Endings and Beginnings
My real name is Seth. That is as good as you're going to get.
My name is Seth, and I am twenty-five years old. I come from a small town in rural Michigan, on the shores of Lake Huron. I am an aspiring writer. I consider myself a follower of Zen Buddhist philosophy. I have a wife of three years, whom I love very much. We have no children.
In the spring of 2004, I enlisted in the United States Army. At the time, the war in Iraq was still in its early stages, and I had a number of friends--some active-duty, some reserve--who were just coming home from their own stints fighting in the War on Terror. Why I joined, exactly, is hard to explain. Suffice it to say that I come from a long line of servicemembers, and that some part of me found myself lacking in not having partaken of the experience. Though I was always somewhat dubious about the true place of war in our society, some part of me felt guilt at seeing friends come home, bearing stories of a far-off place I had never seen. I felt guilt at not having shared their hardship. I found myself lacking for having not offered to share the burden.
So I joined. I enlisted in the Army Reserve, and in April of 2004 reported for Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Fourteen weeks later, I reported to my Reserve unit, located in the Michigan city of Marquette. I was young--a new soldier, proud of myself and my service. For a year, I did my duty with honor. I relished the pride my occupation gave me, and even lamented the days when I would return home from drill weekends and go back to my civilian job.
For that first year, things were good. I did my job to the best of my abilities. I argued with my friends about the value of military service, even in a time of war. But something was missing. I still felt as though what I was doing wasn't quite enough. I became aware that friends of mine on the active side were currently serving in Iraq. Finally, following a long series of discussions with my then-fiancee, we agreed that action had to be taken. I put in a Request of Conditional release, and re-enlisted as an Active-Duty soldier. I married my wife, "Anne," in late June of 2005. Four days later, I reported for active-duty, and was promptly sent to Germany.
For a time after that, there wasn't much to tell. I received sponsorship for my wife, and she soon joined me overseas. For the next year, I served with my unit as a 21C (Bridge Crewmember), training to build, maintain and inspect all classes of military bridge. I also served with distinction as my unit's Tax Advisor. It was sometimes a stressful life, with long hours, but I didn't complain. When we received orders to deploy to Iraq in the summer of 2006, I was afraid, of course, but I did not object. I resolved to be strong for my comrades, and for my wife. I put my affairs in order as best I could, and after a brief stint home visiting my family, I said goodbye to my friends and loved ones, and prepared myself for war. I deployed to the Middle East in September of 2006, and soon found myself stationed at Logistical Support Area Anaconda, just south of Balad, Iraq.
At first, I did my best. I was scared at times, but we all were. I did my best to be a good soldier, and I served with honor at places like Gator Swamp, Baqubah, and Taji. I even tried to record my experiences, and show them to the world at this blog--my blog. At the time, I knew that strict restrictions were placed upon soldier-journalists, and so fearing that my liberties might be constrained, I chose to post under pseudonym. My nom de plume, Milo Freeman, soon became my nom de guerre. I was proud of all I was doing overseas, even though the fear and separation were difficult to deal with. I trusted in my friends, and I hope that they trusted in me. We relied on each other to come back safe, and in this bond we survived. We all survived.
However, such survival did not come without cost. Our hours were long, and our workloads strenuous. The demands of the modern environment in Iraq are brutal, and so on many occasions my friends and I labored on with bad equipment, with poor leadership, and without sleep. At first I thought I was just complaining too much, but little by little I began to see things that disturbed me: poor mission planning, corruption among the NCO corps, a command chain that openly neglected our families and denied us spiritual support. I watched friends be repeatedly denied access to spiritual and mental health resources, only to have those friends be later ostracized when the demands of war became too much. I walked in to find my friend Brooks carving on himself with a knife. I watched friends' marriages crumble, while leaders and commanders stood glibly by, doing nothing. I watched soldiers be LIED to, deceived about why they couldn't go see a chaplain.
