How do I tell you this story? I want you, the reader, to like me. I’m an affable guy, smart enough to hold a decent conversation, sly enough to meet your sarcastic remark with something equally witty. I don’t want you to dislike me.
And that’s what makes writing this story such a chore. If I write it, you won’t like me. Even if I broadstroke the vile, evil things we did in war, you won’t like me at the end of it.
I guess growing older makes me realize that I don’t have many friends who accept me for what I am. Or who I was. I’d like to keep those few friends who do accept me away from things that will destroy our friendship.
But here I am, about to tell you the true story of a small town boy who went to war and lost his sanity in the bloodsoaked sands that time forgot.
Every story has a beginning. This is mine.
As a teenager, I received quite a bit of mail from various recruiters. In my small bedroom a poster of Marines fast roping from a helicopter adorned my walls. I’d imagine myself hanging from the rope descending into some foreign land, in the dead of night, shooting bad guys and rescuing fair damsels.
What boy doesn’t dream of rescuing damsels and shooting bad guys? I reckon it’s out of character nowadays, but when I was a kid that was the norm. My dad was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He never spoke of the war to us. It was this hidden part of his life, a secret from those dearest to him.
I would wonder what made him so protective of it. We didn’t talk about war, politics or religion in our home. It was enough to know that Dad had done what he thought right concerning the war.
On September 11, 2001 I got my opportunity to find out why my dad was so introverted about what happened. As I watched the World Trade Center Towers collapse into what became known as ‘Ground Zero,’ a sudden surge of patriotism washed over me.
“By God, someone should do something!”
A couple of weeks later, I signed my name to the dotted line. I would be the change I wanted to see in the world. I laced up my boots and prepared to put boot-to-butt for those who died during that horrible day.
I would find out why my dad refused to share his wartime experiences with me.
It’s hard to put into words what I felt as I stepped on the tarmac for the plane ride over to Kuwait. I remember it being hot. We stood in line and waited for our bus. For the ninth millionth time, our names were called along with the last four of our social security number.
“Here,” I shouted when called.
Family pushed in close to get one last look at their family member. Tears fell to the asphalt as some of the hardest men and women I knew broke down in sobs. I clenched my jaws tight and breathed in through my nose.
“I will not cry,” I chide myself. “I will not weep in front of my family. They need me to be strong.”
That’s not to say that I didn’t want to cry. My future was set, but unknown. Intelligence reports were shared with us prior to this moment. We knew that we would head to Kuwait, stay at Camp New York for approximately two weeks, and then drive into Iraq.
And all of that was subject to change as soon as we put boots on ground. Buses pulled up in front of us and the air brakes hissed. The driver popped the doors open, and we loaded in from the rear to the front.
“From front to rear, count off!”
It’s amazing how many times we’d done this exact maneuver. Every time prior, someone hadn’t paid attention to the sequence and bumbled it. Not on this day. For the first time ever, we got it right, even the sergeant seemed shocked.
I had a window seat, and I looked out at my family. My wife stood holding my daughter, waving and pointing at me. Her cheeks were wet with tears. I couldn’t bear to watch her cry. Soldiers leaned over me waving at their families, promising to uphold their family honor, and shouting ‘I love you’ at their spouses and children.
More and more people clamored over us, the stifling heat soaking us all under the Texas sun. The driver called out for everyone to sit down, and I glanced out the window one last time.
“I love you,” I whispered. “I hope to see you again.”
The driver pressed the accelerator, and I stared at the seat back in front of me. The tears I swore to not cry dropped to the floor, a quiet testimony of my fear of what was to come.
We left in the late afternoon and arrived hours later at an airport in Kuwait. My group offloaded the plane and stood in columns in front of more buses. As hot as it was in Texas, it had nothing on Kuwait.
“Jesus,” I muttered trying to regain my breath. “It’s like breathing in a furnace.”
The guy next to me nodded in agreement. We took shallow breaths and tried not to move. Salt stung my eyes, and I blinked my eyes shut.
Our bus pulled up and we boarded it. The driver had the air conditioner running full blast, but it did nothing against such oppressive heat. Curtains were mounted above the windows, they were pulled shut to block the view of anyone trying to look in.
From somewhere in the rear someone yelled, “what’s the curtains for?”
Someone yelled back, “so you don’t look at their women, you godless heathen.”
The driver, a thin Arab man with a massive mustache never said a word. His eyes gave away his displeasure though, as he watched the commotion from the rear view mirror.
It was after dark before we made it to our temporary home. After we had formation, received our bunking assignments, and received another briefing, we were cut loose for midnight chow.
Even at night, the heat was smothering. It was hot, not the 117 degrees it was when we arrived, but it was near 100 that night. A group of us troopers got together and headed off to find the dining facility.
Some folks react to things differently than others. Many of my brothers and sisters were excited at the possibility of ‘combat action.’ I considered war a business, and I was employed to run missions for said business. The thought of taking a human life didn’t excite me, it wasn’t something I looked forward to doing.
I wanted to do my job and go home. The endless possibilities of harming someone or killing would pop up, of that I was sure. Twelve months in a warzone was a long time to go without doing either.
Not that it would take long to figure that out.