Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Photo

When they stepped off the Blackhawk, it was difficult to resist the urge to run over and help them. Several were limping badly, yet nobody moved. Despite the sincerity of the offer, it would be received as an insult. Still proud, and still persevering, none would consider himself crippled. They walked to the trucks unassisted and climbed in.

Four lost limbs to IEDs or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). One suffered a hip disarticulation from an RPG attack. One is missing an arm, another an eye, and the last suffered severe Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). All eight are back in Iraq to observe first-hand the products of their sacrifice. A number are still on active duty.

The battalion commander first showed them the Wall of Heroes, the building’s foyer dedicated to their men who have fallen in the line of duty. Before their medical evacuations, two of the Soldiers visiting were once stationed on that base. One limped over to observe their photographs. The other Soldier leaned close enough to see with his one remaining eye. The photos were all of friends. One choked back tears. Camera crews from the media pool scrambled for photos. The last unit’s section of the wall is noticeably empty. They lost none in an entire year of operations.

Next, the battalion commander drove the group to the Iraqi side of the base to meet their division general. Outside, the Iraqi troops stood at attention, while inside the general greeted each man individually, thanked each for his sacrifice, assured him that they had not served in vain, and that, “your blood having mixed with ours,” he was forever welcome and honored in Iraq. Two Soldiers, standing awkwardly on prosthetics, fought back tears. The Marine announced how much of an honor it was for him to serve with the Iraq army. Two years ago, he and I served together in Habbaniyah, Iraq. We have several of the same friends. After repeated TBIs spread over multiple attacks, he awakened one morning unable to read or write. After extensive rehabilitation, he’s working on a degree in journalism and plans to become an officer.

Following their formal greeting from the Iraqi general, the wounded warriors reconvened outside to receive a greeting from his soldiers. One-by-one, the entire Iraqi platoon walked the line of injured warriors and shook their hands. Many, in quiet, respectful English, whispered “welcome” or “thank you.” One Soldier shifted his weight uncomfortably from his one limb to his prosthetic.

The next event was a briefing in the newly-constructed joint communications center where US forces and their Iraqi counterparts coordinate joint operations, share intelligence reports and collaborate to maximize battlespace security. The US battalion commander explained just how much of his operations are now channeled through the Iraqi general before execution.

When the brief was complete, the whole group went to lunch and reassembled for an intelligence in-brief. The US commander wanted to update the wounded warriors on progress in the region. The two who had served there on previous tours listened attentively.

Years ago, to help deny Al Qaeda vehicular access to a particular area, the Soldiers had dragged old, destroyed Iraqi tanks into a few small roads. Al Qaeda would drag them off and into the canals. Each time, the Soldiers would reposition them. This July, as one of the battalion’s first projects intended to improve the area through humanitarian missions, the US removed those three tanks. One took eleven hours to load and move. A wounded Soldier apologized for the inconvenience he caused, drawing laughter.

The battalion commander responded quickly: “That’s okay, son; we still haven’t found a way to rebuild the bank you guys blew up.” Laughter again. During the heaviest fighting of 2007, the bank had been used as an insurgent position.

Back in the Wall of Heroes again, the nearly-blind Soldier removed his prosthetic eye and showed it to me. The set is a small purple heart. As he replaces it in the socket, he half grins and tells me that children often stare at him.

Operation Proper Exit, a pilot program sanctioned by the Department of the Army and Surgeon General and sponsored through private donors, the USO, and a non-profit organization called Troops First, strives to assist in the emotional rehabilitation of troops severely wounded in the line of duty. They do this by flying selected volunteers back to Iraq to their previous area of service, showing them changes and improvements, providing a degree of closure, and demonstrating that their profound sacrifice has brought about lasting change. Due to security risks today, hosts were unfortunately forbidden from giving the wounded men a tour of the areas outside the wire. Other bases throughout Iraq have permitted it.

The gym on this base is named after a US Soldier killed in 2007. His surviving wife is now married to one of the visiting wounded Soldiers. Tomorrow, he and his brothers will fly to Ramadi, and the wounded Marine will see the areas where he once patrolled and was eventually gravely injured. Ramadi, like Baqubah, is different now. The whole country is different, to varying degrees.

For thousands, it’s over now. For tens of thousands, it’s only just begun. For our nation, it still continues.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 12, 2009

Here's Your Letter

To Whom It Doesn’t Concern;

With our nation at war on two fronts, it’s understandable that years of news from a combat zone will mostly fall on deaf ears. People are losing interest in the subject. For your disinterest, you are forgiven.

Few Americans having relatives or friends serving in a combat zone, so it is understandable how little they may think about the war on any given day. In their minds, it doesn’t affect them. More immediate matters do, like bills, work, and social lives. For your lack of familiarity, you are forgiven.

