Friday, August 21, 2009

And We're Off

“In the second truck we have Adams driving, LT, Fernandez on the gun, and dismounts will be Gangluff, Calloway, and the reporter.”

Everybody stares at me. Damn. I thought they knew my name. Later I learned that they DID know it, but they enjoy bugging me. Fine; I bug them right back.

It is often difficult to tell somebody’s story, since at best I am seeing it through the foggy lens of the storyteller’s selective memory, withheld grief, unarticulated frustrations, and because I was not there. No doubt, every time I tell one, I leave out something that was important to them, and readers are left with an even more broken and incomplete picture of what actually happened or who they are. I fear I do them all a great injustice.

Similarly, I am baffled as to how I introduce the more than 120 Soldiers of Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 35th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. I could tell the history of Tropic Lightning (25th ID), that of Bronco (35th Brigade), Cacti (2nd Battalion), or the Ace of Spades (Charlie Company). I have no idea where to start. I don’t know enough. Besides this, I’m not here to tell unit histories or combat prowess. I’m here to introduce people, but I suspect I do that poorly, too. I’ve known these men for less than a month.

So what I will do is present brief glimpses into their lives and personalities. They are not “the troops;” they are the sons of America. Few exhibit character like theirs, but it is commonplace among the ranks.

The company commander here told me he looks forward to coming back to Iraq some years from now with his family. He wants to know that the grueling effort that he and his Soldiers have put into this country has amounted to something. He hopes our nation has shed its blood for good cause. A free Iraqi would satisfy that.

When I walked into one Soldier’s quarters, I observed that he writes to-do notes on his markerboard in Korean. He’s white, but his wife is Korean. Another Soldier is covered in tattoos – in Hawaiian. More than once I have betrayed my poor language skills with conversations in Spanish.

These Soldiers come from the Navy, the Air Force, National Guard, Africa, Mexico, the Pacific islands, and other places, but they’re all American now. Some only recently swore in. Nobody cares where they came from, because they’re all here together. Most of the officers are graduates of West Point.

I have observed that the biggest hulk of a Soldier here is also the biggest marshmallow. He attacks people frequently, insisting that, “no, I don’t do steroids,” but then they get back to work and he does it all quite cheerfully. He’s one of the most patient men I’ve ever seen, but his wall locker displays enormous dents reminding everybody how bad an idea it would be to piss him off. I’ve never seen him angry, though.

There is a Soldier here who many used to call short, stumpy and fat, until he outran them all in a recent race. He’s a pack mule, and the first guy I’ve met who’s been yelled at to walk slower during ruck marches. Even with his short legs striding twice for everybody else’s step, he’s somehow built for the Army. He calls his machines gun Irene. All of them.

Some Soldiers have shown me photos of babies, wives, or a small cadre of girlfriends. Children, however, seem to be the most common photographs displayed on computers. Photos are also taped to steering wheels. Everybody misses their kids. One showed me a photo of “his baby,” which was his car. Just a couple days ago, I observed a conversation where a grunt counseled another on the best baby book to read if you have a child on the way. The other sharply disagreed, waving his preferred baby book. His wife had told him not to come home until he’s read it.

One Soldier’s little brother is a movie star, and other Soldiers rarely talk to their siblings. Some will return to great marriages, and others to a mountain of challenges. This deployment has solidified a few relationships, but potentially broken just as many. Like anywhere else, there are problems. But out here, there’s little they can do about it. They’ll deal with it when they return.

Some of the Soldiers here get too much mail, and live in rooms packed with junk food and amenities from home, but a few have received hardly anything at all. Every unit has a few like this. They’ve slipped between the cracks back home, families have forgotten them, and friends don’t know what to say. It’s lonely for everybody out here, but exceedingly so for those who will return to little.

I’ve been regaled with stories of bar fights and boxing, and seen plenty of Soldiers limp back to their quarters bleeding (but smiling) from martial arts training. A few have trained with professional fighters, but it’s rare to hear about it. It’s not important out here.

One Soldier described his Native American background to me, while another, also of mixed Native American descent, told me how much he misses hunting in moccasins in the Pacific northwest. Later, when discussing who won the “Indian Wars,” one remarked that he’s not entirely sure that the white man won. How’s that? “Casinos. They’re getting rich off the white man now.”

I waited for a patrol brief one morning while listening to several Soldiers debate the best way to manage their investment portfolios in the market. Come midday, they were telling stories about encounters with their girlfriends. In the evening, others were debating politics and the absurdity of their current uniform color. Opinions were varied.

