Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Thing I Carried - Special Edition

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Tim O'Brien speak at Texas State University about the art of writing. He read from a recent magazine article and entertained a few questions. During his book signing I presented a copy of "The Things They Carried" that I literally did carry in Iraq. Its edges were torn and bent, the pages browned by dust and sand. I brought an edited copy of an old favorite entry on here, The Thing I Carried, thanked him for the reading, and handed over the copy. The version I gave him is reproduced here. Enjoy.

The Thing I Carried

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. In between crusty Army lifers were shortimers, soldiers approaching the twilight of their enlistment. For some, two deployments to Iraq were enough for a lifetime. Others made plans to get out before desert boots touched foreign sand.

When it came time to sort out, pack and load equipment, a lot of guys were buying their own gear to take with them. Any junior enlisted soldier knows the issued equipment is inferior to anything you can go out and buy for yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. Its dimensions fit the criteria of a regular backpack, save for the digital camouflage and extra utility pouches. The zippers are what you come to expect from the Army’s lowest bidding contractor. They were difficult to shut and snagged easily on the sides. The compartments were more suited for textbooks and notepads, not the instruments of war that infantrymen would need to carry. Knives, batteries, carabiners, socks, water, rations, folded up letters. The things I needed to carry grew larger than my capacity to carry them.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment weeks before we boarded an eastbound plane. His father’s company sponsored us with enough money to buy essentials like magazine and utility pouches, vests and grenade bandoleers. He budgeted himself enough money to buy a brand new assault pack. He didn't need the one from his first deployment, so he passed it down to me.

"You can use it the whole time we’re over there, 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.

The assault pack was worn out after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing and foam cushioning was exposed and damaged. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape across the hand drawn letters. On the bottom pouch 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, perhaps before his first deployment - For those who would NOT serve


It was becoming a routine to leave our base outside of Baghdad and spend up to a week in smaller bases sprinkled around the heart of the city. The capital proved to be an underwhelming backdrop to a mission that was starting to grow more frustrating as the days melted together into a pool of hazy memories. Snipers took pot shots as we cleared swaths of neighborhoods, only to reclear them later. For every time we met the enemy face to face we returned fire ten times, mostly at nothing. The action was so dismal that assault packs held things to combat boredom instead of insurgents. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over in the middle of the night. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

By the time we got to Baqubah, Jesse had moved to another platoon. I saw him less than before but he never stopped asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I went on leave, Josh mentioned that a young college student named Lauren was writing to me from Seattle. My platoon was getting their gear on and heading out to surveil possible arms traffickers, but I stayed behind to watch them as I told Jesse the unlikely story of my budding romance with a girl thousands of miles away.

"Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

In case my platoon got the call to move out while I was gone, my assault pack and rucksack were left behind and packed neatly on my mattress. I headed to the flightline and took the next chopper out to Baghdad. My best friend and I decided traveling around in Europe by train would be easier than going home to sleep in our old beds. In many ways, we had grown out of them.


As I made the long trek back to the desert from the fertile landscapes of Italy and Germany, Jesse was on another plane bound for the States. He lay inside a flag draped coffin aboard a transport plane among others killed in theater. He had spent a total of twenty-two months in combat before a sniper found his brown eyes through a scope.

When I walked back into the platoon tent for the first time in three weeks, it was dark and completely empty except for Josh. He stayed back from missions after sustaining a concussion from a personnel mine. He didn’t say anything at first, but motioned for me to sit on his bed. He dug out a copy of Jesse’s memorial program and stuffed it into my hands. I looked over to my bunk to see Jesse’s assault pack still on my bed. Keawe playfully stood out from behind the nametape.


From the moment our feet touched American soil for the first time in fifteen months, the assault pack became a backpack. A year later I was in school with the same sand colored bag at my feet . I traded grenades for pens and ammunition magazines for textbooks. Around campus I can spot other veterans of the wars easily; they still carry their assault packs too. They may have moved on to get an education, but they have chosen to carry part of their former lives with them. The burden of readjustment and the malignant feeling of wanting to be back there weigh heavily on their shoulders. The things they carry in their assault packs weigh more than a thousand books.

