Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Mark Abramson,was published by Stars and Stripes, October 9, 2009
Recently released figures show Marines are taking their own lives at alarmingly high rates, and deployments appear to be taking a toll.
Through September, the Marines have recorded 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2009. Should the pace continue through the end of the year, the Marines would be facing a 20 percent increase from 2008 figures. Suicides also rose 27 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Ten suspected suicides this year remain under investigation, but those are classified as suicides because there is strong evidence to suggest that those Marines took their own lives, said Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, suicide prevention program manager for the Marine Corps.
And while a recent Marine Corps report indicates that fewer than 42 percent of Marines who have committed suicide since 2001 had a deployment history, 56 of the 80 Marines who have taken their lives in the last two years have been to the war zones. That 70 percent figure is higher than Army figures for 2008, during which 61 percent of those who committed suicide were either deployed or had a deployment history.
Marine officials said they could not pinpoint an exact cause for the increase.
But, Werbel said, "A significant contributing factor is the operational tempo."
Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, said he believes deployments are a factor in servicemembers’ suicides.
"I think current people (in the military) have been deployed multiple times and that is creating stress," Reidenberg said. "I think it is the constant ongoing battle within as well as the battle outside those men and women (in the military) are fighting."
SAVE, a nonprofit organization based in Bloomington, Minn., was created about 20 years ago to raise awareness about suicide and to help prevent it. Reidenberg spoke to 5,000 Marines about suicide prevention at a base in North Carolina in May, he said.
The Marines are taking aim at the problem with a new top-down program called NCO Suicide Prevention Training.
The program requires Marine leaders from every base to select three noncommissioned officers to attend weeklong suicide prevention training in Quantico, Va. Navy corpsmen and other Navy personnel assigned to the Corps are included in the training.
"NCOs are being trained to look out for changes in personality, distress, and changes in sleeping patterns [to spot possible signs that a person is suicidal]," Werbel said.
"We are telling NCOs, you have to know your Marines … so you can see changes in behavior."
Those enlisted leaders will then give three days of training to NCOs at the battalion level, who will in turn give a half-day of training to all other Marine NCOs.
Taking a page from the Army suicide prevent program, the Marine training includes a video presentation. In the videos, Marines who attempted suicide and family members of those who have committed suicide share their experiences.
Other parts of the program feature people acting out various situations.
"I think it can be very effective," Reidenberg said about the Marines program.
The program should have an impact, especially with the "very real" videos in this age of technology, he said. Reidenberg also praised the Marines’ top-down approach.
The Marines started to develop the suicide prevention program before this year’s figures came to light.
"The reason we started doing it is our numbers were higher for 2008 compared to 2007," said Bryan Driver, spokesman for the Personal and Family Readiness Division at the Marines Headquarters.
The Marines will have a pretty good idea if the program is working if the suicide rate drops, Reidenberg said.
"You can’t ever say for sure that it was the program, but you can definitely say there was an impact."
Like the Marine Corps suicide prevention program, the Army videos also highlight spotting signs that indicate a person may be suicidal and situations where a soldier may have to deal with a suicidal buddy.
It also trains some soldiers to be facilitators. Facilitators may not be qualified to train other soldiers in suicide prevention, but they would learn how to talk informally to other troops about the issue, said Army spokesman Wayne Hall.
"The real important thing here is to get people talking," Hall said about the Army’s program.
In addition to programs such as NCO Suicide Prevention training, the Marines — like the Army — are addressing the issue by trying to help troops get over the stigma of seeking help.
"We are really trying to bust through that stigma. This isn’t a career-ender," Werbel said.
"The career ender could be not getting help."
This article, by Penny Coleman, was posted to AlterNet, August 12, 2009
Wayne McMahon was busted on gun charges six months after he got out of the Marines.
He was jumped by a gang of kids in his hometown of Albany, N.Y. , and he went for the assault rifle he kept in the back of his SUV.
He's serving "three flat, with two years of post-release" at Groveland Prison in upstate New York.
Maybe it's tempting to write McMahon off as just a screwed-up person who made the kinds of mistakes that should have landed him in jail, but maybe that's because his injuries don't show on the outside.
Unlike physical injuries, psychiatric injuries are invisible; the burden of proof lands on the soldier (or sailor or Marine), and such injuries are easy for the public to deny.
The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder include a preoccupation with danger.
According to Jonathan Shay, a Veterans Administration psychiatrist and author of Achilles in Vietnam, hypervigilance in soldiers and veterans is expressed as the persistent mobilization of both body and mind to protect against lethal danger -- they act as though they were still in combat, even when the danger is no longer present.
That preoccupation leads to a cluster of symptoms, including sleeplessness, exaggerated startle responses, violent outbursts and a reliance on combat skills that are inappropriate, and very often illegal, in the civilian world.
When I asked McMahon what he was doing with an assault rifle in his car, he told me that since he got back from Afghanistan, he didn't feel safe without guns around.
"There was almost always a gun," he said. "In the apartment, there was guns everywhere.
"I was just over in combat, and you guys gave me an M-16 and a 9mm and let me walk around for eight months straight. And now I get back, and I get jumped by a bunch of people, and I can't have a gun?"
McMahon sits across from me in his prison greens, elbows on his knees, leaning into his story about the kid he was and the man he is hoping to become. His eagerness and optimism make it clear that he believes his mistakes are behind him.
His parents were teenagers when he was born, and they separated shortly after. He bounced around on the streets of Albany, and, like so many other young Americans with dreams of escaping dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods, he saw the military as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He enlisted in the Marines right out of high school.
For the first time in his life, McMahon found himself in a meritocracy. He was promoted regularly and quickly, making sergeant by the time he got to Afghanistan.
Then two days before his five-year contract was up, he was caught drinking on the job, busted down to lance corporal and administratively discharged. He lost all his benefits.
McMahon was in the Marine Corps from 2001 until 2006. He spent his last year working as an aircraft mechanic on a flight line in Afghanistan that was under near-constant attack. It was also a transshipment point for injured American soldiers who were being evacuated to Germany.
For eight months, his days and nights were spent up close and personal with the visceral evidence of what the rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades do to human bodies.
"We had a lot of explosions. Almost every day. And I seen guys coming out from convoy missions where their Humvees would have exploded," he told me matter-of-factly. "The first two months were pretty terrible. "
After that, even though "a lot of other people found it hard to deal with, it wasn't really too rough for me." A bit of Marine bravado, perhaps, but reinforced with a bit of liquid courage:
"We Marines, we're smart," he explained. "There was no alcohol provided, but I was making my own from fruit juice I got from the chow hall and yeast they gave us at the pizza shop. It was horrible, really horrible -- but two little 20-ounce water bottles, and you were good for the night. " It was the only way he got any sleep.
Jonathan Shay also notes the almost-universal reliance on alcohol or drugs by psychically injured veterans. They afford some temporary relief from intolerable memories and from the emotional and physical exhaustion of maintaining a constant state of vigilance.
McMahon came home from Afghanistan with a serious drinking problem, a hair-trigger temper and conditioned to rely on his combat skills for survival.
Both his marriage and his military career quickly unraveled, and then he was arrested. Nobody diagnosed his PTSD until he got to Groveland.
McMahon's obsession with safety and guns, and his compulsive drinking are both typical of a post-traumatic stress injury, but instead of diagnosis and treatment, he was left to his own compromised resources and promptly landed in jail.
In terms of the bottom line, it's a trifecta for the military when that happens. A damaged soldier is disappeared, the cost of treatment avoided and the evidence that would prove how often veterans find it impossible to readjust when they come home is erased.
Traumatized soldiers are not a military asset. They are unreliable, and can be dangerous to their fellow soldiers and to themselves. Their care can take years and be quite expensive. But because the macho culture of the military stigmatizes mental health issues, most soldiers won't ask for the help they need.
When they try to manage on their own and fail, when the entirely predictable symptoms of their injuries get them into trouble, their behavior is used to justify kicking them out of the service.
They lose all their health and disability benefits, and in the absence of treatment and support, the same behaviors that got them kicked out of the military land them in jail.
Once they enter the criminal justice system, their military service is irrelevant. Soldiers and veterans with psychiatric injuries who, like McMahon, end up in jail, are handed -- and in fact often accept -- the full burden of responsibility for their actions. And when that happens, the system gets off free.
That's what happened to McMahon, and though it's still too soon for meaningful statistics about incarceration rates among this new generation of veterans, the anecdotal evidence suggesting a predictive relationship between military experience, PTSD and trouble with the criminal justice system continues to mount .
And this is not a new phenomenon. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, published in 1990, found that more than a decade after the Vietnam conflict ended, 15 percent of male veterans still suffered from PTSD, and half of them had been arrested or in jail at least once.
Most Vietnam War veterans deployed for exactly one year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced longer and repeated deployments, and top military psychiatrists acknowledge that veterans of these new wars may have an even harder time coming home.
And instead of improving, the situation is getting worse. In 2008, the Rand Corp. estimated that 300,000 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress issues, and 320,000 others will suffer traumatic brain injuries that express many of the same symptoms as PTSD.
And although most of them will not seek treatment, even when they try the VA has made such care extremely difficult to access.
For years, the Pentagon has chosen to ignore congressional directives to screen soldiers both pre- and post-deployment.
In May, the Hartford Courant reported that such screenings are still being administered in haphazard fashion. Only 1 percent of at-risk soldiers were referred to a mental health professional prior to deployment, and post-deployment screenings continue to be a laughably inadequate box to be checked on a form.
The Courant noted that the situation has remained unchanged since the paper reported on the issue in 2007.
And for veterans, the VA's claims backlog in May was approaching 1 million, a 14 percent rise since January.
By now, the anecdotal evidence associating combat-related PTSD with crime and incarceration ought to be part of the conventional wisdom. Its accumulation over the past century should have engendered enough concern to provoke some serious attention and study.
But the reality is that nobody knows the precise number of veterans who have ended up behind bars in the aftermath of America's wars.
There are more than a few reasons why military and government officials might want those numbers to remain hidden, but certainly among the most compelling is cost.
Large numbers of veterans in prison suggest a pattern, perhaps even a causal relationship between military service and behaviors that lead to incarceration, lending support to those who argue that such behaviors should be seen as possible symptoms of a service-connected injury deserving of treatment and support rather than punishment.
When the patterns are hidden -- the numbers unavailable -- it is easier for the military to pretend that the problem is with a given individual and not systemic.
In January 2008, when the New York Times reported that it had identified 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with murder, the Pentagon declined to comment because it could not duplicate the newspaper's research.
A year later, the Army finally admitted that there might in fact be a connection between the violent behaviors of some returning service members and their combat experience. Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army, announced that in response to a spate of homicides at the Fort Carson Army base, he was “considering” conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers involved in violent crimes since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, which was finally published last week, does in fact “suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes."
And though it accuses the Army of denying necessary care to soldiers, and specifically blames commanders for proscribing access, Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, calls it “preliminary,” and insists that no causality can be inferred from the findings.
Without causality, there is of course limited accountability.
Shoomaker pointed out that soldiers themselves should bear some responsibility for failing to seek help, ignoring the fact that half of the surveyed soldiers accused of violent behaviors had been sent back to Iraq “early,” and that many of them had documented suicide issues. Schoomaker also stressed that though many soldiers claimed to have witnessed war crimes, an Army probe did not substantiate those claims.
The results of this report might have been an invaluable contribution to the public conversation about what war does to soldiers and who should be responsible for their readjustment into society. Instead, once again, soldiers are blamed for violent behaviors that are clearly symptomatic of their injuries. When individuals take the rap, there is no interrogation of the pattern. Officials remain free to dismiss and deny how many ex-service members are ending up in jail. And as long as the bodies remain hidden, they get away with it. Vets Demonized; the System Gets Off the Hook
Ed Hart has a hard time accepting official denial of a connection that to him seems more than obvious.
Hart is an 87-year-old Marine, a veteran of World War II. He is also a former president of Veterans for Peace, a retired attorney and a deeply concerned citizen.
"People like me are upset about what they did to us -- and what they continue to do to the fuzzy-faced kids they haul off to boot camp," Hart said. "Too many of those kids never made it back into reality; they were found guilty of terrible crimes and sent off to spend years in prison -- maybe all the years left to them -- and we can't figure out what happened to them?"
Hart did in fact try to figure out what was happening in the late ‘80s, when Vietnam veterans began showing up in large numbers in the criminal justice system. Along with his pro bono legal work, he began interviewing large numbers of vets in prison.
What he discovered has been corroborated by every Bureau of Justice Statistics survey since: incarcerated veterans are better educated than their non-veteran counterparts; they are more likely to have been employed at the time of their arrest; and they are more likely to be in jail for a first offense -- all of which should be factors in their favor at sentencing.
But instead, they are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans -- on average, more than two years longer -- for the same crime.
Guy Gambill, director of research and policy at the Veterans Initiatives Center and Research Institute (VICTRI), attributes this to a "know better" syndrome.
"Judges and juries, ironically, place veterans in a higher category, one with heavy moral undertones. The thinking goes that they should know better and therefore should be held to a higher standard of conduct," he said.
Hart also recognized that moral judgment, but in his days as a practicing attorney, he saw an element of demonization in the dynamic as well.
"I've seen prosecuting attorneys in their final statements point to the bewildered man at the defense table and tell the jury, ‘Look at him! He's a trained killer! We need to get him off the streets and make them safe for our women and children.' "
Mike Thomas has experienced that prejudice firsthand. Thomas did three tours in Vietnam, was wounded twice, and earned all kinds of medals, but he's doing 25-to-life at Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif., for spewing some racist bile at an Asian man over the phone.
