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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq War’

Full of Heart by J. R. Martinez with Alexandra Rockey Fleming    full of heart

You may know J. R. Martinez due to his fairly recent celebrity. In 2003, he was a nineteen-year-old soldier in Iraq. Only in the country for a month, and not yet battle-experienced, he was driving a Humvee when he hit a roadside bomb.

Martinez remembers this event in slow motion, saw his hands burning and then his face. When his fellow soldiers tried to pull him from the vehicle, his skin came away in their hands.

Martinez was a very good looking guy. He says that he was always afraid of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. When he first saw his burned face, he felt like Freddy. How would he ever get his life back?

The journey to getting his life back is the story of Full of Heart.

Martinez’s roots were not the kind that immediately lead to success. His mother was an illegal immigrant, who scraped together the money to come to the U.S. from El Salvador in hope of providing for her children, one of whom had no bones in her feet and, thus, couldn’t walk. Though Maria works like a dog, she makes some bad choices in men and finds herself with another child—J. R.—and a single parent. She does, however, makes some good choices in friends, and a few are a great help to her. They assist her in attaining legal status; eventually, she becomes a U. S. citizen.

In Hope, Arkansas (yes, the home of Bill Clinton), J. R. (Rene) dreams of being a football star. He carries that dream to Dalton, Georgia, where football is king. He’s not very big, but he’s determined and makes the high school team more because of his positive mindset than his talent. He works hard and improves on the field, but allows his grades to slide, ending his plan for a college scholarship. After this, Martinez decides that the army is for him.

Martinez is a prankster, full of good humor. But one of the things he learns in the army is “when you break the rules, you will be caught.” He spends a lot of time being ‘smoked’—doing endless push-ups and other drills. Once in Iraq, Martinez reflects on the strangeness of the country—how different it is than anything he’s ever experienced. But he is not there long before he is injured and shipped out for treatment.

Once Martinez begins his rehabilitation, he is reborn—this is a new life for him and he will succeed or fail based on his will and hard work. That he succeeds—in a larger-than-life way, wildly, improbably—is the crux if this story. His interviews with 60 Minutes and Oprah, his work on the soap opera All My Children and his eventual win on Dancing with the Stars are all sort of fantastical. But Martinez still regards his most important work as being a spokesman for the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he recovered from his injuries.

High school housekeeping: Martinez’s story is as much a coming-of-age tale as the story of overcoming an injury. He’s young, a bit immature, and directionless when he is injured. He grows up very fast. This biography is pretty short—about 240 (physically small) pages. The writing is very accessible, and most high school students should have no problems reading it. I think most will be inspired as well.

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Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan  Until Tuesday

 

 

Montalvan returned from two extended tours in Iraq a wounded warrior. Two Iraqis attempted to assassinate him because he was working hard to stop bribery and a thriving black market of US goods where he was stationed.

 

 

Though Montalvan knew he was hurt, he didn’t get all of the medical care he needed, partly because he was afraid that admitting how bad he felt, including the fact that he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), would hurt his army career. Above all, he wanted to be a good soldier.

 

 

Finally, after three years of terrific back pain and unbearable migraines, after self- medicating and turning to alcohol, Montalvan learned that he had three cracked vertebrate and several brain injuries. He was growing distant from his family. His father, a Cuban American whom Montalvan describes as having a macho code, believed that he didn’t want to get better. When he attempted to get help from the Veterans’ Administration Hospital, he was forced to see a different doctor with each visit, one who always asked, “So, what’s wrong with you?” This is the exact wrong treatment for PTSD because strange situations invoke the symptom of needing to be on high alert.

 

What saved Montalvan from self-destructive drinking, withdrawal from loved ones, and a phobia of strangers and public spaces? Tuesday, the golden retriever that he received as one of the first dogs trained for wounded warriors.

 

 

Tuesday was a graduate of Puppies Behind Bars, a program in which inmates help to train dogs that will go to wounded vets or become EOD dogs. It was great to learn about this program and how it helps both inmates and soldiers. The man who helped to train Tuesday had been in prison for thirty years. After training seven dogs—and having an unheard of 100% success rate—he was paroled. What could he do for a living on the outside after all that time? Train more dogs, of course.

 

 

Part of Montalvan’s story is political. He discusses his sense of betrayal by the United States government—both of service personnel and of the Iraqi people who helped the Americans on the promise that the US would protect them. On this, the author has much to say—how the war was conducted with insufficient oversight, how high ranking officials lied about the troops having enough members or enough equipment so that the picture given to the media was rosy (and totally false). Montalvan tells a sorry tale about his best Iraqi friends, who, after devoting themselves to the US cause, were left to be murdered or flee the country and fend for themselves as nearly starving refugees. He also tells the very discomforting story of a military couple having a baby. Before the baby is born, they know she is missing several vital organs, but don’t abort her because the military (for moral reasons) doesn’t cover abortion. Instead, the baby is born, and suffers torment for several weeks before dying—and an infant death was the only possible outcome. The couple splits. Montalvan is certainly making a statement about morality.  Not everyone will like everything that he has to say—but he regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about his experience in war. He wants the reader to understand why we lost the war for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Iraqis, and he lays it on corrupt and incompetent leadership.

 

Montalvan also regards it as a point of honor to tell the truth about the violation of the rights of the disabled, especially those with service dogs. Many store owners, bus drivers, subway employees, restaurant owners and more keep Montalvan away because they don’t think Tuesday is really a service dog, although he wears a vest. (They expect to see a harness such as guide dogs for the blind use.) After undergoing persistent harassment, which exacerbated his PTSD, Montalvan found that his new tour of duty was to education companies about service dogs.

 

 

This memoir is both a heartwarming and cautionary tale—not an easy mix to write. It’s one of several good books I’ve read recently about the heroism of our military men and women on the ground and our lack of support for them when they want to tell us the truth about war. But we need to hear that truth, and reading Until Tuesday is a good way to start.

 

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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow

I have several teacher friends and family members who like to make fun of me for being a looney liberal. To avoid the teasing, I’ thought I’d read Drift but not review it as it is, after all, a book intended for an adult audience. But now that I have read it, I feel it’s a book that will engage teens, particularly those who have an interest in politics, in military careers (or even short-term military stints), or who have a concern with economics, the future of the country, government decisions and oversight, or human rights. So, actually—any teen who is engaged, who wants to make a difference in the world, should read this book.

Before she discusses how the United States has drifted into continual war (I’m not using the word ‘continuous,’ and there is a difference), Maddow quotes James Madison’s “Political Observations,” April 20, 1795:

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended . . .

Next Maddow shows just how drifting to war since Vietnam has realized all of Madison’s fears.

Maddow begins with President Johnson and Vietnam and moves forward chronologically. She hits hard on the Iran-Contra Affair of the Reagan administration as a seismic shift in the way wars are conducted—without the approval of Congress, (and sometimes in secret, illegally). She focuses on the U.S. military actions in Bosnia under the Clinton administration as the time when privateers began to outnumber our armed forces  in military actions all over the globe. She then shows that under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, “America’s spy service [the CIA] . . .[is] a new, out-of-uniform (and 100 percent deniable) branch of the military” engaged in drone warfare.

Post-Iran-Contra, more and more power to start and continue wars has accrued to the president. Part of the blame is to be laid at the feet of average Americans—us. We’ve been engaged in two of the country’s longest wars, simultaneously, and very few people care because only one percent of our population is out there doing the fighting, risking their lives. (If you are interested in what happens to those who are on the front lines and how our country is asking so much more than it ever has before from so few, check out the book War by Sebastian Junger.)

I think the most surprising part of Drift was the effect of privatizing noncombat jobs that support the troops. Since private industry is always touted as being more efficient than the government, it seems to make sense that the folks who house and feed the troops, the folks who repair the military equipment, should come from private industry. But Maddow shows that this plan has had horrific effects, the least of which is that it has been more inefficient and very expensive, with consistent and huge cost overruns. In Bosnia, DynCorp employees would commit fraud in billing the government. But they also engaged in sex trafficking—buying underage girls as sex slaves. If they were caught, they would simply be removed back to the States. The human rights violation is incredible. And this sort of thing puts our military personnel in harm’s way, as it causes people in other countries to hate Americans. (Think about it—how would people here feel about folks from another country who came over and then kidnapped and raped girls? What if that was all you knew about the people from that foreign country? Would you be happy that they were here?) That one percent of our countrymen and women who are volunteering for military service deserve better than to be sabotaged by lazy, morally vacuous privateers.

While there are certainly many places in Drift where you can almost hear Maddow’s signature delivery of a zinger, she has done her research and is able to back up what she says. Her endnotes are annotated, and for the true lover of politics, she gives many ideas for follow up.

To my friends who think that Rachel Maddow is an over-the-top foaming liberal, allow me to point out that in the process of doing that research mentioned above, she included several conservative thinkers who back her points. (OK, some backed her points earlier in their careers, like Newt Gingrich, and then changed their minds when the political winds shifted.) In the text, she provides evidence and opinions from both sides of the aisle. This concise work is a job well done.

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