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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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no easy day

No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer

The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden

As you read the sub-sub title above, you know why this book has been a bestseller, available even at Costco, where everyone can pick it at deep discount. Who doesn’t want to know what really happened in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound?

Mark Owen—a pseudonym, meant to protect the mission, although Owen’s real name is very easy to find online—was there. And he gives the reader all the thrilling, frightening details of the night Bin Laden was killed and its aftermath. You can follow the story by studying the accompanying illustrations of the compound showing who was in which building and where one of the helicopters crashed at the outset of the mission. It’s heart-smacking stuff.

But before Owen gets to that story, he details the long history of his life as a Navy SEAL—of becoming a member of SEAL Team Six, of the many missions he participated in, including the rescue of Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, which was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Most of his service is the grind you’d expect it to be, with details on all the equipment special service members use, on how they store and pack it, on the patterns of their training, and how they develop friendships among their members.

I’d like to say that all of that description is breathtaking stuff because—well, who doesn’t want to have nothing but praise for a hero? But the truth is that I think those many chapters before the Bin Laden raid will have the most appeal to teens thinking about service to the country—whether in special forces or not.

I think it’s OK to tell the truth and say that much of this is pedestrian stuff. I probably should have read it in a few sitting, but I kept walking away from it, starting (and finishing) another book, then coming back. I made the mistake of not looking through the photos of military equipment, such as guns and helicopters, that are in the middle of the book until I read to the middle. I suggest you look at these and read the descriptions before starting the book.

I ended up liking No Easy Day as a whole because the truth is that being a hero isn’t something that happens overnight. The fact that Owen went through years of training, some of it grueling (some of it boring), and also had to be in the right place at the right time before he could participate in the mission are important things to know. If you think you can just walk into military service and do this sort of thing, then you must read this book for a reality check. Lots of preparation for big events (and I’m thinking in any walk of life, not just military) is about being willing to slog through the training and practice.

Owen is grateful for the service of many elite forces—the SEALs and others who work with them, such as EOD specialists. He is donating much of the proceeds from the sale of this book to organizations that help these folks, such as the All in All the Time Foundation. And he gives us ideas of how we can support our troops—ideas that beat the heck out of throwing a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car and calling it a day.

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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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