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Stories: Military



Collective Resonance in the Military

Interview with Jon Kirwan, U.S. Air Force

Jon Kirwan, A U.S. Air Force sergeant, was assigned to military duty in the Philippines from 1988-1991. In 1991, he helped evacuate active duty military members adn their dependents from Clark Air Force Base due to the impending volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. After the eruption, helped protect abandoned areas from lootings. Jon's story of collective resonance among the men in his unit began with the opposite, extreme dissonance. These men's journey to the bonds of friendship that sustained them through the worst of times and changed their lives forever is chronicled in this interview with Renee Levi.

RAL: Renee Levi
JK: Jon Kirwan

RAL: Please tell me about the experience of collective resonance that you had. Describe it in whatever way takes me into it with you.

JK: Well, this would have been in the Philippines, on the island of Luzon in 1991. Started in June, actually it goes from June to September. It was in the Air Force, I used to work in Town Patrol - off base. Mount Pinatubo had erupted. Actually the story starts about a week prior to that because we knew that Mount Pinatubo was going to erupt and they evacuated the base. About 30,000 people were evacuated from the Philippines through Subic Bay and on to Guam.

When they do this evacuation it pretty much lasts for about a day and a half. It was a convoy just going to Subic Bay, and basically for about a day and half I stood along a highway and watched vehicles go by. It was really just security because at that time they had the New Peoples Army in the Philippines, so they were worried that because of the Abu Sayaf we were in danger, making such a mass migration. There’d already been prior a lot of shootings.

I remember the stress started because the whole resonance was built around a lot of stress on this group of people, the men in my unit. We’re pretty much individual, I mean at this point we’re standing there by ourselves, each an individual.

We were at Clark Air Base. They had one of those volcanologists, or whatever the heck they’re called, but those idiots were out there telling us every six hours, “Hey, it’s gonna erupt.” And we used to have a call sign which basically meant “Hey, we gotta get off the base and go to a certain pre-designated location.” This was really stressing us out because you’re gonna need to sleep for longer than six hours and we worked for thirteen, fourteen hours a day for two or three days straight, and now we’re playing this game!

I remember they took us to the first location they had. We’re really starting to get tired by this point. We’d all zoom out there. It wasn’t that far from the volcano, and even after the volcano went off and we went back to it, the place where we were supposed to be was just buried!

RAL: You mean, you would have died?

JK: Oh, most certainly, especially if we were in the tents because the way the ash came down, it would have come down right on top of us.

RAL: Why were you there?

JK: They thought it would be safe. But we never did go there, actually, in the end. I guess there was enough people that “a little common sense prevailed” in that case. Because that’s the military structure. But we, in the end, actually went to a university. It was about ten miles away.

So one night we actually do an evacuation and we go to that university and the volcano goes off. It was probably early evening because I remember now, when the volcano went off I was standing looking at it, and there’s a plume that just covers the whole sky. And I had my camera. I got a picture of it. There were these cars just coming at me, and I stood in the middle of the road and just took the picture. Of course then I got out of there!

There were a lot of earthquakes. Small, football size little rocks were coming from the sky. Then softball size rocks were coming from the sky. And they’re hitting us. I remember I was hit by some fairly big ones, but not a big one. I think that a big one would’ve killed you. So we go out to this university. Now this was a horrible experience because everybody that was left behind was basically the support team that could survive by itself. It was really just the military police community, some services to feed us, medical stuff, and I imagine there were probably three thousand people. The university is small, like a hotel-size thing, and of course we’re shoved in there and we’re laying side by side. And I remember the first place we went to. We were actually underneath a stadium – like a football stadium, I imagine. I don’t know what type but I know it was a stadium. Now we’re having earthquakes and the place is shaking. And we thought it was going to fall down on us.

And now’s the time when people were starting to get pissed…angry. You know, “Hold it, I could die here. So much for God and country. Find me a new location!” And, in fact, they did find us a new location.

RAL: Were you angry at the military?

JK: Leadership, uh-huh.

RAL: For putting you in danger?

JK: Yeah, for putting us in danger. But it’s becoming harder to deal with each other. We’re having a hard time dealing with each other right about now, too. Remember, now it’s about a week into the fun. So called fun… I’m joking.

We are there for about three or four days, and I remember it’s about three or four days because first off we didn’t have any running water. We had some bottled water which was rationed, and we had what was called the water buffalo which was a military water tank that they haul behind trucks. We had a few of those. Because now the other water, the stream water or whatever, has already been contaminated by the ash which has sulfur in it, and they recommend that we don’t drink that. Anyway, why I remember it was three or for days is that they wanted us to shave with a razor. With a razor without water! And they were on us because we didn’t look military. So now we’re really becoming frustrated, “I’m sorry, this suffering’s not enough, I haven’t had a bath in three or four days”, you know what I mean? “Haven’t really been brushing my teeth because we don’t have that much water. And you want me to dry shave with a three or four day beard!” Only a man can appreciate that one!

