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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 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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Iraq War Stories: A Catharsis

Welcome.

I began to write Zarqawi’s Ice Cream shortly after leaving the army…not because I wanted to, but because I had to. The process hasn’t been easy. Recalling these tales has ensured that my head remained in that world long after returning to civilian life. Is it possible to ever fully reintegrate into civilian life after two tours in Iraq? Maybe not. Nonetheless, purging these war stories from my mind and onto paper has been a much-needed catharsis to putting the past behind me. Those who have served will understand; those who haven’t might not.

The following is a passage from Chapter One: Call to Adventure. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“Goldsmith, tell me a story about Iraq.”

“What kind of story do you want to hear?”

“I dunno, a good story.”

“You want a funny story? A sad story? A war story with a lot of action?”

“Any story—your best one.”

My best story—that’s asking a lot. Should I talk about the IRAM attack or Ranger School? Should I depict the nobility of Moneyshot or relive the guilt of blowing that poor lady’s finger off? If I had to tell one story, one epic tale to sum up years of debasement and triumph, of groveling servitude and absolute power, of stagnation and explosive growth, what would it be?

“How about ‘Zarqawi’s Ice Cream’?” I say. “So late one night we—”

“Wait! Zarqawi? Wasn’t he a terrorist or something?”

“Oh, yeah! The evilest guy in Iraq, and that’s saying something. So then the ramp drops and—”

“Did I ever tell you my friend’s sister’s fiancé is going to Afghanistan next week? He’s in the Air Force.”

Nobody likes a war story. It won’t get you laid, convince the cop to give you a warning, or get you a free pint at the bar. The veteran gets excited telling his epic tale. He expects acknowledgment, understanding, love, or something deeper. All he gets is a vacant stare, an abrupt and nervous change of subject, or no response at all. Sometimes his listeners are horrified. This guy’s a monster! He can read it on their faces. Acts of heroism, cowardice, and senseless butchery are seared into a soldier for eternity. Entire lives can revolve endlessly around a single commendable or odious event. Truly lost soldiers are forever in search of the great war story.

“. . . And then Scooter says, ‘How’s it smell, bitch?’”

“Yeah? And then what?”

“That’s it. That’s the end of the story.”

“I don’t get it—why would he do that?”

“The bullets, the explosions . . . they messed with his head.”

“Oh.”

“See, we were all under a lot of stress, and . . . guess you had to be there.”

These tales provide a glimpse into the life of an infantryman, into an existence that is extraordinary yet mediocre—a world most people will never live in or understand. Warning: it is a masculine world devoid of feminine sentiment and solace. It is also a bigoted world, charged with the irrational hatreds of combat. The infantry life is schizophrenic: withering heat and biting cold, sloth and inhuman exertion, exultation and shame. The infantryman loves and hates his life with equal passion, and he is never far from death. There is unique pride in the struggle that forms the core of the infantry experience, boundless love in the brotherhoods cemented in the wilderness.

“Who do you think is the best unit?”

“I don’t know: Rangers, Eighty-second Airborne, maybe Tenth Mountain.”

“You know who I think is the best unit?”
“Who’s that?”

“The men I went to war with.”

The men in these war stories didn’t capture the world’s most wanted terrorist, get in any major battles, or wade waist deep through the enemy dead. They were never seriously wounded, didn’t storm any machine gun nests or win any flashy medals. By anyone’s standards, we were mediocre infantrymen. So what did we do? We managed to survive some of the harshest conditions on earth, suffered bouts of insanity, and weathered the assaults of our enemies. We did what our country asked of us, stayed faithful to each other, and came home again. And through it all, we never lost our humanity.

Were heroic deeds done? Absolutely. Are there heroes in this story? Certainly not. We are your sons and your soldiers. These are our stories.

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