It seems egotistical and obnoxious, writing your own memoir. And a self-portrait on the cover?!? C’mon, really?
Reasonable as those sentiments may be, and believe me I’ve experienced them over this, there are reasons behind the project which I hope will expiate me. The project was borne out of necessity, and from there it evolved.
At first I simply kept a journal. I was in country, in the war, and many nights before I could sleep I sat on my haunches in a chair in our tent and typed away for all I was worth. I had to record what this was, what had happened there, what they’d done, what we’d done. I didn’t know else what to do with it all. I’d jog five or six miles in the desert almost every day, I’d talk with my company mates who became so dear to me it’s indescribable, but it wasn’t enough. You absorb this energy and it’s got to go somewhere. I had to place it somewhere.
And then when I got home I went back to writing. More thoughts would pop into my head in the day and at night, like faeries, and before I forgot them all I had to capture them in print. I had to remember them. Then once I remembered everything I had to work it through, arrange, rearrange, get it right or as best as I could. And then I had to recognize all the people involved as best as I could before they all dissipated from memory too, like ghosts at dawn. Once I’d done all that it was probably two years down the road from returning.
Afghanistan 2009-2010 was stressful and intense and during that time I took every spare moment –and being “Medical” there were spare moments to be had– to write a story called “The End.” My father had always intended to write a book but he died before he ever got the chance so during that deployment although I didn’t really expect I’d be killed I figured to be safe I’d better get something down for my kids to have just in case. Was it melodramatic of me to feel that way? yes, as only a few doctors have died in these conflicts, but not zero doctors. Plus on a practical note when would I ever get that kind of time again?
After I got back I went to a writer’s conference in San Francisco regarding “The End” and aside from that book I was urged to work more on collecting those other notes from the war into a book of it’s own. After finishing work on “The End” I asked my editor (Ralph Scott), who was not a p’s and q’s guy, (he is a person who could read the whole thing, digest it, ask what it was I needed to communicate, and figure out the best way to communicate it) about the idea of a memoir on Afghanistan. He liked the idea and I gave him my first draft. He was a coach and a tough one at that. And halfway through the first draft he wrote me that he couldn’t read any more of it. It was that bad.
I got that kind of time again during the second tour to Afghanistan which came a couple of years later. During the interim between I’d spent a thousand hours writing and re-writing notes on the first deployment, and sent them back to Ralph. This time we had it right, and we moved forward from there. Another six or ten complete re-writes and we were done.
Earlier this month we had our 10-year (pushed back x2 years because of covid) 2nd MEB reunion, held in Quantico Virginia. The 2nd MEB received a Presidential Unit Citation hence the colors of the lanyards around our necks. That’s where having written the memoir, for the first time, really felt like it was worth all the effort. “Medical” is usually a black box: you send your troop, your best friend, your son in there fresh from the battlefield, something happens you don’t know what, and then you live with the results for the rest of your life. The memoir clarified for the Marines there, their families, and all the other concerned individuals what went on in “Medical.” I really felt that at the time, and across the entire reunion. “Citizen Surgeon” was about us; I had to be its protagonist as every book needs one, but it’s really about us as a group, doing our best to “negotiate the price for freedom.”
The most lasting memory of the reunion for me will be sitting amongst the Gold Star families at the Marine Corps parade at the 8th & I Barracks, and when the Star Spangled Banner was played by the Marine Corps Band, hearing hearing their voices as they sang along. What an incredible, amazing, patriotic, and giving group of people. I shall never forget them.
The invention of the internet is something as profound for humanity as Prometheus’ discovery of fire, and over time will be just as transformative. It’s a worldwide neural network, a communal brain for the globe, and more importantly a psyche for the entire globe.
What is that? what exactly is a “psyche” and how could it be one for the entire globe?
One could argue that the psyche is sourced out of the amygdala (a limbic system structure deep in the central brain mediating emotion and memory), but others might argue it’s somewhere in the frontal lobes (that moderate and govern mood, behavior, and social judgment). But no one –unless I am much mistaken and please comment if I am– has ever identified or proven the psyche has an actual, discreet, single locus within the human brain. Yet, metaphysical as it is, the psyche undeniably exists and exerts tremendous influence –or, rather than merely influence, it may be the deep source of who we really are… (whatever that means, “who we are”) and perhaps all that we ever do is really an expression of that psyche.
Anatomic events, such as strokes, dementia, tumors, and trauma (bifrontal hematomas, for example, after a bike crash with no helmet) can change a person’s psyche. Life events, such as loneliness, bereavement, changes in wealth (for better or worse) do the same. The psyche can be built up, and the psyche can break. But it’s not something you can physically touch. Nor can you view or image the psyche directly, not with CT, MRI, or even SPECT scanners. You cannot operate on a psyche the way you can with a rupturing appendix or a meningioma. But it’s there and it matters, nevertheless.
And if all the world is one collective organism, and if the universities and theaters and city halls and financial institutions, for example, constitute its neural network, then the internet is its psyche.
(1) Individual psyche: If you’re religious you might refer to a “psyche” as a manifestation of your “soul;” if you’re secular, you might say it’s your “mind.” If you look up the definition it will refer you first to Sigmund Freud (Id, Ego, and Superego) and next to ancient Greece (Psyche marries Eros). In other words, for something as central to our existences as whatever it is that constitutes the essence of our very selves, there’s not a whole hell of a lot to either localize or define it, clinically speaking.
Personally, I don’t go with the religious or the secular definitions. As for the religious, I believe a soul is more than a psyche: it existed before “me” and will exist after my body is dead, and if I develop schizophrenia for example and my psyche becomes deranged, does that similarly impugn my soul? Of course not. And as for the secular, I think the psyche is more than a clearing-house for the collective impulses of the human mind and body; it’s not some higher-level algorithm who’s function it is to assimilate dis-cohesive data and produce survival benefit for the species. It’s not simply a computer.
I take a more mystical view. The psyche is some magical thing: it’s an entity, all right, but not one like the others. Maybe it’s the interface between soul and mind? It’s fluid, and its boundaries are not distinct (my wife’s psyche and my own, for example, intersect like two colors in a rainbow), but it’s got a center and it’s got a periphery, it exerts influence in everything I do, and it’s likewise affected by everything i do. I have some element of control regarding what goes into it, but not complete.
(2) Collectivepsyche: We as individuals are separate creatures than we are in groups; so separate, it seems, as to be completely different organisms (ref: Lives of a Cell, by Lewis Thomas). A single bacterium will operate and behave along a completely different set of rules and objectives than it will follow when in a group or colony; a domesticated dog will be equally different than the same dog in a pack; humans in one-on-one can be unrecognizable in comparison to their public manifestations or mob mentalities. The group “psyche” is a different psyche. The internet psyche is a different psyche.
So here’s my final point, and there main point of the whole post: just as a individual brain has a gyri, sulci and corpus callosum (the corpus callosum is a large bundle of more than 200 million myelinated nerve fibers that connect the two brain hemispheres, permitting communication between the right and left sides of the brain), and these impact and govern the human being, and just as the human brain has this metaphysical “psyche” existing above and beyond all that, which, you might say, comprises “the real me”… collectively we’ve got the same thing: a metaphysical psyche spanning across all the members of the human species; and now that nearly every human on the planet is connected more or less directly to every other human on the planet through the internet, we’ve got a collective psyche like it or not, and that point is critically important to understand if we’re to make sense of its influence upon us, and if we’re to influence it back.
What just happened? How did it happen so fast? What did we do wrong? I’ll tell you what we did wrong, we didn’t think it through: You don’t get to leave; unless you lose. That should have been obvious from the start.
Post WW-II we’re still in Italy, Germany, Japan; post Korea we’re still in Korea; post Viet Nam we are out from there, but we’ll have to categorize that one as a “loss;” post Iraq we had to rush right back in, in 2016, to counter ISIS, and we’re still in Iraq today. And that, I suppose, is how it should be.
Afghanistan is and was important geopolitically, in terms of it existing in the center of Asia and as it happens in-between Iran and Pakistan; and culturally, in terms of bringing that group of 30+ million people into the modern family; not to mention the explicit reason for being there which was to prevent it being a privileged site for the harboring and nurturing of terrorist groups (now that we’re leaving, it will go right back to doing just that, I am quite sure).
But the instantaneous failure of our 20-year Afghan investment and the nightmare of its president skulking off before the war was even lost with truckloads of stolen cash in tow, this has given the whole world pause…
…so it should probably give every American pause, too… and we all together are asking the same question: “Is the USA the dominant influence across the globe any longer? If not, who is?”
Maybe we in the USA are too busy to think deeply about what just happened because we’re so mired in distracting, fatuous internal debates over whether vaccines actually work; or if the election, of which over the 245 years of our history we’ve done a bunch of times, was done right; or if the Earth is flat or not? This country of ours has become indulgent and foolish beyond description, we’ve lost our way, and it appears very likely that we are incapable of leadership maybe as the USA’s detractors allege… maybe we are too soft and weak and selfish to lead the world any longer?
We need to mature-up enough to stop our un-disciplined haggling in order to take-in what just happened. The catastrophe in Afghanistan isn’t just another news story in the 24/7/365 cycle of news stories. This is a national failure of epic proportion.
Afghanistan, my friends, was much more than a war. It wasn’t as if we just went there to blow up an enemy. This was a “Pygmalion” on a massive scale. We did take on enemies there and we did that part more or less brilliantly, but above and beyond that we also made a lot of promises to the 14 separate tribes comprising the Afghan people. Remember COIN (Counter-insurgency) Strategy? Clear, Hold, and Build? We built them a representative government. We built a lot of schools. We established a free press. We convinced them –some of them, at least– to believe in Western democracy and the institutions that make it viable. We built an Army and Air Force over there, one in our own image in fact, one that couldn’t function even for a single day without us or our contractors, in fact. What were we doing? We lost a lot of men and women over there and injured ten times more, and psychologically impacted even more than that. And that’s just on our side. We had many coalition partners. We had Afghan partners. We spent $2 trillion dollars. And then it lasted ten, eleven days after we pulled out? And we didn’t see that coming? How could that be? What did we do wrong?
