Saturday, October 3, 2009


Military working dogs and their handlers relax after a joint IA/US operation to locate weapons caches. Both the German shepherd and his handler were in a vehicle struck by an IED today. Despite having just survived an IED attack, the dog clamored out of the disabled vehicle before any Soldiers, and cleared the area of secondary devices. Although the vehicle was totaled, there were no injuries.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Misplaced Hostility

*Retold with permission.

I remember Christmas of 2003 when it seemed like half the commercials on TV said something about supporting the troops during the holiday season. The next year after that you still saw them, but not as many as before. Now, though, you don’t see any. People have forgotten. It’s not news anymore over here. Nothing that happens in Iraq impacts them.

My great grandmother tells me stories about how she and all her girlfriends would use a marker to draw a black line up the back of their legs to simulate wearing silk stockings. They didn’t have any, and neither did anybody else. In her day, all the silk was going to make parachutes. I’ve seen photos of Boy Scout troops walking down the streets in columns pulling old Radio Flyer wagons full of scrap metal. The war, the rations, the recycling, the sacrifice, the victory gardens; it was a national effort. In those days, they cared what happened in the war. Maybe it was because so many of them had fathers, husbands or sons overseas. Now, though, the numbers are much lower.

I think people don’t care because they have no vested interest in what happens out here. Hardly anybody has a loved one serving anymore. Only those that do actually give a damn about Iraq. To everybody else, the war, which was once a headline news item is now lucky to be a byline – if that. It’s not America’s war; it’s the troops’ war. To the public, the casualties are just numbers, not sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, husbands and wives who were killed in service to their country. More than four thousand times now parents have buried their sons or daughters. No doubt it’s the most terrible grief they’ve ever experienced. The war only concerns those fighting it and their families back home. The numbers are too low for the public to care. But, forgetting is human nature.

I know people forget, and I’m sure I’ll forget, too. But more than just disinterest towards us, there seems to be hostility. People hate the war so they take it out on the Soldiers. They think that I chose to be here. The fact is, I didn’t want to come. God knows I’m not doing this for any sort of self improvement. Iraq sucks, it’s dangerous, and we’re only here because our country sent us. We’re doing this for somebody else; not ourselves.

When they hand a flag to the family of the bereaved, they always say something like, “On behalf of a grateful nation…” They should update that, though. “On behalf of an ungrateful nation…” That’s how most of us feel the public views us.

I have a friend who stopped at a gas station only to get heckled by the owner. “Don’t come around here anymore,“ he told my friend. Whatever happened to respecting somebody who did something honorable? Most people don’t have the boldness to serve, but they don’t even care that we did.

And what about the people who protest the military funerals? When I heard about what they do, I experienced more contempt than I do for even the enemy. How can they justify depriving the loved ones of at least an honorable burial? That man or women died to preserve their right to protest. Just because you have the freedom to do something doesn’t make it necessarily right to do it. If I run into any of those people, I’m probably going to go to jail for what I do to them.

It’s hard to put to words. It’s emotional. It’s anger, disappointment. I’m more sad about it than anything else. Here some young man or woman’s last memory is of being far from home, lonely, stuck in a sandbox, then their lives are taken from them. And back home people are more concerned about politics and foreign policy than the fact that another US family is devastated with grief. From what I can see, people are divided between hatred of the military or total lack of interest.

Even my old friends don’t really care. Every now and then they’ll check to make sure I’m okay, but then they go right back to their XBox games – mostly war games, oddly enough. Everybody wants the thrill of a war game, but few want the sacrifice of war. To most of them, nothing is worth fighting or sacrificing for.

I’ve wondered for quite some time why people are so unwilling to do something besides watch out for number one. I’m afraid that even if the country was in a state of crisis that most still wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice or fight. They’re too busy entertaining themselves. They forget that somewhere on this planet, maybe here or elsewhere, there is an “Ali Baba” trying to get his hands on a nuke to blow it up on Americans. It’s a credible threat, and it’s not going away, either.

I know the country is changing; it’s inevitable. We’re not going to see a culture of honor, discipline or patriotism like we did in World War II. Those men are mostly gone now. But what about simply caring about the course of our country? Most don’t, and I have no idea why. I also don’t know why they seem to hate the few of us who do choose to serve. For a society of people who seem to care for nothing but themselves, they sure do invest a lot of energy in hating us.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Words

When the sun sets, the sand flies always come out, inflicting some of the most irritating bites imaginable. No building, however tightly sealed the doors and windows may be, is free of them. Soldiers’ arms and legs are covered in scabs from scratching bites. Few, if any, have insect repellant.

