Ira Hayes

Today is the 70th anniversary of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi on the fourth day of the battle for Iwo Jima in WWII. The battle would last for another month and three of the six men in Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph of the second flag raising would be killed within a matter of days of the picture.

The great Johnny Cash immortalized one of the surviving flag raisers, Ira Hayes. Despite the post-war fame, including Hollywood and the White House, Ira never really ever left Iwo Jima and his friends who died on that awful island. Only a couple of weeks after his 32nd birthday Ira would drink himself to death, dying of exposure, in two inches of water in a lonely ditch, as Johnny Cash forever reminds us.

Semper Fidelis Ira.

My Good Friend Shea

From Myrtle Beach Online, a story on my friend and mentor Shea Brown.

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Myrtle Beach Man Embraces Colorful Life

Shea Brown — every bit of 6-foot-2 — has squeezed himself into his racing-modified 1974 Fiat 128 Coupe so many times over the past three years that it has become second nature for him.

He is getting ready to do it again at Florida’s Sebring International Raceway for the 2015 Spring Vintage Classic — a weekend event in connection with the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, which pits similar cars of the same era against each other on well-known tracks across the nation for wheel-to-wheel racing. The Sebring event runs from Thursday through March 1.

A Myrtle Beach resident and lifelong proponent of world peace, Brown has lived a multifaceted life as, among other things, a musician, tennis pro and perennial student. Getting to know Brown is like peeling back an onion, with each layer revealing a surprising new component. He lives life on his own terms and has experienced many fortuitous moments along the way.

Brown, 63, quit drinking more than three years ago and attributes the forward motion in his life to his sobriety. “It made the most amazing difference,” he said. “I saw so many wonderful changes come about and positive things happening when I decided to stop drinking.”

Continue reading

Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis

At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.

I feel as if I want to say I wish I had read Wilde’s letter from prison, De Profundis, sooner, but, as one of the themes of the letter, the continuance of the travels and development of your life suggests, I may not have been ready for Wilde’s themes of suffering, art and Christ. Not ready because I hadn’t suffered in the years before the wars, not ready because I was too blinded by drunkenness to understand myself or to care to understand myself, and, more recently, not ready, because I don’t think I was open enough to appreciate Wilde’s transition in life and his growth through suffering, as his own transition and growth without trying to transplant my experiences onto his.

Trying to learn from others, without trying to become others, has been a difficult process for me these last few years in recovery. I am not sure how many other men and women like me are beguiled by this trap, this trying to put a square peg in a round hole approach to “fixing” your life, but it has been a steady and challenging presence in my recovery. When someone else’s solution doesn’t fit, doesn’t take hold, transform and reveal a new life that leaves behind all the suffering, sorrow, guilt and anger of the past, discouragement and exhaustion give way to depression and despair, and one of those inevitable setbacks in my lifetime of recovery overtakes me.

In response Wilde offers: This New Life…is of course no new life at all, but simply the continuance, by means of development, and evolution, of my former life. So throw away those pegs and walk past the holes, find your way ahead, embrace what life has given you, what you have found through your decisions and through Nature’s circumstances, and understand your life as your life through the reflections of others, through art and through the Divine.

Keep moving forward, don’t give up and have the courage and compassion to love yourself-even you men whose lives have been testaments and self-edicts to leadership, self-sacrifice and duty. There is much strength, wisdom, and, ultimately, purpose in understanding and accepting your suffering. With such compassion towards yourself comes not mawkish grousing, but rather galvanized fortitude, sustainable confidence and insightful concern, not just for yourself, but for others and for our world. Denying yourself compassion and rejecting the concept of understanding your suffering to have a purpose in your life, although macho and tough, will put you in a place where ultimately the alcohol and drugs no longer bring the numbness that the barrel of your pistol can only achieve. It takes courage to do the above, but what other choice did I have, what other choice do you have?

Others have suffered, it is what unites us as men and women, it is our greatest commonality. Do not hide from it.

He [Christ] understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich. Some one wrote to me in trouble, ‘When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting.’ How remote was the writer from what Matthew Arnold calls ‘the Secret of Jesus.’ Either would have taught him that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’ Oscar Wilde.

Peace and Merry Christmas.

Profile in The American Conservative

Kelley Vlahos of The American Conservative did a very nice profile of me last week. It was humbling to be put in the same context as Tom Drake and I can’t begin to say how kind Jesselyn Radack is for her gracious words.

Matthew-Hoh1

Washington Doesn’t Forgive Whistleblowers

“That was the first I saw of the racket.”

For Matthew Hoh, a former Marine, government official, and civilian contract overseer in Iraq, seeing “the racket” for the first time was a turning point that eventually led him to turn his back on a successful and heady career in Washington. He became a whistleblower by decrying a failing strategy in Afghanistan, and for a while, was a bone fide cause célèbre. But like others who have made similar leaps of conscience, Hoh has found out the hard way that Washington does not forgive.

“Certainly I couldn’t find work for anything,” he told TAC in a recent interview. “I went for something like 24 months out of 36 months without a paycheck. I couldn’t get temporary work or [work] driving a town car… I was selling cars.”

The Washington national security and foreign policy establishment is apparently closed to Hoh now, no matter how right he was. Starting over, as fellow whistleblower Tom Drake pointed out, can be an emotionally crippling experience, especially when you know you it was your own decision to take the path that brought you to this point.

Hoh’s story

It’s been nearly five years since Hoh turned in his resignation letter to the U.S. State Department, for which he was working as a senior civilian representative tasked with assessing the progress of the counterinsurgency operations in the Taliban center of gravity, southeastern Afghanistan. Hoh was sent into the country along with thousands of fresh U.S. Marine and Army deployments under new president Barack Obama.

At the time, the military establishment back home was confident that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as a member of Gen. David Petraeus’ inner circle, could turn around the faltering war in Afghanistan with the came COIN doctrine that “won” Iraq during the surge. Hoh saw things very differently. As a Marine who had served in Iraq as both a company commander and a civilian administrator, he had already sensed the futility of that war, the corruption of the reconstruction effort—the aforementioned “racket” in which tens of millions of dollars worth of Iraqi assets and American money were disappearing into the pockets of crafty businessmen with little to show for it (things that another now underemployed whistleblower, Peter Van Buren, colorfully describes in his own memoirs). Hoh was seasoned but open-minded. He ended up, however, disillusioned.

“I was naive,” Hoh said bluntly. “I felt we learned our lesson in Iraq and were going to do things differently. When Petraeus took over (U.S. Central Command) in the fall of 2008, he made the point, over and over, that it wouldn’t be a military solution but a political solution. That’s what my view was. I wanted to be involved, it was my career, that is what I lived for.” Going back, Hoh felt, too, that it would help him with the demons at his own door, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At least it would be better than dealing with it from a Pentagon desk job back home. He was 36.

“Not surprisingly,” he said, recalling his time in Nangahar province in the East and Zabul province in the South, what he found “was a very confused situation, very frustrating in terms of how the military was being run, how ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) was being run.”

He said it was clear they were trying to force an Iraq surge template on Afghanistan, and that it was not going to work. The U.S. presence there was fueling the insurgency, and increasing the legitimacy of Taliban forces. “We were trying to win some morality play,” he said.

When your narrative is false, then you are not recognizing that you are occupying a country and creating this political vacuum and not allowing a legitimate political order to be established, and you’re marginalizing a significant element of the population who will be playing into the propaganda of extremists like al Qaeda or insurgents like the Taliban.

For Hoh, it wasn’t just the strategy that was wrong, it was the war itself. “I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan,” he wrote. Hoh’s struggle with what he was experiencing on the ground was compounded by the fact the American people were getting a completely different version of events back home. This “theater” would continue through Operation Moshtarek (Marjah) and the Battle of Kandahar in 2010. And this, says Hoh, was nothing to be proud of.

“I couldn’t look at anyone anymore and say their son or daughter died for a good cause,” he says, recalling his last days at the State Department. “I wrote up this resignation letter basically telling them off, that we all know what we are doing there is wrong and these kids are dying for no reason,” he recalled.

He wasn’t let go easily. He recalls that he met with then-U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who empathized with Hoh’s misgivings, but implored him to stay; he even convinced Hoh, momentarily, during a meeting at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. “We took his letter very seriously, because he was a good officer,” Holbrooke said in an interview with the Washington Post at the time. Holbrooke died in 2010.

But after returning to Foggy Bottom and seeing what he described as the Stepford-like resolve of the State Department staffers, Hoh knew things would be no different. “They were talking about a completely different war,” than the one he had seen. “They were wearing blinders. Clearly the only Afghans they had ever spoken to were Afghans in power, or those on our payroll. After that, I called (Holbrooke) back and said I can’t do this, it’s not the right thing.”

