(navigation image)
Home American Libraries | Canadian Libraries | Universal Library | Community Texts | Project Gutenberg | Children's Library | Biodiversity Heritage Library | Additional Collections
Search: Advanced Search
Anonymous User (login or join us)
Upload
See other formats

Full text of "Operation homecoming : Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the words of U.S. troops and their families"

NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS 

DPERATIDN 
HOMECOMING 



Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, 
in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families 

Updated Edition 

"The wildly diverse pieces . . . convey an urgency and immediacy that 

brings to mind great authors of the wartime experience: 

Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O'Brien." 

CHICAGO TRIBUNE 




EDITED BY 



ANDREW CARROLL 

EDITOR OF War Letters 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2012 with funding from 

Boston Library Consortium Member Libraries 



http://archive.org/details/operationhomecom2008carr 



Best Nonfiction Books of the Year list. The Washington Post 

Top 5 Nonfiction Best Seller list 7 Rocky Mountain News 

Editor's Choice , Chicago Tribune 



"One of the chanted mantras of our time is, 'But I support the troops.' 
Terrific. Now read Operation Homecoming to find out who they are, what 
they think, feel, want, have learned, won and lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
Stand in a bookstore and start with chapter five, This Is Not a Game.'" 

— Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal 

'This book is almost impossible to put down. Some of the writing is 
laugh-out-loud funny, some is solemn, some is achingly sad . . . the submis- 
sions are heartfelt, honest, original, and free from flag-waving. . . . Runs the 
full spectrum of emotions and topics, from soldiers describing their close 
calls to suddenly widowed spouses talking about how difficult it is to deal 
with a house full of children." 

— Lisa Burgess, Stars and Stripes 

"[A] resonant and beautiful anthology. . . . Combat veterans are a fa- 
mously taciturn group. Writing, however, can be just indirect enough to 
convey ideas too painful for the spoken word. Operation Homecoming brims 
with these personal anecdotes, showing us the human beings behind the 
headlines and beneath the body armor." 

— Nathaniel Fick, Washington Post 

"The wildly diverse pieces, thematically arranged, convey an urgency 
and immediacy that brings to mind great authors of the wartime experience: 
Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O'Brien." 

— Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune 

"This beautifully edited compilation of writings . . . contains a wonder- 
ful range of voices and experience. . . . Heartening and heartbreaking . . . 
this collection provides a truly multi-faceted and agenda-free look at the 
ongoing conflict from the Americans who lived it, and deserves a large 
audience." 

—Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

"In 100 pieces of poetry, essays, letters, e-mails, plays, and journal en- 
tries, soldiers recall the awful thrill in the threat of killing or being killed, 
the deaths of buddies, and the cultural and psychological adjustments to a 
strange land." 

—Booklist (starred review) 



"Operation Homecoming is a book that should be read by every Ameri- 
can. It highlights, in an intensely personal way, the men and women that 
we have sent into harm's way and those who wait for them. It brings a slice 
of their lives right into your living room, in a way that no network news 
footage can do." 

— Peggy Carlson, Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA) 

[These writings] help us gain a fuller appreciation of those fighting, 
and dying, in a war so far away and requiring so little sacrifice at home." 
— Memorial Day editorial, USA Today 

"Any American seeking an authentic insight into our military campaigns 
of the last few years should read Operation Homecoming ... no single book 
that I have encountered tells the story with such power, immediacy, lyri- 
cism, and hard-won humanity. Indeed, Operation Homecoming should be 
in every school, university, and public library in the land." 

— Richard Currey, WA (Vietnam Veterans of America) Veteran 

"[A] lot of what appears [in Operation Homecoming] cannot be consid- 
ered antiwar, pro-war, or political at all, at least not intentionally so. For the 
most part, those of the military folks who submitted items wanted to express 
themselves in a realm where they are rarely heard — the realm of serious lit- 
erature." 

— Steve Weinberg, Boston Globe 

"So many different voices in Operation Homecoming describe, extol, re- 
gret, explain the experience of war since 9-11 that after reading this new col- 
lection of writing, it is difficult ever again to think generally about those 
fighting or those waiting at home. It may not alter your view about the war, 
but it will change your perception, whatever your perception, of what the 
people serving your country are about." 

—Todd Benoit, Bangor Daily News 

"Operation Homecoming is arguably the best kind of history because 
many of the pieces . . . starting with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and 
ending with troops returning home— were not written for publication." 

— Rick Rogers, San Diego Union-Tribune 

"The best pieces portray combat as such a heightened sensory experi- 
ence that it demands to be written about, and they suggest that war can turn 
ordinary men who wouldn't think of keeping diaries into latter-day Heming- 
ways." 

— Stephen Holden, New York Times, on the Academy Award- 
nominated documentary based on the book 




OPE RAT I O N 

^COMING 



m 



ALSO EDITED BY ANDREW CARROLL 

Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters 

101 Great American Poems 

Songs for the Open Road: Poems of Travel and Adventure 

War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars 

Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and 
Foreign War Letters— and One Man's Search to Find Them 



NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE ARTS 



OPE RAT I O N 

HOMECOMING 



IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN, AND THE HOME FRONT, 

IN THE WORDS OF U.S. TROOPS 

AND THEIR FAMILIES 



UPDATED EDITION 



PREFACE BY 

Dana Gioia 



EDITED BY 

Andrew Carroll 



THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS 



The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 

© 2006, 2008 by Southern Arts Federation 

Preface © 2006 by Dana Gioia 

Introduction and headnotes © 2006 by Andrew Carroll 

Originally published by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a di- 
vision of Random House, Inc., New York. University of Chicago Press edition 2008. 

The copyright to each individual contribution in this work is owned by its author. The full list of copy- 
rights is on page 403. 

The Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience program was created by the National 
Endowment for the Arts and is presented in partnership with the Southern Arts Federation. 

The Operation Homecoming program is funded by The Boeing Company. 

The contents of Operation Homecoming do not reflect the opinions of the National Endowment for 
the Arts, the Department of Defense, or The Boeing Company. 

Proceeds from this book will be used to provide arts and cultural programming to U.S. military com- 
munities. For more information, please go to www.OperationHomecoming.gov. 

Printed in the United States of America 

171615 1413 12 11 1009 08 12345 

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-09499-1 (paper) 
ISBN-10: 0-226-09499-5 (paper) 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Operation homecoming : Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the words of U.S. troops and 
their families / edited by Andrew Carroll ; preface by Dana Gioia. — Updated ed. 
p. cm. 

Includes index. 

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-09499-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) 

ISBN-10: 0-226-09499-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Iraq War, 2003 -Personal narratives, American. 2. 
Afghan War, 2001 —Personal narratives, American. 3. Families of military personnel — United States. 
I. Carroll, Andrew. 

DS79.76.0634 2008 

956.7044'38-dc22 

2007048835 

© The Paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National 
Standard for Information Sciences, ANSI Z39.48-1992. 



To our nations troops and their families— 
and to all who went before them 



OPERATION HOMECOMING 



PARTICIPATING WRITERS 



Operation Homecoming Director 

Jon Parrish Peede 



Editorial Panel 

Donald Anderson 
John Barr 
Andrew Carroll 
Richard Currey 
Joe Haldeman 
Barry Hannah 
Andrew Hndgins 



McKay Jenkins 
Stephen Lang 
Erin McGraw 
E. Ethelbert Miller 
Marilyn Nelson 
Kathleen Norris 
Qnang Pham 



Dan Rifenburgh 

Jeff Shaara 

Cindy Simmons 

Larry Smith 

Karen Spears Zacharias 



Workshop Teachers 

Richard Bausch 
Mark Bowden 
Andrew Carroll 
Lawrence Christon 
Tom Clancy 
Judith Ortiz Cofer 
Richard Currey 
Joe Haldeman 



Barry Hannah 
Victor Davis Hanson 
Andrew Hudgins 
McKay Jenkins 
Stephen Lang 
Bobbie Ann Mason 
Erin McGraw 
E. Ethelbert Miller 



Marilyn Nelson 
Wyatt Prunty 
Dan Rifenburgh 
Jeff Shaara 
Larry Smith 
Evan J. Wallach 
Tobias Wolff 



Audio CD Participants 

Will D. Campbell 
Shelby Foote 
Barry Hannah 
Victor Davis Hanson 



Bobbie Ann Mason 
Marilyn Nelson 
James Salter 
Louis Simpson 



Richard Wilbur 
Tobias Wolff 



PREFACE 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 



There are countless books of military history and wartime reminiscence, 
but I don't believe that there ever has been a collection quite like 
Operation Homecoming. This volume contains writing by members of the 
U.S. military who have been involved in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It 
is not an official publication. The writing did not emerge from an armed 
forces or congressional history project but grew out of a series of workshops 
sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and conducted by a group 
of distinguished American writers. The volume was edited by a civilian panel 
of writers, editors, and historians. Most important, the writing was not com- 
posed after the conflicts it describes had concluded. It was created in the 
midst of the war, sometimes even on the front lines. Finally, as Operation 
Homecoming is published, the war it discusses is still under way. 

The idea for Operation Homecoming emerged — oddly enough — in a tav- 
ern full of poets. In April 2003, at the first gathering of the nation's state poet 
laureates, the conversation turned to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mari- 
lyn Nelson, poet laureate of Connecticut, talked about the stress and uncer- 
tainty faced by the troops being mobilized for combat. The daughter of a 
Tuskegee Airman, Nelson knew the pressures on military families. Having re- 



PREFACE 



cently taught as a visiting writer at the United States Military Academy at 
West Point, she suggested that the enlisted men and women might benefit 
from the opportunity to write about their experiences. We spoke about how 
separate the worlds of literature and the military are in our society, and how 
crucially important the art of literature might be to military personnel under- 
going huge changes in their lives. What would happen if the nation fostered 
a conversation between its writers and its troops? 

The National Endowment for the Arts exists to bring the best of the arts to 
all Americans, but up to this point, the agency had never done anything to 
serve the more than three million Americans in the military or military fam- 
ilies. Perhaps this omission reflected a sort of unexamined cultural snobbism. 
At the very least, it reflected a failure of imagination on the agency's part. The 
new project, which was soon named Operation Homecoming, allowed us to 
both democratize and extend the reach of the agency's programs. 

Operation Homecoming is a unique program in American literary his- 
tory. It invited troops and their families to discuss and write about their 
wartime experiences while the events were still happening, rather than years 
later. Participants were encouraged to write in any form — fiction, poetry, 
drama, memoir, journal, or letters. Most of the workshops were conducted 
among troops who had just been rotated out of frontline combat. These ses- 
sions were also open to spouses, to discuss their experience on the home 
front. (This may be the first American war in which many of those spouses 
are male.) In some cases, workshops were held with military personnel still 
serving in combat zones, such as the sessions on the aircraft carrier USS Carl 
Vinson in the Persian Gulf. The writings contained in this book are not ret- 
rospective accounts of a completed conflict, but rather episodes from a war 
still unfolding and unfinished. Furthermore, these accounts did not emerge 
from a traditional military history program but grew out of a unique series of 
lectures, seminars, and workshops conducted by a distinguished group of 
American writers — nearly three dozen novelists, historians, poets, dramatists, 
and journalists— who operated free from any official constraints other than 
basic security guidelines. 

There seemed many good reasons to create Operation Homecoming. 
First, the program met genuine human needs by providing people facing 
enormous challenges with the opportunity for reflection and clarity that the 
reading and writing of literature afford. Second, the program had historic im- 
portance, creating personal accounts of the war— from the combat zone to 



PREFACE xiii 



the home front— by individuals who would not normally be heard. The re- 
ports on the war from politicians and journalists were printed and broadcast 
daily. Now there would be an opportunity to give voice to the troops them- 
selves. Third, the project had literary potential: Some new literary talent 
would almost certainly emerge from the hundreds of novice writers engaged 
in the NEA workshops. Finally, the workshops themselves had a social and 
cultural importance by bringing together writers and military personnel — 
two groups who do not customarily mix in contemporary America. 

The original plan for Operation Homecoming was to offer ten workshops 
on five bases. Each base would host two visiting writers, who would teach and 
lecture. To prepare for the workshops, each base would receive copies of 
books by visiting writers and a CD audiobook featuring selections of Ameri- 
can war literature from the Civil War through the Vietnam era. So that this 
new program would not divert funds from other Arts Endowment grants, we 
secured private support from The Boeing Company. We then chose one of 
the agency's regional partners, the Southern Arts Federation, to help admin- 
ister the program. 

Assembling the writers to conduct the workshops, the Arts Endowment 
consciously sought a faculty of distinction and diversity. We wanted writers 
who represented a variety of literary genres and who spanned the political 
spectrum. Virtually everyone we invited agreed to participate. Our initial fac- 
ulty represented an impressive sampling of America's finest writers, including 
Richard Bausch, Mark Bowden, Tom Clancy, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Barry Han- 
nah, Victor Davis Hanson, Bobbie Ann Mason, Marilyn Nelson, Jeff Shaara, 
and Tobias Wolff. Meanwhile, a number of other writers were interviewed 
and recorded for the audiobook, including Shelby Foote, James Salter, Louis 
Simpson, and Richard Wilbur. Since we planned to publish the best of the 
writing in an anthology, the project also needed an editor. Once again we 
were fortunate to secure our first choice— Andrew Carroll, editor of War Let- 
ters and Letters of a Nation. Neither we nor Carroll, however, yet realized the 
ultimate scope of the burgeoning project we had initiated. 

As it turned out, our original plan proved utterly inadequate. We an- 
nounced the program to the public on April 20, 2004. When news of Opera- 
tion Homecoming appeared in the media the next day, NEA phones began 
ringing, fax machines whirred, and e-mails poured into our headquarters at 
the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., as military personnel and their 
families asked to participate. Some soldiers even called from Baghdad and 



xiv PREFACE 



Kabul on their satellite phones, eager to sign up for workshops. For weeks, let- 
ters and manuscripts continued to arrive, including several powerful testi- 
monies by Vietnam War veterans who wished they had been offered a similar 
chance to come to terms with their difficult wartime experiences. All of this 
happened before the program had even begun. We realized that our initial 
plan would need to be expanded. The Boeing Company graciously agreed to 
increase its support, and several new faculty were recruited, including actor- 
playwright Stephen Lang, who agreed to visit bases abroad. 

The Arts Endowment gave the visiting writers total freedom in conduct- 
ing their workshops. They were not told what to teach, and they in turn gave 
their participants complete freedom on how and what to write. The objective 
of the program was to give voice to the American troops and their families. 
There was no way to accomplish this mission except by allowing them com- 
plete liberty. 

Eventually, the Arts Endowment conducted not ten but fifty writing work- 
shops, which reached twenty-five bases in five countries, as well as an aircraft 
carrier and fleet ship in the Persian Gulf. More than 6,000 troops and spouses 
attended small-group writing workshops. Another 25,000 troops received our 
audiobooks. Nearly 2,000 manuscripts were submitted for the anthology, total- 
ing well over 10,000 pages. (The staff eventually stopped counting.) Two 
independent editorial panels of writers, historians, journalists, and editors 
sifted through the copious material to make the final selection — ultimately 
only 5 percent of the total submissions. Once again, the editorial panel had 
no mandate except to find the best writing possible, without reference to 
point of view or political content. The Department of Defense played no role 
in selecting the contents of the book. 

There is something in Operation Homecoming to support every viewpoint 
on the war— whatever the political stance. There is also something to con- 
tradict every viewpoint on the war. I have no doubt that certain readers (or re- 
viewers) will quote some individual passage to prove or disprove some 
political theory. But such selective reading misses the true character of this 
volume. Operation Homecoming has no single author or common point of 
view. The volume comprises a chorus of one hundred voices heard as much 
in counterpoint as in harmony. These independent-minded people have 
earned their right to speak, and they do so candidly. 

No one who reads the entire book will emerge with his or her views on 
the war unchanged — no matter what those initial views may be. Operation 



PREFACE 



Homecoming is a book about a war, America's current war in Iraq and 
Afghanistan. The book presents a stark and powerful composite, full of pas- 
sionate, diverging individual accounts. It's a book not about politics but about 
particulars. Someone suggested the book be marketed as the first "official" ac- 
count of the war, but "official" is exactly what Operation Homecoming is not. 
The book presents some one hundred unofficial accounts of the war— from 
the battleground to the home base. Official language strives for objectivity, 
scope, and balance. These stories are personal, emotional, and focused. 
These testimonies seem precise because they are individual and authentic. 

One cannot tell the story of a nation without telling the story of its wars, 
and these often harrowing tales are most vividly told by the men and women 
who lived them. Today's American military is the best trained and best edu- 
cated in our nation's history. They have witnessed events that are changing 
both our nation and the world. Their perspectives enlarge and refine our 
sense of current history. It is time to let them speak. 



CONTENTS 



Preface by Dana Gioia xi 

Introduction by Andrew Carroll xix 

1. And Now It Begins 2 

Heading into Combat 

2. Hearts and Minds 66 

Interactions with Afghans and Iraqis 

3. Stuck in This Sandbox 132 

Gripes, Humor, Boredom, and the Daily Grind 

4. Worlds Apart 190 

Life on the Home Front 

5. This Is Not a Game 250 

The Physical and Emotional Toll of War 

6. Home 322 

Returning to the United States 

Acknowledgments 397 

Glossary 401 

Credits and Permissions 403 

Index of Contributors 405 

Index of Titles 407 



INTRODUCTION 

Andrew Carroll 



Emotionally," U.S. Navy Captain William J. Toti writes of those who 
serve in the American armed forces, "we pretend we're bulletproof." 

Toti was at the Pentagon on the morning of September 11 when a commer- 
cial airliner carrying fifty-nine innocent civilians slammed into the building at 
more than five hundred miles an hour. It would be months before he could 
speak about the carnage he had seen, and he did not express how fully trauma- 
tized he was by the terrorist attack until he began putting his feelings down on 
paper. Some veterans, particularly those who have witnessed firsthand the hor- 
rors of war, go their entire lives without ever discussing their experiences. 

Their reluctance is understandable. Many do not want to burden friends 
or relatives with their memories, and others question whether their loved 
ones would even be able to comprehend the harsh realities of life on the front 
lines. Some are also unwilling to confide in their fellow troops for fear of ap- 
pearing weak or unstable. Despite increased efforts by the government to pro- 
mote counseling for servicemen and women, military traditions and training 
have fostered a culture that ultimately values silent forbearance — not indi- 
vidual self-expression — in the face of adversity. 

Which is why, when the National Endowment for the Arts first ap- 
proached me about editing an anthology based on their Operation Home- 



INTRODUCTION 



coming initiative, my immediate reaction was to say no. Sending prominent 
novelists, poets, and historians to lead workshops on military bases was, I 
thought, an inspired and truly commendable idea. But I doubted much would 
come of it. Expecting active-duty personnel and their families to divulge their 
most private thoughts in stories, poems, memoirs, and other writings and then 
forward these submissions to an agency within the executive branch of the U.S. 
government seemed unrealistic, to say the least. 

Though past generations of troops have produced their share of authors, 
the percentage is minuscule compared to the number who served. And most 
of the veterans who became literary giants— Ambrose Bierce, E. E. Cummings, 
Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff- 
were published years, if not decades, after they returned home. This distance 
not only gave them the opportunity to process their thoughts, it enabled them 
to write freely, unconstrained by military censorship or oversight. The official 
language of war tends to downplay and sanitize combat through euphemisms 
and slang, covering it with layers of verbal camouflage; dead civilians are "col- 
lateral damage," the accidental killing of a comrade is "friendly fire," the in- 
tentional killing of one is "fragging," and a GI who steps on a land mine and 
explodes in a shower of flesh and blood is "pink mist." Would men and women 
in uniform today reveal the true brutality of warfare in any of their writings? 
And if so, would the NEA allow them to be published? 

Less than twenty-four hours after the launch of Operation Homecoming, 
service members and their families began inundating the agency with diaries, 
essays, song lyrics, haikus, eulogies, sketches, self-published newsletters, 
e-mails, letters, short fiction, and full-length novels and autobiographies. Al- 
though the submissions centered primarily on life in the military, the con- 
tributors displayed a knowledge of and passion for literature, religion, 
geography, and culture. One soldier paid homage to Thornton Wilder by 
composing a humorous, sharply written play titled "Our Post." Kathy Roth- 
Douquet, the wife of a Marine Corps officer commanding a helicopter 
squadron in Iraq, alluded to Emily Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with 
Feathers" in her more contemporary version, "Emily, Updated": 

Helicopters 
fly without 
feathers 



INTRODUCTION xxi 



Hope 

is the thing 
with armor. 

In an e-mail to his two young boys, Cavan and Crew, an Air Force lieutenant 
colonel named Chris Cohoes marveled at the ancient history of the land that 
passed below him as he flew across Iraq. "Have you ever heard of Meso- 
potamia?" he asked his sons. "This is where civilization began on earth (the 
Sumarians)!" "Heard of Babylon?" Cohoes continued: 

The city was built about 3,800 years ago by King Hammurabi. King 
Nebuchadnezzar (I can't say it either) built the Hanging Gardens of 
Babylon about 2,600 years ago. It is one of the Seven Ancient Wonders 
of the World. This is where many great battles took place. The Romans 
fought here. One of the Egyptian Pharaohs fought here. Now I'm fight- 
ing here. 

Contributors also related stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan 
that had yet to be told. Army Sergeant Clint Douglas recounted the surreal 
experience of dining with an Afghan warlord and his band of thugs in a di- 
lapidated castle. Dr. Edward Jewell, a commander in the Navy Reserve, 
chronicled life aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort in the early weeks of 
Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and the medical team's exhausting efforts to 
treat the wounded — even though their patients were not the people they 
were expecting. Several U.S. soldiers, including a twenty-four-year-old first 
lieutenant named Sangjoon Han, portrayed the fighting in Iraq through the 
eyes of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. And Marine Corps Lieu- 
tenant Colonel John Berens reflected on a mission he was assigned to carry 
out in Al Kut, Iraq, involving British troops who had marched through and 
died in the same region. During World War I. 

On the home front, a helicopter pilot named Peter Madsen, who had 
trained as both a soldier and a Marine, admitted how difficult it was to say 
goodbye to his wife — as she headed off to Iraq. Another Army spouse, Billie 
Hill-Hunt, wrote in verse about her rather ingenious solution to dealing 
with the emptiness of a lonely bedroom while her husband was deployed. 
In a poignant letter to her soon-to-be-born baby, Staff Sergeant Sharon 
McBride explained the challenges that awaited them because of her deci- 



xxii INTRODUCTION 

sion to stay in the military. "I can see why some single mommies choose to 
get out of the Army," McBride acknowledged, "but my resolve is true." 

Not all of the submissions were somber or full of anguish. There is levity 
even in wartime, and servicemen and women used humor to help break the 
monotony of daily routines and, most important, cope with unrelenting stress 
and anxiety. They readily poked fun at their superiors, recalled with satisfac- 
tion the practical jokes they played on one another, and laced their journals 
with sarcastic commentary about their love of everything from port-o-johns 
and MREs (prepackaged "meals, ready to eat") to the scorpions and hand- 
sized camel spiders that frequently crept into their tents and gear. 

Troops wrote as well about the thrill of combat. "There is nothing so ex- 
hilarating as being shot at and missed," Winston Churchill famously re- 
marked, and generations of warriors have described the electric surge of 
adrenaline that rushes through the veins when bombs and bullets start 
to fly. The men and women in today's armed forces are no different. "As 
long as I can remember, I've wanted to fight in a war," the main character 
in Paul Stieglitz's story "Get Some" states unabashedly. Based on Lieu- 
tenant Stieglitz's own thoughts in the first days of OIF, the semifictional ac- 
count underscored how eager he and his fellow Marines were to see action 
and, they hoped, to kill. What made the narrative especially compelling, 
however, was the revelation that their bravado was not impenetrable. After 
confronting a sight he literally found sickening, the protagonist could 
barely keep himself together. This was the first combat-related story I read, 
and I was stunned by its emotional intensity. There were many more like it 
to come. 

One after another, the submissions depicted the barbarity of combat in 
explicit and unflinching detail. "The ambulance in the middle of my six- 
vehicle column pulls forward, and I get out to find where the casualties are," 
Captain Brian Humphreys recorded in his journal about the aftermath of an 
insurgent attack. 

"What the hell is that?" I ask a Marine. Perhaps the explosion had some- 
how killed a farm animal of some sort who wandered out on the road. A 
sheep maybe? Or a cow. No, not big enough. Well, what is that and how 
did it happen? The Marine gives his buddy's name and asks me to help 
find his head. 



INTRODUCTION xxiii 

The troops were also open about the degree to which the incessant blood- 
shed was affecting them psychologically. "We are dying/' Sergeant John 
McCary wrote bluntly at the beginning of an e-mail to his family after his unit 
lost several soldiers. "Not in some philosophical, chronological, 'the end comes 
for all of us sooner or later' sense. Just dying." McCary knew how worried his 
mother was about his well-being, and he assured her that he was physically un- 
harmed. Emotionally, however, he was not unscathed. 

I'm ok, Mom. I'm just a little . . . shaken, a little sad. I know this isn't any 
Divine mission. No God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha or other divinity ever de- 
creed "Go get your body ripped to shreds, it's for the better." This is Man's 
doing. This is Man's War. And War it is. 

Whether they were Air Force nurses describing wave after wave of critically 
wounded young troops being loaded onto medevac flights or frontline military 
psychiatrists observing the toughest, most battle-hardened grunts suddenly 
break down sobbing after a firefight, contributors did not hold back in reporting 
the full damage of combat to body and soul. And in doing so they were not 
looking for pity or a pat on the back, and they certainly did not mean to frighten 
their loved ones on the home front. They only wished to ensure that the sacri- 
fices made by their brothers and sisters in arms are never forgotten, and they 
know that words like courage and honor are hollow without an understanding 
of the horrific conditions in which they are forged. 

Within a year of announcing Operation Homecoming, the NEA had ac- 
cumulated a towering, ten-thousand-page stack of submissions, and by this 
time I had enthusiastically signed on to help edit the book. (In retrospect, I 
could not have been more wrong about the influence of the project or the re- 
action it would trigger.) The question was no longer whether there would be 
enough material to produce an anthology, but how to distill into a single col- 
lection the richness and scope of these writings, which ranged from long, riv- 
eting accounts of massive ground assaults and air rescue missions to short, 
contemplative poems about Afghan poppies and the beauty of a nighttime 
Iraqi desert illuminated by lightning. 

Novels and other literary works rarely begin with an introduction ex- 
plaining how the book was created, but anthologies are different; they— or, at 
least, their editors — are obliged to elaborate on how the volume is structured 



INTRODUCTION 



and why certain pieces were chosen over others. A collection such as this 
one, which is the result of a government effort, requires perhaps even greater 
transparency. 

Before immersing myself in the editing process, I served on a panel of pro- 
fessional writers (selected by the NEA), several of whom are veterans them- 
selves. For three months we carefully read every submission, and then, after 
scoring each piece, we convened for two intense days to discuss and debate 
how we envisioned the book and which submissions merited inclusion. 

Our first challenge concerned the architecture of the anthology and 
whether it should be constructed by war, genre, military branch, or some 
other criterion. We decided that organizing by literary type or military branch 
might result in a lopsided book that lacked cohesiveness, as there are signifi- 
cantly more submissions by soldiers, airmen, and Marines than by sailors. We 
were tempted to arrange the writings sequentially by date, but, with the wars 
still unfolding, the book would abruptly conclude with whatever the last Op- 
eration Homecoming submission happened to be. 

There was strong consensus in the end that the anthology was not in- 
tended to be a chronology of the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq or an analy- 
sis of why or how these campaigns were being waged. Like the project that 
inspired it, the book was about the troops and their loved ones, and it should 
convey the personal perspective of going to war— packing up and heading 
into a combat zone, interacting with local civilians, enduring the daily grind 
of life "in the sandbox," longing for family and friends back home, facing the 
very real possibility of being killed, and, finally, returning to the States — alive, 
wounded, or dead. Within this narrative arc, the chapters and submissions 
would emphasize the individual human experience, as opposed to the sweep- 
ing history, of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

To maximize the number of writers featured in the book, we also agreed 
that certain submissions— with the permission of their authors — should be 
edited for length and clarity. Most contributors wanted to hone and polish 
their works, and we encouraged this in all cases except one: correspondence. 
There is a raw immediacy to letters and e-mails sent from the front lines, and 
they lose their potency, I think, if the words are tidied up later. (We did cut 
some down for space reasons, adding an ellipsis with four periods to indicate 
where deletions were made. Any other ellipses were in the original.) I knew 
the contributors would not be thrilled that their typos and misspellings would 



INTRODUCTION 



remain uncorrected, but I believe that their letters and e-mails, because of 
the rough spontaneity of the prose, are among the most powerful writings in 
the entire Operation Homecoming collection. 

As the panel reviewed the specific pieces to be considered for publication, 
the NEA offered four criteria to guide us in our deliberations: the work's artis- 
tic quality, its historical significance, and its contribution to the book's overall 
diversity in terms of genre — for instance, poetry, fiction, personal narrative — 
and life experience. By the end of our two-day meeting, we had whittled the 
initially overwhelming pile of submissions down to a manageable but still for- 
midable one thousand pages. I had asked the other panel members to leave 
me with an abundance of material so that I would have some flexibility in 
crafting the manuscript, and they kindly obliged. 

Over the next eight months I collaborated with Nancy Miller at Random 
House and Jon Peede at the NEA to shape the chapters and edit the final sub- 
missions line by line. (After the poet Marilyn Nelson and NEA Chairman 
Dana Gioia proposed the idea for Operation Homecoming, Jon spearheaded 
the project as a whole and worked tirelessly— including weekends, evenings, 
and vacations — to oversee its success.) Whatever concerns I had that the 
NEA might try to exert control over the manuscript, censor any of the mater- 
ial, or advance a political cause proved completely unfounded. At no time 
did I feel even a hint of pressure. 

The only "agenda" I could detect, and I supported it wholeheartedly, was 
for the book to be as faithful as possible to the heart and soul of the writings 
themselves, regardless of how jarring or potentially upsetting they might be. 
There are contributors who voice staunchly antiwar opinions and accentuate 
in their writings the pain and destruction the hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan 
have inflicted, while others express a strong sense of pride about going off to 
serve and focus on the positive achievements made in both countries over the 
past few years. Many contributors lash out at the media for only reporting when 
a bomb is detonated and not when a school or water treatment plant has been 
rebuilt, while others blame politicians in the United States for not calling on 
the nation to sacrifice more, as government leaders have done in past con- 
flicts. And some, in words that are more pained than angry, cannot believe that 
as two major wars rage overseas, claiming the lives of American men and 
women on an almost daily basis, the conflicts are often overshadowed by the 
latest movie-star gossip, celebrity wedding, or reality-show winner. Instead of 



INTRODUCTION 



diluting these impassioned and disparate sentiments, I felt the anthology would 
have more integrity and authenticity if it featured a full spectrum of viewpoints 
and experiences. 

Most of all, the book had to make the conflicts — and the people fighting 
them — real. Even in an age of twenty-four-hour cable news, Internet blogs, 
and live webcasts, war can seem abstract and remote. Its true impact cannot 
be communicated through third-person reports or the latest casualty statistics, 
no matter how staggering in size. It is best captured viscerally in the first- 
person words of those who have lived it. For Captain Robert W. Schaefer, the 
reality of war is watching helplessly from afar as two soldiers find themselves 
in a minefield and, after a split-second mistake, essentially vanish into thin 
air. For Myrna Bein, the mother of a soldier who lost part of his leg in Iraq, it's 
walking the halls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center as her son recuper- 
ates and catching glimpses of teenage troops maimed and disfigured for life. 
For Major Theodore Granger, it's the fear of coming home after a six-month 
deployment and finding that his infant son has no memory of his father. For 
Captain William J. Toti, it's observing a chaplain rush from one burn victim 
to the next outside the Pentagon and administer last rites over their bodies. 

As I worked with the contributors on the final edits of their submissions and 
wrote the short biographical introductions to each piece, one question kept 
coming to mind: What compelled these men and women to share their writ- 
ings? This could be asked of any author, I suppose, but the response to this pro- 
ject has been so enormous that it has clearly touched a nerve within the 
military. What was prompting veterans and troops to let their guard down and 
be so forthcoming? Not everything that they sent in, of course, was provocative 
or outspoken, and some potentially incendiary issues like desertion, infidelity, 
suicide, and substance abuse were addressed only peripherally. (Ideally, as the 
Operation Homecoming archive continues to grow, these and other relevant 
topics will be represented.) But the vast majority of the material submitted to 
date is remarkably intimate and candid, especially for members of a commu- 
nity renowned for its reticence and stoicism. 

When I asked the troops about their motives for writing, the responses 
were as diverse as the individuals themselves. Some explained that they do so 
purely for enjoyment: It's a hobby, a way to pass the time. Others consider it 
a necessity. They find the act of writing to be cathartic, enabling them to gain 
a measure of control over their feelings as they unravel tangled knots of emo- 
tions, one thread after another. 



INTRODUCTION xxvii 

Time and time again, I also heard contributors lament how little civilians 
know about the armed forces, and they hoped that these writings would fos- 
ter a greater understanding of the military. "Until I married my husband," the 
wife of a National Guardsman said to me, "I had no idea how demanding the 
life of a soldier is. He almost never talks about it, but it's harder than anyone 
can imagine." 

Many veterans told me as well that they decided to share their words so that 
troops overcome with grief, anger, or depression after being deployed would re- 
alize that they weren't alone. For a young combatant suffering from post- 
traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, or persistent nightmares, there can be 
solace in knowing that others have struggled with these problems, too— and 
gotten through them. 

The answer that proved to be the most memorable, however, was actually 
the first I was given. It came from a noncommissioned officer in the Army's 
Special Forces during an Operation Homecoming workshop at Fort Bragg, 
North Carolina. After I posed the question about what inspired him to par- 
ticipate, he said quietly: "This is the first time anyone's asked us to write about 
what we think of all that's going on." The small semicircle of soldiers around 
him nodded in agreement. 

This anthology marks not the completion of the Operation Homecoming 
mission, but its expansion. And there is, on a personal level, a kind of heart- 
break and joy to working on a project like this. Not all of the writings for- 
warded to the NEA are literary masterpieces, and many— especially the 
private e-mails, letters, and journals— were not, it seems evident, originally 
produced with any intention of later being published. But in even the most 
hastily dashed-off messages, there are flashes of poetry and wisdom. These au- 
thors demonstrate in submission after submission that they are more than just 
stenographers mechanically recording history. They are true artists crafting 
works of profound beauty, depth, and imagination. They have exceptional 
eyes for detail, for the small, searing images that infuse characters and mo- 
ments with drama and vitality. And although composed in the context of war, 
their pieces transcend the subject. They are about resilience, faith, loss, ter- 
ror, heroism, despair, hope, camaraderie, and the extremes of human nature, 
from its astonishing capacity for destruction to its limitless potential for com- 
passion and mercy. The value of these insights lies in what they reveal to us 
not only about warfare, but about ourselves. 

The excitement of seeing a new generation of extraordinary writers 



xxviii OPERATION HOMECOMING 

receive the attention they deserve is tempered only by the realization that so 
many others, before this effort was launched, were never encouraged to put 
their wartime experiences down on paper or preserve their correspondences 
and journals. But as discouraging as it is to consider what has been lost or 
gone unrecognized before this initiative began, now that the idea of seeking 
out the undiscovered literature of our nation's troops and their loved ones has 
taken hold, it is exhilarating to think of all that is yet to be found and of every- 
thing, ultimately, that is still to be written. 

— Andrew Carroll 
Washington, D.C 



OPERATION 

HOMI COMING 



CHAPTER ONE 



A "\. T 1™*\ ^ta T /^~*\ \ H T ¥ ' I"'" * Y^% T"^ /"""""^ ¥ ^ T C~^ 



HEADING INTO COMBAT 




The World Trade Center's North Tower and the Empire State Building, as seen 
from the South Tower, c. 1987. Photo by Gregory S. Cleghorne; used by permission. 



I remember the golden globe in the vast courtyard between the two buildings 
and a spattering fountain next to cold stone benches. Inside, I would look 
up in awe at the cathedral-like glass, the suspended walkways, and the 
grand, vaulted ceilings rising ten stories, crowned with a diadem of crystal 
chandeliers. I remember the large fabric hanging artwork. I can still smell 
the concourse level's red carpets when they were new. I was eleven. I 
remember sitting on those red carpets with my schoolbooks, imagining I 
was in the city's most elegant reading room. 

Now, up there on floors so high no hook and ladder could ever reach, a 
man in a tattered and burned white business shirt stands in a broken 
window with flames licking at him and smoke billowing around him. I 
see someone let go, briefly flying. I read later hundreds did the same. 
Hundreds. 

I remember spending many summer afternoons and twilights as a teenager 
sitting on top of the South Tower, sometimes reading poetry or a book, 
the raucous sound of the city muted and far below. I was listening only 
to the air passing by me, my mind wandering. 

A second plane slams into the South Tower. The explosion sounds like 
thunder. 

I remember closing my eyes outside in the open air up there and feeling the 
sun's warmth on my face. No matter how hot it was on those city streets 
below, there were always cool breezes at more than a thousand feet up. 
The Tower would gently sway from the wind. It was unnerving at first, 
but after a while, I remember feeling comforted like a child being 
rocked back and forth. I wasn't worried she'd tip over. Ever. 

The president addresses the nation and the world. He says to us, the armed 
forces, "Be ready." 



I 



am. 



Forty-four-year-old Petty Officer First Class Gregory S. 
Cleghorne, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. 



OPERATION HOMECOMING 



ANTOINETTE 

Personal Narrative 

Captain William J. Toti 



Just before 9:00 a.m., as word spread rapidly throughout the Pentagon, mil- 
itary and civilian personnel alike began huddling around television sets to 
watch breaking news about a plane crashing into one of the World Trade 
Center towers in New York City. "I am sitting at my desk when I hear some- 
one yell, 'Oh my Godl'" forty-four-year-old Captain William J. Toti wrote 
in a detailed, present-tense account of what he was doing on September 11, 
2001. Toti had enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age seventeen, while he was still 
in high school, and eventually became a career submariner. In 1997, he was 
given command of the nuclear fast-attack submarine USS Indianapolis, 
which was based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and named after the legendary 
World War II cruiser. On the morning of September u, Toti was in the Pen- 
tagon, serving as the special assistant to the vice chief of naval operations. 
"I glance up at the television to see the World Trade Center on fire," he con- 
tinued in his narrative. 

I walk into my outer office, turn up the volume, and hear the anchor 
theorize that the cause of impact is some sort of technological mal- 
function. We know immediately that there is no way navigational 
failure could cause an airliner to fly accidentally into a building on a 
bright clear day. By the time the second plane hits the Trade Center's 
South Tower, we all realize this is a major terrorist attack. 

What Toti and his colleagues did not know was that a third plane, 
American Airlines flight jj, was heading straight for them. 



1 quickly go back to my desk to call my wife, but nobody is there. I leave a 
voice message, telling her to take the kids out of school, stay home, and 
keep the telephone lines open. 

As I hang up the phone and walk back to the outer office, I hear the sound 
of an approaching airplane, the whine of the engines growing louder and 
louder. And then impact— a massive earthquake-like jolt. There is screaming 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 



everywhere, and the halls immediately fill with dust and smoke. There is no 
time to think. I sprint down the hall behind two other Navy officers toward 
the point of impact. 

My office is on the fourth floor of the E-ring, which is between the fifth 
and sixth corridors of the Pentagon. The plane has hit between the third and 
fourth corridors. We run through a brown haze that I learn weeks later was a 
combination of vaporized aviation fuel and particle asbestos that had been 
shaken loose from the ceiling. We pass through an area that recently had 
been abandoned for renovation and into a newly renovated, fully occupied 
area containing our operations center. 

I finally reach the fissure — a gaping hole of sunlight where there should 
be building. The floor simply has dropped out, and parts of the airplane are 
visible, burning not fifty feet below us. It does not take us long to figure out 
that even body on our floor who is still alive has evacuated, and that there is 
nothing we can do for anybody in the pit. 

I run outside to the point of impact, and I encounter total devastation. 
Aircraft parts, most no larger than a sheet of paper, litter the field. I can make 
out, on one of the larger pieces of aluminum, a red A from American air- 
lines. A column of black smoke rises into the air, bending toward the Po- 
tomac over the top of the building. 

I start to wonder, Where is everybody? Thousands of people work in that 
building, there should be hundreds streaming out of the emergency exits right 
now. But at first I see no evacuees. Then as I round the corner of the heliport 
utility building, I notice a very small number of walking wounded, and then, 
on the ground before me, one gravely injured man. He is a Pentagon main- 
tenance worker who is burned so badly that I can't tell whether he is white or 
black. Amazingly, he is still conscious. An Army officer is kneeling beside 
him, and since we are just a few feet from the still-burning building, the sol- 
dier says, "Let's get him out of here.*' A few more military men gather, and we 
carry him away from the building to the edge of Route 27, where the first am- 
bulance has just pulled up. 

As the EMTs tend to him, I look back down toward the building and see 
an open emergency exit, thick black smoke billowing out. There's some sort 
of movement inside the doorway, and it appears as if someone has fallen, so I 
run back down the hill and into the building. 

Just a few feet inside I almost stumble over a lady crawling toward the 
door. She can't stand up, and I try to lift her, but I'm having trouble because 



OPERATION HOMECOMING 



sheets of her skin are coming off in my hands. I call for help, and two Army 
officers respond immediately. Then, as we hear— and feel — a series of sec- 
ondary explosions just a few yards away, the three of us half-carry, half-drag 
the woman to the top of the hill, where we place her by the maintenance 
worker as a second ambulance arrives. 

Third-degree burns cover her. But she is conscious and lucid, and a man 
with a blue traffic vest proclaiming pentagon physician stops to examine 
her. So I leave, confident that she is in good hands, and run back down the 
hill to help evacuate another of the wounded. 

When we attempt to lift a badly burned man, he screams out, "Let go! 
Don't touch me!" Just then we hear more explosions coming from the fis- 
sure which we fear are bombs (but later learn are the airliner's oxygen tanks 
cooking off), so we carry this man out of there with him screaming the 
whole way. 

When we arrive at the top of the hill with the second man, I notice that 
the woman we had just carried up the hill is becoming agitated, saying, "I 
can't breathe." I call over to an EMT, "Do you have any oxygen?" He runs to 
the back of his rig, pulls out a bottle, and puts it on her. As the flow begins and 
she starts to calm down, she looks at me like she wants to say something. I 
kneel down beside her and ask, "Is that better, are you all right?" 

And then comes the moment I'll never forget. She blinks and asks, "Doc- 
tor, am I going to die?" Wham. Just like that. That is a question that I never 
imagined myself having to answer. I look around our little triage area on the 
side of the road — 

The first injured man I had come across is no longer conscious and is 
doing poorly. 

Another young lady is standing nearby with severely burned hands, 
screaming hysterically. 

A soldier is trying to chase down a fire truck that has become lost in the 
maze of roads surrounding the Pentagon. 

Other officers are attending to the walking wounded, and someone is 
pouring water from a five-gallon cooler bottle onto people as they exit the 
building to extinguish the small fires on their clothing. 

—And here lies this woman, with no one to attend to her but me. What 
should I say? Should I tell her I am not a doctor? But there are no answers to 
be found, so I lean over the lady and ask, "What's your name?" 

"Antoinette," she says. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 






"No, Antoinette, you're not going to die. We have a helicopter coming for 
you. I'm going to stay with you until you're on it." 

She nods, and I feel relieved for having said this. 

The medevac helicopter arrives a few minutes later. Since the Pentagon's 
heliport is in the middle of the attack area, the helo has to land up the hill 
toward the Navy Annex, on the other side of Route 27. The trek up the hill is 
surprisingly long and difficult. When we finally get her to the helicopter I yell 
out over the noise, "I'll visit you in the hospital!" Then I turn and run down 
the hill without looking back. 

When I arrive, the "Pentagon Physician" (who, it turns out, is actually a 
dentist) asks me to take charge of establishing a station to receive the "expec- 
tants," which means I am in charge of caring for those who are not expected 
to live. Just then one of the Defense Protective Service police shouts, "Clear 
the area! Another plane is coming in!" So we cram the rest of the wounded 
into the few ambulances present and they drive away. We move farther from 
the building to wait for a second attack, which never happens. This is the first 
of many false alarms that day. 

I try several times during the morning to call my wife, but the cell phone 
circuits are jammed, and eventually I kill my battery trying to get through. 
Hence, it is several hours before she knows I am still alive. 

The day is full of vivid images. At one point, a group of firefighters is in- 
side the building, knocking out windows to vent the heat, when they come 
across a Marine Corps flag. They extend the bright red flag out the window 
to a wave of cheers. 

Another time, I am going to the fissure to help an FBI agent plan his evi- 
dence walk-down. As I approach the burning core, I see a single yellow flower 
in a clay pot, miraculously sitting untouched amid smoldering embers and soot 

I also watch as a Catholic priest, who I later find out had walked three 
miles to the Pentagon from his parish in Arlington, stands over a dying man 
to give him his last rites. The priest then moves to another man, who is se- 
verely burned but still lucid enough to be screaming, and he repeats the 
sacrament. Overwhelmed by the enormity of the event, the priest walks up to 
the gaping hole in the building and gives absolution to all of the dead at once. 

One of the great ironies of the day is that earlier, when we were saturated 
by wounded, there was almost no medical help available. Then later, when 
we had hundreds of doctors, nurses, and paramedics on the scene, we had a 
profound shortage of injuries that needed treatment. Those who were res- 



8 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

cued were saved not by trained first responders, but by people who were on 
the scene at the moment of impact. 

At about 2100, almost eleven hours after the Pentagon attack, a wave of ex- 
haustion hits me, and I decide there is nothing more I can do. I need my wife 
to come for me, but I realize she will be unable to get anywhere near us. So 
I borrow a cell phone and tell her to start driving north on Interstate 395. I 
start walking south, and after about fifteen minutes a state trooper pulls over 
beside me and asks me if I want a ride. I tell him that if I get into his car I am 
afraid that my wife will never find me, so I continue walking for almost a 
mile, with him creeping along behind me in his patrol car, both of us travel- 
ing south in the northbound lane, until I arrive at the barricade and see my 
wife. 

Not surprisingly, I have trouble sleeping that night. I receive calls from 
some friends who, during World War II, survived the sinking of the cruiser 
USS Indianapolis. One says, "You got hit by a kamikaze just like us." Another 
remarks, "You got too close to us, now you have to share our fate." And 
through it all, I keep thinking about things we might have done better, the 
possibility that we might have been able to save more people. I am com- 
forted, however, by the thought that at least we saved one individual: An- 
toinette. 

The days immediately after the attack are a continuous stream of fifteen- 
hour workdays. I never find the time to make good on my promise to visit An- 
toinette. I know that she is in the Washington Hospital Center, and I call to 
check up on her, but then move on to what seem like more pressing matters. 
The urgent eclipses the important. 

On September 19, 1 open The Washington Post and find a story about An- 
toinette. Thirty-five years old, budget analyst, raising a teenage foster child by 
herself. Two dogs, Oreo and Rex. Had been on the phone with a friend be- 
fore the plane hit the Pentagon, planning a cruise together, just a month 
later. She was wheeled into the emergency room fully conscious. But despite 
hours of surgery, she never opened her eyes again. She had been burned over 
70 percent of her body. She died on September 18. 

I had only known Antoinette for a few moments, but I am shocked by the 
news and feel as if I have lost someone very close to me. I will never forget 
her. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 



During a memorial service near Ground Zero in New York, Rabbi Marc 
Gellman said that it is improper to think that on September 11 approximately 
three thousand people died. To understand the enormity of the loss, we have 
to recognize that what really happened was that a single individual died three 
thousand times. 

There were three thousand Antoinettes that day, every one of them 
searching for a human savior who never arrived. 

Toti was awarded the Legion of Merit for his actions on September u by Chief 
of Naval Operations Admiral Vem Clark. In 2003, he was promoted to serve 
as commodore of a squadron of nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines, and 
in 2006, he retired from the Navy after twenty-six years of service. 



IN-COUNTRY 

Personal Narrative 
Lieutenant Colonel Brian D. Perry, Sr. 



In a favorite cafe on the outskirts of New Orleans, Karla Perry and her chil- 
dren were enjoying breakfast on September 11, 2001, when the waitress came 
over and asked, "Your husband is on military duty, isn't he?" Mrs. Perry an- 
swered that he was. The waitress said, "You need to come look at the televi- 
sion right now." After seeing the images on the screen, Mrs. Perry turned to 
her children and remarked, "Our whole life has just changed." Within 
weeks, in fact, her husband, Brian, would be on a plane heading overseas to 
hunt down the terrorists responsible for masterminding the attacks on the 
United States. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Perry was, coincidentally, visiting 
CENTCOM (Central Command, which has been responsible for U.S. mil- 
itary operations in most of the Middle East for more than two decades) in 
Tampa, Florida, on the morning of September 11. He had just come out of 
one briefing and was about to step into another when he heard the news. A 
full-time attorney in New Orleans, Perry was one of 815,000 Americans serv- 
ing in the reserve or Guard (another 1.4 million are on active duty), and he 
would have to temporarily shut down his law practice and help his family 
prepare for his abrupt departure. And because the mission was classified, 



10 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

he could not tell them exactly what he was doing or where he was going. 
Perry would later write about certain aspects of his deployment, and in 
the following narrative he describes his first impressions of the base where 
he would be stationed and what was going through his mind during the 
seventy-two hours it took him to get there. 



rom the time I departed New Orleans to the moment we landed in- 
country, I had been traveling almost nonstop for three days. There were 
only two passengers on the MC-130 taking us to our final destination: me and 
a Marine who had recently retired but was called back to active duty. 

On the last leg of the journey, fatigue was getting the best of me. I would 
doze off and on, but the web seats were uncomfortable and made sleeping a 
challenge. Time became difficult to track. 

My mind drifted back to New Orleans. It was just a few days ago that I had 
served my last trial as a judge ad hoc. It was a coveted position, but, unfortu- 
nately, the appointment came just a week before September 11, 2001. My 
lovely wife, Karla, and our six children spent part of the day in the courtroom 
with me, and it was an emotional moment for all of us. The youngest, our 
seven-year-old son, had hidden behind the massive bench and secretly 
handed me small notes telling me how proud they all were of me. 

The stench of diesel fuel brought me back to the present. I set my watch 
to Zulu (Greenwich Mean) time, which would be my way of keeping track of 
operations no matter where we were. The place we were going was one of the 
few countries in the world to have its time thirty minutes different from oth- 
ers in the same longitude. 

The sluggish sway of the plane began to lull me to sleep again. Not the 
deep sleep my body desired, but the type where your mind is moving too 
rapidly to unwind. 

I thought back on my decision to stay in Tampa in the days immediately 
after 9/11. I did not want to leave headquarters, as there was so much to do to 
get ready for war, and I remained on duty until my wife received my mobi- 
lization orders. One week was all the time I had to close down my law office 
and return to CENTCOM. 

A sudden movement in front of me brought me back to the plane, to the 
mission. The loadmaster was no longer asleep. He was aggressively searching 
through one of the military duffel bags, from which he pulled out a helmet, 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 11 

flak vest, and what in the darkness appeared to be a pistol. He opened his 
hand and dropped the weapon onto the pallet beside him. The Marine and I 
watched the crew member retrieve and strap on the pistol, which we could 
now see was a military-issue 9mm. He had already worked his way into the 
flak jacket. 

"We are going in hot," he shouted over the pulsating engine noise. He 
started making movements with his hands indicating that, to avoid surface-to- 
air missile attack, we were going to zigzag in. 

The plane shifted and swayed in the air, jerking us back and forth and 
pressing us hard into the unforgiving seats. This was part of the "corkscrew" 
landing procedure to evade surface-to-air fire against the unarmed plane. 

The plane then rose in altitude. We watched the crew members, now in 
full battle gear, pull their seat belts tighter. We did the same. I heard the fa- 
miliar rumbling of the plane's flaps extending, followed by the clamor of 
the wheels extending beneath us. The engines were slowing and then in- 
creasing in no discernible pattern, as if the plane were faltering. Losing, 
then gaining altitude. Suddenly I felt the jolt of the wheels contacting the 
pavement. 

The loadmaster was out of his chair in a flash. After struggling with the 
side door, he was finally able to force it open, and the noise and rush of air 
startled me. The prop wash blew into the plane with a deafening roar. I ex- 
pected the propellers to be slowing to a stop, but we still seemed to be at full 
power. The Marine bolted out of his seat while I fumbled for a second with 
the double latch of the seat belt. The crew was throwing our gear out of the 
door, and another crew member made frantic hand signals for us to exit. 

The Marine made it to the door first but stopped abruptly before de- 
scending the ladder. I felt a hand on my shoulder pushing me out of the 
plane, but the Marine hadn't started moving yet. 

"Go!" the crew member yelled at us as he prodded the Marine forward 
with his hand. The Marine glared back at the crew member, but finally he 
was down the stepladder into the darkness, and I was right behind him. 

Mines, I thought, beware of the mines. This was why the Marine had hes- 
itated. We had been forewarned that the place was full of them. Stay on the 
handstand. The airplane took up most of the width of the runway and there 
was no place for us to go. Darkness surrounded us. I pulled a small flashlight 
from my pocket and, aware of the need for light discipline, lit the area around 
us for only a split second. We were right on the edge of the cement. The 



12 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

minefield lay just beyond where we stood, out there in the darkness. The 
Marine was standing next to me but I could barely see him. 

Above, a million stars shone. The sight was overwhelming. In that mo- 
ment I felt totally alone but surprisingly at peace. I knew I was where I was 
supposed to be. I thought of my wife and family, left behind with my closed 
law practice. I was comforted knowing that they, too, believed I was where I 
needed to be. Here in the fight. 

A chill wind blew down on us from the snowcapped mountains. I 
searched in vain for some way to get off the runway before the MC-130 went 
to full power for takeoff. But it was not to be. I heard the four heavy propellers 
grab more air as the plane inched forward. There was no place for us to go. 

We huddled deeper into our field jackets. The windblast forced our hands 
over our ears and we tightly closed our eyes. Dirt and small rocks peppered 
us. In a few minutes the wind abruptly and unexpectedly subsided. No lights 
were visible on the plane. I could just see its outline turning sharply into the 
night. 

We waited, not moving until the MC-130 was out of earshot. The plane 
and its crew were safe. But were we? We looked around, squinting into the 
pitch black nothingness. There was no one there to meet us. We had no ra- 
dios on us, no way to communicate with anyone. We had rushed to get on 
that plane back in Uzbekistan, and even though we weren't on the manifest, 
they had agreed to drop us off in-country. We knew that our final destination, 
the Task Force Headquarters building, was near the runway, but it was about 
0130 (one-thirty in the morning), and we didn't dare walk blindly off into the 
darkness. 

After about fifteen minutes of standing in the cold night, we heard a slight 
rumbling in the distance. The silhouette of a truck started to grow larger and 
larger as it approached. Unarmed and exhausted, we hoped it was friendly. 
The headlights were mostly blacked out but still projected a faint glow, and 
we walked quickly over to where the truck seemed to be heading. It stopped. 
A young airman looked out and, by the expression on his face, appeared more 
surprised to see us than we were to see him. To our relief, he gave us a ride. 

It was two o'clock in the morning by the time we made our way to the sup- 
port base, which was not really a base at all but just an old bullet-riddled roof- 
less building. A makeshift entranceway was added to keep light from seeping 
out of the cracks of the front doorway. A sliding hatch opened into a vestibule 
of hefty tarps. No security guards were posted, no barbed wire protected the 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 13 

perimeter. The American troops we met inside all had beards and wore civil- 
ian clothes. Their defense was being low key, and they relied on the North- 
ern Alliance and their own intelligence to notify them of an attack. Any 
Taliban in the area would be dealt with quickly, long before they could get 
close to the special operations forces. 

The light was dim inside the building. Special Forces teams slept in two 
large rooms off the main hall. Camouflaged poncho liners acted as interior 
doorways. Plywood and two-by-fours were used to fashion a separate opera- 
tions area at one end of the main room. Maps with overlays hung profession- 
ally on the bare wood walls. Radios and field telephones of different types 
were silent. The light was brighter here. 

'Til take you to the general," a bearded man who identified himself as the 
unit's sergeant major said, obviously not happy that he was awakened to greet 
the two lieutenant colonels unexpectedly dropping in. 

Voi i were brought to the wrong place. Follow me." We grabbed our 
heavy bags and dragged them along the dirt road to our headquarters. Our 
task force was separate from the war fighters here. We had a special mission. 
The sergeant major carried two of our bags and used a small flashlight 
stripped onto a headband to find his way as we moved clumsily through the 
darkness. 

Out of breath and disoriented in the blackness, we made it to our desti- 
nation and into a dust}- old building. The lights here were dim. There was a 
hole in the door where the handle was supposed to be. A water bottle filled 
with sand as ballast was used instead of a spring to keep the door closed. A lan- 
yard tied to the upper corner of the wooden door fit through a small hole in 
the doorjamb. The sand weight pulled the door tightly closed. 

A lone figure sat in a chair guarding a plywood door. He was a bearded, 
tired-looking young man, in jeans and a heavy sweater. Even with his longish 
hair and coarse wool hat I could tell he was an American soldier. He stood 
slowly as we entered, adjusting his M-16. 

"These officers belong here," the sergeant major said while he moved 
quickly back to the door. The young man just nodded. 

As we made our way through the darkness to our sleeping quarters, I was 
struck by the contrast between the building's decrepit condition and the 
twenty-first-century technology I knew was in these rooms, installed by the 
first troops who had arrived at this desolate base. There would be STU-III se- 
cure telephones, state-of-the-art computers monitored continually by signals 



14 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

technicians and information analysts, and a video-teleconferencing uplink 
system that enabled the general and his staff to communicate with fellow 
commanders back in the States. This was the "the cell/' the nerve center for 
the task force in the region. 

We were led into a small, cramped room with no heat. It was cold 
enough that I could see my own breath. Military equipment and weapons 
were suspended haphazardly from nails in the wall. A bare lightbulb 
seemed to be hanging precariously from frayed wires in the center of the 
ceiling, and I could make out the dark outline of men sleeping in cots. For 
the next five months, this was home. The Marine and I looked at each 
other. We had finally made it. I could tell by the half smile on his face that 
he, too, knew that this whole experience was history in the making and we 
were now a part of it. 

Before leaving, the sergeant major turned toward us and said respectfully 
but matter-of-factly, "Gentlemen, welcome to Afghanistan." 



TIC 

Journal 
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen McAllister 

A philosophy major who joined the U.S. Air Force not long after he gradu- 
ated from college, Stephen McAllister would go on to serve in Operation 
Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Enduring Freedom more than ten 
years later. McAllisters deployment to Afghanistan was originally sched- 
uled to last for three months. It was extended to eight. McAllister worked at 
Bagram Air Base for the Air Component Coordination Element (ACCE) 
in the headquarters of the Combined Joint Task Force (C]TF-i8o), and dur- 
ing his time there he began writing a journal. McAllister mused on both the 
serious and the relatively insignificant, from the plight of the Afghan peo- 
ple and mortar attacks on Bagram to poisonous snakes and port-o-johns 
that were almost as terrifying in their own way. (McAllisters observations 
about the bathroom facilities on base are featured on p. 143.J In one of his 
entries, which is intentionally vague in parts for reasons of operational se- 
curity, he wrote about the military euphemisms and terminology used to de- 
scribe the harsh, real-life brutality of combat. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 15 



Early in the afternoon, another map is projected on the screen at the front 
of the headquarters, prompting everyone to stop and take notice. Along 
with its graphic terrain depiction, contour lines, and named geographic fea- 
tures, there are bright yellow crosshairs in a circle. And above it are the 
words— Troops-In-Contact. The acronym is TIC, and it is shorthand for U.S. 
soldiers either engaging hostile forces or receiving fire from the enemy. It is a 
polite and dispassionate way of saying that someone is trying to kill an Amer- 
ican's son or daughter, husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend. 

At the beginning of this mission, a convoy of vehicles, mostly Humvees, is 
traveling down a gully between steeply rising hills. A single, two-lane dirt road 
winds next to a dried streambed. It serves as the sole link between two rela- 
tively large villages. Inside the lead and rear Humvees, soldiers sit in the 
driver and passenger seats, and a soldier stands in the turret manning the 
M240D machine gun. The other vehicles contain two soldiers each. All have 
their flak vests and helmets donned. The driver and passenger have their 
M-i6s "locked and loaded," on safe with a round in the chamber. The muz- 
zles rest on the floorboard. The more senior soldier is in the passenger seat, 
though all three of the troops are under twenty-five years old. I can imagine 
the driver and passenger joking about getting home to toilets that actually 
flush as they are constantly scanning the terrain for something out of the or- 
dinary. The soldier in the turret can't hear the joking below and shifts his 
focus in segments to look for the "bad guys." 

And now it begins. The lead vehicle jumps violently and dirt flies. A deaf- 
ening explosion echoes through the valley like a thunderclap. The driver and 
passenger are numb from the shock. Shards of metal and glass rip through the 
air. The turret gunner, knocked off balance, is on his knees holding on to what- 
ever feels solid. Pain like they have never known before surges through the 
driver and passenger like an electric current. The convoy behind them lurches 
to a stop. I can almost hear the soldiers in the number-two vehicle say "Jesus 
Christ" in unison and instinctively pick up their M-i6s. The ranking soldier 
yells into a microphone slung over his shoulder and clipped to the front of his 
flak vest: "Dragon Base, Dragon Base! This is Convoy Alpha. We are under 
fire! We are under fire! Coordinates 42S WD 964 629. Vehicle number one dis- 
abled. Crew status unknown. Direction of attack unknown. Request immedi- 
ate assistance." The microphone transmits every word and breath. "Stay in the 
vehicle! Everybody stay in the vehicle! No one move!" 



16 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Two soldiers cautiously approach the lead Humvee. One door is missing, 
the rest intact. The turret gunner opens a back door and slides onto the 
ground, trying to keep a low profile. 

"Jesus, what was that?" 

"Stay here." 

The driver and passenger are both conscious but obviously in shock. 
Blood covers the right side of the driver's face. The passenger's mouth is also 
bleeding profusely and he's wincing in agony. They're taken from the vehicle 
and laid on the ground. "Dragon Base, Dragon Base, Convoy Alpha request- 
ing immediate medevac. Two injuries — both stable." 

The headquarters is all business. Is there close air support available? What 
caused the explosion? What time did the explosion happen? Where's the 
nearest medevac? Launch the HH-60 and support it with an AH-64. Take the 
patients to the nearest airfield where we can stabilize them and put them on 
a bird to Bagram. We've heard reports that it was an RPG (rocket-propelled 
grenade). Can we get confirmation? We need to launch a Chinook to sling- 
load the damaged Humvee and bring it to Bagram for analysis. The HH-60 is 
en route, expect arrival in fifteen minutes. Hold the C-130. We'll put the pa- 
tients on it. Remainder of the convoy reports negative contact. Close air sup- 
port reports negative contact. Chinook estimating arrival in twenty minutes. 
HH-60 arrived. Patients stable. Transload to C-130. Expect departure in 
twenty-five minutes; arrival at Bagram in one hour and twenty-five minutes. 
We now believe they struck a mine. Chinook sling-loading Humvee now. 
Second explosion. RPG? No injuries, no damage. Convoy reports mines. 
Professional and dispassionate. 

The moon is out now, casting shadows everywhere. A patrol is investigat- 
ing reports of suspicious activity within a kilometer of base camp. Twelve sol- 
diers struggle with the moon's brightness, which washes out the NVGs (night 
vision goggles). They stumble on rocks, cursing. Approaching the reported 
coordinates they find twenty individuals fully armed with AK-47S and RPGs. 
Suddenly, the armed men turn and run. The patrol begins pursuit. The 
armed men stop and turn, shooting into the darkness. The patrol returns fire. 
One soldier abruptly stops shooting and doesn't respond. Another is cursing 
and swearing. The assailants get away. The first soldier has been shot in the 
head and is covered in blood. The second soldier is lucky. The bullet grazed 
his cheek and exited the back of his helmet. The squad leader radios for 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 17 

medevac and again the HH-6os and AH-64S scramble. The soldier with the 
head wound dies before getting to a hospital. 

I stand at the gate to the flight line for the arrival of a C-130, which is car- 
rying the remains of the soldier. The moon's gone and the clouds are thick- 
ening. The only stars visible are running from the advancing storm front and 
the blackness is penetrating. A crowd of troops gathers, though it's difficult to 
tell how many have come. Uniforms stand next to sweat clothes, young next 
to old, men next to women. Some strain to see as the aft ramp lowers, others 
look blankly at their feet. We watch intently as the body, entirely covered, is 
removed on a stretcher and put in the waiting ambulance. The general 
salutes as the ambulance passes. Some follow suit. Others, lost in prayer, 
deep thoughts, tears, salute in their own private way. Once the ambulance 
disappears into the darkness, some of the gathered start to walk back to their 
tents. It takes a little longer for others to start moving. No one says a word. 

As I walk slowly to work, I wonder if the young dead soldier has a wife and 
children. Would his son or daughter be allowed to see him? Would they rec- 
ognize him when he comes home? Would they remember him as they 
walked across their high school commencement stage or at their wedding? 
Would his grandchildren ever know how their grandfather died? How long 
before his memory would disappear? Fifteen seconds on CNN. 

It's still dark when I start the daily reports. There isn't an airlift mission of 
special note today. Airpower didn't dispense any flares, drop any bombs, fire 
any guns. Combat air support covers the next twenty-four hours. 

The bottom line on the report— NSTR. Nothing Significant to Report. 



FRIENDLY FIRE 

Personal Narrative 

Captain Michael S. Daftarian 



As American and Coalition infantry units poured into Southwest Asia to 
serve in Operation Enduring Freedom, thousands of airmen flew over the 
region to bomb A/ Qaeda and Taliban targets and provide close air sup- 
port for the troops on the ground. Thirty-two-year-old U.S. Air Force Re- 
serve captain Michael S. Daftarian, a civilian pilot and firefighter prior 



18 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

to his active-duty service, was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan, in Au- 
gust 2002 for six months with the 354th Fighter Squadron of the 355^/1 
Fighter Wing from Arizona. In the following account, Daftarian describes 
not only the technical and logistical challenges of flying an A-10 Warthog in 
the chaos of combat, but the split-second decisions that have to be made 
while traveling at more than four hundred miles an hour— in the dark. 



The particular area we're headed to contains a small U.S. outpost located 
on the Pakistan border surrounded by hilly and moderately mountain- 
ous terrain. I've provided support to the ground forward air controllers, or 
GFACs, there before, but never on a dark night like this one. Conversely, my 
lead pilot is on his second flight in-country and his first night flight here, hav- 
ing only arrived three days prior. 

As we continue south, passing off my four o'clock are the lights of Kabul, 
the last, and really only, major city or town of any kind in this vast region. Off 
to the distant east is the well-lit Pakistani city of Peshawar. To the south is 
nothingness, and that's where we are directly headed. A faint something be- 
gins to appear. It almost looks like Saint Elmo's fire dancing around. My lead 
and I are coordinating on our interflight radio, cross-checking the map loca- 
tion, and quickly reviewing available tactics to use. As we get closer, it be- 
comes clear that what I'm seeing are tracers from automatic weapons fire. 

Lead gives a call on the designated UHF freq and uses the ground unit's 
call sign: "Playmate, this is Misty One-One." 

