"Battle Five, Battle Five, this is White 7 Romeo. Radio check, over."
Besides the soft, quiet hum of the radio at my side, there wasn't a sound in the makeshift combat outpost in the heart of Old Baqubah. After an impossibly long day of patrolling in the summer heat, we bedded down in an occupied house to await the next groundhog day of patrols, weapons cache destruction and ubiquitous firefights. At sundown we had filled a filthy kitchen sink with ice to cool down bottles of water and Gatorade. Hours later, only a warm pool remained in the sink, the bottles offering little relief from the torrid wind that swirled in from the open front door. It was barely fifteen minutes into my one hour watch when my eyelids began to betray my only task: to keep my sleeping platoon safe from anyone who might come through the courtyard gate.
A faint metal-on-metal clanking sound drew me out of my lethargy. It came from the other side of the courtyard wall. Was it the intermittent rustling of an unknown intruder? Jolted out of my chair and out of my loose and sweat-soaked boots, I reached for my short barreled shotgun. Without boots and body armor, I crept slowly to the wall, my feet leaving behind moist footprints barely noticeable under the silver glow of a full moon. With my platoon resting for a few precious hours inside the house, I had but two lifelines with me. One was the ten pound clunker of a radio. The other was the shotgun I held in my hands. I racked it as slowly as possible, the sound of double-aught buckshot shells rubbing against the chamber barely audible. I thumbed the safety on top of the weapon to red. The noise on the other side of the wall grew louder and more menacing. I stepped on top of an empty barrel, one hand on the shotgun pistol grip and the other on the courtyard wall. Taking one last deep breath, I stood up and swung the shotgun over the wall and pointed the barrel at what was making the noise: a piece of sheet metal rattling in the wind against a steel cabinet. My paranoia assuaged, I stepped down off the barrel, put the shotgun on safe and walked back to the chair. My senses heightened, I listened as the metal clanking blended with the radio static and counted the seconds until my watch was over.
Make no mistake: the Army owns your ass even when you're not in it anymore. When you sign an enlistment contract for three, four or five years, there is a period of inactive service tacked on for a total of eight years. Once you leave active duty, you are placed in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). At any time and without warning, an inactive soldier is subject to recall and mobilization for a deployment. The reason is simple: in times of emergency, a pool of trained soldiers is readily available to once again answer the call of duty.
Reality, of course, is not so simple. While the ashes of September 11th were still warm, it was pledged that this nation would fight its enemies abroad, its will redoubled in the fires of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our government declared a global war to combat our enemies with the American people behind the military every step of the way. But a call to arms was not sounded from the White House. There was no effort to get young men and women into recruiting stations, only a suggestion from President Bush to go to Disney World instead of the mountains of Afghanistan. A wise man once said: You go to war with the military you have and not the military you want. It soon became a doctrine instead of a red flag of personnel shortage. You cannot fight a war without soldiers. With recruitment down and units constantly rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, it became clear that the demand for warm bodies far outweighed the supply. The National Guard and Reserve were tapped. Where to turn?
Before the Pentagon raided the IRR cookie jar in 2004, fears were calmed by recruiters and career counselors. If a recruit had a question about the IRR and the chances of getting recalled, the standard line given was, "Only if World War III breaks out." It was generally regarded as an absurd possibility to get recalled, thrown back into active duty and sent to a war zone. These days, career counselors have changed their tactics. Instead of characterizing an involuntary recall as a remote possibility, they will tell a soldier with a straight face that there is no escape from the looming shadow of the IRR.
"You might not want to pack just yet, but I would get ready."
A single sentence from my father on the other end of the phone was enough to send my head spinning, every drop of blood drained from my face. It was spring, and I had just moved from Seattle to Austin for school and began working in a warehouse for a wine distributor. All of my Army records listed my parent's house as my mailing address. Without notice, two Army career counselors on the hunt for inactive troops showed up at my parents' doorstep looking for me. They were dressed in sharp combat uniforms and wanted to discuss with me the possibility of joining the Army Reserves. If I did not, they warned my father, I would be on my way to being recalled.
"He's 11-Bravo infantry, a trigger puller," the ranking sergeant grumbled to my father. "His job is in high demand and infantry will be the first they recall." The only way to keep me from getting deployed again, they insisted, was to join the reserves with a guarantee to not be deployed for at least a year. "It'd be the smart thing to do," he said. I knew the line well, but I wasn't a trigger puller anymore. I was trying to make a home somewhere else, far from where the Army could interfere with the lives of my family. I sat alone, crumpled and defeated. What if they were right?
It was no accident they spoke in such a way that made my dad feel uneasy about the prospect of me going back to Iraq involuntarily. Since recalls became routine four years ago, government civilians and military counselors have used the same fear tactics to push soldiers to their breaking point with the veiled threat of recall. Other tactics are beginning to emerge, however. Not long after the two counselors showed up at my parent's door decked out in combat fatigues, two different counselors showed up again, both of them women dressed in casual civilian clothes. They were much more informal than the previous pair, keeping recall talk to a minimum yet sticking to their insistence that I take a look at the reserves. Some counselors are more nefarious. One even suggested that with the election of Barack Obama, two years is enough time to avoid a deployment since we'll be out of Iraq anyway. Shit, sign me up. Does it come with a juicer?
"This area is under surveillance by undercover police."
The banner, hanging low over a street a few blocks away, lets everyone know who is watching. My neighborhood is not a shining example of safe city life; prostitutes keep an eye out for potential johns within spitting distance of my front door step while stray dogs roam the streets in small, desperate packs. Drug deals are made under the few trees that line the intersection. While Lauren and I were moving in, a friendly old woman welcomed us to the neighborhood with a stern warning. "Be careful to always lock up and don't set any patterns," she said. "People on this street will watch you until they recognize a pattern, then they'll rob you," she added, her smile still intact. "Happened just last week."
I never owned a gun until that weekend. I went out and bought a pistol for home defense. I had an irrational fear of burglars since I was young, terrified to come home from elementary school by myself. Most of the time I waited for my older sister's bus to drop her off before I spent an unbearable few seconds alone. When I was brave enough to be in the house by myself, I was armed with a large steak knife, hoping the time wouldn't come where I would have to shove the tip into an intruder. It was inconceivable for my ten year old mind, the feeling of slicing open another person. Years later, I have no trouble with the thought of putting bullets into someone, sending brain matter scattering across the floor or plastered onto the wall in a fine pink mist. I'm a trigger puller after all. Or I used to be.
The first few months in the house didn't feel the least bit dangerous despite our seedy surroundings. I could usually count on a good night's sleep even with the bass from passing cars shaking the windows and nightly block parties blasting mariachi music. But the noises come back, and with it, the paranoia. Five times a night, ten times a night, I'm drawn out of sleep by sudden creaks and cracks around the house. One night, a pounding on the window sent Lauren and I five feet into the air and me scrambling for my gun. After chambering a round, I bent the blinds back slightly to peer out the window. The wind was knocking a trash can lid into the window with each powerful gust. Relieved but not yet calm, I went outside and secured the lid. It took me a long while to find the right state of mind to sleep again.
Hearing things on watch in Iraq. The constant torment of waiting for recall orders. Looming noises in a broken down neighborhood. All took place thousands of miles away and months apart from each other, yet they all produce the same feeling of despair and malignant desperation. The battle for peace in a soldier's mind isn't settled in the streets of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. It's waged for months and years later in cycles of inner reflection that can take a lifetime to interpret. With the possibility of recall hanging overhead like a dark, lurid cloud, that interpretation is sped up until it crashes head on with a stark realization: I could be going back to face those demons once again. If my time comes to accept recall orders and inevitable mobilization, so it goes. I always told my friends that I'd ignore the orders and not show up. Why do the job I've already done, that so many have resisted for seven years? But my obligation towers above that line of selfish reasoning. I've been out of the Army for a little more than a year now. I'd have a hell of a time waking up everyday at 5:30 and my infantry tactics might be a little rusty. But I haven't forgotten how to pull a trigger if the time comes for me to do it once more. I just hope that I can face the unseen terror that hides in the night.