Was the plan to stay there forever? It might have been. It only makes sense that way. Hey, what WAS the plan, by the way. Oh yes, the Neo-cons: Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, and the lot. A quick victory in Afghanistan, to be followed by a quick victory in Iraq, and at that point we’ve got both sides of Iran covered, and we can control the Middle East. Or it was something other than that?
What is the plan now?
The fact is, somebody has to be the leading culture and force on this planet; for a little while it was us. World War II was very much about that –who would it be? The Axis or the Allied powers?– as were the wars in Korea and Viet Nam: Communism versus Capitalism. The duel is playing out still, but in a more civilized way, with respect to China’s ascendent-power “Belt and Road” initiative. And like it or hate it, our “War on Terrorism” was an attempt to bring the stickiest places on the globe a step forward.
Marx had famously predicted with the rise of Industrialization that economic development would follow that logic and move from undeveloped country to undeveloped country until all of the cheap labor sites on the planet had been exhausted, and only then would the workers of the world have more of a say in their conditions and circumstances. You gotta hand it to the guy, he had that part correct.
The terrorist phenomenon introduced the same kind of logic, which was that troubled places, like the unindustrialized ones before them, needed to be brought up to date in order for the rest of the world to be able to live in a truly modern era. Failure or not in Afghanistan (and although we’ve pulled out, the final chapter on that place is definitely not written, just yet) the job continues on. And who is going to lead it, if not US?
I suppose it’s because it was the backdrop of my youth, born in 1967, that the war was a tunnel from which I exited. Mom, Dad, and my six older brothers and sisters were, of course, more close to it than I. Dad served in Korea; not in Viet Nam. But my oldest brothers had to register for the draft when they turned 18 and the political winds that had blown so strongly before, they were still around when I was a kid. I was only at the back end of the hurricane, something lightly felt, as the bulk of the storm had already passed me by and calmer, brighter skies were assuredly ahead.
The Viet Nam War became personally relevant when I joined the military in my young adulthood. I came into the uniform in 1990, long before the September 11, 2001 wave that opened up the new era of military service. So I naturally read about Viet Nam war to try to gain a sense of the group I was joining.
Working where I do now at a combined Veterans Administration – Department of Defense hospital, meeting and getting to know so many Viet Nam vets, that has re-kindled a fascination with the problems and intent of the Viet Nam war. These men (mostly men, some women) paid the real price for our then-opposition to Communist ideology. Looking at the entirety of it from a U.S.-centric point of view, as we “Americans” often do, I never realized the war and its aftermath was ten, a hundred times worse for the Vietnamese people than it was for us. I also never heard how bad the Communism we had fought turned out to be for the Vietnamese people, after the war was lost. I still don’t really know; I’ve read books on the subject as an amateur with an interest, and that’s about it.
I didn’t realize I was back into another phase of reading about the war until I recently finished, “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. That novel dovetailed nicely with a history of Viet Nam that I finished maybe a year ago, entitled appropriately enough, “Viet Nam, A History.” This was by Stanley Karnow, and was a historian’s work that began well before our engagement there.
The Sympathizer was about a South Vietnamese Army double-agent (a Communist agent). It’s all I’ll say about it other than it deserves to be as lauded and it deserved its Pulitzer Prize. Karnow’s book – a must read to understand the backdrop, the history of the country.
“Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes is an incredible read. If Karnow’s history gives a basic outline of epochs, places, historical movements, and moments of great importance to the country’s history, concentrating the most upon the recent epochs of the French colonialism and war, followed by the Capitalism versus Communism epochal battle which the country hosted in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, then Marlantes’ story of a “fictitious” Marine Corps Captain, fighting in the in the jungle and on the mountains, gives an up front, blood in your eyes / slugs on your skin view of the experience. I did it as a book on tape, and the actor(s) doing the reading – magnificent. It’s a five-star, must read. Marlantes’ personal story is interesting, too.
“Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam” is really important for anyone to read if you want to know how we screwed up our part so badly – meaning, we screwed it up from the top. My only criticism of it is that if I recall it left General Westmorland (’64-’68 / Gulf of Tonkin / “war of attrition”) off the hook somewhat; I’ve no personal knowledge of these things myself, but books that I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to (occasional Vets in my VA) convey the distinct impression that he’d fought one war too many.
And then there was “A Great Place to have a War: America in Laos and the birth of a Military CIA.” If you’ve an interest this is a fascinating read insofar as I had NO idea of the Communist reality there, despite one of my good childhood friends being a refugee from Laos and the communist takeover.
