Wednesday, April 30, 2008

911 Responders

Last month I was in the throes of tax season. And it wasn’t pretty. Aside from not sleeping much, working three jobs, seven days a week – including volunteering time at a tax clinic in Asbury Park where we were so busy (can you say Economic Stimulus package?) that I set my own record for hours worked in a day.

Nevertheless my family suffered.

The last Sunday in April before the deadline, I was sitting at my desk working through another (damn) K-1 and the various (and forever re-issued) broker’s statements when my daughter came to me and said we were going to see a movie. No excuses.

In retrospect, I think her behavior might have been prompted by the dinner I served the night before – poached pork a la mode.

It was clear: I needed a time out.

We went to see Stop Loss which I thought was going to be about The New York Yankees. I mean, its obvious people are concerned. How can an organization with such an enormously disproportionate budget (two to ten times larger than any other) fail to claim victory for the 5th consecutive year? How much more can Americans take?

But I was wrong. Although Stop Loss was about men in uniform, it was a little different in that these boys were without enthusiastic fans watching their every move, jovial dancing mascots, or a zealous media determined to report every last statistic.

Here’s the story: The movie follows a group of Army soldiers returning home to a hero’s welcome after serving a tour of duty in Iraq. The parades and medals and congressional speeches occur just days after these men were caught in an intense, violent, bloody, and deadly battle on the streets of Tikrit. These former high school classmates volunteered to serve their country after 9/11. Now they just want to get reacquainted with friends and family, including the main character, Staff Sergeant Brandon King (played by Ryan Phillippe), who is looking forward to chilling out at his ranch.

Apparently this ranch is quite different from the one the President owns in Texas. Because while our commander in chief is spending time cutting down bush (him too?), riding his bicycle, and holding hands with foreign dignitaries, these young veterans are getting into bar fights, digging trenches in their front yards to sleep in, waiving loaded pistols, drinking, beating their wives, evading restraining orders, wrestling with night terrors, and using wedding presents for target practice.

Suffice to say, the boys are having some transition difficulties.

In fact, on the very day that Brandon goes to turn in his uniform, he is advised that the Army is sending him back – in less than 30 days - to Iraq for another tour. This is called “stop loss” – a government policy that allows soldiers to be called back to service even after they’ve completed their military contracts. It is also referred to as a back door draft.

This doesn’t sit well with Brandon. He appeals to his commanding officer by pointing out that he has already served his country, and that he signed up for one tour. Further, since the president declared “Mission Accomplished”, we are not technically at war so why is he being sent back?

The officer in charge is not amused and informs Brandon - in case he forgot - that the President of the United States can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and to whomever he wants. Doesn’t Brandon know we are over there to spread democracy?
Brandon is irate. He tells his commanding officer that the president is a *#%$^#@.
And *&%$* the President.

Oh boy.
Time out.

Which is exactly what Brandon does as he goes AWOL on a cross country jaunt to Washington DC to appeal to his congressman (the movie is not without humor). Along the way, Brandon stops at the home of a fallen soldier, meets another soldier making his way to Canada with his family because he was also issued stop loss orders, and visits one of his men, Rico, who is recovering from injuries received as a result of the battle in Tikrit. Despite losing part of his arm, his leg, and his eyesight, Rico tells Brandon that he is lucky. It is unlikely he will get stop loss orders.

There is turmoil throughout the movie, and I won’t tell you the ending, mostly because I don’t think I will ever understand it. The movie did disclose the number of Brandons in America: At least 81,000.

How our government could treat our soldiers with such callous disregard is incomprehensible. And it reminded me of the words of my grandfather who said to the governor of New Jersey in 1919 on his return from “The War to End all Wars” as one of 13 survivors of Company B regarding his service: “The enemy in front of us put up a good fight and we knew it, but they were not nearly as dangerous as the enemy in the rear of us, in our own organization.”1

Each of the returning soldiers in Stop Loss seemed to be fighting their own war on terror.

Apparently what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But what happens in Iraq doesn’t stay in Iraq.

Copyright 2008
1 Other Men’s Lives, Captain William J. Reddan, 1936,

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