Archives for category: Marines

I am the cook, so I only have time for a short note about this, but as I give thanks today I will be keeping my problems and blessings in perspective by thinking about my Marine brother Amir Hekmati, who is spending his third Thanksgiving inside Evin Prison, in Tehran.

Please feel free to catch up with his story if you aren’t familiar with it at the family’s website. In short, Amir, a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps was visiting his grandmother in Iran when he disappeared. Some time later, the family found out that the Iranian government had taken him. He has since been tried in a secret trial he didn’t attend and sentenced to death, sent for retrial, tried AGAIN in a secret trial neither he nor his attorney attended or knew about, and sentenced to 10 years.

Today, please take the time to be thankful for all your family who could be there, and keep in mind the Hekmatis, whose son can’t be with them.

Semper Fi

Amir Turkey#FreeAmir

I intentionally stiffed one of my creditors.

I know, that’s not a good thing, ever, but in this case I did it as an experiment.

It was the Veteran’s Administration. Wow. That sounds horrible. Not only was I an intentional deadbeat, but I was screwing the department of the federal government that arguably does the best work.

But there was a point to what I did, as I will illustrate here. There has been a lot in the news lately about how VA Healthcare has done some pretty horrible things as an institution, and while that has been borne out by the facts, it also serves millions of service disabled veterans well.

Count me in that number. I have health insurance through my employer, but it is primarily for my family. I use the VA system first because I prefer it. They have done great work for me, and the level of focus and compassionate care has been unlike anything I’ve experienced out in the for-profit world of civilian health insurance influenced care.

I love VA Healthcare; my real problem, and the real tragedy here, is the VA Benefits side. It is a massive problem going largely unnoticed due to the recent problems with healthcare. Wait times for routine benefits requests are supposed to be a horrifically bad 180 days. However, that 6 month wait time would be refreshing compared to what veterans, many of them needing these benefits to survive, are experiencing. You’ll hear about wait times of a year to a year and a half. I’ve met folks who have been waiting two years for their claim to be acted on.

Take a look at this report from my ebenefits page on VA. gov:

va claime

Let me explain what this is. I had a 0% disability rating on my foot/ankle. This means the VA recognized there was a service related problem with it, but it didn’t impact me to the point that it was worth payment. I ended up having surgery on it, as it had gotten to the point where walking was very painful. At that point, I was re-rated to a 40% total, between my hearing and my foot.
That upgrade took six months, that 180 days they are targeting, and at the end of it I was now eligible to add my dependents. This is not something that needs to be adjudicated; once you hit a certain rating you qualify. They need a form filled out, and copies of birth certificates and marriage license.

I have an excellent representative at the DAV who helped me and reviewed my forms before I submitted them. Everything was in order, and again, there is nothing to review. It’s a slam dunk.

That was more than a year ago. A year and a month exactly. 

I don’t need the money. Not desperately; sure I could use it, but don’t need it. But it made me think about my brother and sister veterans who are struggling, on the edge of homelessness or beyond, in mental or physical pain from injuries sustained in the service, and facing the same monolithic wall of unresponsive verklempt bureaucracy. They NEED this money, and while they’ll get it someday, it will be too late to save their house, car, or in some cases, life.

So I decided I would test the system. I need money from them, and we have established how long it takes them to respond to that. Six months to over a year.

What would happen if they needed money from me? But how to test that? The only thing they charge me for is an $8 co-pay on my prescriptions.

Bingo. I let them build up. I would get letters. They were polite, and the number got higher as the months ticked by and my 800 mg ibuprofen and blood pressure medicine co pays added up.

And then the letters stopped. It had worked! I was very excited to see how long it would take them to collect against my monthly payment.

As near as I can tell, it took them about a month and a half. I called into their main number (25 minutes of hold to talk to someone) to confirm it. They had deducted the co-pays and late fees from my July 1st payment.

The nice lady (an Air Force vet who was waiting 2 years already on her claim) let me know what they had done and when I yelled ‘A-HA!’ and explained what I had done. She replied that it was different; it was VA Healthcare that was collecting, and they don’t take as long. I was quiet for a second, letting the irony really ferment on that one (considering the news of the day) and pointed out that when VA Health was owed money, and asked VA Benefits for help. It took a month.

But when I asked VA Benefits for money I was owed, we are at a year and counting.

How come the people that process these claims against Veterans can’t be repurposed until claims for veterans get back down under three months? Doesn’t that seem like a reasonable response? Does the VA need my $93.46 so badly that it has a streamlined organization to get that money? Make VA Health stand in line with the rest of us.

As bad as the VA Healthcare scandal is, and it’s bad, the waitlist scandal is worse. It’s affecting many more veterans in ways that permanently damage them and their families. I’m just glad that for me, it’s an exercise to alleviate pent up frustration and not worry over paying the mortgage.

