I've never been an advocate of the supernatural
But I know that ghosts exist
They exist in the small towns of Southwest Oklahoma
And Lawton and Marlow
And Duncan and Comanche
And they exist in Iraq
And Baghdad and Balad and Diwaniyah and Al Kut
The ghosts of 152 men who no longer exist
152 men left their homes in August 2005
And friends and family anxiously awaited their return
They're still waiting
The men left the small towns of southwest Oklahoma for the cities of Mesopotamia
Leaving their familiar lives of old for new lives, new adventures new behaviors and new emotions along the streets of Iraq
Each slowly slipping into a new skin,
A new normal
These men acted differently in their skins and reacted to new stimuli in new unfamiliar ways
To assert that the skins are interchangeable is to deny the evolution of a man's character
When these men returned to Comanche county and Stephens County their old skins no longer fit
Families were torn apart trying to force these men into old roles, old skins and old lives
That cannot work however
These are different men with new lives
I know ghosts exist because every so often these men act like the men I once knew
But these men are gone never to be again
While their friends and family still await the return of the men they once knew
As they occasionally catch a glimpse of the ghosts they once knew
The citizens of Iraq wrestle with the Ghosts of who those men became
I deployed with 152 men of August of that fateful year and not all of them were married
After our return in December 2006 over 60 of them got divorces
The ghosts of who those men once were still haunt the families of Southwest Oklahoma
The war is tearing our families apart"
Fear of Love
This story originally appeared in The Good Men Project
Fear of love is such a cliché male fear . . . whether it is framed as fear of commitment, fear of settling down or fear of change. Like any other cliché, it is complicated, meaning different things to different men. It evolves and manifests itself differently over time. Each manifestation can be defeated, but the seed of fear will always remain. I cannot speak to others’ fear of love, but I know where mine started.
When I was 23 years old, I had not yet been in a relationship with someone I loved, fathered any children, or had my heart broken. My only fear regarding love was of not finding it. I was in college but had little idea what I was going to do with my life. Between my training and activation stints in the Army National Guard and my own failure to be a responsible student, I was a 23-year-old freshman. Every day, I thought I was a complete failure that would never graduate college. Then my unit was sent to Iraq.
I spent my tour in Baghdad as a humvee gunner. My squad escorted a military captain and four State Department police officers to police stations in Baghdad to train and support the Iraqi security forces. Baghdad, for all its troubles, made me feel alive again. Each day had a purpose and my actions, for better or worse, had consequences. The year was not a cakewalk, but it opened my eyes to the world around me.
Some of the best days of my life occurred inside the compound of the Iraqi Traffic Police, where my squad escorted our “packages” at least twice a week, sometimes more. Early on in our deployment, we saw a dirty-looking kid walking through the compound with a large sack slung across like his shoulder and convinced him to visit with us. His name was Ali and he was about 12 or 13 years old. The bag contained aluminum cans, and he was only in the area to find and collect cans, he told us with body language and a few broken-English words. We joked with him, gave him our cans of Rip It energy drink, and a couple bottles of fresh water. I hoped to see him again.
The next time I saw Ali, he was with his best friend, Ahmed. Ahmed seemed to be a little younger than Ali and more personable. Ali had to be convinced to trust us, but Ahmed was different. Over the next several months, the boys became my escape from what was happening around us. It was 2006 and the al-Askari Mosque had just been bombed, sparking the civil war that ultimately prompted President Bush to institute “the surge.” I emailed friends and family at home and told them about the boys. I asked for care packages for the boys on my MySpace blog, and the response was incredible. Over the months, we gave the boys food, clothing, toys, school supplies, shoes, footballs, (American) footballs and candy. To a cynic, it is no wonder the boys loved us. It was different though.
On most days we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, kicked around whatever ball or can was nearby, or spent hours making jokes in the way that only two people speaking different languages can. We posed for photographs and talked about our families. Ali and Ahmed asked me just about every day when I was going to develop the photographs so they could have them.
One day we arrived and Ahmed was not there. Ali was sullen and I knew something was wrong. Through our interpreter, he told me that Ahmed and his mother were in line at a gas station when a suicide bomber detonated. His mother died immediately, but Ahmed, who was holding the gas canister, was alive and severely burned. I remembered reading in Chasing Ghosts by IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff that, after the invasion, Iraqi hospitals would not administer care until a patient had paid, so I went around to the members of my squad asking for money for Ahmed’s care. Soldiers in a war zone do not typically carry a lot of cash, but we gave what we could. Then we waited.
Our mission did not take us back to that police station for four agonizing days, and, as I saw Ali approach my humvee, I knew: Ahmed died. Ali dug a hole in the dirt, pointed to it and said “Ahmed, Ahmed.” Then he covered the hole in dirt. He repeated this several times. I was crushed. Ali and I sat on the curb and cried: him, the Iraqi boy who had lost his best friend; and me, the U.S. soldier in full desert camouflage, body armor, combat boots, helmet and rifle. After a time, he said he had to go and I was left to cry silently in my humvee without him or Ahmed.
Within a week, my mother sent me a photo book of me, Ali and Ahmed together. Ali’s eyes lit up when I told him that I had it. He hurriedly opened it up, turned to the first page and saw a picture of Ahmed smiling back at him. That is when he fell to his knees sobbing. It is still the second-worst day of my life; the worst was the day I learned of Ahmed’s death.
I still had many months left in country and Ali and I spent them in much the same way we had before. Eventually, however, my time was up and it was time to go home. My last day with Ali was difficult. He asked if he could come with me. He asked why I could not just stay. He shouted. Finally, he burst into tears and ran away. I was heartbroken for the first time in my life. I went home soon thereafter.
Home was not the same anymore. Like many soldiers, I avoided talk of PTSD, but something was wrong. I thought about Ali and Ahmed all the time. I realized that I loved them like sons or little brothers. They were the only two people I had loved like that and they were gone. I wondered if I would have been better off not befriending them at all.
Thankfully, fear of love and hatred of love are not one and the same. Eventually I met a woman who saw me for who I was and loved me anyway. She listened to me on the few occasions that I made myself discuss Iraq issues with someone, and she kept quiet when she knew that “I don’t want to talk about it” really meant that I did not want to (or could not) talk about it. She was wonderful, and I knew that I was in love.
It was not long after that when the nightmares started. I was no stranger to nightmares even before Deanne. I had dreamt about Iraq often. I second-guessed myself. I relived moments. I woke up in terror. Those weren’t the dreams I had sleeping next to Deanne, though. Now my nightmares were about life stateside. They always included something terrible happening to the woman that I loved: She died in a car accident on the way to see me. She was murdered and I was not there to save her. She was gone, and I was heartbroken again.
Deanne began censoring our choice of movies. Scenes where children died caused me to break down. Seeing wives or girlfriends die on screen sometimes did the same, although then it was more internalized and caused traumatic nightmares. Finally, she asked me to seek help from a professional.
After two years of counseling at the local VA center, I can say that I fully recognize my fear of love and its consequences. My nightmares have almost completely ended, and I am better at refraining from watching movies that make me miss Ali or trigger my grief for Ahmed.
Deanne and I got married, too, although I never feared having my heart broken via breakup. She still knows me better than anyone and makes my life better every day. I still sometimes have bad dreams about losing her, but they are infrequent. We live in a safe town and she rarely works nights. Life is good.
Before I know it, I will be starting my career and making enough money to support a family. I am still terrified of losing a child, but if I had not faced that fear, I would not have my wife. I expect to have flashbacks and nightmares when I have children of my own, but, like anything else, they can be managed. Love is too grand not to at least try. At some point, you have to be a man and hope for the best.
My Trigger Finger
(Expounding on Phil Aliff’s piece of the same name)
I have never owned a gun larger than the Daisy BB gun that briefly held my interest when I was a child. As such, the first time I fired a gun was in basic training. To this day, after a one year tour of Baghdad, training exercises remain the only times I have fired a firearm. I still do not know if that is a result of my humanitarian spirit trumping my primal urge to fight or my trigger finger betraying me and my fellow soldiers.
On another hot day in Baghdad, I was presented with two opportunities to put all that training into action and take a human life. I still have nightmares about what happened or, more accurately, what could have happened.
We were convoying down the familiar stretch of Route Irish that connected us to all we did in Baghdad, good and bad. It has been a relatively calm tour for the soldiers of the T-Bird 85 element and the calm was so unbelievable that we were starting to become stir-crazy. I, like always, was a gunner, and my primary job was to keep civilian traffic out of our convoy. As my truck reached the crest of the slowly rising hill and the on-ramp that funneled civilian traffic onto Route Irish, I peeked out over the turret. This was a relatively blind on-ramp for travelers merging onto Irish and I had to be extra vigilant.
Up from the ramp, at a speed that made all of nervous, came a van that appeared to pay no attention to the US Army convoy it was already dangerously close to. My heartbeat raced as I jumped and drew my weapon down on this possible BVIED. From every truck, radio transmissions warned me of the advance and everyone’s mind raced.
Was this the one?
Was this our time to feel the power of hundreds of pounds of explosives?
Was this our chance to strike first and take the fight to the enemy?
As I leaned further and further outside the turret, fists clenching my rifle as hard as I possibly could, I finally caught a glimpse of what was inside the ominous van. While paranoid soldiers yelled through the radio to fire, I made out a familiar scene. As perhaps seven or eight children horse-played in the rear of the van, a man navigated the vehicle while rotated almost 180 degrees, screaming at them to knock them off. A woman sat to his right in the passenger seat and did the same.
To put it more accurately, what I saw was a man, a husband, a father, doing what he could to parent his children while a woman, a wife, a mother, did the same. As I realized what was actually happening, the questions and pleads over the radio became more and more harassing. I did not want to shoot this man, this husband, this father, but by all measures of the rules of engagement, I had every right to.
As the anxiety of the situation reached its peak, the man finally turned around and saw me and the barrel of my M-4 carbine rifle staring him in the face. With rashness bordering on recklessness, the man sharply swerved to the shoulder as I made one last show of force and sat down, relieved.
I explained that the situation had been resolved and we continued our trek towards Traffic HQ. At the entrance to the police station, traffic was blocked to allow us inside the compound. While my truck waited its turn to enter, a familiar IP truck made its way toward the entrance from the opposite direction . . . towards the entrance and towards us. From where I stood, I could see the IP look me in the eye, point to the entrance, wave, and continue his advance. I yelled, I stood up, I pointed my weapon, but he kept on. With possibly the most aggressive posture I have ever used, I made one last attempt to show how serious I was, and it worked. The truck came to a screeching halt just a few feet from the entrance . . . and our lead truck.
Afterwards, our squad leader and our interpreter explained ot the man in convincing fashion that he was lucky I had not shot him.
Later, one of my comrades approached me and asked why the fuck I hadn’t shot that guy.
“Which one?” I asked.
“Both of them!” he replied.
I told him about the van and the kids and father and family. I told him about the IP mistakenly believing he was an ally and could pass through, but my friend was undeterred and said both should have been shot to send a message.
Months after returning home, I still think about that day and have nightmares about what happened.
I dream of the exact same scenarios with variations. I dream that I again do not pull the trigger and all my friends are killed thanks to a VBIED that I let through.
I dream that my friend is the gunner and he shoots and kills a father and husband over one man’s negligent driving.
I dream that I pull the trigger, get congratulated by my teammates, and am haunted for the rest of my life.
To this day, I do not know if I made a conscious decision based on principle or if I merely froze up and could not bring myself to fire on a human being. Both scenarios only lasted a matter of seconds but they’ll stay with me for decades. It is because of my own experience in that situation that I will never think of another soldier’s reaction to that scenario in terms of black and white.
New Years Eve
I visited with old friends today: the friends I made in uniform, the friends I made in Baghdad
We caught up, told stories, shook hands, and slapped backs
We laughed about our weight gains and about our graying and thinning hair
We smiled and hugged and were genuinely interested in how each other had been
It was a beautiful December day in Oklahoma and we were together again
The sun was out, the air was crisp, and birds flew thick overhead
But just as soon as we visited, the funeral was over, and it was time to bury our dead
Killman was gone and here we were laughing and joking at his funeral
Slowly, the guilt overtook me and it stayed with me all day
I realized we hadn’t spoken since we returned from Iraq
It made my stomach turn
And I wished I could turn back the clock
He was just 29 years old: a son, brother, husband, friend
He was funny, tough, reliable and reserved
And he was always smiling
I was shocked when I heard the news, we all were
He was married one month before; he just celebrated his birthday
And it was two days before Christmas
I want to take comfort in the proverb “still waters run deep”
because that would absolve my guilt
I didn’t know it was coming
but the truth is: I didn’t know because I didn’t care
I didn’t care enough to stay in touch
I didn’t care enough to ask how he’d been
I didn’t care to ask what he was doing
And it feels like my greatest sin
Seven years after returning from Iraq, my friend is the latest casualty of war
But there were no 21 gun salutes
And like so many others, his death won’t be counted
The Pentagon won’t care
He’s just another veteran who committed suicide
And I’m another buddy who wasn’t there
Maybe things will change
Maybe I’ll feel differently, in a month or in a year
But right now I still feel guilty, because my friend is dead
And I’ve yet to shed a tear
Power of the Trigger
This story originally appeared in The Good Men Project
When people ask what I did in Iraq, I try to explain what our mission was, where that mission took us and how I fit into the equation. After almost six years of trying to explain it, I have learned that people want to hear it in one sentence … and they want to know if you were in a combat role.
The simple answer is that my job was to point guns at people, big guns, on the streets of Baghdad. My squad escorted military and State Department personnel to police stations in Baghdad, where they trained Iraqi police forces. Sometimes the grunts were asked to train the officers, but we mostly kept watch inside the station compound. I was a gunner and manned the .50 caliber machine gun atop the Humvee. To my left was an M249 machine gun while my M4 rifle rested on my right. My M9 pistol was on my hip at all times. Few people in country had more firepower than me.
What I initially loved about being a gunner was the freedom. I was not cooped up in the Humvee; I raised my head and arms out of the hatch like a dog stick its head through a car window. When we were traveling 50, 60, 70 mph, the winds could cool me down even on the hottest days. I felt more connected to the Iraqis around me. I could make eye contact, wave, toss toys and candy to the children. That personal interaction worked both ways though.
