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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008

Rage Against the Machine

Las Cruces Army Ranger Jose Trevizo came home from Iraq and Afghanistan determined not to be just another brick in the wall.

By Jeff Berg

A pleasant, well-read and articulate young man, Jose Trevizo has lived almost all of his life in Las Cruces. Trevizo graduated from Onate High School, but, like many young people, had no idea what he wanted to do next.

Army Ranger Jose Trevizo.

"I was stalled in life," Trevizo says. "I attended WNMU for a semester. I had gone there to play football, but I found I wasn't ready for college. So, I went to work, but none of the jobs I had satisfied me."

While in Silver City, Trevizo made a choice that is also not untypical for many young people who are pondering their future: He enlisted in the US Army.

Trevizo was not feeling the spark of faux patriotism that arose following the incidents of Sept 11, 2001; rather he was looking at how the benefits of military service could serve him after his three-year enlistment ended. His parents were not totally happy about his choice, but were and remain supportive, nonetheless.

Not for a moment did Trevizo suspect that his tour in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq would change his life, his politics, his emotions and his personality. The time spent away from the safety of family and friends in Las Cruces transformed Trevizo from a casual political observer to an activist with a Web site entitled "Free Radical," on which he advocates "peaceful revolution."

Jose Trevizo entered basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2003. He says it didn't take long for him to realize his mistake: Military life was not for him. Although he never made a serious attempt to leave, it was always on his mind during his three years of service.

"After about three weeks, I started thinking, 'What the f — - am I doing here?' I was in basic training for the infantry. I learned that all this was brainwashing. You come out of it stupider than when you went in. I felt like a slave."

He compares the feeling to the main character of a 1979 rock-opera concept album, "The Wall" by Pink Floyd, who feels isolated from society. The military's effort to turn individuals into "bricks" in a wall was not something he was prepared for.

But he persevered and made friends with a number of other young men in his unit. "My drill sergeant in boot camp was okay," he adds.

Trevizo decided, however, that being an infantry "grunt" was not for him. He signed up for additional training to become a member of the Army Rangers, a more elite group than the regular infantry. Unfortunately, his Ranger Introduction Program began right after the two-week "exodus" holiday break, when many soldiers find it hard to readjust to military life.

"This is the time when a lot of guys go AWOL, or get married or just go crazy — after 'exodus,'" he says. "I felt like I was going to die."

But Trevizo soldiered on, along with 15 other young men from his basic training platoon, and ended up in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of two US Army Ranger units. He wound up in the same company that NFL player Pat Tillman had joined after eschewing a multi-million dollar football contract. Trevizo recalls how he and his fellow Rangers were told, "Don't talk about it," if anyone asked about Tillman's death in Afghanistan.

Initially, officials blamed Tillman's death on enemy fire, using the NFL player's sacrifice to rouse support and patriotism for a floundering conflict. But an investigation revealed that Tillman, who had become a critic of the Iraq invasion, died from "friendly fire." An autopsy of Tillman's body — found with three bullets in his head — said it appeared he'd been shot by a US Navy rifle from 10 yards away. Investigating doctors, whose names were blacked out on a report obtained by the Associated Press, suspected Tillman had been shot deliberately. Other news reports indicated that Tillman had scheduled a meeting with the peace activist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, upon his return to the US.

Before his own duty in Afghanistan, Trevizo was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., for Airborne School. "The drill sergeants there are all called 'black hats,' and they were all smart asses," Trevizo remembers.

The training was tough and intense, and many would-be Rangers "washed out." Trevizo recalls one trainee who had a Ranger "contract" — he'd been promised a chance to become a Ranger upon enlistment — who lasted only a week.

"It was a constant state of stress, even to the point of always having to say 'sergeant,' when you addressed the instructors, otherwise you got 'smoked' (disciplined). We were surrounded by straight-out professional soldiers. It was four weeks in hell — the hardest thing I have ever done or will do."

Part of Trevizo's training included a four-day intensive ordeal that took candidates out in the field with their equipment, a compass and a map to give them a taste of what might lie ahead if they were sent overseas to a combat zone. "It was a dark, scary moment. . . . A lot of good soldiers found out that not all could be Rangers. You can die while training. It felt like I was already in the war."

But Trevizo never gave up, and passed the last rigid tests required for all Rangers. "We were bookin' with a full pack," he says, recalling the required march and the other physical demands of the course. Each soldier must also pass written and medical tests.

The first time the candidates take the graduation tests, they do so as a group. Trevizo says only 15 in his class finished "in formation," and that he was not one of them. Each soldier is given a second chance to succeed by himself, and Trevizo was able to finish that time. He was one of only abour 60 in his class to graduate.

"After you graduate, then you start to get a little bit of respect. We were allowed to let our hair grow a little longer," he says. Rangers are also given a black beret to wear as part of their uniform.

Trevizo relates more stories about his training and the people he encountered, and one has to wonder where he mustered the discipline and courage to deal with it all. It becomes obvious as he talks that these experiences began to remold his psyche. Of course, that's part of the purpose of military training. But Trevizo kept from becoming just another brick in the "wall" — while also keeping his newly formed opinions of the military and the government to himself.


After additional training at Fort Benning and then again at Fort Lewis, Trevizo was deployed to Afghanistan. "In Afghanistan, I was part of a QRF (Quick Response Force). We were kind of like a tool in the garage," he remembers with a slight smile.

During his three-month tour of duty, Afghanistan was quieter militarily than it is today. Trevizo went on only about 10 missions during that time. He was a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) gunner during this tour, carrying a $4,000 light machine gun capable of firing some 700 rounds per minute — something that Trevizo never needed to do in combat.