No Viet Nam War book discussion would be complete without either Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” or Eugene Burdick + William Lederer’s “The Ugly American.” Despite the similarities of the titles, they’re two COMPLETELY different books. Yet both of them are iconic and deservedly classics in the field. Greene, a British author and former MI6 agent, deftly depicts our pre-war CIA efforts as earnest and heartfelt but misguided, insufficiently informed and… arrogant. Burdick & Lederer’s book meanwhile, characterizes that SE Asian effort so completely that it apparently became standard reading for all Peace Corps volunteers for decades. Both are in the “must read” category.
And there should be no skipping Ken Burns, “The Vietnam War.” This I think you should go to this one last because it’s so extremely powerful and gripping, and also because it’s so engrossing that if you go to it first you might believe you know all you need to about it, however impossible that may be.
My last point on this is that contemporary society has probably largely forgotten about the Communist problem, that bugaboo that was our existential threat / mortal enemy one generation ago, as had been the fascism of the Nazi war machine one generation prior to that. (As a side note: without this external existential threat, we seem to have taken to tearing one another apart within our country.) Just how bad is Communism? It seems to be a question we’ve forgotten to ask.
It’s been ages since I’ve posted, and that’s for a variety of reasons. One, I had nothing to say.
This, my friends, is definitely worth your time: Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt is a new (~25 yrs ago) book that absolutely blows your mind with its magnificence.
The genius of it is in how it absolutely brings you in and makes you care so very much. While you’re reading it (I listened to it on audio: Mr. McCourt read it aloud) you are deep inside this profoundly difficult, soul-challenging world of his childhood. And as soon as you park the car and leave for work you’re stuck inside yours; but at the end of your workday you get to climb back in your car and while your hands and feet are fighting your way through traffic, your mind and soul are back with young Frankie McCourt, starving, wet, with chronic bacterial conjunctivitis and an unbreakable resiliency. And the book engenders the queerest phenomenon: you want to be there.
And that’s saying a lot, because the 1930’s & 40’s Limerick of Frank McCourt’s childhood was brutally poor, rain-soaked, cold, diseased, and hard. To make matters worse Frankie’s Dad had that peculiar affliction in which he could love his family dearly and at the same time desert them completely for the drinking. How did they come out okay? Well first of all, plenty of them died: Of starvation, disease, hard times. But the survivors, what was their magic? One of Frank’s teachers summarized it by explaining to his students that they may be shoeless and poor on the outside but in their minds, it’s a palace. Their families, and their neighbors, and their storekeepers who gave them food on credit, and their schoolmasters who refused to quit despite the poverty, and their culture together somehow pulled them through. And their inner resilience.
Their humanity. This book is an exploration of it. Despite the most difficult circumstances one could suffer they didn’t collapse, they didn’t embitter, they took care of one another. That’s the most amazing part.
His father, “like the holy trinity,” had three parts: his father in the morning was caring and doting and story-telling and intimate, and in the afternoon a husband and family man a great father, and then Friday nights with the paycheck he became the guy who went out drinking, missing work next /getting fired / family back on the dole or begging. How could he abandon the family to destitution and starvation…? a sort of “Mr. Hyde” kind of regular transformation.
A priest, FINALLY, as most of them were worthless, came through in the end (actually the second-to-last priest in the book was the one who came through; the last wasn’t bad, he was only looking after Frank’s eternal soul, but was not as good as the second to last, anyway), redeeming at least in part the enormous investment all the families of Limerick and of Ireland had made into the church by granting Frank forgiveness. He did it with the authority that only someone of his stature can do. It was forgiveness for the sorrows he’d suffered, for his human condition.
Frank’s resiliency seemed inborn and prodigious. You almost envy his endless sorrows because you definitely respect his ability to rise above them. But it’s the farthest thing in the world from a self-congratulatory book. Survival constitutes the climax.
Personally, half my own family relates back to Limerick (of just 30 yrs prior to McCourt’s; and the other half to County Cork next door); the promise of “America” rings through and helps me understand what my forefathers must have been suffering in order to make them leave when they did. And I suspect they had circumstances about as desperate. We’re lucky to be in America.
The damn book makes me feel incredibly rich even though by contemporary American standards we’re not. But compared to 1930s Limerick, Ireland, we’re magnates.
Incredible book. Five stars. I hope everyone reads it. Or even better listens to it on audio, because then you get Frank McCourt’s voice as well.
It’s an incredible city. Flying back home from it yesterday, landing at O’Hare airport, I looked at our beloved Chicago –flat, expansive, with Lake Michigan and the gleaming downtown beneath us– and it struck me how unbelievably different the two cities are.
Our college, Loyola University of Chicago, has a campus in Rome named, appropriately enough, LU Rome Campus or LURC, and a student can go there for essentially the price of the airline tickets there and back. So I went for a semester in my junior year. Now our daughter is in Rome for a semester (but not at LURC), and if she’s lucky enough to have children someday, perhaps those kids can go there, too!
