*From a conversation elsewhere in Iraq.
The reason I’m here is because my children were starving. This certainly wasn’t what I’d planned to do with myself. But, between no work, no money, and a pressing need to feed my family, the Army was the only solution. Even still, how I arrived here in this unit specifically is a long story. It began more than seventeen years ago...
Before I was ever in the Army, I was a Marine – like a lot of Soldiers out here. Just after Desert Storm and fresh out of high school, I enlisted as a Marine LAV Crewman [infantry]. Ans to be honest, it wasn’t what I had expected. A military during peacetime is vastly different from what is in time of war. It’s not as fast-paced, and it’s easier to lose sight of what you’re doing why you’re doing it. I enjoyed certain parts, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a career. After four years, I elected to get out and pursue other things. It wasn’t the life for me.
But I still had an itch. Yes, there were aspects of the Marines that weren’t very appealing to me and a few things I outright hated, but there was plenty more that I missed: the uniform, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, and the knowledge that you’re involved in something greater than yourself. Rather than keep missing it, though, I did something about it. Less than three years after I’d gotten out of the Marines, I enlisted in the Army National Guard – again as an infantryman. It was a good supplemental income.
After years of typical Guard duty, unit was activated to augment Department of Homeland Security personnel at airports, putting me back on active duty from 2003 to 2005. With that, of course, came the aspects of active duty that I didn’t particularly like. When the tour ended in ’05, I chose to get out again. Itch or no itch, it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.
Things were tough for my family and me in southern California. After several unsuccessful attempts to find work, I talked with a cousin in Chicago. He promised me a job, and a place for my family until we got on our feet. They had room in their house, he said. Packing everything we owned into a moving van, we headed to Chicago.
My cousin, however, had not been particularly truthful. There was no guaranteed work, and he hadn’t even mentioned to his wife that we’d be coming to stay. Nor was there any room, at any rate. For lack of anything better, I moved my family into a motel room. I needed work.
Job prospects in Chicago weren’t much better than they were in California, though. In desperation, I started doing day labor, but it wasn’t really fruitful. I had a hard time getting a ride to the pickup point – especially at six in the morning.
Day labor, hard and honest work though it may be, doesn’t provide income sufficient to feed a family – at least not one living in a motel room. My paycheck was mostly spent on the motel bill, leaving entirely too little for my wife and children. And if I were to buy all the food we actually needed, the motel bill would go unpaid, and we’d be literally homeless. We’d spent all our savings on the move from California.
So come 2007, in total desperation, I enlisted into the Army – active duty – this time as a Refueler. Infantry tends to wear you down, so I needed to “reclass” into something different. I’m not as young as I used to be, either. It was by no means what I really wanted to do, but it was work, a steady paycheck, and it would certainly provide for my family. My children needed to eat.
So two years into my “latest enlistment,” I’m in Iraq on my first tour as a Refueler. Thankfully, it’s much more relaxed than the infantry. Unfortunately, though, because of all my broken time, I’m only a specialist [E-4]. That’s even after four years active duty Marines, eight years Guard, and now another two years active duty Army. Basically 18 years on and off. I’m hopeful it’ll change soon. We could use the extra income.
If I’d known that I’d end up here anyway, I’d have never left the Marines in the 90s. I’d be two years from retirement, and a hell of a lot higher rank than I am right now. If I’d known, I’d have done things very differently.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved