For most of my time in the service (1968 – 1995), we were lucky. The enemy was the Soviet Union, and we lined forces up and down the border between East and West Germany to defend against their potential invasion of the free world. But all of that changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the ever-increasing rise in extremism. The enemy today is literally anyone who resents America for any variety of reasons: perhaps it’s our wealth; perhaps it’s our freedom, or some combination of these. They can come at us out of seemingly nowhere. Making matters worse, these bad actors are not bound by even the simplest set of moral principles. Innocent men, women, and children are mere incidentals to them.
Like it or not, it is the US military that stands as their principal opposition. Yet, since the creation of the all-volunteer force following the Vietnam War, our military is the smallest it’s been since the years between the two World Wars.
This book is a tribute to the remarkable flexibility and amazing agility of the US armed forces. It is dedicated to the men and women of America’s army, navy, air force, marine corps, and coast guard, who every day must sift through the rhetoric and defend American interests around the globe. May our political leaders never overlook the difficulty or the danger of what you are asked to do.
I salute each of you.
Operation Light Switch is a rewrite of a book I first published in 2003 entitled, A Path to Innocence, A Road to War. If I were to try and tell you what I have learned about crafting good fiction since then, this foreword would turn into another book.
As history has unfolded in front of me over the last seventeen years, the story I told in that first effort never left me. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. Recall the hype that surrounded Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s much publicized campaign euphemistically called “Shock and Awe.” Recall the pictures of armored columns, miles long, rolling toward a Baghdad that had already been bombed back to the Stone Age. Now recall what the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq settled into. What started out as a hunt for Osama bin Laden turned into another miserably long military slog. The only reason we haven’t lost 58,000 or more lives in these latest wars is because military medicine has advanced to such a level that fatal wounds are quite rare.
We should be able to recognize guerilla warfare when we see it. Vietnam should have given us that perfect vision. The enemy is indistinguishable from the civilian population they hide amongst. In this kind of an environment, thunderous armored columns are ineffective compared to one human being on the ground, watching, listening, and reporting. The way of warfare has changed. The role of elite Special Forces has become critically important in the post-Cold War world. Small, highly mobile, well-equipped, and well-trained groups that can blend into the neighborhoods where the guerillas hide, and soldiers and marines that can become trusted advisors to foreign armed forces are the wave of warfare’s future.
Operation Light Switch is a case study in future war. An enemy pops up from nowhere. Intelligence collection is critical, often risky. Secrecy is paramount. But how nimbly Washington can react is just as critical. The current political climate in America, the deeply divided nation we live in, creates its own set of problems. Will the lives of American fighting men and women be valued above political careers? The answer is unclear to me, and that is unsettling. A good story in 2003 is now even more compelling in 2017. I hope you enjoy the read.
OPERATION LIGHT SWITCH
CHAPTER 1 — FREEDOM
Rifling quickly through the papers the prisoner handed him, the military policeman removed the one he was looking for and wordlessly pointed to the door. As it opened the grease on its hinges failed in the Kansas winter air, and the door groaned loudly. Cleveland Abraham Spires stepped through. Behind him, he heard the hinges groan again and the door clank shut.
He was free.
Situated on the western edge of Fort Leavenworth, the US Military Disciplinary Barracks was located on a bluff overlooking an expanse of field that separated it from Fort Leavenworth Army Airfield. The airfield was out here because it was noisy. The century-old prison was where it was because to put it any closer to the main part of the sprawling military installation would shatter the gentility of the good folks who lived and worked there. Cleve gazed down toward the airfield. It had been a decade since he’d been able to see things at a distance without iron bars intervening between him and the view. He watched a gust of wind roll toward him like a wave across the prairie grass that covered the field and the gently sloping bluff. He drew in a deep breath and waited for it to cascade over him. In a previous life, it would have refreshed his spirit, but not now.
The bus station was five miles away. It was cold, but he chose to walk. It would give him time to think.
• • •
In a parking lot across from the prison, Tetsu Agaki hunkered down lower in the seat of his rental car and pulled the newspaper up in front of him. Glancing down at the picture in his lap, he looked again over the top of the paper at Cleve. He had his mark. Now all he had to do was figure out where he was headed. These were the delicate moments of his job. His first rule was, never let the mark see you. But, if he hung back too far he might lose him forever. His client wanted to know where Spires was going and what he was doing. Why? Agaki had no clue, but payment was contingent on results.
He let Cleve walk a few hundred yards, then drove past him. He exited the post’s main gate and pulled into a drug store parking lot where he would be able to see him coming. At this point it was simply a tedious waiting game.
• • •
The harsh winter wind tore at Cleve’s trench coat and rippled his trouser legs, but, lost in thought, he was oblivious to the cold. He put his hand in his coat pocket and felt the five crisp one-hundred dollar bills in there. This was all he had to show for the last ten years of his life.
