21 January 2016

Desert Storm 25th

25 years this past weekend. That's how long it's been since Desert Storm, at least according to the calendar. According to my brain, how I think, how I feel, I don't know-- I can't tell. Some days it was so far in the past that I have no idea when it was, or if it was even real, and other days it might as well be happening today or right now.

I didn't see the TV news or really keep track of anything other than tech over the weekend, so I don't know if there was any coverage. I didn't see any mentions of the anniversary other than on social media, where I'm in a couple of groups of Desert Storm veterans. One of the threads was posting "where you were when Desert Shield became Desert Storm", and there were a few people who (I think) were either where I was or close to where I was. A lot of locations I recognized from having heard of them-- some places were existing bases, some were more tactical. Many were ships at sea. It's hard to imagine the number of people that were there-- half a million of us, give or take, not counting Iraqi forces that were on the other side of the border.

Another thread was "What's your MOS/AFSC/specialty" (in other words what did you do for whatever service you were in)? The military has almost as many different jobs to do as it does people to do them. I recognized a lot of the Air Force jobs, a few of the Navy jobs, and there were a ton of jobs in the Army and the Marine Corps that I have no idea about, although I did see a few I guessed right about.

I was a USAF ground radio repairman, often shortened to just Ground Rat. We got handed a lot of things that didn't seem to fit anywhere else but that somehow related or connected to a radio. Tape recorders, operator consoles, even telephone switching equipment. If the General's staff car had a stereo that didn't sound right, it went to ground radio. If the guy three doors down in the barracks had a boom box, chances are I could make it sound a little better (the soldering in most consumer sound equipment sucks). My standard fee for fixing someone's something was, and is, either a beer or a cup of coffee. I've fixed lots of things in my life, and had I've had a lot of free beer, and a lot of free coffee.

An aside. I'm sitting in the lobby of one of the campus academic buildings. There are a couple of kiosk computers here, the kind that are there for people to walk up to and check mail and such. At one of those kiosks, there is an older guy-- don't know if he's a student or not-- literally yelling at someone on Skype. I've had earplugs in for a while now, but they're not helping.

I ask him, as politely as I can, to please stop yelling. I explain that I've got earplugs in my ear and I still can't hear myself think. He tells me to fuck off, flips me the bird. I ask him if I need to call campus security. He says sure, fuck it, go ahead. He's called my bluff.

For whatever reason, now that the jousting contest is over, we start talking. He's a veteran, U. S. Army, late 1980's-- in and out before I was in. I'd seen him sitting in the same chair, in front of the same kiosk, lots of times and figured he was probably a vet and meant to say hello at some point. Put two veterans in proximity, it's likely a conversation will eventually start.

As we're talking, he's taking long pulls from a bottle of grape Gatorade that's probably mixed at least half and half with MD 20/20. He's not drunk, but he's not entirely sober either. It's the kind of drunk that someone stays for long periods of time. Self medication, just enough to dull the senses and take the edge off. When he says he's depressed, says he's got some bad PTSD, I believe him. I know the symptoms too well not to believe him. He's got razor marks on his wrists, long since healed. When he says he's tried to kill himself before, there's no doubt he's telling the truth. Those kind of marks on a person's wrists aren't symptoms, they're just facts.

We exchange war stories. 

He's had a hard, hard life. He's homeless. The system-- Porchlight, the city of Madison, the other people on the street-- hasn't been kind to him. As the conversation goes on, he fades in and out-- sometimes normal conversation, sometimes he's up in my face. He mentions that he's supposed to be on medication, rattles off the names of some of the same meds that I'm either taking now or have taken in the past. For a while, in bits and pieces, I think we understand each other. Then a few seconds later I'm not so sure I shouldn't have called security a long time ago.

I want to find something that can help this guy. I'm in way over my head-- as I've often written, I'm a patient, not an expert on mental health. At one point I mention a veterans organization that has a chapter here, Dryhootch. It was founded, and is run by, veterans. Instead of operating bars like some other veterans organizations, clubhouses where vets can go to self medicate *cough*VFW and American Legion*cough*, Dryhootch runs coffee shops; hence the name. Anyway-- the guy's reaction can only be described as what happens when you trigger a veteran with serious PTSD. It wasn't Dryhootch that made him upset. It was every veterans organization ever.

