Thoughts from the Road – Minnesota

Fourth of July—Independence Day—a uniquely American holiday, and Veteran Van is heading west towards Minnesota. Wrapping up visits with two old LTs, now Commanders—great leaders, patriots, and mentors—who remind us of why our Armed Forces, and especially the infantry, are such bastions of courage, intelligence, and strength.

Independence: It’s a word many Americans have forgotten, and some may never know.

The infantry are independent. We hold down entire cities and provinces in hostile territories half-way around the world. We live in abject squalor and yet maintain the professionalism and will to survive and accomplish impossible missions under impossible circumstances.

Independence is strapping on a heavy rucksack and walking out with your brothers in arms to distant outposts. Independence is leaving the comforts of hometown life at an early age to confront the harsh realities of the real world. Independence is casting off the shackles of colonial masters back in the day, in good old 1776, and teaching the world, for the first time, what a free society can become. Independence is heading out in a van, loaded down with books, and seeing what kind of adventures one can stir up.

Two days before arriving in Detroit, we try to schedule a police ride-along.

“Hello. Is this ___________ Police Precinct?”

“Yes. How may I help you?”

“I’m an author and Iraqi War Vet looking to do a police ride-along with your department.”

“Oh. . . just show up at any precinct a few hours before you want to go out. They’ll accommodate you.”

“Thank you, that’s too easy. . .”

Except it isn’t. We get shuffled from one station to another before being politely told that we should really only go out on Friday or Saturday (it’s Sunday); otherwise, nothing will happen.

But that’s okay, because our old LT is now a recruiting Commander and veritable Duke of Detroit, who gives us an infantry-style patrol of the once great American city. It’s better this way.

We drive along 7 Mile Road, through back streets, commercial roads, and rows of houses. An endless urban sprawl of decrepit, abandoned America stretches out before us; miles and miles and miles. Traffic lights at four way intersections aren’t working, burnt out and collapsed houses are everywhere, the only businesses are Coney Island hotdog shacks, cell phone providers, and liquor stores. Cut off the sewage, let the black water run loose through the streets, and this is isn’t America: this is Iraq.

What happened to the American Dream in Detroit? How can a child who only knows 7 Mile Road hear those words and not laugh in unknowing bewilderment? What’s happening to all of America?

Everywhere we go there’s this defeatist attitude. People cannot seem to talk enough about how America has lost its way, how the politicians have led us astray, and that we’re doomed to reenter some kind of dark age. There’s recession, China’s on the rise, perpetual threats of terrorism and endless war, and even 2012 doomsday prophecies. When did this country of optimists get so jaded?

Perhaps if we recaptured the spirit of the Fourth of July, maybe if we re-learned independence, we as a people and a country could break through this losing streak. Independence requires discipline, non-entanglement in the affairs of others, and the courage, intelligence, and will to stand alone. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions; only challenges and how we meet them. We need to remember that we’re not entitled to anything, that greatness, like respect, is not given, but only earned. It’s going to be a lot of work, but that’s what Americans do best.

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Thoughts from the Road – New Jersey Campsite

Nearing the halfway mark of the tour, about to spend a week in the Big City—New York—the mission is in full swing.

And it’s definitely a mission. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme; in fact, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever attempted and it weighs heavy on my soul.

It’s heavy when you sit in front of your display for hours, in front of the US flag I fought under, in front of a banner urging people to hear veterans stories, and not even a single person stops to give you the time of day. It’s hard to sell a book, a story I’ve pored years of sweat and tears into, and get little response from people on the street, in the bookstores, and even my own friends and supporters.

“Hey sir, do you know anyone who served in the military?”

“Yeah! And they’re all dead!”

“Ma’am. Do you like to read?”

“Yes, very much.”

“Want to check out this book I wrote? It’s about the War in Iraq?”

“Oh. . . I think I know enough about what’s going on over there.”

A group of cute women my age.

“Excuse me ladies? Do you support your soldiers?”

Nothing. Not even a response.

One of the greatest parts about this tour is talking to vets: Iraq, Afghanistan, Gulf War I, Vietnam, Korea, and even a few World War II. They stop and shake my hand, we share stories, but most of all we share knowing looks. They might be too broke to buy a book, but they check it out, and tell me I’m doing good things.

