Thursday, October 21, 2010

Through Darkness We See

As the steady flow of commuters emptied out of the subway, I stood to the side, watching down avenues of approach with my head on a swivel. Jesse’s assault pack dug into my shoulders, heavy not from grenades or textbooks, but from enough clothes for a long weekend. I decided on a whim to take a long bus ride from Washington, DC to New York for Comic-Con. Dodo had gone last year and it seemed a perfect reason to visit him in Brooklyn. It had only been a few months since he came down to Washington, but I had missed him terribly. He remains one of my closest friends from our old platoon, and seeing him released the nostalgic pressure that builds in between visits with guys from the unit.

Peculiar things happen when you catch up with a guy from the platoon. Voices change, conversation becomes hurried and the wall between thoughts and speech, usually reserved for polite society, crumbles to dust. The social experiment of a platoon stuffed together for fifteen continuous months of combat breeds words, phrases and nicknames that are buried when those men finally disperse, only to be resurrected later during brief reunions. If the men of second platoon spoke as they did in the filthy outposts of Baqubah, most would be divorced and none would be employed. Reintegrating into society means you must leave those words, phrases and tones behind, mostly for the reason that civilians would simply not understand them. When old friends get together, those words come tumbling out from the deepest recesses of the mind.

When civilians ask me what I miss most about the Army, I always tell them it’s the people. Many are one of a kind and others are destined to be friends for life. Given a few years separation between the end of a military career and the return to civilian life, it becomes easy to romanticize the way things used to be. Even sheer moments of terror and unimaginable brutality seem tolerable in retrospect because of the men to the left and right. Love is a difficult emotion to conceptualize, and I did not understand it until I saw guys sharing their last swallows of water or offering to carry some of the heavy load for a struggling friend. Once we got home and everyone went their separate ways, or stayed for another tour, that support system fell apart. It was worth the agony of war to experience that kind of commitment.

It came as no surprise to hear that the Chilean miners almost immediately began to have what I call adversity withdrawal. In the two months they were underground, everything in their lives – their wives and girlfriends, their homes, their paychecks- melted away the moment they were trapped. Their only concern was survival, and they began to live moment to moment with an outcome far from certain. Undoubtedly, the bonds they forged deep underground helped them get through what must have been a truly horrifying experience. One sentence from a recent report nearly knocked me out of my seat:

“What we’re seeing is the miners are almost longing to be in that group together.”

For the third time this year, I spent quality time with Dodo, one of my best friends from the platoon. We always talk about work and girlfriends and who is up to what, but the topic always drifts towards the Army and Iraq, as if the conversation is a compass that points to what is really on our minds. I have discovered that several guys from the platoon have thought about joining up again. Going back to a job or the unemployment line or school just isn’t for them. If everyone is a puzzle piece that fits into society in a certain way, our edges come back frayed and worn. Everything doesn’t go back together quite right. But what I want to tell everyone who wants to go back is this: It’s not what we did that you miss, it’s the people you served next to. Just like now, as we’re scattered all over the country, bringing the men of second platoon together for another tour remains an impossible task. If it wasn’t, I doubt I could resist the opportunity. I know what the miners know – those terrible days were the best days because of who was with them in the dark.

22 comments:

Alex said...

All,

I must apologize for hiding out for so long. Since my last post I quit school, moved across the country and took a job that, for awhile now, demanded a lot of my attention and energy. Waiting for a topic to come along that was worth dedicating some time to was difficult, indeed.

Look forward to another post very soon, which will include a very exciting announcement. Things are about to get very interesting around here.

13 Stoploss said...

Been saying this same thing to many of my own. I've long pondered the new "platoon." No longer do our men and women train for 2-3 years before deploying.There may be camaraderie, but is there brotherhood? With as little experience as 3-4 months for some privates, they then leave with their more experienced SPC's and young SGT's who, undoubtedly, have longing attachments to their other platoons from previous deployments.

One of my first NCO's is in the 'Stan right now going through this exact scenario.

B said...

Sweet Jesus, you're not selling your soul to some NGO/think tank/bullshit factory like Exum, are you? Tell me you're not going to leverage your service into a platform from which to pontificate on policy.

You can't get your team/squad/platoon back, but you can build a new one and ameliorate the retardation cascading down on you to the degree that you can. In retrospect, re-enlisting during OIF V was a great decision for me-it meant that I got to go back for VI and run my element, and though the bullshit was much thicker and voluminous, the experience itself was more rewarding. Being able to affect the mission to any positive degree instead of just being a cog is a whole 'nother experience. One of the options I'm weighing after I graduate is to go back in for just that reason.

Alex Horton said...

Jason,

I feel terrible for the platoon that emerged from our shadow. I'm sure everyone feels the same way, but that must have been the weirdest collection of guys in history. I've never met anyone close to some of those dudes. The guys who replaced us didn't have the same feeling.

B,

No no, nothing like that. If a think-tank hires a troublemaking former E-4 to craft policy, they're not going to be around long enough to pay me.

Jason said...

Good to see you back dude, in a MilBlog world of politics and cat fights your a refreshing change of pace.

Anonymous said...

Alex,
I've missed your posts and am glad you are back. I wish you well in your new endeavors.

Thanks for serving.....

Joe said...

