A short while ago, I “dropped my RCC.”
RCC stands for Request Change of Component, and “dropped” means, “filed the paperwork.” This initiates a transfer of my status from Select Reserve (SELRES – those reservists who are drilling on the weekends, doing a minimum of two weeks active duty time a year, and are ready to mobilize for any contingency) to the Individual Ready Reserve or IRR, an unpaid, non-drilling force that maintains a modicum of military readiness, but who generally aren’t called up except in the event of an existential crisis (i.e. invasion of the homeland). The SELRES are uniformed warfighters. So are the IRR, technically, but the truth is that we’re more of a territorial militia, a pool of experienced military veterans who will be dipped into only in the time of greatest need. IRR reservists still do a couple of weeks of unpaid service a year, mostly through correspondence courses. We do administrative work to help keep the military machine running, and we may even occasionally put on the uniform and stand the watch as volunteers.
This was an extremely painful choice for me. I love military service, and the Coast Guard in particular, with a passion that anyone who followed me on social media couldn’t fail to notice. I wanted to explore my reasons here, because so many of you have been so incredibly supportive of me throughout my years as a SELRES officer.
– Many SELRES members are “weekend warriors.” They do their drill, then go home and forget about the military for a month. I am intensely proud to say that I was never that guy. Station New York is the most demanding posting in the guard, and I did hundreds of unpaid drills in order to meet mission requirements and keep myself certified and proficient as a law enforcer and search-and-rescueman. But the demands of my career with the police and writing continued to mount, until one day one of my sailors asked me for a letter excusing him from his civilian job to go to military drill. The letter was a paragraph long.
It took me a week to write it.
When he finally had to chase me down to get this simple letter, I realized that I was stretched to the breaking point. I could command my unit and do my work for the police and write two novels a year and satisfy all my myriad social obligations, but I couldn’t do all those things WELL.
One of the things I adore about the military is its unabashed pursuit of excellence in everything. It’s in the attention to detail, in the relentless self-discipline. I cannot stand to screw up. I cannot stand to be that weekend warrior, who does the bare minimum and then lets the system handle the rest. The Coast Guard commissioned me to be a leader. That means I have to push twice as hard, I have to be the example to which others aspire. I know any officer reading this will agree with me when I repeat the oldest axiom in our cadre: You always lead from the front.
I can’t do that anymore. It’s less than my sailors deserve.
– And I was finding myself angry and frustrated more and more often. Because while I love the military, writing is the dream of my heart, the thing I’ve wanted to do more than anything else all my life. And after the police and the guard took their due, there was less and less time to do it in. I found myself writing in the few minutes I could snatch during a commute, or in hours stolen from pressing military administrative tasks. I could find the time to write, but only at the expense of being good at other things.
I’ve always known which would win if I ever had to choose between being a writer and an officer. Every day, that choice became clearer and clearer.
– The last reason is tougher to talk about, but I feel like I have to. I’ve changed.
Let me put this in a nerd context: When my unit at DIA founded a softball team, my jersey read CAPTAIN AMERICA on the back. My teammates meant it as a ribbing, but for me it was the highest compliment that could ever be bestowed.
When I first got involved in armed service, it was during the post 9/11-furor. I genuinely believed that our way of life was directly threatened, and that if I didn’t do something grand and dramatic and immediate that everything I loved would be lost. I was closer to Mark Millar’s vision of Cap from The Ultimates – the aggressive warfighter, the coiled snake in the Gadsden flag. This Cap is aggrieved, belligerent, ready to do anything and everything to protect his people. He embodies the words of that old Metallica standby: never begins it. Never, but once engaged. Never surrender, showing the fangs of rage.
Three tours in Iraq put paid to that notion. I went to fight al-Q’aida, and instead hunkered down under indirect fire from mostly Shi’a old men and young boys, shooting off decrepit, refurbished rockets for the paltry sums they needed to keep their families fed for another day. These people hadn’t attacked us on 9/11. They weren’t planning to attack us in the future. And we were killing them. I was killing them.
More revelations followed: Manning and Snowden, the slow reversal in Iraq, watching everything I fought for, that my friends died for, return to the hands of ISIS. I finally stood in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, DC as Obama announced that we were sending another 1,500 troops to Iraq and I asked myself: “if they called you now, would you want to go?”
And I realized that, for the first time, the answer was, “no.”
Reservists augment the active duty, but the truth is that we exist for one reason and one reason alone: to be mobilized. You join the Reserves to answer when the trumpet sounds. And if you can’t do that with all the commitment and dedication that warfighting requires, then you have no business standing the line.
Military service is a written contract, but it is also an unwritten one. Military members agree to lay down our lives when the people, through their elected representatives, ask us to. The people, on their end, agree to not spend those lives needlessly, to only ask the last full measure of us as an absolute last resort.
A contract has to be honored on both sides to be valid. The years since 9/11 have shaken my faith that I will be asked to fight for what is right. I can no longer be certain that if I am killed, it will be for something more than a defense contractor’s bottom line, or a voting bloc of citizens refusal to exercise the intellectual rigor necessary to understand complex issues and make sober decisions. I watched in horror as we threw our weight behind Syrian insurgents fighting the Assad regime, most of whom were the very same brand of extremists I had dedicated years of my life to fighting. What if I was called to train them? To fight alongside them? What would I do?
None of this changes how much I love the military, or how dear I hold the friends I have made in it. It is an evolution. In some ways it is like a marriage where the spouses grow in different directions. Effective military service requires people to function much as machines. This is right and proper, and by design. Good military operations must often be executed on a knife’s edge. I’ve said before that deadly force and billions of taxpayer dollars can’t be subject to individual idiosyncrasy. Members can’t agonize over decisions. That’s the job of policy-makers, the civilians who set the direction, and the operational commanders who carry it out. If the order is legal, you execute it. And if you can’t do that, you bow out and make room for someone who can.
I do not judge those who serve for different reasons. Cap’s just one of the Avengers, remember. It takes all kinds. I still serve in government, working with the police to keep the people around me safe. I am, as always, still in the fight.
The IRR can be activated for worldwide service, sent anywhere for any reason, but the truth is that we aren’t. If I am mobilized in the IRR, it will be because the need is real and genuine, because a threat has touched down on our shores, because it is direct and immediate. That is what I signed up for.
That is the Captain America I am now. Ed Brubaker’s Cap, a deeper thinker than Millar’s, kinder and more careful. Just as willing to fight, but for the right cause and in the right circumstances.
Still Cap, but a different one. One I like better, one I’m more proud of.
I understand that some may not understand this decision, nor the motives which drive it. I understand it may draw fire from some quarters.
And that’s fine. Because military service taught me this: that you stand up for what you believe in. You tell the truth, and you stick to the helm when the storm comes on.
That’s what Cap would do, in any incarnation.
I said this before, in an earlier blog post on use-of-force: I can part with pride, I will never part with honor.