When you climb out of the shower to dry off, they bite. When you sit on a broken toilet seat in the bathroom, they bite. While you sleep, they bite. As uncomfortable as it may be in direct sunlight, at least they aren’t biting you then. If this combat outpost had a PX, you could purchase some relief. But, none is scheduled to come. There are many things this base doesn’t have. It’s a far cry from the wireless internet hubs of the larger FOBs or the shopping malls on others. It’s small, it sucks, but it’s home for the next eleven months. It’s Iraq.

And how do you describe it to people who have never ventured to a third world country? How do you convey how aghast you were when you first saw cows, donkeys, sheep and goats grazing in a field of garbage? How do you describe wearing a uniform continuously for a year surrounded by people you’d rather not see and shaking hands with local nationals who usually demand you to give them something? How do you describe getting used to losing a few friends here and there to explosions or indirect fire? How do you explain the resignation that when it’s your time, it’s your time and there’s nothing you can do about it? How do you describe a car bomb scene where the street is covered in blood and loose, unmatched sandals? How do you describe Iraq?

You don’t. At best, you describe a mission, or an evening, or a conversation, or something you saw outside the wire, and wait impatiently to go home. And when you get there, you hope nobody asks you about it, because you still don’t know what to say. Months in the desert, even years, still seem unreal. There aren’t words for it all anyway. There are emotions which defy articulation. There are putrid odors and the sickeningly sweet aroma of Iraqi cologne. There are trash fires and clouds of dust. There are elaborate tangles of power lines that impede movement down every street. There are beautiful ruins of Bedouin mud homes in the desert near the oases. All around them there are tank traps to slow an Iranian advance across the border. There are palaces – some of them with bombed-out sections.

There are emaciated children eagerly waving at every convoy and portly older men demanding first place in every line. There are Iraqi soldiers and policemen asking you to give them every piece of gear you wear. There are flies everywhere, and open sewage, and dead animal carcasses with other half-living animals gnawing on them. There are immaculate courtyards with mountains of trash on the other sides of the walls. There are rickety mud huts and sprawling concrete estates. There are crowds of people who stare at you as you pass and a few who spit or give you the finger. In the past, children would throw grenades. Now you keep your eyes open for somebody throwing RKG-3s, which can easily destroy an MRAP.

There are endless miles of roads with guardrails removed because at one time they were used to conceal IEDs. There are other roads with a patchwork of concrete-filled IED craters – remnants of past deployments when driving anywhere was a dangerous roll of the dice. There are dirt roads which still hide mines and IEDs. There are hundreds who watch everything but never seem to know who emplaced the devices. There is a culture of apathy. There is the constant roar of generators. There are good people who care and don’t want you to leave, and others who you fear will shoot you when you turn your back.

There are filthy streets were the sewage runs and vendors selling food directly beyond the curb. In the past, sectarian violence used to see at least one marketplace a week rocked with car bombs. Now, there are people shopping, walking, and watching you. As you watch them, they throw their trash at their feet.

There are frustrating hours on long missions, and the days when you feel something isn’t quite right but then nothing happens. When you’ve finally convinced yourself that it’s all in your head, something does occur and you go back to your superstitions. You knock on wood when you say you haven’t lost anybody yet and pray it stays that way the entire deployment. You miss home.

You breathe dust all summer in unbearable heat and slog in mud throughout the winter. You fall down constantly when the rough ground freezes on the coldest mornings, and find yourself missing the heat. You spend months assembling scraps of wood to make furniture for your room, only to have them collapse when somebody leans against them. You fear electrical fires from all the haphazard wiring. You grow accustomed to sleeping at any time of the day or night, regardless of the din around you. A mission may call you out again at any time. You endure wearing 80 pounds of gear every time you’re outside the wire. You watch your commanders play dominoes and drink chai while you stand guard at the building’s perimeter.

You find yourself less and less caring about anything except simply going home to a normal bed, a normal life and normal food, but guiltily miss it all when it finally arrives. You spend years bitter at a command decision that you’re convinced led to the death of a friend – or perhaps many friends. You wear bracelets with their names engraved on them. You think about your family and hope they aren’t watching the news. It’s always bad news anyway, and just makes them worry more. You miss beer. You miss driving your own car. You plan to get drunk when you get home. You miss pretty girls or your wife.

You grow accustomed to the attempts on your life and start making jokes about it, but every so often there’s a really close call and you remember it’s not funny. Someone is still trying to kill you. You’re more alert for a few days and then you go back to joking. You look forward to not having to pay attention to the roadsides as you drive. You look forward to smooth streets free of craters and suspicious debris. You want to never see the guys in your platoon again, but you keep up with them anyway. As much as you may have disagreed about everything and hated each other’s guts, as least they were there with you. Unlike most, they know how it was out here. You hate MREs, sandbags, port-a-jons and mosque loudspeakers.

You compile elaborate lists of things you’ll do when you go home, amend it repeatedly, and end up following none of it. It won’t really matter so long as you get to see your family and wear civilian clothing. You create a mental picture of what home will be like, but find it disappointing and mundane when you finally see it. You get tired of answering questions about Iraq. Most have no good responses, some are grotesquely inappropriate, and some are laughably na├»ve. You’ll miss carrying a gun.

You swear that you’ll never take the little things for granted, like showers, soft beds and home cooked food, but find yourself surprisingly apathetic in short order. You get tired of hearing your civilian friends tell you their opinion of your war. For somebody who never served, they seem to have a lot of ideas. Most feel sorry for you, which is irritating.

You listen to horror stories from men who went through Sadr City, Baghdad and Baqubah and admit with a trace of jealousy that you didn’t see all that much and that your AO was relatively quiet. Your battalion only lost eighteen on the first tour. You observe as most of your friends’ long-term relationships crumble while their overseas and perhaps yours fails as well. Many are divorced. Many more are on their second marriages. A few refuse to marry ever again. You’re bothered by the number of troops your unit has lost to suicide.

You get nosebleeds in the dry heat of summer and sick in the winter, and still run missions. You lose relatives in the states, but if they’re not immediate family you’re not allowed to go home for the funerals. You watch every cheap, pirated DVD you can find and wonder why they seem to only pirate the B movies. You sleep a lot and get bored a lot, but then you get busy and you miss being bored. You read outdated magazines on subjects that don’t interest you, but it’s the only reading material you can find.

You want people to understand, but you don’t want them to see how stupid some days were, how borings others were, and how terrifying or tragic a few turned out to be. They’ll want to comfort you and say they’re sorry, but you just want them to understand what it was like. You get frustrated that people really don’t get it and aren’t making any attempts to learn. For the most part they’ve already formed their opinions – few are based on reality.

You want to go home. You don’t give a damn about the ugly backwards country that won’t stand up on its own, but at the same time you want them to succeed so you know you’ve done something and that your friends haven’t died for nothing. You miss normal. You miss your dog. You miss freedom. You miss your family. You’re angry. You’re tired. You’re living an adventure. You’re living a nightmare.

You’ll remember it fondly some days and other days with disgust. You’re proud of what you did, but wish you hadn’t done it. You figure out how to explain it to people, so you don’t even bother to try. War is a mystery to all those who have not fought in one, and waged so that they may remain ignorant of what happens in their prosecution. You wish they knew. You’re glad they don’t. You’ll spend your whole life trying to put it to words, but those words will never come. Laughter will. Pleasant reminiscing will. Tears will. Nightmares will. Anger will. But still, no words; just emotions.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 28, 2009

While They Waited

While nothing short of being here satisfactorily describes what it’s like in Iraq, conversations do provide a good window into the hearts and minds of troops. The following recounts the topics of discussion between four Soldiers as they waited for their shift on truck watch to end.

Initially, the debate was over which brand of baby wipes is the most comfortable and effective. On small outpost like this, where bathroom facilities aren’t the best, baby wipes are still preferred over toilet paper. One Soldier enthusiastically stated that his Sesame Street Elmo wipes were the best. Another believed his Looney Tunes brand wipes were softer and less scratchy. A third Soldier preferred his Sam’s Club generic wipes, but the fourth insisted that this Charmin Ultras beat them all. “They’re like soapy quilts,” he assured us. They were all better than the brand a fifth Soldier was using, which he described as too dry, scratchy, and deceptively ineffective. Baby wipes as a medium wouldn’t be so popular if it weren’t for the food, which was the next complaint.

With bases throughout Iraq contracting food services to third parties, the food is generally good. But on this outpost, military cooks still boil “UGRA rats” (military rations), tear open the bag, and serve it to the Soldiers. According to those present, portions are too small and the snacks are too unhealthy to be considered a viable augment to their diet, so most get by with protein shakes or Gatorade. They’re desperate to get real food in care packages, like tuna, canned chicken, etc. They’re all sick of unhealthy snacks and hard candy. One Soldier was irritated that somebody sent him a bag of coughdrops in the middle of summer. Out of hunger, he ate them anyway.