We landed at 0730 at the Rome-Fiumicino airport, which is between Rome (“La Roma”) and the eastern port of Ostia. We taxied into our hotel, which was in the Piazza della Rotunda beside the Roman Pantheon. The Pantheon was built by the emperor Hadrian (75-126 AD), who was one of Rome’s “Five good emperors” according to [this next sentence borrowed from Wikipedia] the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, in his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. [He] opined that their rule was a time when “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. Gibbon believed these “benevolent dictators” and their moderate policies were unusual and contrasted with their more tyrannical and oppressive successors.
Hadrian, if I remember correctly from my favorite podcast Mike Duncan’s “The History of Rome” [http://thehistoryofrome.com], chose not to occupy the recently conquered Persia and “Dacia” (mostly Romania and Moldova, in modern day) because he thought it would sap the empire of its strength to attempt it, and instead he concentrated on solidifying the already huge empire he had under his definitive control. He personally traveled through / visited the entire empire (and built “Hadrian’s wall b/w Scotland and England, for example), built a massive temple of Venus and Roma, and, he re-built this ancient Pantheon, which had burned down. He crushed a rebellion in Jerusalem, if I remember, and when the Romans crushed a rebellion they generally took the “crush” to an extreme (“The Romans create a desert and call it peace” the saying went), so Jewish history probably doesn’t consider Hadrian a “benevolent dictator” at all, and for good reason.
Anyway, the massive columns of the Pantheon were single pieces of stone, mined in Egypt, and brought over by special boats constructed for the purpose. The dome was massive and has not been upgraded in 2000 years, and between the fall of Rome (475ish) and the building of the Duomo in Florence (15th century), not another dome comparable to it was ever built. Think about it, with only pulleys and slaves, how did they make something this big, this perfect, this durable, 2000 years ago? Could any building we build today last that long?
And that was just one of a great many buildings! We visited the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, which was again absolutely mind-blowing. A question I had when a student in college was how could they justify building such magnificent structures when the rest of Europe was starving (late middle ages)? But the answer comes to me thirty years later, when I visit again, noting that the Vatican has 11,000,000 visitors EVERY year. It’s been drawing crowds since before St. Martin Luther’s time. Yes the Church has gone to excesses that can justly be criticized, but on the flip side that kind of magnificence and draw has brought Catholics and non-Catholics deeper into Catholicism for centuries, it brings us together, and creates permanency, and it makes a great difference; when the basilica was constructed, the majority of the population was illiterate but this glorious architecture and art was immediately comprehensible, and this fifty-year-old me respects it much more than the twenty year old punk ever did.
The church is so fantastic you have to visit the place, repeat, you HAVE to visit the place, to begin to comprehend it. Here is the link to the official site, which I like a lot. http://www.vaticanstate.va/content/vaticanstate/en/monumenti/basilica-di-s-pietro/basilica.html.
Following day we visited the Roman Forum and Colosseum, which, as an ancient Rome buff, I absolutely loved. Meg and the kids loved it as well. We had a charming Italian PhD in Archeology named Sara as our guide for both the Vatican City/St. Pietro, and the Forum, and she gave the historical context and significance to everything there. When I was in Rome in college I took a class on the Forum, and we went there once a week; the progress made over the past 30 years in the area I thought was pretty substantial, and touring the area is even better now than before. I just find it extremely fascinating to be standing in the area where, 2,000 years before, the ancient Romans were busy creating the basis of Western Civilization (I’m not trying to discount the ancient Greeks, or the Persians, but I cannot get into all that, here!)
We went to a AS Roma soccer game at Stadio Olympico, a European Champions Cup game against Shakhtar (from Ukraine), and we sat in the south section of the stadium next to the “Ultras,” which is their rabid fan club. Huge flags, drums, chanting, flares and constant songs filled the air during the entire game. When Roma scored their only goal in the 1-0 victory (which advanced them in the tournament) the fans erupted into pure insanity. Very exciting.
Lastly, to keep this from getting too long, would be the city itself. Wandering the streets, visiting restaurant after restaurant, some average, a number of them absolutely outstanding, that was as much a joy as any other aspect of the entire trip!
“For my 18th birthday I will go skydiving, and my wish is that my loving, faithful Dad would jump with me.”
So that’s how it started. This is about a month ago.
I tried ignoring the subject for as long as possible but the little tyke –strike that, my mistake– the young lady was intent upon doing this. I don’t know what exactly skydiving represented for her other than one of those hurtles she simply had to cross, a test of courage, a flight from the nest, but I do know she felt strongly about it.
I thought if I acted unaware and oblivious she might find other means for branching out but the idea proved to have staying power and the subject found its way back into her conversations over the next few weeks much more than could be expected from mere random chance. My wife’s resistance was the first to crack.
“Paul, Dear, will you take Maeve skydiving?” My Megan, who erstwhile was believed to love me, asked it innocently enough as if we’d fit it in between dropping some things off at the post office and taking another kid to the mall.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to do it yourself?” I asked, not really expecting much –not getting much, either–
“No,” she explained, “I think it’s one of those ‘Dad’ jobs.”
