Saturday, August 21, 2010

Personal Reflections on My Years in Iraq

We pulled our convoy onto what used to be a small airstrip downtown that was now the site of the Grand Saddam Mosque: what would have been the largest mosque in the world and where Saddam wanted to be buried when he died of natural causes one day in his distant future. Things change. This would be the place we would spend 12 of the next 15 months. We lined our trucks up and settled in for the first real sleep we had in two days. Standing on top of the 5-ton truck I was sleeping in, I tuned my world band radio to BBC. President Bush had made a speech from an aircraft carrier underneath a banner that said 'Mission Accomplished' and he said 'major hostilities' had ended. Somebody said 'Good. Then what are we doing here?' That was our first night in Baghdad, Iraq.

Fifteen months, one extension, and many stop-losses later, with 10 brothers dead and twice that number injured, including myself, we drove back down the same road we had come up. The country hadn't changed any, but we had all changed. Not many people can point to the exact time period they went from being a kid to being a man. For me, and a lot guys, that happened on the roads and in the streets of Iraq in 2003.

We made it home in August 2004. Two months before I had climbed out of a blown out truck lightly injured after a suicide bomber struck us. Now I was with my wife again. We had been married for 18 months and I had been there for 3 months of it. We made it through and are still married today; a lot of other people didn't make it. A lot of people drank themselves to sleep at night and took out their aggressions on their family. The efforts the military made were too little, too late for some and in a culture where admitting weakness is frowned upon no one asks for help. I had nightmares and felt on edge most of the time. I gained twenty pounds and smoked like a chimney. We went back to 0630 PT, formations, and field training.

Fifteen months later we went back again. We stayed in Kuwait for a much longer time and there were rumors we weren't going up. Then there was talk of a 'Surge' and we went north. We flew in this time. We lived in trailers instead of a blown out office building like last time. There was electricity and A/C. Burger King even. That was a change. What hadn't changed were the streets outside. In fact they had gotten worse. I ended up attached to a small team that advised an Iraqi army battalion in western Baghdad. The streets were empty. The shops were closed. The gasoline lines were long. The Shi'ia-Sunni conflict was at fever pitch and there were no walls then.

I answered a call one night from a unit in our sector; they had found seven bodies and eight heads wrapped in a tarp and needed us to come out. There was a sniper in our sector who was shooting guys in the head. We caught his driver and spotter, but he slipped away. Iraqi soldiers were being abducted from their homes when someone discovered their identity. The police were coming to homes and killing people or extorting money. Iranian intelligence operatives were training insurgents how to build shaped charges to penetrate our armor. We lost three guys, one, a good friend of mine, was killed on his last mission two days before we went home. I was already supposed to be out of the Army when that happened, but they kept me an additional 6 months 'for the convenience of the government.'

I left active duty in 2007 and did one more year in the reserves. Fortunately, I had it in my contract that I couldn't go again so soon. Other guys weren't so lucky. The Army said when you switched from active duty to reserves, your 'deployment clock' went to zero. Some guys who hadn't been home 90 days had to worry about going again so soon. I left the Army in 2008, but worked for two years as a contractor in Kuwait. Friends of mine that stayed have since gone for third tours or on to Afghanistan. Some have been injured; some have been killed.

I still have this recurring dream. Sometimes, I don't have to be asleep; the memory just comes back on its own. As I stood on the bank of the Tigris River, I watched two young Iraqi boys, maybe 7 or 8 years old, one with a rolled up piece of newspaper and the other with a plastic cup of gasoline in an alley way. They crept up on a scrawny, mangy stray dog asleep in the shade. They threw the gasoline on him and lit it on fire and ran back down the alley, watching and laughing as it yelped and started and fell down and burned. They laughed as it shriveled up there like burnt paper. These were children that did this to a ragged animal. Kids play with dogs, they don't set them on fire.

Since 9/11/01 I haven't lived in America. I just moved back in January, 2010. I have lived in Germany, Iraq, and Kuwait. Since then, I've seen a lot of bumper stickers and flags and tshirts and hear a lot of talk about supporting the troops. People do thank me when they hear I was over there. Most of the time they want to tell me a story about somebody they know who is or was there too. But if I tell them too much about my story they get a little edgy and make excuses to go. I don't tell it now unless I have to. The war makes people uncomfortable. The real one, not the war the politicians talk about as some brave crusade far away that the brave troopers signed up to.

The real war means people you know die and get hurt. That makes people uncomfortable. I signed up for the Army right after high school knowing full well that this could happen one day. My grandfather, several uncles, my father, and my cousin have all served. I trusted the judgment of the American people and our leaders that they wouldn't send us to war unless there was a damn good reason. We didn't talk enough about this war. Talking about war makes people uncomfortable. No matter how many tshirts you wear or bumper stickers you put on or flags you wave, it won't assuage that uncomfortable feeling. Just because soldiers sign up voluntarily, it doesn't mean they sign up or volunteer for everything.

In my personal reflection, in my corner of the world, I know we haven't achieved anything from the war in Iraq. People, Iraqis and Americans, have died or been seriously injured. Lives, marriages, careers have been ruined. Soldiers bear physical scars you can see and mental ones you cannot. As the last 'combat' troops left Iraq on 19 August 2010, I was teary eyed. I thought to myself this must be what it felt like for the Vietnam guys when Saigon fell.

We all gave so much physically, mentally, emotionally in that place. Some guys gave more. Some gave all they had. You can't take that away from them. The country called and we answered. That's what we're supposed to do and we did it. Right now, I don't feel that we can say that anything was accomplished by it. It wasn't a failing on our part; it was a failing on the part of our highest elected leadership. Those responsible will never bear any of the true burden. They don't see all the faces that I see when I go to sleep at night like thousands of my brothers and sisters. Maybe history will one day show that despite the odds we made a difference in Iraq for the Iraqi people. History takes a long time to write itself.

If you told me that we could travel back in time and prevent the war from ever happening, would I do it? Yes, I absolutely would. But if you told me that we could travel back and change things so I wouldn't have to go, I absolutely wouldn't. It was the most terrible time in my life so far, but I wouldn't miss it. It made me who I am. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

I know that I am not against war. War is sometimes the only answer. It wouldn't matter if I was against it. War is. It was here waiting for us and it will still be waiting for whatever comes after we are gone. Someday this war will simply be another thread in the long story of war, the individual strings not mattering as much as the whole. But if there is some greater story out there that tells there is some purpose to it all, we all played our part in it. But what that part was only we ourselves know. Others may not know your story, but you know it and we all must eventually come to answer to ourselves.