Jeff Pearlman

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Denny Pettway

#269
The former Marine and Operation Desert Storm veteran is proud of his service but bemoans the way politicians "use military members the way a 22-year old would use a Mustang GT rental car." A retired soldier speaks up. POSTED August 16, 2016

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Twitter is a magical thing.

Yes, it’s great for Donald Trump nonsense. And Olympic updates. And meeting large-breasted aspiring models named Gigi.

Wait, I digress.

Twitter is a magical thing because it’s the land of 1,000,000,000 different stories, one more riveting than the next. You simply never know who you’ll find, and when/where you’ll find them. I’ve probably landed, oh, 40 percent of the Quaz subjects on Twitter, and that number only grows with time. Simply put, it’s a place where the world congregates, and access is eternal.

Wait. I digress again.

Today’s magical 269th Quaz Q&A features Denny Pettway, a former marine who served in Operation Desert Storm and now works as a behavior specialist for a school district. I’ve always wanted to pick the brain of a soldier; to learn what it’s like to be in harm’s way; to understand whether one feels as if he’s fighting for his country, or being used for political purposes. Denny was more than happy to engage, and the end result is one of the finest interviews in this jarringly long series.

Denny Pettway, massive respect for your contributions. You are No. 269 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Denny, I’m gonna start with something that’ll make me sound like quite the asshole. So as you know I’m heavy into politics, and especially the Hillary-Trump race. And recently I saw some people post how Trump is polling far ahead of Hillary among military personnel. And the argument was made, “See, he’s better for the troops.” And I was thinking—maybe they just don’t know. Maybe they’re a bunch of young, largely uneducated men and women who aren’t informed enough to understand how politics impact their status. And you say?

DENNY PETTWAY: While it’s true that only around 5 percent of enlisted military members have undergraduate degrees, the military enlisted today are more educated, curious and willing to question decisions than ever. This is definitely the result of having a small information machine in your hand at all times. At the end of the day though, it’s been my experience that military members are largely conservative. The perception is, the GOP is the party of defense and having a strong military. Having said that, I think both parties could do better. Paul Ryan and Patty Murray concocted a budget in 2012 that aimed to cut military retirement benefits and also reduced retiree benefits for military members who retired due to wounds received while fighting overseas. Military members I’ve served with would likely pin this all on Murray and support Ryan.

J.P.: You’re clearly a smart guy—master’s in special ed, pursuing another masters in social work. You’ve also been out of the marines for nearly a decade. I wonder how you feel about the way our political leaders use the military. What I mean is, now looking from afar, do you feel like most appreciate the troops? Truly want what’s best for the troops? Or is the military mainly a pawn for political bullshit?

D.P.: Our political leaders use military members the way a 22-year old would use a Mustang GT rental car. They do not appreciate the troops and they certainly do not have their best interests at heart. I’d have to say “mainly used as a pawn for political bullshit” doesn’t really capture the essence of how shitty these people are. As with everything else they do, they have special interest groups and their own financial gain in mind when they make any decisions, especially when it comes to the military. They know a vast majority of kids join in order to pull themselves into the bottom of the middle class. I was no different. I didn’t join for patriotic reasons. I joined for the G.I. Bill. I stayed for the camaraderie and the culture. The song Civil War by Guns N Roses spells the whole thing out pretty clearly. “Power hungry selling soldiers in a human grocery store” … “It feeds the rich while it buries the poor.” And my personal favorite: “For all I’ve seen, I’ve changed my mind but the wars go on as the years go by with no love of God or human rights …” which is the shit they sell you right before they send you off to slaughter for the oil companies.

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J.P.: What do most Americans misunderstand about our armed forces?

D.P.: One of the things I think young people believe is that we wear our uniforms everywhere we go and we can’t leave the base except on special occasions. I always have to explain that we change out of our uniforms at the end of the day just like any other job, and we are free to leave the base as long as we aren’t working.

The other thing that is most misunderstood among the public is that troops are poor and many of them are on public assistance. I seriously doubt there is a job out there for 18-year-old high school graduates that will give them 30 days paid vacation, free gym membership, 100 percent medical and dental coverage, cover their meals and provide them with housing/utilities on top of their $2,000-per-month salary. If married, military members get non-taxable housing and food allowances. On top of those benefits, we have the opportunity to pay $100 per month for 12 months into the G.I. Bill where, after completing a successful enlistment, we can then get money for school. The Marine Corps has paid for my undergraduate, one graduate and half the program I’m currently enrolled in to the tune of around $80,000.

J.P.: You were deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm. I’ve never asked anyone this, but what does it feel like to find out you’re being deployed to such a place, for such a cause? How did you find out the news? How did you react? And what was Desert Storm like for you?

D.P.: I was 22-years old when I deployed to Saudi Arabia. I was at a friend’s house recovering from a night of partying with my former drill instructor (Which was weird as hell), when we turned on the TV and watched the Iraqis invading Kuwait. I remember thinking, “Looks like those guys are going to take over that country.” I really didn’t have much of a world view at that age, so I didn’t understand the significance of Iraq controlling Kuwait’s oil. Within five minutes of watching this invasion, the phone rang and we were ordered back to base immediately. That was the point where it got very real and I was nervous and excited all at the same time. All this training and now we get to put it into action. My squadron, VMA-542 (Harriers), had just returned from a deployment to Iwakuni, Japan and inherited a squadron full of jets that were in very bad shape. We worked 36-straight hours getting them ready to go. I’d never been so exhausted. When we left, no one told us where we were going, so the ride over was pretty tense.

Overall, I look back on that experience with pride. We grew close over those nine months and worked our asses off. While I enjoyed my plane captain (launching/recovering and performing inspections on our jets) and avionics job, my favorite job over there was my 60 days spent providing area security. Marines are the smallest branch of all the services and have a “every Marine a rifleman” mentality. This meant that every unit on our forward deployed base had to supply Marines to supplement the Military Police unit in order to provide security for the bases. Manning machine gun holes, climbing towers to watch for amphibious assaults, participating in patrols was something I really enjoyed.

The worst thing was probably not knowing when we were leaving.

Mainly, Desert Storm provided me with lots of perspective. To this day, the reason I appreciate the things we have in this country is due to my experiences over there. I can always say I’ve eaten worse, I’ve slept in worse places and after having gone 45 days with no shower, I’ve been dirtier.

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J.P.: Is it possible for people to serve in a war, then return back to normal sans any hiccups?

D.P.: No. Absolutely not. There is a reentry phase that everyone goes through on regular deployments, much less one where you and your loved ones don’t know if you’re coming back. I saw so many families ripped apart during that deployment. One guy’s wife was pregnant with his brother’s baby. Wives of some Marines were moved in with other guys, or simply left with no warning. Of the Marines that had their family intact, several struggled due to the adjustment that comes with the husband reentering the family. Wives were forced to take care of everything from getting the car repaired, yard taken care of, getting the kids where they needed to be and handling the finances. If Dad walks in after being gone for nine months and tries to pick up where he left off, it never ends well. I haven’t even mentioned dealing with PTSD and all that comes with that.

J.P.: You now work with students with significant emotional/behavioral disorders, as well as a counselor for at-risk kids and their families. A. How did you enter the field? B. Why did you enter the field? C. Are there ever kids it’s impossible to help?

D.P.: After serving my last tour as an instructor for my military occupational skill (MOS) school in Athens, GA, I decided to continue in the education field. I enjoyed teaching and mentoring young people, and thought I could help kids have a positive school experience. The other reason I decided to go into teaching was the schedule. I wanted so spend weekends, holidays, spring break and Christmas break with my kids. I chose special education because I had a very shitty school experience, failing two grades and graduating 400th of 420 students, so I wanted to be involved with kids who were struggling and do my best to help them have a positive experience.

Not having a teaching certificate, the only place that was willing to hire me was a school where certified teachers avoided. It was a school for kids with the most significant of emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). I was woefully unprepared for the job, but while teaching I was also going through a special education master’s program. I had a great professor, Dr. Jeff Waller, who was instrumental in helping me understand how to help those kids. They are the most at-risk kids and get the least-qualified people to provide them with services. The kids are very hard, so most teachers don’t last three years. The school system doesn’t embrace the methods needed to shape behaviors in a manner where kids enjoy school, learn coping skills needed to successfully manage their behaviors so they can move back into the general education classroom.

Despite transitioning kids at rates research doesn’t support, I always got pushback from some administrator who didn’t know anything about helping kids with EBD. I wanted to begin a parenting program during the evening, to be held once a week for six weeks. It wasn’t going to cost the school much at all. Parents would be provided childcare, dinner and transportation if needed, but the district sat on it and never gave me the authorization to do it. This is when I decided to go into counseling. I joined an agency as a Community Support Individual (CSI), teaching parenting classes, social skills to at risk kids, and anger management. This work led me to enroll in the master of social work program at the University of Georgia. It’s been a great experience, and has really opened my eyes to the effects of childhood trauma and how it impacts brain development. I’ve also begun to understand the inequalities that exist in this country. It’s definitely made me more liberal minded. I like to call myself a compassionate Libertarian.

Are there any kids who are impossible to help? Maybe. Definitely some who are unable to be helped in a school setting. I do think every kid can be helped if given enough time and a different environment. Unfortunately, that’s not realistic.

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With wife Jean.

J.P.: What does it feel like to fire a weapon at another human being? Can you remove yourself from any emotion at the moment? Does it stick with a person forever?

D.P.: I am thankful for not having that experience. As a young Marine, I couldn’t wait to engage the enemy and send some rounds his way. After seeing the droves of “enemy” surrendering to anyone that would take them, I developed a different perspective. Those guys have families. They have kids wondering where they are and if they’ll ever see their dad again. Of course, if they were shooting at me, I’d feel differently. I’d have no problem defending myself and my fellow Marines without hesitation.

J.P.: How did you feel about the decision to allow gays to serve openly? When you were serving, did you ever know you had gay co-workers? If so, did it distract, bother, etc?

D.P.: I was fine with that decision. I also know plenty of Marines that really didn’t care one way or the other. I’ve served with several Marines, male and female, who I knew were gay. They never came out and said it, but everyone knew and no one really cared. I chuckled at the doom and gloomers who were quick to proclaim the end of good order and discipline because citizens who happened to be gay were going to serve. Ridiculous.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life?

D.P.: Of course, every single time one of my boys was brought into this world. Having a kid who every adult in his life had given up on, tell me I was the reason he loved school was a show stopper for me.

J.P.: Lowest?

D.P.: In October of 1986, I was arrested for drinking and driving in Monroe Louisiana. I was 19-years old, and had already flunked out of my first semester of junior college. I spent the night in jail and was planning on spending whatever sentence I was going to receive in lieu of paying a fine because I didn’t have the money, and I didn’t want to tell my parents. They found a card from the bail bondsman the night before my court date. I’m from Vicksburg, so court was 85 miles away, and my mom insisted on going with me. Having my mother watch me stand before a judge due to my stupidity was a horrible experience. I’ll never forget the look on her face. While I was prepared to do the time, the judge called my mother up to the bench and said “Ma’am, you don’t want your boy to spend 10 minutes in this jail, much less 30 days.” I agreed to let her pay the fine for me because I could see the worry on her face. To add insult to an already bruised ego, they locked me up again until my mother got back from the bank to pay the fine. I spent the next five years paying outrageous amounts for insurance, and getting a sobriety test any time a police officer pulled me over for speeding.

J.P.: What made you want to join the marines? And what was the training like? Hardest part? Ever think you might quit? Does the experience of serving match what one thinks it’ll be like?

D.P.: I was finishing concrete for a living in Jackson, MS. The guy I worked for was a great man. He really mentored me and pretty much talked me into joining so I could better myself. He had served in the Army and really regretted getting out. One day, we were putting in a walkway for one of his friends and he really had a nice house, nice car, four-wheelers, a nice boat, and he was my boss’s age but looked 10 years younger. He was retired from the Army. That really made an impression on me, but more than that, I did not want to spend another summer finishing concrete in Jackson, Mississippi! My plan was to serve for four years, get my G.I. Bill and go back to school. I ended up loving it and made a career out of it.

Having been through two-a-days for a hard-nosed football coach, followed by spending two years as a concrete finisher, the physical aspects of Marine Corps boot camp didn’t bother me. The training was fun. Learning close order drill, going through the obstacle course, confidence course, throwing grenades, etc. … was an absolute blast. The last phase of boot camp, we are in the field for a couple of weeks and that was the most physically demanding time. Parris Island is a very hot place to be from May–thru-August!

The hardest part of boot camp is just getting yelled at all the time. The constant screaming at you takes a toll. I never took it personally, but lots of recruits do. It just gets very annoying, but the thought of quitting never crossed my mind.

With anything people are scared to do, it’s never as bad as you think it is. If you want to get through boot camp, you’ll get through it. They want you to get through it. If the attrition rate gets too high, it’s goes from “The recruit couldn’t hack it,” to “Why can’t you train these recruits?” After getting you all pumped up about being a Marine, getting out to the fleet is a bit of a letdown. Staying motivated on a level one gets to in boot camp is simply unsustainable.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DENNY PETTWAY:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): John McCain, Bobby Grich, Heavy D, Oakland, pretzel sticks, Memphis Grizzlies, minty toothpaste, Might Mighty Bosstones, neon luggage, Walton Payton, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup: Walter Payton, Heavy D, Bobby Grich, Oakland, Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, pretzel sticks, minty toothpaste, Might Mighty Bosstones, neon luggage, Memphis Grizzlies, John McCain.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: Yes! My first time flying. I was 18-years old and headed from Jackson, MS to Los Angles. On the first leg to Dallas, the turbulence was horrible. The flight attendant knew it was my first time to fly and she could see that I was scared to death, so she came and sat next to me. I told her that if I land in Dallas, I was going to take a bus back to Jackson! She told me she’d been flying for 30 years and this is the worst turbulence she’d ever been through. At one point, we dropped so far, a man came out of his seat and hit the overhead baggage compartment and landed on the floor. She talked me into heading on to LA, and to this day, it’s the worst flying experience I’ve ever had.

• Five reasons to make Vicksburg, Mississippi your vacation destination: 1. The Vicksburg National Military Park. It’s the second largest Civil War battle field park next to Gettysburg. It’s a great place to learn about the battle of Vicksburg. Vicksburg is the only city in our nation to ever be under siege; 2. The mighty Mississippi. A river boat tour is a must; 3. The Old Courthouse Museum. Really neat place where lots of civil war and other history are on display; 4. Biedenharn Candy Company museum where Coca Cola was first bottled; 5. The mansions. Cedar Grove, Anchuca, McNutt and Martha Vick houses, and others. Great walks through history.

• I have no faith in God. Tell me why I’m wrong: Wow, that’s a tough one. As someone who struggles with my own faith from time to time, I don’t know if I’m qualified to do that. One thing I do know—Historical Jesus was a great guy. What a great model to live by. What a great example of how to treat others. I doubt he would be able to recognize Christianity today though. If he were back here in physical form, and took it all in, I don’t think he’d be a Christian.

• Favorite band or singer that begins with the letter R: REO Speedwagon … what a great show!

• Greatest advice you’ve ever received: “You’ve already done 10 years, if you get out you’ll regret it. Things will get better, stick it out for the next 10.” — Master Gunnery Sergeant Bill Bolesworth

• Seven favorite movies of all time: 1. The Bourne Identity; 2. The Bourne Supremacy; 3. The Bourne Ultimatum; 4. The Bourne Legacy; 5. Jason Bourne (On my list without seeing it yet … I’m sure it’ll be great!); 6. Full Metal Jacket; 7. Siege of Firebase Gloria

• Strangest place you’ve ever gone to the bathroom?: While in Saudi, we had shitters manufactured by Navy Seabees out of plywood. They built small shacks that had a bench with three holes next to each other. The bottom third of a 55 gallon drum was placed underneath each hole and they were pulled and burned with kerosene while some poor schmuck stirred it. The stench was so bad, you had to wear a gas mask to go in there.

• You have five boys. What’s the key to raising them well?: Model the behavior you want them to learn. Allow them to feel the pain of their poor choices without running over to fix it. This is the hardest thing to do but the most important. Provide love and empathy, but let the natural consequence teach the lesson, resist the urge to lecture, it doesn’t work. Encourage independence in all they do. Teach them to respect women by respecting their mother, even if you are divorced and especially if she’s not reciprocating. Every now and then, buy a homeless person a meal when you are with your kids. Teach your boys that sex is different for her than it is for them. While it’s like a Six Flags thrill ride for you, it’s likely going to be something deep and meaningful for her. Don’t take that from her just so you can go on a thrill ride.

Accept that you are going to screw up—a lot. Apologize to them—a lot. With five, this one is tough and I need to do a better job at it—spend individual time with each of them when you can.

• Best joke you know: George Carlin talking about the Olympics … Swimming isn’t a sport, it’s a way to keep from drowning!

  • Ted Mark

    That was an excellent quaz.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life