"To tell you the truth," said arresting Officer C. Curry-Haglere of the DC Metro Police Department, "I’d rather live in a world the way this guy sees it than the way it really is." Thus ended a rather surreal night of corporate-sponsored patriotism at the NFL/Britney Spears/Pepsi extravaganza called "Operation Tribute to Freedom." The evening’s entertainment stretched from the Capitol Hill Mall to a VIP tent full of badly wounded Iraqi war vets to the inside of a DC jail. My brother Greg and I were attending so as to pay our tribute to Freedom.
Organizers had choreographed the kickoff event all the way down to the selection of teams, each representing a city attacked nearly two years ago. From the start I could not shake the irony that the "New York Jets" named not just an NFL team but also the weapons of 9/11.
Surrounded by barricades, billboard sized Pepsi/American flag amalgamations, hundreds of port-a-potties, and thousands of cops, an officially estimated crowd of 125,000 quickly churned the Mall’s sod into a six-inch deep sheet of "Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla Pepsi" based mud. American diversity was clearly in evidence, as corn-rowed African American teenagers stood (no one danced) next to awestruck ten-year old white girls from the ’burbs, next to pot-bellied working-class guys and beltway suits chatting on cell phones. Up front were the guests of honor— several score of US soldiers in a sparsely filled VIP section. It was hard to imagine that the Mall, now a crass carnival ground, had once hosted mass protests lead by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On stage a pudgy Air Force kid introduced the bouncy and bodacious Britney Spears as the sun set behind us. She lip-synced a new song and then an old song, going through an on-stage wardrobe change (read: reduction) to keep the soldiers’ attention. The problem was there were barely any soldiers to bounce for; despite the free front-row passes, most GIs were somewhere else. Organizers were left with a gaping hole directly in front of the stage and TV cameras.
After Aretha Franklin’s lip-synced version of the national anthem we flashed some newly scrounged American flag VIP bracelets and slipped into the soldiers’ tent. The NFL, which had refused to compensate the cops around $60,000 for overtime expenses, had spared little for the absentee vets. Cascading mounds of wine bottles were surrounded by fresh fruits of all kinds. There were cheese steaks and burgers for the working-class heroes, and enough Coors Light to make the Iraqi desert bloom (it sure can’t get you drunk).
I guess it was supposed to be a happy sort of homecoming scene. But the sight of young vets with no legs or one arm, or horrible burn scars, mingling with images of the Jets and the Redskins game caused me to reach for a free can of Silver Bullet. Wondering how long until I was expelled and cut off from the free drinks, I asked the guy next to me how he got in. I would concoct my story based on his.
"I was blinded in Baghdad. Most of the guys here were wounded," said a blank-eyed kid in a Michigan hat and Abercrombie T-shirt.
"Yeah." Corporal Mark Grutton then explained how he had traded his eyesight for an evening of all-you-can-drink Silver Bullets and Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla Pepsi. "We were on curfew patrol when we saw a minivan at a four-way intersection violating curfew. With another humvee we pulled up next to him to send him home. They detonated an IED [improvised explosive device]. There were three of us in the humvee. The other two died. I can barely see."
In the background, wide TV screens cut to a commercial for Vanilla Pepsi. The young vet, in a tone marked by a matter-of-fact sense of unfairness, went on to tell me about his repeated laser surgeries, and their repeated failures.
"You wanna know what pisses me off?" asked Mark. "A lot of units are going over there with no mission. None at all. My unit had no mission. People are dying for no reason. That’s what pisses me off." The date of his injury was June 27th, nearly two months after Bush, aboard an aircraft carrier, declared the war to be over. "People think the war’s over, but it’s not."
Grutton had served in the 2nd ATI out of Ft. Sill in Oklahoma City and had been recruited about eighteen months ago from his hometown of Milton, Vermont. He was told by his recruiter that he wouldn’t be sent overseas. "I’m gonna look for him when I get back [to Milton]," he told me, never mind that Mark was now legally blind and would have a really hard time looking for anyone.
