Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Thing I Carried

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple two step plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. Nearly half of my platoon would be getting out if and when we made it back home from Iraq. We focused the best we could when it came to preparing for the mission, but there is no helping the excitement in the prospect of starting a new chapter of life on the government's dime.

In the run-up to the deployment, a lot of guys were buying their own equipment to take with them. It is generally accepted that government issued equipment is inferior to what you can go out and buy yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. It's just like a backpack except with a sweetass name. The only problem was the zipper sucked something fierce and it held no more than what a high school backpack could carry. I'm the kind of person to carry backups of everything. Extra knives, batteries, carabiners, socks. I needed to haul a lot more than what the issue assault pack could carry.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment. His dad's company sponsored us with thousands of dollars to buy magazine and utility pouches, vests and other luxuries. Jesse budgeted himself enough to buy a new civilian assault pack. He didn't need his old one, so he gave it to me.

"You can use it for the deployment, but you have to give it back to me," he said. "But if you decide to reenlist, you can keep it."

"You'll definitely be getting it back," I replied.

I made the secondhand assault pack my own. It was worn out after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick, black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape to cover it up. I wrote in small print 24 Nov 2007, the day I was getting out of the Army. It was below a message Jesse had written - For those who would NOT serve

In Baghdad, I carried my assault pack everywhere we went. It was becoming a routine to leave our base in Taji and spend up to a week in smaller bases in the heart of the city. We began to live out of our assault packs, bringing whatever we could stuff in there. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

Jesse was always asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I was going on leave, Josh told him I had a girl writing to me in Seattle. While my platoon went out to check out insurgents loading weapons into a car, I stayed behind and told Jesse the unlikely story of our relationship. "Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

Two weeks later, Jesse would be cut down by small-arms fire in Baqubah. He would survive some time before passing away. I could not possibly avenge him; I was two thousand miles away. I heard about his death in the most undignified way; a Myspace bulletin read in an internet cafe in Rome.

Coming back to Iraq after leave, I looked at Jesse's assault pack a lot differently. I still carried it with me everywhere, but I treated it a lot better. I no longer tossed it off the Stryker into the dust. I didn't shove it into small spaces on top of the vehicle. In the outposts where we lived, I used it as a pillow.

The assault pack is not an assault pack anymore. It's a backpack. I no longer stuff it with extra grenades, ammunition magazines or packages of Kool Aid. It now carries textbooks, calculators and pencils. I started my first classes a few months ago to fulfill the plan two years in the making. I imagined it to be a seamless transition into civilian life. Boy, I was fucking naive, even when I came home. I saw some guys falling apart from PTSD, getting drunk or doing drugs to drown it out. I thought I made it out okay, relatively.

With my unassuming tan backpack at my feet, I break out in a sweat if I even think about mentioning Iraq in the classroom. I let it slide nearly every time, yielding the topic to daftly opinionated classmates. I feel like a foreign exchange student, confused about the motivation of my peers. I literally carry the burden of readjustment on my back, not wanting to let go my past but anxious to get to the future. Fractured into part war veteran and part journalism student, who I am speaking to determines which part of me is actually there in the room. To many, my past is my best kept secret. For all they know, my parents pay my tuition and do my laundry. I can be honest here. It's terrifying to be honest out there. Perhaps it's best that way.

For those who would NOT serve - it's faded now, not easily read unless you look closely. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and ask, "what unit were you in?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.



13 Stoploss said...

dude, that's heavy.

As a newer reader, I'm sorry to hear of your loss. I've been there, though it hasn't hit as close to home.

we all have our own motivations; in the end, you and I have the same end goal, and that is to write. hopefully, with our experiences, and the skills we attain, we'll have a much more broad perspective on some issue than those around us.

after this semester, I have one more at the CC until I transfer to University of California Irvine, for their literary journalism program. If you don't have any attachments, I suggest you check it out. not that I'm great, but I can tell you have a better background in the basics than 90% of the "writers" I've ran into.

- jason

Robert said...

That's tough man, I sympathize. When I got out in a simpler time, I still ended up with a lot of reservations about college students. They have no understanding of the real world, much less the unreal world that is Iraq. Still, college students or no, I'm not sure that anyone who hasn't been there can really "get it" so not discussing it is probably frustrating but maybe less frustrating than trying to make people understand something they just won't be able to.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/06/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anonymous said...

This is one of your best entries. Great work.

Hugh McBryde said...

You should try to make writing a career, you do it very well.

Anonymous said...

I can't even begin to comprehend the difficulties you have faced and are facing now but I am filled with admiration for the manner in which you have grasped your future.

God bless for all you have done.


MJ Athens said...

I really respect your openness about this. I have said it before and I'll say it again, you have a gift, keep using it.

Anonymous said...

I think Jesse would be proud to see his old assault pack have so much meaning. And that it's getting used outside the realm of the Army.

Tabitha Winton

Unknown said...

A fitting tribute to Jesse and a fine piece of writing.


Anonymous said...

Good story, and I'm sure Jesse read it over your shoulder while you were typing it.

I'm in the 5-20 now, but was there, in the 3/2 in a different battalion during that time. I lost my best friend over there, but don't have time to reflect yet. Train, train, train, that's all we do.

On a personal note, I think you should let it go, or it's going to drive you batshit like Mr Hardt.

SSG Anonymous

Christopher Stogdill said...

When I was in I bought a lot of my own equipment also. Bosnia was much better using my own fart sack and cold weather gear.

It's good that you are keeping a rememberance of your buddy. Honestly though, I wouldn't necessarily peg that you were military based soley off the bag and a little 550 cord.

Your mannerism and the bag...maybe.

Wek said...

I've wondered if you've read books by combat vets from other wars. I guess the title of your post gave away the answer.

It is kinda weird imagining you biting your tongue in class as we here know you differently, albeit from a distance.

Ideal Garment said...

Great post. Good luck with school. I'm a writer along with a bunch of other things, and I can tell you that being able to communicate well and in writing will serve you better than almost anything else in this life. I mean, besides being an excellent person, which you seem very much to be. So keep at it. Your blog is beautiful, and I share it with others. We who have not been to war need to hear truthful thoughts from those who have been there for us.

Thanks again.


Anonymous said...

A journalist says, you deserve a book deal. Don't stop writing it down.

Queen of the Universe said...

Thank you for sharing. I sent this link to a man I love, very far away and struggling with the same issues daily. Hopefully, it helps him feel a bit less alone sometimes.

Thank you for what you do. It helps us all more than it helps you I am sure.

Survival Chick said...

Amazing post.

Unknown said...

Great post.

Funny little thought I had while reading.

I wonder when they started calling it 550 Cord. Is that an army thing? In the Marines we just called it Jump Cord.

Anonymous said...

Alex~ Almost every post you write, i think about leaving comments. I continually check your blog for new entries in hopes that you update it more fequently than once a week. Shame on you for making us wait. I love and cherish every story you tell. Im so proud to have served next to you and to see that youre living your dream as opposed to "living THE dream." I felt compelled to write this time to tell you, thanks. Thanks for sharing your and our stories. I love every minute i spend reading. Not a day goes by that i dont think about everyone, even you Battle 5! Thanks again buddy. Hope all is going well in college.

-Josh Martell

Unknown said...

Susan said,"Your blog is beautiful." Yes, what she said...and more...your story sneaked up on me...keep are good at it.

Karin said...

I read your post and, although I am too sad to think of anything eloquent to say, I wanted you to know that I was here. I am mentally willing you to succeed because you have so much in you that needs to be said. Don't feel obligated to have to say it to a bunch of naive kids in class. Your time will come.

Anonymous said...

Good post Dude.

MJ Athens said...

Halfway around the world tonight
In a strange and foreign land
A soldier packs his memories
As he leaves Afghanistan
And back home they don't know too much
There's just no way to tell
I guess you had to be there
For to know that war was hell


MJ Athens said...

I have something to ask that I hope doesn't cause a bunch of heartburn. My experience in the military from 66-69 was one of the foundational aspects of my life. During the Vietnam War there was a program called Project 100,000 that took that many men per year that did not meet basic military standards. Essentially, combined with draft deferments for those is college, it served to create an essential unfairness in who did and did not serve. On the face of it the military is much more fair than it was then but I don't have much of a sense of how folks within the military get along. Any input?

Anonymous said...

Raven; THAT is a good quote

MJ Athens said...

ANON, Yea, and when it was written it was about the Russians!

Micah Seymour said...

YTMND... that was beautiful and heart wrenching.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't put all college students in the same bucket, especially journalism majors. Engineering and the sciences may not necessarily support the war, but they appreciate the military.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Alex,

It rips my heart out to read some of your stuff, but I keep coming back for more. Keep writing. You write well. I've forwarded your blog link to a couple of troops who've returned home over the last several months, in the hope that reading your stuff will help them to sort things out.


mamaworecombatboots said...

We need more journalists who are veterans.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about Jesse. It gives me a little insight into his time he shared with good friends who will not let us forget his name or what he believed in. He would be proud. We all miss him.


Anonymous said...

Dude, I figured I could do the same, made it home ok, discharged, and now a student. However, the reality of it is, I am having an extremely difficult time adjusting to being a student, or a civilian for that matter.

Dude, war changes people. You and I know that from experience. I feel like I lost something I'll never get back. The hardest part is not having someone that can relate to what you've experienced at school. Sometimes putting your feelings on paper helps.

I love your blogs; it's like I wrote some of them. Thanks - Kenny

Anonymous said...

Hey guys!
Im new to this whole blog thing but I just wanted to say that i saw the monvie stop loss as well and I really feel for you guys. My friend is in the air force and he might get it but hes not sure yet.

shea holliman said...

I never completely readjusted, maybe this next time will close it all, and I will, great post

jacob said...

hey homie, I was in Baghdad from Feb 07- Apr 08. Since ETSing in January and starting school, I have to say that you sum up everything I felt upon reentering civvie life very well. best wishes to you brother.