See, the reasons 13 listed are the exact reasons why I re-up'd to go again this time. I felt bad that brand new dudes would be getting fucked by the mass exit of experienced junior enlisted members and NCOs. A bunch of inexperienced guys leading other inexperienced guys is how we deployed last time and it definitely showed.

Laurel said...

Alex, as always, I read your words with anticipation, barely breathing as I read, never knowing where your story will lead or how it will end. Keep writing, my friend...

Steve L said...

Alex, you have no idea how 'spot-'on' this post is. Wow! I feel everything exactly the way you worded. I've thought about going back in, then thought again.

I want to hook up with you guys so badly, but don't have time...due to life getting in the way. Sighs.

Anyway, great post as usual.

Talk to ya later dude.

Steve L.

Mezzo SF said...

glad to see you're posting again. hope all is going well for you.

Anonymous said...

thats why now is the time we see so many wonded men and women coming home maimed loss of limb etsc...to face a veterans healthcare system full of bacloged claims,veterans homeless,unemployable living below the poverty lines,our service organizations should be fighting harder and standing united!to days veteran is facing what those veterans faced during vietnam coming home to a system that did what they could nothing more nothingless just as they sent many of us into haarms way!veterans face the reality!

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right. I stayed in but I feel like all I do is chase what I had (as shitty as it was) but I chase it. I'm a Marine but I feel like you nailed it. I would go anywhere and do anything with my boys around me. Good article you wrote bro.

1/6 Ramadi, Iraq 06-07

Tom said...

Just read your post for the first time. Not only combat Veterans feel the closeness you feel, Those that served together for a long period of time away from loved one and family feel much the same way. I served aboard 2 aircraft carriers for long tours, and I can tell you, I miss those buddies, comrades in arms so to speak because of the closeness. I haven't felt that closeness with friends since I got out of the service 30 years ago. You put your life on the line, nothing compares to it. Thank you for your service and keeping us safe here at home

Demecia said...

I got tears in my eyes reading this. I know exactly what you are talking about and I feel it painfully every day. There are few people to open up about this and even fewer were there to understand!

DocSanchez said...

Alex, you took me back to the days when the whole platoon only knew one another by nicknames, when the guy in front of me meant more to me than family, when the the 'job' stretched me from punk to "Doc" in the first couple times in the bush...I will look forward to your posts, Dude.
How's the new job? Drop by VAMC San Fran for a free glass of water, anytime, hooah?
Michael J "Doc" Sanchez
HM2 (FMF) USN
Ret.

Alex Horton said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I appreciate it.

Steve,

Yeah man, I had this idea for a post bouncing around in my head, but it took off when you said you thought about rejoining on Facebook. Then I knew I wasn't the only one. Josh's wedding is May. We all need to make that one.

schmal said...

All very true, but more often than not, I find that the connection only lives with those you served with. At least in my case. I'm a female National Guard truck driver, who spent my 1st deployment in tractor/trailer part of the convoys, and my 2nd at a gate of a detainee ops compound. When other veterans whom I didn't serve with hear that, they give me a look like I've pooped on their boots. In fact, some people reading this probably have that look on their face right now.
I don't tell other vets I'm in the service anymore because they make me feel like my deployments didn't count and were worthless. I didn't put on boots everyday to be called worthless by my own kind.

Anonymous said...

Dude, your just going through what all vets have gone through. I was in your battalion 23 years ago (when it had a D and E company), in what looks like to me a completely different army, and I still keep in touch with some those guys, remember those days and miss it.

bigD said...

Hi Alex,
So good to read a post from you. As always, beautifully said and written.
I have thought about you often and wondered what you have been up to... now i know a part of the story. Do you mean to tell me you are living and working in DC now, just a hop, skip and a jump from Maryland? From my perspective that is way cool because maybe I can actually get to meet you one of these days. I must admit I have been in my own world of hurt for a while now and it has been very hard. I would be lying if I told it any different. More stories for another time. I hope you are doing well Alex and sometimes it's OK to hide out for a while.

Alex Horton said...

Diane,

Good to hear from you, as always. Glad you liked the post.

I've been quietly checking in to your blog here and then and following your story. I can't imagine your loss and grief, but I understand why you write about it. Please keep it up if it helps.

It would be wonderful to meet someday. I'm inside the Beltway with few friends at the moment!

CI-Roller Dude said...

Dude, well written! By the time I got to Iraq in 2004, I was 48 years old. I had been a civilain cop for over 20 years, I had been to floods, fires, earthquakes,riots, Berlin, with the reg army and the Calif National Guard. In 2003, I went to Bosnia.
So, by the time I got to Iraq, I thought I had seen a lot.

Nothing was like Iraq. Nothing was like war. In all the years I was a cop, people only tried to hurt me because I was arresting them. In Iraq, the little shits tried to kill me several times and they didn't even know who I was!

I didn't "volunteer" for Iraq to save the world or my country. I went to try to keep my buddies and other troops alive.
Just before we left Iraq, one of the guys said: "you know this war is going to change us all forever." ---and that came out of the mouth of a 23 year old E-4.

it takes time for the puzzle pieces to stop looking all chewed up...like the dog tried to eat them. but, when they heal and fit right in...then it's troops like you who'll be the future of this country.

I just retired after 20+years of reg army and national guard.

Alex Horton said...

Thanks CI, glad to hear you're finally done. Rest that back and those knees!