And it only got worse. I deployed several months before the start of what we now call "The Surge," that extra boost of 30,000 troops intended to pacify the region. It was a joke, and we all knew it. Those extra troops were us, simply extended for another three months, on top of all we had already suffered. The blow to our collective morale was crushing. Meanwhile, the months wore on, and the situation outside the wire grew ever more stark. Mortar and small-arms attacks jumped, and soon insurgents began to target the very structures we were put in place to maintain: bridges. With only two companies in theater to deal with the offensive, and one of those handling 80 percent of the workload, our injury, illness, and mental collapse rates soon skyrocketed. Missions where we worked 70+ hours without sleep became routine. We were worked to the bone, and crushed into the dirt, and when we objected, we were scorned, or even punished. Leaders neglected our safety and health, even as injury and attrition rates skyrocketed to over thirty percent. Eventually, the job became more likely to kill us than the enemy.
And it got worse for me, too. As I mentioned before, I am a Buddhist. I believe in the impermanence of all things, and in the power of Compassion to end Suffering. It was in this belief that I entered the warzone. I was a builder of bridges, I told myself. I was a healer, I was a doer of good. I soon came to realize that I was not. Outside the wire, or in the tower, or on "haji-watch," I came to see an Iraqi populace brutalized by war. They were poor, and sick, and hungry, and every day their casualties came rolling into our hospitals. We were always told not to trust the Iraqis. We were told that they would use our goodwill against us. And they no doubt did. But my experiences with those people--hungry, belabored, staring at us with sunken eyes and baleful glares--spoke to my very spiritual charter. I had to help them, I thought. We had to help them. But time and time again, we heard the litanies. Do not buy, sell, or give items to local nationals. I stood silent as men, women, children, even soldiers begged me for food, for clean water to drink, for basic hygiene supplies. All the while, inside the wire, civilian contractors made quadruple my income, annually, to say nothing of what they made over the locals. When I struggled to find a spiritual outlet for the conflict of interest I saw here, I found that there existed none. There is no room for a Buddhist in today's military, no matter what the recruiters tell you. And worse yet, as I struggled to reconcile my spiritual conflicts with my duties, I found that I could not. I became lonely, angry, bitter. I began to grow disillusioned. What am I doing here, I asked myself? Is this justice? Is this Compassion?
As it turns out, it didn't matter. The months dragged on, and by May I found out that we had been extended. The leadership didn't trust us to tell our families: no, they told our families for us. The feeling of that phone call, of hearing Anne sobbing on the phone, made me want to scream and rage at my command chain. All this work, all the hours without rest, without sleep, and for what? Nothing changed in the Fertile Crescent. Insurgents attacked our bridges, we worked to restore them, only to have them destroyed again. Nothing changed, nothing got better, and all the while I found myself powerless to do anything to really help. People still died outside the wire, while inside people grew fat and rich. Soldiers still struggled, died, and watched their families collapse. And on the news? Nothing. A blurb on the ticker about Iraq, at most. The American people forgot about us; they saw what we went through and then changed the channel to American Idol. The only sign that they remembered us? An occasional package in the mail: snacks, hygiene supplies, crossword puzzles. I didn't know these people, and they didn't know me. An occasional halfhearted care-package effort from the American people, and then what? Nothing. Eventually, I began to throw these packages away, save those sent to me by my family. I left them in the day room, unopened, hoping someone might get some use out of them. I certainly didn't.
Time passed. The extension wore on, and things only seemed to get worse. An acquaintance of mine, Garrett Knoll, was killed by a truck-bomb explosion outside of his patrol base. He was two months into his deployment. Meanwhile, the stream of inane, worthless "news" coming from the States continued to bombard us here in Iraq, and with it came two revelations: 1) That Administration flacks were now threatening war with Iran, further endangering myself and my peers, and 2) That Democrats in Congress, having been elected on the promise of ending this miserable thing, this war of choice, this sham meant enrich old men's pocketbooks, had promptly caved on their stances. Nothing would change, I realized. Nobody wanted anything to change. All we were to the American people, I realized, were just pawns--heroes and sacrificial lambs, something to drum up a tear to swells of patriotic music. We were toys, bright and shiny, but when we came home broken or misused, we were forgotten. Meanwhile, I'd just gone three days in a row without sleep, and just found out I had a bridge recon in Baquba. Again.
