Thursday, July 01, 2010


The amount of stuff a soldier brings home from war can be limitless. Books, bootleg DVDs, letters, pictures, memories, post traumatic stress, TBI - without fail, everyone comes home with more than what they left with. The worth of some of those things can be easily determined, but others carry a more intrinsic value. Go on a backpacking trip through Europe and you might collect train tickets or pub coasters for mementos, but grabbing a keepsake from the battlefield earns an entirely different description: war trophy. Look in a thousand houses or rummage through a hundred caches and you might find something worth stuffing into your pocket.

There are strict guidelines that describe what can be taken and what should be left alone. Nothing can ever be taken from a civilian, but enemy equipment (limited to non-firearms) is mostly fair game. I kept my bayonets but had to get rid of a zip gun and an insurgent ammo bearing vest punctured by bullet holes and stained with blood. During my mid tour leave in Europe, I picked up a rock from Omaha Beach and a piece of concrete from a destroyed bunker at Pointe du Hoc, only to throw them into a patch of gravel outside of customs in Kuwait. Tangible pieces of history were lost to conform to the strict no soil policy. Brass shell casings from my first firefight were stuffed into a amnesty bin. Thousands of those ejected casings burned our necks and rolled around the floor of our vehicles, but they had to be discarded like common aluminum cans. I wanted to save a few to show my grandchildren, maybe tell them the story about how they were left behind. They'd roll them around in their hands and stick their pinkie into the top of the casing. I'd tell them, "It was in these moments that made me who I am."

Mostly everyone came back with at least one interesting thing. Al Qaeda flags were rare and treasured while bayonets produced yawns; everyone seemed to have one (I brought two home). Another common souvenir was an ammo vest. They were essential to any enemy cache and easily stuffed into a cargo pocket. I managed a unique find; a camouflage ammo vest with an Iraqi flag printed on the back, stuffed deep in a box in an insurgent safe house.

Somewhere in Baghdad, Dodo found a rare gem: a pistol holder with a golden seal of the Republican Guard affixed below a stamp reading "1984," which was about the midpoint of the Iran-Iraq War. It was attached to an ammo belt more suitable for the Old West than the Middle East. When he showed them to me, I couldn't believe those things were found together in what can only be described as a trailblazing attempt at insurgent chic. He offered them to me and I declined, but he insisted, true to his selfless and giving nature. With his generous donation to the Musée d'Dude, I put together a tiny space for war trophies centered around the concept drawing of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Memorial statue.

The sword is perhaps the most storied item in the platoon's war trophy collection. In a house littered with insurgent accoutrements, I uncovered the weapon hidden underneath a pile of blankets. I was already carrying a heavy folding litter on my back and jammed two AK47s into the carrying case. The sword barely managed to fit. Along the blade were dried streaks of blood, a peculiar fact considering it wasn't very sharp. Across the street, another platoon discovered a torture chamber utilized by insurgents operating in the area. We openly wondered if the sword was used for sadistic purposes.

My squad leader determined it was critical to mission success and took it to headquarters during my post mission shower. I had carried it for several days until we came back to base, and it was mine based on the international rules of Finder's Keepers. The battalion staff was less than impressed with its story and sent it to be blown to bits in a hole alongside dozens of captured weapons. The Snack Master just happened to be walking by the collection and just happened to spot the sword, and in a rare moment of thoughtfulness, grabbed the weapon and brought it back.

Bringing home weapons from war is a tradition as old itself, but that doesn't mean all war trophies are of death's construction. I consider myself lucky for finding not one, but two gems. After clearing an abandoned house, I looked through piles of books and papers on the floor for any important documents. I uncovered a curious portrait of one of the world's most hated dictators:

GQ Saddam now hangs on my bathroom wall. A piece of history saved.