But what about my friends, brothers and sisters who served, who are facing the street? They need our help.

terry White House

Marine veteran Amir Hekmati is approaching his 1000th day of incarceration in Iran’s Evin Prison. It is where the Iranians keep political prisoners. The anniversary date falls on Memorial day and, accordingly, the family has chosen to mark the event with a vigil one week earlier out of respect for our solemn tradition.

At this time, I think it’s important to note this distinction. Every year many of us veterans bump our gums about the way the celebration of Memorial Day has evolved. And I don’t mean the way people celebrate it as the unofficial start of summer. On Memorial day, a lot of Americans take the time to thank a veteran, but it is not the veterans that we celebrate that day.  It is for the dead, not living.  It is for people like Manila John Basilone or Randy Shugart, who died in combat.

So an event commemorating Amir’s 1000th day does not belong on that day because as a prisoner of the cold war between our two nations, he is still very much alive. Anyone who thinks he would be in prison right now if he hadn’t served in the Corps is fooling themselves. He is as close to a POW as you can get in the context of our two nation’s relations. But he is alive. VERY much alive, and so this is no memorial event. This is a celebration of hope. 

I don’t know Amir personally, never served with him, but the dearth of coverage about him always stuck in my craw. So I would go to the White House, stand out front with a huge sign, explaining to tourists who he was. My act of protest was never directed at the president; the State Department has been working hard for the Hekmati’s throughout. I went there because it is the seat of the ultimate expression of our power as the people. 

The term “president” was originally chosen as a title for our leader to reinforce the job’s lack of exaltation. When it was chosen, a president was someone who presided over a meeting, or a club, not someone who led anything of consequence. This, and many other aspects of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, was specifically designed to outline that the power of the government stems from the people.

So I thought it appropriate to go there. To let the people who came to take pictures at the seat of our government see that one of their own was missing. One of us. 

Tomorrow I will serve a symbolic 1000 minute sentence to help bring attention to Amir’s 1000 day ordeal. I do it because he is one of our own, one of the family.

About that. The fraternal nature of the Marine Corps was an important factor in what I did. There are other people held by Iran and other countries and they have their champions. But something about Amir made me act. I am not particularly moto, a term Marines may know. For those of you not in the know, picture the ultimate expression of Marine veteran-ness. Shiny scarlet jacket, screaming high and tight, nearly unintelligible jargon, with every sentence punctuated with an ‘oohrah.’ I love my moto brothers, but I also love my wisecracking Terminal Lance reading sarcastic Marine family as well. 

I am somewhere in the middle, but with very strong feelings about certain aspects of the relationship. These people are my family, and as such I feel a strong bond to them. You know the saying, “you can’t choose your family”? As it usually is used to bemoan the actions of your crazy uncle, in this case it is not the foundation of a complaint. I can’t choose who joins the Marines. Every able-bodied person who has ever risen to the challenge of the question “Do you have what it takes to be a Marine” is potentially part of that family. People rise to that challenge for a variety of reasons. You can ask me about mine sometime, if you want a chuckle.

No matter what, if someone is a Marine, I know they answered that question the same way as I did and proved themselves a part of the family.

So the question is not why am I showing up at midnight in Lafayette Park and confining myself to a space no bigger than Amir’s cell. 

The question is; how could I not? It’s the least I could do for my brother.

 

Happy Birthday, Chesty

My wife is an artist, as some of you know, although she doesn’t really jump into the Artist category with both feet. She’ll demur and pretend her gift isn’t art, but we all know better.

My wife's Chesty portrait. Click it to view her post about it.

My wife’s Chesty portrait. Click it to view her post about it.

Just last week she was moved to create something (not at all an artistic impulse!;-)) and this amidst a pretty big workload for both home and various artistic endeavors.

She made a rendering of the classic photograph of LtGen Lewis B Puller sr, known to us Marines as Chesty. The picture will take you to it.

Today is Chesty’s birthday, and a nice day to reflect on just what the man accomplished in his life, and why we Marines seem pathologically devoted to him. I encourage you to read his autobiography and any of the many books that have been written about him or the many operations in which he played a central role.

Outside of his military exploits, there are three parts of his legacy that most attract me to his cultus. I’ll go through them, because the Corps is one of the very few subjects about which I cannot have a completely rational discussion. It holds a more personal attraction to me, and the root of that can be found in Chesty’s unique appeal to my otherwise objective detachment.

First, the way he led represented an ideal and an example that, while not of his making, was perhaps best exemplified by him. He led from the front, walking amongst his Marines, personally directing fire. As a regimental commander, his HQ would often be forward of his subordinate battalion commanders’. He valued the contribution that Marines of every rank brought to the mission, with perhaps his greatest respect going to the sergeants. To him, the saying “Sergeants are the backbone of the service” wasn’t just a throwaway. And yet he held each person in his command personally responsible for their actions, with the expectations growing exponentially with their rank and his tendency to correct vs punish in inverse proportion to the same. While he personified this style of leadership, and served as its avatar, as I indicated above, it wasn’t his alone. In retrospect, it seemed as his impossible ideal was staring over the shoulder of every poor shavetail 2nd Lt as they faced their first platoon, or even worse, the sarcastic, overeducated, independently operating teams of the unit where I spent most of my service.

The finest example of this I saw while in service was not while deployed to Desert Storm, or even in a rigorous training exercise. I was just standing on line. You see, when you’re on a big amphibious ship, most of the ports you hit are too small to take you dockside, and so it’s a matter of boats (usually the locals) taking you ashore. The navy has a rule that E-7s and up can get to the front of the line for these boats, and yet they have the longest liberty allowance, sometimes overnight. We peons had what’s called Cinderalla liberty, as in be back by midnight or else.

For my float, we didn’t have a lot of liberty because Yugoslavia was disintegrating and we had to be on call. At one of our few ports the line had wrapped around the hanger deck, and it seemed to never move. Every time one of the boats showed up, a gaggle of senior enlisted or zeros would stroll up to the front with their golf clubs and go to shore.

Then 1st Lt Dmitri Henry came up with his liberty partner (I think it was our det’s Gunny, Tony Murello) and surveyed the line. I think Bernier, one of the strongest and craziest Marines I served with, said something sarcastic, but Heavy D (as we called him) wasn’t moving to the front. He just smiled at us, told us to be careful, and headed to the back of the line. It was the way he led, and I certainly can now see Chesty’s influence in that action, and in several others he made while we were his Marines. I was proud to drag my fat, civilian butt to his promotion to full bird recently. He led from the front, unless leading from the back was what Chesty would have done.

The second thing about Chesty that I really admire was the way he dealt with being a living legend. From his house in Saluda, Va, where he retired, he was always available to his Marines. Sometimes an old shipmate or Chosin brother would show up, and he would show them respect and hospitality. When something happened that affected the Corps, he would be its champion, but in his own inimitable style. There was none of MacArthur’s hubris in seeking the 1952 GOP nomination. No, he would speak plainly and to the point, with little regard for his personal standing.

In particular, I’m reminded of the horrific training accident aboard Parris Island, and the court martial that followed in 1956. Puller testified, and was assailed for past controversies in his career. However his wife related something he said to her:

“…The important thing is the Marine Corps. If we let ’em, they’ll tear it to pieces. Headquarters won’t speak up. It’s my duty to do it.”

He truly believed in the esprit de corps and the difficult training, both physical and mental, required to instill it in Marines and their officers. Outspoken, but without the vacuous inanity of a cable news commando. He spoke with authority, but kept it short.

As some of you may know, I am politically more progressive than many of my fellow Marine veterans comrades (which isn’t really saying too much) but regardless of how I feel about any civilian related matter, the training of Marines is not something for which we, as a nation, need to consider human frailty.

If you don’t watch Full Metal Jacket and think, ‘Gee, I’m going to call a Marine recruiter!” we don’t need you. If you don’t watch Generation Kill and think, ‘That’s the life for me!” don’t bother us. And if you don’t view A Few Good Men as a Shakespearian tragedy in which a flawed but noble hero is brought down by a conniving honor-free troglodyte, consider another service.

Chesty represents in his post-service actions a true gentleman in the way he remained personally available to those who idolized him, and as the soul of the Marine Corps in his understanding that what Marines do is ugly but necessary, and to make Americans into Marines capable of filling the role, a certain standard of training had to be met.

The last ideal he represents to me is one that, as much as I like to think I could emulate his first examples, I don’t think I could handle. His son, Lewis B Puller jr served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, and was severely wounded. His autobiography is astounding (deservedly winning the Pulitzer Prize) and his grievous wounds, epic and eventually fatal struggle with alcoholism, and the impact that struggle had on Chesty and his family is chilling.

I have three children, and while I don’t do anything as foolish as forbid them from joining the Corps (the other services, yes!) I pray every day that they enjoy their time as Americans as civilians. I know what I did, and I know how lucky I am not to be dead or maimed just from what I did while I was on liberty, much less how the increased cadence of warfare since 9/11 would impact them. No, I don’t want them in the service, and it is for selfish reasons. I could not live up to Chesty’s stoic example here.

So to my wife, let me say your artistic inspiration came at the perfect time, and I really am proud of this work. You have done a great man justice on his birthday.

And to Chesty, wherever you are, Happy Birthday from me, my family, and Karlos Hathcock Mahoney, my hiking partner.

Karlos from our pilgrimage to Saluda, Va.

Karlos from our pilgrimage to Saluda, Va.