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Reconnecting

A questionaire. Four pages. On top of a stack of seven packs of some-odd papers, also. And they were? Papers for paper’s sake. The same information requested in six of them, but with different form numbers and colored headings.

Flipping through our pile in a gym’s bleachers…

Do you have any of the listed symptoms…

Initial on lines seven, 15a, date of birth, social, name on each page. In the upper left? Did he say if you had taken “malaria pills” or “anthrax” to mark “yes” in item 13?

Last test taken? Dates of shots? PPD positive in the past? Look for these symptoms. You can contract the disease up to a year after returning.

“This my 7 o’clock group? It is now 9:30. Try to not talk and keep moving. Now you may begin.”

We would proceed to where? Station four before two, three stamps then to legal and finance, only if you needed an SGLI adjustment.

Did you have your shot record? Vision tests only with glasses. “This the line for hearing? No? Down next to HIV screening? Gotit?”

…You feel like hurting yourself or others: (A lot) (often) (some) (never)…

“They didn’t sign what? Have to get in line again? Then I’m done? No? Okay.”

“How are things? Weekend’s not long enough, huh? Yeah, got a new car. Apartment’s nice.”

…Do you feel like you’re disconnected from others? Do you not find enjoyment in activities?…

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” “Yes.” “Frequent indigestion?” “Yes.” “Were you exposed to pesticides, industrial polution, sand, dirt, vehicle exhaust, and oil fires?” “Yes.” “You’re done here, go on to station seven.”

“We’re done after this?” “Yes, colonel wants you to have half days for the first week back, so we’re trying to get that to you.”

The folder doesn’t have a yellow insert , proceed to “personnel.” Line forms here. “You here for personnel? Okay, good.”

“ID card, RSRP form and the PDHA packet, you keep all that.” “Am I done?” “Yes, sir.” “Am I ready to come back to the world?” “Medically you are.”

###

Gimme some…PT…good for you…good for me

It’s good to be back on a similar time table (i.e. zone) as the majority of the readers (sorry to any New Zealanders out there…of course you’re about to hit summertime, so I’m all screwy with the “sync-ing” business).

These past few days have been very easy. The Army asks a lot from its troops, but they know how to let kids unwind a bit before the next go ’round. All that’s scheduled through the day are some quick classes. Then we’re to be released in the afternoons to get stuff updated, renewed and all that crap.

We have had PT in the mornings–have to get used to regular morning workouts again, I was always an evening cat back in Iraq.

Around 0630-ish, we stand in formation in a field, between two sets of barracks buildings. The grass is nothing more than worn patches of dry stubble–rubbed away from countless formations and exercises by thousands of troops.

I say 0630-ish because you can never be quite sure the damn morning reveille will sound. It’s barely audible, piped through speakers half the post away. Within the envelope of time we think it may go off–30, 31 or 35 after, we’ll stop any shenanigans and go to “parade rest,” which is a more formal form of “at ease”–both involving standing with your feet a shoulder’s width apart, hands clasped behind your back. Parade rest just means eyes front with no heads moving around.

After a few silent minutes with just you and the morning weather (hopefully dry, hopefully not damned cold!), the sound of bugle will insipidly give us a whisper, and we’ll hold our salute in the general direction of the post colors until the tune abates.

Then, as is our tradition, we will sing the 4th Infantry Division march–a jocular tune which is inexorably mangled and shredded by the 200-some-odd of us who fire off keys and pitches like a shotgun blast. After that, top will give us his “sounds like crap” side comment, and we’ll launch into the Army Song, where we’ll repeat the same harmonies, but with much more volume–meaning more motivation, which excuses the actual sounding like crap part. The Army’s good for that–take a crap on a piece of paper for a situation report, but sound damn motivated during PT and you’re a Gump among men.

For dessert, some poor sap is picked from a random platoon called out by top (our first sergeant…sorry, forgot to explain that one) to lead us in reciting the Soldier’s Creed–a fine little “attaboy” poem when rattled off in its entirety, but one that is drawn out like Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” in a “you say two words, then we say those two words; repeat until bleeding ears ensues” sort of way.

Then, friends…THEN we can start to PT. The act itself can be covered in Army regulations, so I won’t go through all the little rituals and steps, but great pains are made to ensure the maximum number of patrons is involved so as to nullify the actual “working out” portion of the workout. Can’t overdo things for the fat-bodies, can’t let the high-PTers do their own thing–that would split up the unit. I’m told that if I want more of a workout, I have to do it on my own.

So I push myself and max my PT standards…and instead of using the morning “PT time” to maintain that level, I get to almost break a sweat, waste two hours, and plan on investing a chunk of my evenings in the gym?

Yeah, that’s pretty much how things work in the military. That’s why they tell you to always blend in to the background and never do anything innovative or extraordinary.

And I’ve learned my lesson. See, if I complain about not getting a workout, they’ll put me in charge of leading the morning formation, which leaves you just slightly more toned, as you’re the one yelling commands during the 25 daily pushups, instead of whispering “this sucks” to the guy next to you.

But it is damn good to be back, regardless!

###

You feel me?

Under the crossed sabers during a convoy.

Under the crossed sabers during a convoy.

There is a danger in not qualifying circumstances—in letting people’s minds fill in the blanks. I’m not sure how to counteract it. But it can take advantage of people’s good graces.

I’m a soldier, recently returned from Iraq. After hearing that, immediately, every image of a battered, weary warrior comes to mind. Every romantic notion of self sacrifice, love, justice, perseverance is placed upon me. Every idea that I left family, friends, a dog, a wife, children; went through tearful nights and lonely weeks; enduring the crap of conflict every second of every day is credited to me.

And it’s easy to let people think all those things. In a few seconds of conversation, I can go from normal dude, regarded with a polite nod…to a hero, embraced with a handshake and an outpouring of sincere gratitude. “Yeah, just got back from Iraq…” Hell, I could get free meals and a few hookups if I were so inclined.

The works of past people in my position have given me this inheritance of honor. How do you take or defer this appreciation without overindulging?

I’m not looking for personal justification or pats on the back, I’m just pointing out that there are degrees of self-sacrifice and conduct.

Thousands of troops have endured horrors beyond tasteful description while in Iraq; but I’m a combat vet too? It just doesn’t fit.

I can feel the difference walking around Fort Hood now. I have a combat patch on. Others don’t. I can see some of the younger guys looking at that space on my sleeve. Do they wonder what it’s like? Do they think I’m some Blackhawk-repelling, knife-wielding, ninja?

Every time someone asks if I just got back from Iraq, I want to fill them in on the whole sordid tale—that I was always fed and relatively dry, and that I didn’t have to go outside the wire constantly like some folks.

Although I was close to getting a Combat Action Badge a few times, I never did (thank God); but I assume guys with that award go through some of this too. Some guys get a CAB for constant, consistent mortal danger—some guys get it because a tracer was fired over their humvee. But everyone that sees a soldier with a CAB immediately thinks “Wow, that guy is intense. He’s actually fought the enemy!” The same sort of imagination-filling-in-the-blanks goes on.

I can’t help but thinking this current philosophy of “everybody’s a warrior; everybody’s a hero” only cheapens things.

There was a master sergeant that deployed with my unit. He had been in 17 or 18 some odd years and never had deployed, but finally got tagged to go to Iraq. He worked in our command center—the most heavily guarded and protected building in our area. He went in, played with PowerPoint, and went back to his room. He had no roommate and easy access to phones to call family.

He lasted about two months before freaking out and saying he couldn’t take it. He got to go home. I saw him the other day at our base personnel center. He’s still a master sergeant, and he even has a combat patch. He still gets all the pats on the back and “thank you for serving” just like me.

During one of my first convoys to LSA Anaconda back in Iraq, we had to get some of our electronic equipment calibrated. The yard was run by employees of the equipment’s vendor and we had the opportunity to talk with the head honcho for a bit, as we were there all day.

The official job of one of the sergeants with me was electronics calibration, so he and the yard supervisor had a lot to jabber on about. Eventually the talk turned to money and the sergeant started to get wild eyed at the notion of all that cash, if he could land a similar job there as a civilian in a couple years’ time.

The thing that stuck with me was one of the parting comments the yard supervisor made: “Yeah. My wife hates it, but I keep telling her, ‘Honey! I’m serving my country.’” He gets to cash in on the “I served in the war” benefit package too?

And do personal intentions come in to play when considering degrees in quality of service?

I’ve met a few “I serve for my loved ones” for sure, but the majority of troops are in uniform because of job security, college money, or free medical care. Most of us are enticed to enlist for purely self-serving reasons and placed into positions of self-sacrifice, where the honor-credit thing comes in.

Every one of us will list God, country, and apple pie as the right things to say when asked why we serve—but take away combat pay, catered dining facilities and some of the other benefit packages and we’d see how much of an army patriotism alone fetches.

We’re all mercenaries on one level or another. I guess I just get a little uncomfortable with all the saintly talk of the epitomized warrior as a creature of grace and strength when I’m so used to the squabbling, petty band that actually exists. And that’s not a hit on America—soldiers have always been a rowdy and saucy bunch.

People see “soldier” and their minds fill in the rest. What’s with this noble stereotype?

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I’m published!

Word. I’m in a book. Check it out on Amazon, baby!

It was put together by Matt Burden, author of Blackfive, like THE military blog. It’s been a cool process. The book is a compilation of all manner of bloggers, families and such. I think it’s a neat collection of perspectives, especially since they’re detached from the media and are directly from those in and connected to the conflict.

Here’s a blogroll. Some links are dead, but they were included in case the authors decide to get off their boots and back into the ‘sphere.

 

365 and a Wakeup
A Day in Iraq
American at Heart
American Soldier
Argghhh!
Armor Geddon
Army Wife Toddler Mom
AustinBay.net
Biting Their Little Heads Off
Blog Machine City
Boots in Baghdad
Cali Valley Girl
Counter Column
Courage Without Fear
CPT Patti…the Sweetest Woman on the Planet Goes to Baghdad

Dadmanly
Doc in the Box
Fire Power Forward
From My Position…On the Way!
Going Green Again
Howdy (Camel Spider)
In Iraq for 365
Learning to Live
Ma Deuce Gunner
Magic from the Baghdad Cafe
Makaha Surf Report
Medicine Soldier
Military Bride
Mudville Gazette
New Lives
One Hand Clapping
Pull on Superman’s Cape
The Questing Cat
Rebel Coyote
Red State Rants
SGT Hook
Sic Vis Pace, Para Bellum
Six More Months
Some Soldier’s Mom
Smash
The Sniper Eye
A Soldier’s Perspective
Talking Salmons
This Is Your War
Training for Eternity
Trying to Grok
Wordsmith at War

And Powerline‘s combat correspondent “Major E”

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Ginger Ale

I wrote this in the first few minutes of our flight out of Kuwait back home. It was night, we had just endured a 12-hour U.S. Customs process, and I had the urge to crank out a few nouns and verbs.

***

Always ginger ale on flights.

It’s the quintessential traveler’s drink isn’t it?

“I’ll take a ginger ale.”

It’s something altogether functional and exotic.

“Does he have an upset stomach?” some may ask.

“Look how he holds the cup, it’s as if he is used to such luxury!”

Ginger ale was my choice minutes into our flight out of Iraq–well, Kuwait, really. We had bounced around theater for days, checking in, checking out. Sleeping on itchy Army wool and generally sweating more and more as we made our way South, to have our fevers break with the whooshing cool comfort of the aircraft’s air conditioning on takeoff.

The skyline in Kuwait was more developed than Iraq–still not American, suffice to say. I miss the night noise of Hooter’s billboards and hotel placards. Soon I’d see them again. Soon I’d see the damn posers, standing outside the bars.

I was sitting next to an S6 computer guy for the flight, as I had through chance on the trip in a year back.

We both sat silently as the orange-lit Kuwait evening passed. It was much more exciting on the way in.

Now, with combat patches on our sleeves and a lifetime older, we saw the hazy moonlight reflect off the Gulf and just shrugged.

What’s next?

###

Adjusting

Sooner or later, we realize that advice offered usually is for a reason.

Before we redeployed to the states, we were given several classes. Some of these were of the “don’t drink enough in two days to make up for the lost year” variety, others were on how to readjust to family life.

Since I wasn’t much of a drinker and had no family, I just quietly sat through the sessions, counting the final days before I was free to experience unfiltered Capitalism.

But a lot of what they pointed out was true. I’m finding myself in a state of weird flux now that I’m back.

I’m testy. Screaming children in stores are extra unsettling. People cutting me off in traffic spark off waves of aggression. I jump whenever voices boom over loud speakers or if something drops. Even the whirling noise of the coffee shop where I’m tapping into the Internet starts to grate on my nerves. I need some quiet.

I’m also getting the whole battery of sleeplessness, stomach trouble and all that.

Luckily, we had those classes to tell us things like this were normal, otherwise I’d be freaking out. I’m told it’s all a part of getting back into “normal” life.

There have been a few instances already where I’ve lent an ear to a cashier or clerk who needed to vent. “Can these be actual problems?” I asked myself. They seemed so trivial. Was the fact that a hand held computer wasn’t working THAT important, or that Lenard entered the tire job as a “pending” rather than a “normal”? You had to get the manager to unlock something at the register…why are you stressing over that?

Anger and frustration damages my calm.

I still think about Big and Little Mohammad back on Taji–two of our interpreters that I saw a lot. Big M was a kick-boxer, built, and dreamed about joining the American Army and starting a life in the U.S. Little M always joked with me about “not turning him in” when we headed out the wire. The rewards for turning in interpreters who worked for the Army to local militias was substantial.

Their lives were fraught with danger. Their families were in danger. Every day they had to watch themselves.

And Iraq itself is a hell of a place. You just have to catch passing headlines to see that.

The fact that a store is out of red Nokia cell phone covers seems a little trite–not to get all snobby about it. I just can’t freak out about that sort of stuff.

I’ve seen a few teenage fights with parents also. Pent-up angst unloaded in the mall, kids trying too hard to show how grown up they are. It’s very surreal.

Fingerprints on the windows and the people paid to keep them clean. It’s so different. There are endless stores and mountains of things to own and enjoy here. I keep picturing some of my Iraqi friends over here. How would they react to the glitz, the giggling girls, the kept streets, the abundance?

It’s all a part of adjusting, I suppose.

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Long, drawn out sigh of relief

Yes friends. I’m here. And I finally snagged some Internet access from a coffee shop. It’s so fast, it hurts. Definitely beats the sand out of the 1-5 kb/s back in Iraq.

The next couple of posts will be from what I was writing in my final days in Iraq. So even though I’m here in the states, when I say “here” in these entries, I’m still talking about the war zone. Where I could, I already edited the posts to say “Iraq” and such, so as not to confuse you cats.

I’m taking it easy these first few days back. I’ve bought a car and a whole lot of clothes. I’m a pretty snazzy guy nowadays, if I do say so. Very metro, sans hair gel (sorry, still can’t get into that crap). Besides, with the cropped hair, there’s not much that can be done anyway. My bad, ladies.

Without further blah-blah-blahs, here’s reflective entry one:

***

Everyone is in such a hurry to prove how brilliant they are. They never take the time to see how they can help people. Status symbols, jokes, looks, cars, clubs, beer, sex, lipstick, shoes, tight pants…whatever, everyone is out for themselves. Everyone just waits for their turn to say their piece.

I wonder if we’ll eventually issue out slogans for the day, or if people will come up with a saying that presents their personality to the world in ten or less words. People will wait until some random, roving, reality-based-television-ish camera comes by and let loose with their saying. “I’d buy that for a dollar.” “Stay classy San Diego.” “Booya Ka-sha.”