Go home. But it wasn’t that easy. Ten years ago, Command Sergeant Major Cleveland A. Spires, a highly decorated Special Forces operator, had been court-martialed, accused of smuggling guns into Okinawa, Japan, from Thailand and of killing an airman, whom the government claimed had been his accomplice in the smuggling operation. The motive had been revenge. The airman, a security policeman, was supposed to clear a shipment containing contraband onto Okinawa’s Kadena Air Force Base. But he’d gotten drunk, fallen asleep, and missed the shipment. Another security policeman had found the guns and ammo hidden in a pallet of personal military gear that was not supposed to contain either guns or ammo. His trial lasted a week. He was found guilty. It took another week for the court-martial board to agree on his sentence. They reduced him to the rank of private, E-1, costing him his hard-earned command sergeant major’s retirement. If it had ended there, it wouldn’t have been so devastating, but it didn’t. They sentenced him to ten years’ confinement.
He was almost 50 years old, but, for him, his life had ended ten years ago. His father had died while he was in prison. His mother was in Cleveland, Ohio, his hometown. They exchanged letters. Every month she accepted a collect phone call from him during his incarceration. These almost always ended with his mother in tears. His last communication with his wife, Liott, was a letter she had mailed to him nearly nine years ago. In it she’d said that she and their son, Daniel, were returning to Chuk Ra Met, Thailand, the small, remote farm village of her birth about twenty kilometers northwest of Korat. Daniel was getting into trouble for fighting in school. Kids were teasing him because he didn’t look like them, his mother spoke English with an accent, and anything else that kids could think of to be cruel and unfeeling. When he fought back, she decided it was time to go home. Liott knew that this decision to return to Chuk Ra Met would make it impossible for her and Cleve to communicate. Modern conveniences had bypassed Chuk Ra Met. There was no electricity. Water came from a few common wells in the village center. Cooking was done over charcoal. The men farmed rice paddies and banana groves using ox-drawn plows and carts. News of the outside world only filtered into Chuk Ra Met when a villager went to Korat and brought it back, and this did not happen with any regularity. Mail service in or out was infrequent and unreliable. In the letter she’d mailed from the airport she’d said, “Come to us when you can. Daniel and I love you very much.” She signed it, “All my love, Liott.” It had torn his heart out. He’d failed all of them so miserably.
A strong gust of wind buffeted him. He leaned forward into it. The worst part of all of this, the part that had gnawed at him every hour of every day, was that he had not committed the crime of which he’d been accused, tried, and sentenced.
• • •
It was not by accident that Colonel Lucas Johnson was standing at his office window. Colonel Lon Jeffers, a friend and the commander of the US Army Disciplinary Barracks, had called him a few minutes ago at Johnson’s request and told him that Spires had just been released. Lucas could see Cleveland Spires as he trudged toward the installation’s front gate.
Spires had only recently come back into Johnson’s life as unexpectedly as he’d come into it ten years ago when then-Major Lucas Johnson was appointed president of a seven-member General Court-martial Board that tried and convicted Spires. A year ago, Johnson, newly assigned to Fort Leavenworth, had gone to the prison’s barber shop for a haircut. He had heard they were inexpensive and it would be difficult even for a student barber to screw up a simple high-and-tight. As he took a seat waiting his turn, he peered down the row of a dozen prisoner/student barbers and spied Cleve Spires.
Little scared Lucas Johnson, a combat veteran who’d seen action in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and as he looked back on that day in the prison’s barber shop, he’d never been able to explain to himself why he’d done what he did. But when he saw Spires standing behind a chair cutting another soldier’s hair, Johnson got to his feet and walked out of the place only to pay three times the price for the same hair cut at the Post Exchange. Perhaps it was this sudden and unexpected proximity to Spires that had done it. More likely, however, it was because the court-martial had always bothered him. Special Operations was a small community and those that excelled became well known. Though they’d never served together, Johnson had heard nothing but superlatives about Spires. During the trial, Johnson had taken the time to familiarize himself with Spires’s record. What he found in there bore no congruity with the man who’d stood bolt upright in front of him as Johnson read the board’s guilty verdict to the military judge. But the facts were the facts. The murder weapon, a 9 mm Beretta that had been reported missing from the First Special Forces Battalion’s arms room at Torii Station, Okinawa, had Spires’s fingerprints all over it. It had been recovered from a small wastewater pond near where the body had been found on a remote section of the sprawling US air force base.
The defense contended that the fingerprints were there because Spires had conducted an inspection of the battalion’s arms room the day before the airman was killed. That might have been enough to establish a reasonable doubt, but there was one other piece of evidence that Johnson and the other six members of the court-martial board had to consider. Acting on an anonymous tip, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations at Kadena and the army’s Criminal Investigation Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, had begun monitoring Spires’s stateside mail received at the post office on Fort Lewis, Washington. Ten days after the discovery of the body on Okinawa, a package containing fifty thousand US dollars arrived at Fort Lewis, mailed from the army post office on Okinawa the same day as the murder. The package was addressed to Command Sergeant Major Cleveland Spires.
The smuggling charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence. Spires couldn’t be linked at all to the pallet of gear in which the contraband weapons were found. But there was still the matter of the murdered security policeman. Spires’s court-appointed defense attorney argued that the victim, even though he was off duty at the time of his death, was carrying an unregistered weapon. When the body had been discovered, a stolen .38 caliber pistol was also found tucked into the waistband of the victim’s pants. It nearly made Spires ill when he heard his attorney say, “If you must find that my client fired the weapon that killed the victim, you must conclude that my client’s actions were in self-defense.” The move, though it likely saved him from a life sentence for premeditated first degree murder, certainly condemned Spires to a jail sentence.
As Johnson stood at his office window staring down on Spires, the old questions returned. What the hell happened to you? You were one of the best NCOs in the entire friggin’ army. You might have even had a shot at being the Command Sergeant Major of the Army. What were you thinking? That no one would find out? That the possibility of getting caught was so low it was worth the risk? I don’t get it. Explain it to me. Now, after all these years, with Spires just in front of him, a few hundred yards away, Johnson was tempted to bolt after him.
But he didn’t. What would be the point? It was over and done with. Spires had served his time. He was leaving Fort Leavenworth and the army. Shaking his head, Johnson turned his back on the window. Good riddance. He’s gone. You’re back to command in six months and far away from here. There was a beep from the phone on his desk. It was his secretary notifying him of a meeting in five minutes. Johnson shrugged his shoulders and returned to his duties.
• • •
At the bus station, Cleve studied the schedule. As he took his place in line at the ticket window, he gripped the money in his pocket. His mind raced. Five hundred dollars wasn’t much. There was a bus leaving for Cleveland at two o’clock this afternoon and as he turned to see what time it was he noticed the man behind him in line was Asian, probably Japanese, based on his experience in that part of the world.
“How may I help you, sir?”
She was attractive, polite, and patient as Cleve stood in front of her continuing to study the schedule of departures. Finally, he asked, “How much is a one-way ticket to Cleveland, Ohio, on that two o’clock departure?”
Well trained, she launched into a spiel about some special travel pass that would allow him unlimited travel over the next six months to any location in the lower-48 United States, all for the great price of $500.
Politely he responded, “No. Thanks. What is the fare to Cleveland, one-way?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, punching a few buttons on her computer’s keyboard. “The fare will be $75. The bus departs here at 2:00 p.m. and is on schedule. That should get you to Cleveland tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. Would you like me to print that ticket for you?”
He nodded and handed over a one hundred dollar bill. They exchanged smiles as he collected his change and his ticket. When he turned to leave the ticketing area, he noticed that there was no one in line behind him. The Japanese man who had been there was gone.
As soon as Tetsu Agaki saw Cleve Spires lay down the money for the ticket to Cleveland, he’d done an about face and exited the bus station without looking back. He and Spires had locked eyes for a split second, a mistake Agaki immediately regretted, but it had happened. He wasn’t about to let it happen a second time. Now, at the Kansas City airport, he’d purchased a one-way ticket to Cleveland. For the last hour, he’d just been hanging around the boarding gate waiting for the first boarding call. When it came, he took out his cell phone and pulled up his employer’s number.
Agaki didn’t like Billy Driscoll at all. He was, in Agaki’s estimation, brash, crude and downright rude, a typical American, he thought, but the money Driscoll was paying him, results based, of course, was better than any money he’d made working for the Yakuza, so he was willing to look past what he didn’t like. He waited until the second boarding call and then hit the call button.
Driscoll’s cell phone, lying on the table next to him, buzzed. He was busy, but was expecting a call, so he reached for the phone. The naked Thai girl kneeling on the floor in front of him stopped what she was doing and looked up. He grabbed her roughly by her long, black hair and said in near-perfect Thai, “Don’t stop. Don’t you ever stop unless the customer tells you to.” As he let go of her hair, she went back to work. “Hello,” it was almost a snarl. In the background, Driscoll could hear faintly a public address system announcing a boarding call.
“Driscoll-san, it’s Agaki.”
“You got him?” Driscoll asked impatiently.
“Hai,” Agaki began in Japanese, but then switched to fair English, a language he’d learned during a fifteen-year jail term spent in a prison just outside of Tokyo. “He is taking a bus to Cleveland, Ohio. I am in Kansas City and will fly to Cleveland in just a few minutes. I will intercept him at the bus station when he arrives. I am sorry, I must go. My flight is boarding,” he said as he ended the call.