The day he got home from Vietnam, he beat up an Asian man in a bar, and he did it again the day they let him out of jail. He was sent to a military hospital for two years with a diagnosis of Adult Situational Reaction, a diagnostic precursor to PTSD.
The military declared him "fully recovered." For 25 years, he held down a job as a sales manager.
Then, one morning, in the midst of a flashback, Thomas lost his balance. Aside from hypervigilance, the symptoms of PTSD also include flashbacks. Flashbacks can be so convincingly real that the sufferer behaves as though he or she were actually in the remembered moment.
"Everybody who's lived at the brink of terror for some time has stored that place in his memory," Hart explains with empathy. "There's always the possibility that something will take him back sometime, give him that little push that will take his balance away.
"But there ain't much more you can do to a guy on the phone worse than yell at him."
Nonetheless, the prosecutor, noting Thomas's two priors, decided to interpret his phone rant as a terrorist threat -- hence the draconian sentence.
Some might argue that Thomas's antagonism towards Asians made him an accident waiting to happen, and they're not wrong. But dehumanization of the enemy is central to how military training enables soldiers to overcome their inherent resistance to killing other human beings.
Author Jonathan Shay describes how images of the enemy were drilled into his Vietnam-era patients as a "demonized adversary … evil, loathsome, deserving to be killed as the enemy of God, and as God-hated vermin, so inhuman as not really to care if he lives or dies."
It seems a distortion of justice to send a man to prison for life because in the course of his military training a switch got flipped, making him temporarily more useful to his government.
The practice continues. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, described "the growing rage among coalition troops against all Iraqis (known derisively as 'hajis,' just as the Vietnamese were known as 'gooks')."
He quotes Sgt. Camilo Mejía, an Iraq war veteran, who explained, "You just sort of try to block out the fact that they are human beings and see them as enemies. You call them hajis, you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them."
"The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve in their country's military," Shay reminds us, "is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement and paralysis -- as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind."
"When I went to boot camp," Thomas said, "I was a good Catholic boy who'd never shot so much as a squirrel. But I turned 20, 21 and 22 in Vietnam, and that became my identity. I tried to filter life through that prism of horror, pain and loss. Not good. A recipe for disaster."
Thomas once tried suicide to escape "the despair, grief, survivor guilt, nightmares, depression, the pain of hearing my mother say she wished I had died in Vietnam so her memories wouldn't be tainted."
More recently, he asked Veterans for Peace -- by mail -- to sponsor a nationwide program for incarcerated vets. His proposal was accepted and in May, VFP Incarcerated Chapter 001 was officially incorporated at Mule Creek Prison.
Wayne McMahon was luckier in that New York state still maintains residential therapeutic programs for veterans at three of its prisons. (In 1999, there were 19, boasting a recidivism rate of 9 percent after five years compared to 52 percent for non-veterans. Unfortunately for taxpayers, those programs were consolidated for the sake of "efficiency and effectiveness.") He has taken advantage of courses in anger and aggression management, interpersonal dynamics, and substance abuse, and he has completed his training as a group facilitator.
McMahon has a job waiting for him when he gets out; he wants to go back to school; and he is going to try for a discharge upgrade from the military based on his PTSD diagnosis. The Hidden Numbers
Since its first study of the issue in 1979, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been the best source of information on the number of vets who have ended up behind bars.
According to the bureau's most recent survey, in 2004, there were 140,000 veterans in the nation's prisons -- or about 10 percent of the total prison population. By 2007, that number had risen to156,100, but the prison population overall had increased, so the relative share of vets in the population remained unchanged.
But as Baruch College's Aaron Levenstein once said, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. "
For example, the numbers above don't include veterans held in the nation's jails, or those on probation or parole. When those groups are included, according to BJS estimates, the number of veterans who were under correctional supervision in 2007 jumps to 703,000. In addition, just under 1.2 million vets were arrested in 2007.
At least some of those on parole or probation at a given point will be arrested later in the year, skewing the estimated total. But Christopher Mumola, author of the last two BJS surveys of incarcerated veterans, said "if 703,000 veterans are supervised in some fashion on a given day, and 1,159,500 arrests in 2007 involved veterans as well, that gives you a rough approximation of the maximum number of vets who are touched by the criminal justice system in a year of about 1.8 million to 1.9 million veterans."
Still, in all probability, that number under-represents the number of veterans behind bars for several reasons.
For one, Mumola points out, an inmate's military history is irrelevant to prison administrators. "(They) measure the things they operationally use or are bureaucratically accountable for. Whether someone is a veteran or not doesn't change how that inmate is handled, the privileges they have or anything like that." So prison administrators don't ask. And, Mumola added, "the federal government doesn't require them to keep those statistics."
Frank Dawson, a patient advocate at the Boston VA, has long been frustrated and dismayed by the lack of reliable numbers. Dawson says he believes veterans need support before their lives spin out of control, and, "as a national service provider, the VA can't target services unless it knows where its population is."
But Dawson, like everyone else, has been stymied in his efforts. "I keep on my desk a stack of 6,000 address labels that I got from the Department of Justice," he said. "Six thousand institutions, 6,000 egos, 6,000 systems, 6,000 sets of protocol. There is no standard intake anywhere. I keep that stack on my desk to remind me how complicated they have made it. "
In the absence of federal, state or local legislation requiring penal institutions to use standard intake procedures that include verification of an inmate's military history, veterans' advocates across the country are pressuring the courts to at least inquire about veteran status during the bail-screening process.
But Taylor Halloran, who recently retired as the VA's liaison to veterans in New York's downstate prisons and jails, said there are more than a few reasons why veterans might refuse to divulge their military background.
Halloran emphasizes that many veterans offer fake Social Security numbers or aliases at intake, or they fail to report their arrests to VA because they fear the loss of benefits -- which is at least partially true. Health care benefits are suspended for the term of an inmate's incarceration and, after 60 days, disability benefits are reduced by about half, but those too should be reinstated when a veteran is released.
Lots of veterans don't know or understand the VA's policies, many have families that depend on those checks, and the VA has a reputation for taking its time reinstating benefits after an inmate is released.
So it's sort of a devil's bargain: identify themselves and lose half of their disability benefits, or take a chance they won't get caught. But if they do, they are royally screwed.
They have to pay the government back with interest and fines, but the far more serious consequence is that they lose all future benefits, including health care, disability and education.
To many, the risk seems worth taking. A 1999 Inspector General's report sharply criticized the VA's failure to "implement a systematic approach to identify incarcerated veterans and dependents, resulting in additional past and future overpayments exceeding $170 million dollars."