They won’t interact or talk with anyone until the camera nears. They’ll be hollow shells, putting on the facade of socializing. Lights come on and bam! Instant extrovert. Then things settle down, the hands go back in the pockets and nothing. That’s sort of how Hollywood—our version of Mecca, a sort of cultural/spiritual center—is now.

And that’s not the tragedy. What sucks is that people wouldn’t care. They wouldn’t want anything other than the fake, plastic reality. They’d love the lie. They’d enjoy the emptiness. They would be so wrapped up in themselves and their own brand of persecution and problems, that they COULDN’T see others.

That’s sin. Not their actions, but that mindset—a constant, self cannibalizing cloud of selfishness and greed that blots out the light. The inability to see beyond one’s self. Buddhism is keen on avoiding this danger of self and makes beautiful strides to teach us to quiet ourselves to hear our surroundings.

One of my favorite books is “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis. You won’t see it in a lot of evangelicals’ personal libraries because people don’t like its implications.

It puts out the notion that hell is just a bland existence, a dreary, rainy London neighborhood; where people are so self-absorbed, that they can’t see their misery. They can’t see anything but themselves. They don’t realize they’re in hell.

A group of them visits heaven, which is pure substance compared to their emptiness. Heaven is so vivid that the color and light hurt the eyes of the residents of hell. The grass pierces their feet. They can barely move the leaves of a tree. A pebble seems like a boulder. Their bodies are ghosts, gray and translucent.

Most of them are so offended and put off that they climb back into the bus that brought them to heaven (yes, a bus, just go with it) and wait to go back to hell. They’re angry that it’s so bright, angry that no one is there to meet them, angry that it hurts their feet to even walk.

They CHOOSE hell. They PREFER hell. They would rather chase after a drug, or a television series, or a video game, rather than focus on the substance of life. They trade truth for a lie.

Everywhere I look around here, I see the same attitudes. People are so selfish! I ain’t frikkin Mother Teresa either, I’m just saying.

Whether it’s ripping the government off, fudging property books, doing the adultery thing, harboring racist thoughts, stealing, abusing resources, fabricating documents, or whatever…people everywhere are just out for themselves, even in Iraq! Hell, we’re the supposed best and brightest of America, defending the virtuous and glorious free and righteous republic; and we do all that.

We choose to make the earth a little more like hell, full of deceit and corruption; instead of choosing to make earth a little more like heaven.

It’s free will. We choose it. We will it.

And it’s attitudes that shape it all. It’s from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks, the Scriptures say. Our thoughts and feelings pop into our minds and we choose to either cultivate them or move on to others. Be it anger, despair, resentment, compassion or love, we shape our attitudes like we shape our bodies—filling it with nutrients or junk.

Moreover, attitudes are eternal. Do you think that once everything is made right, God will force you to become another person? Hardly. He’ll allow you to choose where you want to go. If you want to get on the bus and leave, he’ll let you go. If you chose to be a selfish, whining bigot, he’ll respect your choice.

If you can’t stand to be around people, do you think you’ll magically love them once everything is made right? If you don’t give two sh*ts about suffering and injustice now, do you think there will be some switch that flips once God shows up?

As the great movie “Gladiator” puts it, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Not in any sort of good-deed credit report, but in that the exercises we do through life will help shape our attitudes—who we are that’s carried into the kingdom.

And I suppose that’s what makes me so damned mad at myself for the time I’ve spent at war. In the midst of what could have been the most influential time in my life, I chose to gripe and let circumstances turn me in to a seething, bitter jerk.

I did the same thing at Cedarville, my alma matter. Sure it was an infuriating place, but I could have been more of a man about it. What good did bitching do? What good does it do now?

The tragedy of Iraq is you have 135,000 troops, the great many of whom just sit and wish they were back in the land of movies and fad diets, when they could be taking freedom and all those promises of America to the streets. Instead, we lock ourselves in our bases and count the days until football starts and Survivor spins up again.

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