Older hobos and vagrants frequently stop and talk, more often than not, they’re Vietnam vets. They may be panhandling from other people, but they’re not looking for handouts from me.

“You a veteran?”

“Yes sir. And you?”

“Vietnam.”

“Thank you for your service sir.”

“No. . . thank you, son.” A handshake, some human acknowledgment, that’s all they want from me, and I’m more than happy to give it. We owe them, but America hung them out to dry. We demanded that the soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors of that generation go over to a jungle halfway around the world and kill for the sake of “American ideals.” They came back, many fucked in the head for what they had to do to survive, what they thought they were doing for all their loved ones and communities and nation. America called them “baby-killers” and now watch in disgust as many of them age away, take to the streets, and survive in a new jungle: an indifferent homeland.

One thing that’s been continuously reinforced throughout this entire trip is that the younger generation as a whole, my generation, does not care about the wars going on or the veterans who fought in them. If you don’t have some kind of human connection to the fight—a brother, a mother, a nephew, or cousin—then you don’t know and you don’t care. I’ve about ceased trying to sell books to people between the ages of 18 and 30—the young crowd, the hip crowd, the college crowd. These are the future leaders of America, who don’t know shit about what it really means to go to war, and you know what’s going to happen when they in turn become businessmen and lawyers and politicians and educators? They’re just going to send off the next generation to the slaughter, to kill more people halfway around the world who just want to survive and feed their own families.

But I can’t just disparage the youth, because that’s too easy. An Army buddy of mine, a brother-in-arms, who showed me a great time in his hometown and always treats me like family, is in the doghouse with his wife and in-laws because of Zarqawi’s Ice Cream.

“You did that? I can’t believe you!”

“I can’t believe I let him sleep in my house!”

“He makes the Army look bad, like you guys were a bunch of savages.”

We were a bunch of savages. You send off a bunch of teenagers to kill people halfway across the world and expect us to act like missionaries? We were just tools, so you didn’t have to get your hands bloody, so you could sleep at night and tell yourself that you’re a good person.

All the time I hear it. “I didn’t support the war.” I guess the insinuation is that you don’t have to hear about it or deal with the consequences, or even give a moment of your time to the veterans who volunteered to fight and bleed and risk insanity and give years away to a cause they can’t define or benefit from.

But you did support the war. In 2003 your Congress, your Senate, and your President decided to invade Iraq…and by overwhelming majorities. And it’s still going on. People are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers and civilians. Death is death is death.

If you want sanitized stories, if you want to keep living in a false reality and pretend like you know what’s going on, then don’t buy my book, don’t listen to the vets of Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan who did inhumane things to fellow human beings so that fat Americans can keep eating cheeseburgers and driving luxury cars. Know the consequences of going to war, what putting a machine gun in the hands of a teenager is going to do him and the society he lives in.

Don’t judge us, because you don’t know.

Listen to our stories.

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Thoughts from the Road – New Orleans and Tennessee

The Big Easy was good to us. Good friends, good food, good times.

Brian (far left) and Daniel, a former Army medic and artist, in New Orleans on Decatur Street.

Local artist Daniel Garcia and his crew adopted us and made us feel like family. We set up shop in front of his Courtyard Gallery on Decatur Street and did some serious street selling. There’s nothing like selling on the streets with a whiskey drink in your hands. New Orleans is a wonderful place.

Jazz and Blues music wafted down Decatur street and we sweated through our shirts as we pitched the book. We drank almost because we had to: to stave off the heat and not by choice. The people walking New Orleans were supportive of the book and of our stories. Strangers bought me drinks and quickly became friends. Met some veterans and some current service members too, heard their stories. All in all, New Orleans has been the best stop yet.

We gave Paulie and his dog Zephyr a ride from New Orleans to Nashville. Paulie didn't bring much to the table, but Zephyr was a cool dog.

Leaving the city, we agreed to give Paulie, a penniless traveler, and his dog, Zephyr, a ride to Nashville. Paulie had been living on the streets and panhandling to get by. A classic example of the needy hippie, Paulie brought nothing to the table. He nickel and dimed us, used our supplies, and one-upped anything we had to say. Needless to say, we were more than ready to kick Paulie out of Veteran Van the moment we got to Nashville. Not even a thank you after providing a ten hour ride, but that’s hippies for you.

