A Veteran’s Perspective: My Iraq Experience – Over There and At Home
Editor’s note: This post comes anonymously from a Truman member.
“Ghost 6, this is Hooligan 1… I think we have the targets. We’ve got 3 HVTs rolled up and the informant says they’re the guys.” I called in a SITREP after we finished a kill/capture mission in broad daylight on Sunni Beach just north of Baghdad. The operation was like the dozens of others we did… usually at night. Shotgun breaches to open doors. Flash bangs. Rotary wing providing overwatch. Screaming kids. Crying women begging not to take their husbands. Sometimes broken noses for the unlucky. We loaded up for the short drive back to take them to the detainee operations center. Five minutes later, a bone jarring and soul crushing detonation. Small arms fire from three directions with a dream-like memory of dazed and stressed radio calls between gun trucks. After the smoked clears I see that the truck in front of me was gone… obliterated with 500 lbs of homemade explosive buried underneath the road. I call a MEDEVAC for the two still relatively intact, but I already know the answer. As we wait on the bird, I begin the grisly task of collecting remains. I tell a Joe to get me a body bag. I was the patrol leader and it was my decision to go down that route. I felt it was my job to literally pick up the pieces. The team leader of the truck in front of me was a Georgia boy—a father of two with a wife waiting at home. He was the funny one. Beloved by everyone in the platoon. I found his leg. I remember it was much heavier than I thought it should have been.
It was FOB day. We got to leave our combat outpost in a burned out paper factory in northern Baghdad to go to the super FOB. Hot showers, hot show in a real dining facility, the chance to go to a trailer with plywood half dividers to check email or call home. We hated those who lived on the FOB, which was the majority of the people in the area. We called them Fobbits with disdain. They weren’t like us. They didn’t fight—at all let alone everyday like us. They didn’t go to the bathroom in 55 gallon drums cut in half and burn them every morning. We were better than them. The phone and internet trailers were the highlight of the “day in”, and this day at the FOB was especially sweet—we were going home in a couple weeks after a violent 12 months. The trailer was our connection to the world back home. It was an unwritten code that you didn’t talk about what you heard or saw in the trailer. Grown men crying singing happy birthday to their daughters. Grown men crying because they were just learning they were left by their wives who had emptied the shared bank account. I logged into hotmail and saw a note from my best friend’s mom. Dave and I ran cross-country together in college and then lived together since we choose the same Army base to be stationed at. We had a rough plan for when we got back… South America. He wanted to climb the Patagonias. After 12 months of rough living I was less Thoreau like. I wanted Rio… Caipirinhas, beaches and women. I thought the email was about our upcoming adventure. It read, “We regret to inform you that our son David has been killed in action.” Fondly, and signed by his mother. It was like a form letter. I checked 2 or 3 times… I was the only recipient. Shock and disbelief overwhelmed me. It was a life changing jack hammer in the stomach. I went to the operations center and checked the reporting. It was true. He died on his last patrol before going home showing the new guys what to do just one more time. Dave was set to go to grad school and teach at one of the best engineering schools in the country.
I flew home for my homecoming to family and friends. Instead of a joyous homecoming we drove to my friend’s funeral. I was lucky to be able to go I guess. One the way there we past a large group of protesters who drove a long way to hold signs that read things like, “God hates fags” and “Thank God for IEDs”. I told my friend to pull over. The unbridled violence that that was celebrated, encouraged and for which I had several medals was welling up. It had only been a few days since I had left the place that rewarded ferocious fighting. Now with people ridiculing my dead best friend, violence was no longer acceptable. My buddy kept driving.
I was at dinner with a beautiful woman I had just met… she even changed her flight back to California. We were doing the chef’s tasting with wine pairings at new restaurant. I was on a roll too. She wouldn’t stop laughing and even the server told us we were a cute couple, even though it was a first date. It was easy and natural and we were both having a great time. Other guys would look over and would smugly think to myself, “yeah, she’s with me fellas”. After scallops and before some extravagantly thought out red meat dish she saw a bracelet on my right wrist and asked what it was. It’s always awkward. I told her it was the name of a friend of mine that was killed in Iraq—his name was Dave. I had it made in sterling silver because if you’re going to wear something, it might as well be nice, right? Hilarity and the hope that the night was long from over was slowly fading. Awkward silence and questions. “What happened? I’m so sorry. What was it like? Have you killed people? Thank you for your service. Was Iraq worth it?” I empathize. She has no idea what to say or ask. She’s curious and wants to be respectful. To be honest I don’t know what I want her to say or ask. Sometimes I want to talk about it. Sometimes I don’t. It’s an uncomfortable position for both the grateful citizen and the battle hardened vet. There is no right answer or right thing to say. I make a joke about a girl at the bar alone with a drink constantly checking her phone that she is waiting on her internet date. She laughs and I’m saved. We’ve moved on. Over the last course and with several more glasses of wine she asks, “why do you wear that bracelet?” “So people ask,” I reply.