A Texas Veteran on Trump’s Itchy Trigger Finger

On May 1, veterans across the country will fly or display the American flag upside down in a recognized military signal of distress. I spoke to one veteran about why he plans to participate.

Tell me a little about yourself. What’s your name, where are you from, and what do you do?

My name is Dave. I live in Dallas, Texas. I grew up all over the Midwest because Dad was in the oil industry and we were a migratory family. After that, I joined the military and became migratory myself. I’m now a professional mathematics tutor. I’ve tried other things — that didn’t really work. But I love math, and I love helping people understand it.

Can you tell me a little about your service? What was your MOS in the Army and what was your rank when you were discharged?

I joined the army in 1995. I enlisted as a 19K armor crewman, so I was riding around on tanks the first half of my army career. After my second tour, I got involved with the BEAR Program, which helps fill understaffed specialties, and became an air traffic controller in the army. I actually ended up doing very little air traffic control. I ended up doing some pretty cool things in “air space management” — I got pretty close to rockets and drones and stuff like that. When I was discharged, I was a sergeant first class, E-7.

And you enlisted in what year?

That would have been late ’94. Being in the U.S. military and being a proactive thinker is difficult. I’m introspective and march to the beat of my own drum, and that’s not exactly respected — or tolerated — by a lot of army leadership.

Why did you join the Army originally — given that that’s your personality?

I was born in ’73, so growing up in the 1980s, I was raised on a diet of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Top Gun and all these films and hype about the military. I was drawn to it, and that’s how I ended up signing the papers.

What age were you when you enlisted?

I was twenty-one.

You were young! And you served three tours of duty in Iraq?

That’s correct. And one in Bosnia before any of those.

Dave on a tank in Bosnia with two Russian soldiers

What did you do in Bosnia?

In Bosnia, I was part of the implementation force that was there to enforce the peace accord. I was there to end the fighting.

And how did you feel about the time you spent there?

I felt that was a noble effort. But the longer I was there, the more depressed I became. There was an awful lot of rubble, an awful lot of young people missing limbs, even livestock — horses and cattle standing in fields — that were missing limbs. It was an eye-opener. It was my first taste of what warfare really means.

What did you do during your first tour in Iraq?

My first tour in Iraq, I was a gunner in an M1 Abrams tank. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but the way I see it now, I was riding around in my own steel coffin. It was very difficult. Everything was on fire. There was smoke everywhere. There were sandstorms everywhere.

I couldn’t see anything. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. As a gunner, you have a very narrow view of the world outside. You can only see a part of what’s going on, the part right in front of you. The only thing that I knew was what I was supposed to fire at.

Which was?

Which was anything that looked fishy.

Were you given criteria for determining what was fishy?

Absolutely. We had our rules of engagement. The tank commander ultimately decided what a target was, and so it basically played out the way that it did in training, except that the real world turned out to be a lot more confusing.

And you were how old?

At that time I was about 27. Just old enough to get the first major dip in my car insurance premium.

Dave in Iraq

Is there anything more you want to say about that tour in Iraq?

I was very much on edge during that tour. I can say that I never really felt fear; I just felt reaction to what was going on around me — almost brain stem, like a lizard.

I was so wired up! We were all so wired up, and we had experienced so many things.

We were so used to situations involving a vehicle bomb, an IED, or a person who intended us harm that when a man stepped out of a Toyota pickup truck — I remember he was wearing a suit and had slicked-back hair and a mustache — and he didn’t back off when I challenged him, I did something that I realize now I should not have done. I think about that every day. I mean every day. It’s been with me. And I’m very sorry about that, and I wish that it had never happened. But it did. And I have that to live with now.

[Pause]

Did you also witness the injury and death of your fellow soldiers?

Sure. Sure. That was a part of it. I was brought up to think that our tanks were invincible. You’ve got to understand that during the Gulf War there were these visions of tanks racing across the desert taking on the Iraqi Republican Guard, and they seemed invincible!

But when we got there, especially when we got into urban settings, I learned that we’re not invincible at all. It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to take out a tank if you know how. I won’t go into that, though.

So you were deployed to Iraq ostensibly to search for weapons of mass destruction. Correct?

That’s correct.

And during your time there, did you and your fellow soldiers begin to wonder about the likelihood of that?

Not at first. During the first tour, we absolutely believed it. There were some rockets or missiles fired at us. We called them Scuds, although they were something else. And the code word lightning — we heard it often. Lightning! Lightning! Lightning! And whenever we heard that it meant that something was inbound towards us, and we masked up. We put on our protective suits.

We never got gassed but I believed, and the people around me believed, that it was going to happen. Because there was intelligence that once we crossed a certain line around the perimeter of Baghdad that we were going to be attacked with chemical weapons. In truth it never happened, but we didn’t know that at the time. As I went into my second tour and then my third tour in Iraq, I began to realize that it was bullshit.

