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Six words are just not enough

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On Twitter there is a hashtag, #sixwordwar, its a collection of snippets; small distillations of people’s thoughts on war.  One presumes it’s reactions, thoughts they have about their war, and by extension (to some degree) about all wars, because the act of reduction makes some of them more aphorisms than personal recollection. One of the things I got for Christmas was a book, I’d mentioned seeing whilst I was shopping.  My beloved told someone else, and they bought it for me (family conspiracy/communication for the win).

David Finkel‘s, “Thank you for your service“.  He’s been covering war for a while.  He spent a lot of time with the 2-16 of the 4BCT 1ID during The Surge.  He wrote one hell of a book about that.  Reading it is a way to get some of the sense of things.  This one is about what happens after.

We don’t come back the same #sixwordwar

This is not new.  Adjustment disorder, PTSD, Combat Fatigue, Shell Shock, Soldier’s Heart… those take you back to the Civil War, 150 years.  Wellington is supposed to have said, “all soldiers run away”.  Battles change people.

This book, understandably covers the people who are having the hardest time coping.  I don’t think he could write a narrative account about most of us, and have it be gripping, or heartbreaking, or uplifting.  Which is the way of things, and the guys with the burns, and the ones with the stumps and the ones who have wounds which tear them up, are the ones we can point to.

But that book, is also a distillation, just like #sixwordwar.  The past few days I’ve been thinking about my war, perhaps more because the synchrony of the hashtag, and reading this book.

We all had our own war #sixwordwar

The truth of John Donne’s argument aside, each of us is an island.  What happened to me, is not what happened to anyone else, not even the people who were next to me when it happened.  Rosales was dozing when that happened.  I was looking the other way when that happened, and so forth.  We also went into the Army from different lives, and had different paths to where we were.  So there’s that.

Not all wounds can be seen #sixwordwar

That’s the crux of it.  I had an “easy” war.  None of my friends were killed.  The unit we were assigned to only lost three people (and we didn’t know them).  Only one of “our” guys was injured (she caught a grenade/IED fragment in the eye, no permanent damage).  No one tried to kill me retail, and the attempts at wholesale slaughter failed.  Easy-peasy, a cakewalk.

Or not.  I’m disabled.  It’s not visible.  I have an auto-immune disorder.  It might have manifested without my being on that all-expenses paid trip to the Land Between the Two Rivers, but the fact is I have it now, and got it then, because I was there.  I was evacced out of my A/O on 21 June, 2003.  I was out of theater, in Germany three days later.  Because a kidwas dying.  I saw it.  I knew it was happening.  I didn’t know he was my ticket out of Mosul, but I saw the docs working on him (a CSH is a small place).  I don’t recall what I was doing (going to x-ray, I think), but they were pumping his chest, and I could see his feet.  Whatever it was (heatstroke), he was on the way out.  Six hours later; him in a coma, I was flying to Kuwait (he went on to Germany, so his family could be there when they pulled the plug).

I’d guess that was, actually, the end of my “easy war”.  David Drake said being in war (he also describes his much as I describe mine, when he talks about it directly, “easy” because no one was really trying to kill him directly.  He, like me, was an interrogator), is being scared all the time.  He’s right.  I’ve said that before.  The fear becomes so normal you don’t know you have it until you are someplace you don’t actually need it.

Good luck with that.

I didn’t shoot him, thank God #sixwordwar

I could’ve.  I don’t know how many times I “took up the slack”, and let my index finger rest on the hard stop of the sear. All I had to do was add 7 lbs of pressure and I’d be sending rounds.  I never did it.  Never had to.  I remember the first time.  April, 2003.  We were heading toward LSA Dogwood, SSW of Baghdad.  First time I’d not been driving in days.  We weren’t with any of the V Corps HQ elements who’d been fucking up the convoy, anymore.  I’m on the right side of the truck, vehicle two in the column, covering the forward left.  I see a guy, t-shirt and pants, in the sand piled up near the road.  I put the post on him, swung back to account for vehicle speed; the hard edges of the trigger in the pad of my finger: and recognised the helmet; and the camo pattern; just as the TCP he was manning came into view beyond that berm.

A little more fear, a little less patience and I’d’ve lit him up.  Which would have tripwired a whole of other scared people.  They wouldn’t know I’d mistaken him for a hostile.  They’d think I saw something they didn’t.  Yeah, he was a dumbfuck to decide he needed to dig a cat-hole right there, and to leave his body-armor and blouse behind.  His NCOs let him down by letting him.  Which would’ve meant damn all to anyone when he was dead.