I'll admit it--I was angry. I think anyone would be. This was not how I had imagined we would be used. But that was the truth of it: we WERE being used, used to wage a war that was pointless and cruel, and was only hurting my family and friends. We were being used to justify horrible things, and used as a symbol to silence dissent. So yes, I was angry. And with this journal, I vented my anger. I cried out my fear and bitterness, castigated the armchair warriors for glorifying what they didn't understand. I criticized the leaders who had forgotten us, and appealed to the American people for redress.
And how I was greeted? With scorn. I raised my voice against this thing, and what did I receive in return? Scorn and threats. Threats against my life, my family, and my military career. People told me I should be shot, told me I deserved to die, even as I served as a symbol of their right to say such horrible things. People even accused me of being a fraud, a liar, as if SURELY a soldier could NEVER say such things. It became so bad that I dreaded opening my inbox. The people HAD forgotten us, I realized. This was my country, my home, my people. Support the Troops, as long as they support the War. So much for free speech, so much for the right to dissent. Question the leaders, and be told you deserve to die. Very nice, America. I'm sure Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. But hey, who cares about all of that? Chuck Norris is coming to see us on Anaconda! Surely THAT will make everything better.
Eventually, I decided to stop blogging. It became too much: the harassment, the threats, the fear of being punished. I caved in to weakness and allowed my voice to be silenced, and I am ashamed of that, even now. Relish that victory, America, for it will not happen again. For a time, I put down the name of Milo and was contact to work on more personal projects. I wrote poetry, and began work on a novel for young adults, which I finished this past May. The time passed, the sentence ran out, and finally I was able to return home safely to my wife. We came home, safe in body if not in mind, and for a time all was good.
Except it wasn't.
Come home, and it's like somebody shut off the war. People go on with their daily lives, bitch about gas prices and secret muslims in the presidential race, while overseas people suffer and die, on both sides. People glance at the headlines, decide that "there's just too much bad news out there these days," and then shut us off. Well, guess what, America? Shutting it off doesn't make it go away. You can't just close your eyes and pretend that everything is fine. Not after every sin you've allowed to be carried out in your name.
And so it is, America. I have decided, after much careful searching, that this is it for me. My contribution to this effort is over. I am closing the blog. I am on Terminal Leave as we speak, and in a short time I will officially be a civilian once more. I will not be re-entering the service, and I will not be supporting the war any further, in any shape or form. I can't--not after all my friends and I sacrificed, for nothing. I will not stand by and feign pity at new names on the list of dead soldiers. I will not speak up about the glory of my service, about how "The Surge is Working." It isn't, it hasn't, and it won't. You cannot bring "freedom" to a people who don't want it exactly as you offer. Nor can you bring it as a token from people who would fight to deny us the same.
I'm done, America. This is it for me. It's been too much, for too long. Don't ask for me back, because you can't have me. And what's more, for every little yellow-magnet-sticker I see on the back of every SUV, I'm going to stop and turn those stickers upside down. You don't have the right to say you support our troops, not while my friends struggle with divorces, with alcohol, and with the demons in their own heads. Not while the VA conceals how many soldier suicides occur each month, or deny veterans access to the rights they FOUGHT to earn.
Do you understand me, America? I will not enable you anymore. I served, and I did my time with honor. Let that be enough. If you choose to ask for me back, you will not get me. You will not find me, and if by chance you should, you will find a very different man from the one who signed up a few years earlier. You will not deceive me again, and you will not deceive other young men and women on my watch. For every effort you make to spread the lie, for every poor soul you try to recruit, I will be there to undermine you. I want my country back, America, and there's no way I can get that unless I stand up and speak out. So here I am.
No more lies, America. No more apathy, no more sound-bites, no more lies.
I probably sound angry as I write this, but I'm not. If anything, I am sad, and disgusted, and ashamed that the honor I sought doesn't actually exist, save as a cheap trinket next to someone's license plate. Do you understand that? I am ashamed for having contributed to this, to an America whose Jesus looks like Chuck Norris, whose Buddha looks like Ronald Reagan. I cannot even trust my own family, should the callback letter come, not to sell me out. After all I have said, all I have written, the only son still matters less than the criminal war. You cannot imagine my disgust, my shame, my guilt.
