Why many servicemembers don’t sleep at night.
I joined the navy weeks before George Bush declared war on Iraq. I wasn’t aware of the political situation or the timing, I just felt a sense of being lost personally and I believed that in service to our country I would find purpose.
What I found in boot camp and beyond was new and complicated. I was sheltered by New York, living in the Bronx my whole young life. The early 1990’s was a pivotal time for the Navy in that, they had a zero tolerance policy for drug use and they started to introduce women in other shipboard roles. There were also changes in the way they approached stress, anxiety, racism and religious differences. There was a lot coming at our senior sailors and as I recall, they struggled with the speed of change.
As a young sailor, I pushed the limits and boundaries. It’s a familiar story of coming of age. During my time, I accumulated my share of sea stories, some I am proud of and others, I am not. I learned about America and the people from all corners of our country. I learned about other countries as well and there were many days that I would gleam with pride. I was part of something bigger than myself. I was a cog in a wheel of a great machine and I was associated with it warts and all.
The Navy gave me some life long friends along with life long scars that I’ve had to manage over the years. Years after my active duty service, I worked for the DoD at US Joint Forces Command. It was a healthy continuation of service as a civilian. I went from being a young sailor working in the bilges and deepest compartments of the ship to working with the men and women who made decisions about the lives of many of our war fighters. During the years I worked at JFCOM, I was just beside myself on a daily basis to some how contribute to the benefit of the men and women who serve. I still struggled with my 19 year old self and the events that I had to deal with during my service but I had a chance at JFCOM to make new memories and make things better.
One of the many active campaigns was Afghanistan and the war on terror. Many of the civilian government leaders were either active reserves or former military themselves. We had a mix of former senior enlisted and officer types. There were only a few of us who served as junior enlisted during our service. I also had some former shipmates that were still active duty and I can tell you that I would have done anything to help those guys out in theater. It was a call to service which puts a feeling in your heart that is hard to explain. The feeling comes from a desire to end needless war and fighting and to build a world where we could fight the abstract “bad” and create the abstract “good.” I say abstract because there are so many issues economic, social, brutality, genocide and other. It was a mental place to go where good is good and bad is bad and we can see the line. If for some reason we can’t see the line, someone would show us the line and then we could identify it and align to the mission.
I’ve said many times that I felt I did more as a civilian for the DoD than I did during my service contract.
We worked in an office with no windows. We had long conference room tables where we worked on building capabilities, process and practice to serve our war fighters. Our leaders were passionate, loving, committed and clear with their words and resolve. In the hallways there were images of bloody soldiers put on the walls reminding us everyday of who we were working to serve.
At times, I felt guilty about my own service. I also felt that I needed to do everything possible to do my part in achieving the goals of my leaders. We had some folks that were on our team that would deploy at times and come back with a glazed eye look and unusual behavior. Being in a war zone changes people. When they come back, no matter how many times they’ve gone before, they are always impacted. On the other side of this we had these older civilians who had military experience doing what they could to help. I don’t have words to express the passion these people had. I think the only way to say it is love for their fellow person.
Our command and our mission were declared over and the command was decommissioned during sequestration through the Obama administration. It was a head shot to many who understood the mission of JFCOM but politicians win. The wave of the pen is much stronger and more durable than any sword or gun, we were done. The work itself wasn’t really done and so it had to be moved. The civilian leaders who passionately did their duty and service had to be rescoped in their work. One of the great leaders and a personal real life hero to me had taken a role where in his 50’s he would be dispatched to the field in Afghanistan. He had written me regularly and I had asked him if I could share some of his messages to me. Little did I know that his dispatches would tell a story that ties a bow on Afghanistan today.
Our service members knew what they were doing when they deployed in theater. They were fighting an endless war that could only be won by destruction or a complete take over of the country. Our political leaders chose to continue the war with no end. Our men and women, bled and died for a cause that was noble. Their efforts were supposed to stop 911 from ever happening again. There was a global war on terror. Our civilian leadership and our great military leaders of our time believed in their heart of hearts that they were serving for America’s future.
In recent days, I have seen and heard many people who served in Afghanistan. Many people are awake in the middle of the night thinking about the loss of loved ones. Many are awake thinking about their missing arms and legs. Many of the civilians are thinking about what they could have done differently. I heard someone say that the US got what it wanted out of the war which was to feed the war machine. All the contractors and billions that were fed into it. Shame on those people who seek to simplify the situation and don’t look at the costs.
Some would say we are back where we started in Afghanistan. I don’t think we are back where we started. I think we never did what we needed to do to move forward. In order to win a war, we need to either destroy the enemy or fully control the enemy by residing and controlling the region. For many reasons, we didn’t do it. History will talk about the failure here but we didn’t fail.
The lesson here comes from the perspective of an individual. We do as individuals what we can. We do what we think is right with the information we have. We did the best we could with what we knew. We also realized like Kenny that it is better to participate and serve in order to make the best of the worst kind of situation. If it were a hand to hold and a face to look at for a soldier in trouble or a spirited story to motivate a team on a campaign, it was enough. History teaches us that many people have died in nonsensical wars. If we consider that we humans should be waging war on disease, famine, climate issues and other things rather than fight each other, no war with people makes sense.
To my fellow service member, if you aren’t sleeping at night, you aren’t alone and you should know that your service is of continued value. Your losses and your pain mean something to all of us. It is proof of your love of country, your hope for the future and your sacrifices for all of our children with the hope of a better world.
From my family to you and yours, thank you for your service and your sacrifice for all of us.