When I hear the stories from Iraq. When I remember my own. When I write them down and I am there again. I think. I think.
I remember putting my arm around the guy next to me after our first firefight. I was thrilled to be alive. I was thirsty. When I saw the truck in front of me disappear in a fireball, I remember wondering if I just watched my buddies die. I remember wondering when one would hit mine. I just hoped it wouldn’t hurt much.
I remember riding in the first truck and sitting there with my feet as far apart as possible. Maybe an IED would only take out one leg instead of both. I remember practicing with a tourniquet one-handed, just in case I’d lost the other.
I remember getting screamed at because my hair was too long, or my Marines had holes in their uniforms. Or because I had my hands in my pockets. I remember them telling us that if we look good and we smell good, we must BE good. And that it didn’t matter if we died, so long as we looked good doing it.
I remember wishing we’d get in firefights because it’s what we’d trained to do, but then getting in them and using none of my training. I remember guys who just didn’t want to do it anymore, but did it anyway.
I remember waiting. Sitting idle. Sleeping anywhere we had a few moments of peace. In trucks, on trucks, on the ground, in piles of gear, in cots and in beds. We spent most of our time waiting. And being angry that we weren’t doing anything. But then doing something and wishing it was over.
I remember wanting not to leave some days, and praying the next to go home and be out. Long conversations at night, sitting in the front seat watching for enemy that never came, and talking about what we’d do when we got out. I remember being afraid to get out because I didn’t know what to do with myself. But hating being in, too. Most of what we did was stupid.
I remembering sleeping on the floor so the bed stayed perfectly made for inspections, and having six unused full sets of clothing that I bought brand new and used for nothing but uniform inspections. I still have them, too.
I remember breaking down all the time, on base, in the parking lot, in Iraq. In the middle of nowhere, and wondering why we could never get the batteries, trucks and even fitting gear we needed. I remembering being angry half the time, and exhausted for the rest. I see pictures of myself and I look like I was haggard and starving. Maybe I was.
And I regret things, too. Not being a better leader. Not advocating my troops more. Cowing too much to subordinates that did things to just undermine me. I remember hating them just as much – because they made life difficult for me simply because they thought they could.
I regret not being more alert and more responsible. Not seeing more enemy and killing them. Not being a better shot. Not being in more firefights. Not staying in and trying to change things.
And I wish I was still in touch with more of my buddies. That we were closer. That I’d better befriended my buddy who killed himself. That I’d prayed with more of my guys. That’d I’d done more, trained them harder, kept our relationships more professional and exhibited better leadership for them.
I remember leadership being lonely.
I remember loving it. The uniform, the sword, the short haircuts and physical fitness. And I still miss it. And loathe it. Remember it fondly, but also in grief. I wish I’d done more, seen more. Accomplished more.
I still miss it sometimes. I still hate it sometimes. I wish I was still in, but I’m glad I’m out. I wish I was satisfied with what I’ve done. And I wonder if I ever will be.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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