My primary goal was to keep traffic and pedestrians as far away from our convoy as possible. This was during the Civil War of 2006 and it seemed every faction was bombing the other. We were in the crossfire and I was not to let any potential bombers invade our space. When someone tested us, through negligence or frustration, I was responsible for our safety.
The rules of engagement included the escalation of force provisions that I came to know so well. If someone got too close, I was to first “shout” a verbal warning. If that did not deter the person, I would “show” force by aiming my rifle at them in an aggressive manner. If that did not work, I was authorized to “shoot” a warning round at the vehicle or near the person. If none of the above worked, I was authorized to fire on someone if I felt that he or she posed a legitimate threat.
The power that a gunner has is hard to imagine for most people. In seconds, a gunner can decide who lives or dies, including his friends and brothers in arms. Still, I will remember that year as the most powerless I’ve ever felt.
The vast majority of people that I persuaded with my rifle were just careless or impatient. Baghdad is a big city and people have to get to work. We would force traffic to the side of the road until we passed, and sometimes people would try to speed up or maybe get away with just slowing down a little bit. Sometimes cars would appear on the highway from an on-ramp and not see the convoy they were merging with. Other times Iraqi police personnel would mistakenly believe that they were immune to our rules of the road.
In all these cases, I lunged forward from the hatch of the Humvee and angrily stared the driver down through the sights of the rifle. The anger was usually an act. We were trained to look like “hard targets” for anyone looking for an easy kill. The army taught us that and a lot of other things, but they never prepared us for looking someone in the eye while pointing a rifle at their face. No matter how much a good guy you think you are, those eyes tell you different. You are the bad guy … and you don’t have a choice.
As the Civil War unfolded around us, I realized that our mission to train the Iraqi police forces was failing. The police was divided along the same factional lines. Some of our officers were arrested by the Iraqi army for running a death squad while others were kidnapped, tortured and killed. After we detained a friend of the police, we had a couple of suspicious close calls with IEDs planted just outside the entrance we used. Another one killed a couple of soldiers in a different convoy on a day that we were scheduled to be there. It became clear that, although there were some very genuinely good guys working there, the Iraqi police were not our friends.
We could not even protect the children that we came to love. I watched as children walked home from school during a firefight. The boy that I befriended the most was killed by a suicide bomber. The day that I learned that news is the worst day of my life. After a day of grief, I put on my brave face and went “outside the wire” to do my job. Shortly after that tragedy, I listened in suspense as I heard a man’s life end over the medical evacuation radio frequency. I could not change the channel, and I could not help the man. I just listened and felt helpless. In the year I spent in Iraq, I carried four guns and didn’t save a single damn soul. Aside from the children that I know I helped, I know that I terrified someone new each day.
When the year was up, and we were packing to leave, my friend turned to me and said, “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way, but aren’t you going to miss this?”
“Miss what?” I asked.
I don’t miss the power. I don’t miss the look a man gives you when he’s staring at the wrong end of a barrel. Furthermore, I don’t remember having any power. I did not choose to instill the fear that I did. I did not choose to go to Iraq. I was reacting to the actions of others . . . not that it is any consolation to the Iraqis.
Still Leaving Iraq
DJ Mixed Emotions
If I had to provide a soundtrack for the day I left Kuwait, I would quickly be dubbed DJ Mixed Emotions. Never have I experienced such a broad range of emotions in one day; never.
The day was long, with many stops between Camp Virginia and the jet plane taking us home. It provided plenty of time to reflect on our year, and like always, I fell into an abyss of memories and questions.
The day started at 0430 as we boarded a series of buses to take us to Ali al Salem Air Base amid cries of "Keep these curtains shut! The Air Force says there's intel of a sniper in the area!" Shortly thereafter, an Air Force sergeant poked his head in the door to ask who our two designated shooters were. Designated shooters are the two (count 'em; two!) soldiers who have ammunition to fire back at the enemy just in case we are attacked. I couldn't help but think that this is either a combat zone, in which case we all need a basic combat load, or it isn't, and they need to quit placating us with this designated shooter bullshit.
After we made it to Ali al Salem, we had a series of briefings about US customs and how much trouble we would be in if we tried to sneak pornography past them. I chuckled to myself as I was under the impression that we were Americans and, as such, had certain freedoms; I guess not. When we had all been cleared through customs, we sat in a tent waiting on our bus to Kuwait City Airport. I took the opportunity to get some much needed sleep, but I just dreamt about Ali, Ahmed, our interpreters, SSG Kelly's perfume, the new squad, MSG Karnes' crazed demeanor my last day out, the hot chick at the chow hall, the Indian guy who cut my fruit everyday, Major Muhammed at IHP, General Jafir's feast at Traffic, SSG Wyman, my new friends, my future at home, Sarah in Baghdad, and on and on. It was a relief to hear that our bus was coming and my nap was being cut far shorter than I wanted it to be.
The bus ride to Kuwait City Airport was silent for the most part; if anyone was talking I couldn't notice over the deafening questions inside my head. As I looked out the bus window (snipers my ass!) at the relative tranquility of civilian Kuwait (as opposed to cat litter, US military base, Kuwait), I thought of how much different life would have been for Ali and Ahmed if they had had the fortune of being born in Kuwait rather than Iraq. The Kuwaitis all seemed to not have a care in the world, the landscape was pristine and void of the trash that litters Baghdad, and the peace was never shattered by the boom of car bombs. It's just not fair . . . but what is? There are millions of children just like Ali and Ahmed; I just didn't have the fortune of meeting them all. It's amazing how a simple twist of fate like birthplace could have changed those boys so dramatically. I stared off into the vast Kuwaiti desert as I thought about what their lives would have been like had they been born here. They would have been taller and healthier just due to a better and more consistent diet, and they would have had many more opportunities at education. Their families would not live in destitute poverty, and Ahmed would not have died such a violent death. These questions, while they may have speculative answers, really do not solve anything, however, and I don't pretend that they do. It was just idle pondering, I suppose, but they were questions that I could not avoid.
I pictured myself a year prior, sitting in that same type of bus, traveling the same highway, and thinking nothing but "I cannot believe I am in Kuwait." This time, however, my mind was overflowing with thoughts as I admired the Kuwait City skyline. One year ago, this place seemed so incredibly foreign; this day I marveled at how normal it all looked. In some places, I thought I was on I-44 traveling to Oklahoma City. It's amazing what a difference a year can make.
If my initial impression of Kuwait was disbelief, then my initial impression of Iraq was of out and out resignation sprinkled with a tad of indignation. "I cannot believe I am in Kuwait" turned into "Dude, we're in fucking Iraq." I specifically remember uttering that phrase on more than one occasion. It wasn't fear or even disbelief; it was just sudden realization, like I had awakened and realized that this was not, in fact, a dream. Everything seemed so foreign and out there from the comfort of LSA Anaconda, but I felt so much better when I finally started going outside the wire and realized how normal life was, even here. The sheer normalcy of the Iraqis astounded me and I immediately changed my entire outlook on the place. These weren't monsters. They weren't that different. They weren't ingrates; they were just the ones bearing the consequences of our foreign policy. I wish more soldiers got the opportunity to see just how ordinary life is outside the wire; I wish more people were able to see the Iraq war from the their point of view.
The place that once seemed so foreign and daunting now feels like, if not a second home, at least a second comfort zone. As I left the instability of Baghdad, I thought of one day returning, not as a soldier or a mercenary, but as a journalist, tourist, or friend of Baghdad. I hope so much that in my lifetime I can safely visit that city; perhaps I could drink chi with my old friend, Ali Raheem Rothi, and talk about how our lives had been since our last visit and how we had each changed each other's lives in the same broken English and broken Arabic that sufficed us years earlier.
I know that I have become somewhat changed in the past year, if not vastly. For starters, I have noticed that my voice sounds significantly more country than it ever has before; I don't like that. Perhaps being around cowboys, rednecks, hillbillies, and reluctant-to-admit-it country folk for a year has slowly morphed my own voice, or perhaps I sub-consciously drifted that way to sound like the others in my company. I know that in the States, I make an effort to not sound like a hick, so as to stand out in southwest Oklahoma, but, in Iraq, I may have sub-consciously spoken like the rest in order to stand out in Baghdad, like a show of solidarity? No one will ever know why I sound so different now, but I hope it isn't permanent.
My attitude towards the government, war, and politics have all been affected by this deployment, and I don't know why that surprised me. It would seem natural to have an evolving opinion of policy, leaders, and war after being directly affected by them, but I honestly did not envision such a dramatic shift one year ago. I was naive and I will admit that; I can do that. I am so embarrassed to think of some of the things I had said about so many important issues (like the Iraq war) without having any firsthand knowledge of any of it. Reciting the party line is a stupid thing to do and that is what I see when I think of pre-2006 Justin. I again can admit this and move on; it's not my proudest moment, but I've learned.
No matter what I or anyone else thinks or says about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, I will always take solace in the times that Ali and Ahmed would say to me in their very, very limited English "Saddam: Iraq no food! America: Iraq food!" as if they knew that I was struggling with trying to comprehend the vast effects of my nation's war. I know that our war has affected millions of Iraqis in millions of different ways, but I feel good knowing that, at the very least, it put more food into the bellies of Ali, Ahmed, and their siblings. No one will ever be able to take that memory away from me. For as bad as they had it economically during my time in their city, they had it even worse under Saddam. It's hard to fathom since these young boys collected cans to help feed the rest of their family, but the kids don't lie. This opens up other questions about the effects of our pre-war economic sanctions on Iraq, but I will just take comfort in the change that I made in their lives and quit trying to rationalize everything my country does.
With the Kuwait City Airport in my sights and Ali and Ahmed heavy on my mind, I thought of all the petty things I remember people bitching about back home and, more importantly, all the petty things I bitched about back home and I thought of how silly it all sounds. We are so damn lucky to live in America; we won the grand powerball jackpot of humanity, but we still find a way to complain.
I left the bus, walked across the tarmac, and paused to take one last look at the caravan of buses; the useless curtains still "illegally" parted and open; and the drivers from all over the world watching us board a plane for a place they can only dream of living. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and boarded the plane with a heavy heart and a small smile on my face; DJ Mixed Emotions was on his way home.
As we all were pinned to the seat by the force of the jet engines and the plane left the runway in an almost vertical ascent, there was thunderous applause, hooting, hollering, and the demons of 150 soldiers being exorcised, even if only for that moment. As the ovation died down, someone in the rear of the plane bellowed, "Fuck Iraq!" Again there was applause, but I couldn't disagree more. For all the mistakes of its leaders, corruption of its government, near-sightedness of many of its people, and inhospitability of its weather, I will always consider myself a friend of Iraq, and I hope that at least a few Iraqis will do the same.
I spent the next twenty-plus hours with an almost perpetual smile on my face. I didn't speak much; I didn't watch the in-flight movies. I just thought about the ramifications of the last year of my life, read a book, took naps and dreamed about the friends I left behind. Somewhere in Maine, we were given the score of the Oklahoma/Oklahoma State football game and the combination of cheers and jeers of the OU and OSU fans of the Oklahoma Army National Guard finally hammered it home: we were civilians again.
We finally stepped foot on Oklahoma soil about forty eight hours after we first got on that bus in Kuwait, and, at the time, it appeared that it was finally over. After talking to many that exited that plane with me on that cold December day, combined with my own experiences, I know now that was anything but the end.
You see, it was almost a year ago that we landed back in The States, but, for many of us, it will be a long time before we leave Iraq. For many of us the war is over . . . and over and over and over again in our heads.
Tears in Baghdad
It never ends.
Ali was trying to tell me something about Achmed with a seriousness I had yet to see from him, and I took it to mean that Achmed had somehow been injured in an explosion, but I wasn't sure. With the language barrier, it was difficult to understand what was being said all the time, even with the seemingly obvious body language. These boys had been regular fixtures in my life, sharing laughs and smiles, but we by no means always knew what was being communicated. One time, I thought that Achmed was telling me Ali had been hurt in a blast, but it turned out he was saying that Ali was working on his home, so this could have been anything. I told myself it was probably nothing and tried to forget about it; ignorance is bliss.
I thought about what it was that Ali was trying to tell me all weekend. Ali and Achmed were my saving grace in Iraq: those boys had been what had kept me sane for the last nine months. They couldn't have been more than fourteen years old, but they had seen more than I ever will. Their sense of humor and positive attitudes were infectious, however, and I and the rest of my squad had unofficially adopted them months before. Baghdad seemed a lot more like home with those kids around.
I wish I was right about it being nothing; I wish that Achmed was simply working on his house. After a few days of walking around in denial, I again saw Ali and this time I had our linguist mediate the conversation. According to Ali, Achmed and his mother had gone to the fuel station to buy fuel for their home. As they were leaving, a suicide bomber appeared and Achmed, who was holding the can of fuel, and his mother were engulfed in a ball of fire. Achmed's mother had died instantly. Achmed was burned terribly from head to toe. As he sat in an Iraqi hospital, his father was out doing anything he could to come up with the money for his treatment, as there is no insurance and hospitals there expect payment up front. I felt like I had just lost a lifelong friend, if not a family member. For all I had done for those two young men, I felt so helpless that no matter what I did in our trivial hours together at that police station, I would never be able to protect them from the horrors of everyday life in Baghdad. When I left them each day, I returned to the heavily fortified base complex that allowed me to sleep easy at night. Of course, it was hard to rest easily when you know that your friend is in horrific pain in a sub-standard hospital, and the bags under my eyes could attest to how worried and tired I had become. Myself and two other guys did what any self-respecting man would do: we gave what little cash we had to help pay for our friend's hospital bill. Together, though, we were only able to give him roughly $30. If there had been an ATM nearby, I would have contributed my daily limit to that poor boy's hospital care, but life in Baghdad limits you in ways that you never know until they appear.
What upset me was the general indifference the rest of the squad treated the news. Some gave an unconvincing exclamation of their sorrow, but all said they had no money - something that I know was untrue. Some cited their inability to believe Ali 100% for their reluctance to help, but I found that to be nothing more than a cop out. Say, for example, that Ali made it all up and he and Achmed were splitting the proceeds behind our backs; what are you out? $5? $10? Weigh the risk/reward of that scenario in your head: if you are right, you have thus gained a whole $10; if you are wrong, an innocent little boy waits in pain as his father searches for a way to pay for his treatment. Take into account the risk of infection and the prompt treatment of his injuries becomes imperative. What further blew their argument out of the water was that these were not exactly fiscal conservatives we are talking about. They blew money on two or three DVDs a week (at almost $20 a pop), ate Pizza Hut, Popeye's, Burger King, and Hardee's at least four times a week; paid crazy amounts of money for fancy coffee in the morning from Green Beans Coffee (usually $5 a cup); and the list goes on. These, aside from two individuals, were also the religious wing of the squad. They had told me that they are Christians and wish to live a Christian lifestyle and questioned my lack of faith. No amount of religious posturing, however, will make me forget how they elected to treat not only our friends Ali and Achmed, but the Iraqi people in general. If anyone of them ever again in my lifetime attempt to tell me what Christianity is about or what they are about, I will not hesitate to throw this back in their collective faces. This is just one example of their hypocrisy, but I think it is the most glaring. Good Samaritans they were not. This is not to criticize the faith itself, but I never again want to hear these men pretend to be men of God.
All I could do over the weekend was hope that the money raised was enough to precipitate the treatment of Achmed and that that treatment could have at least alleviated the pain he was in. I had said many times before that I will never forget about these young men and that hasn't changed. I am so thankful that my children, when I have children, will not be subjected to the things these boys were.
That night, an Iraqi girl instant messaged me out of the blue. She was worried that I might be reluctant to speak to an Iraqi woman, but I assured that was not a problem. We talked for hours about our respective lives and how different and alike they were. It wasn't long before she asked me about my Yahoo picture, which was one of little Ali wearing my helmet and goggles. I told her about him and Achmed, what I had done with them and the bond we had forged. I expressed my regret that I had not been able to do more for them in my time in that country and she really put me at ease. She said, "I think you have done all you could have done and I think you are a very kind man. They will never forget you, you know." A peace truly did come over me after hearing that; perhaps I needed to hear it before I left my habibis, my good friends. It made the day's news just a little more bearable and alleviated any guilt I may have been feeling. If I was a man of faith, I would have been convinced that she was an angel because no one on this Earth could have made me feel as at peace as she did in that moment. Somehow, she picked the perfect time to come into my life and I thank her to this day for that.
I spent that weekend hoping against hope that Achmed would be okay. I had hoped that our money was enough to get him the treatment he needed, that he received it in time, that he had not succumbed to infection, and that he was in as little pain as humanly possible. Within minutes of arriving at the police station, I saw Ali and knew that I would have some type of news. As I approached him, his eyes met mine, and I knew. As Ali made a digging motion towards the ground and repeated "Achmed, Achmed" over and over, the cold reality sunk in: Achmed was dead.
Ali said that Achmed's father had told him to please thank us for all we had done for him and especially for the money we gave him to pay the hospital. Ali thanked us profusely for trying. Of course, I didn't think we did anything incredibly special. Achmed was a friend and a friend in need. I did what friends do; I helped as much as I could.
After sharing the terrible news with me, Ali begged me once again for a picture of me, him, and his best friend, and this time I couldn't drag my feet. I knew that I had to get those pictures developed and in his hands as soon as possible. In the meantime, he said he wanted a picture of me and my family and I obliged. I took out a photo of our family portrait and wrote "To my friend Ali, Justin" on the back. He was happy and said that he would try and get a picture of Achmed with his family for me. The news was sobering and not at all what I was hoping to hear, but the memory of the day is bittersweet. Sergeant Bruesch and I talked to Ali for at least a couple of hours and we all shared nervous laughs. Later, Gonzo, our linguist, came out and translated everything. He said that Achmed had given him the shoes I bought for him, but they were too small. I told him I would bring him a bigger pair the next week and we shared a smile and a firm handshake (Ali never hugged and gave cheek-kisses like Achmed) as he left us to go collect some more cans.
The last time I had visited with Achmed, I taught him how to play 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' and laughed as he went 'rock' twenty hands in a row. We goofed off playing for twenty minutes and I'll never forget him giggling like the little boy he was as I tried to explain something to him that he obviously didn't understand, as long as it was in English. No matter, we killed a lot of time and had some fun doing it. He again asked me over and over when I was going to give him a picture of him, Ali, and me together and I told him I would get it to him before I left. Oh, how I wish I had gotten it to him in time, but I always thought I'd have time later. When it was time for me to leave, he gave me two kisses on the cheek and told me he would see me next week. That was the last memory I will have of him, and it is a cherished one.
I know that I meant a lot to him, or at least brightened a number of his days. I know I did, but I don't think he ever knew how much he had meant to me. He and Ali were what I looked forward to on mission days; on weekends, I thought about them. I dreamt I had adopted them. They brightened my day as much as I did theirs and I worried about them when I didn't see them. Every time there was an attack or an explosion in that area, I held my breath until I saw them again. I knew that this day may come, and I wasn't particularly surprised or angry when I heard the news. I accepted it rather matter of factly, but I indeed hurt inside. Afterwards, I sat in my humvee silently as tears rolled my face. I didn't sniffle. I didn't wail or moan. I didn't punch anything. I didn't even breathe heavily, but I cried. It was a type of cry that I had never before experienced. I felt like I was watching myself deal with the news from someone else's point of view; I felt detached.
How had this happened? What did Achmed do? All he was guilty of was being born in Baghdad. He was a victim of circumstance, bad luck, bad timing, and, some would say, fate. He did what millions of people do everyday: he bought fuel from the neighborhood fuel station. At that same time, someone detonated a suicide vest and Achmed and his mother were lost. As I went from tears and sullen silence to bittersweet reflection and drier eyes, I took out my journal (which I had not written in nearly as much as I should have) and started writing what I was experiencing. At that time, the cutest little girl, maybe three years old, passed by holding the hand of her father. I couldn't help but wonder how long she'd be allowed to live, how long she'd be allowed to be a child. I certainly hope it is longer than Ali and Achmed got. She looked so much like my brother's daughter; it was uncanny, and I was immediately grateful that she was being raised in the United States, far from IEDs, car bombs, and mortars. It is unfair indeed, and it is easy to feel a certain level of guilt. I know, however, that I had about as much control over where I was raised as Achmed did. It's no one's fault, and there is no sense in feeling guilty over it. I took solace in what Sarah, who lived in Baghdad, had told me about these two boys in our instant message conversation the night I had first heard the news about Achmed: She was certain that I had done everything within my power to help the young man, and I had made a difference in his life that I could never measure. That comforted me.
I was also slightly comforted in knowing that he was no longer suffering. Third degree burns can be extremely painful even with the world's best medical treatment; they must have been terrible in an Iraqi hospital with limited resources. I did not want to think of what pain he felt in his last few days; I was just thankful that it was over. If I had to pick one memory of him, it would be the sight of his face peering into the humvee window looking for me, and then his yell of "Justin!" when he spotted my face. I will surely remember that face for the rest of my life; I had never seen anyone, outside of my parents, so happy to see me.
