September 4, 2001 was my first day of active duty military service. Prior to this my main interests were sports and finding an awesome party on the weekend. My knowledge of our political system was near zero and I could not have told you the key differences between George Bush and Al Gore in 2000. I would end up joining the military at 18 after being badgered by recruiters every weekend, having no plans for college or a career and a father who seemed ready for me to move on. I joined for the reasons many of those who serve do: the GI Bill and a fresh start. One week before 9/11, I joined the Air Force since I thought I could travel around Europe and Asia.
September 11, 2001 is etched in many people’s minds, down to the smallest details of where they were and what they were doing when the planes hit. I’m no different. We were on lockdown shining our boots all day with no access to the outside world. From here on out, as you can imagine, we were being prepped to enter a war. I still had no appreciation for what the next few years would be like. For the next 11 months I would be training to become a C-130 loadmaster. The Texas unit I would be assigned to had one of the highest rates of deployment in the Air Force for the years I served. Just my luck.
December 23, 2002 was the first day of my first of four deployments. Operation Enduring Freedom was in full swing in Afghanistan. This was a long deployment. Forgive me, but the actual dates after I started deploying become foggy. This was what I would call my first step into the “real world.” I remember going to remote corners of Afghanistan on makeshift runways, transporting the dead or wounded, wondering how I could get through a scheduled 16 hour mission that began at 2 a.m. and would likely run later than expected. It was sensory overload as I think back, and I spent most of the time trying not to get hurt or mess up and get someone else hurt. I also was struck by how vast our operations were. We seemed to be everywhere. Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan, Djibouti—the list would go on and on. I estimate I would go on to stop in over 50 countries in my three years of being on a flight crew. Again—much of that became a blur so I lost count.
It was about six months later that I returned home. I had to dig deep on that first one but I am not sure the politics of it all had started sinking in yet. Most of the country was behind us at this time so I still believed in what I was doing. I was able to go home on personal leave and started to notice I had changed. It seemed many of the things on my mind were not on my friends’ or family’s minds. They would be nice and use words like “hero” but I never felt like one. I was just happy to be home. I did what I was told like everyone else. I also knew there were people out there being asked to do a lot more than I did. I would be home for a very short time (I remember it being less than two months) before I was told to deploy again, so I did.
My second deployment was at an Army base doing more of the same. I basically holed up in my tent when I was not flying. The deployments were starting to take a toll. I was becoming angrier but did not entirely know why. I started to see the waste of it all and had doubts creeping in about the overall mission.
March 30, 2003 was the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I watched at midnight chow while deployed in Afghanistan as George Bush spoke to the country and the bombs starting dropping. I just knew I would be there one day and things really started to stink to me. I had been reading more and more at this point about what was going on. The politics of it all started to connect with the vast war machine of which I was an active part. I felt that how the major networks reported things was not how I saw them “over there.” There was so much waste. I smoked a cigarette with a contractor who would drive us to the airfield from tent city. This was in Qatar, and so was not a combat zone. He made over $70,000 tax free to do this. Guys were getting electrocuted in the showers because of shoddy contractor work. We would fly a combat mission with one small bag of routine mail. Some friends even flew what we called “jingle” missions. This meant hauling a pallet of U.S. currency to be dropped off in Iraq.
Reading this, you may have noticed a lot of “me” and “I.” This is because up until now, that is how I looked at things. I wanted to get myself out of the military and on with my life. Around this point probably marks my first steps into socialism. Things became less about me I suppose. I started thinking about the Iraqi people and the politics of war-making. While flying overhead watching oil fields on fire, seeing countless bomb craters that made the country look like the moon, while transporting prisoners, while strapping down the coffins of soldiers younger than me and probably just as naïve in many ways, I began to detest what I was a part of. The military does not teach you to ask questions like “Why?” But once I started opening up that box to see what was inside it was impossible to turn back. I ask for no sympathy or pity. That should be saved for those we killed, wounded and displaced.
July 30, 2005 my father flew down to Texas to pick me up. A few weeks prior I was still deployed in Iraq. I still remember what an old Lt. Colonel told me and two friends before we left Iraq to out-process the military. To paraphrase: “Young men… I want you to get home and see your families. Have a great time. Be proud of your service, but realize that this never goes away. Don’t try to push it away. Learn to manage it.”
I had no appreciation for those words at that time. By this time I had been gone more than two of the previous three years. The food, smells, sounds, and pace of returning home can be refreshing and jarring at the same time. I was so happy to be home safe and sound, leaving the military behind. I was ready to begin my life.
I am older now and have not thought as much about this period of my life. I get choked up thinking about that weird mixture of hope and anger I had at that time. My family and friends were happy to see me of course. But, like many veterans, you start to realize your head is in one place and their lives have continued to move on while you seem stuck in Iraq or wherever else they sent you. I was so angry. Why weren’t they angry like me?
I enrolled in college right away because I knew I had to keep busy. I chose business because “jobs,” or something. I remained confused and angry but was lucky to have some great professors who truly began to contextualize and radicalize my thoughts. If I had enrolled at 18 I doubt these professors would have had the effect they did. By sophomore year it clicked for me. I would become an urban educator in Milwaukee Public Schools. I decided this would be my penance to humanity and I would use my experiences to teach my future students to think critically about stuff I simply did not understand before I joined.
August 30, 2012 was my first day in Milwaukee Public Schools. I learned quickly that those deployments would serve me well in my struggling high school classroom. I had bearing. I could dig deep to maintain standards or just create new opportunities for students. I knew some things about true teamwork and maybe even a little leadership depending on which student you talked to. My mostly poor students would go on to teach me things about my community I never truly grasped even if I tried to understand in college. These were mostly poor students of color in a hyper segregated city. I began to connect all of it together. It was capitalism. Capitalism forced me to go to Iraq whether it be for the GI Bill or the war hawks in Congress paid off by the oil industry. It was capitalism that kept over 90 percent of my students in miserable poverty in my hyper segregated city. I had stumbled right into socialism. I suppose George Bush could be thanked for this.
My journey does not make me special. I made the choice to join. I was simply forced to look in the mirror and rebuild my own moral and political framework. The terrible things I was a part of in the military inform me to this day. The experience drives me to be better. It motivates me from a deep place to keep pushing. I have learned to manage it. There is no turning back now. I am ready to do battle against capitalism for the long haul.