Be All You Can Be (Stay a Civilian)

The past decade has seen a severe resurgence of militarism in the American psyche, a wave George W. Bush surfed gleefully as he destroyed our economy and standing in the world, embroiled us in a needless war instead of pursuing the actual war on terror, and decimated a generation or three as he enriched himself and his pals. It became mandatory to pay tribute to our brave troops and their sacrifice, and any criticism of the military or Bush’s invasion was refracted back on the critics as an accusation that they “didn’t support the troops,” were unpatriotic, or even that they supported our enemies.

Thankfully, after eight years of Bush’s shit, all but the dimmest of the dim realized what a disaster he was as a president, and what a colossal fuckup the Iraq war has been. We have a new president, who is doing a pretty good job overall, though I have concerns (then again, after two terms of Bush, Obama could do nothing but stand in the sun smearing feces in his hair for a year and I’d still give him kudos for doing a better job), and hopefully sanity has mostly returned.

I have always been against the war in Iraq. When Bush “won” in 2000, I predicted that we’d invade. Being correct was not a point of pleasure. I am not blind to the inevitability of war, or the necessity to defend one’s nation “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and indeed I voluntarily served in the US Army in large part out of a sense of duty. I believe in fighting when you have to, or when it’s the right thing to do (like our routing of the Taliban and al Qaeda).

So, as a patriot, and a veteran, I’d like to share with you, with all my heart, the phrase I heard most frequently from soldiers discussing their lives on active duty: Fuck the Army.

FTA. Not “fuck the troops,” who are the victims here. Fuck the Army. By which I also mean fuck the Air Force, the Marines, the Reserves, all of it.

I went into the service ready to better myself, to live in an environment of pride and honor, to be a good citizen. (Not that I was a super-patriot ROTC sort, not even remotely, but I was a patriot). For my decision to do that, I entered a life where neither my individuality nor my actual choice to sacrifice for my country were honored.

In boot camp, you’re put through hell, and treated like shit, and that’s all well and good because it’s boot camp, and you’re being toughened up or weeded out. But when you get to the other end of your training, to your actual service, you enter a world that degrades you, fucks with you for no reason, and puts only statistical value on your life and service.

I enlisted, went through basic training, then went to advanced training where I was told my enlistment contract wasn’t going to be honored. I had been guaranteed Airborne training, but they “needed” me instead to go to Germany. I had the option of leaving the Army, since they weren’t going to do what they’d promised, but I’d just gone through two months of boot camp, and decided not to waste it.

When I got out, I went to university with my oh-so-glorious Army College Fund. Then, one semester I got very sick and had to take incompletes in my courses. The school accepted my hardship claim. The VA did not. They charged me back in full for the courses, saying since I hadn’t completed them I couldn’t use the fund, and they drained thousands of dollars from my fund. Basically, they saw an opportunity in my illness to screw me out of that money, and they jumped at it.

I’m sure this is not an uncommon thing. A while back I read about a large reserve unit sent to Iraq whose orders were cut so that the time they spent on active duty was just a few days shy of what would be required to give them full educational benefits. These men and women volunteered, they were sent to a warzone, many died…and the military deliberately and preemptively made sure they couldn’t get full benefits for it.

You know who doesn’t support our troops? The US military. Stop-loss policies trapping volunteers in dangerous service far past the time they were contracted for, abysmal conditions at Walter Reed Hospital for our returning wounded (and “wounded” is such a small word for soldiers who’ve lost limbs, had their guts torn open, or suffered terrible brain damage), coverups and lies about friendly fire, institutionalized dishonor through illicit operations and torture…

And a culture, more and more, of suicide:

The journal Military Medicine found that, during an 11-month period in 2004, 30 percent of soldiers evaluated by mental-health staff in Iraq said they had considered suicide within the past week. (A DoD intelligence-center report on psychotropic drugs acknowledges this finding.) Of those, almost 64 percent said they had specific plans to kill themselves.