One remarked that he couldn’t wait to get home to buy his new gun. After carefully researching the best brand and make, he’s reached his decision. When he goes home on R&R, he’s looking forward to purchasing it and taking it to the range. It’ll make a fine addition to his collection.

Another commented that his girlfriend loves it when he buys guns, so he’s never had problems with her thinking it a poor use of his money. Seeing as she’s a gun lover like him, and undoubtedly for a host of other reasons, he considers her a keeper. A third remarked that his wife is still nervous about firearms, but willing to learn. He’ll either find her a professional gun safety course when he gets back, or simply teach her himself. Gun safety is paramount to him, and he doesn’t want to see any more “accidents.” He’s already lost one friend in an incident that was listed as accidental, but everybody involved is fairly certain that the friend took his own life. “Nobody accidentally shoots themselves in the temple,” he said, which began a discussion about troops killing themselves. Few here understand how they can do that. After dead air for a bit, the conversation turned to entertainment.

One Soldier is an avid reader, immersing himself in what he describes as “war books;” stories about troops showing courage under fire and surviving insurmountable odds. He’s read several out here already, and one three times because it was so impactful. Another likes novels and sci-fi. Others prefer movies.

The Soldiers’ truck watch interrupted a movie that two were watching, and in deference to the plot, the other two elected not to talk about it, even though they thought it was a great movie and wanted to share their comments on it. Questions went back and forth over who has the more interesting movies, which ones showed so-and-so’s breasts, and if anybody had it so they could watch that one next. When they heard that one of their fellow Soldiers is a big fan of a particular film, they all swore not to watch it. None of them likes him and they presume he has bad taste.

And on that note, there are a few guys in the unit they don’t like for a variety of reasons. Some appear to be incompetent or spineless, and a few others they aren’t certain will perform well under fire. With some of the newer men, they’re concerned that they’ll either lose their cool in a firefight or break down soon after. What they might find great, purposeful, and the closest thing they’ve seen to doing their jobs, these newer guys might find horrifying or traumatizing. They wish they could trust the new guys. Trust that they’ll point their weapons the right direction, hit their targets, and cover their sectors. Nobody will really know for certain until they’re getting fired upon, and nobody likes the uncertainty.

One Soldier remarked that he absolutely hates using his military ID anywhere. He had done so recently to buy beer since his driver’s license had expired. The cashier looked at military ID, looked at him, and blurted out, “so what’s it like to kill people?” The Soldier responded in anger.

“Who the hell are you, man? I don’t even KNOW you.”

When one Soldier was stationed in Germany, the Germans, upon seeing his military ID, would always ask, “so what’s your opinion of George Bush?” which also received an irritated response.

“I have my opinions, but I keep them to myself; I just follow orders. I’m in the Army.”

One trooper’s wife likes it when he uses his mil ID because she likes the military discounts. He still prefers not to use it, though he admits he really ought to take advantage of the benefit while he can. He’ll be getting out before too long.

Wives. There’s always conjecture that “Jody” is back home with their wives or girlfriends right now. Two are confident it’s not happening; he just likes to joke about it. Another isn’t sure. The fourth withholds his thoughts and recounts the Soldier they heard about who came home to find his wife in bed with another man. According to what they’d heard, he shot them both with a shotgun. For the most part, they don’t worry about it out here. One will be taking leave early to finalize his divorce. Before he gets there, he intends to have his girlfriend serve the papers to his wife.

Many of the Soldiers here don’t particularly like the interpreters, not because they’re incompetent, but because they ask irritating questions about the US or girls, or constantly ask the troops to give them things – issued items they’re not allowed to hand over even if they wanted to. They also dislike that the “terps” are authorized to wear the same uniforms as they do. The Soldiers worked for theirs, but the terps were simply handed them.

As a whole, they much prefer the Ugandans (the Triple Canopy personnel that guard every entry control point and the base perimeter). Not only are they extremely friendly and typically speak decent English, but they either ask interesting questions about the United States or simply invite the Soldiers to come visit Uganda, which they all love and speak of highly.

Watches are long out here, and even longer in the states – when they’re mostly notional and unessential. The Soldiers swap stories about catching people asleep on watch, or standing watch in their sleeping bags. On stateside watches, somebody always falls asleep and half the guys never stand their posts. Nobody ever woke them up. They can’t wait for their watch shift to end this evening. They have games to play, movies to watch, and a couple would like to catch up on sleep.

