Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Din of Pigs

A few days ago, I sat in the back of a Stryker and listened to the chatter between the driver, gunner, vehicle commander and scout. The conversation, laced with off-color racial, ethnic and gender jokes, was largely unprintable. Since it is not a discussion essential to understanding the troops or one I could even secure command approval to write, I didn’t even bother to try. By most standards, it was extremely offensive. But as one of the Soldiers put it, “that’s every day in our truck. It helps pass the time.”

A day later, another Soldier noted how much he liked the fact that infantry doesn’t form cliques. Regardless of age, ethnic origin or religion, he remarked, you wear the same uniform, do the same job, and poke fun at each other constantly. You either develop thick skin, or you go mad.

Years ago, while waiting in the dark for a mission to end, I remember listening on the radio to the banter between two gunners. One had an unusually large head and the other unusually crooked teeth.

“Wilson, I need help opening my MRE. Walk over here and use your teeth to saw it open.”

“Why don’t you smash it open with your gigantic head?”

“Your teeth actually might SCARE it open.”

“Like your huge head scared your mother when she had to deliver you?”

…And so on. In short order, every one of us was laughing – perhaps to the point of compromising our tactical readiness. Yet we all stayed awake and mostly alert. On long missions, boredom to the point of desperation trumps manners. And despite the undeniable hostility and decidedly offensive language, these two Marines were roommates and close friends.

There are places where such conversations are wholly inappropriate and hurtful, but Iraq isn’t one of them. Troops are often outside the wire, usually in the same vehicle, and have the same purpose: keep each other alive, complete the mission, and go home safely. Gentility becomes far less relevant.

Regardless of their brutality, one thing remains a fact: each of these young men and women are friends with each other and trusts them with their lives. And besides this, there are still rules to the “game.” Most consider racial jokes and “your mom” comments to be acceptable, but nobody says a thing about a man’s wife or children. In fact, remarks about spouses or children are always encouraging, edifying, and complimentary. If there’s nothing nice to say, they simply remain quiet. (Even when a Marine Corporal I know named his newborn son “Corporal”) These guys aren’t total criminals; they’re just pigs.

And thus, I have witnessed innumerable derogatory conversations about Mexicans, white people, blacks, Jews, Asians, fat people, skinny people, and any other defining title under the sun. Quite often, their sources are of the same ethnic or philosophical origin. For example, I know a black Marine with a German SS tattoo on his arm. It’s all in good fun. In fact, I’ve even observed this behavior in other armies.

While visiting an Iraqi army barracks a few years ago, Iraqi soldiers went around the room and identified themselves as Sunni, Shiite, Yazidi, and even a couple self-described devil worshippers. As they joked about each other, they stroked their chins and casually drew a finger across their throats. But they’re not serious. Many of them stated to me directly what most US troops quietly live by daily: “I don’t care what he believes; he’s my brother.” Their actions demonstrate it, too.

Our big headed Marine was often known simply as “The Head.” Everybody knew who it referred to. The one with the misaligned orthodontia was occasionally called “Chainsaw.” “Beak” had an enormous nose, naturally. The unit’s two Smiths were differentiated as “Stinky Smith” and “Stupid Smith.” A Hispanic Marine titled himself “Your Friendly Neighborhood Minority” (think Spiderman). Here on this base, “Radio” is named after a mentally retarded man from a movie. “Honeytrap” is a female Soldier called upon whenever looks might help get what the unit needs. As for “Trouser Snake,” I elected not to ask. It doesn’t particularly matter. They’re all in the same boat, working to complete the same mission, and all would unthinkingly do everything in their power to preserve the life of their brothers and sisters.

Besides, when everybody is home, they’ll find something besides vulgarity to occupy their time. But out here, it’s no holds barred. When the mission in the sun gets tiresome or the late night mission swatting sand flies runs long, the jokes, the insults and the verbal assaults begin. And when it’s over, they’ll all go home as friends. They’re not hateful in the least; they’re just bored, tired, and lonely. Why not make this forced marriage (and a bad one) fun?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Whole Clip

*Retold with permission.

Even though I’m really thirsty right now, I can’t drink too much water. My stomach can’t handle it. I can’t eat much either. It’s a complicated story.

From about 2004 to 2007, I was fighting alongside my friends and neighbors in an attempt to keep Al Qaeda out of our area. We weren’t really a militia, but a group of locals just trying to keep our community safe. We’ve seen how they kill people for no reason, even women and children.

According to Al Qaeda, the Prophet didn’t cut his hair, so they kill all the barbers. The Prophet didn’t drink cold water, so they kill the guys who distribute ice. Even the people who make mattresses or pillows. The Prophet didn’t have those comforts, so they kill them too. Same with smokers, real estate agents, people who wear shorts, and so on. I don’t understand how they do it because it’s not what the Koran teaches. In fact, the word “Islam” itself means “peace.” We’re taught to respect and accept all people. We’re supposed to pray for unbelievers, not kill everybody who believes differently than us.

Al Qaeda would kill the innocent and hide the bodies everywhere. They’re like cavemen. They’d murder somebody, scrape out a shallow grave, and throw in the corpse. Often they’ll cover them with a little dirt, pour oil or diesel over the whole area to keep down the odor, and then sprinkle some dust over it to hide the evidence. Other times they hide bodies in walls and cement over them. I know they kill women and children because we’ve dug up some of these graves before and found murdered women still holding their babies. They were butchers, and we hated them.

But we hardly had enough bullets to defend ourselves, much less our whole community. Al Quaeda would attack with a hundred and we’d hold them off, but then they’d come back with maybe four hundred. We lost a lot of people. All I did was fight – nearly every day – for almost three years. We fought cowards; men who murder the innocent and run away. This whole country had plenty of them.

When I was home once, an old friend called me and asked if I wanted to stop by. I said I would and drove over. But when I walked up to him, he shot me, point blank. Somehow, even though I’d kept it a secret, he’d found out that I was fighting for Al Qeada. And he, also in secret, had been working for Al Qaeda. When they learned who I worked for, they told him to kill me. In an instant, he betrayed twelve years of friendship.

He emptied the 9mm clip into me. Of the fifteen rounds, fourteen of them hit me. The first hit in me in my elbow and the next few in my chest near my heart. Somehow I stayed standing for those, but when the next one lodged in my stomach, I collapsed. As the others fighters yelled “finish him,” he fired the rest of the magazine into me and ran away. I can’t describe the pain to you. It was worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.

A number of people walked up and stared at me lying on the ground bleeding, but nobody helped. I begged them to, but they were all too afraid to actually aid me. They were afraid that the fighters would come back. Eventually, I resorted to bargaining with them. I asked them to at least call my family so they could come get me out of the street. If they didn’t, the dogs would eat my body. I deserved to be buried, I told them. Finally, after two hours of bleeding on the side of the road, they called. By the time my family came to get me, I was nearly dead.

My parents rushed me to the hospital, but when they discovered how low my blood pressure was, they refused to take me into emergency surgery. The anesthesia would make my heart stop completely, they said. For two more hours, I waited in agony. Eventually they figured I wasn’t going to die and took me in to operate.

Four hours into the surgery, my heart stopped and I remember seeing a white light. Then I remember being jerked awake; maybe by the paddles. Not just back to life, but awake, IN surgery. I was still completely paralyzed, but I could move my eyes. Looking down my body, I could see my stomach held open and the surgeon working on me. I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to scream in pain, but I couldn’t. They knew I was awake, but they couldn’t give me any more anesthetics. My heart might stop again. After seven hours of surgery, I was moved to recovery. The doctor was amazed I lived at all. He said it was a miracle.

It was six months before I could walk, and another two before I could move my arm. The bullet had severed some of the nerves. Even now I only have limited use of it. At first, even blowing on my hand caused excruciating pain, so I had to wear a glove. More than a year later, I still don’t feel pain when I put it in boiling water. It feels cool for some reason.

This was all about the time my father died, too. He’d been alternately weak and ill for quite some time, but my almost getting murdered put him over the edge. Before he died, he told me that the best way to get back at them was to fight with the Americans, and he was right. I did what was right by him and by myself. Soon after his death, I reported as much as I could to the Iraqi army and police, watched them arrest my former friend and many others, and then went to work as a translator for the US. Since then, I’ve been all over here and Baghdad trying to turn in more of them.

The surgeon who saved my life has been killed now, too, but by Jaish Al Mahdi – which is probably worse than Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda mostly killed just Shiites, JSM killed everybody. If they didn’t know you, you were dead. My surgeon, who saved my life and the lives of many others, ultimately couldn’t save himself.