The problem with the outlaw lifestyle is eventually the law is going to catch up with you. The law caught up to us in Dandridge, Tennessee. In retrospect, pulling off the side of the highway to pop off a few rounds right before dropping Nick off at the airport was pretty stupid. Under the circumstances, they treated us pretty well. They didn’t take me to jail and the officers said that in court tomorrow, I’ll probably pay a fine and forfeit the gun. She was a good gun too. . . oh well, life goes on.

We’re losing Nick at the Knoxville Airport. He was a solid member of the crew for the first quarter of the journey. Our band of three becomes a band of two. Space opens up in Veteran Van, but we lose another worker and a friend.

Veteran Van journeys on.

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Thoughts from the Road – Texas

Highway 10, on the road to New Orleans, and it’s almost midnight. We have no idea where we’re sleeping tonight; maybe a campground, maybe a rest stop; perhaps there’ll be no sleep at all.

Van living is a tough life, and Texas spared no punches. In Huntsville we camp for the night and see an eight-foot alligator, night-stalk an armadillo, and battle with ants.

In Austin we set up shop on a street corner fair. “Circus Food,” Bob calls it. A flash rain storm makes us happy to have our umbrella. Everything gets wet. I go out to an open mic night I saw in the paper. Seven people are there, an eclectic group, when I read my chapter from the book. Thirty minutes later there’s thirty. No sales.

Back at the Circus: “Bob, Nick. You sell anything?” They’ve made a carny friend. She gives them funnel cake and beer. “Maybe three copies.” We make a few more sales, shut down, and hit the road.

In Dallas we roam Main Street until well after last call at the bars. It’s hot and we sleep in an empty parking lot downtown. I lie on the floor and fight Bob for leg room. Scratching my sweaty hide reminds me of heat sleep in Iraq, reminds me of the austerities of being on a mission.

We can’t open the door to our budget hotel room in Galveston. The guy in the room next to us burns plastic in a barbeque, commenting, “You guys are vets huh? I’m a vet.”

He looks awful. “Vietnam?”

“No,” he says, “Gulf War.” His fat kid steps outside in only his underwear and stares at us.

We find a rusty razor blade and a screwdriver bit in the bed. The headboard falls off the wall the moment we touch it. The place is a flophouse. I plant myself in front of the laptop, drink beer, and catch up on business while Bob and Nick hit the bars.

We haven’t really eaten all day and when they come back at 2:00 we’re all hungry. I’m resolved to a “beer dinner” but Bob remembers the pasta in the Van. We cook it up in his fuel stove in the hotel room and wash the dishes in the shower. Van life.

At a small bookstore in Houston I chat with the nice lady who runs the store and pick up a copy of Toqueville’s Democracy in America. Sales for the day are low, but the first book sold is to a friend from the Army who makes a special point of driving out to see us, buys the book, and invites us to a fajita dinner.

Delicious meal, my friend, and good war stories.

And then it’s back on the road.

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Thoughts from the Road – Phoenix

Driving away from Phoenix, on the road to Austin, and it’s my turn to rest in the back seat. Except it’s time for business, never enough time for business.

I thought writing the book would be the hard part. Stage One.

No way. Then I had to self-publish my manuscript. Production, with its myriad and intricate processes, collaborations, trusts, and curses. Stage Two.

Now I have to sell the damn thing, I have to sell myself, and that’s something else entirely. Stage Three.

So I find myself driving across country in a passenger van, a rock solid E-150, an American vehicle. I’ve taken out all but four seats, loaded her down with enough gear to live out of for two months, and piled the back cargo space high with boxes of books (1,300, to be precise).

I’m with my hometown friend Nick and my war buddy (and character in the book Zarqawi’s Ice Cream: Tales of Mediocre Infantrymen) Bob.

Phoenix is done and past. It was a little rough, but I think we’ve all learned a lot.

Bob learned that learning to ride a skateboard can be rough. Skating down some smooth city streets, he quickly gained speed, attempted to bail and run out his speed, and ended up crashing to the concrete and rolling to his feet.

Doctor Nick and Medic Goldsmith quickly diagnosed a dislocated or separated shoulder. Back at home base, we Googled how to fix a dislocated collarbone and quickly set to work. Check out the footage in the videos section of the website.

We would later learn that our methods to manually relocate Bob’s shoulder were not in vain. At the VA hospital the doctors said the shoulder had indeed been dislocated and put back into place, and that it remained separated.

