FORT DIX, NJ- June 17, 2016
The hour of leaving has come at last. After two tough weeks of 10 to 14 hour days Class Command General Staff Officer Course 001-Team 3 is about to graduate.
For the last two days the instructors and staff fretted over all the small details of updating the records of the hardworking students. It has been a frenzy of activities making sure names are spelled correctly, and all the grades are entered all leading up to graduation.
Finally the last day is here. The students are as nervous as we were. In short time we’ve all gotten to know each other really well. Shared stories of experiences of assignments, families and deployments make for fast friends. We are more alike than we are different.
I’ve written before about my life and the army. I am average, ordinary and very boring.
I have never been married, I have no kids. I am a gypsy- never living anywhere or being from somewhere.
I lived in three states before I was seven. I lived in ten more states and three foreign countries before I was thirty. All of it an endless blur of military bases, most of them in distant, redneck parts of the southeastern United States or crappy parts of the globe.
When I left the active duty army I joined the part-time National Guard. I turned into a full-time job with countless office jobs and deployments. I spent the last four years drifting around like a cheap tourist taking part-time jobs.
The weeks stretched into months and now have become years until I fell in-love with my wife.
I don’t owe anyone any money. I’ve never stolen anything or cheated anyone. I never fathered any children. I exist on as few pieces of paper as it is possible for a human being living a modern life in America to be on. I am just about invisible.
The only thing I have ever owned is a reliable 12 year old red Tacoma pickup truck. I bought and paid for it in the same afternoon.
I’ve never done anything special or significant except know and love extraordinary people. I am a short, fat, bald guy who gets told at least once a month, “You look just like someone I know,” or “You remind me of a friend of mine.”
Mexicans think I am Puerto Rican, Afghans think I am an Arab, Italian-Americans think I am Asian with my last name and millennials think I am a computer repair guy when I show up for class.
I am an outlier going everywhere and fitting in nowhere. Everything about me is average, ordinary and very boring.
I have never made the sacrifices most of my students have.
I love army reservists and national guardsmen because they are the underdogs. They are the go anywhere, do anything soldiers.
These dedicated citizen-soldiers were used as a backdoor draft to fight the decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again and again they deployed without the right equipment, without fanfare to answer they answered their nation’s call.
They are the men and women that wars can’t be won without.
My students are people you feel lucky to be around. As a group they are idealistic, intelligent young Americans who put their beliefs on the line. They went again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo, Africa and other third-world hot spots. As teachers, police officers, and parents they left behind their loved ones and civilian lives to temporarily become full-time soldiers.
The active duty army thinks that army reservists and national guardsmen are only as half as good because they are part-time soldiers.
When they return from yearlong deployments they don’t return to large military bases. Active duty army posts are equipped to understand the sacrifice they made as soldiers. Most time reservists and national guardsmen go right back to their old lives.
The year they were gone they had a pause button on their movie of their civilian lives. Their families and regular jobs continued on.
I wish you could see the ineradicable picture I have my mind today. In this particular picture I am sitting hunched over a computer in the corner of a small, cramped classroom at Fort Dix, NJ. I am trying to enter their last grades.
The students are sitting in a horseshoe. The u-shape allows for teacher-to-student interaction. Eric, my fellow instructor, is leading a discussion with the students about being mobilized for a deployment.
Immediately the students begin to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. I love this part of the class. I think this where the most learning takes place.
Sometimes we would go down the rabbit hole of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a slippery slope. We have to teach the material but some of the students are seeking to find solace, maybe closure, or just understanding to their own- in some cases a buddy’s- traumatic experiences while deployed.
They are in a classroom full of people who understand, have similar stories and experiences. It is a “safe place” to talk about what they’ve seen and done.
The course description clearly states we teach planning processes and strategy to the students- mostly majors and lieutenant colonels with average of fifteen years in the army.
Most of the students are combat veterans with two or more deployments. They view the course material through the lens of their own personal experiences. Their personal insights and stories are relevant. Sometimes it unrelentingly pushed the class in direction in an uncomfortable direction.
Today, the last day, the class is in a heated debate. Student one a lieutenant colonel and doctor with two tours in Baghdad’s Emergency Room, is questioning why we went to Iraq. Student two, a decorated Special Operations helicopter pilot with four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, can’t believe Student one’s question.
The class explodes in murmurs and side conversations. Other students close their laptops and lean forward to add their ideas and experiences.
I am to blame for this. I opened the class talking about my own time in Iraq and Afghanistan. I told them about my struggles with PTSD and TBI and how studying history helped me to understand why America was in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sometimes the conversations got heated and off-track. Some of the student veterans were seeking something the class could not provide and something I was not trained to offer.
I received a few harsh but fair instructor comments from the students that my opening this line of discussion was “not relevant” or “helpful.”
On the other hand another student suffering from PTSD thanked me for allowing him to talk in class about his experiences. It offered him a personal catharsis.
A handful of the students have never deployed and found the discussion useful. A few of the multiple tour veterans would tease the non-combat veterans.
It added a noticeable edge to the class contributions. The non-deployers felt, justifiably so, that their military service was somehow degraded because they never went to Iraq or Afghanistan.
One student had been to Haiti, Kosovo and Horn of Africa several times but never to a combat zone. He didn’t have a “combat patch” but his operational experience and stories of crisis management in some very bad places far surpassed anyone else in the room.
A few of the students find me accessible and would approach me after class or off-line during a break. I tried to listen sympathetically to each one.
I am not a trained psychologist, but I do feel having the opportunity to express anger or pain with someone who understands can be helpful.
Underneath their quiet, polite demeanor some of these extraordinary majors were visibly scarred. Some of them had endured things far beyond my own experience and understanding.
A minority of them shared stories and photos with me, and one showed me his physical scars. As a wounded soldier and veteran my heart went out to them.
I am a United States Army lieutenant colonel, and I failed my students because I couldn’t leave my issues at home while I taught. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous: step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I do have a problem.
I couldn’t leave my issues at home while I was teaching.
I know that the CGSOC is not the appropriate place for a therapy session, but if not here, then where? Being a part-time soldier is such a weird experience. You have to “keep a foot” in both the civilian and military worlds.
You have to learn to cope in both worlds. CGSOC is a place we talk about philosophy, ethics, and morals and what it means to be a leader. For me, it has been a pleasure and honor to guide the future leaders of America’s army,
I don’t think it’s the place to confront the emotional distress of some of our wounded veterans who are still serving. Next time I am going to leave the “war stories” at home.
I’ll do my best to guide the understanding and development of my students by sticking to the curriculum.
I owe it to them as an instructor and mentor to give them a lifetime of study, intellectual thought and discourse they can use- not a bunch of sad stories.
I’ll do this by giving the students references, resources and real world historical examples than can help them.
Over a twenty-three career I have seen and done a few things. Some of it may help the students learning, most of it will not. I was on the lower end of a very tall totem pole.
I was in the same room with meetings of top-level military and civilian leaders where strategy and managed in Baghdad and Kabul- I was making coffee and making slides- but I saw how key decision makers made, delayed or avoided key decisions in the war.
I can’t imagine a more important priority for my students and our army. I have lost a handful of close friends and more than three times were wounded.
I made lots of mistakes as an army officer. Many things I failed to do right, to borrow the words of Robert E. Lee on that awful third day at Gettysburg, are all my fault. I will try and tell my future students what they were and why. No more “war stories.”
In the last ten minutes of the last class I realize how much I love being here. The students have so much to say and I learn so much from them.
They are the best America has to offer in a long conflict. They are don’t slouch in class. They are fit, slim thirty somethings whose wartime experiences has aged them.
In their eyes as they talk you don’t see hatred, excitement or despair- but old age wisdom in young eyes. It’s the single expression of salty combat veterans who have lost too many friends, made too many sacrifices and suffered for their choices.
It’s the look of a beat cop who lives in the bad neighborhood he patrols. Walking the same beat forever and knowing he doesn’t want to do anything else. Deciding to make his little part of the world a better place one hour at a time.
They are one class in three I’ve already taught. A long line of students who keep coming every summer and fall. An antlike procession of dedicated professionals showing me more than I teach team.
As I watch them walk across the stage, I feel an agony in my heart and I am almost ashamed to look at them.
Almost all of them will deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan before the end of the year. For some of them it will be their third or fourth deployment. You can see they are tired but they don’t complain.
These average everyday Americans of the army reserves and national guard will do the job no matter how hard, no matter the cost.
I wave good-bye to my students as they drive off Fort Dix for the last time I know that if most Americans could see them just once, get to know them for an afternoon, they would know no matter how hard people work or how dedicated they are back home there is no replacing them.