A 2004 VA Performance and Accountability Report found $5.7 million in benefit overpayments in a 20 percent sample of cases, and the report noted that "tracking 100 percent of these cases would not be cost beneficial."
Halloran said he had to work to get his potential clients to come forward voluntarily. And even then, he "couldn't touch the guys the VA doesn't consider veterans -- anyone with a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge." One in six incarcerated veterans has been dishonorably discharged.
New Wars, Old Problems
Although the data are imperfect, one thing the BJS surveys do well is identify trends and patterns. For example, its last survey showed that at about 40 percent, Vietnam-era veterans still constitute the vast majority of vets in state and federal prisons.
The Gulf War involved far fewer soldiers and lasted for only six months, but at 15 percent of the veteran population in state and federal prisons, they constitute the newest wave. Veterans of the Gulf War are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as demographically comparable non-veterans.
At 4 percent of the incarcerated veteran population, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were only just beginning to show up in the 2004 BJS survey.
"It takes quite a while for these folks to show up in the criminal justice system," Chris Mumola explained. "They are out there in these conflicts, having these experiences, coming back, getting into trouble with the criminal justice system, being fully adjudicated, winding up in prison, and only then are they available to be interviewed in these surveys. It may take years and years to marinate before it really manifests itself. "
Unfortunately, the next BJS survey is not scheduled until 2012.
However difficult those populations might be to track, it would seem that if ever there was a population that should be easy to count, it's prisoners. Every one has a number. Files are kept. There are forms -- and now computerized records -- from which patterns might be gleaned.
And prisons aren't the only black holes into which our nation's damaged warriors are disappearing. They also end up in hospitals and mental institutions. They vanish beyond the margins of society when their lives, their marriages, their careers fall apart. They end up in boxes on the street, vilified, forsaken, and self-medicating. Far too many die too soon of disease, accidents, overdoses or suicide.
An honest accounting of their numbers would be ammunition for those who believe that soldiers and veterans are still not receiving the care and support they need.
It would help challenge the myth of the romantic warrior by better educating our children to the real dangers of military service. It would also contribute to a public better informed about the hidden costs of our military ventures, including the ongoing damage to our citizens and our treasury, and to our national character as well.
This article, by Sarah Netter, was posted to abcnews.go.com, July 17, 2009.
Court documents say Joshua Fry was put through boot camp despite diagnosis.
Joshua Fry's career as a Marine never should have been.
Now his recruiter and other military personnel who pushed the autistic 20-year-old through boot camp could face criminal charges.
Fry, who has a history of being abused and neglected and has a criminal record, is sitting in a cell at Camp Pendleton on disciplinary charges as the military investigates why a Marine recruiter picked Fry up from a California group home for the mentally disabled and drove him to a recruitment center to sign him up.
"An investigation into the circumstances of Private Fry's accession in the Corps, could lead to subsequent administrative or criminal proceedings against those directly involved, if warranted, " a high-ranking Marine based at the Pentagon told ABCNews.com.
The Marine, who is familiar with the Fry case, requested not to be identified, but said the Marines are prepared to hold accountable anyone who may have acted improperly during Fry's time with the military.
"The American people rightfully expect a lot of their Marine Corps," he said. "If there is a perception that something is afoul, we will aggressively root out the truth."
Experts say the case of Joshua Fry, who will face court marial on July 20 on charges of possessing child pornography and unauthorized absences, highlights a disconcerting trend of the military accepting candidates that never would have been considered a few years earlier as the forces struggle to supply the manpower for the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's hard work being a recruiter anyway," said Beth Asch, a senior economist at Rand Corporation, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based non-profit think tank. "And when you're not a successful one, it's an issue."
Asch, who is working on a study relating to recruiter impropriety and fraudulent enlistment, said failure to meet recruiting quotas, called "goals" or "missions" by the military, can result in recruiters working weekends and late hours and coming under the glare of a disapproving supervisor which, in the military, can be "demoralizing."
If recruiters miss a quota, she said, "life sucks."
U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., a 13-year member of the Military Personnel Subcommittee, told ABCNews.com that she had heard of the Fry case and that it might be worth a House investigation.
"I'd say that was a pretty desperate recruiter," she said.
Sanchez said it's typically the Army, not the Marines, that have had significant problems meeting beits recruiting numbers since about two years after the wars began. But now, as the Army begins its pullout in Iraq, more Marines are being called to quell rising tensons in Afghanistan.
"We certainly have put a closer look on the recruiting tactics of the recruiters during this time," Sanchez said.
As the wars drag on, Asch agreed, more soldiers, sailors and Marines are being admitted into the military service with medical and character flaws that can run the gamut from disqualifying surgeries to felonies.
"It's harder to make missions and quality has declined," Asch said.
Sanchez said her subcommittee has recommended stricter guidelines for the recruiters and set aside funds for bigger incentive bonuses to attract higher quality recruits.
Both Sanchez and Asch said the recession has actually played a helpful role in the business of recruiting, attracting well-educated yet unemployed men and women to the military.
But then the stories come in, Sanchez said, about how recruiters have been known to tell potential enlistees who have failed a drug test to stay clean for a few days and try again.
"We've seen more of a drug problem in our military," she said.
But the story of Fry's enlistment, she said, was unlike anything she's heard.
Fry was born in 1988 to a crack addicted father and a mother on heroin according to his lawyer's 35-page court motion to dismiss the charges, which was later rejected. The document details a downtrodden life that included physical and possible sexual abuse all while Fry slipped further behind in his developmental progress.
By the age of 3, according to the motion, he tested as having an IQ of 70 and was found to be anti-social and self-abusive. He was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 and then again as a teenager. Enlistment of Autistic Marine May Have Violated Several Recruitment Standards While in high school Fry was arrested for suspected larceny of iPods and found to have a knife. The charges were eventually dismissed and Fry was sent to what the motion describes as a "lockdown facility for youths" in Colorado to finish high school and receive treatment and counseling.
It was during this time that his legal guardian, grandmother Mary Beth Fry applied for and was granted temporary conservatorship over her grandson, the court noting that Fry, then 18, lacked the capacity to fully care for himself or enter into contracts on his own behalf.
After leaving the Colorado facility, Fry took up residence at a group home in Irvine, Calif., where he was living until his enlistment.
An assessment in 2006 by a licensed psychiatrist who treated Fry for two years noted that while the young man was high-functioning for a person with autism "he appears quite limited in his ability to think ahead of possible consequences."
That foreshadowing seemed to come true once Fry got to boot camp on Jan. 14, 2008.
"Immediately it was clear to Fry that he could not keep up with the day-to-day pace of boot camp," the motion argued. "Several times Fry informed his staff that he did not want to be a Marine. Each time he was told that was not an option."
But what was surprising to some after the fact is how he even got there in the first place.
While the words "autism" and "developmental disability" are never mentioned in the medical evaluation checklist, a Pentagon official said the disorder is considered included in section E1.25.26, which states "current or history of other mental disorders … that in the opinion of the civilian or military provider shall interfere with, or prevent satisfactory performance of military duty are disqualifying."
Other prohibited behaviors that could have disqualified Fry from the start include:
Having a perceptual or learning disorder
Inpatient treatment in a hospital or residential facility
Recurrent encounters with law enforcement agencies, anti-social attitudes or behaviors
History of "immaturity, instability, personality inadequacy, impulsiveness or dependency."
According to the document, Fry struck up a friendship with Marine Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Teson, then a recruiter, while participating in the Young Marines Program in high school. The two had spoken about Fry's possible enlistment, a discussion put on hold when he was sent to the Colorado facility.
Not knowing Fry was in Colorado, Teson called his house and spoke with Mary Beth Fry, who claims according to the court document, that she told the recruiter her grandson was autistic and had "extreme behavioral problems."
"He is not Marine material. Please take him off the list," the grandmother told Teson, according to the document.
But when Fry contacted Teson about enlistment on Jan. 4, 2008, just a few months after returning to California, Teson allegedly drove to pick up Fry from the group home for the mentally disabled where Fry was living.
The motion indicates Fry told Teson that he was autistic and asthmatic and that his grandmother had limited conservatorship over him.
"While assisting Fry in filing out the paperwork Teson instructed Fry that 'if we don't put yes, then they don't know,'" the document states regarding Teson's alleged knowledge of Fry's medical and legal complication.
Ten days later Fry was at boot camp.
On Day 13, he was caught repeatedly stealing peanut butter from the chow hall despite being admonished for doing so earlier and urinated in his canteen. He was also found to be disrespectful to his drill instructors and refused to shave or follow orders.
On Day 14, according to the motion, Fry told his senior drill instructor and staff that he had both autism and asthma and he no longer wished to be a Marine. After the Marines confirmed Fry's claims with Mary Beth Fry, she was told her grandson would be kicked out of boot camp and sent home.
But Fry wasn't sent home. Instead, he was graduated from boot camp on April 11, 2008, and sent for combat training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Marines 'Target a Very Specific Individual'
Though the Marines have a reputation for being the most stringent of the Armed Forces, Maj. Christopher Logan, director of public affairs for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego and spokesman for the Western recruiting region, said the Marines are simply looking for a very specific type of recruit.
"We target a very specific individual," he said. "We're looking for the very driven individual to live up to the challenge."
Logan said he was not allowed to comment on the specifics of Fry's performance, but he did note that Fry was able to graduate from boot camp and "our training is extremely difficult."
But if Fry's time at boot camp was rough, his stint at Pendleton was even worse.
On May 26, according to the court document, Fry was found to have inappropriate images on his cell phone. The court document said Fry was subjected to five hours of interrogation and verbally ordered not to possess any similar images.
But more inappropriate images -- deemed to be child pornography from the charges leveled by military court -- were found again on July 18, 2008 and July 26, 2008 on his computer and cell phone, court documents state. That along with two instances of Fry allegedly going "UA," Marine shorthand for taking an unauthorized absence from his command, resulted in his arrest.
An additional charge of deliberate concealment was added in February, claiming fraudulent enlistment based on Fry's failure to disclose prior psychiatric treatment for a desire to look at child pornography.
Mary Beth Fry declined to comment on her grandson's enlistment or imprisonment, saying she had been advised by his lawyer, Michael Studenka, not to talk about the case. A woman who answered the phone at Studenka's office said there would be no comment on Fry's case.
But Mary Beth Fry told the Los Angeles Times that her grandson was not doing well while being held at Camp Pendleton and that she wants him released so he can get the medical treatment he needs.
"He's had a lot of problems being locked up," she said. "He's on psychotropic drugs. He's been diagnosed as bipolar and is having trouble holding it together."
Teson could not be reached for comment and is now stationed in North Carolina, no longer working as a recruiter. Logan said Teson's reassignment had nothing to do with the Fry case and was part of an ongoing rotation where recruiters work in three-year stints.
Logan said that everything relating to Fry's activities as a recruit and a Marine was under investigation, including Teson's conduct.
While criminal background checks are done on every recruit, medical records are not pulled unless for a specific reason.
That's why, Logan said, "disclosure is very, very important."
Non-disclosure on the part of the recruit or the recruiter, he said, is grounds for dismissal from the Marines or being court-martialed.
Citing the ongoing investigation, military superiors have declined to allow comment from Maj. Michael Stehle, Teson's commanding officer during his time as a recruiter in Orange County, Calif., and from the Naval battalion corpsman identified in the court document as "HM1 Sutherland" who allegedly knew of Fry's autism at boot camp.
Numbers from the Department of Defense show 2,426 claims of recruiter misconduct across the Armed Forces in 2007, the most recent data available. Of those, 593 were substantiated.
Though those figures were lower in 2007 than the previous year, data from the Army and Marines show a reversed trend, with the number of both claims and substantiated claims rising slightly from 2006 to 2007.
In the Army there were 357 substantiated claims of recruiter misconduct, up from 333 in 2006. Those figures for the Marines were 118 substantiated claims in 2007, compared to 102 the previous year.
But the number of claims compared to the number of recruitments remains very low -- .20 percent for the Army and .27 percent for the Marines in 2007. Non-Disclosure Risks Dismissal, Court Martial
Asch said that most Marines who enlist with a medical or criminal history that doesn't mesh with the ideals of military policy do so with a waiver. Studies have shown that the dissemination of waivers has increased in all branches of the armed services.
A quality study done each year by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense showed that the Army had been particularly hard hit in the area of high school graduates, with the number of recruits with a diploma dropping from 92 percent in 2003 to 83 percent in 2008.
The Marines, by comparison, dropped from 98 percent to 96 percent during the same time period.
Fry, Logan said, never got a waiver. And unless Teson would have brought concerns about Fry's history to his commanding officer -- Maj. Stehle in this case -- Teson's supervisors would have had no reason to question this recruit out of thousands that come through each year.
Dr. Wayne Fisher, director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders and professor of behavioral research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center's Monroe-Meyer Institute, has been studying autism since 1976.
He wouldn't go so far as to say a high-functioning autistic person should be precluded from the military on that diagnosis alone -- he know of some high-functioning people who became college professors -- but admitted the number of recruits with autism that would do well in that capacity would be in the minority.
Fisher has not treated Fry and could not comment on his case specifically. Some people with autism function well in a tightly regimented life, he said, "but if they're not able to function alone and they're in a facility where they're not taking care of themselves, that would be a flag."
In general autistic adults lack the ability to handle unique situations and have few friends. They are typically incapable of living a fully independent life. Many, Fisher said, find a niche working in jobs that require little social interaction such as working with machines or stocking shelves.
But for now, Fry will remain at Camp Pendleton, waiting as a judge rules on his fate and the Marines figure out why he was even there to begin with.
This article, by Benjamin Lewis, was posted to Alternet, May 14, 2009
In October 2008 I announced at a Winter Soldier hearing in Portland, Oregon that I was being considered for involuntary activation back into the Marine Corps for a third tour of duty as an infantry mortar man; the day after this announcement I reported to Mobilization Command in Missouri as ordered. I reported with the intention of exercising civil disobedience in order to make a political point by refusing activation. The Marine Corps selected me for activation and since that time I have been publicly refusing service. My scheduled report date was May 18, 2009.
On April 16, 2009, I was contacted through Mobilization Command and told that the military no longer needed all the personnel being recalled in my group. The Marine Corps gave me the option to pursue orders and I declined. It is possible that my orders were canceled in order to remove me and other potentially vocal war resisters from the public eye. Certainly more drastic cases of government intervention to silence dissent have been a part of U.S. history. However, it is more likely that the Marine Corps actually did decide it no longer needed my group of reservists in light of rising retention rates, an ominous sign for our society as we continue to engage in warfare around the world.
Regardless of the cause, I no longer face involuntary activation orders.
My resistance was a conscious decision to cease participation in any way the continued maintenance and creation of empire through military intervention and global abuses of economic tyranny. That is I resisted on ideological grounds. I think that in order for institutions to change their behavior it is often necessary to work outside the framework of those institutions. I did this in one way simply by no longer recognizing the military’s sovereignty over my person and also by speaking out and educating citizens about the practices of their military.
Resistance takes many forms and functions: from active civil disobediences to the reservists who quietly ignore their activation orders and continue on with their lives. When a person is attempting to overthrow injustice or to increase human understanding even the smallest forms of resistance, such as suspending judgment amidst the whims of mass culture, become ripples in the water to be proud of. Though we can acknowledge that in America we have made great strides to improve human capabilities and bring about societal change for the better, we still have far to travel. Not as a country, but as a people. I will continue the work of supporting and organizing for GI Resistance that I started and continue to pursue the goal of peaceful justice. This is an important struggle that affects all society and it is far from over.
It has become clear that the institutionalized militarism within the U.S. has now had an immeasurable impact on us and the world. The fallout of this impact is still being assessed. Certainly anti-U.S. sentiment has increased drastically in the world in response to a militaristic U.S. foreign policy and debilitating foreign investment practices. Predictably, the more the U.S. flexes its military and economic muscles, the more enemies are made. And, clearly, if we are to address the growing violence around the world we must begin investigating some of the inherent unintended consequences of capitalism.
It is crucial that we acknowledge how dependent our society has become on militarism. The current global economic crisis is a compelling example. Trillions of dollars have been invested into the military, money that could have been invested back into our society in countless ways to stave off our current crises and assist students with education, create environmentally sustainable markets, alleviate world hunger, create jobs of value for communities, and preserve natural habitats, to name a few.
Recently the Bush doctrine and its many policies that are being adopted by the Obama administration have reinforced the trend or using our military to contend with our foreign relations; we seem unable to behave responsibly as the world’s leading power. It is likely that these trends will continue from president to president unless we change the nature of the presidency itself.
We have seen another generation of veterans come home damaged by their experiences, and the human consequence abroad has been far more severe. Our emphasis on institutionalized militarism as an integral part of our economy, with the military and military related projects amassing more monetarily and materially than the rest of the world combined, is quickly bringing us and the globe to the brink of our own demise; not only financially, but also environmentally.
Further, our very culture is at stake. More and more we become detached from the events and people around us as we fall victim to the mass culture that is largely encouraged by Western corporate and other financial interests. As we busily keep up with popular culture and satiate our habits of fashionable consumption, we see how our true interests are being ignored. Unemployment is rising, the banks once again have gambled with our futures and won, retirement is slipping away, health insurance is simply unattainable to most given the cost of rent and food. Regardless of the assurances from our government we nevertheless see that it is becoming harder to get a college degree, pay for healthy food, stay out of debt and so on. If this path continues, the future looks bleak even in the wealthiest country on the planet.
In order to pull ourselves out of this mess we must first acknowledge it. As a society we must take responsibility for our actions, intentional or unintentional. Only when we acknowledge our mistakes can we freely educate ourselves on issues and talk about the world in meaningful ways with the bridge of understanding. That is the path to peaceful and synergistic human relations. It can no longer be denied that America was formed and molded through the displacement of hundreds of advanced societies that had formerly held sovereignty over the continent. We still have not accepted responsibility for that, much less current world turmoil. A familiar example is the C.I.A.’s involvement in training the mujahidin we are now combating in Afghanistan, another piece of evidence showing us how we helped to create the global war on terror.
The events of 9/11 were horrible beyond doubt, but the amount of horror that has transpired since then has been worse still. And, like many other acts of violence, could have been prevented. The U.S. has been the single biggest perpetrator of terrorism in the world in recent decades through a variety of tactics. These tactics include economic sanctions, biased aid, imposed free trade agreements, self-exclusion, direct military intervention, support of brutal dictators among others; all this in the name of protecting vital U.S. interests. U.S. interests usually translate into the interests of those who would profit and acquire power, and that is very rarely the average American.
I have advocated throughout my campaign that it is necessary for our society’s preservation to begin questioning our inherent militarism. The achievement of the largest military force in history seems hardly something to be proud of in light of the thousands that die everyday of easily treated maladies and starvation. I have also been active in encouraging other service members facing reactivation to consider their options instead of operating in fear of potential consequences from the military. It is up to us as Americans to ensure the rights of these service members who have been asked more of than anyone should ever give.
The GI resistance movements against the Vietnam and Iraq wars have been incredibly successful in educating the public about the realities of war, and it is likely that active GI resistance to the Afghanistan war will continue to grow and strengthen. We must support these individuals in their struggles. Whereas in the past monarchs and warlords oppressed the majority of people on this planet through absolute control, today oppression is channeled through economic means. Since economic oppression is a much larger, more complex and less tangible means of oppression, it has been difficult for many to see. By now most realize that their opportunities depend largely on their economic station in life.
We have reached an ironic conclusion in our reasoning -- that to participate in what is considered honorable military service to ones country is to actually work against our own interests and the interests of all human society; ironically, those that oppress keep themselves in bondage as well. We must not ask what we can do for our country, but what our country can do for us. A country is, after all, only a tool, an institution set up by the people, for the people, to help them achieve their potential.
It is true that governments can be a great tool for a population to organize, but what governments cannot do is to ensure our individual freedoms. That is the responsibility of society itself. Only through a well developed collective consciousness can these big and difficult issues begin to be discussed and comprehended. Freedom is not something given or ensured by a military, that is a delusion; freedom is something we all have inherently. When we realize and accept this responsibility only then will we be able to claim our true freedom.
We are much more dependent on our neighbors than most Americans like to admit, most believe instead on the notion of ‘pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps.’ Yet surely most do not make their own cloths or build their own appliances, much less grow their own food. And, with joblessness soaring all over, it has become more difficult to attain the bootstraps necessary to begin with. Our lives are restricted by the amount of money we have. Whether it is college or food, money is increasingly the primary determinant of being able to fulfill our potential as people. Whether or not this is the best system of economy to use we do know that there is enough money, technology and resources on this planet to increase everybody’s quality of life substantially and that our current system limits that ability.
The truth is humans in modern civilization are an incredibly inter-reliant species. One path to a more vibrant human future is to generate commerce within our own communities rather than use an intermediary like Wells-Fargo or Safeway we could invest in local Credit Unions or Co-Ops. Through this simple act we can make sure that economic power stays within our communities instead of being invested by others for their own interests and deter possibly immoral usages of the products of our hard work. Even if items are more expensive the local emphasis will allow for employers to pay more. If we look at money as a source of power to be used for good or for evil it makes as little sense to support Wal-Mart which siphons off our local resources to a unknown place and leaves our communities in foreclosure, as it does to support the military complex which impacts us much more fundamentally.
The U.S. is the largest economic force in history, and more than half of its treasure is tied up in the military. Surely it is transparent that one leg cannot move without the other. If we hope to change our path without constant war, class war as well as physical combat, it is up to the people to stop participating in a system that we know is bankrupt and to crawl out of the framework that was constructed for us. It is time to make a new society, our own society, a society bent on the betterment of humanity instead of the oppression of the many for the privilege of a few, and that is the greatest and noblest task of our generation, and of every generation.
This article by Charlotte Hsu, was originally published in the LasVegas Sun, December 28, 2008
This is what he would remember when he got back: the cramped foxhole, the stench of his unwashed body, MRE menu item No. 2, Jamaican pork chop.
He would remember the way the sand of the Kuwaiti desert would drift into his eyes, his ears, everything, giving him reason to clean his weapon twice a day as he waited to cross the border.
He would remember calling his mom, nervous but proud, after finding out in January 2003, at the end of holiday leave, that he would be going to Iraq.
What would he remember about Iraq?
Friends he lost. Survivor’s guilt. He would remember how Iraqis lined the streets to cheer his arrival in Baghdad, and how, later, the people of Fallujah just wanted him to leave. He would remember how different he was when it all began. At the start of this journey, he was in favor of the war.
This is Christopher Gallagher’s story.
Christopher Gallagher, U.S. Marine Corps corporal, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. Service in Iraq: 2003, the invasion; 2004, Haditha Dam; 2005, Fallujah.
• • •
Apr. 2, 2003 — “I am writing this letter from a fighting hole, behind my machine gun. I am fine for now. How is everyone back home?
“The first couple of days the Iraqi soldiers were surrendering by the hundreds. I have heard reports of American POWs being murdered. What have you heard? The first hundred hours of this war I was awake. It is hard finding time to sleep out here.”
This letter is from Gallagher’s first deployment. It was the first time he had ever traveled overseas. He wrote his family (“Dear Family, Mom, Dad, Matt, Joel, etc.”) in Farmingdale, N.Y., where he grew up before moving to Las Vegas in 2006.
The note was on military stationery — a single sheet of paper carrying the Marine Corps emblem: eagle, globe and anchor.
• • •
In the invasion of Iraq, Gallagher’s battalion fought from the town of Safwan on the Kuwaiti border through Basra and onto Baghdad. He didn’t shower for two months.
Fellow Marines secured oil fields and airports. Gallagher’s job was to establish radio communications and conduct security operations, “a machine gun post set up on top of a hill, or something like that, guarding a small area around yourself,” he recalls.
Gallagher’s battalion was the first Marine unit to enter Baghdad, and he remembers it well: “The people invaded the streets and were lining the streets of Baghdad, saying, ‘Saddam bad, Bush good.’ At the time we were considered liberators.”
He saw people everywhere, watching, cheering. But Gallagher couldn’t talk to them. That was off limits.
The day after his battalion took Baghdad, he sat down for breakfast at the Palestine Hotel with reporters, including an Iraqi woman about his age, a graduate of Baghdad University.
He remembers the meal — pita bread with tea and honey. But he can’t quite recall the specifics of what they discussed.
Gallagher was 20.
That was back when the Palestine housed journalists who came to cover the war, 2 1/2 years before a truck bomb shook the building.
Who knows what happened to those people Gallagher met at the hotel? That Iraqi journalist, where is she now? Maybe she is still covering the war. Maybe she fled her country. Maybe she’s dead.
• • •
Part of what Gallagher remembers about Iraq comes from photographs. Snapshots like the one taken in 2003 of Gallagher and eight members of his platoon, posing on the concrete roof of a building in Baghdad.
Behind them rise thick columns of smoke, black and tilted, drifting across the smoldering city.
Five years later, sitting in his Las Vegas living room, Gallagher points out that he is the only one in the picture wearing a helmet.
In Iraq, he was always careful, always on the lookout. He became, in his words, “less trusting of humanity.” In that way, the war stayed with him even after he returned home.
Back in Vegas, he says he is still “hypervigilant, always more cautious. Kind of like — in a way, almost like a minor paranoia. I’m less trusting of people, because the people over there, they smile at you one minute, and the next day they’ll be shooting at you.”
Even so, despite the nerves and fear, in 2003 Gallagher was optimistic about the war.
Writing home in on April 2, he told his family the weather had been comfortable. He wished his mom a happy birthday, said he was thinking that the two of them and his grandma could visit Atlantic City when he got back.
He finished his letter: “Tell everyone I will see them soon after the Marines have killed Saddam and the war is over.”
• • •
At home, Americans watched the siege of Baghdad on CNN, marveling at the fireworks display — the buildings exploding, the red and yellow tracer rounds flying across the sky like shooting stars.
Magazines and newspapers carried pictures of the carnage, bodies floating in water, refugees fleeing.
Gallagher’s mother, Catherine Jackson, worried, unable to watch the news while he was abroad.
“I became very depressed,” she remembers. “I checked the mailbox every day, religiously. I cried every day, religiously. I was just worried about him and his health. Would I get him home? Would he come home? And when he did come home, would he come home in one piece? I didn’t know what to expect.”
To her, Gallagher’s letters meant a lot. They meant that somewhere thousands of miles away, her son was still alive.
• • •
Gallagher describes Thai chicken: “A bowl of snot with some water chestnuts, little pieces of chicken.”
Of MREs in general: “I remember them all, all very unfondly ... It comes in a sealed package. And imagine a piece of chicken in there. It looks like a piece of chicken, I don’t know if it is. They had a variety of food, but none of it was good for you. It had so many preservatives in it.”
e concluded that the only good thing that came in those rations was the candy — Skittles, Charms or M&Ms. Marines would trade with one another, Skittles for M&Ms and vice versa. Charms, considered bad luck, ended up in the garbage.
• • •
MREs aside, living conditions at Haditha Dam were good in 2004.
Gallagher slept in a bunk bed, lifted weights, showered twice a week, sometimes even with hot water. His family sent Snickers, cigarettes and powdered Country Time pink lemonade.
n March, he wrote to his mother, saying he’d received her package. The postscript reminded her that he smoked Parliament Lights.
The message was scrawled in black ink on the back of a postcard bearing the image of the front page of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes from April 11, 2003. The headline, “Baghdad falls to U.S. forces,” ran large down the right-hand side, set against the iconic photograph of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down.
“Do you remember this day almost a year ago when Marines from task force 3/4 took the statue down,” Gallagher wrote.
At Haditha Dam, he was a radio operator, part of a skeleton crew of Marines guarding the dam. Most of the men in his battalion had been called to fight in the siege of Fallujah. Some never made it back. He lost a couple of friends.
“One minute they’re there. One minute they’re gone.”
• • •
Some of the letters Gallagher wrote were never mailed. But he held on to them. These were his “final letters” — the ones his family would have received had he died.
“To Shannon,” one such note to his older sister begins. “Hi I am sorry for this tragic event you are going through, you helped raise me when mom and dad were not around ... All you have to do is close your eyes and pray, I will be there. I wanted to be a good uncle for James and Alyssa. I would have liked to see them grow up and live a good life.”
And to Gallagher’s younger brother: “I wish I could be there for you Matt. I love you so much and you will never know how much the time that we have spent together hanging out since I enlisted meant to me. If you have noticed all the extra gifts I have gotten for you, it was to try to make up for my absence.”
In what would have been his final letter to his mother and father, Gallagher wrote that he loved them, that he’d watch over them in heaven alongside Grandpa Rich, Grandma, Grandpa Jackson and Uncle Joe.
“Let everyone know I died with honor, keeping all Americans free from foreign dictatorships,” he wrote.
“I was not always the best kid to have, I joined the Corps to straighten my life out and find direction. Mom you were my best friend and were a great emotional support. Dad you were always there, from the time you taught me to bowl until I got on the bus for Parris Island.
“As I write this letter and look back on my life I only remember how much i enjoyed living it. They say ‘Everyone dies but not everyone lives.’ I just hope I turned out to be a respectable and upstanding person like you raised me to be.”
Gallagher showed the letter to his mother. She read it once and couldn’t read it again.
• • •
By the end of his third deployment, Gallagher says, “I was wondering what we were doing there. Because we were essentially driving around just waiting to be blown up. Nobody wanted to be there anymore, everybody just wanted to come home.”
The Iraqis, Gallagher says, didn’t want the troops there either. He remembers the disgust, the anger in their eyes.
“There was no point to any of the patrols,” he says. “We were told that al-Qaida was causing all the trouble, but yet it was mostly the people living in these towns. It was Iraqis.”
In Fallujah, Gallagher was a radio operator for an 81 mm mortar platoon. He worked at a checkpoint outside the city, a job he likened to herding cattle.
Everyone coming through had to have his retinas scanned. Everyone had to get an ID card. Everyone had to be searched.
Gallagher spent eight hours on duty, eight hours off. When he wasn’t manning the checkpoint, he patrolled in vehicles and on foot, sweating under a scorching Iraqi sun.
He searched homes, feeling no guilt, no remorse. He grew angry when he gave information on a firefight to his higher ups only to find out later that “the report that they filed was not what I said.”
He wondered why he didn’t have proper armor. During his first deployment, he remembers, he didn’t have plates in his vest to protect him from bullets and shrapnel. Through his last deployment, he said, his Humvees had what the troops called “hillbilly armor,” a piece of metal in the shape of a door hanging off the side of the vehicle.
“I was pissed off. I was in Iraq,” Gallagher remembers. “I supported the war and supported the troops. I thought they were one and the same.” But, he said, “I didn’t want to be there anymore.”
He slept on a cot in a wooden hut housing 20. Fellow soldiers on patrol found propane tanks and 30- or 40-gallon drums and used them to fashion a makeshift shower.
Once a week, he got hot food — maybe prime rib, maybe beef stew. It didn’t make him sick like the other meals or the dirty water he said the military gave him.
• • •
Gallagher is 26 now, no longer on active duty. He has been home, on U.S. soil, for three years.
He has no regrets. In May 2001, as a senior in high school in Farmingdale, N.Y., he signed up to join the Marines to see the world, to “become someone.”
His mother worried, afraid of what might happen even though it was a time of peace. On Sept. 11, Gallagher was at boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He and his fellow recruits, training together in the humid southern summer, knew war was coming.
Looking back, Gallagher says the Marine Corps made him a better person.
He is more focused, more disciplined. One of the worst students in his high school class, he pulled a 3.5 grade-point average while studying at the College of Southern Nevada on the G.I. Bill. He left school to learn to be an electrician. He makes good money, helps support his mom.
He can take direction but also has leadership skills. Along the way, in Iraq, he made lifelong friends, some people he normally wouldn’t hang out or talk to. What brought them together?
“We were willing to die for each other.”
• • •
Gallagher was once in favor of the war. He remembers that well.
How much things have changed.
After returning to America, he read about the war, watched movies about the war, talked to friends about the war that left him with so many memories.
No weapons of mass destruction were found. Gallagher felt the country’s leaders had lied to him.
He learned as many U.S.-paid civilian contractors were stationed in Iraq as troops. He read about how war brings profit, raining fortune upon security companies, food companies ... the list goes on.
He believes the government was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, a view many people consider radical. But Gallagher believes it’s the truth. People like to believe in what’s easiest to believe, he says. He has read more about the terrorist attacks than many fellow Americans.
And the soldiers, the Marines, the airmen, the young people like Gallagher who fought abroad?
Gallagher felt the country and the Veterans Affairs Department abandoned them when they came back.
A friend of his who was shot in the leg saw disability benefits reduced. Other servicemen and servicewomen struggled to get care for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These are people, that their friends blew up in front of them,” Gallagher says. “They still have a lot of death and destruction (on their minds), and they’re just messed up.”
He is disgusted.
“The Defense Department recently came out with a memo saying all troops must remain apolitical ... saying that you’re a soldier, you have no opinions, you don’t count. I think soldiers should have more of a voice, be able to speak out.”
So in September, Gallagher co-founded a Las Vegas chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
• • •
Some of Gallagher’s memories of Iraq are hazy, as if obscured by bleached sheets of hot desert sand. Others are clear. Some of what he remembers he won’t talk about.
For him, the war is over, now. He won’t be going back.
But Iraq will stay with him, always — in his photographs, in his letters, in this story, his story.