Friday, January 8, 2010

Welcome Home! Not So Much

All the time we were in Iraq and using internet at dial-up speeds we thought how great it was going to be to get back to America and have real high-speed internet. We would also have cell phones and text messages and voice mail and all of the lovely ways to keep in touch that we missed.

We are in the US. We are almost home. We have cell phones. There is high-speed internet--sometimes. The high temp today was 34, it will be 29 tomorrow. Our cell phones only work outside the barracks. We have been here at the transient barracks at Fort Dix for five days. The internet has been down for two full days and part of every other day.

I know I am bitching about very small things, but context is important. A dozen high-ranking officers and NCOs greeted us at the plane when we landed. I have no idea who they were. Many more will greet the rest of our unit as they arrive. Some of them will fly in from Montana, Connecticut, Illinois and other states or just drive from Pennsylvania. The travel expense to have all those colonels, command sergeant majors, and generals at the bottom of the ramps is far more than the cost of a few cell phone repeaters and reliable routers. If they spent the money that way, all of the hundreds of troops who drag themselves off the plane after an 18-hour flight could call home or see their families on Skype. As it is, they will flood into the barracks, open their computers and find the internet overloaded or down.

Of course, there is NO chance the internet will be upgraded instead of the welcome home ritual. Another group that welcomes us are Viet Nam veterans who got no welcome home themselves. They tell us their mission is to make sure no US soldiers arrive in America without a welcome. I understand why they are doing it. I flew home to Logan Airport, Boston, in bandages during the Viet Nam War. I heard "Baby Killer" but how could they know I never got closer to Viet Nam than Utah? I got injured in a missile explosion in that state. I got no welcome home. Those combat veterans got no welcome home.

So it's great that we get these gestures of freezing dignitaries thanking us for our service, but for most of us, the fact that we come home, have bad cell phone service and bad internet just adds to the indignity of being confined to base and not even allowed one beer or dinner off base back in America--no matter how long out processing takes.

At times like this it is painfully clear that the Army is just another government bureaucracy. It spends tens of thousands to do what makes sense for its own purposes and won't spend a few thousand in a way that would really make the returing soldiers happy and more comfortable.

I have worked since I was 12. I got one of those life-time earning reports from Social Security a couple of years ago. When I got it, I calculated that my part of sending my two daughters to Lancaster Country Day School from kindergarten through the 12th grade works out to 20% of my lifetime after-tax earnings. Both of them are in private Liberal Arts Colleges now and doing very well. I have kept them out of a goverment-run institution for their whole lives thus far. Every time I get in one of these situations where it is painfully clear how bad government programs can be, I feel better about those tuition bills.

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