Over by the port-a-potties, away from the stage and massive TV screens, evidence of other types of wounds became obvious. A drunken marine, standing in line for the bathroom suddenly turned on a Georgetown University student, dressed like a skater.
"You little prick! This is supposed to be for us! All you care about is the football and the free shit!"
The Georgetown kid began to protest but was cut off. "Don’t give me that shit!" growled the vet. "You have no fucking idea the shit I’ve seen!" The marine was well over six feet and now his hands were crushing the scrawny kid’s neck. "Have you ever had your best friend’s arm blown off right in front of your face!?" Just then another soldier intervened rather politely and released the Marine’s hands from the skater’s bulging red throat.
Back at the VIP tent my brother and I spent the rest of the night getting drunk. We befriended a Venezuelan bartender and made off with a bottle of wine.
On our way out we were accosted by a security guard demanding the return of the bottle. By now deep into the free wine I protested loudly, "After all I’ve done for my country, you’re going to take that bottle of wine from me?" The guard looked me up and down while my brother, behind him, stashed two more bottles down his pants.
"Son, you’re not fooling me. What have you ever done for this country?"
"Well, I paid all those parking tickets."
Entering the Metro Center stop my brother descended the up escalator— after all this was America, the land of the Free. But at the bottom Greg met several burly cops who did not see freedom in quite the same terms.
"Social Security Number," demanded Officer C. Curry-Haglere, a middle-aged black woman with bleached orange hair and chunky gut. Officer C. Curry-Haglere was in a sour mood.
"You gettin’ a ticket, boy," chuckled another 350-pound cop, happy to point out the obvious.
"Social Security Number," Curry-Haglere again demanded. My brother didn’t give the number so the third cop, a 6’6" white guy, pushed me, then pushed me again.
"If you assault me again I’ll arrest you," he deadpanned.
"Non-cooperation. You’re under arrest," said Curry-Haglere to a drunken and Britney-dazzled Greg, as she pulled his arms behind his back and cuffed him. These plastic cuffs, unlike the concert bracelets, weren’t decorated with American flags.
At the jail, Greg was tossed into a 7’ by 7’ cell with a 55-year old black man, Melvin Bremen, who had dreadlocks and a graying, scruffy beard. I was able to watch them on a video screen behind Officer C. Curry-Haglere’s desk.
The guards offered him three choices: 1) Stay in lock-up and wait for court, which could be Friday but could be Monday; 2) Pay $25 on the spot and forget the whole thing; 3) Pay 25 dollars and come back for court at a later date. The discussion was difficult to hold; sitting in the lobby I could hear Bremen screaming chaotically.
"You better watch out for him," Curry-Haglere repeatedly told Greg.
"He’s fine," Greg told her. "He’s just purifying his soul." Greg, entirely obstinate, seemed to be enjoying the farce and continued to refuse to pay the 25 dollar price for his Freedom.
Greg later told me that as Bremen began to calm down the two of them spent much of the night discussing war and spirituality, which Bremen felt did not mix. Curry-Haglere would leave her front desk, where I sat waiting, and occasionally join the conversation.
At other times, she would invite me behind her desk to watch the video monitor of Greg’s cell. "Look, look! Now they’re meditating! Oh my God, you white people do the damnedest things."
Eventually Greg went with option two. To my mind, the most embarrassing thing about this DC shakedown was the meager 25 bucks they were making out of it. It was about 4:30 as we started our walk home. I pulled on the "Operation Tribute to Freedom" T-shirt that Greg had jacked from the VIP tent and wondered what Britney was doing and what kind of dreams the blind Corporal Grutton was having. Near the mall a cloying scent of Not-So-Vanilla Vanilla Pepsi drifted past. Greg looked into the perfect dawn and muttered, "Free at last. Free at last."
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).