Dear Mr. Snowden

I wrote this letter nearly a year ago, in the hope that Edward Snowden — unlikely to talk to a minor journo like me – would answer some questions to help me make my portrait of him as accurate as possible, (if not as three-dimensional as Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning one, or Oliver Stone’s will be). Posted now as part of that effort, and in the hope you might know some of the answers too.AintMarchincoverbyAlex

Dear Mr. Snowden,

I can only write this as a letter to you — as a writer to whom your story is important, both for what it’s done for our democracy AND as part of the story in a book I’ve been working on for far too long. At the bottom of this memo are some questions based on what I’ve already gleaned; if you could say anything in response to them, I’d be even more in your debt than I already am as a U.S. citizen.

About the book, and why I think you belong in it: I first signed a contract (with University of California Press) in 2007 for the book, entitled I Ain’t Marching Anymore. It’s a history of soldiers who dissent, whose honor roll starts with the War of 1812 and includes Dan Ellsberg, Chrlsea Manning, Bobby Seale and Bayard Rustin. I’ve long been intrigued by people who at one point or another in their lives was part of the U.S. military and went on to make real social change; that fascination started when I was a counselor on the G.I. Rights Hotline, where my job was to answer questions from young men and women who’d signed up to be part of something bigger by enlisting in the miitary.

By the time they talked to me they usuallly wanted out, for reasons ranging from conscience to medical issues to abuse, and taught me there wasn’t that much difference between me (an idealist writer-activist) and these folks who were equally earnest and needed help.

Ain’t Marchin began when, years later, I proposed to folks at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism that I write a book about the Hotline, and was instead charged with a history that includes the vets I worked with, John Kerry et al., and the newest generation of post-9/11 vets.(A sense of my overall approach is in this piece I did for the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism: http://www.ochbergsociety.org/soldierswhodissent/.)

The book has required hundreds of interviews, document research, and reporting on the post-9/11 scene. When you first met with Laura Poitras and the others, I was trekking back ans forth to Fort Meade, MD, as trial proceedings began in the trial of Chelsea (nee Bradley) Manning. So many of these servicemembers and vets have often used language similar to yours in interviews, insisting that the country they signed up to serve live up to the values they learned doing so.

As instinctively supportive of your work as I was from the beginning, it took awhile for me to piece together,from press reports, that I could include you, since your career of service began with you brief time training for the Special Forces before you were injured and went to the CIA. I’m writing to ask if i can learn some more from you on that experience. and what parts of it remained with you as your own story moved forward

I know you don’t identify as a soldier, but I do think you’d find some common ground with the Iraq/Afghan vets I’ve been talking to for years — like those in this Al-Jazeera America op-ed http://america.aljazeera.com/opinis/2014/11/iraqveteransagainstwarisis.html. I know an interview is near-impossible, but it felt irresponsible for me not to TRY to touch base with you before I finished writing narrative that includes you.

In addition to those provided, you can see other clips on my portfolio site at http://chrislombardi.me; I can also give you references from Samuel Freedman at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism (in whose Book Seminar the book was conceived) to editors at The Nation and my agent Sam Stoloff of Frances Goldin Literary Agency.

Thank you so much for reading this far. And for responding to the questions below, in as much detail or not as you care to. If you wanted to just talk your answers instead of writing them and could somehow get Ben or Jessamyn to send me the audio file, I swear I’d guard it with my life. I could also find a land line for you or someone (Ben?) to call into, if writing your responses just feels like too much work.

These questions are roughly in chronological order. I look forward to including Ed the soldier in my book to the fullest extent possible.

========================================================

Growing Up/Family

Your dad was a Coast Guard warrant officer; what was that like, growing up in a Coastie house? (My partner’s dad was also a CG warrant officer, much earlier).

  • Did he ever talk about it as a career path for you?

  • Did he ever tell you those CG Values of“honor, respect, devotion to duty?”

  • As your career has taken this maverick path, did he ever refer to his military background? How about when you were considering enlisting in 2004, or when you were in HI contemplating your most recent actions?

Recruitment and Training

  • Where exactly did you enlist? What were your ASVAB scores? How did they pitch Special Forces to you?

  • You were 20, and had been deeply impacted by the 9/11 attacks. You have said that “I still very strongly believed that the government wouldn’t lie to us, that our government had noble intent, and that the war in Iraq was going to be what they said it was, which was a limited, targeted effort to free the oppressed. I wanted to do my part.” Were you also deeply impressed with President Bush as commander-in-chief?

  • Did the recruiters mention specifically becoming a “ Special Forces Communications Sergeant,” so you could use your technical skills?

  • What are your initial memories of Fort Benning? How aware were you of areas outside your OSU – the reception battalion, the Warrior Transition Units, the School of the Americas?

  • How big were your drill sergeants?

  • Did they drill hard on those ‘Army Values’ – loyalty, duty, respect, personal courage, integrity, honor, selfless service? How seriously did you or they take them? Have you had occasion to think of them in the decade since? (Many of the young vets I know will rattle their “Values” off with a mixture of irony and not.)

  • Did you get to meet any serving SOF troops or Army Rangers? What were your impressions?

  • Did you have any opportunities to excel?

  • You’ve spoken of your disappointment w/yr fellow recruits: “Most of the people training us seemed pumped up about killing Arabs, not helping anyone,” you told Greenwald et al. Did you talk to anyone about your feelings – yr 1st Sgt or the chaplain?

  • When did the recruits learn the word “hajji” as shorthand for the enemy? Did they use it in training exercises?

  • Any particular chants stand out in your memory?

  • Were you ever bullied – either by peers or superiors? Were subsets of your training company ever singled out? Was there any sexual abuse going on w/that particular class of recruits?

  • Were your DIs or peers aware of your dissatisfaction with the racism you saw in some of training?

  • Did you break your legs in AIT or airborne? Any details you felt OK to share could be important.

  • What was your overall medical condition by this time, were you mostly fit?

  • How long did the discharge process take? Was there talk of recycling or transferring anywhere?

  • Did you stay in touch w/your family throughout training? How did they help you thtough?

  • What was your exact discharge characterization? Any chance I could see your DD214 (unlikely, I know…)

After discharge

  • You told WIRED that your military experience helped you get the job as a security guard at the CIA, which then discovered your IT potential. Was the mention of Ft. Benning on your resume mentioned when they hired you, then? Were those hiring you veterans?

  • At Langley, did you have access to SIPRNET and CIDNE?

  • You were in Geneva when the Iraq war started; you’ve said that many CIA ops were opposed to it, not just you. Were any of them veterans, or have kids serving?

  • When you went to Tokyo w/the CIA, where did you live? How aware were you of anti-U.S. sentiment on Okinawa and elsewhere?

  • What was your early response to the Wikileaks disclosures, and to the arrest of Private Manning?

  • You were in HI when Manning was held in isolation, forced to sleep naked, etc. Did any of his treatment bring on flashbacks to the worst aspects of BCT? When you were considering your own disclosures, how did his treatment influence your actions, if at all?

  • Was Booz Allen Hamilton full of ex-military types? What was that like for you?

Too many questions, I know, and some pushing the limits. Thank you for reading them and considering my request.

Congratulations again on all the well-deserved accolades for your incredible public service.

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

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?”