Since few of you are able to distinguish a general from a private, it is understandable that you often approach low ranking troops in airports and bombard them with questions about the war. You see a uniformed servicemember and see an opportunity to learn more, or at least voice your own opinions. For your inappropriate questions, you are forgiven.

Because it is an inexplicable aspect of human nature to be drawn to the obscene, it is understandable that you want to see photos from a war zone, however, graphic they may be. In some ways, we all do this. Because of your disconnection from the conflict itself, you do not view these victims as national servants. Your interest in such images, however vulgar, is forgiven.

Since it is an indisputable fact that no media outlets are accurately and thoroughly portraying the two fronts for what they really are, it is also understandable that you are mostly misinformed about the course of the war, its successes, failures, progress, and lessons learned. You have few options for learning the truth, aside from asking a veteran. You are forgiven for being misinformed.

For not caring, however, you are unforgiven. In fact, damn you for your apathy. When your country is engaged in war, a 7,000 mile separation from the conflict itself is still no license to forget.

For looking at a photograph of a Soldier burned down to the muscle from an IED blast and thinking little more than, “ooh, that sucks,” you are not forgiven. That man is somebody’s son, father, husband or brother. If he lives, he will return home severely disfigured and unrecognizable to his loved ones. Many others are missing limbs, or carry colostomy bags, or blind. Thousands more are virtually deaf. Their service has not been for your entertainment, but to safeguard your way of life.

For approaching a returning servicemember in an airport and ridiculing him, you are unforgiven. He is not an instrument of war, but a warrior. When have you last done something for somebody other than yourself? He didn’t join for a war, but to serve his country. And at any rate, he was sent by the political leaders you elected.

For hoping that the deaths of more servicemembers encourage the government to quit the war and come home, you are unforgiven. It is a disgraceful abuse of the freedoms they have sworn to defend. Their service and sacrifice is the very thing enabling you remaining ignorant and apathetic of the threats this nation faces. If they did not serve, you would impotent with fear.

For claiming that you are too busy to worry about the war, you are unforgiven. You may have a life, job, and loved ones, but it is so hard to utter a prayer every now and then? Is it so hard to mail off a care package or a letter of encouragement? Did you really need that last gourmet coffee? Somewhere, on some distant combat outpost, there are troops who would rejoice at being mailed a pair of socks.

For viewing the war as simply a poor economic investment, you are unforgiven. Do you presume to put a value on human life? What is the cost of NOT waging war? Does your apathy extend to the fundamental human rights of others? There are incalculable millions who have benefitted from US military action. Ask a Filipino, a South Korean, a Jew, a Gypsy, or other nationals from around the world.

For believing that there is no such thing as a war worth fighting, you are unforgiven. War is certainly an evil, but one undertaken to halt an even greater evil. You don’t know this because the military has successfully held the enemy at bay. Had they not, you would live in fear for your life.

For presuming that all veterans are inherently unstable, dangerous, and potentially criminals, you are unforgiven. Despite recent reports by the Department of Homeland Security suggesting otherwise, veterans pose no greater threat to the peace of this country than any other group. Considering that many of them know how to kill, the fact that they do not indicates superior character. They choose not to.

For preferring not to think about it all because it’s stressful, you are unforgiven. You’ve shown your true colors as inherently selfish. You enjoy all the fruits of the military’s labor, but you are unwilling to consider their purchasing price: blood, fear, unbelievable loss, loneliness, and at times death. Your ingratitude is profoundly inexcusable.

Not too long ago, an inebriated VFW commander confessed to me that he doesn’t want to know the names and stories of the troops overseas. He reasoned that, “it’s too much like losing my own children every time.” Caring may be painful, but citizenship bears more responsibilities than merely voting. Voting gives you the right to complain when the other candidate gets elected. Caring means you have a heart beating in your chest. If these men and women can sacrifice their lives, you can sacrifice a few tears.

Those who take freedom for granted are quick to either lose it or cede it as a small sacrifice for comfort. Its loss, however, is quickly felt.

Do you fear bombing while you shop at the supermarket? Are you concerned that somebody will run you out of your home in the middle of the night? Have you had any family members disappear only to be found days later decomposing in a ditch? Do you adjust the course of your day to accommodate fearing for your life? No. The military has ensured that.

What have you done for your country? What sacrifices of comfort, family, and safety have you made? Have you done anything extremely beneficial for countless millions, but inherently jeopardizing to yourself? Have any of you sacrificed a clean conscience or spent months and years away from home, only to realize that part of you never fully returns? Have you spent years trying to find peace with your own actions, service and sacrifice, but certain you have done something good? No, you have not. And nor have you felt the searing pain of your fellow Americans stabbing you in the back.