In his suite in the Windsor Hotel in Bangkok, Driscoll flew into a rage. Pushing the girl away, he stood, as naked as the day he was born, and shouted, “Dammit! The little bastard hung up on me.”
The rant was in English and so the girl understood none of it. That didn’t matter. It wasn’t his words that would hurt her. She had seen him like this before, when she’d first arrived in Bangkok from her small village in the north. Her father had sold her to Driscoll because she’d become pregnant out of wedlock. When her baby bump began to show, she was disgraced. Her father, who also felt disgraced, decided that if she could no longer bring him a nice dowry, it was time to sell her. The one hundred US dollars he’d sold her for would buy him many things for his small rice farm. In Bangkok, the first order of business had been an abortion. Then she had to be trained. Both processes terrified her, but she was a survivor. In Thai, she asked, “Beelee, what is it?”
Driscoll glared at her, shaking his head. She thought he might hit her. The one other time she’d seen him angry like this, he’d hit a girl and broken her jaw. She hadn’t seen the girl since, but knew she couldn’t be working. The jaw had swollen quickly and become black and blue. Like that, she wasn’t attractive to any man, so Beelee wouldn’t keep her around.
Command Sergeant Major Driscoll muttered something in English and then paced around the room a couple of times. He tried to call Agaki back, but the calls went to voice mail immediately. The little fucker turned off his phone. Wait ‘til I get my hands on him. He stomped some more, until his rage began to settle out of him. There was nothing he could do at this point. He could get mad as hell at Agaki, but the bottom line was he needed him. Driscoll was interested in knowing what Spires was going to do now that he was out of prison because Driscoll knew that Spires wasn’t the one who killed that airman on Okinawa. He knew Spires wasn’t the kingpin in a gun smuggling ring. He was the one who had stolen the 9 mm pistol with Spires’s prints on it from the First Battalion’s arms room. He was the one who had anonymously tipped off the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) about the cash in the mail. It had been Driscoll’s fifty thousand dollars that sealed Spires’s guilty verdict.
Ten years ago, Driscoll had thought the frame-up was genius on his part. He’d had to move quickly because he’d already been questioned by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations on Okinawa. Then-Sergeant First Class William Driscoll had been the one who had delivered the pallet full of personal equipment to the airport in U-Tapao, Thailand. He’d been the one who had signed the customs document indicating that the shipment contained no contraband. He’d pleaded complete ignorance about how the weapons had been stashed in the middle of the pallet hidden from sight by bag after bag of personal equipment that belonged to the Special Forces soldiers that would later board the plane for transport back to Okinawa from Thailand. He’d claimed never to have met or known the security policeman who’d been killed. At that point the OSI had no evidence of his involvement, but he was undoubtedly a person of great interest in the case. Because he had cooperated with the investigation completely, the army had only flagged Driscoll’s records and advised his battalion commander that he could not leave the island of Okinawa until the flag on his records was lifted.
It was the same day that the OSI first questioned him that Driscoll happened to pass by the First Battalion’s arms room, where he noticed Command Sergeant Major Cleveland Spires in there, apparently inspecting weapons. He noticed that Spires seemed particularly interested in the new 9 mm Beretta pistols that the First Battalion had just received to replace their decades-old .45 caliber hand guns.
The First Battalion’s armorer, a buck sergeant, with two ex-wives and child support payments to each, had jumped at the ten grand Driscoll had offered him to steal one of the 9 mm pistols. The buck sergeant was responsible for maintaining a scrupulous inventory of weapons assigned to the First Special Forces Battalion. Driscoll had told the kid, “This is going to probably cost you your job. If it does, I’ll give you another ten grand, but understand this—I’m going to kill somebody with the gun you give me. If you rat me out, I’ll hunt you down like a dog when I get out of jail and put one between your eyes. Understand?” It had, in fact, cost the buck sergeant his job as well as all of his stripes for somehow letting that weapon go missing. But through it all the kid kept his mouth shut. Driscoll proved true to his word and gave him the extra ten grand. More importantly, though, the kid was absolutely sure that Driscoll would, at some point, kill him if he ever spoke to anyone about what he’d done.
Now, ten years later, what Driscoll wanted to know is, What is Spires going to do? If he was going to try and find out who framed him, then Driscoll wanted to see him coming. Billy Driscoll had a nice little gig going here in Thailand that he would protect at any cost. He had risen to the rank of command sergeant major and now in his current capacity as the ranking NCO in the First Special Forces Battalion on Okinawa, he had an official-duty reason to spend most of his time in Thailand. Since the fiasco with the security policeman and the botched shipment of guns, he’d laid low for a while. However, about nine years ago, he’d determined that the heat on him had relented sufficiently so that he could return to business as usual. The Yakuza paid him well for the guns, but even better for the drugs he ran out of Thailand into Okinawa. He’d used the money he’d made off of the smuggling operation to set himself up as the kingpin of a group of three bars in the sleazy sex districts of Bangkok. Between the three, he had over one hundred girls working for him. Each was paid based on the number of men they could talk into buying them overpriced drinks and ultimately lure into the bars’ back rooms for sex. Billy Driscoll had a lot of money, all of it ill-gotten, and he’d never considered the fifty grand it had cost him to frame Spires anything but a good investment. Now, if he needed to kill again to protect his businesses because the guy he’d framed all those years ago was getting too close, he’d do it without any more qualms than the first time.
