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Carl Prine’s Line of Departure

Brain trauma undoes a leading military writer.

A few days after military writer and critic Carl Prine — whom I did not know at the time — decided to skewer me on his popular new blog, “Line of Departure,” I got a call from an Army friend stationed in Germany. He saw it, and asked “are you alright?” It was that bad.

A little over a year later, I find myself emailing Prine, several times in the last few weeks, writing, “are you alright?”

It’s pretty bad.

Carl Prine

The journey from April 2011 to today was a long one. But late last month he found he had reached the end of the line at the website, and signed off with this goodbye. He tells me this week he’s hanging on to his job at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where he is an enviously talented investigative reporter specializing in military and veterans issues. You see, one of the Carl’s greatest intellectual strengths is he can put his recent combat experience into context with military culture and history, of which he’s a pretty surefooted student. Put that together with an acerbic wit and a fearless impulse to tell it like it is, and you have one hell of an analyst and storyteller. And now, ironically, he believes his injuries from Iraq are eating away at his brain and have forced him into a painful, migraine-induced hiatus where he can no longer write with any level of personal confidence:

I’m a diminished, pathetic and stupid creature who now looks forward only to the reassuring clucks of doctors in an antiseptic room overlooking a river, a man who pointlessly rubs at his skull to get to the headache that might never leave…

In May, Prine seemed to know what was coming. On May 3,  NFL star Junior Seau shot himself in the chest and died at the age of 43. Reportedly, the former linebacker’s brain is now being tested for signs of  Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated trauma to the head. While one commonly connects CTE to athletes like boxers and football players, experts are now suggesting that CTE might be responsible for at least some of the increase in suicides we’re seeing among recent veterans.

For one, CTE is caused by repeated concussions that cause the brain tissue to progressively deteriorate and be overcome with build-up of tau, an abnormal protein. And one thing we know from Iraq and Afghanistan is that our soldiers and Marines were in a lot of explosions and while they might have survived them, their skulls — and therefore their brains — got jostled around quite a bit. Second, the primary manifestations of CTE include “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.” If the veteran is self-medicating and is turning away from friends and family, many of these symptoms could be confused with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or just co-existing with it. Little is known until it’s too late because CTE cannot be diagnosed until an autopsy is conducted on the brain.

In writing about Seau, and about former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, 50, who reportedly was suffering from CTE when he killed himself a year earlier, Prine opened up about the repeated blasts he had endured riding in the turret of an armored vehicle as it patrolled the main artery between Ramadi and Fallujah, called “Route Michigan,” from 2005 to 2006 (one of the most dangerous times and  places on record for that war).

It blew to the right, 2 o’clock from the gun, and I’d just taken out the plug to listen to the patrol leader below, twisting the turret and me away from the steel shavings rising like black fireflies from the shoulder of Route Michigan.

Hours later I held a throbbing skull and my left ear felt like someone jabbed a broken chopstick through the drum.

It’s hard to explain the whistle that sang to the back of my soul for weeks after that, but it never varied in pitch.   When I closed my eyes and tried to picture it, I saw the whine as a sound that formed into a thin red stream, kind of like water.

Or blood.

Your pick.

In that unsettling May 17 column, Prine recalled how after the war he suffered with migraines, the loss of hearing in one ear, and the constant struggle with himself to remember facts, figures, and names, knowing well, as a journalist who had been covering head trauma among NFL players before he left, that the memory was one of the first things to go.

The worst part about it all wasn’t the never-ending headache that felt like a dull bandsaw dragging on bone.  It wasn’t the lack of sleep or the sick I left in the toilet during the dizzy spells.

It was the omnipresent dread that it would never end, that I was never going to crawl out of it and live a normal life

Medication over the period of six months helped, relieving him of the nightmare for the last four years. Until now. The migraines are back, he declared almost casually in one of his typically strong critiques, this time of Rajiv Chandreskaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.  But as I mentioned at the beginning, by July 3 things had spiraled in a way that he believed he could no longer write effectively. So he quit Line of Departure, which truthfully is a big blow: everyone who reads LoD knows how important the blog was to him. And it was pretty important to us, too.

I don’t think I ever told him this, but Prine’s single broadside at my work helped to sharpen my writing. I was pretty stung at the time, mostly because he couldn’t be dismissed as a fool. To my mind, he was a self-serving heel, but it was clear he was well-read and a good writer, which made it worse.

I never responded online, but over the course of the next several months we came to a friendly reckoning and rather smooth path towards mutual respect and encouragement. He’s apologized too many times, and given my column at Antiwar.com a lot of props that I don’t think I necessarily deserve but secretly love because LoD is not the typical Antiwar.com audience and it’s nice when we feel we’re getting something across to the people we write about.

