Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Humanity Shield

I’ve heard it a million times. “Boot camp brainwashes you!” Normally it isn’t said with an exclamation mark, at least not to my face, for obvious reasons. And I’ve heard the stories of friends who joined the Marines and “came back from boot camp a different person.” But I always resented the term “brainwash” being applied to something I had been through. I still have a very dirty mind, after all.

My explanation has always been that they don’t brainwash you, or even break you down and build you back up as a Marine, but rather scrub away your bad habits, and replace them with Marine Corps approved good habits. Most of these are genuinely good features for a decent human being to have. Marines are not only subjected to intense physical training, but taught that it is important to challenge yourself every day and to maintain a body that is always ready for anything.

Marines are imbued with a sense of self-sacrifice and service. This is reflected in our belief in community service. I have personally been involved in a number of Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots events. There is also a sense of heritage and respect that for those that have gone before us. We are the only branch of the service that has regular history classes as part of our basic training. And there are always the oft-repeated “Corps Values” of honor, courage, and commitment.

My tattoo reads, “For those who fight for it, life has a special flavor the protected never know.” I first saw this at Camp Pendleton when I was fourteen at the Devil Pups junior boot camp “citizenship and fitness program.” I came home and told my dad I just had to have this tattoo. He said if I could boil it down to five words, I could get it. Unfortunately, the phrase is an important part of the Marine Corps heritage. It originated in Vietnam and became a popular thing to write on one’s flak jacket or helmet. After I joined and saw all my friends getting their “hoorah tats” I knew that I had earned this one.

But clearly, the experience of boot camp changes you. Marines are also trained to kill. And part of that training is psychological. We are imbued with the ability to be very callous when we need to. We are not only armed with M-16s and K-BARs and machine guns, but we are given a shield with which to protect our humanity from whatever horrors we may encounter in the course of serving as weapons of our democracy. In times of peace, most Marines are able to go about their lives without ever raising that shield.

When the shield comes up, it is very effective. “The deadliest thing in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” When there is no room for hesitation, when it is kill or be killed, that shield is what keeps Marines alive. But it is not easy to take down. In Iraq, the reason mental health has become such an issue, is because there is no “rear,” there is no place to take a break, and there is no time to truly relax and think that you are safe. The threat of a mortar landing on your head at any time is literally a constant fear. At least my team did not have the luxury of spending our days in the Green Zone, in a reinforced bomb shelter.

With the shield up for so long, it is often difficult to bring it down. It means becoming vulnerable again, and becoming human again. When I came back from Iraq, I had a hard time adjusting. It took me about three months to really feel comfortable where I was, going to class, interacting with friends, things we take for granted. I would often wake up well before my alarm with a sense of urgency, thinking that I had to be somewhere and not be able to go back to sleep. I had occasional anxiety attacks. When bumped into from behind, I would find myself grabbing for the butt of my pistol where it would have been on my hip, not in aggression, but to protect it as we did when amid crowds of Iraqis.

I understood that what I was experiencing was “normal combat stress,” the symptoms of which persist for six to twelve weeks. It was not PTSD, I was sure of that. The reason it never became PTSD was because I kept the shield up. I kept it up for three more semesters and another year of active duty. I kept it up until after I got discharged last November. In fact, I was so comfortable behind it, that instead of going home to be with my family. I stayed at the house of a fellow Marine off base, sleeping on his couch so that I could keep working out at the gym on base and be with my Marine friends.

When I came to DC, I knew that I had to be involved somehow. I didn’t know IVAW existed, but I came across the website one night in February by accident. At first, I was apprehensive about being active. I spoke at a few events before participating in Operation First Casualty. That was when the shield really started to come down. That was when I got to become human again.

I went home that night and read over and over the story of Jonathan Shulze1 and couldn’t stop crying. For the next week, I spent my nights at my computer, sobbing uncontrollably. I read the story of Carlos Arredondo2. I had seen the coverage when his story was first on the news and saw the twisted version that America got. I felt sorry for him, but fuck it, it didn’t affect me. Then rereading the story over and over, and feeling his pain, I cried. I watched the “Before You Enlist” video and thought about how I had encouraged my brother to join the Army only months before and I cried.

I read the story of Cindy Sheehan, who I had been aware of, but never bothered to relate to. I saw a video of her in Crawford, where a young Marine “counter-protester” said to the press that her son was an “acceptable loss.” Cindy put her arm around him and led him off to speak with him privately. I couldn’t hear any of the words, but I knew exactly what she was saying to him and I cried. I realized how callous I had been to my own mother about being deployed and being ready to go back and I called her and apologized.

I think I am most of the way through this process of bringing down the shield, but it’s hard to say. I know of some Marines who have come home and never take it down, never get to go through this process. Some of them drink themselves to into oblivion instead. Some get to take it down slowly. But it is now that I am putting my experience back into context with my humanity, that I am experiencing the symptoms of PTSD, if only slightly. I used to tell people that I didn’t see anything too traumatic, and that I don’t have flashbacks, but now I cannot say that without certain incidents coming to mind.

This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be vulnerable. I have spent my entire adult life up to this point carrying around the shield, but I’m done. I hope I never have to even pick it up again. As one of the Vietnam Veterans who participated in Operation Dewey Canyon III said before throwing his medals back at the Capitol, “We don’t want to fight anymore, but if we do, it’ll be to take these steps!” This is our fight now.

1. Jonathan Shulze is the Marine from Minnesota who was suffering from PTSD and was turned down twice by the VA after telling them he was suicidal. He killed himself the next day.

2. Carlos Arredondo’s son was killed in Iraq in August 2004. When he was notified by three local Marine reservists, he asked them leave his house. They refused and he took a hammer to their government van. He then retrieved a can of gasoline, and in an attempt to light the van on fire, also suffered severe burns over most of his body. He is now an active anti-war protester, and a personal friend of mine.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Having Fun At the Attorney General’s Expense

On April 19, I attended the Senate Judiciary hearing with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. I had only decided to go the night before at a meeting at the CodePink house with Geoff Millard. That was where we came up with the idea for the action, but no one said that they would do it for sure. CodePink decided to do a “Pink Police” demonstration, featuring Gael Murphy playing the part of AGAG in an orange jumpsuit.

That morning I woke up at some ungodly hour to pick up Geoff and get to the Hart building early enough to be sure we could get a good spot in the line. When we arrived, the line wasn’t too long, but Code Pink was waiting for us. Then Cindy Sheehan showed up and I got my first chance to talk with her!

We got into the hearing and of course CodePink was raising a ruckus and I was holding my sign that said, “WE WERE SHOT AT BY YOUR TORTURE VICTIMS.” When the hearing was gaveled into session, we sat down rather quietly. That was when Midge Potts walked up right in front of the press area behind Gonzales with her great thought bubble banner, “I HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE . . . EXCEPT THE TRUTH.” By the way, Midge is really a hero of mine that I’ve been attempting to emulate in hearings. CNN did a great feature on her.

Senator Leahy began by warning everyone, “whether holding up signs in support of or against” Gonzales that they could not block anyone’s view. I strained to see anyone with a sign supporting him, but alas, we all think he’s a disgrace.

I was looking around at the CodePink ladies, and asked if anyone was going to keep track of the times Gonzales would say, “I don’t recall,” but no one was. I numbered all the remaining sheets in my padfolio on the right, up to fifteen. Senator Schumer actually warned him in his opening statement against saying, "I don't recall," and I thought my idea was shot, but he was so far off message it didn't matter anyway. I soon ran out of paper and had to switch to tally marks. Then I filled up the page I was working on and had to start again with smaller tally marks.

The lead photo you see hear was taken at the beginning of the lunch break. That count of 56 was only the half-time score. My final count was 74. More importantly, someone told Gonzales at each of the breaks that I was in the crowd. For the first twenty minutes or so after the break, he didn't say it once, but then he just lost it. He also said "I don't-" and caught himself at least a hundred times, which probably made him sound like at least twice the douche he would have. But Senator Schumer also mentioned the count in his closing remarks.

Regardless, I think I made my point. The real reason I was there (the main reason I hate Gonzales) is because torture policy is bad for US troops. (It's also morally reprehensible.) When I was in Fallujah, (Feb-Sep 2004) I was running a checkpoint at a civil affairs facility when the Abu Ghraib story broke, but I still had to go out the next day and face crowds of Iraqi civilians. I also had to hear the reports of Marines dying around the city because of the angst that was a direct result of that. I got to say all that and then some for cameras in an area roped off for Senators to give statements after the hearing. A bit of it was even used in CNN segment on the hearing, which is quite funny. The reaction in the blogosphere was pretty good too.

