Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Proud Soldier (by Ben Shaw)

Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When I got back from my first tour, I was sort of surprised at how many people came up and shook my hand and thanked me for my service. I guess it shouldn’t have been a big shock, since I wore my dress uniform fairly often. I was proud to be a veteran. Not exactly proud of what I had done individually, but proud of us. Proud that we went through something challenging, potentially deadly, and we performed unflinchingly. In retrospect, though, I’m sort of humbled to be called a vet. Many more did far more. I just did a little. But I don’t think the term “veteran” is quantifiable. There’s no magic number of battles you have to participate in; one is enough. What makes you a vet is your willingness to serve – not how much you served.

Sometimes I chuckle to myself when people thank me, because when it comes down to it, I didn’t do it for them. None of us did. That’s just not how it works. The thoughts of noble service to country and whatnot begin when we consider joining, peak when we’re sitting in a recruiter’s office signing the papers, and then pretty much fizzle out after we take the oath. No, we don’t renege on what we’re doing, but other thoughts occupy us, like, “my God, what am I doing?” That horror lasts through boot camp, and then it’s replaced by other convictions.

You see, none of us sits around waiting to head in thinking about country, patriotism and all that. Those are the beliefs that encouraged us to join, not ideas that sustain us through a deployment. We’re thinking about how we don’t know a whole lot about the future, but we’re confident it’s going to be tough. We’re thinking about the mission: kill the enemy, and bring each other home alive. That’s what occupies us.

Whenever there‘s a lull in a firefight, the first thing everybody does is holler out to the closest man and make sure he’s okay. When I was a driver, I’d yell up at my gunner and see if he was alright. When I was on the ground, I’d run back to the truck to make sure he was okay. Nobody’s thinking about how what we’re doing is benefiting America; we’re thinking about each other. It might sound somewhat strange, going into a fight to keep each other alive, but that’s what we do. We’re there to make sure we all come home, and make sure the enemy doesn’t.

I guess that after a time we don’t even think about the war itself. It’s not ours to manipulate or control. But we do think about our small part in it. One mission at a time, one firefight at a time. We concentrate on making sure each other is safe, that we have one another’s backs, and that we do our very best regardless of our circumstances. The rest is God’s business. So when people thank me for my service, I think to myself, “I wasn’t for you, man, it was for my brothers; my dysfunctional little family.”

We always had a few guys in our unit who I didn’t really like. In fact, I detested a couple of them. I never wished them any harm, though. During combat, it didn’t matter at all. We all wore the same uniform and fought the same enemy. But during my first tour, these guys were the ones that didn’t make it home, or at least didn’t make it home in one piece. I know it’s not my fault, but I still felt badly. After that, I checked my emotions. I focused on what was more important: making sure they were okay.

People used ask me my opinion of the war a lot. Well, actually, more often than not they’d tell me their opinions. But either way, I’d try to give them a lengthy explanation about how one aspect is going well while another area needs work. Or I’d talk about how I think it’s important that we be here or how Iraq is more stable, or even how a US presence in the Middle East was perhaps inevitable. Now, though, I don’t do that. There’s no real way I can know all that. My part in everything was small. We rode around a lot, got blown up a lot, and did our best to complete the mission. I didn’t observe the war as a whole, so I can’t speak about it with any sort of intelligence. My take is myopic. I really don’t think asking a veteran his or her opinion of the war is even a particularly good idea, anyway. We don’t have an opinion on it; we’re just sent to fight it. Any opinion we do have is rooted in ignorance.

If people ask me about the war now, I have a different answer than I used to. I don’t go into the long diatribe about my opinions on US foreign policy. The truth is I don’t know much about it. Instead, I speak from my own experiences. I tell them that there are a few things I know. I’ve seen the enemy, and I know he’s real. I’ve seen what he does to us and civilians alike if given the opportunity. And, I know that he needs to be stopped. That doesn’t come through trying to make a friend of him, because he will murder you. It comes from killing him. I know it doesn’t really answer their question, and it sounds awful, but it makes an important statement: wars exist because evil people exist, and they need to be stopped before they carry out that evil on others. So, if the war is intended to stop those evil people, I guess it’s a good thing. Aside from that, I hold no opinion. My part was small.

But when you get out there, your mind is remarkably clear. You’re not even really worried. You might be edgy, but that’s because you’re expecting something to go wrong. You know what you have to do, how to do it, and you just pray you don’t lose any friends in the process. Backing down isn’t ever an option; you just get it done. It’s not fear of consequences if we don’t, or mindless obedience to orders, but because we know it has to be done, and we’re the ones that volunteered to do it. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, too. Not what we accomplished or how big the operation was, and certainly not how many of the enemy we killed. That’s something we only do because it’s necessary, not because it’s fun. No, I’m proud that we know what we’re doing is dangerous, that we may not all come home, that we may never see our families again, and the only thing we’re worried about is the man next to us. I think that’s what makes us good. It’s not about us; it’s about somebody else.

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