Yes, America, you read that correctly: my guilt, guilt because of the fact that my friends are still over there. More of my friends will go back there, and there is nothing I can do to help them save that which I find unconscionable, unforgivable. And you know something, America? That guilt, I've learned, will never go away. Not for as long as I live. It is mine to bear, even as others die and people continue to tell me I deserve to die for what I believe.
So this is it, America. The end, and hopefully, a beginning. There will be no more Milo Freeman. From now on, there is only Seth: husband, brother, son, author, veteran. There is no more Milo Freeman here. That person is gone, and he will not be coming back.
For those of you who read me, fear not: I will not stop writing. I will continue to focus on my other projects, the ones that matter to me. You can still find me there, at the places I have listed above. Thank you, my fellow Americans, the faithful, the supportive. Your words gave me strength when I had none. I will carry your kindnesses with me always. As for the rest of you, America, well... don't bother thanking me for what I did. I did none of it for you.
Goodbye, America. Thank you for reading me. It has been an honor. I pray you find the strength to do what is right, and I pray that your friends and loved ones come home safely. There can be no peace before they do.
My name is Seth. I am twenty-five years old.
And I am Milo Freeman.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Seth's Blog entries, posted by Marty
It is a compelling and heart wrencing excerpt from a soldier's blog, now closed. It is a truthful and shameful expose about the war in Iraq, facts that most American people do not want to face or even consider. Our sons and daughter are maimed and die and on the homefront too many people don't want to hear it.
Monday, July 28, 2008
The End Before the Beginning
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
This is a failed state. A failed culture. A dead civilization comprised now only of mummified skin, dried by years of sand and wind, barely clinging to the sun-bleached bones of a once-great Mesopotamian empire. This, this is what we fight for. This is what my classmates die for. This is the cause for which I neglect my faith, my principles, my family, and my partner. This dessicated carcass, this cratered wasteland; a place whose strongest sensory markers, for me, are the smells of human shit and burning garbage. A place whose flag will one day bear the initials of KBR. This I defend, along with the egos of a few paranoid old men.
I joined up believing I could make a positive difference. I believed that, even if I didn't fully support the cause, that I could set a positive example for Americans abroad. I am beginning to see now that I was gravely mistaken.
Fuck this miserable place. Fuck Iraq, and everything in it. You can't rescuscitate a corpse, so stop trying to perform CPR. Better to let it rot in the sun.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
If The Shoe Fits...BRING THEM HOME NOW! AND TAKE CARE OF THEM WHEN THEY GET HERE.
Memorandum for Record: Military Spending Concerns
FROM: SPC Freeman, Milo; US Army, Iraq
TO: Senate Democrats, Republicans, and "American Idol" viewers across the nation.
1. You. Punk. Ass. Pantywaisted. Bitches.
2. You had a chance. You could have put your money where your mouth is--could have put some ass behind all those claims of "favoring an end to war."
3. And you fucking choked.
4. Let me explain something to you. Your children; your spouses; your lovers and friends and parents and CONSTITUENTS are hostages to this war. They're dying for a conflict with no concrete objective. They're losing marriages and childhood moments to a neverending cycle of extended tours. Their equipment, their morale, is stretched thin. And some of them--those of us smart enough not to buy the fucking hype--were counting on you to find your fucking testicles and put an end to this shit. We were counting on you to save us from ourselves; to find a way to put us to use serving our country in ways perhaps more effective in rebuilding our nation.
5. And you. Fucking. Choked.
6. I haven't gotten a current edition of the paper in months. It's always a day behind. I don't get to check the news--I barely have the time. So what am I to think when I read yesterday's Stars and Stripes, and hear about this shit? Is that supposed to tell me that my leaders, my countrymen give a flying FUCK about what happens to me or my wife? Is that the message I'm supposed to glean from this STUNNING lack of cojones? Because I gotta tell you, America, I'm not seeing it.
7. I'm so sick of hearing this wretched war talked about in terms of Victory or Defeat. "If we leave, the terrorists will win."
8. Fuck that.
9. Today it's Terrorists. Yesterday it was Blacks/Gays/Jews/Hippies. Before that it was Communists. Before that, it was Uppity Colonials with Secondhand Muskets and Pitchforks. It's always fucking something with you people, isn't it?