For his part, Hoh had not planned on going to the press. He had met a Post reporter at D.C. bar, watching a football game one evening about a month after sending the letter. After a lengthy conversation, he was asked to call the newsroom the next day. He spoke with top reporter Karen DeYoung. What happened next is history.

“When I woke up the next morning (after the publication) my phone messages exploded, my Facebook page exploded.” There were black suburbans and reporters with cameras congregating outside of his apartment building. He did a lot of media then, and not surprisingly, received backlash from the COIN crowd who immediately tried to discredit him on the military blogs and on Wikipedia.

“Media would tell me they were getting calls from people saying I wasn’t who I said I was,” Hoh said. After a whirlwind of speaking engagements and media appearances, speaking largely against the war, he retained a position with the new Afghan Study Group, hosted by the New America Foundation—his last real chance for working in the field he loves. Unfortunately, his PTSD was overtaking his life, his temperament was erratic, and he was drinking too much. He left voluntarily. From there, things went downhill.

“I went until April 2013 without a paycheck,” he said. He got back on his feet, mostly through friends and family and a good PTSD program at the VA. But all he had to look forward to at that point was finding odd jobs. He moved back with his parents in North Carolina to start over.

By then the props and staging had fallen away in Afghanistan, and it was clear COIN indeed had been an overhyped promise. No one today is likely to argue otherwise. Nevertheless, it was dawning on Hoh that he had little chance of getting into his old field, even if his assessments about Afghanistan had been spot-on.

“A couple of friends had wanted to get me a job in the federal government,” he recalled. One had gotten a note back from a prospective employer that read simply, “this is the guy you want me to talk to?” with a link to his story online.

The Whistleblower Blacklist

Jesselyn Radack, a whistleblower and attorney who now serves clients like Thomas Drake and Edward Snowden for the Government Accountability Project, said Hoh’s case is not atypical. “I consider Matthew Hoh a hero,” she told TAC. However, “far too often, whistleblowers end up blacklisted, bankrupt, and broken. Even when you prevail, there’s still this taint, often due in no small part to the government upon which you blew the whistle.”

“It’s very socially isolating – you are disconnected from a profession in which you grew up, and a profession in which you poured a lot of yourself into, where you were recognized as being a part of the government and military,” said Drake, a decorated military veteran who was a senior-level National Security Agency executive when he started back-channeling his concerns to Congress and the press about the unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping of Americans in the early 2000s. He was charged with violating the Espionage Act for leaking classified information to the press, which he denied. The federal prosecution was relentless but eventually fizzled, and the government dropped all charges in exchange for a guilty plea to one misdemeanor charge, for exceeding authorized use of his government computer.

Drake was forced to do 240 hours of community service. He had already lost his job, his pension, and security clearances. He now works at an Apple Store.

“If you try to re-engage with another part of the government, your chances are slim to none. Washington [institutions] have very long memories, they can hold grudges for years, sometimes decades,” Drake tells TAC. Meanwhile, even non-profits that advocate for whistleblowers and civil liberties have been hesitant to bring him on, despite his expertise and obvious commitment. He senses that he might be seen as a drag with big name donors who are notoriously skittish when it comes to controversy. “I’m aware of it – especially in this climate.”

That’s why, added Hoh, “you see all these (whistleblowers) at the Ridenhour awards (of which Hoh and Drake are both recipients) and these guys are working at craft stores or Apple Stores or the YMCA.”

He said he is in a much better place today and frankly, wants nothing to do with the Beltway scene other than to advocate for greater government transparency and whistleblower protections. While he continues to look for full-time employment, he is lending a hand to the Institute for Public Accuracy’s ExposeFacts.org.

Does he have advice for future whistleblowers? Hoh certainly doesn’t want to discourage them. “Don’t be naive about it and prepare yourself and your family and reach out for help,” he said.

Regrets? No. If anything, he now sees Washington for what it is—“a racket.”

“No one is going to hire you to tell them what they are doing is wrong. It’s about the money. Money drives the policy,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get a job there but you know, it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

 

 

Coming home, being even more distant…and not having sex

Journalist Sean Langan provides a brave and wonderful service by sharing with readers the difficulties he faced, in particular his inability to maintain closeness or intimacy with his loved ones upon returning home from his imprisonment by the Taliban in 2008. The article is here in The Australian.

