Saturday, October 10, 2009

They're Not There Yet (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission

Last tour out here, they put me on suicide watch, even though given no indication of wishing to hurt myself. The command would probably argue that they’d rather be safe than sorry, which is legitimate, but the way they went about it wasn’t appropriate. They were acting off too many assumptions.

When I enlisted in the Army, I took advantage of the “Battle Buddy” program, which guarantees that you and a friend who enlists with you will train through boot camp together, and remain together in the same unit for a certain length of time. I’d joined with a friend I’d known for a good three years prior to enlisting, and we remained in the same unit well into my first deployment into Iraq. In fact, we were on the same patrol when things went horribly wrong.

Just like most every other US base in Iraq, whenever we took incoming rocket or mortar fire, a point of origin would be quickly calculated, and a unit would be sent out to investigate that coordinate – maybe they’d even find the perpetrators. Either way, it was the standard operating procedure: take incoming, go out and investigate. We’d done it at least fifty times before.

As we got ready to roll out, I remember our platoon sergeant telling us that instead of varying our route and reducing our “predictability,” we would drive straight out to the site, check it out, and drive straight back. He told us he wanted to be back in time for chow. We shouldn’t have made that compromise in tactics, but it wasn’t our call.

I have long questioned if what happened would have been avoided had we been smarter about our route planning. I have also struggled with the temptation of blaming my platoon sergeant for something that may or may not have been his fault. In this case, the enemy knew our standard operating procedure through and through. They weren’t around when we arrived at the point of origin of the incoming fire, but IEDs were, which detonated, killing two Soldiers. One of them was my battle buddy. I was actually the one that loaded him into the bodybag.

The unit leadership had known that the two of us were close, so they watched me intently over the next two days. Yet what I knew to be grief (relative isolation, lack of interest in talking to people, and restlessness), they presumed to be potentially suicidal behavior. Based off of what they saw, they made their judgment call. Not only was I going to be considered a combat stress case, but I was also going to be placed on suicide watch.

The command took away my rifle, lest I do myself harm to myself or others with it, placed me under 24 hour watch, insisted I wear a reflective safety vest, and attend daily combat stress classes. Needless to say, it was humiliating. I didn’t want to kill myself at all; I was grieving over the loss of a close friend.

Whenever I went to the chow hall, without my rifle but with my suicide watch vest, I was followed by Soldiers who watched me intently. Naturally, dressed as I was and unarmed, everybody else watched me too. Everybody that saw me labeled me a head case. In the combat stress classes, we all sat around while the facilitator soothingly invited us to talk about what we were feeling. I had little to say, obviously.

I understand the command’s concern, since suicide is a problem out here, but I think they overreacted in my case. I think it would be MORE concerning if I showed no emotion at all when my friend was killed. Grief is a natural and appropriate response to devastating loss. Aside from the personal humiliation, my biggest objection was the fact that what they did caused a loss of confidence with the rest of my peers. They assumed, based upon the command’s response, that I was unstable. I was monitored for two months, and it took a few weeks before my fellow Soldiers treated me as an equal again.

The Army has since changed their policies on how they respond in these situations, which is encouraging. For starters, rather than taking your weapon away from you, they simply take the bolt out. You may still be suspect, but at least your peers aren’t as aware that you’re being monitored. The Army is also working hard to improve their combat stress courses. In fact, the chaplain recently conducted an all-hands series of courses about suicide awareness and prevention. They’re making changes, but they still have some distance to go. I’m thankful they’re at least trying. In my case, though, I’m fairly convinced that the command made the situation worse. I wasn’t dangerous to myself or others; I just wanted my friend back. That, however, nobody could provide.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Reveiw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, October 8, 2009

It Began With Rocks (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission from the Fluvanna Review.

*Retold with permission.

When we first arrived in Sadr City in early 2004, we were informed it would be a peacekeeping mission. The city itself was quiet, the locals were glad we were there, and Moqtada Al Sadr’s Mahdi militia forces were keeping everything in check. The unit we relieved said they basically just drove around the city every now and then, nothing happened, and that was about it. We would begin the reconstruction. The war was over, and we were there to rebuild the infrastructure.

The RIP [relief-in-place] was extremely uneventful. In fact, with the threat being as minimal as it was, none of us was carrying more than three or four magazines of ammunition. Our first movements alone into the city were equally dull. We just drove in, found key leaders, and started asking them what they needed to get the city back up and running, and how could we best assist them with it.

Their response was water, power, and sewage. With power and water down or intermittent as long as they were, the streets were overflowing with raw sewage. It was simple. While we worked to get the water and power running, we would escort a sewage truck throughout the city and begin cleaning up the streets. The locals seemed happy enough with this.

But after two weeks, however, the residents realized that we weren’t really going away like they assumed we would. We would be there for a long time, assisting in the reconstruction, yes, but still conducting patrols throughout the city. Apparently they didn’t like this, either. We were out on the day they began to express their opposition.

We were patrolling along, minding our own business, but as we slowly advanced, a crowd formed behind us. Before long, the crowd grew to a mob that filled the streets from one side to the other, thick enough that you couldn’t see the street itself. They were yelling at us and gesturing. Whenever we turned out backs, they pelted us with rocks, but when we turned back to them, they stopped. As per our rules of engagement, I considered it a hostile act, but I remember my squad leader screaming at all of us, “DO NOT FIRE ON THEM!” So, we’d turn our backs and get hit with rocks again. Frankly, I’m still amazed how effortlessly an Iraqi kid can wing a cinderblock from one side of the street to the other – at us.

As Sadr militiamen and civilians started lying in the street to thwart any further movement in humvees, Charlie company made the decision to head back to base. There wasn’t much else anybody could do without inciting a riot. We, too, returned and gave our report.

Another unit (a sister platoon) was still in the city, though, a platoon-sized mix of mounted and dismounted Soldiers. They were having problems with crowd control like us, and when they started taking fire (and casualties), they occupied a building at the end of a side street and elected to wait until the situation deescalated. Unfortunately, their communications were also completely down. Completely cut off from any support, medical evacuations or other assistance, their location completely unknown to any other unit, one humvee remained in the street outside the house, while inside the vehicle the platoon sergeant worked on the radio.

As he tinkered with the radio (unsuccessfully), the mob began moving down the street toward them. But this time it was different. They weren’t merely throwing rocks or firing sporadically. Instead, women and children rushed forward, while behind them men fired over them at the humvee. After a quick assessment, the gunner made a difficult, but wise decision: fire back.

I was on base at the time, getting ready to go on tower watch, when I heard the fourth of July open up inside the city. Turning to the Sergeant First Class in charge of the guard mount, I told him sorry, he was on his own. Those were our guys in the city. I was only a Specialist, but he wasn’t even my chain of command. We were supposed to be replacing his guys. It wouldn’t kill them to stand one more guard shift. What was happening in the city, however, might kill quite a few.

As the firing in the city intensified, Soldiers on base started crawling out of the woodwork. Cooks ran from the chow hall. Mechanics ran from the motor pool. Alpha company was being spun up as QRF [quick reaction force] to go find and help the platoon pinned in the city. While they prepared their vehicles and scrambled to find more, all these Soldiers asked if they could come along too; those trapped Soldiers needed help. The commander agreed, and soon they headed into the city to search for the missing, isolated platoon. They would never arrive.

As the convoy of humvees, Bradleys, and even an LMTV [flatbed, unarmored utility truck] moved closer to the pinned platoon, a large, coach-sized bus suddenly pulled in front of the lead Bradley and stopped. Moments later, a few cars pulled up to reinforce it. Somebody threw burning tires into the mix, too. In the rear, a similar blockade was driven in, effectively trapping the Alpha company QRF in a gauntlet. As they rolled to a halt, Sadr militiamen and other fighters appeared in every second story window and on every rooftop, firing down on the Soldiers. On the ground, children ran up to the vehicles and placed small IEDs or threw grenades at the vehicles. One hit the Charlie company commander’s vehicle. Of all the occupants, he was the only one that escaped injury or death.

In the ensuing ambush, Soldiers did the best they could, but with the odds stacked against them. From their elevated position in and atop the buildings, the insurgents began picking off the troops.

One of my buddies out there later told me that as he was firing, he looks over at his gunner in the rear of the unarmored humvee. He was jerking his machine gun back and forth from one target to another. As he sees his squad leader staring at him, he grins, holds out his left hand with three fingers up, and yells “third squad, baby!” He was missing the other two.

On the LMTV, originally packed with troops, Soldiers started dropping from injuries until only two remained uninjured, one of whom was a crusty old Staff Sergeant. He’d been in forever, and had already submitted his retirement papers. I’m sure he was thinking he’d just gotten into more than he’d bargained for. He scrambled throughout the wounded (and dying), plugging bullet holes, dressing wounds, and still firing. He tried to drive out the LMTV, but it was disabled. Thinking quickly, he commandeered a local bus and packed his crowd of casualties into it.

As the Bradley in the front finally pushed through/over the bus and cars, this Staff Sergeant climbed into the bus he commandeered and drove the injured back to base. He later was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. I’d say he deserved it, too.

I was on base during all this, and commanders were assembling whatever was left of my company (myself included) into another QRF to go out and help the initial QRF. We were told to get out there, help them out, and recover the down vehicles. By the time we departed the base, the aid station had a chest-high stack of boots from all the wounded. All told, 40 were injured that day, and ten were killed. It was later reported that we’d killed about 800 Iraqi fighters.

Later, I remember seeing the LMTV sitting on our FOB. In the back, empty water bottles floated in the pools of blood. When we finally went out, it was with orders to locate and recapture all five Iraqi Police [IP] stations in the city. Every last one of them was being occupied by Sadr militiamen. So, one-by-one, we attacked and cleared them.

As darkness fell, my unit halted at the third station and we were instructed to hold it, commencing the longest five days of my life. Every night, they’d hit us hard, and all day long we waited for another assault. By the end of five days with no sleep, I was a zombie. Tired, but still high on adrenalin, gaunt, but still puking. Eventually we were relieved and returned to base.

After all this, things quieted a bit in the city and we resumed normal patrols. Every few days, we’d get hit, ambushed or IEDed, so we’d cut power and water into the city, Muqtada Al Sadr would announce another ceasefire to his Mahdi militia, and things would be peaceful for a few days. Then it’d start up again.

As our tour continued, we did eventually make a lot of progress in the city, and by the end of things, we were more or less concentrated on reconstruction. Sadr, we presumed, had been tamed. But it didn’t last. Just as we had been “tested,” the new unit was as well. The very day we arrived in Kuwait on our way home, we learned the new guys were taking casualties. In reality, Sadr City didn’t calm down until we basically began to avoid it. I’m not sure if anybody’s in there these days.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Bowling Alley

*Retold with permission.

When we were doing clearing operations last tour, we’d frequently move through whole neighborhoods that had been cleaned out and abandoned – many of them abruptly, if not violently. I imagine that many were killed before they had a chance to flee. We spent a fair amount of our time in a town called Gazalia.

Just looking around, you could see that it used to have beautiful streets with lavish homes, but six years of war, neglect and poverty had taken its toll. The buildings were often abandoned, the walls riddled with bullet holes, and once-gorgeous yards now covered in trash. We called one neighborhood the “Bowling Alley.”

Every AO [area of operations] has place like this; a stretch of road or a neighborhood where US forces are always get fired upon or blown up and the aggressors could quickly retreat into the alleys and disappear. In our case, the bowling alley was two streets divided by a long, open field, which I presume at one time was a well-kept lawn. After years of conflict, it’d been transformed into nothing more than a trash dump. On the outer edges of the streets to either side of the field, were large, two-story houses. Though many showed overt signs of war, it was obvious that the area used to be beautiful. Now, many homes were abandoned, and those few who elected to stay had somehow survived untold violence.

As we’d sweep through, we’d occupy a house for the night. There were always more than enough to choose from. Once we’d settled in I always tried to figure out what happened to the occupants. Because so many had left in a hurry, there was more than enough evidence. With a little patience, you could learn their entire story, up to a point. One house in particular sticks with me.

After we’d moved in that evening and set up the guard rotation, I started looking through some of the possessions the occupants had left behind. In this case, there was a surprisingly large collection of photographs.

In the beginning of the albums, I found old childhood pictures of a boy, shot in a background not too dissimilar to the one we were now in. From those, I more or less concluded that he was a native of Iraq. But he didn’t stay in Iraq.

I found a number of photos of him attending college – somewhere in Europe, actually. It would be him and a few of his friends; typical college shots of them hanging out somewhere or getting dressed up to go out for the evening. There were photos of him receiving his degree, and eventually photos of him earning certification as a doctor. He always looked happy in those shots. Then there were more of him back in Iraq.

Those photos showed him in Spartan conditions again, in a small house with meager furnishings, but as the timeline progressed, his surroundings improved. There’d be shots of him in his clinic, then with nicer clothing, then shots of him with his clinic staff, him in a white coat, and eventually a few where he was wearing a suit. He also apparently moved to a lavish home, too.

From other photos mixed in, I could also see that he’d met his wife and gotten married at some point along the way, and in time there were photos of the two of them with children, infants at first. By the end of the album’s record, there were two adult sons, the doctor’s wife, and maybe a younger daughter, too.

As a doctor, he must have been making a good living, too, because I found photos of them touring in Europe, and even a few of them visiting the United States. And then abruptly, the timeline, the records, and the photos just stopped.

From the photos, and also from some of the other papers I found, I could tell that this man and his family rushed to leave. After all, who, when moving methodically, leaves family photo albums? Not only this, but I even found his degrees and medical license among his possessions. No doubt, they’d left hurriedly. I wanted to know what happened to them, if they were alive, and if they were safe.

Whenever we first entered any area for clearing operations, we’d receive a pretty cold reception. It was understandable, since we were blocking roads, walking through homes and interrupting personal lives, but we always made every effort to do it respectfully, disturb as little as possible, and treat the locals with dignity. And because of that, they’d usually warm up to us fairly quickly. One family went so far as to invite us in, offer us chai [tea], cheese, bread and dates. They were relieved to see us in their neighborhood. After a time, I asked them about the doctor’s empty house. It was like opening a floodgate.

They explained that a few years back, one terrorist organization or another came through and started threatening a number of the locals. Many left in fear of their lives, and many more were approached and given deadlines. If they didn’t leave within the allotted period of time, they would be killed, as would their entire families. That, this family explained, is what happened to the doctor and his family. About three years ago, he was approached, told to leave, and with little more preparation than packing a few clothes, he fled with his family. His whereabouts since then were unknown, but he was probably out of the country. He’d left nearly everything. I still think about him, though, and many others.

When people think of the Army, they often mistakenly think of one word: “kill.” It doesn’t occur to them that we have other purposes, like preventing violence. While we may have been sent here to conduct a war, we were also sent to help prevent several more. At the time of that clearing operation, sectarian violence was at its peak, and the slightest provocation would commence regular kidnapping, killing and bombs. In many ways, the purpose of our war was to prevent a sectarian war from consuming the country. And personally, it was a rewarding mission.

We weren’t here just to kill people. In fact, we never were. We’re here to preserve the lives of the innocent from brutality, fear, and coercion. I enjoy what I do, I enjoy leading Soldiers, and I’d like to think we’re making a difference. I want to leave here knowing that these people are safe at least in part because of our efforts. Ideally, I want those who fled to feel safe enough to come home. When all those who fled have been safely and voluntarily repatriated to their own homes and properties, I’ll feel satisfied that we’ve completed our mission. As it stands, just 30 minutes ago, a car bomb detonated outside the Iraqi base here with a handful of deaths and several wounded. Though drastically reduced, the violence continues. And so, we still continue to work.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Absentia

*Retold with permission.

Not long ago, I sat down and wrote my daughter a letter. She’s only seven months old right now, but there’s going to be a point when she’s older and notices that all the photos and videos of her as an infant and toddler don’t have me in them. When she took her first step, I was in Iraq. The same thing when she said her first word. In a few months, I’m going to miss her first birthday. Eventually, she’s going to wonder where Daddy was when she was a baby. Hopefully, the letter I wrote will help answer her questions.

Basically, I wrote down everything to explain why I’m in the military, and why I was in Iraq while she was little. As for why I’m in the Army, I wrote that I wanted to do something greater than myself and to serve my country. For lack of a better way to put it, I wanted to live an honorable life. Military service seemed like an ideal way to do that.

I also wrote that, for now, the Army has taken me to Iraq. It’s not because I WANTED to be here, because I didn’t. I would have loved to be with her every step of the way, from the moment she was born onwards through adulthood. But, for good or ill, this is where the Army needs me to be. I need to finish what my brothers before me started. Unfortunately, it takes me far from home, from my wife, and from her. As much as I don’t like it or what it does to my family, I’m doing a job that others wouldn’t do.

I have no idea if she’ll understand all this. I think a great deal of that depends on what age she is when reads the letter. But I’m hopeful that it’ll pique her interest. And rather than reaching conclusions based off the media’s slanted coverage of the war, I’m hoping that this will encourage a dialog between the two of us. Maybe she’ll ask me questions about it, and maybe she’ll actually listen to the answers. Maybe she’ll understand. Even if she doesn’t, I’m not apologizing. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat if I had to.

I suppose it’s possible that she’ll be interested in joining the military herself. If she’s 18 years old and announces that she wants to follow in my footsteps, I’ll probably try to talk her out of it. And if she’s her father’s daughter, she’ll also completely ignore me. I might try advising her to join the Air Force. I don’t wish this life on her.

In many ways, I also did this so there’s no need for her to serve. Years ago, my grandfather said something which still holds meaning to me: “you always want a better life for your children.” He’s right. I’m serving in the hopes that she won’t have to. One family member is enough. I also don’t wish this on her family, and I don’t personally want to ever worry about my daughter serving in a combat zone. My service is enough.

While I certainly want her to grasp why I did this, she may never get it, but that’s okay. None of this is intended to vindicate myself. I wrote the letter to start her asking questions, to help her realize that I’d be glad to talk about it, and also to know that my absence wasn’t by choice, but by necessity. And hopefully this will permit her to make informed decisions based not off of whatever she reads and hears in school or from friends, but from her own father, who she loves and trusts.

And, God willing, this is the last war we have for awhile. I’ll have already missed the most pivotal landmarks of her early childhood; I don’t need to miss anymore. I’m hoping this is the last time. I want to watch her grow up in person, not write more letters to explain my absence.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 5, 2009

Still the Empty Plate

“Ben, aren’t you ever going to find other things to write about? There’s nothing you can do about all this. I mean, you’re not even in the military anymore. It’s over for you.” I’m wasting my time, they argue.

It may be over, but it isn’t done.

There are still men and women who awaken regularly to nightmares. There are still men who can stand quite calmly in a sea of corpses without losing their minds, but break down with they smell trash fires that remind them of the IED that destroyed the humvee in front of theirs. There are still men who feel vulnerable without a firearm at their sides. There are still many who rarely leave their homes.

There are still servicewomen who after repeated concussions from IEDs along roads in Iraq return home with their brains permanently scrambled. Many can’t find a partner who understands them. A number can’t remember things sufficiently to succeed in school. A few cut themselves regularly.

There are still VFWs and American Legions packed with drunkards who desperately seek the company of other veterans, but don’t talk about their experiences when they’re together. There is still an empty plate, an upside down glass, a spoonful of salt and a lime in every VFW hall. There are still 74,000 men missing in action. There are still an alarming number of homeless vets. Seventeen veterans a day still take their own lives.

