Team Red, White, and Blue: A Way Ahead for Veterans and our Nation

Mike, we’re convinced that by the 2025-2030 time period our OIF/OEF veterans will be leaders in national politics, business, finance, and local communities.  Right now, we just want to give these men and women a bit of a push reintegrating back into society so they can process their experiences and move forward.  Basically, that’s our purpose. For the American people, we’re asking them to donate their time instead of simply giving money or placing a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on their car.                             

                                                      -MAJ Mike Erwin, founder of Team Red, White, and Blue

The ten year anniversary of 9/11 was bittersweet for many of the Small Wars Community. 

Personally, I had to stop watching the dedication in NYC. For every family there, all I could think about was the hundreds of thousands of families in both Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives were torn apart by our invasions and subsequent blotched occupations.

Most surprisingly, I was shocked by the fact that SWJ had zero submissions for publication to commemorate the attacks. 

“Are we still traumatized?” I wondered considering the military community.  A majority of us had spent the last decade at war and may not have had the time to process the why.  The reckless driving around Fort Bragg did nothing to diminish my concerns.  In heightened bureaucratic concern, I suppose the command at Bragg will react with reactionary policies to deal with these concerns instead of addressing the causative issues.

I wrote 9/12/2011- The Next Decade to commemorate and challenge our thoughts and perceived beliefs.  Honestly, I tailored my last essay as a means of showing what we're asked to do overseas. This was a narrow focus. In my drafts, I thought about asking people to consider the craziness of it all. I decided to leave that out (for now) the tragedy of effects to both Iraqi and Afghani families in order to let the narrative speak for itself.  Ultimately, my biggest fear remains that normal Americans simply do not care about the impact/effect on our actions overseas on those families.

What do we do now?  Where do we go now?

In my favorite documentary of the last decade, 180 Degrees South, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, founders of Patagonia and North Face, proclaim, “Conquerors of the useless, that’s what we were.  You learn that what is important is how you got there not what you accomplished.”  Their journey hit me point-blank as a slug to the chest.

A week before the anniversary, I travelled back to the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY.  This trip was my first since graduation, ten years prior.  I was there to spend some time with my friends now serving as professors charged with shaping the next generation of Army officers.  Additionally, I sought to share with Taylor, my seven year old daughter, a bit of the sacrifice of why Daddy had to be gone so much during her early childhood.

So, that is where I found myself of the Labor Day weekend of 2011.  Over the last year, my friends told me that I needed to meet Mike Erwin and spend some time understanding the movement that he was sparking.

We started our march along the “Beat Navy” tunnel.  Taylor’s “Go Army, Beat Navy” enthusiasm echoed the disappointing sentiment of many Army fans over Navy during the past decade.

As we emerged, I remarked that I recognized BG Ted Martin, the new Commandant of USMA, whom I had worked with it in 2005 when he was in charge of JIED.  Sarah, my girlfriend (hopefully soon-to-be fiancée) asked if we should knock on his door and say hello.

“Sarah, we can’t do that. It would be inappropriate.  He is important now,” I replied.

We continued our march along the Plain.  Cadets were moving from class to class in their focused, direct wayward path unchanged for decades.  As they greeted us with the daily remarks, I turned my attention to the values inculcated into our lives at a young age- duty, honor, country, honesty, and character.

It reminded me of where I started. 

Taylor, Sarah, and I continued along our march shadowed in full by the ghosts of Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur cautiously watching our steps.

In Grant Hall, Taylor ordered her hot chocolate, Sarah ordered two coffees for her and I, and Mike Erwin stumbled in between teaching two classes to say hello.

Sarah took Taylor for a walk to absorb a bit more of the history of West Point.  Mike sat down at a table for him and I to talk.  At the time, he was preparing for an ultra-marathon during the 9/11 anniversary which he eventually completed.

He sat down, and we talked. 

He reminded me of Rye Barcott, another intelligence officer focused on big ideas.

He told me,

Mike, we’re convinced that by the 2025-2030 time period our OIF/OEF veterans will be leaders in national politics, business, finance, and local communities.  Right now, we just want to give these men and women a bit of a push reintegrating back into society so they can process their experiences and move forward.  Basically, that’s our purpose. For the American people, we’re asking them to donate their time instead of simply giving money or placing a yellow ribbon bumper sticker on their car.

I believe him.

And so begins our journey describing what others are doing in the aftermath of 9/11.

What are you going to do?

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Comments

Nice comments, but I believe that a lot of Soldiers these days are not quite as reflective. And, I don't think they can afford to be - coming austerity, daily FRAGOs regarding changes to retention, changes to TRICARE, changes to retirement, changes to manning, changes to deployments, withdrawal dates, etc etc etc, added to the incessant and mindless changes from Big Army about berets, the ASU, POSH oops I mean SHARP, APFT v. APRT, and so forth make it difficult for most Soldiers to simply figure out which version of the Army they're in today, and what version it'll be tomorrow.

What's my point?

I believe that a lot of reflection is in order, for most of us, whether it's one or ten deployments. But I'm not sure our Army is in a place where that reflection will be possible for a lot of those in uniform. Many of those will leave the Army. We know that is inevitable, for many reasons. So, when do they catch their breath and when do they reflect? It's not going to be easy to reconcile past experiences, those experiences that change and shape a person forever. It's not going to be easy if the Army is not a stable place to exist. The Army's mission is to deploy, fight, and win wars. Soldiers know this and understand this. Not fun, but it's easy to cope with that reality. Re-shaping the Force, re-instituting QMP, and other measures we all see headed our way is not so easy to cope with or understand. This is especially true when it has potent effects such as changing health care, altering retirement plans, or even affecting how a Soldier believes he'll be able to feed his family next month or next year.

If this premise is correct, if we are in a state where many of those that have done the fighting over the past decade are not going to either, a) sustain the current norm and OPTEMPO until retirement, then soak it all in and reflect at the appropriate time, retirement; b) attain stability in a post-war Army, free from worries about job security (which many feel they've earned for the blood and sweat they've spilled in their country's name); or, c) reflect, reconcile and come to peace with what they've done in uniform and leave the military in a good frame of mind...then what does that indicate for the future of our Army and the future of our society? I don't think it indicates many positives.

My solution...we must protect our people. Purging the ranks is not likely to help us. Restructuring retirement, health care, and other elements vital to military personnel is not going to help. Austerity and fiscal housekeeping can be accomplished by eliminating waste, not people. Running people out of the military will inevitably deny us of some good talent. It will hurt us in the next war as well as in the interim. I believe we must provide no less than a five year buffer between the withdrawal from current theaters to any restructuring of manpower, benefits, or retirement. Soldiers can handle smaller pay raises, they can handle having fewer goodies in the supply room. They can tackle that along with the reflections of a war gone by and the preparations for wars not yet fought. And Soldiers can, by and large, do this in a healthy manner. I'm not sure this can happen if we substitute the chaos of war, where we expect to find it, with chaos at home, in garrison, where we do not expect to encounter it.

Hopefully these articles, in a venue like SWJ will help.

I think the events of the arab spring and the uncertain path of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq mean that, 10 years on, events and participants in the aftermath of 9/11 are like debris after an explosion- everything is in flux and no one knows where the dust will settle or the final outcome. So all that is left is quiet reflection. Perhaps SWJ readers and writers are too smart to submit essays explaining where the world is at right now. To think that it has taken decades just for a balanced picture of the Vietnam war/ Cold War to emerge beyond the clich├ęs. When will we have the best perspective? We may have to wait until the OIF/OEF vets take up the mantle as a new generation of civilian leaders to find out, as Erwin remarked.

-Bob T.