Endeavor to Persevere…
By Jim Kuiken
Well, it’s that time. I do a lot of things (just ask anyone…especially those “friends” who call me the Energizer Bunny…). I write (books, blogs, articles, etc.), I work out, I help organizations (veteran / first responder) fundraise, I do speaking engagements (Leadership through adversity, building winning teams, etc.). And I work on behalf of those who risk all, and suffer the consequences of their service for all of us. (Military, Veterans, Law Enforcement, Firefighters, EMS, etc., and their families).
All of these things are in service to and recognition of those who serve and protect us. That is where my life has brought me, and that is my purpose.
So a new year kicked off (I know, that was a blatant reference to last week’s post), and with the new year comes new and renewed effort to effect change. This year, like last, I’m focusing hard on helping some of our Veterans – specifically those who were contaminated by toxic exposures through their service to this Nation, as well as those who are still fighting with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to receive benefits they are entitled to…that they earned.
Last year I joined forces with Military Veterans Advocacy (MVA). There are a LOT of Veteran Service Organizations (VSO’s) and other non-profit organizations that do everything from providing Service Dogs, to helping families of the fallen pay off their mortgage, suicide prevention, assisting with housing, and offering support in all sorts of ways.
MVA is a bit different. Basically, they write draft Bills and push legislation with Congress, trying to make the Dept. of Veterans Affairs take care of our veterans. To uphold the promise that was made to each of these servicemembers when they joined…that they would be taken care of if they suffered sickness, injury or death because of their service to the Nation.
When Bills don’t work, MVA takes them to court, and again, tries to make the VA do its job.
As an example, last year MVA drafted, supported and worked with many Representatives and Senators to pass H.R.299 - Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017, which was designed to RESTORE the presumptive exposure to Agent Orange benefits to those who served offshore during the Vietnam War…and who already had those benefits granted in the original bill in 1991, until they were stripped away by an administrative policy interpretation by the VA in 2002.
After HR-299 bill was passed in the House (382 – 0…yes, that’s right, by a unanimous, bi-partisan vote), it went to the Senate, where two (yes, just 2 out of 100) Senators put a “hold” on the bill in committee, effectively killing the bill. And the VA vociferously opposed the bill the entire time.
So, again, we’re moving forward this year with a re-drafted bill to try to restore the benefit that was stripped away by the VA, and make sure the 90,000+ (still surviving, with many fading fast) veterans affected get what they earned – care for the illnesses they incurred because of their service to our nation, during war.
BUT, we’re doubling down! Not only are we working on the Blue Water Vietnam Veterans bill to get their benefits back, we’re going after multiple Toxic Exposures for our Veterans!
Agent Orange / Herbicide exposure. (Vietnam era, but in multiple locations where it was used and stored throughout the Pacific and other areas).
Gulf War exposures. Radiological exposures. Asbestos exposures. Others…
And the big one that everyone’s talking about today – Burn Pits exposure, from Iraq and Afghanistan, and other areas (and times…because it’s not just a recent thing, we’ve had burn pits in many wars and areas in the past).
And court cases! Besides individual benefit cases, MVA pursues cases that have wide-reaching impact (for classes and groups of veterans), in the Court of Veteran’s Appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States!
I applaud all those organizations that help or support our veterans and first responders. Heck, I’m even developing a non-profit of my own to do just that.
But I’ve chosen to step up and take it to Congress and the Courts, to force the VA and the government to hold true to the promises that were made to our service men and women, and their families. We’re not asking for handouts. We (the servicemembers and veterans) paid our price up front. They stepped up when many step away, and put themselves and their families on the line, and many of them are suffering and dying because of that sacrifice.
Going after the government is a lot like tilting at windmills… But you can have an effect on government – and actually make it work! You just have to not take no for an answer.
Sometimes, waiting for your benefits isn’t enough. You have to “Endeavor to Persevere”.
Kickin’ Off the New Year
By Jim Kuiken
In another “Getting to Know You” post, let’s talk about “Call Signs”. A call sign, in this context, is a name given to a person in the military to identify them over the radio…or in the broader sense, a name given to a military person by his/her peers…which, especially if used in combat, sticks with them for the rest of their lives.
You don’t get to pick your own call sign. You don’t even have any say in what your call sign is – it is given to you by your peers, usually based on how badly you've screwed something up, a play on your name, your personality, or just the whims of a bunch of your peers or supposed “buddies”. Heeer’s yer sign…
And there are some real doozys…
Call signs are not to be confused with nicknames. I’ve had a few nicknames, also given to me by my “friends…” over the years. “Gunny Chunks” was when I went through SCUBA School in Coronado in the mid-80’s, as a Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant (E-7, “Gunny”) in Force Recon. Because I pushed myself so hard during all the physical “training”, that I threw up at the end of each session. “If you ain’t pukin’, you ain’t tryin’”.
