it seems things were just the opposite

Yesterday was the first day I met Butenschoen at his apartment in Summit Place Retirement Home in Bellingham, Wash. Butenschoen and his daughter reached out to Western Washington University, where I study, a while ago in an attempt to find a student to compile a memoir or some recollection of his experience during WWII. It’s a project I’m very excited to continue working on. 

Image

(George Butenschoen is seen with his crew on LCT 221, aka “Son of a Beach.” Butenschoen is in the middle on the bottom. / Photo courtesy of George Butenschoen)

Butenschoen joined the Navy and provided logistics and transportation operations on a Landing Craft Tank, an amphibious assault boat. He was assigned to the boat with 10 other men shortly after completing basic training.

“How did you get that job? What was your official title?” I ask.

“Gunner’s mate,” he said. They put a hundred new seamen along a wall and had 10 officers come over and make their selection, he said. He barely knew what he was getting into when they picked him.

“What did you train for during basic?” I ask.

“I did a lot of running and walking.”

Butenschoen was 22 years old in 1942, pumped fresh out of the Navy’s basic training and put on a boat that he would spend more than three years in.

The lack of training he described almost seemed a little ridiculous. People often describe modern Basic Combat Training in the Army as easy, but I remember it being pretty extensive. Sure, physical fitness was easy enough, but four straight months of 20-hour days is tough for a kid. Combine that with classes, training exercises and the stress of being away from home and you can have yourself a grueling experience. Needless to say, I left basic with more to say than Butenschoen did.

But Butenschoen joined the military when there was no “all-volunteer force.” It was all about manpower. It’s a choice between two options that still gets tossed around in the U.S. Congress today: draft or no draft. That decision has some obvious economic pros and cons, but at its core it provides the military with with either a large number of service members, or a small number of highly trained service members. Back in Butenschoen’s time, the Navy put you in a suit and your new skipper would ask you where you’re from and what you did. If you happened to be a young farmhand with knowledge about tractor engines, you were likely to get picked as a crew member on an LCT manning a 20 mm cannon.

It was a different time, Butenschoen tells me.

Memoir – “Paper Airplanes”

Hey there,

So this is a non-fiction piece I wrote for an English assignment during college in the spring. I would love some feedback from anyone. It’s titled Paper Airplanes.

 

“I go my ways
And when I find a mountain-nil
I set it in a blaze.
So either way
I’ll get into the garden,
and I don’t care what happens”

 by Linda Goodman

*

                How many times have you been here before? The same brick buildings, the same muggy spring air, the same unfamiliar road signs, “North Wall Avenue” and “Lone Elm Road.” Your feet are raw like sandpaper, your tongue dry like smoke; eyes swollen, head throbbing, stomach empty.

                 It’s midnight and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before. The orange lamp-lights are the same anywhere. So is the haunting suspicion that you aren’t alone. That you are a foreigner in this paved wilderness.

                You’ve learned to pack light. You make friends with the benches and cobwebs at bus stations. An old t-shirt lies wadded up and tossed amongst the cigarette butts on the oil-stained ground. The memory of another person lying in ruin.

*
                Everywhere was a snapshot of territorial expansion history, but fake, with a Walmart in the background. I couldn’t believe I ended up in Kansas.

                I left the barracks for Kansas City at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The party from Friday was just dying down when I called a cab. Drunk soldiers stumbled down the halls into their bunks. Others tried to keep the liveliness going. One look at a McDonalds cup filled to the brim with cigarette butts, Grizzly chewing tobacco and alcohol told me I had to get out of there. At least for one night. I was frustrated that my life had suddenly boiled down to a fast food receptacle full of an after party witches brew. But everything about Ft. Riley was frustrating. The weather, the people, the officers, the work, the rules, the so-called “night life.” Every step I took got me nowhere; got me nothing. If could just get out of here. Of all the Army bases in the world, it was Kansas for me.

                The cab’s headlights shone in the early morning darkness. I got to Kansas City at about 6 a.m with a copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” under my arm and checked into a Motel 8. Legally, I wasn’t old enough to register a room to my name, but the beautiful dark skinned woman behind the glass screen fudged my age for me. (How was I supposed to know the age requirement for check-ins?) I opened the door to a dark empty bedroom.