There are still bent old men who inexplicably straighten when a flag passes before them, and younger men who still salute it when they think nobody is looking. There are still men who bear the physical scars of objects thrown at them when they stepped off the planes after an unbearably long tour overseas. There are many more who bear the emotional scars of something said to them.

There are still men and women of all ages who walk out of theaters when the war movie gets too real for them and the street battle too similar to their own experiences. There are still millions with a drawer, closet, or box full of military paraphernalia or ribbons that family members will never see or understand. There are old dogtags and helmets and boots which invoke more emotion than any photograph or conversation.

There are still national cemeteries running out of room as one generation of warrior quickly expires, buried amongst the friends and brothers who went years before them. There are still grandchildren at the funerals who don’t know what grandfathers did. There are infants now who don’t know what their mothers or father did, and why a US flag is always flying in their front yard. There are still 180,000 US citizens serving on combat zones.

There are still millions in the states who don’t understand the concept of national service and won’t appreciate their freedoms until they’re all gone. There are still a few million more who, regardless of the thanks they may or may not receive, will stand to prevent that from occurring. There are millions who still think the troops are pawns in a misguided US foreign policy, or collectively the brutal killing end of the government’s unnecessarily aggressive agenda. There are millions who still ask inappropriate questions that have no good answer. There are millions of veterans who still don’t how to articulate how vile war was for them but how quickly they’d do it again if the nation needed them. There is still an enemy, but there are still people who want grow impatient and want us to quit.

There are still almost 3,000 civilians who, while doing nothing more than touring, traveling or working, were burned or crushed to death for no other reason than they were different from somebody who hated them. There are still nearly 5,000 dead in the global war on terror, and more than 30,000 missing limbs and eyes or who need assistance to complete everyday tasks. There are still 5,000 families enduring the bitter misery of a missing loved one and more than half a million more from other wars. There are still thousands who make annual trips to gravesites for brothers and sisters they knew only briefly.

When those graves have crumbled and the rest of us dead and gone, it will be done. When children know what their parents did in the face of chaos and imminent danger, there will be no more stories to tell. When this nation uniformly learns gratitude, there will be no further need for understanding. When there is no more enemy, there will be no further need for sacrifice. When there is no more war, there will be no warriors volunteering to fight them on behalf of millions they will never meet. When everybody is home, there will be no need for care packages and mail. When there is no more fear, there shall be no requirement for bravery. When all this happens, there will be nothing more to say. But this is not utopia, but real life. And oftentimes it is manifestly ugly.

So, I’ll keep talking. And when I fall silent, others will take my place. We don’t accept defeat.

“Can I see you on the webcam, honey?”

“I don’t know; I just woke up.”

“Honey, I’ve been wearing the same uniform for two weeks. I piss in a tube behind my room. I have sand in everything and shower in a stall without a showerhead. Even after I’m done, I still don’t feel clean. Every other day, I eat the same thing at the chow hall and on most mornings I don’t have time for breakfast. I had my hair buzz cut and call it a haircut. I have a sunburn. I don’t care that you just woke up.”

“Point taken.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hoot Said It (by Ben Shaw)

*Reprinted with permission of the Fluvanna Review

*Retold with permission.

I’m growing weary of sitting in airports and bars and hearing some guy regale a typically female audience about all the missions he’s been on, how many times he’s worked with special forces, and how many people he’s killed. I’ve asked a few what their MOS [military occupational specialty] was, and they usually say something like “cook.” That’s when you know they’re lying. I don’t even bother correcting them, though. What’s the point?

People that feel the need to measure their self worth by the number of missions they’ve run or how many people they’ve killed have something wrong with them. My calling their bluff isn’t going to change them, either. They’ll just say I’m a poser or accuse me of being jealous. Far from it. I’m not jealous at all.

The reality is that the people who HAVE done something aren’t going to talk about it much. There’s nothing to say, really. It’s not an experience we have much desire to dwell on, much less remember for the rest of our lives. Only the liars talk about it openly, no doubt to make up for personal insecurity. But none of us really want to discuss it. It doesn’t accomplish anything.

