As You Were: To War and Back

… the 1 percent who volunteered to serve, while the rest stayed home, unburdened by so much as a tax increase to help cover the costs of war. …In this war, as one historian said, the military went to combat while the rest of the country went to the mall. And without a draft, nearly half of that 1 percent belonged to the citizen-soldiers of the National Guard and Reserve, who were being called for two and three tours and at one point constituted more than half of the army’s combat force in Iraq. ( p. 5)

The reader cannot help but note the dedication of the book, As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard by Christian Davenport: … and to the citizen-soldiers, who go when called. On the next front mater page a quote: …Nostalgia: the pain of returning home (Tim O’Brien, Going after Cacciato). These periods in the National Guard experience; recruitment/signing, guard-life, being called up, Iraq service, and coming home, are what the book is about. Specifically, here are the lives of four guardspersons and one spouse. All Americans would wish, that especially the returning home of soldiers would not be painful … but is was, for all four servicepersons.

The book addresses, no hits, many underpinning sentiments of veterans and citizens on the benefit and necessity of military service and troop commitments, especially the draft. Even the hint of an expression of any of the many sides of a view will trigger heated responses. Issues of combat avoidance, service evasions, draft dodging, genuineness of citizen’s gratitude, the election of officials with no or questionable military experience, and the often quoted maxim: rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.

And then there was one girl (a William and Mary student) who said, incredibly, “I thought only poor people went to war.” (p. 24)

Have trouble with their issues? Don’t (but seriously, you should) read this book. Yes, their lives were disrupted with the call up; and, yes, they did volunteered. These tales deals with the lives of real people facing these very real haunting questions and predicaments.

Upon returning, family and friends were of course delighted to see them. It was good to be home. The community too, brought out the marching bands, food and cake at the churches, and there were lots of speeches and flag waving by public officials. However, this is not the pain which is the subject of this book. The soldiers had usual post-war memories of combat and had to deal with their personal (spouses, self-doubt, etc.) life; but the pain which was the harshest disappointment was that arriving on Monday morning. The sting talked about in the book was the day after the weekend of parades and welcome home parties; the agonizing wait for the phone to ring with the expected job offer … the calls which never came.

True, waiting for this call is a misery shared by many soldiers, particularly for the Vietnam veteran who was more often spit on then offered an attractive job. It was not just the absence of a genuine expression of gratitude from a grateful nation; but the discovery that there was a lack of recognition and appreciation for the skills acquired in combat. The punch was the shock of finding that your military experience was not looked on as a positive asset for employment, something to be proud of, to list first on your job resume. The hurt was the realization that your service and war earned skills may even be seen as a negative (perhaps bearing mental problems, or a stigma that you were not one of the best-brightest who would have went straight to college), and the not so subtle hint that it might go better if you left your military service off the application or resume, or at least making it as minimal as possible.

Sudden departures, leaving the family with short notice, and no home based support were particular problems for the guardspersons. When applying for a job, the possibility of being called up with no notice was a special difficulty and obstacle for future employers. National Guard personnel and their family faced life and the situation alone, even without the community support network of fellow service personnel available in the regular military.

The lead story article in the May 24, 2009 issue of The Washington Post Magazine, featured a cover picture of one of the persons in this book: Craig Lewis. The article is entitled, The Penalty for Serving, and is adapted from the book. The front page description of the inside story tells it well: Craig Lewis is a helicopter pilot with combat experience and a college degree. So why didn’t anyone seem interested in hiring him after he returned from Iraq?


    In addition to Craig (the book uses their first names widely) there are stories of three other guardspersons in the book.

    Miranda Summers, was a sorority sister at the College of William and Mary and a helicopter door gunner in Iraq. Upon her return she visited Brown University in consideration of graduate school where she inquired about the school’s veteran affairs coordinator to assist with her GI Bill

    “The who?”

    “Your veteran affairs coordinator,” Miranda said. … “You’re required by law to have one.” …

    … The secretary thumbed through a campus directory but found nothing. (p. 162)

    The second section introduces Ray Johnson, and his wife Diane. Ray, a fifty-eight year old grandfather of seven, an instructor pilot and forty year veteran who was “… the antithesis of the stereotypical portrayal of Vietnam veterans-bereft and homeless, trying to chase away their ghost with booze and drugs.” (p. 31) Ray, and especially Diane, carried a lot of conscience baggage from the Vietnam war era and the disparity of justice of military service, For Diane, especially, it carried over to the Iraq conflict:

    During Vietnam it wasn’t only the draft dodgers and the college kids who avoided combat. … The Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Lyndon Johnson to call up the reserves. So did Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who told the president it “would be a vehicle for joining together support.” General Harold K. Johnson, the Army Chief of Staff, threatened to resign in protest, and would later say that the failure to call out the counties (sic) citizen-soldiers “was, I think, the greatest single mistake that was made.”

    But LBJ was content to send a steady stream of draftees, who were by and large from lower classes and without much political influence. By contrast, Guardsmen and Reservists were, according to one study, “better connected, better educated, more affluent, and whiter than their peers in the active forces, and the administration feared that mobilizing them would heighten public opposition to the war.” (p. 73)

    Kate Broome was delivering pizza when she spoke to an Army recruiter:

    “You smoked pot once and didn’t like it,” the recruiter said again, and Kate got it: He wasn’t asking her. He was coaching her about how to handle questions about her past drug use.

    “Right,” she said.

    Not a problem, the recruiter said. Stay clean for three weeks and we’ll test you then. (p. 39)

    Kate served as a medic in Iraq with the trauma and guilt of not being able to rescue every causality. Her services were so extraordinary in one case she was awarded the Bronze Star for her efforts in saving a marine. Her problems and encounter with the VA, having been diagnosed and suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are detailed in the book. She waiting six weeks to get an appointment, and on the phone spending “a total of about a six hours on hold but never got through.” (p. 186)

    The stories of the individuals in the book are well told by the author. He covers with descriptive detail their life and stint in the National Guard, the unfolding events associated with the call-up, their experience in Iraq, and their return home. With the author’s poignant script we get to meet these actors in this national play.

    If you think America is proud of its military personnel, and demonstrates its gratitude and support by flag waving and speeches, this is the book for you. Pay special attention to the epilogue – Citizen-Soldiers: The Conscience of a Nation. The entire book is a wakeup call. The story of four persons (and a wife) who willing served their country when called and how they dealt with their personal battles and triumphs.

    As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard

    Christian Davenport

    John Wiley & Sons, Inc, Hoboken, NJ

    260 pages, 2009

    Lionel A. Varnadoe, Jr., a member of the National Book Critics Circle writes books, articles, and reviews on a variety of topics and can be reached through NewsBlaze