Somewhere in the dense palm groves of the Diyala River Valley is my true self. I left behind a boisterous and outspoken personality for a muted and introverted existence in the classroom. I volunteer answers enough to get by with a passing grade for class participation, but I can only yield the topics of Iraq and war to the daftly opinionated classmates that surround me like a pack of oblivious wolves. I was raised in the same era as my peers, but I did not grow up with them. The chasm between us only grows larger when I want to speak up about war, but cannot find the words.

For those who would NOT serve – the words fade a little more each day. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and deliver the standard icebreaking question, "So, where were you at?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.


13 Stoploss said...

still have my ID tags, nameplates, and unit patches in my backpack, though I was never fortunate enough to be issued an assault pack (aside from the POS molle). the tags make that unmistakable metallic sound (you know, with the black rubber edges off) with every step, and every step is only recognizable to me. I occasionally see soldiers on campus in their ACU's. even the recruiter SSG's are empty on their right sleeves.

good stuff, brother.

Unknown said...

A fabulous rewrite! Jesse would be proud of you, as I am so very much. Well done!



Coffeypot said...

Great post and a tribute to your friend. We all let a bit of our innocence somewhere when we served. Now you just have to study on dude.

Pattie Matheson said...

"...they have chosen to carry part of their former lives with them."

As you should Alex, as you should.


PS: the original article was what hooked me on you and sent me back to your first post.

Unknown said...

Outstanding work, Dude. I hope you continue to connect with other vets.

NM fan

De Campo said...

Righteous post.

The Army sent me to college after two tours to do green to gold. I’m not sure what was worse; hearing ROTC cadets’ talk grandly of war or regular students bashing us for being at war. In the end, neither of ‘em got it.

Unknown said...

One of my friends is in Iraq now - out of Ft Lewis. Thanks for bringing home to me your reality. I admire those who serve and am proud of you.

Long-time RN said...

Thank you for re-posting this tribute to your friend, Alex.

David M said...

I really like this story....

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/18/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Anonymous said...

I just read a post at the Burn Pit. It was asking what do you miss. Is it your true self near the river, or are you in the exact place you should be? It sucks to miss the friends who are gone. I have a few.

I have read this post before or some snippet somewhere, and it kinda kicks me in the gut, even if it isn't my pain.

I never saw combat, but you know what I carry? A government issue black pen. I signed every damn document (all things military) with it. Some year, it'll dry up and I'll hang it on my Christmas Tree. I have had it for 26 years.

Victor said...

jeez man. got me teary eyed.

CI-Roller Dude said...

There's not a thing I can say brother.
Here, have a beer. Look up at the sky and tell him you'll see him later.
Drive on, but never forget.

Unknown said...

You sir, you have a gift.

Unknown said...

In addition to Tim O'Brien, I'm also a fan of your blog. Thank you for sharing.

Laurel said...

"As I made the long trek back to the desert from the fertile landscapes of Italy and Germany, Jesse was on another plane bound for the States. He lay inside a flag draped coffin aboard a transport plane among others killed in theater. He had spent a total of twenty-two months in combat before a sniper found his brown eyes through a scope." It rips my heart out every time I read that. The impact of your writing is awesome, very powerful.

Alex Horton said...

I appreciate all the compliments guys, thanks for leaving your thoughts and encouragement.

digital femme said...

I was living in Houston during that entire time 2001-2007 working as a nurse and had met many families whose members were either deployed or they themselves were deployed. I would keep in contact with all of my patients and sadly would hear the profound news of them or family members never coming back.

I had one patient Tommy K. He was dying of Cancer and basically his family was around him waiting for him to go. It was just after Bush had declared war on Iraq and Tommy K's son, Michael, (a husband and father and brother) got the news that he was to be deployed in two days ..... It was a really, really hard and painful time because our dear Tommy K. was still hanging on and no one wanted Michael to leave while Tommy K. was still alive.

Funny thing was, after increasing Tommy K. morphine drip (according to palliative care measures) his respirations and vital signs still held strong. One day away until his son Michael was to be deployed ... the drama of it all is still unbearable.

The day before Michael's deployment, him, his wife and two of his brothers were at the bedside and they were talking about Michael's leaving the following morning. I noticed Tommy K's. Heart rate had increased slightly from his baseline. Although he was quite "out of it", the change in heart rate, then the slight increase in blood pressure was significant to know that Tommy K. was reacting to something. The family soon noticed this and took it to mean that he was in pain and wanted me to top up his morphine drip with morphine IV. I know it wasn't physical pain that prompted Tommy K's increase in vital signs. The increase was noticeable but not the usual rise or rate a nurse of 11 years would expect to see in someone that was REALLY in pain (no matter how slight or severe). I understood it to mean that Tommy K. was upset at his son's soon to be deployment.

Now, the family never talked about Michael's deployment in the room for fear that their father would be consious enough to hear. I guess they had forgotten (can you blame them) and had spontaneously started talking about their stress, fears, worries etc ...

cont'd ..

digital femme said...

cont'd from previous post ..

I won't go on, seeing as I went on long enough, but that day Tommy K. passed away. We new he was going to go .. but the nursing staff and the doctor's didn't think it would be that day. Not yet. Tommy K. was still stable (as far as one could be, giving that they were terminally ill. We were even preparing Hospice for him). But shortly, in the late afternoon, Tommy K's status had changed drastically. It was too sudden for all of us. Then it became evident that Tommy K. would be leaving too.

Suffice to say, that early evening after Tommy K. had passed, his son Michael, daughet in law (Michael's wife) and two younger sons and I stayed in the room to dress Tommy K's lifeless body out of the hospital gown and into his street clothes. As morbid as that may seem, it was healing for all. After a couple of hours of recollecting on Tommy K's life, laughing, crying, loving ... we were finally finished. Tommy K. was all cleaned, shaven and dressed as if he had just come home from playing cards with his friends and laid down to take a map. His Marlboro's were neatly tucked into his left breast pocket, Wriggley's Juicy Fruit Gum in this right pant pocket and we placed Tommy K's friend's "dog tag" around his neck. Tommy K had been in the Vietnam War and was a strong believer in Fighting for your Country to protect the people and your friends, family and loved ones. It was obvious that this belief had been carried on by this son Michael.

Late that night, Michael left the hospital room, along with his father Tommy K forever. He was getting deployed in the morning and the one thing he would at least take with him was the image of his father looking just as he normally would, when taking an afternoon nap (save the hospital room setting).

Michael was lucky. He was able to return after three years. But others were not. I have many other stories like this, but this Saturday your story reminded me of the K family, Tommy and Michael. I enjoyed their company very much. Thank you for this wonderful, touching post. For what it's worth, I am glad you are still here with us (albeit, not ALL of you). One day at a time, Alex ... one day at a time. Thank you for serving for the United States of America .. and protecting my Canadian ass while I was living there in Texas.

Anonymous said...

Dude, thank you for putting yourself out here. You are a very gifted writer. The ability to connect to other vets as well as giving 'those who won't serve' a glimpse of reality is invaluable and very much appreciated from both sides of the line.

Anonymous said...

Dude, because of your experiences, you have a realistic perspective of the world that your peers at school will never have.

Making the transition from veteran to student is tough. I'm in my third semester since I've discharged in 08, and I still feel disconnected from my peers at school. I've avoided any war discussions simply because it's tough and often upsetting to speak about. Last year, my English professor ask me to write a paper on what I had done the previous summer. My response; a vacation to a Middle Eastern country. Of course he thought I was crazy, but he still gave an A!

Keep driving on...

Shannon Grant said...

Wow. Your writing is refreshingly honest and touching. I adore this blog even if it leaves me with some sadness for the innocence lost when our guys/women get deployed. It's a necessary sadness.

MilTrucker said...

brilliant as usual. I'm not looking fwd to coming back myself. each time it gets harder to connect with people back home... it's not the same, neither am i. it's good to see i'm not alone. keep up the good work man. your not alone either.

Anonymous said...

Not sure how I arrived at your blog, I'm quite glad that I did. I'll be reading it regularly.

Thanks for your service, I wish it could have been for a better cause.

MJ Athens said...

I met Tim here in Athens about 18 years ago and he signed my copy too. "Night on Rainy River" offers a perspective that is largely ignored, namely that many if us went because we were "too embarrassed not to kill". That we wouldn't or couldn't split to Canada because of what it would have done to our families.

I know that you, and lots of your buddies, are extremely alienated from your contemporaries but I hope you hang in there and find a way to carve out a life that you can enjoy.

My Facebook Stalker said...

I read "The Things They Carried" inside and out for my high school term paper. You are a skilled writer, and it was enjoyable to read.

PainKiller Main said...

Absolutely awesome, and true. I'm a 37 year old vet of Iraq myself and back in school as a non-trad with all the "youngsters"...

You're an "old soul" now brother, and a most eloquent one. Keep writing and telling it like it is.

Suzi said...

that was beautiful man. i'm sitting hunched over my computer in Afghanistan, tearing up.

I love Tim O'Brien. i first read The Things They Carried courtesy of my extremely anti-war creative writing prof. His stories stuck with me through my first deployment, and this one. The more stuff I see, the more his stories sound right to me. Really cool that you got to mean him.

DreadCow said...

Just found this entry; great writing.

The desert camo assault pack I carried during OIF IV and VI goes with me everyday to class. It's permanently scarred from multiple c-wire encounters, the 550 cord zipper loop things are finally wearing through, and the main bag starting to get holes in the bottom. But I'll be damned if this bitch isn't going everywhere with me.

And this... is brilliant: "I left behind a boisterous and outspoken personality for a muted and introverted existence in the classroom"

Glad to hear I'm not the only one.

Lisa in DC said...

Haven't been by here in a while, but I hope you'll keep writing and sharing. I'm praying that a few more of your contemporaries will take note...and eventually catch on.

Forever grateful...

Imjinscout said...

I hired into a goverment construction project along with two hundred others.When I was a young Pvt.most of our NCO's had combat patches,a good many with CIBs,then there was a lot of open discussion about what went down,be in training,over Soju in the ville or GP phase on the DMZ,all of it was for keeping us cherries alive and well.Most of the Nam Vets in my craft now are retiring.So when I saw a mid 20 something guy show up with a CIB and dope on a rope wings on the back of his ball cap, it's a strange sight,I was a little hesitant to say all the cliches like,thanks for your service,I'm glad you came back,bla,bla,certainly,there's nothing wrong with that,then I saw his small ruck had a 2ID patch sewn on it and my greeting was "Keep Up The Fire",he responded,"Choke on the smoke,Piss on the fire",haven't heard that in decades,we talked some,he's on a different shift now,he's one of your brothers from A-5/20,2004.I'm damn glad he's here working and has a young son,through him I found your blog.There's a lot of us around,and you might not know who we are,but we know who you are,and we're damn proud to have you back,keep humping your ruck in school and lighten your load,grow old and happy Sheepdog!

Anonymous said...

I would like to say thank you to all that have, those that are, & those that will serve our nation.
I have displayed in my apartment a P-38 & the unit crests from each of the five units I served with during my the time in the Army as an 11 Hotel from 10Jul90-12Dec00.
The crests & P-38 serve as a daily reminder of how privileged I was to serve with such an outstanding group of people that I was able to call my friends.