This essay was published by BreachBangClear in two parts on October 20th and 21st.
I sat in a classroom with about twenty other soldiers, studying a slide show of armored vehicles for an upcoming test. Identifying vehicles was a critical part of the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) we were trying to attain, and we had been warned about the importance of the vehicle ID exam. If we failed it, we had one more shot. Two failures and we were out of the course.
To pass we had to make the standard 70%. However, if we misidentified even one American vehicle, we’d automatically fail. And we didn’t just have to know the general vehicle type, we had to know specifics.
Slides flashed by. Students called out vehicle designations, the instructor corrected us as needed. About half the students were tankers being forcibly converted to Cavalry Scouts because Texas got rid of all our tanks. We tankers knew the vehicles pretty well already.
An old M1 tank, not the newer M1A1, popped up on the screen. We called out, “M1 Abrams”. The instructor shook his head.
“No, that’s an M1A1.”
A friend was at the desk next to me. He had been a tanker in Desert Storm. We had served in the same tank battalion for years, and went to Iraq together. We had spent countless hours in Abrams tanks, driven them, fed huge rounds into their breeches, fired their main guns and commanded them. We knew the difference between an M1 and an M1A1. My friend and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
My friend said, “That’s an M1.”
“No,” the instructor asserted. “You’re wrong. It’s an M1A1.”
A near-shouting match ensued. We pointed out obvious differences. There was no question, it was an M1. The instructor maintained a weak defense, then finally broke and admitted something: “Y’all are right, it’s an M1. But the course curriculum says it’s an M1A1. So on the test you have to give the wrong answer, or you fail.”
I groaned quietly. I loved being a tanker, and had no desire to be a Scout. Now if I wanted to pass the course for a job I didn’t even want, I had to intentionally give a wrong answer to a ridiculously easy question. And this question was supposedly so critical, getting it wrong meant I wasn’t fit to be a Scout. This kind of stupidity was why my father, a 1960’s Air Force veteran, pleaded with me not to join the military when I was seventeen.
Years ago, some horribly cruel researchers conducted an experiment. According to the version I heard during my brief college career, they stuck a dog in a cage, left the door open, and ran an electric current through the floor. The dog yelped and ran from the cage. Then they put the dog back in the cage, locked the door and repeatedly shocked the floor again. The dog went nuts trying to get out, until it finally realized there was no escape. Then the dog just lay there, stoically accepting the pain.
At that point, when the dog was defeated, the researchers opened the cage door and shocked the floor again. The dog felt the shock, looked at the open door, and said, “Screw it. There’s no point fighting. I may as well just lay here and take it.”
That’s called Learned Helplessness. It’s been observed in kidnap victims who don’t seize on opportunities to escape, and in battered spouses who stay in violent relationships when they have means to break away. And I must admit, to my shame, it’s a state of mind the Army has at times made me wish I could attain.
When I joined the Marine Corps in the 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of ridiculous, soul-crushing nonsense around. There was unnecessary stress, there was the “You’re not a real Marine” crap the regulars dumped on us reservists, but that was about it. Then I finished my Marine enlistment and joined the Army National Guard. Everything was surprisingly good for about ten years. Until we were sent to Iraq.
In Iraq, nonsense piled so high atop other nonsense it dwarfed the Ziggurat of Ur. It was there I first encountered the bane of many a dedicated Soldier: the widespread and absolutely mindless insistence on everyone’s gear being set up the exact same way. In the Marines, even in boot camp, we were told, “This is YOUR gear. It will keep YOU alive. Set it up how it works for YOU.” In Iraq my unit had Soldiers of different sizes, with different weapons, filling different roles. Our equipment was set up to serve our specific needs. That made sense, and made us a better team. This reality just never seemed to penetrate the minds of many First Sergeants and above.
One day a First Sergeant told me to fix my platoon. Our gear wasn’t uniform. I sat with him and explained a few things. My gunner was 6’2” and about 260 pounds. We were in old M1025 humvees with tiny turret hatches. Unlike the rest of us, my gunner had no pouches at all on his body armor, because if he put them on he was so cramped he could barely turn around. He kept his gear in an assault pack he would grab if we had to bail out. My driver was a medic. He carried additional first aid gear on his body armor, plus was the only one of us to carry a pistol. I was neither a gunner nor driver nor medic, so my gear was different from theirs.
I explained to the First Sergeant that we knew the important things, like where everyone’s lifesaving tourniquets and Israeli bandages were. I gave clear and reasonable explanations of why uniformity would make us less effective. The First Sergeant listened quietly, nodded at appropriate times, gave the impression that my reasoning was sinking in. For a fleeting moment, I thought logic might have triumphed.
Then he responded with, “Well, that makes sense. But we still have to have uniformity!”
I stared at him, not seeing a senior Non Commissioned Officer, but instead a masochistic researcher with his finger on a switch. A canine voice whispered, Don’t fight it. Just take the shock. You’ll like it after a while.
I stood up, announced “Roger that, Top! We’ll fix it!”, and walked out. I had no intention of changing anything. The First Sergeant would probably get distracted by a squirrel or something anyway, I figured he’d never say another word about it. He didn’t. I dodged the electrified cage, but just for a moment I had felt the temptation to give in to the “brain off/training manual on” mentality.
At one point during our tour someone decided every convoy escort team needed a Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher. On my team I was the lucky guy who was ordered to take one. The Mk 19 is a big, heavy, awesome gun and all, but I had never fired one. Neither had my gunner. My driver had fired a single burst from one, over ten years earlier. If you’re likely to engage in a firefight, it’s kind of important for everyone to, you know, actually know how to use their weapon. So I was a bit concerned about this order.
I went to my leadership and politely declined to take the weapon. They laughed. I argued. They held fast. I fought. They weren’t swayed. I yelled, stamped my feet, held my breath til I turned blue. No mercy was shown. I dragged the giant machine gun to my humvee.
But there was a bright side. My leadership assured me we would get training on the weapon, as soon as they could schedule a range day. I told them we’d test fire it on the road. “No!”, they ordered. Test-firing the weapon off base was strictly prohibited. I’d have to take it on missions, without testing it, until the range day.
My shoulders sagged. The faint tingle of a current danced up my legs. I could see the electrified cage door standing open. It looked so tempting. No need to think, just do what they said. The easiest and only officially approved course of action was to follow orders.
Woof! Zap me again!
When the range day finally came, a month and many missions later, we had test-fired about a hundred rounds into open desert while on the road. And it was a good thing we did; as we discovered, to keep that weapon firing we had to drench it in a specific type of lubricant. If we had followed orders, we could have found ourselves in combat with a weapon we really didn’t know how to use and which wouldn’t have worked.
Later that year a rumor spread around my unit: our gunners were to be issued brightly-colored tennis balls. The gunners were supposed to throw them at local vehicles that came too close to our convoys. According to the rumor, gunners would be required to throw the balls before shooting. The goal was to avoid damaging cars with flares or warning shots. Winning hearts and minds, and all that.
Mind you, car bombs were the most lethal threat we faced at the time. Throwing a tennis ball at a possible car bomb is like flinging marshmallows at a ninja just before he decapitates you. It was a ridiculous idea.
I shrugged the rumor off. Nobody could possibly think this made sense. If a car was close enough to hit with a tennis ball, it was close enough to blow up and kill you. Everyone I talked to thought the idea was too stupid to be true.
Shortly after the rumor spread, I stopped by supply. As I made small talk with the supply sergeant, I laughingly mentioned the tennis ball rumor. He went silent and gave me a blank, serious look.
“I already ordered the tennis balls.”
I froze. We stared at each other. In the distance, an electrocuted dog whined in agony.
Just comply. If you get blown up, it won’t be your fault. You were following orders. Take the shock.
I went straight to my leadership and threatened mutiny. I never found out who came up with the tennis ball idea, and seriously doubt my resistance influenced anyone. But the tennis ball order was cancelled.
Months later, right around the time I saw a captain and sergeant major screaming at combat troops for wearing paracord bracelets or having folded sleeve cuffs, long after guards were posted at a dining facility to turn away soldiers not wearing eye protection – in KUWAIT – I quit keeping track of the lunacy. It was too painful. Maybe I wasn’t going to lie in the cage and enjoy the shocks, but I could at least pretend they didn’t exist.
After almost a year of running Iraqi highways, we finally came home. My battalion had a handful of wounded, no deaths. None of our humvees were destroyed by suicide bombers who braved deadly barrages of brightly-colored tennis balls. But there had been plenty of close calls, some of which I personally experienced. I took about a year to decompress.
Some of what I had to recover from was guilt. Early in the mobilization, before I figured out how things really worked, I had tried to be the “good” NCO and carry out blatantly moronic orders from higher up. Some good Soldiers, hopefully not many, had probably been just as furious at me as I had been at some of our leaders. I accepted my mistakes, searched for lessons learned, and moved on.
Then, after my decompression year, I found myself in the Scout course with that vehicle identification exam glaring at me from my desk.
I flipped through the questions, dreading what was coming. A debate roiled in my head. How principled was I? Would I be willing to give a wrong answer, just to get through the class? Or would I do the right thing and fight it? And would they really kick an 18 year, combat veteran Staff Sergeant out of a course for giving a correct answer?
Pictures flitted by. T-72 tank? Check. M113 armored personnel carrier? Check. M1A1 tank? . . . uh . . .
I know, I know. I was overthinking it. I knew I was right, so whatever I put on paper didn’t matter. I could just give the answer they wanted. Join the instructors in their open cage, writhe painfully to the shocks in unison with them.
I moved my pencil to write “M1A1”. . . and stopped. The decision I was about to make could have long-lasting repercussions. This was about integrity. I mulled it over, drew a mental line in the sand, and made my decision.
Eighteen months later, I was in Afghanistan. Fortunately for me, I was on a small firebase in the middle of nowhere, with minimal nonsense. The closer one was to the war, the less concerned people were with ridiculous rules. But a lot of people I knew were at a large Forward Operating Base (FOB) a couple of hours away.
For most of my deployment I avoided that FOB like it was a Code Pink convention, but still had to go there periodically. Every time I was there, I almost choked on the wanton ridiculosity. Yes, the stupidity was so thick I had to go all Don King and invent a new word to describe it.
This FOB had one main road, with one sidewalk on one side. Everyone traveling on foot had to use this jam-packed sidewalk. This would have been okay, except that out of the roughly 20,000 troops on the FOB, about 7.4 trillion were officers. And this base in the middle of a war had been declared a salute zone, as if we were stateside. So poor enlisted men had to walk the sidewalk with hands cemented to their heads in perpetual salute.
In addition to that, troops on the FOB had an even heavier cross to bear: the dreaded, kindergarten-like, “Look at me, I’m a big target!” reflective belt. As soon as the sun set, reflective belts went on. The troops, being troops, made the best of it and looked for ways to show a little individuality. They bought different color reflective belts and wore them in different ways.
Then a new unit took over. This unit was infamous for the quantity and quality of dumb rules it imposes on its Soldiers. Leaders of this unit saw the reflective belt chaos and immediately stomped it into oblivion. They decreed that everyone on the FOB wear the same color reflective belt, in the same way. They weren’t going to stand for any “I’ll decide what color reflective belt and how to wear it” anarchy.
A brave and/or suicidal member of the “E4 Mafia” tried to challenge them. According to local legend, he walked the sidewalk wearing seven different colored reflective belts. The courageous Specialist was last seen standing at parade rest in front of the base operations center, waiting for the sergeant major to destroy him. As far as I know, his remains were never recovered.
Many soldiers on this base had been issued the fairly new Army Combat Shirt, which was designed specifically for wearing with body armor. They were extremely comfortable and practical. At my firebase we wore them almost all the time. At this big FOB, of course, Soldiers were strictly forbidden from wearing them, I guess because it made too much sense to wear a uniform designed for combat while you’re at war. The rule against wearing those shirts was so strictly enforced that combat troops, before leaving for a real mission, had to wear a regular uniform top over their combat shirt until they were actually in their vehicles about to leave the wire.
And this still wasn’t the worst of it. The new leaders also instituted an amazing, hooah, breathtakingly motivating policy to maintain fighting spirit. They decided that everyone carrying a rifle or carbine on the FOB had to carry it in a combat ready stance, as if they were on patrol.
I visited shortly after the policy took effect. On the sidewalk I saw many a sad-faced Soldier stalking to the PX with his rifle ready for a firefight, wearing his reflective belt, and saluting officers. It was like looking into an animal shelter full of sad puppies in electrified cages.
Fortunately, I wore civilian clothes and carried a pistol on base. I threatened more than once to prowl around with my pistol in a combat grip, just to raise hackles among the leadership. But more importantly, I wondered, Why are they doing this? Don’t they know they’re just beating the drive out of these troops, making them so sick of the BS that they’ll be desperate to get out of the military? Seeing that soul-crushing nonsense made me thankful that at my firebase, I only had to worry about being killed in combat. There was no chance my soul would be murdered by rampaging fobbits (people who never leave the FOB and have no concept of what actually happens in the war).
The rules on that FOB finally purged any fleeting desire I had to crawl into the cage, lay on the metal floor and boogie to the electric shock. I couldn’t just go along with it. I had to stand for what was right, what would help our guys survive and our enemies die. Pretty uniforms and gear weren’t important. Neither were nonsensical rules made by leaders far removed from battlefield reality.
I made this decision, in part, because I utterly failed to stand by my principles eighteen months earlier during the vehicle ID test.
