Veterans Day 2020: Stories ofJim Mashon and James Hughes
the photos in this blog are not mine, they are compiled photos from James and the photos of Uncle Jim are from my dad
I am going to attempt to write a blog that does these two Veterans justice. Honestly even if no one reads it, it brings me incredible joy to write down, for posterity sake, the stories that my family members have told. There is so much to say, so much story to tell. As most everyone reading will know, I am married to a U.S. Airman. We've almost been in the military for 10 years! It seems like it has flown by and we are at the halfway point of what we plan to be a career in service to the United States. I am not sure what life as a veteran will look like for Tyler, but I know it will be much different than what the transition was like for a WWII, Vietnam, Afghan vet, or any veteran who faced combat. For people like my Uncle Jim, I am sure life was much different after getting back from a war zone.
My great uncle Jim served in the Vietnam War as a radio man for the 101st Airborne. He was wounded in battle and received 3 Purple Hearts and 2 Bronze Stars for acts of valor in combat. He was drafted into service, my grandmother says, around '63 or '64. Because my uncle Jim passed away in November 2019, I asked my grandmama and my Dad, who Uncle Jim told a lot of his story to, some questions to get a picture of what our veterans of the Vietnam War lived through and faced coming home.
What it was like to have your brother drafted?
I didn't really think much about it. I didn't think much about the war or why we were there, I guess it was because I grew up during WWII. It was just a fact of life. If your leaders think that’s what you should do, then that’s what you do. Momma wasn't happy that Jim was drafted. She didn't think they should send him off because he was her only son.
Tell me what you remember about Uncle Jim's time in service...
He really only wrote letters to Momma, so I didn't hear much of his experience from him. We were resentful of how people treated the soldiers who were there. It was different if you had someone there. We went to his graduation at Fort Polk before he was sent to Vietnam. He was there for 6 months and then was injured. He wrote to Momma and Daddy about the firefight that got him injured, he never talked about it, so I learned about his injuries from her [Mom] and from the letter he wrote to them explaining what happened. From what I understand he was on top of a hill and there were foxholes (per Uncle Jim's letter) down in the valleys of the hill. He was supposed to be in those bunkers but in each one there wasn't enough room/or they didn't need him. So they went back. That night there was a firefight and the next day, there was no communication from the holes so they went down to check on them. Everyone was dead. While Uncle Jim was helping to pull out bodies and put them on the Hueys, the Vietnamese threw some type of charges into the area. It was there, with 6 others that Uncle Jim was hit. In his letter he describes one of the hits going straight through his right thigh.
Did Uncle Jim talk about it any after that?
No, he was very quiet about his service. He didn't like to talk much about it. The one thing he did tell me, which was the same feeling our family had, was that he was resentful of how the soldiers were treated when they got home.
I've noticed a few similarities amongst a lot of Vietnam veterans I speak to. Firstly, a lot were drafted. Which is something that I think we flippantly discuss today because it isn't something we are accustomed to and we just can't picture what it would feel like to be made to do something we had no intention of doing before. I mention it because we are lucky to have people who now choose to protect our country. But more so we take for granted the veterans who didn't have a choice but served with valor anyway, like those who fought in Vietnam. They were compelled to fight and in some ways, I think it makes the idea that we now have volunteers that much more meaningful. Because someone on the other side of the country, with a totally different dream for their future, would laid down their life on a distant island so that you could have the freedoms you have today... so that you could have a choice. And they did all of that, following orders, to come home and not get the recognition they deserve (regardless of whether the war was right or wrong.)
Secondly, they just don't like to talk about it. Spending my time as a history teacher I was often asked questions by students about war experiences of Vietnam veterans. I could find droves of first hand accounts and interviews about wars dating back to even the American Revolution. But the Vietnam veterans seemed to hold their stories much closer to their hearts. One commonality I read about is that many of them had opinions about if they should have been there (in Vietnam) or not, but to speak out against their friends who were still fighting would have been unfathomable. So the solution: don't speak at all. As a result, a lot of their stories are lost to the inevitable passing of time. This is why I try my very best to interview, talk to, and listen to any veterans' stories around this time of year. I owe them that. It is my responsibility to listen and try to understand what it meant to serve and what it meant to come home to an America that didn't value them, even if being over there was not of their choosing.
I want, wanted, my Uncle Jim to know that I appreciated him and was proud of him for his service.
Switching gears a bit, I called my cousin James who is an Afghan war veteran. My goal was similar, to not only listen to his experience but to make him feel appreciated. I am so proud of his service. I was able to speak to him for about two hours about his time spent in the Army. James was initially a member of the 10th Mountain Division, 3rd Brigade Special Teams Battalion, stationed in Ft. Drum, NY. After his time with the 10th Mountain, his second assignment was in Naples, Italy with NATO Signal Battalion south. He was deployed to Afghanistan twice.
Tell me what inspired you to join the military
I grew up wanting to fly jets and always pictured myself going to the Air Force. When I was in high school, I didn't really have a “way out,” so to speak. Didn’t have any academic or sports scholarships. Funny thing is, the Army actually called me, in fact right there at your parents table (James lived with us during his high school years). They said "we think we have a lot we can offer you and we think you'll like it." You might could say I jumped the gun a little bit but I joined because it seemed to fall in my lap like it was supposed to happen and it did give me my way out. You’re definitely trading a little bit of your freedoms, but there are good benefits too. I got an education at a school I couldn’t otherwise afford, you get to travel the world on “business trips,” meet a lot of people from different backgrounds and see unique cultures, like being in Afghanistan for several years time…maybe even meet your wife! (James met his now wife Erica at a Ferrari dealership in Italy) My friends would always joke and say “oooo you’re gunna come back with an Italian girlfriend!” I never dreamed that would happen, but look now! She's not just my girlfriend, she's my wife!
(I had the honor of being James and Erica's wedding photographer!)
What were your first days/months like in the military? What was going through your head?
Well, honestly....of course it's awful because like the whole objective is to wean you off of homesickness. But I will honestly say that none of it was unexpected for me. So when I got there I knew the whole time in the back of my head this is what they've been trained to do. One word to describe bootcamp: alienated. That's how they break that homesickness. My favorite part of bootcamp was shooting (no surprise there, James is a Mississippi country boy who basically was born with a rifle in hand).
You go to the range a lot in basic because most of the kids that show up have never shot before. But interestingly enough those kids have a better chance of being a good shot because they haven't developed any bad habits. But you also have to learn a lot about gun safety. It blew my mind how often "slip-ups" happened at the gun ranges with triggers being pulled. See, I was already squared away when I got there but a lot of those kids just have no idea.
James received the Expert Sharpshooter award during his bootcamp. He said: "-They give you one 20 round magazine for use "supported," meaning you can use a sandbag. Then 10 rounds of kneeling and then another 10 rounds unsupported. The targets range from 20 meters to 300 meters and they pop up at random intervals. You have to be able to adjust on the fly and there is a time limit." After a one time go, James hit 37 out of 40 and his instructors told him to go help others learn to shoot. He didn't know he had won the award until his graduation from bootcamp when they called him up in front of everyone. He said "That was my proudest moment. I knew that my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents were there. When they called me up for an award for shooting I knew in particular that my dad would like that!"
What were your deployments like?
My first deployment was in Kandahar, which is far south. There was a single highway there that crosses through the mountains into Pakistan and that highway was a hotspot for terrorists. Cause that's the highway troops were using. So, as you can imagine there was a lot of surveillance on that road since they were always trying to monitor that road. Part of my and my team's job was to keep the network going. We maintained the main hub and a backup system. I was primarily trained to operate the back up trailer and it was in a location that we didn't really have to worry about. I became the guy that ran around fixing cables and other people's problems. I learned a lot of things that weren't my job, broken computers, fiber optics, troubleshooting electronic stuff.
So we've talked a little about your first days in bootcamp, what about your first days deployed?
I'll never forget the way is smells. Afghanistan smells a unique way, and you'll never forget it, definitely in the dirt. A lot of other locations in Middle East that people deploy are sandy but Afghanistan is tons of dirt. We left from the airfield at Ft. Drum and stayed at this holding area for an entire evening and into the night. Then they stuffed us in an airplane at like 2 or 3 in the morning. We flew to Germany for about an hour, long enough to fuel up, and then headed to Kyrgyzstan. We stayed there for about a week getting briefings and then got on another aircraft to fly down to Kandahar in the middle of the night. Once we got there, for another about a week or so we got a few more training courses like IED trainings and stuff.
You move in the middle of the night and you carry ALL your stuff. Two bags, rucksack, rifle, and you just wear your armor cause it's easier that way. But man you got a lot of stuff. Unbelievable how much stuff you can carry, couldn't even see me for all the bags. After the trainings they sent me to FOB (forward operating base) Wilson and uh, it's pretty much a bunch of concrete walls in the middle of no where. I stayed there pulling door guard for the next month and a half maybe. I guess to describe it, everything moves so fast it's so confusing...you think you're where your working and then you're like "ohhh so this is where I'm working..." then they say nope let's hop on a helicopter we're moving! And then it happens again. But I remember most only moving at night so I didn't get to see much of the landscape during movements.
Tell me about life at the base
Well for the first two or three months, you are a little bit alert AND curious. They have alert systems that will go off when there is any incoming rocket fire. The base I was at was especially busy with rocket fire but a lot of the places they were firing the rockets from were set up really...rudimentary... so they weren't very accurate. But for the first two or three months you're pretty gung-ho about getting to the concrete bunkers they have around the base then you just kind of...disrespect their accuracy,
After FOB Wilson they put me on a helicopter and I headed to Tarin Kowt and I thought "oh great, maybe I can get away from all the rockets....WRONG! THERE WERE MORE." This time though, I was doing what I was trained to do instead of door duty. I remember several occasions when the rocket fire got a little close for comfort. One occasion I had just gotten off work and headed to the showers and I heard the alarm mid-shower. I remember thinking "just perfect timing. showers are such a nice thing to actually get." I wanted to finish my shower. The rockets were just close enough that they were rocking the ground and they kept getting closer and closer. With one the soap fell off the wall and I thought at that point...maybe it's time to go.