I remember the last time.  I was coming back from Bn, papers in my hand to be evacced to Mosul.  It was fucking hot.  We still had open-backed, soft-skinned humvees.  I hurt.  My body armor was agony on my bones.  To sit up completely was to be facing a blow-dryer.  The air was 115°F.  My bottle of tang was warmer than blood, and I was nervous as all fuck.  We were a two-vehicle convoy.  This car,  a brown Mercedes, sedan, broke the convoy.  Four men in it, all young (mid 20s-30s).  I didn’t “aim” at them, but the safety went to burst, and I set my finger on the trigger, because they shouldn’t be there.

Guy in the back leans forward, starts to take something out of his jacket….

It didn’t shine.  If it had been metal, I don’t know that I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger.

Just trying to get home alive #sixwordwar

The fear, it’s like air.  You learn to live with it.  There are hours, days, of stultifying boredom (with a hint of fear… maybe there will be mortars). There are hours of bored terror.  Then there are moments of being too busy to notice either the horror, or the terror.  Then, you leave.

So I went to Germany, me and the dead kid in the back of the plane.  Me and a lot of other soldiers who weren’t in the best shape.  I got a shower.  I got coffee, and real food, and picked raspberries from the vines on the side of the trail I hauled my aching bones up; green and loamy; with animals and faces carved into the stumps of trees; then I was taken to soak in a hot tub at the public pool in Landsthul.  And I brooded.  I was out it, and guilty and still scared.

So I went to Walter Reed.  Two months there. One suicide, a lot of people drinking too much (and I can’t be counted completely out of that number).  Then to Madigan, at Ft. Lewis.  Friends nearby, who were willing to accept me in my (not so obvious to me) broken state.  I don’t know what those who knew me before saw, nor what they thought, but they took me as I was, and that helped.  I made new friends.

And I had a squad to look after.  That helped, some.  At any given time I usually had 14 people in my care.  People to get to appointments (some to get out of bed; they had sleeping problems).  There were a few guys from my unit in the GTSB.  One who was in Kuwait for about three days, before some rockets lobbed our way led to a mad scramble to the bunkers and he wrenched his knee, 13 months stateside and a gimpy leg for the rest of his life.  He had his war too.

The woman in my squad who had grenade fragments in her knee.  The one who was possessed of a bum shoulder, and hearing loss (less than 6 years in, he got a lump sum and 35 percent disability rating.  Vocational rehab and, “thank you for service”).  The one who had been driving an LMTV  on a secondary supply route and had to choose between driving off the road, or plowing into the vehicle in front of her… she doesn’t remember the impact, nor the effort they had to take to cut her out. She’s got a patchwork of scars to remember it by.  She was lucky enough to be unconscious, and so didn’t see her A-Driver getting decapitated.

Her husband was in the same unit.  He was part of the group which cut them out.  He was home on leave,  she got pregnant.  He never really came back; self-medicating with beer, and fighting the night terrors and (I think, from what she said, always seeing her in the cab of the LMTV, and not being able to forget the sense that she was dead)  and they got a divorce.  I got to help with some of that.  Their child is gonna be ten this summer.  I don’t know how it turned out.  It was something to do, to keep my mind off the news (and from scanning the casualty lists in Army Times).  It was hard too, because they all had problems, problems that needed to be dealt with, and problems which made me feel like a poser, someone who was being more weak than anything else.

I have friends who tell me about their suicidal thoughts.  I’ve shared my brief flirtations with the idea with some people.  It’s not that I think about killing myself, but I know how easy it would be to make it happen.  I don’t want to be dead, but I can’t say it bothers me.  I like being alive, I don’t want it to end.  It will, and I’m ok with that, because sometimes I’m morbid.  And sometimes I’m still scared.  That fear, the fear that soaks into your bones until it’s like a muscle?  It doesn’t go away, just atrophies a bit.

The war cost me the life I was going to have.  It took awhile, but the war killed my relationship.  It took me a long time to come back (insofar as I will ever be back).  The me who was home wasn’t the me who left.  Eventually love wasn’t enough to hold it together.  The life I have now is good.  It’s a life I want (and everything is contingent, if it weren’t for the war I wouldn’t have met so many of the people in my life now.  I’d not be marrying this person, not be living in this place, not be who I am).

But the war shaped everything.

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