Thursday, August 13, 2009

It's Just Iraq

You’d be amazed how quickly people forget about you out here. Most Soldiers may start off with a good home support network, but that invariably diminishes as the deployment continues, friends and family grow accustomed to your absence, and those who once knew you well begin to feel alienated but unsure how to remedy it. Most, unfortunately, give up. While by no means universally true, a number of troops feel abandoned.

Few will articulate it aside from remarking that they haven’t received many letters or packages, but it creeps out, usually when other frustrations have begun to exact a toll on the morale of the individual Soldier. “Why am I doing this, anyway?” many will ask, and few are able to formulate satisfactory answers. Most aren’t asking for a cheering section, but they certainly wouldn’t mind knowing that somebody is thinking of them.

One Soldier here departed for Iraq missing a pretty girl back home, but that changed. These days she doesn’t write, and their phone conversations are usually short, tense, and avoiding the obvious that something has gone horribly wrong. Meanwhile, the same Soldier now receives e-mails from this girlfriend’s new interest. More than one note has read, “I hope you get crushed by an RPG.” To protect his own sanity, he has backed off from the relationship.

Another Soldier remarked that the only times his mother has called him during his entire tenure in the Army is when somebody in the family has died, save for once when she called to let him know about the birth of his niece. Aside from this, there is no contact.

One Sergeant hypothesizes that he’s losing friends because they feel somehow intimidated or guilty – that because they haven’t served in the military or overseas that they aren’t “worthy” of sharing the details of their seemingly mundane life. The Soldier, however, never suggested he was in any way superior. This job and lifestyle just isn’t for everybody.

Another feels it’s because he’s lost his connection with their world. They have chosen one path, and he another, and the two have little in common. For many, the awkwardness drives a permanent wedge between the two, leaving both parties increasingly insular, and unaccommodating of the other.

Let it be iterated quite clearly that nobody is asking for a tickertape parade when they return to the states. They want to greet their families and go home. That is the single, consistent statement and sentiment: “right now, I’d really just like to go home.”

Nor is this designed to garner pity for those who certainly volunteered for service. Though few truly understood the gravity of the oath, they made it anyway, and adhere to it loyally. They aren’t asking for pity, at any rate, but the assurance that there’s a welcoming home to which they’ll soon return. The desert, after all, is a lonely place.

If you want to know the troops, read their thoughts on the subject below. They aren’t my own creation, but from the mouths of those who have spent the better part of their twenties training for, or participating in an armed conflict…

“I don’t think it’s really the families’ fault back in the states. We took an oath, and their only crime was falling in love with those who took that oath. They get dragged into this with little to no preparation, and then spend years working to mend the damage caused by separation.”

“I really don’t mind taking the slow ride home on the ships with all our gear. There’s nobody waiting for me back there, anyway. What else am I going to do? Hang out by myself?”

“Wives back home spend twelve months fabricating an image in their mind about what it’s going to be like when their husband comes home. It’s probably similar to a ballerina dancing in circles in the music box. But then he really does come home, she doesn’t know him anymore, and that music box turns out to be empty. There’s no dancer, and there’s no music.”

“Do you want my phone card? I have about 70 or 80 minutes left on it, and I don’t have anybody to call, so if you want it, just let me know. I’ll give it to you. Might as well put it to good use.”

“It was months after my R&R leave before my wife said she loved me again. That’s been the hardest thing I’ve been through in Iraq; anguishing every day, trying to keep on doing my job, but not knowing where my wife stood. Also, I considered it all my own doing. That near miss last week with the rocket attack… I’d rather have another of those again than worry that my wife doesn’t love me anymore.”

“You can quantify casualties and physical injuries, but you can’t put a number to the emotional toll of this separation. I’d say thousands, if not millions of spouses are separated, wondering and worrying what it’ll be like when they come home, fearing adultery, loss of interest, or that they won’t know their own children anymore. I’d say the figures are staggering, and far more pronounced than you’ll ever read in the news.”

“Part of the problem is that there’s always a couple sour apples that ruin it for everybody. Like a Soldier I saw in an airport, in uniform, yelling at an airline employee because she wasn’t bumping him up to the next available flight. I was embarrassed by it, and I think everybody around me was disgusted. Who wants to support somebody who thinks he’s entitled to some sort of special treatment? People may think we’re all like that, and they lose all desire to support us. I can’t say I blame them, either.”

“A lot of times they don’t know what to say to us. They think we want to talk about how it is over here, but we don’t want to. Phone calls are just short, and they can’t think of anything to talk about. I say, ‘tell me about your day,’ but they’re uncomfortable with it. It’s easier for them to just not talk to us.”

“For some, the servicemember is the one being blamed for his absence. Everybody forgets that our political leaders are the ones that sent us. We just answered the call. It was the leadership of the nation that sent us to war, but we’re taking all the blame for it.”

“You have a Soldier being held prisoner by the Taliban, scared shitless, and all you read about in the news is how Michael Jackson died and who’s claiming to be the father of his kids this week. Iraq? Afghanistan? It’s never front page news. This week it’s health care. Did they forget about the war? Nobody cares anymore.”

“Actually, we have a really hard time getting reporters here these days. Right now, there’s maybe twelve embedded journalists in the entire country. They rest have all left for Afghanistan, or gotten bored and gone home.”

“I don’t know. I’d rather have no attention than negative attention. My dad came home to crosses burning in his front yard. And he still feels like he had it easier than most. I’ll take no attention any day.”

“This war has been going on for six years now. Our families, as much as it still hurts them, are getting used to us being gone all the time. They’re either worried for our safety, or trying to figure out we’ll be like when we come home, and how will it be different. In reality, part of us never comes home.”

“It’s not a novelty to write to the troops anymore. It’s nothing new. People have lost interest in it. Maybe they assume that somebody else is taking care of it for them. After all, it’s just Iraq. I’ll bet you never thought you’d hear that, did you? ‘It’s just Iraq.’”

Just Iraq… Men still die here.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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