"We mostly trained while I was over there," he says. "We did a lot of combat training, and when I returned from Afghanistan, I trained some more. You train your ass off!"

Trevizo was next sent to Iraq for the first time.

It is during this part of the interview that his demeanor and tone change dramatically. Prior to this part of his story, most of what Trevizo has said has been matter-of-fact, not much different than the experiences of soldiers of any era. Too much training and discipline, too much fatigue, too many boneheaded sergeants and officers.

Moving to another outdoor table at the coffee shop, so Trevizo can smoke, he stops looking at the young women who walk by our table. He becomes very serious and intense. His voice carries traces of anger and guilt and perhaps a bit of unresolved confusion.

"In Afghanistan, I didn't go on enough missions, but I did see a lot of poverty and a lot of good people," he begins. "When I went to Iraq, I didn't know what imperialism was. I didn't know who Che (Guevara) was." He points to his upper right forearm, now home to a Che tattoo. His left bicep sports another tattoo, similar in design to the cover art of Dalton Trumbo's famous 1938 antiwar book, Johnny Got His Gun.

"I started questioning what I was doing when I got to Iraq. I was stationed in Mosul, which is up north. We started leaving and doing missions the next night after I got there. The raids were supposedly for intelligence (reconnaissance). We were out of the wire (safe zone) now."

Trevizo describes the usual procedure, how the Rangers would get on trucks and a squad of soldiers would enter a civilian's house. A second squad would stand by or hit another house.

"If we had the wrong house, we would give the people some money and leave. On all these missions I would be in these people's houses, holding my SAW, and there was no one other than women and kids." A higher-up would justify the raid, he says, by claiming the men had just gotten away.

"One time they were interrogating this dude and someone took their gun and hit him in the head with it," Trevizo says. The man was further abused and after a while told the soldiers, "Just kill me."

Trevizo adds, "They kicked the shit out of the man."

This brings him to another musical connection, a piece called "Testify" by the socially active hard-rock band Rage Against the Machine. The lyrics in part take aim at the media for sugar-coating acts of violence against the Iraqi people:

"I'm empty please fill me

Mister anchor assure me

That Baghdad is burning

Your voice it is so soothing

That cunning mantra of killing. . ."

Trevizo lights another cigarette, rests his elbows on his knees, and looks at the tile patio floor. "Everyone was looking for Hussein, and we were out there destroying people's homes. On the grand scale we are destroying their country; on a small scale, we were destroying their homes. Everyone rationalized it by saying that we're just doing our jobs. The soldiers were the good guys doing a bad man's war.

"It was a lot harder in Iraq — the shit I saw. . . . My cousin is a paramedic, and he told me that 'death is a reality.' But I didn't see death, I saw people die."

He recalls a mission in a vehicle convoy assigned to do a "surgical strike" on "some dude that was on the list." Trevizo says, "It was high noon, and all the people were out in the streets. We were trying to maneuver our way through the streets. The convoy was made up of Strykers (an eight-wheeled armored combat vehicle) and some Jeeps (Hummers). The convoy got split up, and the Stryker in front of the one I was in hit an anti-tank mine. My Stryker was okay."

What resulted sounds like complete chaos: An army sniper ended up shooting the driver of a nearby car that was carrying a family, while Trevizo and the other soldiers in his vehicle were deployed nearby to provide backup.

"The sniper took out the driver and we just left the lady at the side of the road. We just left."

Asked if his weeks and months of training included anything about the culture and mores of the people of Afghanistan or Iraq, Trevizo quickly responds with a "no." He adds, "As long as I did my job, they (the army) loved me. They loved the unit."

His first tour in Iraq was for three months. The second time he went back, he was assigned to do administrative work, and usually didn't have to partake in combat situations.

Ironically, even after all his training and given all the combat missions that Trevizo was part of, he says he never once fired his SAW or any other weapon except during training. Besides the violence he witnessed in Iraq, however, he also saw a fellow soldier being accidentally shot and killed during training at Fort Lewis, and a friend lost a hand in a grenade accident.

Upon the end of his enlistment, Jose Trevizo came back to Las Cruces, and tried to settle down. "I bought a house, but I've given that to my dad now," he says. "I didn't want to be a slave to the house. I didn't like the American lifestyle idea that makes you a slave to the shit you own."

He'll be going back to school at NMSU in the spring. In the meantime, he's keeping busy expressing himself on his MySpace Web page, a fevered mix of videos and blogging filled with stream-of-consciousness, often expletive-laced essays on revolution and his war experiences. In one post, a letter to a Ranger squad leader, Trevizo writes: "Sgt, I wish I could have been a better Ranger. I hope you can forgive me for letting you down. . . . I just can't apologize for who I am now, 'cause now I'm rolling down another road less traveled, and I can't change what I've become. . . . I hope one day I can lead and teach people the way you led and taught me. Maybe then the whole world will come to a common understanding, and we can all live at peace with each other."

In the cafe, Trevizo stubs out his cigarette and ponders the possibility that he's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "I do feel restless and angry sometimes now, but I anger is a gift, not a sickness," he says.

"I'm sorry I joined the army," Trevizo goes on. "What we are doing over there is an occupation, not a war. I don't hate Muslims, and I feel like I was the bad guy, and I wish I could apologize to the people who lived in the houses we trashed.

"I want to go back to Iraq and Afghanistan and find those families and apologize to them for what I did."

You can read more about Jose Trevizo's thoughts on war, peace, the government and other things that matter at myspace.com/trevizojose


Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.

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