When I looked at that M1 Abrams slide, I made the wrong choice. I stepped into the cage, looked through the open door, and voluntarily asked to be electrocuted. I went along with unforgivable stupidity. I answered, “M1A1”.
I passed the course, and grudgingly accepted my new MOS. I didn’t hold it long before switching to something else. It wasn’t the job itself that bugged me so much, it was the training course.
One of my best friends took the Scout course shortly after I did. He was impetuous, short-tempered and prone to violent outbursts; in other words, he was exactly what a combat soldier should be. We had served together in Iraq, and he had more than proven his courage. When he was told to give the wrong answer on the test, he responded, “That’s stupid! Screw that!” and gave the right answer.
He failed the test. And was told he better give the wrong answer on the retest, or he’d be kicked out of the course. He whimpered, pawed at the dirt, tucked his tail between his legs, trotted into the same cage I had recently occupied and gave an answer both he and the instructors knew was wrong. When he told me about it, I was furious.
That was the end of that. No more Learned Helplessness for me, Army. Maybe you can lock me in the cage and force me to take the shocks, but you can’t make me like it.
And don’t think for a second that I’ll stay in there when the cage door opens.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 16 Comments
Tags: military, veteran writers
Last week my friend Manal, a fellow aspiring author who is originally from Lebanon, started a blog. On her first blog post she told the story of taking her family to Lebanon for vacation in 2006, only to be blindsided by the outbreak of the Israel-Hezbollah war. She and her family had to be evacuated by US Marines. She posted the photo above on her blog, and asked if anyone might know the young Marine in it. He had greeted her family at the US Embassy gate, told them they were safe, high-fived one son, carried another and held her daughter’s hand as they walked into the embassy compound. She wanted to find him, just to thank him again.
In the photo the Marine’s name, Wilks, and rank, Lance Corporal, are visible. I decided to help her find the Marine. I posted the photo on a military forum, and asked if anyone knew him. I figured someone would know someone from his unit, I’d get a name to search for on Facebook, and a happy mini-reunion would follow.
Instead, I got this response:
“He might be KIA, brother.
There was a CPL Kyle Wilks from CLB 24 that died in 2008. This same Wilks was assigned to CLB 24, which supports the 24th MEU, since 2005. 24th MEU went into Beirut in 2006.”
A few others sent similar messages, along with links. And it was confirmed. Corporal Kyle Weston Wilks was killed by an IED in Afghanistan in 2008, two years after he welcomed my friend and her family to safety in Lebanon.
Manal lived through the horrible Lebanese Civil War. She is no stranger to death. But she was crushed by the news of Wilks’ loss in Afghanistan.
Her blog was intended to be funny, filled with stories about the hectic life of a wife, mother and business owner who travels around the world visiting her far-flung Lebanese family. Instead, her second post was about the loss of the young Marine who she so fondly remembered, the man whose image represented America’s safety and security. That blog post, “RIP instead of a big hug”, drew comments from several people who knew Wilks, including family members and even a corpsman who was in Wilks’ convoy the night he died. Manal has been overwhelmed by the response.
Obviously, I didn’t know Kyle Wilks. But I knew many men like him. One was an infantry lieutenant named Jared Southworth.
Jared and I attended a marksmanship training course in Arkansas in 2008. We instantly hit it off; we were both cops, both combat arms soldiers, both married. Despite being a young guy, he had four kids. I had three and one on the way. Jared was funny as hell, and despite never having met each other before, by the end of the two week course we were pretty good friends.
Jared and I were both about to go to Afghanistan, Jared with an Illinois unit, me with my Texas unit. Jared tried to get me to switch and go with him. I decided to stick with a Texas battalion, and he wound up going to Afghanistan a couple of months before me.
A few days after I arrived at my firebase in northeastern Afghanistan, I ran into a soldier wearing Jared’s unit patch. I knew their unit was spread all over Afghanistan, and hoped Jared was stationed close by. I asked him if he knew Jared.
A pained expression came over his face. “Yeah, I knew him. He was killed two days ago.”
Several seconds of silence followed. The soldier looked at me sympathetically. I performed mental gymnastics, trying to find some way to make the news not true. I asked several questions to confirm: “You’re talking about the cop? The Ranger school graduate? The guy with four kids?”
The answers were all “yes”. Jared was dead. Killed by an IED, at the age of 26.
As proud as I am of my service in Iraq and Afghanistan, I hate what these wars cost. I hate the fact that my friend Manal will never have the chance to thank her Marine. I hate that four children in Illinois will only have a hazy memory of their father. I hate that so many families have Gold Stars on their walls.
Kyle Wilks. Nicola Belda. Jared Southworth. Yann Hertach. Tommy Folks. Matthew Freeman. And thousands of others.
I wish they were still with us. I wish we could just “win” in Afghanistan and leave. And I wish this war was over.
Filed under: Afghanistan | 20 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, Jared Southworth, Kyle Wilks, veteran writers
This is the third post I’ve written in response to Lauren Kay Johnson’s Glamour Magazine essay about her struggle to adjust after Afghanistan.
For reasons which I think are obvious, Johnson’s essay had a far larger impact than she expected. And rightfully so; she unintentionally illustrated a stark contrast inside our military. This isn’t the traditional “us and them” split between combat and support troops. It’s at a deeper, more elemental level.
In my last post about Johnson I asked if she is receiving disability payments for Chronic Adjustment Disorder. Johnson’s fiance contacted me after my first post on this subject, but I’ve heard nothing since I asked this question. That silence is probably an answer in itself.
As I said previously, if Johnson is receiving disability after never being in combat, and now suffers from a loss of interest in such things as potluck dinners and karaoke, then in my opinion she should be ashamed. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect her service, and don’t wish her well. It means I don’t think anyone should accept money for not experiencing trauma, and having minor adjustment issues after a deployment.
Many veterans, especially combat arms veterans, tend to agree with me. But others vehemently disagree. Some have expressed anger at the fact that I question Johnson’s disability assessment.
Two people who identified themselves as members of the Air Force made these comments on Reddit:
“She is disabled. Just because it doesn’t affect her on a daily basis doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. If she received the rating from the VA, she deserves the pittance paycheck.”
“There are so many things wrong with this [my blog post]. Is there now a certain level of horror that has to be met before a veteran can be treated and compensated for problems stemming from their service?”
I’ve seen similar comments from other vets, and especially from civilians. Perhaps they believe all veterans’ claims should be taken at face value; if a veteran says they have PTSD, they have PTSD. To question their claims is to insult all veterans.
I had a similar experience when I attended an EMT course several years ago. By policy, if a patient said they were having an emergency, it was an emergency. Even if it was, as on one call, “My scalp really itches, so I need an ambulance ride to the hospital.” As a cop accustomed to false claims, those blatantly ridiculous 911 calls grated on me. But as an EMT student, I had to shut my mouth and accept them.
Now, as a combat vet, I’m in the same situation. I hear constant stories of veterans with PTSD, including Johnson. If I call nonsense on any of them, I’m being insensitive to suffering veterans.
Here’s the problem: unfortunately, I know what kind of “trauma” many of these veterans experienced. In Iraq my mission was escorting convoys, which could be extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking. However, I lived on Tallil, a huge air base with a big PX, coffee shop, Pizza Hut and Burger King. Some of us had wireless internet. We had a large Morale, Welfare and Recreation building with movies, video games, books, billiards and free phone calls home. And while I was there, we never took a rocket or mortar hit. Tallil at that time was, as one soldier described it, a resort.
In Afghanistan on my second deployment I marveled at the contrast between the war in the countryside and the circus atmosphere at Bagram. Bagram took regular incoming, but the place was huge. Most troops were never affected by those rockets. One day one of my soldiers and I arrived at Bagram to find a party and DJ playing music at the “Bagram Marathon” finish line. My soldier shook his head, laughed and said, “There is no war here.” Yet if a soldier who never left the wire at Tallil or Bagram claims PTSD, I’m not supposed to question it.
Actual combat definitely leaves a mark. Constant anticipation of danger can do the same thing. But never being in combat (as Johnson admits in her blog) and living on a relatively safe base somehow also produces debilitating trauma?
Johnson’s essay shows the dramatic difference in mentality between those who joined the military specifically to endure the privations of combat, and those who seem to view war as an anomaly of military service. I know many of the former. They wanted combat, they accepted the pain that comes with it, their self-worth came from their ability to function under fire. They are what I call “the military within the military”. The latter, however, are built differently. They seem to feel that if they suffered in any way – and I mean ANY way – they’re entitled to a lifetime of compensation for it.
Consider Johnson’s list of “hardships” and “effects”. Dry meat, soggy vegetables, vulgar talk, knowledge that “something bad” could happen at any time. A loss of interest in potluck dinners and karaoke. The fact that Johnson voluntarily submitted her essay to Glamour as a “triumph over adversity” story is telling. At the conclusion of her essay she says, “But I know that being unsettled is OK. I know that I’m OK.” And many of us ask, “Unsettled from what? OK after suffering what?”
I know a man whose humvee was blown in half by an IED that killed two of his friends and nearly killed him. One of my soldiers had to dig the remains of six dead friends from a destroyed vehicle. Another friend called in an air strike on a house occupied by a handful of insurgents; after the strike, he discovered to his horror that it had also been occupied by over a dozen innocent civilians.
Two of these men are still in the military and leading successful, productive lives. The third would still be a soldier if he wasn’t crippled by his injuries. Yet I also know a soldier who has never deployed, openly states she could never fire a weapon at a person and can’t even handle combat training exercises because they cause her to have panic attacks.
I sit in the middle of this divide between warriors and, for lack of a better term, others. I’ve never been in the regular military, yet have been to war twice. I’ve held two combat arms specialties, yet gained most of my combat experience as a support soldier working with line troops. I’ve been in units where “suck it up and drive on” was the norm and a unit where a first sergeant declared “If you’ve been deployed and say you don’t have PTSD, you’re a liar.”
I know both extremes. And I’ve reached some conclusions.
Our country has been defended by generations of men and many notable women who went to war knowing it would be horrible. They didn’t expect a lifetime of sympathy simply for having been there. They would have been ashamed to proclaim to the world that they were never in combat yet receive disability payments for trauma. They wouldn’t have considered the normal aggravations of military service to be cause for complaint or compensation.
The spiritual descendants of those men and women fill our infantry, armor and artillery units. Many also serve vital support roles while bristling at the lack of warrior spirit around them. In America’s past crises and our current War on Terror those true warriors have risen, willingly embraced war’s challenges and placed themselves between us and danger. If they returned unscathed they carried on normal life, more likely to brush off any lingering effects of war than to ask for financial or psychological help.
If the country respects us veterans, it’s for our selfless service. Words like honor and sacrifice are imaginary constructs for most people. For us, they’re real. We joined the military for the stated purpose of serving our nation, not being served by it.
America doesn’t owe us a lifetime of comfort for doing what we volunteered to do. Yes, we deserve fair pay and benefits for our willingness to place ourselves between our people and their enemy. Anything above that, like the GI Bill, is an extra that we should be extremely grateful for.
That doesn’t mean we’re not owed anything. We’re owed, to a degree, respect for what we’ve done. And we get that respect. We get it when we fly back from Iraq and land in Maine at 3 a.m. to find dozens of well-wishers waiting inside the terminal. We get respect when we’re granted leave from Afghanistan, fly to Dallas on a chartered military flight and receive a standing ovation as soon as we get off the plane. We get respect every time a waitress tells us, “An anonymous customer paid your bill.” We get respect every time someone shakes our hand and thanks us for our service. We get respect whenever we stand in a group of veterans and tell war stories.
If someone came home wounded, they deserve wholehearted support. If they came home truly scarred by a horrible experience, they have every right to expect care and compensation. But if they had a basically safe job in a relatively safe place and didn’t experience anything worse than being scared sometimes, all they deserve is an honorable discharge and a handshake.
If you’re truly a warrior, that honorable discharge and handshake will be enough. But if you’re out for yourself, if you don’t care how much it costs our nation as long as you get as much free money as possible, if you feel no shame twisting simple stress into incurable trauma, you’re something different. And it’s not something that can be described with words like honor and sacrifice. Those words are the sole possession of true warriors, of the military within the military.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 23 Comments
Tags: lauren kay johnson, PTSD, veteran writers
A few days ago I published a post about Lauren Kay Johnson, an Air Force veteran of the War on Terror (http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/10/07/veterans-defeating-ourselves-with-the-medias-help/). The Daily Mail newspaper in the UK had written a story about her problems adjusting after her Afghanistan deployment. It also said she had a “milder form of PTSD”, and provided a list of reasons for that PTSD. The reasons included dry meat, soggy vegetables, long hours, and limited internet access.
The reasons were, to put it mildly, utter nonsense. They can barely be described as minor annoyances. This article enraged many veterans, including me, because in my opinion it celebrated the “everyone’s a victim” culture and portrayed veterans, especially females, as weak-minded whiners.
Yesterday Ms. Johnson posted a condemnation of the Daily Mail article on her blog. According to her, DM’s writer took all the quotes from an essay she published in Glamour Magazine. Johnson says, “The ‘author’ of that ‘article’ took a random assortment of quotes from my blog and the Glamour essay and smushed them together for her ‘story,’ changing the context and the tone.” Links to Johnson’s blog post and the original Glamour essay are below. Please read both.
