*Retold with permission
I’ve spent four birthdays and three Christmases over here so far and I imagine I’ll spend a few more here, too. Since I enlisted in 2003, we’ve been deployed every other year, except for the year they extended us and we stayed out here 16 months. But again, we did a year back, and then left again. You could say that I’ve spent most of my twenties at war. The rest of my twenties I wasn’t here, but I was in the Army.
Iraq changes every time I come here. It used to be absolutely awful, but it’s a little better now – at least in terms of the risks. I’m not with a very good unit this time, though. They don’t take care of their own like they should. I picked up sergeant maybe three years into the Army, but after that everything stalled. I’ve been eligible for E-6 for a long time, but for reasons nobody has ever explained, I’ve never been promoted. They’re supposed to give you annual counseling to tell us our promotion schedule, but they don’t give them to me here. My old unit cared, but this one really doesn’t. I know the company first sergeants hates me personally.
When that first sergeant released the soldiers for R&R, he’d make them wait for a convoy to take them to the airbase, which sometimes took days. But when he went, he made us drive him down there in our own convoy so he wouldn’t have to wait at all. And now he’s not even coming back. He only did six months over here.
When I finally went home on R&R, rather than relax a little, I spent almost half my leave trying to get treatment for injuries I’ve sustained over here in Iraq. They could have done it here, but that would have caused them to reschedule my R&R. Thing is, I was going back to Germany so I could spend my fiancé’s birthday with her (and propose to her).
I was able to get some of the treatment I needed in Germany, but there was one more undiagnosed problem that the doctors wanted more time to observe and examine. But when they asked, the command flat out refused to give me any convalescent leave, even though the request came from medical professionals. No, they wanted me back immediately. I guess it was really important to them that I hurry back here to sit behind a desk all day. So, I came back with stitches still in my hand and only halfway fixed. Now they’ve placed me on light duty until my shoulder injury heals.
I proposed to my fiancé while I was on R&R, but that’s turning out to be a huge disaster. Not the engagement at all, but getting her to the United States. See, I wasn’t supposed to go on this deployment at all, and I've been planning my future with my fiancé. I had orders for recruiting duty back in the states, which meant at least three years without deploying. One night, however, I was pulled over in Germany and accused of drunk driving. But when they tested me, I was far below the legal limit to drive, and the charges were dropped. That’s when the company first sergeant started hating me. He couldn't cancel my orders to recruiting duty, but he did call up the chain and tell them to send me to the worse possible recruiting station they could find. They selected White Sands, New Mexico. I asked if I could extend to stay with the unit in Germany, but they said no. My reasons weren’t good enough.
Well, at some point, they just decided to make me deploy with this unit anyway, to hell with my orders (even though they don’t really need me out here). So this is where the problem arises with my fiancé. I was going to move back to the states with her. But with those recruiting orders nixed, she’s stuck in limbo in Germany, and until we’re actually married, she won’t get command sponsored. And since I don’t have orders anymore, she can’t go stateside. She’s going to be stuck in Germany. At this point, I have no idea when we’ll get married, when she’ll get command sponsorship, or even when we’ll be able to live together. Do they expect her to wait around forever while they try to figure out what to do with me?
I actually have PTSD pretty badly, but until recently I didn’t tell anybody. I was afraid they’d pass me over for promotion and maybe even send me to see the shrinks. They might talk about an open door policy in the Army, but here, any problem like that will make them conclude you’re unfit for leadership and then you never get promoted. It’s not like I’m making up the PTSD, either. There are lots of reasons for it, and they’re real.
During the first tour, I remember we set up a VCP [vehicle checkpoint] just how they told us to, and then we’d search all the cars coming through. Well, an E-7 with us walked up to the driver of one car and when he asked them to step out, they shot him in the face, point blank. We were so surprised at what happened, we didn’t even shoot back at the car until it had sped through the checkpoint. They got away, too.
Another time, we got called out to help recover a Bradley that’d been hit by an IED. The unit was still engaged in a firefight, but they needed that Bradley moved, and the soldier inside needed to be evacuated fast. When the IED went off, it had blown off the guy’s arm completely.
When we pulled up, we bandaged him up, found his arm and put it on ice, and then started dragging the Bradley out of the kill zone. While we were doing this, EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] comes rolling up in their special IED sweeping vehicles, and then we realized that the area wasn’t even cleared yet. There could be more IEDs. Sure enough, right as the Cougar got a little distance in front of us, another IED went off. That blast was the fiercest explosion I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve seen many.
I was in the turret at the time, so when the shock wave hit me, I was pushed backwards until I was looking up into the sky. There, overhead, I saw the torso of the EOD guy flying over me like a ragdoll. I have no idea where his legs went.
Another time, we were manning a checkpoint and when a car pulled up, we ordered the driver to get out, but he refused. As two of my buddies approached it to pull him out, he detonated the car. There wasn’t much to pick up of those two. The young guys talk about how much they want to gear up and go outside the wire, and I keep telling them that they don’t. It’s safer if you don’t. I’ve had enough of war.
I have a hard time sleeping now. I hear voices or have nightmares, and sometimes I just lay awake for hours and can’t fall asleep. Those are the worst times, too, because all you do is think too much. Like a hundred thoughts at once, which is completely overwhelming.
I tried to kill myself four days ago because it got so bad. Between this command, the PTSD, thinking too much about things and not being able to sleep, I was losing it. I couldn’t take it anymore. See that guy over there? He’s my escort. They’re making him follow me everywhere, and they took away my rifle, too. I’m a little better now, I guess. I wasn’t really myself that morning. And if I’d really wanted to kill myself, I guess I still could.
They’re still not sending me home, though. We’re on the way back to the unit right now, and I imagine they’re either going to give me an Article 15 or court-martial me. At this point, I really don’t even care. They can go ahead and kick me out if they feel like it; I just want to go home. I don’t think there’s any other way they’re going to let me out, and I still have almost three years left on my contract.
I’d like a reason to be hopeful, but that’s only going to come if I see changes. Right now though, not a damn thing is happening. As soon as we touchdown on base, they’re putting me right back to work.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved