Monday, June 9, 2014

A Life of Service? Roger That.

This is the fifth in my series of Rolling-Stone-reporter-wannabe interviews, entitled... I've always had a hard time with the let's just call it, "Friends with great stories."

For the past six months, my teenager has been hard at work on her life story, also known as her eighth grade portfolio. The girl's only fourteen but holy sweet mother of toner cartridges, this juggernaut has grown to the size of the Chicago phonebook! 

How's that for an old man joke? I've been practicing.

My point is that, regardless of how long we've been alive, everyone's got a story to tell. And heavens to mergatroid, a few of us have carved out lives with such colorful chapters, I feel obligated to share them.  And if I had to find a common denominator, I'd say my friends who've sacrificed the most, those who've lived lives of compassion, have had the most amazing journeys. 

Yada yada, Yoda. Post that beautiful meme to Facebook and move along.

I met Rog (pronounced Råhjhhj) in a high school weight lifting group. We were on the football team, and the coach had made it unofficially mandatory to take his P.E. class. Rog and I ended up working out together (I use the term "working" more loosely than a Limbaugh jowl) and spent fifty minutes every day making fun of the coach and pulling up our tube socks. 

We cracked wise as our chubby leader spat coachisms out his frothy mouth cracks, his polyester shorts buzzing like a little table saw where his thighs ground together. He clapped his meaty hands and snorted out football clichés: "Get strong, Trojans! Hum babe! I see a band of  warriors in this room who are gonna pin their ears back and lay some wood to Kennedy High School on September 9!" 
Lay some wood? Yeah, when September 9 finally rolled around, think balsa wood. 

"Owoooohhh! Let's get it on!" That was the dude we called Mole Man, our own version of Rudy, yelling from over by the squat rack. He was about five feet four and you could set your watch by his robust testosterone geysers. "Let's go, men! Hurts so good!"

During our two years together playing for mighty Troy, the team compiled a 2-16 record, amounting to a winning percentage of just over eleven. Didn't hurt very good to get beaten 54-6 by Evergreen, but a few hushed sideline jokes among the less serious salved the emotional contusions of being physically dominated on a weekly basis.

From an early age, Rog was drawn to stringed instruments. I used to love this picture until I found out it was taken at senior prom. At least he took some heat off the guys who brought farm animals.
After graduating in 1982, Rog opted to postpone college to address some lingering rock 'n' roll issues, playing bass for a year-and-a-half in '80s cover bands like this one called Splash:

Compelling concept for a band, no? That's him on the far left. Did Rog get a tad distracted playing"Mr. Roboto" while his low slung bass rhythmically assaulted his Speedo-covered loins? Perhaps, but it never…showed?

I know, too far again. But now for the good part, where our guest is allowed to talk. 

Rog, after eighteen months purging your rock demons and singing high harmony on "Hungry Like the Wolf," you experienced, shall we say, a total eclipse of the heart, and decided to go to college. When the money ran out, you applied for an Army ROTC scholarship, altering the course of your life significantly.

Definitely. The two-year academic scholarship bought me an obligation for four years active duty. My original plan was be a tank driver (I LOVED those things), but the Army had other ideas.

Since I didn’t want to go into the finance branch of the Army or to the Air Defense Artillery, my military science professor said my options were limited to two: medical school or law school. That summer I took the LSAT (the morning after seeing KISS and WASP in concert) and did well enough to get admitted to Gonzaga. 

Wow, I'm sure you weren't the first scholar propelled by KISS toward academic excellence. Actually, you probably were. Anyway, after meeting your awesome and beautiful wife Marci during college and marrying her while in law school, you graduated in 1990 and passed the Washington State Bar Exam, thereby beginning your military obligation.

After attending JAG School in Charlottesville, Virginia (Judge Advocate Generals are lawyers trained in military law), Marci and I were given three locations to choose from: Fort Polk, Louisiana, Fort Drum, New York or Panama. 

We both immediately vetoed Fort Polk, also known as swamp city. I liked the idea of Panama, but Marci—always the mature person in the relationship—mentioned that the United States had just invaded Panama the previous year, and she wasn’t too keen on living there for three years.  

Sounds reasonable. So it was Fort Drum by default, then.

Yeah. It was the home of the 10th Mountain Division, and had I done a little more research, I would have known that the chances would be very good that I would be going to some of the world’s favorite hot spots of that time.  

Like Somalia?

Like Somalia. We knew it was possible, since I was an Army lawyer. We go where the soldiers go.

And that's exactly where you were sent for six months in 1993.

I was there between April and September. To give you a feel for the situation, the Black Hawk Down sequence of events occurred three weeks after I left. 

We were the “QRF” or Quick Reaction Force, meaning our troops would get deployed to any trouble spots in Somalia that a general deemed worthy of messing with. My job was to handle everything legal. Early on, that meant writing wills and powers of attorney for soldiers. 

I also paid a lot of claims for damage that we (the Army) caused as a result of our own negligence. Let me explain the distinction: if combat action resulted in damage to property, we didn’t pay. But if our helicopters were training in an empty desert and one of the wire-guided missiles left the grid and hit a building, I'd be paying out a claim. 

Here's an example: At one of our road checkpoints, a young soldier accidentally discharged a round. The shot went through the windshield of a waiting car, killing a young Somali man.