The scariest one was when I was with another soldier. We were on the NATO side of the base but the 101st airborne side had the best dining facility so we would go there to get chow. So one night we were driving back from getting chow and almost to the checkpoint. The guy I was with abruptly stopped our conversation and told me to listen. You could hear the alert in the background. The rockets start ripping through the air....BOOOOOM. It must have hit 100 yards away. The guys slams on the brakes and doesn't really put it in park so he's hanging out the side of the door. I reached over and threw it in park as more rockets start flying over. we jumped out of the car and crawled to the side on our bellies. I remember laying there thinking "man, I'm doing all I can do...if I get hit, there's nothing I can do." Eventually after the barrage the checkpoint door creaked open and they waved at us frantically to run in. We got up and sprinted in there. That was really a hair-raising night. One of those rockets hit one of the buildings they used for barracks, it didn't go through the roof but every person in there was shell shocked and were sent to Walter Reed in Germany.
Below are photos of some of the damage that rocket fire caused on the base, this was not the vehicle James in his buddy were in...thank goodness! It's full of holes!
What is it like transitioning out of the military?
I was lucky to be in a unit that was like a family because you naturally get help and it's easier to approach the "higher ups" who will freely offer advice and help. I can see where it can be hard to get out, though. My unit had plenty of programs and good folks that helped you move along. Before I got out I had a plan and pretty much knew what I was going to do,
In my opinion... I think what happens is that if you are irresponsible with your money during your time in, you get kind of stuck. It can be a bit of a shock with just how much money you need in the "real world." You don't have money for housing, you got to pay for food and can't eat at the mess hall. I think getting out, it's how you set it up. If you are actually preparing and doing some research, the day to day routine won't hit as hard.
My opinions haven't changed much about the war now that I am out. When I went in, I didn't have any definitive opinions about the war but I was assigned to escort this Afghan man to change the locks on the base. I thought that was odd, but no one seemed to think it. So as I walked with him I asked him questions to try to get to know him. I asked him how he learned English so well and he said that during the Russian occupation he was forced to learn Russian and took it upon himself to learn English, French, German and Spanish. He knew Pashtun, and probably knew Persian and Farsi too. Anyway, I was impressed. Basically he did such a good job around the base that he got hooked up with this Colonel who got him a bunch of jobs around the base, building him a resume of sorts so he could get to America. All this to say, that was just one of the many interactions I had with locals and I've seen that there are some people that just needed our mission so they could advance. For me, it was like "if I can help this guy get to America, or even improve his country and have a better lifestyle, then it will all be worth it." My purpose over there was for guys like that, good folks who needed a little help in their society.
One thing that changed for me was that I'm a little more...desensitized. I don't show much emotion anymore and I don't miss home nearly as much. It could be a bad thing, but for me I just look at it like I learned how to cope with situations.
What do you want people to know about veterans, or military service?
Military service, for anyone that is curious, is full of opportunities for self development. Just the way it's geared is naturally stressful but it means that you must develop some degree of discipline and basically grow up fast. All those things can be pretty distasteful to people because you are giving up a lot of your "childhood." But there's definitely a lot to be gained if you surrender to the process. One of my favorite things about the military is that you could be on the other side of the world and run into someone you served with in Afghanistan and it's the coolest feeling ever.
Short and sweet, there is a lot to gain in the military if you're willing to make the personal sacrifice.
As a society, we could gain a lot if we modeled our military like, Israel for example, who does mandatory service. I think that would make people appreciate that the generations before didn't have the choice...they had to fight, otherwise rights were threatened. I know a lot of people might disagree, but I personally can only see mostly positives coming from mandatory service. It would get everyone on the same page whenever a war comes around. People would understand and be in touch with why a war is fought, not that there aren't useless wars because there are plenty of those, but they would be much more informed on what is accurate instead of clicking on the TV and believing what the anchorman has to say.
Ultimately, for me, I have appreciation for people who did the real job decades ago. Because they made the ultimate sacrifices decades ago, I think we were set up for an easier type of war now.
Though it might seem trivial, I think the best way to pay tribute to our vets is to listen to their stories and give them an outlet to express just how different their lives are from most. I heard it said one time from a veteran, "we have one more experience than most." It seemed like such a "well yea" statement until I heard the stories of my uncle and cousin. I likely will never be laying on my stomach on the ground, like both of these men did at one point in their lives, wondering if I might die. Likely I'll never be sent to a foreign country in the dead of night and we probably won't see a generation of young men and women sent to the front lines through draft cards. That one more experience seems so much greater.
Those experiences deserve to be honored and heard. These two men, though entering under vastly different circumstances, answered the call for our country in their youth and gave our people their 115%. They didn't worry about politics, they didn't have opinions on who should be in charge or what a mission should look like, they simply put boots on the ground and got to work protecting their brothers and sisters in arms and their countrymen back home.
Thank you James, Uncle Jim, and thank you Veterans for all you did for our country.