I wonder, for a second or two, if he's kidding. Maybe he's sort of mock saying "Hey, man no way" the way many vets respond when someone says "Hey, I know a group that..." He's most definitely not kidding. He's freaked the fuck out. Someone, or maybe more than one someone, at a VFW or American Legion or some kind of post either really pissed this guy off at some point, or really pissed on this guy at some point. (Maybe both happened. I can't say that I blame him for getting upset. I crossed a boundary, offering that kind of help-- but I knew already that suggesting he talk to the VA would be even less help. It was worth a try.)

I'm able to talk him down. I have lots of practice talking myself down, so I use the same approach talking to him-- telling him where he is, that there's no one else here, that it's just two veterans that happened to meet tonight talking. It works, for a little while. He's drunk enough that quiet conversation isn't his thing. 

In between the really weird moments, we talk about music, mostly metal. Anthrax. Slayer. Motley Crue. He wants to use the kiosk computer to play some metal really loud, and I have to keep reminding him that we're in an academic building. People are studying not far away, and if they're annoyed by the noise they're liable to actually call campus security. He flip flops between giving a fuck, and not giving a fuck. I don't want him to get arrested, because that would suck. I also don't want me to get arrested for being guilty by association.

I say that I understand, but I haven't walked in his shoes. I can relate, but not really understand. I'm not sure he's convinced.

There's a certain point where the little voice in the back of my head starts telling me it's time to get myself out of the situation I'm in. I want to do something to help this guy-- even if only half the stories he's telling are true, the world's been pretty cruel to him. He's suicidal, not in the way that I think he's going to take his own life right this second, but in the way of someone that thinks about it all the time (and has been for a very long time). I think he's tough, strong, and a survivor for being through everything he's been through, and I tell him so. I wish it would matter, but I don't think it does. If his spirit isn't yet broken, it's pretty damn close to being broken.

It takes a little while. I don't just get up and gather my shit and walk out, I'm a lot more careful. The conversation continues, with me saying more and more often that I've gotta go. I need to work in the morning. I'm lying, and I don't like it. I'm slowly abandoning this guy, but I don't know what else to do. Eventually, slowly, I put away my stuff, get my jacket on. So does he. The last I see of him, he's walking out the front door of the building. I do my best to disappear. I take an odd turn, go through a classroom with an extra door, take a different set of stairs one floor down and a different set of stairs up. Poof. Gone.

Honestly, I'm afraid he's going to follow me, but I don't think he will. Maybe. Just in case, I take a path through the building that lets me make sure I'm not followed, to a part of the building I know he doesn't have access to. I technically shouldn't be here either, it's one of my nights off, but I doubt anyone will make a fuss. No one else is here but the custodial staff, and we're used to crossing paths when I'm here working late at night.

It's a couple of hours now since the conversation ended. I'm also a little afraid to walk home-- I don't want to run into this guy again, especially in the middle of the street in the middle of the night. My brain is telling me that I need to find a new place to hack, that this building isn't safe anymore. Maybe the voice in my head is right. The PTSD is telling me to avoid it, avoid the guy, avoid everything, stay the fuck in my apartment. I'll be more careful. I'll avoid him. 

I hope like hell I'm not an asshole. 

I didn't-- don't-- know what else to do.

It's interesting that this happened tonight. Perhaps it's fitting that on a night when I wanted to write about the Desert and some of the things that have happened since then, something would happen that would make me look at myself in a new and different way.

There are literally thousands of men and women who are veterans that are very much like the guy I talked to for several hours tonight. Some of them are homeless, and some will be eventually. The VA can't or won't help, veterans organizations can't or won't help. Cities like Madison and many others want to eliminate homelessness by putting all of the homeless people where the rest of the world can't see them. The latest mantra is "housing first"; give everyone a place to live and everything will be fine. It's cheaper per homeless person that way, the nice people say.