Two weeks had gone by since I learned of Achmed's death and had promised Ali a picture of the three of us together. My mom did a great job of developing the pictures I sent her and shipping them back in a folder for Ali. I was ready to fulfill my promise. Within minutes of arriving at the Traffic Police station, I heard the familiar voice yell my name; it was Ali. I walked over to him calmly, shook his hand, and simply said, "Pictures." "Achmed!?!" he asked excitedly. "Yes." As I turned around to go retrieve the pictures, I heard Ali behind me telling one of my comrades in his broken English that I had pictures of Achmed for him; it dawned on me just how important this was to him.
I brought the folder to him and recognized a familiar look on his face, yet it had been years since I had seen that look. It was the face of a boy at Christmas waiting for the go-ahead to rip open his presents. The folder had barely switched hands before he had pulled it out of its envelope and opened it to page one. Staring back at him was a full page picture of Achmed, smiling like always. I saw a sudden shift in Ali's posture, and he slowly fell to his knees . . . and wept. He tried to hide his face, hide his sniffles, hide his breathing, but it was to no avail. Ali wept like a little boy, and I had never heard a little boy weep for such a right reason. These were tears of love, friendship, memory, and closure. I'd seen those tears before, but rarely had they come from the eyes of a boy so young, yet so aged. Such is life in Baghdad.
I tried to comfort him; I did what I could. I placed my hand on his back and told him it was okay. He was embarrassed, but no one could fault him for letting it all go. As I uneasily watched him alternately weep, look at the photograph again, and wipe his eyes, a strange peace came over me, and it was then that I realized it: this was my closure. I had fulfilled my promise to Ali and, posthumously, Achmed to bring them pictures of the three of us together; we, the "Three Habibis." I even brought pictures of Hidar, whom I had seen less and less of as of late. I didn't get to witness a funeral, or a eulogy, or wake, or burial, or memorial, but I got to see the emotions that were present in all five. Ali was certainly solemn and depressed when he first told us of the news, but other than the deep sorrow I saw in his eyes, I saw very little emotion. If the tables were turned, I would have expected to see Achmed cry everyday; he was a very emotional kid, but Ali had always been a little bit more reserved. Ali tried to be a tough guy; Achmed just acted like a kid.
Ali was embarrassed and composed himself within a couple of minutes, but he cried just long enough for him to get it out of his system and for me to feel like a chapter in my life was indeed coming to a close. He cheered up and was back to his usual self again. I gave him some socks that he had asked for the previous week and he told us that someone had tried to steal his "junta" (backpack) after he left us last time, but he had thrown "chocolata" in the opposite direction for them to chase while he ran away. We all shared a laugh and were in mutual agreement that the awkward moment of before was over, although no one said it outright.
Before he left, he said, in one way or another, several times that it will be a sad day for him when I returned to the States and indicated that tears may flow by repeating a wiping motion across his eyes. He asked me if America would be good for me without Ali, and he asked how much time I had before I left him. Guilt is not the correct word, but I was sure I would feel something when I left and it wouldn't dissipate simply because I was home and away from the tears in Baghdad. I knew that I would be leaving one of my best friends, and I didn't like it, but I knew I would have little choice in the matter.
That day has come and gone, and I still think of my Iraqi friends and those tears in Baghdad. Not a day goes by that I don't wonder how Ali is doing or how Achmed's father is coping with the loss of his wife and son. I left Baghdad eight months ago, but Baghdad has yet to leave me. I don't think it ever will . . . and I don't ever want it to.
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It seems so genuine to me, unlike the holidays that are viewed as an excuse to receive gifts, party or miss work. I do not usually look forward to holidays, and I often roll my eyes at holiday displays. Thanksgiving, though, is different. Perhaps it was how my parents treated it that made me appreciate it so much, but it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Thanksgiving for me has always started with my mother only allowing 13 kernels of corn on our plate. Some holiday legend claimed that 13 kernels a day was the ration the Pilgrims had to sustain themselves with in order to survive the fall and winter after the first Thanksgiving, and my mother fell in love with the practice. Looking at those 13 kernels sitting alone on the periphery of my enormous plate, I gained an appreciation for just how much the Pilgrims struggled, persevered and, most of all, appreciated what little they did have. Eating the 13 kernels often left a contemplative emptiness in my belly. After we finished the original portion, we were welcome to eat more. The point was made, and it has stuck with me since.
In my short military career, I have spent Thanksgiving at Fort Sill; Yakima Training Center, Wash. and Camp Virginia, Kuwait. None of those places would be my first choice to spend the holiday, but, again, it gave me an opportunity to think of how lucky I was. The year I spent in Baghdad, Iraq, 2006, was both the best and worst of my life. Thanksgiving 2006 was, fittingly, the best and worst holiday of my life.
Camp Virginia is nothing more than a series of buildings, surrounded by sand berms and guard towers, in the middle of the Kuwaiti wasteland. There is no cultural consolation prize to being housed here; it’s not high on anyone’s “to visit” list. But it was that vastness and emptiness that gave us all a chance to reflect on how lucky we really were in November 2006.
We had just left Baghdad, where mundane, every day tasks like grocery shopping are life threatening. No one trusts anyone, and everyone is a target. Death and destruction are an unavoidable part of life, and children like the ones I befriended grow up in it.
As I reflected on how lucky I was to have left that place, all I could think about was my friend Ali and the millions of children like him. I thought of how bad they had it -- and how positively Ali, Hidar and Ahmed seemed to accept and handle it. They were still thankful for their families, for their friends and for their lives. They were a true example of perseverance, and it made me so grateful that my brother and I never had to grow up in their world.
The afternoon of Nov. 23, 2006, our commander shared a few words with us before we had a very well intentioned but lackluster Thanksgiving meal at the Camp Virginia chow hall. Most importantly, he pointed out that we were still alive and healthy. That was not what we had expected a year before, and we were grateful for it.
After lunch and a couple of hours of preparation, we played a very spirited game of flag football. It was 11 on 11, with a full offensive and defensive line. We had made it that far without serious injury, but we tried our best to get one before we left, as the grudge match lasted three hours and involved plenty of cheap shots and good-natured trash talk.
Even as I was in the midst of it, I realized the importance of that Thanksgiving and pondered what it all meant. It would not be long until I would be home, but, at least that day, that wasn’t what I was thinking about. My friends still in Iraq, those who were native to the country and those were like me, were heavy on my mind as I enjoyed a day devoid of helicopters, gunfire, mortars, explosions and frustrating hours outside the wire. I hoped then and I hope today that my friends in uniform there will come home safe and sound as well. And I hope every day that real change will happen, so that Ali and others like him will be able to grow up enjoying the same sense of security that I did. They are grand wishes, I know, but if there is any time to be optimistic, it’s during my favorite holiday. I hope this holiday season finds you remembering all that you have, as I remember Nov. 23, 2006 – the best and worst Thanksgiving of my life. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, everywhere.
It was near the end of the day, most of the booths and conference rooms were empty as I made my way back into the heart of the convention to look for a friend. Only a few people remained in the cluttered hallway ... one man was alone in the middle of the hallway. He was a tall man, taller than me at least, with curly black hair and an anguished smile on his face. A pair of desert boots dangled from his right hand. That's odd, I thought. Many of us wore our desert boonie cap or DCU cut off shorts, but this was the first man I had seen carrying around his boots.
Our eyes met and ... and I took a couple more steps in his direction before he grabbed me and pulled me close in his arms. He was hugging me like he never wanted to let go; I could feel the boots bouncing on my back as he pat my back and repeated the words "Thank you" it seemed like a hundred times. The whole thing was overwhelming. The musk of his cologne was almost as strong as his embrace; the strength of his embrace contrasted with the weakness in his breathless, sad, Latino voice. He pulled away and told me how happy he was that I was alive. I can't even tell you how I replied; I don't know. I just remember looking at those boots, and then it hit me... the boots weren't his.
Alexander Arredondo, 25, was killed by enemy fire three years ago today, August 25, 2004. The man that still had one hand on my shoulder was Carlos Arredondo, Alexander's still-grieving father. Suddenly, it all seemed so obvious to me; a tribute to Alexander adorned Carlos' shirt, but in my haste, I had overlooked it when I first saw the man with the curly hair and desert boots.
The next time I saw Carlos, he was giving a speech to the hundreds of people gathered at the Gateway Arch. He was still carrying his son's boots, the same boots that I felt on my back, the same boots that his son wore the day he died. A great sadness came over me as I thought about how poor Carlos must have reacted when he learned of his son's death. I made a mental note to Google Mr. Arredondo when I returned to Oklahoma; perhaps he had a website. Maybe I could find his email and shoot him an encouraging word or two about the power of our first meeting.
When I got home, I did Google Carlos Arredondo. While I didn't find an email address or a website, what I did find took my breath away. I don't know what it is like to have a son, and I of course don't know what it's like to lose one. After reading this article, however, I think I may have a small idea.
(CNN) -- After being informed that his 20-year-old son was killed while serving in Iraq, a Florida man doused a U.S. government van with gasoline and set it on fire while sitting inside. Carlos Arredondo, 44, was severely burned and rushed to Hollywood Regional Hospital in Florida after learning that Pfc. Alexander Arredondo had died, police said.
"He suffered serious burns," said Detective Carlos Negron.
Negron said the young man was killed in Iraq Tuesday.
I read that with a knot in my stomach that could only be described as what I would imagine it would feel like to not eat for several weeks. It felt as if my body was eating itself, a feeling only eclipsed by the lump in my throat that seemed to hinder my breathing and make time stop. I thought to myself how much worse it must have been for Carlos, how much worse it is for Carlos and his family everyday.
As an Iraq War veteran, I sometimes get a little high and mighty, like I am the face of the war. No, the face of the Iraq War is the pain and anguish of the tortured smile on the face of Carlos Arredondo, a man I will never, ever forget. I hope that you find some peace in this world, Mr. Arredondo; I hope you know how much you touched the people at the Veterans for Peace Convention, and I hope I never feel the pain that you did on that fateful day three years ago.
Rest in Peace, Alexander.
When I was in Mrs. Riner's junior English class at MacArthur high school, we were required to read a short story titled "The Radio." The premise was simple. A couple in the 1930s were given a special radio that allowed them to hear all their neighbors' conversations. At first they were elated, but, ultimately, they were haunted by the miracle of their ability. They could hear all the horrors of society that usually go unnoticed or are covered up and sterilized . . . and they couldn't turn it off. They couldn't change the channel. It took seven years, but I eventually went back to that story in my head and felt their horror.
August 24th, 2006 was a routine day for my squad in Baghdad. We had gone to Traffic Headquarters and I had gotten to visit with Ali. Business taken care of, we started to make the familiar trek back to Camp Liberty. It was a hot day, over 120 degrees, and I stood up just a little higher than usual with my sleeves unbuttoned to let the air circulated inside my body armor and clothing. It had been a good day. Back on Route Irish, we were on the home stretch when the call came out over the radio:
"Eagle Dustoff, Eagle Dustoff, this is Red Knight 7* over"
"This is Eagle Dustoff, over"
"Eagle Dustoff, I need MEDEVAC; my gunner has been shot by a sniper." The voice went on to recite the nine line MEDEVAC report and I marveled at how cool, calm, and collected he sounded. My squad leader plotted the grid coordinates and found that this had occurred only a couple blocks away from one of our two main destinations on Market Road.
"Cliburn, go ahead and get down; someone might be aiming at your melon right now", CPT Ray said. Sergeant Bruesch concurred and I sat down, listening intently to the radio transmissions that I couldn't turn off if I wanted to.
Five minutes in, the voice on the radio was losing his cool.
"Have they left yet?! He's losing a lot of blood; we need that chopper now!"
In the background, you could hear other soldiers yelling, screaming, trying to find anyway to save their friend's life. At one point, I swear I heard the man gurgle. Ten minutes in, the voice on the radio was furious.
"Where's that fucking chopper!? We're losing him! He's not fucking breathing! Where the fuck are you!?"
Every minute to minute and a half the voice was back on the radio demanding to know what the hold up was. Every minute to minute and a half the other voice on the radio, a young woman's voice, tried to reassure him that the chopper was the way from Taji. She was beginning to tire herself; I could hear it in her voice. She was just as frustrated as he was.
All the while, there I sat. Sitting in the gunners hatch, listening life's little horrors with no way to turn the channel. No one in the truck was speaking. The music was on, but no one heard it. There was just an eerie silence. All I heard was the radio transmissions; I watched as the landscape passed me by in slow motion. I didn't hear wind noise or car horns or gunfire or my own thoughts. I was only accompanied by the silence of the world passing me by, interrupted only by the screams of the voice on the radio.
At this point, I was as frustrated as I had been all year. Where the fuck was that goddamn chopper and why was it taking so long?! What if it were me? Would I be waiting that long? Would this pathetic exchange be included in the newscast if the guy dies?
I was angry, upset, frustrated, and anticipating the next transmission in this macabre play by play account. Forget about TNT, HBO, and Law and Order: THIS was drama. This was heart wrenching. Seconds seemed like hours; minutes seemed like days. Finally, after several more non-productive transmissions where Eagle Dustoff attempted to reassure the voice, after twenty minutes and a few more frantic, screaming transmissions by the voice, the man's voice was calm again.
"Eagle Dustoff, cancel the chopper. He's dead."
. . . and that was that. The voice had gone from being the model for the consummate soldier (cool, calm, collected, professional) to the more human screams and frantic pleading for help to solemn resignation. Now, the voice was quiet.
"Eagle Dustoff: requesting recovery team. We can't drive this vehicle back; we need someone to come get the vehicle and body. Over."
"Do you have casualty's information?"
"Yes. SGT King, over."
I sat in that gunners sling in a fit of rage that I couldn't let out. I had to be a soldier; I had to keep my cool. We all did. I was so angry, I still am, about being an unwilling voyeur, forced to listen to the gruesome play by play of another soldier's life and death. We had been told that the insurgency was in its last throes, that they were just a bunch of dead enders. No, not this day. Today, SGT King was in his last throes, and I was there to listen to the whole thing, whether I liked it or not. A soldier's death isn't anything like the movies. There was no patriotic music; there was no feeling of purpose.