Sean’s circumstance as a prisoner, like Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s, is extreme and, fortunately, rare. However, many of the symptoms Sean shares in his article, are those symptoms that those of us, returning home from the wars, face in our lives, and, by extension, our families and friends suffer through as well.

I find the loss of intimacy, the distancing of oneself from others, and the general numbing of emotions and murder of relationships that many inflicted with PTSD, depression and moral injury experience, are the least spoken of and the least understood. In particular, the distancing from one’s partner, both physically and emotionally, is an affliction that ravages many of us and is one of the key reasons that professionals speak of PTSD as a relationship-killer. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the ending of a relationship is often a trigger for a veteran’s suicide.

I certainly went through those experiences and it cost me relationships and hurt people I loved. Looking back, it seems so odd, so foreign, but that was certainly me: sharing so very little about myself, letting no one know I was hurting. I was afraid to confide in someone, anyone, for fear of exposure and because I thought my peers, friends, family, strangers…would see me as weak, ill and not a leader. Never mind that I would ever apply such framing to a friend that came to me with such problems; double standards always exist for yourself.

I’m not even sure I understood that I was being distant or cold, my mind was so overwhelmed with stress, with noise, as if 1000 TVs were playing at once, (that seems such a right description to me, although I can’t remember where or from whom I heard it). The alcohol was key in all of it too. Each day was a measured exercise to get to my first drink, my first hit of medication to sooth the sadness and the guilt, and placate the fury my whole life was wrapped in, like a taut barb wire eco-skeleton stretched along my skin, never letting me move or act without some connection or thought to the wars.

And I lived like that in silence, for years, with a few exceptions. An ex-girlfriend who expressed concern at my state was told she was out of line and that SHE was the crazy one. Traveling on my own, I would sometimes get to a state in a bar where to others it was clear I was emotionally distressed, so drunk I was visibly sad, muttering to myself and drinking doubles of bourbons or Irish whiskey as fast as they could be poured. In Paris, San Jose, Louisville and so many other hotels and bars in Europe and the US, I’d be approached by a kind hearted stranger, if they persisted past my first silent responses, they would get a polite but firm request to fuck off. Sometimes I can recall the guy being a veteran himself, saying he understood and knowing he did, we’d buy each other drinks, make introductions and then drink aggressively, in silence, in mourning, in anger. Anger at what? Everything. Ourselves and the people all around us who didn’t measure up. Plus, we didn’t belong.

In Arlington, I would drink at a bar, late, right near Ft. Myer. You could get pitchers of beer there, along with your side of Jame-O or Jack.  The bar would be full of soldiers and vets, just sitting there, not talking to one another. All in pain, all dying inside, but all quiet, none of us willing, wanting, able to break through the encasement we lived in. Like a womb or a cocoon, alone inside that encasement, you could revel in your anger and your isolation, and make co-misery with your guilt and your sadness.

To your friends, your family, your partner, not a word, not a god-damn sound. And to Him? Well, I was in a wasteland.

The hardest thing to share, the most humiliating, is the loss of physical intimacy. Lust and sexual desire are still possessed, but the ability to make love to your partner and achieve that special intimate connection is gone. I’m at a loss for how to describe it and this post has gone on much longer, and in a much more rambling manner, than I intended, obviously, I’m not terribly comfortable expressing it, but this is the point I am trying to make: If you are suffering from PTSD, depression, and/or moral injury, it is very likely you are not having sex with your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend. That happened to me. In multiple relationships. There were many reasons for those relationships dying, but the PTSD induced loss of intimacy seems to have had the longest knife.

It is not a physical or sexual dysfunction, you can still operate and act, and it does not mean you do not find your partner attractive or that you lack feelings for her/him, but it is a mental block, something so hard to explain, so embarrassing and so, so very frustrating. For both you and her/him. Understandably, for a young woman and through no fault of her own, the loss of sexual interest in her by her husband or boyfriend is devastating.

If this is happening to you, or if it is happening to your partner, please address it. Trust me, like other symptoms of PTSD, depression and moral injury it is something that can be helped and managed. But without attention, without treatment and care, and without love, it will destroy everything you ever loved and wanted in your life.

I can be reached at matthew (@) matthewhoh.com if you’d like to talk about this.

