Thursday, July 19, 2012

Three July 19s

Here are three Polaroid snapshots from my journal, three moments from three different July 19s in my life: one involving my mother-in-law, one written when I was in Iraq, and one from the vantage point of a bathroom stall in the Pentagon.  In some instances, the names have been changed.

July 19, 1998:  Jean said her mom used the phrase “an author of consequence” when referring to me yesterday.  Something like, “When David becomes an author of consequence, you’ll be able to afford to do things like that.”  An author of consequence.  Imagine that.  I guess I’m just an inconsequential writer right now.

July 19, 2005:  I get this e-mail from someone at the press desk at Corps headquarters (where we send all our press releases to be released under the Corps masthead—even though we also, simultaneously, release them to our own media list):
Please help me out here. I’m not looking to take the answer to my question anywhere, and I’ll keep mum, but I have to know. Why is Major Bumbledore [a public affairs officer] constantly spinning these releases?  It makes it difficult for me to justify the news value – I have instructed all my folks to strip the quotes and IO from any 3ID release before they go forward from here. Is it that he feels it’s a value-added thing? I’m hoping you folks – the writers – have already asked that question and maybe just got told to face forward and march. I’m really beginning to wonder. Please give me the straight answer.
            I sit there staring at that e-mail for the longest time.  I just don’t have a good answer for him because he’s right.  Major Bumbledore spins because he’s been told to spin by his commander and he doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the commanding general, or the chief of staff, and say, “We just need to give them the real deal without any pre-packaged bullshit.  Shoot straight from the hip, and so on.”  But, for whatever reason, he doesn’t.

Another day, another migraine

            If you think I’m being unfair, here’s another prime example of his wishy-washy nature…

           There is a young Private First Class in the 256th Brigade, by name of Tschiderer (pronounced “Shitterer”—I know, we got a good laugh out of it, too) who was at a security checkpoint a few weeks ago when he was shot in the chest by terrorists.  Tschiderer fell to the ground beside his humvee….then bounced right back up onto his feet and ran for cover behind the humvee.  He was all right—the bullet struck his thumb, then glanced off the armored plates in his flak vest before ricocheting away.  His chest had a bright red bruise the size of a teacup, but he was alive.  As soon as Tschiderer took cover, he told his teammates where the gunfire had come from and then, ears still ringing from the bruising bullet, he and his squad jumped in their humvees and pursued the terrorists.  They chased them through the neighborhood, firing at the fleeing terrorists and wounding the guy who had shot Tschiderer.  Here’s where it gets good.  Tschiderer is a medic, so as soon as he had put flex-cuffs on the guy who shot him, he started treating his wounds.  The guy shoots an American, gets shot by that same American, then as he’s writhing on the ground in pain, his victim—who he was certain he’d killed with a bull’s-eye to the chest—starts bandaging him up.  Here’s the other interesting part: the attempted assassination of Tschiderer was caught on tape, filmed by the terrorists to be used as propaganda for how they are slaughtering the Americans.  You can hear them praying to Allah as they squeeze the trigger and you see Tschiderer crumple to the ground.  But then, when he pulls his Lazarus trick, there is stunned silence from the terrorists, followed by immediate panic as the U.S. humvees head directly for their position.  Someone drops the camera and that’s the end of the tape (which was later confiscated by the Americans).

            As soon as we put out the press release, we started getting inundated with calls and e-mails from the media who saw a potential ratings coup in the human interest story.  When they found out there was also video of the kid getting shot, well then, all bets were off and the phone never stopped ringing.  With Bumbledore's blessing, Tschiderer started giving interviews to newspapers and TV.  Fox News interviewed him.  CNN met with his parents and did a lengthy feature piece on their reaction and included an interview with the kid via our satellite linkup.  Once the CNN piece aired two days ago, there was another spike in interest and Good Morning America, along with six other TV news networks, arranged to do an interview with Tschiderer yesterday afternoon at around 4 p.m.  GMA had even secretly arranged for a camera crew to be at his parents’ house and they were going to do a live, two-way interview with the whole family—the sort of gushy, feel-good stuff GMA is known for.  Coordination was made and Lt. Jackson was on his way to the front gate to pick up the news team with its satellite truck and cameras and microphones, when Bumbledore called the whole thing off.

            “No more interviews,” he said.

            “Why?” we asked.

            “Because,” he said.

            “Because why?” we asked.

            “We just don’t think the story has any news value.”

            “No news value?” we cried in disbelief.  “Sir, this is a GREAT story.  Besides, it’s already been all over the news.  There’s no stopping it.  That toothpaste is already out of the tube.  Sir, if we may ask, is this decision coming from the command group?”

            Bumbledore was mute as a stone.

            “This is a great story, sir,” we kept advocating.  “We can’t see anything but good from it.  It’s all about ‘love thy enemy’ and so on.”

            In his heart, Bumbledore may have agreed with us but he wouldn’t argue the point with the chief of staff, ole Colonel Laser Beam Eyes.  All Bumbledore would say was, “We think that if the terrorists see that video, they’ll realize they can shoot our soldiers in the chest and we’ll survive.”


            Yeah.  We wouldn’t want them to know what they already know, huh?  It’s not like the goddamned tape hasn’t already been played over and over again on TV.  It’s not like they don’t have VCRs where they can record the sniper video.

            Gah!  I was so frustrated over this one small inanity that I went home in a boiling rage yesterday.  Like I told Master Sergeant Coughlin, we expose our vulnerabilities every time we write a press release around here.  We can’t go around second-guessing what the enemy will figure out from our press releases—“Ah-ha!  That IED was successful, thank Allah.  Let’s do it again and maybe they’ll write another press release to tell us how we did, praise Allah.”

            So now, even though Tschiderer’s story has already been out there and the sniper video is easily accessible on the internet, we are canceling all future interviews.  Thanks to Major Jellyspine, we left Good Morning America stranded at the gate and, furthermore, we pissed off ABC News.

            Not a good way to conduct business.

July 19, 2007:  As I sit in the bathroom stall, I can hear the Pentagon tour guides walk down the hallway, lined with memorial quilts which were sent in after 9/11.  The tour guides have a memorized speech which they recite like programmed robots, rushing through the words without inflection, pause or heartfelt emotion (okay, maybe one or two of the tour guides put some effort into it, but they are a rarity).  “Ladies and gentlemen, the area we are walking in right now has actually been rebuilt twice.  After workers were nearly completed with the original renovation, the Pentagon was subjected to a terrorist attack on September 11th, Two-Thousand-and-One.  This did not deter the workers from completing the project on time.  They vowed to have this section of the Pentagon re-opened within a year.  Now, this was not part of their contract, this is something they strongly believed they needed to do.  This was known as the Phoenix Project, named after the mythical creature which rises, reborn, from the ashes.”

            I work in Room 1E460, the precise spot where the nose of Flight 77 struck the building.  My office is where the plane entered and barreled through, all the way to C Ring.  If I’d been sitting here on that day, I would have been vaporized.  It’s spine-chilling to think about all those people who once sat where I now tap on my keyboard.  Every day, I work with ghosts.

            Our halls and bathrooms are cleaned by contractors and most of them are workers with disabilities.  There’s John, the rotundly cheerful black guy who comes in every day to vacuum our floor.  He will always chat with us while he’s moving about the office with his feather duster.  He also likes to swipe hairpins from my female co-workers’ desks.  Then there’s the Muttering Chinaman who is always pushing a wide floor broom around our hallway.  He talks to himself in Chinese, sometimes stopping to laugh at something he’s just said, then resuming his low, incoherent babble.  Major Oliveras thinks he’s not really brain-damaged, but is actually a spy collecting intelligence.

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