Four years later, the situation has worsened. The Army announced in January 2009 that its suicide rate hit 138 — or little more than 20 per 100,000 — this past year, which surpassed previous highs of 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006…And just this past week, the Army said it was investigating 24 potential suicides committed by troops in January and another 18 committed in February, up from 11 suicides in February 2008. If those numbers hold true, it will confirm what many have recently started to fear: that, for the first time since the wars began, monthly US troop deaths by suicide will have outpaced deaths in combat, and for two months in a row.

Among veterans, suicides are exponentially more frequent. The VA announced in September that 46 out of every 100,000 male veterans between the ages of 18 and 29 killed themselves in 2006, compared with 27 the year before. (For women, there was a slight improvement, as it was three in every 100,000, compared with eight in 100,000 the year before.) [Source: The Boston Phoenix, 3/17/2009]

Read the article. These troops aren’t being supported, they’re being marginalized and not getting the treatment they need. And they’re coming home broken, so we’ll be seeing both an increase in suicides and in violent acts in years to come because of Bush’s needless war and the military’s lack of care.

I got to thinking about all this (again) because I read an April 2nd article from Time about surging suicides among those the military uses to lure more victims into its web: the recruiters.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are now the longest waged by an all-volunteer force in U.S. history. Even as soldiers rotate back into the field for multiple and extended tours, the Army requires a constant supply of new recruits. But the patriotic fervor that led so many to sign up after 9/11 is now eight years past. That leaves recruiters with perhaps the toughest, if not the most dangerous, job in the Army. Last year alone, the number of recruiters who killed themselves was triple the overall Army rate. Like posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, recruiter suicides are a hidden cost of the nation’s wars.

Triple the overall Army rate.

…The responsibility for providing troop replacements falls to the senior noncommissioned officers who have chosen to make recruiting their career in the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC). They in turn put pressure on their local recruiters to “make mission” and generate the recruits — sometimes by any means necessary. Lawrence Kagawa retired last July after more than 20 years in uniform; he spent the latter half as a highly decorated recruiter, and his tenure included a stint in the Houston battalion from 2002 to 2005. “There’s one set of values for the Army, and when you go to Recruiting Command, you’re basically forced to do things outside of what would normally be considered to be moral or ethical,” he says.

Because station commanders and their bosses are rated on how well their subordinates recruit, there is a strong incentive to cut corners to bring in enlistees. If recruiters can’t make mission legitimately, their superiors will tell them to push the envelope. “You’ll be told to call Johnny or Susan and tell them to lie and say they’ve never had asthma like they told you, that they don’t have a juvenile criminal history,” Kagawa says. “That recruiter is going to bend the rules and get the lies told and process the fraudulent paperwork.” And if the recruiter refuses? The commander, says Kagawa, is “going to tell you point-blank that ‘we have a loyalty issue here, and if I give you a “no” for loyalty on your annual report, your career is over.’ “

It’s not surprising, then, that some recruiters ignore red flags to enlist marginal candidates. “I’ve seen [recruiters] make kids drink gallons of water trying to flush marijuana out of their system before they take their physicals,” one Houston recruiter says privately. “I’ve seen them forge signatures.” Sign up a pair of enlistees in a month and a recruiter is hailed; sign up none and he can be ordered to monthly Saturday sessions, where he is verbally pounded for his failure.

Not only is this terrible for the recruiters, but (as my experiences with Army “contracts” showed) it’s terrible for the soldiers giving their trust to this system when they enlist. Will recruiters lie to them? Hell yes recruiters will lie to them. They’re being pressured to, even being ordered to.

So, honor our troops. Not only do they have to face the enemy abroad, they have to face the enemy above: their own superiors and the military itself.

And if you’re thinking of enlisting, think hard and look at your options. Don’t trust the recruiters, don’t trust the Kid Rock jingoism on the screen at your local theater, don’t trust the politicians on either side. Assess your risks realistically and rationally. If you still decide to go in, may your god go with you.


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