On August 4, 2004, I turned my back on my family. They dropped me off at a hotel in Dallas so I could begin my Army career. As I walked toward the door, my dad said to me, "You're a man now, Alex." They didn't see that as I checked in, I had tears in my eyes. I had a few jobs before then, but it would be the first time leaving home. Needless to say, my environment was going to change a little.
I signed up for three years and sixteen weeks. The sixteen weeks accounted for basic training and infantry school. The three year countdown started when I graduated on November 24, 2004. I got my orders to go to Ft. Lewis, Washington to be in the "Stryker brigade." Well, what in the hell was a Stryker?
Pulling into Seattle for the first time, I was a little startled. I never saw trees so green and water so blue. I figured I'd like this place.
It took only a few months to find out the Army wasn't for me. I was among a group of new guys that was integrated into a unit that had just gotten back from Iraq. That meant hazing, and a lot of it! Since we hadn't been to Iraq, they had a free pass to do whatever they wanted. They laughed and joked while we crawled down hallways with our faces dragging on the floor, grinding the dirt and dust that came off our boots. I made it a point to stay in my room, even abstaining from using the bathroom.
It was from this treatment that the new guys formed a bond that we would carry throughout the years. Some moved up in the ranks and became one of 'those guys,' others couldn't get past the paradoxical Army life.
To kill time during that first year, we would go out into a field and lay down white tape on the grass to simulate rooms of a building. They would show us how to clear a room and then have us try. Finishing up for the day, one of them said to me, "By the way, that isn't how we clear houses in Iraq, at all."
"Then why don't we train in the real way?" I asked. "Isn't this just a waste of time?"
"Shut the fuck up."
For those of us who couldn't stop ourselves from asking the ever important "Why?", we counted the days until we fulfilled our obligation, resisting the calls to reenlist before, during and after our tour in Iraq. Some fell for the not so subtle coercion and blackmail, sadly. The rest banded together to wait it out.
Personifying 'Army of Dude': Long hair and hands in the pockets. From left to right: Steve, Dozer and me in Yakima, 2005
Everyone has heard the saying that war is boring with short bursts of intensity. Imagine how exciting it is to train for one! Making two trips to eastern Washington, we would find out. There were a few intense, realistic missions spread out among two weeks of freezing weather and sitting around.
Attention taxpayers: This is how we spend your money. Ta da!
It was in these moments that made all the unbearable times a little easier to take. Inside jokes were born. Arguments and debates went on without end. Friendships flourished. We were together all the time in cramped quarters, getting to know each other better than our own friends and families back home. Our speech patterns and slang words were interchangeable. We'd be going to Iraq as a family.
Before the loss of innocence. Kuwait 2006
More of those boring moments crept up throughout the deployment with a certain element of danger. We'd stay at an outpost for a couple days at a time away from decent bathrooms, internet and phones. We'd complain the whole time but managed to keep up the jokes and friendly arguments. Chessboards would come out and crowds formed around heated matches.
Our platoon once drew a mission to escort some guys north of Mosul to an open desert. They would be looking in abandoned bunkers for signs of WMDs and weapons material. After a while we decided to get out and walk up a hill overlooking a village in the distance. Realizing we were dozens of miles from anyone important, we took off our helmets.
Dudes on break from left to right: Me, Dozer, Matt and Jesse
The rest of the deployment after Mosul wasn't all fun and posing. In Baghdad and Baqubah, our men lost limbs and minds. Chevy was killed in March, and Jesse (pictured above) was killed in April by a sniper. We spent days shoved into tiny rooms of the outposts we created, carrying on the friendships we had left.
On September 12, 2007, Bravo company returned to the states without two of our own. The guys getting out by the end of November would start the process of paperwork and mandatory briefs. As always, we did this together. On November 30, we would say our final goodbyes.
I spent three years, three months and twenty five days in the Army. I saw the best and the worst of the men this country has to offer. I have seen and experienced every extreme of the human condition. I saw and did things I'm proud of, and other things I would only tell the guys I was with. Fifty years of life experience were crammed into 173 weeks.
I'm often asked if I would ever do it again with the hindsight I have now. I would, only for the people I've met. The other parts of Army life made me leave. I'm just another vet now, full of memories and a shorter temper. However you take the contents of this blog, I'm satisfied with how my short career went down. I just miss my friends, alive and dead.