As I have mentioned here before, I served 12 months in Iraq during the Iraq war. It was one of the most wonderful experience of my life – except when it was not! ….   Seriously, it was a searing and very positive sort of experience, overall. The big fear in the war was the IED’s, also known as roadside bombs. A large IED, and by the time I was there in 2005-2006, most IED’s were large – a large IED would obliterate a HMMWV. One sailor, a Navy SEAL, Dan Crenshaw, lost an eye to an IED. He probably lost more than that, but not that he can discuss.

I knew a few soldiers who drove through IED’s and lived to tell the tale. Even when you live, the IED does things to your brain. There is something about the concussion effect on the brain in a close confined space, lined with armor, that harms your brain. Doubtless, Dan Crenshaw suffers other, unseen effects. Mr. Crenshaw is running for Congress as a Republican in Texas.

So, when Pete Davidson makes a joke about his eye patch and comments, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever…..  whatever,” I do not get the joke. In fact, I find his comment pretty offensive. See CBS news report. I like SNL fine. But, jokes about losing body parts to an IED just are not funny to me.

I knew a soldier, a National Guardsman who went outside the wire often. It was his job to leave the relatively safe confines of the FOB several times a week. He drove through a couple of IED’s. He said the ringing in hs ears would last for days afterward. He wrote the name of all the soldiers his unit lost on his helmet. He wanted to remember them.

Pete Davidson lost his father in the 9/11 attack. He should understand “sacrifice,” we would think. Losing a dad who was a fire fighter is similar to sacrificing in a war zone.

A female comrade was a truck driver in Baghdad. They were told the terrorists were using kids to stop convoys. “Do not stop to help kids!” she was told. If she stops, the entire convoy has to stop. When you stop, you get attacked. She did not stop for kids. Years later, she was still dealing with deep PTSD because she might have run over a child.

A young soldier was in a Reserve unit. He thought he got out of the Reserves. He should have been, but was not processed out. About a year after he thought he was out of his Reserve unit, he received a phone call, “Chin, get over here in 30 minutes, or you will be court-martialed!” Chin did get there in 30 minutes, barefoot and without a shirt. Chin served his 12 months in Iraq and never complained.

Another major went home on his six month break. He found his wife was dating someone. That someone was reading bedtime stories to his children. That major came back after his break and did his second six months, knowing he would need a divorce lawyer when he got back home. Yet, that same major had to make major decisions, like who leads the convoy when his unit has to travel 2-3 hours in pitch black darkness with no headlights, or who mans the turret gun in his vehicle when the main guy is hurt. He has to focus, or people get hurt. There is no time for self-pity.

I am sure Pete Davidson faced some huge emotional issues in losing his father. You have to respect his experience. But, that does not give him space to minimize the service and sacrifice of others. None of these war experiences deserve a “whatever.” Neither does a sailor who lost his eye.

To mark Memorial Day, I would also like to recall two area San Antonio heroes. They were both fiends of mine. They both died in war zones back in 2005 and 2006 when I was deployed myself.

SSGT Clinton Newman was a fine soldier. He was a bright young man in the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade during my brief time with the 321st here in San Antonio. One of the nice things about being in your hometown unit is that I actually ran into a member of my unit at a movie. I ran into SSGT Newman when he was at a movie with his girl and I was with mine. He was one of the few 321st soldiers still here back in late 2003 and early 2004, while most of the unit was deployed. See a biographical sketch to learn more about someone who would have been a fine citizen of San Antonio and was already an excellent soldier.

I served with Albert E. Smart way back in the 2/141 Infantry Battalion in Corpus Christi. We were young company commanders together. Albert was gung-ho and always smiling. Years later, I was quite surprised to see him in the 321st CA Brigade here in San Antonio. He deployed in 2005 and passed away in Kuwait on the way to Afghanistan. It was such a shock that someone so young, in such good physical shape would pass away from an illness. I think Heaven is in much better physical shape now that Albert is there. And, I expect there are a great many more smiles among its citizens. See a memorial here to learn more about my buddy, Albert.