No answer; we're still too far out. Approaching twenty miles from the 
area, it's now apparent that there's a serious battle going on down there. The 
tracers are heavy coming from the northeast, while the return fire from what 
must be our guys is not as intense. I also see what looks like strobe-light 
flashes appear on the southwest side of the fighting. The scene is difficult to 
describe, but it's akin to a fireworks show gone insane, with Roman candles 
shooting in every direction on the ground. 

Lead tries the call again, "Playmate, Misty One-One." 

Immediately we get a response. "Misty One-One, Playmate, we got a situ- 
ation here," the guy on the radio is yelling. "We're under automatic weapons 
fire at this time from our north. What's your location and what you got?" 

Normally, in close air support, there's a standard litany of information 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 19 

that's passed back and forth when checking in with a ground unit, and prior 
to expending munitions. Called the "9-line," it's nine essential elements of 
coordination information passed from the ground unit to the supporting air- 
craft. It contains such items as target coordinates, target elevation, target type, 
friendly location, any restrictions, any marking devices to be used, heading 
and distance to the target if running in from an initial point, etc. Right now, 
there is no time to go through a standard coordination drill, and most of the 
information we need is readily apparent just by what we are looking at on the 
ground. 

"Misty, Playmate, we're taking a beating from the hills to our north, heavy 
fire. We need that suppressed. You got that area in sight?" the GFAC asks. 

"Affirmative," lead answers. "I'm contact that, we can be there in one 
mike with strafe. What restrictions you got for us?" The GFAC reads us the 
restrictions of northwest to southeast or vice versa, in order to keep stray 
rounds from hitting friendlies. What is so surreal about this situation is that 
from my jet, I can see what can only be described as a beautiful light show. 
The significance of the destruction being sent back and forth down there is 
apparent only each time the GFAC keys his mike. Each time he transmits, I 
can hear automatic weapons, rifle fire, and men shouting in the background. 

The GFAC keys up, yelling into the mike (probably due to being nearly 
deaf from all the close gunfire), "Misty, Playmate, you got your restrictions, 
you're cleared hot, call in with direction and target in sight, you've— 
INCOMING!" 

At that exact moment Playmate's radio cuts off, and I see what appears 
from my vantage point to be two bottle rockets zing across the ground from 
the hillside and impact the camp with two bright, instantaneous glows. 

Playmate had been talking into his handset with us, and had seen the 
RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades coming his way. I could hear the whoosh- 
bang of the explosion as Playmate yelled the "INCOMING" warning to his 
comrades, while at the same time watching it happen from the air. 

Lead calls, "Misty, Playmate, you up? You all right?" 

No answer. 

In a few seconds, Playmate comes back up, yelling into the handset, 
somewhat incoherent and breathing heavily, as if he'd just been punched in 
the gut: "You . . . Copy? . . . you're cleared . . . hot . . . need the munitions 
now . . . Juliet Papa." 

Juliet Papa is the confirmation code. In close air support ops, if you're 



20 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

dropping bombs in support of troops-in-contact, they must verify that they 
know, approve, and accept the risk of your dropping munitions close to their 
position, mindful of the fact that they could potentially get hit. This was not 
only troops-in-contact, this was danger-close. The enemy is located only 
about seven hundred to eight hundred meters from the friendly position. 
Considering that a 500-pound bomb has a minimum safe distance of 425 me- 
ters, there is no room for error here. As I set up my switches for my first pass, 
I mentally rehearse the pilot prayer: "Please God, don't let me fuck up/' 

Lead and I quickly confirm our game plan: we will start our first pass with 
strafe from the 30 mm cannon and work from there. Tonight, my weapons 
loadout is 1,170 rounds of 30 mm gun, two Mk-82 500-pound bombs, one 
seven-shot pod of rockets, and one Maverick air-ground missile. I quickly 
double-check my switches: Heads Up Display (HUD) on top of the dash 
panel is set to guns, gunsight cross visible, backup gunsight mil-setting dialed 
in, 30 mm cannon selected to on/high, master arm selected to arm, green 
"gun ready" light visible on the top center of the instrument panel. Lead 
calls, "Misty One's in from the southeast hot, target in sight." 

"Cleared . . . hot," comes the exhausted response from Playmate amid the 
ever-present staccato of gunfire. 

Lead calls, "Off target, west," just as Playmate, watching our strike, comes 
up with "Two, work further north from there along the hill. ..." I acknowl- 
edge Playmate's correction. 

Shortly thereafter, I call, "Two's in from the southeast, target in sight." 

"You're cleared hot, Two," comes the reply. 

The target is just to my left. I roll into a 140-degree bank, simultaneously 
cracking the throttles back to half and letting the nose fall through the hori- 
zon. I then pull it up in a slicing maneuver through seventy degrees nose low 
towards the target as I roll wings-level, stabilizing in a level, fifty-degree dive. 

The altimeter is rapidly unwinding, going full-circle counterclockwise 
about once a second. I roll in at 17,000, and am now passing 14,000 in a fifty- 
degree dive. I fan out the speed brakes as the airspeed begins passing 370 
knots, while simultaneously centering up the target in the gun sight. 

BRRRRRRRRRRRIPPPPPPP goes the cannon as I squeeze the trigger, 
sending seventy rounds per second down into the hillside below. 

I see the enemy tracer fire still going as my rounds impact like so many 
sparklers, reminding me of a dark concert hall with tons of camera flashbulbs 
going off. I keep the trigger squeezed and move the stick forward and aft 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 21 

about one inch, spreading out the death and destruction on the hillside in- 
stead of just keeping it focused on one area. When shooting tanks you want 
to concentrate your gunfire, a method commonly known as track-shoot-track. 
Here, I want to spread the bullets — share the love, if you will— with as many 
of the enemy as I can. I hold the trigger for what seems like an eternity, get- 
ting blinded by the flame now coming from the front of the jet. 

Mindful that I am screaming towards mountainous terrain in a fifty- 
degree dive with an airspeed of 440 knots and the altimeter wildly spinning 
through 8,000 feet, I come off the gun trigger and haul the stick into my lap 
and shove the throttles forward. I pull up into a forty-degree climb and roll 
into a ninety-degree left bank, letting the nose fall to the horizon as I reenter 
my left-hand orbit of the target. 

I can see that there's still enemy fire coming from the northern side of the 
hill, though the overall volume is less than it was before. Lead gets to his roll- 
in point and calls in from the southeast again. He receives a "cleared hot" 
from Playmate. 

He calls off target to the west again, and Playmate comes on freq with a 
request: "Two, can you give me those bombs on this next pass? I wanna waste 
the hillside. We still got movers up there firing . . . and we're heading towards 
that location." 

I respond with affirmative and ask if I can be in from the south this next 
pass to give me a varied run-in heading (don't want to use the same tactics too 
many times), and to buy me a little more breathing room from the friendlies, 
who are now starting to fan out from the camp perimeter. I reset my switches 
for bombs now: 30 mm cannon still set to ON as backup, weapons stations 
four and eight selected, fuzing sequence set to ripple-single, two bombs se- 
lected with thirty-one-millisecond interval, master arm checked in arm, 
green rr ready lights on the bomb panel. Passing on the south side of the tar- 
get, I call, "Two's in from the south, target in sight." 

Playmate passes the "cleared hot" and I roll in. 

I stabilize in a fifty-degree dive again. The altimeter madly unwinds and 
the airspeed increases as I watch the bombsight, or "pipper," slowly track up 
the HUD to the area of enemy fire on the center of the hillside. As the pipper 
tracks over that point, I press the "pickle" button, and feel a slight jolt as the 
jet rids itself of two 500-pound bombs from its underside. Pulling off target 
into a thirty-degree climb and rolling back down to the horizon, I see my two 



22 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

bombs detonate: one on the center of the hill, and one on the northwest side, 
both creating a large "photoflash" effect as they explode. Both land slightly 
left of where I've aimed them, closer to the friendlies. Instantly, I get on the 
radio. "Playmate, Misty Two, how were those bombs?" 

Static. 

No response from Playmate. A huge lump forms in my throat. I come 
back with "Playmate, Misty Two, how'd those bombs look?" 

Nothing. 

"Playmate, Misty Two, acknowledge!" Still nothing but broken static. 

Looking down at the hillside, there are no more tracers. None from any- 
where. A few fires burning here and there, but no signs of any weapon fire, ei- 
ther from the enemy in the hills or from the friendlies near the outpost. 

Goddammit! Dammit to hell. Nothing can compare to the feeling that 
you Ve just bombed your own troops, the very guys you came to support. 
"Playmate, Misty Two, what's your SITREP?" (situation report). Nothing. 

Then there's the sound of a mike keying. Once, twice. Playmate comes 
up: "Two . . . good hits, we're still hunkering down. . . . We still got shrapnel 
raining down here, but the hillside is gone! Break, break . . . One, put your 
bombs on the far-north side of the hill." 

Damn that was close, too close for comfort. But an indescribable relief. 
Lead drops his bombs on the north side of the hill. We each make two more 
passes, expending our rockets and some more gunfire on the eastern side of 
the hill near the border, in order to try to get anyone attempting to escape 
back across to Pakistan. 

Playmate reports all clear, thanks us, and promises to forward the BDA 
(bomb damage assessment) come daylight. Then he clears us off-target. 

"Copy that, Playmate. We can be back in a hurry if you need us," I say, 
and then turn the plane around to begin the forty-minute flight to Bagram. 
Less than two and a half hours later, after returning to base, debriefing the in- 
telligence officers, and reviewing the videotapes of the mission, I'm back in 
my bunk. 

Seven months after returning to Arizona from Afghanistan, Daftarian was 
called up to serve again — this time to provide close air support to U.S. 
ground troops fighting in the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 23 

A QUICK LOOK AT WHO IS FIGHTING THIS WAR 

Letter 

Captain Ryan Kelly 

As a blinding sandstorm whipped through Camp Buehring in Udairi y 
Kuwait, thirty-five-year-old U.S. Army Captain Ryan Kelly sat in a tent typ- 
ing out a letter to his mother hack in Colorado. "The worst thing here is not 
the searing heat or the cold nights" Kelly wrote. "It's the waiting." 

Waiting for the wind to quit blowing and the sand to quit grinding 
against your skin. Waiting for a moment of privacy in a tent packed 
with yo other men, in a camp packed with yoo other tents, in a base 
packed with 15,000 soldiers, all looking for a clean place to go to the 
bathroom. . . . Waiting for the bone-rattling coughs from dust finer 
than powdered sugar to stop attacking the lungs. Waiting for the gen- 
erals to order the battalion to move north, toward Tikrit, where oth- 
ers—Iraqis—are also waiting: waiting for us. . . . 

While stuck at Camp Buehring preparing himself for battle, Kelly had 
the opportunity to reflect not only on the imminent charge into Iraq, but on 
the men and women who would be going with him. His letter to his mother 
continued: 

A quick look around my tent will show you who is fighting this war. 
There's Ed, a 58-year-old grandfather from Delaware. He never com- 
plains about his age, but his body does, in aches and creaks and in the slow- 
ness of his movements on late nights and cold mornings. . . . 

There's Lindon, a 31-year-old black-as-coal ex-Navy man from Trinidad 
who speaks every word with a smile. His grandfather owned an animal farm 
and lived next to his grandmother, who owned an adjacent cocoa field. They 
met as children. 

There's SGT Lilian, a single mother who left her five-year-old daughter at 
home with a frail and aging mother because nobody else was there to help. 

There's Melissa and Mike, two sergeants who got married inside the Ft. 
Dix chapel a month before we deployed — so in love, yet forbidden, because 



24 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

of fraternization policies, even to hold hands in front of other soldiers. But if 
you watch them closely, you can catch them stealing secret glances at each 
other. Sometimes I'll see them sitting together on a box of bottled water ten- 
derly sharing a lunch. They are so focused on each other, that the world 
seems to dissolve around them. If they were on a picnic in Sheep's Meadow 
in Central Park, instead of here, surrounded by sand and war machines, it 
would be the same. War's a hell of a way to spend your honeymoon. 

There's SFC Ernesto, 38, a professional soldier whose father owns a cof- 
fee plantation in Puerto Rico and whose four-year-old daughter cries when 
he calls. 

There's Noah, a 23-year-old motor cross stuntman, who wears his hair on 
the ragged edge of army regulations. He's been asking me for months to let 
him ship his motorcycle to the desert. I keep telling him no. 

There's CW4 Jerry, the "Linedog" of aviation maintenance, whose fa- 
ther was wounded in WWII a month after he arrived in combat. On D-Day, 
a bouncing betty popped up from behind a hedge grove near Normandy 
Beach and spewed burning white phosphorus all over his body, consigning 
the man to a cane and a stutter for the rest of his life. CW4 Jerry lives out 
on the flight line, going from aircraft to aircraft with his odd bag of tools, 
like a doctor making house calls. He works so hard I often have to order 
him to take a day off. 

There's Martina, 22, a jet-black-haired girl, who fled Macedonia with her 
family to escape the genocide of the Bosnia-Croatian civil war. Her family ran 
away to prevent the draft from snatching up her older brother and consuming 
him in a war they considered absurd and illegal. A few years later, the family, 
with no place else to run, watched helplessly as the US flew their daughter into 
Iraq. She's not even a US citizen, just a foreigner fighting for a foreign country 
on foreign soil for a foreign cause. She has become one of my best soldiers. 

There is William "Wild Bill," a 23-year-old kid from Jersey with a strong 
chin and a James Dean-like grin. The day before we went on leave, he roared 
up in front of the barracks and beamed at me from behind the wheel of a 
gleaming-white monster truck that he bought for $1500. Three days later, he 
drove it into the heart of Amish country where the transmission clanked and 
clattered it to a stop. He drank beer all night at some stranger's house, and in 
the morning, sold them the truck. Kicker is, he made it back to post in time 
for my formation. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 25 

There's my lSG, my no-nonsense right-hand man. He's my counsel, my 
confidant, my friend. He's the top enlisted man in the company with 28 years 
in the army, and would snap his back, and anybody else's for that matter, for 
any one of our men. Last year, his pit bull attacked his wife's smaller dog— a 
terrier of some sort, I think. As she tried to pry them apart, the pit bit off the 
tip of her ring finger. Top punched the pit bull in the skull and eventually 
separated the two. A hospital visit and a half a pack of cigarettes later, he 
learned the blow broke his hand. He bought her a new wedding ring in 
Kuwait. 

And on, and on and on. . . . 

I hope you are doing well, mom. I'm doing my best. For them. For me. 
For you. I hope it's good enough. 

Tell everyone I said hello and that I love and miss them. Talk to you soon. 

Love, 
Ryan 

Captain Kelly was responsible for every one of these individuals, as well as 
more than seventy other soldiers. He— and all of them— would come home 
alive after almost a year of combat in Iraq. 



DISTANT THUNDER 

Personal Narrative 

Sergeant Denis Prior 



"I hate the idea of war and I cant wait for it to begin" Denis Prior writes at 
the beginning of a moment-by-moment account of the days just before and 
after the launch of the March 2003 invasion into Iraq. A thirty-year-old 
U.S. Army sergeant originally from Mobile, Alabama, Prior was attached to 
the 3/7 Cavalry Squadron, yd Infantry Division. After being trained in Ara- 
bic, he was designated as a HUMINT (human intelligence) collector— or, 
as it is more commonly known, an interrogator. Prior was deployed to 
Kuwait in October 2002, and after six months in the desert, he was anxious 
for the war to start. "Every soldier in Kuwait feels the same way," Prior goes 
on to explain in his narrative, 




26 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

even though we never say so, never in fact talk about it. Every day as 
we inch closer to the inevitable but still unknown date when we will 
charge across the berm we grow more certain it is a terrible idea and 
grow more apprehensive partly because we want to begin before the 
horrifying heat of summer starts to simmer, partly because we just 
want to get it over with, but mostly, deep down, we are afraid it may 
not happen, and even though we dont want it to happen we have 
grown to count on it. We are, however reluctant, soldiers, and we have 
trained and trained, lived eaten and slept a hundred pretend wars, 
and we are desperately ready to commence with a real one, however 
much we dread it. 

And then, almost before Prior himself realizes it, the war has begun. 



/ e haven't even crossed the border yet when an explosion rocks our 
left side. Later we will find out that it is an errant Iraqi missile aimed 
at Kuwait City, but we all assume now a battle is starting, except that nothing 
else follows and we proceed uneasily to the border. Just as planned, the berms 
and fences are breached, the line through marked, the other side secure. We 
hear sporadic small-arms fire in the distance, but it dies down quickly, and 
nothing about it comes over the net, so we don't figure it to be real resistance. 
Still, everyone is tense, and within an hour the lead hunter-killer team spots 
an enemy tank to his two o'clock and asks Apache Six for permission to fire. 

"Are you sure it's an enemy tank?" Six asks. 

"Roger, Six, it's a T-54." 

"Kill it." 

We hear the boom of the Abrams's big gun, and the team leader reports a 
direct hit. 

"Six, we have some movement on our left, can't make it out yet, but it 
could be a group of tanks." 

Meanwhile nothing stirs from the burning tank to our right. The CO has 
the first team keep moving while a trail team sweeps out for a better look at 
the tank. 

"Six, I think it's at least three T-62S, eleven o'clock. Permission to engage." 

"You're sure they're not our tracks?" 

No response. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 27 

"Why don't you wait till you see what you're shooting, Blue." 

"Roger." 

"Six, this is White Four. Coming around the tank on the right." 

"Send it, Four." 

"The good news is, it's an enemy tank, and it's destroyed. The bad news 
is, it looks like it was destroyed in Desert Storm." 

We all chuckle. 

"Apache Six, this is Blue One. Negative enemy contact on the left here." 

"Well, what was it, Blue?" 

"It looks like it's, uh . . . a herd of camels." 

We could hear a collective groan from the entire troop. 

"All right, Apache, everybody settle down," Six said. "Every blip on the 
radar's not gonna be Godzilla. Scan your lane, and wait till you can identify 
something. Six out." 

A sandstorm hits just after dark, and it gets harder and harder to follow the 
order of march. We are traveling with no lights except our blackouts, the dim 
bulbs that are only visible by NVGs. The air is full of sand, and there is only 
a bare sliver of a waning moon. Chief Wilder raises Chaos on the radio and 
asks who they are following. "Nobody," they yell, "we can't see anything!" 

Chief tells them to follow us and, cursing, Gene veers off in the direction 
he thinks he saw the convoy, and the rest of the train falls in behind us. Mike 
and I, in the back and without NVGs, can see nothing except dim swirls of 
sand and the occasional faint bouncing set of lights from roving parts of the 
convoy. The terrain gets rockier and hillier, and our gear, so carefully placed, 
is bouncing up and down and around. By the time we catch up with the ve- 
hicles ahead of us, the convoy is in shambles. There are vehicles all over the 
rocky desert. Captain Lyle is anxious to get to Samawah because Crazy Horse 
is taking the canal bridge and we are supposed to immediately take the river 
bridges. He is shouting on the radio, back and forth with the first sergeant, try- 
ing to locate the sprawling pieces of his unit. 

"Band-Aid, where are you?" he yells into the radio. 

"We're just right of Apache Seven," they answer. 

"That's a negative," the first sergeant cuts in. "I don't see anybody on my 
right." 

"Don't give me this right-left shit," the captain counters, "give me a god- 
damn grid!" 



28 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Band-Aid reads off a grid, and the captain is silent, plotting it, while the 
first sergeant stays on the radio trying to consolidate the trains. 

"Where the fuck are we?" Chief Wilder asks, his eyes jumping from the 
plugger to the map. 

"We're right behind the 113s. That's either Rock or Thunder up there." 

"Is Apache Seven behind us?" 

"Must be." 

"Band-Aid, you are nowhere near Apache Seven," says the commander. 
"Who is the last in the convoy?" There is silence on the radio. "Goddammit," 
Seven yells, "Apache Eight, you're supposed to be the trail vehicle! Is there 
anyone behind you?" 

"This is Apache Eight. I can't see anybody anywhere." 

In the truck, we groan. 

"All right, listen up, trains," Apache Six says. "We are going to take those 
damn bridges, whether you come along or not. Unless you want to stay here 
in the middle of fucking nowhere by yourselves, you better keep up." A mo- 
ment later he gets back on the radio. "Guide ons, guide ons, guide ons: I want 
everyone to stop in place. I say again, the convoy is halting now. Drivers, take 
off your NODs and switch to white light. I say again, everyone in the convoy, 
switch to white light." Slowly the desert lights up, and through the haze of 
sand lights pop up in every direction, amid the humming of idling engines. 

"Good God," someone in our truck mutters. There is no semblance of 
order at all. 

We start sprinting north, rolling over absurdly rough terrain, jagged rocky 
hills and ravines with no trail. I expect to flip the trailer or puncture a tire at any 
moment. There is less talk over the radio, but we hear several M-113 armored 
personnel carriers lose their tracks, and one of the trucks snaps its steering col- 
umn. We hit the road just before dawn and come upon the combat tracks wait- 
ing for us. Remarkably, the whole convoy, minus the downed vehicles, quickly 
regroups in the gray light, and as the sun rises we roll into the muddy fields 
below Samawah. There are groves of palm trees along the road, the first green 
things we have seen in months, and some simple block houses. We veer off the 
road in front of the canal, where Crazy has set checkpoints, and drive along to 
a muddy bank just south of the city. We park next to a CNN truck and eaves- 
drop on the correspondent's broadcast. He seems to be practicing his lead-in. 

"Thirty-six hours after the war officially started, I stand here with mem- 
bers of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment—" 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 29 

"It's been thirty-six hours since the war started, and the Seventh Cavalry 
Regiment is poised in front of the first engagement—" 

"After thirty-six hours of driving through the desert, the Seventh Cavalry 
Regiment is — " 

We quickly lose interest. It has begun to rain lightly, and we get in the 
truck and close our eyes, too tired to sleep. 

Shots ring out just ahead of us. 

"Contact on left side," the lead platoon leader calls out on the radio. 
Apache Six orders the convoy to speed up and fire on any confirmed targets. 

"Three dismounts, ten o'clock!" a squad leader calls out. 

"Watch out on the left side," I yell, inanely, since our truck has no gun- 
ner, and all we can do is shoot out of whatever window we are sitting by. The 
only other person on the left side besides myself is Gene, who is driving and 
can't very well scan and shoot at the same time. 

Tracers flash up at the head of the convoy, and the 25 mm guns start 
booming. I hear a bullet hit my side of the truck, and instinctively I fire a cou- 
ple of rounds into the darkness. 

"What are you shooting at?" Chief yells, and I scream back, "They hit our 
truck," not answering his question, so he yells again, "But what are you shoot- 
ing at?" 

I don't answer, and tell myself to settle down. Members of the lead ele- 
ment start identifying the attackers better: they are wearing black, they are 
driving white trucks, they are firing rifles and RPGs. 

"White truck, eleven o'clock," Gene calls out. 

I lean out the window and fire at the truck until it disappears behind us. 
In front of me, Gene is yelling. "Are you all right?" I call out, thinking he's 
been hit. "It's your goddamn brass!" he yells back. With every shot my rifle 
was flinging hot empty casings onto Gene's head, neck, and lap. 

"Was there anybody in it?" Chief asks, meaning the truck. I replay the 
truck flashing by in my head. Not only was there no one in it, it was riddled 
with bullet holes from every rifle in every previous vehicle in the convoy. Af- 
terwards, the Chief, Mike, and Gene will often bring up the deadly white 
Toyota. "You sure took out that empty truck," Chief will cackle. "You 
whipped the shit out of that thing." 

Apache Six gets us back into a more orderly formation, and we continue 
down the road. Soon there is more shooting, and we race through it without 



30 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

stopping, then drive on, and then more shooting. Finally we stop and our 
team jumps out onto the ground and begins scanning for targets. Scanning is 
hopeless without night vision goggles; there is no moon and we can't see 
where the earth stops and the sky begins. It is just an endless expanse of black, 
with only the tracers from the .50-cal guns blazing into the darkness. 

Then we hear the hum from the sky, the sweet sound of close air support. 
An A-10 screams down with its cannon blazing, and then it, or another plane, 
drops its payload, the last bomb so powerful it almost makes my insides col- 
lapse. Throughout the firefight I hear a clicking from the other side of the 
truck, and after the last bomb, when there is nothing but dead silence, I ask 
Chief Wilder what it was. 

"Were you taking pictures?" Gene asks from the truck. 

Chief grins. "I got some good ones." 

"Just don't leave the flash on," I say. 

Apache Six calls on the radio to move on. As we roll out he gives the troop 
some words of encouragement, and then the XO, who is apparently at the 
point tracking the route, says he wants to change it to avoid some built-up 
areas ahead. The commander assents, and after driving through a silent town 
and over a small bridge and along a canal, we turn right off the main road and 
stop for a moment. 

I take Chief Wilder's NVGs and pull guard while he monitors the radio. 
There is a road far out to the left, and occasionally a car drives by with head- 
lights. I can hear voices on the radio, but I'm not close enough to understand 
what they are saying. Gradually the gunfire subsides. 

Daniel, the interpreter working for Civil Affairs, comes up to me with a 
roll of toilet paper. It seems that all the excitement has loosened his bowels, 
and he absolutely has to relieve himself. 

"Can you cover me?" he asks, looking sheepish. 

"You're serious?" 

"Yes, I have to," he insists. 

I nod, and he runs over and squats in the culvert across the road. Beyond 
the culvert is a flat dusty field with patches of palms. Off in the distance there 
is more gunfire, then shouting on the radio. 

"Apache Six, Apache Seven. We are taking direct fire! Direct fire from the 
north side of the road!" 

"Apache Seven, Apache Six. Set up a tight perimeter and return fire. Do 
you have eyes on the enemy?" 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 31 

"Negative, no eyes on." 

"Lay down suppressive fire, but watch those houses! Do not fire on the 
houses unless you have positively identified a target." 

I am looking in the direction of the gunfire, and when I turn back toward 
Daniel I freeze. In the green haze of the NVGs there are five green figures 
creeping stealthily through the palms just behind Daniel. 

"Mike!" I hiss, "five people, nine o'clock, can't see who." We both drop to 
a knee and aim our rifles. Mike doesn't have NVGs so he is blind, just wait- 
ing to do what I do. The figures are dead silent and still moving cautiously. 
Slowly I rotate the selector from SAFE to semi, and hear a faint click as Mike 
does the same. Two of the figures are cradling what look like weapons in their 
arms. 

I should shoot them now. I should not give them a chance to shoot first. 
The trigger is cold against my finger. I struggle to keep Daniel and the five fig- 
ures in the screen at the same time. I should shoot. 

u Qif!" I yell as loud as I can. "Irmee salahik!" [Stop! Throw down your 
weapon!] 

They freeze. A quivering voice calls out, "Ma termee. Medeniyoun." 
[Don't shoot. We're civilians.] 

I walk up a few steps. It is a family of five shivering next to the road, actu- 
ally a family of seven. What I had seen as the two weapons in their arms are 
babies wrapped up in blankets. "Ease up, Mike, they're civilians." Daniel, 
crouching behind a bush practically underneath them, tells them to go to a 
safe place. They quickly cross the road between our trucks and disappear into 
the trees, silent as ghosts. 

When we approach the Euphrates again, we jump from Apache to Bone 
Crusher, another troop in the cavalry squadron. We stop just outside the town 
and hear gunfire ahead. Soon we start moving again as the Iraqi fighters up 
front are killed or driven off, and a light sandstorm kicks up. We quickly lose 
sight of the horizon as it disappears into the orange-gray haze. When we 
reach the river, the convoy stops and the tanks move up and take the first 
bridge. They receive fire immediately, and we listen to the battle as they fight 
their way across the bridge. They advance through the town, getting fire from 
all over. 

As we pull up to the bridge, we see an old man carrying a paper bag and 
wearing a ratty blue blazer over the light robe called a dishdasha. He is pa- 
tiently standing in front of a scout who is holding him in place with his rifle. 



32 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

There is some sporadic small-arms fire in the distance, but it is quiet here by 
the bridge. I approach the old man and ask him what he was doing. 

"I am trying to cross the bridge. My house is over there." 

"What is in your bag?" 

"Just ordinary items from the dukhan [small convenience store]." 

"Show me." 

I make sure the scout is covering me as I peer over the old man's shoulder 
while he sifts through the eggs and milk and sugar in the bag. 

"Listen," I say, "it is not safe here. It is not safe to cross the bridge, and it 
is not safe to go to your house. Find some place safe here — maybe the 
dukhan — where you can wait until we are gone." 

"How long will that take?" 

"I don't know how long, it could be a few hours, it could be all day." 

"I will sit here and wait." 

"Listen, it is not safe to be near our forces or the muselaheen [armed fight- 
ers]. There is fighting all around here." 

"I can't sit here?" he asks, pointing at the railing that lines the road ap- 
proaching the bridge. 

"You can sit anywhere you want, as long as you stay out of the way, but I 
would prefer you stay away until the fighting is over." 

He looks at me wearily and shuffles back up the road away from the 
bridge. I turn to the scout, who asks what the old man wanted. When I tell 
him, he says, "What the hell? Doesn't he know we're trying to fight a war 
here?" 

I shrug and head back to the truck. The old man has not, as I had hoped, 
gone back to the dukhan. He has stopped farther up the road and sat on the 
railing. After a while a younger man walks by. The old man shouts something 
at him, and the younger man smiles and keeps walking until the scout stops 
him. Gene and I get out, and Gene searches him while I ask him what he 
wants. His cousins live across the river and he wants to see if they are safe. I 
tell him he has to wait and then ask him several questions about the musela- 
heen, and he pleads ignorance, and I tell him he should find a safe place to 
wait until we are gone. He nods again, and walks back up the road and sits 
next to the old man. Soon another man comes and then another. We search 
and question them, and they sit down on the railing. By the time we get the 
call that the convoy is being relieved, there is a line often men sitting, talk- 
ing, and smoking, waiting for our battle for their town to end. One is a doctor 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 33 

who speaks a little English, and I give him some general instructions for the 
crowd: raise their hands if they approach American troops, keep out in the 
open if they insist on going outside, avoid the muselaheen. Then I go back to 
the truck and listen to the radio, and we wait anxiously for orders to get the 
hell out of town, which finally come. Just before we drive off to find our place 
in the convoy I jump out and run back to them. 

"Listen, there are more American soldiers coming. Do not cross any of the 
bridges until all the Americans are gone, or they will stop you, and maybe 
shoot you. Stay out of their way. Do you understand me?" 

They all nod, and I jump back in the truck. As we pull out I look back and 
they are all waving. 

We continue driving, and, as the sandstorm gets worse, the dim light from the 
sky begins to fail altogether. No one knows where we are going, and the radio 
is mostly silent. I nod off for a moment, and when my head clears I think 
about relieving Gene with the driving so he can get some sleep. Then the 
shooting starts again. 

This time they are smart: instead of hitting us up front, they have waited 
until the front of the convoy has passed and strike us in the middle. Bone Six 
yells at everyone to hit the gas and punch through. With all of us cursing the 
vehicle in front of us, which is not moving fast enough for our liking, Gene 
stomps on the gas. The Iraqis have set the ambush on a sharp turn, and we 
can hear the bullets zipping across our hood and tail end as we hit the turn 
and haul ass. I see muzzle flashes off the road on our left and shoot at them, 
and Gene yelps in surprise as my hot brass lands in his lap. 

A rocket whooshes by, then another. Tracers are flying all over, from every 
direction. 

There is havoc on the radio, all the leaders screaming at once. Some kind 
of a rocket screams over our left flank and lands up ahead somewhere in the 
convoy. 

"CEASE FIRE! CEASE FIRE!" someone yells on the radio, not identify- 
ing himself. "You're shooting friendlies!" 

No one ceases fire. 

"Who's shooting?" Bone Six asks someone, everyone. "Who said that?" 

We fly by an Abrams on fire and watch as the crew scrambles out of the 
tank and into another track that's pulled up alongside it. 

"Holy shit," Chief says. "Did you see that?" 



34 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"There's dismounts up front!" one of the platoon leaders yells in the radio. 
"I see ten, maybe twenty, small arms, RPGs." 

"BRAD DOWN! BRAD DOWN!" someone starts screaming, then, 
"They're swarming all over here! There's a hundred, maybe two hundred! 
Abandoning Brad!" 

We listen in horror, bullets still flying around us, at the nightmare up 
front, in the very direction we are racing. 

"This is Bone Six. Turn around, Bone Crusher! Every vehicle turn 
around and drive!" 

"What the fuck?" Gene yells as he brakes. "We're going back through the 
kill zone?" 

"Just turn around," Chief says. 

The road is still on top of a narrow berm, so there is precious little room 
to turn around, but Gene executes a lightning-fast three-point turn, yelling at 
the vehicle behind us to get the fuck out of our way. When the other truck 
takes too long he veers around it. There are some M-113 assault vehicles in- 
terspersed among the train, and we swerve around the slower trucks to get in 
the shade of their firepower. We pass the burning Abrams again, lifeless now, 
and the shooting increases as we whip around the turn. We don't stop until 
we reach squadron's rally point. 

Before sunrise the next morning we are already moving out. We are back in 
open desert, and we cut off the road through the sand. We quickly sink into 
soft beds of dust, and churn through it to the next road, and stick to improved 
surfaces for the most part after that. It is hot and the convoy throws up clouds 
of dust into the air, but the sandstorms seem to have left us, and for the first 
time since we reached Samawah, no one is shooting at us. It is a comforting 
feeling, but as we get closer to Baghdad we are getting closer and closer to 
Iraq's proper armies, and I dread the thought, after weathering Kalashnikov 
and RPG and mortar fire, of getting shot at by tanks and heavy artillery. Oc- 
casionally we hear snatches of reports of Iraqi heavy units, but we never seem 
to get a sense of where or how large they are. 

In the late afternoon there is a skirmish with an Iraqi checkpoint on a road 
parallel to the one we are traveling on. Apache is dispatched, and soon after 
they call for Bull, so we ride out with a Bradley to our east, following the Brad 
as it crosses right through a farm field with a small house. There are several 
figures standing in front of the doorway, staring toward us blankly. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 35 

When we get to the checkpoint, there are three zip-tied Iraqis surrounded 
by some Apache soldiers. We hop out and separate the prisoners, talking to 
each in quick succession. Two of them are willing to talk, though they don't 
know much. They were put in place by their unit as a routine checkpoint. 
The poor bastards were ordered to resist any force and then left to wait for 
American tanks. To add insult to injury, their lieutenant fled the post a few 
hours before we found them. 

The third prisoner, a sergeant, is as defiant as IVe ever seen any EPW. "I 
still resist the Americans," he tells me. "I would still be fighting if it wasn't for 
your superior technology." I try not to laugh; I admire his gumption. It turns 
out that, in what may be a first in war, the three surrendered themselves to an 
American helicopter hovering over them. It was a couple of Kiowas that 
found the checkpoint and rained down 25 mm fire on them until they raised 
the white flag, and then the helos hovered in place until some ground troops 
could reach them and take them into custody. 

The prisoner is uncooperative, but he is also furious with his unit and par- 
ticularly his lieutenant. I ask him why he is protecting the officers who be- 
trayed him, while his silence means more of his fellow enlisted troops will 
die, and soon I have him talking. Unfortunately, he knows almost nothing. 
The Iraqi command's reputation for keeping their soldiers, even their NCOs, 
in the dark is proving true. It may not be an effective way to run an army, but 
it is an effective way to stymie an interrogation. 

We drive back to Apache's train where they have set up camp and spend 
the night on an open plain. I've lost track of exactly where we are, but we 
seem to be surrounded by friendlies, since our security posture is low. I ex- 
pect there to be an argument about who will guard the prisoners, but Civil Af- 
fairs all of a sudden seems happy to hang out with them. They camp next to 
us and are up half the night talking with their prisoners, about Iraqi culture, 
Islam, war, peace, and so on. By the time I drop off, nestled in my spot on the 
hood of the Humvee, they are all great friends, even the defiant Iraqi 
sergeant, laughing and cutting up while the rest of the troops slumber. 

CENTCOM has ordered a pause for the entire Operation Iraqi Freedom. 
We are all to stay put indefinitely to refit, which everyone desperately needs. 
Some of the troops' vehicles are on their last legs, and Apache Eight starts 
making the rounds as everyone else breaks open their vehicles for some seri- 
ous maintenance. While Mike and Gene tend to our equipment, Chief and 
I walk to our squadron headquarters, and I stop by a familiar-looking cargo 



36 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

truck. Inside, with their hands tied behind their backs, are all of the prisoners 
we have collected so far. Their eyes light up when they recognize me. They 
assault me with questions. It takes me a minute to realize they are all saying 
the same desperate thing: "Please give us cigarettes." 

I tell the guard standing at the foot of the truck that they are asking for cig- 
arettes. "Is it OK?" he asks. 

"It's not good for them," I tell him. "It causes cancer." 

"But, I mean," he says, not smiling, "is it . . . ?" I know what he means. He 
wants to know if it is all right to be nice to the enemy. 

"Sure, if you want," I say. "They're your cigarettes." 

He pulls out his pack, spurring the prisoners to rush to the door, and we 
stick the cigarettes in their mouths and light them, and they ask me more 
questions: Where are they going? How long will they be in custody? When 
will the handcuffs come off? Will the food get any better? Will they get ciga- 
rettes? Will they go to America? I tell them the truth, that they are going to a 
detention facility, they will stay there until the war is over, the food will not 
get any better, they will rarely if ever get cigarettes, and they will not get sent 
to America. They seem pleased that they are being fed and not being beaten, 
but disappointed that they are not going to America, and crushed by the news 
about the cigarettes. 

That night the sky lights up with artillery. We are shelling Hillah, we are 
shelling Karbala, we are shelling Baghdad. Since we paused the artillery has 
caught up with us, so after dark we watch the streaks of fire thrusting up into 
the sky, and listen for the cool free fall back down to earth, and then see the 
flash, then the boom, as it pummels the cities, like the lightning, then the 
thunder, of a rainstorm. The shelling cleaves me in two, one side shaken, 
knowing each flash and boom means more innocent Iraqis dying in their 
homes; the other side stilled, knowing it also means less of the enemy likely 
to shoot at me. I sit and watch, picturing the Fedayeen and Republican 
Guard getting annihilated. Die, motherfuckers, die, I say to them all. You, 
not me. Not me. 

We drive toward Baghdad, past Karbala, through the Karbala Gap. We are fi- 
nally confronting Saddam's conventional army and the tank battles are com- 
mencing. We come upon the carnage as the burnt-out enemy vehicles are 
cooling, as the dead bodies are stiffening. This is when the tourism begins; 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 37 



the soldiers start taking pictures of the corpses, stripping them of memen- 
tos—weapons, web gear, belt buckles, anything shiny that you can carry eas- 
ily and wipe the blood off quickly. Our team is scouring through the 
wreckage looking for survivors to interrogate. The stench leaves us reeling. 

We bypass the twisted smoking metal of the vehicles hit by rockets and 
bombs, where the corpses are simply blackened effigies of former human be- 
ings, and concentrate on the fighting positions riddled with bullets, where 
the bodies are untouched by fire, harmed only by bullets and the loss of 
blood. But still they are all dead. By the time we pass Yusifiyah and swing west 
to Abu Ghraib, there is grass on the ground and we can see palm trees. 
Apache Six sends us to scout out a car that has attacked them. A Bradley shot 
it up, but there may be a survivor. We slowly approach the car on foot, 
weapons pointed ahead. I call out, but there is no reply, and we quickly de- 
termine the three men inside are dead. Gene pulls something out of the 
clutches of the corpse in the driver's seat. 

"What are you doing?" I ask him. 

"It's a Dragunov," he says, brandishing the long sniper's rifle. "Fifty cal." 

I start to tell him to put it down, then change my mind. What do I care? 
Gene grabs a corner of the dead man's shirt and wipes the blood off the bar- 
rel. When we get back to Apache he scrubs the weapon down, then until sun- 
set he scans the horizon with the sights, the muzzle fanning right, then left. 
The dead man didn't have any ammo left, so there are no rounds for Gene to 
shoot. 

"I'll find some," he says. "We got time." 

Second Brigade is approaching Baghdad, just east of us, and we follow 
their progress over the radio in between talking to Iraqis. The Iraqis can't 
stand the idea of unburied bodies, and the civilians quickly organize them- 
selves into burial teams; we supervise them as they cross our line of control, 
dragging corpses out of tanks and foxholes, digging shallow graves on the side 
of the road and quickly filling them. They wrap their headdresses around 
their faces to protect themselves from the stench, but it does little good. The 
smell of death can't be avoided. It drowns out the smell of smoke from the 
fires that have broken out in Abu Ghraib, western Baghdad, and out towards 
Fallujah. 

"I'll find some," Gene repeats to himself. "We got time." He squints into 
the sun. A sandstorm is kicking up, tilting the pillars of smoke on the horizon 
to the east, and the sun brightens, even though it is setting. 



38 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



GET SOME 

Fiction 
First Lieutenant Paul A. Stieglitz 



At the same time that soldiers with the U.S. Army's yd Infantry Division 
were pushing northward through the desert toward Baghdad, U.S. Marines 
with the ist Marine Division were also converging on the Iraqi capital by 
way of An Nasiriyah. The Marines were— to the disappointment of many of 
them— encountering minimal resistance as they charged through one town 
after another. Twenty-eight-year-old First Lieutenant Paul A. Stieglitz was 
a ground intelligence officer in the ist Battalion, 4th Marines, and served as 
the commander of the battalions Scout Sniper Platoon. The following 
story, although a work of fiction, is based substantially on what Stieglitz 
saw as he and his platoon, every one of them eager to experience actual 
combat, rushed almost nonstop through Iraq. 

I stand up and look at the horizon through my binos. Big surprise. Not a 
goddamn thing. Doc Q has the other side of the road. I bring up my 
M-40 sniper rifle and place it in the 550-cord sling we made on the Humvee's 
frame. I'm stiff from the cold and from sitting in the back for too long. The 
drivers are pushing on nothing but coffee grounds. The forward-thinking 
ones brought some Ripped Fuel or some other over-the-counter stimulant, 
and now they pass it around like candy. 

"Keene, go see what's going on up with the lieutenant's vehicle/' I say. 
Azuela comes back to the vehicle from his two minutes of fun. 

"How you doing, Azuela?" I say as we glance at each other. 

"Where's the fight?" he replies. 

Good question. We started with such high hopes and an adrenaline rush. 
Intel passed that we would not have any resistance for a while, until we got 
further north, but still. It was hard to not get pumped up when we were finally 
moving into Iraq. We sat in Kuwait for one long-ass month, and before that, 
we were on the ship for forty-five days. I had said goodbye to my wife, Karen, 
almost three months earlier. Before that, we trained with the expectation of 
going to Iraq, based on what the president was saying in the news for around 
five or six months. Talk about a buildup. And now those goddamn Iraqis 
don't even have the class to meet us at the border. After two days of driving, 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 39 

the excitement has eased into bitterness. Most of the guys here just want a 
chance to kill someone, and now it looks like we came all this way and aren't 
even going to get a Combat Action Ribbon. 

Sergeant Azuela rummages through his gear until he finds his cigarettes. 
He pulls two out and gives me one. I take it without a word and he lights us. 
I never smoked but started to in Kuwait. Just something to do. Most of the 
guys in the infantry are just ordinary men doing an extraordinarily painful 
job. It makes working with a true psychopath like Azuela all the more re- 
freshing. 

He's a real American hero. His parents are Puerto Rican immigrants who 
came to America when he was five or so and settled in Brooklyn. Never call 
him Puerto Rican or Mexican or Hispanic. All he is, he says, is American. I've 
never heard him speak Spanish. He came into the Marines as a cook and 
quickly worked his way to sergeant. And then after 9/11, he wanted to get back 
at those motherfuckers and went about it the only way he knew how, by trans- 
ferring to the infantry. All he ever talks about is killing and fighting. He really 
lives the Marine Corps. He has a wife, but I don't know anybody who ever 
met her. He took a few different types of martial arts in his free time and is 
missing a front tooth that he lost in a fight. He just never bothered to get it re- 
placed. He is always demonstrating his tricks on the guys, "teaching" them. 
Things like how to kill a man silently by disemboweling him with one of the 
small samurai swords he keeps in his boots. 

"Two minutes!" yells Lance Corporal Levick. Finally, we're getting ready 
to roll. 

Lance Corporal Keene runs back and hands his M-16 rifle to Doc as he 
climbs in. 

"What's up? The lieutenant got any good intel?" I ask. 

"Fifth Marines has been fighting in that oil field, I guess they have had 
some casualties." 

"Any dead?" asks Doc. 

"Yeah. I don't know how many." 

"Cool. Maybe we'll get some," says Azuela with a smile. 

We settle in on our piled-up gear as the convoy starts up again. 

I wake up and it's dark. The convoy has stopped and we have been sitting in 
the same spot for around five hours. Earlier today, our biggest excitement was 
when a single car drove up onto the embankment around 1,800 meters to the 



40 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

east. As soon as it was visible, every gun in the battalion was on it. The radio 
traffic was hilarious. You would have thought we were being flanked by the 
Red Guard. It turned out to be just some guy in his car. This country does 
have like forty million people in it, right? People do sometimes drive around, 
right? Everyone needs to chill the fuck out. 

It's my turn on watch, so I take the NVGs from Doc and start my surveil- 
lance of the horizon. The companies have pushed out Marines on security, 
and they are in groups around five hundred meters out. I am looking out past 
them, sitting on the hood of our vehicle. After about an hour and a half, Cap- 
tain Madrigal makes his way back to our vehicle. He's the commanding offi- 
cer of the Headquarters and Service Company, which in an infantry battalion 
is pretty much everyone but those actually doing the fighting. He slaps the 
hood and yells, "All right, gents, we're moving out real soon. We're going 
right through the city and they've got heavy fighting up there! I need you to 
stay alert and stay alive!" and he's off to the next vehicle with the same 
speech. What a crazy, spastic bastard. 

Over the radio, they call for all of the drivers for a route brief and Sergeant 
Azuela and PFC Claybuck go. I have my guys clean their weapons and do a 
function check and go over all their gear. We all have M-i6s and pistols. I also 
have my M-40 sniper rifle complete with night-vision scope, and one of only 
two monstrous M-82 Barrett .50-cal sniper rifles. Plus extra rounds, radios 
(both handheld and back mounted), grenades, claymore antipersonnel 
mines, antitank rockets, food, and other miscellaneous crap. 

"How's it going?" asks our lieutenant, who sauntered up quietly in the 
dark. 

"Good, sir," says Levick. 

"Cleaning your weapons? Good. I guess I don't have to micromanage you 
all, right?" He looks at me with a smile and I just stare back. He is an all-right 
guy, but he has a knack of saying the wrong things that just get under my skin. 
I thought that the biggest part of officer training was to make them feel like 
invincible leading machines, so they can pass off their crap to the troops. But 
I guess it didn't work on this guy. 

"Look, you all know the plan, right?" asks the lieutenant. "Stay flexible, 
we need to be able to adapt to any situation." 

"Aye, sir," I answer with an inward roll of the eyes. Despite my frustration, 
one of the good things about our lieutenant is that he knows the value of 
the sniper team leader, and even though he sounds like a Marine Corps lead- 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 41 

ership pamphlet, he always stresses initiative and judgment. He's not the kind 
of guy to micromanage me. Hell, let's see him try it. I am almost nine years 
older than him and have a few tricks in my bag. 

And no, I'm not some screwed-up sergeant who can't get promoted. I got 
out of the Corps after my first enlistment. Nothing really seemed to be going 
on back in 1997. So I went to college to be a paramedic and worked that job 
until 2001. 

Two days after 9/11 1 went to the recruiter and asked about coming back in 
with broken time. Like everyone else I was pissed off beyond belief about the 
attack. I didn't even tell Karen about it until after. They let me back in with a 
reduction in rank to corporal and I joined again on November 12. 

People always ask why I came back in. As long as I can remember, I've 
wanted to fight in a war. I figured if I could put my desires to good use, it 
would be okay, so I joined up with the Marines. When I got to my first bat- 
talion it felt like home. After 9/11, 1 returned because I knew there was going 
to be some major shit going down and the Marines were going to be doing 
most of the hard-core fighting, as always. Fuck if I was going to miss it. 

The lieutenant returns to his vehicle, and I go through some possible sce- 
narios with my team. We practice actions on ambush and talk through room 
clearing and entering buildings again, just to make sure everyone has their 
heads in the game. I talk a little about sniper/observer dialogue with my ob- 
server and radio operator, Lance Corporal Keene. My four-man team is made 
up of me, Keene, Levick, and Doc. As the team leader and only school- 
trained sniper, I would be the one shooting the M-40. Lance Corporal Levick 
is my assistant team leader and carries our new M-16 A-4, which has a heav- 
ier barrel and is supposed to be accurate to eight hundred meters. It also 
comes with a good magnified sight and night vision, so Levick is able to split 
from me and act as a de facto sniper. Doc is our team's medic. He also carries 
a radio. A real good group of guys. They are all experienced, relatively, and 
they were chosen for the platoon for their maturity and intelligence. In a 
sniper team, each one needs to be able to do it all. I can't babysit them like I 
would if I were in the rifle companies. They need to be able to act without in- 
structions, which is a rare thing in the companies for lance corporals. 

Sergeant Azuela says, "They just gave the five-minute warning," and we 
all get in the back. Me and Keene on the right, Levick and Doc on the left 
facing outboard. Up and down the convoy, Marines are running back to their 
vehicles. Claybuck is in the passenger seat up front and is monitoring the 



42 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

battalion TACNET. If anything goes down, Azuela and Claybuck stay in the 
vehicle. Unless of course it's an ambush, in which case we either drive 
through it or everyone gets out and fights. 

The vehicles all start at the same time so that our numbers can't be de- 
tected by sound. We start moving. We can see and hear artillery firing in the 
direction of the city. They fire constantly, like popping popcorn. After a half 
hour of moving at a snail's pace, we pass the artillery, probably a full battalion 
firing, spread out in a line perpendicular to our route on both sides of us. The 
noise punches you in the gut every time they fire. 

"Whoa, check it out," Azuela calls over his shoulder. "Up ahead." 

We look and can see the Euphrates River that marks the southern bound- 
ary of Nasiriyah. We will be crossing a bridge and on the right side of it we no- 
tice a burning tank, glowing in the night sky. 

"Sweet!" 

"I guess this is the real thing, huh?" 

"Get some!" 

The convoy comes to a stop for a minute with the burning tank in our 
view, with us on the south side of the bridge. 

"Hey Azuela, where's the convoy?" I ask after a few minutes. I look ahead 
and see nothing; only the bridge and blackness beyond. Azuela had whited 
out his NVGs by looking at the fire and didn't see when the convoy took off. 
Azuela punches it, going maybe forty miles an hour, which seems like a hun- 
dred after driving fifteen for all this time. Levick's M-16 is pointed over the 
side, and he goes back to watching the darkness. I know that my guys are all 
just praying to see action. 

Low buildings line the street, two or three stories max. Third-world-type 
buildings. Tropical plants contrast with the desert environment we've driven 
through up to this point. Palm trees and thick, unkempt vegetation grow be- 
tween the buildings. 

We come to another bridge and Azuela slows down a little. There is a 
burned-out shell of an amtrac, one of ours, on the bridge. Up ahead we can 
see tracers flashing across the road from both sides. An artillery illumination 
round goes off and lights up the sky. We are driving full into a fight. 

Levick says that the convoy is up ahead waiting until the fighting dies 
down. 

"Who's getting some?" I ask. Charlie Company is first in the procession, 
but they aren't necessarily the ones fighting. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 43 

"Bravo," answers Levick. Right. They are second in line followed by 
Alpha, so I assume that Bravo had been ambushed or hit after Charlie passed. 
I hear the popping sound of small arms punctuated by the boom of AT-4S or 
SMAWs, probably used to punch a hole in a wall while breeching. 

I look at my team. They are patiently watching over the side of the 
Humvee, scanning with NVGs. "Give me the headset," I say to Levick, "and 
switch it over to regimental intel net." 

"Desperado Six, this is Desperado One," I call, trying to get our platoon 
commander. 

"Desperado One, this is Desperado Six," he answers. 

"Disco," using the code to switch to our own battalion intel net. 

"Roger." 

Levick switches freqs and I wait for my platoon commander. 

"Desperado One, go ahead." 

"Roger, we should be up in the fight, I can see a good building from back 
here that we can get up on and provide covering fire. Requesting permission." 

"Roger, get a grid ready and I'll get permission from Palehorse Three." 

I lied about the building. I couldn't see shit, we were too far away, but I 
was counting on the lieutenant being so into his radio that he wasn't looking 
at the fight up ahead. I know we can find something, though. So, we wait for 
permission from Palehorse Three, the operations officer who controls, or at 
least keeps track of, all of the moving pieces of the battalion. Each of my guys 
turns and gives me either a big smile, or with Doc, a little lower-lip biting 
complete with flared nostrils. 

The lieutenant calls back and gives us our permission. "Just make sure 
you stay on the west side of the road when you move into position. There is a 
big concentration of bad guys up there, east of the road. Their ambush was 
pretty well coordinated." 

"Roger, Desperado One out." 

I have Sergeant Azuela drive up to the beginning of the convoy and then 
we get out to walk up to the fight, maybe five hundred meters ahead. Levick 
radios in as we leave convoy security and we spread out in patrol formation on 
the west of the road. 

There are a few one-story buildings, and we go behind those to move up 
and stay back from the road. Keene is point, then me, and then Levick, with 
Doc bringing up the rear. We aren't doing the typical sniper stalking-type 
movement, trying to stay hidden from all observation; the situation doesn't 



44 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

call for it. We need to get up there as quickly as possible, and I don't want 
these eighteen-year-old kids on Bravo 's security thinking we are trying to 
sneak into their lines. 

We move almost at a run, staying behind buildings and in vegetation as 
much as possible. This is easy because the whole area is overgrown. The 
chemical protective suits are really difficult to move in. It's like wearing an 
extra-large set of pajamas over a three-piece suit and then trying to look 
smooth as you dance a tango. 

We come around the corner of a building. "Halt!" a bush yells at us. "I 
have a book on my desk," he challenges us, using the challenge word "desk." 
The password is "waiter." 

"Your mother fucked a waiter," answers Keene. 

We continue moving parallel to the road, keeping back about a hundred 
meters until we come to the biggest building we can see. Three stories. Close 
to the road, on our right, we can see the amtracs of Bravo Company and a lot 
of Marines lying prostrate on the ground. Some seem to be in decent cover, 
but most are just lined up near the road. Looks a little too close together, but 
who am I to second-guess? 

I get on Bravo 's TACNET and ask if anyone is in the building that we 
want to go into. The company XO tells us no and I ask permission to go in 
and occupy the roof. "Be my guest," he says like the jackass he is. 

I'd like to have some suppressive fire on the building, just in case there is 
someone in there, but it would take too long to coordinate, plus stealth would 
be out the window with a squad of machine guns shooting the place to hell. 
We are going to go in all at once, in a stack, just like we practiced before com- 
ing over here. 

This part gets me nervous and I decide to move up to the building and 
look in the windows to check it out. It's all dark, just like all the buildings in 
the city, because the power is out. We peer in one window and it looks like an 
ordinary office building, with desks and office furniture inside. We move to 
the back and more of the same. Fuck it, I think as I get impatient, we need to 
get in there. 

I signal to my team that we're going through the window. Doc gets on his 
hands and knees and Keene stands on his back and looks into the window for 
a few seconds. Levick and I are keeping security and watching to the left and 
right. I motion for him to go in, and Keene breaks the window with the butt 
of his rifle. He clears the glass from the pane and heaves himself in. Next I go 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 45 

through and then Landers. Keene is on one knee pointing his rifle at the door 
leading out of the office. Levick and I reach out the window and pull in Doc. 

Once in, we listen for a minute. All quiet. The air smells like dust and 
mold. We get back in order and proceed out of the room. I can tell that we 
are all nervous; a little sharpness in movements, quickness maybe that isn't al- 
ways there in training. We stack up by the door, and I give Keene a knee in 
his leg, which is his signal to open the door. We explode into the other room, 
each of us covering his corners like we practiced time and time again. I feel 
warm feelings of pride for a second, before I make myself concentrate on 
what we're doing. There'll be time for pride if we all make it back. 

We move through two more rooms this way before we find the hallway 
and the stairwell. We move up the stairs to the second and then third floors. 
Now to find a way to the roof. We move through each room, looking for a 
hatch, or better yet, a stairway up, but there isn't one. There might be a lad- 
der on the outside of the building, going up from a window, but I decide not 
to waste time looking for it. I motion to go to the forward window, the one 
that looks out over the street and at our potential targets. 

We set up. Keene and I drag a desk to make a good, stable shooting posi- 
tion as Doc opens all the windows. Not just the one I will be shooting out of, 
because that would alert the not-so-casual observer of our location. I arrange 
my shooting position on the desk, Keene sets up his observation position next 
to me, and Levick and Doc move to the rear of the building to cover security. 

I set my pack on the desk in order to provide a platform to place the bar- 
rel of my M-40 on. The desk is in the middle of the room so that we aren't too 
close to the window, silhouetting ourselves in the frame. I grab a bunch of 
binders from a bookshelf in the office and stack them on the desk to rest my 
shooting elbow on, setting up a makeshift platform that is angled down at the 
street and buildings ahead of us. When Keene is ready, sitting Indian style on 
another desk with his elbows on his knees and his binos on his tripod in front 
of him, I tell him to call to Bravo and give them our position and say that 
we're ready to shoot. 

We begin. We're in a good position, a little to the north of all of Bravo 's 
amtracs. I can see the furthest northern amtrac about a hundred meters to 
our south. Charlie is to the north, but they aren't visible from here. I start 
looking for guys with guns that I can shoot. 

I see two buildings on the other side of the street, one of which is two sto- 
ries tall and the other, one story. In between the two buildings is a nice field 



46 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

with plenty of concealment from bushes and trees. Lots of shadows and good 
places to hide. Were I an Iraqi, I would definitely use it to move through, and 
that's what I'm counting on. We hear over Keene's radio that Bravo is prepar- 
ing to clear a building they think has the most enemy in it, to our south. We 
hear the explosions of two rockets and several machine guns providing sup- 
pressive fire. A textbook attack. Keene and I keep looking at our field, hoping 
that we can get some of the Iraqis running away to the north. 

"I think I got one," says Keene. "Two to the left of the center palm tree. I 
saw movement." 

"Got it." I move my gaze to that area, and with my night vision scope, I 
can see a suspicious dark spot. My rifle's scope is set at 300 yards, and this spot 
is roughly 350 yards away. No wind. Just aim a little high, I tell myself. I wait 
until we can get a definite target; no sense in possibly giving our position 
away. And then the dumb fucker stands up, just like that, in the open. Maybe 
he thinks he's hidden behind that tree because of the angles. Even better, he 
has an AK. 

I'm about to get my first kill. There's no way I can miss at this range, the 
guy fills my whole scope, but I take my time anyway, just like I've done thou- 
sands of times in training. On my exhale I slowly and gently squeeze the trig- 
ger, pulling straight back. The slow controlled motion feels like it takes an 
eternity, and the guy is raising his rifle up to his shoulder to fire a shot. My 
crosshairs rest directly on the line that connects his shoulders — he is at about 
a forty-five degree angle. . . . 

BANG!!! 

My rifle jumps and I lose sight of anything as it recoils. I quickly bring it 
back down and look for my target, but I see nothing. 

I work the bolt to rack another round. Like butter. 

"Center mass, you got him," reports Keene. My heart is racing and I feel 
a light-headed euphoria. Giddy. I did it. Fucking sweet. Felt just like I always 
imagined it would. 

Some might think that is a little extreme, to imagine shooting someone 
during training. Maybe it is, but then again, shooting a man is a little extreme 
as well, and this is what we were sent here to do. I knew if I ever had to use 
this weapon for real, it would end someone's life. No doubt about it. And if I 
weren't mentally prepared for that, right now I would probably be a little 
more worried about what I had just done and not have my head in the game. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 47 

Maybe I'd be shaking and trembling, unable to focus. But that guy is a mem- 
ory to me now. Only the present matters, and I've got more people to shoot. 

"Good job, Sergeant," Keene says. I can feel him looking at me. 

"Shut the fuck up and keep looking. There should be some more fuckers 
back there ... or some running through soon," I say as I slow my breathing to 
a nice calm, even pace. More shooting by Bravo a few hundred yards away. 
We listen to the radio chatter on their net. 

"I got one . . . four hundred out . . . he's running away from the building," 
says Keene. I move my rifle to the left and see the guy instantly. He's running, 
but having a hard time of it with the tall grass and uneven ground. Aim high. 
I relax my left hand, which my rifle butt rests on, lowering the butt and ele- 
vating the crosshairs until they are at his head level. I trail him for a second or 
two. This one is harder because he's moving, but luckily, or unluckily for 
him, he's moving perpendicularly to me. Easier to lead. He's not moving 
quickly, so I keep my crosshairs a fraction of a mil ahead of him and start to 
squeeze. Lightly, steady . . . 

BANG! 

The rifle always startles me; just like it should. I bring the scope back 
down and work the bolt. 

"You got him. ... He went down." 

"Impact?" 

"I couldn't tell. He just went down." 

"Call this in to Bravo. Both kills. Tell them we've got this area covered." 

I get two more kills in the same way, bringing my total to four for the night. 
After about an hour and a half, we move out again. There has not been any 
shooting for about twenty minutes and Bravo has cleared the three buildings 
that had been giving trouble. I guess our mission was not to clear the town or 
route, but merely to go through it and this was a sidetrack, self-defense. When 
I look at my watch, we've only been in the building for about two hours. 

The sun is coming up again as we roll out. 

"How was the shooting, Sergeant?" Claybuck asks with his usual wide- 
eyed enthusiasm. 

"Four," I answer. I reach into my pack and take out an MRE. I eat some 
pound cake as I heat beef ravioli. Doc is already asleep, lying on our gear, and 
Levick and Keene are talking while they eat. The city looks different in the 
light. Looks much more like a small town than a city with a million people in 



48 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

it. The air's cool and fresh and there's dew on the plants. Before I know it, 
we're out of the city and into the suburbs. The city was even smaller than it 
looked on the map. 

We pass a burning little car in the median. I can see the driver's door open 
and an Iraqi is lying out of the driver's seat with his head on the ground. Dead 
as a . . . whatever. Just dead. 

"Holy shit, look at that." Doc is awake now, watching the view. Then I see 
what they're talking about. There's a bus ahead completely shot to fuck, still 
burning a little. Then I catch a whiff of the indescribably revolting smell of 
burning flesh. Driving past at five miles an hour we get a slo-mo show of the 
gore inside. Bodies. Maybe fifteen or twenty. All dead. Some charred, black 
and crisp, windows shot out and a few dead fuckers half in, half out, trying to 
escape. A few had made it out of the bus and were lying in the road, their bod- 
ies contorted in every position imaginable. We drive over the smear of a body 
already driven over countless times by tracks and tires. There's a pair of boots 
in the road, sitting in the normal position, as if someone was still wearing 
them, attached to them, with feet and a few inches of calf inside. 

We continue to see the aftermath of last night. Another bus. Same condi- 
tion. A torn leg in the road. Severed at the hip. 

"Holy shit!" says Sergeant Azuela. 

I look to see what he's looking at. "Stop the vehicle," I tell him. "Come 
on, Doc." 

We jump over the side of the vehicle and walk over to a body in the road. 
A small body. A small moving body. A boy about seven or eight years old, 
lying on his back and raising one of his hands to the sky. 

As we walk over to him, I think, How many vehicles have passed and not 
stopped for this boy? I stand over him, looking with a paramedic's critical eye, 
and gasp a little inside. He is fucked, there is no other way to say it. His eyes 
move to me and we meet. His big, black, Arab eyes. He moves his arms as if he 
wants me to pick him up and he lets out a labored, wheezing whine. His eyes 
are huge with pleading, huge and beautiful and black. His head is split open 
and there's a large spot of dark sticky blood pooled in a heart shape above his 
head. He's bleeding from his chest. Old blood, dark blood, is dried on his tank- 
top T-shirt and pooled at his left. He has crusted, dried blood tracing down both 
cheeks from his mouth. I can't believe he's still alive. Barefoot with torn shorts. 

I take in all of this in an instant. Doc looks through his bag for something 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 49 

and pulls out a stethoscope and listens to his chest as those eyes tear me to 
pieces. I want to reach down and pick him up and hug him and make every- 
thing better. I kneel down beside him and put my hand on his head and hold 
his forehead. Dried tears have left tracks in the dirt on his face; his eyes stay 
on me and he tries to say something but just opens his mouth as he looks at 
me, pleads with me to take care of him, but I can't, we can't. This boy is dead. 
Fuck!!!!! I scream inside. 

"Come on, Doc, we gotta go. They're waiting." I pull Doc up and we run 
back to the Humvee and continue on. Back in the vehicle no one talks. I feel 
a powerful wave of rage flowing inside and try to let it flow out of me, not re- 
sist it, just let it disperse without showing it. Thinking about that boy, scared, 
all alone, pain, just wanting his mother, confused, not knowing what he did 
to deserve this or why it happened, just scared and wanting his mother to 
make it better, but no one comes, cold, night, noise, pain. 

Nausea hits. Oh God, please don't let me throw up in front of my guys. I 
need to keep it together, stay cool, be cool, man. I try to concentrate on my 
breathing, but my mouth is watering, watering with that bitter alkaline taste. 
Too late, fuck, here it comes. I'm not going to let it. My back is turned to my 
guys, I'm looking out the side and I brace myself. 

Fuck it, I'm keeping it down, I'm not puking in front of my guys. Not after 
that. Every muscle in my body tenses and I feel the spasm of my guts. My 
throat tightens and I will myself to keep it down. My mind and guts are duk- 
ing it out, and it comes up but I keep my mouth clamped shut. I am not going 
to let this happen, I squeeze and squeeze and finally it stops and I swallow the 
majority. I spit a little out and cough. Some went down my windpipe and I 
cough and cough like I'm dying. But I pull through it. My eyes are watering 
and I wipe 'em and my mouth and look back at my guys, but no one noticed, 
thank God. I'm sweating as I take a drink of stale, dirty-tasting water. 

I sit back and think about why that affected me so much. I've seen chil- 
dren die before when I was a paramedic and it always bothered me. I once 
worked on a pretty little eight-year-old girl who was hit by a car crossing the 
road. Her head had smashed the windshield and she was lying maybe twenty 
feet from the car when we got there. We did everything we could, which was 
basically nothing, but she stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. We 
breathed for her, but they pronounced her dead at the hospital during 
surgery. I thought that after I quit, I would never need to see anything like 
that again. 



50 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



We drive on. The sun is high in the sky now and we're the lead battalion for 
the division, pushing our way to Baghdad. I settle in for more of the same. 



LIFE ON THE USNS COMFORT 

Journal 
Commander Edward W. Jewell, M.D. 



After weighing anchor in January 2003, the hospital ship USNS Comfort 
left Baltimore, Maryland, and slowly chugged across thousands of miles of 
ocean to its final destination in the Persian Gulf What the Comfort lacks 
in speed (and firepower), it makes up for in size and advanced medical tech- 
nology: the bright white hospital ship, the length of almost three football 
fields, has one thousand patient beds, twelve fully equipped operating 
rooms, full state-of-the-art radiological capabilities, several labs, CAT-scan 
machines, and two oxygen-producing plant systems. In early March, just 
weeks before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, forty-eight-year-old 
Commander Edward W. Jewell said goodbye to his wife, Clara, and left 
their home in Washington, D.C., to fly out to the Middle East Jewell spe- 
cializes in diagnostic radiology and was sent to the Comfort for a two- 
month deployment to evaluate X-rays and determine the severity of internal 
wounds sustained by American forces. The following excerpts are taken from 
the journal entries that Jewell wrote aboard ship and then edited later. 

