God, I was a naive brat.
In my younger years I was seduced by images of war and combat. When kids my age were watching Ninja Turtles and Dick Tracy, I was memorizing lines from Patton and The Longest Day. When I was in high school and my grades were falling faster than a bunker buster, I didn’t bring my homework to my fast food job. I packed a copy of Black Hawk Down. I was that kid; so sure my future was in the military that I damned any other possibilities. Some were wearing letter jackets and Texas A&M sweaters; I was wearing my dad’s worn Navy field jacket. So it should come to no surprise that I wasn’t the popular kid in class. Sure, I had a few friends here and there. But I had no sense of belonging. I felt like I was riding out my time until I could join the Army. A band of outsiders! If movies have taught me anything beyond the fact that Hong Kong cops don’t play by the rules, it’s that soldiers come from different walks of life to come together and serve a purpose greater than themselves. Remember what JFK said? Ask what you can do for your country. It was 2003 when I was graduating, and we were just invading Iraq. Support for the war was overwhelming back then. I was a 17 year old who thought it was a swell idea. Soon it’d be my chance to experience war with my own eyes and heart. How exciting it must be! I’d go from a hapless kid to a respected man in twelve months.
Recruiters across the country must be thanking their lucky stars for Hollywood. Half their job is done when a middle class high school dropout buys Band of Brothers on DVD.
There’s a cold hard fact that hits everyone when they get to their unit fresh out of basic training. In the great scheme of the Army, you’re nothing. You’re puke. You’re not a patriot serving your country, you’re unproven waste of space. Shit! That wasn’t in the brochure. After awhile you start to form those cliché bonds you see in 50s war movies, though it only applies to those of the same rank or just a little lower and higher. My team leader knows what my favorite movie is, but I doubt my battalion commander can put a name to my face. That’s how it has to be. Do you think Bill Gates knows the hopes and aspirations of the guy who empties the trash in his office? The higher the rank, the more impersonal it gets. To some general I’m not Alex, reader and movie aficionado. I’m Rifleman in Company B, Third Brigade, Second Infantry Division, First Corps, America’s Corps, The Only Corps! To a dude who has lieutenants make his coffee, it must be startlingly easy to hand down orders and directives that destroy plans you thought you had for the future. That’s called thinking out of your pay grade.
Ask anyone besides Donald Rumsfeld about the progress of the war and they’ll tell you: it’s going badly. Most people would elect a biracial lesbian president before having us stay here one more day. Too bad the group that was elected to be the voice of the people has been mute for four years. Every month the bombs in the road get bigger, every month the enemy gets wise to our tactics and exploit them, to the chagrin of colonels with slipping track records. People with sixteen, seventeen years in the Army are getting out a few years short of retirement. They’d rather not risk another deployment that is now fifteen months long, because you can’t enjoy retirement benefits when kids are stomping on what used to be your intestines after a five hundred pound bomb disintegrated the Humvee you were in because, oh beans, the Army thought it was too expensive to put armor underneath it. That money was better spent putting Velcro pockets on our new uniforms.
We roll our eyes every time we hear the term ‘re-enlistment brief.’ Ugh. Since before we deployed, we’ve been collectively forced to attend a meeting every few months where some dude lays out the news: stay in the Army, and you’ll be handsomely rewarded. $15,000, college time, Airborne school, the works. Serve your country for a few more years, come on. They have a big sheet with everyone’s name, kind of like a grocery list. They check yes, no or maybe next to your name. When you tell them no, it was always the same chilly reply: you’ll fail on the outside. You’re just a vet with no skills, who would hire you? Before we left we must have had the lowest re-enlistment rate in the division. The only people convinced to re-enlist were those with families, who couldn’t risk getting out and suddenly not having a monthly check and health insurance. For the single guys, forget about it. Three or four years were enough for us. I knew the military life wasn’t for me.
Four years of war and this Army is a skeleton of its former self. Equipment is broken or obsolete, thousands are dead and wounded and many of us can’t wait to get off the Hindenburg. For awhile, deployments were kept to a year, with at least twelve months back home to recuperate, to get new equipment, to bury the dead. To keep the surge going, deployments have been extended to fifteen months to keep the year at home from shrinking down to nine or less months. The number of people getting out was devastating, so the Army needed a new plan to keep people in. New slogan and advertising campaign? Check. Stop loss program? Check. Bigger bonuses? Check. Guaranteeing non-deployable positions at training posts and recruiting stations, acknowledging people are scared stiff to go to Iraq? Check. Still the numbers are low. After watching too many 80s gang movies, someone thought of such a simple, foolproof idea: good ol’ fashioned blackmail.
Before we left Baghdad, the re-enlistment briefs got a little more disturbing. Instead of letting you know what a bum you’ll become if you leave the Army after your enlistment, they put it in simple terms: if you don’t re-enlist, you’ll be thrown in 5th Brigade, the Stryker unit on Ft. Lewis that was being stood up, and yes, they were deploying as soon as they could. So you might as well stay where your friends are and come back to Iraq with them. Otherwise, you’ll be taking your chances by getting your ass stop-lossed and sent to Iraq in as little as six months to a year after you returned. Better off with the sure thing. Here’s a pen, junior. If you got out after July 2008, you were screwed. I, on the other hand, was in the clear since I was getting out at the end of 2007. The options were re-enlist, extend to meet the unit’s needs, or take no action. I checked take no action, which meant my name would be added to the pool of possible candidates for 5th Brigade. No matter. It was of no consequence if I separated from the Army in 3rd or 5th Brigade. A lot of us were in that boat. Still, it spooked us that someone could come to us with a list and a smile and say in so many words that we were fucked into another deployment unless we added years to our contracts. In short, the thanks we got for serving our country was being forced into a game of Russian Roulette. Take the risk, pull the trigger. See what happens.
Month thirteen into our deployment and someone is getting desperate. They pick the best times to hold these briefs. We just spent a week straight in western Baqubah, where the explosions haven’t let up since Operation Arrowhead Ripper began weeks ago. Mercifully they brought us in for 48 hours to sleep in a bed in lieu of a muggy rooftop. The next morning a certain group was to meet for a re-enlistment brief. Those selected had the same thing in common: they all said no to re-enlistment at one time, and they all are set to get out of the Army from October 2008 to around October 2009. Privates to Specialists to Staff Sergeants, all in the same sinking boat of deceit. They were told that those not re-enlisting would receive orders to a new unit 24 hours after returning to Ft. Lewis. In a month they would be going to another post after fifteen months of time spent in Iraq, to a unit that could be deploying in the next sixty days! That meant either an Airborne unit or a regular light infantry outfit, meaning Bradleys or Humvees (which have a poor track record against wired propane tanks and landmines buried in the road). So here’s the deal, clear cut:
We Love You
30 Out of The Next 32 Months Spent In Iraq
Humvee or Bradley Unit
You’re Going To Die
After all of this, I consider myself lucky. If I had joined the Army nine months later, I’d be at a crossroads. Those not so lucky are facing a fifteen month tour either way. Whether or not they stay with this unit, go to be a recruiter or drill sergeant, or just take their chances, is up to them. Shoot yourself in the foot or stab yourself in the hand. Oh, the possibilities.