Also, with my team in LA in the 90’s, when I was the Supervisory Special Agent in charge of “Special Investigations”. We’d go out on gang enforcement, high-risk warrant entries, etc. They (thinking I didn’t know…) called me the “Chihuahua”, because I never stopped, didn’t seem to notice that (almost everyone) was bigger than me, but still never backed down, etc. Yeah…real funny…
And there are false call signs and nicknames. Let’s talk about “Mad Dog” Mattis. That was NEVER General Mattis’ callsign or nickname. That was a tag the media gave him, and that is so far from the truth as to be insulting. He is NOT a mad dog…his actual nickname is “Warrior Monk”, because he is so well-read, thoughtful, educated, measured and deliberate in his every action. It is why his subordinates and “troops” all revere him. And yes, I call him General rather than Secretary, because General is so much more…
It’s like when I was the Dept. of Homeland Security Attaché to Iraq, and Country Director for DHS. As a Senior Executive (SES-6, a 4 Star equivalent rank) I was one of the senior diplomats at the embassy, but the Embassy Marines (and other Marines there) never called me “Director”, or Sir, or even Mr. Kuiken. They all called me Sergeant Major (my Marine Corps rank) – because they all considered that, and rightfully so – to be so much higher than a Diplomat, a Director or an SES…plus, I wasn’t exactly your average diplomat…
So – General Mattis’ nickname is Warrior Monk, but his callsign is CHAOS. Again, for reasons diametrically opposed to what the name implies. It actually stands for Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution, from when he was a regimental commander at Marine Corps Base 29 Palms. NEVER “Mad Dog”, an insulting media concoction.
As my friends all know, sometimes…ok…a lot of the time, I “take the long way around the barn”. So, Kuiken, what’s your callsign?
It’s Mongoose. I didn’t pick it, and actually had no say in it…and unfortunately, it was used in combat while I served in the Gulf War, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Enduring Freedom…and even while I served in a civilian capacity (DHS Attaché / Country Director) in Iraq, so it is permanent.
Like a lot of young military guys, especially special operations types (I was in Marine Recon at the time), I was heavily into all forms of combat arts, especially marksmanship (long-range precision shooting) and martial arts.
I’d been in martial arts since my junior high-school days, and at the time, held black belts in Gogu-Ryu (1st Dan), Hapkido (1st Dan), and TaeKwon-Do (3rd Dan)…and I liked to compete – especially in full-contact “Karate” matches…the precursor of today’s “UFC” matches, without the grappling. One of my favorite things to do was to, when I had time off and the funds to afford it, go up to Los Angeles (I was stationed in Camp Pendleton), and fight in Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships. I got to meet some of the real heavyweights in the martial arts scene there, and get my butt kicked on a regular basis. What fun!
My style, like most things in my life, was unconventional. I had the “soft” techniques and Japanese/Okinawan hands, coupled with the “hard” Korean blocking/breaking techniques and kicks, and some of the evasive and offensive Hapkido techniques. And I moved.
On one of my trips up there, four of my buddies from 1st Recon Battalion decided to make it a trip, and all came up with me to enjoy the tournament, and to watch me fight. My fights were generally unspectacular for a bit, but then normally ended very quickly. I even got a review in one of the newspapers covering the event, and the reporter was listing the fighters, and commenting on each of their fights. When he got to me, the review was pretty short. It went something like “And then there’s Kuiken. Mediocre at best…until you hit him…”.
I don’t know why I needed that little bit of motivation, but it seemed to work for me. It got me fired up – and I loved it!
After the fight we all went to a Denny’s for hamburgers (double meat with an egg on it, and a chocolate milkshake for me), and they were all talking non-stop over each other. Seems they really liked the fights, and one of them said “D@mn Kuiken! You’re so ‘freaking’ fast!” (yes, I cleaned that up a bit) “You’re like a mongoose, teasing the snake and dancing around, but when it strikes, just taking it out! He never even saw what hit him!”
And there it was. They got all excited over milkshakes…and tagged me with “Mongoose”.
So…what’s yer sign?
“This, I will defend…”
By Jim Kuiken
I was talking with some friends last night over dinner, and they were asking about my writing – specifically, what I would be writing about in this week’s post. I wasn’t really sure, but after a short discussion, I said “Family”.
How apropos that turned out to be...with President George H.W. Bush’s funeral today, huh…? I always liked him. The servant-leader, gentleman, warrior/diplomat, staunch defender of decency, loyal to his friends, and deeply devoted to his family.
It only makes this week’s topic more poignant.
So…as with many of my articles, let’s set the baseline as to what I’m talking about when I say “family”.
The generally accepted meaning of family has something to do with a fairly homogenous nuclear family. Dad, Mom, 2.5 kids, and a dog.
Wow! That’s so not my family!! Nothing wrong with that, it’s just not mine.
My family consists of a hodgepodge of folks from all walks of life. First, my siblings.
I have one brother (from my mom and father, but we were raised by my mom and dad – who married my mom a few years after she and my father were divorced.)
I have three sisters…one from my mom (and dad), one from my father (and his wife), and one with no parents in common…
And I have a dog…my Freedom. Who everyone loves.
None of us (siblings) has 2.5 kids. A couple have 5, I have 3, one has one, and one has none. And the fun part is we are anything but homogeneous…if you base that on ancestry.
We’re all different, and a few of us have blends, but our family portrait looks like the United Nations. Between us, there are some that are Scottish, Native American, Dutch, African American, Lebanese, Korean, Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, Italian, and probably a few more I’m forgetting. And that’s just between my 3 (blood) siblings and our kids!
But…we ARE homogenous! We’re family. Period.
Some are hard left progressives / liberals, some are hard right conservatives, some are in the middle, and some are non-committal. Who friggin’ cares? We’re family. We may not agree, but we do so civilly. I enjoy some of the discussions, and always love my family, no matter what. And each and every one of them knows that if the $#!+ ever hits the fan, I’ll be there. Because I have been, every time.
That’s my immediate family. My extended family, through my dad (the Kuiken’s), my father (the Rose clan) and my in-laws (the Farías family) is quite extensive – but they’re still my family, and the same applies to all of them.
Family, to me, is kind of a concept more than blood. Don’t get me wrong, if someone’s related to me by blood, they’re family…but even if they’re not, they’re still family. My dad is a great example. Even though we’re not directly related by blood (we are, peripherally, through my oldest sister), he’s the one who raised us. Love trumps all, and he loves and is loved by us – as our dad. There are other relationships like that in my family, but that doesn’t make those relationships any less real or close than if we shared blood. It’s the relationship that makes family in my eyes, not the heritage.
I also have a larger family, in my friends. Some are brothers or sisters in arms, who have gone through things that bond us together closer than most will understand…and why many of us spend our time trying to help each other through those tough times.
To a lesser extent, that includes my community, where I spent many years in public service – because I felt that connection – as a firefighter / EMT-A, and as a local, State, and Federal law enforcement officer, serving, helping and protecting my community.
And in a broader sense, my country, as a combat-wounded veteran with a 30-year career in the Marine Corps, serving and protecting my country.
President G.H.W Bush epitomized family. He deeply loved his family, was loyal to his friends, and devoted to serving his country. Each of the eulogies at his funeral service all held a striking similar theme. Love and service. Self-sacrifice, and caring for others.
That is family. Immediate, extended, friends, community and country. Today we saw a brief glimpse of what it could be…if we treat each other as family. Disagree, discuss – even argue (civilly, without personal acrimony or hatred), but always remember to treat each other with respect.
I love my family (first, foremost, and always). I care for my community, and I love my country. I’m pretty easy-going about a lot of stuff…but not family.
And I will protect them to the last drop of blood in my body. As I’ve said before in my quotes, for those who don’t understand that…or me…
“I HATE violence, more than most, for I have seen it. But I will visit its full wrath upon you without blinking an eye if you attempt to harm me, my family, the innocent, or my country.”
Driving the Bus
By Jim Kuiken
I’ve talked about writing before. It’s an obsession. It’s a curse. When I’m in the groove, words and ideas just jump across the synapse between my brain and the computer screen (wow…just dated myself to myself…I almost said “paper”! How arcane!). When I’m off-track, I can sit and cogitate all day long, and get absolutely nothing written.
Besides the joy and agony of writing…there is one big question that picks at the brain of every writer who is or ever wants to be published.
What if people don’t like what I’m writing? What if everyone hates it? If it gets bad reviews…or worse…no reviews?
Who do I write for? Well, as my oft quoted old southern law instructor said (and yes, if you’ve read any of my blogs, you’re probably getting tired of hearing this)… “it depeyands”.
It’s important to know your audience. But that’s only one factor. It’s important if you’re trying to market a product, blog, book, story, etc. However, if you’re just trying to write, or you need to write (like some poor souls), then we’re back to the same big question.
Who do I write for?
As usual, I’m going to take the long way around the barn on this one…with a couple of brief stories.
When I was a youngster, just trying to break into federal law enforcement (I’d already been local and state law enforcement), I wanted to go into the Border Patrol. However, I was getting long in the tooth (fast approaching 35, the cut-off, back then, to be able to be hired as a federal law enforcement officer/agent), so I had to get in under the wire.
I was lucky enough to get hired as an Immigration Detention Officer (IDO) down in the San Diego Sector, at the San Ysidro Detention Facility. That got me in the system, and I got hired as a Border Patrol Agent about a year later…and turned 35 in the academy – and that is a whole ‘nuther story…
Anyway, as an IDO, one of the many things I had to do was to drive to the various Border Patrol stations in the District, pick up aliens who had been ordered deported or who had accepted a voluntary return (who were from Mexico…anyone from somewhere else had to be flown back to their own country), and drive them down to the Port of Entry, and send them back into Mexico through the port.
This meant that I had to not only drive vans, but had to drive a 72 passenger bus…like a Greyhound bus.
When I was going through the training, I mentioned to my trainer (who was also my boss) about my concern to make sure all my passengers were safe while I was driving them. I was surprised by his response.
He said “forget about them. Don’t think about their safety while you’re driving. Just think of driving safely, like you would as if you were alone in your own car. Thinking about them will only distract you. Just drive, and be safe in your driving, and they’ll all be ok.”
Wow! I had to think on that one a while…but he was absolutely right! When driving, drive for yourself, drive safely and be careful, and it will all turn out alright!