March 27 

Q: The Comfort is a large noncombat hospital ship protected by the most 
powerful Navy, Army, and Air Force in history. What is there to be afraid of? 
A: Everything. Danger is all around us. We are really very close to the action. 
At times we see oil fires near the shore. However, we cannot really see the 
combat. We are not afraid of the Iraqi military. If they try to fire a rocket at us 
it would be easily shot down by artillery on the ground, aircraft, or naval gun- 
nery/rockets. However, we believe there are mines in the Gulf. Purportedly, 
small boats have approached the Comfort several times. When this happens 
we call in a helo and launch our small boat to run them off. How can we pos- 
sibly see one of these things in the dark? I think it would be very easy for a ter- 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 51 

rorist to attack this ship with an explosive-laden small boat. Very easy. The 
Comfort is the slowest ship in the water. We couldn't outrun a rowboat. Huge 
red crosses on our sides and decks mark the optimum spots to aim a torpedo 
or rocket to sink us. As a noncombatant ship, Comfort is, of course, unarmed. 
Would the Iraqis attack a hospital ship if they could? Why not? In their view, 
they were invaded by mercenary infidels who deserve no better. A surgeon 
buddy of mine Mike from Massachusetts thinks an attack on our ship is a 
near given, with a 50 percent chance of success. However, he is a proctologist 
and Red Sox fan and naturally pessimistic. 

March 28 

Sickening sight: a helicopter's downwash blows a stack of letters overboard. 
Who knows what was lost? Last letter to save a troubled relationship? A fat 
check? Notice of tax audit? We'll never know. That's war. 

The doctors are all bored from underutilization, but the surgeons seem 
particularly restless. There are so many of them and not enough cases to fill 
the time. 

The Army helos cannot fly patients out to us in bad weather. The visi- 
bility has been poor the last three days, with choppy seas. We were to have 
received twenty or thirty new patients but they never made it because of the 
weather. This will all change markedly very soon. A new scheme for casu- 
alty movement has Comfort playing a more pivotal role. Two all-weather 
CH-46 Marine helos will be permanently assigned to us. They will be bring- 
ing patients to us who have had only basic stabilizing medical care or none 
at all, coming directly from the battlefield. We hear they will be mostly 
Americans. 

Rumor is an Iraqi speedboat loaded with explosives was intercepted today. 
It is believed it was headed towards one of our ships, maybe us. I notice today 
there are more gray-hulled (regular Navy) ships protecting Comfort. I hope it 
stays that way. 

March 29 

Old Navy jargon "belay my last," meaning disregard my last statement, ap- 
plies to my commentary from yesterday. We got creamed with fresh casualties 
last night, thirty new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and signifi- 
cant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children 
missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque frac- 



52 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

tures. Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from 
spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short pe- 
riod of time is so great it causes the entire system to crash under the burden 
of the electronic data it is being fed. Miraculously, Cathy and John are able 
to reboot it. 

Our patients are mostly Iraqis. Along with their combat wounds, they are 
dirty, undernourished, and dehydrated. One rumor says we will treat all the 
wounded Iraqi EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) for the duration of the war and 
these are the only patients we will see. If true, this would, in effect, make the 
Comfort a prison hospital ship. The corpsmen on the wards have to guard the 
prisoners and keep them from communicating with one another to prevent re- 
bellion. As medical people we are trained to care for the sick; it is difficult to 
stay mindful that these patients are the enemy and could fight back against us. 

April 4 

A.m.: We will be taking on fuel, food, supplies, mail(?), and off-loading 
garbage most of the day. This will limit opportunities to bring on new patients 
and pave the way for an easy day. We hope. 

P.m.: Well, no mail but they did bring in eight more Iraqis, so I had a busy 
afternoon and evening. Worst case was a middle-aged civilian female shot in 
the head. Her CAT scan showed major brain damage and her prognosis is 
very dim. Nonetheless, they chose to operate on her. She will not do well. 

So far, sixty coalition fatalities, twelve of which were due to friendly fire. 

April 5 

The Saturday entertainment is karaoke. I usually like it, but tonight it's not 
for me. The room is hot and crowded, and the whole event is just too loud for 
me. I step out for air. On deck is a different world. For safety we are on 
"darken ship" status now. This means no external lights and all windows are 
covered to block light transmission. The night is moonless, skies only a slight 
haze. It is very dark outside. So dark my eyes need ten minutes to fully ac- 
commodate. There is a magnificent display of stars, and the night has a misty, 
impressionist feel. People moving about in the night are just vague dark 
shapes. Voices are low. Boys and girls being what they are, couples are form- 
ing on Comfort. They drift into obscure corners. Ghostlike green blobs of flu- 
orescence rise and fall in the water. Jellyfish. Thousands of jellyfish, they drift 
and bob around the ship. I watch the stars until my neck hurts. Someone is 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 53 

singing in the dark in a beautiful, strange language. He tells me it is Hindi, 
and he is actually practicing for karaoke. I hope he wins. 

April 7 

Unusual experience today. I visited the inpatient ward holding the Iraqi 
EPWs. I accompany one of the internists on his rounds. This doctor created 
a niche for himself by volunteering to serve as the attending physician on the 
prisoner ward. The experience will be unforgettable for him— and be a 
unique item on his curriculum vitae. 

The prisoners are kept on a separate ward, deep in the bowels of the ship, 
for security reasons, and the location is kept obscure. There is concern for the 
security of the prisoners. Lawyers run everything now, and we actually have a 
lawyer on board whose primary job is to ensure we comply with all tenets of 
the Geneva Convention. There are press on board all the time. 

The ward is real creepy. Burly armed guards keep a watchful eye on the 
prisoners. There is an interpreter on board most of the time. The prisoners 
are not allowed to talk to one another. Some are strapped down to the bed. 
There is an isolation room for the unruly. Medical attendants have to remove 
their belts before entering the ward and empty their pockets of pens and other 
sharp objects (remember Hannibal Lecter). 

Most of the Iraqis show real appreciation for the care rendered them. I 
would love to talk to them about family, etc., but we have been firmly warned 
not to do this. It is contrary to our training in medicine not to show at least 
some warmth towards the patient, but these are our marching orders. The 
prisoners are a sad lot. I feel for them. Most were not real soldiers, just con- 
scripts forced to fight for the Big Lie, Saddam Hussein. Some of these guys, 
however, were Republican Guards, some of them the feared Fedayeen sui- 
cide commandos. In general, the prisoners are badly wounded. They look de- 
feated and glad to be out of combat. 

April 11 

The number of patients coming aboard Comfort is simply out of control. 
Like the characters on M*A*S*H, we have grown to hate the rumble of helos 
on the flight deck, since it usually means another load of Iraqi patients. Today 
we received at least thirty-five more. New in the last twenty-four hours is a big 
influx of sick and injured children. We have only one doctor with residency 
training in pediatrics. Some of the kids are very ill. One was DOA from drink- 



54 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ing kerosene. "They" are sending everyone here. We don't know who "they" 
are, and no one seems to have a handle on where these patients come from, 
when they are arriving, or who is sending them. We take them all and do our 
best. Patients are beginning to die because their injuries are so severe and 
they are getting to us too late. 

There is no long-term care plan for all these patients, and the ones who 
survive will need long-term care. Where will they go? Who will care for them 
after we leave? We have become deeply involved in a humanitarian crisis we 
will not be able to extricate ourselves from. 

April 12 

It had to happen. Boys and girls together. Sex. People are having sex on 
board, and rumor has it that finally somebody(s) got caught. It may have been 
more than just a couple. A menage a trois had been the subject of rumors for 
some time and they were finally caught in flagrante. They were sent to cap- 
tain's mast, a form of internal Navy investigation and trial where the accused 
Stand Tall in front of The Captain to answer allegations. Mast is swift and 
final. They get to the point quickly and mete out punishment on the spot. 
Whatever punishment was assigned here is unknown to the crew. Most of the 
men just want to know who the girl(s?) were! 

April 15 

Tim and John were up all night helping with a Marine who was run over by 
an eighteen-wheel truck in an accident. Amazingly he lived despite a crushed 
pelvis and massive blood loss. 

Civilian Iraqi patients are being allowed to move around the ship more 
(with escort, of course) as their conditions improve. I saw a teenager today 
smiling and shaking hands with everyone. As he bent to tie his shoe, his 
sleeve slid up. I saw he had a tattoo on his upper arm. A fresh Marine Corps 
"Globe and Anchor." Wow! Hearts and minds, indeed. 

April ij 

We began in earnest to discharge stable EPW patients from the Comfort. 
Close to thirty sent back today. Sent somewhere. Sadly, these guys don't real- 
ize they are not being repatriated. For security reasons they cannot be told 
where they are really going. Looking at these pathetic-looking fellows, it is 
easy to forget they were the enemy, and many probably still wish us harm. Ac- 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 55 

cording to an ICU doctor, one of the most timid-looking teenage patients is 
actually an identified terrorist. Another patient awoke from surgery disori- 
ented as to place; he asked if he had been sent home to Syria! Apparently 
many anti-American Syrians had joined Saddam's army to fight us. 

In a Pavlovian way, the patients now associate the presence of the Big 
Nurse Administrator with the Clipboard with imminent departure of fellow 
Iraqis. As soon as she sets foot on the wards they circle their arms overhead 
like helo blades in motion and make woop-woop sounds. They know helos 
are in-bound for evacuation. 

April 21 

Comfort receives a visit from CENTCOM, the name for the headquarters 
group for the entire war. A group of their medical admin bureaucrats, pri- 
marily Army, are on board to give us an overview of the medical situation in 
Iraq and Kuwait. We hope to hear something concrete about our own 
status — what is planned for us, how can we off-load our patients, and mostly, 
when can we go home? Instead of insight and clarity, we got more obscuring 
mud in the eye. The formal presentation is tiresome, trite, and uninforma- 
tive. It takes fifteen minutes to get the PowerPoint working. The speaker uses 
too much Army-specific jargon. He admits the Comfort is the most stable, es- 
tablished, and productive medical unit in theater. The hospitals in Iraq have 
been looted and are barely functioning. 

A Q&A session follows. The discussion is as overheated as the room. Sev- 
eral doctors are really pissed about how hard we worked and how we got stuck 
taking all the EPWs. Pointed questions regarding why we got so stuck with so 
many patients go ignored or glossed over. It is explained that the Iraqi casual- 
ties were put on helicopters by well-meaning, altruistic U.S. troops, even 
though they were told not to do this. They offer no explanation for why all the 
Iraqis ended up in our hospital. They thank us for all our hard work, tell us 
they "feel our pain," and say war is hell. It is not convincing or reassuring to 
us. These guys all look rested, tanned, and pain-free. 

The meeting ended inconclusively. We are no clearer on finding out 
when this will be over for us. If anything, the Army brief made it appear we 
may be here for a long time to come. 

The USNS Comfort returned to Baltimore in June 2003, having treated al- 
most seven hundred patients (nearly two hundred of whom were Iraqi civil- 



56 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



ians and prisoners of war). Dr. Jewell remained on active duty until the end 
of September 2004, when he officially retired from the Navy. But he contin- 
ues to work for the military as a civilian doctor. 



HERE AMONG THESE RUINS 

E-mail 
Specialist Helen Gerhardt 

Of the estimated 2.2 million troops serving in the United States military, 
approximately one out of every six is a woman. Officially, women are not 
allowed to fight in frontline infantry combat units. But, just as in wars past, 
they are frequently placed— or put themselves— in harm's way. At the age 
of thirty-three, Helen Gerhardt enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 2000. 
Three years later, having just completed a double undergraduate major in 
fine arts and English literature, she found herself in the Middle East with 
the Missouri Army National Guard, 1221st Transportation Company. The 
job entailed driving 915 Ais (eighteen-wheeler tractor-trailers) throughout 
Iraq to move everything from large cases of food and water to charred 
Humvees incapacitated by roadside bombs. The work was demanding and 
often extremely dangerous. (Soon after the invasion commenced, eleven 
U.S. soldiers with the 507th Maintenance Company were killed when their 
convoy was hit by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.) In the fol- 
lowing e-mail to loved ones back in Missouri, Specialist Gerhardt shared 
her first impressions of the Iraqi people and their country, which seemed to 
be a curious mix of the ancient and the modern. 

Dear friends and family, 

A few days ago I sat in the passenger seat of a truck with my M16 pointing 
out the window as I crossed the border into Iraq for the first time. All of us me- 
thodically scanned the landscape for the flesh and blood snipers or grenade 
launchers we had envisioned during training and constantly glanced in the 
rear view mirror to make sure the truck behind us was at a safe distance. I felt 
greedy for every concrete detail to dispel the figments of the Iraq I had con- 
structed in my own imagination over the months of waiting. 

Our convoy of nine trucks and a humvee felt very small to all of us. Our 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 57 

request for an MP escort had been denied without the required 48 hours no- 
tice, never mind that we'd been ordered onto the road with only about 36 
hours warning. The MPs are stretched very thin, and although officially all 
convoys are supposed to be escorted, in reality most small groups go without. 
We'd been advised to make our own firepower very apparent as the next best 
deterrent to an attack. The convoy commanders traveled in the Humvee with 
a machine gun mounted on top and the other saw gunners in the 915s were 
placed at front, middle, and end of the convoy. Combat Lifesaver drivers and 
their first aid bags were also spaced evenly throughout the line. We'd been in- 
structed to look as wide-awake as we could. I didn't find this difficult. 

The border is a real border. In Kuwait, high status sports cars, Islamic sky- 
scrapers, gleaming ranks of enormous oil drums, and slickly designed bill- 
boards all shouted the thriving economy of our hosts. Light poles, power 
lines, and little green trees marched beside the near-flawless highway, unre- 
markable until they abruptly halted where the demilitarized zone was 
marked by bulldozed ridges topped with concertina wire. On the other side 
of the DMZ null and void, the village of Safwan straggled loosely north and 
south along the road. Rusted, carefully stripped car frames rested on both 
shoulders of the road, uncomfortably reminding me of the props at our live- 
fire training range. Small windowless houses shed grey bricks like worn-out 
lizard scales on patches of thick, fine dust and rocky sand. . . . 

The first face I saw closely was a girl maybe ten-years-old, thin, but beat- 
ing time on a half-full water bottle as she danced up and down on the shoul- 
der of the road with confident grace. She looked straight into my eyes with no 
trace of humility, her brilliant smile seemed to command acknowledgement 
of a beauty impossible to deny anything to, her cinnamon and curry-colored 
gown waved like a flag of bold pleasure in her past triumphs. I wished I could 
throw roses and roast beef, confetti and corndogs, wanted to celebrate her 
gutsy contrast to my worst fears and to get a good square meal into her belly. 
Behind her an older woman stood still and straight, wrapped in black, staring 
through her daughter and me to the desert beyond. 

As we passed the last house, beyond the line of other children, two young 
boys squatted with hands on knees, one in shorts and a Western-style oxford 
shirt, the other in a white knee-length Islamic gown. They ignored our obe- 
diently tight-fisted caravan as they examined and seriously discussed some 
mechanical contraption between them. 

Everywhere as we progressed north, the middle ages met the modern; a 



58 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

satellite dish protruded from a mud hut, a donkey hauled a cart with two 
women sharing a cell phone back and forth, a large black and white cow tried 
to keep its feet in the bed of a small Toyota pick up truck. Roadside stands 
sold Snapple and long blocks of ice. Men dressed in shiny green U.S. football 
jerseys waved to us with one hand as they scooped salt from cracked-ivory flats 
into glinting white pyramids. Lines of camels were urged onward by little 
boys with big sticks and bigger walkmans. . . . 

We stayed overnight in a little dustbowl of a new Army camp, Cedar II, 
setting up our cots on the empty trailer beds out of reach of scorpions and 
snakes. The next day we were scheduled to pass through the outskirts of 
Baghdad, near where the members of another mission had seen the smoking 
remains of a 915 truck after it had been rocket grenaded. We took a wrong 
turn off the highway and, unable to read the Arabic street signs, wandered 
into the slums of Sadr City where children pointed and laughed as our long 
convoy of illiterates passed back and forth through the narrow streets looking 
for a way out. The adults barely glanced at us, faces surely schooled into stone 
by years of threats by those who held rifles and the keys to prisons that swal- 
lowed many sons, fathers, and husbands whole without a word. We finally 
found our way back to the highway, but by nightfall had barely made it past 
Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein. 

The next day all went smoothly and we pulled into our destination 
camp in Mosul, a former Iraqi Army base. Wandering through the littered 
compound next to the buildings we had occupied we found abandoned 
helmets, spent shells, and Arabic training manuals for gas mask use. In one 
room I found twisted hooks hanging from the ceiling next to an electronic 
control board and I shuddered at what my inner Hollywood pieced out of 
the scene. 

But in the regular soldier's barracks I found a detail that irrationally 
moved me more. A black-bottomed coffee pot sat in the sill of a window, its 
spout pointing out the heavy bars on the windows toward the foothills in the 
distance. Here the poorly fed draftees of years past may have shared coffee 
and cigarettes, read letters from home, told each other the news of the fami- 
lies we knew they had not volunteered to leave. I sat there a long time, the 
door open behind me, finally moved to take myself back to the Army barracks 
I had freely chosen. Just outside the door I found a boy waiting for me. 
"Thank you" he said, his light brown eyes looking straight into mine, and 
then he smiled with what seemed years-worth of relief. Despite all my reser- 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 59 

vations about this war, I could not help but wonder if he was thanking me for 
freeing father, uncle, or brother from some cell like that I'd walked so easily 
out of. 

Everywhere, from southern Iraq to this former garrison/prison of the 
Baathists, we have seen images of Saddam that have been literally de-faced, 
hacked out or painted over from hairline to chin, leaving his black hair, 
shoulders, and body intact. With Hussein still missing, the effect is ghoulish; 
the desecrations constantly remind us that the vengeful man still hides 
among the powerless that he has fed on for so many years. 

I sit writing here among these ruins, looking out the unbarred window, 
thinking of you, missing you always. 

With all my love, 
Helen 



NIGHT FLIGHT TO BAGHDAD 

Personal Narrative 
Master Sergeant Thomas W. Young 



On April 9, 2003, Baghdad fell with relatively little bloodshed. The Iraqi mil- 
itary essentially disbanded itself, and Saddam Hussein and his senior com- 
manders fled into hiding. Fears of a massive, catastrophic battle between U.S. 
and Iraqi ground troops in a final standoff around Baghdad were not real- 
ized, and the invasion was hailed as an extraordinary success. American 
troops focused much of their efforts in the weeks that followed on stabilizing 
the country's major towns and cities, particularly the Iraqi capital, which had 
disintegrated into chaos from looting and a wave of Shia versus Sunni re- 
venge killings. On May 1, President George W. Bush announced from the 
USS Abraham Lincoln that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." 
The president then emphasized that there was still 

difficult work to do in Iraq. We're bringing order to parts of that coun- 
try that remain dangerous. . . . The transition from dictatorship to 
democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition 
will stay until our work is done. . . . 




60 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Forty-one-year-old U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant Thomas Young ar- 
rived at the Masirah Island Air Base in Oman just days before Operation 
Iraqi Freedom began. Young, who had become a pilot at the age of twenty- 
nine, joined the military in lggi after watching young men and women sac- 
rificing their lives in the Gulf War. He wanted to fly missions that would 
one day help American forces on the ground, and he got the chance eleven 
years later when he served as a flight engineer with the i6yth Airlift Wing, 
West Virginia Air National Guard, which was mobilized to the Middle 
East in March 2003. Like most troops in the region, Young believed that by 
the beginning of May, the worst of the fighting in Iraq was over. But there 
were still sorties to be flown, and none of them was without risk. 



aghdad tonight, fellas." 

That word comes from pilot and aircraft commander Mike Lang- 
ley as my crewmates and I emerge from our air-conditioned tent to board the 
crew bus. Our cold-soaked sunglasses fog up instantly in the 115-degree heat 
of outdoors. We stand around in butternut-colored desert flight suits, squint- 
ing against the harsh light of the desert afternoon, wiping our lenses with 
handkerchiefs and brown scarves. 

Though war stories often focus on the youth of the warriors, we don't fit 
that mold. We're all around forty, with years of experience flying the C-130 
Hercules, a four-engine turboprop transport aircraft. In addition to the boss, 
Langley, our six-man crew includes copilot Ed Bishop, navigator Kelly Wash- 
ington, and loadmasters Roland Shambaugh and John Cox. I occupy the 
flight engineer seat. 

Tonight's schedule calls for us to fly to Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq. 
There we'll pick up cargo and take it to the former Saddam International Air- 
port, currently under new management thanks to the 3rd Infantry Division. 
Now we will build on their efforts by taking supplies and fresh troops into that 
airfield, newly renamed Baghdad International. 

After taking on jet fuel, we gear up for the combat zone as night falls. My 
crewmates and I squirm into our flak jackets and tug at the fasteners. The flak 
vests are hot, heavy, and miserable, but they can spare you a lifetime in a 
wheelchair or worse. I've been known to nag my buddies about wearing 
them. "Yes, Dad," I've heard more than once. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 61 

Over our flak jackets, we also pull on survival vests, which contain flares, 
a knife, a first-aid kit, a Beretta 9mm, a signal mirror, and other things that 
might come in handy when you've had an airplane blown out from under 
you. There's also an item called a blood chit. It's a piece of cloth with a mes- 
sage in several languages that reads approximately like this: I'm an American 
aviator, and I'm having a real bad day. I wont hurt you, and if you help me, 
my government will try to repay you. 

Finally, helmets adorned with night vision goggles take the place of our 
usual headsets. I fumble for the tiny switch, and the NVGs come alive with a 
faint, battery-powered whine. Night becomes full daylight, as if viewed 
through dark green sunglasses. 

Throttles up and we're airborne. Practically as soon as we get the gear up, 
Washington, the navigator, informs us we're entering hostile territory. 

"We're crossing the fence," he says, as if we're on some peaceful farm 
chore. A string of lights illuminates the Iraq-Kuwait border that stretches be- 
neath us — a bright curving chain of white pearls. "Combat entry checklist," 
he adds. 

Time to go to war. We begin configuring the airplane to make it harder to 
hit, and to minimize the damage if something does manage to nail us. 

Lights off. Cabin pressure reduced. Fuel cross-feed off. I double-check the 
switches for external lights, touching each of them with a gloved index finger. I 
worry about forgetting something as simple as a light switch. I'd hate to get my 
crew killed because I let us fly into a combat zone with bright strobes flash- 
ing—a big, fat, stupid target visible to every jihadi on the Arabian peninsula. 

The Herk levels off at cruising altitude, and we drone above a layer of 
scattered clouds. Above us, the Milky Way sparkles. Seen through night vi- 
sion goggles, the stars appear as glittering dust, a scattering of crushed dia- 
monds. A wondrous sight brought to us by the grim technology of war. 

We have little time for stargazing. Too soon, approach control hands us 
off to Tallil tower. 

"Cleared to land." 

Throttles chopped, the nose comes down and we begin spiraling the big 
airplane toward the runway. The ground appears to rotate beneath us as we 
corkscrew lower and lower. Infrared runway lights, invisible except through 
NVGs, beckon us. This approach hardly compares to the landings we do in 
our civilian jobs as airline pilots, and I smile as I imagine pulling this off in a 



62 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

jetliner: "Ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seat belts and lock your 
trays in the upright position. We'll be executing something called a random 
steep tactical approach for our arrival into Chicago this evening. If you feel 
any violent evasive maneuvering, please be advised that we are making every 
effort to avoid surface-to-air missiles." 

Fortunately, we see none to avoid right now. We land and taxi to the ramp 
for an ERO, or engines running on-load. The loadmasters push several pal- 
lets of cargo into place in pitch darkness with the aid of NVGs. 

We carry beans and bullets, as the saying goes, and just about everything 
else. On any given flight it could be ammunition, construction supplies, Meals 
Ready to Eat, medical equipment, blood plasma, or bomb-sniffing dogs. We 
also carry troops, soldiers rotating out, soldiers rotating in, we fly them all. 

In just a few minutes we're airborne again, clawing for altitude at max 
continuous power. We want to get out of the threat range of missiles, small 
arms, and antiaircraft artillery, or AAA. Almost as soon as we level off, a green 
glow appears on the horizon like a Venusian dawn. The night vision goggles 
pick up the lights of Baghdad so far away that at first we seem to make no for- 
ward progress toward them. 

However, the distance-measuring equipment on our instruments counts 
down the miles, and eventually when I peer under the goggles I can see the 
lights even with the naked eye. As we switch to the frequency for the com- 
mand and control plane orbiting somewhere overhead, the AWACS bird, we 
catch a disturbing conversation: 

"Say again that location." 

The pilot of another C-130 reels off a sector designation for a spot near the 
airport. 

"Copy that. Probable SA-7 missile launch. We'll relay." 

Another aircraft checks in. "Burst of triple-A off our eleven o'clock. 
Maybe eight or nine tracers." 

"That don't sound good," says one of our loadmasters on interphone. 

"I'm thinking this is a good time to be wearing your flak vest." 

"Yes, Dad." 

Approach clears us for descent near the edge of the city. Although recent 
news stories have focused on electrical blackouts, Baghdad looks pretty well lit 
for a city in the midst of war. But we've never seen it before, so we don't know 
what normal looks like. And we know normal lights don't include tracers. 

"Got some ground-to-ground fire off the left wing," calls Shambaugh. 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 63 

I scan the ground urgently but find nothing. 

"There it goes again." 

This time I see it in the edge of my field of vision— tiny green needles of 
light, gone in an instant. They come in quick snaps, stabbing the night. You 
might call them pretty if you didn't know the light show results from tracer mag- 
nesium burning on high-velocity rounds. I'm glad to see them flashing right to 
left. The ones that don't appear to move are the ones coming right at you. 

But now it's time to forget the tracers and just do the job. Tower clears us 
for a random steep. 

Again the airport seems to rotate under us. I divide my attention between 
the unwinding altimeter and the tormented city below, watching for threats. 
To the north, the Tigris loops through the heart of Baghdad, reflected light 
shimmering on the water. The cradle of civilization, this land beneath our 
wings has witnessed some of the best and worst that human society has of- 
fered. Its sands contain the relics of Mesopotamia and the bones of mass 
graves. Its waters irrigated the beginnings of agriculture and carried bodies of 
Saddam's victims. 

We want very much to help bring a change for the better, but that de- 
pends on many things far out of our control. All we can do is fly this aircraft 
to the best of our ability. 

Bishop, the copilot, rolls the wings level onto a short final approach. Just 
a few hundred feet above Baghdad, I half-expect to hear the blaring of the 
missile warning tones. If that happens, our defensive system can launch flares 
to help confuse a heat-seeking missile. But down low and slow, we have little 
room and leverage for maneuver, like a knife fight in a phone booth. 

No shoulder-launched knives for now, though, and the landing is normal. 
Or at least as normal as possible on night vision goggles, with firefights going 
on, after corkscrewing down like a falling leaf to land on a taxiway because 
the runways are pocked with bomb craters. 

We park on a cargo ramp and off-load, again with engines running. I wipe 
my face with a handkerchief, double-check the takeoff speed and distance, 
then take a swig of water and a whiff of oxygen, just to clear the cobwebs. The 
loadmasters are almost too good. Before I can unbuckle my harness and 
stretch my legs, the guys have the cargo off the airplane. 

"We're all closed up back here," calls Shambaugh. "Let's get the hell out 
of Dodge." 

Works for me. As we taxi out, I briefly imagine Saddam himself boarding 



64 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

an aircraft on this ramp in his better days. No time to ponder that now, 
though. Throttles up, brakes released, and we're off again, lifting into the 
angry night over Baghdad. 

Langley's flying now, and he wants what Air Force pilots call "smash." 
Smash is kinetic energy. Up high, it's altitude we can convert into speed by 
diving. Down low where we are now, it's velocity we can trade for altitude or 
a good, hard turn. 

"I'm lowering the nose to get some speed," says Langley, thinking out 
loud. I'll remember that sentence for the rest of my life. 

A tremendous flash lights up the cockpit like daylight. Magnified by night 
vision goggles, it blinds me. 

For a tenth of a moment I think: There's the fireball, it's all over. 

The missile warning tone screeches like a demon. Langley whips the air- 
plane into a steep bank, and my arms grow heavy with the pull of g-forces. 

I expect heat, pain, fire, eternity. 

Instead comes speed, and speed brings life. I realize I felt no impact, my 
vision is restored, and this airplane is still flying. 

Remaining among the living, I get back to work, calling altitudes and 
scanning instruments. The heading indicators spin through the turn, an un- 
readable flicker of numbers. The systems gauges show no signs of engine 
damage. That flash came from our antimissile flares firing off, the defensive 
system doing its job automatically. One for the textbooks, Langley's maneu- 
ver and the decoying flares have thwarted a little piece of heat-seeking hell. 

"Anybody see anything?" he asks. 

"Missile came up from the right," answers Cox. 

"I saw it too, until I lost it in the flares," adds Bishop. 

Cox explains that he saw a truck stop and turn off its lights, and the launch 
appeared to come from on or near the truck. 

Away from the city, we climb through a sky as dark as a mineshaft. The 
night vision goggles don't help at the moment, because in the black emptiness 
of the desert, they can't find a speck of light to amplify. For perhaps twenty min- 
utes, there is absolute silence on the interphone. Just a faint electronic hiss. 

Finally someone speaks. "You guys all right?" asks Langley. "I need to 
know you're still in the game. Everybody check in." His tone is matter-of-fact, 
as if he's calling for any routine checklist. 

"Copilot's good." 

"Nav's okay." 



AND NOW IT BEGINS 65 

Engineer. 

"Loadmaster one." 

"Load two." 

We fly home to Masirah weary and sobered, older and wiser. And damned 
lucky. 

Back on our tent porch, I collapse into a deck chair and twist open a beer. 
The cap cuts my hand, but I don't care. The beer is cold and good, and if I 
can feel pain it means I'm still alive. The rest of the crew joins me, exhausted 
but not ready for sleep. 

The enemy launched on us once before, but the missile missed by a 
much wider margin then, partly because the shooter didn't know how to use 
his weapon. After that first time, we even raised a lighthearted toast while hav- 
ing drinks back at base: "To bad guys too stupid to lead a moving target." We 
crack no jokes tonight. This time, the bastard knew what he was doing. Com- 
petence scares us more than fanaticism. 

"That's the only time I have ever braced for impact," says Langley, shak- 
ing his head. 

Everybody's first thought was a little different. 

"I thought the loadmasters were dead," says Bishop. 

"I just wondered what the hell was happening," adds Shambaugh, who'd 
been posted in the window opposite where the missile came up. 

And I thought we'd all had our tickets punched. But I was wrong. 

I was wrong by mere yards, by microseconds. I was wrong, but not by much. 

In the dark on our dusty porch, I realize the distance between our aircraft 
and that warhead represents the life we have left to live. It is this moment and 
all that remain. 

This war will alter many lives, and it will rip away some altogether. For 
now at least, it has handed ours back. 

And as soon as we rest up, we'll fly into Iraq again. 

Young returned to West Virginia two months later and remained on active 
duty for a year. While U.S. and Coalition forces had quelled some of the riot- 
ing that had exploded throughout the country in the immediate aftermath of 
the invasion, Iraq was far from secure. Violence against American troops was 
escalating, and by summer 2003, an organized and vicious insurgency seemed 
to be gaining in strength. The war, it appeared, was only just beginning. 



CHAPTER TWO 



HEARTS AND MINDS 



INTERACTIONS WITH AFGHANS AND IRAQJS 




Children in the Iraqi village of Jassan, near the Iranian border, see 

Marines for the first time during the U.S. invasion, April 2003. 

Photo by Major Benjamin Busch, USMC; used by permission. 



A couple hours after we landed, we had a convoy to Kabul. It took about two 
hours, but I will never forget the trip. The scenery was incredible. I knew 
that there were mountains in Afghanistan, but there are so many that it is an 
unbelievable sight. It's hard to imagine that it can be 90 degrees on the 
ground, yet not generate enough heat on the mountaintops to melt the 
snow that is apparent. The native people are also a sight to see. These 
people are incredibly resourceful making shelter from clay and mud and 
using the minimal resources they have to work with. . . . On the trip, I saw 
many small children, some no older than 4 or 5, off by themselves in the 
middle of nowhere, waving and smiling as we passed by. The poverty level is 
so high. They have little food and little resource for potable water to drink. 
We were told not to give any of our food or water to the natives. However, I 
find it hard to see these cute children starving on the side of the road while I 
have a case of bottled water next to me in the cab. Needless to say, a half 
dozen of my waters were hurled from my window along the way. One kid 
really earned his; he saw our vehicles approaching and ran 150-200 meters 
across the land as fast as a deer. I couldn't believe how fast he was! As I 
approached him, it was evident that all he wanted to do was wave like a kid 
at a parade. He was 7 or 8 at best and wearing a cloth with no shoes. I 
couldn't resist tossing him a water. He picked it up as I saw in my rearview 
mirror and jumped up and down waving at my vehicle. It is so sad what kind 
of world these kids are born into. 

— Thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant Andrew Simkewicz (210th 
Forward Support Battalion, 10th Mountain Division), e-mailing family 
back in Massachusetts from Afghanistan on May 30, 2003. Two days later, 
Simkewicz wrote: "One of the cute little Afghan kids that I had spoken 
about ran up to a soldier and knocked out six of his teeth with a slingshot." 



68 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ONE SMALL VILLAGE 

Journal 
Chief Warrant Officer Two Jared S. Jones 



Culture shock does not even begin to describe the reaction that many young 
servicemen and women, especially those who have never been outside the 
United States before, experience when they arrive in a war-torn country like 
Iraq or Afghanistan. And even those who have traveled abroad are stunned 
by the poverty and destruction that greet them. "The majority of the people 
of Afghanistan are still living in the biblical times of Jesus," U.S. Army First 
Sergeant August C. Hohl, Jr., wrote in an account based on his deployment 
to the region. "Their mud villages, their homes covered by whatever tree 
branches and wood that they have salvaged, the caravans of shepherds— all 
these things are images Yve only envisioned in my Bible readings or from a 
few books on ancient history." But as surprised as Hohl was by the condi- 
tions he saw, he was deeply affected by the people themselves and their per- 
spective on life amid such adversity. "They dont take well to pity," Hohl 
observed about the Afghans he met, "but their personal and religious beliefs 
are not unlike ours in that everyone understands the importance of reach- 
ing out to and being charitable towards one another." Hohl was especially 
moved by his visits to rural schools, where he would bring pencils, paper, 
chalk, and other supplies provided by donors back home in Wisconsin. 

The kids sit there and learn with old bullet holes and bomb-scarred 
walls around them. They are usually lucky if they even have wooden 
benches to sit on. Most of the time there s just the bare floor or a plas- 
tic tarp. But the children there are so proud to open up their book 
bags and show you their math, writing, or art books and what they 
can do. Then there are the teachers, all of whom talk about the needs 
of their students before even considering their own needs. Most of the 
teachers are two to three months behind in getting paid, but they be- 
lieve very strongly in the importance of education for their people. 
Coming here has shown me that while we all might live differently 
due to environmental, geographical, and educational conditions, 
people are basically the same inside. Learning some of the history, so- 
cial habits, and religion of this country has left me with a profound 



HEARTSANDMINDS 69 

sense of hope that we can assist the people here. But we're not so 
smart that we cant learn from them, too. 

Service members are not unaware of the military value of fostering good- 
will within Afghanistan and Iraq; civilians on friendly terms with American 
forces are less likely to cause them harm, and they are more inclined to pro- 
vide information about suspected insurgents, the location of stashed 
weapons, rumors of possible ambushes or attacks, and other critical intelli- 
gence. But many troops, like Hohl, write with genuine emotion about their 
desire to work with Afghans and Iraqis and help the neediest among them, 
especially children. "You would not believe how different the world is over 
here," twenty-three-year-old U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Two }ared S. 
Jones wrote in his first e-mail home from the middle of Afghanistan. ]ones 
had left for Bagram in April 2004 with a sense of, in his words, "fear and 
mistrust." But over time, not only did he begin to admire and appreciate 
Afghanistan and its people, he fell in love with them. The deployment was 
also special because one of his fellow AH-64A Apache pilots in the ilmth 
Aviation Attack Helicopter Battalion, Utah Army National Guard, hap- 
pened to be his father. (It is not uncommon for parents and their grown chil- 
dren, spouses, or siblings to serve together in the same reserve unit.) In a 
journal based primarily on his e-mails home, Jones chronicled his experi- 
ences flying both combat- and humanitarian-aid-related missions through- 
out Afghanistan, and the latter, particularly visits to the small village of 
Jegdalek, were the ones that affected him the most. (The following entries 
were written between early September 2004 and mid-March 2005.) 

Week Twenty-One 

In recent news, our adopted village, Jekdelehek (uncertain of the spelling), is 
one of the many war-ravaged villages from the days of the Soviet-Afghan war, 
and we are trying to find medical supplies and raise money to establish some 
sort of a medical clinic. Last Monday a little girl and her father were brought 
to our U.S. Army hospital here in Bagram after we visited their village. The 
little girl, Halima (pronounced Hah-lee-mah), is approximately five years old 
and needed corrective eye surgery. I had the honor of attending the opera- 
tion, wearing a medical hair cover, breathing mask, and all. There were two 
surgeons: one U.S. and one Egyptian — it was a truly fascinating experience! 
Don't worry, I won't share the gory details. . . 



70 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Week Twenty-Two 

Last week, we returned the little girl and her father to their village, Jekdele- 
hek. What an unforgettable, truly amazing experience! Nearly thirty people 
reside in their humble, three-room abode. Most of the family are farmers of 
sorts, and possess a few livestock (a cow, a goat, and a family of chickens), 
which they share their residence with. During the Soviet-Afghan war, when 
the Soviet Army was first invading from the north, the family and the rest of 
the village took to the surrounding caves, hiding from Soviet aircraft that 
strafed and bombed most every village they came across, including theirs. 

They told us that since America has come to Afghanistan, fighting for 
their freedom and way of life, the village has prospered like it never has before 
and they are very grateful for our presence. They hope that we (meaning 
U.S. /U.N. support) can stay until the new democratic government, with the 
help of the Afghan National Army (ANA), is fully operational and their coun- 
try has been rid of terrorist scum like Osama bin Laden. After we said good- 
bye, as I was riding on the CH-47 Chinook, I realized, even away from family, 
friends, and the luxuries of home, I had so very, very much to be thankful for. 

Week Twenty-Nine 

In Jegdalek we distributed more humanitarian aid, with donations ranging 
from personal hygiene to school supplies, shoes, and soccer balls. It is always 
a pleasure to see the difference we are making for these people, even if it is 
only one small village, whose people have next to nothing. I saw Halima 
again, who is doing incredibly well. Her eyes have healed completely and she 
continues to share her winning smile with us. Her father is now commuting 
to Kabul, working a regular job, where he is making significantly more than 
he did before. We continue to offer, as able, medical support to those who 
need it most. For example, we have been bringing antibiotics to a man who 
has lost an arm and a leg to infection and is about to lose another. Now he has 
a fighting chance of retaining this limb. There is a young boy, no older than 
twelve years old, who suffers from a heart condition involving a leaky valve. 
He can walk no further than a dozen yards before he must stop and catch his 
breath. If he does not receive medical care from a professional cardiologist, 
which we lack here in the country of Afghanistan, he will die shortly. We are 
now in the process of obtaining him a visa and passport. If we are successful 
we are going to use some of the funds we have received for humanitarian aid 



HEARTSANDMINDS 71 

to fly him back to the U.S. where a former military doctor is more than will- 
ing to do the necessary surgery ... for free. Please pray for this young boy. 

Week Thirty-One 

Combat is only one facet of the military, a necessary evil we must sometimes 
wage against evil people. There is much more happening in this country be- 
sides what you hear in the media. I want to share another amazing story with 
you. The young child with the poor heart condition has been brought here to 
Bagram Air Field. His name is Asedullah (the spelling may or may not be ac- 
curate). Everything to this point has fallen perfectly into place. Hospital ad- 
ministrative fees have already been waived. In Kabul, passports were granted 
in one day. Unfortunately, due to miscellaneous bureaucracies, it will be, at 
a minimum, thirty days before the visas are available. Therein lies another 
catch— Asedullah and his father, since he will be accompanying his boy to 
the States for the surgery, must pick them up, in person, at the nearest visa of- 
fice . . . which is in Pakistan. What happens next? We wait. 

Week Thirty-Four 

As I continue to fly over Afghanistan, I have noticed that the people predom- 
inantly fly one of two colors — a green flag and a red flag. I have learned that 
the green flag signifies that that family has lost someone to the Taliban, 
whereas the red flag signifies that that family lost someone during the Soviet- 
Afghan conflict. Sadly, I have seen many, many of both colors. A black flag, 
however, is supposed to mark a home that supports the Taliban regime — I 
haven't seen many of this color anymore. Many of the graveyards, I have no- 
ticed, have fences around them. They are to keep out animals, specifically 
wild dogs and hogs that, if not for the fence, would dig up the dirt covering 
the fresh burial. I have seen entirely too many small fences, something I hope 
changes as this country continues to progress. 

Week Forty-Five 

The highlight of my week was something I have wanted to do for a very long 
time — observe Operation Shoe Fly. CW2 William Andrews, the driving, or 
rather, flying effort behind Operation Shoe Fly, invited me to come along. So 
how does it work? One or more CH-47 Chinooks are filled primarily with 
shoes, among other donations, such as blankets, clothing, and toys. As the pi- 



72 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

lots fly across the country, following the routes between forward operating 
bases (FOBs), they look for the desolate and more isolated communities. Fly- 
ing near these, the crew chiefs wait for the best drop opportunity— typically 
beside homes and other prominent gathering locations, yet away from person- 
nel. Once the shoes are flying, the children come running. Luckily, that we 
know of, no one has been hit by a falling shoe or any other gift from the sky. 

One interesting story he shared with me — during one particular flight 
while dropping shoes, the villagers ran inside, scared. In all likelihood they 
were recalling the cruel tactic used by the Soviets, who dropped booby-trapped 
gifts. On the return flight, when they were flying over the same village, the vil- 
lagers ran outside, proudly displaying their new shoes and waving their thanks. 

Mr. Andrews estimates that Operation Shoe Fly has dropped more than 
ten thousand pairs of shoes over Afghanistan. Many of those come from one 
source— a resident of Hawaii who was in fact born in Afghanistan. She alone 
has donated nearly two thousand shoes! A few months ago she returned tem- 
porarily, and was flown aboard a Chinook, herself dropping shoes over her 
motherland, and even had the opportunity to visit Jegdalek, where she acted 
as interpreter on the trip. 

Week Forty-Six 

Asedullah and his father, who made it out of the country for Asedullah's 
operation, are scheduled to come back to Afghanistan soon. My father was fi- 
nally able to set foot in their village yesterday. I wish I could have accompa- 
nied him, but I was flying. He had a wonderful time and I am glad he was 
able to see Afghanistan for what it really is. 

Week Forty-Seven 

This week we said goodbye to our adopted village, Jegdalek. I saw Halima and 
some of her family— our little Cinderella, as we have fondly dubbed her, is 
doing better than ever. I gave her some one-two-threes, a family tradition of 
tossing a child into the air, higher with each number. One of her brothers did 
something incredibly heart wrenching— he gave me a small ruby; a gift of 
friendship. By the way, the rubies of Jegdalek are world renowned. . . . Here 
is a boy, with almost nothing, giving me something, anything. I was so moved 
by this that I ended up giving away nearly everything I had on me . . . my 
gloves, my pen, my watch. Anything means everything to these people. And 
then, the time had come — hearing the Chinooks in the distance, we said our 



HEARTSANDMINDS 73 

last goodbyes, never again to visit this small village in the middle of 
Afghanistan, that has come to mean so much to many of us. It was bitter- 
sweet, this finale. 

Week Forty-Eight 

Yesterday was a long flight— escorting one of the new CH-47 Big Windy Chi- 
nook aircraft, we visited nearly every FOB in our southern area of operations. 
It just so happened that our route of flight took us over Jegdalek. Flying with 
CW5 Layne Pace, we circled over the house of Halima and then Asedullah. 
I am not certain, but I think I could see them both, looking up at us looking 
down on them. 

Speaking of Asedullah, at long last he and his father returned to the vil- 
lage earlier this week! He is doing very well and I learned that already he is 
running around with his brothers and the rest of the boys of Jegdalek. He will 
return to school shortly and resume the life that previously could not have 
been. What a happy ending to an amazing story. 

These journeys to Jegdalek have been the highlight of my deployment— 
I will never forget the faces of this humble village. Looking back, I remember 
the first time we visited their village, the people reserved, uncertain. On our 
final visit I was struck at how so much had changed. Our friendship forever 
sealed, the people welcome us as family now. Afghanistan is changing, I have 
seen it with my own eyes. These children, this next generation, will one day 
be the next mullah or village elder, and they will teach their children how 
things were, and how things are, and how things can be. 

Both ]ones and his father returned to the States in April 2005, and Jones 
went back to school at the University of Utah to pursue a major in film. 



LUNCH WITH PIRATES 

Personal Narrative 
Staff Sergeant Clint Douglas 



Before embarking overseas, many U.S. troops receive cultural sensitivity 
briefings so that they do not inadvertently offend the civilians and allied 
military personnel they meet in Afghanistan and Iraq. Much of the infor- 



74 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

mation is basic common sense and courtesy: Do not seem impatient or dis- 
tracted during conversations, do not point a finger in someone's face, do not 
use profanity, etc. But some rules are less obvious. One should not, for ex- 
ample, compliment a host on any specific item in his home, as he will then 
feel obliged to offer it as a gift. And it is extremely insulting to point the sole 
of one's foot at another person, even if it is done unintentionally while sit- 
ting and chatting informally. No matter how much preparation servicemen 
and women are given, however, they will inevitably find themselves in situ- 
ations for which there is simply no training manual or reference guide. In 
March 2003, thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Clint Douglas, 
a former Peace Corps volunteer, was deployed to Afghanistan with the 20th 
Special Forces Group (Airborne), Illinois National Guard, for more than 
six months. Douglas quickly discovered that beneath the patina of social 
niceties and expressions of mutual regard, some associations and alliances 
with local leaders were considerably more complicated than they initially 
appeared. 



verall we worked well with the provincial officials appointed by 
Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Like Karzai himself, they owed their 
positions and their continuing survival to the strength of our arms. Without 
us they were all dead men. But the most peculiar, if not spectacularly bizarre, 
of all of our relationships was that with Zia Audin, the local warlord in 
Gardez. It was one of distrust, conspiracy, and mutual antipathy. We endured 
a dysfunctional marriage of convenience, but divorce was difficult and we 
couldn't just get rid of him. The few men that he still controlled were en- 
camped at several different bases around the city, but his real power em- 
anated from the Bala Hissar, or Castle Greyskull as we called it, a massive 
fortification built by the British in the nineteenth century in the middle of 
Gardez. It dwarfed all of the other structures in town and dominated the en- 
tire mountain plain that surrounded the city. 

Zia Audin, sorry, General Zia Audin, was responsible for many of the 
rocket attacks on our firebase and at least some of the IEDs that exploded 
around our patrols. All of the American and Afghan agencies around the re- 
gion knew this, and most interestingly Zia Audin knew that we knew. But he 
didn't try to kill us out of a sense of either hatred or malice in his heart; he did 
it out of jealousy and pride, for Zia Audin was heartbroken. He suffered from 




HEARTSANDMINDS 75 

an unrequited love of America, and this was awkward for all parties. So Zia 
Audin, in a fit of adolescent pique, did what came naturally— he tried to kill us. 

Outright murder wasn't on his mind so much as grandiose posturing. 
What he wanted was attention and respect. What he wanted was to keep us 
frightened of the incomprehensibly alien and hostile Afghan countryside. By 
arranging the anonymous, nighttime rocket attacks that rained down on us as 
we slept in our bunks, he thought that he could reinforce the perceived ne- 
cessity of his power and authority, if for no other reason than to protect us, 
and fortunately the rockets and mortars missed their mark. No one had been 
injured. 

We were up to some not-so-subtle subterfuges of our own. In moving to 
the Gardez firebase, we had inherited from previous Special Forces teams a 
conspiracy to undermine and isolate Zia Audin, and it was something that we 
did with relish. Zia Audin was a bandit and a thug, and so, of course, he had 
been a close American ally. Although a Pashtun, he had been a member of 
the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. As a young man he had fought 
against the Soviets during the Jihad and then against the Taliban, who had 
imprisoned and tortured him for several years. When the Americans invaded, 
he joined the swelling ranks of unemployed warlords and reemerged from 
obscurity to fight the Taliban once again, along with their Arab allies. By all 
accounts he had been a brave and tenacious fighter. But he was now a petty 
warlord beholden to no one, and his rank of "general" was recognized due to 
his years of fealty and service against the Taliban. 

The goal of the Americans was to provoke and humiliate Audin, and ulti- 
mately drive him from his castle in the city center. Stripped of the castle, 
which afforded him both symbolic and physical protection, he would only be 
safe in Kabul. He had many powerful enemies in Gardez, and the locals de- 
spised him. His men had terrorized the community, demanding protection 
money from the local shop owners and raping young boys on their way to 
school. They were highwaymen, who set up illegal checkpoints, charging 
"road taxes" from anyone unlucky enough to stumble upon one of their road- 
blocks. And they preyed on the local nomads, kidnapping prominent tribal 
elders until their families ransomed them from jail. Audin and his men had 
gone out of their way to alienate and piss off everyone in town. Rocketing our 
firebase didn't endear them to us either. 

Special Forces teams, ANA (Afghan National Army) units, the Karzai- 
appointed provincial governor, and the new police chief all conspired to chip 



76 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

away at his power. First, Audin's men were forbidden from operating check- 
points along the roads, then they were banned from carrying weapons while 
out of uniform in the city, and finally they were prohibited from wearing their 
uniforms in the city limits as well. They were only authorized to travel from 
Castle Greyskull to their handful of crumbling encampments in the coun- 
tryside, where they would languish in the desert. Failure to comply led to the 
emasculating spectacle of being publicly and roughly disarmed. Bandits 
stripped of their mystique and their weapons found themselves to be very vul- 
nerable men, and their former victims suddenly saw them as the small-time 
criminals that they were. 

And then there was the matter of the rapes. An old man stopped a patrol 
of ANA along a roadside and complained to the battalion commander about 
Zia Audin's men "touching the schoolboys, who were always crying when 
they passed his house." He'd seen Audin's soldiers taking boys into their bar- 
racks. The ANA battalion commander, an old communist who had fought 
with the Soviets and against our erstwhile mujahideen allies, was livid. 

He marched a company of his men, along with two gun trucks of his 
American advisors, into the closest of Audin's compounds. His soldiers dis- 
armed the men inside under gunpoint and surrounded them in the middle of 
a courtyard, then lined them up against one of the compound's walls. "If I 
hear about another crying schoolboy, 111 come back and execute the lot of 
you," he announced, his voice cracking with rage. 

This was a threat that he made frequently and with solemn Stalinist sin- 
cerity, and it always worked. He could say things that we couldn't and we ad- 
mired him greatly for it, although I couldn't help but wonder about a man 
who was so cavalier about firing squads and mass execution. How often had 
he delivered on this threat in the past? Or was I just being squeamish and 
weak? There were no more reports about crying schoolchildren. Audin's men 
were further restricted and forbidden from any contact with the Gardez shop 
owners. They would always push their luck, and after an armed confrontation 
they'd back down, losing more and more face in front of the locals. 

This was the deteriorating situation. We'd whittled away at Zia Audin's 
power and his honor to the point where his men sat dispersed at their various 
barracks despised, unpaid, bored, and hungry. Because of their previous turns 
at bad behavior, the locals were enthusiastic about informing on them. Shame 
is a powerful force in Afghanistan, and we disgraced these sad pitiful fuckers 
without mercy. The consistency with which the Americans had dealt with 



HEARTSANDMINDS 77 

Zia Audin had also generated no small amount of goodwill among much of 
the local population. We were mostly tolerated as a necessary evil, and that 
was about as good as we could hope for. 

I became obsessed with Audin and his gang of cutthroats. The Taliban 
were nebulous, as much rumor as reality, but I thought that we could actually 
do some real good if we could get these gangsters off the people's backs. 

We were nearing the final act. Zia Audin was trapped and isolated. He was 
largely marginalized. We even treated the rocket attacks as more of a nui- 
sance than anything else, the price of doing business in Afghanistan. But 
more sinister was his flirtation with the Taliban. We started to receive reports 
that he was assisting his old enemies, putting them up in the castle, and fa- 
cilitating their activities in the area. He was trying to play both sides against 
the other in a last desperate bid to maintain some kind of relevance. It was the 
oldest game in Afghanistan, and a particularly dangerous one if all of the con- 
cerned parties found out what you were up to. 

Out of desperation he had surrendered most of his heavy weapons as a 
goodwill gesture, but still we pushed. There would be no reconciliation. We 
would pressure him either until we could prove that he was working with the 
insurgents or until he just quit the city. And it was against this backdrop that 
Bill, our team sergeant, and I, along with our ANA battalion staff, called on 
Zia Audin for lunch. 

Lunching with Zia Audin was a ritualistic courtesy, demanded by custom 
and protocol. The first time that I'd heard of such an absurdity was during a 
conversation with one of our predecessors at the Gardez firebase. 

"You've actually had lunch with him?" I asked, shocked. 

"Oh, yeah, sure. I've been up there a couple of times," he shrugged. 

"Have I been reading the wrong intelligence reports or something? Did I 
miss a meeting? Are we talking about the same Zia Audin, the Zia Audin? 
The jackass who attacks our convoys, mortars our firebase, and who might be 
working with the Taliban?" I demanded, as I counted off his sins. 

"That would be the one. It's just expected. You go up to Castle Greyskull 
occasionally and have lunch with him. You still have to talk to him, and any- 
way he puts on a nice spread of chow. If you get a chance to go up there, take 
it. You won't be disappointed," he said, obviously relishing the irony of the sit- 
uation. 

Now, I had never in my pitiful life knowingly exchanged pleasantries over 
lunch, or any other meal for that matter, with a man who was regularly trying 



78 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

to kill me. But when Bill invited me to escort him to the castle for his first 
meeting with Audin, I jumped at the opportunity. The idea seemed so ele- 
gant, like the medieval Spaniards and Moors retiring to each other's tents to 
play chess and exchange bons mots after a bloody day of battle and slaughter. 
Perhaps the metaphor was unnecessary; we would, after all, be departing 
from our own high-walled mud fortress to visit another, albeit grander one. 
We were literally making a kind of feudal social call. This situation, however, 
was less straightforward; Zia Audin was technically on our side. And anyway, 
I really wanted to see the inside of that castle. 

Bill and I, along with one interpreter (or terp, as we called them), jumped 
into the old Mercedes jeep that served as our "get around town" car and fol- 
lowed two jeeploads of our Afghan officers up to the castle. Theoretically the 
purpose of this visit was to discuss ways to coordinate our efforts at stabilizing 
the area around Gardez, but the reality was that lunch provided us all an op- 
portunity to size each other up. 

At the bottom gate to the castle drive, Audin's men lined up for a slapdash 
review. They saluted and lowered the ridiculous cotton string that barred the 
road to the castle heights, which meandered up the hillside past the thick 
stone walls and into an immense central courtyard. The courtyard itself was 
littered with old Soviet antiaircraft guns and rusting howitzers under several 
ancient shade trees. All of this, in turn, was surrounded by decrepit barracks 
and administrative buildings that were missing doors and windows. The 
rooms themselves appeared to be ransacked, with rusting artillery shells, old 
rockets, and human feces strewn along the floor. 

On the north side, a rocky outcrop ascended still higher and the crum- 
bling stone marked an even older castle, whose origins appeared to have been 
lost in violent antiquity. And here atop the highest parapet stood two stone 
burial vaults decorated with the green flags of martyrdom. But to whom they 
belonged was also seemingly lost. Opposite the most ancient part of the cas- 
tle was a two-story building that had seen at least some renovation during the 
twentieth century. There were no obvious holes in its corrugated tin roof and 
the window frames held actual glass. 

Audin and his officers walked out from behind this building while his sol- 
diers, wearing pressed uniforms rather than the normal mix of camouflage 
and civilian attire, assembled in two ranks. Then Audin and his entourage 
filed between them dressed in finery appropriate to their status as oriental 
despots. They wore a mixture of green and khaki ceremonial uniforms, ac- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 79 

cessorized by scarlet epaulettes and exaggerated peaked garrison caps that 
were a hangover from Russian military fashion sense. They formed a recep- 
tion line for us to introduce ourselves, shaking hands gently in the Afghan 
custom, as we touched our hearts, mouthing, "Salaam alaikum" — Peace be 
with you. We left a couple of ANA privates to guard the vehicles in the court- 
yard. They were the only ones present who didn't feel the need to wear disin- 
genuous smiles and instead eyed Audin's troops sternly, all business. 

Audin's officers led us into what was the warlord's office and receiving 
room, with a large desk at one end and couches surrounding a low brass cof- 
fee table. The typical Afghan functionary would decorate his office with a 
bouquet of fake silk flowers, but Audin, the gaudy usurper, felt compelled to 
jam a dozen of them in every nook and cranny. The moldy brown carpet was 
covered by a cheap and threadbare burgundy-colored Afghan rug. The airless 
room stank of mildew, and body odor filled the space like a fog. Everyone set- 
tled into the couches, while Bill and I removed our body armor, piling it next 
to the door along with our carbines. We still had our pistols, and I chose to sit 
next to our gear, just in case this already awkward luncheon went horribly 
wrong. I calculated that Bill and I could shoot everyone in the room easily be- 
fore any help could arrive for Audin, which I found reassuring. 

Audin sat in front of his desk, and when he removed his pompous head- 
gear, I could finally get a good look at him. Not surprisingly he was a small 
man, broad across the shoulders, but also handsome. His meticulously 
combed and pomaded beard merged into a full head of black hair. He had a 
fresh haircut and used a discreet amount of hair creme. His hands were soft 
for an Afghan, with long manicured fingernails, and they were no longer ac- 
customed to physical labor. His face, the little that wasn't covered by his thick 
beard, seemed unaffected by his years of hardship and overexposure to the 
desert wind and sun. This coupled with his dark sensuous eyes and full lips 
gave him an effete quality. He looked younger than I'd expected, too young 
to be the potentate of Gardez. He did not smile, and when he spoke, he did 
so to the entire room and without looking at anyone directly, but taking in 
everything as his eyes shifted nervously from side to side. I knew right away 
that this was a man who had lost the taste for guerrilla fighting and living in 
caves. He was afraid. 

Tea was served immediately and pleasantries were exchanged between 
Audin's staff and the ANA officers until the food was served. And it became 
glaringly apparent that Bill and I had made a serious error before we'd come 



80 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

to the castle — we'd brought only one terp, who was huddled next to Bill on 
the couch translating snatches of the conversation. I, however, was on the 
other side of the room and, being deaf as a stump, was having a difficult time 
hearing the translation. 

This was just a tactical error; the strategic disaster was in our choice of in- 
terpreter. We'd brought Mohammed, who, while he claimed that he was 
twenty, didn't look a day older than fifteen and was fresh faced, pretty, and 
beardless. We'd brought a goddamn cherub to a meeting with a gang of pi- 
rates, pederasts, and rapists. Audin's henchmen couldn't stop gaping at him, 
their eyes bugging out of their heads. The young man shifted his slight frame 
nervously under the weight of their lewd stares, causing the couch to creak 
loudly and distracting everyone in the room. Beads of perspiration formed on 
his forehead, and he tapped his left foot incessantly. 

He was also a lousy interpreter, one of our worst. All of his languages, 
English, Dari, and Pashtu, sounded like "moosh, moosh, moosh," and he had 
the affectation of pursing his lips when he spoke, giving the impression that 
he was blowing kisses to the listener. The suggestiveness of this unfortunate 
habit drove the assembled bandits mad with lust as they leaned forward in 
their seats devouring peaches and hanging on his every mooshy word. 

But at least the captain had been right about the food; it was delicious — 
lamb and chicken kebabs with jasmine rice, followed by fresh melon, and 
ice-cold Pepsis. After the last plates had been cleared, we got down to the seri- 
ous business of politics and war. I pulled out my notebook, if for no other rea- 
son than to look official and to write down my observations and the names of 
the men gathered. Bill began guiding the conversation where we wanted it. 

"Attacks on Coalition forces have been increasing in the region for the last 
two months." He paused, looking directly at Audin. "Are you aware of this?" 

"Moosh, moosh, moosh." 

The bandit on my right crunched loudly into one of the last remaining 
peaches and juice dribbled down his long beard. 

"Yes, yes, we are of course aware of this and we are concerned for the 
safety of our American friends. . . . We want to help, but our resources are 
sadly limited," Audin lied. "The people who are responsible for these attacks 
are not from this region. There are no Taliban here. All of the people are 
against the Taliban and bin Laden and the Al Qaeda. These people are for- 
eigners, from Pakistan or maybe Kandahar." 



HEARTSANDMINDS 81 

"So you know nothing?" I said, staring directly at Audin, trying to be men- 
acing and give my words weight by making eye contact, but failing. 

He did not respond. 

"Well, General, the only way that we'll be able to help you is if you join 
your forces with the Afghan National Army," Bill continued. He didn't have 
to threaten, he was a threat. The son of Norwegian farmers from Minnesota, 
he looked every bit the errant Viking that he was. His thick and muscled body 
always seemed to be straining to contain something explosive and volatile. 
His face was permanently locked in an angry scowl under a shaggy mane of 
sandy hair. I'd always had a nagging sense that Bill might feel the need to 
snap my neck someday, just to relieve tension, and I'd been his friend for six 
years. 

"Yes, I'm very interested in this ANA. It is very good to build a new army 
for the peace, security, and stability of Afghanistan. Perhaps some of you 
Americans or some of these Afghan officers could share some of these new 
techniques with my men," Audin said, sweeping his hand toward the couch 
filled with our counterparts. 

"No, I'm afraid that that is not possible. We only work with the ANA and 
the ANA do not train other militias. Respectfully, I don't think that you un- 
derstand what the ANA is," said Bill, smiling. "Your men must eventually sub- 
mit to ANA command and go to Kabul for training." 

"Ah, yes, I see. Perhaps then I could send some of my men to Kabul for 
training and then they will return here to Gardez and share this new knowl- 
edge. Then together we will all work for peace, security, and stability here in 
Gardez. But after we have done this we will need new weapons and money 
for uniforms. Right now I do not even have the money to pay my soldiers." At 
this his men nodded in agreement, while our Afghans said nothing and be- 
trayed neither emotion nor opinion. 

"Again this is not possible. All of your men need to go to Kabul for train- 
ing. We know that your men are good soldiers. There will always be a home 
for them in the ANA," replied Bill, speaking not to Audin this time, but to his 
lackeys, who were concerned about their personal fortunes as well. He was of- 
fering them a way out. He paused for dramatic effect. "But they will not re- 
turn here under your command. They will become professional soldiers, and 
they will go where the army orders them, just as my army has sent me here to 
Afghanistan." 



82 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"Yes, I see. But my own men are from here. This is their home. Many of 
them must take care of their families, some even have sick relatives that they 
must tend to. Plus they know the city. The people of Gardez do not trust 
strangers. My men can provide information. They can recognize the people 
who come here to cause trouble. They can be a great contribution to the 
peace, security, and stability of Gardez." 

I had had enough of the courtly circularity of the conversation and de- 
cided to force the issue. The empty cynical phrase "peace, security, and sta- 
bility" was also giving me a headache. I looked at the terp, who I suspected 
had been doing a lousy job at the translation to begin with, and told him to 
pay close attention to my words, to which he responded with a peevish scowl. 

"Who are the terrorists and where are they? If you and your men know the 
area and who the troublemakers are, then tell us. Give me their names and 
their addresses. We know that there are Taliban in Gardez. The firebase is at- 
tacked regularly, bombs are planted along the roads, and bandits set up ille- 
gal checkpoints to rob the people. You say that you can help us, then help us." 

The room exploded into arm waving and excited jabbering, and the terp 
was overwhelmed. 

"General Audin says that they do not know who these people are, but if 
they find them, then they would gladly torture them for you," the terp said af- 
fably, while trying to keep up with the six men who were all speaking to him 
at once. The mention of torture apparently brought all of the Afghan factions 
in the room together and now all of them were animated and jabbering and 
laughing and the tension eased. I lit a cigarette and waited for the room to 
quiet a bit. 

"Now what are they talking about?" I asked the terp after the commotion 
seemed to die down. 

"They're still talking about torturing their enemies," he replied with a 
shrug. I waited, but the Afghans seemed content to debate the nuances of 
abuse. Bill just smiled indulgently as he observed the scene. 

"If you don't know who these people are, what use are you to us?" I inter- 
rupted over the din of the crowd. "They are the future," I said, pointing at the 
ANA officers, who were suddenly all quiet and stone faced. "If your men want 
to continue to soldier, then they will join the ANA. If they have to stay in 
Gardez, then they'll have to get civilian jobs. There's no way around it. It's in- 
evitable." 

The room grew silent and the tension returned, to my great malicious sat- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 83 

isfaction. But Audin was a professional at these parlor games, whereas I was 
just an amateur. He was momentarily off balance, but recovered quickly. He 
made eye contact with me for the first time and only for a moment, before 
slowly reaching for his tea on the coffee table. 

"Tell me more about this ANA of yours. My men and I very much want to 
help our American friends fight the wicked Taliban." 

And around and around we went for another hour, just like the previous 
one. Audin was trying to find a way to hold on to some scrap of his power and 
prestige, while we tried to disabuse him of the notion that he had any future 
in Gardez. Finally, when everyone seemed exhausted from too much talking 
and jittery from too much tea, we left the castle after many florid pronounce- 
ments from all sides testifying as to the great productivity of the day and as- 
surances to meet again soon. 

During the drive back to the firebase, I found myself feeling oddly sorry 
for Audin. He was frozen in his own rhetoric, an anachronism, incapable of 
change. He was alone and justifiably terrified of the future, surrounded by 
enemies, a prisoner behind his own castle walls. Perhaps pity was a truer de- 
scription of what I felt for him, however fleetingly. He was just a man after all 
and not the monster of my imagination. But the feeling faded as we passed 
the earthworks of our own fortifications and I saw the faces of my friends. He 
had made his own enemies, and I counted myself among them more than 
ever. It was his obvious position of weakness that I'd seen during lunch and it 
was this frailty that had spoken to my humanity, but it didn't last. I felt a clar- 
ifying rush of bloodlust instead. 

We headed over to the Afghan officer tent when we got back to brief the 
ANA battalion commander and talk with our counterparts about their im- 
pressions of Audin and his cronies. We found the officers lounging around a 
long table drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Two commanders from an- 
other Afghan militia unit had stopped by for a visit. They were from General 
Lodin's command and Zia Audin theoretically reported to them, although 
they exercised no real control over him. Everyone had been discussing how 
to remove him from Gardez before we even arrived. One of the guests, whose 
face remained shrouded behind aviator sunglasses, claimed that he was 
Audin's "best friend," and that while he remained loyal to his comrade in 
arms, he understood that his old friend needed to move on, perhaps to Kabul. 