They’re all waiting for something. For the watch to end. For their shift on Quick Reaction Force to end. For the holidays to come and go. For R&R leave. A few can’t wait to get out. They all can’t wait to go home.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Home Life

*Retold with permission.

When I arrived in the Dallas, TX airport for R&R [mid-deployment rest and relaxation], I was greeted by my wife, my mother-in-law, and my aunt. It was anything but a warm welcome. While my wife and aunt were certainly glad to see me, an incident with my mother-in-law quickly ruined my mood.

Dallas airport always has crowds of locals waiting to warmly greet troops arriving in the terminal. Though they don’t know you, they wave flags, cheer, and welcome us all back to the states. It’s something they take seriously, and we definitely appreciate it. Many others aren’t so well received. In my case, it was my own family who received me poorly.

As we walked out of the terminal, one of the greeters approached my mother-in-law and offered her a little pin. It ready simply, “I Support Our Troops;” nothing more. My mother-in-law waved her away.

“If I take that pin and wear it, it means I support George Bush’s policies.”

In embarrassment and disgust, my aunt simply walked away. This is not the first time something like this has happened.

My mother-in-law describes herself as an “unrepentant 60s hippie liberal.” I respect this, since she’s certainly entitled to her own opinion, but it’s not reciprocated. Every time we see her, even holidays and other family events, the only thing she’s interested in talking about is how the Army is doing terrible things in Iraq, George Bush ruined our country, and how everything the military is doing is shameless obeisance to an overly-aggressive, reckless foreign policy. She doesn’t even give me (or anybody else) the opportunity to disagree.

I remember when I first told her that I may be deploying, to which she responded, “well, I guess I can support you, providing you go to Afghanistan, since that’s a just war. But not if you go to Iraq. That war is wrong.” Yet when I announced that we were shipping out to Iraq, she gushed with relief. “Thank GOD! At least I know you’ll be safe.” Then she went back to saying negative things about the troops and the war.

She once asked if I’d get dressed up in my class A’s [military dress uniform] and let her introduce me around her workplace. Thinking she’d had a change of heart, I agreed to it. I also brought my newborn daughter with me, too. But when we arrived, she’d walk up to her coworkers and say, “this is my new granddaughter.”

“Who’s that in uniform holding her?” they would ask.

“Oh, that’s my son-in-law,” she’d say dismissively, quickly step in front of me, and turn the conversation back onto her granddaughter. After it happened a couple times, she grabbed my daughter from me. Giving up, I went outside to wait for her to finish. She never commented on my absence.

My wife hates the situation because, whenever we’re together, my mother-in-law is always trying to convince her that I’m wrong, she’s right, and my wife should therefore side with her own mother. Later, my wife will tell me what she said about me, which is usually either personally insulting or derogatory towards the troops as a whole. Though she hasn’t directly said it to me, I think my mother-in-law actually celebrates when things go wrong in Iraq. She considers it more ammunition for her argument.

When I was getting ready to deploy, she asked me if I could get her a bumper sticker that said, “my son serves in the US Army.” I bluntly asked her if it was to alleviate her guilt about speaking so negatively about the troops, which did nothing more than spark off another argument. All our encounters end that way: her accusing, me defending, and my wife caught in the middle. I do everything in my power to avoid her now, because there’s no point in even arguing. She’s already made up her mind – mostly from the anti-war propaganda she reads and casually leaves around my house. “I think you’d find this interesting,” she’ll say.

What she fails to understand is that I didn’t sign up for Iraq – or any other conflict for that matter. None of us did. I signed up to support my family and serve my country. Iraq happens to be where my country as asked me to go. My mother-in-law, however, believes we’ve all volunteered to go to Iraq because we agree with US foreign policy. Whether I do or not is irrelevant. I agreed to follow orders. Now it seems we’re being punished for the public’s disagreement with the war. In my case, her hopeless negativity is straining my marriage, distancing me from my wife, and sowing discord throughout the entire family.

My mother-in-law is already divorced because her husband couldn’t stand her, and over the years she’s alienated most of her relatives as well. Even her parents have a hard time being around her. But I, as the only family member currently serving in the military, receive the worst of her rants. Within five minutes of seeing her anywhere, she’s started off on an anti-military, anti-war speech, hushed anybody who dares disagree with her, and dominated the conversation. Because I’m family and she’s mostly unavoidable, I suppose I’m an easy target. As far as I can tell, she’s projecting her total discontent with life onto the most convenient target: me. I intend to raise my daughter with as little contact as possible. Nothing she says is edifying.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved