Reflections from New VFP Member: Veterans as Leaders

May 05, 2015
Lucas Berard in photo Lucas Berard in photo

Though it feels somewhat arrogant, I must begin by stating that I am a combat vet. I don’t speak about it often, and even then, only in small snippets. I don’t really feel a need to describe my experiences to others, as there will always be much lost in the translation from memory to story. I deployed with the Marines in Fallujah (2004-2005), and with the Army in Kirkuk (2008-2010). The only reason I say it now is to establish validity with all of you; I too have felt disdain for those who talk about something they’ve never experienced.

I’ve seen more than some, and less than others. And what I’ve seen has lead me directly to the place I am today- Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Rutledge, Missouri. I usually write as a “fellow Rabbit (community resident)”, but today I’d like to speak to all of you from my veteran roots, to explain my reasoning and hopefully appeal to some of you. Here is some of my story.

I joined the Marines in 2002 among the panic that ensued after 9/11. We were PISSED- and so was I. At the time my best career prospect was moving up the management chain at KFC- and I felt that the military would make me stronger, more disciplined, more confident, and more respectable among my peers than a life of food service ever could.

It wasn’t until my first deployment in 2004 that my thoughts began to wander. The night before the assault on Fallujah began, I sat on the top of a forklift and watched the pre-emptive airstrikes. Using my night vision goggles, I could see where the explosions were going to erupt in advance, via the aircraft’s UV laser guidance. The bombings were met with much excitement by all of us, and some nervousness as well; we knew tomorrow would be a much more immersive experience.

The first few weeks I never thought twice about what we were doing. Iraqis weren’t people, they were insurgents, terrorists, and evil to their core. Sure, there was a population- somewhere- that wanted our version of freedom, but they were a phantom, and we never saw or heard of them directly. There were only those who hated us, God, America, women, and any viewpoint that didn’t align with their own. And their sights were set squarely those of us that would dare to breach their city. I was so enveloped in protecting my team/squad that it took me a while to step back and look with a more broad perspective at what it was we were actually doing.

After some time, I began to feel uneasy about the rampant destruction and violence I was witnessing. Most of the buildings that still stood looked like blocks of burnt Swiss cheese. The rest were piles of rubble. There were bodies in the streets; the smell of fresh cordite intermingled with decomposition, burning tires, and trash. We listened to the radio traffic of our infantry brothers’ injuries and KIA’s. And then there was the Potato Factory...I found myself angry that so many were dying at the behest of safe, suited politicians.

I would argue that those who have seen the face of war lose their faith in politics, as war is the greatest expression of its failure.

I think it’s fitting that we find ourselves in a state of constant war now- our political structure is failing us at every turn, at home and abroad. The Republicans may have taken the Senate, but it’s going to be the same song and dance- it always is- and the dance won't change until we change the tune.

I was deeply disturbed by the loss of life- on both sides. I found myself becoming more isolated, divided as to how I should feel. I was angered at the deaths and injuries of our own, but it never detracted from the pity I felt for the local population as well. After all, we were in their country, kicking down the doors of, and often utterly destroying, their lives and homes.

Not long before our deployment ended, we were leaving Camp Fallujah for a routine mission (don’t remember what exactly). As per protocol, my vehicle blocked the local traffic as the rest of the convoy turned onto the road (MSR Tampa).

As the convoy was passing us, my gunner shouted down to us that a dump truck had pulled onto the shoulder of the highway, passing the stopped traffic, and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

Due to the angle of our vehicle, he was the only one of us that could really see what was happening from that direction. He shouted again. I responded with “Light ‘em up!” I heard the bolt of the 240g rack, and a burst of fire. Then we all watched as this massive truck flew by us, with a trail of smoke and steam, seemingly under no control. The vehicle finally came to a stop a few hundred meters up the road. No explosion.

We approached to see two men scrambling out of the truck, one shot in the leg. Father and son. It turns out that the brakes had failed, and they had made a choice between endangering all those stopped in front of them or going around, and risking their own lives by crossing Americans. We patched the father up as best we could and sent them back to Camp Fallujah, where they were to receive compensation for the damage to the truck, and further medical attention.