But they ordered us to do it. And they also came out and checked to make sure that we did it. So, they followed up. I remember, also, they were so chaotic because everybody had some serious weapons – fifty caliber and M-60 machine guns. And these things were laying everywhere unguarded. I had collected, probably, five or six nine-millimeter handguns, a handful of shotguns, just finding them sporadically throughout this place because people didn’t care anymore. But the thing is, now we’re in greater risk because we still have the risk of the NPA and the Abu Sayaf. And we’re still pulling guard on ourselves, putting a perimeter around the college to control entry into the area, which causes more stress because you get more people out there. And we’re worried that the NPA and the Abu Sayaf would assault us. What a perfect time!

So we left and went back to Clark Air Base. We went back to the dormitory where we stayed. And when we got to the dormitories, water wasn’t running and they told people…I know this sounds bizarre…we told people, “Don’t use the toilets because the water’s not running.” And you know what, if that goes for three or four days – and the Philippines is hot – you know it would be pretty nasty. Do you think people would listen? No. They used the toilets, the dormitory was stinking. They unlocked all the doors, you see, because they wanted us to stay in one or two dormitories and not spread out because you had to imagine, there’s a lot of dormitories. They wanted us in one location. But the people, in fact, actually originally came from many dormitories.

So people would come and lay in your bed with all this ash and everything, so when I finally got back to my room, the thing’s just full of mud. My bed’s full of mud. People just laid there and slept, and used your stuff and everything. That was frustrating because now our space was starting to be violated! And I tell you all this because you gotta imagine why we’re getting so bugged out.

So back to work we go. Guarding Clark Air Base because now we have the problem. The Philippine community, or parts of it, actually, to be fair, parts of the Philippine community would steal stuff from the base. And now they’re all worried about stealing this stuff and they had other folks packing up houses – you know, people’s personal belongings and trying to send them to them, so the government wouldn’t have to reimburse them. We’re guarding the base while this stuff was being packed. There was another group of folks packing from the transportation community. They do that for the Air Force. They packed it, we guarded the base.

There was a mix of people packing. There was active duty military and Filipinos. So we’re actually guarding them, we’re guarding the base so they could get the stuff to them. And a lot of stuff in the housing areas was all junked out because the mud came through and it was about two or three feet deep and it went right into the houses. It pushed, sometimes, couches all the way to ceiling and, you know, it was just bizarre. I think that the only thing we valued was that people would get some of their personal belongings, pictures of their families, stuff like that back. Most of us did not care if you got your TV.

I did not work guarding stuff on base. I actually worked Town Patrol, as I said, because I was out there on the road. So now I’m guarding the base and houses off base. A lot of the military community lived off base. So we’re driving around watching these houses off base, which was really ridiculous because they were getting robbed, literally, with caravans. I’m talking about trucks up behind trucks. You would have thought it was migration. And we were not gonna “dink” with them. We were not gonna mess with them because it was just too much. We did, periodically. Let’s say out of twenty trucks we maybe stopped one, collected the material. Then we would take it to this big bunker and store it. It was actually a munitions bunker but we didn’t know whose it was so we were just getting more frustrated, thinking, “Why are we doing this?”

Well now we had the problem of guarding the bunker! Things are getting thicker as we go! Because now we’re putting stuff in the bunker! Which we don’t know whose it is and people really didn’t care. Ash is falling the whole time. When a volcano goes eighty to a hundred thousand feet in the air it falls for a couple of weeks. And so you’re almost looking at times like night throughout. And when it was really night, we’re talking about not being able to see but four feet in front of you. So about that time we’d about had it. We’re working probably thirteen, fourteen hours a day now. Which leads to the next story.

About the second week. I had to go guard a shop – it was like a Seven Eleven. Clark Air Base is huge. We’re talking from the main base to one of the gates is probably five miles. Out at the edge of the main gate, not within it, there’s a shop, like a Seven Eleven. It’s really for the people who live off base; they could drive on base real quick, get their little goodies and go back home. I got posted to the shop. Well, I had no batteries for my flashlight. I remember going to post that night and I told my supervisor, I said, “I got no batteries for my flashlight. I can’t see!” And I couldn’t buy batteries because there’s nowhere to buy them. The “shopette” then really wasn’t open, we were just guarding it…I guess I could break the windows and steal batteries, but I’m guarding it, so some of the Filipino community won’t go in there and steal stuff.

And the next thing that happened is they gave me a radio – like a walkie-talkie radio – but we’re using these radios so much the batteries are going dead. So I got one with a dead battery. So basically I got a dead battery on my radio and no flashlight. And I told my boss that and he said, “Go. I’m not asking you. Go.” And I remember my words to him – and it was not exactly, but something like – “Well if the Filipinos pull up to rob this place, I’m gonna help them load the truck!” Because I’m not gonna challenge them out here with no flashlight and no radio! Because what people don’t understand is they were killing Americans in the Philippines at that time. So if I saw somebody come, I was gonna go in the other direction…I’m by myself! And I’m talking about nobody could ever hear me or see me, or, like I said, you can’t see three feet in front of you at night. They couldn’t find me. If I fell to the ground—and the ashes were falling, it blanketed maybe a half hour—they wouldn’t be able to find me.

RAL: So it was fear, a little bit, there too?

JK: Yeah, fear is setting in.

Well I went out. I didn’t actually go by the shop, I just went out and hid. There was a bus stop there that had been crushed, but I sat on the crushed bus stop…just sat there all night long. I didn’t do anything. I don’t know what happened to the shop. I really didn’t care.

The next day we’re all going to work and I’d about had it. And I’m not alone, there’s a lot of other folks – there’s thirty people on our flight, or shift, thirty of us on a shift that worked Town Patrol. And there’s a lot of rebelling, a lot of smart-mouth comments. I remember they were pretty derogatory. And I remember our shift supervisor saying, “Well, if anybody doesn’t like it, come up front.” His point was, come up and we’ll punch it out right now. I took off my “nine-mil” and handed it to the person next to me, and I walked up front and I said, “Okay”. I don’t think he expected that. Nothing happened.

But this is the time, when you were asking about this resonance, now’s when it’s coming together because this is the time when we were all going at each other. See, before, I was just frustrated with myself, frustrated with the system, this or that. But now we’re going at each other. Over the next couple of days there actually were fights. When we’d go to work, there were fights. When we’d get off work, there were fights. And I’m not talking about a push and a shove and somebody pulling them away. I’m talking about people really knocking each other pretty good, kicking them when they’re down. For example, one guy tried to turn in his weapon, but it was dirty (and they would not let him) and he was tired. We have kind of an issue window. There’s people inside a secure area, and this guy’s trying to turn it (the weapon) back in the morning because we can’t take them with us. And they wouldn’t take it because it was dirty; and I remember the guy who was trying to turn it in. He stepped back and he threw his nine-mil through the window as hard as he could. And it hit the other guy right smack between the eyes. I know it hurt. Just to give you an idea…

RAL: So, aggression.

JK: Oh, it’s aggression.

RAL: So at this point you’re tired and you’re dirty and you’re angry and frustrated because nobody’s helping you out there, right?

JK: Right.

RAL: So really it’s like your systems are breaking down, your individual coping systems. Your immune system?

JK: Yeah. I was getting sick. And over the next week it’s getting worse. We’re really not liking each other. We would go to work for fourteen hours and wouldn’t even talk to each other because we couldn’t deal with it. I remember one time when this other guy was driving, a dog runs in front of us. And the guy driving the jeep ran the dog over on purpose…because it got in his way and he just got angry and ran the dog over. I laugh now; I laugh because it was so bizarre. And a few days later I shot a dog! It was barking at me and I pretended I was afraid, but I was getting bugged too. I did feel really bad about it, which also caused me more stress because I did something that I could never tell anybody.

RAL: But you weren’t yourself.

JK: No. And this is what’s going on in our head. We just can’t take it. And we weren’t talking to each other for, I don’t know, it could’ve been two weeks, it could’ve been a month, I don’t remember.

And then, at some point, we started laughing about some things. I think things get so bad that they become funny. And when we were able to laugh and stuff, when we were able to make jokes, then what happened is that everything that went wrong, we made a joke about it. And the more we did that, I think that’s when we really started to resonate, to come together. And the more we did that – as far as coming together – the more we really started to appreciate each other.

There came a point where if one of us had to do something that was crazy, the other ones would help us do that. See, before that if you had to do something that was crazy, you were on your own. We still got posted in goofy places, we still had to guard things, but now we would come visit each other and we’d sit out there, we’d say “hey, screw it.” We’d go out there and sit, and one of us would sleep and the other would watch. You know we started doing that kind of stuff.

We’d started making sure that, say, if somebody was somewhere, that we’d go see if you got what you need, you got water, or something like that. The protection society. The leadership never changed. The leadership was always being dogmatic about, “This is what the Air Force wants us to do and we’re gonna do it.” But we changed. And leadership, to tell you the truth, for the next three months…I don’t even remember leadership! They disappeared from my memory!

RAL: What do you remember?

JK: I just remember…the group.

RAL: The group?