And now, most of my friends are either dead from Al Qeada or Jaish Al Mahdi, or working for them. My father is dead, Al Qaeda bombed my house, I’ve lost all my possessions, and there’s a $20,000 reward for my head in my hometown. I’m a man with nothing to lose. I’ll work for the Americans as long as I can, turn in as many bad guys as I possibly can, and then, as the US leaves and this country descends into civil war, I’ll leave with them. There’s nothing left for me here now. Nothing but fear, violence, and eventually death. These people aren’t ready for freedom. They don’t know what to do with it.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Further Myths

Recently, I spoke with somebody in the states who believed that troops in Iraq, from the moment they set foot in-country until the very moment they departed, are constantly engaged in epic, house-to-house combat on the eminently dangerous streets of Iraq. When I got over my initial shock at this misassumption, I explained that this was not the case. Troops here, as always, spend most of their time waiting.

In the Mojave desert in California, I once waited fifteen hours for a flight to arrive. Elsewhere, I waited three for flight mechanics to replace a battery for our plane. Most formations, when a commander announces the time, will be “15 minutes priored” through every leader in the chain of command. The company commander said be there at noon, so the first sergeant says 1145, the platoon sergeant says 1130, the section leaders pass down 1115, and the squad leaders say 1100. The end result is that small clusters of troops will appear at random intervals outside a barracks, wander over to join other small clusters of troops, then walk a dozen yards to a third location to stand for another half hour. Eventually, usually some time well after noon, the commander will come out for the formation. Some people don’t mind it, but the vast majority of veterans I know are absolutely intolerant of waiting in lines. They’ve already done more than their fair share of it.

Iraq is similar to this. There are hours of briefings, hours of preparation for a mission, and then eventually the mission itself. If the mission is a planned one, troops will normally be gathered on the vehicles at least an hour prior to actually departing. There is gear and equipment to prepare, and then there is more waiting.

Even the missions themselves aren’t terribly action-packed. With notable exceptions, they are mostly driving or walking, a little bit of talking with locals, a lot of water-drinking, some more driving or walking, some more talking, and long, dull hours manning weapons in vehicle turrets. Firefights and IEDs, should they even happen, are usually short-lived. Thus, my most memorable time of four years and five months in the Marine Corps can be distilled down to about two hours of interesting or harried missions, firefights, and attacks. Everything else was just waiting.

During one EOD mission (for which unit provided the outer cordon), my vehicle was parked for several hours directly outside a mosque. Under normal circumstances, mosques loudly broadcast prayers perhaps five times a day. We should have heard them twice. But, as is often the case of religious leaders in Iraq, they will deliberately broadcast prayers (and anti-American messages) at other times just to annoy us. In this particular case, the local leader had a young child belt them out. Needless to say, it made the waiting all the more unpleasant.

Other wars have been different from this one (what such protracted engagements as the Battle of the Bulge, Okinawa, etc), but even still, waiting is what dominates most of a mission, most of a war, and most of military service. Junior servicemembers occasionally gloat that they’re overpaid to wait, but then quickly lament that they’re underpaid to get in firefights or hit by IEDs. I can’t say I disagree. My “war” is about two hours over almost four and a half years. For others, it’s a few days, or perhaps a week, or the month of combat during Operation Phantom Fury to finally subdue and secure Fallujah. It all depends on the individual servicemember’s experiences.

If troops were to be shot at constantly for the entire length of their tour, few would have good odds of coming home, despite the notoriously (and laughably) poor marksmanship skills of insurgents. Eventually, according to statistics, they would be hit. War is hurry up, wait, and then move quickly for a few minutes. In truth, troops spend months, years, or perhaps the vast majority of their careers training and waiting for something they may only occur for a matter of minutes. Is it ludicrous? Not at all. It’s proper planning.

The advent of IEDs certainly increases one’s danger outside the wire, but even still it has never been a sure thing. It’s a crap shoot. Whenever somebody announces that they’re going to Iraq, the first thing that flashes through peoples’ minds (however briefly), is that this person is going to get killed. The media has done little to help this. Frankly, nor have veterans. Quite simply, we don’t mention the waiting because it was terribly boring.

If my most memorable experiences from the military take place over perhaps two hours of action, those will somehow blossom into innumerable stories and a self-declaration of combat expertise, all at the expense of fact: we trained some, waited a lot, and fought a little.

I waited in formations until I felt like fainting (some did), as one outgoing commander yakked about how nice the command was and the new commander (invariably after assuring us that his remarks would be brief), spoke at length about his new command and how honored he is. I’ve waited at the position of attention until I fell asleep, tipped forward, and hitting the guy in front of me awakened me.

I’ve waited on the trucks for hours while mission start times changed, intelligence reports were verified, or various personnel were tracked down from wherever they decided to wander off and hide. I’ve waited countless hours outside the wire as EOD blows up an IED, or as an officer inside a local home, police station or compound has a meeting with a local leader. I’ve waited in the turret while the sun rose around me and the heat came back, or as the sun went down and the sand flies came out and ate all of us alive. I’ve waited for the rain to stop so I could finally get some sleep, or waited in my sleeping bag until my boots thawed enough to put them on. I’ve waited for the trucks to warm up, or for the truck to get fixed, or for the wrecker to come and tow my truck, or Motor T to loan me a new one, or for my commander to get a brief about what we’re doing next.

I’ve waited to get chewed out, to have my uniform or room inspected, or for the battalion sergeant major (who didn’t have a license because of repeated DUIs) to remind us all, once again, to not drink and drive. I’ve waited for my platoon sergeant and the chaplain to say the same thing. I distinctly remember waiting for whatever we were doing to end: the mission, the convoy, the PT session, the brief, the powerpoint presentation with photographs of various STDs, the search for a missing weapon, the “health and comfort inspection, the air flight status to return to green, the awards ceremony, the promotion, repeated speeches about why we leave our curtains open during work hours, how we should watch out for our buddies in liberty ports, etc. And of course, I remember waiting to get out of the military.

This is not intended to downplay the salaries that troops receive, or suggest that they serve no other purpose than standing by. The nature of standing army is that there will be waiting. Out here, they wait to go on missions, wait for the missions to end, and always wait to go home. That, more than anything else, is the thing most eagerly anticipated: going home. Barring the few minutes or hours where troops are engaged in combat, calling in medical evacuations, dropping rounds, sending rounds downrange, or closing with the enemy, chances are they are waiting for something else. Are they waiting to kill something or even to die? Not in the least; they’re waiting to go home. Their loved ones back home are waiting for them, too. And in reality, the whole nation should be.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Different Perspective

*Retold with permission.

Guys like to talk about how awful it is out here, how much they hate it, or how much they want to go home, but I’m not one of them. Truthfully, I absolutely love it out here. And running missions outside the wire – that’s my happy place. It’s taken me 22 years to find this.

I might be fairly young, but I’ve held almost every job you can think of already, and I wasn’t able to keep any of them for very long. They’re too boring; like you’re trapped in a state of meaninglessness. The Army – specifically the infantry – is perfect for me. I’d gladly do twenty years out here. All I need is ammunition, MREs and water. I’m not suited for a “normal” life, I guess.

I admit that I’m a thrill seeker and an adrenalin junkie. And this, far more than anything else I’ve found in the states (legally), satisfies the cravings. This is awesome, that is when we’re doing something – not just sitting around and waiting. The action is appealing, but so is the purposefulness. You don’t get that with most jobs. Whereas most people do things for money, I do this because I enjoy it. It’s an added benefit that I get paid to do it.

I also acknowledge that this is extremely dangerous. Believe me, hitting an IED the other day was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through. The reality is that people here still want us dead, and they’re still going to do whatever they can to accomplish that. Tragically, they may take out some of us along the way. I don’t have a death wish by any means, but I still want to be here.

I think that most people back home are under the impression that we do this for our country or that we’re fierce patriots giving our lives to protect Americans. I don’t believe that’s accurate, or at least not the reason why I’m do it. I’m not here for them, and I’m really not even here for my country. I’m here for my friends and family: they being the guys around me and beside me out here. This unit, like any other good unit, is a family. I think that’s how most of the Soldiers view it: they’re either here to dutifully protect the brothers that go with them, or they’re here to honor the brothers they lost. It’s certainly sacrificial, but not necessarily for America as a whole.

I didn’t volunteer to come fight the war in Iraq or because I particularly care about the Iraqis. Ultimately, this is their country, and very shortly it will be up to them to sort things out. We came here because this is where the US government sent us and gave us a mission to execute. People think we chose this, but we didn’t. We just go where we are ordered. Nobody really wants to be here, except for maybe me, because I’m an adrenalin junkie or something. At any rate, for the time being, the US government wants us here. Eight months after we get back from this tour, they will want us in Afghanistan.

As much as I may like it out here, it’s still not at all what I anticipated. The best part is when I’m actually doing my job: outside the wire, dismounting and patrolling. That’s truly my happy place. Unfortunately, we’re not doing that as often anymore. I was here nearly three months before I did what I was actually trained to do, and I have no idea how long I’ll have to wait before I can do it again. As the operations tempo continues to slow, we’re talking more, driving more, but “doing” less. I consider it a bad day when nothing happens, strange as that may sound.

But still, I like it. I like being outside the wire. This is far more exciting than any of the jobs I worked before I came in, far more purposeful, and admittedly far more dangerous. Maybe that’s the appeal: more adrenalin, more excitement, and great friends. After 22 years of searching, I’ve finally found my niche.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 21, 2009

Adopting Home

*Reprinted with permission of the Fluvanna Review

*Retold with permission.

Like many other units out here did, we adopted a pet on our last tour. Our case, though, was a little more elaborate. I guess at some point a dog had stolen onto the FOB [forward operations base] and had a litter of four pups or so. Then most of them died, only one survived, and she wandered off again and abandoned it.

It was extremely small when we first saw it. In fact, its ears may have still been closed. We saw it wobbling along out in the open, and didn’t really know what to do with it.

“We should shoot that thing. It probably has some sort of disease, or maybe rabies,” said one of the Soldiers.

“Well I sure as hell ain’t doing it.”

“Me neither. I’m not shooting a puppy.”

None of us would, in fact, so we did the only other logical thing we could think of: we fed it.

Not surprisingly, it grew big rapidly, and between hand-fed meals and the constant contact of an entire unit lining up to play with it, it grew pretty fond of us. We liked it. It was cute, and a refreshing break from day-to-day operations.

I know this happens a lot out here, too, and each person does it for their own reasons. For me, though, it was the closest thing to America – a domesticated, furry pet to care for. We may be infantry and usually considered tough guys, killers or even lunatics, but we’re still human. We’re not out here to butcher innocent creatures, people or animals. For us, this reminded of us home.

More than this, most of us are also fathers or husbands, too. The desire to nurture and care for something is almost innate within us. We can’t really care for our children out here, or our wives, but we can definitely take care of a little puppy and make sure it’s well treated.

Despite us trying to keep the dog fairly well concealed, our first sergeant spotted it one day and demanded to know why the hell some well-fed stray dog would perk up and happily run over to us every time it saw us. We decided to come clean and explained we’d had it nearly since it was born. He relented a little, but told us he never wanted to see it again. If he did, that’s the last we’d see of it. Okay, first sergeant, we promised take care of the situation.

So, we built it a pen. Behind our living area we had some free space, so we rustled up some tools and materials and built a relatively large fenced area for it. The dog didn’t particularly care, since we still spent plenty of time with it. The pen was in the area where we all went to smoke and hang out when we got off missions, so it definitely received more than enough attention. Since we were there for fifteen months, we’d grown pretty fond of it. We set it loose when we left to go home, and I’m hopeful it’s still doing okay.

We found ourselves with pets on this tour too, in almost the same way. A little marmalade cat wandered up one day looking half starved, and out of pity, we started to feed it. While our company commander was on leave, it went into his quarters and had a litter of kittens. We knew it’d be trouble, too.

Sure enough, there was one kitten in the litter that liked to wander, and whenever we saw it, we’d quickly grab it up and put it back with the litter. In time, people started observing us acting somewhat strangely, and asked us what the hell we were doing. As before, we told the whole story. But, since none of us are really “keeping” them here, they’ve been allowed to stay. The kittens are getting bigger now, and even mom has warmed up to us, too. Besides, they’re helping to keep the rodents down. Lord knows there’s a lot out here – especially on a base that used to be a granary.

We do this because it’s normal, and it reminds us of home. We all miss our families back there, so it’s nice to have something to focus our affections on – even if it’s a semi-wild animal that more adopted us than we adopted it. It happens all over Iraq. We find furry things and take care of them. This whole badass image we have really doesn’t hold much water. In the end, we’re all humans and we all miss home. This helps bring it a little closer for us. And in the absence of something better, it works quite well.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Coming Soon

"A Din of Pigs"