Some Soldiers are in this for the long haul, and are eager to return stateside for further training, while others mull over what they’ll do when they get out. Many are weary of deploying. For one, his sixth tour will begin a few months into 2010. Another has been deployed constantly since 2002, save for about four months of each year. He looks forward to getting out. He’s considering college, as are many others. This battalion will be losing a full 40% of its members to either orders elsewhere or the civilian world.

One Soldier has been medically evacuated since I arrived here, and last anybody’s heard he’s in the states. He won’t be rejoining them out here, but will meet them in Hawaii. Even as he lay on the stretcher waiting for his flight, his military bearing shone through as he courteously answered the medical officer’s questions. Humorously, his primary concern was that the runner who packed his bag had also remembered to throw in his dip.

At least two Soldiers in this company conduct regular Bible studies attended by a rotating crowd of other Soldiers (and non-military personnel on this base). Plenty more wear crosses, or images of patron saints. Others hold no opinion, but at least one is Wiccan.

There are scores of Soldiers here who will be receiving medals for actions during the deployment, and I know the stories of a few whose hard work will probably go unnoticed. They were just doing their jobs, and they’re not here for the medals, anyway, but because they chose to be. Few talk about their accomplishments, but one told me what it was like to shove somebody in a bodybag. It was the first time he’d done it, and he prays the last.

I’ve lost money in card games here, invariably trumped by somebody who plays more poker, and learned a new game called “corn hole,” where a beanbag is thrown at a slick piece of elevated plywood with a hole in it. On “company fun day,” they had tournaments with both games, with carefully monitored results. If you and your partner lose badly, you’re never allowed to play as a team again. Period.

Platoon rivalry is serious business, as bands from one platoon randomly accost loners from the other. When it’s time to work, the games stop quickly. They take their jobs seriously, because they have to.

I’ve learned that some of the Soldiers here absolutely love Iraqi cuisine, while others won’t touch it. Even those that do like it have confessed that it caused a series of digestive problems that take forever to go away. Still, they eat the local food and drinking the local “chai” tea. As they sip, they joke about what diseases they’ll get from it.

During the fun day barbeque, the meal was briefly disrupted by an incoming rocket landing about forty feet from where we ate, but it didn’t detonate. In moments, we resumed eating and watched Soldiers from EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) pick up the pieces of the warhead and haul them away for safe disposal. It serves as a reminder that this is still Iraq, and there are still people that wish them dead.

And it is thus that most, if not all these Soldiers have lost friends and comrades over the years and during this tour. Several wear bracelets honoring fallen comrades, and plenty more have photos of friends they’ve lost.

Prior to missions, Soldiers brief every aspect of the mission, rehearse immediate actions and standard operating procedures, and ensure a rigid adherence to professional conduct as directed by the rules of engagement. They are read, in full, before each patrol. As their tour winds down, the company commander reminds them to stay sharp. They have two months left, and he wants them all to finish strong and safe. Ramadan begins on Saturday, a notoriously violent time in this country.

Should I ever visit Hawaii, I have been assured of a dozen places to stay, and invited to plenty of bars, beaches and other attractions across the island. I have been invited to churches, on motorcycle rides, and fishing, too. In truth, if I had served with a unit as professional, hospitable and motivated as this, I would probably still be in the Marine Corps. After years of horror stories about low morale, it’s nice to see something different. This company, in fact, leads the entire 25th Infantry Division in reenlistment rates. They have done well with their mission, and I have been honored to briefly witness this first hand.

And so, as fragmented and incomplete as this piece and my other writing may be, it is my hope that readers will now see men, fathers, husbands and sons where they previously saw sunglasses, flak vests and uniforms. It is also my hope that they see men laboring for their country where before they viewed anonymous players in a contentious war fought in a faraway land. It is my hope that they see people.

Here is what I see: stories, humor, hope, frustration, weariness, loneliness and enthusiasm. Well over one hundred lives lived out in radically different places and unique circumstances, drawn together by a single, uniform oath. I see that oath taken seriously. I see servants, companions, and leaders. I see tactical competence and the potential for combat ferocity. I see men and Soldiers. I see brothers, and I see friends. Welcome them home, for they are your sons.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. You reported fairly, accurately and well. They are a dynamite group and I am sure you made many friends. You did them proud. I don't know of anyone else who has done what you have with a group such as the 25th. Their proud history goes back to WWII and Hawaii. Lighning Rocks!