It was appropriate that my journey to Iraq ended like it began - on September 11. Six years earlier (September 2001) as a sophomore in high school, I had already made up my mind about joining the Army. The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon simply sealed the deal. I didn't discuss what kind of job I wanted with my recruiter or the dude that signed my papers. I wanted to go infantry. I wanted to put a bullet in the heart of any Taliban that crossed my path. I wanted them to pay dearly with their lives.
As fate would have it, I wasn't bound for the mountains of Afghanistan but the septic waste strewn cities of Iraq. I don't regret for one second my experiences there, both of triumph and tragedy. My battalion led the way in perhaps the most daring offensive of the whole war to capture al-Qaeda in Iraq's self proclaimed capital of Baqubah. The men I had the utmost pleasure to serve with will be my closest friends until the day I die. It's all downhill from here; I'll never make new friends that are on the same level of the men I shared life, love and loss with during our fifteen month combat deployment.
This Friday marks one year since the bulk of my battalion landed outside of Tacoma, Washington. I wasn't fully prepared to have clean air infiltrate my lungs as as we departed the plane after nearly 24 hours of flying. Though nearly half of my fellow soldiers had one tour under their belts, it was difficult to anticipate how we would deal with coming home. With that said, I hope to be of assistance to those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan by dishing out a bit of advice based on my experience of redeploying, getting out of the Army, finding a job and starting school.
-You'll notice right way that your senses are in overdrive, from hearing and vision to motor functions. As a result of keeping alert and constantly scanning, everything will be felt in high contrast. To test this, go to a club with loud rap music where everything used to be one loud noise. This time, you will hear several individual conversations and every note in Low by Flo Rida, which in this case isn't exactly a good thing.
-Loud noises are going to happen, and at first, you're going to either A: jump or B: pretend not to react. I opt for option B, which is useful working in a warehouse with other dudes. Any unexpected loud noise still drains the blood from my face. This will never go away. It will only be less frequent. Learn to deal with this new aspect of your life.
-When you get into a car for the first time, try to be in the passenger seat. I rode in a windowless Stryker for over a year, losing my concept of speed and distance after never going faster than 45 miles an hour. The first time I got on a highway, it felt like I was going down a runway in a fucking space shuttle.
-You're likely well aware of that rifle or pistol that you've been toting around for a year or more. You'll be glad to get rid of it, but you might wake up in the middle of the night and feel around for a weapon that isn't there. Luckily, this will go away.
-Dealing with the uninformed and apathetic public will be a frustrating ordeal if you trend left, right or middle. When I joined the Army in 2004, people were still in 'support the troops' mode, however superficial that support was. Just a few months after I came home, only 28% of the public could correctly identify the number of American soldier deaths in Iraq by rounding to the nearest THOUSAND. If you spent the last year fighting for your life in a place other than Baghdad, don't expect anyone to know where you were. As a bonus dose of ignorance, some might ask if you were deployed to Iran, like my first boss out of the military asked. Worse, if you were in Afghanistan, you might get the question, "we're still there?" To this day, I've only met only one civilian outside the news and political world that knew where Baqubah was. He was in his twenties, high as a kite and lived in Bellingham, Washington, a city so liberal that it makes Castro Street look like a Huckabee family reunion by comparison.
-After spending your career stateside preparing for combat, going over for the big show and returning home again, you might find it peculiar to see little or no indication there are two wars happening this very second. People are talking about high gas prices, the presidential election and who got eliminated on Project Runway (last week it was that douchey old lady, thankfully). Whether you get out of the military after your deployment or decide to stay in, the men and women that served by your side will be the only people you can comfortably discuss your experiences with. In my communications class, I can't bring myself to mention my time in Iraq when it's pertinent to the discussion because I simply feel out of place among the other students. Talking to my Army buddies, I feel fine asking, "remember when that guy on the motorcycle caught on fire and mother-fuckin' exploded?"
-While dodging sniper fire outside Sadr City, you might have missed the hoopla over the new GI Bill, the most important pro-veteran bill passed since, well, the original one in 1944. Of the two presidential candidates, only one of them voted for it, and his name rhymes with 'diorama.' Keep that in your back pocket.
No matter your thoughts on the war and the military, you will want to go back. You will crave the adrenaline rush of a firefight and the intertwining smell of gunpowder and rotting trash under the desert sun. Compared to the civilian world, deployed life is resoundingly simple. You're not concerned with car payments, traffic, American Idol or getting your hair to do that flippy thing. In combat, you're looking to avoid your ass getting shot. You aren't worried about how many carbs you're eating but that you're eating more than once a day. Fuck Miller Lite and Jagerbombs when you're dropping iodine tablets in Iraqi water to make it safe to drink. It's wake, eat, patrol, kill, sleep. Over and over. When you get the bill for textbooks in your first semester and add it to your other costs, you'll realize how simple life used to be. And you'll crave it again. Everyone does whether they admit it or not. We were there not only making history, but writing it. Back in the states, you're another face in the crowd, paying taxes like every other sucker. Take away our guns and we're nothing. Not a damn thing.
On the flipside, life is sweeter coming out the other side. I'm still amazed to drive down the road, pick up groceries and arrive back safely. The satisfaction of a completed deployment will not lift any time soon. We have earned through blood and sweat a fresh, shrewd perspective on the world that many in our country are not afforded. It might not be apparent yet, but a whole lifetime of experience is crammed into a deployment. You have a different way of looking at things when you realize it was you at the other end of the sniper's scope. Life will forever be different, for better and for worse. But you certainly will enjoy it a hell of a lot more.
For those who have deployed in any war or know someone who has, please feel free to leave a comment with your own advice on coming back home. Below are some resources for those coming back from a deployment and/or getting out of the military.
GI Bill Information
USA Cares - Financial Assistance for Servicemembers