By Jay Kirell
Luis was a small, cocky kid from Boston. He joined the Army in mid-2009 right out of high school.
Danny was built like a NFL middle linebacker. He joined the same time Luis did. He was from Maine and liked to draw.
Michael was fat, mischievous and grew up 10 miles from the post in Kentucky he ended up stationed at.
Robert was an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, who joined to get his citizenship.
By November of 2010 Luis was about to get promoted to Specialist. He had rushed into an ammunition hut (mortar ammunition) that had just been set on fire from enemy rounds and put out the blaze before the whole outpost exploded.
Danny, who wasn’t a mortarman, but a regular infantryman who just found his way into a mortar platoon, was benching close to 400lbs and carried the M249 light machine gun on patrols like it was a water pistol. He was also improving on the mortar system and helped run the main gun we used.
Michael was still the most experienced (and most talented) gunner in the mortar platoon, even if his attitude kept him an E-3 well into his third year (and second deployment). He also knew how to fix trucks, run the radios and was one of the best shots in platoon.
Robert rose from being a new cherry private to the platoon’s RTO (radio telephone operator), a trusted position putting him at the Platoon Leader’s side in combat. He was smart, and knew his job, even if he was only 5’5″ and wore the smallest-size boots the Army had.
By November of 2010 the platoon had been through the worst of the fighting season in Afghanistan. All that our deployment held ahead of us was not getting blown up by an IED on our way home. All the Taliban’s best fighters had gone back over the mountains in Pakistan. Our frequency of combat engagements had gone from daily in June and July to weekly in August and September to one or two in the whole month of October.
It was still a dangerous place. Still a warzone. It was impossible to forget that, even if the only small arms fire you heard anymore was from your own side. IEDs and guys driving explosives-packed trucks in kamikaze attacks on the outpost were pretty much the new threats we had to look out for.
The latter precipitated the installment of what became known as “truck guard” – which is where, in addition to the soldiers in the towers and the ANA guard at the front gate, the platoon would pull one if it’s tank-like MRAP vehicles behind the concertina-wire gate as a secondary barrier. Of course, there was a soldier inside the truck at the time, both to keep an extra eye on the front gate and move the truck if a convoy was coming.
By late November, truck guard had actually become the most coveted shift on the whole outpost. If you’re wondering why, it’s because the truck was the only guard position that allowed a soldier to both escape the elements as well as sit down. While all the other towers had guards who were freezing from the wind and cold, tired from standing for four hours straight, the truck guard was warm and comfy.
One night in late November, while the outpost slept, Robert, Michael, Danny and Luis climbed into the back of one of the trucks lined up along the walls of the COP. They quietly closed the back hatch and huddled together. Luis pulled out a small brick of hashish he purchased for $5 from one of the Afghan Army soldiers attached to the outpost. He broke up the brick and spread it into a small joint.
Then he sparked it up and the four of them took a few puffs in the back of a truck, in the middle of the night, in the middle of an outpost in the middle of a farming village in the middle of southern Afghanistan.
The joint kept going out though, and the four kept re-lighting it.
Had a soldier from another company not been out taking a piss and not happen to look up after from coming out of the port-a-john, he would have never seen the flash of light coming from inside the MRAP.
But he did.
When he went back inside he passed the Sergeant on Guard and told him what he saw. The SOG went out to the trucks, crept slowly behind the one furthest from the main building and opened the rear hatch.
I wish I could say what happened next was something out of a Cheech and Chong movie, where the smoke billowed out of the rear of the truck, the SOG received an instant contact high and then they all enjoyed some laughs before the sergeant told them to cut the nonsense and get to bed.
I wish I could say that. But what happened wasn’t nearly as entertaining.
The SOG opened the rear hatch. The four soldiers inside froze, the one holding the joint pulling it out of view and quickly crumbling it up in his hands. The SOG ordered the four out of the truck, had them walk back to the front of the building, put them in the front-leaning rest position and went inside to wake up their platoon sergeant.
The SOG told the platoon sergeant what he was told, what he saw and smelled, and told him to deal with his soldiers. The platoon sergeant came out, took the four out of the front-leaning rest position, and lined them and said he would speak to each individually.
Michael was first, and before the platoon sergeant could even ask a question he admitted to the drug use and fingered Luis as the one who bought it and Danny and Robert as being part of the smokers’ club.
Our platoon sergeant, being as close to an honorable, law-abiding Ned Stark-type as I ever saw in the Army, decided not to keep the incident platoon-internal (which happens way more than anyone will ever know during war) and with the full admission from one of the parties involved, had the four sent to the nearest Forward Operating Base for disciplinary action.
Danny, Michael, Robert and Luis were shipped out the next day, where they eventually received their punishments – 60 days of extra duty, reduction in rank down to E-1, and half-pay for two months. Then, after that punishment ends, they were to be shipped back to the United States, where they’d be given general discharges and shown the door.
And that’s exactly what ended up happening. But not before the reality of their punishment set in and started negatively effecting their mental states.
Luis seemed to take the punishment the worst. He stopped shaving, stopped keeping up with personal hygiene. Before they banned him from guard duty he would walk into the tower, take off all his body armor and lay on the outside edge of the tower like he was trying to get a tan. One of the last times I had guard duty with him he threatened to shoot a farmer because he claimed he could see a rifle. A farmer who was more than 1000m away and could only be seen through binoculars. He was showing signs of PTSD for months, but nobody knew how bad it was until this incident.
Michael pretty much gave up trying to care about anything after the punishment came down. He spent most of his last days trying to find any way to get high, from huffing air spay cans to making his own wine. He had issues with the Army before the incident, holding a grudge about never receiving his promotion, so when he found out he’d be getting kicked out, it basically broke him. I heard later on that when he and Luis were on their way out of Afghanistan they walked around with E-4 rank on.
Danny had an interesting reaction to the punishment. He kept holding out hope that he’d escape because he was the only one whose urinalysis came back negative for THC. They tested the four of them two days after the incident and since Danny, like I said previously, was built like a pro athlete, the THC was flushed out of his system quicker than anyone else. But he had already admitting to using when confronted by his platoon sergeant, so he never escaped punishment.
Once it was confirmed for him that he’d still be punished, Danny, who was the most calm, docile, friendly person in the platoon (next to me), flew into a blind rage. He took his incredible strength and rampaged through the gym, destroying the floorboards, equipment, punching holes in wall. He eventually was given permission during his punishment to return home to be with his mother, who was sick. He used the opportunity to stay home, going AWOL for a while until he finally returned to the unit a few days before he would have been considered a deserter.
Robert just seemed resigned to the fact that it was over for him. He didn’t cause any trouble on his way out. He just accepted his punishment, made it back to the states, and moved back to New Jersey, hoping he one day won’t be deported back to the Dominican Republican. He’s now married and has a daughter, but no citizenship.
There are four main discharge designations for military personnel. Honorable, which means you did everything right in your career and now you get all benefits that were in your contract; General, which means you did most things right, but you don’t get a G.I. Bill; Other Than Honorable, which means you really messed up and a review board will have to decide if you get any benefits. Dishonorable, which means you screwed the pooch and should be considered lucky you’re not in prison.
All four received General discharges. All four received them because they didn’t contest the charges against them, in part because all four had the expectation that their discharges would be appealed and one day be upgraded to Honorable.
“All I have to do is appeal and it’ll get upgraded to Honorable,” I heard from them, as well as all the others I saw get kicked out during my time.
They were under this impression because this is what the Army tells soldiers facing disciplinary action. And while it is true that a discharged soldier can appeal their status, such appeals aren’t granted – as most believe – if the soldier keeps his nose clean for a while. Most appeals are granted because of paperwork errors or procedural errors during the dismissal process.
But it’s that glimmer of hope they could one day be considered an “honorable” service-member that makes most being discharged just go quietly and accept their punishments instead of fighting them. But fighting and arguing with those of higher rank isn’t in the nature of the average soldier. The average soldier is taught to follow orders and respect the advice of those more experienced. So when you walk into a Sergeant Major’s office and he says you can get your discharge upgraded to honorable when you get out, all you have to do is agree with the charges against you, well, those average soldiers are just going to sign any paperwork put in front of them. They don’t want to cause any more trouble by offending their superiors.
Now, I didn’t write this to excuse the behavior of the four men I served with. What they did was, most definitely, against the rules, reckless and deserving of punishment.
Something which is a common behavioral pattern for some soldiers, many of whom receive Honorable discharges, many of whom committed some bad act during their time and had a sympathetic ear in a position of power to either get them off the hook or just flat-out look the other way.
Soldiers who have DUI records. Soldiers who have domestic violence records. Soldiers who even have illegal weapons possession charges. I’ve seen all of those escape UCMJ action because of who they know and how things are dealt with in certain units.
The four I served with weren’t that fortunate. The four I served with did everything they were supposed to do until one night they didn’t. And that one night ruined their futures.
None of them will be able to go back to school. One of them will probably never get to be a citizen of the nation he fought for.
All because of the limbo that exists between getting an Honorable discharge and a Dishonorable one. A limbo that assigns categories of valor not based on how good of a war-fighter someone was, but how skilled they were at not getting in trouble.
A limbo that says you can shoot and kill an innocent civilian and be considered “honorable” but if you save the lives of an entire platoon and then smoke a joint, you’re not.
A limbo that says you can beat and pummel a detainee for shits and giggles and be considered “honorable” but if your strong enough to carry two crew-serve weapons and a fallen comrade from the battlefield, but then smoke a joint, you’re not.
A limbo that says you can put your life on the line for your country, even if you’re not a citizen of that country, but when most of the fighting is over and you’re no longer useful, you make one mistake and *poof* no more citizenship for you.
A limbo that says it’s awesome you can save numerous lives by getting mortar rounds downrange faster than anyone else in the brigade, but if you smoke a joint, you’re a nobody.
A limbo that sits on a permanent record, washing away all the good a service-member did during their career and making them feel somehow lesser than their comrades.
They hiked the same mountains. They dug the same trenches. They dove for the same cover and bled on the same fields as their honorably-discharged colleagues. When they get home they’ll have the same difficulties adjusting, same struggles and fears.
What they won’t have is the relief that comes with having your service called “honorable.” That’s what makes the passage through the hell that is war worth it. And while some may have had a more difficult passage through that hell than others, when they do come out on the other side, it should be into a better place.
Not into a state of limbo, where one mistake irreparably damages someone’s reputation and potential for a better life.
No joint is worth someone’s future, and service-members should use better judgment and avoid drug use – and most do – but everyone has moments of weakness. Those moments shouldn’t be the defining one’s in someone’s life and service – especially for someone who put theirs on the line for all of us.