With the exception of an on-time departure from Leavenworth, Cleve Spires’s trip back to Cleveland, Ohio, was the trip from hell. Nothing had gone as it should. There was not just one, but two breakdowns. The bus finally arrived in Cleveland at 4:30 a.m., nearly eighteen hours late. The delay gave Cleve more time to think about what he would say to his mother. He let everyone get off ahead of him and when the last of them exited the bus, he still sat there, staring out the window into the early morning darkness.
• • •
Across the street, Tetsu Agaki put the binoculars up to his eyes and watched as the passengers disembarked. When the bus had not arrived on time, he’d had his first panic attack. Busses, he discovered, are not like the airlines. There was no posting inside the station of delays, cancellations, etc. He had to ask the ticket agent yesterday morning, but he had not been helpful at all, except to inform him there had been some breakdowns and he thought the bus was probably back on the road, but could not give Agaki an estimated time of arrival.
He’d watched at least a dozen buses arrive and unload. Where the fuck is he? As this one unloaded and his mark did not get off, Agaki felt another pang of panic. What if he changed his mind? What if he bought a ticket to somewhere else after I left the bus station in Leavenworth? What if he changed his mind along the way and bought a ticket to somewhere else? He saw his big payday slipping away. He took the binoculars down and scanned the crowd standing around the driver as he pulled bags from the storage bins. He put them back up to his eyes. Nothing! As he lowered them, his frame of vision widened and he saw someone stepping down from the bus. Quickly he raised them up again. There he is. Gotcha!
• • •
Cleve joined the few people who were still waiting for the driver to unload their bags and looked around. Through a plate glass window he could see two men, homeless, he assumed, slouched asleep on the hard benches in the center of the otherwise barren room. Next to one was a shopping cart piled high with nothing that Cleve could discern was of any value or useful purpose. Each clutched a paper bag, bottlenecks protruding, close to his chest. The driver set Cleve’s bag on the ground. Cleve retrieved it and gave him a couple of dollars for his trouble.
“Thanks.” Surprise was evident in the driver’s voice. No one else had made such a gesture.
“Yeah. You’re welcome. Wasn’t your fault.”
Cleve was home now and a feeling of melancholy spread over him. He stepped inside the bus station for a moment just to regroup. Inside, he caught the ammonia stench of urine. Over three decades ago, he’d left Cleveland from this very same bus station as he embarked on his army career. Nothing had changed much. Urban decay was all around him. But then he reckoned that he had little right to judge either the poor condition of the station or the people occupying it. Thirty years ago, he had been a young man with no criminal record and nothing but promise ahead of him. Now here he was, a convicted murderer, an ex-con, returning home to his mother’s house because he had no means to go anywhere else. Guilt swept over him. What’s the point? Why have you come back here? Looking across the station, behind a thick wall of glass, probably bulletproof, he saw a lone ticket agent, propped on one elbow, watching television. He headed in that direction.
• • •
Watching Spires through his binoculars, Agaki felt the adrenalin surge of panic seize him. Fuck! He’s going to buy a ticket. Now what are you going to do? You can’t risk getting close to him again. He felt in his pocket for the roll of bills, thinking ahead that he might have to bribe the ticket agent, but, for now, all he could do was sit there and watch.
• • •
Spires stood for a long minute in front of the ticket window looking at the departure schedule, but not really reading it. How long are you going to keep running away? You’re here now. This is never going to go away until you face her, until you tell her how sorry you are. He felt in his pocket for the four hundred dollars he had left. Where are you going to go? Face her. Then get on with the rest of your miserable life.
• • •
Agaki breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Spires turn and leave. He watched him only briefly, but long enough to know that he was headed in the direction of his mother’s house. Yesterday evening he’d already looked her up in the Cleveland area phone book and gotten the address to go with the name Driscoll had given him. He scouted out the surrounding neighborhood and generally became familiar with the area in which he thought he’d be shadowing his mark. The time to perform a reconnaissance like this was a rare luxury in his line of work. He pulled from the curb, turned down a cross street, cut over a couple of blocks, and headed for Ida Spires’s house. This was all turning out to be much easier than he’d anticipated.
PAUL STANLEY AND THE ASSOCIATION
This part of the deception never got easier for Paul Stanley. As he handed over the forged passport to the immigration agent, his heart was pounding so hard he could feel the thud at the back of his head. If he were caught, there would be no way to explain it away. The agent was thumbing through the document as if he were looking for something in particular.
