Sunday, May 28, 2017

A different kind of war

A Different Kind of War

My tours in Iraq were
softer than they
could have been,
a fact which has left
it’s own indelible mark.

Perhaps it’s all the talk about
tough guys being hard,
tough tours being hard,
in the context that being hard
is a positive male attribute,
that’s made my soft tours
embarrassing.
Well, I didn’t pick my tours,
didn’t pick to be in the HQ
rather than on the front line,
didn’t pick to be clearing
calls for artillery
rather than calling for it myself,
didn’t pick to be a kilometer
from the heaviest fighting in Baghdad
rather than in the midst of it.

And though my commander was killed
I wasn’t there when it happened,
when the rocket propelled grenade
struck his truck or his person,
I only heard the story of his
torso sitting on the hood when
his truck drove back on base.
I’d only worked fourteen to
eighteen hour days with him,
seven days a week in the run-up
for war. Me in the arms room
making triple sure all the equipment worked,
he in his office around the corner.
Who’s going for Popeye’s tonight?
Hey sir, I need your signature on this
    parts request, this service order,
    this deadline report.
I, a staff sergeant, convalescing from a
motorcycle accident, he a Captain,
getting ready for the war that would
unexpectedly kill him.

But I wasn’t on the front.
I only heard a bullet whiz by once.
I never saw the elephant.

I remember one conversation we had
early on, before the orders for war were
official. Our division had been given
the warning orders, it was probably
November of 2002. President Bush
was trying to sell the war to the nation and
I’d been following the news closely.
Personally, I didn’t think America
was gonna buy it. The pitch
stunk to my nose.

So when, in the weekly leadership meeting,
Captain Aitken said we need to have all our shit
ready to deploy soon, I said something like,
“Why are we taking this seriously?
There’s no way this war is
really going to happen,”
because that’s what I thought.

Maybe it was a necessary moment, because
he put his foot right down;
I don’t remember the words he used, but
I remember getting the point:
Whether or not America chooses war,
the President said “Get ready for it,”
so we need to fucking get ready.

Still, I didn’t take it really seriously until
I saw on CNN that the 3d Infantry Division,
my unit,
had been issued orders to deploy to Kuwait
just in case war was chosen.

Then in Kuwait, I bunked next to him.
He let me read a book he had on his bedside table,
or rather, his cot-side Meal Ready-to-Eat box—
On Killing, by Dave Grossman, an academic
text documenting the research Grossman did
on the effects that killing the enemy has on soldiers.
Of course he found that
killing the enemy
haunts soldiers.
Of course I read this
just before invading Iraq.

Then I got transferred to the Infantry HQ
and the war started.
Captain Aitken made it all the way
to Baghdad before he got shot
by a rocket propelled grenade that
severed his torso from the rest of his body
and set it on the hood of his truck,
a fact that I did not witness first hand but
received from the communications sergeant,
and the look in his eyes when he told me
the story informed me that he had seen it,
that he was at the gate when the
truck rolled in.
Torso on the hood.
He was a friend of mine.
The driver, another friend of mine, couldn’t
put the torso back inside the truck
because his arm had been blown off
by the blast.
I got all of the news second hand.
I still have both of my hands.
And a solid case of soft-tour guilt.

Most of the men I called brothers
had hard tours. I would’ve too
but for a motorcycle accident a
year before. But I had the accident,
and follow up surgeries, so I wasn’t fit
for the front line.
So I get the soft-tour guilt.

It’s similar perhaps to survivor’s guilt,
just a little different.
Basically I’ve been stuck in the belief
that I’m less-than because I had two
soft tours. Because I never saw
that elephant.
When the mortar rounds that were
aimed at me and my men landed,
they were four hundred meters away.
Not even close.
When I had to go duckwalking into
a vineyard looking for a man that
had fired shots at our trucks as
we drove, each hill and furrow I climbed
—what, a dozen of them? Twenty?—
wondering, is this next one the one
where he's hiding waiting for me,
the one where I get shot, or
the one where I have to shoot someone?
He wasn’t there.
When the sniper shot my gunner,
he hit him in the shoulder and
didn’t stick around to shoot again,
or to shoot at me when I jumped out
of the truck searching for the threat.
And my young soldier only almost
died of blood loss, he didn’t
actually die.
I spent sixteen months in Iraq.I spent five months on patrols.
I never got hit by an IED.
I never got in a firefight.
I never saw the elephant and
I’ve never been able to be
okay with that.
For ten years I’ve been nervous to look another
combat vet in the eye out of
fear of being found out for a fraud,
for calling myself a combat veteran when
I believed that the action I saw could
barely count for combat.

Well, whatever. It is what it is.
The insecurity still lives in my body
for now, but so what.
Today I have the air flowing in and
out of my nose and lungs and
the opportunity to say,
I saw a lot.
In this moment,
everything as it is
is enough.