I know what I’ve done out here, and while I take pride in knowing that I have what it takes to accomplish the mission, there’s nothing to be gained in telling people about it. For one, they’ll never understand unless they were there. More than that, though, they’ll probably be horrified – even though they’re often the ones who initiated the conversation.

Perhaps the most inappropriate question I’ve been asked is, “did you kill anybody?” I have several problems with that, though. Why do you want to know? Isn’t that a sick thing to ask? Will it change your opinion of me if I have? Also, only a small number of the troops overseas are serving in combat positions. The rest are support. They’re not all out there engaged in glorious combat. That’s not how it is out here. Yes, my service is honorable, but there are certain aspects that you just don’t share with people.

It’s kind of like a burden, living with what we’ve done and now do. And it’s a burden that I don’t want others to have to carry. I definitely don’t want my siblings over here, and I don’t think anybody else does either. We’re doing this so they don’t have to. I don’t wish this on people.

People like to pressure us to talk sometimes. No doubt because they read all the time that veterans need to talk about their experiences to be able to move beyond them and get on with life. That might be true, but it’s not a subject you just chat about with a stranger at a bar, or even with your own family. They won’t get it, and they may very well presume you’re a monster.

In a strange way, combat experiences are akin to lovemaking. If you love the woman you’re with, you’re not going to run out and tell all your buddies about it. What happened between the two of you was a private, intimate act. If it’s discussed at all, it’s only between the two of you. The same applies to combat. Talking about it to somebody who doesn’t understand either cheapens or aggrandizes what happened. Talking about it to somebody who was there, though, is acceptable. You bore the same burden together.

Some may think we’re cocky, but they’re mistaken. It might look like arrogance, but it’s confidence. It’s the knowledge that we’ve been through a furnace and we lived to tell about it. We learned what we were made of in there, and we’re pleased with the results. What we’re not pleased with is the burden that comes with it. We’re stronger than most people, which is certainly something to be proud of, but there are consequences. Combat changes you. You keep most of it to yourself.

I see old veterans from time to time back home. Old men wearing trucker hats with the Combat Infantry Badge on the front. I don’t care what their MOS was or where they served, I know they’ve gone through hell. Whenever we spot each other, we just nod briefly and keep on walking. I know what they’ve done, and they know what I’ve done, too. There isn’t much else to say about it. We may be one, maybe two generations apart, but we carry the same burden. In fact, they carry a bigger one, since they saw things none of us have seen or ever want to see. The conduct of war itself has changed, too.

More than once I’ve stood in lines at stores and listened to the person in front of me complain rudely that the express checkout is moving too slowly. I want to yell at them, but I don’t. I don’t say a word, but I’m thinking how ungrateful they are, and how small their lives must be. They have all they need, money to burn, and plenty of ways to spend it. They’re also safe, too. You have all day, lady. Stop complaining and wake up. I’m just thankful to be home.

Personally, I love the Army. I love the operations tempo, the training, and even the deployments. I like everything about it. This is what we do. We’re grunts. I don’t think I could go back to being a civilian even if I wanted to. Sure, there are bad days – plenty of them – but I still love what I do. I’m in this for life.

I think everybody in the United States should serve in the military, maybe three years or so. If they deploy, great, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. They’ve earned their mantle and done their time. It’ll help them understand us a little better, at least. Besides this, service itself changes you, if nothing else because you learn to do things that sometimes you really don’t want to do. That’s why it’s called “service.” It’s not easy, and there are plenty of risks. We’ve all lost friends out here. Ideally, though, we’ve done this so nobody else has to.

It may be overused and even misquoted, but I like what the character “Hoot” said about the military in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” He really hit the nail on the head for all of us. Every man I know feels this way.

When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is. 

He’s right. We fight so the man next to us goes home, and hopefully we’ll go home too. None of us loves war.

Copyright © 2009, Fluvanna Review, All Rights Reserved