Going home is a beautiful, terrifying thought to have once it gets this close to happening. Not only am I in the twilight of the deployment, but of my military career that began three years ago yesterday. It was then when a nineteen year old chubby kid found himself bound for Ft. Benning, Georgia, fresh and malleable as molten copper. Weeks from completing a fifteen month tour, I’m as confused and apprehensive as that teenager with the twiddling thumbs and darting eyes that had no idea where he was going, or why.
You may want to sit down for this.
This occupation, this money pit, this smorgasbord of superfluous aggression is getting more hopeless and dismal by the second. It’s maddening to think that more than a year’s worth of blood, sweat and tears will lead to little more than a pat on the back and a hideously redundant speech from someone who did none of the bleeding, sweating or crying.
Despite being in a meaningless situation, my life has never had this much meaning. I watch the backs of my friends and they do the same for me. I’ve killed to protect them, and they’ve killed to protect me. For friends and family, being deployed is like being pregnant or surviving a car wreck; everyone is nice to you all of a sudden. People I don’t even know send me kind words and packages from all over. They came out of the woodwork knowing my plight and shared with me heartfelt hope and luck. The fact that you’re reading this now, dear reader, is a testament to that. Would you have cared about what I thought, felt or did two years ago? This position I’m in, shared by less than one percent of the U.S. population, has given me the distinct privilege of sharing my experiences and ruminations of this war, observations undiluted by perpetually delirious officials like General Petreaus and mainstream media sirens. I have felt every extreme of the human condition, physically, morally and emotionally. I’ve never laughed so hard, cried so long or felt more ashamed of myself in all of my life. In a matter of weeks it’ll be over, and I’ll have just the memories of enduring 130 degree heat, and poker games lasting well into the night. I’ll look back on the hysterical laughter during fifteen hour Baghdad clears, the terror of being pinned down by machine gun fire, the sight of a Stryker on its side and the unfolding of a body bag under the flames of a nearby school, unzipped tenderly to fit the body of Chevy as RPGs screamed overhead. Soon this place will all be in the past.
What a beautiful, terrifying thought.
Next month we’ll be the first unit home that completed a three month extension. We were one of few to see Iraq before and after the surge. If the media got anything right, it was that the surge failed. The idea, as birthed in a bloody, mucous-y blob of counter production by General Petreaus, is quite simple on paper, impossible to execute in a meddling reality. The concept is that combat troops would move from their huge bases that housed obscene luxuries like beds, flushing toilets and running water, and into outposts within the most dangerous parts of the city. The key to it all would be 24/7 interaction with Iraqi Army and a constant presence among the Iraqi citizens, giving them confidence in the mission of coalition forces. The building we picked used to be a whiskey distillery, and we’ve been busy putting up concrete barriers and wire around it. A house was too close to where the wall was supposed to be, so engineers blew it to smithereens and sent the family packing. The father owned the plot for forty years and comes by every so often to collect the useful bricks left scattered a hundred yards in every direction. Before he entered once, I patted his seventy year old frame down like a common criminal.
Talk about community interaction!
Our mission now revolves around the outpost. Engineers and Iraqi workers toil day and night to build it up to an acceptable level so we can hand it off to the unit replacing us. We conduct patrols, raids and selective clears of buildings identified by insurgents (1920s) that potentially hide other insurgents (Al Qaeda) while future insurgents (Iraqi Army) sleep all day and eat our food.
So close, yet so far. Deployments start to get dangerous and deadly around month nine, when people start to let their guard down and get sloppy. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. We were ahead of the curve since soldiers in my unit didn’t start dying with regularity until month ten. Now in month fourteen, eight have died in the past week.
General Petreaus must be given accolades for his selflessness. A weaker man would have trembled at the arduous sight of forms authorizing a surge and extension. Thanks to his steadfast character, I’m still here while eight men are not, working toward the noble goal of the surge: building an outpost in podunk Baqubah so the Iraqi Army has a place to sleep, sleep, sleep as the country goes to hell.
Thank your lucky stars we have produced such fine leaders that are brave enough to send us to man these outposts day in and day out.
The most interesting reports in the world must come from the Army Center for Lessons Learned, a government think tank dedicated to updating doctrine based on what soldiers experienced in war. They came out with shocking developments like putting doors on Humvees and having every soldier wear body armor. The most fundamental suggestion they issue, one we’ve heard countless times, is that we shouldn’t set patterns. It boils down to simple things like changing patrol times and reorganizing the order of vehicles in a convoy. But for these outpost operations, that gutless, nonsensical suggestion goes flying out the window. We take the same roads in, at the same time, with the same vehicles going to the same place. It doesn’t take a genius jihadist to see a pattern after a couple of days.
And that’s how we’ve been leading our lives for the past year and two months. Going from place to place and hoping we don’t die on the way there or the way back. With our GPS tracking satellites and laser guided warheads and scientifically developed helmets for ultra comfort, we’re getting beat to the punch every day by a dude crouching behind a wall with a battery and a spool of wire. We’ve been killing the innocent with the guilty because we don’t have the luxury to tell the difference when that bomb goes off and you don’t know which of your friends are dead or alive. In essence, we’ve come here to help each other survive. It worked in most cases and sadly, not in others. We’ve still got a few weeks left until we cross the border of Kuwait, until someone else comes and tells us our job here is done.
I have a chapter that I’d like to add to the next report from the Army Center for Lessons Learned, something that will hopefully be useful in the future of our country:
Chapter 1: Occupation
If you don’t have to, don’t.