It's just . . . death. I wasn't there physically; I didn't see him, but I was there.
Any sane person would have wanted to turn the channel. No one wants to hear the screams of a man losing his friend, but I couldn't turn it off. We were required to monitor that channel. Either way, it didn't take long to become emotionally invested in it; was he going to make it? I hung on ever word until I got the final, sobering news. My truck was the only one in the convoy monitoring that net. When we got back to base, no else had heard it, and SSG Bruesch, CPT Ray, and I didn't discuss it. I don't think we ever did.
A few days later, I felt like I had to find out more about his soldier. I felt like I had lost a friend, yet I didn't know anything but his name and rank. Looking back on it, I should have just let it go, but I didn't. Using the miracle of the Internet, I found out all I needed to know about the young man.
SGT Jeremy E. King was 23 years old. He was from Idaho, where he played high school football. He had joined the army to get out of Idaho and see the world. He was one year younger than I was, and he was dead. He sounded like any of a number of teammates I played high school football with.
I've replayed that scene in my head more times than I'd ever want since that day. I don't believe in fate or karma or any type of pre-destined events, but I often wonder what made that sniper hole up on North Market Road instead of South Market Road, where I often found myself.
I was fortunate enough in my time there to never have to call in MEDEVAC. I didn't bury any of my comrades, but I will always remember what it was like listening to the miracle of modern communications, the radio, and for the first time in my life being terrified, much like the couple in the story over eighty long years ago.
It was a May day like any other as we pulled into the poorly fortified Traffic Police Headquarters compound. We parked in our usual spots and the squad leader rallied us around him. He had a BOLO (Be on the lookout) list in his hand, and we were to check license plates in the adjacent parking lot against it. He needed about half the squad; I was one of them.
It was about a 100 meter walk between the parking lot and our location in north Baghdad. In our way was a small market, but a crowded small market, and we made our way towards it. As we fanned out, I saw all the blustering and posturing my comrades were doing; they looked ridiculous. You're wearing body armor, a helmet, sunglasses, a pistol, and a semi-automatic assault rifle; you don't need to intimidate anyone with your behavior. As we approached the market, I saw the Iraqis' faces; they looked apprehensive. What was going on? What was going to happen? Why do they look so angry?
"Sergeant Jackson, can I fuck with somebody? Please, let me fuck with somebody!" one of our junior NCOs asked our squad leader.
The squad leader said that it might not be a good idea to piss anyone off, especially when we were outnumbered and had to come here practically everyday for the next nine months, never mind that it was just plain wrong. Wrong was not something that the young sergeant would have responded to though, so I don't fault the man for omitting the most obvious argument against the request.
We continued walking towards the market and now I could make eye contact with the people there: the passers by; the shop keepers; the shoppers; the old men drinking chi under a canopy . . . all of them. They looked frightened. They looked angry. They looked hopeless. I made eye contact; I smiled. "Salaam a'alaikum," I said. Some smiled back and replied "Alaikum a'salaam" in the same nervous manner that I had greeted them; others continued to stare. Activity slowed all around us; we were the center of attention.
"Hey, Sergeant Stephens. That guy's staring at you!" one said with a laugh and a smile.
"I'll kick his fucking ass!" Stephens yelled with an exaggerated arch of his back and raising of his shoulders. Now, everyone was staring and the looks of despair and hopelessness deepened. What could anyone do? What could the man in question do? We were armed to the nines and wrapped in body armor; the staring man was in a tunic and sandals.
. . . and why wouldn't he or anyone else stare? They tolerated us at the police stations and on the roads, but this was their territory. Why were we there? This was out of the ordinary, and they had every right to wonder, every right to stare. They were scared, worried, angry.
As we made our way into the market and started splitting up to search the parking lot, two old men sat at a table to my left. They were old; they looked wise. They both stared at me like they would a disappointing adult grandson: saddened; disappointed; resigned to my and their respective fates. They weren't angry; they were just sad. There was a lot of wisdom in the creases that stretched out from their old, tired, brown eyes. They had probably seen more war than I ever will, and they were tired. I gave a nervous smile, an embarrassed smile, and made my way into the parking lot.
As I looked out over the vast parking lot, the sheer lunacy of this mission hit me. Here we were, looking for ten cars in a city of five million people. It was unlikely that we'd find one of them, but it was highly likely that we had just alienated just a few more Iraqis. At that moment, I empathized with the Iraqis still staring at me from the market. I felt hopeless, saddened, disappointed, just a tad angry, and resigned to my fate: I would spend the next eight to nine months doing counter-productive missions like this one. At the end of everyday, I would make a few more enemies than I killed or brought to our side. I was embarrassed and humiliated that I ever thought differently; I wanted to tell the people behind me that I was sorry for what my country had done. I was sorry we had interrupted their commerce.
Like a good soldier, I drove on. I continued to search; I continued to do my job, just as I would the rest of my tour. In front of me, two men were trying to push start an old rickety van. I had thought of helping them, but I was carrying the M249 SAW machine gun with no sling; there was no way I was going to set it down or ask someone to hold it so I could help. Then I heard SGT Stephens' muffled voice. "Fuck it; we're supposed to be winning hearts and minds, right?" Stephens sighed under his breath. I watched, shocked, as the same man who had just lobbied to "fuck with somebody" slung his rifle and helped these men get that van started as I covered him from a safe distance. It was indicative of his seemingly bi-polar personality, I thought, and we all met up in the rear of the parking lot.
There wasn't any, and we made our back through the parking lot, to the market, through the market, to our humvees in the police station. As I passed through the parking lot one last time, the same old men stared at me once again. Our eyes met again, and I nodded in their direction. They nodded back, and I felt like I was forgiven. I made it back to my humvee, sweaty and slightly out of breath, and didn't think about those old men again for quite some time. It wasn't until August that I thought again of those men.
It was August and it was hot. We were running late, and, as we approached that police station, we saw a familiar plume of smoke: car bomb. We parked as usual, SSG Jackson asked me to monitor the radio and provide security while he and others went to investigate. I wanted to protest; I wanted to go. I wanted to check on Ali and Achmed; I didn't see them and they could have been in the carnage. But I didn't protest; I did what I was told.
When the men returned, they told me of the carnage and I was slightly glad I didn't see it.
"Man, two old men were just sitting there drinking chi and it went off next to them; they're fucked up!" One soldier said, clearly not joking and clearly not making light of it.
. . . and there it was. The eyes that told me how hopeless and resigned to their fate the men were, the eyes that had forgiven me, were dead, never to pass on any of their wisdom again. I felt sad; I felt like the world had just lost a couple of good men, even though we never spoke.
I started to remember all the faces I saw during The Walk, all the eyes I looked into. How many were gone? How many had forgiven me and my country? How many would die before I left? It was unsettling, but it was by now not at all uncommon. I was tired, physically, but mostly emotionally. Mentally, I just gave up and, as I hoped I would see Ali and Achmed soon, I slid deeper into my body armor and took a nap while my comrade monitored the radio.