How did you come to that realization?

Well, nobody had found anything. I mean there was nothing to find. There was nothing there. The one exception that comes to mind was during my third tour, in which some old nerve gas shells (VX) from the 1980s had been found buried. They were rusted and the contents were largely ineffective. Clearly not new production and way past their expiration date.

Were other soldiers also realizing that there were no WMDs?

I can say that within my own unit, we all gave a wink and a nod and understood at that point that that’s not what this was about.

Did you have theories as to what it was about?

Personally speaking, I think that President Bush is a good man who was surrounded by bad people and got an awful lot of bad advice. Once I learned how much Brown and Root was charging for a piece of dried up chicken, I began to understand that this might not be about WMD. This might be about profit.

When you began to realize that, how much longer did you have to serve, and how did that feel?

That was on my third tour, and I felt used! I felt exploited. I felt like all of these lives had been lost and all these other lives had been put at risk, and the reason we were there was simply false.

I can’t even imagine how that must have felt. I’m sorry.

It’s a classic case of cognitive dissonance. It takes time and genuine introspection to climb out of that hole.

Did you receive any kind of help?

I had a very difficult time, and I still do until this day. I went through three different therapists — from the 1–800-I’m-going to-kill-myself phone number to others, and all of them were just horrible. I didn’t get quality care until I personally began spending $400 per hour out of pocket. Now I feel like I’m going to be okay.

Did you get any help from the Veteran’s Administration?

No. When I retired, I didn’t even go to the VA. I did not even get a VA physical — that’s how much trust I had in that system. I may have sold them short — I’ll never know for sure. But I do know this: I haven’t heard of very many success stories coming out of that organization.

In our initial message exchange, via Twitter, you wrote “Our Commander-In-Chief has an army at his disposal and appears to be looking for ways to use it to become a ‘foreign policy president.’” I have a teenage son, so this concerns me deeply and very personally. Can you elaborate on what in Trump’s policy and behavior alarms you?

For starters, to say that he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days was transparently bullshit. Now we’re a couple of months into this presidency and we actually have boots on the ground in Syria and we are participating in air raids in Iraq and Syria, along with the Israelis and the Russians. It’s just a big mess. We’re almost surely going to have an “incident” with so many hands in the pot. Given the very transparent nature of this travel ban as anti-Islamic, his [Trump’s] promises to deal with ISIS, and his deployment of forces in the Middle East, I fear there will be an escalation of war that has no exit strategy. It reminds me very much of my own time in Iraq.

Where do you see this war taking place?

I see it in both Syria and Iraq. Perhaps it will escalate and spread into Somalia and Libya, as well.

And do you see the same motive that you ended up seeing in Iraq — the profit motive?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t know if the people who are promoting this propaganda actually believe it or not. I know that their supporters do. But do the ringleaders actually believe it? To be fair, I can’t tell.

You are participating in A Day of Distress on May 1st, which is a day established by veterans’ groups as a day to signal our national distress by displaying the flag upside down. The Flag Code states that the U.S. flag should be flown upside down only when there is “extreme danger to life or property.” Why do you think it is appropriate to signal a day of distress in this way at this time?

To be very clear, I believe for a number of reasons that the election was stolen. I believe that our domestic policy at this time is completely flawed, and I believe that our foreign policy is not only costing us allies but is also dragging us deeper and deeper into a quagmire of inessential conflict.

Why do you think the election was stolen?

The Russians are not our friends — at least the Russian government. The Russian people are a different story. If such a hostile entity preferred one candidate over the other. . . .

And it’s nepotism. We’ve almost become a monarchy within just a couple of months. We have to ask ourselves: What are this guy’s kids doing at the table with foreign governments?

How do you think veterans can help and lead in this situation?

Oh, wow! Here we go. I’m the kind of guy who would never ask if a place offers a veteran’s discount. I’ve always kept that to myself. But one thing that I’ve learned is that being a veteran gives me a certain credibility. At this point, given my level of distress, I’m willing to use that. I’m willing to leverage that credibility. A person who has spent twenty-plus years in the military, who has had four combat deployments, has a certain amount of credibility that a school teacher will not.

I agree. That’s why I’m talking to you.

I don’t pretend to know things that I don’t know, but my voice is amplified when it comes from a veteran’s perspective.

There’s just no arguing with the fact that the opinions of people who have put their lives on the line for their country are going to be taken more seriously. They should be.

This is my story, and I stand by it.

[Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by telephone on March 29th, 2017; transcribed; edited for length; and published on April 4th, 2017.]

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Annie H Hartnett’s story.

Responses
The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.