I was relieved that no one needlessly died, but the event shook me, nonetheless. How many other times had the “fog of war” resulted in similar actions? How many others had been injured, died, or been taken prisoner for no other reason than miscommunication or unfortunate circumstance? How many people were now dead or imprisoned- not because they hated America, but because they loved and defended their homes? I felt like an invader- an occupier; not a defended of my homeland.

I wasn’t even IN my homeland- I was in someone else’s. Who's the defender in that situation? 

I left Fallujah with a different outlook on military action, and the circumstances in which it should be used.

From what I could tell, I was pretty much the only one that felt that way. I often wondered if the problem was me. It took a few more years before I was able to feel that I wasn’t crazy, nor a “sympathizer with the enemy”. I was a human being, and despite all I had been taught through the military and media, I still knew that non- Americans are just a human, with the same desire for the personal freedom and security of their families. And their reward for defending their home was death or imprisonment at Abu-Ghraib( to which we transferred numerous prisoners) or Guantanamo.

Upon returning to Japan (where my unit was stationed), we were met with a “hero’s welcome”. We were inundated with fancy dinners, speeches, salutes, and ceremony. I felt that deep swell of pride resurface, and within a few months, the horror and doubt that I had felt so pointedly had moved the back of my mind. I had more money than ever, and the respect of fellow Marines, friends, and family. Still, I had decided against re-enlistment- the thoughts were mostly gone, but certainly not forgotten.

I left the corps in 2006 and  joined the army a few months later in 2007, mainly because I wanted to spend some time in Europe. Two weeks after signing up, I shipped out to Germany.

This is also about the time that I first saw “An Inconvenient Truth”, a presentation by Al Gore of the evidence and ramifications of man-made climate change. Though I’m never quick to trust a politician, the presentation was shocking enough that I began my own research in an attempt to either verify or debunk it.

I found a very troubling trend:

If the website, network, or publication took a political stance- there was a TON of debate. Over POLICY, not science.

If the website, network, or publication was operating on a solely scientific level, there was NO debate at all- Anthropomorphic Climate Change was real, happening, and the consequences of unchecked fossil fuel usage were dire indeed. Yet somehow, the public was still sharply divided.

The discovery added a completely new dimension to my perspective. I became more motivated, more vocal in my distrust for politicians and the US media. Occasionally, I would talk to my peers, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears. The young 20-somethings didn’t care, and the seasoned leaders, most with families, just didn’t have the time or mental energy to think about it. When one’s life is dedicated to military service, it is very difficult to find room for anything else.

We deployed in 2008 and were based out of Kirkuk. Though attacks were still fairly commonplace, it was not at the level of ferocity that I had experienced during my previous deployment. I did, however, get a strong sense that the people were tired of the occupation, and apathetic to supporting anyone. It was a much less stressful deployment for me. Still, I never once felt as though I was “defending freedom”- I felt I was a symbol of its suppression.

I again left military service in 2010, and by that time had developed one hell of a drinking problem (which began not long after returning from Fallujah). I was going through a 12 pack a day- minimum. I would usually go back to the store for another 6 or 12 before I’d pass out, shitfaced. It was about the only way I could sleep soundly, if not well. I had gotten married to a Marine I had served with, but it was more out of a sense of nostalgia than anything else. It only took a few months of my drinking and cloudy disposition for the relationship to end. I slipped into a deeper depression, drinking more, and holding everyone around me accountable for actions they never (directly) took. I saw most as ignorant accomplices to a government that craves war for the sake of profit.

The constant stream of PURPOSEFUL misinformation from our “trusted” news sources is particularly troubling to me. Whether left or right, the facts and figures were sliced and diced in order to paint a specific picture, and garnish a specific reaction from the public. I even found myself disappointed in left-leaning climate change coverage; I found they often played a similar game as the deniers, and it destroyed their credibility in my eyes. I found that in order to get objective news, one has little choice except to look to sources outside of the US. Again, the politics of the matter was superseding the truth of it.

The common thread really seems to be politics- which is, in the US, utterly and absolutely ruled by campaign financing. Money rules our democracy, trumping the best interest of the people for the best interest of already ultra-wealthy corporations and elitists. They own the networks via advertising dollars, and our government via campaign contributions. The voice of the people is drowned out under a thick layer of funding. Even if the people could be heard, they are likely very ill-informed by the media, thus vulnerable to being lead to desired decisions, as opposed to making independent, educated ones.

We need great leaders now more than ever, and I can’t imagine a scenario where great leaders come from privilege. Leaders- the best ones- are borne of difficult lives and experiences.

I think it’s fairly plain to see that many of our politicians have no regard for the well-being of our country. They consider personal profit and campaign contributions (for others and themselves) above all else, and will continue to spur the true patriots, in any way they can, to pave their path with sacrifices, necessary or not.

I would argue that anyone who is committed to a life of financial gain is wholly incapable of truly committing to anything else.

I often find myself wondering if we need to be looking to Washington for leadership at all. I have shifted to the mindset that our real leaders, with real convictions, are too busy DOING to get involved in the dog-and-pony show in D.C. Our politicians simply can’t be trusted in my view- there’s just too much money flying around, and not nearly enough work getting done. Plenty of talk, sure- but not much in the way of progress or reasonable compromise. I don’t see it as the fault of one party or another- it is the combination of both that has failed us miserably.

And the Media is all too happy to keep the general public flailing in the dark; mix 1 cup of football, 2 tablespoons of “reality” TV,  a pinch of anger, and a few dashes of fear. Mix well, cover with misinformation and bake at WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE for about ten years.

This is the recipe for political extremism and rampant consumption; It was cooking while we were gone, and many of us are just now beginning to see what’s popped out of the oven. That smell of freedom that we missed so much while we were serving no longer reminds us of what our moms used to make; it resembles that of a burnt approximation.

I believe this is where veteran leadership can step in, far away from Washington and its useless red/blue pissing contest. I believe we have a calling. I believe we have a vital role to play in the process of moving this country forward. And I believe we are failing in that mission, through a combination of personal apathy and media marginalization.

We need to be stepping in to jobs and roles that fulfill the needs of our society. We need to be educating ourselves, and not depending on Fox News, MSNBC, or CNN for our information. We should be looking for, and calling out, the attempts at misinformation and censorship that is driving the country to indecisiveness and ruin.

They offer nothing but fear mongering and bad intel- and they should be left behind by the public in favor of objective, fact-based reporting. The public just needs to see respectable people taking that leap.

Many of us are very aware of the costs associated with following bad intelligence; the wrong decisions are made in their wake. Consequences thereof, in all their chaotic and unforeseen forms, will eventually come crashing into reality.The smoke clears and the mirrors get shattered, all that remains is what was true and what we decided to believe

Both ends of the current political spectrum are pushing out further, consistently and consciously utilizing that bad intel…and they are leading us away from one another by pushing us to believe that any other viewpoint is “unpatriotic”, “uneducated”, “socialist”, or “communist”.

They are pathetic labels to place on any citizen who is voicing their political beliefs. The labels come from fear; a desire to immediately discredit the words of the opposition. There is often little truth to them.

In this respect, vets have a distinct advantage. No one can question our patriotism, our love of country, nor our ability to serve selflessly; our records speak for themselves.

It also puts us in a position that we must not leave unfilled. I believe we will continue down the hateful path we’ve collectively chosen unless:

Those who have fought the wars are the ones considering if we push for more…

Decisions are being made by those who understand having less material things is not a hindrance to our lives; it allows for a more sustainable population, more mobility, and more money in our pockets…

Decisions are being made by those who understand that technology (such as solar and wind) can be a great help to become truly self-sufficient, and thus free of being at the mercy of foreign powers or a dwindling resource to meet our needs…

Decisions are being made by those of us who understand that hatred, love, truth, lies, and liberty are not exclusive to any one country or people- those priorities exist in proportion to the People’s desire for them.

I believe we have a responsibility as veterans to protect this country. Our oaths didn’t come with an expiration date, nor are they combat-specific. To leave military service, only to spend the remainder of our lives living for ourselves, and at a time when leadership is so desperately needed here, is a discredit to our namesake.

It is my great hope for veterans come home to continue the fight for this country. There is a violent battle raging here which threatens to tear this country apart…and divided we will most certainly fall.