So, back to the question – and yes, I know that was a fairly transparent example, but it’s no less true. When you write, write for yourself. (except of course, if you’re doing technical writing for someone else, etc.) I don’t worry if someone else is going to like my writing or not. I write for me. If others like it, I’m honored (and generally surprised...). If they don’t…eh…
The good thing is that there are about 325.7 million people in the United States, approximately 1.2 billion English speaking people in the world (if you target English readers), and approximately 7.7 billion people in the world…so I’m sure you’ll find at least some folks will like your writing! And lots who won’t.
If they do, great! If they don’t, so what? As long as you like your writing, you’re doing it right!
If you’re trying to sell it…that’s a completely different discussion. See the list of some of my writing and publishing tips in the link above about where “I’ve talked about writing before”.
Don’t worry if you hit one of those points where you just stare at the (paper or) computer, and nothing happens. It happens all the time to the best of us.
And if you just really don’t know where to start, I can help you with that as well…
Duck and Cover
By Jim Kuiken
In the old wooden sailing ship days, they came up with a command to “Batten down the hatches” which has turned into a common phrase…even though we no longer batten down hatches in the modern Navy…they “dog” the hatches now.
In any case, the current meaning is to prepare for trouble, like an incoming hurricane, a ticked off boss, a tough personal issue, etc.
Duck and cover is a phrase, originally from the 1950’s relating to a response to a nuclear attack (which we were all nervous about during the Cold War, and even practiced “duck and cover” in our classrooms…once again, I’m giving away my age…), which is now a common term among the infantry, and means to “duck” when you start taking fire, and “take cover” behind something that can protect you from the incoming bullets. It has also become a common metaphorical phrase now, meaning to take cover from anything dangerous or unpleasant – again – like a hurricane, boss, issue, etc…
And as long as we’re using former military terminology that is now used as a metaphor in normal conversation…both battening down the hatches and ducking and covering can lead to a “bunker mentality”, where someone hides in a bunker, and then feels so safe that they tend to stay behind walls or in a metaphorical bunker, and not want to come out…more comfortable in a bunker than they are exposed to everyday life.
It can happen to the best of us if we’re not paying attention. Events just overwhelm people sometimes, and before you know it, you’ve gone from ducking and covering to preserve a bit of control or sanity in your life, to finding yourself barricaded inside a bunker with only slits for windows, and wondering what the heck happened!
Let’s say, (not so) hypothetically, that a series of events takes place over several weeks, or a couple of months. Things like:
You can stay there if you like. It’s quiet. Cool and dark. Uncrowded.
And a self-imposed trap.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with taking a break, getting some fresh air – even walking away from everything for a while just to get some sanity and perspective back.
But then, as my grandpa told me (after he got done laughing when I got thrown off of a young bull calf I had jumped down onto from the corral fence, and ridden for almost a full ¾ of a second...just because), “you gotta get back up on that horse and ride’im!” As I limped away with my bruised hip, back and ego, I replied “good thing he’s not a horse” – which only made him laugh again.
So, there are two choices. Stay in the burrow, or, as a friend (my former Campaign Manager) was once told by one of my fellow Marines – with a grin (when she mentioned that a meeting time he suggested was pretty early in the morning), you can “Suck it up and quit’cher whinin’…ma’am” – and pop your head back out and take a look around!
Refocus, reengage, and reprioritize your time and commitments. Besides my already published techniques (“B.R.A.S.S.” and “The Next Steps”), I’m also going to re-establish my time management, but with an updated system from when I went through the 1980’s traditional system training…and start prioritizing what I need to get done, and not get drawn back down the rabbit hole of over-commitment, other people’s priorities, and time thieves, especially #s 1, 4, 8, 9, and 10. Like it says at the end of # 12, “in short, by not letting the thieves steal your time”.
It feels almost like spring time again…just as the leaves are starting to fall in my yard! It’s really good to see the sun again.
The Unguided Missiles – Young Grunts
By Jim Kuiken
In the modern military there are “fire and forget” weapons, like some anti-tank missiles. You aim at your target, the missile locks on, you fire it, and the missile does the rest. You can duck back under cover or go on about your business, while the missile does its mission.
Kind of like the Ronco© Showtime Rotisserie… “Set it and forget it!” Put in your chicken, turn it on, and it cooks all on its own – or so they say.
Young Marine Corps Grunts are not. They’re more like an unguided missile, a hand grenade, or very large sledge hammer… Do NOT turn them loose on their own and expect a genteel result.
So…way back in the early-mid 1970’s (I’m guessing early ’74 or so) I was a young Corporal, and one of my ship-mates (we were in the Marine Detachment, or MarDet, stationed on the USS Proteus AS-19, a Submarine Tender stationed in Guam), who was an even younger Private First Class (PFC), were hanging around the MarDet area one day…when the Gunny stepped out and asked for volunteers.
Any normal person would have immediately gotten very busy, left the area at a dead run, or done something to disappear quickly…because everyone knows that when the Gunny asks for volunteers, it’s going to be what we euphemistically call a “work party”. And trust me, that “party” part is an oxymoronic misnomer…
But, as I said, any normal person would’ve gotten very scarce very quickly. Grunts are not normal, and to say that Brian and I were far past that “not normal” state is actually a very significant understatement.
As we say in the Grunts, “Pain is weakness leaving the body”. We had our own (somewhat twisted) extension of that quote. “Pain is good. Extreme pain is extremely good!”
As soon as we heard “working party”, we jumped on it. Not only did it sound like it was going to be a lot of hard, physical work…it got even better! It was going to be hard, physical work in a tight, enclosed, very hot space for an extended period of time!
Doesn’t get any better than that!
Our ship was going through some retro-fits (repairs, upgrading, etc.), and the MarDet had its own spaces. A berthing space (living quarters with our bunk beds, TV room, armory, office, etc.) and our “head”, or latrine for you Army folks, and bath/rest room for Air Force and civilians.
We were responsible for the cleaning and upkeep of our own spaces, and all the heads on the ship were being refurbished…sort of. The decking (or floor) was some sort of hard, thick black waterproof material applied over the steel deck – since a ship is basically a big steel boat divided by steel decks (floors) and steel bulkheads (walls) into compartments (rooms).
If you get the impression that the Navy has its own language, you’re correct…
Anyway, we were told to go into the MarDet head, and chip out the flooring so new material could replace the old… And no further instructions…
There is a reason the Marine Corps insists that junior Marines be given very specific tasks, followed with guidance by someone a little senior, constant oversight, and instruction. Young Marines are nothing if not enthusiastic – and Brian Moyer and I were known to be very enthusiastic. We called it “motivated”.
After a couple of hours of increasing complaints coming from sailors in the decks below our spaces, the Gunny came over to check on our progress, and frankly, to see what the h#!! all the complaints were about. We had taken “initiative”, and decided it looked so bad we were going to get it all up, and had attacked the decking with 20-pound sledge hammers…which we had been “enthusiastically” employing with all of our strength and speed – in, as always happens when Marines “work” together, a competition to the death… (sorry these old photos are hard to see…they’re as faded as my memory)
Not only did we not “chip” at the decking material, we had beaten it all out by smashing it up, and had even dented the steel decking below it. Evidently, we were just supposed to chip off a layer or two so they could pour the new material in over top of it.
The Navy Chief (of the Department responsible) was flaming mad, the Captain of the Ship heard about it…but the Gunny did not impose the normal punishment for overly enthusiastic behavior…which would have been a “working party”. I think that was probably for the best…
It was a learning experience for all involved. The Gunny never put Brian and I on another physical task or working party unsupervised – we enjoyed it too much.
Brian and I ended up volunteering for Operation New Life about a year later, and worked out in the hot sun for weeks building a huge tent city for the Vietnamese fleeing at the end of the war. It was extremely rewarding work, helping all the folks…but it was also another opportunity for hard, physical work out in the heat, and to compete on how many areas could be cleared, big “GP” (general purpose) tents we could set up, etc., etc.
It was hard, long, dirty, sweaty work under extremely trying conditions – and we loved it! Heck, Brian even got to help a Navy Corpsman deliver a little baby girl in one of those tents, when her mother went into labor!
The days were long, and it was a huge international story, with press swarming all over the place, as we helped house, feed and reunite families as the refugees poured in.
However, as we know, the press is not always accurate… One newspaper published a bunch of photos, including this one, of Brian and another Marine running through the area where they were building tents, with a caption that said something like “Marines running to render assistance…”
The word came down that the “beer truck” had arrived, and they were running to get their beer. The only reason I wasn’t in that picture is that I’m a much faster runner.
Grunts. What can I say…?
Geez Dude…Lighten Up!
By Jim Kuiken
I had planned on a bit more light-hearted post this week with another of the often-requested “Frontline Tales” about interesting or funny things that have happened to / with me on the street or in the field during my career as a Firefighter/EMT, Law Enforcement Officer/Agent, or as a Marine – but last week got in the way. It’ll have to wait for next week.
This week’s post is all about last week, and what it means to our Country and its Citizens and Legal Residents, to the Military and Veterans, and to me and mine. It got up-close and personal.
August 7th is the anniversary of the date that General George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, established the Badge of Military Merit (predecessor to the Purple Heart Medal) in 1782.
Each year on that date, we celebrate National Purple Heart Day (also known as Purple Heart Appreciation Day, and Purple Heart Recognition Day), an “unofficial observance”, i.e., businesses and government agencies do not officially close on this day – to commemorate the over 1.8 MILLION American men and women who have been wounded or killed while serving in defense of our freedom since the start of World War I.
I’ve never celebrated this observance publicly…usually I just keep my mouth shut, and raise a scotch, late in the evening, in a toast to my buddies and fellow Purple Heart recipients (who received it while alive – or posthumously). My toast is always the same.
"Here's tae us. Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're a'deid." (Robert Burns)
Roughly translated, that means “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damned few, and they’re all dead.” It is a toast given by those who survive battle, to fellow survivors…and to those who did not. Perfect toast for those wearing the Purple Heart medal on that day.
This year was different. I celebrated publicly, in the company of many other Recipients, their families, and supporters of those who paid the cost of Freedom with their health, their blood, or their lives.
Here’s how the week went…
Tuesday August 7th:
Just like every other year, some private time commemorating those who sacrificed and those who fell, with a “wee dram” (or two) of scotch, and “the toast”.
Friday August 10th:
6pm - A wreath laying at (and celebration of the 20th anniversary of the laying of) the Purple Heart Monument – and the origin (mile-marker zero) of the Virginia Purple Heart Trail, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
7pm – A private evening tour of George and Martha Washington’s home at the Mount Vernon estate, for Purple Heart recipients and their families.
Saturday August 11th – the crowning highlight of the week:
10am – A gathering, then ceremony with staff and leadership of Mount Vernon, and fellow members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart for the estate's official National Purple Heart Day Ceremony on the East Lawn overlooking the Potomac River. We were treated to some great music leading up to the ceremony, and later during the posting of the Colors, the National Anthem, by the U.S. Marine Corps Band Brass Quintet.
The highlight of the program was our keynote speaker, highly acclaimed American author Patrick K. O'Donnell, who told us a riveting recollection of his time embedded with the U.S. Marines in combat, and the incredibly heroic but devastating story of one young Marine that he served with.
In addition, PH Recipients from each war from WWII to modern day were called upon to rise (as their war(s) were called out) and be recognized for their sacrifice. It was very moving to see these surviving warriors standing proudly, recognized by their peers.
And more than one speaker (both Friday night and Saturday morning) talked about the medal itself…the shape like a heart – both the original Badge of Military Merit and the Purple Heart Medal. General George Washington understood service, and sacrifice for the greater good. As I’ve said before in my “Quotes” post,
“Courage knows no gender. Courage knows no race. Courage comes from within, from a deeply ingrained sense of duty, from service to something bigger than just yourself…from love.” (James Kuiken)
That’s why he designed the original Badge, and why the Medal that came from that, are both shaped like a heart. Service to something greater than yourself – to your country, to your fellow combatant, to anyone – comes from love.
1pm – A private reception for Recipients, their families and guests, and chance to mingle and talk with some true heroes…and do what military and veterans do when they come together…give each other a hard time and just have fun!
So while the final reception was a chance to let our hair down and just have fun, the most part of the week was spent in remembrance and celebration of those who stepped up when so many step away. And who paid the price.
The funny thing is, they all just looked like regular folks. Guys and gals, lots of older folks, and a few who looked like teen-agers. You just never know…
You Can’t Get There From Here…
By Jim Kuiken
It’s been a while since I wrote a Post (or anything, for that matter). You’d think things would get easier the farther down the road you get… Ever get that feeling that the end of the road stays just beyond the horizon, no matter how far you go?
Anyone who knows (or knows about) me knows that I’m a writer, and have been working on a series of books. Not only do I title my books, I also title the chapters in the books. My first book (The Making of a Warrior) ends with the final chapter which is titled “You Can’t Go Home”.
Funny how something I’m writing about that takes place in 1976 is still just as true today as it was then… A young Marine, just getting off of active duty after combat has serious difficulties adjusting to life “back in the world”, relating to friends and re-assimilating with his family, and almost goes off the deep end.
Years after I retired from the Marine Corps, I found myself still struggling with the same issues (only compounded by multiple overseas and combat tours), which culminated in a hard downward spiral…and then found what I thought would be the answer to it all – my Service Dog Freedom. Even that brought additional costs and problems, but I truly thought he would solve all the issues.
Don’t get me wrong, Freedom is all and more than I thought he would be, and does everything that a Service Dog (and my best buddy) could ever do! K9s For Warriors gave me the most wonderful, life-saving gift they could ever have given me.
It’s not Freedom, it was my expectations. I was hoping for something that could not only help me cope with my various physical ailments and injuries, but something that could fix the PTSD and all its associated issues.
Service Dogs (SD’s) don’t do that. After years with Freedom, I know now that they are like an aspirin – they can help cope with the symptoms, even alleviate some (many of the folks who go through the training and receive their SD end up getting off many of the (over-prescribed) medications from the VA or other sources), but they don’t necessarily fix the root issue.
I had taken a wrong turn on that long, twisted road, and ended up on a plateau. I was stagnant, and even though I stayed busy, I wasn’t actually going anywhere.
I finally realized I was stuck (and maybe even sliding back downhill a bit) when I was up on Capitol Hill working with Military Veterans Advocacy the last couple of months. We met with numerous Representatives (and staff) while we advocated for HR 299 in the House (it passed the House on a bi-partisan 382 – 0 vote…unheard of now-a-days…), then a week on the Senate side meeting with them – and then last Wednesday, attending the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the Bill.
MVA has been advocating for this Bill to RESTORE the Agent Orange presumptive benefits to thousands of Vietnam Veterans, who had it stripped out by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs when they “interpreted” the original Bill and enacted the implementation policies (and guess who was the main opposition to restoring those benefits during the Hearing…yup…you guessed it. The very organization that is supposed to help veterans.)
Working so hard on the Hill on behalf of those Veterans got me to thinking about my own situation, and that is when I realized I had hit that plateau – had stopped writing, had stopped moving forward, and was actually having some of the old problems popping up. I had withdrawn from the fight.
If you find yourself (or see someone else) going down one of those many dead ends, withdrawing and isolating, just coasting, or worse, like me, drifting backwards – stop and ask for help!
Now that I know that no one thing is going to win this fight, it brings me back to my Marine training. A Marine might be overcome, but you can’t beat the Marines…we come together, and that is what makes Marines so tough to beat. A coordinated, multi-faceted force (with attitude…) to be reckoned with.
That’s the way PTS needs to be addressed. If I had VA benefits (still working on that…since 1976, with no success – which may actually be a blessing), they’d probably try to medicate me, and offer some counseling, etc. Based on what I’ve seen as we go up against them on the Hill (with the 40+ year-old Agent Orange issues…and as an example of their efficiency, just last August, with prodding and action from MVA, the few remaining survivors of Mustard Gas exposure from WWII finally got their presumptive coverage through Congress when the VA dropped their opposition to the Bill – yes, WWII survivors – 72 years later…), my confidence level is low.
Without any support from the VA, I’ve had to find my own treatments – generally from various Veteran support non-profits, and finally, after several decades, have begun to directly address the underlying issues – not just the symptoms.
SPECT Brain Scans, a stint of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, counseling and treatment through Give-an-Hour (for one year) and now The Headstrong Project, and other treatments…as long as they’re paid for by a non-profit (since I don’t have the funds that the VA has for treatments).
Also, making sure I have good nutrition and regular exercise, and moderate-to-low use of alcohol (I don’t do drugs…) are critical.
I haven’t gotten back to where I was, but at least I’m off the plateau and headed back down to that long, winding, rocky road. Hopefully I won’t wander off on any more dead-end trails and can continue the fight – and help others along the way.
If you see or know of anyone else who is struggling, PLEASE reach out to them. Just remember, as I say at the end of each email and on my website:
"What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal." Albert Pine
Basic Animal / Human Psychology
By Jim Kuiken
Talk about forte…this is mine! I’ve spent my entire adult life (and a lot of my younger life) serving in, building, or leading winning teams. The Marines. Law Enforcement. The corporate world. As a diplomat leading a big team in a huge effort in a war-torn country. Even in the Political arena.
And for the last 45 years, I keep hearing the same thing…how do you do it? How do you know all this stuff? Well, I could cite college degrees, training courses, etc., etc… (all true, but not where I got it all from – just where I learned some of the technical nuances). It came from lots of experience, and a basic understanding (and liking!) of people (and animals).
Previously, I’ve talked about Leadership, Service, basic and advanced techniques to achieve Success, Setting Goals, and many other similar subjects…mostly wrapped up into a neat list in one of my articles titled “Entrepreneur or Dreamer?”
But I’ve never specifically written about winning teams, which is a key element to almost anything we achieve in life. Unlike Leadership, which is done from the front (you can’t “lead” from behind, that’s an oxymoron – and in many cases, like combat – is called cowardice), you build winning teams from the middle.
So Kuiken, what is a winning team, and how do you build one? Again, back to my old southern law instructor…it depeyands…
Sometimes, depending on what your goal is – like the team itself “winning” whatever they are doing (like a T-Ball team or the SEALs…). Both have a goal of the team winning, so they need conditioning, structure, coaching, etc. But the basics are still there. They need to have a goal, they need to be structured in a way that helps them achieve that goal, they need the skills and tools required to be able to do what they need to do to win, they need “buy-in” by all the team members, etc.
Other times, it’s not about the team “winning”, it’s about the team being effective, building something, creating ideas or writing policy, running or managing an organization, or any other of a myriad of functions.
Simply put, a “winning team” is one that achieves or exceeds its goal.
One of the most primal examples would be that of a wolf-pack, cooperating together to feed the pack including the offspring, by not only working in a coordinated, joint effort to catch the food, but functioning in a structure to ensure orderly distribution of the food (a hierarchy of feeding, and bringing food back to those not yet old enough to hunt for themselves).
But people are much more than just a bunch of primitive animals, right? Of course they are – but understanding the most basic or advanced needs of people helps you build a winning team. I had observed behavior over the years in all those winning teams I was a part of, and had those observations validated (and gained more understanding of the motivations) through those college courses – one great example would be Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Pack animals show the same first 4 sets of needs (Physiological, Safety, Social belonging, and Esteem), but people functioning in a society, and especially in winning teams, show all those plus the 5th (Self-actualization) …and some even move to the highest plane (Self-transcendence).
Lots of fancy stuff there, but understanding the basics really helps when you start to build that winning team. Like, what’s in it for the team members? If they are happy and satisfied with their membership and the team’s purpose, they work together a lot better, and are more self-driven and successful.
That does NOT mean they should all be the same. Quite the opposite. I’ve had the most success with teams that are built from people that are completely diverse (and I don’t mean the simplistic “diverse” that popular culture and political correctness “mandate”).
Diverse in my mind starts with those simple differences, like different genders, socio-economic backgrounds, cultural background, racial differences, etc…but then continues to age, experience(s), job classifications, etc. Even (if it is relevant to the purpose of the team, such as policy development, etc.), different political views, possibly different religious views, etc.
An example would be one team I put together when I was a Policy Developer at an agency Headquarters (HQ) in Washington DC. I had been asked to write a Maritime Enforcement Policy. The standard method was to sit down, read up on various other agency’s policies, and then write ours. Not what I did.
First, I went to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), and participated in the multi-agency boat training there. Then I sat with another agency in another department that had similar enforcement authorities, as they developed their policy.
