In August of 2004, while on a mounted patrol outside of Mahmudiyah Iraq, an IED struck two trucks in front of mine, causing concussions and severely injuring the gunner in the turret. While Doc dragged him out and went to work, insurgents in the nearby buildings and treeline started firing on us. When Doc discovered he was still in the line of fire, he dragged his patient to the other side of the truck and continued working. The rest of us fired back, gathered our casualties, and ran a chaotic ground evacuation back to base. It was my first firefight. I think I’ve done a poor job of describing it to people, but I’ll keep trying.
In 2006, while attached to US and Iraqi Special Forces, my squad conducted a targeted hit on a high-value target west of Ramadi. After turning over the package to other US forces for interrogation, we retreated into the desert wadis to sleep. In the morning, we warmed ourselves with coffee while huddled around trash fires. When it started to rain, we were miserable. While on watch that night with a friend, I had one of the most memorable conversations of the deployment. I’m still in close contact with him, too. In fact, he e-mailed me this morning.
In 2007, we and scores others assisted with the casualties of a carbomb that detonated directly outside the base, killing dozens and injuring unknown dozens more. In their haste to evacuate some of the living, the Iraqis unintentionally ran over a few of their dead. Our Doc helped save a few, but better remembers those he couldn’t save, especially one little girl. I think I’ve talked about it more than Doc ever has. It may be years before he’s ready.
About two months ago, a rocket landed about 35 feet from where I stood. Thankfully, for me and the Soldier standing next to me, it failed to detonate. Less than a month ago, the Stryker in which I rode struck an IED, totaling the vehicle. None of the passengers, however, sustained any serious injuries. I have been fortunate. Most of my friends have been through far more. A few of them are dead now. They were all under 30. We rest of us are now tasked with telling their stories.
I’ve navigated through night vision goggles as my driver roared through the desert and prayed I didn’t lead him off a cliff. More than once I nearly did. I’ve slept with a rifle. I’ve awakened in a puddle of water, surprised by unexpected rain during the night. I’ve cooked food over trash fires. I’ve fired most of the common weapons in the Marine Corps infantry arsenal and seen the others fired on various occasions. I’ve expended more than my fair share of $70,000 missiles. I’ve been fired upon.
I’ve helped arrange weapons caches for detonation and rigged them with explosives so powerful that our safety standoff is more than a kilometer away. I’ve heard rockets whine overhead and seen the damage they cause on detonation. I’ve experienced more than enough mortar attacks. I’ve been in firefights and other situations where I’m forced to make a kill/no kill decision which may have determined if my comrades lived or died. A number ARE dead, and I, like many others, still sometimes wonder why I was spared and they were not. I have to remind myself that bullets and shrapnel don’t discriminate.
I’ve missed home so badly that I didn’t care about anything else, potentially at the expense of my leadership decisions. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Even still, I’d do it again if my country so called me. So will millions of others veterans. Some of this never leaves you, regardless of how much you hated it at the time.
By nearly all western standards, these are horrifying events and experiences, and they come with more baggage than any of us could have anticipated. These, as well as the loss of friends, are the brief occurrences that will permanently shape a servicemember. They are the short ten minutes of a deployment that stick out above all else. Everybody’s experiences are different. Believe it or not, mine were comparatively tame.
Many still wonder sometimes if they’ve made a difference at all in the grand scheme of things. Depending on how it’s defined, victory is either very distant or very near. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to agree to its definition. I find some comfort in my uncle’s sagacious remarks: “The warrior has always been separated from the war. The warrior is sacred. The war may be political. Respect for the fallen is never an issue.” He’s entirely correct. Where we served is far less relevant than the fact that we volunteered to go. That we stood up, in a crowd of Americans unwilling to leave the comfort of their lives; that has made all the difference. It’s difficult to define patriotism. It’s more of a sensation; or perhaps a belief.
For some, because they are young, this is first great thing they have done with their lives. They will return, move forward, and do other great things. For a few, this may also be their last great thing. Either they will fall doing it, or they will return to lives that don’t interest them. Much of it is mundane – even in the military. And after traveling hither and yon with a rifle, calamities at home are unimpressive. Those out here are always well-remembered, though poorly articulated.
And there’s always more to think about, too. There’s the challenge of how to internalize one’s service. Are we victims, or are we battered servants? Were we well-employed, or were we misappropriated? Do we choose bitterness, or do we stand proudly? Do we let grief overwhelm us, or do we find reason to smile through tears? We freely gave something, yet something else was taken. We viewed it simply at first, but walk away astounded with its complexity. Our own thoughts are muddled.
We were youthful once, and enthusiastically fought a war. The public lost interest and some forgot, yet still we fought it. We’re still fighting now. For those veterans deprived a resolute victory, the war may never end. Or at least not for quite some time. It hasn’t settled well with us.
But beneath the layers of emotion, the trauma, the loneliness, the complexity, excitement, confusion and grief, there’s one hell of an adventure, for better or for worse. Five years and four tours later, I still struggle for words; and I’m not the only one. People need ears to hear, though. Not to idolize the military or aggrandize war, but because these stories are our nation’s history, and we won’t be around forever to tell them. It’s a virtual race to write it all down. Still, I have to try.
The friend who e-mailed me this morning wrote me with devastating news. Two days ago, another one of our veteran friends took his own life. After all his years in the military, all his combat deployments and all his adventures, I wonder if he found words to tell his story. I wonder if anybody was listening when he did. Finally, I wonder if it would have made a difference.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved