Friday, October 2, 2009

Everything Changes

*Retold with permission.

I’ve only done three tours out here, but it’s changed dramatically each time. On the first tour, we knew who the enemy was. It was easy. The second time, you didn’t really know who was going to shoot at you. Now I’m not sure who the enemy is because I don’t go outside the wire anymore. I couldn’t tell you what it’s like out there. It’s always changing, anyway.

They said that we’d change, too, but I’m really not aware of it. My wife said I was different when I got back, but she couldn’t really tell me how exactly. Just different. The only thing I’m aware of is that I don’t talk to people as much anymore.

When I was training in 2003, I remember some kids coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying thank you. I told them I really hadn’t done much in the Army but it didn’t matter to them. “You wear the uniform. You serve,” they said. That was enough for them. Two and a half years later, the public has changed, too.

As we readied for my second tour, we had to convoy all the vehicles to port to load them on ships. There was a really anti-military town our route carried us through, and they briefed us not to talk to the protesters, not look at them, and sure as hell don’t start anything. Just ignore them. Once we do something, they can’t help us. Just keep driving. Sure enough, protesters were lining the streets.

It was kids, mostly. Kids and college students. The college students are the worst, because they think they know everything about the world and about life. They’re bold in their ignorance. As we drove through town, a number of them held up signs saying things like, “Fuck You, Army,” or “We Hate You.” Some said, “You Kill for Oil.” But I’m thinking, “what oil?” I sure haven’t seen any. We get all the hatred overseas, so we don’t need it from home, too.

Some of them threw rocks at us and a few threw bottles. I saw a kid toss one, and then suddenly a group of cops descended on him with batons. That’s what you get for attacking the military, I guess.

In that same town, if somebody saw the military installation sticker on your car you were liable to come back to the parking lot and find it keyed or smashed in with baseball bats. We avoided that town as best we could. Strangely, it’s gotten better now, but I have no idea why. Maybe they got tired of protesting all the time. Even still, I hear occasional reports about Soldiers getting their vehicles vandalized out there. Some people get their hands shaken or somebody says thank you, but I’ve mostly been just cursed at or stared down. Whatever. I’ll keep fighting for their right to protest, but only because it’s my job.

As we pushed north during the invasion, my truck kept overheating, requiring us halt all the time to let it cool. During one stop, I remember seeing a decrepit little mud home in the desert outside of a city. There was a father, two older brothers, and a little girl, too. I’m guessing that nobody liked them very much. They were impoverished and skinny, and riding around in a donkey cart because it was all they had.

The little girl was wearing a shirt that used to be pink and a calf-length skirt that used to be white. Both were torn and smeared with dirt and her shirt was faded out from the sun. That’s my question for people: have you ever seen a starving little girl with rags for clothes begging for food? Most have not. It made me think about my own little sister, and it broke my heart.

That was the invasion, so our water was severely rationed. We couldn’t get any more of it, or food, either. But, when we saw the starving little girl, we all pooled what we could and gave her dad some MREs and a case of water. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had. He gave us maybe 50 cents worth if Iraqi dinars as a gift, and we gave him all the money in our wallets. It was probably only twenty bucks, but better than nothing. “Buy something for your kid,” we told him.

We had visited a PX not long before and bought as much candy as we could, so we gathered it all together and gave it to the little girl. I’ll never forget how much her face lit up when she saw it. She was absolutely thrilled. That little child, walking around in rags, matted hair, malnourished and destitute, was probably the most disheartening thing I’ve ever seen. The firefights, the explosions, none of it bothers me as much as seeing that little girl. Even now it still brings tears to my eyes.

My daughter back home plays with a soccer ball we bought her. I sit out back as she runs all around the yard having a blast, and all I can think about is that little girl. I wonder how she’s doing now.

Don’t tell me we didn’t make a difference, because we have. On a local level, we brightened one little girl’s life and helped her family as best we could. We made friends. On a grander scale, that little girl and other girls can go to school now. No doubt some of them will go to college, too. The ones that didn’t have electricity are starting to get it now, and the ones that didn’t even have light bulbs now do. Call us what you want and claim we didn’t do anything, but we all know what we did, and we’re proud of it. It’s what we couldn’t change that still haunts us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. A particularly poignant story of one man's contact with the face of poverty. Particularly effective because of his own personal experience as a father.

    The suffering of the people in Iraq has been awful, and he has in fact made a difference...even if it is in only one girl's life.

    I understand the frustration of having to leave before you think the mission is accomplished, but there are a lot of poverty stricken and hungry kids in third world nations. Darfur is the worst of them. We aren't there fighting Arabs.