Knowing my interest in military books (especially ones that are about young people), my friend Val, a book reviewer, let me know about this book. Thank you, Val! I quickly bought it, and contacted the author. Even though I’ve talked to a lot of soldiers, I still get a little intimidated. SPC Anthony is, of course, very kind and I’ve enjoyed trading emails with him (especially the ones about shopping, but that’s getting off-topic).
*Note: This post will contain some cursing and adult content. While the book is very much an adult book, I think there is much to be gained from reading this as a teen, and I (being very liberal in what I think teens and kids should read) would encourage young adult readers to pick up this book.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach this blog post because the book, at first, was very serious, and then it turned a corner and became very funny, and then I began to hate the Army, but then it was funny again and kind of weird. Here’s a great example (edited for length):
As Laveled approaches, I get in to the position of parade rest–hands behind my back, legs shoulder-width apart.
“Good evening, command sergeant major.”
“Good evening, soldier. Hot day out today. Good thing I’m not wearing any underwear.”
I know that I should laugh as a sign of respect, but I can’t. Command Sergeant Major Laveled says nothing. We both stare at each other, holding the other’s eye contact. I’m in no mood to play this game.
Twenty seconds goes by: What the hell is going on? Is he going to just stand here staring at me?
Thirty seconds: Why didn’t I just laugh at his stupid joke?
Forty-five seconds: I’m insane. I need to do something.
“At least I don’t get any wedgies this way,” he says after almost a minute of eye contact.
I continue to stare at him. Why is he just staring at me?
Twenty seconds: What is this guy’s fucking problem? Leave me alone you freak show!
Thirty seconds: Maybe I don’t understand the joke.
“I mean sometimes I get swamp ass, so I just do lunges and dry it up,” he says.
What the fuck is going on? This doesn’t even make sense.
Twenty seconds: Does this fucking guy really need my approval that bad that he’d have a staring contest with me until I act subservient and laugh?
Thirty-five seconds: I’ve got to do something
Forty seconds: I’ve got it!
I move the right side of my mouth up a half centimeter into what could be called a smirk.
Five seconds. . . .
Laveled looks at me and smiles.
“All right, very well, soldier: carry on with the day’s work.”
Oh dear God, I need to get out of here.
But there were many parts of the book that left me with a sad feeling about his experience and the state of the Army. Maybe that’s obvious since it’s a war book, but Anthony gave meaning to that sadness. And, there were notes of hope, mostly in what remained unsaid. Despite all the monkey business, fear, and hurt, he (as far as I can tell) remained honest, faced his fears, and as he said, “the goddamn army made me a man.” I love that line; it’s my favorite.
As a civilian, some of the sections that really struck me were when Anthony talked about old folks and kids supporting the troops. Take this section (again, edited for length):
I dump the contents from the package I received on the table: tuna fish, ramen noodles, a pair of used black socks, a notebook with half of the pages missing, and a pack of crayons from the family restaurant, Friendly’s. The package says it’s from a senior citizens group home in New Jersey.
These people are sending us everything they have, and most of us don’t deserve it. They aren’t sending provisions to the heroes they think we are. It is going to us doing shit jobs and others who are criminals; people doing drugs, committing crimes, molesters, adulterers; people doing anything they can to only help themselves. The worst part about these old people sending me this package is they think they’re helping. I don’t want to tell anyone the truth because it will just break their hearts.
So, I had to ask myself what does it mean exactly when we civilians say we support our troops? Are we saying we support the way the military is operating? Or are we saying we are supporting the troops in spite of it? I’d like to think we’re supporting the Michael Anthonys out there who even though they didn’t get what they thought they signed up for, are working hard making the most of it, pushing past the ridiculous, and becoming men. And oh yeah, risking their lives. I’d recently asked one of my friends in the army if it was weird when people thanked him for serving, or if he appreciated it. After reading Anthony’s book I wondered if he would have a different answer. So I asked him this question. And a couple others.
Jody: How does it make you feel when people thank you for serving in the army?
SPC Anthony: It is a great thing to be supported by your countrymen and it fills you up with a sense of Pride, while at the same time an awkward humility (I couldn’t even imagine coming back to what the Nam guys did) but at the same time, we can’t let it get to our heads, because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about praise and awards; it’s about doing the right thing, even if you don’t get any praise or awards.
Let me explain: I’ve met soldiers who go out of their way to let people know they’re soldiers just so they can be thanked. I’ve met soldiers who have lied just to get awards so they could look cool. The real soldiers that I’ve met and respect are the ones that shy away and get awkward when someone shakes their hand or says thank you. Only in the sense that: “we don’t do what we do in order to get praise or to win awards, we do what we do because we believe it’s the right thing to do.” So if you see a soldier who goes out of their way to let you know they served overseas. Or they’re constantly telling you all the cool things they did. Be wary of them.
The real veterans that I’ve met, are the ones you would never guess are veterans, because they don’t talk about it, are in the background, and get awkward when someone thanks them. I don’t know it’s hard to explain.
Jody: Actually, I think you explained it quite well. If you had it to do over again, would you?
SPC Anthony: Absolutely. Over in Iraq I helped save roughly 400 lives. If I didn’t do it all over again, who knows if someone would have been there to help those people out? Also, who knows how long some of these stories would have gone untold?
Jody: I know you’re the youngest of seven kids, but if you had a younger brother and he said he wanted to join the Army, what would you say?
SPC Anthony: I would let him know the truth: the high highs and the low lows. I came back from Iraq 21yrs old. I had 40 grand in the bank, had helped save hundreds of lives, had delivered almost a dozen babies, went through the trials and tribulations that come with surviving a war and made life long friends. I came back home a man, with money in the bank and the GI bill for school. But that also I would let him know. There was a lot of bullshit I had to put up with in order to get where I am/was. It’s not like the glossy brochures show you. It isn’t all glorious like the movies depict. Not everyone in the military is perfect. I would just tell him to prepare for the greatest time of his life, but also prepare that it may be the worst time of his life and he may come back either as a man, or a shell of a man. (Suicide, PTSD etc.)
SPC Anthony: I’m a full time student getting my degree in creative writing. I am also working on a screenplay of Mass Casualties. And I am working on a few other Non-Fiction projects.
Jody: That sounds great! I’ve learned a lot from reading your book and talking with you. I wish you the very best of luck with your writing projects and your career. And, thank you for your service to our country.
Purchase a copy of Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception, and Dishonor In Iraq or find out more about this book and author at Michael Anthony’s website or blog.