So be it, a “Dad-job” it is.
The Saturday morning we climbed into the mini-van and Meg drove us out an hour west on I-80, from Chi to Ottawa Illinois, to a place she’d researched and found called “Skydive Chicago.” The unreality of what we were about to try was enough that, aside from some non-specific jitters, it was pretty much a normal drive out. The sun shone lovingly, there was the occasional gentle breeze but no gusts, and inside our aluminum, terrain-based motorized vehicle that could move forward and in reverse but no side-to-side and no up-down, we chatted and laughed.
It all got real when we parked next to the hangar. Being a lovely day and also a few weeks prior to the “Skydiving World Championships” being hosted by SkyDive Chicago, the hangar was as populated and busy as an Army jump school, although there were considerably more colors exhibited in the civilian hangar than a military one would have, and far more latitude with respect to haircuts and clothing options than one might wear in a military context. Yes as you might expect it was a unique, diverse group of people assembled, no two hairstyles alike, no two outfits or tattoo patterns or skydiving gear alike, but all somehow united in their separateness. Either the common person doesn’t jump out of aircraft, or the common person does but in prepping for the occasion dresses for it with panache equal to the moment. Me I dressed my normal drab, and Maeve as her sporty, high-school self.
I could now see Meg getting a bit nervous about launching her only husband and one of her three daughters out of the fuselage of an aircraft, I could sense her reconsideration of the wisdom of such a proposal, and she said as much to me when she whispered, “Maybe I shouldn’t have arranged this?”
“I’m glad you arranged this” I lied, “it’s what life is about.” What exactly I meant with that I’m still considering.
But when we’d signed in at the front desk and went back to the hangar and identified said aircraft parked about 50 yards away there on the tarmac, Maeve and I got a bit jumpy about the event, too.
We geared up and met our jumpers and photographers (first time one jumps, hiring a photographer is simply a must) and we rehearsed the jump and walked out to the plane together. Maeve had occasional shivers on her arm, like a horse might twitch her foreleg muscles, and for me I showed my agitation by becoming unaware of the usual distance between hip joint and ground surface, making my steps and footfalls either too short or too long, as if I were blindfolded on and walking on uneven ground.
Clomp, clomp, clomp. My feet marched toward the flying machine. The propellor blades were spinning, and the familiar heat and oil-tainted air emanating from the turboprop turbines filled the space immediately about the aircraft, we stepped up and into the fuselage and sat criss-cross on the padded floor. Us first-time jumpers had a real skydiver attached to our backs, kind souls who’d ensure we would reach the ground alive and walk away from the landing zone without fractures or concussions, and i couldn’t have been happier for either us if it had been Santa and Mrs. Claus guarding our safety.
Another brief case of the shivers hit Maeve and with the sight of them her father instantaneously experienced two powerful, ambivalent sensations: I’m a good father for expanding her horizons and abilities with this; I’m the worst father ever for bringing my precious daughter to jump to her death.
She jumped first. Watching that was a brief, sheer, deeper-than-conscious terror. It was the same level of terror that I felt when during her during birth I thought her oxygen had been deprived (it hadn’t, but for a few terrible moments I thought it had). She didn’t falter at the precipice. Goodby, Maeve. Come back, Maeve!
Out she went. I thought, “Well, if she dies, I might as well die too.” I was much less nervous about my own prospects than about my daughters, but still nervous. My skydiving buddy had to readjust my posture and then off we went to the edge.
The moments preceding my own turn to jump had been surreal moments, at once beatific and nightmarish, they had been focus upon / oriented around my daughter Maeve in front of me, my wife Meg on the ground, and our other children at home; this next moment, the one where nothing else was interposed between me and the open side of that airplane, in my mind and heart it projected toward no one other than myself, just me here now and God above and the nice gentleman strapped to my back who I knew was there nevertheless I still felt alone with my destiny. It may sound hyperbolic to describe it in those terms however with the wind and the altimeter needle at 13,000 feet and the view in front and my daughter’s precipitous descent into invisibility below and it was my turn now there were people behind me so shuffle forward don’t show fear don’t balk you asked for this, it was pure and plain “no-shit” moment, now or never.
Time to drop. Willing yourself forward out of your safe spot after staring at the atmosphere’s horizon and the table of clouds underneath, looking at the firm Earth far below that, that is an equation that just doesn’t square up as if 1 + 1 = infinity or zero. You look outward, and you know it’s wrong and in opposition to your best interests but with a surge of free will you do it anyway, and then, falling out of the sky at a thousand feet per five seconds, gravity impresses the heck out of you.
You’re like your own high-school physics lab: you experience acceleration, then you’re weightless, then you feel the air resistance smushing the skin of your face into a mask or an imprint, you know you have a forward or “x” force vector given to you by the plane’s forward motion, plus a downward or “y” force vector given to you by the Earth’s gravitational pull, and then the chute comes up and you practically halt in comparison, and you do games with the ropes to twist and steer and seek out your landing zone, and you pull on the stays to slow up maximally right before you land, and you touch down on the grass and slide to a halt.
Maeve and Meg and I all hugged, we thanked our parachuting partners and our photographers (I am awful: I thought I’d remember their names forever so I didn’t record them at the time, and now I’ve forgotten them and the staff photos aren’t on their website), got in the car and drove home.
Was it worth it? Not the money I mean (it wasn’t expensive, actually) but the risk? Yes absolutely. For a moment you chuck your life away and it’s fabulous. There’s a guy strapped to your back to save it for you, but despite him there you execute the drill for yourself in the act you’ve released yourself from everything. And as the song goes, “If you love some[thing], set them free.”
Taking on writing is a rougher task than I expected. Sure, I knew the writing would be a tough slog, but what compounds it is that for each bit of writing there’s a ton of research. Like a boxer getting ready for a fight. HOWEVER the research can be fascinating whether you’re trying to learn about parallel universes (if they exist, how they exist, do only crackpots or do serious physicists think they exist), or how contemporary Iran is a direct result of US intervention (CIA deposed their talented secular leader Mosaddegh in 1953 in order to prop up BP oil interests) or taking an online class in Shakespeare to try to learn/remember what exactly is so amazing about his work. This morning’s goal was to look into the Nazi SS.
Memory: I’ll never, ever forget touring Auschwitz camp in 1988, where 3 million people (90% Jewish) were heinously assassinated (I can’t bring myself to use the word “exterminated” but that’s probably the right word) before and during WWII. (http://auschwitz.dk/Auschwitz.htm) There’s nothing like walking through the actual death camp and being physically, mentally, spiritually present in the evil place. Poland was communist then, and traveling within a totalitarian state was intimidating, probably riskier than I realized (or than I shared with my Mom who allowed the trip), but fascinating as well. It took me/us out of the oblivion of Middle Class America forever and into a world where groups like the KGB or Gestapo had once reigned supreme. It also made me realize that any country, including our own, could spin out of control in a similar fashion, given the right/wrong circumstances.
So the point of the last month has been to support the Marine Corps in one of their exercises. This one has been held in the Philippines, on the island of Luzon, in a place called Crow Valley.
Here’s a picture of the valley up above. Interestingly, the valley has changed over time. Can you see how there are the mountains and then see how flat, like a table top, all the land between them is? That is because of what is not pictured, Mount Pinatubo, which is a volcano. About 20- 25 yrs ago it went off and dumped lava and ash everywhere. One of the U.S.M.C. officers remembers 25 yrs ago prior to this and he described the valley being a normal valley, and when we spoke to some of the locals they described what it was like to be there when it erupted: they were running for their lives when it happened. You can absolutely see how the valley filled up with liquid lava, which then changed phase into a solid as it cooled off. Also there’s ash everywhere. Geology in action. Pretty interesting.
What really is a military exercise? It’s a staged practice ground in which one military visits another (and there might be other, maybe many, nations involved), and they practice shooting weapons, landing on beaches, navigating through mountains or whatever. Nephew 1st Lieutenant (name intentionally left blank) just finished an exercise in Norway in which they practiced cold weather ops. This one, called “Balikatan,” has been held in the PI where we’re practicing hot (95 degrees + 95% humidity), humid, buggy ops.
The participating militaries do a dress rehearsal of sorts for real events, and also familiarize themselves with their old weapon systems, practice with new ones, and importantly they get to work together with the militaries of other participating nations and become tighter, more functional allies. They do these every year here, in Australia, Thailand, Korea, and loads of other places around the world and around the calendar. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, they go from exercise to exercise and train up for trouble in case it ever visits.
Our relationship with the Philippines is of great strategic and political importance. It’s in a key area of the world, adjacent to shipping lanes as well, and the nation itself is important to us. As a country it’s pretty unique: 7,000 islands, many different cultures and influences. It’s got an elected, representative form of government, and economically and infra-structurally it would probably be classified as an “emerging nation” status.
The Navy and the Marine Corps are like fraternal twins… very tight. Marine corps has Infantry, Logistics, and Aviation, that’s it; no medical, dental, nursing, etc. That’s where our group came in.
We initially staged in Okinawa because that’s where 3rd Medical Battalion is housed (ref: last update). We were supposed to take this contracted vessel 1,500 km over the South China Sea from Oki to the PI. The boat is called a “High Speed Vessel” but the troops have nicknamed it “the Vomit Comet” because unless the seas are very calm it is a rocky ride, but the seas were too rough for that and so we had to fly over instead. Rather than a 36 hr ride on a shallow-hulled boat we got a two hour ride on a Boeing 767. The change in transpo offers me a lot less to write about with respect to the trip out, but I’ll take the deal. Plus, as a “Captain” I got to sit in one of the first class seats, which was tres bonne.
We landed at Clarke AFB (Air Force Base) which is now a Philippine Air Force Base and I don’t know if they’ve changed the name or not. Of course it had to be in the middle of the night. Why does it always have to be in the middle of the night? It’s useful to think of ourselves as so many pieces of gear, and pieces of gear don’t care if they’re flying in the day or in the night or whenever it might be.
We grabbed our real gear and loaded it into the trucks you see on the left of the photo up above, which were parked for us right outside the hangar. Then we took a bus for a two hours’ journey out to Crow Valley. The first hour was highway, the second hour was a road to the military base.
That road was a two-lane jobbie with a shoulder on either side of at least ten centimeters, and a sidewalk. It had the usual assortment of third-world sharp turns and we had a third-world bus driver who negotiated the turns at a decent clip. The street was for everybody, not just busses and cars but bikes, pedestrians, stray dogs, and people up at all hours. It was a lifeline, kind of how a river might be, and there were small storefronts all along the way selling anything from chips and fruit to bicycle parts and auto repair shops.
We got to the camp and de-bussed, married back up with our gear, got our brief specifying the usual behavior expectations such as no drinking no etc, etc, and lugged our gear into our tents and by this point it was 0400 hrs. We were up by 0630 hrs or so, the sky brightening, the roosters crowing (they don’t just crow once like in the movies, they do it over and over, and over, and over), trucks driving outside our tents, radios blaring with philippine radio announcers and music. Time to brush my teeth, have a breakfast (a prepackaged thing called an “MRE” which stands for “Meals, Ready to Eat” in military parlance), lay on my mat again for a short spell, and be up again and ready to muster at 0900.
For the first few days the camp was busy getting set up. Literally, they had finished bulldozing the area maybe a week or two prior and all the white tents were erected by contractors after that and before our arrival, but all the gear that the U.S.M.C. and the Army (U.S.A.) were going to use, the trucks, light armor, tanks, ammunition, supplies, that all needed to be brought in. So day and night trucks were arriving, unloading, and departing, snorting and beeping like it was a shipyard.
There are about 1,200 people here now so for the most part quarters are pretty tight. At first I was alone and also had no cot (none of us did) and so slept on the plywood floor. Being tired enough it wasn’t such a problem. I strung a bit of 550 chord across the corner to hang clothes and blankets on to dry out, and did not snack in the room as that would bring bugs which would bring mice which would bring snakes which would scare the crap out of me. No communication with home at all the first five days, and only a very brief text with them about once a week since. Every day I take my malaria tablet. Fortunately I’ve not seen any female anopheles mosquitoes (the kind that deliver malaria) but there’s also Dengue Fever, chichumunga, Typhoid fever, leishmaniasis, amebiasis to keep an eye out for (we haven’t had any snakes or rats or anything else, so far). The biggest risk is the heat and the humidity of the air, and the E. coli of the water.
Our medical tents arrived the day before the exercise was to start, actually it was the evening, so we were up most of the night setting them up so as to be ready for business in time for the next day. We did it! (I’m there in blue)
Fortunately, no major injuries throughout the whole exercise, just some heat-related illness and one water-buffalo that got accidentally blown to smithereens. Did I mention it’s hot? Yes it’s hot. Tropical hot. Latitude we’re 15 deg north of the equator (and 120 deg east of Greenwich line longitude) and right across the South China Sea from Viet Nam. Anyway we sweat like beasts (up top is a pic of a beast – it’s a water buffalo, lots of those around these parts). Base had no showers the first five or so days, so it got pretty funky. However you get used to it. We have an ER tent, an OR tent, a Patient Holding tent, and a Dental tent. They’re all connected to one another and we have power and A/C. All the gear comes in pre-arranged boxes, called AMOL’s, and these are loaded into big Conex boxes, and we unload the AMOLS and in them are all the gear we need for operating and seeing emergency patients. The medicines are in cloth suitcases that unzip and we hang off 550 chord strung around the circumference of the inner aspect of the tent. The OR table is a metal frame upon which we lay the stretchers and then can operate, stabilize and transport.
We did a number of drills to get everyone ready and build up our team, and they’ve gone better every time. I’m impressed with our “OIC” (Officer in Charge) and how well she’s organized this entire thing and got all 33 of us working together, and with our fellow officers and especially our Corpsmen. I cannot tell you how great it is to get to know them and to work with them. The photo below is just a MEDEVAC exercise we did in conjunction with some Army medics. The “patient” will be flown out in the Army helicopter (photo up above).
After about four days the cots finally arrived, more people arrived, and then for a few days I shared my tent with a few Marine Colonels and one Sergeant Major who were really interesting, pleasant guys, affable, gentlemanly, I can’t say enough positive things about them. What I found most interesting was listening them speak with one another and within the context of their conversations they habitually wove in references to all their junior officers and enlisted consistently making mention of their juniors’ professional development. Their culture of continuous attention being paid to the development of their juniors is second nature with them. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in other aspects of the professional world and one of my favorite aspects of the Marines.
Anyhow, that’s probably about enough on the exercise for now. Will update later, as needed. All the best,