JK: Yes! Sometimes we’d go to work and let’s say we’re tired, we’d all go hide in one of the back rooms. There were some small offices. Probably ten, twelve people would go in there, bar the door shut, and we’d go to sleep. And in this case we were all men – because the Town Patrol didn’t have any women on it and they wouldn’t allow them – and, literally, I would be laying with my head on somebody’s arm or something like that…which, there’s no way…you couldn’t get twelve men to lay in a room and lay on each other’s arms. But we would do that because we’d just got to the point where we realized that “Hey, you know what, if I don’t do this, I’m screwed.” The alternative is to keep suffering. So we started to do that. And sometimes we wanted to play cards or play games or just sit there and talk and we’d lean against each others’ backs for literally hours, out in the dark because to tell you the truth, we were not gonna guard those homes, even though they told us to, so we’d go out and hide. And we’d just go out there and sometimes we’d just lean against each other and not talk. Sometimes we’d just talk all night. Talk about philosophy, life, God… I don’t know. And we’re talking about real, genuine, deep discussions. And, accepting each other’s points even when we disagreed!

I remember one time there was a friend of mine, he’s Black…African-American, whatever. We’d been doing this for quite a long time, and he came out and said, “You know, Jon, you’ve been my friend for a long time,”- and his nickname was Robin – and he said, “What can you tell me about African-American history?” And I said, “Robin, nothing.” And he said, “That’s bullshit. Don’t pretend to be my friend when you don’t know anything about my culture.”

But the thing is, this is the time when we’re really connecting. And instead of saying, “Oh, c’mon that’s dumb.” Or, “Our friendship’s not based on that,” I understood what he meant.

RAL: You understood him on a deeper level.

JK: Yes. He was saying to me “Jon, we’re friends and how come you haven’t done this? How can you profess to be my friend and care about me as much as you do but you don’t know exactly what some of my feelings are”? And, interestingly enough, I could tell you so much about African-American history today that it blows people away. See, when Robin said that to me, even though I haven’t talked to him since I left the Philippines in 1991, it resonated with me to where I could now tell you about Malcolm X, Dr. King, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas….

RAL: What it feels like to me is you heard the deeper resonance, you heard the deeper levels of what he was saying to you. It wasn’t just the words anymore.

JK: I felt hurt that I had hurt him and I never realized that I had done that. If that hadn’t happened - going through that journey - he would never have said that and if he had said that earlier it would have never sunk in because we wouldn’t have connected that way.

RAL: Yes. What shifted, Jon? You said that you went from anger and frustration to joking and laughing.

JK: Well, actually, it goes from anger to frustration to silence. To laughter to joking.

RAL: What do you think happened?

JK: I don’t know if you’re familiar with alcohol and drug treatment. An addict will make a turnaround when they hit the very bottom. And the question they ask is, “Have you hit the bottom yet?” Because when you hit the bottom, that’s when you’re ready. And until they hit the bottom, whatever their bottom is, they’re not ready. And I think that’s what happened to us. We had to wait to hit the bottom. I mean, come on, I shot somebody’s pet, somebody else ran over a dog, we’re fighting in line, we’re throwing weapons at each other! I mean, with intent to do harm, not, like, here, take it. It was with intent to really hurt each other. I think we hit the bottom of humanity, as low as you can go, and I think that’s what happened. And I think once we hit the bottom, like I said, that silence. I don’t know if that was two weeks or a month. It was just surreal. We really didn’t talk to each other.

RAL: It felt surreal to you? I’m curious to know how that felt to you, when you shifted into the mode of almost needing each other. I mean it’s like a bond. I’m feeling a bond, an unbelievably deep bond. It’s so strong that it’s physical, I mean physical in the sense that you wanted to be near one another and you wanted to be in the same room. Tell me, if you remember, how did it feel to you?

JK: I can’t remember. I don’t think my energy ever came back. Up until the point I left in September. Even after we bonded, my energy never came back. I was still mentally, emotionally, physically exhausted. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

RAL: Was there emotion involved? I mean I know you were laughing, that’s an emotion. Did you also cry together?

JK: No. We went from anger then probably to the silence. If I had to give it one emotion I’d say depression too (long pause). I’ve got to be careful because you might misunderstand the laughing. Sometimes laughter’s displaced. I think we were laughing because we realized that it wasn’t each other that we needed to be upset with. And we also realized it was each other we needed. We needed people! We were three or four months along and we’d really been by ourselves in a horrible situation. We laughed a lot. (Long pause). But it still wasn’t fun. And we were still bonded. I think the thing is, what I said earlier, we were depressed. I think we were still depressed but now its collective.
That’s the best way I can put it. Collective anger. We were sharing the anger…

RAL: But you didn’t even remember leadership at that point so what were you angry at?

JK: We didn’t want to be there. We didn’t want to be doing that stuff and we could not see a purpose in it. So, we felt like we were all suffering and we thought, “Why are we doing this?”

RAL: So it didn’t feel any better when you were together? I mean, physically, it didn’t feel better.

JK: Well that’s not fair, either. I don’t k

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