Stanley could feel the perspiration running down his underarm. It was an eternity before the agent returned to the photo at the front of the passport, compared it to the traveler standing in front of him, picked up his stamp, pressed it down on the open page, and handed the passport back to him. US Army Major General Paul Stanley, director of logistics and security assistance at the United States Pacific Command, entered Japan through customs and immigration at Tokyo’s Narita Airport as Mark Amial. Stanley had no idea who Mark Amial was or if he existed at all, nor did he care. All that mattered was that he’d successfully pulled off the deception once again.
Stanley grabbed his bag and followed the green line through Japanese customs with nothing to declare. Outside the terminal he stood in a short line for a taxi cab and when he told the driver he needed to get to Haneda Airport, on the other side of the sprawling megalopolis that was Tokyo, he was treated like royalty, as he should have been. The fare was going to be exorbitant, hundreds of US dollars. The money was inconsequential to Stanley.
Only eight people knew he was in Japan, and his boss wasn’t one of them. Admiral Chet McKeever, commander of the United States Pacific Command, thought Stanley was on a hunting trip in the Canadian wilds and therefore out of communication until his return to civilization five days hence. McKeever had not liked having one of his principal staff officers completely out of touch, but Stanley had been hard at it for over a year now without a break and had done some really difficult work, in McKeever’s estimation. So, he’d granted Stanley’s leave request with instructions to give him a call when he was back up on the net.
Stanley’s real destination was on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and least populated island. From Haneda Airport he would fly to Sapporo, where he would be met by a car and driver that would take him to his final destination, a hot mineral-springs resort called Kilomanjaro. There he would meet with one of the strangest mixes of men he could have ever imagined: a Japanese, a South Korean, a Thai, a Filipino, a Malaysian, a Vietnamese, a Chinese, and, last and perhaps the strangest of all, a North Korean. They referred to themselves as The Association, and other than that he knew very little about them except that each was well placed within their governments. In the last ten years he’d met with them on three other occasions, each meeting about three years apart. This meeting was out of that cycle, and Stanley had been surprised when the note from his handler, a Japanese man by the name of Seito Yamamoto, had arrived in the mail summoning him to this meeting. There was no question whether or not he’d be there. Paul Stanley owed these guys a lot.
Ten years ago they had literally pulled him back from the brink of financial disaster. A US-based HMO was closing in on him for nearly a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid medical bills owed for an estranged son’s cancer treatments. At the time, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Stanley was tapped out. Alimony and child support payments for three failed marriages took almost all of his monthly salary. Bankruptcy was looming as his only option, and that would have caused his security clearance to be pulled. Career-wise, a field-grade officer without a security clearance is at the end of the road. There would be no more promotions, no more schools, no chance to command at the battalion or brigade levels and, certainly no chance to ever become a general officer.
Stanley never could determine how they knew about his dilemma and, at this point, he frankly didn’t care. There had been only two rules. 1. Never mention The Association to anyone other than the eight men comprising it. 2. If he were ever in a position to influence military sales to any of their countries, he would do whatever he could to make the sales happen. For his agreement, they’d placed a million dollars in an offshore account and given him access to it. He’d paid off the medical bills and not touched another dime of the money. He thought they liked that about him. As far as his career was concerned, getting out of debt had allowed him to rededicate himself to the army and to his career, and as a result he’d risen through the ranks to major general. While he didn’t think a third star was likely, he was happy with how far he’d gone in the army, and he was equally pleased that over the last few years in particular, he’d pushed a lot of military sales their way.
His single frustration was how little he knew about them—which was squat, really. Seito Yamamoto, his handler, was the one who managed his attendance at these meetings. Stanley didn’t know if they met on other occasions, how they had come together, or what they were trying to accomplish. At the meetings he would typically stay with them for only part of the time they were together. Yamamoto would politely say to him, “Paul, you are excused for now. If we need you, I will call you,” and then he would tell him when they wanted him back. Stanley never questioned Yamamoto’s directions, but all of it piqued his curiosity.
The governments of the men comprising The Association were rivals. North and South Korea hated each other. No love was lost between Vietnam and China. Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand had strong alliances with the west, as did Japan. But when it came to Japan, virtually no country in Asia trusted the Japanese, a stigma still left over from World War II and reinforced by Japan’s juggernaut economy. It wasn’t difficult for Stanley to discern that Yamamoto was the de facto leader of this peculiar group, so, once, quite a few years ago, Stanley had tried to question him. He wanted to know what such a culturally and politically diverse group was really up to. They obviously had access to money, a lot of it. They’d given him the million dollars as if it were a mere binder fee. But, was it money from their governments? Or was it illegal money from who knew what? It worried Stanley, but not enough to make him stop, at least not yet. At first Yamamoto had been polite in his refusal to answer, but as Stanley had pressed, Yamamoto shut him down with a sternness quite uncharacteristic of the Japanese personality. Stanley had backed off.