I've lived on the street. Not as hard as a lot of people do, but I've been out there. One of my answers is, from experience, that the people that make up the social support system need to be accountable to someone. Right now they're not-- charities real estate companies like Porchlight can evict a veteran without a second thought, and the VA won't blink. People like the guy I met tonight can't go to the VA, and can't go to a veterans organization, because they've already been put through the bureaucratic bullshit that goes with trying to convince someone that you're a veteran to the point that even thinking about it hurts like hell.

There are people, like the veteran I met tonight, who will someday commit suicide, or die of untreated disease or die because they just can't go on any more-- and they will die alone and in silence because everyone they've ever trusted that's promised to help them has let them down.

I couldn't help him. All I had was words of support. For veterans-- people-- like him, words of support are empty, regardless of how sincere they are.

He mentioned more than once tonight that here I am with a computer, and a phone, and taking classes-- how could I possibly understand what he's been through and is going through? He was angry and loud and those were the moments where the inner voice in my head started saying "you need to get the fuck out of here". When he said he has nothing I knew he was right. That's why he was sitting at a kiosk in the first place, at an academic building at a university he'll never be able to attend. I didn't have an answer. I can tell you that the reason I even have a computer is that someone was throwing away the laptop I'm typing this on, and I was able to save it from recycling and make it work.

I can tell you that supper tonight was noodles and soup that I got from a food pantry, because I don't have any money until payday-- I spent my last paycheck on plane tickets to a hackathon next month at Stanford that I'll be partially reimbursed for. And I'll feel like a total ass for saying it, because who am I to stand up and say I'm fighting this disability, this PTSD thing? I have chances that other people don't have. I'm lucky. 

Which isn't true. I've worked my ass off to get off the street, to continue my education, and to get good enough at doing what I do that someone might actually pay me to do it. I can't explain how I was able to put aside alcohol, how I've never gotten into using drugs, because I don't know. If it's anything, it's just that I'm fucking stubborn. Every day I have to fight myself to get up, get dressed, get to work, get to class, and not give the fuck up.

No one, except the people that were directly involved, took time out this week to remember that twenty-five years ago a coalition of countries-- many more than just the United States-- went to war against a country that by all accounts wrongfully invaded its neighbor. If you ask ten random people on the street about the Persian Gulf War, I'll bet you that most of them will think you're talking about the Iraq War.

Growing up, no one ever told me about the Korean War. I liked M*A*S*H as a kid because it was funny, even though I didn't really get the jokes until I'd been in a war myself. Sometimes I hear veterans that served in Korea talk about the Korean War as a forgotten war. I wasn't there, but I can see why. No one ever explained what the Korean War really was about. I learned about it on my own.

Desert Shield and Desert Storm-- and the operations that happened immediately after-- are being quietly forgotten by the rest of the world. Except those of us who were there. We remember.

I don't know why fate put me and another veteran in the same room tonight; I don't know what will happen to that veteran I spent three hours talking to, trying to support. I wanted him to see that he was strong and brave for surviving as far as he has, hoping that if I could convince him just for a minute that it's true, that it would be something he could take and build on. Small steps. Maybe not fix everything, but get pointed in the right direction. I hope he'll be all right, but hope only goes so far. (And talk is cheap.)

I started writing, several hours ago now, because I wanted to say something about the Persian Gulf War. I'm trying to move the fuck on from it, let it be something that happened a long time ago in a far away place, but still keep hold of the good things. There were good things. We accomplished a lot in a very short time, with less resources than we should have had. I'm proud of what we accomplished. I got to see the world, and the war, from a point of view that very few people ever get a chance to see. (PTSD has other plans. We argue about this.)

What I want you to remember about the Desert isn't that I was there, or what I did, or what happened or didn't happen on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of Desert Storm. What I want you to know, and remember, is that there are people who served in the military who came back and fell through every single crack that there is to fall through. Even though there's a VFW, and an American Legion, and a VA, and all kinds of other organizations, people-- veterans-- still fall through all of the cracks.

What I want you to remember is that I met one of those veterans tonight, and I couldn't help him because I didn't know how, and so many others hadn't even tried.

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