10.You just need your little wars to feel good about yourselves, don't you? Something to make you feel threatened; something to make you feel heroic; ANYTHING to make you feel like your pathetic lives are more than just you against the Big, Black, Scary Infinite. Well, obviously, it's working.
11. You don't magically "win" an occupation. It's an inevitable bleed-out. We're stuck in a situation beyond our powers to fix, in a country that WE voted to destroy, whose history and people we neither understand nor care to try. We bought the hype, hook-line-and-sinker.
12. Fuck Victory. Fuck Defeat. Any way you slice it, This. War. Is. Wrong.
13.You don't keep trying to win the game after it turns out you bribed the refs. You fire the coaches and/or players responsible, and you hand over the Title. You take your lumps like a fucking man and try to rebuild. Accept it.
13. Hope you're happy, America. Clutch your pearls about all those dirty liberals who voted against the proposal ("They didn't Support The Troops!"). Whine about all the evil elderly schoolteachers and librarians protesting the war on a Saturday morning outside your courthouse.
14. But when your son or daughter or spouse or first lay comes home airfreight, mangled into a closed-casket service by a daisy-chain of 155s buried under Route Tampa, remember this:
15. It won't be the dirty liberals who put them there.
Milo Freeman, SPC
United States Army, Iraq
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
"Multiply That By an Entire Nation"
By: SPC Milo Freeman
November 21, 2006
The Calm Before the Sand - Part II: The Sand
Consider the poor man.
You know the one. He's probably a minority; possibly an immigrant. You've probably seen him sleeping on the train going to work, or maybe you've seen him standing on the side of the freeway in traffic, trying to wash your windows. Maybe he's begged you for bus fare on a street corner, or tried to sell you some chintzy knicknacks as you walked out of your favorite cafe. Perhaps you've stepped over him, passed out on the steps to your apartment, as you've invited a date up for a late-night cup of coffee.
Sure, you might have been able to ignore him. Maybe you just pretended not to see him. Maybe you told yourself that he's not your responsibility. But I doubt that any among you could ignore the pang of shame in your gut, as you rationalized your own inaction.
Now, multiply that by an entire nation.
I had "haji guard" today, one of many assorted details we are assigned from time to time. Specifically, it's where soldiers escort packs of Iraqi nationals around base, shepherding them as they perform various acts of manual labor. The locals often come from miles around, usually from poor farming villages. They gather every morning at the gates, hoping to be allowed in to work. For a day's work they usually receive $10 U.S., and the danger present in taking such work for these men is high. The road outside the gate is often targeted by mortars, and people who come on post to work risk death by targeted killing.
Those who came in to work ranged in age from teenage boys to old men. They shivered in the cold morning air, and they chattered and laughed in throaty Arabic as they paced and smoked cheap cigarettes. They lined up when directed, and from there they were divided up into work crews, and escorted off by small groups of soldiers. We were required to wear full gear while performing our escort duties, and even when we arrived at our company area and doffed our armor, we were still required to have full magazines in our weapons.
Today, the workers (I hate the term "hajis") were moving sandbags around our trailers. They worked well, even though the labor must have strained many an aging back. We paused on occasion to chat and smoke cigarettes, and as we did a number of them approached us and offered to sell us any number of goods: Iraqi currency, fake Rolexes, exotic cigarettes. I tried to abstain, but ultimately bartered some dinari coins off of a young man named Haider. I listened to the men converse in Arabic occasionally, and though I didn't understand most of it, I did catch one man's impassioned ranting. I found myself wondering why he was so angry, but truthfully, I probably already knew.
I also talked briefly with one man named Faras, whom I asked about the dangers of working here, and about his family. Much of what he told me seemed to echo what I've already seen. During my last couple of missions, I've been struck by the jaw-dropping level of poverty that exists here. The homes are almost never more than crude mud huts, and the livestock all look to be dying of tuberculosis. Too many mouths to feed, and not enough food. These men are from the rural villages, and thus their lives are fairly peaceful, but still it's known that this area is a hotbed of insurgent activity. Honestly I'd be surprised if at least some of these same men hadn't, at some point, accepted a generous sum ($100 or more) to help emplace a roadside bomb. It's a sad thought, but having been poor myself, I can personally testify to the ugly choices that desperation lays out. Take our money one minute, take money to kill us the next. Democracy, I think, is a nice idea, but having full bellies and money for basic needs is a better one. And sadly, though many here suffered under Saddam Hussein, many more seem to have it worse now, as a direct result of the chaos caused by this war.
Imagine that little pang of shame you feel when you walk by the poor man in silence. Multiply by an entire nation.
Toward the end of our shift, Haider approached me again. I'd proven I drive a hard bargain, and I was proud to walk away with a minimum of my pay parted from me. I regarded him with mixed amusement and suspicion, but as he approached me this time he said nothing, only handed me an old bill for 50 dinar. "A gift," he told me. "You take this." Then he hugged me, a gesture which I returned, hesitantly at first, then more fully. Haider's salesmanly guile was gone now. His eyes were dark, and here again I saw shame, as I saw shame in Romano's eyes.
After a moment of this strange interaction, Haider pulled out a picture of his baby daughter, whom he told me was named Fatima. I found myself staring at a photo of a pale, dark-haired infant of six months. She was bright-eyed and smiling, and clearly resembled a bit of her father. I told Haider he should be proud. He smiled a bit at this, but then the exchange took on a more somber turn. Haider looked me in the eyes, and spoke again, haltingly.
"My country," he said to me, "we are many poor here. We cannot go to the cities, they try to kill us. We cannot work, there are not enough jobs. Your people have so much here--our history, our oil. You have our oil, and for this work, moving sandbags, I am paid 10 American dollars. I can barely buy food, let alone soap.
"Please sir, my daughter. I need soap, I need shampoo, for my Fatima, my baby. You have these things, yes? Please, sir. You help me."
His eyes plead with me quietly, and I hated having to stare back at them. It made me think of being twenty years old, and having to walk into the local St. Vincent de Paul in Escanaba, Michigan. I remember being a college-educated man, and having to walk up to the elderly woman at the counter and request a food package, and the burning loss of dignity I felt in uttering that request. I remember the disgust I had felt then; living in a glorified halfway house, working two jobs, eating a bowl of ramen a day and still not being able to afford a security deposit on an apartment. I looked back at Haider, and looked into those eyes, and I saw my old shame reflected back at me. Me and my gun, and my air-conditioned trailer, and my broadband internet in my living quarters, and the countless care packages from mother and wife and friends, all brimming with hygiene products and food that I will never be able to go through by my self.
More shampoo and soap and toothpaste than I will ever possibly need.
Such a simple thing. I convinced another guard to take my place briefly, and when I returned to my post, I came back with a Ziploc bag full of toiletries that would last this man and his family a month. I came up to him, pointing and saying the words back in English.
"Soap," I told him, "and, see, shampoo? This is toothpaste, and here are a couple of toothbrushes. This is skin lotion, for your baby, if she gets a rash. All these I give to you. Gift from me, ok? This is ziyen?"
I awaited his response, ending with the Arabic word for "good." Sure enough, Haider's eyes lit up, and he hugged me again, this time much more firmly. I couldn't help but smile. We sent Haider and his crew out the gate soon afterward, but not after another, more effusive stream of thanks and handshaking. I watched the locals leave, and suddenly felt better.
I don't support this war. I never have. But I'm here to serve, and serve I will. If nothing else, I hope simply that, at the end of this day, Haider talks about this with his friends, and remembers what I did, and maybe comes away thinking just a little better of us Americans. We may not be perfect, and we may even be the reason his country is falling apart. But maybe when he gets that offer to place a daisy chain, he might think twice about our conversation, about the talk of our families, and about the simple gift of soap, and remember that we're human too. Maybe by doing what I did today--giving away something of which I had too much in the first place--I helped secure my own safety in the eyes of this man, as well as the safety of other soldiers. Sure, it may be overly idealistic, but there's so little compassion in this line of work. I don't have the word tattooed into my skin without reason. Anything I can do here, I will do.
And so I did today. And for once, I can walk away from the poor man, having done right by the values inscribed into my arms, and I can feel no shame.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
--Specialist Milo Freeman (on the execution of Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti)
The Calm Before the Sand
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