Monday, April 2, 2007

On the Proper Wearing of the Marine Corps Uniform as an IVAW Member

A few days ago I received a very disturbing email:

Cpl Kokesh, [I was busted down to Cpl for my last month in the Marines]

I know you're a busy man these days but I was hoping to speak with you about an issue that has presented itself. I have been assigned as Investigating Officer to look into your possible violation(s) of DoDI 1334.01 "Wearing of the Uniform" and MCO P1020.34 "Marine Corps Uniform Regulations". Specifically, you may have violated the law while wearing all or part of your Marine Corps uniform while engaged in political demonstrations or activities.

I know this matter pales in comparison with recent geopolitical events of which you have shown an interest but, nonetheless, I am obligated to investigate this matter and I have a desire to let a fellow Marine know about his obligations and duty. As a member of the Reserve Component, until 18 JUN 2007, the law restricts your wearing of the uniform at certain events.

Please call me or reply to this e-mail acknowledging your understanding of your obligations and responsibilities. Thanks Marine!

Major **** *. *****

The next day I met with Tina Richards for lunch and showed her the email. She told me that Cloy Richards (her son, fellow Marine, member of IVAW) had received numerous similar emails, some of which had come from people outside of the military, or at least acting on their own. He had ignored them all with no consequence.

While the nature of the email is professional, the content is clearly threatening. I was not scared, so much as I was angry. After a few days of deliberation, including a couple nights sitting at my computer, staring at the email, I felt compelled to reply with the following:

Major *****,

As you are still an active part of the military engaged in an occupation in Iraq, I should hope that you too are a busy man these days. I am reminded of a poster that hung in the building housing the 3rd Civil Affairs Group of which I was once a member that read, "We're at war. Are you doing all you can?" Apparently, you have found the time to investigate me over such a trifling matter, which as you say yourself "pales in comparison" to the issue at hand.

I was honorably discharged twice after volunteering twice to go to Iraq. I was among the hardest of the hardcore. I was promoted to Sgt after a mere three years and seven months as a reservist. I earned my Combat Action Ribbon in the middle of Fallujah. I slept in the dirt during the first battle of Fallujah. I taught myself Arabic in order to be more proficient at my job as a Civil Affairs NCO to the point that I could run a checkpoint at a Civil Affairs facility without a translator, which was a necessity we were not always afforded. Two and a half years later, I was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal for my efforts.

It was during this tour of duty that I brought a pistol home from Iraq. It was not a war trophy, but something I purchased from an Iraqi policeman that we were working with. Regardless, my CO discovered this as I was preparing to deploy for a second tour with the 3rd CAG, this time to Ramadi. I begged to be able to deploy, but was not allowed. I had volunteered to be activated for up to one year and was held for that entire period. I spent the majority of that time mowing the lawn around our building and begging to be sent to Iraq. I wanted only to serve to the best of my ability in the most appropriate capacity. The day after I was presented with my Navy Commendation Medal, I received Non-Judicial Punishment and was reduced to the rank of Corporal. I was soon given an honorable discharge accompanied by a reenlistment code 4. In case you are not familiar with it, that's the one that means I'm not welcome back. "Thanks for playing, it's been fun, but you can't reenlist."

So why I am I being investigated? Is it simply a matter of bureaucratic policy that you are being forced to carry out? Or am I really being perceived as a threat to the good order and discipline of the armed forces? I don't really think that's the case, but I am deeply offended by the attempt to keep me under the thumb of the organization to which I pledged my life and served so devotedly.

As we waste our time on such petty issues, our fellow Marines continue to die in futility in an occupation that our military is not adequately prepared to handle. While as a citizen, I have my responsibility to do all I can to ensure that our noble weapons of democracy are employed only in the best interests of our nation, you still have a responsibility to accomplish the two goals of Marine Corps leadership:

1. Mission Accomplishment

2. Troop Welfare

I fail to see how reminding me of my "obligations and responsibilities" helps you achieve either of these. It seems that while accomplishing our mission in Iraq, every corner we turn sends us further down the spiral, but there is still much that you can do to bring our fellow Marines home alive.

So no, I am not replying to your email in order to acknowledge my understanding of my obligations and responsibilities, but rather to ask you to please, kindly, go fuck yourself.

Semper Fi,

Adam Kokesh, PFC

Proud Fucking Civilian