"He must learn that the world is changing," he explained, as he prattled 
on about the usual "peace, security, and stability" bullshit. They say never 



84 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

trust a man who says, "Trust me," and I decided while I sat there listening to 
this man pontificate that anyone in Afghanistan who talked at length about 
peace, security, and stability was probably working overtime to undermine all 
three. The general consensus among the Afghans was that Audin needed to 
be handled respectfully, if not gently. His mysterious friend promised to have 
a manly tete-a-tete with him while he was in town. It was impossible to tell 
whether he was there to spy for us or on us. 

While all of this flowery discussion was taking place, I noticed that Bill 
seemed more explosive than usual, and then suddenly, he slammed his fist 
onto the table, spilling everyone's tea, and his face contorted into unmasked 
fury. "I hate that asshole!" he screamed to no one in particular. "I wanted to 
punch that no-good motherfucker in the face! Beat that motherfucker right 
in his own goddamn house! Beat him right in front of his men . . . mother- 
fucker. I'd love to shoot that bastard." And then he laughed like a maniac at 
his own bloody fantasy. 

Audin's "best friend" literally winced in what looked like genuine pain, 
and the rest of the Afghans looked aghast and confused as they listened to the 
translation. "Oh shit," I thought, "so much for diplomacy." The ANA officers 
were laughing nervously and their insulted guests didn't bother to hide their 
irritation at this breach of protocol, both of them scowling and smoking in 
silent impotent rage. 

Cultures everywhere celebrate their traditions, but they also chafe against 
them. Most Afghans were tired; tired of war, tired of fighting, and tired of 
meaningless talk. Bill embodied the unrestrained and unpredictable power 
of the United States, but his frustrated rage appeared to be honest, and hon- 
esty is a rare and precious thing. Stories of his impolitic explosion filtered 
through the terps, the ANA soldiers, the Afghan militias and mercenaries, 
into the city, and no doubt to our myriad enemies. Bill's reputation was 
made. That was the day that the Afghans named Bill Shere Khan, The Tiger. 
That was the day that the Afghans fell in love with him. Bill was a force of na- 
ture, and so it was impossible to tell whether his outburst was genuine or cal- 
culated drama, but it amounted to an earthquake. Here was Bill, heir to 
Iskander in all of his blond barbarous glory, equal parts courteous and cruel. 
My petulant badgering of Audin had been nothing more than second-rate 
theatrics, which no doubt all of the Afghans expected from an earnest and 
self-righteous American. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 85 

Up until that moment, the Audin situation was a local political problem, 
but Bill had made it personal, he'd made it tribal. And at that moment he'd 
crossed over and gone native. After that day there wasn't a thing that our 
Afghan troops wouldn't do for him; they trusted him completely. In a land 
fragmented by blood feuds, he'd transcended politics and had declared a per- 
sonal vendetta. And in Afghanistan, it was considered a moral obligation to 
carry out one's revenge. Two weeks later Zia Audin quietly abandoned Castle 
Greyskull and fled to Kabul. 



SIX WEEKS IN and KHOST-GARDEZ 

Fiction 
Specialist Ross Cohen 



After graduating from Brown University in May 2001, twenty-two-year-old 
Ross Cohen immediately set out on what he expected would be a full year 
of backpacking throughout Asia. He spent two months in Mongolia work- 
ing for an English-language newspaper and then traveled to Kashgar, a 
small city in western China. While checking e-mails late one night in the 
hostel where he was staying, Cohen learned of the September u terrorist at- 
tacks and decided to forgo his yearlong journey, return to the United States, 
and enlist in the Army. Cohen trained at Fort Benning and became an air- 
borne infantryman, ultimately shipping off as a paratrooper to eastern 
Afghanistan with the ist-^oist Parachute Infantry Regiment, which was at- 
tached to the 10th Mountain Divisions 1st Brigade. Cohen wrote several 
short works of fiction based on his experiences in-country, focusing primar- 
ily on the interactions between soldiers in a single unit. But he was also 
fascinated by the relationships between U.S. troops and local Afghans, in- 
cluding the misunderstandings and even confrontations that could flare up 
because of mutual suspicion and distrust. (Since Taliban and A/ Qaeda 
troops did not wear uniforms and appeared, to most U.S. personnel, in- 
distinguishable from innocent civilians, American forces had to approach 
almost every stranger, or "hajji" as they referred to them, as a potential 
threat.) In the following story, Cohen relates what happens when troops 
don't know for certain who is harmless and who is not. 



86 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



In the tent, 1730 Zulu— 2200 Afghan time. Today was exciting, sort of. We 
made our first contact with hajji in a small village near Khost. We killed 
four of them. Well, by we I don't mean "we," but Charlie Company. "We" 
were on base security, at the OP-6 tower, when the word came in over the 
radio. All the dead guys appeared to be foreign, not Afghani, so that meant Al 
Qaeda, not Taliban. 

Now it was time to sleep, and that's all I cared about. 

Our team leader walked in the tent. "Ginsburg. Peterman." 

Goddammit. I had just taken my boots off. 

"Sergeant." 

"C Co. just brought some hajjis in. You've got PUC guard." 

Fuck. "When?" 

"Now." 

"What's the uniform?" 

"I don't fuckin' know. Take full battle rattle." 

Team leader and I had been friends before the deployment. We used to 
watch football together at a sports bar in Anchorage, but now, a month and a half 
in-country, things had become strained. I asked too many questions, I guess. 

"Really? Are they armed?" 

"Jesus, Ginsburg. You can take your gear off when you get there, just 
bring it." 

"Roger, Sarnt. What, uh, are we supposed to do, exactly?" 

A deep sigh. This was . . . paining him. "They'll brief you when you 
fuckin' get there, okay?" 

"Roger, Sarnt. Oh — and last thing— who's relieving us?" 

Really paining him. "Benson and Nicholas. Two-hour shifts." 

I smiled. "Gotcha, Sarnt. We're on it." 

I pulled on and laced up my desert combat boots, something I hated to do 
more than once a day. Nothing— nothing felt better than taking them off. I 
grabbed my gear. Peterman grabbed his. 

We walked out of the tent into the pitch black night. No lights at all. I 
never understood the need for light discipline on the base. They knew where 
we were. It wasn't as though some dude was up in the mountains, waiting 
only for someone nontactical to turn on his flashlight so that he could finally 
know . . . "Aha! That's where the American base is hiding!!" For a time I used 
the light from my iPod to get around, but that broke eventually. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 87 

We adjusted to the darkness. 

"Do you know where this place is?" Peterman asked. 

"I think so," I replied. I led the way, bumping into something every tenth 
or so step. 

"This is pretty cool. Real fucking hajjis." 

"Yeah it is. Too bad they had to come just before sleep." I paused, finding 
the opening in the gate that led to the PUC cages. "Well, we can always sleep 
on guard tomorrow." 

"Yeah we can." 

It was dark, but we both smiled. They had no idea. Though they would. 

We neared the cages, and the silence bothered me. "You know what PUC 
stands for?" PUC — pronounced like a hockey puck. 

"I dunno. Prisoner something?" 

"Yeah. That makes sense." 

A few meters away from the entry to the cages, we heard noises. Soldiers 
on the move, doing things. Unlike us, they had been outside the wire all day, 
and they deserved sleep more than we did. Whatever. They had guard last 
month. They'd have it again in a couple of months. Our turn now. Except 
tonight, we wouldn't sleep so much. 

"Hey— you the guys from Alpha Company?" one of the soldiers asked me. 

"Roger, Sergeant. Oh! Hey, Sarnt Greer, what's up?" Sergeant First Class 
Greer— a platoon sergeant— had been Staff Sergeant Greer, an Alpha Com- 
pany squad leader, until just before the deployment. His promotion led to a 
transfer, and we hadn't seen him in a while. 

"Oh, hey Ginsburg. We got two PUCs. You know what to do with 'em?" 

"Umm . . . not reallv, Sarnt. No." 
j ' 

"Just make sure they don't sleep. Do whatever you have to do, but keep 
'em awake." 

"No worries, Sarnt. Were these guys part of the attack today?" 

He was already walking off, heading to sleep or a briefing or whatever it 
was that platoon sergeants did at night. He hesitated for a second, and a sec- 
ond only. "Yeah. They were." 

"Thanks, Sarnt. Have a good night." 

His soldiers followed him out, looking at me, and Peterman and I were 
alone. 

With the PUCs. 

We walked into the cage area, and I leaned my weapon against a bench. 



88 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

I glanced at the Afghans, but only for a second before I took off all of my 
gear. In three well-rehearsed motions, my back was free and I felt a shitload 
better. 

I turned to Peterman. I nodded. 

He extended his machine gun's bipod legs, and put it down. I picked up 
my weapon and slung it. 

I moseyed over to the PUC cages. The Afghans were separated in differ- 
ent mesh-wire setups. They were two young boys. Not seventeen or eighteen 
young— twelve or thirteen young. But one was older than the other. 

I walked up to the older-looking boy. "What the fuck, hajji. Why you 
tryin' to kill Americans?" Now I yelled. "Don't you know we're here to help 
you?!" 

I wasn't so good at the shit-talk. I had been in one fight in my life, a fight 
I neither started nor ended. Though I did give him a bloody nose. 

Peterman, five years younger than I, had been silent. Now he followed my 
lead. 

"HEY FUCKIN' HAJJI WE'RE FUCKIN' TALKIN' TO YOU!!!" 

He had removed from his weapon his ultrabright Surefire flashlight that 
we used for clearing caves and dark rooms. He shined it in the eyes of the one 
I was yelling at. 

The Afghan didn't budge. He had a sandbag over his head, as they both 
did. His had slipped a little, though, and with his exposed left eye, he stared 
back at us. He was on his knees, with his hands flex-cuffed behind his back. 

"Goddammit!! We're trying to fix your shithole of a country and all you 
can do is try to kill us!! That's FUCKED up, man. That— is — fucked — up!!" 

He said nothing. He stared into the flashlight. 

We heard a whimper from the next cage over. A mistake. I don't know 
why, but it was a mistake I felt the need to ... do something about. 

"Oh, is little hajji sad? Do you want to sleep, hajji? Well so the FUCK 
would I!!" I turned to Peterman. I was a specialist, he was a private first class. 
I was in charge. I nodded at the older one. "Keep your light on this fucker. 
Thinks he's a TOUGH guy!!" 

As I walked to the younger Afghan, I heard Peterman shouting, "You 
think you're a fuckin' tough guy, huh! Huh, hajji!!" He ran up to the cage and 
threw his body against it. The whole structure shook. I looked over, and the 
Afghan was staring, unmoving. 

Afghan the younger was openly crying now. "Oh, whatsamatter, hajji? 



HEARTSANDMINDS 89 

Sad 'cuz you tried to fuckin' kill our boys, and now you're gettin' what you de- 
serve?! Oh, that sucks FUCKSTICKU!" I repeated Peterman's body check to 
the door. The boy startled back and lost it. Big open tears. 

"Don't fuckin' cry!! How old are you? Tsu kelen ye?" I had just started 
learning Pashtu. 

No response. Just loud, painful bawling. 

His older brother— I assumed it was his older brother— said something to 
him. I couldn't understand what. 

"HEY SHUT THE FUCK UP!! NO ONE SAID YOU COULD 
FUCKIN' TALK!!" If Peterman hadn't said it, I would have, but maybe not 
so convincingly. He shook the bars again. Afghan the elder said nothing. 

"So I asked you a question! Tsu — kelen— ye?" I was a little embarrassed 
that my accent might be off, or worse, my grammar. 

He looked up, stifling his sniffles. 

"Tse?" 

"Tsu — kelen— ye?" 

"Yao-laas." 

"Yao-laas . . . Ummm . . . you're eleven? Yao-laas?" 

He nodded. His sandbag too had come loose. 

"You're eleven years old, man. Why are you trying to kill us? Why? Wali?" 
He said nothing. 

My Surefire was attached to the front of my weapon. The idea was for it 
to illuminate what you were going to shoot. I flashed it in his eye, and he 
flinched backwards. 

We heard footsteps. Peterman and I looked over. It was team leader. He 
wanted to check out the action. He was smiling when he saw me with the 
flashlight. 

"Havin' fun, Ginsburg?" 

"These fucksticks, Sarnt. This one's all cryin' an' shit." I went back to the 
cage. 

"IT'S NOT SO FUCKIN' FUN TO TRY TO KILL US NOW, HUH?!!" 

Rattle rattle rattle! Team leader was pleased, and that made me feel good. 
"What'd they tell you guys to do with 'em?" 

"Sarnt Greer was here. He said to keep 'em awake all night, but that's it. 
These are some of the guys who fired at C Co today." 

He prowled the area. I wasn't in charge anymore. "I thought we killed all 
them?" 



90 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

"I thought so, too, Sarnt. I guess not." 

"What's this guy's deal?" He nodded at the elder. 

Peterman. "He thinks he's pretty tough. Won't fuckin' CRY like his little 
fuckin' BROTHER!!" Speaking softly and then yelling, Peterman thought, 
would keep them on their toes. I thought so, too. 

I broke into song. "Turn around . . . BRIGHT EYES . . . every now and 
then I fall apaaaart!!" On "bright eyes" I hit them both with the light from my 
Surefire. Team leader grinned at me. 

He liked seeing me like this. 

"All right, you two." He nodded. It was the closest to praise he came. "I'm 
goin' to rack out. You guys need anything?" 

"Naw, we're good, Sarnt." 

"All right. I'll see y'all in the morning." Kindness. 

He walked off. I knew what team leaders did at night. They slept. 

A moment later, we heard voices and steps from the opposite direction. It 
was Azizullah, the senior interpreter on base and an American citizen, fol- 
lowed by a couple of military intelligence guys I didn't recognize. 

"Hey, Aziz, what's up?" I smiled. 

He looked at me. He looked at the whimpering boy. He didn't smile. 
"They're in pain, you know." 

"Uh . . ." 

"Look at his hands. Open the gate." 

I fiddled with the keys and the lock. I helped the boy to his feet. His wrists, 
zip-tied behind his back, were rubbed raw. I saw blood. 

"Do you have a knife?" 

I took out my Gerber that was attached to my belt loop. I swung it open 
and cut the zip-tie, with the MI guys looking on. I could feel his skin surging 
for air. 

I told Peterman to do the same for the older one. 

Aziz and the boys talked for a few minutes in Pashtu, while we looked on. 
This wasn't our show anymore, and I felt . . . not good. My upper lip curled 
up, and I was glad that Aziz hadn't come a few minutes earlier. 

"Hey," Aziz said, "is there any water?" 

I looked around. There was a case by the bench. I grabbed two bottles and 
handed them to Aziz. He gave one each to the boys. They talked in Pashtu a 
little more. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 91 

I asked, "So what did these guys do?" 

He inhaled sharply. "They were lighting a fire in a field. Your guys saw 
them, so they panicked and started running. The running was suspicious, so 
they brought them in." 

That sounded . . . reasonable. 

"So they weren't part of the attack?" 

"Look how old they are. Of course they weren't." 

"Right. Could the smoke have been some kind of signal, though?" 

"No. They lit the fire almost an hour after the attack. In a different vil- 
lage. 

"So why'd they light it?" 

"Kids like to play with fire." 

"Oh." 

Reasonable. 

Aziz spoke with them a little while longer, and then he and the MI guys 
took off, telling us to keep a watch on them, but to let them sleep if they 
wanted to. I asked him what would happen to them, and he said that they'd 
be taken home in a day or two. 

Both boys got back in the cages, but with their hands freed, they no longer 
had to sit on their knees. The elder sat Indian style, and watched us. The 
younger one crawled into the fetal position and slept. Every now and then Pe- 
terman would walk over to them out of boredom, and gently kick at the wire. 
I didn't say anything. I smoked a few cigarettes. 

A little while later, after Benson and Nicholas had relieved us, Peterman 
and I walked back. Twenty-hundred Zulu now, a little after midnight Afghan 
time. In a few hours, we'd be awake again. 

"So that was fucked up, huh?" I didn't want to go to bed without saying 
something, anything. 

Peterman seemed okay. "Stupid fucking hajjis shouldn't have been light- 
ing fires. What are we supposed to do?" 

"Yeah . . ." The moon was out now, and we could see a little better. No 
stumbling anymore. 

I pulled back the tent's canvas door and stepped inside. Everyone was 
asleep. 

In a whisper. "Good night, man." 

"Night." 



92 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

I quietly took my gear off and sat down on my cot. I took my boots and 
socks off and massaged the balls of my feet. 

I thought I might have trouble falling asleep that night. But I didn't. 

In another story that was also inspired by a real incident, Cohen describes 
a brief but memorable encounter during a routine security check in the 
Khost-Gardez region of Afghanistan. 

"Get off your ass, Ginsburg!" 

Hooah, douchebag. 

Using my left hand as a lever, and being sure to keep my weapon's two 
barrels out of the dirt, I worked my way off the boulder I had been sitting on. 
My back and shoulders pulled and sagged as eighty pounds of gear once more 
hung off them. 

There was no reason to stand. I could see fine how I was. Either way, I 
didn't care. Whatever we were looking for on that roadblock on the Khost- 
Gardez Pass had long ago escaped me, if not us. My mission was to deny sanc- 
tuary to back pain. 

I walked over to Benson, our team's light-machine-gunner. Team Leader 
Douchebag was too near to talk about, so we exchanged instead a lingering 
glance. Then, putting aside my M-4/203 (rifle with grenade launcher- 
fifteen pounds loaded), I pulled out a nearly empty pack of cigarettes from 
my cargo pocket. 

"You have a lighter?" 

"What happened to the last one I gave you?" 

"Urn . . . things. It's . . . around." I smiled apologetically, and looked 
down. My Kevlar helmet (4.2 pounds) weighed down my head and neck. 
Some guys looked good with helmets. Or at least they looked rugged and sol- 
dierly. Since Basic, though, I had always felt that the helmet made me look 
stupid. Worse, goofy. I could pass as a soldier with the rest of the uniform, but 
the K-Pot suggested that I was just playing at being a warrior in an oversized 
costume hat. 

"Uh-huh. You guys are ridiculous with lighters. Here. But don't keep it." 

"Thank you." On the third attempt, I lit the cigarette, inhaled and ex- 
haled deeply. I placed my hands underneath the ammo pouches attached to 
my flak vest (total weight of M-4 and M-203 ammo: thirty pounds) and pulled 
up, taking the strain off my shoulders for a second. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 93 

"You want one?" I handed the lighter back. 

"What kind are they?" 

"Hajjis. But the good ones. With the Arabic writing." 

"No thanks." 

After my third drag, I spotted a jingle truck coming around the bend. 
"Goddammit." The Afghans loved their jingle, God bless 'em. These mas- 
sive flatbed trucks that were affixed from bumper to tailgate with jingles and 
spangles and extravagantly painted mosaics were used to transport all goods 
up and down the narrow mountain pass. And yes, they jingled when they 
moved. 

Someone had to search it. 

"Fucking Bravo Team, man. Just waving it through to us." 

Nicholas, my grenadier counterpart in Bravo Team, caught my eye as the 
jingle rumbled past his position. He waved and flashed a friendly smile. Your 
turn. 

I walked up to the cab and used my best Pashtu. "Motar tsecha kusha, 
meherabanee." Get out of the car, please. 

The driver, a middle-aged Afghan (or Pakistani — I had no idea except that 
he was Pashtun), flashed an appreciative smile. "Pashtu pohegey?" You un- 
derstand Pashtu? he asked. 

"Leg leg." A little bit. We need to search your vehicle, I told him. I asked 
if he had any explosives, bullets, weapons, Taliban, or Al Qaeda in his flatbed. 
He smiled again and said no. Without prompting, he spread his arms so that 
I could search him. 

I considered putting the cigarette out. It would make the job easier, and I 
wasn't enjoying the tobacco. I was too hot and, at eight thousand feet, too 
high. But I held on to it. Why not smoke? 

After Douchebag and Mormon (Alpha Team's M-14 gunner) finished the 
vehicle search and I had finished with the driver and the two passengers 
(Benson, with the biggest gun, pulled security), I thanked the driver for his 
patience and sent him on his way. The driver, part pleased and part bemused 
that this foreign soldier would be so polite and speak his language, thanked 
me and took off. Five minutes closer to calling it a day. 

"Jesus, man" — I turned to Benson — "my back is killing me." 

"I hear ya." He paused. "You wanna trade weapons?" 

I knelt before the weighty supremacy of his shittier situation. Without 
question, his suck was worse than my suck. But then, he had been in the unit 



94 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

a good nine months less than I. "Eh, I'm good, thanks." I had carried his 
weapon, the squad automatic weapon (SAW) before: 15.5 pounds without 
ammo. An extra seven pounds per every two hundred rounds, with combat 
load being eight hundred. Plus spare barrel — seven pounds. Much like 
Afghanistan, it sucked, it was awkward, and it was a pain in the ass to clean. 

Benson saw the stream of vehicles first. "Motherfucker." At least four jin- 
gles and three cars — invariably white Toyota Corollas — coming our way, 
with the sun showing no sign of abating. More bullshit searches. More ten- 
sion all up and down the back as I bent down to check for explosives and 
sharp objects. (And what would I do if I found a sharp object? Were knives il- 
legal?) Body armor with vest: twenty pounds. 

"I wish one of them would blow up." 

Bravo Team waved the first vehicle through, and then halted the second 
one. Neither team would be able to sham out of this one. (To sham: Army 
lingo for evading work. For example: "Hey man, I couldn't help but notice 
that while we were putting up barbed wire for two hours you were shamming 
in the latrine.") 

Staff Sergeant Feiner, 2nd Squad — our squad's — squad leader, grabbed 
Ahmad and Zalmay, a couple of the Afghan Militia Forces (AMF) guys, and 
told us to wave the first car through to them. 

As our vehicle— another jingle — pulled up, Feiner called over to us. 
"Ginsburg, I need some help with the translating." 

I caught Douchebag's eye. "Hey Sarnt, Sarnt Feiner wants me over there." 
He glared at me, made me wait. 

"Well then, I guess you better get over there, huh?" 

"Hooah," I murmured, and got over there. 

All smiles now. "What's up, Sarnt?" I took a drink from my CamelBak, the 
water-filled bladder that I carried on my back. (Five pounds full.) 

In his good-natured Californian redneck drawl he said, "I need your Pash- 
tu ex-per-tees, Ginsburg. Find out where these gentlemen are heading to, 
please." 

The driver of the Corolla looked at me, wondering what I had to offer to 
our little group. I started off with a friendly "Stalay mashe" Hello, and he re- 
laxed and smiled broadly. 

"Where are you coming from?" 

"Kabul." 

"Where are you going?" 



HEARTSANDMINDS 95 

"Khost." 

"Why?" 

Something that I couldn't quite get. I picked up a couple of words for rel- 
atives, though, and relayed to Sergeant Feiner that he was on his way to Khost 
to see family. 

"Ask him if he's seen anything suspicious." This was always a fun game. I 
enjoyed learning Pashtu. It gave me something to do, and it made me feel 
special. I had a unique talent for a paratrooper with no rank. And it helped 
with building a rapport and communicating our intentions to the locals. But 
not once in seven months had I discovered any intel. 

"Have you seen anything strange? Any explosives, bullets, weapons, Tal- 
iban, Al Qaeda ..." I droned on in a playful monotone. 

He smiled, getting the joke, and vigorously assured myself and Sergeant 
Feiner, whom he seemed to sense was the boss, that he had seen nothing 
whatsoever. Ever. 

In the meantime, the AMF guys had searched him, his car, and his fellow 
passengers, who were all watching the exchange intently. In a land without 
television, Americans were high entertainment. 

"Sa'eeshwa. Ta tlaay shay. Dera manana staala komak tsecha." Okay. You 
can go. Thank you very much for your help. 

The AMF guys loved this. Children during the Soviet invasion, adoles- 
cents during the warlord years, and young men under the Taliban, they never 
grew tired of this spectacle of the polite soldier. I maneuvered my combat 
lifesaver bag (six pounds), slung around my torso, to a different place to read- 
just some of the weight. 

Our Afghan friend stared at me, taking in my dark features and olive com- 
plexion. "Ta Afghani ye?" 

"Nah. Ze Amrikayan yam" I teased him, pointing to the flag on my right 
shoulder. I'm not Afghan. I'm American. 

"Ta Musulman ye?" 

"Nah. Ze Yehud yam." I'm not Muslim. I'm Jewish. 

Silence. My back spasmed, and I looked at my rucksack (forty-five 
pounds) attached to the grill of our Humvee, parked twenty meters away. In- 
side lay my three-part sleep system and MREs and extra T-shirts and socks 
and everything else from the packing list, down to never-used but always 
humped sunscreen and bug juice; all of it still hours and a long walk away 
from being of any use to me. Ahmad and Zalmay watched me and the driver. 



96 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Finally, from the driver. "Sha Musulmanr Be Muslim! Yes, of course. I 
smiled my most friendly of American smiles, the can-do smile that has been 
transforming the world for generations, and explained that I liked being Jew- 
ish. My dad was Jewish, my mom was Jewish, my sister was Jewish, my 
brother was Jewish. 

He cut me off and told me that yes yes he understood. 

"We are like cousins, then. We are all children of Ibrahim." 

We shared a moment. Sergeant Feiner looked on, sensing and enjoying 
Douchebag's annoyance from a hundred meters away that we weren't mov- 
ing the traffic along. 

"Yes. We are cousins." 
Cousins. 
Cousins. 

He reached out to shake my hand, and did the same with Sergeant Feiner. 
Thank-yous were exchanged between the driver, Feiner, and myself. Ahmad 
and Zalmay stayed quiet. He got back into his car and drove off. 

Sergeant Feiner looked at me. "All right Ginsburg, you better get back to 
your team." 

"Hooah, Sarnt." 

He winked at me. "Thanks, Ginsburg." 

"My pleasure, Sarnt." 

A step away from Feiner's protective shield, I was barked at by 
Douchebag. "Ginsburg, get the fuck over here!!" 

I glared at him, openly. "It's not like I was doing my own thing!" I had 
been accused of this crime in the past. 

"You better watch your fuckin' attitude or you'll be doin' mountain 
climbers all up and down this fuckin' mountain." Benson and Mormon 
looked on. At least this would be more grist for later. 

I stared back at him, not breaking eye contact. 

"Don't be eye-fuckin' me, Ginsburg. I will fuck you up!" 

I held eye contact but wouldn't push it any further. "What do you want 
me to do, Sarnt?" 

I asked the question plaintively, not literally, but whether that illiterate 
fuck could sense that, after a pause he took it as an out. 

"I want you to get over here and start searching these vehicles." 

"Hooah," I mumbled, and with head down rejoined my team. 



HEARTS AND MINDS 97 



After being honorably discharged from the Army in January 2005, Cohen 
put on his backpack again and traveled through Europe, the Balkans, Is- 
rael, and Central America. He then returned to the United States and en- 
rolled at Princeton University to earn a masters degree in public affairs. 



RECLAMATION 

Personal Narrative 

Lieutenant Colonel John Berens 



A veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, forty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Colonel 
John Berens was called out of the U.S. Marine Reserve in January 2003 to 
serve in Iraq with Task Force Tarawa, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. 
Growing up, Berens had never aspired to join the military; he wanted, in 
fact, to be a chef. But in November 1979, when he was twenty-four years old 
and studying at the Culinary Institute of America, Berens heard that Amer- 
icans had been taken hostage in Iran. He immediately enlisted in the Ma- 
rine Corps to, in his words, u make a difference in the world.'' In late April 
2003, as he and his fellow Marines— along with a contingent of British and 
other Coalition troops— worked to secure Iraq in the early days of the war, 
Berens assumed that he would be employing his more than twenty years of 
infantry skills to assist with combat operations. Instead, he was assigned a 
task in the town of Al Kut that initially seemed to be of little value to the 
overall mission. Berens wrote the following narrative about the assignment 
shortly before his unit left Iraq in June 2003. 



Brigadier General F. A. Houghton, in the gloom of his dirty tent, sat down 
to eat. It was early April and the temperatures often surpassed one hun- 
dred degrees. Heat, disease, starvation, and enemy assaults were devastating 
his men, and Houghton was trying his best to present a brave demeanor. He 
had witnessed men die following his orders, and it was weighing heavily on 
him. Food was also running dangerously low and today another rider had 
been forced to sacrifice his horse to provide as many men as possible a small 
taste of meat. 



98 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

The siege of Al Kut had gone on much longer than he had expected, but 
Houghton was still hopeful that reinforcements would come north from Bas- 
rah and get his brigade out of this horrific stalemate. The general ate a bite of 
saq, called "spinach" by the troops, but it tasted particularly bitter. He asked 
one of the men who had prepared the meal if he was certain that he had 
picked saq and not the poisonous look-alike. The soldier assured him that the 
correct weed had been picked. Houghton slowly finished eating. 

The soldier was wrong, and within a few hours the general was dead from 
accidental poisoning. 

Eighty-eight years later in the one-hundred-degree heat of April 2003, 
Brigadier General Rich Natonski, the brigade commander for the U.S. 
Marines Task Force Tarawa, stood looking at General Houghton's gravestone 
in the ruins of a World War I British cemetery in Al Kut. General Natonski 
had just led his brigade through combat at An Nasiriyah, where, against 
fierce resistance, the task force had seized and held two vital bridges. It was 
the most brutal combat Marines had seen since Vietnam, and it cost the lives 
of nineteen of his men. The deaths of those nineteen Marines would remain 
with General Natonski for the rest of his life — a commander's burden shared 
with General Charles Townshend, who, almost ninety years ago in Al Kut, 
led the men of his British 6th Indian Division against the Turks. Townshend 
lost men in the thousands, including one of his brigade commanders, Gen- 
eral Houghton. 

General Natonski turned to me and asked, "I wonder how this general 
died?" He stood there and studied the grave of a fellow brigade commander 
and officer like himself, who had died doing his duty at this very place. 

All who have ever gone to war carry with them the same burdens, regard- 
less of when or where they have served. So when Task Force Tarawa fought 
on the same ground, under the same harsh conditions, with the same time- 
less burdens as British soldiers of World War I, the connection to those long- 
dead soldiers was close and visceral. 

General Natonski assigned me to clean this cemetery, which was little 
more than a sunken acre of rotting garbage and donkey carcasses hidden 
under twelve-foot reed grass and dead, skeletal trees. Below the surface lay 
the remains of four hundred and twenty men. 

On the face of it, the job was a nasty task that seemed to have no direct 
benefit to the Iraqi people. My personal misgivings, that we could be ad- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 99 

dressing more urgent needs, were irrelevant. My duty was to execute the mis- 
sion I was given. 

Al Kut is an ancient, crumbling place that would have died long ago, ex- 
cept that it sits on the banks of the Tigris River. Commerce still flows the 
eighty miles downriver from Baghdad. The site has made Al Kut a critical 
stopping point not only for supplies of grain and salt, but also for military 
units seeking a staging ground close to Baghdad. In 2003, Task Force Tarawa 
stopped its northern push at an abandoned Iraqi airfield just south of Al Kut. 
In 1915, the British 6th Indian Division stopped here as well and became 
trapped by Turkish forces. That siege resulted in thousands of deaths, includ- 
ing the bodies hidden here beneath garbage and grass. 

"It is no problem for you to put up a cross here. We respect all religions." 
I turned to face a dark-skinned Iraqi, probably early thirties, very thin and 
smiling. He introduced himself as Hussein Zamboor, and he spoke with a 
clear British accent. "There are Christians who live in this neighborhood, 
and the only reason the cross was taken in the first place was so the metal 
could be used as reinforcement in cement— because of sanctions." We were 
looking at a truncated cement obelisk that was the base of a missing cross in 
the center of the devastated cemetery. 

His English was very good. When I complimented him, there was some- 
thing poignant about the way he looked down modestly and said, "Thank 
you." Hussein had learned his English by listening to the BBC. He became 
my translator but refused to be paid, saying that he wanted only to learn to 
speak better English. 

Hussein and I were not alone in the cemetery. When we first arrived, 
there was a great buzz of excitement and barefoot children came from every- 
where. Men moved about in large groups, some wearing traditional gowns, 
called jellabas, though most were in Western trousers and polyester shirts 
with colorful geometric designs. They were talking excitedly, with a fierce en- 
ergy. They began to walk slowly around the site as if they too were evaluating 
the sanity of cleaning up this place. 

After inspecting the cemetery, I was reeling from the magnitude of the 
project. I was about to return to the airfield to figure out a plan, when a large 
group of men pulled Hussein aside. With animated gestures they all seemed 
to be talking at once. Hussein then turned to me. When he spoke, all the 
men became quiet. "They want to know what you are going to do about the 
protesters," he said. 



100 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Driving through the town to the cemetery that morning, I had encoun- 
tered about a hundred men in front of the town hall holding black banners 
and chanting over loudspeakers, "NO CHALABI! NO CHALABI!" They 
were protesting the possible insertion by the United States of Ahmed Cha- 
labi, an Iraqi expatriate with a suspicious background, into power in Bagh- 
dad. There was no violence, but the chant was clearly directed toward us. 

In Iraq, men guard their words like gems that might be stolen. They whis- 
per their true thoughts only to those whom they know they can trust. The old 
regime had killed men for merely uttering words against it. Political protest 
had been a crime just weeks before. I answered that we would do nothing 
about the protest. "Those men are being peaceful. They're doing nothing 
wrong." 

They asked: "Will anyone stop them?" 

I said no. "Saddam is gone, and you are free to say anything you want to 
say. You can speak freely without fear." 

The animated chattering stopped, and the faces of the men immediately 
changed. They looked hopeful, like a code they had been trying to decipher 
was beginning to make sense. These modest, hardworking men looked at me 
in wonder. They shook my hand, smiled big, mostly toothless, head-shaking 
grins. 

The next day, we rolled in with every type of heavy equipment imagin- 
able. Marine combat engineers and Seabees went to work with backhoes, 
bulldozers, and an assortment of smoke-belching, earth-moving machinery. 
We never made it past the front gate; the equipment sank in the soft soil, and 
the rest of the day was spent recovering the useless machines. 

At the same time, the Seabees began to measure the obelisk so a new cross 
could be constructed. Another crew of Marines struggled to excavate an or- 
nate gate, which was buried, half open, in a mound of dirt and garbage at the 
front of the cemetery. 

Hussein came up and asked me, again with a group of men crowded 
around him, "Why are you doing this cleaning? Our most dire need is elec- 
tricity. What are you doing for that problem? We do not understand why so 
much work is going on here when we cannot use the lights in our houses." 
Electricity had been off for many months. 

"It is our biggest effort right now," I tried to console them. "We have heli- 
copters flying from Al Kut to An Nasiriyah and to Baghdad to assess how many 
poles and electrical lines are down and to document any other problems." 



HEARTSANDMINDS 101 

They told me how Saddam used to punish the town by shutting off the 
electricity. Each day I kept hoping I would see lights come on in the houses. 
Still I offered no explanation as to why we were doing the cleanup. 

General Natonski confided to me that he, too, was taking flak for spend- 
ing the man-hours and resources for the reclamation, and he had thought 
hard about the justifications for the task. A student of history, a man of deep 
moral convictions, and a warrior-philosopher, he decided simply, "It's the 
right thing to do." 

I inspected the grounds of the cemetery once again. Trash was every- 
where, piled up against the perimeter wall, between the headstones, even 
stuck in the branches of the dead trees. I found a torn-out bit of notebook 
paper with an Iraqi child's English homework on it that, in shaky block let- 
ters, Said, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? 

This filth had been building up since 1991, when Saddam, angered by the 
Brits after the first Gulf War, ordered this place destroyed. Instead, the vil- 
lagers just dumped their garbage here. When I poked around the putrid 
mounds of refuse, I realized that I would not be able to accomplish this mis- 
sion without enlisting the help of the residents of Al Kut. That night I 
sought— and was given permission to hire — local Iraqis to help us with the 
garbage. 

The next day Hussein introduced me to Methag Jabar Abdulla, a quiet, 
well-groomed man who owned a glass installation shop across the street from 
the cemetery. Methag said he could get the men to remove all the garbage. 
We needed to discuss terms of a contract, so he gestured to his shop and soon 
we were sitting in the damp coolness of the cement building. Methag drew 
water from a plastic cooler and offered the tin cup to me. Ignoring the sani- 
tation risk, I drank the water, savoring my first cold drink in three months. 
The negotiation could now begin. I wrote on a piece of notebook paper ex- 
actly what needed to be done: In six days, remove all garbage down to ground 
level and haul it away. Hussein wrote the words in Arabic under my writing. 

Methag consulted his brother and the other men in the room. He insisted 
that he must hire five trucks and at least fifty men. I said that this would be 
fine and asked him how much he expected to be paid. He said, "As you wish." 
It surprised me. As I wish ... I wished I could pay him more, I wished I could 
bring in dentists, doctors, electricity ... I wished this dignified man were not 
having to bargain to clean up garbage. We settled on $1,700, and he agreed to 
start the following day. 



102 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

When I arrived in the morning, the Iraqis were already working. I was in 
awe of the simplicity of their approach. I counted only two tools. There was 
an old man standing on the highest pile of garbage with a shovel, the blade of 
which was broken in half along its length. Beside him was a younger man 
with a pickax that had a shaved tree branch for a handle. The younger man 
would plunge the pickax into the pile and loosen a small amount of the 
garbage that the older man could shovel. The rest of the crew carried sturdy 
vinyl bags as they climbed the mound and then leaned down to receive one 
shovelful of filth. One sack, one man, one shovelful, one trip to the sidewalk 
and back, over and over. 

They began work at seven in the morning. In the course of the day, the 
heat rose to over one hundred degrees, but work never stopped. By seven that 
night, one small bagful at a time, the biggest garbage pile in the cemetery had 
been displaced to the sidewalk. In the process, the Iraqis uncovered four 
headstones. 

As the work progressed, we learned more about the soldiers buried under 
our feet. The British had dug in with only two months' worth of food, and the 
Turks kept British reinforcements from breaching the siege. Hanny Tahir, a 
fifty-year-old general contractor who had come by seeking work, said that his 
grandfather once told him that many of the people of Al Kut had died along 
with the British. In fact, the reason the Brits' food did not last was that they fed 
the six thousand people of Al Kut during the fighting. He cursed the Turks. 

The British soldiers were no longer anonymous. As their names and their 
struggles were slowly revealed, our work became more personal. The dates on 
the headstones related individual stories: Private J. H. Mitchell, of the ist Bat- 
talion Durham Light Infantry, died along with fourteen other men buried 
here on December 10, the day the Turks launched multiple attacks on the 6th 
Division's first trench line. Two hundred and two men died that day. 

The Iraqis continued their methodical work. One day I pulled aside a boy 
of about twelve who was carrying his sack to the sidewalk and, through Hus- 
sein, I asked him if he had yet been paid. He grinned widely and showed me 
a handful of dinars from all his work. I asked him how much he was being 
paid, and he said an amount that was equal to two dollars a day, twice the 
going rate. When I asked him what he was going to do with the money, he be- 
came serious. 

"I will buy food for my family," he responded. 

I asked him how many were in his family. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 103 

"My mother and my two sisters and me. I am the only man and I must 
work to feed them." He appeared to me then not like a boy, but like a very 
young man, full of decency and purpose. I asked Hussein what had happened 
to the boy's father, and he told me that Saddam's men had carried him away 
in 1998 and he had never been seen again. 

The next day Methag shook my hand in the warm Arab greeting (clasp 
hands, then place your hand to your heart) and thanked me for asking the boy 
whether he had been paid. I told him he need not thank me, as I was just mak- 
ing sure that the contract was being adhered to. In fact, I was checking up on 
him. But for Methag, it was a new experience to have the people in charge 
give a damn about where the money was going. Under the last regime, no one 
cared where it went so long as certain officials got their share of it. 

Most of the men hauling the garbage showed up each morning wearing the 
same shirts they had worn the day before. We did, too. But the striking differ- 
ence was that while their clothes were always immaculate, ours were not. No 
matter how hard they worked and how dirty their clothes became, they washed 
them each night because they wanted to appear neat and clean the next day. 

I looked at the men toting the sacks. There was a dignity about them, an 
innate bearing of nobility that, at least for today, they could hold their heads 
up because they were working. This was the first work they had been offered 
in nearly a year, and they were eager to earn the money. But it was more than 
money itself they were looking for; it was a sense of worth. Cleaning this 
cemetery was beginning to affect me. Amid a war, it was bolstering my faith 
in mankind. 

Hussein and I were sitting in the shade one day when he felt comfortable 
enough to ask me about my family. Just a wife, I said, and I showed him her 
picture. He lowered his head and with a shy, charming grin said, "She is very 
beautiful." 

I thanked him and asked him if he were married. 

He said, wistfully, "No ... no ... I am not married. I am not wealthy 
enough to be married." 

I asked him if there was a woman he liked. 

He brightened, "Oh yes." He told me her name, and I asked, "Does she 
know you like her?" 

"Oh, no. I think she does not." 

Then I asked him why. He looked at me directly and said, "I am a profes- 
sor of mathematics. I make a small salary. In our culture I must have enough 



104 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

money so that I can take care of the woman I love. She does not know be- 
cause I cannot tell her now." 

Here was a noble man, an honest man with a tenderness and depth of 
spirit rarely encountered. He had been caught in the grinding poverty brought 
on by a mindless regime and the punishing effects of sanctions. It was not just 
love unrequited; it was human ambition beaten to the ground and dreams ex- 
tinguished. In conversation with one of the other translators, I learned that 
Hussein made only enough money each week to buy one carton of eggs. 

Hussein introduced me to a man who looked to be about forty and was 
very handsome, but his hands were malformed. He explained, using Hussein 
to translate, that two years ago he had been taken from his home and tortured. 
The men responsible wanted him to incriminate his friends even though they 
had done nothing wrong. This man needed to tell his story, and he wanted an 
American to hear it. To torture him, the man continued, they tied him from a 
rafter by his thumbs and shocked him with electrical wires all over his body. 
He said he withstood their punishment, and when they finally believed he had 
no useful information, they released him by swinging a machete right through 
his thumbs, leaving them dangling in the air above his head. 

The closer one comes to death, the more urgent it becomes to live gen- 
uinely. Military men know this simple openness. Men at war speak plainly, 
make peace with their possible fate, and in moments of reflection they tell 
one another what to do with their belongings if they die. There is no individ- 
ual more honest than one who sees clearly the end of his life. The people of 
Iraq have lived close to the edge of death since Saddam came to power, and 
it has endowed most of them with an open, raw authenticity that strikes me as 
honest and admirable. 

Six days passed and, as promised, the garbage was removed. Methag said 
that he was prepared for me to evaluate the quality of his work. I walked slowly 
over each area where the piles of garbage had been, and the grounds were 
spotless. A small group of Iraqis quietly followed as I made my inspection. 

I told them the work was excellent. 

Methag asked me when he would get paid, and I told him, "Now." 

He was in shock. He seemed to be expecting some unforeseen complica- 
tion, some official reason why he could not be paid. I had already gone to the 
disburser and withdrawn the amount we had agreed on, and, with Hussein 
helping me count, I placed the money in Methag's hand. His grin and barely 



HEARTSANDMINDS 105 

suppressed laugh told me that he was surprised to find it so easy and honest. 
I was proud to be the one that was giving the cash, knowing that this man 
would make sure it helped his community. I also believed, in the deepest re- 
cesses of my heart, that we had made a difference here. Despite my skepti- 
cism, the best thing we brought with our big machines, our loud talk, and our 
American money . . . was hope. I think now they believed we were truly here 
to help, and they were then free to hope for better lives for themselves. 

While the work on the grounds was ongoing and the stones were being 
reset, the restoration work on the cross in the center of the cemetery began. 
Ali Jabar Abdulla, Methag's brother, had a 1982 picture of the cemetery in 
pristine condition. It clearly shows the cross. The intent was to make one that 
resembled, as closely as possible, the original. The Seabees constructed a 
three-hundred-pound cement cross and a flat, black metal cross that would 
be affixed to it, but offset by a couple of inches to create a shadow effect. It 
was creative metalwork on an industrial scale. 

While I was busy supervising the reclamation, Brigadier General Naton- 
ski asked me to coordinate a ceremony to honor the British dead in Iraq, past 
and present. At this point in Operation Iraqi Freedom, British casualties al- 
most equaled our own. Our goal was to hand off the cemetery in whatever 
improved condition we could achieve by May 8, 2003, with the hope that the 
British would undertake its continued improvement. 

The Seabees were busy installing the cross on May 7. It was a beautifully 
rendered bit of ironwork, and I was admiring it when Hussein came to my 
side. We greeted each other as friends, "As Salaam alaikum," "Alaikum 
salaam" We shook hands and then put our hands to our hearts. We had been 
friends for only three weeks, but under such pressurized circumstances the 
bond seemed unusually strong. We had spoken honestly about our lives. We 
trusted and respected each other, and when I told him that day I would be 
leaving after the ceremony, I saw sadness in his eyes. I too felt acute sorrow 
because I loved this uncomplicated man, and I felt as if I were abandoning 
him. 

When I got back to the airfield that night, I filled a small gift box with 
things I thought Hussein could use, along with one hundred dollars of my 
own money and a heartfelt note. I gave him the box after the ceremony but 
never got to see him open it. 

His gift to me was a poem that I treasure: 



106 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

You are a good human. 

USA have honor that you belong to. 

Your faithful face will not be forgotten. 

Everything will pass away, gold, kingdoms, 

But goodness will stay alive, engraved in hearts. 

Here you are in front of a member of Saddam's victims, 

An easy example for his misery, 

But the perfume of freedom has opened silently the doors. 

You and I were looking for life among the tombs. 

The cemetery was as improved as we could make it. The reed grass was 
gone, the dead trees were removed, and the garbage had been hauled away. 
It certainly smelled better, and you could see every gravestone although some 
were still leaning and cracked. 

The ceremony was meant to tie the past with the present, the dead to the 
living, Iraq to Britain, and to America. But it became a reflection on loss, a 
somber moment to honor both the men who had died recently and those 
who were buried in the cemetery. And, by extension, it became a gentle, dig- 
nified way of reflecting on the war, our grief, and the cost of this grim profes- 
sion. It was the funeral we never got to attend for our nineteen Task Force 
Tarawa Marines. It provided a quiet moment to help the generals make peace 
with the fact that those deaths would be a part of them for the rest of their 
lives. I can only imagine the guilt, uncertainty, regret, and sorrow that plague 
the mind of someone whose decisions have cost the lives of his men, and this 
ceremony was a salve for those deeply personal wounds. It also tied our Amer- 
ican grief at losing our young men to the honor paid to the British for their 
losses. Major General Brims, the commanding general of the ist UK Ar- 
mored Division, had lost thirty men. He was our guest of honor. 

When the ceremony got under way, I staked out a little privacy for myself 
and stood alone behind the chairs. My mission was almost complete, and this 
was the first time I could begin to relax. Behind me stood most of the men of 
the neighborhood. Hussein, in a very subdued voice, translated throughout 
the ceremony for his countrymen. 

At 3:00 p.m. Iraq time on May 8, the dignitaries arrived. Two bagpipes 
played "Amazing Grace" as everyone took their seats. General Natonski said 
this: 



HEARTSANDMINDS 107 

As the fighting men of Task Force Tarawa labored in the sun to clear the 
cemetery, to help restore its dignity and solemnity, they did it as brothers 
to those who lie herein. Just to the right of where I am standing, Private 
J. J. Jennings' headstone reads, "2nd Queens Own, Royal West Kent Reg- 
iment, Died March 22 1916. Age 21." 

To the young Marine who sweated and strained to clear the site 
around his grave, Private Jennings is not a lost member of another gener- 
ation, not just a soldier from the ranks of our closest ally, he is another 
twenty-one-year-old fighting man, a peer; his death is linked to the lives of 
those we lost. We mourn the passing of our young men with timeless, uni- 
versal grief. Our bond to Private Jennings and to all the soldiers buried 
here is deep and spiritual. It transcends nationality and is rooted in the 
understanding that when we as soldiers and Marines go to foreign shores, 
our deepest hope is to see our homes and loved ones again. 

As I thought about the work, the words, the men we had lost, and the men 
I had befriended, I was surprised by the deep emotion that surfaced. My 
biggest contribution to the war was, in the end, healing, not killing. But now 
I had to leave. I had been allowed to see into the lives of everyday Iraqis, and 
I knew there was so much more to be done. I would not be here to see the 
men make plans to marry, have children, regain their lives, or simply be able 
to flip on a light switch. I had, in three weeks, become close to these men. 
They, not the cemetery, had become my mission. 

As General Natonski came to the heart of his speech, his voice faltered — 
and I began to cry. I just stood there and let my tears fall without moving and 
without shame. But I was not the only old warrior who had put his head down 
and let the wave of sorrow and relief wash over him. 



JAG IN THE SANDBOX 

Personal Narrative 
Lieutenant Colonel Terry F. Moorer 



During his one-year deployment in the Middle East as the staff judge ad- 
vocate with the 226th Area Support Group, Alabama National Guard, 




108 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

forty-two-year-old U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Terry F. Moorer ques- 
tioned well over a hundred detainees and EPWs— enemy prisoners of war. 
The detainees included Fedayeen militants who had sworn their allegiance 
to Saddam Hussein, high-level members of the Saddam regime, regular 
Iraqi soldiers who had been forced to fight under penalty of death, and 
other potentially threatening individuals. (Some were civilians who had 
been in the wrong place at the wrong time and, after being interviewed, 
were released.) Moorer arrived in Iraq in April 2003, and the vast majority 
of his time was spent in Baghdad and Um Qasr, where he adjudicated as a 
magistrate in the former and conducted tribunals in the latter. Moorer kept 
extensive notes detailing his experiences, and in the following excerpt he de- 
scribes the challenges he faced trying to differentiate between the guilty and 
the innocent 



y participation in the screenings began by working with and observ- 
ing a British JAG captain named Margaret. After a brief handshake 
with the prisoner, Margaret got right to the interview, interspersing her inter- 
rogation with questions whose answers she already knew. It was a method I 
used as well back in Alabama, but I was surprised at how much more difficult 
it was to seek the truth without reliable nonverbal cues. For instance, when 
having a conversation with someone in English, I can focus on their inflec- 
tion, demeanor, gestures, and eye contact to form an impression of how 
truthful they are being. This was much harder to do when you didn't know 
the language. 

Tattoos and body marks were one nonverbal source of information. Strict 
Muslims do not tattoo their bodies, so a physical inspection of the prisoners 
was part of each interview. A tattoo raised a red flag for me if a prisoner, par- 
ticularly one from a surrounding country, said he came into the country for a 
religious purpose. A number of tattoos were depictions of girlfriends or, more 
importantly, the Fedayeen Eagle. One sixteen-year-old boy had Fedayeen 
marks on his arm, which he burned with cigarettes in an attempt to obscure 
the tattoo. Unfortunately for him, he bragged to his cellmates about being a 
Fedayeen and they relayed the information to the guards. 

I also realized that some prisoners who could speak English would play 
dumb. This enabled them to mask emotions or have additional time to pre- 
pare evasive answers. I chose to have my interpreters literally convey my ques- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 109 

tions, which I kept short and simple. When I started leading the screenings 
myself, I began every interview with the following sequence of questions, 
"What is your first name, your father's name, and your tribal name?" From a 
name alone, it's often possible to determine whether the person is Muslim, 
Christian, or some other faith. If I had been savvy enough to know more re- 
gional history, the names might have conveyed more subtle information. 

An interpreter working with us, a Kurd, identified Saddam Hussein's 
cousin (Chemical Ali's son) when he was asked to give his full name. To my 
knowledge, no one was aware of the family relationship between the prisoner 
and Hussein prior to the interpreter asking the prisoner his full name. At 
lunch that afternoon, I asked the interpreter how he knew the prisoner was re- 
lated to Hussein even though he had never met or seen this cousin. The in- 
terpreter told me, "You know who your enemies are if twenty-two of your 
close family members are killed somehow." The look on his face and the tone 
of his voice reminded me that when I was a child, certain names, such as 
George Wallace, held such a deep meaning to me as a black person that I 
knew who was in that camp, whether I had met them or not. 

After ascertaining the names of the prisoners, their ages, and other basic 
information, I asked each prisoner to describe how he became a prisoner. 
The stories ran the gamut from the outrageous to the plausible. For instance, 
I interviewed a young Iraqi sergeant whom I will call Habib. Before I could 
ask substantive questions, Habib said that he did not want to go home under 
any circumstances. Habib had the misfortune of being drafted shortly before 
Desert Storm. In Iraq, as in most of the surrounding Arab countries, every 
male between eighteen and twenty-three serves a one- to two-year tour in the 
Army. Physical or mental disabilities are the only reasons for exemption. 

The draft is different than one might expect. At least yearly, a "recruiter" 
goes into each town and stops every able-bodied male and demands to see his 
Red Book, which is a small, red book all Iraqi males over age eighteen must 
carry with them at all times and which verifies the person's military status. It 
is a serious crime for Iraqi males of draft age to be caught in public without a 
Red Book on their person. If they have not completed their mandatory mili- 
tary service, they are physically put in the Army that day. Some of the prison- 
ers I interviewed had bought exemptions from corrupt recruiters. 

Habib said he became a deserter in Desert Storm after several men died 
in their first aerial attack. Habib ran home to Baghdad and paid someone to 
make a convincing, forged Red Book. Habib worked and lived in Baghdad 



110 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

until the present war. One day, shortly before Operation Iraqi Freedom 
began, a sergeant in the Fedayeen shanghaied Habib into service. Habib 
knew that if he refused to serve he would summarily be shot. When U.S. 
forces went into Baghdad, the sergeant told Habib to cover him while he, the 
sergeant, fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). When the sergeant took his 
firing position, Habib shot and killed him and then ran to an American 
checkpoint, promptly becoming a prisoner of war. Habib said that friends of 
the sergeant saw the killing, and therefore the sergeant's family would attempt 
to kill Habib as long as Habib was alive. 

I also interviewed and actually felt great respect for several Iraqi officers 
who were prisoners of war. Most of the captured officers had surrendered 
their men with little or no resistance. Quit and surrender are not U.S. Army 
words. Officers in every military are responsible for accomplishing the mis- 
sion first and seeing to the welfare of the command second. But when resis- 
tance is futile, the difficult but correct moral choice is surrender. Lee's 
capitulation at Appomattox is a prime example of such moral courage. 

Unlike Lee, however, the Iraqi officers knew that surrender meant they 
were betting the lives of their families. During the early phases of the war, 
Saddam inserted Baath party officers into units to report the names of desert- 
ers. Family members of the deserters were killed or tortured by Fedayeen. Ac- 
cording to the officers I talked to, a real fear existed among the Iraqi officers 
that their families would be tortured or killed because the officers chose to 
surrender their units rather than commit almost certain suicide by opposing 
a vastly superior force. In our Western eyes, family generally means the nu- 
clear family. In Iraq, family includes the nuclear and extended family. The 
Iraqi officers at Camp Bucca made the difficult but correct moral choice to 
surrender rather than offer futile resistance. 

I also had an opportunity to serve as the presiding tribune on a panel that 
heard a memorable case. A Syrian prisoner said he had come to Iraq with two 
other friends to visit Karbala, a holy city for the Shiite Muslims. According to 
the prisoner, he and his friends set out in their automobile with no particular 
destination in mind. Knowing that Syria was several hours from Karbala and 
many Syrians were coming to Iraq to fight Coalition troops, I suspected the 
story to be false. The sole matter left for the panel was to ascertain the motive 
behind the lie. 

After the prisoner, whom I shall call Khalil, finished his story, we visually 



HEARTSANDMINDS 111 

inspected him. Khalil had a tattoo that consisted of verses of the Koran and 
his girlfriend's name. A long surgical scar ran down the right side of his back. 
Khalil said he donated a kidney in Baghdad the year before and that he came 
to Iraq to have a follow-up examination. Coincidentally, his two friends were 
just about to appear before another Tribunal panel. After separately ques- 
tioning the trio, we discerned that Khalil had sold his kidney the previous 
year and he had brought his two friends to sell their kidneys. 

My assessment of the situation was, Khalil is desperately poor, has a fam- 
ily to feed, and has no real prospects for a better future. Under similar cir- 
cumstances, many would be tempted to do the same because the $5,000 or 
$10,000 he and his friends would obtain from selling their organs is roughly 
equivalent to someone offering an American $2,000,000. We set Khalil free 
after we came to conclude he was not a physical threat to Coalition forces. 

Another case exemplified the rampant evil in Iraq prior to the invasion. A 
prisoner whom I'll call Mahmed had the Fedayeen markings, but, more im- 
portantly, had been seen by several witnesses at work during the war. Accord- 
ing to the testimony of these eyewitnesses, when Coalition forces invaded a 
certain town, Mahmed shot and killed persons leaving the city. Mahmed 
killed boys, girls, women, and men, old and young, as they fled toward safety. 
Mahmed had also threatened Iraqi soldiers by assuring them that if they 
didn't fight, the Fedayeen would kill the soldier and his family. 

The serious cases were seemingly unending. One day, I literally had a 
foot-high stack of files, which represented the morning docket, including (I 
have changed the name of each prisoner): 

Zaden — By his own admission, Zaden was an assistant to Chemical Ali. I 
found Zaden to be a security risk worthy of detention. 

Sala— After the end of main combat operations, Sala killed two GIs near 
Tikrit (Saddam's hometown) by means of a bomb. Sala cut off the arm of one 
of the dead GIs, shook hands with it at various public places while saying, 
"Down Mr. Bush." I detained Sala as a security risk and identified him as a 
potential war criminal. 

Mohammed— Mohammed slapped his wife during an argument and 
was promptly arrested by MPs. Mohammed was stupid enough to think he 
might be able to beat an MP. The MP quickly and painfully subdued Mo- 
hammed, dragged him out of the house, and dumped him into the back of a 
Humvee. MPs of the 800th Brigade have a technical term for this procedure: 



112 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"Carrying out the trash." I gave Mohammed eleven days, the max for simple 
assault, and another seven for attempting to assault the MP. 

The next morning, I went into the House of Cards, where I met Tariq 
Aziz, the former deputy prime minister of Iraq, and other high-ranking mem- 
bers of the Hussein regime. Before the war, the U.S. military handed out 
decks of playing cards to the troops that had the faces of these "most wanted" 
Iraqis, which is why the facility that keeps them is called the House of Cards. 
Out of respect for their privacy and the regulations of Camp Cropper, our 
conversations with the "face cards" consisted of no more than a "Good morn- 
ing" or a nod. Most of the prisoners wanted to talk and spoke fluent English 
with a British or American accent acquired from having lived in either or 
both countries. It was not appropriate to engage in substantive conversation 
or to gawk. 

After the tour, I spoke with a guard who had worked in the Face Card sec- 
tion from its inception. The guard's impressions of the prisoners were that 
they were all extremely intelligent and well-educated individuals who had 
studied at the finer Western universities in the United States and Britain. The 
guard noted that there was a pecking order within the deck of face cards and 
that some of the prisoners were genuinely upset that their likeness did not rate 
a higher card than other inmates'. 



WEDNESDAY 2/23/05 

Personal Narrative 

Specialist "Ski" Kolodziejski 



Manning a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on top of a Humvee, twenty- 
one-year-old Specialist "Ski" Kolodziejski regularly patrolled the streets of 
Baghdad with the 617th Military Police Company (attached to the 18th 
Military Police Brigade) during a one-year deployment to Iraq. Kolodziejski 
was a member of the U.S. Army National Guard out of Kentucky and was 
called up in the fall of 2004. In February 2005, while driving through the 
eastern outskirts of Baghdad, Kolodziejski watched as a group of young 
Iraqis converged excitedly on a small convoy of American vehicles in hopes 
of getting candy. Kolodziejski s attention quickly turned to one child who 



HEARTSANDMINDS 113 



was standing at a distance from the rambunctious crowd. What happened 
next prompted Kolodziejski to write the following short account after re- 
turning to base. 



1 remember pulling over on the side of the road in our squad's three Hum- 
mers. We were conducting a security halt to get out and stretch before 
continuing on with patrolling the routes. The sky was partly cloudy and the 
weather was warm, the way springtime feels at home in the States. 

School must have just ended because a large number of Iraqi children 
were outside and then began approaching our vehicles to receive some free 
candy, which we often gave out to the kids. Some of them seemed just plain 
greedy, screaming, pushing, and swarming the vehicles like ducks feeding 
frantically on thrown bread crumbs. 

A small girl of no more than eight or nine years old stood by herself in 
the rear of the wild youngsters, watching her peers scoop up all of the treats 
being handed out. She timidly folded her arms across her chest and ob- 
served quietly. 

We finally made eye contact. As she was looking at me, I pointed to the 
blond hair pulled up into a small bun at the back of my head, trying to make 
her realize that I too was a girl. A smile suddenly came to her face. In that mo- 
ment I remembered that females of this culture do not have the freedoms 
that we American women possess. 

Once the noisy group of mostly boys descended on another truck, I 
watched as the small girl moved shyly towards me. I leaned down and smiled 
brightly at this beautiful child with dark hair and dark skin. I handed her a 
full bag of candy, a gift of gold to the girl, and she seemed overjoyed. The 
young child gazed at me appreciatively for a moment and then very politely 
said: "Thank you" in English. I nodded my head and replied "Shukran," 
which is "thank you" in her language. 

Whether or not I made a real difference in that small girl's life I can't say 
for certain, but I know for a fact that she made one in mine. 

Kristina "Ski" Kolodziejski returned to the United States in November 2005 
and re-enrolled at Northern Kentucky University, where she had been study- 
ing as a freshman before enlisting in the Army. 



114 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



AFTERMATH 

Fiction 

First Lieutenant Sangjoon Han 



Since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqi men, 
women, and children have been killed as a result of both combat operations 
and insurgent attacks, and a substantially higher number have been per- 
manently injured. (During a December 12, 2005, question-and-answer 
session following a speech, President Bush himself estimated the figure of 
war-related deaths at the time to be about "thirty thousand, more or less") 
U.S. Army First Lieutenant Sangjoon Han, a twenty-four-year-old Korean- 
born soldier who served in Iraq from September 2003 through April 2004 
with 1st Battalion, nth Field Artillery, wrote the following story based on a 
real attack involving a roadside bomb. Han tried to portray the incident 
and its aftermath from many different angles, and while the American per- 
spectives were based on his own experiences and conversations with other 
U.S. soldiers, the Iraqi point of view could, of course, only be imagined. 



Specialist Bryon Chambers buried his face a bit further into the neck 
gaiter to protect himself from the cold air whipping past his skin. They 
had all scoffed at the idea of packing cold-weather gear to go to the desert. 
They hadn't realized they would be there through the winter. 

The persistent itch at the top of his skull was returning, along with a vague 
sense of unease. He felt like he had missed something. The Humvee was doing 
just under sixty, which was entirely too slow as far as Chambers was concerned. 
The higher risk of fatal accidents was a perfectly acceptable price to pay for 
faster runs through the IED alleys that they traveled so regularly. Unfortu- 
nately, Sergeant McClintock didn't feel the same way, and he was the one in 
charge of the first of the two convoys in which their platoon was traveling. 

Familiar sights and sounds surrounded him, from the decaying buildings 
and resentful people on the sides of the road to the belching of the over- 
worked diesel engine under the dust-covered hood. It was the same depress- 
ing routine as every other day. 

For a brief time right after the end of the invasion, they were greeted 
everywhere with smiles and cheers from Iraqis who were happy to be rid of 



HEARTSANDMINDS 115 

Saddam, but who, more important, were glad that the war had been relatively 
short. Now, Chambers felt harsh stares, even from toddlers barely old enough 
to walk. It seemed the whole country was spitting curses after them whenever 
they drove by, and as if that weren't enough, there were the select few who 
were actively trying to kill them. 

That's why they were always on the lookout when they were running a 
convoy. The officers and NCOs told them that if something looked wrong, 
then it probably was. Chambers was pretty sure he'd seen something wrong, 
and it drove him crazy that he couldn't identify what it was. The ping of the 
radio speaker broke his concentration. 

"We've been hit!" Sergeant Wilson's voice yelled on the speaker in almost 
a panic. It was only then, after the second convoy was attacked, that Cham- 
bers remembered the cracks in the road a few miles back where it looked like 
the pavement had been dug up. They hadn't been there before. 

"Turn us around!" 

Chambers had stepped on the brake even before Sergeant McClintock 
gave the order. He made a screeching U-turn and held the accelerator down 
to the floor. 

"Hey!" Sergeant McClintock shouted up to the gunner. "Fire some 
rounds, get these idiots out of our way!" 

The violent noise of the machine gun soon drowned out the sound of the 
engine, and Chambers watched as the traffic before him parted like the Red 
Sea. 

Qasim was only about twenty paces from the road — almost at the ramshackle 
fence dividing his farm from his neighbor's — when he caught his first glimpse 
of the approaching vehicles. His heart jumped into his throat as he dropped 
the clump of soil he'd been examining. Something was about to happen. The 
town on the far side of the road was suddenly empty. 

The three trucks drew steadily closer and were soon just a hundred meters 
away. Even with his weakening eyesight, from this distance Qasim could 
make out the faces of the individual soldiers. It was the closest that he'd ever 
come to them, he realized, and he was still studying their expressions when 
the explosion engulfed the last truck in the convoy. 

The noise was deafening, and the old farmer felt the ground shake be- 
neath his feet. A painful sensation started building deep inside his ears, but 
Qasim stood fixed in place, observing the aftermath. He wanted to see what 



116 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

the Americans would do. The answer was not long in coming. The Ameri- 
cans started shooting. 
He turned to run. 

Private First Class Roy Jackson could still feel the force of the blast when he 
heard Sergeant Wilson in the front seat yelling for Davies to turn them 
around. He was sure that they had taken casualties. 

Jackson could see as he looked over the driver's shoulder that the second 
Humvee with Sergeant Price had pulled up right behind them. A hundred 
meters down the road, there was the outline of a crater and thick black smoke 
hanging over the pavement. The third and final Humvee in their convoy was 
nowhere to be seen. 

A sick knot formed in Jackson's stomach as he realized that it was up to 
him to tend to the wounded. This was the reason the medics were there, and 
he was anxious to get to work. It was only when he saw Davies and Sergeant 
Wilson jumping out with their weapons at the ready that he remembered that 
their first priority was to secure the area. 

Jackson climbed out of the truck and glanced nervously toward the town. 
There was hardly anyone visible, though the place was usually bustling. He 
wondered if the townspeople had gotten word of the attack in advance. The 
empty streets, at least, made the few who were inexplicably present that much 
more noticeable. 

A young Iraqi, maybe about Jackson's own age, peeked out from a narrow 
alley toward the blast site. He didn't seem frightened or panicked, and if any- 
thing it looked like he was trying to assess the damage. In his hand, he 
clutched what might have been a weapon, but Jackson saw that it was even 
more damning— the means by which he had detonated the bombs in the 
road. 

He was holding a cell phone. 

"Over there!" Jackson shouted. "It was him!" The medic took aim and 
proceeded to empty his pistol. He reloaded his weapon while directing the 
machine gun toward the low wall behind where the Iraqi was hidden. The 
ground shook from the three- to five-round bursts capable of ripping a body 
in two, but Jackson could see that the young man had already escaped. 

Jackson rose cautiously to his full height, still pointing the 9mm in the 
general direction of the town. His ears were ringing, the pavement under his 
feet was covered with spent casing, and he looked around nervously waiting 



HEARTSANDMINDS 117 

for someone to tell him what to do next. The IED blast and the gunfire had 
taken its toll, but the medic was still able to hear the sharp crack of a rifle 
break the sudden silence. It was followed by an indistinct shout, and another 
shot rang out before Jackson could turn to look toward the source. 

Sergeant Price was kneeling in the mud just a few meters away from his 
Humvee, taking aim with his rifle. Out in the field was an Iraqi man in a dirty 
white robe, running toward an earthen hut a few hundred meters from the 
road. But the medic could see that there was no way that he would make it. 
There was another shout, and then the warning shots came to an end. 

"If they're running, they're guilty." The credo had been drilled into their 
heads over and over again, and it was what went through the sergeant's head 
as he knelt to take aim. He desperately wanted the man to stop running be- 
fore he squeezed the trigger. 

The rifle kicked back against his shoulder where it was braced, and Price 
could see a small puff of dirt rising a few meters ahead of the man. There was 
no way the Iraqi could have missed it, and yet he kept on running. 

"Stop!" Price shouted at the man's back, though his voice was drowned 
out by the drone of the .50 cal firing from the next vehicle. He gave the man 
another second, then skipped another round in front of him. 

It would be so simple for the man to stop, Price thought as a silent anger 
rose up inside of him. He took careful aim, fearing that his hands would start 
shaking from rage before he managed to get off the shot. Just stop running, his 
mind screamed at the man. The son of a bitch was going to make him shoot. 
Price hated the man at that moment. He wanted the man to die for the sin of 
forcing Price to kill him. 

"STOP!" he shouted only a half second before he fired again, so that it 
was really no warning at all. 

More dust kicked up in front of Qasim, who was now sure that the Americans 
were shooting at him. Relief mixed with terror as he realized they had missed 
again, but that the next bullet could easily find its mark. The world tunneled 
down to a shaky horizon and the roof of his house, which was just beyond a 
low mound of earth. Ym going to make it, he told himself. He only had to run 
a little further. 

It was suddenly quiet, and the farmer wondered if the soldiers had given 
up. A morbid curiosity made him want to turn around and look, but another 
shot skipping past him was enough to make him run even harder. His legs 



118 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

burned and his lungs were ready to burst, and far away he heard someone 
shouting a word. It was a foreign word, an American word. A word he did not 
understand. 

Qasim fell forward into the dirt. Three bullets had torn straight through 
him, piercing his back and the soft flesh of his stomach. 

An unnerving silence followed the thunder of the guns, like clear skies in the 
wake of a hurricane. Private Jackson heard the blood pounding in his ears as 
he looked across the Humvee to Sergeant Wilson. The sergeant yelled, 
"Davies! Doc! We're moving!" 

Jackson was still fumbling with the improvised latch of his steel door 
when Davies started the truck in the direction of the crater. Behind them, 
they left Sergeant Price and his driver moving out toward the fallen Iraqi. It 
was another moment before Jackson spotted the wreckage, crashed against a 
tree in the ditch by the road. 

Specialist Sam Vargas took in short, shallow breaths as he lay on the ground, 
staring up at the Iraqi sky. A single white cloud floated toward the opposite 
horizon, but the interruption in the blue expanse hardly registered. The 
young soldier was consumed with terror. 

The last thing that he remembered was thinking that he was too close be- 
hind the second Humvee. Now he didn't know where he was or what was 
going on, and he couldn't hear a thing except for a faint ringing in his ears. 
He tried to move but found that he couldn't summon a single muscle in his 
entire body. He had never been so scared in his life. 

Doc Jackson hit the ground running before the truck was even close to a 
complete halt. Before him was the last Humvee, which had spun almost per- 
pendicular to the road. Under its shattered fiberglass hood, the engine was vent- 
ing a worrying amount of smoke. Two tan-clad figures were crawling out of the 
wreckage, but Jackson immediately knew that they were relatively unharmed. 

On the ground were the scattered remains of the truck's provisions, mixed 
with broken pieces of the vehicle itself. Just beyond this debris field, a few 
meters from the driver's side door, a soldier lay on his back. 

The medic knelt to get to work on Vargas, and at the same time shouted 
instructions back to Sergeant Wilson. "We need to call Vargas in as Urgent. 
I don't know what the other two look like, but they're probably both at least 
Priorities." 



HEARTSANDMINDS 119 

"Got it. What about the guy that Price tagged?" 

"The Iraqi? At least an Urgent-Surgical. He's probably dead by now." 

"All right, I'm gonna call in the medevac." 

They were only a hundred meters from Sergeant Wilson's truck when Cham- 
bers slammed on the brake and brought an end to the wild adrenaline rush of 
the past three minutes. They had made it back with exhilarating speed, faster 
than he had ever imagined a Humvee could go, but he still couldn't escape 
the feeling that they were too late. There were already wounded on the 
ground. One of them was Vargas. 

Chambers jumped out of the vehicle and rushed over to Vargas. He 
planted the butt of his rifle into the ground and dropped to one knee next to 
the medic. 

"He's gonna be fine," Doc Jackson assured him, but the fear in Vargas's 
unblinking eyes told Chambers otherwise. Saliva started to foam around the 
young soldier's mouth, and Chambers saw a slight tremble go through his 
body. In Baghdad, Vargas slept on a squeaky green cot not five feet away from 
him, in the same leaky, rotting tent as the forty other people assigned to this 
mission. Now he was lying on his back in the Iraqi mud and descending into 
convulsions. Vargas was not going to be fine, and they all knew it. 

Qasim kept his jaw clenched tightly shut as the Americans rolled him onto 
his back. Hot pain shot through his stomach, and he gripped still tighter the 
handfuls of dirt that he'd clawed out of the ground. He refused to look down 
at his abdomen for fear that the sight would fill him with horror and he would 
cry out or weep. He was less than two hundred meters from his house. Inside, 
his wife would be huddled in the far corner— the smallest children gathered 
around her while the older ones hid elsewhere in the field. He wouldn't let 
them hear him cry out. He would not die like some frightened animal. 

In his mind, Qasim could hear the angry words spoken by the hotheaded 
young men every time they mentioned the Americans. Cowards! they cried. 
Murderers! That was how he wanted to feel now, as he lay dying in the wet, 
bloodstained earth. He wanted to hate them— to spit his anger and contempt 
in their faces before the last trace of life ebbed from his ruined body. But all 
he could feel was the searing pain of his wounds. 

He saw their outlines when he opened his eyes, though the world had 
taken on a terrible brightness. The Americans were greater in stature than his 



120 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

sons had any hope of being, but there was something about them that made 
them soft, almost pudgy. They lived comfortably back home, he realized. 
They were people used to luxury, and soon they would go back to their old 
lives while he would be dead and his children left fatherless. At last, he could 
feel anger cutting through the pain. 

Sergeant Price knew it was hopeless the moment he saw the ground under 
the man turning into dark, bloody mud. Still, the Iraqi was alive and con- 
scious, and the only alternative to trying to save him was to return to their 
Humvee and watch him die from the side of the road. Since Price was the 
one who had shot him, it seemed only right that he try to keep him from 
death. 

There wasn't much that could be done, especially with nothing more 
than the contents of a combat lifesaver bag. Price arranged the man's in- 
testines over his abdomen as delicately as he could. The sickening warmth of 
the shredded entrails in his hands and the slickness of fluids were enough to 
make Price's stomach turn. He wiped the blood on his trousers before rum- 
maging through his medical supplies. 

About the only thing he could do was to give the man an IV to try to keep 
up his blood pressure. It was absurd, he thought to himself, that he was hold- 
ing a little plastic bag over a man whose vital organs were sitting in a pile on 
top of him. But he simply didn't know what else to do. 

Vargas was still on the ground in an unresponsive state. Waiting for the mede- 
vac was the worst part, Private Jackson thought. He remembered that the last 
time the chopper had taken forty-five minutes just to get to their position. 

Jackson looked at the IV bag that Davies was holding up, then down at Var- 
gas, who still had spittle around the edges of his mouth. The vacant expression 
bothered him. His eyes were almost unblinking but clearly not focused on 
anything. He could imagine Vargas at forty, still catatonic and sitting in a 
wheelchair in some VA hospital where a nurse spoon-fed him gray mush. 

He tried to shake the images out of his mind; Vargas will be fine, he told 
himself. But looking down at the young man, who had once again started 
shaking just slightly, he couldn't help but wonder. 

The low thumping noise was a welcome sound to Chambers, who had spent 
the better part of the past twenty minutes guarding the landing zone. He in- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 121 

stinctively turned to watch the Black Hawk descend, though he knew he was 
supposed to keep an eye on his sector. 

A cloud of dust kicked up over the demarcated area, partially obscuring 
the helicopter as it landed. The flight medic jumped out of the hold with his 
head bent low, carrying the litter they would use to transport Vargas. 

Vargas struggled a bit as they moved him onto the stretcher, but it wasn't 
long before they had him secured and were running him into the belly of the 
chopper. The other soldiers from the destroyed Humvee followed behind, 
and the crew helped them into the hold. The litter team ran back out, and 
Chambers watched as they ran past him toward Sergeant Price, who was still 
kneeling next to the fallen Iraqi. 

Price was amazed that the man lying on the muddy ground was still con- 
scious, let alone alive. Up until the moment when they arrived with the litter, 
the Iraqi didn't make the slightest sound. He hadn't even looked scared as the 
blood drained out of his body. He had just continued to stare up at the 
sergeant with a coolness that Price found unsettling. It was as if he knew that 
Price had been the one who had shot him. 

"Shit," the medic spat when he saw the extent of the damage. "This one's 
not going to make it." 

"What do you want to do?" 

"We'll load him up anyway. We can't just leave him here." 

It wasn't until they were moving him onto the litter that the sergeant real- 
ized just how small the Iraqi was. He couldn't have been more than five foot 
two at most, and he was so rail-thin that he weighed almost nothing. But 
when they lifted him, for the first time he heard the man make the slightest 
of noises. A faint moan, a louder-than-usual exhalation was all that it was, and 
it didn't seem like anyone else heard it over the sound of the helicopter. But 
Price noticed it— maybe because he had been listening to the man's breath- 
ing for close to half an hour. He reached over and adjusted a coil of dirt- 
encrusted intestine that had slipped off the man's stomach while they were 
moving him. 

Vargas had clenched his eyes shut when they came to get him. He kept them 
tightly closed even as he felt the blades beating faster and the bird beginning 
to move. Though more than half an hour had passed since he found himself 
lying on the side of the road, he still hadn't regained control over his body. 



122 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

When the convulsions took hold once more, all he could do was pray again 
and again that when he finally reopened his eyes, he would be looking at 
the ceiling of a hospital in Kuwait or Germany, and not up at the great blue 
Iraqi sky. 

The helicopter lurched forward, and the young soldier was on his way. 

Sergeant Price was leaning against Sergeant Wilson's vehicle when Wilson 
himself walked up. He could tell that Price had something on his mind. 

"What's up?" Wilson asked. 

"Ah, just wondering if I did the right thing. I mean, I don't know if he's 
guilty or not." 

"Hey, that motherfucker was running. There was no way for you to know." 

"Yeah, I know. I just wish I could be sure. I mean, he's probably gonna 
die, right?" 

"Don't drive yourself crazy about it, man. We've got enough to worry 
about." 

Qasim could feel the American helicopter taking off. The physical pain had 
eased a bit, and overwhelmingly what he felt was anger and despair. How will 
my wife and sons ever be able to bury me now? he thought. He didn't even 
know where they were carrying him. 

He was growing furious at himself as well. If he hadn't stood around to 
watch the convoy passing, he would still be out in his fields making prepara- 
tions for the spring planting. He silently cursed his own stupidity. He also 
cursed the Americans for their guns and the young men who attacked them 
with their bombs. He almost cursed God, but just barely caught himself. He 
was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. 

A sad sense of defeat came over him as his vision grew even blurrier. 
Anger gave way to another feeling. He wanted to hold on to life just a few mo- 
ments longer. 

He looked around the helicopter once more, trying to catch a few last 
glimpses of his surroundings. The inside was mostly black and burnished steel, 
covered with the same light dust that coated everything else. On the far wall 
was a window, the blue Iraqi sky beyond. He would have liked to have looked 
outside at the receding ground, but he knew he would never get that chance. 

Across from him there was an American soldier clenching his eyes shut 
and shaking slightly. Qasim could see that for all the fabulous technology that 



HEARTSANDMINDS 123 

his country had sent with him, the soldier was still filled with terror. He is only 
a boy, Qasim said to himself. A scared young boy who looks like he just wants 
to go home. 

It will be over soon, Qasim thought as each breath grew more labored than 
the last. He took one final look at the soldier and closed his eyes. 



ROAD WORK 

Personal Narrative 

Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis 



Iraqi civilians are not only caught in the crossfire when hostilities erupt be- 
tween American troops and insurgents, they are the victims of military- 
related accidents as well. In February 2005, forty-one-year-old U.S. Army 
Reserve Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis witnessed the aftermath of a late-night 
crash involving a nineteen-ton Stryker armored vehicle (call sign "Rat- 
tlesnake Six-Seven") and a small car. While Lewis had seen shocking acts 
of violence and bloodshed during his deployment with Tactical Psychologi- 
cal Operations Detachment 1290, 1-25 SBCT (Stryker Brigade Combat 
Team), nothing had struck him as hard emotionally as the suffering caused 
by this collision. 



1 never heard the boom-CRUNCH, only imagined it later. There was 
strong braking, followed by a great deal of shouting. Our Stryker moaned 
through its monstrous air brakes and then bumped, heaved, and finally 
ground itself to a halt. 

"Six-Seven's in the ditch!" 

"Did they roll it?" 

"No, they're up. I think they're disabled." 

"Where's the colonel? Is the colonel's vehicle okay?" 

The colonel's vehicle was okay. 

The major said that we would need a combat lifesaver. It wasn't combat. 
There were no lives left to save. But I dug out the CLS bag, because you 
never know, do you? And walked across a pitch dark highway. 

Somebody was wailing in Arabic, hypnotically, repetitiously. 



124 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

A single car headlight was burning, a single shaft of light beaming across 
the road like an accusing finger. When tactical spotlights suddenly illumi- 
nated the little car, we found the source of the wailing. 

He was an older man with a silver beard, a monumental, red-veined nose, 
and a big, thick wool overcoat. He was hopping like a dervish, bowing rapidly 
from the waist and throwing his arms to the sky, then to his knees, over and 
over again in a kind of elaborate dance of grief. 

Down the road a hundred meters or so, Six-Seven's vehicle commander 
and air guards had dismounted and were standing around in the ditch. No- 
body had started smoking yet. 

I walked to the car with an Air Force sergeant and moved the older man 
aside as gently as possible. He was built like a blacksmith, powerful through 
the neck and shoulders. 

It's hard to describe what we found in the car. It had been a young man, 
only moments earlier that night. A cop or a fireman or a soldier would have 
simply said, "It's a mess in there." I used to be a fireman. I'm a soldier now. It 
was as bad a mess as I've seen. 

I'm not a medic. We didn't have one with us. It's still my responsibility to 
preserve life. So I squeezed into the crumpled passenger area, sat on the shat- 
tered glass, and tried to take the pulse from his passenger-side arm (nothing) 
and his neck (nothing). I thought about CPR, but only for a moment. His left 
arm was mostly torn off, and the left side of his head was flattened. 

Up on the highway, GIs walked around, gave and took orders. By the car, 
the victim's father still capered madly, throwing his arms around, crying out 
to God or anyone. I asked him, in my own language, to come with me, to 
calm down, to let me help him. I put my arm around him and guided the old 
Arab to the road. I sat him on the cold ramp of our Stryker and tried to assess 
his injuries. It seemed impossible that he could be only as superficially 
scratched up as he appeared. His hand was injured, bruised or possibly bro- 
ken, and he had a cut on his left ear. I wrapped a head bandage onto him and 
tied it gently in back. It looked like a traditional headdress with a missing top. 
Every few seconds he would get animated, and I would put my hand firmly 
on his shoulder. He would not hold still long enough for me to splint his arm. 

"Why can't he shut up?" 

"You ever lose a kid?" This is a pointless question to ask a soldier who's 
practically a kid himself. 

We moved him into the Stryker, assuring him that no, we weren't arrest- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 125 

ing him. But he didn't care. Whenever he started to calm down, he would 
look toward the car and break into wails. I sat next to him, put my arm around 
his shoulder, tried to keep him from jumping around enough to hurt himself 
or a soldier. I held him tightly with my right arm. By the next morning, my 
shoulder would be on fire. 

Forty minutes later a medic arrived. 

"What's his status, sergeant?" 

"He has a cut on his left earlobe. I think his hand is broken." (I think his 
heart is broken.) 

"Roger. Okay, I got this." 

"Thanks." (Bless you for what you do every day, doc.) 

I got out of the way, letting the old guy go for the first time in almost an 
hour. He started wailing again almost immediately. While the medic worked 
on him, the colonel's interpreter came over and fired a few questions at the 
man. It sounded like an interrogation. 

They had been on their way back to Sinjar, just a few miles away. The 
younger man had been taking his father back from shopping. They were min- 
utes from home. 

We didn't find any weapons in the car — either piece of it. There was no 
propaganda, nor were there false IDs. If we had stopped these people at a 
checkpoint, we would have thanked them and let them go on. 

The young man had been a student. Engineering. With honors. Pride of 
the family. What we like to think of as Iraq's future. 

Finally, I had to ask, "What does he keep saying?" 

The terp looked at me, disgusted, resigned, or maybe just plain tired. "He 
says to kill him now." 

The colonel came over and asked the medic if he could sedate the man 
with morphine. 

"No, sir. Morphine won't help." 

"Well, can't you give him something to calm him down? I mean, this is 
unacceptable." 

I walked away and lit a Gauloise. A sergeant came up next to me, smok- 
ing. I didn't say anything. After a few moments in the black quiet, I overheard 
him say, "It wasn't anyone's fault. It was just an accident." 

"I know." Inhale. Cherry glow. Long exhale. "Why we gotta drive in 
blackout— here — I don't get." 

"If Six-Seven had turned their lights on a couple of seconds earlier . . ." 



126 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"Yeah. I know." And he went to help carry the young man's remains into 
the sudden light show of ambulances and police jeeps, surrounded by young 
Arabic men with steely eyes. 

The supersized staff sergeant who mans the .50 cal on our truck walked 
down the road to kick a little ass and get Six-Seven's recovery progress back on 
track. Within a few minutes, they had it hooked up. It would be two weeks be- 
fore that Stryker would roll outside the wire again, this in an environment 
where trucks totaled by IEDs are welded back together and sent again into 
harm's way in mere hours. 

I went and sat on the back gate of the Stryker. I felt the cold creep into me. 
The old man sat next to me, perhaps too tired to continue his tirade against 
cruel Fate, careless Americans, war and its accidents. 

I haven't lost a full-grown son, just a little daughter. A baby. And she 
wasn't torn from me in a terror of rending steel, stamped out by a sudden 
monster roaring out of the night. She went so quietly that her passing never 
woke her mother. I like to think she kissed her on the way out, on her way 
home. 

But still, sitting on the steel tail of the monster that killed his son, I think 
I knew exactly how one Iraqi man felt. 

"Just kill me now." 

We sat and looked straight into the lights. 



MOORE THOUGHTS and GIRL INTERRUPTED 

Personal Narratives 
Captain James R. Sosnicky 



For twenty-seven months beginning in May 2003, Captain James R. Sos- 
nicky worked and traveled throughout the Middle East with the U.S. Army 
Reserve's 354^ Civil Affairs Brigade. A graduate of both the U.S. Military 
Academy at West Point and Oxford University, Sosnicky first deployed to 
Iraq as an economic development officer to help reopen the banks and find 
reconstruction work for local contractors. To this end, he founded the Bagh- 
dad Business Center, which has assisted thousands of Iraqi small busi- 
nesses. For the second part of his tour, he was assigned to an Iraq-focused 
civil affairs task force at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan. While overseas, Sos- 



HEARTSANDMINDS 127 

nicky wrote numerous essays and stories relating how the United States, its 
culture, and its citizens are often perceived in the Middle East In mid- 
September 2004, Sosnicky had the opportunity to watch Michael Moore's 
documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 when it opened in Amman. "Who knows how 
much of Fahrenheit 9/11 is true," Sosnicky wrote after viewing the movie. "It 
doesn't really matter, I guess." 



Mr. Moore makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't like the current 
POTUS and that he'd like to see him thrown out of office. Half of our 
country apparently agrees with him. The other half thinks that Mr. Bush is 
doing a great job. It's not my place to say. 

What is in my lane, and what did bother me very much about the film, 
was its depiction of the American soldier in Iraq. For the two of you who 
haven't seen the movie, there is one scene in which the American Fighting 
Man is portrayed as a callous idiot playing profanity-filled songs on his tank's 
internal radio as he goes blasting through the streets of Baghdad. There are a 
few other tableaux that reinforce the notion that every American in uniform 
is either a heartless ass or an embittered and sullen lost youth. 

While it is true that most guys are tired and would love to go home, the 
idea that the typical soldier is a jerk, disconnected completely from the fate of 
the Iraqi people, is not true. To suggest otherwise is ignorant and offensive. In 
my job as a civil affairs officer in Iraq, I have worked and rubbed elbows with 
soldiers from nearly every division in the Army. I have seen their interactions 
with the local people. Every American soldier has Iraqi friends. Several, al- 
though they aren't supposed to, have Iraqi girlfriends. 

In a violent, faraway land, where everything is unfamiliar, 99.9 percent of 
the American soldiers have behaved professionally, compassionately, and 
bravely. Of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who have rotated into and 
out of Iraq, a handful have embarrassed us. The names of the a-holes of Abu 
Ghraib taste more bitter on the tongues of our troops in Baghdad than they 
do on those of the incensed-for-the-camera politicians who will sleep off 
cocktails tonight in their Georgetown abodes. And while the film showed a 
few conquering Americans talking about the rush of war, chanting "the roof 
is on fire," it did not show the faces of countless Americans rebuilding hospi- 
tals, delivering textbooks to schools, or providing Iraqis with clean water to 
drink. Those things, even I'll admit, do not make for interesting cinema. 



128 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Something else you didn't get to see is the Middle Eastern reaction to this 
film. As I said, I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in Amman, Jordan, sitting in the theater 
with an Arab audience. There was a lot in the movie to make an American 
uncomfortable in that crowd. 

But while there was laughter in some parts, there were no shouts of anger 
from my fellow popcorn munchers. There was something else, however, 
something that took me by surprise. During the scene in which a grieving 
American mother named Lila Lipscomb doubles over in agony in front of the 
White House, crying, "I just want my son back, I just want my son back," 
every head-scarf-wearing Muslim Arab woman around me was sobbing. The 
pain of a mother grieving for her dead son cut through national and religious 
boundaries and touched on an emotion common to us all. That compassion, 
the compassion of the average Muslim Arab, is hardly ever put on display. 

During his more than two years in the Middle East, Sosnicky also wrote 
profiles of the individuals he encountered personally and professionally. In 
the following story y he describes a young woman he befriended during his 
year in Iraq. 

Mariam Maslawi worked as a dentist before the war. Since the American in- 
vasion, and the subsequent loss of reliable electricity at her clinic, she has 
not. The Iraqi Ministry of Health still requires her to show up to work six days 
a week. So she sits in the hot, dark waiting room with her fellow dentists 
doing nothing from 0800 to noon so as to collect their sixty dollars per month 
and to keep their names on the order-of-merit list, should things get better in 
the future. 

Mariam's father is a pharmacist. He is an old man. His store was looted 
following the invasion. It has not reopened since. Her father has been a crip- 
ple all of his life. Now he is having prostate problems. Her mother takes care 
of him. Of her sisters, one escaped the country years ago, one is still in high 
school, and one is an unemployed recently graduated mechanical engineer. 
Mariam is the sole breadwinner for the family. She needs more than the sixty 
dollars per month from the government to take care of them. 

Fortunately, Mariam taught herself English while attending the Univer- 
sity of Baghdad. She keeps a notebook so that she can jot down unusual new 
words she learns. Though she is fluent, Mariam is not satisfied with her En- 
glish. Her language skill allows her to work with the Americans. The first 






HEARTSANDMINDS 129 

Americans Mariam ever saw were those soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division 
who came rumbling down her street in their Abrams tanks. 

Like (presumably) the soldiers in those tanks, Mariam is a Christian. She 
told me she keeps a portrait of Jesus in her bedroom. When asked why, she 
replied simply, "I like Jesus." She then made a face and giggled at the absur- 
dity of such a question. 

Mariam looks like any young woman in America. She has light skin, 
brown eyes, and dark hair that she wears in a long ponytail. She likes to laugh 
and likes to dress as nicely as she can. She saw an advertisement for colored 
contact lenses in an American magazine and thought those would be nice to 
have. She likes popular Arab music, but also Shakira and Enrique Iglesias. 
"He is very nice." Like many Arabs, she believes in conspiracy theories. With- 
out question, the war was fought for oil and Israel. 

Every day, after her duties at the dental clinic, Mariam's mother drives 
her in the family's beat-up sedan to the eastern side of the Fourteenth of July 
Bridge. There is an American checkpoint there. After standing in line with 
the other workers, Mariam is searched for weapons by the soldiers. Most 
know her by face and/or name by now. When they go through her purse and 
wave their wands over her five-foot-tall petite body, they do so matter-of-factly, 
sometimes even smiling slightly. This familiarity will cease with the next ro- 
tation of soldiers. The new guys will be hard-asses for a while because they 
will be scared. And they should be. Madam's cousin was killed at a similar 
checkpoint back in January, when a car bomb tore through the line of wait- 
ing Iraqis. 

Mariam walks across the long steel bridge spanning the Tigris. Once on 
the other side, she is officially in the Green Zone or "International Zone" as 
they started calling it after the handover of power to the Iraqis. It is another 
mile walk to her store. All told, it takes an hour to get to her destination. 

Though she has never smoked, Mariam sells cigarettes to the soldiers, em- 
bassy staff, and government contractors working in the International Zone. 
Her profits are small. One dollar per carton. She sells a few other trinkets, too, 
such as lighters and key chains with Saddam Hussein's face on them. Ameri- 
cans love these things. She got permission from the proper authorities in the 
International Zone to build this store. (The "proper authorities," however, 
vary depending on whom you ask, and they change every three or four 
months. There is a constant fear that one day someone will tell her to go 
away.) 



130 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Mariam went into debt to build her store from the ground up, using local 
contractors who charged her too much for material and labor because they 
could. In an attempt to save money, Madam's mother came in one day and 
scooped up dirt in her hands that she put into a bucket for the builders to use. 
They looked at her and laughed. "What is this old woman?" 

It is a simple structure, made of brick and concrete. There is no front, just 
three walls and a tin corrugated roof on top. The temperature gets up near 120 
degrees Fahrenheit inside during the summertime. There is dust everywhere. 
The dust and leftover particles of building material cling to Madam's hair 
and moist skin. She is careful to wipe the dust off the cartons of cigarettes be- 
fore she hands them to her customers. She is very attentive to details like that. 
She is a professional. Much like she used to be as a dentist. 

Shoplifting is a constant problem. Both the Americans and the Iraqis 
have stolen from her. The Americans call her a liar when they get caught, so 
she doesn't bother confronting them anymore. Once when she complained 
to the police about an Iraqi thief, his tribe threatened to kill her. 

Mariam takes any threat of violence seriously. A couple of months ago, 
her house was bombed. The blast shattered the front windows and sent glass 
flying inside. Everyone hit the deck. By a miracle, no one got hurt. After a few 
minutes of huddling on the floor, Mariam cautiously stepped outside. The 
houses in front and on either side of her were fine. Only her house was bat- 
tered and torn. Only her house contained a person working with the Ameri- 
cans. 

Her house had been shaken by war before. When she was a young girl, 
Iranian missiles pounded the street. The Americans have bombed her three 
times since, in 1991, 1998, and 2003. Mariam is twenty-eight years old. She 
knows things women her age in the United States do not. A couple of weeks 
ago I was in Baghdad, visiting with Mariam. There was an explosion in the 
distance. 

"What do you think," I asked, "car bomb or mortar round?" 

"Definitely a mortar round," she replied. 

Most girls in the U.S. have a tin ear for such things. 

Mariam seldom complains. When I offered her a hundred dollars to help 
her get by, she got insulted and ordered me to put the money back into my 
pocket. Immediately she could tell she'd been too harsh. "Now, if you had a 
thousand, it would be a different story," she joked with a wink and a touch of 
my hand. Mariam never talks about wanting to move to the United States. 



HEARTSANDMINDS 131 

Her dream is to move to Jordan or, better yet, Beirut. "Someplace where the 
weather is nice and you can go outside without being afraid," she says. 

The last time I saw Mariam, she had worked a long day. By then it was 
dark and her mother was waiting for her on the other side of the bridge to 
pick her up. At home, there would not be much relief. No electricity meant 
no air-conditioning. No air-conditioning in the murderous heat of Baghdad 
meant no sleep. Mariam hasn't slept much all summer. 

I walked with Mariam in the darkness and told her how much I admired 
her strength. 

"They won't beat me," she said. "They won't win. I won't let them." 

"Who won't beat you?" I asked. 

"The Iraqis, the Americans, all of them " 

We walked on a bit longer. "Sometimes I get tired," she said quietly, tears 
filling her eyes. "Please forgive me. You are going back to Jordan tomorrow 
and I don't want you to remember me like this." 

Unlike the Nile in Cairo, there are no well-lit, grand hotels or municipal 
buildings buttressing the Tigris in weary Baghdad. There is nothing to give 
people the feeling that they are standing in a city that was the sparkling jewel 
of the civilized world for five hundred years. There are just date palms and a 
general sorrow at night that manifests itself in the blacked-out houses, shut- 
tered shops, empty streets, and lonely silence. 

There were no other pedestrians on the bridge. No other sounds but those 
of our shoes moving over the span. A cool breeze blew away the stagnant hot 
air and lifted our spirits temporarily. "That is very nice," Mariam said gently. 
Directly below us the black Tigris flowed on into the India ink horizon. The 
moonlight reflected off of the peaks in its flow. At the far end of the bridge was 
the silhouette of a Bradley. Beyond that, I could not go. 

As we got to the armored vehicle, we stopped and looked at each other in 
the moonlight for a moment. I could feel the eyes of the American soldiers in 
the Bradley on us. Mariam was sure that there were eyes of suspicious, hostile 
Iraqis on the other side of the checkpoint fixed on her. We both wanted to 
give each other a hug, but we could not. "I'll see you," I said awkwardly to the 
girl I'd known for over a year. 

"Inshaallah," she replied. "God willing." We stood there for another 
moment. 

Clutching her handbag, Mariam turned and walked away, disappearing 
finally into the darkness. 



CHAPTER THREE 



*s T 1 1 (^ K I M T 1 1 I *s S A 1SJ Y) R O X 



GRIPES, HUMOR, BOREDOM, AND THE DAILY GRIND 




A few days before Christmas, Marines take a time-out from combat operations to play a 

friendly game of baseball at Camp Ramadi, Iraq, in late December 2004. 

Photo by Corporal Paul Leicht, USMC; used by permission. 



Once a month, all soldiers must fill out a white index card like it's a postcard 
and write a message on the back of it. What happened was a lot of soldiers 
were failing to contact their parents and let them know that they were 
okay, and these worrywart parents were contacting the chain of command 
saying that their little Johnny wasn't writing to them enough. So to fix this 
problem, once a month we all had to form up and each of us was handed 
an index card to fill out to a parent or wife to tell them that we were okay, 
doing well, still alive, and hand it over to the squad leader who double- 
checks and makes sure that everybody fills one out, and he then personally 
goes over to S-i and drops it off in the mailbox. 

I was writing to my wife all the time, so the first postcard I filled out was 
to my parents, in the best kindergarten dyslexic letters I could: 

DeAr mOM aNd dAd, 

I Am flnE, I aM 27 YeArS Old AnD ThEy ArE TrEAtiNg mE 
LiKe I aM 6. wEhAvE to fllL tHeSe CaRdS OuT NoW bEcAuSe 
PeeplEZ ArNt wrilTiNg tO MoMMY aNd DaDDiE EnUff, sO 
nOW thEy mAke uS. LoVe.CoLbY 

My dad, who spent twenty years in the Army, fully understood that this was 
how the Army solves problems and laughed when he received the postcard. 
My mom on the other hand didn't quite get it and my dad had to explain it 
to her, and when my mom asked why I wrote all preschoolish, he said that I 
was just being a smart ass again, which she fully understood. 

—Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell, writing from 
Mosul, Iraq, in July 2004. 



134 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

CAMP MUCKAMUNGUS 

Journal 

Staff Sergeant Parker Gyokeres 



"I'm going to kill my travel agent," thirty-year-old Staff Sergeant Parker 
Gyokeres (pronounced, appropriately enough, "jokers") wrote facetiously in 
one of his journal entries chronicling a five-month deployment to Tallil, 
Iraq. Officially, Gyokeres was an aircraft armament systems technician in 
the U.S. Air Force's 332nd Fighter Wing, but during Operation Iraqi Free- 
dom he was tasked to serve with a force protection, or FP, unit that screened 
and escorted local civilians and foreign nationals working at the Tallil Air 
Base in the southern part of the country. (The primary responsibility of the 
FP airmen was to prevent insurgents from infiltrating the base by posing as 
contractors or day workers.) Gyokeres emphasized in his journals, which he 
also e-mailed to friends and family in the States, that his service was noth- 
ing compared to what other troops had to endure in more dangerous parts 
of the country. But he still relished pointing out the minor privations and 
absurdities of day-to-day life in the desert. 



I know a number of you have been curious about what it's like over here, so 
we are going to take a small mental voyage. First off, we are going to pre- 
pare our living area. Go to your vacuum, open the canister, and pour it all 
over you, your bed, clothing, and your personal effects. Now roll in it until it's 
in your eyes, nose, ears, hair, and . . . well, you get the picture. You know it's 
just perfect when you slap your chest and cough from the dust cloud you 
kicked up. And, no, there is no escape, trust me. You just get used to it. 

Okay, pitch a tent in your driveway, and mark off an area inside it along 
one wall about six feet by eight feet (including your bed). Now, pack every- 
thing you need to live for four months— without Wal-Mart— and move in. 
Tear down the three walls of your tent seen from the street and you have 
about as much privacy as I have. If you really want to make this accurate, 
bring in a kennel full of pugs; the smell, snoring, and social graces will be just 
like living with my nine tentmates. Also, you must never speak above a whis- 
per because at all times at least four of your tentmates will be sleeping. That's 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 135 

where the flashlight comes in handy; you are going to use it to navigate a 
pitch dark tent, twenty-four hours a day. 

Time for hygiene. Walk to the nearest bathroom. In my case, it's a 
thousand-foot trudge over loose gravel. Ever stagger to the John at 0400? Try 
it in a frozen rock garden. Given the urges that woke you at this hour, taking 
the time to put on your thermals and jacket might not be foremost in your 
mind. But halfway there, it's too late. So dress warmly. It gets really freakin' 
cold here at night. 

I don't even feel like talking about the latrine experience. All I have to say 
is that, after the first time, I went back to the tent and felt like either crying or 
lighting myself on fire to remove the filth. 

Time for the reason we are here in the first place. Work. 

I am somewhat limited in my ability to say how, when, and why we do 
what we do, so I'll be vague at times. Overall the work is extremely interest- 
ing and different for an aircraft maintainer like myself. Essentially, my unit 
escorts third-country nationals (TCNs) and local nationals (LNs) who work 
on base. We handle their passes, and we also watch over areas in which they 
work and, in some cases, live. I currently work in the control center for those 
escorts and workers. I handle radio traffic and communication between the 
people coming in, patrols and posts controlling or containing escortees, and 
the police who search their vehicles. I am nearly always speaking through my 
Iraqi translator with Iraqis, Koreans, Italians, Dutch, and countless other na- 
tionalities while tending to multiple other duties. 

In an average exchange I'll be speaking with an Arabic translator who is 
speaking pidgin Turkish who is trying to tell me he needs to get in touch with 
a person whose name he doesn't know, but whom I still need to contact, while 
some Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos are trying to steal back the knives 
I confiscated from them, as the Koreans bring fifteen kids into their hospital for 
medical attention. Meanwhile, the guy in the corner is making threats against 
my control team because he is sick of waiting for somebody on the base and the 
screaming kid just stopped screaming, because he puked on my weapons/con- 
traband searcher who now wants to shoot the Korean escort for letting that sick 
kid loose. This goes on for twelve hours. Reminds me of a really stressed-out, 
low-budget version of ER— with automatic weapons — in Arabic. 

Although things can get chaotic, there are rules that need to be followed. 
Many of them are ones we've made up on our own. 



136 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Rule #1: Not speaking English is no excuse for being stupid. I think I'm 
going to get a card that says that in Arabic and flash it to every person who at- 
tempts access to our facility. Don't even try "I don't understand" on me, all I 
asked you to do was sit down and stay there while I work on your issue. I then 
had to get the interpreter to tell you. Twice. I then had to post one of the 
troopers on you to babysit. If I have to tell you again, I'm going to kick your 
butt out and you might be barred entry permanently. And stop asking how 
long it will be. I told you twice we are waiting on your rep and he will be here 
when he feels like it. Ask me again and I'm going to start yelling. 

Rule #2: Making me yell will get you in trouble. If you don't stop wan- 
dering slowly (like I didn't see you get out of our paddock) towards your truck, 
I'm going to yell. If you don't get off the cell phone in my yard, now, I'm 
going to yell. (No weapons, communication devices, cameras at all on base 
for TCNs or LNs, and we mean it.) If you don't tell me about the sharpened 
tire iron I just found under your floorboard (and don't worry, my guys will 
find it, I assure you), I won't yell when I take it, but I will yell loudly when 
you have the stones to ask for it back. You have got to be shitting me. What do 
you mean to tell me that your sharpened eighteen-inch piece of bent angle 
iron is a family heirloom? You go. Now. 

Rule #3: If you don't stop after I tell you once, yell at you twice, and phys- 
ically attempt to stop you from being terminally stupid or, more to the point, 
doing something that could be potentially threatening, I'll go the last step, 
and it always works, regardless of language, nationality, or IQ. We call it "the 
exclamation point" or "Shacking One." As in: "That damn idiot wouldn't 
stop, and when he started reaching into his bag again, after I had told him so 
many times not to, I had to Shack One on him." 

Shacking One means you grab your rifle's charging handle and as quickly 
as possible (to make as much noise as possible) yank back till the handle stops 
and your fingers break free. As soon as your fingers clear the handle, the 
spring tension, from the pull, slams the bolt forward and chambers your first 
round. It sounds like a very quick sliding/slapping SHLACK! It's the loudest 
metallic noise in the world when it happens. And for at least three seconds, 
the only sound you hear, as the crowd unpuckers, is of your own heart trying 
to break out of its rib cage, one pounding thump at a time. Once you've heard 
both the noise, and its effect, you'll never forget it. I've never had to do it my- 
self (except in training), and, again, it's really for cases when you believe there 
is a genuine security issue. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 137 

Shacking One is the international symbol for "Conversation over." Shack- 
ing One tells the individual that this is not a game and we are not going to 
allow it to continue. From that point, amazingly and without exception, peo- 
ple do what they are told, immediately. They suddenly understand every- 
thing we have been trying to tell them. Whaddaya know? 

Please don't get the impression that all we do all day is run around and act 
like storm troopers. We all know our guns should never come off our shoul- 
ders, and if they do, that's the very second we need to be calling in the pro- 
fessionals to assist us. The guns are for our self-defense as an absolute last 
resort. Nothing more. Thankfully, events like these aren't common. Most 
days pass by smoothly with only funny stories to break up the monotony. 

A week ago, for instance, Geraldo Rivera came to Tallil to do a report 
for Fox. As he was going into his shtick, just as the camera zoomed in on his 
face, a troop in the crowd, positioned just over Geraldo's shoulder and visi- 
ble only in the midsection, "adjusted himself," on live, national television. 
In prime time. This is the same troop who got kidney stones, was shipped to 
Baghdad to have a CAT scan, and whose convoy was attacked while he was 
there. When he came back, the Army doctor informed him that he had two 
more stones, which he then painfully passed over the next two weeks. If 
there's a lightning storm, I'm running away from this kid, 'cause he's 
cursed. 

Or blessed, as he's still here, still alive, and didn't lose a stripe after the 
Pentagon called the base commander the next day and wanted to know why 
reporters in the morning national press briefing were asking about an airman 
at Tallil AB being obscene, live, on prime-time Fox News. The kid had to 
scratch, for God's sake. He had no idea that the camera was zooming in at 
that exact moment. And, yes, he's one of my crew, God bless him. 

I was just told that today he received a letter of reprimand for (and I quote 
directly) "an immature, childish, and obscene gesture that intentionally de- 
famed the USAF." Was it bad timing? Yes. Was it bad manners? Probably. But 
was it, as the reprimand further stated, "a deliberate action, known as a 'pack- 
age check?' " Ahh . . . no. 

I'm still stuck on the very official usage of the words "package check," but 
I'm pretty sure that the troop's actions weren't deliberate. He's not an anar- 
chist, attempting to bring disorder and chaos. He's an airman who worked 
hard all day, got pulled off of the dinner bus to be on TV, and was put directly 
behind a blowhard who likes a tight close-up. He was then left there, stand- 



138 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ing (and sweating) in the desert, for thirty minutes. Sooner or later you just 
gotta adjust, folks. 

This place truly never ceases to trip me out. Last week I met a man who 
came through here to visit his wife who was in hospital. He spoke okay En- 
glish and, it turns out, he was an American citizen from Dearborn, Michigan. 
His home was less than ten miles from where I lived before joining up. His 
driver's license was issued at the same office where I had gotten mine. What 
a head trip. I'm standing there in all my body armor, with a helmet and an as- 
sault rifle, looming at least a foot and a half taller and a hundred pounds 
heavier than he, talking about restaurants in Detroit like an old friend. He 
told me that eight of his friends from Dearborn have died in the service of the 
new Iraqi Army in the last few months. I had no idea that so many of those 
guys were U.S. citizens. He will be back to serve as an interpreter in a few 
months. He brought his kids in to meet me and they looked like American 
kids in their Spiderman jackets and Nikes. These kids go to American 
schools, they watch SpongeBob, and now they are swatting flies and getting 
the metal detector treatment for hidden weapons. I wonder often what they 
think about all of this. 

Finally, and in the words of one of our tentmates: "Just when you think 
you have this place all figured out, it rains!" We assumed that, since this is the 
desert, it wouldn't rain forever, or because it's all sand it would just drain 
away. Well campers, it didn't stop, and this desert isn't sand. The dust and silt 
of which we are becoming such connoisseurs, is just that, silt. It is clay sedi- 
ment from the Euphrates River that now flows a mile from us and, appar- 
ently, once flowed where we stand today. Add to that, all occupied ground 
was scraped to remove the bomblets and mines and this made the earth 
dense, fine, and impermeable to seepage. In short, our dry lake just became 
a very wet, muddy one. 

The parking lots at each end of tent city have become chocolate reservoirs 
as a result of the huge hump in the center where the tents are. When Civil 
Engineering came out to appraise the situation, their expert estimate, based 
on size and depth, was that the biggest parking lot held over 110,000 gallons 
of water. There is nowhere for this water to go. The ground isn't absorbing it, 
and the six-foot walls of the compound contain its edges. The funny part of 
this is that some of the dirt wasn't as well compacted, and vehicle traffic has 
created huge holes that we like to call "sweet spots." Invisible from above, the 
only clue you have that you have hit one of these bathtub-size holes is when 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 139 

your vehicle frame slams to a stop, leaving you stranded inside a football field 
of water. 

Sitting in the guard shack at the edge of the parking lot, we wish we had 
popcorn because the show is so good. We rate the hits and critique them. I 
have two favorites. The first was the driver of "Turdzilla," which is what we 
call the huge vacuum truck that sucks the poop out of porta-potties and field 
latrines. He nearly flipped his forty-foot rig in a hole the size of a Ford Ranger 
because he reasoned high speed was the way to beat the sweet spots. It wasn't. 

The other guy figured, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. This individual was 
driving an open-topped Army Hummer with no doors. His beast could ford 
thirty-six inches of water— if done sensibly. His was not, shall we say, a text- 
book demonstration of a sensible technique. He revved his huge diesel, 
dropped it into gear, and floored it. What happened next I will never forget. 
He hit the edge of the pool moving just a bit faster than the posted speed limit 
and was doing great, throwing huge fountains of thick, brown mud in gigan- 
tic arcs away from the truck. Then he hit the big one, the one we simply call 
"the hole." It's in the area of the highest traffic, created when the mud lake 
wasn't quite so full. It's the hole that all the other holes want to become. We 
have no idea how big it is, really, but I saw a mini pickup float across it two 
days ago. Anyway, he hit this hole and we just lost him. The front dipped 
down and immediately a huge brown wall shot straight up in front of his 
truck. He must have panicked a bit and taken his foot off the gas when his 
world went brown and wet. Bad idea. 

Did I mention that this truck had an open roof? Yeah, the wall of mud fell 
on this brave chap and we lost him again. By this time his Hummer was start- 
ing to sink, and I found it amusing that it stopped one inch below the level of 
the doorsills. After hitting the wall, the wave of mud was on its way back, and 
in the time it took him to get the mud off his goggles, the wave crested over 
his feet and the entire truck was filled with slop. All I could see of him that 
wasn't brown was a set of white, grinning teeth. He eventually made it out of 
the pond, pulled up to us, and, over the sound of draining mud and a hissing 
engine, said: "God I love this job." 

So do I, man, so do I. 



140 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



VTC and HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY 

E-mails 
Captain Steven A. Givler 



Although danger is an ever-present reality to those serving in Iraq and 
Afghanistan, troops spend a significant portion of time performing mind- 
numbing bureaucratic tasks not unlike those found in a civilian corpora- 
tion (e.g., ordering equipment and supplies, dealing with personnel issues, 
filling out paperwork). One of the most dreaded duties for those in uniform, 
regardless of where they're stationed, is attending seemingly endless meet- 
ings and briefings. Steven A. Givler, a forty-year-old U.S. Air Force captain 
who was on his second deployment to the Middle East and stationed at the 
A/ Udeid Air Base in Qatar for five months, frequently wrote to his family 
back in Georgia about his experiences with the 116th Air Control Wing. 
Some days were clearly less dramatic than others. ("VTC," alluded to in the 
January 18, 2005, e-mail below, is the abbreviation for video teleconferenc- 
ing. "RAF" refers to Great Britain s Royal Air Force.) 



If you really want to break a man's spirit, subject him to several hours of 
VTC. The endless prattle of disembodied heads asking inane questions 
from thousands of miles away, the mind-numbing briefings of the office war- 
riors who tell us the same thing time after time (the only difference being the 
exchanging of old cliches for newer ones) — to be spared this horrifying 
prospect, the captive terrorist would tell you everything he knows. 

For us though, there is no escape, so we fashion what devices we can to 
get us through the misery. One favored pass-time is graphing the number of 
urns and uhs of one of the regular speakers. She is generally very consistent, 
but last week she made an exceptionally good showing, uttering 162 in just 
over five minutes. We are in tremendous suspense, waiting to see whether she 
will eclipse that record. 

We also keep a list of odd sayings generated by another one of the regu- 
lars. Sometimes, if he comes up with a particularly good one, we make a 
poster of it and hang it where we work. That explains the sign over our door, 
which reads, "Apply here for granular answers to thorny issues." 

Of course all this happens only during parts of the conference that don't 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 141 

pertain to us, and only when our microphone is turned off. Our spokesman, 
a very proper RAF squadron leader, always gives us the sign before his speak- 
ing part comes up, and then of course, we sit very straight for the camera, and 
act as if it would never cross our minds to do otherwise. 

Today though, it was much harder than usual to pull that off. Just before 
our turn came around, we heard from a group not normally represented in 
our meetings. When they appeared on our screen it was obvious they hadn't 
looked at their own image before they transmitted. They were all slouched 
low in their seats, and, because of the angle of the camera, nothing showed 
above the table in front of them but their heads. "Holy cow!" one of us ex- 
claimed, "They're leprechauns!" This brought the house down, and it was all 
the squadron leader could do to bring us under control before his time to 
speak. 

I hope before I leave here to convince the squadron leader and the two of- 
ficers who flank him to spend my final VTC beneath their table, using sock 
puppets to present their briefings. . . . Steven 

Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, thousands of Australian 
troops have served with U.S. and Coalition forces in the Middle East. On 
January 26, Givler e-mailed the following story about a raucous evening 
with a small group of Aussie soldiers. 

In one stroke on 26 January, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillips claimed Aus- 
tralia as a British colony, and established a thriving industry (a penal colony) 
on its shores. Not bad for a day's work. 

So impressive, in fact, that Australians have been celebrating the day ever 
since. Unaware of this, I was making my appointed rounds at work tonight, 
when I was collared by a couple Aussie colleagues (they refer to me as a 
"mate") and dragged to a party in a tent adjacent to where I work. Along the 
way, in order to compensate for the shocking gaps in my knowledge of His- 
tory, I was apprised of the significance of this important date, said apprisings 
arriving on high-volume beer-scented blasts delivered directly into my ear, 
the loudness the result not so much of inebriation, as of a myth that has arisen 
about my being slightly deaf. 

My hearing is perfectly fine, but I seem to have great difficulty with the 
Australian language. Some claim it's similar enough to our language that a 
native English speaker should be able to understand it, but this, of course, is 



142 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

completely silly. They are separate and distinct languages, and while they 
may share some curse words, they have little else in common. I know this to 
be true, but I seem to be in the minority. Because of this, I frequently find my- 
self asking Australians to repeat themselves. As a result, my "mates" have 
formed the opinion that I am somewhat hard of hearing. 

Far from causing them to shun me, this mythical handicap of mine seems 
to endear me to these kindhearted people, and they go out of their way to talk 
to me, asking, "How're ya goin' mate?" and— well I don't know what else they 
say, because I can't understand a word of it. I nod and smile and make what 
I hope are appropriate remarks from time to time, and I seem to be doing 
pretty well, because I'm often rewarded with a bone-crushing slap on the 
back, broad smiles and a stream of throaty vowels that sound as if I'm listen- 
ing from under water. 

Times like these make me miss (even more than usual) my wife. They re- 
mind me of my first year or so in South Carolina, where her ability to trans- 
late Gullah, or whatever people were speaking to me, saved me from several 
beatings, and impressed on me the certainty that my life would never again 
be complete without her in it. 

She is not here though, so I get by as well as I can, which means I have 
become a master of reading body language, facial expression, and contextual 
elements of conversation too subtle even to be named. These clues provide 
me insights into the inscrutable utterings of my friends here, and allow me to 
"participate" in discussions that are completely beyond my understanding. 
An aside: How is it I can appreciate these modes of nonverbal communica- 
tion when I cannot abide a mime? 

My skills of interpretation failed me tonight in the tent though, when my 
hosts were playing an enthusiastic game of Australian trivia. Not only did I 
not know any answers, I could not ascertain the meaning of a single question. 
At one point in the heated competition, it was the turn of my "mates" to an- 
swer a question. Whether in the spirit of inclusiveness, or because they them- 
selves were unsure of the answer, I'll never know, all I can say for certain is 
that, after the question was posed, they all turned to me, and beerily shouted 
things like, "Gowedan givatraymate!" 

Well, there I was. A close-packed throng of inebriated amateur rugby play- 
ers blocked the path to the door ahead of me, while all the men stood behind 
me. No way out. A quick survey of all my body language skills told me only 
that every ear in the bar was inclined in my direction, and that the fate of my 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 143 

team rested on my shoulders. A hush fell over the mob. Of such situations, in- 
ternational incidents are made. I raised my beer and shouted, "To Australia!" 
and, in the pandemonium that ensued, bought a brief respite, but it was over 
all too soon. Once again, the place fell silent, and I felt myself being crushed 
under the burden of the prestige of the United States. I ran through my small 
vocabulary of authentic Australian words and flung one out in desperation. 
"Dingo," I gasped. My team erupted in cheers, joined after a slight delay by 
our rivals, who were unhappy to lose a point, but glad to know that an Amer- 
ican was so well informed about their country. 

Later, when things died down, I happened to see the list of questions lying 
on the bar. Apparently the one they had put to me was, "What was the first 
non-native species introduced to Australia?" 

Steven 

Givler returned home in February 2005 and enrolled in the Naval Post- 
graduate School in Monterey, California, to earn a master's degree in Mid- 
dle Eastern studies. 



FORCE PROVIDER 

Personal Narrative 
Lieutenant Colonel Stephen McAllister 



Among the numerous topics that inspire grumbling, controversy, and exas- 
peration among troops, few are as beloved as the "portable, single- 
occupancy personal waste disposal comfort station," otherwise known as the 
port-o-john. Most complaints are about the seats (wet year-round, ice-cold 
in the winter); the smell, especially during broiling summers ("lethal" "not 
human," and "almost hallucinogenic" being just a few descriptions); the 
toilet paper ("AWOL"); and the fact that it sometimes requires a ten-minute 
hike, frequently in the dark, to get to one. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant 
Colonel Stephen McAllister, who had been stationed at the headquarters of 
the Combined Joint Task Force (C]TF-i8o) in Bagram, Afghanistan, wrote 
the following story in May 2003 about the barely civilized condition of their 
bathrooms— and the higher command's mind-boggling attempt to improve 
them. 



144 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



Thanks to our friends in the Army we had flushing toilets, although 
they're actually called Force Providers, and they look essentially like a 
box trailer you might see on a flatbed railcar for hauling cargo. Inside the 
male Force Provider, along the back half of the right wall, there is a long, 
open urinal that vaguely resembles a feeding trough for cattle. The other half 
of the same wall has sinks and mirrors. The left wall is lined solely with toi- 
lets, which are elevated one foot from floor level on platforms that sit above 
the Force Provider's holding tanks. But there's a problem. Several, in fact. 

First, these aren't typical flushing commodes. Each toilet has two pedals, 
one a little bigger than the other. The smaller pedal is pressed before you sit 
down, and it fills the basin with about four inches of water. Then after the toi- 
let is used, you step on the larger pedal, which opens the flapper valve at the 
bottom and flushes out the waste. This also dispenses more water into the 
basin, theoretically washing it clean. The problem is that many of the flapper 
valves have lost their seal, which means that the four inches of water drains 
away prior to use. And the water released when you press the large pedal 
couldn't wash away dust let alone . . . well, you know. 

Second, the majority of people here aren't experiencing regular move- 
ments due in part to the high-protein food we routinely eat. The unfortunate 
consequence of this incontinence is the explosive nature of the illness. This 
leaves a mess that a trickle of water simply can't handle. 

Third, the headquarters is made up primarily of men — I'd say fifty-to-one. 
To no one's surprise, there are no problems with the women's Force Provider. 
But then the odds are in their favor. 

So you're probably able to guess that the problem we have is one of clean- 
liness. And the Army leadership has had enough. The headquarters director, 
a brigadier general, got involved and issued the following decree: 

MEMORANDUM FOR ALL CJTF-180 JOC PERSONNEL 

SUBJECT: MALE FORCE PROVIDER GUARD ROSTER AND INSTRUCTIONS 

1. Guard will immediately start on the Male Force Provider until further 
guidance is provided by the Director. This is a result of individual(s) 
trashing the latrine and other unethical acts. Each shift will be two 
hours long and both officers and enlisted are required to pull the duty. 

2. Instructions. As an individual goes into the force provider, the guard 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 145 

will take note who goes in and will be required to inspect the force 
provider prior to that individual leaving the facility. This is to ensure 
that the force provider is not trashed or vandalized during use. The 
purpose of the force providers was to improve the quality of life for 
CJTF-180 personnel. 

We couldn't believe it. 

The Army then decreed that each office in the headquarters would take 
their turn guarding the Force Provider. One of the guys in my work area sug- 
gested that we didn't have to because we were Air Force and not Army. 
"That'll endear us to everyone here," I said sarcastically. 

A major said, "I'll go out there when I see the sergeant major out there." 
The Army sergeant that delivered the news replied that no rank was exempt. 
More rumbling and "Jesus Christ, I don't believe this" and "For crying out 
loud" and "There's typical Army leadership for you " 

I thought to myself, What will I tell my grandchildren when they want to 
know what I did during the war in Afghanistan? "I was in the thick of it, pulling 
CG duty." "What's CG duty, Grandpa? 7 ' "Crapper Guard." 

Our office drew a half-hour block just prior to sunset. I'd convinced my- 
self that I would be the first to go pull our guard shift and had said as much 
but secretly hoped that someone, somewhere would realize the folly of this 
policy and cancel the shifts. But as we approached the hour, still no cancel- 
lation, and I resigned myself to the inevitable. 

Only twenty-five minutes before I was due to take my post, Colonel Bled- 
soe, who goes by the call sign "Zipper," walked in and announced that he 
would take our shift. Zipper is a vice wing commander back in the States, and 
he fits the mold perfectly. He's a southern boy with a laid-back attitude, a com- 
mon-sense guy who lets nothing fluster him. He's well liked and he's able to 
see the humor in virtually any situation. The CG duty was no exception. 

Zipper decided that he would approach this duty with the decorum it de- 
served. He found a broom and a roll of toilet paper, and he gathered his book, 
water, and coat and asked Lovin, a popular, well-respected Army sergeant, to 
escort him to his duties and perform the guard mount. Zipper slid the roll of 
toilet paper down the handle of the broom, flipped the broom so the bristles 
were up and the roll of toilet paper rested on his hand, and marched out of 
our tent. Lovin marched in step behind, followed by a half-dozen giggling 
onlookers. 



146 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

The small parade passed the headquarters' guards and moved out the 
door and on toward the Force Provider. Bewildered soldiers quickly moved 
out of the way of the duo and then, after a moment, decided to join the 
crowd. Zipper marched directly in front of the young sergeant currently 
standing guard, who instinctively came to attention but was obviously con- 
fused about what was happening. At that same instant someone started to 
come out of the Force Provider, looked wide-eyed at the procession, and 
promptly closed the door and retreated back inside. 

"Sergeant Lovin, proceed with the mounting of the Guard." 

"Yes sir." 

Lovin stepped out from behind Zipper, who was now standing at atten- 
tion with his broom and mirroring the outgoing crapper guard with his M-16, 
and then proceeded to flank both guards. 

"Prepare for inspection!" Lovin commanded. The outgoing guard, still 
not sure what the hell was going on, looked helplessly at Lovin. 

"Come on, prepare for inspection." 

The guard came to attention again, unshouldered his M-16, and pre- 
sented it for inspection. Lovin stepped in front of the guard, carefully looked 
over the rifle, proceeded to inspect the soldier's uniform, and reminded the 
soldier that, in the future when pulling crapper guard duty, he expected to 
see crisper creases on the sleeves and more attention to effective ironing. The 
crowd was laughing hysterically. Lovin then executed an about-face, as well 
as can be expected on loose rocks, and faced Zipper. Immediately, the broom 
and toilet paper came off the shoulder and Zipper stared straight ahead, over 
Lovin's hat, and into the eyes of Sergeant Woodin, the second guard. 

"Colonel Bledsoe, your toilet paper's unraveling and the broom's in seri- 
ous need of grooming," Lovin said with authority. "Can you explain this?" 

"Sir, no excuse sir. It won't happen again sir." 

"See that it doesn't." Approval from the crowd. 

Lovin made a right-face, took two steps, performed an about-face, and 
yelled, "Attention to orders." Both guards brought their appointed weapons to 
shoulder and returned their left arm to their side. 

"At twelve hundred hours Zulu, Sergeant Woodin is hereby relieved of his 
post. Let all who hear these orders beware. Dismissed." 

And with that, Zipper and Woodin entered the Force Provider to inspect 
each toilet for cleanliness and serviceability. The soldier who had tried to get 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 147 

out during the changing of the guard made his escape. The crowd started to 
disperse and I joined them. Zipper was left to his guard duties. 

Word got back to us that when someone approached the Force Provider, 
Zipper would snap to attention, broom and toilet paper at the ready, and bark, 
"Halt. Who goes there? State your business. Number one or number two?" 

One young soldier turned around and went the other way, and Zipper 
had to chase him down to explain he was just kidding. The half hour came 
and went, and it was legendary. Pictures showed up on the Internet. People 
talked about it at the chow hall. Zipper had become a hero. 

By the time I was getting into bed, no more than five hours later, word 
had spread that Crapper Guard duty had officially been ended. 



LIFE ON THE USS RAINIER 

Journal 
Lieutenant Todd Vorenkamp 



Troops on the ground are not the only ones, of course, who write about hu- 
morous incidents while serving abroad. During his seven months flying as a 
Sea Knight cargo helicopter aircraft commander, thirty-year-old Lieu- 
tenant Todd Vorenkamp kept a weekly journal that detailed the less serious 
moments he and his crewmates experienced aboard the USS Rainier, a sup- 
ply, ammunition, and fuel ship. (The Rainier was part of the USS Con- 
stellation Battle Group stationed in the northern Arabian Gulf from 
November 2003 until June 2004.) Halfway through his deployment, 
Vorenkamp wrote the following entry. ("Air Det" is shorthand for the two- 
helicopter air detachment, Sideflare 64 and Sideflare 65, and "VERTREP" 
is short for vertical replenishment, which refers to the transfer of cargo using 
helicopters.) 



I here is a young sailor in the same berthing compartment as our Air Det 
sailors who allegedly walks around 24/7 with a 48-ounce coffee mug 
and he— allegedly— drinks two mugs a day while he works. Apparently he is 
never found without this coffee mug and it has become part of his identity. 



148 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

This immediately becomes a joke to the Air Det guys, and they decide it 
will be great fun to steal this all-important coffee mug. So, they take it. 

I hear the kid is beside himself— forced to drink out of coffee mugs that 
are only 25 percent of the capacity of his precious mug. 

The guys then come up with a plan to torture the poor sailor by pho- 
tographing his coffee mug all over the ship and printing the photos on a 
black-and-white laserjet printer. Within hours the mug has become our 
newest crew member. 

There are photos of the mug waiting outside the command master chiefs 
office, waiting for mail at the post office, sitting in the mouth of a dryer in the 
laundry room, on the shelf in the ship's armory with a shotgun and M-14 
pointed at it, hanging out at the hazardous materials locker, running on the 
treadmill in the gym, welding in the hull technician's shop, sending messages 
from the signal bridge, answering nature's call on the toilet, getting a 
checkup in the dental chair, being defibrillated in medical, getting a trim at 
the barber shop, calling loved ones at the sailor phone, hanging from the res- 
cue hoist of Sideflare 65, and finally resting on a shelf in the ship's store be- 
tween the Q-tips and Tampax. 

On Friday I got to fly a vertrep. We had to move about 300 pallets of am- 
munition from USNS Shasta — a Military Sealift Command ship. It was a 
pretty fun vertrep— very tight pattern when the ships were right next to each 
other— so it was pretty busy. 

We were moving racks of three 1000-pound bombs. They are banded to- 
gether—three abreast— in special racks. Well, we came over Shasta to pick 
up our 3000 lbs of bombs on one trip— and we attached the load and then 
lifted vertically for the trip over to Rainier, 180 feet away. Suddenly I hear 
from the Shasta tower, "Urn, 65 . . . um, well, never mind." 

I am perplexed for the half a second pause until my crewman in the back 
says, "HOLY SHIT, SIR! WE JUST DROPPED A BOMB ON SHASTA!" 

Whoops. 

Apparently the bombs were banded incorrectly and as we nosed over to go 
forward the middle bomb in the rack slid right out of its holder and fell about 
twenty feet to the deck of the Shasta. According to eyewitnesses it bounced 
four times before coming to rest on the flight deck of Shasta. 

I talked to the Rainier s gunner after the vertrep — he said there is no 
chance of the bomb exploding without the fuse unless it breaks apart when it 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 149 

hits the deck. Lucky for us, it stayed in one piece and we were able to finish 
the vertrep. 

The captain of the Rainier likes to tell folks that I dropped the first bomb 
of the war. 

On April 22, 2003, Vorenkamp had to endure the initiation "ceremony" 
commonly inflicted on all wogs (which is short for pollywogs or, literally, 
tadpoles, hut in a maritime tradition refers to any sailor who has not crossed 
the equator). Vorenkamp argued that, as a former merchant mariner, he 
had crossed the equator multiple times, just not on a U.S. warship, and he 
should therefore he spared the customary hazing rituals. His superiors 
begged to differ. 

Tuesday is Wog Day! The USS Rainier will be crossing the equator and 
King Neptune will be turning all of the slimy wogs into salty shellbacks. Some- 
where during the cruise it was determined that I was a slimy pollywog even 
though I had been across the equator SIX times previous to this ship and even 
have a shellback card in my wallet. I am told that it does not count because I 
never went through the ceremony and merchant ships are not real ships. 

I argue that merchant ships are real ships with real sailors and that I am a 
true shellback. After all, spending three months as slave labor on the M/V Sea 
Fox is much more difficult than a naval equator-crossing ceremony. 

My resistance does not pay off, and I find myself up at 5 a.m. on Wog Day 
to undergo the torture. 

I write the following on my T-shirt: I HAVE BEEN ACROSS THE EQUATOR OF 
THE PLANET EARTH 6 TIMES ON BOARD SHIPS. IF YOU HAVE CROSSED THE EQUA- 
TOR LESS THAN 6 TIMES PLEASE FIND SOMEONE WHO IS LESS SALTY THAN YOUR- 
SELF. 

On the back: from "naval traditions and ceremonies": "the cross- 
ing THE LINE CEREMONIES OF THE MODERN NAVY ARE MOST PICTURESQUE. IN 
MERCHANT SHIPS THE CEREMONY IS STILL REASONABLY SEVERE AND PHYSICAL 
DISCOMFORTS INFLICTED." ONCE AGAIN . . . THIS IS MY 7TH LINE CROSSING. 
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION AND COMPASSION. 

Wog Day wasn't too bad. It started in the wardroom where I was fed a 
saltine cracker while on my hands and knees. Yum. I love Vegemite on my 
saltines! I almost vomited. 



150 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

I thought I would prove how tough us merchant mariners are by being 
one of the only fools on the ship not to make kneepads for the ceremony. 
After crawling over about 200 feet of nonskid I was completely regretting that 
decision. 1300 feet later— with bloody knees — I would be a "shellback." 

The ceremony consisted of spending countless minutes with my head 
next to the bulwarks yelling for Flipper. Fun. Also, we were drenched in salt 
water the whole time. Fun. We crawled all over the place, sang "Row, Row, 
Row Your Boat" a hundred times, yelled for Flipper a bit more, got covered 
in sea-dye-stained water, swam in tubs of root beer, crawled over barrels and 
cargo nets, crawled through a plastic chute filled with lots of breakfast meals 
and some wog's vomit, was ordered to climb a steel pole covered with Crisco, 
and had to suck a cherry out of a portly Chiefs buttered belly button. Fun. 

Well, I did it, bloody knees and all, but I know that in my heart I became 
a shellback on 15 January 1994. I don't feel like I needed to do it— and my 
knees constantly remind me that I shouldn't have done it! 

Two journal entries later, Vorenkamp related how some efforts by the sailors 
to entertain themselves were not appreciated by the senior command. 

One thing that the morale folks on board do for fun before ports is Bingo 
Night. Saturday night was Bingo Night. I had not been a big bingo fan — I 
played for the first time the other week. After suffering through four hours of 
bingo before Perth I decided to volunteer to host the next Bingo Night. On 
Saturday I enlisted the help of Doc Quack and we were all set to do tag-team 
bingo! 

Doc and I went down to the SITE (Ship Information, Training, and En- 
tertainment) TV studio fifteen minutes before show time. We chose the 
bingo patterns and planned our costumes. We would do a round in uniform. 
Round 2 would be in baseball jerseys — me in a Boston jersey and Doc in An- 
gels kit. Round 3 would be Hawaiian shirts and round 4 would be in hockey 
jerseys. 