I heard about it immediately and flew to the scene the following morning. Accompanying me in the helicopter were a paralegal, an interpreter and a security detail, plus a guy carrying ten thousand American dollars, which was the maximum I could pay on a claim.

We got to the village and I met the father of the deceased man. He was a a highly respected elder, looked about a thousand years old and arrived with his own entourage of five or six guys. 

Through the interpreter, I told him how sorry the United States was for his loss. I listened to him rant about what the Americans were doing there and why was his oldest son now dead? Not a lot of fun, but then I get to tell him the good news—I had a whopping $10,000 US for his trouble.  

He was insulted, which he should have been. I sure as hell would probably have swung away if the roles were reversed, and this was when I heard for the first time about “blood money.”  

This guy told me he didn't want our money. In the Somali culture, if an oldest son (and primary family breadwinner) is killed, custom demands that the responsible party provide one thousand camels as compensation.  

As this was being explained to me by the interpreter, I started thinking—I could save the government some money. The camels in Somalia looked awful; they couldn’t be that expensive. How hard could it be to round up a thousand and deliver them?  

I told the guy I'd look into it. We got into the helicopter and headed back to the base. When I got there, my boss told me I was out of my mind and that I would not be going out on the open market trying to buy camels (Precedent alone for this would have been disastrous.).

After a few days, I flew back to the village with the bad news. When the old man and his peeps showed up, the money was laid out on the table. I told him the US government is not in the business of camel herding, and that while I was deeply sorry for his loss, our laws and customs only allowed me to pay this amount.  

The old man got all pissed off and stormed out of the building. About an hour later, he came back alone, telling my interpreter he urgently needed to see me. I invited him in and he told me he would take the payment, but he couldn’t appear to be leaving with money at the risk of being robbed.  

He said in order for it to work, he needed yell and storm out again, just in case anyone was watching. The guy stuffed the cash into his underwear, signed a release and yelled for another five minutes. Then he walked out and down the dirt road that runs through town, never to be seen again.

Did you perform any other duties while in Somalia?

When I first got there and we weren’t being shot at or mortared, I would go out to the orphanages. We would bring soccer balls and supplies and spend time with the kids. I got close with one named Mohammed, and I still have his photo.  

He would visit me when I would sit in front of the embassy accepting claims.  I saw him every week for about two months—gave him candy, a Walkman, some cassettes—then he stopped coming. Soon after that we started taking rounds at the embassy, and I never saw him again. Chances are he ended up killed or working for Al Qaeda.

Over the ensuing twenty years, in both in active and reserve duty, you performed virtually every type of service for the Army—labor law, trial defense, even environmental law. Yet when you finally retired in 2009, you returned to another hot zone in a civilian role. Describe that.

I signed a contract with the State Department to perform “Rule of Law” work for a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan. We were basically sent to establish or re-ignite legal systems. The problem was, no lawyers or judges were around anymore; nearly all of them had left the country for places like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. 

All that was left were old lawyers who could not afford to get out of the country. During my time there, I worked on getting lawyers trained (there was a law school nearby that taught Islamic Sharia law.). The program took four years to spit out lawyers. so there was no quick fix.  

What little was left of the court system there, like every other political or administrative system, was corrupt. Tons of dollars were thrown at the problem. Every politician starting at the top of the food chain had their fingers on the money, and took a piece of the pie as the funds worked their way down to the town or village that needed a new police station or courthouse. Often times the money wouldn’t make it at all. 

Then there was the question about which law to apply—traditional Anglo Common Law or Sharia. We also had to compete with the Taliban shadow government, who had their own, Sharia-based court system. 

All in all, my opinion of what we were doing there was not good. My little piece of the picture indicated that our efforts were simply prolonging the inevitable, since there would never be a traditional court system with prosecutors, juries, and defense attorneys. I was more than a little disenchanted with our role and how I was handled as a contract employee.

Interesting. Speaking of "shadow" court systems, let's talk about the shadow job you've been performing for the past fifteen years when you weren't deployed to war zones and counseling soldiers.

Yeah, the “Big Job” working on the Seattle Mariner Grounds Crew.  On average I work around forty to fifty games of the 81 game home schedule. I started in September 1999. Head groundskeeper Bob Christofferson, a.k.a. the "Sod Father," started the next year. Since then, he, I and the rest of the crew have become like family. Most of us were around in 2001 for the All Star Game and the playoffs.

And if I'm not mistaken, 2001 was the last time the Mariners did make the playoffs, yes?

Yes, and there's a reason. The grounds crew started dancing in 2002. Coincidence? I think not. The baseball gods are NOT happy with us. Many of us on the crew want nothing to do with the dance, since we believe it has run its course.  

However, we are told there are many fans contacting the front office and marketing clamoring for the fat guys to get out there and shake it. We haven't danced all season, but it looks like we're finally going to succumb to the pressure.The choreographer was at the ballpark last night.

Anything else you'd like to mention before we sign off? 

One last thing. Marci has been incredible throughout the last 25 years. There was at least one time during my career that I could not tell her where I was going, and that had to be hard on her. I left her with our one-month-old son when I went to Somalia. I have been on numerous other deployments where she was left to be the sole parent to both of our sons for extended periods of time. She has never complained or asked me not to go.

Thanks, Roger. And thank you, Marci. 

1 comment :

  1. Great story about a great individual! Thanks, Tim!