Leave no FNG behind: thoughts on Kelly Kennedy’s They Fought for Each Other 

TheyFoughtForEachOthercoverI’ve hoped to grow up to be Kelly Kennedy ever since my friend, rockstar author Alia Malek, profiled the Military Times reporter for Columbia Journalism Review. I knew it was impossible, of course, as the very first line of Kennedy’s author bio makes clear: “Kelly Kennedy served as a soldier in Desert Storm and Mogadishu, Somalia.” Back when I was stuffing envelopes and marching to stop the wars she was in, Kennedy was in uniform, making all my experiences working with GI’s kind of feel beside the point.

Still, the latter may have accounted for the way I responded to her book, a month-by-month chronicle of the travails of Charlie Company, 10th Mt. Division, in the first few years of the Iraq war — during which the tight-knit unit lost more than half its men.

The book’s climax, I knew before I started, was a mutiny: echoing for me those during the Vietnam War chronicled in David Zeiger’s film Sir! No, Sir! Kennedy notes that echo, but also notes that these soldiers acted not so much in opposition to the war but because they knew their orders would likely result in losing more men.

In an email exchange before I got the book, she and I talked about the difference. When I said “her” boys belonged in my book, she asked “Oh, I guess you mean the mutiny?” I said yes — especially to illustrate an important change among today’s soldiers. In Vietnam, troops went in and out one by one (thus the “he’s a short-timer,” common lingo in all Vietnam films). Now, with whole units staying together through multiple deployments, members re-enlist. don’t go AWOL. take all their action out of a deep sense of loyalty — that profound love about which soldiers that Homer wrote so beautifully.

“In the framework I’m working in,” I told Kelly, “[that mutiny] feels like a near-perfect example of how a strategy designed to make wars go smoothly (encouraging greater unit cohesion than in, say, Vietnam or Korea) can have unplanned consequences when you take today’s slightly older, mostly brilliant, thinking soldiers into account.” And she agreed: “I’d say that’s what the title says, really — In Vietnam, nobody cared about the FNG [fucking new guy], and it seems as if the guys could opt out of getting to know people they knew they’d lose. These guys got to the point where they didn’t care about the war, but cared deeply about each other.”

None of this chat prepared me for the book itself — which I recommend highly, but also recommend keeping a box of tissues nearby. I had to stop reading for days on end because I kept crying: because she has made me care about Oscar Avila, More Campos, Ross McGinnis — and then she blew them up, or rather the war did.

I can’t even choose passages to quote, because just reading the names makes me well up. Go ahead and buy a copy, share it with everyone you know.

Last, two lessons for me from the book’s compelling writing:

First, she integrates the complexities of today’s PTSD challenges as well as anyone can — and keeps it close to the narrative. The medical professionals come off as both essential and often clueless about how to cope with these responses in the middle of a war zone. It’s stunning, actually.

Second, Kennedy does not appear as a character ONCE. Having just read another acclaimed book whose author kind of gets in the way of her story, I’m even more determined to keep my own details away from the book as a whole.kennedycover

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today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.

Two medical whistleblower stories today

Newest first: Mark Benjamin’s story about a Camp Lejeune psychiatrist who was booted after going public with concerns about PTSD treatment practices.

In one instance last April, for example, Manion warned Cmdr. Robert O’Byrne, head of mental health at the Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital, of “immediate concerns of physical safety” due to mistreated Marines teetering on the edge of violence. “There was — and continues to be — no means of discussion of high-intensity/dangerous cases,” he wrote. Later that month, Manion quoted to O’Byrne some Marine superiors who were calling troubled Marines “worthless pieces of shit” if they sought help.

Manion’s reward for raising important issues? He’s a contractor with Spectrum Healthcare, a company that touts a “gold star from the Joint Chiefs” on its website, which is itself a subsidiary of a corporation with over a million in DOD contracts and the Sesame Street-tinged name NiteLines Kuhana. Manion was pulled from Lejeune after a simple note from the DOD:

The contractor told Salon that the Navy ordered Manion fired on Sept. 3, four days after Manion wrote the inspectors general. “The treatment facility at Camp Lejeune notified [NiteLines] that Dr. Manion did not meet the Government’s requirements in accordance with the contract, and they directed he be removed from the schedule,” it reads. His termination dated that day notice provides no explanation.

Afterward, as the intrepid Benjamin (who must have more than one therapist for all his secondary PTSD, having exposed so much soldiers’ pain) learned, Manion’s positive evaluations appear to have been altered to make them negative, and the originals ordered destroyed. The uniformed dissenter here is the lieutenant commander who refused to play along, telling the base attorney that “Kernan Manion was considered clinically competent to practice general psychiatry…I had no specific concerns about his judgment or ethical conduct” and adding that he’d been ordered to sign the eval after “drastic” changes.

And from NPR yesterday comes another about physical illness, via  the invaluable Kelly Kennedy at Military Times.  She was talking about how in the first few years of our Iraq occupation, trash — including medical equipment and ordnance –was all going into burn pits, of the kind long banned in the U.S. because of health hazards. Kennedy said that when Military Times began to run articles about one such burn pit, in Balad, they received hundreds of letters from recent vets saying they were having breathing problems. (The headline in Army Times adds, somewhat unsurprisingly: “Officials deny risk.”)

When I think of Balad, of course, I think of all those “third-country nationals” I mentioned last month here, who are feeding and cleaning soldiers on those bases, many  under duress. But Congress finally got  involved, and Kennedy said optimistically to NPR:

I think in this case, you’ve got President Obama saying we’re not going to let this become another Agent Orange. You’ve got Congress calling for measures to be taken. You’ve got General Shinseki at the VA saying we’re going to take care of these guys. I think there’s enough people paying attention …and demanding help that it’s going to be taken care of.

Do you agree? And what would constitute “taking care” of it?

In an odd way I don’t envy the guys trying to shush these whistleblowers. The task of simultaneously caring well for a community of two million-plus scattered all around the world while running two wars — even if you outsource the taking-care part — is not just a “challenge,”  especially when a substantial portion of that caring is about cleaning up after your own mess.

But the true compassion, as ever, is reserved for the guys who took a pledge just as sacred as the military oaths in question. Remember “do no harm?”