Round 5— the blackout round — was the shocker. As far as we know there 
has not been Naked Bingo since the Tailhook scandal of 1991. We thought it 
would be fun. (And, for the record, we weren't actually completely naked.) 
So, after round 4 the music videos start, we verify the winner from that round, 
and then the camera comes on with Doc and me shirtless on Rainier TV 
ready to do the blackout round! We were having a good laugh — and I hear 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 151 

that the people around the ship were laughing too. The whole night was rife 
with comedy— some good, some bad— all improv. 

Meanwhile, approximately five minutes into the Naked Blackout Round 
the captain of the Rainier was channel-surfing the five channels on SITE TV 
in his stateroom when he came across a (seemingly) naked doctor and heli- 
copter pilot drawing bingo balls. Apparently he was not amused and he called 
the executive officer, woke him up, and ordered him to call down to SITE TV 
to put an end to the shameless display. 

The phone rang in SITE TV and we cut to "commercial" and returned 
with the Hawaiian shirts back on. Oh well. 

Vorenkamp, who comes from a long line of servicemen (his father was in the 
U.S. Marine Corps during the war in Vietnam and his grandfather and 
great-grandfather served in the U.S. Navy), was later promoted to lieu- 
tenant commander and plans to stay in the military until retirement Years 
after his experience on the Rainier, Vorenkamp would write that his knees 
remain scarred from Wog Day and that the Shasta still has a sizable dent 
on it due to the thousand-pound bomb he dropped. Both were noted more 
with pride than embarrassment. 



IN THE HANGAR 

Lyrics 

Sergeant Sandi Austin 



In a tradition dating back to the American Revolution, troops often sit 
around their campsites and sing of home, lost loves, and the hardships of 
soldiering. Although fiddles and fifes have been replaced by more sophisti- 
cated instruments and the words are undoubtedly edgier than those of the 
1780s ( u Lovely Nancy" and "The Willow Tree" being just two particular fa- 
vorites of the times), music remains an integral part of military life in Iraq 
and Afghanistan. Rap, hip-hop, rock, heavy metal, punk, blues, jazz, and 
country are among the most popular, and many troops compose their own 
lyrics and melodies as well. In late December 2003, a twenty-six-year-old 
U.S. Army Reserve sergeant named Sandra "Sandi" Austin wrote and per- 



152 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

formed the following song for her fellow soldiers in the 3-2 Stryker Brigade. 
At the time, they were living on an old air base just outside ofSamarra, Iraq. 

Crazy thoughts running through my head 
Making me think that silence is dead 
In a world where your voice is seldom heard 
Open your mouth but can't utter a word 

Here we are searching for justification 
In a nation searching for its salvation 
Who's gonna take away my frustration? 

Where is the music? Where is the praise? 
Stuck in this sandbox for too many days 

Back to the silence, where has it gone? 
Surrounded by people who won't get along 
Minds are all clashing, metal as well 
We've all got our own views but none of us can tell 

Here we are searching for justification 
In a nation searching for its salvation 
Who's gonna take away my frustration 

Where is the music? Where is the praise? 
Stuck in this sandbox for too many days 

Dreams are our destiny in this waking life 
No need for loneliness, worry, or strife 

Where is the music? Where is the praise? 
Stuck in this sandbox for too many days. 

Austin wrote the song after having spent only six weeks in Iraq. She had al- 
most ten more months to go. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 153 



COMBAT MUSICIAN, LOST IN TRANSLATION, 

and THE CIRCLE 

Personal Narratives 

Sergeant Sharon D. Allen 



Bored with college and tired of working construction to pay the bills, 
Sharon D. Allen enlisted, at the age of twenty-two, in the U.S. Army. Along 
with wanting a challenge in life, she felt a sense of obligation. "It was my 
turn," she would later say of the decision; Aliens younger brother Luke was 
also in the military, and during World War II their grandfather had fought 
in Europe, where he had been wounded in battle and captured by the Ger- 
mans. Allen joined the Ohio Army National Guard and became a fueler, 
or, more officially, a petroleum supply specialist, driving nineteen-ton 
trucks filled with diesel. Before she was mobilized to the Middle East, she 
concluded that being in a large vehicle with the word FLAMMABLE written 
on the side "in eighty-million point font size" might not be such a great 
idea. Allen, who was shipped to Iraq in March 2004 with the 216th Engi- 
neer Battalion (Combat Heavy) as a sergeant, eventually received training 
to operate bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks, and other heavy equipment. As 
grueling as the labor was, Allen found humor and creative inspiration in 
the characters, both Iraqi and American, she met and worked with during 
her eleven-month tour of duty. While deployed, she wrote numerous short, 
nonfiction accounts based on these individuals, and in the following story, 
Allen profiles a soldier who was trying to teach himself how to be a musi- 
cian. The instrument of choice was simply not one that she had expected, 
though it does prove that some things never go out of style. 



ost of my platoon is comprised of guys who work as prison guards in 
L the civilian world. One of my best friends out here is Shannon Bear, 
a 240-pound, six-foot three-inch prison guard. When he got back from leave, 
he brought with him a new toy. 
A fiddle. 

In the middle of Iraq, Bear's learning how to play the fiddle. He's really, 
really happy because he's almost got two songs down. "Mary Had a Little 



154 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." You have to picture this grown 
man all excited because, as he said, he's "almost ready to turn the page!" 

To "Little Brown Jug." 

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, so now I'm trying to pick it up. Got "Mary 
Had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and a start at "Camp- 
town Races." I am notorious for my lack of patience, however, so I convinced 
Bear to jump ahead to "Amazing Grace," which was in chapter twenty-six. 
Keep in mind, we were on chapter four. 

He got the first two notes right off the bat, and we were really impressed 
with ourselves until we realized that we could not read sheet music. 

"What's that little slashy-thingy?" I asked. "If we could figure out what that 
is, I can get it." Oh, yes, with the fiddle, as with most things, a little bit of 
knowledge is a dangerous thing. 

Later we found a book with "Amazing Grace" without the little slashy- 
thingies. We are now unstoppable. 

Music was more than just a diversion for Allen and her fellow soldiers, how- 
ever. At times it was also a cultural icebreaker. 

We work with a lot of Turks and Iraqis, especially Kurds. I wish that every 
deployed soldier had a chance to meet them because they are very different 
from the Arabs in the south. The Kurds love us. 

I started to learn Kurdish to keep score in volleyball. Eventually I learned 
about two hundred words and phrases, but it wasn't so easy because they have 
sounds Americans can't pronounce. They can't say "left" or "six," for some 
reason, so I guess we're even. 

One of our guys brought his guitar around to the guard shacks and played 
some American music for them. Note to Enrique Iglesias: Iraqis know you. 
For what it's worth, you rank right up there with Michael Jackson, Madonna, 
and Shakira. 

Sometimes they'd try to join in. You haven't lived until you've seen a 
bunch of Iraqi soldiers, complete with AK-47S, sitting around and singing 
with gusto as they mangle the Beatles' "Let It Be." 

"In times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wis- 
dom . . . Little Pea." 

They really got into it. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 155 

"Little Pea, Little PEA! Little Pea, yeah, Little Pea . . . Whisper words of 
wisdom, Little Pea." 
That was a good day. 

More so than any generation of troops before them, servicemen and women 
overseas today have the ability to see and hear what the media are reporting 
back home and how the conflicts in which they are fighting are being por- 
trayed. Allen and her platoon were well aware of the political debates being 
waged about whether American forces should or should not have been sent 
to Iraq, and they regularly discussed the subject themselves. In a longer, 
more serious piece written in June 2004, Allen describes how these conver- 
sations, which took place at their forward operating base near Kirkush, 
Iraq, became almost a nightly ritual. 

The camp is under red-lens light discipline, which means we can't use an 
unfiltered flashlight. It severely lessens our evening entertainment options. 
So, soon after we arrived, we began our strange nightly gatherings. You won't 
find it on any schedule, but you can set your watch by it. As the sun nudges 
the horizon and the gravel cools, some of us give up our battle with the am- 
bient light and surrender our reading until the morning. Others collect up 
their poker winnings or grumble about their losses. And we all drag our chairs 
and cigarettes and joylessly warm water out to the gravel and talk. We call it 
"the circle." 

In the Army there is an incredibly varied cross section of society, and we 
are a diverse group. We have a couple kids straight out of high school, who'd 
either joined to get a little excitement out of life or to get a leg up on it so that 
they could go to college. We have older guys, who've already put in their 
time. They tend to be either jaded or genial, both in reaction to the accumu- 
lated bullshit slung at most soldiers who've been in the service for years. We 
have everyone from idealists to realists to fatalists, more than a few who began 
at one end of the spectrum and eventually meandered their way to the other. 

I always find it amusing when people talk about "the military" vote, per- 
spective, or whatever. My company has 170-some soldiers, and 170-some 
opinions. We might have more invested in foreign policy than people back 
home, but that doesn't mean we all agree on exactly what those policies 
should be. Two of the guys, Jeff and Sam, are brothers serving together here 



156 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

but in different platoons. They are both slightly to the left of extremely con- 
servative, yet also very anti-Iraq war. Their father threatened to cut off his 
own head and send it in to Aljazeera if his sons aren't returned home soon. 

Jake is one of my best friends out here, and one of the most infuriating 
people I've ever known. Jake's a former Marine who comes from a Marine 
family and whose biggest regret is that this isn't "a real war," something on the 
scale of World War II or Vietnam. I usually point out to him that we didn't 
lose many people in the first few years of Vietnam, either. And then I say 
something about how I'm really fucking sorry that not enough of us have died 
for him to consider this a real war. If I had met Jake in a bar in the States and 
he had said half the bullshit he says here, well, we definitely would not have 
become friends. But he's here, too, so I guess he's entitled to his opinion. His 
son, Joey, will be joining us when he gets out of Basic. I wonder if his opinion 
will change then. 

In the circle, we talk for hours not only about the reasons for this war, but 
for the previous one, too, and if we were ever justified in coming to this part 
of the world in the first place. At least in Desert Storm, some members of the 
circle argue, Iraq was the aggressor. Also, the whole world seemed to support 
us. Several of the soldiers in my platoon are former Marines and more than a 
few had been in the Gulf War. Desert Storm, they say, was to keep Iraq from 
taking over Kuwait. Naked aggression that had to be stopped. Simple as that. 

Others shoot back that even so, we have no right to get involved in a situ- 
ation that was a fiscal, not physical, threat, to us. Now we're trying to change 
an entire culture? And aren't we being naive or arrogant to think that we will 
make any long-term difference here, anyway? Tempers can get heated, and 
on some days, it probably isn't a good idea that we are all armed. Unfortu- 
nately, two of the guys, Jeff and Jake, are too big for me to punch. 

One night we started arguing the hierarchy of evil world leaders, and 
where Saddam stood on that list. There are obviously worse men, so why 
Iraq? Why now? For every Saddam, there are ten more vicious dictators, and 
we can't get rid of them all. Of course, then we had to delve into Saddam's 
motivations, and if he's really such a bad guy. For the record, I was on the 
"yes, he's an inexcusable piece of shit" side of this argument. 

Jake, of course, wonders if the country is really less dangerous now than 
under Hussein. He doesn't think there would be suicide bombers and IEDs 
littering the roads without our impetus. Haven't we made everything worse? 
the question is inevitably asked. 






STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 157 

You mean worse than when hundreds of thousands of people were exe- 
cuted, gassed, and tortured? the inevitable answer comes. 

At least there wasn't so much random violence and bloodshed. 

No, under Hussein it was all well-organized violence and bloodshed. Peo- 
ple were scared to death to say the wrong thing. 

Well, now they're scared to death to walk outside without getting blown up. 

If we leave, this place will erupt into a civil war. 

It probably will anyway. And it'll be our fault for lighting the fuse. . . . 

And around and around we go. 

I personally believe that living conditions are better now in Iraq than be- 
fore we were here. I just don't know if they are safer. It seems to change from 
day to day. And even I wonder if one country can impose political stability 
and democracy on another. 

Some point out that we did it in Japan and Germany. And technically, 
of course, the Iraqis can "vote out" a democracy if they prefer another sys- 
tem of rule. While I understand that most Americans believe democracy to 
be the best system of rule, we may also have to accept that it might not work 
for every culture. I sincerely want it to work, but Jeff and Jake hold out lit- 
tle hope. 

Along with the whole question of mixing faith and politics, we're also 
dealing with a schismatic religion and people who loathe one another. A 
Sunni won't even use a toilet after a Shiite has. Now we want them to work 
together to create a new system of law? Then you throw in the Kurds, who are 
mainly Christian, of an entirely different culture, and whose claim to fame is 
that their mere existence is the one thing that brings the Sunnis and Shiites 
together. The Muslims and Kurds hate each other with a bloodthirsty passion 
most of us cannot even conceive. One member of the circle asked, "Jesus 
Christ himself couldn't get these people to get along. Do you really think 
Bush can?" 

And where the hell are the weapons of mass destruction? (Here we go.) 

Please, it's not like he didn't have them or use them before. 

But did anyone think he was really going to use them on us? 

He could have sold them to people who wanted to. 

Some of the soldiers in my company, I'm told, still bear the scars of mus- 
tard gas from Desert Storm, and I've met Kurds whose family members were 
gassed to death. I don't know if Saddam shipped his stuff out to Syria or if he 
buried it, which, after being there and seeing the incredible expanse of noth- 



158 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ingness that is Iraq, is in no way inconceivable. I don't know if Bush really 
thought we'd find any. He may have exaggerated the threat, but chemical 
warfare is nasty shit. Several of us have no problem if he was just staying on 
the safe side with this one. 

Jeff and others don't think we're here to build a democracy or "make the 
world safer from terrorism." This led to a heated discussion about Bush's mo- 
tivations. Halliburton, retribution (for Hussein's attempted assassination of 
Bush's dad), oil — they all came up. I refuse to believe that we're only here for 
oil. A logical, removed argument could outline the reality that Americans do 
consume oil and need a friendly government in charge of reserves. But 
Canada and Mexico have oil, and it'd be a hell of a lot easier to invade them. 

If we're here for humanitarian reasons, Jeff asked, then why didn't we go 
into Rwanda? 

Yeah, but there's no oil in Bosnia or Kosovo either, someone countered. 
And we went in there. 

I cannot believe that Bush or Cheney are risking hundreds of thousands 
of American lives so they or their friends can make a little money. Rumor has 
it they're both pretty well off anyway. Jeff rarely allows any benefit of the 
doubt when it comes to Bush. I don't think Jeff could say a good word about 
Bush with a gun to his head — and some of us have, trust me, entertained the 
thought. 

It gets pretty exhausting after a while. Things would be a lot less compli- 
cated if our government was totally innocent and Saddam's was totally guilty. 
Or if we hadn't been so buddy-buddy with him all those years before Desert 
Storm. 

And speaking of old friends, someone asked if they thought we'd ever find 
Osama bin Laden. That was the whole point, right— 9/11? There's hardly ever 
any mention in the news or by politicians about Afghanistan, and it's like the 
troops over there have been forgotten. 

This last point we could all agree on. Maybe those of us in Iraq would be 
forgotten too, or worse. The public supported Vietnam for the first few years, 
too, then it changed. We don't know how we're going to be treated when we 
get home, but I think most people realize that you can be for the troops even 
if you're against the war. 

Everyone says they are supporting us, but sometimes it seems that civil- 
ians have no idea about who soldiers really are. This, too, we all agreed on, 
that people back home have no concept of what troops go through. We're not 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 159 

robotic killing machines. We're regular Americans, just doing our jobs. This 
war has really tapped the National Guard, so the average soldier out here 
could be your mechanic or your plumber. Maybe your dentist. Or the girl at 
the cash register. I think we're all pretty proud of what we do, and, at heart, 
we're all patriotic. But we're not brainwashed, and we have differing opin- 
ions. And we realize that there wasn't only one reason for starting this war. 

At least certainly not one obvious reason. 

Because I honestly believe if there had been, in one of our endless dis- 
cussions in the circle, we would have found it. 



THE CAT 

Poem 

Ryan Alexander 



Although it is against military regulations (primarily for health reasons), 
servicemen and women often adopt stray cats and dogs as unofficial mas- 
cots for their units or as personal pets. Surrounded by the harshness and 
frenzy of combat, many troops find it calming to care for something small 
and vulnerable, while others believe that the animals bring good luck. 
And for some, especially those grappling with homesickness, they are sim- 
ply a reminder of a favorite pet back in the States. Before heading to Iraq 
in April 2004 with the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade Combat Team 
(SBCT), twenty-eight-year-old Ryan Alexander gave his wife a cat to keep 
her company during his four-month deployment. (Alexander had served 
in the U.S. Marine Corps but was honorably discharged in 2001. When 
Operation Iraqi Freedom began, he volunteered to work with the SBCT as 
a civilian. The specifics of his job cannot be disclosed.) Alexander wrote 
the following poem about a cat he encountered soon after he arrived 
in Mosul. 

She came to me skittish, wild. 
The way you're meant to be, 
surrounded by cruelty. 
I did not blame her. 
I would do the same. 



160 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

A pregnant cat, a happy distraction; 
some sort of normal thing. 
Calico and innocent. 

The kittens in her belly said feed me. 

And I did. 

She crept with careful eye, 
Body held low to the dirt, 
Snagged a bite, 
And carried it just far enough away. 

She liked the MREs, 

the beef stew, the chicken breast, the barbeque pork, 

but she did not like canned sardines. 

I do not blame her. 

I would do the same. 

She came around again and again 
finally deciding that I was no threat, 
that this big man wasn't so bad. 

I was afraid to touch her as the docs warned us. 
Iraqi animals were carriers of flesh-eating disease. 
I donned a plastic glove and was the first to pet 
this wild creature who may be 

the one true heart and mind that America 
had won over. 

After a while I forgot the glove and enjoyed 
the tactile softness of short fur, 
flesh-eating bacteria be damned. 

Her belly swelled for weeks 

and she disappeared for some days 

until her kittens were safely birthed 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 161 

in the shallow of a rusted desk 

in the ruins that lined the road behind us. 

She came around again slim 

with afterbirth still matted to her hind legs. 

She would return, but not quite as often. 
She came to eat and for attention, 
but there was nursing to be done. 

One day she crept up with a kitten in her mouth. 

She dropped it at my foot and stared up at me; 

she expected something, but there was nothing I could do. 

The young black and white kitten was dead, 

its eyes not yet opened. 

It looked like some shriveled old wise thing, 
completely still, mouth puckered, 
small body curled and limp. 

She let me take the baby without a fight. 
She knew, but seemed unaffected. 

She had fetched me a gift, 

a lesson, 

among the worried nights, 

shot nerves from poorly aimed mortar rounds: 

Everything dies. 

The evil, the innocent, 

her baby and 

me. 

I thought I should say a prayer and bury 

this poor little thing, 

but I did for it what will be done for me. 

I laid it in the burn can amongst the ash 
and said I'm sorry. 



162 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



SPIN and FLIGHT 

Personal Narratives 
Major Richard Sater 




Stripped of most, if not all, of the conveniences and luxuries of home, troops 
in Iraq and Afghanistan often discover that even the most ordinary mo- 
ments can assume special meaning in the life-and-death context of war. For 
forty-three-year-old Richard Sater, a major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve 
who began his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in September 2003, 
this realization came just a few days before Thanksgiving. Sater wrote the 
following after a visit to the makeshift laundry room in the Air Force village 
at Bagram Air Base. 



ne recent midnight finds me doing laundry, a necessity every eight or 
nine days, inside our plywood hut lined with dingy washers and ex- 
hausted dryers. The plumbing provides only hard, cold water, so sorting 
whites and colors and permanent press is pointless. 

Usually I spend as little time as possible in the laundry room, stuffing 
things into two washers and then bolting for forty-five minutes. This night, as 
I measure soap powder and wait for the tubs to fill, a gentleman comes in — 
tall, lanky, generously mustached, with sad eyes the color of hazelnuts— with 
three bags of laundry. Small ones, with little in them. 

He asks where he can get detergent around here. I hand him my box and 
watch, curious, as he dumps the laundry into three separate washers — odd, I 
think, as the few items of clothing would easily fit into one medium-sized 
load. 

He wears a desert-tan flight suit, the two-piece kind, with no markings on 
it, identifying him by not identifying him as Special Forces aircrew. I intro- 
duce myself. He gives me a single name: Dash. I don't ask for more, not want- 
ing to put him in a position of not wanting to say more. 

His words faintly colored with British, he says he is an MH-53 gunner. 
Then I know why he's here. We lost a helicopter a couple of days ago, an Air 
Force MH-53 P ave L° w - It crashed in the night soon after taking off from 
here. Five killed, Army passengers as well as Air Force crew. I extend my sym- 
pathies to him for the crash, and he shakes his head, disgusted. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 163 

"It was a resupply mission," he says. "Not even a combat sortie." Had the 
crash occurred during a combat mission — even if the helicopter had been 
forced down by enemy fire — he would not be as troubled. One can make 
peace with such things under war. But such cost for an ordinary resupply mis- 
sion insults all who fly and fight. 

Three colleagues lost. Friends, perhaps, at least brothers-in-arms. And 
somehow or other, the task has fallen to Dash of doing the laundry of these 
three, prior to sending their personal effects to their families. "Don't want to 
send them home dirty," he says. 

I listen, since he seems to want someone to. He tells me a little about the 
deceased crew members. One was divorced, he says; one was a recent father 
and another had teenaged children. Through wash and rinse and spin and 
tumble dry, I stay with him, each of us sitting on the edge of a dryer, our feet 
hanging down. The air smells of fabric-softener sheets; the rhythmic click of 
buttons and the soft thud of damp clothes turning underneath us punctuate 
his story. 

After he spends his quiet rage and grows silent, I ask about himself. I learn 
that his mother is English, that his dad served in the U.S. Navy. Dash tells me 
he has remained single himself because it is easier. He has twenty-eight years 
in the Air Force and has grown tired, he says. He's assigned to a base in the 
southeastern United States, and when his enlistment is up this time, he will 
get out. 

And after retirement? He tells me he has bought himself a metal detector, 
the kind you see old guys using at the beach sometimes, looking for coins in 
the sand. And Dash plans to spend his own time on the beach to see what he 
can find. 

Carefully, he folds his three bags of clothing, mundane socks and under- 
shirts, some gym shorts, uncommon only because they're forced to bear the 
weight of wasted potential, of the price extracted for freedom to endure. 
Courteously, gravely, we shake hands. I would like to meet him again, I tell 
him before he departs, and he says the same. 

And he goes. 

Alone again, I fold. The water here contains enough cautionary bleach to 
kill the worst bacteria in it, but brown T-shirts turn pale purple and the desert- 
camouflage uniforms take on a salmon-pink tint over time. I count socks to 
make sure I have an even number. 

In the cold dark of the early morning, I stumble through the empty com- 



164 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

pound, back to my tent, arms full of these clothes, baked hot and scented 
with boxed springtime. 

Dash will find his treasure, buried. I am certain. He has earned his reward. 
And for my part, I will choose the important things and summon thanks. 

Five months later, Sater wrote about another simple activity that had taken 
on greater significance in post-Taliban Afghanistan. 

On the back road this sunny afternoon, I am flying a kite. 

I arrived a couple of days ago at my old home, Bagram, gone for good 
from Kabul, in the status referred to as "awaiting transportation"— a seat on a 
flight heading in the direction I want to go, which is homeward. In the mean- 
time, I have a sunny, dusty afternoon free and a kite. 

The kite is a gift from the International Security Assistance Force, which 
operates in Kabul, separate from Operation Enduring Freedom. ISAF is our 
opposite, a peacekeeping force, troops from approximately thirty nations serv- 
ing as police. Their kites are trisected into black and green and red, the 
shades of Afghanistan's flag. In the center of the kite, outlined in white, is a 
dove and (very small) the ISAF logo and a sentiment— I don't know what— 
written in Dari. Two bright yellow streamers make the kite's tail. 

I'm accustomed to kites that are shaped like, well, kites, a paper diamond 
with crossed sticks and a long knotted-rag tail. But this kite is made of some 
kind of sturdy fabriclike plastic, and it's more or less square. It has no sticks, 
but it has pockets built into each side of it that catch air. I'm skeptical but de- 
termined to try it anyway. 

I run a couple of miles down the perimeter road, past the power lines 
(which, I recall, tempt kites), and out to a deserted stretch. I unfold the kite 
and tie the string to it and, without ceremony, offer it to the wind, and up it 
goes. It is a good day for up. 

Air Force pilots make much of slipping the surly bonds of earth. I am not 
a pilot, but attach your soul and imagination to a kite in the wind and blue 
sunny sky, and I believe you can accomplish the same result. A kite rising 
takes your spirit with it. 

The wind — and it's a good, strong wind with mischief on its mind — likes 
this kite. I'm pleased and surprised at how easily it rises, tugging persistently 
and persuasively on the string as I unroll more and more. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 165 

Kite flying is hardly an everyday occurrence at Bagram. I wonder if I am 
violating airspace by sending this one skyward. Three helicopters take off, 
and I suppose it is possible that a high-enough kite could pose some sort of 
hazard, but our birds steer clear of me — or I of them. 

Runners trot past. Most offer a grin or a thumbs-up. 

The kite bobs and dips occasionally, but mostly it just aims higher. Some- 
times it loops downward, catches itself and struggles back up, regaining lift. 

I should say that the whole length of the road back here is fenced on both 
sides, barbed wire with ubiquitous red "minefield" triangles. Some of the 
land, of course, actually is mined. Some of it simply hasn't been cleared, so 
it's unknown whether there are explosive devices buried in it or not. 

The Soviets mined the place years ago, and they thoughtfully put up 
posts, rows of them, in the ground to identify the path. Such a fence surely 
kept away anyone who might have attempted to infiltrate along its line. It's 
certainly kept us away. 

After the kite goes down, I carefully begin rewinding the string. It's tan- 
gled in the concertina wire, and the kite itself appears to be tangled in a bush. 
With some coaxing and gentle tugging, I get the kite airborne again and it 
flies itself out of the minefield. I'm relieved. 

My kite soars over the rusted hull of a MiG fighter, over piles of twisted, 
corrugated iron, skeletons of trucks, scattered scrap and ghosts. Even years 
later, quietly rusting under the harmless sun and blue sky, these tons of scrap 
metal suggest the cost of war. 

On the other side of the road are the remains of mud-brick structures that 
were surely houses in the not-distant past, though their current condition 
makes them look like the ruins of an ancient civilization. 

There is, not far from our road, a whole settlement that appears aban- 
doned, broken and empty windows and no color. I've run by it numerous 
times and seen no signs of life until this evening. I can hear the call for prayer 
from within the settlement. 

As I continue my kite flying, I also hear the voices of children playing. 
Their squealing and shrieking— only children can hit such pitches — carry 
across the coming dusk. 

The Taliban outlawed kites. Too frivolous. Imagine. In town today, riding 
through Kabul, you can see children flying kites now because they can. We 
forget sometimes that genuine progress is measured in small increments. 



166 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Once the sun begins setting behind the mountains, I decide it's time to 
quit. The wind is reluctant to let go of my kite, but slowly, I rein it in and 
begin my jog back to the main camp. I round the corner at the closest point 
to the settlement and spot two young boys waiting there, probably not more 
than five or six years old. They point excitedly and chatter. I don't have to 
guess why they're so interested. 

Three strands of concertina wire separate us. I fold the kite securely and 
toss it neatly over the barricade. The boys pounce, tussle; one of them tri- 
umphs and holds the prize aloft. They run off together and don't look back at 
me. I suspect they had the thing in the air within a couple of minutes, in the 
tail of daylight. 

I hope the boys have as much luck as I did making it fly. Maybe they will 
know someone who can read the Dari passage on the kite and derive some 
encouragement from it. But if the dove depicted on the kite stands for noth- 
ing more than two Afghan boys having some fun for a day or two, perhaps no 
other significance is necessary. 

A year and a half after returning from Afghanistan, Sater, who had also 
served in Operation Enduring Freedom-Phillippines in 2002, was mobi- 
lized for duty in Iraq. It would be his third overseas deployment in four 
years. 



REFLECTIONS 

Poem 

Captain Michael Lang 



Finding respite from the rigors and demands of warfare can be a challenge 
for troops in a combat zone. Some achieve it through everyday activities— 
playing cards, listening to music, watching DVDs, writing letters home, 
lifting weights— but many discover that their most cherished times are 
when they are alone. These private moments offer servicemen and women 
much-needed solace as well as an opportunity simply to think or process 
their emotions. U.S. Army Captain Michael Lang, an infantry officer with 
the yd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, wrote the following poem in July 
2004 about an experience outside of Balad, Iraq. Lang had taken a short 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 167 

break to go off by himself and look out over a land that was both hostile and 
unexpectedly beautiful. 

In the desert, there is sand 
and space, filled up by wind 
and heat. It's black at night, 
lightless, aside from the stars. 
When the storms came one night, 
I smoked out in the sand 
and glowed within the world 
the lightning revealed. 



SOLIDARITY and OUR WAR 

Poems 
First Lieutenant Stephanie Metzger Harper 



Like Michael Lang, previous, twenty-six-year-old U.S. Air Force First Lieu- 
tenant Stephanie Metzger Harper wrote short, almost snapshotlike poems 
inspired by nature and the surrounding landscape. Harper, who served in 
Operation Enduring Freedom and flew over Afghanistan with the 12th Ex- 
peditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron, penned the follow- 
ing lines of verse during her deployment, which began in November 2001. 

How strong the paper thin 

poppy stands against 

the sun and trampling wind 

Harper, who was promoted to captain on New Year's Day 2002 and earned 
three Air Medals for flying thirty combat missions, was based primarily in 
the Middle East. She wrote most of her poetry in her tent, but occasionally 
she would jot down images in her flight notebook while working as an air 
battle manager aboard the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar 
System aircraft. In the following poem, Harper focuses on both the beauty 
of the physical environment around her and the people with whom she was 
serving. (A "saif" which Harper alludes to, is a curved Arabic sword.) 



168 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Another desert night 

mercifully blacks out the miles and miles of flat, 

tan 

sand 
stretching beyond the razor wire around our camp. 

Off duty, 

we've retreated to our tents. 

— quiet and contemplative — 

The first crew is up tonight . . . 

Somewhere over the battlefield they are finding out, 

for all of us, 

what this war is going to be like. 

A string of Christmas lights 

glows above the center aisle of our tent 

casting thick, black shadows into the corners of our new home. 

We've dubbed it the "Chinese laundry" . . . 

Flight suits, camouflage, and damp towels 

suspended everywhere 

from parachute cords. 

Our cots are in line along each side of the tent, 
most of us sleep with our feet towards the aisle. 

we drift off . . . 
each of us just a few feet away from the next— 
In musty beds that 

levitate us above the canvas floor 
where sand is collecting in all the low spots. 

The saif moon cuts an arc across the cool night sky. 

And I, 

waking just enough to check, 

turn my head to see that my friend has made it back safely. 

Wrapped in an olive drab sleeping bag— 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 169 



the reassuring shape of her 
rises up above the horizon of her cot, 

In line with my own, 
and the next, 

and the next. 

I breathe a little easier 

and sink back into sleep — 
Until it is my turn 
to disappear quickly 
into the dark, 

crescent-hung 
sky. 



PVT. MURPHY 

Cartoons 

Master Sergeant Mark Baker 



Along with recording their experiences— and simply passing the time— by 
writing poems, stories, and journals, some service members put pen to paper 
and express themselves through sketches, portraits, and other visual arts. In 
1992, twenty-five-year-old Mark Baker began drawing a series of cartoons 
based on a character he named Pvt. Murphy. Baker joined the U.S. Army 
when he was eighteen and has served as a cavalry scout and intelligence an- 
alyst, and he is now an active-duty master sergeant assigned to Fort 
Huachuca, Arizona. The first Pvt. Murphy cartoon was published in 1993, 
and in November 2000 the series began running on a regular basis in the 
Army Times, where it is read by a quarter of a million people each week. 
Like the scruffy GIs Willie and Joe, created by the famed World War II artist 
Bill Mauldin (with whom Baker has often been compared), the cartoons 
eponymous character offers the common grunt's perspective on military life. 
Although often running afoul of his commanding officers and frequently 
griping about Army rules and regulations, Murphy demonstrates a strong 
sense of pride in his fellow soldiers— especially those who have come before 
him. (In the first cartoon below, "B.C." stands for battalion commander.) 



170 



OPERATION HOMECOMING 



I DON'T KNOW, MURPHY 
IT'S ONE THING TO KEEP 
A JOURNAL, BUT TO POST 
IT ON-LINE? 



WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? I'M NOT 
VIOLATING OPSEC. I HAVEN'T 
WRITTEN ANYTHING CLASSIFIED. 
THIS IS SIMPLY COMMENTARY 
ON MY EXPERIENCES OVER HERE. 




LAST TIME I CHECKED, FREE SPEECH 
WAS STILL A CONSTITUTIONAL 
RIGHT BESIDES, NO ONE KNOWS 
I'M A WRITER. 




THl B.C. WAHT3 TO £££ VOV 
IN HXS OFFXCi, HOW 









Yo! AG HA, 

WE NEED TO 

TALK ABOUT 

THAT PHRASE 

YOU TAUGHT 

ME FOR "GOOD 

AFTERNOON." 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 



171 



$*&«# — 

(ALPHA COMPANY ISG^) 




SORRY, NO ONE BY THAT 
NAME IS IN MY COMPANY. 



WELL. YOU MUST 

8€ MISTAKEN. I 

WAS TOLD I 

COULD &EACH 

HIM AT THIS 

NUMBER! 



LISTEN. I'M THIS COMPANY'S 156 
AND I'M TELLING YOU: 

I HAVE NO PRIVATE PARTS! 





172 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



THE LAND OF ABRAHAM 

Personal Narrative 

Captain Donna Kohout 

Many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan find comfort and strength in religious 
faith, and those who serve in the Middle East are especially awed by the 
biblical history that surrounds them. In the late winter of 2002 and through 
the early spring of 2003, Captain Donna Kohout was a fighter pilot with 
the 7,6yd F-16C] Squadron, 36yd Operations Group, 36yd Wing, sta- 
tioned in Saudi Arabia. In April 2003, Kohout shared the following obser- 
vations with loved ones and members of the Dillon Community Church in 
Colorado, where Kohout was living before she joined the U.S. Air Force. 



'm still praising God for the opportunity to spend five months in the Mid- 
1 die East both to serve in the largest conflict of our day and to witness the 
wonders He was working at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, where I 
lived. I don't know how to describe the feeling that there was a spiritual ele- 
ment to what we were doing. When I first arrived I did a double take when I 
looked at the maps in the back of my Bible and recognized the locations of 
the cities we were flying over. Tallil had been Ur of the Chaldeans, the birth- 
place of Abraham, who was the father of the Israelites. When God punished 
the Israelites with exile from the land He had given them, they were taken to 
Babylon, near present-day Al Hillah. This is also where Daniel survived his 
famed bout in the lions' den. During their years of exile in the Babylonian 
Empire, the Israelites camped out near Nippur, or the current Al Kut. 

I wish I could describe the feeling of flying across what we called the TE 
Line in the months prior to "Night 1" of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The 
TE (Tigris-Euphrates) Line, which marks the edge of the settled area, is just 
south of the Euphrates River. South of the line is barren desert. At night, no 
lights are visible there, but to the north bright collections define the towns 
CNN made famous— Tallil, As Samawah, Basrah, Al Kut, Al Amarah, Kar- 
bala, and of course Baghdad. One clear day I looked down at the rich greens 
of the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates and pondered over the fact 
that these were the rivers that I'd learned about in church and school my 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 173 

whole life. Genesis describes the Garden of Eden standing at the headwaters 
of four rivers, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates. That places the Gar- 
den just north of Basrah, within sight of where I flew almost daily. 

Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, the whole displaced Israelite nation, 
and perhaps even Adam and Eve all trod the ground I was looking down on 
day after day. And I was living in the same desert where the Israelites wan- 
dered. We complain about being there for three months — it's so flat, windy, 
hot, sandy, and dry, it's no wonder the Israelites complained during the 
FORTY YEARS that they followed God around the Sinai Peninsula between 
their exile from Egypt and their entrance into the "Promised Land" near 
Jerusalem. 

In OIF", I flew only nights, except for the occasional late-evening or sun- 
rise flight. At night a person can see every bullet and missile launched, near 
and far away, with the aid of night vision goggles. Thankfully, most of what 
the Iraqis shot was unguided and too small to reach the altitudes at which we 
fly. However, it is still nothing shy of a miracle that given the sheer number 
of airplanes in the sky, they didn't shoot down a single fighter, bomber, or 
tanker with all the projectiles they launched over those three weeks. 

I may have officially been a part of OIF, and flown over Baghdad numer- 
ous times, but whenever we met for Officers' Christian Fellowship, Praise 
Band, or church, we agreed that we didn't really feel like we were a part of the 
war. We came back to base and slept in warm beds in air-conditioned rooms. 
Granted, three or four per room, and people even lived in the storage room 
down the hall, but that was hardly a sacrifice compared to what the Army 
troops and Marines had to endure. So, like many of you, we supported those 
guys the best way we could — in prayer. It really meant a lot to me to see the 
picture of a group of them, arms around each other, gathered in prayer. God 
really is everywhere. How amazing to meet in a chapel on a multinational 
base in Saudi Arabia to celebrate Easter, play Australian songs in a praise 
band led by a Scot, hear the sermon from an American while sitting next to a 
Brit, and write about it all to friends in Colorado. I'm overwhelmed just 
thinking about it. 

Praise God for the safety He has provided to so many of us over the last 
several months. And please continue to pray for the Iraqi people and the sol- 
diers over there now. There is a long and unconventional road ahead of them 
still. 



174 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



Captain Kohout went on to become the first woman to fly the F-ujA 
Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, one of the most technologically advanced war- 
planes of its time. Captain Kohout remains in the U.S. Air Force, and in 
the spring of 2006 she married a fellow fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel 
Richard J. Douglass. 



THE MENORAH and DECEMBER 15 

E-mail 
Simone A. Ledeen 



"For those of you who don't know— tonight was the first night of Hanukah," 
twenty-eight-year-old Simone A. Ledeen wrote from Iraq in December 2003. 
Ledeen was not a soldier but a civilian advisor with the Coalition Provi- 
sional Authority (CPA), which functioned as the country's governing body 
until control was transferred to Iraqi leadership in June 2004. Ledeen, who 
had been working for an economic consulting firm before the war, went to 
Baghdad in October 2003. (A close family friend had been aboard the air- 
plane that was crashed into the Pentagon on September u, and both 
Ledeen and her brother wanted to serve their country in some way. Ledeen s 
brother became an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and Ledeen joined the 
CPA to help with Iraq's economic redevelopment.) Ledeen regularly up- 
dated her family in Washington, D.C., via e-mail about life in a war zone. 
And, as a person of Jewish faith, few moments were as meaningful to her as 
celebrating Hanukah in the former palace of a brutal, anti-Semitic dicta- 
tor. She continued her e-mail home: 



So there were 6 of us— 2 soldiers who led the service— two civilians in ad- 
dition to me— and the chaplain here who is Christian but who wanted to 
witness this historic event: the first lighting of the menorah in Saddam's Re- 
publican Palace. As I was the only female they asked me to light the Shabbat 
candles. I actually got quite emotional and almost couldn't finish. Lighting 
the Sabbath candles in this place — in the seat of power of a man who tried so 
hard to destroy us. I thought about the Hanukah story— about how the Mac- 






STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 175 

cabees and their followers refused to compromise their beliefs — how they de- 
feated Antiochus' army— and how they rededicated the Temple, making oil 
that should have lasted for only one day last for eight. I realized that in a way, 
now we are rededicating this place. What was once the seat of evil has been 
replaced by hope and praise to G-d. 

The menorah we use is beautiful — it was a gift to the CPA from an Iraqi 
Jewish artist living in New York. All of the candle holders are shaped like 
pomegranates, a symbol of fertility— to bring growth and new life to this 
country. 

I also thought about the miracle of Hanukah, of the lamp burning for 
eight whole days until they could find more oil. That is what this country 
needs — no, not oil (!!) — but a miracle of that kind. Even though there are 
limited resources . . . even though some people say it's hopeless ... I 
couldn't help thinking maybe there's more to it than that. There are so many 
people here sacrificing so much — from the young soldiers to the translators 
who risk being recognized to the older men and women who retired from the 
military but still volunteered to come as civilians so this effort could have the 
benefit of their expertise. Then there are all the people back home who are 
praying for us and sending us good wishes . . . and food. . . . Basically what I 
am trying to say is there is a lot of good coming into this place — and I am not 
ready to give up on it. 

It is late and I am going to sleep now. Love to all and Happy Holidays!! 

"It's funny how quickly one gets used to the noises of war," Ledeen wrote 
about the constant bombings in the Iraqi capital just weeks after she arrived 
there. Even combat troops who put themselves in harm's way sometimes 
lament how repetitious and tedious the weeks and months at the front can 
seem, and when the monotony of wartime life is broken, it is often because 
of some terrible incident or attack. But every once in a while, a flash of good 
news surges through both the civilian and military communities like an 
electric current, infusing them with joy and excitement. On December 19, 
2003, Simone Ledeen wrote home about just such a moment. (L. Paul Bre- 
mer, whom Ledeen refers to below, ran the Coalition Provisional Authority; 
Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez was the head of all U.S. and allied 
forces in Iraq; and Peggy Noonan was a speechwriter for presidents Ronald 
Reagan and George H. W. Bush.) 



176 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

This morning started out like any other . . . got a wake up call from my 
mother (greatest mother on earth), and then promptly went back to sleep. 
Woke up 20 minutes later and rushed through the morning routine, and hav- 
ing missed breakfast walked straight over to my office. We are currently 
preparing a report to Congress regarding the supplemental spending bill so 
we are particularly crazed these days. 

Anyway I was running around the palace with one of my colleagues today, 
making sure everyone was going to be ready with their parts of the document 
when in one office or other someone told us Saddam had been captured. We 
all said "oh, wouldn't that be great if it were true?! I hope it is!" and then we 
continued on to our next stop. Suddenly we heard a great cheer erupt from 
downstairs— we ran over to one of the balconies but didn't see anyone down- 
stairs. 

I had the distinct impression we were missing the party. But no matter— 
there was so much work to do! As we walked through the halls, I noticed 
everyone smiling— we passed a group of Iraqi electricians who were yelling 
excitedly and practically jumping off their ladders. We stopped in the DFAC 
to get some food where we learned that it was for real — that Bremer had told 
the Governing Council — and that there would be a press conference shortly. 

We started hearing crazy amounts of gunfire outside. Our translators 
came over to say hello, just out of their minds with excitement. "For us this is 
better than the 9th of April!" one says. "It is really over now," added the other. 
After lunch we went back to the office — everyone had decided to go to the 
press conference so I joined the exodus to the parking lot. When we got out- 
side I called my mother (woke her this time as it was 6am on the East 
Coast)— but she didn't seem to mind. As we walked down the street to the 
parking lot, I heard singing amid the sounds of automatic machine gun fire. 
I looked down the road and saw a large group of young Iraqi men, dancing 
down the street, waving their shirts over their heads. Keep in mind this is the 
famous Green Zone — not the downtown streets. As they got closer, I recog- 
nized the electricians I had seen earlier in the day. The men danced right 
past me and I held up the phone so my mother could hear. We all just stood 
there with big dumb grins on our faces, watching them and sharing in their 
happiness. One of the translators had also told me, "you cannot imagine what 
we have been through. Now we can really have a new Iraq." I remembered 
her words as the men passed by me singing and dancing. When I turned to 
get in the car I had tears in my eyes. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 177 

We zipped over to the convention center and found the room where the 
press conference was being held. Can't discuss security but there was plenty 
of it. We finally made it inside and I grabbed a spot in the back of the room 
against the wall where I had a perfect view in the space between two cameras. 
Bremer and Sanchez came out— Bremer said the words that are now famous 
and we all went nuts. The news reports I have read state that it was only the 
Iraqi journalists who got up and yelled and made a fuss — people I was there 
and let me tell you we in the back and on the sides were ALL yelling and 
screaming— soldiers, CPA, the security guys — don't let them make you be- 
lieve it was only a few! 

Then the video. When that image of Saddam all bearded and disheveled 
came up on the screen everyone gasped. I think I might have put my hand up 
to my mouth. It was so dramatic and shocking. I am sure you know of the 
Iraqi journalists who stood and screamed at the image, chanting "death to 
Saddam/' and how one of them had been imprisoned and tortured for 2 years 
for the simple fact of writing for a Shiite newspaper. It was deeply moving. 
Everyone was transfixed. He finally sat down and began sobbing uncontrol- 
lably as General Sanchez continued with the briefing. 

After the press conference was over, we all piled back in the car and came 
back to the palace. Celebratory fire could still be heard— actually it was 
pretty much nonstop. I still don't understand the whole shoot a gun in the air 
because you're happy thing. . . . My translator friend called me when she got 
home, saying the streets of Baghdad were crazy— people dancing, giving out 
candies, just general mayhem — but joyful mayhem. She couldn't stop talk- 
ing she was so excited, and her excitement filled me with ... a very good feel- 
ing that I am not sure I can describe. Happiness but something more 
profound — we really have done something good here. If we do every single 
other thing wrong, we still freed these people from Saddam Hussein. That is 
a legacy to be proud of. And unlike the Germans after WW2, the Iraqis get to 
put him on trial for his crimes. I'll bet the trial will be like Eichmann's in the 
60s— with everyone disappointed to find the defendant just a pathetic, neu- 
rotic man with a complex or two. The banality of evil and all that. 

Anyway tonight we have done a lot of work, but also broke for some 
Johnny Walker in honor of the day's events. There's a lot more to say— many 
things have happened in the time I haven't written so I vow to write again in 
the next couple of days and fill you all in. 

In the meantime, we should all heed the words of Peggy Noonan and "not 



178 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

be boring people who Consider the Implications. Let's not talk about the do- 
mestic political impact. For just a day let's feel the pleasure history just 
handed us." 

Much love 
me 



THE OUTSIDER 

Personal Narrative 
First Sergeant Richard Acevedo 

Since October 2001, more than one million U.S. Marines, soldiers, airmen, 
and sailors have been mobilized to Afghanistan and Iraq, and a significant 
number have fought in both countries. If their wartime writings are any in- 
dication, these troops often find military service to be grueling, boring, ter- 
rifying, infuriating, and exhausting— but also the most memorable and 
fulfilling time of their lives. Many, if not the majority of them, will credit 
one reason above all for why the experience is so rewarding: the bonds of 
friendship they forge with their brothers- and sister s-in-arms. These rela- 
tionships are not formed overnight, and it would be misleading to suggest 
that tensions and outright hostilities between service members do not exist. 
As in any community, some people just dont get along. Thirty-eight-year- 
old U.S. Army First Sergeant Richard Acevedo hadnt even left for Iraq 
when he was confronted with a problem that was proving to be, in his words, 
a serious 'leadership challenge" relating to one of the men in his company. 
(Identifying information about the soldier has been changed to protect his 
identity.) 



In the twenty years I've spent in the U.S. Army, I have always been in the 
company of infantrymen, a group of rough-and-tumble, physical individ- 
uals who are self-reliant, intelligent, and adventurous. They love bad food, 
adverse living conditions, sleep deprivation, constant physical abuse, and the 
lurking possibility that they might die in the execution of their sworn duties. 
It is not a life for everyone. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 179 

Manuel Ernesto was a soldier assigned to the infamous "Fighting 69th/' a 
National Guard infantry battalion based out of New York, which is where I 
call home. The unit has a history of being one of the most decorated outfits 
in the Army, boasting a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolution- 
ary War and with a fair number of legends in its ranks. Men like the famed 
poet Joyce Kilmer; Father Duffy, the Army chaplain whose statue graces 
Times Square; and "Wild Bill" Donovan, who would go on to start the OSS 
(Office of Strategic Services), the predecessor to the present-day CIA. Today's 
members of the Fighting 69th are true New Yorkers and come from all walks 
of life. Manuel Ernesto probably represented that better than anyone. 

Perhaps the best way to describe Ernesto is to say that he's a simple man. 
At the time, he looked to be in his late thirties, though it's hard to tell exactly. 
He was kind and had a childlike innocence about him, but he had difficulty 
understanding easy, straightforward tasks and directions. There was also 
something about him that seemed awkward and out of sync. My many years 
in the Army have taught me to be a quick study of men, and my initial im- 
pression of Ernesto led me to believe that he would not fit in very well within 
the Spartan, testosterone-driven world of the infantry. 

Ernesto was shy and kept to himself, and since the Army is primarily a 
herd society, those who do not participate in the herd quickly get singled out. 
In the Army, it is never about the individual and always about the collective 
group. Men who don't contribute or carry their weight are considered a lia- 
bility; anyone not fitting that mold gets ruthlessly ostracized. To his fellow in- 
fantrymen, Ernesto wasn't seen as one of them, and they labeled him a misfit. 
Despite what the other soldiers felt about Ernesto, I gave him the benefit of 
the doubt. Mainly for two reasons: one, I desperately needed bodies, since I 
didn't have the full complement of soldiers intended for my deployment; and 
two, Ernesto was extremely polite and sincere in everything he said and did. 

We spent four months at Fort Hood, Texas, preparing for our deployment 
to Iraq. I figured that any soldier who couldn't handle the pressure of training 
for war would get weeded out during our train-up period. If Ernesto couldn't 
get his act together, I would handle it when the time came. Until then, I 
would monitor Ernesto's progress and hope for the best. 

My first real observation of Ernesto in action was during one of our early 
morning PT sessions. I always started off the day's training with a grueling 
workout. I had to get these men in shape and help them shed the pounds that 
their comfortable civilian lives had packed on them. Combat in Iraq would 



180 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

be unforgiving on these citizen soldiers, and they would have to tote around 
as much as fifty pounds of gear every day in the brutal 120- to 130-degree sum- 
mer heat. I often started the PT session with some stretching and light calis- 
thenics in order to warm the guys up and prevent injuries before kicking off 
the real exercise. Usually I began with jumping jacks, and on this one morn- 
ing as I was jumping along and leading the company, I could hear the men 
break out into a roar of laughter. I scanned the ranks looking for the reason. 
Lo and behold, there he was in the last row, rear left-hand corner of the for- 
mation. It was Ernesto jumping around in spasms of unsynchronized, dis- 
combobulated movement. He looked like a fish that just landed on the deck 
of a boat, flapping around waiting to be clubbed. 

At first, I thought it was an act and began to get angry, thinking he was try- 
ing to get laughs during my PT session. I watched him for a couple of seconds 
more and came to the conclusion that this was no act. Men were laughing so 
hard they were losing their own rhythm. The harder Ernesto tried to get in 
sync with everyone else, the worse he looked. His body moved like a broken 
rag doll and the self-absorbed expression of concentration on his face caused 
the men to break up even more. One of the guys next to him started to mimic 
his movements, and instead of Ernesto catching on that he was being 
mocked, he looked at the prankster with a quizzical expression on his face 
and shouted to him between labored breaths: "Are you . . . having ... a hard 
time . . . with this . . . too?" This caused the whole group to convulse in 
laughter. That was who Ernesto was. He tried his hardest, but he just couldn't 
understand basic concepts. 

Ernesto's team leader, squad leader, and platoon sergeant began to com- 
plain to me on a daily basis that Ernesto was having a hard time grasping the 
fundamentals of being an infantryman. I would often tell them to try harder, 
that Ernesto was just a leadership challenge. All three sergeants looked at me 
as if I had lost my mind, but since I outranked them, they couldn't tell me 
that I was crazy. They left my office mumbling under their breath that 
Ernesto was hopeless. 

Days turned to weeks and Ernesto wasn't making any progress. It was time 
to come up with a game plan for him or he would get himself or someone 
else killed. I decided one day to have a discussion with our battalion sergeant 
major in reference to Ernesto. I was going to explain all the things we tried in 
getting Ernesto trained up. If that got me nowhere, I would inform him that 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 181 

we needed to have Ernesto evaluated by a military psychologist for mental 
stability and have him released or discharged from the Army. I had the whole 
strategy worked out in my head. 

As soon as the topic of Manuel Ernesto was broached, the sergeant 
major began to smile. Ernesto, it turns out, had been in his company some 
years back when he was a first sergeant. During training, Ernesto started to 
squirrel away food from the mess tent and keep it in his backpack in antici- 
pation of some unknown impending famine. One day, he took three little 
containers of milk from that morning's breakfast. Most of the time, the 
Army's milk is processed in such a way that it has a very long shelf life. But 
on that day, the mess tent had served fresh milk, and Ernesto, not realizing 
the difference, stuck the containers of milk in his duffel bag. A few days 
later, people heard screaming in the middle of the night from somewhere 
inside the patrol base; Ernesto was on the ground writhing in pain and 
clutching his stomach in agony. The cause of his illness was consumption 
of spoiled milk. 

After hearing the story, I became angry and asked the sergeant major, "If 
everyone knew this guy was so screwed up, why was he ever placed in my in- 
fantry company for this dangerous deployment?" I was upset, because I felt I 
was the only one in the whole damned battalion who didn't know how wacky 
this Ernesto guy was. The sergeant major assured me he would find Ernesto 
a job as a "gofer" somewhere safe within the battalion. But there was some- 
thing else he said that stunned me: Ernesto, prior to this deployment, had 
been homeless and living in a city shelter. This was why he had been squir- 
reling away the food, and this was why he had been saving the milk; these 
were habits he had cultivated from being homeless for so long. 

A few days later, I was informed that Ernesto would be transferred to the 
headquarters company to work in their supply room. Essentially, Ernesto 
would get a job that would not require him to leave the camp to go out on 
missions. I informed Ernesto of the pending transfer to his new position. Up 
until that point, he had been teased relentlessly and was made the butt of 
many jokes within the company from all its resident alpha males. I figured he 
would be relieved to get out of this environment and move to a quieter arena. 
Instead, when I told him of the pending transfer, he seemed saddened by the 
news. 

I told Ernesto that an opening in the headquarters company supply room 



182 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

had become available and that it was a hard decision for me to make with all 
the qualified men I had in the company. But I had to recommend somebody 
for this important position, and I felt he was the best man for the job. He 
cheered up a bit when I told him this and thanked me for my confidence in 
him. He said that he wouldn't let me or the company down in any way. I told 
him that I didn't doubt it. He quietly left my office and I was quite pleased 
with myself in how I had handled the whole situation. I would get a more fit- 
ting replacement for Ernesto, and he would get to work in a place where he 
wouldn't hurt himself or anybody else for that matter. Problem solved, case 
closed. 

Some weeks went by and, one night while working late in my office, I 
heard a soft tap on my office door. I shouted, "Come in," at the same time 
wondering who was knocking at such a late hour. It was Ernesto. 

He shuffled quietly into my office, shy and apologetic for disturbing me. I 
told him to come in, sit down, and tell me what was bothering him. I knew it 
wasn't a social visit at such a late hour. He sat down wringing his hands and 
looking all around my office, studying every nook and cranny and every ob- 
ject in the room. He looked at everything but me. 

Ernesto attempted to make small talk and asked me about my family. I 
told them they were all well and in good health. When I saw this conversa- 
tion wasn't getting anywhere, I gently asked him what was on his mind. He fi- 
nally looked me in the face timidly and asked if he could come back to the 
company and be with the men. I was a little surprised by his comment, and I 
asked him if he was unhappy where he was. He said that the supply sergeant 
was taking very good care of him and that he liked the work he was doing and 
the hours he kept. 

I told him I was a little confused about why he wanted to come back. It 
was evident that he had found his niche, and I had heard really good things 
about his work there. He had the hardest time looking me in the eye, and I fi- 
nally told him as nicely as I could that I didn't think he was cut out to be an 
infantry soldier. I don't think Ernesto took this as a surprise, and I felt he knew 
the truth deep down inside. He quietly stated that he knew the men would be 
risking their lives soon in combat and that he wanted to be with the men and 
would do anything he could to help them — even if it meant picking up the 
dead and filling body bags. 

Ernesto stayed quiet after that comment. We were weeks away from de- 
ploying to Iraq and the newspapers and cable channels were rife with stories 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 183 

about people getting their heads cut off, convoys being ambushed on a regu- 
lar basis, and U.S. service members getting killed by the constant onslaught 
of bombs hidden on the roads. My soldiers were trading horror stories with 
one another and the rumors were causing quite a stir, and everyone was very 
tense. 

I looked at Ernesto, and I realized that his comment about picking up the 
dead and filling the body bags was not just an idle or morbid statement. For 
all his awkwardness and childlike qualities, Manuel Ernesto was far more in 
tune with what was important than the rest of us. He understood the true 
ramifications of the dangers awaiting us, and he wanted to be a part of some- 
thing important. Ernesto showed more compassion for his fellow soldiers 
than they ever showed him. I felt ashamed at that moment, especially con- 
sidering that some men in my company were trying to do everything in their 
power to get out of going off to fight. Here was Ernesto, a guy who was home- 
less and shunned by the rest of civilized society, and, in the end, he turned 
out to have more heart and guts than most. 

Ernesto sat quietly, waiting for my answer, and I knew that my response 
was important to him. I looked him in the eye and told him that if the day 
ever came when, God forbid, I had to pick up my fallen soldiers, it would be 
an honor for me if he could help in any way. He smiled and tears welled up 
in the corners of his eyes. He quietly got up and saluted me in an awkward 
manner, and I saluted back, not having the heart to tell him I was a sergeant 
and only officers get saluted. 

He thanked me again as he left, and I thought to myself that I owed 
Ernesto a larger debt of gratitude. He had taught me a powerful lesson about 
humility and courage. I smiled as I watched him pass my window and disap- 
pear into the humid Texas night. 

Both Acevedo and Ernesto deployed to Iraq for almost a full year, begin- 
ning in the fall of 2004, and both men returned alive and well. 



184 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



PURPLE-HEARTED 

Personal Narrative 
Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis 



The admiration that troops often express for one another cuts across race, 
ethnicity, religion, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds. And genera- 
tions. "Although I am, in fact, the same age as my driver's dad (which is to 
say precisely twice my drivers age)," U.S. Army Reserve Staff Sergeant Jack 
Lewis wrote in a December 2004 e-mail home about why he wanted to go to 
Iraq, "a country that sends only its young to war deserves to lose both its 
young, and its wars. Each one of us bears responsibility for every last sol- 
dier; this is my small contribution: to take care of the two kids on my little 
team." Several weeks later, and only days before the historic January 2005 
elections in Iraq, Lewis wrote a story about one of these "kids," Specialist 
Joshua Yuse (pronounced yoo-see), a twenty-one-year-old soldier who pro- 
vided Lewis with no end of grief— and pride. (The castle that Lewis alludes 
to is a thirteenth-century Ottoman building in Tall Afar being used as a po- 
lice garrison.) 



e's young enough to be my son. Annoying enough, too. 

When I beat on his hooch door this morning to get him up for a 
mission, he was his typical floppy-jointed, addle-headed, eye-rolling self. It 
was pouring rain, I was standing out in the middle of it wearing PT shorts and 
a raincoat, and I was losing patience: "Get up, time to move. You're going 
down with Apache." 

Long groan — but he had known what the mission was since last night. 

"Quit your bitchin', Yuse," I told him. "You're lucky as hell— you get to 
hang out at the castle, and I have to ride the hatch in this shit." 

Yuse was headed downtown to broadcast over the LRAD, i.e., long range 
acoustic device, a gizmo originally designed to warn boaters away from the 
exclusion zone surrounding naval vessels, while I was going to charge around 
town in one of Charger Troop's Stryker armored vehicles, broadcasting pro- 
election messages, prerecorded in Arabic, from a manpack loudspeaker sys- 
tem. 




STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 185 

"Yeah ... I guess/' he said, rubbing the back of his head, sullen as a 
teenager, which, at twenty-one, he practically is. 

"Be at the office no later than zero-seven-thirty," I told him before throw- 
ing on a uniform and four hundred bucks' worth of raingear to go there my- 
self. 

I was closing in on a peak experience of blood pressure when he slouched 
through the door at 0729. 

"I took the trailer off." 

"Oh," I said, surprised at his initiative. "How we doin' on fuel?" 

"I filled it last night." 

"All right, let's get your pack together." 

"I already got it, sergeant— it's ready to go." 

"Damn, Yuse. I hardly know you!" 

Goofy grin from him. "I do what I can, sar'nt." 

I dropped him down at Apache's hangar, ran to the chow hall to get him 
a box breakfast, and off he went into Tall 'Afar. 

But I never went out on my mission. After I put together a briefing memo for 
the squadron commander and walked it over to the TOC, I ran into the bat- 
tle captain, CPT Murphy. 

He said, "Oh. It's good you're here. Yuse's your guy, right? We got a report 
he was shot in the neck—" 

"WHAT?" 

"—but apparently he was wounded in the hand. A fragment hit him in 
the chin, and it bled all over, and they thought he had a neck wound." 

"Mortars or small arms?" 

"We don't know yet." 

"Are they bringing him in now?" 

"We don't know yet." 

I went to the aid station to wait. Yuse couldn't be evac'd immediately be- 
cause all available combat power needed to stay on-site and fight. Then, after 
Apache's company commander rolled his own vehicle out to the castle to 
pick up my soldier, they hit an IED on the return trip. 

Everything takes too long. It took twenty minutes for Apache 66 to move from 
the front gate across the FOB to the aid station, because a convoy of civilian 



186 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

fuel tankers was plugging up the roads. When A66 finally rolled in and 
dropped ramp, my kid soldier was sitting inside, holding up a bloody bulb of 
gauze the size of his head. He looked mighty uncomfortable. 
The first words out of his mouth were "I'm all right, sergeant." 
It seems that Yuse was running the LRAD when the castle came under 
fire, as it usually does when that bullet magnet is in operation. He put down 
his MP3, picked up his rifle, and took up a security position along the battle- 
ments. When the sniper found him, the neck-aimed bullet hit him in his for- 
ward hand, bounced off his rifle, and dug into his armored vest with a 
heavyweight punch. A fragment of the bullet jacket flew up and cut his chin 
to the bone. Infantry and commo soldiers gave him buddy aid. He wheezed 
pretty hard, but he stayed alert and responsive. And he never complained. 

What Yuse did do, after he was shot: He trained up a commo sergeant on 
how to run the LRAD, so that while he waited for evac, he could keep his 
mission going. He secured, or caused to be secured, all of his sensitive items 
and equipment. He marveled at the bullet they dug out of his vest. He told 
everybody not to worry about him, and reminded them to keep their heads 
down. 

Everything takes too long. At the aid station, one X-ray salvo wasn't enough; 
they had to go two rounds with that. The sleep-deprived lab tech who tried to 
start Yuse's IV failed five times on his right arm before someone else took it 
away and plugged it in properly, upstream of his bleeding left paw. 

Through all that, nothing but some wincing and the occasional "Oww." 

And this comment: "I'll tell you one thing. These elections better work. 
They better get democracy, and freedom, and their rights, and hot chicks in 
tight jeans. I hope I didn't take this bullet for nothing." 

Specialist Josh Yuse was treated, given a bit of morphine, and then evac'd 
to the 67th Combat Support Hospital by a UH-60 Black Hawk helo. 

I made sure he had his IBA with the souvenir slug in one pocket, along 
with his helmet, coat, and the bloody shirt with his name on it. They can 
wash it out at the hospital. They do it all the time. 

I held on to his weapon, which caught the bullet as it exited through the 
meat of Yuse's left thumb. That weapon is NMC (non-mission capable) and 
irreparable; it won't ever cycle again without the bottom half of it being re- 
placed. 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 187 

I stood and watched him lift off, saluting Yuse in my way. I doubt he no- 
ticed. He was trying not to drop his IV bag, which sounds like a simple thing 
until you try it while juiced to the gills on morphine and battling the shaky 
shock of adrenaline withdrawal. 

I'll miss Yuse here, and not just for the work he does, which is plenty if I 
remind him often enough. I'll miss his pulling dumb stunts, working so hard 
at not working that it exhausts him just to think about it, dropping to do push- 
ups just because I gave him a hard look, teaching me how to play Yahtzee 
(then beating the crap out of me), and schooling me at Ping-Pong until he 
gets impatient and starts hitting the ball too hard to spin it down onto the 
table. 

He's a near-total dingbat with no sense of planning who still manages to 
get things done. A lazy sloth who works like a sled dog. A good kid with bad 
manners. A graceful athlete who trips over his own size twelves. This is the 
overgrown boy I have to kick out of the rack every morning, remind him to 
check the oil, bring his gloves on mission, and shower periodically. 

Mostly, he's just too much of a goofy kid for me to have expected him to 
take this like a man. 

Yuse didn't want to be deployed to Iraq. He wanted to chase women 
around Seattle, and go to college and find out what he wants to be. He 
wanted to play video games, drink beer, and buy a Mustang. 

Guys my age are supposed to gripe about how kids today are letting the 
world go to hell in a handbasket, how there aren't any standards for behavior 
anymore. After all, we've taken such good care of things. 

Maybe it's because guys my age usually work with guys my age. Guys 
Yuse's age are just parts for the big machine in civilian life: laborers, clerks, 
apprentices. Yuse went from busboy to combat soldier. Now he's WIA, and he 
doesn't even have the good sense to snivel about it. 

He was subsequently evac'd to 67th CSH for surgery, then on to Land- 
stuhl. As they loaded him onto the C-130, he was fretting about letting down 
my team and our detachment by flying out to Germany. 

I don't want to hear any more about the passing of "The Greatest Gener- 
ation." Ain't no generation better than his. Specialist Yuse didn't just take it 
like a man. He took it like his brothers across the generations, and earned his 
flagon of mead at Valhalla or at least his pint of Bud at the local VFW. 

He took it like a soldier. 



188 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



After having surgery in Landstuhl, Germany, Yuse was sent back to the 
United States to be treated at the military hospital in Fort Bragg, North 
Carolina. Lewis returned to Washington in ]une 2005 after serving for al- 
most ten months in Iraq. He and Yuse still keep in touch. 



BROTHERHOOD 

Poem 

Sergeant Dena Price Van den Bosch 



On August 5, 2003, thirty-two-year-old Sergeant Dena Price Van den Bosch 
was waiting for a convoy with a group ofGIs in 125-degree heat at an air 
base in Doha, Qatar. Van den Bosch was serving with a military? intelli- 
gence task force, and the others soldiers, although all part of the 10th 
Mountain Division, were from various other units— infantry, transporta- 
tion, signals, artillery — and barely knew one another. And yet, Van den 
Bosch believed, the very fact they were all soldiers meant that they shared a 
bond only fellow servicemen and women could truly understand. 

these same faces . . . 

who share smokes 

out of collective boredom 

while offering 

their own version of 

sympathy 

to stories of 

unfaithful wives 

over another game of Spades 

will plot with 

eager efficiency 

to catch the mice 

which terrorize their tent 



STUCK IN THIS SANDBOX 189 

transforming the moments 
into something 
almost bearable 

these same faces . . . 

may someday 

crawl one hundred meters 

under fire 

to reach their brother 

with no guarantee 

they'll return 

and people 
wonder why 



CHAPTER FOUR 



WORLDS APART 



LIFE ON THE HOME FRONT 




PFC Noah Pincusoff, as a boy in 1992 wearing his father's 
Vietnam War helmet. Photo by James Lois; used by permission. 



Dearest Son, 

I don't know where to begin this first letter to you. I am so conflicted on 
your departure. On the one hand, I know you have trained very hard for 
this — everything you have done for the past 15 months was leading to this 
day. I know that you want and need to be there for your brothers. Not 
something I will ever fully understand or appreciate because I have never 
been or will ever go to war. So that intensifies my fears. Dad understands 
and fears all the more for you. 

And he and I are indescribably proud of you for all you have endured 
and achieved. I know at times you don't understand why people thank you 
for your service, but I think someday you will. More than pride, however, is 
our love for you. You are the single most precious thing in our lives (as is 
each of our children). So, of course, we have spent our lives leading you, 
teaching you and protecting you. These fuel our fear. We have faith in you, 
your abilities, your skills — but there is nothing you can say or do that will 
alleviate that fear — a parent's fear— until you are home with us again. 

I know that you will, in the next year or so, experience many, many 
things you have only heard about or imagined (and about which I am 
already having nightmares!). I believe your Dad and I love you more than 
you will ever know . . . but I also know we get that back from you ten-fold. 
Keep your eyes open and your head and ass down! 

All my love— always . . . until we are together again. 
Mom 

— Carla Meyer Lois, writing to her nineteen-year-old son, Private First Class 
Noah Pincusoff, on January 16, 2005, the day before he deployed to Iraq. 
Seven months later, Pincusoff suffered severe neck and spinal injuries, 
as well as shrapnel wounds, from a car-bomb attack on the outskirts of 
Ramadi. After coming home to recuperate, he returned to active duty. 



192 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



THE LIFE WE USED TO LIVE 

E-mail 
Kari Apted 



"1 miss you already and you're not even gone" Kari Apted lamented in a 
March 2003 letter to her husband, Sergeant Donnie Apted, as he was 
preparing to head to Iraq with the 8y8th Engineer Battalion, Georgia Army 
National Guard. Despite a two-hour drive each way, Donnie came home 
every night after training for ten hours with his unit in Augusta so that he 
could spend as much time as possible with Kari and their two sons, Zachary 
and Elias. "Ym glad you are still here," she wrote, u but in a way, it's hard. 
It's hard knowing you are so close by, yet so far away. I guess this time is al- 
lowing us to sort of wean ourselves from each other." No matter how much 
spouses on the home front brace themselves for the separation, many find 
that nothing can prepare them for how all-encompassing the sense of loss— 
emotionally, spiritually, and physically— can be. When Sergeant Apted left 
for Iraq in March 2003, no one knew how long the war would last. By that 
summer, however, it was clear that the fighting would be more protracted 
than expected. In early September, Kari Apted sent the following e-mail to 
her husband, who was stationed at the Tallil Air Base near An Nasiriyah. 

My Dearest Donnie, 

Man, I miss you. I seriously don't think a minute has passed since you left 
that a thought of you hasn't crossed my mind. I miss you, I miss us, I miss 
everything about the life we used to live together. I know that we are still to- 
gether in spirit, but I miss the physical reality of you. 

I know it sounds crazy, but I just now finished doing the last load of laun- 
dry in your clothes hamper. Four months after you left, I am finally wrapping 
up your laundry! I just couldn't bear to wash clean the last things I have that 
you touched. Or rather, that touched you. It has been so long since I've seen 
your things mixed in with mine. It was like every shirt of yours stood out like 
a red flag among the usual mix of my and the boys' clothing. I felt a tug in my 
heart with each piece I pulled from the dryer, and held a shirt or two to my 
chest as I folded them. I buried my face in the cloth, wishing your scent had 
remained but knowing it wouldn't have. 

Did you know that your scent is still inside your armoire, though? As I 



WORLDSAPART 193 

opened it to put your clothes away, the familiar fragrance of wood and of you 
was so strong ... it made my heart ache anew as I put away the last laundry 
I'll do for you for a very long time. It is so very lonely here without you. Yet it 
feels like I am never alone. Between the boys and our friends, I stay pretty 
busy. But as I know you are experiencing as well, you can feel totally alone 
even in the largest crowd. Sometimes I feel even more alone in those mo- 
ments than in times that I truly am alone. 

But what can we do, except keep plugging along, doing what we have to do, 
to get us to that wonderful day that we are back together again? It is so hard to 
resolve myself to that; that the best-laid plans I had for this year were all blown 
to bits by the plan that someone else had for us; leaving us with absolutely no 
choice but to submit to a situation we opposed with every ounce of our beings. 

The struggle between my will and our reality has never been more appar- 
ent or more challenging than it has been this year. I want my family back to- 
gether again. I want my soul mate by my side. I want to take you shopping 
with me, watch you bathe our sons, rub your back at the end of a hard day, 
and make love to you all night long. I want my life back, not this artificial, 
contrived happiness and acceptance that I have to conjure up daily, hourly, 
and force myself to believe. It's really not ok that you are gone. I am not com- 
plete without you here with me. 

Everyone says to let God fill the newly empty places inside me and I try so 
hard to let him. But a nebulous concept like the presence of God doesn't fix 
the car when it breaks, doesn't hold sick children at 3:00 a.m. who miss their 
daddy, doesn't kiss the soft part of my neck when it literally aches for the 
touch of your lips. And there are those who would accuse me of being irrev- 
erent by saying that. I feel that the God I know understands what I'm trying 
to say. I think He understands the weariness I feel as I struggle to use Him as 
glue to hold everything together that you used to carry effortlessly for me. . . . 

Trying to live in the "here and now" is so hard. I can't seem to help wish- 
ing the time away. Each time a Monday arrives and it feels like it came 
around again quickly, a little part of my soul leaps with joy as I think, "YES! 
Another week down!" and I want every week to pass as fast, or even faster. I 
tell myself platitudes like, enjoy the moment, seize the day, and I try, I really 
do try to be aware of the here and now and make the most of it. But the pres- 
ent time is so lonely and empty when devoid of your presence, that I cannot 
help anticipating with every part of my being the day that we are together 
again. I'm ready to stop missing you, and start living with you again. If it 



194 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

could begin in this moment, I could not be happier. But for whatever reason, 
we wait, and wait and have to wait some more. 

Just know that I miss you, every part of you, and these ramblings are a poor 
attempt to express to you how much. I pray so hard that you are home soon. 

Sending big hugs and soft kisses, as always . . . 

Kari 

Sergeant Donnie Apted returned to his family in May 2004 after a fifteen- 
month deployment. 



TOO MUCH REALITY 

Letter 

Pamela J. Clemens 



Before Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, when the opening air strike 
against Baghdad was captured live on television, it could take anywhere 
from a few days to more than a year before combat images from a war were 
shown on the home front The ground invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom 
was the first such assault ever broadcast in real time, and for the loved ones 
of troops watching at home, the experience was agonizing. When U.S. 
Army Staff Sergeant Jason R. Clemens embarked for Iraq in February 2003 
with the 54th Engineer Battalion, 130th Engineer Brigade, his wife, Pam, 
found it nerve-racking to follow the news. But she also found it impossible 
to ignore. On March 23, 2003, Clemens wrote a letter to her husband the 
day after seeing one particularly horrendous update. 

Jason, I miss you so much!!! 

Please forgive me, as I need to tell you about yesterday. I pray with all my 
heart that this does not upset you, but I need to tell you. Yesterday was the 
worst day of my life. The TV reported that there were POW's and then all of 
a sudden the reporter said that they had come from a maintenance unit that 
was traveling with the 3rd ID and took a wrong turn and was all of a sudden 
staring down the barrel of an Iraqi tank. 

He said that they were showing a tape of the POW's being interrogated on 
Iraq state-run TV and being played on Aljazeera. Then he said that they 



WORLDSAPART 195 

showed a room full of bodies that appeared to have been shot in the forehead. 
I thought I was going to die. I thought it was you. I was so scared. I did not 
know what to do, what to think. I just stood there not knowing what to do. 
Jason, it was horrible. I was so scared. I can't even begin to describe what I felt 
to you in words. My whole body was screaming on the inside. I don't ever 
want to relive those feelings again. It was awful. 

Then the phone rang and it was your dad. Jason, he broke down on the 
phone. We both sat on the phone and cried, neither of us knowing if it was 
you or not. He kept asking me if anyone had contacted me. I did my best to 
reassure him that no one had come to the house to tell me anything. I think 
that was the only comfort we had. Your mom was on her way back from the 
coast and I was worried for him, but we cried and talked and by the time we 
hung up, he seemed to be better. He loves you so much. . . . 

I took Jake for a walk and cried the whole time. I just don't know what I 
would do if anything happened to you. When I got back from the walk, I was 
pouring the dog food into the bin when the phone rang. I answered it and the 
person on the other end hung up. I was scared that it was someone calling to 
see if I was home so they could come tell me that you were a POW. Well I 
went back to pouring the dog food and since I cut the bag at an angle, it 
spilled all over the floor. I was bent down picking up the food and I began to 
cry. Then the phone rang again. As I was getting up, I banged my head on the 
corner of the cabinet. 

I answered the phone and it was my dad. Jason I broke down like a baby. 
I think my dad must have seen the news too as he kept assuring me that it was 
not you who was captured. He just let me cry and told me everything was 
going to be okay. He promised. I felt better after I had cried to him and he let 
me cry just like when I was growing up and needed to cry to my daddy. Migi 
came over after that phone call and would not let me cry for the rest of the 
night. I had went earlier yesterday and bought three new DVD's. I am sorry 
to buy so many, but I just can't watch the TV. I am so sorry, but it is just too 
hard for me. I watch some, but the majority of it, I just can't take. It is too 
much reality for me. . . . 

I was watching Tom Brokaw right before I was going to go to bed when he 
said that the maintenance unit came from the 3rd ID 507th out of Ft. Bliss 
TX. They even have an African American female. Jason, I can't tell you what 
went through my mind. I was so relieved, but my chest still hurt for the fam- 
ilies of those who were captured. I feel so guilty because I was glad it was not 



196 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

you. I immediately called your dad and your mom answered the phone. I was 
so glad she was there. She said that your dad was doing a bit better. I told 
them what I had heard and they were relieved. 

We kept talking and they said that they found comfort talking to me since 
we were all in this together. Then your dad got on the phone and said he was 
sorry if he upset me and I told him that he could call me anytime day or 
night, as I would do the same for them. Then he told me he loved me and to 
come and see them. When your mom got back on the phone, she told me 
that people forget to say the things they should say and she told me that she 
loved me and that I was a good daughter-in-law and she was glad I was mar- 
ried to you. I was so touched and did not know what to say. I was glad when 
she broke the emotion by saying that when she was talking to your dad that 
they both agreed that they were glad that you were not married to anyone 
else. That helped to lighten the mood. I told them I loved them too and that 
I was also glad that you weren't married to anyone else either. . . . 

I will write more later and fill in the gaps in this letter that I forgot to write. 
Love You! 

Staff Sergeant Jason Clemens returned to Pam in December 2003. 



BUZZ SAW 

Poem 
Billie Hill-Hunt 



Some spouses go to creative lengths to ease the pain of separation. A month 
before Billie Hill-Hunt's husband, U.S. Army Specialist Corey T. Hunt, left 
for Iraq in January 2005, she secretly made an audiotape of him sleeping. 

I used to say 

"You are cutting down an entire forest with your snoring." 

Now without it 

Bedtime seems boring 



I recorded you 

The last time you were here 



WORLDSAPART 197 

Call me crazy 

But I play it from time to time 

Just to keep you near 

Specialist Hunt returned to Billie in December 2005, and while she is 
thrilled to have her husband home, she now finds his snoring annoying 
once again. 



ALBUM 

Personal Narrative 
Kathleen Furin 



Spouses and parents are not alone in their heartache when a soldier, Ma- 
rine, airman, or sailor embarks for Iraq or Afghanistan; siblings, too, worry 
about their brother or sister heading into harm's way. In January 2005, 
Kathleen Furin watched as her younger brother, a U.S. Army captain, left 
their home in Pennsylvania to fight in a war she did not support. His de- 
ployment—and the photo album she often looked through to remind her of 
the times they had been together— prompted Furin to write the following 
account while he was gone. 



e are flipping through photos one evening, my daughter Aya and I, 
something she loves to do lately. A friend who is a teacher tells me 
how children learn about the world; first themselves, their own bodies; then 
their families, their neighborhood; later the larger city, state, country, world. I 
show her Iraq on the globe. "It's a far way, Mama," Aya says, "almost as far as 
you can get." "It is, baby," I say. I don't know what Iraq means to her; she knows 
only that her uncle, my younger brother, is working there for a while. I know 
through my travels that no place has meaning until you experience it, its 
sounds, its smells, the quality of light, the way people's faces express emotion. 
She goes back to the album, studying the pictures with a look of contentment. 
In this one you are leaning away from the others, from us, as if you have 
already left. Of course at that time we could never have imagined a life with- 
out you. Not on this day, even though you are in your dress blues. Today is a 




198 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

happy occasion, a baptism, a welcoming into family of a sweet new little 
soul— your daughter, Lilly. 

Although the gathering is because of her, in this one you can barely see 
her. She is swaddled in blankets, despite the summer heat, and tucked care- 
fully into Kim's arms. I am next to Kim, smiling broadly, one arm around her. 
It strikes me, looking back at this photo, that I didn't know how close we 
would become, how the events of the world would shape our own lives, how 
9/11 would change everything. 

We were afraid that you would be sent then. I worried for you even 
though we still weren't close, not close in any real way. I loved you through 
loving your family: your wife, your daughter, later your son. We had always 
had our differences, and I remember thinking you were a total asshole be- 
cause you stopped getting pizza from our usual place; it was owned by Arabs. 
"A-rabs," as you would say. For some reason you developed a strong hick ac- 
cent in the military. "It's probably a sleeper cell," you'd say, and sometimes I 
would almost believe you. Maybe military people knew more than regular 
people, at least about things like that. 

But then I would remember how the delivery guy had hugged my hus- 
band, given us our pizza free when he saw the pink stork and drooping bal- 
loons after Aya's birth. A few weeks after 9/11 they changed their pizza boxes 
so they had huge American flags and the words "God Bless America" on 
them. I preferred their old boxes, the ones that said "We use only the finest in- 
gredients." But you only ate Sal's pizza then, and you guaranteed me that 
there would definitely be another terrorist attack on U.S. soil, which did noth- 
ing to ease my fears. You have this way of speaking, probably honed in the 
military, as if you are the absolute authority on any subject. "But what if you 
have to go over there?" I asked— there, at that time, being Afghanistan. "You 
can't leave Lilly," I said. But you shrugged, the perfect American soldier, 
bound to do his duty no matter what. "If I go, I go," you said. "Just tell Lilly 
how much I loved her. Make sure she knows I was a good dad." I could do 
that, I thought, if the worst happened, I could do that. 

In this photograph the girls are all excitement, sweet summer dresses, 
grinning and fighting over the new baby. Aya holds him; you can't see her 
face as she gazes down at him. She is dwarfed by the pink of the hospital 
chair, a chair not made for children. Lilly wraps loose limbs around her, 
looks up, grins. Your son, A.C., is a big baby, but in these he is overshadowed 



WORLDSAPART 199 

by the girls. I think he will always be overshadowed by the girls, especially 
after my own new daughter, Chaundra, is born three months later. 

In this one you are standing with Kim, one arm around her, formal. By 
then I loved Kim like a sister, loved her quiet strength, her humor, her devo- 
tion to the kids. But I hated that she wouldn't stand up to you. She wanted 
you to make a DVD of yourself reading to the kids before you left. She 
wanted a piece of you, something to show them when they asked about 
Daddy. But you refused. "I'm not making a death video," you said. I saw her 
tears that she tried to keep in, saw her tight, tense jaw. So I pulled Mom and 
Dad into it, which maybe wasn't fair. But that's your wife and kids that you're 
leaving for God knows how long. In the end you did it. I haven't watched it, 
but I can imagine how you look: loving, reassuring, tight triangles of stress at 
the edges of your lips, triangles that only the adults can see. 

I started having war dreams about a month before you left. Constant, 
vivid nightmares; the baby would wake me up to nurse and I would fall right 
back into the same dream. Bombs, bodies, body parts, dead children. In some 
ways the anticipation was worse than the leaving. We lie to Lilly and Aya; you 
have a job that requires you to be far away for a long time. How old are kids 
when they learn about bombs, guns, war? Are we wrong for wanting to pro- 
tect them from the knowledge of these things? 

And what do we do now, other than wait? I was vehemently opposed to 
the war in Iraq, still think it was a huge mistake. I can't watch the news, and 
when it comes up on AOL or whatever, one hundred dead in car bomb in 
Baghdad, I can't read it. I just shut my eyes and hope. What frightens me is 
that I feel like I'm not the only one who is not paying attention. I remember 
hearing Grandma talk about World War II, how hard it was, how much every- 
one was willing to sacrifice. Grandma told me about folding foil up into little 
balls, getting ration tickets for butter and meat and gasoline; nothing was 
wasted. I was too little to remember Vietnam, but it seems as if it was huge in 
the consciousness of the nation. People were watching their TVs every night, 
following each and every battle. The depth of the protests, the unrest; it spoke 
volumes about people's engagement with the war, with their country. This 
war hasn't gripped us, hasn't absorbed us like the other conflicts did. 

Recently, I went to the protests. When the one-thousandth soldier was 
killed in Iraq we took the girls to the candlelight vigil. We were interviewed 
by a news team. "It's not just the one thousand American soldiers who have 



200 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

died," I said. "It's all the Iraqis as well. This is about everyone who has suf- 
fered." Then I speak of you, my connection to the war, and I begin to cry. Of 
course this is what they show later on the eleven o'clock news, me crying. 

I don't know many others who are touched personally, and this is what 
bothers me. We are at war. We are spending inordinate amounts of our re- 
sources, yet we are not being asked to conserve, to cut back, here at home. 
The forty-five-million-dollar inaugural ball went on as scheduled. The Os- 
cars, the Super Bowl; we are a country out of touch. It is this, I fear, this lack 
of consciousness, this unwillingness to see the ugly things, to make the hard 
choices; this will destroy us faster than any terrorist could. I want some kind 
of recognition; hey, our people are dying over there. Our national dialogue 
should be loud and inflamed, we should be working day and night to figure 
out a way to handle this mess, not tuning in to American Idol. 

I have gotten only two e-mails from you. It blows my mind that I can re- 
ceive your e-mails, you, in the middle of a war zone, on a base in one of Sad- 
dam's old palaces. They were group e-mails, to all of us in the family; 
somewhat cheerful, describing your residence, the weather. When I asked 
Kim why we haven't heard from you, she says you can't always get online, but 
I know that's not true, because you pop up sometimes on my buddy list. You 
must have your reasons for wanting this distance. What would I do if I were 
there, in your position? Would I want to be reminded of my old life or would 
I just focus every little piece of my being on getting through the next mo- 
ment, the next day, making it home as whole as I could be? 

I picture what you are doing as a kind of death, a folding in of the soul, so 
that only the essential, survivalist parts peek out from thick cloth that hides 
everything else. A friend whose brother just came back described it— being 
there, the whole experience — as a suffocation. "He was stuck in a building 
most of the time and now he can't even go to the grocery store," she says. "The 
frickin' grocery store scares him speechless. It overwhelms him." She sighs. 
How do you come back from that, start chipping away at your life again? 

And what if you don't come back at all? When I allow myself to imagine 
the unimaginable, I think of a life without you. I imagine that your absence 
would fill even greater spaces than your presence. Your death is like a TV 
screen at three a.m., all gray and white and static. Quiet, really, but disturb- 
ing nonetheless, something that jolts us all awake. 

Here are the pictures of our last holiday together. Lilly and Aya look like 
two little flowers about to bloom, their bright faces upturned, towards the sun. 



WORLDSAPART 201 

They are wearing identical outfits like they insist on and each is wearing one 
of her own shoes and one of the other's. Their arms are wrapped tight around 
each other; Aya's curls boing up and away, Lilly's golden hair falls over both 
of their shoulders. They remind me of two strong trees. In the next one 
Chaundra is curled in the middle of them, a wild look on her face. All three 
are laughing, all in red and black and patent leather for Christmas. 

In this photograph you are laughing, head tilted back just a little, warmth 
in your eyes. Is this the one we will treasure, the one that will be passed down 
generation to generation? You are the keeper of the family lore; it is you who 
know all the cousins and second cousins and who doesn't talk to who and 
why. You have all the old photographs, the ones of Grandma Lola and Papa, 
of great-grandparents and uncles and everybody else. In this one Grandma 
Lola sits just so, Papa's hand on her shoulder. You cannot tell that they have 
known each other since childhood, loved each other almost as long. Is this 
what they dreamed of? That they would bear a son would who bear a son who 
would be sent to fight and maybe die in a country they have never even heard 
of? You always envision a better future for your children; otherwise, why have 
them? You don't envision death in a desert: bloody, gory, loud. 

A friend suggested that I give you something before you go, something 
spiritual, something sentimental, and at first I rejected the idea. I'd already 
given you something practical; the Leatherman Super Tool 200, which just 
made me cringe, knowing why you needed it, knowing where you'd be. "Not 
a knife, Kathy," she said. "Something real." "He'd laugh at me," I said, but the 
idea stayed with me. It gave me a kind of power, that I could offer you a small 
gift and you would know how much I cared. In fact, I began to realize that ex- 
pression of love is the only true power there is. 

So I did it. I bought a small green crystal. I don't know why I chose green; 
perhaps it reminded me of the earth, it reminded me of a feeling of safety. I 
waited until late one night to shove it into your hand. "Here," I said. "Take 
this with you, it's small enough." You had had a beer or two and the feeling 
was warm, light. You laughed, but it was a kind laugh, and I could tell that 
you appreciated it even if you didn't understand it. I could tell that I had done 
the right thing. 

"Kim gave me a cross blessed by the Pope, Mom gave me a rosary, and 
now this," you said. 

"Well, shit, if all that doesn't keep you safe I don't know what will," I 
joked. 



202 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

I would not cry. I did not cry. We went back to watching the movie we'd 
rented and I stopped thinking about what the future would hold, if, when I 
would see you again. One by one we peeled ourselves off the couch, tumbled 
into beds or sleeping bags throughout the house, so that I was alone, startled 
by loud static at four a.m. I turned off the TV and crawled onto the air mat- 
tress. I listened to everybody breathing around me; in, out, in, out. Aya 
moaned a little in her sleep then rolled away, one chubby arm flung over her 
smooth eyebrow. How many breaths would you be away? 

In, out, in, the most basic physiological function, what keeps us together. 
I fell asleep counting breaths instead of sheep, counting the minutes hours 
days until we could stop holding ours and have you with us, here, safe again. 
In, out, in. Safely now, almost there, one breath at a time. 

Furin's brother returned to the States in January 2006. 



TO COLONEL LISAGOR 

Poem 
Sara Lisagor 



More than one third of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are "civilian sol- 
diers''— members of the National Guard or reserve who, in many cases, 
have families and full-time jobs but can be called up for long periods of time 
if there is a war or national emergency. Most are in their early to mid- 
thirties. Dr. Philip Lisagor was fifty-eight when he left his wife, their two 
daughters, Sara and Jessica, and their home in Nevada to serve as deputy 
commander for clinical services of the U.S. Army's Second Medical Brigade 
in Iraq. Colonel Lisagor's almost seven-month tour of duty began in June 
2004 and his responsibilities included everything from overseeing the cre- 
ation of field hospitals (which meant he had to travel frequently through 
dangerous regions of Iraq) to performing trauma surgeries. Lisagor and his 
daughter Sara had actually become somewhat distant while she was in col- 
lege, but after he deployed overseas, Sara developed a greater appreciation 
for the sacrifices he was making. In the fall of 2004, she wrote the following 
poem for her father. 



WORLDSAPART 203 

Dirt, road salt, snow and oil 
smother the underbelly of our 
dinosaur Suburban. Daisy 
paws her ball under the steel 
carcass one more time. Shit. 
The frost gnaws through 
the knees of my jeans 
while I jab with a shovel 
at the tooth-rotten toy 
that soaks in a soup of slush 
between mud-drenched hubcaps 
on the snow tires you bought. 
I see you, eleven hours 
away, hunched over just like me. 
You curse under your breath, 
scanning beneath your Humvee 
for traces of a car bomb. 

In December 2004, Colonel Lisagor returned home and went back to his job 
as the chairman of surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in 
Reno, Nevada. 



DOWN THE ROAD 
Personal Narrative 
Anne Miren Berry 



Focusing on the future helps many family members on the home front cope 
with the anxiety of waiting for a loved one serving abroad. They often visu- 
alize and plan for everything from the joyful "Welcome Back!" celebration 
to larger, more long-term matters such as whether or not they will move to a 
new town or city, have (more) children, further their education, or start a 
different career. Anne Miren Berry and her husband, Lieutenant Colonel 
Joel Berry, were living in North Carolina when he was shipped off to Iraq 
for six months in January 2003 — three months before the invasion began — 



204 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, ist Marine Expeditionary 
Force. During her husband's deployment, Berry looked for coastal property 
where she and Joel would build their retirement house one day. In the fol- 
lowing piece, Berry reflects on the life that she envisioned the two of them 
sharing once he came home— and the jarring realization that, in the con- 
text of a war, even the hope of having such dreams can often seem futile. 



I didn't have a box for that first care package. All I had was a jumble of baby 
wipes, Gatorade bottles, and a Valentine's Day card, which was hard to 
find in early January, but the package could take weeks to reach my Joel, who 
was steaming on a ship toward the Middle East. I knew exactly where he was 
going, and so did everybody else, but the official word we families had was 
that his ship would be standing by in the Arabian Gulf. 

I didn't wait to send a care package, because I couldn't stand the thought 
of Joel unable to bathe under a fierce sun and sinking into the relentless itch- 
ing, thick, filth of his cammies. I worried that he would be thirsty, lips crack- 
ing and throat ragged, but have nothing he actually enjoyed drinking. I knew 
that regardless of the timeless, day-in and day-out rhythm of war, he would 
pause on February 14 and wonder why I hadn't sent a sentimental card. 

So I stood in the post office line, watching the backs of people's heads as 
they muttered and sighed. After twenty minutes, I stepped out of that line and 
drove a few blocks to the Mail It store. 

There was a chime on the door, but I didn't need it to announce my en- 
trance. The Mail It shop was empty except for the woman behind the 
counter, tan and sturdy and with curly brown hair in a bouffant bubble. She 
looked at my bag. 

"You're gonna need a number nine for that," she said, sizing me up. I 
dumped my bag on the counter as she plucked a flat box off the shelf. 
"Where's this going, sugar?" 

I wasn't sure, exactly, how the mail would make it to his ship, when its lo- 
cation changed with every knot left in its wake, but I dug around my purse for 
the scrap paper with the address he'd left me. I flattened it on the counter, a 
mess of numbers that made no sense. The only human touch was Joel's full 
name and rank, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

"Oh, you poor thing," the Mail It lady said, lining the box with crumpled 
newspaper. "You'll need to fill out a customs form, just tell 'em what you're 



WORLDSAPART 205 

sending. Only don't write down the coffee, they don't like to see that. They'll 
open this box as sure as I'm standin' here." 

"What about these?" My voice rose as I pulled out a pack of photographs. 
"These have no value. I don't know what to write on the form." 

"Now, sugar, don't worry," the Mail It lady said, putting a wrinkled hand 
over mine. Her fingernails were a cotton candy pink. I read the name pinned 
to her green polo shirt. 

"It's just— well, these pictures, Sandy, I took them last week," I babbled. 
"I took pictures of the waterfront property we're going to buy when he gets 
back." Sandy's was the first kind face I'd seen all day, and I had the urge to run 
behind the counter and lay my head on her shoulder and have her stroke my 
hair. 

"Let's see what we've got here," Sandy said, prying open the sleeve of 
prints. "Aren't these pretty." 

They were landscapes, void of all people except for a man in the back cor- 
ner of one shot. I told her that was Esley Brown, the first realtor who'd re- 
turned my call. 

His office was in Oriental, a sleepy waterside resort town at the far end of a 
country road. 

I got lost driving to his office, so it was nearly lunchtime when I first met 
him. I shook his hand and passed him a carton of fried chicken. It was a 
breezy January day, but I also brought iced sodas. 

"Well, isn't this a hoot!" he said, steering his car with one hand while wav- 
ing drumsticks with the other, pointing out the marina and the restaurants 
and the schools. "You have kids?" he asked. 

"No," I said, not knowing how to explain that, although I was thirty-five 
years old and had been married nearly a decade, Joel and I couldn't commit 
to a baby. We sometimes played roulette in the dark, exuberantly taking up 
the dare, but really it was something we kept postponing. Even Joel's deploy- 
ment for war didn't make us want to try harder. 

"I won't be here if you freak out," Joel had told me. 

"Maybe we should try, just in case," I'd said, and the "in case" immedi- 
ately soured on my tongue, because I always felt he was coming back to me. 
He'd come back, and life would be good again; better, in fact, because Esley 
Brown was going to find for me a dream property on the Pamlico Sound, and 
that's a future I saw clearly, Joel and me and a house overlooking the water. 



206 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

I would be a history professor with slack hours and an office in our sun- 
room. I'd grade exams and watch Joel sit on the dock with a fishing pole, and 
he'd wave to me whenever he got a bite. Our house would be white, or maybe 
it would be brick, and it would for sure have a wraparound porch, and we'd 
entertain family in the summer with barbecues and poolside picnics. His par- 
ents and my parents would drive down together and argue over who got 
which guest room, but it wouldn't matter because each would have a suite 
with its own bathroom and a view of the water. And while I was baking bis- 
cuits and tossing German potato salad, Joel would hug me from behind, and 
we'd fit together with warm perfection. 

Sometimes there was a little girl in our picture; never a baby or older than 
a toddler, but sometimes she didn't exist either. 

"How much can you spend?" Esley Brown had asked me. I told him about 
Joel's war pay, which wouldn't be taxed and which, if I saved it carefully, 
would be enough for a down payment on some fine waterside Carolina dirt. 

Esley Brown winked and stepped on the gas, hurtling down gravel roads 
to raw neighborhoods, tracts of land marked off with tiny red flags, some with 
signs that read sold or under contract and next to sweeping views of the 
wide-open Pamlico Sound. Those prices stunned me, much more than we 
could afford, even if all we ever did was park a trailer on that waterfront. 

So Esley Brown downshifted, driving me to property along the less ex- 
pansive Intracoastal Waterway, and that's when I took out the camera. I 
stepped to the back of the property line for the wide angle and then walked to 
the edge and snapped the waterline. 

Esley Brown watched me and smoked. Even these lots were overpriced, 
and bigger than our budget allowed, but just barely. 

As the bucket of chicken emptied, Esley Brown took me to pockets of 
marsh property, tiny lots that were cut into weird angles with only a foot or 
two along the waterfront, or that had a half mile of wetlands to be crossed. I 
reluctantly took pictures here, as Esley Brown remarked that these lots 
flooded during hurricanes— we could be trapped for days — but these were 
the properties we could definitely afford, or at least we could once six months' 
hazardous duty pay made it into our bank account. Six months. That's what I 
was counting on, though Joel had told me not to count on anything. 

"We don't even know if there will be a war," Joel had said, though I knew 
he didn't really mean that, not with the posturing and threats and deadlines 
to meet. 



WORLDSAPART 207 

"Before he left, we promised to think of each other every day, at the same 
time," I told Sandy as she fit the photos into the box and began to bind it shut. 
"Do you know what the time difference is over there?" 

She looked at me. "Eight hours. My son is there, too." 

I promised to ask Joel if he knew Sandy's son, Corporal Tom, whenever we 
spoke next, but I lied. I would get only two phone calls in the month before 
Joel's ship pulled up to Kuwait, and each call was crackled and full of mysteri- 
ous clicks and awful feedback that made it impossible to be spontaneous, our 
voices tripping over each other before he disappeared for good, in midsentence. 

Sandy told me about her son. He was twenty years old and was born with 
so much thick black hair he'd needed his first haircut only a month later. 
Now in the U.S. Army, he shaved down to his scalp every other week. 

He was tall and loved to tell jokes to make his mama blush. His favorite 
home-cooked meal was rib-eye steak on the grill, so when Sandy sent him 
care packages, her boxes were filled with next-best beef jerky and pepperoni 
sticks. She was working on a way to send him homemade biscuits. 

"Mm boy, Mama, please send more," Corporal Tom wrote to her on the 
side of an MRE box, which told her he'd eaten Mexican rice that day. 

I finally began getting letters, too; short messages in envelopes that had traces 
of Iraqi sand in them. 

"Great!" Joel had underlined three times, about my pictures. Some wives 
sent their husbands photos of themselves, glamorous studio shots that over- 
looked their everyday crooked-buttoned shirts and worn-down fingernails. 
Sometimes soldiers got pictures of children taking a first step, or dogs with a 
new litter, but Joel liked mine very well. 

He asked me for more details about the bridge-side property in Oriental, 
across from the marina, where he could see our lives unfold together, could 
see the rocking chairs, side by side on that front porch. If he saw our little girl, 
too, he never let me know. 

He also didn't tell me about the things he saw on his ride to Baghdad. I 
watched the news while I packed each box, one eye on the sandstorms and 
ambushes and prisoners, ours and theirs; the children clamoring for candy as 
American tanks rumbled past. 

"You might say this is the highlight of my military career," he wrote wryly. 
"Keep the pictures coming." So I did, color pages I ripped out of realtor web- 
sites and magazines. 



208 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Esley Brown called me one day to tell me that the bridge lot had gone off 
the market. The buyer had paid twenty-five thousand dollars over the asking 
price. He said he'd find me another property, and made me swear I would 
call him when Joel returned. 

I didn't know when that would be, until the families were told to stop 
sending letters and boxes. Our Marines were coming home. I'd miss placing 
my tokens of love into that plain cardboard box, size No. 9, but soon I'd have 
the real thing in my arms. 

Even without the care packages, I found a reason to go back to Mail It. I 
wanted them to print two banners, one for me and one for Joel's parents to 
wave on the day of his homecoming. I wanted OUR hero and welcome 
home to be big enough to see from the helicopter as it neared the families. 

I blew into the Mail It store, full of plans for the Saturday of Joel's return, 
but behind the counter stood another woman, a younger woman who looked 
politely but coolly at me. 

"Where's Sandy?" I asked. 

"Delaware," she said. 

And that's when I knew. 

Sandy was headed to Dover Air Force Base to meet the flag-draped casket 
of her only son, killed the week before, I would later learn, when his Hummer 
came under enemy fire. Corporal Tom and three other soldiers died that day. 

I returned to Mail It to pick up my banners, but Sandy wasn't coming 
back. She was moving, the new woman told me, going to live with her daugh- 
ter in Florida. 

I foolishly clutched the banner poles. How could I have presumed a 
happy ending for any of us? Why hadn't I been more aware that my story 
could have ended just as badly as Sandy's? 

I wondered how we had handled the silence in our homes, waiting for our 
lives to resume, hoping when they did that they would somehow be the same 
as we remembered. I wondered how any of us had let these men go. 

After leaving Mail It with my banners, I came home to a message from Esley 
Brown. His voice was excited for me. He'd found property he was sure we'd 
like, but I'd have to come right away and see for myself. 

I stared at the answering machine, its light no longer blinking. I deleted 
his message that day, and the one he left me the following week. I swept the 






WORLDS APART 209 

real estate brochures into the trash. I kept my copies of the pictures in an en- 
velope inside the third drawer of my rolltop desk, under the take-out menus, 
just in case. 

Joel did come back to me, in a flurry of chopper blades on a hot June day, and 
I handed off my banner to a friend as I ran across the landing field to greet my 
Marine. 

As we embraced, I cried, "It's you. Oh, it's you!" 

And I knew then that the sustenance of our time apart, the pictures of our 
waterfront property, were mirages as surely as if he'd seen them in the desert. 
The only future I needed was in my arms, clinging to me in rough cammies 
that now outsized him, and wherever our future home was, it only mattered 
that he was the one to hold my hand as we sat on the front porch, our rockers 
going in perfect rhythm. 



SAFEKEEPING 

Fiction 
Commander Kathleen Toomey Jabs 



Kathleen Toomey Jabs entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1984 at age 
eighteen (she graduated, with honors, in the top fifty of her class) and was 
commissioned as an officer in 1988. Jabs is currently a commander in the 
Navy Reserve and assigned to the office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs 
of Staff. In the spring of 2003, Jabs was rushing through the Baltimore/ 
Washington International Airport on her way to report for reserve duty, 
when an incident occurred that inspired her to write a story about a female 
sailor heading off to the Middle East. Although this is a work of fiction, the 
sentiments expressed are ones that, for Jabs and her husband (a Navy com- 
mander who deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2004), strike very close to home. 



Five days after the notification, Brenda Croce, wearing fresh-pressed 
Navy summer whites, urged her four-year-old son, Tommy, through the 
rain and into the revolving airport doors. She was a long-legged, sinewy 
woman with short-clipped hair and dark purple crescents under her eyes. For 



210 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

the past week, she had been living on pots of coffee and sleeping only three 
or four hours a night. In her arms she carried two green duffel bags, a binder 
of official papers, orders, and tickets, and a wooden, two-foot-long, half-bald 
hobbyhorse. Rain glazed her uniform. She shook herself off in the doorway 
and removed Tommy's jacket, tucking it under a duffel-bag strap. In the dis- 
tance a disembodied voice made announcements, calling out departures and 
reminding passengers not to leave their bags unattended. Brenda checked her 
watch. 

"Hey buddy, we gotta catch your flight. You ready? Can you run?" she 
asked. 

Tommy stood rooted, brown eyes wide, fists pressed under his chin. 
Brenda handed him the horse and told him to ride it. He pulled the horse in 
close and whispered something before he started off in a slow shuffle. Brenda 
smiled at him, and, after shifting the bags on her shoulders, they trotted past 
food stalls and down the long corridor of vendors and ticket counters. At the 
security check-through, the line snaked down the corridor past the restrooms 
about fifty people deep. So much for advance planning, she thought. She 
found the end of the line and glanced at the clock on the wall. First the late 
cab, then the traffic, now this. She slung her bag to the floor and began to tap 
her foot. It was Tommy's first flight alone and she was supposed to have him 
in place ninety minutes early. The departure monitor showed the plane 
would begin boarding in less than half an hour. Knowing her parents, Brenda 
thought they were probably already waiting at the arrival gate on their end. 

When she received the recall orders, she had phoned them first. Tommy's 
father was out of the country, out of money, and out of their lives as far as she 
was concerned. Her father had assured her yes, of course, Tommy could stay 
with them, they'd love to have him, and then her mother had added in a 
mournful drawl, I told you this would happen. Brenda had recited the lines 
she'd rehearsed, her own rationalization cloaked in duty. My numbers up. At 
least Tommy has health care. If I go AWOL, Yll he "away" a lot longer. Her 
mother had held her tongue after that and Brenda had excused herself and 
hung up the phone. She continued working her way down the check-off 
sheet: bills to prepay, notices to give, copies of orders for her employer, forms 
and more forms to fill out. The orders activated her for a year, but the stay 
could be extended. 

The line for baggage check inched forward. Brenda strained to see what 



WORLDSAPART 211 

the holdup was. She had no idea what she would do if Tommy missed his 
flight. He had to make it, she thought. He just had to. 

Finally, it was her turn. Brenda showed her military ID to the first secu- 
rity guard, who nodded for her to go on, calling out, "Line five," in a bored 
voice. She led Tommy to the scanner and stacked her bags in plastic bins. Se- 
curity guards stood at both ends of the conveyor belt. As she approached the 
checkpoint, the first guard called her back. "You need to remove your shoes 
and belt," he said. 

"My belt?" She pointed at the anodized silver buckle. 

He nodded. 

"What about all this?" She gestured towards the silver chief petty officer 
insignia on her collar and the warfare pin and rows of ribbons over her left 
pocket. "I'm a metal detector's dream. I don't see what difference the belt is 
going to make." She unfastened the silver buckle and placed the belt in a bin 
on top of her shoes and purse. "Go on, Tommy. Put the horse on the machine 
and walk toward the man. Mommy will be right behind you." 

Tommy walked through the scanner and looked back to watch her. As she 
expected, the detector beeped as she walked through it. 

"Over here please," a guard said. He pointed for her to step behind a clear 
screen and called out "Female." Brenda motioned for Tommy to follow. A 
short woman in a blue uniform with a gold star approached. She told Brenda 
to spread her legs as if she were taking a step forward and then she ran a metal 
wand along Brenda's inner and outer thighs and squatted down to pat the legs 
of her trousers. The guard stood up and waved the wand across Brenda's back. 
The wand made a dinging noise and the woman said, "I'm going to touch 
you. I have to verify your bra has an underwire." 

"Fine," Brenda said. 

She felt a nudge along her spine and then the warm pressure of the 
guard's fingers along her ribs. She knew she should act agreeable; it wasn't 
the woman's fault. It was all standard operating procedure. Brenda knew the 
drill. She suspected she would be doing something similar by the end of the 
week. Her orders were to fly to Fort Bliss, join the other Navy stragglers, pick 
up body armor, cammies, and an M-16, and then catch a hop into Kuwait. 
She was an electronics technician, but rumor had it that everyone without a 
hard billet was pulling security duty. 

While the woman finished patting up and down her arms, Brenda no- 



212 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ticed Tommy staring at them. His hands were clenched into fists and balled 
under his chin so that his face seemed contorted. When had that started? she 
wondered, or had Tommy been doing it all along and now that she was leav- 
ing she was more aware of it? She tried to shake off her worry. It was probably 
nothing. By nature, Tommy was a quiet child, timid even. She thought of 
him as an old soul, gentle and resigned to the constant shuffling of their life. 
"It's okay, bud," she said. "I'll be done in a minute." 

The female guard handed Brenda her shoes and Brenda slipped them on 
and walked over to the conveyor belt to claim the bags. The hobbyhorse was 
leaning against a felt partition, off to the side. When she went to pick it up, 
another security guard stopped her. "You can't take that," he said. 

She assumed he was joking. "Don't worry, I'm a sailor. I ride ships, not 
horses," she said. "It's my son's. It plays music." She pressed the head of the 
hobbyhorse and a canned version of the Lone Ranger theme music crackled 
around them. 

"You can't carry it on. You'll have to check it in." 

Brenda looked at her watch and then at the line of people waiting behind 
the security checkpoint. Fifteen minutes until boarding. "I don't have time to 
go back through this line." 

"I'm sorry but you can't take the horse." 

"What do they think my son's going to do?" she asked. "Ride it in the 
aisles? It's not like it's some secret rifle. You have my word of honor." She held 
up her hand like a scout. 

"Step over here please, ma'am," the guard told her. 

"What'd I do?" Her heart started to pound and her cheeks flushed. 

"What's wrong, Mommy?" Tommy asked. His fists were pressing against 
his chin so hard she could see the whites of his knuckles. 

"The man wants Blackie." She bit her lip. "He doesn't think you should 
take Blackie on the plane." 

"Why?" 

"He's . . ." 

"What's the problem here?" asked the new guard. She assumed he was 
the supervisor; he wore gold bars on his collar. 

She shot a look at the first guard and twirled the stick horse in her hand 
like a baton. "My son's horse." 

The supervisor picked up the horse and shook it. He batted the handle 
against his arm and smacked it into his palm. "I'm sorry, ma'am, this can't go." 



WORLDSAPART 213 

"There's nothing on the sign about hobbyhorses," she said. She pointed at 
the posted list of banned items, which showed pictures of scissors, golf clubs, 
box cutters, nail files, razors, knitting needles, but no horses. 

"The handle is wood," the guard said. 

"My son's four. I don't think he's planning to pound down the cockpit 
door. I doubt it would work anyway. He'd have to bat a stewardess first." 

The guard's eyes were flat. He squinted at her a little, and she saw that he 
was young and unschooled. He lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth. She was 
seized with a sudden panic. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean anything," she said. 
"Bad joke. Forget it." 

She squatted down so she could look Tommy in the eye and spoke in a 
voice of forced calmness. "Tommy, can you be brave? We can't take Blackie. 
I'll ask Nana and Grampa to get you a new horse. A better one. Okay?" 

"I want Blackie," Tommy said. His eyes widened and she saw that he was 
going to cry. Not here. Not now, she thought. The time for tears had passed. 
Now she was in the groove, executing the plan. Put Tommy on the plane. 
Catch her own flight. Report for indoc. Deploy. She had ten minutes to find 
Tommy's gate. Her own flight left in an hour. 

She took a deep breath. "They'll feed Blackie here," she said. "I think it 
would be too hot for him in Atlanta. You know how humid it gets in the sum- 
mer. Blackie's not used to that." 

"Really?" Tommy asked. 

"Blackie is a special horse," she said quickly. "He has secret special pow- 
ers. Like the way he talks to you and the way he listens. If he stays here, 
they'll put him in a paddock with all the other confiscated toys and keep him 
safe." 

"What's confiscated?" 

It was the wrong word, Brenda thought. It sounded too negative, and 
Tommy couldn't possibly understand it. The refrain "Ask me no questions 
and I'll tell you no lies" flashed through her mind. She had told Tommy only 
the barest facts about an important Navy job Mommy needed to do, and all 
disguised in a story about a wonderful visit to Nana and Grampa. It was the 
same thing the Navy was doing with her. Who knew what anyone really be- 
lieved; nothing was happening as expected, but the orders were valid and 
needed to be obeyed. At some level she believed the stories and all the talk 
saved you; you had to fall back on them or you would go mad. She leaned in 
towards Tommy and spoke in a soft voice. "I meant special. Very special. 



214 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Blackie's going to make new friends. Bears and lions and tigers. Maybe some 
dolls." 

"Oh." His eyes brightened. 

"They have lots of good food here. They'll keep him safe and maybe, 
when we come back, we can get him. He'll be all fattened up. How about it?" 

Tommy glanced at the horse and then back at her. His voice shook a lit- 
tle. "When can we get him?" 

"When we come back." 

"When?" 

"It won't be too long. Just long enough for Blackie to have a good adven- 
ture. And for you, too. A little time apart . . ." She stopped abruptly. She bit 
her lip and pressed her eyes shut; she felt dizzy and a little woozy. Her whole 
insides seemed to be churning. When she opened her eyes, Tommy was star- 
ing at her. 

"What's wrong, Mommy?" 

She gripped the orders and stood and shook out her legs. She had no idea 
how long she would be gone or if she would be back at all. "I'm okay, bud. I 
can't bend like I used to." She felt her heart quiver and tighten. The din 
around her was almost overwhelming: suitcases slapping the belt, guards call- 
ing for IDs, radios buzzing, and overhead the announcements kept coming. 
In the midst of all the noise, she heard a slight rustle and saw Tommy move 
towards Blackie. He patted the horse on the neck and pressed its ear and the 
scratchy familiar music floated out. He whispered something in the horse's 
ear and then he turned away and walked towards her without looking back at 
the horse. 

"What'd you tell him?" she asked. 

"Goodbye," he said. 

"That's it?" 

"I said he has to be brave." 

Her eyes started to burn. Everything was loud and bright. Tommy slipped 
his hand into hers, and she clasped the small fingers and squeezed them 
hard. Her heart, she thought, had seized; she couldn't think up any lie to 
numb the pain. She stood immobile until Tommy tugged on her arm. "Okay, 
Mommy, time to go," he said. He pulled her forward and led her into the 
crowd heading for the gate. 



WORLDSAPART 215 



DEAR BABY 
Letter 

Staff Sergeant Sharon McBride 



The daughter of a Vietnam veteran who was killed on active duty, Sharon 
McBride joined the U.S. Army herself to— in her words— "repay" the mili- 
tary for covering her college expenses and taking care of her. (McBride was 
three when her father died.) After spending fourteen months in the Middle 
East in support of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi 
Freedom, Staff Sergeant McBride returned to the United States in the sum- 
mer of 2003 and was assigned to Fort Richardson, Alaska. Although her 
sense of pride was undiminished, McBride did not romanticize military life 
and recognized full well how arduous it could be. Months after she moved 
to Alaska, McBride, thirt)?-four years old at the time, knew it was about to 
get even more difficult; she was pregnant and would probably have to raise 
the child on her own. (McBride and the child's father had separated.) Two 
months before her daughter was born, McBride wrote the following letter. 

Dear baby: 

As you grow inside me, I have been thinking more and more of what it 
means to be a mommy in the U.S. Army. 

Let me be the first to tell you, though, that we have a rough road ahead of 
us, kiddo. The life of a soldier isn't an easy one. 

Already in the seven years that I've been in the Army, I've spent a lot of 
time away from home. It's very rare that I get to spend holidays with my fam- 
ily. And more and more I see my friends and comrades departing on deploy- 
ments that send them far away from their families for extended lengths of 
time. And I have a feeling that life isn't going to get any easier, sweetie. 

And, although we have been given a reprieve of sorts, I have a feeling it 
won't be too long after you are born that I, too, will be asked to go away— 
again. 

It seems, my dear, that there are too many nasty people in this world that 
feel like they need to oppress, suffocate and stamp out human pride and free- 
dom among their fellow man. 

Why, sweetie? I don't know. But these men seem to be everywhere. Every 



216 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

day when I turn on the news, there's a different man in a different part of the 
world that's making life unbearable for others. 

As a soldier, I have given my word that if the call comes for me to do my 
part in making the world a better place to live, I'll go. No hesitation. No ques- 
tions asked. 

That call was a lot easier to answer when I didn't have you— when I just 
had myself to think about. Now, as a future parent, I can see why some single 
mommies choose to get out of the Army, but my resolve is true. 

I know baby, this is going to be hard for you to understand. You're going 
to want your mommy and she'll be far, far away. 

I'm going to miss a lot of important things — perhaps many of your firsts: 
birthdays, holidays, you know, all the good stuff. But, I am a soldier. It's a pro- 
fession that few choose, but one that the many don't hesitate to call when 
there's trouble to be fixed. That's our job; our mission in life: to help others 
that can't seem to help themselves. 

But, take comfort in the fact that there are going to be other children that 
will not only be missing their mommies but daddies too. 

Many families have gone down this road before us. We won't be the first. 

And we certainly won't be the last. So, if they can do it, surely we can do 
it too. 

While we are together, though, I promise to hold you a bit longer than 
necessary, read the story about the purple dinosaur as many times as you 
want, fix your favorite food for dinner, kiss you a lot, hold your hand and take 
as many photos of you as possible. Memories of these things will have to sus- 
tain us while we are apart. 

Just take heart that being an Army baby won't be all bad. There will be 
sweets to go with the sour. You'll get to travel and see other cultures that other 
kids won't get to see. There will always be food on the table and clothes on 
your back. If you get sick, you will always have medicine to make you feel 
better. 

Some children in the world don't even have shoes. I know, because I've 
seen them. 

So, as you grow stronger and bigger inside me, I can only hope and pray 
that you remember the lessons I will teach while we are together and that 
they will help you when we are apart: Always share your cookies, never call 
names, remember to say "I'm sorry" if you are wrong, wash behind your ears 
and brush your teeth, and say "I love you" every chance you get. 



WO R L D S A PA RT 217 

Lastly, don't forget to pray for Mommy and the other parents that often 
have to be so far away from their little ones. We don't want to leave, but some- 
times duty calls. 

Love Forever, 
Mommy 



On February 6, 2004, McBride gave birth to a healthy eight-pound, twelve- 
ounce baby girl, whom she named Lyssa Bree. Two years later, McBride re- 
ceived orders to deploy overseas once again. 



MANNING THE HOME FRONT 

Personal Narrative 

Peter Madsen 



"I am a single father of three, a sometimes retail and distribution manager, 
and a husband," Peter Madsen wrote in the summer of 2004 from Fort 
Bragg, North Carolina. "My wife, Specialist Juliet C. Madsen, is an Army 
Medic stationed in Iraq." The high number of female troops heading off to 
war has created a relatively new social phenomenon: the single-parent, 
home-front husband. Madsen himself had been in the military for nine 
years before retiring in 1999 after breaking his back in an accident His wife, 
Juliet, was in the Army Reserve before the launch of Operation Iraqi Free- 
dom and went back on active duty March 30, 2004. She deployed two 
months later, leaving Peter and their three children— Tyler (age eleven), 
Joshua (ten), and Erin (seven) — behind in North Carolina. 



hen I first thought about my wife going over there, in the desert, I 
had to smile; even she will admit that she looks a little funny with all 
her gear on. Juliet is tiny and childlike buried beneath a mound of fatigues 
and body armor. Blond wisps of hair escape from under her Kevlar helmet. I 
could never have imagined this very attractive, blond waif of a girl going to 
war, but there she is. 

She works at one of the Theater Internment Facilities (TIF) we have 




218 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

heard so much about since "the pictures" came out, and she provides med- 
ical care and comfort to the prisoners. Some of them are Iraqis who have 
been caught up in the maelstrom of war and it's not clear how dangerous they 
are, but others are bombers and killers. I smile less when I think of my wife in 
the company of these individuals. I am a civilian now but I was an officer and 
Army aviator, and I know what war does to people. I know my wife's suffering. 
I hear it on the phone and see it in her letters. 

We were a typical American family until Juliet went back on active duty 
in hopes of entering the Army's Physician's Assistant Program. I supported 
her quest then and I still do today. She is a very beautiful woman, an excel- 
lent student (3.98 GPA and National Honor Society member), a fabulous 
mother, and the love of my life. I will support her in anything that she wants 
to do. I had my turn and now it is hers. 

She was in North Carolina, and I was at home in New York, sick in bed, 
when she called me with the news of her impending deployment to Iraq. I 
have made those calls to her before and yet, despite that and a daily dose of 
CNN, I was stunned. We agreed not to tell the kids until I brought them to 
her in North Carolina. We hoped the closeness would somehow minimize 
the reality of the message. 

We decided to move to Fort Bragg so the kids and I would be surrounded 
by other military families. It had helped when I had been deployed, and we 
assumed it would be the same when my wife was gone. 

Lesson #1: Just because they have changed the name to "Spouses' Club" 
from "Wives' Club" does not mean that men are welcome. 

Lesson #2: If I were deployed, I'm not sure that I would feel comfortable 
with my wife hanging out with the husbands of other soldiers. 

Ultimately, I felt totally alone. 

When Juliet first left for Iraq, I didn't do as well as I thought I might. I sat 
in bed telling myself over and over that I could do this. Then the panic set in, 
and I cried. I had no idea how to get the kids to school on time let alone how 
to feed them on a daily basis. I was simply not prepared for this. Apparently 
our wives do more than sit around eating bonbons and watching the Home 
Shopping Network. The list of things that keep a house in running order 
doesn't just get done by itself, and that was pretty apparent in our home 
within days of Juliet's departure. 

The house was a mess, the laundry pile grew daily, and the kids were be- 
coming rather unimpressed by the menu selection. I was lying on the couch 



WORLDS APART 219 

watching Oprah on TiVo one evening after work when they gathered around 
me. The eldest cleared her throat. "Dad," she said, then paused for a moment 
to gather her thoughts. "Dad, we don't really like pizza that much anymore." 

I looked at the younger two, and they were nodding rather emphatically. 
Being a good father, I realized we needed to make a change. 

Two weeks later, they came back. This time Joshua, my middle child, 
spoke. "Dad, we don't like Chinese either." 

My wife had made me a list of all the important things that I should re- 
member while she was away. It was long but it could not be all-inclusive. She 
was pressed for time as she was getting ready to leave and most of it represents 
the expected. Bills, vet appointments, and school records were there. A re- 
minder to transfer medical records and set up school physicals was on the list 
too. Daughter's hair appointment was not. 

It isn't like I hadn't been a parent before (just not a single one), so I was 
pretty confident that I could successfully add one or two things to the list on my 
own. Well, I was wrong. Tyler is eleven and was starting the seventh grade. Like 
her mother, she is a tiny thing. She was nervous about going to a new school 
where she knows no one, so I was determined to make it a good beginning. 

Knowing she wanted to look nice on her first day, I offered to take her to 
the barbershop just off post. She provided me with a resounding "NO!" 

Lesson #3: Girls do not go to barbershops. 

Several days later, after some serious thought, I hoped to make the situa- 
tion right. I announced that we could go and get her hair done at a beauty 
salon. She threw her arms around me and kissed me, thanked me, and told 
me that she loved me. I have rarely felt so alive as I did just then. At moments 
like that, I realized that I could do this. My children have a deep connection 
with their mother, and I have watched them grieve over this loss of her. They 
are good to me and we are building a wonderful new relationship, but I can- 
not light them up the way that she does. Watching my daughter smile, I 
began to think I might have mommy magic too. 

The big day came and Tyler and I went to the mall to find a hair salon. 

Lesson #4: Apparently, you are supposed to make an appointment before 
going to these places. 

We went blindly in search of a salon that would trim her hair and add 
some highlights. I'm told that is the "in" thing to do, and I wanted to help my 
little girl be cool. After an intensive search, we found a salon that would take 
her right away and, after several minutes of conversation, we agreed on a trim 



220 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

with blond and honey highlights. Proud of my success with Tyler, I set off to 
find a good coffee and a quiet bench to sit on while I waited. 

I returned to see Tyler under the dryer. She was smiling and laughing 
with the girl next to her. I felt a connection with her and was so proud of my- 
self for adding this special item to our list. After twenty more minutes she 
came out smiling, twirled around, and asked me what I thought. 

I can only imagine what I looked like standing there with my mouth 
hanging open. My daughter has long, beautiful, strawberry blond hair with 
the natural wave that most women pay for. She has sparkling blue eyes, and I 
am terrified of the boys who will surely come calling over the next few years. 
I did not expect the red, almost burgundy, streaks running through her hair. 

Whatever my expression looked like, it was enough to make her face go 
ashen. Then, I really blew it. "What did you do to your hair? What on heaven 
and earth did you do to your hair?" 

I paid the stylist, grabbed my daughter's hand, and almost ran towards the 
car. I muttered and grumbled to myself along the way. As we pulled out of the 
mall parking lot, I raged on and on about her hair and her mother and what 
kind of trouble I was in. I did not notice Tyler's silence until we hit the first 
stoplight, a mile down the road. She was lying on the back seat of the mini- 
van crying quietly so as not to interrupt my diatribe. 

I have never felt so small or so inadequate. 

Realizing my mistake, I apologized to her. I told her how much I loved 
her and that I was sorry for being a boob. Once her hair dried more, the high- 
lights really did look good, bringing out the natural color of her hair. We went 
home to take pictures for her mom of her cool new haircut. We e-mailed 
them to her and surprisingly, given the eight-hour time difference between 
North Carolina and Nasiriyah, Iraq, Juliet e-mailed back almost immediately. 
She wrote that she loved the new haircut, and Tyler beamed. 

Over time, I learned how to be a father and a mother. It does not always 
go well. Sociologists and psychologists would have an absolute blast in my 
home. I could write a book about what not to say to young children. I've said 
them all in just a few weeks. The good news is that I don't think that I have 
scarred them permanently. I start each day with "I love you" and end it the 
same way. At night they sneak into my bed, kiss me quietly, and whisper, "I 
love you, Daddy." This is a new world where our mothers, sisters, daughters, 
and wives go to war. Gentlemen, we had better get prepared. 



WORLDSAPART 221 

I'm not sure when it happened, but one day I walked into my house and 
looked at the dirty dishes, the dirty clothes, the dirty kids, and the light came 
on. I cleaned up and did the laundry. I sent three grumbling maniacs to the 
bathtub and I made dinner. Joshua, my ten-year-old, said it still sucked but he 
ate it. (Lesson #5: Hunger makes anything palatable.) The next morning, 
Erin, my seven-year-old daughter, said I didn't kiss as good as Mommy. She 
kissed me twice so I could practice. Tyler cleaned the house for me while I 
was out the next day. It was spotless. An amazing transformation was taking 
place. Life was perfect! Our lives were running smoothly. 

And then we hit a rough patch. No one liked my spaghetti and, on one 
particular evening, no one wanted to be tucked in. My wife had recently fig- 
ured out how to instant-message online with her friends and really didn't 
have time for me that night. It takes hours to get a chance at fifteen minutes 
on the computer or phone, so it's not always fun to hear a broken husband 
whining on the other end, and I was whining long and hard. 

I can't say that it was an easy day. I can't say that it was an easy week, and 
I can't say that this has been an easy month. I can say that we are making it 
one day at a time. I have killed two goldfish and a hamster, and I have ruined 
at least three loads of laundry. The good news is that once you turn every- 
thing pink, it stays pink. The fish went to the porcelain graveyard with snick- 
ers from the older kids and a somber eulogy from the youngest. The hamster 
has a place of honor and a cross in the backyard. 

I have learned what our soldier's wives have lived for generations: hope 
and grief and perseverance. I find humor with my children every day. When 
you are seven, two wrongs really do make a right. Seventh-graders can be 
cruel to one another, but fathers can make it better. Why would you wash the 
minivan with a steel-wool brush? I don't know, but her heart was in the right 
place. 

Each morning when I wake up, I kiss my children and hold them close. 
We talk about Mom and the war, but we leave CNN off. We go to bed each 
night and all say one prayer: "God, please bring our mommy home safe. She 
is always in our hearts and in our thoughts and we can hardly wait to have her 
home with us." I say an extra prayer, too, just for me: "Thank you, God, for 
giving me this time with my children." 

I don't know where our story will end. I just know that we make it through 
each day with love and laughter, and that is good enough for now. 



222 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

In September 2004, Madsen received a distressing phone call informing 
him that his wife had been rushed to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Fa- 
cility Center in Germany. Specialist Juliet Madsen had suffered massive 
and prolonged heat-related injuries that had damaged both her brain and 
central nervous system, and she was eventually flown back to Fort Bragg to 
recuperate. Juliet was medically retired from the Army in January 2006, and 
the long-term impact of her injuries is not known. 



HURTFUL WORDS 

Journal 
Ruth Mostek 



They know that the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have it worse. But for the 
family members burdened with added responsibilities and pressures on the 
home front when their loved ones deploy overseas, bitterness and anger can 
begin to fester. "I finally feel that Ym getting the hang of this single parent 
thing but I keep getting mad at my husband" one military wife wrote after 
her husband, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, left for Afghanistan in April 
2004. "Ym mad when I have to care for sick children myself" She went on, 

Ym mad at him for not being here when Yve totally lost my patience 
and there is no one to rescue the kids from my yelling. Ym mad be- 
cause if something goes wrong, it's all my fault . . . there's no one to 
share the blame. Although I know he's not on vacation over there, I re- 
sent that he doesn't have to pick up after anyone else. I resent that he 
can sit and read a book in private. But under all this resentment is 
something worse . . . fear. Ym afraid that Yll say something out of 
frustration on one of those infrequent calls and that will be the last 
thing he hears from me. Ym afraid that this loneliness will be mine 
alone forever. I resent him for making me worry. 

Few issues have as much potential to cause strife among family mem- 
bers as concerns over money. In December 2003, twenty-three-year-old U.S. 
Army Sergeant Hiram Zayas was mobilized for duty in Iraq as an MP with 
the 800th Military Police reserve unit out of Michigan. (Zayas's unit did 



WORLDSAPART 223 

not arrive in the Middle East until February 2004.) Zayas had started a 
small used car business before he left, and he asked his mother, Ruth 
Mostek, in Indiana to help manage his finances while he was gone. The fol- 
lowing journal entries, which were written by Mostek, record how rapidly 
tensions can escalate even between people who love each other. 

March 11 

After Hiram left for Iraq there were still loose ends with his financial affairs. 
He made phone calls from wherever he was stationed to handle most of it. It 
was unclear to me whether or not he wanted to keep his small business going. 
I had paid his business insurance that was in danger of being cancelled. He 
said if I had not done that he would have enough money in his account. We 
started blaming each other. Hiram was very conscientious about wanting his 
credit cards paid off as quickly as possible. I tried to pay them off but there was 
never enough money. I began to think perhaps "going off to war" should be a 
total break from parents, like in the old days. A son would tip his hat and say, 
"Maybe you will hear from me in two to four years." It didn't seem like such 
a bad idea now. He was aggravating me, his mother, half to death — from 
across the ocean and an entire continent! I confronted him in an e-mail. He 
wrote back. The words exchanged on both sides are too hurtful to include. 

March 30 

I deeply regret arguing with Hiram earlier— and here it is the worst month of 
attacks upon them so far. His tension over his situation, loss of innocence, loss 
of closeness to loved ones, the strain of having to figure out what to do in new 
untenable situations— were somewhat taken out on me. (The e-mail I shred- 
ded began, "Mom, you have really managed to piss me off!!" He had never spo- 
ken to me that way in his life before.) That's o.k. I understand, as my sister 
reminded me, people lash out at their loved ones because they are the closest 
ones to them. I e-mailed him that I was sorry, sent him a magazine. But how 
could these little things put a dent in the tremendous pressure he is under now? 
How do you reach someone in the middle of an honest to goodness battle? 

April 4 

My son & I continue the argument. I think he is a pompous arrogant 23-year- 
old male mass of conceit— who absolutely cannot see something from some- 
one else's point of view. He probably thinks I'm stupid & incompetent. He 



224 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

thinks I have a chip on my shoulder & whine over nothing. I am now to 
blame for all that is wrong: for his difficult adjustment to the war, for his 
shock at man's inhumanity to man, for the fact he has to work hard for his 
money & never get ahead. Good — if that's how he feels about it. Meantime 
he is the epitome of selfishness. I have failed. This hurts me most of all. Well, 
there is one clue he may have some compassion. He has noticed how the 
poor Iraqis suffer & have little. Good for him. 

June 8 

My son & I made up last week. His girlfriend called to tell me to get online 
with him. So I did & he and I "talked" pleasantly. It was a big step & one I'm 
grateful for. I think each of us both knows now how quickly tempers can flare 
& so I consider it a temporary truce until we can talk more honestly in per- 
son. But I'm still kept in the dark because I didn't expect to see him until Jan- 
uary, then I find out he's just come back briefly for a funeral, on his dad's side. 

June 9 

Today Hiram finally came by to visit while he's on leave. After he'd had hours 
visiting with his father, I went ahead and called his girlfriend's cell phone to 
reach him. She told me (which I'm sure she's lived to regret) that he was out 
looking at car lots to buy with his dad. Buying a car lot?! With what? When 
he hasn't filed taxes?! (Later I realized he just wanted to go out alone with his 
father for a while.) I snapped. I bitched at his girlfriend about it & had her 
have him call me (poor girl in the middle). I harangued at him when he 
called me back. 

In spite of our phone argument & me saying it was absolutely no problem 
for me to drive up there to see him, he and his girlfriend came by anyway. 
Neither of them hugged me back. I admit it was phony of me to try and greet 
them smiling but what else was I to do than try to squelch my temper? We did 
talk some on other subjects. His girlfriend wanted nothing, not even water 
which I finally gave her anyway as she looked so sad & miserable. He wanted 
only coffee & I offered him a bowl of chips but I didn't see him eat any. 

As they were leaving she went to the car, he lingered in the doorway & we 
started to argue. I laid out everything that's been bothering me about his ask- 
ing me to pay his bills, then demanding when & how they be paid & the 
many overdraft fees.— The first thing he said was, "Maybe it's because I'm in 
a war, you know?!" and "All of the financial stuff is unimportant. What does 



WORLDSAPART 225 

it matter? I might not come back— this may be the last time you ever see me. 
What is your problem? You are upset over nothing & always make a big deal 
out of little things. Haven't I always treated you nice?" I had to agree, but gra- 
cious & humble I am not— especially when I have a point to make. 

There was no bringing the argument to a loving close. How do you wrap 
up the sparking ends? The wires were still too hot to touch for an embrace. 

Mid-November 

Hiram came back to the United States after serving for nine months in Iraq. 

I heard about his return from his sisters. 

Dec. 15 

Hiram got married today. I wasn't invited to the wedding. Hiram and I have 
spoken on the phone only twice (briefly) since he got back. Once he called 
to ask me a question regarding his business, thinking I would have certain pa- 
pers. There were no apologies between us. Another time I called him. He was 
fairly cheerful that time. He was proud that he had gone into partnership 
with someone, and they've opened up a car lot. I said, "You know I love you 
Hiram." He said, "I know." I tried to apologize to him in writing several times 
but he didn't reply. 