It was February and a bone-chilling dampness had settled over Tokyo. Hokkaido would be even worse. As he settled back in the taxi for the long ride between airports, Paul Stanley had an unnerving thought. Maybe I’m better off not knowing what the hell these guys are up to. The cab gathered speed heading out of the terminal. He looked out the window as the bleak, winter countryside blurred past him. No. You’ve done everything they’ve asked. Whatever it is they are up to, you’ve been a part of it. You’re a part of them now and you can’t stay in the army forever. Find out what you can and see if you want to be a part of it after you retire. You’ve come this far, why turn back now?
AN OLD SOLDIER’S THOUGHTS
ON AN AGE-OLD ISSUE
I AM AN OLD SOLDIER. I WAS PRIVILEGED TO SERVE OUR COUNTRY FROM 1968 TO 1995. SO I CAN SEE SOME OF YOU DOING THE MATH RIGHT NOW. LET ME SAVE YOU THE TROULBE, I SERVED OUR COUNTRY IN THE ARMY FOR 27 YEARS AND I HAVE BEEN RETIRED NOW NEARLY AS LONG AS I SERVED. THERE IS A FAMOUS QUOTE ABOUT GUYS LIKE ME: “OLD SOLDIER’S NEVER DIE. THEY JUST FADE AWAY. ” I, HOWEVER, SEVERAL YEARS AGO, DECIDED I WOULD NOT FADE AWAY QUIETLY. TODAY, I WRITE. WHAT I WRITE ARE WORKS OF FICTION, BUT FICTION THAT IS GROUNDED IN THE STARK REALITY OF WHAT AMERICA’S VETERANS FACE IN THIS WORLD THAT HAS CHANGED SO VERY MUCH IN THE 22 YEARS SINCE I LAST DONNED THE UNIFORM OF MY SERVICE. IN ALL MY WRITINGS THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOME THREADS THAT IDENTIFY THE COMMON GREATNESS OF ALL OF AMERICA’S VETS: HUMBLE ABOUT THEIR SACRIFICE, LOVING OF THEIR COUNTRY, COMMITTED TO THEIR FAMILIES AND FRIENDS, HONEST AND HARDWORKING.
BUT AS GREAT AS THESE ELEMENTS OF THE VETERAN’S CHARACTER MAY BE, THEY ARE NOT INPENETRABLE SHIELDS AGAINST THE RIGORS OF MILITARY SERVICE, ESPECIALLY DURING THE TRAUMATIC YEARS OF WAR, WHICH, MAKE NO MISTAKE, WE ARE STILL AT. 2017 MARKS OUR 16TH YEAR OF STRUGGLE IN AFGHANISTAN AND OUR 14TH YEAR IN IRAQ.
IN DOING RESEARCH FOR THIS TALK, I FOUND AN INTERESTING ARTICLE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, PUBLISHED ON APRIL 1ST, 2015. THE ARTICLE QUOTED A STUDY THAT APPEARED IN THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, PSYCHIATRY. THE STUDY DETERMINED THAT THERE WAS NO CONNECITON BETWEEN OVERSEAS DEPLOYMENT TO IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN AND THE INCREASED SUICIDE RATE AMONG AMERICA’S MILITARY THAT PEAKED IN 2012, BUT CONTINUES TO REMAIN UNACCEPTABLY HIGH. TO BE HONEST, THIS SURPRISED ME. I HAD EXPECTED THERE TO BE A DIRECT CORRELATION BETWEEN SERVICE IN A COMBAT ZONE AND INCREASED SUICIDE RATES.
SO THIS STUDY BEGS THE QUESTION, “WHAT IS IT ABOUT MILITARY SERVICE THAT WOULD CAUSE OUR SERVICEMEMBERS TO TAKE SUCH A DRASTIC MEASURRE AS SUICIDE?” MY FRIENDS, I HAVE GIVEN THIS CONSIDERABLE THOUGHT SINCE MARLENE ASKED ME TO TALK TO YOU. WHAT I HAVE COME UP WITH IS EXACTLY BUBKUS…ZERO…NADA…I DON’T KNOW…NO CLUE.
SO AT THIS POINT, I AM FORCED TO FALL BACK ON THOSE THINGS THAT I DO KNOW AND THEY ARE THESE:
1. AMERICA’S MILITARY ENJOYS THE CONFIDENCE OF ITS CITIZENS MORE THAN ANY OTHER PROFESSION THERE IS. IMPORTANTLY, BUT SADLY, THIS INCLUDES OUR ELECTED OFFICIALS. FEW OF THEM HAVE SERVED. WHILE THEY GIVE GREAT LIP SERVICE TO THEIR RESPECT FOR THE COUNTRY’S MILITARY, THE VAST MAJORITY HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE A SOLDIER, MARINE, SAILOR, AIR PERSON OR COASTIE. PESSIMISTICALLY, I PREDICT THAT WHILE MANY OF THEM SAY THEY WILL INCREASE FUNDING FOR OUR COUNTRY’S VETERANS, THE BUDGETS PASSED BY FEDERAL AND STATE LEGISLATURES WILL NOT PROVIDE FOR THAT.
