Thursday, December 25, 2008

Loose Interpretation

"Battle Five, Battle Five, this is White 7 Romeo. Radio check, over."

"Roger out."

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.


Ms. Missive said...

That was brilliant. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

God! You really write well! I love reading your stuff. ; )

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
I hope I am writing to the author of the milblog of the year! You are an amazing writer.

Noises in the night can be so scary. Now that you are "safe" at home, it must be so hard when noises in your home or from the street bring back those memories and feelings of terror that were associated with being holed up in some house or building in Iraq.

The adrenaline rush and that protective response of "fight or flight" that comes with being scared out of your wits can paralyze you with fear literally. I guess that's why as soldiers they train you so hard to move in and through those situations without ever really processing the feeling and emotions that go along with the experience. I guess we all get scared at one time or another, but, for soldiers returning from combat everything is intensified in terms of the frequency of this feeling and the magnitude of it! Once that switch has been flipped it's all systems go. Turning that off when your brain is finally able to compute that it was just a trash can lid and not a terrorist...well now, that's gotta be mighty difficult.

It saddens me to know that so many soldiers must now come home and learn to deal with "noises" that send them spiraling into feelings of "despair and malignant desperation."

Now let's add more noise in the form of Army "counselors" (you more aptly called them hunters) showing up on your family's doorstep in an effort to beat the bushes for more warm bodies to return to combat.

The idea that these counselors are subjecting soldiers fresh from the battlefield and their families to all manner of coercive scare tactics and misrepresentation of the facts, is just horrible. To me it only underscores the lack of caring and or understanding of the time needed for our battle-weary and battle-scarred soldiers to find the inner peace of which you so eloquently speak. So many soldiers have expressed anxiety and fear about getting recalled. So many have described a physical reaction to even the remotest possibility that they will have to return to active duty and be sent back. None of you should EVER have that "dark, lurid cloud hanging over your heads" let alone while you are only in the infancy of exploring how to put the pieces of your lives back together.

Alex, I pray that you will never have to return to face the "unseen terrors that hide in the night." Once again your posts are always a brilliant combination of humor, reality and human emotion. You are bravely going where so many are afraid to tread. Here is a hug for the little boy in you that was afraid to go in the house alone.
Thank you for sharing your world with us. Take care Alex.

MilTrucker said...

Alex, thanks for giving voice to my... our fears. I am one of the guys with the "time to go" speech. My circumstances were... and are slightly different, but here I go again for my 3rd tour. I'm not the writer you are, so I'm glad you can give such an eloquent explanation of what goes on in our heads sometimes.

Annette said...

God Bless you and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Brilliant writing. Your perspective is wonderful, I am just sorry you had to live through it, and the others also. Thanks for your service, our nation is blessed to have dedicated men and women to do the job others won't. Hopefully, this will soon end for most all of them and they can be home. It won't be easy, but we just have to keep hoping and praying PEBO will keep his promises and if not we will put the pressure on him to do it.

Thanks again to you and all the others for your dedication.

Jennifer Good said...

I just wanted to say a small hello. I found your blog through this blog a few weeks ago and haven't yet had the opportunity to read it entirely. Thank you for everything and your honesty and everything you write about. Everything you write about is so interesting and from such a unique perspective, at least for myself. I'm looking forward to digging more in your blog and read everything you have to say.

Confu§ion said...

Very real, well written and honestly, a little scary at times. Definitely a good stumble.

Anonymous said...

Best yet. You really put me there with you, in three different ages.

I like the shell sliding slowly against the chamber. Your irrational(?) childhood fear of being caught by a burglar, and carrying a steak knife. By your description, I can see your neighborhood, and smell it. Packs of dogs! Wow. I'd like to hear more about it, and how you and your gal are coping. Good move buying the gun, bro.

I remember the relief of reaching the end of my inactive reserve, and again upon reaching an age where I couldn't be drafted. Like anybody, I wouldn't want to leave my loved ones, and maybe die or be maimed for some idiot's bullshit blundering lack of strategy. And now, I, like you, have committed to a woman, and would think long and hard about leaving her for any reason.

I respect your sense of duty, but I think you already did your part, and being recalled would be completely unfair, moral double jeapordy, and I would support your doing what you had to do to avoid going back. I think everybody would. (Paper Trucks Smell Dreamy)

Also, I think jumping when things go bump in the night is a mature and rational response.

Godspeed amigo.

Big Tobacco said...

Yeah, they need 11Bs right now... to sit in the BDOC and watch "The Golden Compass" on bootleg DVD.

I wouldn't worry much about it. This is deployment #2 for me, and I will probably see one more before I retire.

But as much as I bitch about this job, I'd still rather be here with my men than with the phonies that I left back on Wall Street

Beck said...

I was originally looking for the manner that the IRR recalls soldiers and found this instead.

One of my sisters is leaving for basic training in a few weeks and I wanted to write her a farewell story, resulting in me on Google, looking up recall for fact accuracy.

I want to honestly thank you for sharing your story and previously having defended our country. I don't think your reasoning is selfish, considering you've been on the frontlines and this war has been going for eight years. No matter how long your tour was, just the sound of that number makes me tired.

I sincerely hope you're not recalled and that you'll be able to find peace of mind soon in your life. :D

MJ Athens said...

Gettin tired of old goats telling you that you have a great gift? When I read Conroy's "A Losing Season" I was so moved I drilled until I found an email address and wrote and told him so. Same to you, you are killin me.

Anonymous said...

Well said Big Tobacco.

Hardtack said...

Thanks for a look at your life. You express views that are common to many who return to this world. Your body will realize it is safe, but your mind will respond automatically in given circumstances. I hope and pray your girl understands that.

I still remember reading, "Flag of our Fathers" and greatly impressed about one of the survivors, who for years after returning and settling down, would weep in his sleep.

Keep writing. Thank you for what you have done, and I am grateful you had a girl stand by you and be there for you. Those individuals are worth more than their weight in gold.

Have a great new year.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 12/31/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anonymous said...


Relax and ignore the calls and visits to your parents.

After getting out last November to settle down with my wife, kid and dog (after 7.5 years of active service) a strange call came to my phone from a number in New York City as we sat down to dinner. Out of curiosity I answered the phone and spent the next ten minutes being entertained by an Army recruiter trying the same tactic as you just mentioned.

His exact words were "Wouldn't you rather sign up and go with a group that you know instead of being put with a unit at the last minute that you might not be able to trust?" Recruiters will continue to make un-educated statements such as these until something is done to fix the Army's broken personnel system.

After leading a platoon in combat during OIF I and then a Troop during OIF III I found his "threats" comical. I let him know just how comical he was and promptly hung up, a year later I still have not heard from the Army.

I guess if I get called back I'll just have to once again settle for the Army I have, not the one I may want.

From one scout to another, keep your head up and may you do something with your life that you thoroughly enjoy.

PS: I dig the new page skin.

Anonymous said...

Alex, be advised of recruiting scams that target those in the IRR ( I had 4 months left in IRR in '04. A recruiter called me up and said that I should re-up in the Guard quickly, before I am called up as an IRR 11Bravo and sent to Iraq. I know you will do the right thing if it is legit, but don't let some POG recruiter try to scare you or your folks. Drive on.

Anonymous said...

I guess we all tend to think the only reality is OUR reality. Most folks don't realize Stop Loss is not new - it just has a new name. (No intention here to imply you're one of them btw.)

Imagine having survived WWII and being recalled to fight in Korea five years later. Imagine fighting (surrounded by the enemy) in the snow at Changjin Resevoir or Hagaru, or at Heartbreak Ridge. We lost nearly 34,000 troops in that THREE year war, with over 103,000 injured.

One of those recalled was my Dad. I was old enough to write to him but I was also old enough to know I might not see him again. Ever.

But, hey. It didn't end there. When Vietnam rolled around my 50something Dad, still in the service, found himself re-training for war. Survival school must have been a real drag.

Years ago I was amazed to learn the rest of the world doesn't love/envy us; that your average Brit still sees us as "the colonies" and the average French man/woman regards us with an aloof sense of distaste. When I returned to the states and tried to tell others about this it was like spitting in the wind.

I'd like to see the return of the draft/national service, and I'd like to see women included. I know it's not a popular opinion but sooner or later we have to face the facts here.

The damage being done to the young, and not-so-young, members of our military and their families by repeated deployments is unforgiveable.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about my family. With 30 years of service under his belt Dad, has only been to war three times. Two of those times he only faced 12 month deployments. He was lucky compared to today's military men and women.

Those who've not experienced the reality of life outside America need to be enlightened. My intent here is not meant to sound meanspirited. But we have way too many young people whose sense of entitlement and lack of experience could eventually lead us down a very dangerous path.

How many of our leaders have experienced the rest of the world as anything other than a nice place to visit? What do they know about life in the military? Diddly squat is what. But they decide your future and, by extension, that of your family.

People who make life changing decisions on behalf of others should have at least a modicum of the experience of self-sacrifice, and I'm encouraged by the number of vets seeking public office.

Getting off my soapbox now...

PS: About jumping at unexpected noises: A few years ago I attended a Paul McCartney concert with a friend who's a Vietnam vet. We were third row center and when the fireworks went off on stage he came up out of his seat and just about came out of his skin, looking at me as tho appealing for help. I felt totally inadequate. I hope my hand on his helped.