                Most people are paranoid about the cleanliness of lodge bedding. Not me. I collapsed face down on the sheets, suddenly realizing how exhausted I was, and didn’t wake up until the sun was high.

                In the daylight, I could see I wasn’t really in the city, but next to a cluster of restaurants and gas stations on a freeway exit. I called another cab to take me further. I don’t remember the street the driver dropped me off at, but it was not the Kansas City I envisioned. A man in faded clothing was walking my way with his head down and his hands in his pockets amid the frozen background.
                “Hey, could you tell me where I am?” I asked – half expecting to get mugged.
                Laughing, “Where do you think you are?”
                “Kansas City,” I said bluntly.
                “You got an extra smoke?” I gave him one. “Thanks,” he said, lighting the cigarette. “You’re about three blocks south of the Power and Lights District. If you wanna find something to do, your best bet is to go up that way. Where are you from?”
                “Geary County.”
                “Well, there’s a lot to do in K.C. but not now. It’s too cold. Everybody’s bundlin’ up, stayin’ home, stayin’ warm. I’m headin’ to the library myself. I gotta get out of this weather. An old man like myself will freeze down to the bone.”
                “It’s pretty cold,” I said, not knowing how to reply to his library situation.
                I said goodbye and heard his voice trail down the street, rambling on about the cold.
                When I got to the Power and Lights District I didn’t even realize it. There was nothing there but a few clubs and bars, barely open, and some bright green and orange signs just lighting up before the sun went down.
                It was the pulse of an animal in hibernation, beating just enough to cheat death. The spiders own this city.

*

                Not all fires are bright, and not all are red. Some fires burn hotter and some burn brighter. Some burn in blue flames and some burn green. But a bright red fire is one that must be watched with a narrow eye. A bright red fire can torch an entire garden.
                A bright red fire can stir the atoms of a human compass to the very edge of combustion. The dial becomes a propeller and the directions become incoherent (Neast, Sest, Wouth and Earth). What was once a destination becomes a conquest. What was logic and order becomes anarchy, turmoil and madness. Victory equals self-destruction, even depression; the coming undone of the entire engine. Belts snap, bolts rattle, gears grind, pumps struggle, until nothing is left but the single weight of a metal core. Sometimes.
                Rinse fingers in water and flick. Let the drops beat the flames back (repeat until tame). This method will never put the fire out, but will ensure a controlled burn. DO NOT turn away for long.
                An unruly bright red fire can behave like a black hole. It can annihilate all in its path. Vitruvian Man armed to the teeth. It is an addict, sucking in all things that are hot and loud and burning them. Run away.

                In extreme cases: summon a monsoon or prepare a funeral.

*
                It was the first time being away from my company since I got to Iraq. I was going home on two weeks of leave. There were hundreds of other soldiers like me with the same plan in mind. The base we were at was a relay point for travelling soldiers; only really meant for a one-night stay at the most. We were assigned to a transient barracks that consisted of two thirty-man tents with wooden doors. Inside they were absolutely filthy. They smelled like body odor and had bits of dirty laundry scattered around them.

                Some soldiers joked about the tent. Everyone was tired. I threw my bags down and sat on one of the cots. The sweat in my boots felt like it was overflowing.

                “My teeth have that shit sandwich feel,” someone said. I licked my two front teeth in mutual agreement.

                I was too dirty to get comfortable and the prospect of “R and R” made me too excited to sleep so I went outside to smoke with some of the others. They were mostly low-ranking. There was one sergeant, but he was one of the “cool” ones. They all knew each other and called the sergeant by name, not rank. I sat next to pull-up bar made out of truck parts and listened. Mostly, they swapped war stories and talked about different things they were going to buy in the states: expensive liquor, tattoos, muscle cars, etc. I talked to them only for a few minutes and learned that they were all military police who had been deployed in Iraq as a type Army SWAT. They drove around at night in “black-out,” raiding villages, kicking in doors and arresting “insurgent leaders.”
                It was probably close to 0230 by the time I went back inside the tent. The only sounds were snores and the tapping of laptop keys. A gentle brown-orange that shone through the tent flaps woke me up – along with the sounds of Black Hawks and C-130s. Some asshole blared a generic rap song through headphones that were too small for such volume.

                When I got home I told mom and dad all about the transient barracks and how long it took for the plane to arrive. I hardly mentioned the war or the things we had to do. Sandstorms and IED blasts didn’t matter. My entire deployment was the sum of an uneventful one-nighter in an unfamiliar logistics base.

                “Mom, I’m telling you. It sucked,” I said as we left the SeaTac airport. “I will never complain about Delta or United again.”

*

                Maybe he walked down a scorched road in New Mexico. Maybe he was in Northern California on a wet forest highway at night, still feeling the effects of an acid trip from the night before. Or maybe he was in Colorado, going to the Red Rock Amphitheatre, with his right arm extended and his thumb out, walking backwards with the wind pushing his clumpy black hair westward.
                Maybe through all of this, he brought a guitar and carried it in his left hand – hoping that he’d get the chance to meet Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir and they could “puff one down and play some ol’ guitar”. He always hoped he could be a roadie for the Grateful Dead.

                Maybe he was really lonely, and the people he met simply came and went.

                The only thing that was a constant was the road ahead of him and the experience as it was right now. He was like the sea. He was placid and calm, deep and mysterious. (But he would later realize that he could be torrential, cold and wicked.) Certainly salty.
                In fifty years, he would lay in a hospital bed, literally bent out of shape, and remember his youth. “I was walking down the road with my thumb in the air,” he would say. He would remember when telephones only existed on wires and when people weren’t like characters from television shows. Before American consumerism was so obstinate. Before satellites littered the skies. When music could spark a real revolution, instead of selling a product.

                He read Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and there he was. Imbedded in time. With his back to us, and a future, brighter than his tie-dye shirt, ahead of him.

*

                Biology 105 was just starting, but it didn’t matter. All the cute girls and overly aggressive guys were miles away. We were cruising at the speed of light, stoned out of our minds, on our way to High Steel Bridge in Mason County, Washington. Teachers, parents, cops – authority itself didn’t seem to exist. It was freedom at its finest and it was in the backseat of a beat up red Saturn.

                The three of us didn’t talk much on that trip. We didn’t need to. Chuck’s hands were busy with the wheel and the stick, while I and Joe both stared out of the windows at the mountains and shirtless farmers. The towns were all small. Some were even eerie. Cemeteries, overgrown with weeds and faded by wind, were plotted along the highway. The folksy sounds of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” played on the stereo and resonated through our heads the whole way there.

                We got to the bridge and parked. We stared down a 400 foot drop into a rocky creek, dropping paper airplanes and rocks until they disappeared in the white foamy water. Class was still in session at the high school.

                I wish I could tell you more about the trip. I wish I could remember the few words we said or what we did when we got back. But all I remember were those things we threw over the bridge and the whooshing sound the tall grass made on the highway.

*

                She is a horse whose hooves beat embers into the ground. Her breath is smoke that flows over the skin and caresses the shoulders.
                The amount of “I love you” and “I will kill you.” Just enough.
                She is sex and violence. She is a tornado in the sun.

*

                It’s 1 a.m. and the next bus won’t be here for at least five more hours. You lay down on the wooden bench and form a pillow with your arms. Your pockets are empty, your cell phone is dead, your cigarettes are gone. You are cut off. You stare up at the few visible stars in the December sky.
                You curse the night for doing this to you. You curse her for being so careless. You curse yourself for being so careful. You are a rock that has sunk into the deepest part of the ocean. The fish swim by with their eyes on the sides of their faces, not giving you a second or even a first thought.
                You make your way to the dock and stare out across the bay. How many times have you been here before? The same sand, the same freezing water, the same distant lights glimmering in the distance. Your feet feel like raw meat, your tongue is soaked in booze; eyes dry, head spinning and stomach caving. It’s 1 a.m. and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before.

This was essentially about certain points in my life from the age 16 – 21. When I was asked by my critique group what it was about I said it was about the strongest points of my life. Which makes sense… but at the same time the essay’s disjunctiveness makes it purposely confusing. It’s more of a collage of angsty memories.