First, I applaud Ms. Johnson for making an effort to correct what appears to be horribly crappy journalism from the Daily Mail. According to Johnson, she was never even notified a story was being written about her, and the quotes were taken out of context. As a past media victim myself, I have no reason to doubt Johnson’s claim.
Second, I definitely see a difference in tone between Johnson’s Glamour essay and the DM article. I have no doubt the DM writer made a deliberate effort to give Johnson’s words a more emotional twist than Johnson intended. In the Glamour essay Johnson stresses that she did not experience anything traumatic in Afghanistan.
One thing she wrote that resonated with me was her loss of confidence in the overall mission. “And I didn’t expect the disappointment. I volunteered thinking I’d be part of an effort that made a noticeable difference. We did celebrate some small victories. But what I noticed most was corruption winding through every layer of Afghan society, crisscrossed by a growing barricade of U.S. red tape. If we couldn’t make progress, the danger and paranoia were for nothing.”
I know exactly how she feels. After one particularly tragic loss, I had to come to terms with that same loss of idealism. And idealism dies hard. Johnson did well to put that feeling into words.
Kudos to her for all of the above. But now, here’s the bad part.
The Daily Mail may have spun Johnson’s words to make them more emotional than she intended; however, she did say them. All of them. She did talk about dry meat and soggy vegetables, “vulgar talk”, and feeling isolated with limited phone and internet service. While she stresses that she was never in combat, she does describe certain non-events as if they contributed to her adjustment issues.
“[Paranoia] was there every time I strapped on 60 pounds of body armor and climbed into an armored vehicle that might as well have been labeled in bright block letters: U.S. MILITARY CONVOY. AIM HERE.” As a former convoy escort team member who faced IEDs and small arms fire in Iraq, that irks me on a personal level. Yes, convoys could be dangerous. According to Johnson, hers weren’t. Apparently, none of her missions put her in mortal danger.
She mentions tragic incidents, like a pregnant Afghan woman who was killed during a Special Operations mission, and the accidental deaths of friends, as contributing to her adjustment issues. Yet accidents can happen anywhere, and you don’t have to serve in Afghanistan to hear about civilian deaths. Yes, those incidents could certainly affect someone. Civilians read bad news and lose friends to accidents too. Perhaps Johnson’s problems really don’t have anything to do with her military service; if she had mentioned that possibility in her essay, many veterans might not have such negative feelings about it.
Johnson also says this: “I’m thankful every day that I didn’t ‘witness or experience an event that involved threatened or actual serious injury or death.’” That also irks me. If you never want to experience danger, why join the military? The country we serve rightfully expects us to be a barrier against danger. To do that effectively, we have to embrace that danger. Troops who go on every mission desperately wishing “Please god, don’t let us get hit” tend to be ineffective when they do get hit, because they’re already on the defensive.
I realize not every veteran feels this way, but I’ll say it anyway: I’m damn thankful I experienced multiple dangerous events. I chose that danger, and embraced it. I’m thankful even for the bad days. I look back on those we lost, and feel humbled just by having been in their presence. When I hear a veteran who voluntarily joined up express gratitude at always being safe, it makes me question their reason for serving. It’s almost like hearing a former astronaut say, “Thank god I never had to go into space.”
The above complaints are minor. The next one is serious.
I would like to know if Johnson is in fact receiving disability. Of course, she has no obligation to tell me. But according to the essay, Johnson is successfully completing college courses, has loving relationships with her pets and fiance and will be married soon. She appears to be physically fit and doesn’t mention medical problems in her essay. From her blog we already know she has a disability rating for Chronic Adjustment Disorder, which she describes as “PTSD lite”. So is she receiving disability? If so, why? She certainly doesn’t appear to be disabled in any way. If someone never served in combat, was never in any danger, doesn’t have any physical issues related to their service, is happily in love and is leading a productive, successful life, why are they receiving disability pay?
This is something I’ve written about before. Far too many vets are milking the system for money, because it’s so easy. To me, it’s shameful. Johnson herself talks about veterans who actually did experience horrors of war, and those who came home horribly scarred. She knows her experience and problems don’t compare to theirs (and for the record, neither do mine). So if she knows this, why accept money and why further jam the VA system, when other vets are in serious need of help?
Ms. Johnson, I hope to hear your response.
Filed under: Afghanistan | 19 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, daily mail, glamour magazine, lauren kay johnson, PTSD
A couple of days ago I read an article from the UK’s Daily Mail. It was about a young American veteran, Lauren Kay Johnson, and how service in Afghanistan affected her.
Since returning home three years ago, she’s lost interest in many things she used to enjoy. She feels like life here is trivial compared to military life in Afghanistan. She was diagnosed with Chronic Adjustment Disorder, which according to the article is “a milder form of PTSD”. She decided to get out of the military and learn to be a civilian. She now blogs about her life and struggles. According to that blog, she has a disability rating for Chronic Adjustment Disorder. I don’t know if that means she receives disability payments, although I suspect she does.
On its face, this sounds like the sad yet often-told story of a service member who goes to war, experiences unspeakable horrors, then returns home but can’t quite “fit in”. Many veterans, of all our wars, have experienced this. PTSD and adjustment disorders are serious problems, worth speaking and writing about. And yet, this story has done nothing but infuriate huge numbers of veterans. Including me.
So what’s the problem? Just this: Ms. Johnson served in Afghanistan as an Air Force Public Affairs Officer. According to her blog, she was never in combat.
Let me make a few things clear. First, I have nothing but respect for Ms. Johnson’s actual service. She’s being ripped apart as a liar on several web sites for saying in the article that she wore body armor and carried 225 rounds on missions. According to some veterans, AF Public Affairs people never leave the wire. I know for a fact that isn’t true. Ms. Johnson was on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which is made up of Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. I went on several missions with PRTs. They regularly go outside the wire, although not specifically to engage in combat. All the team’s troops are geared up and carry a full combat load. The PRT on my firebase before I arrived was in tons of combat, the first one I worked with was never in combat, the next one was in a handful of engagements and took a couple of IED strikes. PRT duty can be dangerous and Ms. Johnson has my admiration for serving in one. I don’t fault Johnson for not serving in a combat role.
However, I am mad that she cited these reasons for her “milder form of PTSD”:
1) “long hours”
2) “drab meals of dry meat and soggy vegetables”
3) “constant ‘paranoia’ that something could happen at any moment”
4) “Limited internet and phone service added to her feelings of vulnerability”
5) “sexual assault [was] a constant worry for her on the front line, because she ‘knew the stories’ and ‘overheard vulgar talk.’”
That’s it. That produced, according to her, a form of PTSD.
When I read that, I thought, “you have got to be f**king kidding me.” Sorry, but to have “post trauma” you have to have “trauma” in the first place. Call me evil and unsympathetic (and I’m sure many people will), but I don’t see how any of what Johnson described could possibly cause PTSD.
At this point, I’m sure someone is going to counter with, “Trauma is relative. Just because something didn’t affect you, that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect someone else.”
Fair point. In both the military and law enforcement worlds I’ve know people who just didn’t seem to be bothered by experiences any sane person would describe as traumatic. However, is there any limit to this? Since “only god can judge”, does that mean ANYTHING could be traumatic enough to produce PTSD?
Here’s a reductio ad absurdum example: When I was in Afghanistan, something truly devastating happened: Michael Jackson died.
Good god, people. I practically grew up hearing Michael’s voice. The man was the King of Pop. And he looked just like my white female best friend. If Michael was dead, what could possibly be worth fighting to defend? I was crushed, traumatized, left completely without an urge to go outside the wire and shoot Taliban. Now, since trauma is all relative, would I qualify as a PTSD patient?
Hopefully, the unanimous answer is “hell no.” Relative or not, there has to be a line somewhere.
I actually have tried to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt on this. It’s possible she was badly misquoted by the Daily Mail. Her blog does seem to have a pretty balanced view of PTSD, and illustrates her own doubts that she has it or should have it.
“Guilt – what right do I have to be linked with PTSD? I, who spent most of my deployment behind a desk, who was never shot at, who never shot at anyone, who was never blown up, who made it home safely with my entire unit. So many horrible things I didn’t experience. How can I be associated with veterans who did?
Weakness – maybe I am linked with those who suffered more, and because I suffered less but had a similar reaction, that makes me weak. They say everyone has a breaking point, maybe mine came sooner than most. Maybe I was never meant to be a soldier.”(http://uncamouflaged.blogspot.com/2012/05/ptsd-new-four-letter-word.html)
Sounds like Johnson herself doesn’t think she should have PTSD. However, since the Daily Mail published the article on October 4th, Johnson hasn’t published anything on her blog disputing DM’s reporting. She also hasn’t, as far as I know, issued a statement on any other forum challenging the article. As far as we know, she’s okay with this story about how her time not engaging in combat, having limited phone and internet service, working long hours and eating bland food has caused a disorder so severe she rates disability for it.
So guys, I’m torn here. On one hand, I’m trying to be even-keeled. Johnson obviously has a problem, she served her country honorably, and I should be happy that she’s speaking about it and getting the help she needs. It’s not for me to judge anyone else’s trauma. I should just be quiet and supportive.
On the other hand…
If you join the military during a war, don’t be shocked because you went to war. Military service demands a certain level of toughness; no, we don’t all have to be Captain Will Swenson or Salvatore Giunta. But we do expect long hours, crappy food, lack of communication with loved ones, and “vulgar talk”. And that’s just in peacetime. At war, those are the least of our problems. My uncles who jumped into Sicily/Normandy/Holland, or fought at the Chosin Reservoir, or died in the Bataan Death March, probably weren’t too concerned with how soggy their vegetables were. They might have actually had more important things to worry about, like not getting killed or not letting their friends die.
The public far too often buys into the “all those poor pitiful veterans have PTSD” fable. And crap like this doesn’t help. Whenever a veteran does something stupid, the media jumps onto the “PTSD-crazed veteran” bandwagon, even if the vet was just a run-of-the-mill moron who never served in combat. When Aaron Alexis committed the DC Navy Yard massacre, the media was quick to point out he was a Navy veteran who earned the “coveted” National Defense Service Medal. But Alexis never served in combat. Everyone gets a National Defense Service Medal just for being in the military during a war, whether you participated or not.
Articles about the recent traffic stop death of noncombat Army veteran John Van Allen garner numerous comments such as, “Looks like he was having a PTSD moment” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/04/oregon-highway-shootout-video_n_4044431.html). Too much of the public, helped by too much of the media, assumes we’re all damaged from wartime service. Guys like me argue against that. Then Johnson comes along and tells everyone that even if you were safe your entire deployment, gosh darn it, you’re still screwed up.
Thanks, Ms. Johnson. Thanks for perpetuating the stupid stereotype about all of us being debilitated by our service. Thanks for managing to make us look like crybabies who can’t handle stress that even most high school kids could brush off. Nonsense like this is why I absolutely oppose giving Purple Hearts for PTSD. I don’t want someone to get one because they couldn’t even deal with non-life and death stress (http://chrishernandezauthor.com/2013/09/19/purple-hearts-for-ptsd/).
Now please show me I’m wrong. Please issue a statement condemning the Daily Mail article. Please tell everyone that you were badly misquoted, and that your easy deployment did not so horribly affect you.
And please, for the love of god, tell me that you’re not receiving disability payments because you had to eat soggy vegetables, hear vulgar talk and weren’t able to call home anytime you pleased.
Ms. Johnson has posted a condemnation of the Daily Mail article on her blog. According to her, DM didn’t even notify her that they were writing it, and took all her quotes from an essay she published in Glamour Magazine. Links to her blog post and the original Glamour essay are below. Please read both.
I will post another blog on this subject tomorrow and add a link to it.
Filed under: Afghanistan, Iraq | 42 Comments
Tags: Afghanistan, lauren kay johnson, PTSD, veteran writers
Today I saw the Oregon State Patrol video of the traffic stop shooting between Trooper Matt Zistel and a driver named John Van Allen. It’s an interesting video, worth a quick analysis for lessons that can be applied both to law enforcement personnel and armed citizens.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened:
Trooper Zistel stops John Van Allen for speeding. Allen immediately exits his vehicle, wearing US Army fatigues, and puts his right hand behind his back while keeping his left hand at his waist. He ignores repeated orders to get back inside his vehicle and asks at least twice why he was stopped. Zistel is polite the entire time, even calling Allen “sir”. Allen walks toward the trooper, draws a weapon and opens fire. Zistel returns fire as Allen maneuvers around the hood of the patrol car. Allen is hit in the chest, Zistel in the side. Allen returns to his car and flees. He is found a short time later, dead from the chest wound. Three of Allen’s children were in the car when the shooting occurred.
Let me say two things up front: First, I ain’t no expert on nuthin’. I’ve been a cop 19 years, and most of that time was on night shift patrol in rough areas. I spent a few years as an assistant Active Shooter instructor. I’ve also been in the Marine Reserve and Army National Guard for 24 years, and have been in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. That doesn’t make me master of all things tactical, but it does give me a good background to understand and explain the dynamics of this shootout.
Second, I am NOT in any way criticizing Trooper Zistel’s performance or judgement. He was there, not me. I am writing this to explain to the lay person how and why certain things happened, not to say that Zistel made any mistakes. Everything I’m about to write is from the perspective of an informed observer, not a direct participant. As always, I own any mistakes I make; if someone reads this and knows I’m factually wrong about something, please let me know.
The video I’ve linked is from someone who posts and critiques police videos. His commentary only lasts about 20 seconds. I chose this video because, for some reason, certain details are more visible here than in others I’ve seen. Please watch, it’s a very short video of a very fast incident.
Now, here are my observations.
1) Upon stopping, Allen immediately gets out of the car. In my experience, people who rush to get out of the car on a traffic stop are trying to keep attention away from what’s inside the car. The position of Allen’s car is also noteworthy. On a highway, with traffic flying by at high speed, most drivers know to pull well off the road, as far to the right on the shoulder as possible. Allen stops almost on the line. This could just mean he’s a bad driver, but it could mean he’s in such a rush to take whatever action he’s planning that he’s not paying attention. It could also mean he’s hoping the officer pulls over further to the right, which would give the suspect a good angle on the driver’s door of the patrol car. It would also allow the suspect to use his own trunk as partial cover/concealment.
But more importantly, 2) As soon as he was out of the car, Allen put his right hand behind his back. While some very unaware drivers can immediately reach for their wallet when they’re stopped, this looks very different. Allen stands very stiffly, head raised high, feet spread in almost a fighting stance. And instead of casually pulling a wallet from his pocket, he leaves his hand behind his back.
Also, watch his left hand. He moves it around by his hip, suggesting to me that he’s trying to find a position for it that looks casual. I’ve seen this before, and it’s hard to quantify and explain. But certain suspects will make an obvious attempt to look casual while they’re obviously doing something wrong. I’ve had stopped drivers try to casually smoke a cigarette while they’re kicking drugs under their seat, and had suspects act very friendly and wave with one hand while using the other to dig into their pockets for weapons or drugs.
In one hilarious robbery video I saw, the suspect walked up to a convenience store clerk, put a candy bar and milk on the table, then jumped the counter and started beating the clerk while ordering him to open the register. A minute later, a police officer walked into the convenience store. The robber immediately pretended to be a clerk, tried to look casual despite being obviously terrified, and pushed the milk and candy toward the officer as if the officer was about to buy them.
This is just my personal observation, so it’s only worth what you’re paying for it. But if you see someone whose overall demeanor suggests they’re extremely tense, yet they make some seemingly casual movement, they’re either doing something wrong or about to.
3) Next point: Allen demands, twice, for the officer to tell him why he’s been stopped. Yes, many drivers don’t like cops and immediately assume we stopped them for no reason. If Allen had been sitting in his car demanding it, I wouldn’t take it too seriously. But in this case, given Allen’s overall demeanor, it seems to me that Allen is trying to distract the officer with conversation. I arrested a guy for murder one night, and he tried the same thing; ignore my orders, keep talking, keep advancing toward me.
This doesn’t only apply to law enforcement. If an armed citizen is confronted by, say, a supposedly innocent stranger in a parking lot, watch out for repeated “innocent” questions.
“Hey man, you got a light?”
“No I don’t, sorry.”
“Hey man, I asked if you have a light.”
You already answered him. If he’s walking toward you while asking you a second time, in my opinion he’s probably using the question as a verbal distraction while he closes distance. Depending on the overall circumstances, an armed citizen might want to draw at this point.
4) At 1:04 Allen begins his draw.
The movement of his right arm as he reaches under his uniform shirt is obvious from the camera angle, and I’d guess it would be even more obvious to the officer, standing outside the driver’s door. My guess, and it’s just a guess, is that the officer didn’t fire at this point because Allen was wearing a US Army uniform. Most cops consider members of the military to be fellow “men of the cloth”, so to speak. That doesn’t mean we won’t treat them like criminals when they act like criminals, but it does mean cops generally are hesitant to fire on someone wearing an official good guy uniform. My gut feeling is that Trooper Zistel would have opened fire at this point if Allen hadn’t been in uniform.
5) At 1:06, a full two seconds from the time he first started drawing, Allen opens fire.
This was an extremely slow draw, giving Trooper Zistel plenty of advance notice. Most criminals don’t “train”; they might practice pulling their weapon from wherever they hide it, but they don’t train to develop muscle memory. To me, Allen appears to be an amateur with no appreciable pistol training. The majority of criminals are, like Allen, capable of not much more than operating a weapon. And despite comments from those who think anyone in uniform is a highly trained combat vet with PTSD, there is currently no reason to believe Allen ever did anything more than stateside military construction training. He served 3 years as a reserve construction engineer, and was discharged last year. No word yet on why Allen was in uniform.
6) At 1:07, one second into the gunfight, Trooper Zistel appears to have fired one round into the street in front of Allen. A puff of dust from a bullet impact is visible just in front of the car, near the left front bumper, where Allen had been standing a moment before.
It’s worth noting that Allen almost immediately moves sideways, off the initial line of fire. That could be instinctive, or could be the result of training. But it almost certainly isn’t the result of military training. Unless you’re lucky enough to get advanced weapons training, every time you fire a weapon in the Army you’re standing still and shooting at a stationary target. We have the same problem in law enforcement. Good officers have died because under stress they reverted to their training; stand in one spot, engage, holster. Allen’s movement seems to be instinct, not training.
Another item of interest in this frame is that Allen may have already been hit. For some reason, he has flexed his elbows and brought his weapon up near his head. This may be a flinch from being shot in the chest. On one web site where this incident is being discussed, a very uninformed but intelligent commenter said this:
“Is this normal? I mean, if someone gets shot in the chest, can they just keep moving as fast as he was? Or is this an indication of being on some sort of drug that keeps you going? Am I watching too many movies? I thought a bullet to the chest would at the very least make you wobbly and fall to your knees.”
This leads me to item 7), which is the major takeaway for both cops and armed citizens. The answer to the above question is, YES IT IS NORMAL FOR SOMEONE SHOT WITH A PISTOL TO CONTINUE FIGHTING!! Pistol rounds are inherently bad at killing people. Even when someone takes a life-ending hit, they can still present a lethal threat until the wound kills them. At the Miami FBI shootout, one of the suspects sustained a non-survivable wound in the first few seconds of the fight. He still managed to kill two FBI agents and wound several others. If someone actually is on drugs, they may take multiple rounds with no apparent effect.
If you think real life is like TV and everyone who gets shot drops dead immediately, you’re wrong. If you carry a “get off me” gun that you think will scare someone away even though it only carries a few small-caliber rounds, you’re probably wrong. If you carry a .45 because “Hell, even if you only hit someone in the pinky with a .45 it’ll still kill them,” you’re laughably wrong.
8) This is another interesting point. In combat, things go wrong and unexpected things happen. This wasn’t clear on other videos, but you can see it here. When Allen was (possibly) hit and jerked his weapon upward, the magazine fell out.
You can see it just below Allen’s right elbow. There are several reasons it could have fallen. Allen may have been gripping the pistol wrong and inadvertently depressed the magazine release when he was hit, or he may not have had it seated correctly in the first place (although if he hadn’t, it’s unlikely the weapon would have continued to fire). Maybe Zistel’s round even hit Allen’s weapon before entering Allen’s chest. Whatever the reason, Allen seems to be unaware that the round in the chamber is the only one he’s got.
After Allen moves off camera, one shot is fired (I think from Zistel), then two almost simultaneously (one from each of them). This would have been Allen’s last round fired; at this point, Allen apparently realizes he has an empty weapon. When he reappears on camera, he’s bent down frantically reaching for his magazine.
After he recovers and inserts his magazine, Allen appears to not rack the slide and chamber a round.
This goes along with my earlier comment, about most criminals barely being able to operate a weapon. With rounds in the magazine but an empty chamber, Allen then apparently tries to engage again. At this point, Zistel is already on the radio calling out “shots fired!”
Now Allen, maybe not understanding why his weapon isn’t firing, runs back to his car and speeds away. From the first round to the last, approximately 5 seconds passed. From the moment Allen drew his weapon to the time he got back into his car, ten seconds elapsed. If I’m not mistaken, eight rounds total were fired. Very brief, and very intense. Zistel sustained a non-life threatening wound and was released from the hospital the same day. Allen, of course, died from his injuries.
Bottom line here is that Trooper Zistel did a fantastic job. I’m proud we have police officers like him on the street. Allen may have been a good man at heart, and he may have had severe mental problems. We don’t know yet. I’m sorry his children had to watch him die. But that day, for whatever reason, he made Trooper Zistel kill him.
Filed under: Cops | 14 Comments
Tags: john van allen, Oregon state police, PTSD, veteran writers
So there I was, minding my own business, parked in a dark parking lot watching a crime hot spot across the street. This was years back, when worry about terrorism was way high. Officers were still assigned to guard critical sites like electrical stations and water purification plants. A friend of mine was guarding one of those spots, elsewhere in my beat. Close by the site she was guarding stood a nightclub, the kind any decent person avoids and gangsters love.
This club was notorious for fights, shootings and just generally being a pain in the ass. Customers sometimes stole cars just so they could drive there and show them off. People would wander out of the club high on PCP, then stand in the street freaking out. One time a super-high guy outside the club actually flagged down a police car, then climbed onto the hood and started screaming at the officer through the windshield. When I heard her yell for help on the radio I thought she sounded, shall we say, a tad concerned. I had been in a couple of stolen car chases that started there and had worked several shootings in and around the club.
One night a friend and I parked our patrol cars in a huge, well-lit parking lot behind the club. As we were talking, someone outside the club started shooting. My friend and I couldn’t see far past the club’s fence; just on the other side of the fence, I saw a guy crawling under a car. About 15 shots were fired. I thought, Oh hell, I’m about to get into a shooting. We took off, screeched around the corner and rushed into the club parking lot. Not only did we not see anyone shot, we couldn’t get anyone to talk to us. Nobody would even look at us. And nobody called the police.
So I guess you could say this club was a total craphole.
So on this early Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like prowling around that club looking for stolen cars driven by gunmen high on PCP. Instead I decided to watch this other bad spot in my beat. But unfortunately my friend, on guard at a critical site, decided to ruin my quiet morning. At around 3 a.m., she sent me a message on my computer:
I just heard a loud crash and gunshots at the club.
I knew that whatever happened at the club, it was going to be a mess. I checked the computer for calls holding in the beat. Seven calls for an accident or shooting had just dropped. I headed that way before the dispatcher told me to.
When I arrived there was mass chaos. Four wrecked cars were scattered in front of the club. People were running around screaming. Backup units showed up as I did, and we started trying to figure out what happened. Only a couple of people would talk to us, but eventually we pieced together some of it.
At this club, patrons would just stop in the middle of a busy street to drop people off or pick them up. Four cars were stopped in front of the club. And an old pickup came flying down the street and smashed right into the last car.
The last car hit the one ahead, which hit the one ahead, and so on. People in and around the cars were knocked to the street and probably injured. The old truck was badly damaged and smoking, but the driver backed up, swerved around the wreck he caused and tried to speed off.
At this point, a concerned citizen outside the club pulled his pistol and emptied a magazine at the fleeing truck. He did this despite the fact that hundreds of club patrons were scattered everywhere. More on this later.
Backup units started trying to find the drivers of the wrecked cars and I drove in the direction the pickup had fled. A couple of minutes later, I found it. The front end was smashed in and still smoking. The driver had made two quick turns, then drove into a heavily wooded dead end. A bullet hole was in the back window, above the headrest, perfectly placed to nail someone right in the back of the head. But it was on the passenger side, not the driver’s. I looked inside the truck. It was empty, nobody had been hit.
Now I was pissed. I’m not saying I wished I had found the driver with a bullet in his head. But I was hoping he’d still be inside the truck.
Meanwhile, my friends had no luck finding any occupants of the other cars. Four vehicles full of people, and they all fled the scene before we showed up. Maybe they took off because they had warrants, were high or had drugs on them. They didn’t show up at local hospitals.
I was frustrated as hell, knowing I wouldn’t get home for hours after the end of my shift. Now I had a hit and run accident with five vehicles involved, and the at-fault driver on the loose. Spent shells needed to be collected as evidence. We had tons of reports to fill out. And at the end of all that work, I wouldn’t even have a bad guy to throw in jail.
I called K9 to help me search for the driver. It was just a formality; I figured the driver was long gone, having a beer at a friend’s house and laughing about how he had smashed up a bunch of gangster cars at a gangster club, barely missed being shot and got away. And all he lost was his twenty-year old piece of crap pickup, which he’d spend $100 to replace the next day.
Right around the time I was fuming over my escaped hit and run driver, he stumbled out of the woods. Right next to the club.
Fortunately for him, an officer grabbed him before the crowd did. He was slobbering, stupid drunk. I headed back to the club to put him in my patrol car.
I was ecstatic that my bad guy was under arrest. But there was a downside. Now I had a five vehicle hit and run accident, a drunk driving arrest that could take hours to complete, evidence to be tagged, and tons-plus of reports to write. Then the dispatcher called me on the radio and made it worse.
A gunshot victim had arrived at a nearby emergency room. He told the doctor he had been shot in the hand while standing across the street from the club. Our concerned citizen had – shockingly – managed to shoot an uninvolved spectator. Of course the victim was suffering momentary amnesia from the gunshot: “Man, I didn’t see nuthin’. I just heard gunshots and then somethin’ hit me in the hand.” Now I had a five vehicle hit and run, a drunk driver to process, evidence, a gunshot victim, and metric tons of reports to write.
Then we checked the drunk for warrants. And found out he was an illegal alien wanted for sexually abusing a child in another state.
Putting his punk ass in jail was worth writing the metric ton of reports.
Filed under: Cops | 12 Comments
Tags: police work, veteran writers