Then I went back to our HQ, and called together a team from the field and from HQ. It consisted of actual working folks from the front lines (not bosses) - members from Investigations, Patrol, Smuggling, etc…which my boss (and his boss) questioned…but it was my project so they let me run with it. The next thing I did caused an even bigger uproar, but we did it anyway. I invited the national Union president, and an attorney from the Legal department to join the team, so that we didn’t need to ask for Union or Agency buy-in later…they were part of the development. And, believe it or not, I took the whole crew to a couple of field locations where various agencies (Immigration, Border Patrol, Customs, DEA, Coast Guard, etc.) did maritime enforcement, for discussions and ride-alongs to get a feel for actual maritime enforcement.
I then brought them all back to DC, put them in a room together with a white board and flip board, all the resources they needed, and all the policies, training courses and notes I had from my earlier efforts, gave them the parameters of what we were trying to develop (along with a “policy” template), and turned them loose before I stepped out of the room. One week later, we had the best friggin’ policy that had come out of that office in a very long time…and it had the full buy-in from the field, management, Union, and legal from the get-go.
The trick was bringing together people who had a stake in the outcome, from a wide and diverse background, giving them the tools, understanding and guidance they needed, and getting out of their way.
I could go on and on about this subject, but the short of it is:
Be an example of true leadership, honestly care about the people (not just the policy, task or goal), and lead by example, not directives.
As my grandpa used to tell me – the best way to run a team of horses is not to hold the reins too tight. That confuses the horses, and may even make them stop. Hold the reins loosely, giving just enough guidance to keep them on track, and let them have their heads. You’ll be surprised how fast you get there, and the horses will have a blast!
Or What Battle Was/Is Yours?
By Jim Kuiken
Our country’s history is marked (defined and/or scarred) by a series of wars and battles. Our birth, through the Revolutionary War. Character was refined (not defined) by the Civil War. The Marines were memorialized by many wars, but the battle that really set them in stone was Iwo Jima. And there are too many others to count… Some honorable, some not so much, depending on your personal frame of reference.
But like most of my posts, I’m not here to discuss the bigger picture at a national scale – I’m going to bring it right down to each individual. What was YOUR defining war or battle?
I’ve been wanting to write this one for a long time, because mine are so vivid, even now, and color my outlook on most of life.
When I was at American University attending the Masters of Public Administration (MPA) program (as a student…and simultaneously as a guest lecturer in the same course, same class…but that’s a story for a different time), there was one course of instruction that was particularly interesting to me. It was Organizational Diagnosis, or viewing an organization through the Four Frame (four frames of reference) Model of Bolman and Deal (2003) – Structural, Political, Human Resources and Symbology. Of the four, Symbology held the most interest for me (which is the segment of that course that I, as a student, was invited by the Professor to be the “surprise guest lecturer” for in my own class…).
It is all about how you see things, and how they can color your perceptions – and even influence how you feel about and react to life and events. I came in as a guest lecturer in other classes besides my own, and always started out by having them read the 3 page-long first chapter of my current book, “The Making of a Warrior”. I would watch them as they read it, and see a variety of reactions, even to some of them laughing, then crying as they read it.
At the end, I wouldn’t ask them what they thought…I’d ask them what they felt. What they saw. What they heard, and what they smelled when they were reading it – and I always got a very strong reaction from each class and person that read it. That is the power of symbology.
So, once again I ask you. What was your defining war and/or battle? Even if you were not in the military, there is a war, battle or event that was your defining event.
For me, it was Vietnam. Many of you were in it, many of you grew up watching it – our first “televised” war, many of you were or had loved ones who were affected by it, and many protested against it. It was my defining war, and has colored my outlook on life since I was a teenager in the ‘60’s (while I grew up in a military family), and as a Marine from the early ‘70’s (and beyond).
Don’t get me wrong. There were others – I was in the Gulf War, went to Bosnia, Kosovo, etc…even ended up in Iraq (in 2005-2006), but the one that defined me was Vietnam.
For some, they remember Pearl Harbor (sadly, a dwindling few). Others, Korea, the “forgotten war”…except for those that were there. Or today’s Pearl Harbor – the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. They evoke visceral reactions.
Or Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria.
Lots of my friends were in one or more of those – and their entire life, and their loved one’s lives were changed forever. Their outlook and perceptions of life are colored through those lenses.
Maybe it was a specific battle. Iwo Jima. Khe Sanh. Ramadi. Wanat. These are personal to me (I’m feeling them as I write – elevated heart rate and breathing, simmering anger, heartache, etc.), because I know people from each of these – and just thinking about my defining war, and specific battles through the eyes of my friends is an emotional event.
Each of you has that war, that battle that turned a switch in your life and forever colors some of your perceptions on life. What was that event or moment? What has it done to or for your life? Are you a better person, have you let it take control, what is it that changed in your life?
Those who were there, those who had loved ones or friends there. Gold Star Families. Families of those who were injured or wounded (physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually). Those who were not involved, but witnessed these events during their lives. Those who protested or fought against the war(s). All had a defining moment, a defining war, a battle.
Tell me yours. Share it with a friend or someone you trust. Write me – and share your story. I’d love to hear it, and in sharing it, some may find some peace…from their war.