The thing about Bowe Bergdahl is why was he even in the Army in the first place? It is near suicide to walk off a FOB with no weapon and no protective gear. Yet, that is exactly what he did before he was captured by the Taliban. He had washed out of Coast Guard basic training after only three weeks. Coast Guard training is not as easy as some think it is, or so says Task & Purpose. But, being rejected from any of the services’ basic training suggests he was not ready for the Army and deployment. The Coast Guard psychiatrist who saw him recommended that he be evaluated first before any of the military services choose to accept him. That ought to have served as a major red flag. The Coast Guard diagnosed him with “adjustment disorder with depression.” In layman’s language, that means he did not adjust well to changing circumstances. Nothing changes more often or more quickly than a war zone.

He had an episode in the Coast Guard basic training in which he simply broke down. In the middle of the night, it appeared that he had gone into the latrine and smashed his face into the mirror. There was a lot of blood. When the trainees found  him, he was balled up and crying.

In 2008, the Army was struggling to meet its annual quota of recruits. They waived many entry requirements. According to Task & Purpose, the Army granted waivers to 20% of the new recruits that year. That was way above the normal 4-5%. Waivers are typically given for everything from convictions to excessive weight to psychological issues. See Task & Purpose report. Some of the waiver recruits actually do very well. But, studies have shown that many of the recruits who enter with a waiver are later problem soldiers. Certainly, Bowe Bergdahl was.

And, now it turns out the judge gave SGT Bergdahl no time in prison for his offense, apparently viewing his 5 years as a POW prison enough. He will lose his stripes, which is a big deal to most NCO’s. He will have to pay $10,000 out of his pay. See CBS News report. I know he did not intend anyone to get hurt looking for him. With his mental state, perhaps he did not realize soldiers would be looking for him. But, sure, for months no one knew what happened to him. Of course, they would move mountains to find him. Shame on him for bringing that on all the soldiers in his area of operations. I do not know what to think. He certainly suffered as a POW. But, he caused a great deal of suffering for his fellow soldiers.

 

The judge in SGT Bowe Bergdahl’s case will not limit or dismiss the court-martial because of Pres. Trump’s comments about the young sergeant. The judge found Trump’s comments, while inappropriate, would not affect Col. Nance. Col. Nance is the judge. He can judge whether the comments about Bergdahl will affect him. But, he is also implicitly saying he does not believe denial of the motion will provide basis for an appeal for SGT Bergdahl. See Task & Purpose report.

As I mentioned here and here, Pres. Trump has loudly condemned Bergdahl. SGT Bergdahl’s lawyer has claimed those remarks constitute unlawful command influence. COL. nance is set to retire in 2018 and is not eligible for promotion. Yes, that would make him unlikely to be influenced by what the President says or by what others might think of the President’s comments.

Of course, it should not be necessary to say that Pres. Trump and Candidate Trump should not make comments like that. There is no reason to create possible issues for an appeal.

Bowe Bergdahl was supposed to be sentenced on Oct. 23. But, instead, his lawyer renewed a motion he had filed before. Eugene Fidell re-argued a motion alleging there has been unlawful command influence (UCI). Pres. Trump talked about SGT Bergdahl last week, saying he cannot say anything, but he said things earlier. The President, in effect, affirmed his prior comments about that “traitor,” Bergdahl. The judge, Col. Nance, was not impressed by the prosecutor’s argument that Pres. Trump was simply responding to the reporter’s question. He had a “hard time” with that explanation.

So, Col. Nance postponed the hearing for a couple of days, so he can review cases about UCI. The challenge is this UCI is unprecedented. Never before has a president gone after one particular soldier. Pres. Nixon once referred to the My Lai massacre as a “travesty,” But, he did not focus on one specific soldier. Pres. Trump brought up SGT Bergdahl often during his campaign, referring to him as “dirty rotten traitor,” “horrible traitor,” “dirty no-good traitor,” and more. In the military, the President is always spoken of as the top person in the chain of command. Yet, in some ways, the President is removed from the military. So, the judge is being careful with this issue. As he should.

See San Antonio Express News report.

Bowe Bergdahl is expected to plea guilty to a charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. SGT Bergdahl’s lawyer has refused comment. But, a former U.S. Air Force JAG officer explained that pleading guilty makes sense. The evidence against the former Taliban POW is rather clear, he said. See San Antonio Express News report. I previously wrote about SGT Bergdahl here and here.

Many veterans think SGT Bergdahl is a plain coward and that he deserted. But, I think most of us just think what he did was strange and stupid. I have heard stories about other service members doing things that were just odd. One soldier, I was told, tried to walk off the FOB in Kirkuk in civilian clothes with no weapon. He apparently just lost his senses. Serving in a war zone is incredibly stressful. People react differently.

Its a fundamental part of the military court martial process that a commander may not discuss a pending court martial. Anything a general says will prejudice the military jury. But, what happens when the commander speaking about a prominent court martial is a candidate for president? Donald Trump spoke often about Bowe Bergdahl. The candidate referred to him as a traitor many times and at least once, suggested he be dropped out of a plane. Candidate Trump is now Pres. Trump. His words have consequences.

SGT. Bergdahl’s lawyers have filed a motion claiming they cannot obtain a fair trial. The Army lawyers have responded that the use of the term “traitor” was not meant in a legal way, but in a “conversational” sense, whatever that might mean. They also argue that no reasonable person would interpret Candidate now Pres. Trump’s words as anything other than campaign rhetoric. Again, I do not know what that means. Words have consequences. The military lawyers cannot un-ring the bell. They cannot withdraw or undo Mr. Trump’s words. I am doubtful the Army authorities will accept that sort of explanation. See CBS news report. If these remarks had been made by a general, there is no question the court martial would be dismissed. Those sorts of remarks do indeed prejudice any potential military jury. That the remarks were made by a candidate for President might make a difference. We will see.

There is a reason why candidates for any office generally refrain from commenting about pending cases.

There are many issues with Pres. Trump’s travel ban. One important consideration is the risk it poses to U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We still have several thousand soldiers in Afghanistan and a few hundred in Iraq. Add to that the thousands of U.S. civilians in support of the soldiers serving in those two countries and you have a good many Americans who serve as handy targets for ISIS and Al Qaeda. Political issues that affect the Middle East reverberate in Iraq and Afghanistan. The jihadis are motivated when they hear the U.S. or Western nations supposedly oppressing Moslems.

When I served in Iraq, every staff tracked attacks on Coalition (i.e., U.S.) forces. The statistics were part of the daily briefing presented to every commander. We knew there would be a spike in attacks anytime Middle East or Israel issues became part of the public debate in America. It was part of our intel or “enemy situation” briefing. It is without doubt that right now as we speak, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are scaling back their activities to some degree to avoid the large spike in attacks. For your average revenge minded terrorist, mainland U.S. is a long way to go. But, northern Iraq and central Afghanistan not so much. See the Brian Chasnoff column in the San Antonio Express News in which Rep. Will Hurd speaks to that concern. Congressman Hurd is a former CIA officer. He would know. As a former U.S. Army officer, I also know. Talk tough here. But, over there, they pay the price.

Donald Trump advocated torture during his campaign. He even advocated targeting the families of alleged terrorists. “Task & Purpose,” a nice veterans website, discusses the legal ramifications for soldiers during a Trump administration. As the post explains, Mr. Trump argued in favor of water boarding “and a helluva lot worse than waterboarding” during the campaign. Recently, he walked his comments back a bit. But, then Mike Pence, the new Vice-President, said the administration would never discuss what it would never do. So, torture and unlawful killing may still be on the agenda. The post points out that the USA did not agree to the international agreement that created the International Criminal Court. So, the only enforcement power for a soldier refusing to obey an unlawful order would be the same executive branch that would order the torture. US military members are not subject to the International Criminal Court.

The Trump administration could redefine noncombatant to include families of terrorists. The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act limits interrogations to practices found in the Army Field Manual. But, the administration could allow for “extraordinary rendition,” as the Bush administration did. That is, the Trump administration could out-source torture. But, some of these directive to interrogate with extreme methods could be directed toward the ordinary soldier. Those sorts of orders are rarely written. The average soldier might have the opportunity to consult with a JAG lawyer. One could expect the military chain-of-command to support whatever legal cover the White House offers. During the Bush Administration, the White House Legal Counsel wrote a memo authorizing torture. Most JAG lawyers would surely defer to legal opinions from some other entity. So, even if a practice were considered illegal right up to the day of some memo, it would then magically be considered lawful afterward.

I have to add as an aside, however, that many JAG lawyers were troubled by that White House memo. Many JAG lawyers would explain the difficulties involved in changing the definition of “torture” and provide pretty good counsel regarding any possible unlawful order.

One Navy nurse at Guantanamo Bay refused to force feed a detainee. Legal proceedings dragged on against him for two years before the medical community supported him. Then, the Navy dropped its investigation. Force feeding is not torture, but the incident indicates the sort of actions that one can expect for refusing an order sen as unlawful. As I have mentioned on this website before, military members are required to refuse unlawful orders. The question is is such an order unlawful if there is some sort of legal cover? The Task & Purpose post does not address how a soldier might ascertain whether a given order is unlawful or not. Instead, it recommends that members of the military understand the rule of engagement, any protocols regarding detainees, and pay attention to those Law of Armed Conflicts briefings we receive each year. This is serious business. No one wants to risk his/her career over an unlawful order. See Task & Purpose post here.

It is ironic that Donald Trump suggests that veterans suffering from PTSD are weak. He obtained several deferments from the draft during the Viet Nam War. He said “strong” soldiers do not suffer from PTSD. See ABC news report. The implication is that weak soldiers do suffer from PTSD.

That is nonsense. It is also simplistic. I do not mind admitting that I suffer from mild PTSD. Loud, unexpected noises will make me jump, or simply unnerve me a bit. I cannot stay around loud, unexpected loud noises. PTSD comes in degrees. It is not black and white. I know many veterans suffer from far worse cases of PTSD than I do. They are not weak and neither am I. We did our part, without hesitation or reservation.

One of the highlights of my Army career was seeing so many young men and women voluntarily enlisting in the armed forces during the two wars. I was a commander of a basic training unit for a time. The Drill Instructors appreciated the steadfast courage of those young men and women enough that hazing or harassing at boot camp was at an all-time low.

I feel sorry for persons like Mr. Trump who have never experienced the selfless sense of duty that compels us to stand up for our country and our comrades. We faced our fears. We were well-trained and well-lead. We loved our country and we profoundly trusted our fellow soldiers. Mr. Trump talks with shallow understanding. He has not served one minute in a war zone. I still feel like my time in Iraq was one of the best experience of my life. One of the good guys, the word “strong” comes to mind, was Paul Clevenger. He committed suicide a year or so after we came back. He was a good, young soldier. The war affected us all in different ways. There is no weakness in facing your fears and following through on your commitment. So many soldiers exceeded their comfort zone. There was a young, Junior League, female JAG lawyer who went on a convoy for the first time at my request. Just a few weeks from the end of her tour, she hopped in her HMMWV with a smile, as far as I knew. She never let on that it was her first convoy. She never let her fear show.

There was the very young soldier who would never go out on a convoy. He was scared. But, you know, he was always there at work, everyday, on time. He stayed late working many times – to avoid forcing soldiers from distant FOB’s to make an unnecessary return trip. There was the young captain who went home on his six month break and did not come back. No one blamed him or accused him of anything. We all knew he had done his best, he had pushed his limit. All these soldiers were brave in their own individual way. War is too complicated for simplistic criticisms.

The Battle of Ia Drang Valley illustrates the complexity of war. The first battle is well known from the film, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson. But, the book We were Soldiers Once and Young includes the follow-up battle. A sister battalion, the 2nd Btn of the 7th Cavalry Regt. left the scene of LTC Hal Moore’s battle to move toward a faraway Landing Zone (LZ). The 2/7th was commanded by LTC Robert McDade.

Unlike LTC Moore, LTC McDade was new to his battalion. A Battalion included some 700 soldiers. He barely knew his soldiers. The 2/7th was ambushed just a day or two out of their starting point. The battalion fell apart, in part because LTC McDade withdrew from his men and the battle. He made little or no attempt to coordinate there actions of his soldiers. The fight devolved into dozens of different, smaller battles. The men of the 2/7th were fighting with no coordination from higher headquarters.

LTC McDade was not a weak person. Far from it. He was a combat veteran of WW II and the Korean War. But, the thing about combat is that it is such a stressor that generals and historians alike cannot predict when and how certain persons succeed, while others do not. I think it likely that not being bonded with his men was a factor. Hal Moore was famously close to his men. LTC McDade was new.

War and PTSD involve people. When you discuss people, by definition you discuss varieties and differences. Even in war, most importantly in war, we cannot pigeonhole the human condition. LTC McDade was not weak. My friend, SGT Paul Clevenger was not weak. The true weak one is the one who dares to discuss things he cannot comprehend.