If something, God forbid, were to happen in the states, all these men and women, however disappointed they may be with their country, however betrayed they may feel, will once again answer their nation’s call. They don’t do it because they like you. Many of them don’t, and I don’t like you either. They do it because it’s right. Nobody expects you to fully understand, but they do expect you to try.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 11, 2009

That's the Plan

In about three weeks time, I will be touching down somewhere in a United States airport. As the day of my departure grows closer, I struggle to maintain interest in what I’m doing here, in my mission, in genuine concern for the troops, and concern for the war as a whole. For lack of a better way to put it, my head may no longer be in game. I’m elsewhere already. The overriding desire to get the hell out of here and go home has drowned out all my other interests. Every day, I schedule a few more things to do when I return.

First, I’ll turn on my cellphone. There are a number of people I have promised to alert when I’m safely stateside, and they are most easily contacted via phone. Additionally, talking on the phone helps keep me awake while I drive, and I plan to do a lot of it. There’s a great deal of catching up to do. Then there are the plans.

Initially, my time will be spent with my family. I’m sure I’ll see them all in one place at some point, but I still intend to sit down with each of them, see how they’re doing, catch up on their goings on over the past four months, and generally return to a more proactive involvement in their lives. I get along with all of them, so this is probably the one thing I’ve missed the most out here.

Following this, there are a few local friends who I need to see. There is the former boss and now mentor and friend I need to visit. He’s been busy this summer, so I know little about the details of his life at the moment. I’m hoping for good news, but more realistically I expect a mixed bag. Such is reality. For him and most everybody else, there are always difficulties.

In my absence I also missed a wedding, so I’m eager to congratulate the newlyweds (both friends of mine), see their new house, and see photos from the event. Their wedding party, comprised mostly of people I know, would have been a fantastic reunion.

My media sponsor also deserves a visit, since it was his implicit trust in me that permitted my travel to Iraq in the first place. As a veteran himself, I’m sure he has a number of questions about Iraq. It’s been a good eighteen years since he was last here. Much has changed. His editor has also promised me lunch. I’ve yet to turn down free food.

Across the entire United States, I have been guaranteed shelter should I come for a visit, and I hope to visit at least a few. There are two volunteer editors in Kentucky who have set aside more pressing matters and provided me critical feedback on pieces prior to my posting them. There is another faithful volunteer in New Orleans, though I doubt I will have time to make it down there for a visit.

There are two Iraq veterans who have provided me invaluable encouragement while I’ve been gone, and both have promised me free drinks if I make it up their way. One even promised be food. Coincidentally, both will be in one place soon after my return. With a little luck, I’ll catch them both in Detroit. Flatteringly, they both consider me a brother.

In all the initial excitement of being home, I will take a break from writing. Seeing as it’s basically all I’ve done for the past fourteen months, I look forward to having no deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, no pressing responsibilities, and nobody particularly concerned about my silence. I will sleep late every day and not feel guilty about it.

There are a couple local restaurants whose cuisine I’ve missed while out here, and I can’t wait to sit down in their crowded dining areas, observe nobody in a uniform, and chat with friends I’ve known for years. I will make at least one trip to the local coffeeshop, buy an overpriced gourmet drink, tune out the background chatter around me, and play solitaire on my computer.

When I have settled in and finished all the greetings, I plan to head into the mountains. I’ve longed to see something other than scraggly palm trees, and there’s no better place for that than in the Appalachians. I hope to hike out there at least weekly, carry in all my gear, stay out overnight, and stretch my legs. After riding in military vehicles for so long, I need the exercise. It’ll be nice to not have to be on the alert for anything more than the occasional bear.

At some point, every conversation will invariably turn to Iraq. People will have questions, and I will try to answer. Many I will be unable to answer. I have too many questions of my own.

And then, after somewhere between three and five weeks, I will miss Iraq and want to come back, as will many servicemembers returning to the states. Part of me will still be here.

I will still have friends over here, many of whom have long months still remaining on their tours. I will have other friends who are preparing to deploy to Iraq in the near future. There’s still a war going on, and its outcome is still uncertain. I will want to see its closing first hand.

I will miss the mission briefs before each excursion outside the wire. I will miss the troops I accompanied. God forbid it, but some of them may never see home again. Regardless, they will still need a voice.

I will miss combat boots and rifles, and thousands of men and women uniformly dedicated to the same cause. I will miss hearing their stories. I will miss being around those who get it and who don’t ask difficult questions I still can’t answer. I will miss the conversations over headsets as we drive a boring road to some town with an unpronounceable name. I will miss the chai we’re served when we get there. I will miss the potential for every mission devolving into an IED attack or a firefight.

I will miss this place because it’s grown on me, but most of all I will miss my fellow Americans who have answered their country’s call to serve here. I will miss introducing them to other Americans. I will miss the adventure. Home life, after some initial excitement, will be disappointingly boring. Though every situation is different and every servicemember has his or her own unique outlook, many will feel this way, too. National service, and more specifically combat service, is memorable. Like little else, this never leaves you.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved