Sunday, July 12, 2009

Where there's smoke, there's at least something....

By Joshua M. Patton

My experience with smoking began in the military. At the high school I attended, smoking was quite popular. A lot of kids would smoke, some excessively, but it seemed like something that I did not want to do. I tried it a few times, but it never took. I was fairly fit and when I joined the Army after high school, I found myself enjoying my physical fitness, although I never enjoyed running. I drank enough, but never found the allure of the cigarette with drink. Most of the time we children were drinking pure piss like “hard” lemonade or some semen-colored stuff with a Russian name or, conversely, Mad Dog 20/20. Alcohol can be a delicacy, but that shit is pure poison and I had not lived hard enough at this point in my life to survive drinking that and the slow smothering hell that is smoking.

It wasn't until I deployed to Bosnia as part of a peace-keeping mission that I found smoking. The Army is essentially the worst job you have ever had. You have no freedoms beyond what you are given by the people most directly associated with your life. I am not disparaging the military, but I am highly critical of how it functions. For example, the supervising NCO on our shift was a hard man that respected quiet, work ethic, and diligence. I was fortunate to serve with some very pretty, very interesting ladies, they worked under the supervision of another soldier, one that had a more progressive management style. Real six-sigma, paradigm-empowerment bullshit, but it proved effective with his soldiers. I was not allowed to break from my work to have a conversation, even in passing with these young women. I am 19 years-old and had been trapped in the sexless army for my second three-month-long stretch in a year. I knew at least one of them liked me, so I told him that I smoked and it was my smoke-break.

“Smoke break? I didn't know you smoked, Patton,” He told me.
“Sure,” I said, “I usually smoke when I drink, at you know-houseparties and stuff. I really miss that and even though there's nothing to drink, I have a smoke and it kinda feels like home. I never really understood how it relieved stress before, Sergeant, but damned if I don't understand it a little better now.” He looked me over and I thought I was sunk. It was a freestyle lie, something I was actually thinking about for shallow character in a terrible one-act play set in a guard tower I was writing when I was actually in guard towers. It must have really sounded absurd, especially since my Sergeant was the farthest thing from an intended audience that I could have had.
“Sometimes, I forget how young you kids are. It's a terrible habit, I quit nine years ago and it was like having a second life, but hell, you've barely started yours. When you get home though son, just go back to not smoking, it's better for you.” It was over and I could take a smoke-break pretty much anytime I wanted for the remainder of our time there. I eventually did hook up with that girl and we continued to smoke and fuck our way through what was, to us, a long deployment. Yet, it was as if the Sergeant's words were a curse, because I went home and the relationship continued beyond our forced solitude in Eastern Europe. So did the smoking. She actually quit smoking soon after returning home, but it stuck for me this time.

Today, I read that the military is considering a ban on smoking and the use of all tobacco products. They did the same thing to drugs and alcohol in the field after Vietnam, but this is the first time it was something the military used to ration to the soldiers with their meals. This is being considered because of the overall improvement in the health of soldiers; their bodies will not have to deal with the effects of that destructive behavior and ultimately will lead to a healthier, fitter fighting force. It sounds like excellent reasoning for complete and utter bullshit.

Army suicides have been on the rise at record-pace for the past two years according to, and I can't imagine what would happen to the morale of the smokers no longer allowed to at least express freedom, even if it is only by willfully poisoning oneself. Sure the Army has taken steps to correct the issue, yet somehow avoiding the answering of all of the relevant questions. The plan seems to be a focus on family and it is arguably working at Fort Hood ,where day shift soldiers are told when to be home for dinner and given afternoons off to spend with their families. Sounds nice doesn't it? Well, it isn't. It is actually the exact opposite of what they should be doing. It's all the proof I need that they don't actually care about the welfare of soldiers or the achievement of progress, but merely the appearance of doing such.

Perhaps I am being unfair, but the ignorance almost feels willful. Anyone who has served can tell you that while you may be defending freedom, you are in possession of none. They tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to relieve yourself, when to work out, when to play, and now they are telling these poor fools when to be with their families. What is the command for that I wonder? “COMPANY, raise CHILDREN!” It can crush the spirits of the men and women that must live it without their family in a desert that remains cold even when the temperate is over 140 degrees. These people are barely able to communicate effectively with their families while deployed and are constantly in possession of at least 15 rounds of ammunition and a working weapon. I have never traveled down this dark path, but I have stared into the mouth of it – I have known many who have taken their own life. I have also been a fan of others who have ultimately chose to end their lives: David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and Kurt Cobain. There are as many different reasons for suicide as there are those that consider it. Yet, for soldiers I feel that it is a final act of defiance that is simultaneously the last expression of freedom for one already doomed.

Screening for mental health issues upon returning from these missions is horribly backwards and broken. It deserves its own examination, but in short, improvements in this field would go miles farther to achieve healthier soldiers than a ban on smoking. It is during the redeployment that soldiers are offered some sham help, in my experience in the form of questions on a worksheet and the promise of a future appointment. Others have been directly interviewed, but medical interviews in the military are quite often lies on top of lies from both parties. In either case, the soldier would be required to remain in this redeployment process at the redeployment location, often not near their homes, indefinitely. Who wouldn't believe that all they really needed is the familiar surroundings of home? Surely they dreamed of them every night they spent in those cramped, dark places where the military will nestle in. This doesn't even take into consideration the stigma in the military associated with treatment for mental health issues. The choice for the soldier can arguably be called a choice between career suicide or actual suicide.

Even the most troubled addicts in the most intense rehabilitation programs for the gamut of substances and behaviors allows their patients caffeine and cigarettes. It is practically encouraged, despite the blatant contradiction to the very ideological center of program itself. They're just people. Not even the type of people that have that much of a value in the eyes of society. Drug addicts and the dregs of the sociological spectrum, these are not people anyone really expects anything out of other than to be let down. Yet, our heroes, our brave soldiers are held in the highest of regard. To admit that something as trivial and unpopular as quitting smoking could break them is considered, but not seriously. Also, think of what better role models they'll be for the kids at the parades!

With everything that the military implements, it will be a slow-moving process and one wonders how they will make it stick. I recall one night at sunset in Iraq, I was standing on the back of a truck destroying the mail that deserved it (catalogs, credit card offers, and that tripe) by throwing it into a smoldering pile of garbage. It was an eerie setting, but somehow breathtaking. I paused and sort of took it all in. I was roused by the coughing of my assistant driver, him a non-smoker, because of the fumes of the burning trash. It was a pretty vicious fit and I threw away the last two bags and we left. We drove up the hill and arrived at the gate, run by a civilian contractor probably making $90,000 a year. He sat in a small booth, often smoking a cigar, and would press the button to release the gate when we would sign in and out on a hanging clipboard. He rarely left the booth, he knew better than to breathe in that smoking death in the burn pit. “It's what you soldiers get paid for,” he'd say laughing, but looking sinister behind a haze of smoke.
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