Shopping the Humble, Texas Kroger’s late on Sunday night is a pleasure because there are no lines and no rolling shopping carts with bodies attached to avoid. But, even after 10 p.m., there always seems to be something of interest in these remote suburban places.
Down the pet food and birdseed aisle a lanky figure called out to me, “Hey Mister Walker, is that you?” As he slinked closer, I began to recognize him, but not his name. His thin, football face, seemed hauntingly familiar. Perhaps 6’2”, this gangly, dark-haired youth sported a small silver spike tacked like a nail, just under his lower lip. Two silver rings perched high on his left ear, and a dangly piece of nondescript silver chain hung from his right ear lobe.
Loose-fitting gray tank top and pair of black cutoff jeans trimmed out his jumping jack form, and narrow white sneakers with dirty laces protruded from the bottoms of toothpick legs. I knew this boy. He was the tag-along kid brother of Michael Peña (pronounced Pen-ya), a high school friend of my son Scott. These boys when barely teenagers came down to my old house in the woods at the dead end of a gravel road in old Humble. They came to play in the woods, to finger video game controllers, and to just hang out at my old single-dad bachelor shack. It was their place away from home. Their own parent’s eye could not watch them there, but the parents came to visit me just to see what the attraction was. Immediately, they knew the boys would be all right.
See, I had rules, too. If you broke something you fixed it. Cash would not get the crime dismissed. You had to fix it. There was an unspoken code. No hitting allowed. You had to behave like young gentlemen and show respect for each other, property, and for me. The payoff was that you could be wild and free if you chose to live in the world in good faith. Nobody broke the rules, I surmised, because the boys did not want to get sent home from such a fun-filled gathering place in the woods. Scott and his friends were all born around the mid-1970s, but this youngster who hailed me in the pet food aisle was much younger.
Dustin. That was his name, I remembered, as he told me of his life of just 26 years. I had known him before when he must have been scarcely 12. At community college, he said, he had earned an associate degree in science. It took him three years, he said, to get 60 accredited hours. Associate degree, he called it. He needed at least sixty more for a diploma. But he had it all planned, marvelously. He was going to LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after his hitch Army, and would become a petroleum engineer.
“Army? What army?” I asked.
“I joined the Army.” he told me.
“The Regular Army?” I asked.
“No sir. The Army Reserves.” he said, looking at his shoes.
Dustin had lived with his schoolteacher mother, but in the last decade or more, he had worked hard at many jobs and managed to get his own place. A forklift operator, Dustin had a tight budget. Proudly, he said he had managed to pay his own way after moving out on his own. He beamed when bragging about how he had skimped to pay for his own books and tuition at Harris County Community College in North Houston. I liked Dustin. His drive moved me. My faith in youth came back for a moment. It was good.“
I couldn’t pass it up.” Dustin sighed. “They gave me a 20 thousand dollar bonus flat out for signing up.”
“Twenty thousand just for signing up in the Army Reserves?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, excited, “And another twenty thousand to pay for my college at LSU.”
I congratulated him. Even though these young innocents had grown into young men, they still liked to hear “Atta boys,” it was certain. With gusto, I heaped them on.
“I got Reserve drills once a month for six years,” Dustin continued, “but heck, I get $850.00 for each drill.”
“Wow!” I blurted. “I was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve and got only $50.00 a drill for one weekend a month. But that was a long time ago.”
Indeed, the 1970s was a long time ago. There was a military draft back then. But you could avoid it if you had connections. Thanks to Sid Ager, Ben Barnes, and General Rose, commanding general of the Texas Air Guard when the war raged in Viet Nam, George W. Bush never saw combat. Bush got a direct commission from General Rose and was assigned to the Texas Air Guard in Houston where there was a zero chance of seeing active duty or combat. But as for the rest of us, you had to go. You had no choice. I had a college diploma just like Bush, and got drafted, but I had to attend months of Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. to earn a commission as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. Direct commission, my ass.
Then Dustin told me the bad news.
“I will have to go to Iraq,” he said, pausing to study my eye. “Maybe two times in all, Mr. Walker.” His tone had grown a little solemn and muted. I could feel the momentary shadow pass over us both.
“Two times in combat? Twice?” I asked. “But you’re in the Reserves.”
“Yeah, but that’s the deal I signed up for, Mr. Walker.” Dustin replied. “One, maybe two full combat tours of duty in Iraq on active duty.” He was going, alright.
In Colin Powell’s autobiographical book, My American Journey Powell protested strongly the drafting (conscription) of less fortunate ethnic groups like blacks and Hispanics, conscripted to fight in wars while rich kids could slide and get out of combat by joining a Reserve unit. Then the Reserves did not go to war; today they do. But while there is no longer a draft, economic hard times do weigh heavily on poor kids with a dead end job, no health insurance, nor the income to keep up with the spiking prices of gas at the pump. Colin Powell words were those of a true champion of the common man. But that was before he joined Bush and disowned his own high principles of which he wrote in his own autobiography.
All a young Hispanic male like Dustin with no one to help him pursue his dreams or to give him a leg up on life’s mountains, is himself. He’s it. He has no health insurance, no savings, nor the ability or resources to go to college full time. He works in addition to going to school. So here comes the Army waving 20 thousand dollars as a signing bonus, another 20 thousand to pay his college, and then $850.00/month X 12 months/year X 6 years obligation (if he makes it through) = $61,000.00. Such a deal.
Dustin had to join the Army. There were no good alternatives. And our president, devoted to protecting us from terrorists, is really saving us a bundle by paying Dustin to join the Army Reserves. You see, the total cost of a RESERVE soldier like Dustin is chicken feed compared to what a Blackwater private mercenary soldier would cost the taxpayers. You’re talking $600,000. So Bush is saving us money, don’t you see?
I wished Dustin good luck, and as I wheeled my groceries through the parking lot, I fought back a tear. Perhaps it was the wind, I thought. I had known this boy and had seen him grow up. All things considered, the deal he had struck with our government was the absolute best opportunity he had.
On that same day, May 18th, NBC Evening News had interviewed two Army Reservists who had been stop-gapped in the Iraq War. Stop-gapped is where right before your Army contract is up, the Army recaptures you to serve on active duty indefinitely to combat duty in Iraq, again and again. It’s arbitrary. Our leaders say it’s for the good of America, maintaining continuity in the same conflict, or other such horse shit. It’s like being trapped in a recurring nightmare, only it’s real. So are the bullets and roadside bombs. The soldiers interviewed on NBC spoke with disbelief and glazed eyes as they clutched their young sons, daughters, and wives, one last time.
Their time had run out. Again. Surprise, surprise. How cruel can we be?
We just don’t get it, do we? So how much is a 26-year old American Reservist soldier worth? Looks like Dustin can make upwards of $100 thousand dollars for bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq. Free room, meals, and burial (if necessary), of course. Quite a business.
Bush’s War, I thought. Today, May 22, 2008 Congress gave Bush another 165 BILLION DOLLARS OFF BUDGET for his Iraq War, based upon Saddam Hussein having Weapons of Mass Destruction trained on the United States of America. That was 5 years ago. Still, no WMD. Now we know where the big money is going, to lure young innocents like Dustin to fight for their country. And because our national debt approaches 10 TRILLION DOLLARS, the Chinese will loan us the money. Is that a lose-lose proposition or what?
Dustin, I salute you. At 26, you have managed to display more courage than our Commander-In-Chief ever did. He never had the guts to volunteer for combat as you did. He checked the ‘Do Not Volunteer’ for overseas duty box on his application when the Viet Nam War raged. But hold the phone. Let’s be fair. To do his part in the Iraq War, Bush did volunteer to give up golf.
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