Plus, it feels good to be defended by someone who shows no quarter to the hucksters and court scribes who helped deliver us into these wars and continue to this day to downplay the failed counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and the pathetically tepid, mostly wrongheaded state of U.S. foreign policy everywhere else. Our burgeoning collegiality aside, Prine became over the course of his time at LoD one of the good guys, a veteran who obviously loves the military for what it could be and loathes it for what it has been used for, and ultimately for what it has become.

Unlike other milblogs, LoD under Prine did not feel obligated to toe the line of the COINdinistas, in fact it was one of the first to call out their 2009 celebrity as the over-hyped nonsense it was. He abhors hubris and hagiography, and came out early and strong against the hoodoo voodoo mythmaking around Gens. David Petraeus  and Stan “the man” McChrystal. His writing is funny and cathartic and I can only compare it to the rapier thrust delivered by the late, great Jeff Huber, himself a vet who used his inside knowledge of the military industrial complex for good, not evil. Here’s one of Prine’s best on David Petraeus. He wrote it after hearing NPR’s Rachel Martin wax on about Petraeus’s retirement from the Army:

Damn it.  Can we get over the cheap hagiography?  Stanley McChrystal living like an aerobic monk in Bagram, Jim Mattis as the “warrior monk” at CENTCOM or all the corn pone dolloped with sugar we’ve had to ingest over the aw shucks Everyman stack of Petraeus pancakes served to us by newspapers – I’ve had my fill and I’m ready to puke.

Generals are pampered creatures.  They’re surrounded by large staffs.  They have dedicated drivers, valets, press analysts and a retinue of caretakers.  The higher they go in the bureaucracy the larger and, typically, more talented their keepers.

When you see a general doing his own work it usually means any of three things:  A) He’s micromanaging again; B) He’s putting on a show for easy touches like Rachel Martin; or, C) All the above, the final act of the consummate showman.

On Stanley McChrystal’s roadshow, which made a stop in Prine’s Pittsburgh earlier this year:

Over the next 1 ½ hours, from the hagiographic introduction to the last self-serving fib, McChrystal provides a string of Wikipedia-deep musings on American foreign policy, international security threats, the meaning of public service for our military families, a few secrets about leadership and some anecdotes about teaching at Yale his students apparently are barred from repeating in the best traditions of academic freedom.

He’ll receive a standing ovation before his address even begins and he’ll apparently merit another at the end, probably because he’s the only former soldier anyone in Pittsburgh or audiences elsewhere will encounter on a stage in 2012 and they want to clap avidly at some symbol of sacrifice.

In this regard McChrystal is the bony dream catcher dangling from our society’s windshield, snagging the good vibes intended for front line soldiers, not letting a single clap escape his falcon ears, beaming and basking.

He calls warhawks Fred and Kimberly Kagan, COIN pushers and McChrystal/Petreaus advisers who helped to craft Surge I in Iraq and Surge II in Afghanistan, “a double-shot of intellectual cancer designed apparently to make anyone who reads their historically-challenged agitprop dumber by the word,” and then rivets, point by point, the most solid argument around as to why the “success” of Iraq is nothing but a fairy tale.

He’s not all about prosecuting the past. In the last 18 months he’s done brilliant interviews, and has given thoughtful combat veterans a place to vent and make sense of the policies that dictated their repeated deployments. He’s refereed disputes between hot-headed milbloggers and has started more than of a few of his own. Besides the long-hanging fruit like the Kagans, he has taken on McPatriotism and the military’s sacred cows  (the pieces on Lee Greenwood and soldier hero-worship come to mind) and has tackled taboo subjects like women in the service and the increase of rape and sexual assault in the military. He’s not been right about absolutely everything (I had fun pointing that out to him back in September), and sometimes I think he could go easier on other writers, especially when they have their hearts and heads in the right place.

But he’s always consistent when it counts — in his loyalty to the rank and file and exposing the corruption of power. And that makes him tops with me. As he said:

There were a number of things I wanted to do here, and I confess that I’ve left too many of these chores unfinished.  I tried to speak back to power, if not verifiable truth then at least some measure of personal honesty.  I wanted to discover new voices and champion different ways of thinking about our often nettlesome foreign policy problems.  I sought to give a voice to the vast majority of those who serve in the military, the junior enlisted and officers, while also taking a hard look at how our war policies affect them, both on the battlefield and when they come home.

The most important thing is that he get better. Carl is only a few years older than me, and it’s difficult to hear him talk about death and donating his brain tissue to science. It’s incomprehensible. What’s worse is knowing he is not the only one. Thank you, Uncle Sam.

He must come back to LoD — that’s an order — because there aren’t a lot of veteran-journalist-critics with his talent willing to write the things he does. We need him, and the war and its many hells can’t have him.




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