Bob will be fine in a week or two, he’s a soldier and he’s tough, but until then he’ll be sporting a sling.

I’ve been reminded that there must be limits. We are not invincible, and there will be casualties. There will be highs and there will be lows. Like any good mission, there will be sacrifices. Veteran Van is a pretty audacious caper. Normal people don’t write, self-publish a book,  and drive ten thousand miles across country in a van to promote it. . .

But maybe they should.

I went to grade school safe and confident in Empire America, the country who fought the good fight, who fought it valiantly, and rested confidently assured in perpetual and gentlemanly victory.

Now it seems as if all is lost. We’re sunk in recession and mired in global conflict. China is set to surpass us soon as the global economic and political powerhouse of the century. My friends from high school with college degrees (and college debt) are bussing tables and living with Mom.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sometimes we have to let go of doubt and fear and luxury and embrace the struggle. Sometimes we have to be weird and spontaneous and irrational and just a little bit monster.

Sometimes you just have to hop in the van and ride.

It feels good.

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“Zarqawi’s Ice Cream”: One Vet’s Tales on His Time in Iraq

From Associated Content…

‘Zarqawi’s Ice Cream’: One Vet’s Tales on His Time in Iraq

Andrew Goldsmith Relives the Iraq War

By Amy and Nancy Harrington, Pop Culture PassionistasYahoo! Contributor Network

May 6, 2011

In 2004, 19-year-old Andrew Goldsmith was bored. So he did what any red-blooded American boy would do. He joined the Army. He served two tours in Iraq — the first in 2006 and the second in 2008. He climbed the ranks from private to sergeant and then left the military in 2009. He’s now written a book about his experiences. “Zarqawi’s Ice Cream” is a personal account about the effects of modern day war and his changed perception of the world.

In a recent interview, Goldsmith revealed that he thought joining the army would be “a little bit more action, more combat, a little more danger, more romance.” But that is not what he experienced. He divulged, “There was that element of danger and bravery and explosions, but like anything in life it tends to be 90% drudgery for all the excitement and danger that you face — a lot of hard work, a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of menial labor. That’s kind of the source of a lot of my stories is that aspect of the un-military life, that aspect of the Iraq life. And I don’t think it’s covered in too many other places, but it’s a very important part of it.”

Goldsmith said the title, “Zarqawi’s Ice Cream,” came from one of the signature stories in the book, which took place during his first tour of duty in 2006. He explained, “It’s basically the mission that we all thought would be super cool, super cool infantry mission, but it ended up being a worse mission than some of the worst ones we’ve ever been on. I guess it’s a story of irony, twist of fate.”

Goldsmith described his time in Iraq, saying, “The impact made me less of an idealist, more of a realist. I saw that things in the real world are never black and white. It’s always shade of grey. No one’s ever wholly evil. No one’s ever wholly good. We all have our personal battles. And I’m just really glad I was able to get the perspective on the world and on the way it actually is by going to another country, a war torn country like Iraq and it’s really helped me understand my own country and my own people a little bit better as well.”

The veteran came back home with a new point of view, but was challenged by how to fit in to this now mundane, every day life. He started college in Hawaii and began to attempt reintegration. His biggest difficulty was finding commonalities with civilians, admitting, “Sometimes I have this alienation, this feeling that we don’t really have any shared experiences, any common history. So that’s been a big problem.” He added, “I don’t have any major PTSD events. Loud explosions don’t really spook me too much. They do sometimes but I deserve it, it means I’ve been staying up too late or something. But that’s about the extent of it. I think it’s mostly just social relationships, finding friends again. Trust is an issue a lot.”

Trying to find his way, Goldsmith spent a semester abroad in Europe — a period that would open the floodgates for the first-time author. He recalled, “That’s were the creative tendencies of this book really happened. That’s when I was reliving a lot of this stuff. The stories just kept coming into my head and that’s when I first stared writing it down and the idea for a book gradually formed.”

He noted, “This whole writing project was not something I really wanted to do… it’s always been something that I have to do. Something has been compelling me to write this. Whether that’s for catharsis, peace of mind. Whether it’s just that when we tell our stories, it lets us live with who we are, what we’ve done.”

And so “Zarqawi’s Ice Cream” was born. Goldsmith admits there is content that non-military readers may not relate to, but he also pointed out, “It’s for anybody. It’s for my mother, my father. But there’s some hidden stuff that Iraqi veterans, Afghanistan veterans, are really going to like. They’re really going to understand more than anybody.”