2. SADLY WAR DOES NOT APPEAR TO BE SOMETHING THAT IS GOING TO GO AWAY IN MY LIFETIME AND LIKELY NOT IN YOURS. IRONICALLY, THOUGH, STRIDES IN MILITARY MEDICINE HAVE DECREASED WAR’S LETHALITY INSPITE OF THE FACT THAT WEAPONRY HAS BECOME MORE AND MORE SOPHISTICATED. IN THE TEN YEARS OF THE VIETNAM WAR, 58,000 US MILITARY DIED IN COMBAT. YET IN THE LAST 16 YEARS, ROUGHLY 6000 OF OUR MILITARY HAVE PERISHED FROM THEIR COMBAT-RELATED WOUNDS. THAT IS THE GOOD NEWS. THE BAD NEWS IS THAT AFTER 16 YEARS OF COMBAT THERE ARE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF VETERANS WALKING AROUND, SOME WITH VISIBLE WOUNDS, BUT EVERY ONE OF THEM WITH MEMORIES OF WHAT WAR IS TRULY LIKE.
3. THE THIRD THING THAT I KNOW IS THAT NO OTHER INSTITUTION OR ORGANIZATION TRIES TO DO THE RIGHT THING FOR ITS PEOPLE MORE THAN THE US MILITARY. IT IS SIMPLY TOO BAD THAT DOING THE RIGHT THING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK OUT IN THE BEST INTEREST OF EVERY MILITARY MEMBER OR EVERY VETERAN OF MILITARY SERVICE.
NOW, I KNOW ALL OF THIS SOUNDS PRETTY PESSIMISTIC AND THAT IS NOT LIKE ME. SO LET’S CHANGE DIRECTION HERE AND I WILL CLOSE ON AN OPTIMISTIC NOTE: PEOPLE LIKE US, THOSE OF US GATHERED IN THIS ROOM TONIGHT, MANY OF US VETERANS, ALL OF US WHO HOLD A DEEP RESPECT FOR MILITARY SERVICE, TRULY CARE AND WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF OUR SERVICE MEMBERS AND VETERANS. OUR COMMON THREAD IS WE ALL WANT TO HELP IN SOME WAY. THAT WAY MAY BE BY RAISING AWARENESS AS MARLENE GIATAN IS TRYING TO DO WITH TODAY’S EVENTS. IT MAY BE BY WRITING BOOKS ABOUT VETERANS, AS I DO. OR YOU MAY JUST SIMPLY BE THE ONE THAT PROVIDES A SYMPATHETIC EAR TO SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH THINGS THEY HAVE HAD TO SEE OR DO AS A RESULT OF THEIR SERVICE. LET’S FACE IT, YOU WOULDN’T BE HERE TONIGHT UNLESS YOU ARE THAT “SYMPATHETIC EAR”. THIS ROOM TONIGHT IS FILLED WITH SYMPATHETIC EARS. SO, HERE’S MY MESSAGE TO YOU: LISTEN UP!!! DON’T WAIT FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO FUND SOME PROGRAM, OR FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO DO WHAT YOU KNOW YOU SHOULD DO. IF YOU SEE OR HEAR SOMETHING…THEN SAY AND DO SOMETHING.
REMEMBER THE BASIC TRUTH THAT WAS POUNDED INTO EACH OF OUR HEADS DURING OUR INTRODUCTORY MILITARY TRAINING. EITHER WE ALL SUCCEED OR WE ALL FAIL. SEEK OUT THAT SERVICE MEMBER OR VETERAN NEEDING THAT SYMPATHETIC EAR. ENCOURAGE THEM TO TALK TO YOU…AND THEN, JUST LISTEN. LET THEM KNOW THEY ARE NOT ALONE.
I KNOW HOW SIMPLISTIC THIS SOUNDS AS A SOLUTION TO PROBLEMS SO PROFOUND THAT THEY CAN LEAD ONE TO TAKE ONE’S OWN LIFE. BUT, IF WE DON’T HAVE EACH OTHER IN THIS FIGHT, THEN WE HAVE LITTLE HOPE OF EVER WINNING IT.
THANKS FOR LISTENING. MAY GOD (WHATEVER THAT GOD MAY LOOK LIKE OR BE CALLED) BLESS EACH OF YOU AND MAY THAT SAME GOD BLESS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.