 

Cheney, Kilcullen and Captain Stubing Walk into a Publisher’s Office

I’m trying to utilize Buddhist practices in my life. The concept of Right Speech is one I like, but it is one I am really struggling with, and, sometimes, to be humorous, one I find necessary to disregard. Forgive me, I genuinely do dislike snark and want to be more effective in my communication, but I just could not pass this up:

In Barnes and Noble today I found a book by former Vice President Dick Cheney on matters of the heart, another on war by former counter-insurgency proponent and now counter-insurgency apologist, David Kilcullen, and one by the guy who played the skipper of The Love Boat, on love, or boating, or love boating, or whatever. Regardless, if I had to choose between reading a book on hearts by a heartless Cheney, both figuratively and literally, a book on war by a strategist integral in our failed war policies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a book by the most famous pretend cruise boat captain of all time, I’m going with Captain Stubing every time. Every time, no doubt.

Actually, Gavin MacLeod’s book is a testament to his struggles in life, his alcoholism and his near suicide. Telling his story is a brave and noble effort and will help many more people than Cheney’s psychopathic, megalomanic and cowardly policies, or Kilcullen’s romantic fantasies of saving little brown people with smart war conducted by munificent white people. MacLeod is bringing peace to himself and to others, cutting through the lies of his life, and helping others to see and cut through their own personal lies and live fuller, happier and more peaceful lives. Cheney and Kilcullen’s books, and the lives they have led, in very stark contrast, stand to only perpetuate lies of compassion, war and, most disturbingly, the notion of compassionate war.

Peace, and again, apologies for the snark.

Cheney on matters of the heart, Killcullen on war, MacLeod on love: I'm going with the latter as the credible voice.
Cheney on matters of the heart, Killcullen on war, MacLeod on love: I’m going with the latter as the credible voice.

 

Pouring out that Bottle

I poured a bottle of Wild Turkey out in the VA parking lot this afternoon. It was a big bottle, a handle, $50 worth of bourbon. It had been in my car for the better part of two days, after I bought it at a liquor store off of I-85 at the tail of a long drive. I had convinced myself of the need for my old friendship with alcohol and was warmed by the opportunity to accept the comfort of the misery of remembrances that the alcohol would release. For so many years alcohol was my only friend, the only one I opened up to, the only one that allowed me to be myself, the only one I could acknowledge my failings, my guilt, my sorrow, my anger to.

I was excited to get back home. To sit in my living room, listen to my music, with all those triggers in so many sad and angry songs, and to drink that bottle. True friendship, true understanding, true tolerance. Alcohol would numb me, alcohol would accept me, alcohol would say it was ok. I was going to happily and eagerly throw my life, and my soul, back into a deep, black, cold hole. And I would revel in it.

But then I didn’t. The thought of an early dentist appointment the next day reminded me of my past life, where I would easily neglect such appointments and rapidly dismiss responsibilities to both myself and others. A timely phone call from my girlfriend and the quickness with which I lied to her, telling her everything was ok and that I was just going to watch football that evening, cut me open. Was I going to go back to that life? Hadn’t I given alcohol enough of a chance? Wasn’t over four years of self-medication and self-destruction enough of an opportunity for booze? My attempts to relieve my suffering through alcohol had failed. Without a doubt, alcohol had failed me. The bottle stayed in my car when I got home and I called Megan.

Next Friday, November 1st, will be my twenty-first month of sobriety, or attempted sobriety, to be honest and clear. It has not been easy and I don’t expect that handle of Turkey will be the last bottle I will have to empty indecorously down a drain, into a toilet or over a parking lot. But there is no other way.

The most important thing I have heard from friends, what my therapists have taught me, and what I have learned myself, is this process of recovery, this attempt to take my life back, is a long, hard, tortuous effort. Bad days come less frequently now, but they still do come, and when they do, they hurt. Faltering and falling down, but recomposing oneself and standing again, is the very essence of this process. Of course, it’s not possible on your own, you need others, like a psychologist who will tell you, very sternly, to pour that bottle out; and it won’t work unless you build a life, a good life, a happy life, one that is worth the struggle and separate from the distress brought on by your own personal history.

Last spring, a Vietnam Veteran in my group told me: “if I hear someone in church saying he doesn’t have the taste anymore for alcohol, then I know he either never had the taste or he’s lying.” My friends, that taste for alcohol doesn’t go away, its alleged friendship doesn’t ever make good on its promises, and its acceptance of your suffering is illusory and cruel.

Again, I expect to fall down again. If you are going through this process with me, then you most likely will too. But I know there are others to help me up and there are others who will help you up too, including you and me.

Peace.