He has shown the book to some of his war buddies from Iraq and remarked, “They’ve all loved it. Positive responses.” He got a lot of support from his fellow vets during the process of writing the book.

“When this project was in its early stages, my ego wasn’t too built up yet, and I wasn’t really confident in my work. Whenever [the editors] would redo it and [my friends would] respond positively to it, that would give me a little more impetus to keep going, check it out.”

After he finishes his current semester at school, Goldsmith will embark on a two-month cross-country tour to promote the book. He’ll be traveling with Bob Harrington, an army buddy who has started a charity called AspiringWarrior.org to raise money for higher education scholarships for vets. The duo will stop at military bases, bookstores and country fairs. Goldsmith stated, “It’s going to be a mixture of selling books out of the trunk of the car and professional PR work.”

After the tour, the author will return to school but hopes to pen another work. He reflected, “This process of writing has been awesome. It’s been real natural. So I definitely see some more in the future.”

For now he hopes people walk away from reading this book with a new understanding of the military. He commented, “First off, they’re going to like the story. It’s a great story. Secondly, they get to follow the hero in a modern era. This is how our generation goes to war. So anybody who wants to experience that is going to enjoy this book. This book is going to enlighten a lot of people as to how war is these days. What it does to people, the consequences of it. Who the enemy is… It’s good stories. Everyone’s going to laugh. There are some parts where you’re going to want to cry.”

“Zarqawi’s Ice Cream” goes on sale in May 2011.

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Bin Laden’s Death

I was in Iraq, never in Afghanistan, and any links to Iraq and bin Laden are pretty sketchy. Despite this, many of my friends and I’m guessing a good part of the American people, through a mixture of ignorance, folk wisdom, lazy thinking, and government and media propaganda, think things like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden are simply one and the same.

And in a way they are. Since 9/11 almost ten years ago, our country has engaged in the War on Terrorism, whose jurisdiction does certainly cover Iraq and bin Laden. I remember that day clearly. I woke up around seven and groggily met my dad in the kitchen, where he was every morning making coffee and toast. He was watching the TV silently; I looked at it too, and saw a plane smash into a huge building.

“Is that real, Dad?”

I was sixteen and saw the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as something very intriguing. I couldn’t believe the bastards had the balls to do something like this. “Don’t they know that we’re America, what we’re going to do now?” I instantly knew big changes were coming. I knew America was going to go to war and crush whoever did this. I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s; I was taught that America is an enlightened superpower, that we would be an industrial and democratic powerhouse for centuries, the New Rome. 9/11 made me bloodthirsty. I, like almost every American, wanted bin Laden’s head, and I wanted it now.

Three years later, I was still somewhat bloodthirsty, eager to go to War. I joined the Army and went to Iraq.

Now bin Laden is dead, but it’s not as satisfying as I might have hoped. It’s been almost ten years since 9/11 and a lot has changed in America. My classmates who saw the towers fall with me haven’t joined a vibrant powerhouse economy; they’re waiters and temp workers with bachelor’s degrees not worth the paper they’re printed on. Not even Americans believe we own the new century, as China and other world powers are steadily gaining prominence in world affairs. The apathy and disconnect most Americans express for the War on Terrorism is scary. Percentage-wise, very few Americans are actively connected to this war, and the all-volunteer army ensures that many privledged classes are virtually untouched by combat losses. I joined the Army partly because I thought that my service now may prevent my little brother (who is ten years younger than me) from himself having to suffer and bleed in a foreign country. He’s sixteen now, and there is plenty of war to go around.

So, am I happy that bin Laden’s dead? I guess, sure. But does it mean anything? The man himself probably hasn’t contributed anything to his cause. For the last ten years he’s been a living martyr and fugitive. Knowing as little as I do about geo-politics, just using my soldier’s sense, I’d say that on the balance sheet, killing bin Laden will add up to zero. It’s a useful media stunt, it’ll be on the front pages of the news mags for the next week or two, but after that, business as usual. The decay of the American superpower and the seemingly insolvable insurgency in Afghanistan are the most important legacies of bin Laden. Killing him is great, but we need to fearlessly address not only the man, but his effects, and most importantly, what’s he’s done to us, what we’ve become.

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