March 7, 2005 

I'm just remembering the excited, happy look on Hiram's face the day his 
unit was leaving for Iraq more than a year ago. We had left the unit's building 
to go to the bank in South Bend. He was coming up to the car on the pas- 
senger side as I was sliding into the driver's seat. I looked out the car window 
to see him bend a little to open his door & I wanted to freeze that look in my 
mind. His face was lean — such smooth features— and he had a humongous, 
happy proud grin on his face. I just thought my son looked so handsome. Of 
course I was aware he wouldn't be the same when he returned from war. I've 
heard it changes boys into men. I was also acutely (and painfully) aware of my 
role as mother. I didn't want to baby him so I gave him advice instead. 

April 15, 2005 

My son and his new wife have moved to an apartment close to where he has 
his business, which is operating successfully from what his sisters tell me. Ap- 
parently he lives less than two hours from me. There is still no communication 



226 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

between us. Last week I called him twice requesting an address to forward a 
personal letter someone mailed to my home. He did not call back. 

Although Mostek and her son did not see each other for almost a year after 
his return to the States, in October 2005 they reconciled and now write, 
phone, and spend time together regularly. 



REGARDING TIGGER 

E-mail 
Jennifer Huch-Gambichler 



Humor, for many family members of deployed troops, becomes an emo- 
tional necessity when life on the home front reaches a point of seeming un- 
bearable. Caring for two boys, five-year-old Sam and fifteen-month-old 
Max, by herself in Fort Hood, Texas, Jennifer Huch-Gambichler received 
terrible news one day about a beloved pet. (Her husband, U.S. Army Cap- 
tain Steven R. Gambichler, had recently left for Kuwait and would not re- 
turn for another ten months, in October 2003.) Although the incident was 
devastating to everyone involved, especially little Sam, Huch-Gambichler 
sent an e-mail to relatives that recounted some of the day's lighter moments. 

Dear Family, 

So sorry to depress each of you today with this unfortunate group email, 
but I just can't face the 20 or so phone calls it would take to put the word out, 
so here goes . . . 

It's not about Steven, first of all. He's gone, which still completely sucks, 
but we had a phone call a few days ago & all seems well so far. It's just that to- 
morrow I have to call our rear detachment commander & get word to the 
hubby that Tigger died today. 

Our beloved doggie somehow escaped & was hit by a car on the horrible 
road behind our house. In fact, he was directly behind our back fence when 
we finally got to him, thanks only to a benevolent lady caller who took it upon 
herself to deliver the bad news. She wasn't the one who did him in but she 
was gracious enough to pull over when she spotted him lying on the street, & 



WORLDSAPART 227 

even carried his body to a grassy stretch that lines the sidewalk of our notori- 
ous road from hell. . . . 

We think he was gone maybe 30 minutes before he was hit & instantly 
killed, of course by some bastard who didn't bother to stop. It all happened so 
fast that my four legged baby was still warm when I found him. 

Poor Sam. He gave Tig his usual kiss before we walked to school this 
morning & 8 hours later the kid came home to a frazzled mess of a mother 
who had to explain why his best friend in the whole world was gone for good. 
He spent the entire afternoon crying on the couch with his back to the room 
& his head under Tigger's favorite pillow, wailing "GO AWAY!" every time I 
tried to comfort him. 

He finally ran out of steam late this evening & wandered into the kitchen 
looking for juice, demanding to know if heaven was real & if Tigger had 
"passed the test to get in" (no earthly clue where that came from). I hemmed 
& hawed & bullshitted for a few minutes until I remembered a story another 
Army wife told me, something she made up for her own kids. I assured Sam 
that all animals go to a paradise called "The Rainbow Bridge" & that Tig was 
in a happy place where smoked pig ears grew right up through the ground & 
he could chase rabbits all day & poop in dad's favorite shoes anytime he 
wanted without getting yelled at. I got the tiniest smile from him with that, 
but it was still another 3 hours of crying before he finally passed out face 
down on his Batman comforter with Tig's leopard print dog collar grasped 
tightly in his chunky little fist. 

Thank God for my beloved friend Judy. She's our Executive Officer's wife 
& lives right around the corner, so she was there in a flash when I called sob- 
bing incoherently into the phone. We went together to the spot described by 
the lady caller & found my sweet baby in the grass. He looked so completely 
undamaged, only a little blood around his nose & mouth, & we held him & 
wept over him there on the side of that stupid road. . . . 

But, as is the custom with tragic events in this family, the day wasn't totally 
without humor. Tigger, well known in the neighborhood for his perpetual 
"display of manhood" despite an early neutering, chose to die as he had 
lived . . . sporting his usual mondo erection. After we had said our farewells 
& prepared to load him into the van, Judy & I rolled him onto his back & 
there it was, the most enormous doggie boner you can imagine. We both saw 
it at exactly the same instant & busted out laughing, tears streaming down our 



228 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

faces, Tigger's hind legs wide open & Mr. Happy flapping joyfully in the 
breeze. . . . 

Steven is never here for this! I know an Army wife has to be a tough broad 
and I love a challenge as much as the next girl, but Jesus! They don't exactly 
cover this territory in the Army Wife's Handbook. It's loaded with all that 
1950's Donna Reed crap about party etiquette & how to practice tying your 
husband's bowtie on a bedpost (no lie, it actually says that— my feminist 
mother nearly had an aneurism). I'd sure like to add a few chapters of my 
own, maybe "Absent Spouses, Pet Crises & Navigating Your Neighborhood 
Crematorium," or "Grief Reactions in Pissed-Off Five-Year Olds." Now I 
have to tell our soldier his dog is dead & our son is devastated. He tried to tell 
me (warn me, really) exactly what to expect as a military wife the night we got 
engaged. Above all things he promised I'd never be bored. Well, he sure de- 
livered! 



Dogs Rule * 



Love you all so much, 
Jen 



WORLDS APART 

E-mail 
Petty Officer Second Class Edwin Garcia-Lopez 



Military personnel serving abroad are not unaware of or unsympathetic to 
the strain that their absence might be causing back home. Many try, as 
best they can, to remind their loved ones how much they long for the mo- 
ment when they will be reunited. Forty-seven-year-old Petty Officer Second 
Class Edwin Garcia-Lopez was shipped to the Middle East in August 
2004 with the Naval Coastal Warfare Group Two's Mobile Inshore Un- 
dersea Warfare Unit 204. Garcia-Lopez guarded an Iraqi oil platform in 
the middle of the ocean for almost a month, and, after one restless night, 
he walked out on the platform deck to watch the dawn break over the water. 



WORLDSAPART 229 

Desperately missing the woman he loved, Garcia-Lopez handwrote the fol- 
lowing letter to his wife back in New Jersey. (He later typed it out and sent 
it to her via e-mail.) 

September 12, 2004 

Debra, 

It is zero four thirty. I again awoke thinking of you. It makes me smile 
when the first thought I have when I awake is of you. My love, I try not to 
count the days until I see you again. . . . 

Debra, I miss the parting of your lips as we kiss. I miss sleeping with you, 
our bodies entwined into each other as a soft whisper. 

And I miss our home built of work, sweat and years of sacrifice. I miss my 
vegetable garden; kneeling in the damp ground and sinking my hands into 
the dark soil of our back yard and with brief fertility prayers bury seeds, lov- 
ingly I hope. To watch with delight and much surprise as slowly, fragile 
sprouts break through the ground searching the sun and warmth. Later, to 
bring to our mouths a little piece of heaven from our blessed earth. These 
and many other small miracles are pleasant victories to my heart that I miss 
dearly. . . . Worlds apart and yet together . . . 

As I now gaze out across the sea, the horizon has become thin strands 
from sea to sky of dark haze, a shy red, a yellow gold and finally a light blue. 
I look behind my shoulder and the coast of Iraq is still dark. I turn forward as 
the haze succumbs to a soft orange rising Sun. Behind me, as minutes grow; 
the Iraqi coast turns a quiet blue with the increasing light. And once again, 
slowly, another cloudless day awakens. I have watched dawn not break, but 
blossom. 

And with that, I must get myself ready for another day. With a longing for 
you, this lonely American stands and lives with hope of a great future for our 
country and the good people of a new Iraq. We all here will do our best to 
serve as promised. 

Still, I can't resist telling you a dream I had some nights ago. I am walking 
alone on a beach and I feel as if I am searching my heart for something to give 
you. I sense the distance and am angry at the expansive Oceans and Conti- 
nents that separate us. In the dream I remember cursing in two languages on 
why I could not lift and carry myself to you, to offer you something that would 



230 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

make all things right and happy. Later that day as I remembered the dream, I 
promised myself that given the opportunity I intend for you and me to accu- 
mulate many pleasant memories that in retelling, will keep us warm in our 
old age. 

My love, I wish I could offer you more. 

Yours always, 
Edwin 



Garcia-Lopez returned home in May 2005. 



ANOTHER BUMP IN THE ROAD 

E-mail 
Specialist Michael A. Vivirito 



Twenty-two years old when he joined the National Guard in iggy, Michael 
A. Vivirito was a specialist in the U.S. Army's Individual Ready Reserve, or 
IRR 7 when the war in Iraq began in March 2003. IRR reservists are rarely 
called up (they are essentially in the inactive phase of their military service), 
but in August 2004 Vivirito was mobilized and sent to Kuwait to drive sup- 
ply trucks into Iraq. The timing could hardly have been worse. Just before he 
left for the Middle East, his infant son, Charlie, had to undergo open-heart 
surgery, and his wife, Jessy, was expecting their second child. Vivirito's job 
was a dangerous one— many drivers have been shot, kidnapped, or killed by 
roadside explosives— but what was foremost in Vivirito's mind was that his 
wife had to confront so many problems on her own. On April 6, 2005, Vivi- 
rito downplayed his own situation and e-mailed his wife, whose pregnancy 
was turning out to be a difficult one, to keep her spirits high. 

Jessy, 

Baby, I miss you so much, I think about you constantly. We are still here at 
Anaconda, I feel much better today. No more blood or nausea. I guess it was 
just the settling of my stomach. Bull and I went to the movie theater here. It 
was weird. It is an actual movie theater, with a balcony and concession stands 



WORLDSAPART 231 

and all. We watched some crazy movie with Lawrence Fishborne and Ethan 
Hawk. When we left and walked outside we had totally forgotten where we 
were. It felt like home for about 30 seconds. I said to Bull, "you know 6 months 
ago, I did not know you, and there wasn't a chance in HELL I ever would have 
met you. Now, I know you better than some people I have known my whole 
life." It is really amazing. But, I would trade it all for one good nights sleep next 
to you. Jessy, I can't imagine what you are going through there with our new 
baby growing inside of you, and Charlie at your knees. 

All I can think and dream is that deep inside you is a paradise where this 
baby is growing and when he or she comes out we will make our life the 
same kind of place of warmth and love. I am so sorry I am not there for you. 
But I am Jessy, I am right there with you all day, everyday. Because every- 
day you are all I see when I close my eyes. I hold my breath and I reach for 
you and I can almost grab you. I can almost touch your cheek. I reach for 
your hand and another bump in the road jerks me back into this truck. An- 
other bump in the road, that's all this is, right? That is what they all say, 
those who do not have to go through this. "Ah, just a bump in the road, and 
everything will be fine." More like a pothole if you ask me. It's just like that 
Italian movie, "Everybody's Fine," just as long as you don't ask too many 
questions. Your Dad was right; heaven must be a bar with a jukebox and a 
cold beer. 

Baby, someday, I don't know when and I don't know how, but we will be 
together and there will not be anything or anyone who will pull me away 
from you again. I need you to breathe; I'll hold my breath for both of us. I'll 
take it all. Will you dance around the world with me . . . ? 

Love you forever, 
Michael 



Due to complications during the birth of their second child, Isabella, Vivi- 
rito was allowed to return to the States early, but he ultimately served more 
than eleven months overseas. Charlie and Isabella are both fully recovered 
and doing well. 



232 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



DEAR BOYS 

E-mails 
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cohoes 



Parents serving abroad are especially sensitive to how difficult it can be for 
a young child to comprehend why Mom or Dad is away for such a long pe- 
riod of time. A veteran of the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, thirty-nine-year- 
old. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Chris Cohoes deployed to the 
Middle East in the summer of 2004, leaving behind his wife and their two 
sons, Cavan, who was eleven at the time, and Crew, age five. Cohoes fre- 
quently e-mailed his boys to encourage them to be good to each other and 
to their mother, but mostly to emphasize that as much as he wished he 
could be home with them in Nebraska, he felt strongly about his missions 
over Afghanistan and Iraq. Other troops, he reminded his sons, were sacri- 
ficing even more. 

13 Aug 04 

Boys, 

I was walking outside today and made a big mistake. I grabbed a hand rail 
when I walked down the stairs. I have some nasty red marks from where it 
burned me. That's how hot it is. You just can't believe it. 

Trust me, I'm not complaining. I flew a mission yesterday. A squad of 
Marines was in the mountains way up above 10,000 feet, and they were at- 
tacked by some bad guys. These bad guys fired six big rockets at the Marines' 
position. I saw the explosions. Don't worry, they can't reach me with anything 
they have. Some of those Marines are only seven years older than you are, 
Cavan. All I could think about was you two hunkering down in the moun- 
tains with rockets landing all around. I have no fear for my own safety, but I'd 
be petrified if you were in my shoes — or worse yet, theirs. 

Thinking about that stuff wasn't helping me or the Marines, so I had to 
box up that feeling and store it away for another time. Hope you guys learn 
how to do that because it can get you through the rough spots with a clear 
head. Trick is that you have to remember to find the box again later. Keep 
them stuffed away, and eventually you'll run out of storage space when you 
need it. 



WORLDSAPART 233 

We helped get those guys out of their mess, and none of them got hurt. It 
felt great to help Americans in trouble. More than great. We did roughly the 
same thing three days ago, and after that one, I sent an e-mail to a Marine 
Major who is a friend of mine. Here's part of what he wrote back. 

". . . . As you well know, we are a family, we're tight— very tight, we don't 
ask for much: honor, courage and commitment are truly what we live by— 
and when somebody gives us a hand, we consider it a pretty big honor. You've 
earned a place in our family as a result. I can't even describe what it means to 
us as a whole. Thanks brother, for all that you do, and for keeping our broth- 
ers on the pointy end of the spear out of harm's way. Please pass back to your 
crew and squadron as well, we all say thank you." 

Maybe that sounds like dialogue from a mediocre movie you've seen, but 
it actually brought a tear to my eye. I told you in the last letter that certain ex- 
periences change you forever and cause you to see things differently. The 
message above might seem a little sappy for most people, but it meant a great 
deal to me. 

Tell Mom I love her. Tell Mom you love her too. 

Love you both, Dad 



Just over two weeks later, Cohoes sent the following e-mail after flying over 
Iraq: 

29 Aug 04 

Boys, 

I flew in a pretty amazing area of the world today. Have you ever heard of 
Mesopotamia? Probably not, but you will. This is where civilization began on 
earth (the Sumarians)! Two great rivers of the world, the Tigris and the Eu- 
phrates, flow together here then empty into the Persian Gulf. Mesopotamia 
was the area between the two rivers (in Greek, Mesopotamia means "be- 
tween the rivers"). The Bible talks a lot about it. It says that the Euphrates 
River flowed from the Garden of Eden. You've heard of "the Promised 
Land"? It's right here. Heard of Babylon? Here, about 30 miles south of Bagh- 
dad. The city was built about 3,800 years ago by King Hammurabi. King Neb- 
uchadnezzar (I can't say it either) built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon 
about 2,600 years ago. It is one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. 



234 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

This is where many great battles took place. The Romans fought here. One 
of the Egyptian Pharaohs fought here. Now I'm fighting here. Doesn't seem 
like a "great" battle to me, and I'll bet you the Egyptians and Babylonians 
didn't think fighting was great then either. 

It is sad to see what history has done to this area. It was the beginning of 
everything we have now. It was beautiful, there were forests nearby, the peo- 
ple were proud. Now it is a disaster. Now it is called Iraq. Lots of people from 
other countries are going there and setting off bombs to try to scare the Iraqi 
people, and it is working. I wish they would stop, but they won't. Too bad 
Hammurabi isn't here now— he was amazing, and he could get his country 
under control once again. 

It was nighttime when I was flying around thinking about these things, 
then every single light in my plane went out. It is a full moon tonight, but I 
still needed a flashlight to see in the cockpit. The first thing I thought after 
making sure the engines still worked was what you would've said, Cavan, had 
you been there. "Hey Dad. The lights went out." I started laughing. Then I 
got most of my lights back and came back to base. 

Cavan, remember this: Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. Crew, I think 
that you and Mark Twain would've been great friends. Here's something he 
said about boys that makes me think of you: "Now and then we had a hope 
that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates." 

Love, 
Dad 



Cohoes came home in October 2004 and then redeployed to the Middle 
East with the Air Combat Command less than a year later. 



MY SON 

Poem 
Sergeant First Class Paul D. Adkins 



As much as troops on the front lines and their families back home try to re- 
main optimistic, it is impossible for them to disregard wars perils and the 
obvious fact that they might never see one another again. And the delicate 



WORLDSAPART 235 

equilibrium they struggle to maintain, with each side trying to concentrate 
on the positives and minimize the negatives in their e-mails and cell phone 
conversations, can easily be shattered by a stray remark or offhand com- 
ment. Soon after he arrived in Baghdad with the 10th Mountain Divisions 
uoth Military Intelligence Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, U.S. 
Army Sergeant First Class Paul Adkins learned from his wife that their two- 
year-old son was suffering from sudden, uncontrollable crying fits. The news 
prompted Adkins to write the following poem. 

Gone three weeks, we were driving somewhere in Iraq 
on a convoy, the desert gritting in the sun, 
that torch of sand and wind. But my son 

back home, age two, cried 
and cried; he knew 
that I was dead. 

I had left him forever 
like a balloon which slipped 
from his fingers. I was floating off somewhere 
alone. And he was finally 

turning and walking away 
from the spot he had lost me, finally 
not looking at the patch of sky 
where he had last seen me wave 
and pull away from his hand. 

Adkins survived his one-year deployment to Iraq and returned to his wife, 
son, and three daughters in New York in May 2005. 



NO TIME FOR SNOWMEN 

Letter 

Captain Zoltan Krompecher 



Convinced that the letters tempt fate and may be self-fulfilling, some mili- 
tary personnel refuse to write them. Others simply prefer not to dwell on the 
subject at all. But the servicemen and women who do compose a u last let- 



236 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ter" before going into harm's way believe that, in the event of their death, 
their letter will offer words of love and comfort to grieving family members. 
And in an age of instant messaging, quick cell-phone calls, and e-mails 
dashed off in haste, many troops feel that these final messages should be 
crafted with great care and, ideally, written by hand. One month before 
leaving his home in New York to link up with a special operations unit in 
Iraq, thirty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Captain Zoltan Krompecher penned 
(and also typed) the following letter to his two little girls, Leah, age four, 
and Annie, age two. (Krompecher had a two-month-old son named Jack as 
well.) Although he focuses on his regret for not spending more time with 
them because of his obligations as a soldier, Krompecher specifically wrote 
the letter in the event that he did not return. 



Spring 2004 

Dear Leah and Annie, 

My precious little girls. I write this letter to you because soon I will leave 
for Iraq. Your mommy and I just tucked you both into bed, read your books, 
and said our prayers together. IVe been watching the news and am worried 
that there could be the off-chance that I might never get to watch you board 
the school bus for the first time, place a Band Aid on a scraped knee, or walk 
you down the aisle of your wedding. So if you are reading this years from now, 
I want you to know how very much your daddy loved you and that I am also 
watching over you and protecting you. You are my everything, and now I 
must say goodbye to you. I cannot express adequately how much you mean to 
me, but I will try. 

While I was your father, I was not always a good daddy. I failed in balanc- 
ing the life of a soldier with the awesome responsibility of being a daddy. 
Even now I talk about, almost brag, to my fellow soldiers about going over— 
many of them are not deploying— but I suppose I do this to convince myself 
that I'll be fine and to hide my fear and worry about what could happen. I am 
a soldier, and going to war is something few American soldiers, at least those 
I know, want to miss. Fighting our nation's war is what we train, sweat, and 
prepare for our whole careers. 

Still, I am worried. When I was a young, single Green Beret, I was so full of 
bravado that little would faze me. But now, I have you two, my little princesses, 
and your brother and mother to think of. I don't want this to be our last good- 



WORLDSAPART 237 

bye, but I realize thousands of others have left their families to go to the sound 
of the guns: I am going too, and I am proud of the men (fine men who give 
much of themselves) I'll be serving with over there, but I am scared about not 
coming home alive. I worry that the next time you see me will be when you 
stand in front of my coffin wearing your Sunday best to say goodbye to a daddy 
you hardly knew. I'm scared, but I'm a soldier. ... I can't make sense of it either. 

Leah, when you were two, we went sledding for the first time, just the two 
of us— daddy and daughter— out enjoying the snow. After each ride down the 
hill, I would tow you back up while you sat on the sled. During one of our treks 
up, I overheard you crying and looked back to see that one of your snow boots 
had fallen off at the bottom of the hill. I picked you up, placed your foot in my 
jacket and headed down the hill to retrieve the missing boot. Little did I know 
that you would forever remember that incident as a pleasurable one because it 
was a moment in which we bonded. Now, any mention of snow and you re- 
spond happily with, "Daddy, remember when we went sledding and my boot 
'felled' off?" quickly following with, "Daddy, when can we go sledding again?" 
That was two years ago, and you still remember it as if it were yesterday. 

One night during this past December, I read you girls The Snowy Day before 
bedtime. The next morning revealed three inches of fresh powder. That morn- 
ing you greeted me with the plea, "Daddy, can we go outside and play like Peter 
did in his book?" Sadly, I replied that I had to get to work but maybe we could 
build a snowman after I returned home. Unfortunately, it was so dark by the 
time I returned from work that there was no time for snowmen, or anything else. 

Every morning, I walked outside to kick the icicles hanging off my jeep 
before driving to work through the slush-covered roads. In January, it snowed 
again, and you (Leah) came running up to me with your pull-on boots on the 
wrong feet, wearing an unzipped jacket and mittens. At the same time you, 
Annie, pointed excitedly at the blanket of snow that covered our backyard. 
Both of you smiled eagerly in hopes of playing outside. Sadly, I felt that I had 
no time to play games in the snow. I had received orders for Iraq and was 
preparing for war. Eventually, you both stopped asking me to play in the snow 
and would instead sit quietly in your reading chairs while I made important 
phone calls and dealt with other business. 

During one of the unseasonably warm days we had just weeks ago, I 
pulled up in our driveway and looked out the car window just in time to wit- 
ness you (Leah) attempting to play kickball with the neighborhood children 
while Annie looked on from your picnic table in our front yard. In the mid- 



238 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

die of the field was another father from across the street. He moved towards 
you (Leah) and gently rolled the ball as you stood uncertainly at home plate. 
You responded with a kick and laughed hysterically while running the bases. 
Annie clapped and cheered you on. 

Then "it" hit me. Sitting in my car wearing my uniform, the thought of how 
I had wasted enjoying so many precious moments with my little darlings 
slammed into me. I realized then that that should be me out on that plate. That 
should be me guiding my daughter to first base and then deliberately miss tag- 
ging her out as you rounded third for a homerun. That should be me enjoying 
a tea party with my daughter on her plastic picnic table. I suddenly understood 
how I should have taken you both sledding to see if perhaps we could make it 
down a hill without a boot falling off. Later that week, I saw you (Leah) ride 
your bike by yourself for the very first time. I asked mommy who had fastened 
your bicycle helmet and helped you move the bike to the front of the house. 
Mommy responded that you had found your helmet, dragged your bike to the 
front of the house, and proceeded to ride (with no one walking at your side). I 
knew then that you were both growing up and would not always need me. 

When I was stationed in Georgia, my friend SFC (Ret) James Smith sent 
me an e-mail that ended with the quotation, "To the world I am an individ- 
ual. To an individual, I am the world." Unfortunately, I never understood that 
line until recently receiving orders for this deployment. 

Last night, as I was putting you both to bed, Leah looked up at me and 
said, "Daddy, I have tears in my eyes because you will be leaving." Annie, you 
must have realized something was wrong because you started crying, too. 
With that statement, I resolved to take SFC Smith's advice to heart and de- 
cided to "be the world" to you all. Years from now, I do not want to be the guy 
who sits alone sifting through a box of pictures trying to recapture fading 
memories because he left his children clinging to unfulfilled promises. 

April has arrived, and there is little evidence of the long winter. I have put 
the sled away until next year. Winter is over, and I leave for Iraq next month. 
You are growing. All I can hope for is that it will snow just one more time. 

Love, 
Your Daddy 



Ten days after he wrote this letter, it snowed, and Krompecher and his 
children spent the afternoon sledding and drinking hot chocolate. After 



WORLDS APART 239 



serving in Iraq, Krompecher came back alive and well to his wife, Tina, 
and their three children. 



TIMELESS 

Personal Narrative 

Christy De'on Miller 



Every parent or spouse reacts differently. Many, upon seeing the uniformed 
military personnel walk up their front steps, begin screaming right away. 
Others refuse to let the casualty notification officers inside, believing that if 
they do not hear the message the officers have come to convey, their loved one 
will still be alive. Some lash out in despair, even slapping the officers in the 
face. And in the most extreme example to date, a father in Florida attempted 
suicide immediately after being told that his twenty-year-old son had been 
killed in Iraq. Like other parents with a child fighting overseas, Christy 
De'on Miller visualized how the news of her sons death might come to her. 
It was not something she, or anyone for that matter, wanted to think about, 
but it was unavoidable. Lance Corporal Aaron C. Austin was a U.S. Marine 
on his second tour of duty in Iraq, and he had already had numerous close 
calls. Miller herself had served in the armed forces and, at the age of thirty- 
five, was a U.S. Army specialist running support missions during the 1989 in- 
vasion of Panama. During her sons deployment fifteen years later, Miller, 
who goes by the name De'on, wrote constantly— poetry, short stories, letters 
to Aaron and other friends and family members, as well as journal entries— 
to help her express the range of emotions she felt while waiting for her only 
child to return to their home in New Mexico. (Aaron also lived with his fa- 
ther in Texas.) In October 2004, Miller began writing about the morning she 
first heard that a firefight had erupted in Iraq between insurgents and a 
group of Marines, with possibly one American fatality. The following ac- 
count, based primarily on her letters and journals, chronicles the many 
thoughts that went through her mind that day— and in those that followed. 



n April 26, 2004, 1 woke up around 4:00 in the morning and turned on 
the television in my bedroom. At least twelve Marines had been in- 




240 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

jured, and by 6:00 a.m., reporters were saying that one had died. I typed 
Aaron a letter, as I'd been doing daily for several weeks, trying to sound posi- 
tive, and finally landing on an effortless subject concerning how much I'd 
paid on each of his bills, what was left in his checking account, and how 
much I'd pay next time. Mundane stuff, safe, easy, factual. Outside of men- 
tioning that we had one Marine down, I avoided the hard news of the day. He 
would have already known about the Marine, and of course, I knew it would 
take three weeks for him to get the letter. But communication is so important 
to moms and their Marines. 

I took Aaron's dog, Hennessy, for his morning walk, and, as was the norm, I 
was relieved to round the corner and view my home— void of an unfamiliar 
government vehicle parked in front of it. No one had brought me any bad news. 

Some believe that a mother knows immediately, somewhere deep within 
her nurturing nature, the moment that her child has suffered harm. It had 
been a restless night, but there was no sense of foreboding. At least no differ- 
ent than any other time. I knew Aaron was always in danger. 

It was around 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. when the two Marines drove up to my 
house. Aaron would have appreciated the almost limolike tinted windows on 
their silver minivan. At first, I thought it must be a friend coming to visit, but 
after mere moments, my eyes made the adjustment. 

My mind wasn't far behind. 

The noncommissioned officer began to approach me. It seemed to take 
an eternity for him to cross my lawn — I think I must have walked some, gone 
to meet him halfway. 

He began, "Ma'am, are you Christy Miller?" 

The Christy has always thrown me. Only government agencies, debtors, 
or new teachers have ever called me by my first name. It's rarely been used to 
bless me with good news. 

"What? What did you ask me?" I think I was hollering. I thought he'd said 
Kristen Miller. 

No, no, I wasn't that person. 

I saw sympathy. 

He asked me again. Time and space and neighbors and dogs, all — every- 
thing— grew into a blazing, buzzing blur. 

I couldn't let the Marines in my home because I'd just put my two dogs in 
there and Hennessy is a pit bull. 

"Can we go inside? We need to talk to you." His wasn't an easy job. 



WORLDSAPART 241 

"No, we've got to do this outside." Mine, still the harder. 

After a muddled exchange regarding the dog situation, the other Marine, 
the officer, finally said, "Ma'am, your son was killed in action today in Al 
Anbar province." 

I said, "My son was killed in the firefight that's on the television right now. 
He was killed in Fallujah. There's been one Marine killed today." 

There, in that moment, that tiniest and longest length of time, there 
must've been a mechanical failure, an embodiment of someone's (it couldn't 
have been mine) heart and brain colliding. 

"Mine," I finished. Yes, the Marine was mine. 

Aaron Cole Austin was born on July 1, 1982, at 8:53 p.m. central daylight sav- 
ings time in Amherst, Texas. Circumcised and sent home on the Fourth of 
July, he was my breast-fed, blanket-sucking baby boy, a little Linus look-alike. 
He threw his blanket away when he was ten. God, how I wish for that blanket 
now. It surely would have carried some scent. You couldn't even bleach it out. 

Lance Corporal Aaron C. Austin, USMC. Machine gunner. Team leader. 
Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. 
KIA on April 26, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq. 

For a period of time, I thought he must have been killed on April 25, 2004, 
New Mexico time. I almost had the twenty-fifth etched on his headstone. 

Almost. Facts and times were very important. Are very important. I kept 
checking his social security number on everything I signed, just in case there 
was some inaccuracy in this news. Some tragic fact overlooked or flawed. 
Then I got his watch back, the one he was wearing that awful day, and after I 
took some time to count the hours, to do some real figuring, I realized that we 
shared a few hours of the day. It was definitely the twenty-sixth that he was 
killed. Around 2:00 a.m. My time. 

Aaron's company commander, Captain Zembiec, wrote me right after it 
happened. 

040426 

De'on, 

Your son was killed in action today. He was conducting a security pa- 
trol with his company this morning, in enemy territory. His company had 
halted in two buildings, strongpointing them and looking for insurgents. 



242 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

A large number of enemy personnel attacked Aaron and his platoon at 
around 1100. Despite intense enemy machine gun and rocket propelled 
grenade fire, your son fought like a lion. He remained in his fighting po- 
sition until all his wounded comrades could be evacuated from the 
rooftop they were defending. It was during his courageous defense of his 
comrades that Aaron was hit by enemy fire, enemy machine gun fire. 

We held a memorial service this afternoon in honor of your son. With 
the exception of the Marines on Security, every man in the company at- 
tended the service. Aaron was respected and admired by every Marine in 
his company. His death brought tears to my eyes, tears that fell in front of 
my Marines. I am unashamed of that fact. 

Your son died a warrior's death, in battle, in a fight as tough as any bat- 
tle that Marines who have gone before us fought. Your son died a hero, 
killing enemy soldiers in order to defend his fellow Marines. 

Captain Teague and Gunny Sergeant Velasquez brought Aaron's things to 
me on June 30, 2004. From the men who first told me the news, who had 
stood outside my home, compassionate Marines in dress blues, to those who 
entered my living room and placed before me the one remaining box of my 
son's life, and then, on bent knee, took out a smaller box from within the 
larger, and handed over to me Aaron's watch, the one removed from his body 
at the time of death — it is to these men that I owe so much. 

June 30 also just happened to be the day that Lea County unveiled the 
granite stone with his name etched there. Thus far, Aaron's name remains 
singular on that stone. He also holds the distinction of Texas as well as New 
Mexico both claiming him as their own. Since the tender age of nine, Aaron 
has always had at least two places to call home. 

I began to wear Aaron's watch, which was still on Baghdad time. His 
alarm would go off at 3:28:24. Then again at 3:33:20. Aaron was always, "Give 
me five more minutes, Mom." 

This early alarm, its hidden meaning, meant only for him, for duty on a 
rooftop possibly, is 5:30 p.m. (the evening before) my time. 

His watch became my watch. And this is the way my mind works now, as 
I watch out my window, watch up in the sky or into a sunset. 

It will be almost eight months before I'll sit and purposefully watch a sun- 
set. Oh, I've witnessed them since April 26, but I've not really looked at them, 
not regarded them. There are the times I've glimpsed one, almost acciden- 



WORLDSAPART 243 

tally, outside the small window in my entryway that faces the east, a window 
more inclined toward sunrises, not sunsets. This window welcomes the sun as 
it catches on the crystal suspended there, splashing purples, blues, oranges 
and hope, early, very early in the morning. By sunset, the parade of color has 
long marched past. 

But one night I'll realize how much more beautiful it is to go out my front 
door, cross the street, sit on a familiar but lonely park bench, and observe the 
real thing facing west. It doesn't explode into sudden bursts of color, but eases 
into a full palette of shade, form, and light. I watch as the same colors I some- 
times noticed in the morning are given back to me in the evening, in full. 
Purple, blue, orange. I'm not filled with the same hope I carry in the morn- 
ing, but rather, burdened by memory. 

I could just about hear his voice as I sat there. As other teenagers and 
youngsters gravitated toward each other in the street, strolled toward their 
homes, or drove by me without really looking, the bass beating in their cars, 
cruising, their voices triggered an image of my own young teen, then sixteen, 
laughing, full of hope, a very temporal hope — mostly, a mind busy with a 
new strategy on how to con Mom out of something tangible, name-brand 
shoes, or jeans, or something else costly, cool, sweet. 

My mom once told me that my parenting skills bordered on contributing to 
the delinquency of a minor. Because he always knew how to charm me, how 
to make me smile, I was always "The Rescuer." He used to call me Momma 
when he wanted something. I got called Momma a lot. 

Parents spend a great deal of effort teaching their young how to use time 
well, how to manage it, how to spend it economically. But maybe, sometimes, 
they should just go fishing, boating, or to a movie, something that means little 
more than killing time together. Sometimes. Aaron and I went fishing and 
boating a lot. We watched many movies together. Military, usually. 

On December 20, 2003, at age forty-eight, I graduated with a Bachelor of 
Arts in English. My very proud son flew in from Camp Pendleton to attend 
the ceremony and to celebrate Christmas with family. 

Aaron had returned from overseas duty in July 2003. He'd been with the 
Marines, some of the first ground troops to cross the border between Kuwait 
and Iraq, and he was due to go back in February 2004. 

At my graduation ceremony, Aaron sat through the many speeches. He 
struggled through as each of the PhD candidates received their just dues, made 



244 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

it through the many master's degrees, a fraction of the bachelor's degrees, and 
then right before his mother's name was called, right before I walked, my son 
had to go to the bathroom. I graduated while Aaron was in the head. 

I kind of smiled when I first heard. I would have been disappointed had it 
been any other way. 

When we were leaving the building, Aaron stopped at one of the conces- 
sions there in the United Spirit Arena and used his last few bucks to bless me 
with a bouquet of white roses. He always knew how to charm me. How to 
make me smile. 

Aaron and I used to joust with each other when we were alone, when he 
could finally be still. 

"I love you," I'd say. 

"I love you more," he'd respond. 

"No, I love you the very most." 

"No, I love you the mostest of the most." 

"I love you more than all the eyelashes in the world." 

On and on we'd go. 

When Aaron was back on the USS Rushmore, he e-mailed me. "I love you 
more than all the sand in Iraq." He always one-upped me. 

After Aaron was killed, his platoon leader sent me twelve white roses laced 
with ribbon and tiny dried petals of baby's breath. One rose, from Lance Cor- 
poral Austin, is pressed in waxed paper. Another rose, from First Lieutenant 
McCoy, is pressed in tissue. The two white roses stand together, pressed be- 
tween two small panes of glass in my "Girl's Bathroom." 

They both bless and break my heart today. 

At times, I try to go back in my head before there was an Aaron. I'll listen to 
music from the sixties or seventies. I'll try to recall that I had a life before 
Aaron. But in the end, this does nothing. 

Words like Forever and Eternity really mean something to me now. Before, 
when I would read these words, I wouldn't really concentrate on their true de- 
finition, on their real essence. I guess I thought they were for later. Now, I have 
a real need, a down to the white sand of my bones aching need, to know that 
forever and eternity started long before my time, way before Aaron, before the 
Marines came to my home That Day, and then later, brought me his watch. 
Every day there are gifts. And every day, things are taken away. 

Aaron's watch stopped somewhere between late afternoon on the twenty- 



WORLDS APART 245 

eighth of November and noon on the thirtieth. I learned that when the bat- 
tery goes dead on a digital watch — it's gone. Blank. Not even a zero. The 
watch now rests in an Americana chest in his bedroom. 

Since Aaron's death, I've experienced the first Mother's Day without my 
son, his would-be twenty-second birthday without him, and the homecom- 
ing of his unit without him. Right around the corner are his unit's Marine 
Ball (their 229th Birthday) and our first Thanksgiving and Christmas with- 
out him. Many of the "firsts" will then be behind me. I don't know if the 
seconds, thirds, and fourths get any better. I imagine they become more 
manageable. 

At times I believe I can learn to live a life without my son. After all, I must. 
I am certain there are other mothers who have lost their boys — car accidents, 
war, illness— who can shop for dinner at the local grocer's without the 
macaroni-and-cheese boxes suddenly causing them grief. Moms who can roll 
sausage balls without tears; perhaps the festive food would even cause a smile. 
But the memory of him is planted in everything around me. Inside of me. So 
much is gone. Him, of course. But so much of him has been lost, is fading, 
breaking down. His blanket, his watch, his uniform. The military uses com- 
mercial washers to clean personal items before they are handed over to the fam- 
ilies. Understandable, but it leaves a synthetic laundry smell. Aaron's scent was 
gone. These were the realizations, the moments I most dreaded. And they 
came out of nowhere. 

My faith doesn't equal that of Job's. I question. Why has God cut the fruit 
from my vine? Taken the only child that remained? Left me with no hope for 
a grandchild? I'm certain there can be no more. No more children. 

And yet I have no particular animosity for my son's killer. He's a nameless 
and faceless combatant to me. Should I ever have the opportunity to meet 
him, I hope that I'd forgive him. To me, the buck stops with the Father. His 
power stings at times. But He's listened to me; perhaps He's even cried with 
me. And yes, I do know what I'm talking about here. It's a belief, man. Aaron's 
words. You either believe in God or you dont. Yes, I'd forgive. I do forgive. 
There is absolutely nothing I'd do to keep myself from spending eternity with 
God and Aaron. 

The moments pass. I can't say how. It's not of my doing. I find comfort in 
the late-night phone calls from Jerrod, Aaron's best friend, or Tiffany, the bro- 
ken and faithful fiancee Aaron left behind. Those trusted ones who've seen fit 



246 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

to adopt me. Here, with these people, within this grafting, He gives back to 
me not only a part of Aaron, but also a stronger ear to hear them, to listen to 
who they really are, an eye, no longer singular, now that my son does not soak 
up all the light. They become more than an extension of him. Perhaps I'm 
beginning to know them in the way Aaron took the time to. 

He proposed to Tiffany on March 18. They sent catalogs back and forth 
with circles around the engagement rings each liked. She bought her wed- 
ding dress on April 26, 2004. That Day. Two days before they were to get mar- 
ried, on December 11, 2004, 1 wrote her a letter. 

To my Darling Daughter, one not given to me by birth, but by God all the 
same. 

This ring cannot replace the ring you hoped for. I cannot replace 
Aaron, but I will be here for as long as you should ever need me, in what- 
ever capacity that life and grace both grant us. 

It is the color purple: your favorite color and my favorite color. 

It is the color of his Purple Heart. 

It is the birthstone of the last month you physically touched him. 

Amethyst is your birthstone. 

The color purple is associated with royalty. Don't ever settle for being 
loved less than a Princess, less than the Bride of Christ, which is who you 
are. 

I love you. Aaron loved you before, and I feel his love for all of us now. 
It has been perfected in a way that we cannot even understand while we 
are here. Just trust The One Who gave Aaron to us. Just trust. 

Thank you for loving my son, Tiffany. Thank you for giving him all 
that hope and all those dreams while he was there in Iraq. Thank you for 
loving me. 

God bless you; give you strength and peace. Hold you in His merciful 
arms. Show you new and beautiful, deep, rich and royal color in your life. 

Always, 
De'on 

On a day in which I felt pretty bruised, I went over to my mom's house. She 
was sitting out in her backyard, a yard that at times I feel she must have de- 
signed with the Garden of Eden in mind, but anyway, it's relaxing. Habitat is 



WORLDSAPART 247 

well and alive. I sat down at one of the sitting areas and looked up at her. I 
guess my eyes must have said everything. I began, "Mom, how long before 
the bad . . ." 

She stopped me in midsentence and held up her index and middle finger. 
"De'on, I asked Dr. Chatwell" — a family doctor since I was a babe — "that 
very same question. I knew that he'd witnessed many deaths, and dealt with 
the survivors' grief later, and when I asked him, he said two summers." She 
continued, "The Indians also say two summers, so if you lose someone in the 
winter, then it takes longer. By the third summer, there are more smiles than 
tears." 

I sat there for a moment and then thought, okay, then there is some end 
to this. 

And for my benefit, she added, "We lost Aaron in the spring, so we won't 
have to wait as long." 

I really don't know how to describe that moment of finding those house 
shoes. First of all, there was a history to them. For several years in a row, at 
Christmas, one of Aaron's Santa gifts was a pair of Dollar Store house shoes. 
It was kind of a joke, in a way, because Aaron loved the name-brand things. 
I'd always get these house shoes because we liked to slouch around in our 
comfies on Christmas and weekends. They were comfortable, cost about four 
bucks, kind of cheap suede things, beige. Each year, Aaron would rework the 
house shoes by taking a Nike tab off of an old pair of tennis shoes and affix- 
ing it to the back; or, on this particular pair, he'd taken a Sharpie pen and 
drawn zebra stripes all up and down on them. These shoes were stuffed into 
a closet for things we didn't really need. At least, thought we didn't really 
need. 

I'd already been through several rounds of "looking for him." Articles, pic- 
tures, his voice, things like that. He used to chew on the caps of pens, his dog 
tags, everything, so I'd already saved a few things I'd found like that. You're 
not ever preparing for this day, so everything had pretty much been washed, 
given away, or thrown out when Aaron deployed. I did find his voice on a cou- 
ple of tapes, including when he was in the third grade, and he was studying 
for a spelling test, spelling dinosaur words over and over. Then his voice for a 
few minutes back in '98, I think, and then, after his first trip to Iraq when a 
news station interviewed him. Each and every new little discovery is uplifting 



248 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

for a while, it lends hope, and then you remember why you're even doing 
this, and so it goes. 

Then one day, I was in that closet, and I looked down and saw that pair of 
house shoes, the lizard-striped ones. They brought a smile and tears and 
when I grabbed them up, noticed a kind of grimy stain in the bottom, I 
sniffed, over and over. I cried, of course, but I was still so happy. It was the 
smell of his feet. No one ever expects that kind of smell to be a gift, but to me, 
that day, it was, and still every once in a while, I go and get them out of his 
room. Now they sit by his bed, close to our two pairs of boots: the jungle boots 
I wore in Panama, and his pair, from Iraq. I can smell him better in the house 
shoes than the boots. 

Hennessy once went to Aaron's bedroom door (it was shut), scratched on 
it, whined, went to the front door, did the same, and then just laid down, sort 
of depressed. (He's by nature a depressed dog, anyway.) My animals are the 
ones who witness my grief the most. They see me in the day, crying. And I 
wonder how much they know. I can't talk to Hennessy in any real way. I wish 
I could. I don't want him to feel deserted. The other night, he went into 
Aaron's room at least three or four times, and whined. I keep the door opened 
most of the time, now. It just seems easier that way. That's the only time he's 
done that. Hennessy, however, has no reaction to the house shoes. I've won- 
dered about it over and over. It's strange how these things are. 

The days have become different. Sorrow is a tiny tile in the mosaic, which 
doesn't lessen the sadness, and flashes of grief still come. But I believe that 
time does heal. I think it teaches. I now belong to organizations and support 
groups of which a mother never imagines becoming a member. While others 
may recognize the scar of sorrow and ask about it, or perhaps because of their 
own scar, they will turn their head away, we share in the sorrow, and in the 
hope — a new hope, one that has been bought with tears and prayers, not just 
day by day, but minute by minute. I do think that time is on our side. It's easy 
to talk and write about sacrifice, it's quite another to live it. But like the sons 
and daughters we buried, we want to be strong. We hope they are proud of us, 
because God knows how very proud we are of them. 

We aren't always sure in this life if the words we speak or those we write 
will be our last. Long after the day Aaron died, I found a letter I wrote to 
Aaron that he never received. It's dated April 26, 2004. Aaron was already 
dead. But he was alive when I wrote it. To me, at the time. 



WORLDSAPART 249 

Hi Son, 

Well, the news is bad. Another Marine killed, and it sounds like your 
unit was the one in the firelight. Ten others wounded. I am just about as 
heartsick as I care to get. Our prayers are with you and I wish with all my 
heart the very best of blessings for you, for yours, for all of our troops. I 
pray that this will end soon. I am so sick of it. 

I'm sorry. I know you don't need this. You live with it, and you and all 
of the troops are appreciated by so many. We love you and appreciate all 
you are giving up. 

I paid half your Star off with $600.00. So just another $600.00 and 
you should be out of debt, I think. Your last 2 deposits have been around 
866.00. Your Sunray State Bank loan comes out in an allotment. 

How are Jose, Jamie, Brent, Barnes, and Koci? Please give them all my 
love. 

The 2 letters I got from you the other day were a month old. I mailed 
Allie hers, and hopefully, you will get everyone's addresses that I sent you 
pretty soon. If you ever get the chance to drop Granny and Grandpa a let- 
ter, I know they'd be thrilled. 

I love Tiffany. I can't wait for her to be here. 

Please take care, son. I love you with all my heart. 

Do you get to use the pillow any? 

My love and prayers, always, 
MOM 

It's not really something of his. He never received it. But still, it's ours. Just 
like so many things are ours, now. 

I add later, in my mind, a postscript. What I would write to him if I could. 
I miss you, Aaron, with all of me, all of the time. Every moment, I was, am, 
and will always remain so very proud of you, who you were, how you went 
down, what you stood for and those you fought for. For me. For us. For your 
Marines, your brothers. They awarded you the Silver Star, Aaron. They loved 
you too, and miss you. I guess I just never really believed that your time 
would come before my time. But son, you know, we are forever. By the grace 
of God I will join you some day. I'll meet the mystery of it all, too, and we will 
be together. How good it will be to see you again. 



CHAPTER FIVE 



TI.TTC TC Vf'QT A (^. A A/fT? 

JL. JL JL .JL K^y .JL v.^/ X ^ ^*^,,S JL «£. 3L. ^...J* A. JL. JL w JL ,JL™< 



THE PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL TOLL OF WAR 




Lieutenant Colonel Frank Correa, July 2003, on a medevac flight 
of wounded troops. Photo by Tech Sgt. Howard James, used by permission. 



The scene on the aircraft was hard to believe. We had row after row of litters 
stacked three- and sometimes four-high with patients. They seemed to go all 
the way to the back of the plane. The smell of unwashed bodies and 
infected wounds filled the air. Combat wounds are by nature dirty, and in 
spite of thorough cleaning, there are still a lot of infections. Some were 
amputees and missing parts of their bodies. One guy had stepped on a mine, 
lost part of his feet, and had small shrapnel wounds covering his face. Most 
of our patients had either gunshot or shrapnel wounds to the arms or legs. 
One of the most critical patients was a guy injured in a vehicle accident and 
had serious head wounds. Despite his swollen and discolored face, he was 
going to make it. He was lucky. We had another guy with a bad gunshot 
wound to the abdomen. His internal injuries were significant, and the best I 
could do was give him maximum doses of his pain meds to enable him to 
sleep as much as possible. Whenever he was awake I saw in his eyes the 
pain, fatigue, and fear he felt. I will never forget his expression, or him. 
Another guy needed pain pills and told me that the hospital had lost them 
along with all of his personal belongings. Ironically the thing he felt most 
upset about was their losing his pictures of him and his buddies in Iraq. I felt 
overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients we were treating, and I had 
been awake and on the go for the last twenty-four hours. Making critical 
decisions and keeping track of everyone when my mind and body screamed 
for sleep made the missions all the more difficult. But I knew I really had 
nothing to complain about because while our discomfort was temporary, 
many of the wounded faced a lifetime of hardships. For them, this trip was 
only the beginning. 

— Forty-four-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Frank Correa describing, based on 
notes from his April 2003 journals, his service as a medical crew director 
with the U.S. Air Force's 491st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Unit. 
During his five-month deployment, Correa and his crew cared for more 
than seven hundred troops injured in Iraq. After coming back to the States 
in August 2003, Correa returned to his job as a paramedic with the Los 
Angeles Fire Department. 



252 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



WHAT'S GOING ON OVER HERE 

E-mail 
Sergeant Timothy J. Gaestel 



Like most of the troops at the time, Sergeant Timothy James Gaestel was in 
high spirits. "Hey, dad this is your son," Gaestel began a hastily written e- 
mail home on September 21, 2003, while just south of Baghdad. "I finally 
get to write ya'll a letter. First off let me tell you we made it here safe and so 
far, but everything is going very good." The ground invasion of Iraq, only 
months before, was considered a military triumph, and the hostilities flar- 
ing up in scattered parts of the country since the fall of Baghdad seemed 
sporadic and containable. A twenty-two-year-old native of Austin, Texas, 
Gaestel had always wanted to be a soldier (both of his parents had served in 
the U.S. Army), and he was already on his second tour of duty— the first 
had been in Afghanistan— with the i-^igth Airborne Field Artillery Unit, 
82nd Airborne. Despite the upbeat mood conveyed at the beginning of his 
message, however, GaesteVs e-mail was a stark reminder that the fighting in 
Iraq was far from over. "Now Dad, I know that you have already received a 
phone call that tells you I am okay" he continued, "but I want you to know 
exactly what happened [when our convoy was hit by a roadside bomb]. ..." 



e were heading south down highway eight and I was gunning for the 
2nd truck. Byrd was driving and my chief was the passenger. We got 
off highway eight onto Ambush Alley the route we didn't take going up there. 
I was in the back of the truck with my 240B machine gun and the S-2 wanted 
to ride in the back of the truck with me since I was the only one back there. 
We were at the end of the convoy at this point so we were really hauling ass 
driving down the wrong side of the road and all that just so we could get to 
the front of the convoy. My buddy Eddie was a bad ass driver and keeps us for 
getting in wreck a few times. But still able to get the mission done. The X.O. 
truck was behind us and needed to get in front, not to mention the fact that I 
had his gatoraide I was supposed too through to him at the next time they 
passed us. 

At that exact moment a loud and thunderous boom went off and pushed 
me all the way to the front of where my 240B was mounted. I knew something 




THIS IS NOT A GAME 253 

had just happened and when I turned around I could see to large smoke 
clouds on each side of the road. The first thing I had thought was I had just 
been hit in the back by and IED. It wasn't like I felt as if I was going to die, 
more like "man that really hurt." At that moment I reached around and felt 
my back and pulled my hand back and it was cover with blood, before that I 
honestly thought it had just hit my IBA. It turns out that it had hit my IBA and 
gone right through it. 

I laid down on the back of the truck but this didn't seem like a good ideal 
and I didn't have my weapon and had to yell at the S-2 to give me my weapon, 
I didn't want an ambush to happen and for me not have my weapon. So I stood 
up on my knees and yelled again to him to man the 240B, he was scared but 
that's what happened when you don't ever get any kind of training and you sit 
in an office all day. This guy didn't react very well, when I showed him my back 
he started flipping out and yelling "oh, G you got him man, oh he's hit bad 
man." This is the last thing that you tell someone who has just been hit in the 
back and is bleeding. As you can imagine I was pretty pissed off at this point and 
I showed my anger toward the people in th town that we were driving through, 
I had my M-4 rifle at the ready and my trigger finger on the trigger and just wait- 
ing for someone to give me a reason to have me put it from safe to semi. I main- 
tained my military bearing as well as one could in that situation. I sure wanted 
to shoot the bastard that had just set the IED off. The people in this town must 
have thought I was crazy because I was cursing and yelling and wanting some- 
one to give me one reason why they shouldn't have me kill them. . . . 

As we were making our way back to the FOB at that last street, I could no 
longer sit up straight and my back was killing me now. There was a Major 
who was our field surgeon waiting for me in the front of the gate to check me 
out. This guy didn't reassure me either. When I told him that I was okay he 
looked at me and said, "look son, you may have internal bleeding." Now I was 
scared. They rushed me to the Aide station, where I talked to some Sergeant 
Majors and the Col. and told them about the kites. In like 15 minutes, in my 
brown underwear, green socks up to my knees and a blanket, I was rushed out 
to the Landing Zone where a chopper took me to "cash 28" a hospital in 
down town Baghdad. The flight there was fast and I thought to myself, "how 
small our world was from being in an AC hospital from where I was living in 
a crappy army tent. The flight through Baghdad was amazing to you could 
see the whole city and all the building and stuff it was very strange. The heli- 
copter piolet was a bad ass as well, he had to do a war time landing which is 



254 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

really fast and quick it was cool. Now Dad I hadn't seen a female in 21 days 
and so you could imagine I was excited when I looked down off the heli- 
copter as we were coming in for a landing to see a very beautiful woman (it 
could be she is beautiful because I haven't seen a woman in awhile). Now 
when I landed a female, second Lt. took me into the ER room with no one 
else in the whole room except her and me. She came up to me and ripped off 
my blanket and grabbed my brown undies ripped those off to and gave me a 
capater. Now that was more painful than the IED and way not what I was 
thinking was going to happen when she grabbed my blanket off me. Then she 
gave me some morphine and I was good. 

One thing that bothered me is the way they treated people, just because 
there always around stuff like that doesn't mean that they have to act like it's 
nothing to get hit in the back by a bomb. They did an x-ray of my back and 
found that I had two pieces of shrapnel in my back, I asked the doctor if I could 
keep the shrapnel and he said "yea sure, forever." They weren't going to be tak- 
ing the shrapnel out. So yeah now your son is going to have two pieces of metal 
in his back for the rest of his life. I was cleaned up and taken to patient hold. A 
place that is something out of a movie. It was horrible to see all the soldiers with 
missing legs and arms and bandages everywhere. Shortly afterwards I was given 
some morphine and passed out. When I woke up Col. Smith CSM Burgos, 
LTC. Layton, CSM Howard and our Chaplin came in. The first thing LTC 
Layton said to me was "well me and the Sergeant Major were taking and you 
are the 1st person to receive the Purple Heart in the loyalty battalion since 
Grenada( 1983). Its quite crazy the turn of events that have lead me here. A pur- 
ple heart recipient, I guess all it means is that some guy got me before I could 
get him. We will joke about this all someday Dad. I told them I didn't want you 
all to find out about this because im not leaving Iraq and I dint want you to 
worry. I know your going too anyway but the reason I shared this story here was 
so you know what it's like to be here and that the people that im with all look 
after one another. I guess it's really crazy that I volunteered to stay even though 
I was hit in the back with shrapnel, and as soon as I can im going to return to my 
unit. I don't want mom to worry so don't read the detailed parts of this letter. I 
LOVE YALL and ill be home soon enough. Let everyone know what's going on 
over here, let them here it from a soldier. This is my First Letter Home. 

LOVE ALWAYS 
Your son 
Spc. Timothy J. Gaestel 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 255 



After recovering from his wounds, Gaestel remained in Iraq for seven more 
months before returning to the United States. In August 2005, after four 
years of military service, he was honorably discharged. 



PROLIFERATION 

Journal 
Captain Robert Swope 



U.S. Army Captain Robert Swope shipped off to the Middle East in the 
early spring of 2003 and served in Iraq for more than fourteen months, pri- 
marily with the 1st Armored Divisions 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Swope 
was stationed mostly in Baghdad, and he and his unit were scheduled to re- 
turn home in March 2004. But with more troops needed to combat the ris- 
ing insurgency, their final homecoming was delayed for several more 
months. Swope kept a journal during his deployment, and in the fall of 
2003 the twenty-five-year-old infantry officer began recording how dramati- 
cally Baghdad was changing. He was also concerned with what was turning 
out to be the most lethal new threat to U.S. forces. 

October 15, 2003 

I took my first trip through these streets in the middle of April when my pla- 
toon was tasked as a security escort to retrieve the wreckage of an Apache 
helicopter that had been downed earlier in the war and, I was told, later shot 
with one of our own Sidewinder missiles in an effort to prevent nearby Iraqi 
troops from acquiring the technology inside. Back then parts of the city still 
looked like an apocalyptic nightmare. Burned-out tanks, armored personnel 
carriers, overturned cars, and buses littered the streets. Rubble was every- 
where. 

Driving through these same streets today one sees a great deal of differ- 
ence. Everywhere you look is a satellite dish, and Internet cafes have sprouted 
up across the city, both links to the outside world that were illegal under the 
previous regime. Outdoor restaurants and ice cream shops are crowded with 
business. It's a few hours before curfew starts, and the streets are still con- 
gested with vehicle traffic. Makeshift stands along the roads sell gasoline, cig- 
arettes, sodas, and soap. The kids still chase you, except they picked up a little 



256 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

English during the summer and can now say everything from "I love you" to 
"fuck you." 

Perhaps the newest and most disturbing trend is the proliferation of im- 
provised explosive devices. To date, more troops have been killed or wounded 
by IEDs or IED-initiated ambushes than any other cause. Unfortunately 
these devices are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with remote con- 
trolled detonators and elaborate concealment techniques, increasing the 
danger to both Coalition forces and the innocent Iraqis who happen to be 
nearby when one goes off, and who almost always bear the brunt of the dam- 
age. 

November 8 

Once a week on Saturday nights in the battalion theater, we have a profes- 
sional development class or briefing for all the commissioned and noncom- 
missioned officers in the battalion. Tonight's class is on the battalion's battle 
drill for what to do when encountering IEDs. The group discusses techniques 
that have been used to hide them as well as other issues relating to reacting to 
IEDs once they've been discovered, such as the ambushes that sometimes fol- 
low. 

About five minutes into the discussion, a private comes into the theater 
and whispers to the sergeant major that the S3, the battalion's operations offi- 
cer, is needed in the TOC. The S3 rushes out and then comes back to get the 
headquarters company commander who leaves with the scout platoon leader. 
The platoon leader comes back in with a disconcerted look on his face and 
vigorously motions for his platoon sergeant to get the hell up out of the meet- 
ing and leave with him. 

The commander shakes his head when he's told what's happened and 
then quickly finishes his comments before releasing us. Stepping outside I 
hear that there has been an IED attack on one of the scout vehicles. A few 
minutes later I meet up with Joe, a friend of mine who is the battalion main- 
tenance officer, and he tells me that two soldiers have been wounded, but 
that's all he knows. Joe and I head up to the roof of one of the buildings and 
hang out, drinking German near-beer and smoking Macanudo cigars in the 
moonlight. It starts to rain, one of the few downpours I've experienced in the 
desert, and the raindrops are cool on our skin but we don't leave. A little after 
midnight, we climb down the ladder, and ask the captain who gave the IED 
class if there is any more news on the scouts. He tells us the guys are okay. 



m 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 257 

November 9 

I'm woken up early this morning by two fellow officers talking outside my 
room, discussing the death of one of the soldiers from the company I was in 
during the war, who died while manning a security position at the Baghdad 
airport last April. The weapons system of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle he 
was standing by accidentally discharged from an electrical surge, sending a 
25 mm tungsten-tipped sabot round through his Kevlar helmet at point-blank 
range. It had been a sunny day at the airport and my gunner helped carry the 
stretcher. When he came back, his arms were covered in blood and he 
couldn't stop shaking. He put his hands to his head and then jerked back after 
he touched his face and realized his fingers were still wet. I helped him wash 
it off with a bar of soap from my toiletry kit, and poured water over him. I gave 
my extra uniform to one of the medics who attended the injured, and whose 
uniform had to be burned in a trash pit with all the other bandages and 
clothes. He spent the next day and a half being saluted as an officer. After the 
medevac helicopter left, I remember watching the dead soldier's squad leader 
walking back to his platoon area carrying his weapon cradled in both arms, a 
blank, uncomprehending and expressionless look on his face. 

After hearing the other officers talk about the sabot incident, I realize that 
one of the scouts died overnight. My heart begins to sink into my stomach. 
Later that day on my way back from the base post office, I stop by the head- 
quarters building and inspect the Humvee hit by the IED. There are gashes 
in the steel of the vehicle and it's still wet from when some soldiers cleaned it 
up at 0200 in the morning. Because they didn't have a hose to spray down the 
vehicle with and flush the blood out, they ended up pouring five-gallon water 
jugs over the inside, soaking up the crimson liquid with strips of cloth torn 
from Army-issue brown T-shirts. 

Next to the Humvee is a silver metal trash can with the smoldering re- 
ains of the rags and bloodied equipment that couldn't be cleaned, such as 
the dead soldier's boonie cap and his used compression bandages. A thin 
plume of white smoke rises up from it. 

It turns out the soldier died before the medevac helicopter even landed to 
pick him up. A fragment from the bomb hit him in the back of the neck, sev- 
ering his spinal cord. I can't imagine how scared he must have been in those 
final moments as he saw his life slowly slipping away, bleeding to death and be- 
ginning to lose motor function. He was a private, twenty-two, and had only 
joined the unit about eight days earlier. It was his first mission out into the city. 



258 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



TRY NOT TO WORRY ABOUT ME 

E-mail 
Captain Michael P. Sullivan 



Along with the use oflEDs, American troops were confronted with another 
tactic that was less frequent but equally terrifying. "Now I don't want to 
scare you all, but I refuse to gloss this over, so let me tell you the story," 
twenty-six-year-old Captain Michael P. Sullivan began a December 12, 
2003, e-mail to family members. Sullivan was stationed at FOB Champion 
in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, with the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion, 82nd 
Airborne Division. The day before Sullivan sent his e-mail, a car bomb det- 
onated just outside the divisions headquarters. "The damage was very ex- 
tensive—it was a very large amount of explosives," Sullivan wrote. "The 
pick-up truck laden with aforementioned explosives was carrying three lo- 
cals and one escort soldier. All of them in the vehicle were instantly vapor- 
ized by the explosion. The effects of the blast wounded 14 other US 
soldiers/contractors." Sullivan continued: 



rankly, I easily could have been killed or at least seriously injured — it re- 
ally just came down to the timing. You see, whether it was targeted or 
not, it just so happens that the vehicle detonated right in front of our 313th MI 
living quarters — my house as it were. 20 feet away at the most. By a miracle of 
timing, I was not at that building at the time, but a lot of my subordinate sol- 
diers were. I talk about timing, because we have a weight set just outside our 
living quarters which we utilize daily in the afternoons. We were planning on 
lifting yesterday at 1400. 30 minutes later, and I would have been standing 
outside that building, right in the blast. . . . 

As it was, two of my soldiers were on the front porch at the time the vehi- 
cle drove by and detonated. They remembered how at the last second before 
the explosion, the escort soldier was frantically trying to escape the truck, but 
alas he was too late. Both soldiers on the porch were blown backwards 
through the front doors and into the building. Both suffered injuries, one 
fairly severe, but they survived. It took quite a while to mop up all the blood. 
The explosion of course blew all the doors and windows violently inward, 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 259 

plastering everyone inside with a shit-storm of glass and debris. Again, mirac- 
ulously, other than some hearing damage, everyone inside came out mostly 
uninjured. It is incredible, because most that were inside have no idea how 
the larger pieces of glass did not tear them apart. More of my Battalion col- 
leagues were standing in front of the building next door— the concussion of 
the explosion threw them 15 feet through the air, but they also came out 
amazingly uninjured. 

At the time of the explosion, I was working as usual in the Division Head- 
quarters, which is about 100 meters away from where it detonated (still it was 
damned close). Now remember, we hear loud explosions in the distance all 
the time, day and night, so in the split second that it first detonated, my brain 
registered that I was just hearing a mortar round or IED explode in the dis- 
tance. In the next second, all the windows imploded, and the explosion was 
louder than anything you can possibly imagine. The concussion was stagger- 
ing. And understand, our wall was facing the explosion, and it was lined with 
huge, tall windows. Everything went, and a maelstrom of debris, glass and 
window frame came bursting into our workspace. Quite a few people were in- 
jured by the flying glass. My friend Matt was standing in the window at the 
time and got blown about ten feet backwards. He luckily got away with just a 
couple of scratches. Though some glass rained down on me, I was sitting in a 
lucky spot and I somehow don't have a scratch on me. You have never seen 
people move so fast in your life as they did when they were getting away from 
those windows. At this point, it had become all very surreal. All I could think 
to my self was: "Boy, that was close, what the hell just happened?" When we 
looked back out the window, the horror really struck us in the 313th, as we 
could tell the explosion originated from where our living quarters are located. 

We grabbed our weapons and took off at a run for our house, still not quite 
knowing what had happened. I knew that the explosion was way too large to 
have been a mortar, but no one knew exactly what was going on. As we got 
closer, you could see charred body parts scattered everywhere — although the 
nucleus of carnage was at the building, some parts were thrown for hundreds 
of feet, and may not have even been found yet. At one point, we ran right past 
a head just lying there on the ground, looking up at us. There was an acrid 
stench in the air from the expended munition — it is still in the air as we 
speak. As we came up to the building, it was simply mass chaos, and the gawk- 
ing onlookers were everywhere. Our injured were bleeding profusely, and the 



260 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

other soldiers who were in the building were frantically performing first aid. 
The crater in front of the building was massive. Charred vehicle parts were 
scattered everywhere and will probably be found hundreds of feet away for 
days to come. Most of the portable toilets out front were blown apart— there 
was a person in one of them at the time of the explosion, but he was fortu- 
nately unhurt except for a ruptured eardrum. The Battalion Commander's 
vehicle, which was parked out front, was completely demolished. The re- 
mains of the escort soldier were strewn over the grill of the vehicle— we knew 
it was him, because along with his flesh, we found charred and bloody pieces 
of his uniform everywhere. Part of the debris hailstorm I mentioned earlier 
blowing through our building was also a spray of body parts ... so at first, we 
just tried to go around and pick up the largest pieces and clear it out— a hand 
by the weights, part of a face by the back washing machines, intestines lying 
everywhere. Well, you get the idea. . . . 

At some point yesterday, it really sank in for me just how lucky I was, just 
how lucky most of us were to have not been in a position to have been seri- 
ously injured. Timing was the only thing that saved us. That and a really 
strong building. ... It was a lot to assimilate yesterday, and as I collapsed onto 
my bed last night, I shuddered at what could have been, what almost was, and 
I humbly said a small prayer of thanks for our being spared. I also said an ag- 
onized prayer for the family of our fallen comrade, who's Christmas will 
never be the same for the rest of their lives. 

My close friend, CPT Mike Dean is the Company Commander of the 
soldier who was killed, and my deepest condolences go out to him today. We 
will have a memorial service for him tomorrow. 

I won't go into the minutiae of how we are responding to this heinous at- 
tack, but know that the vigilance around here will be heightened in order to 
isolate this to a single incident. We will all hope this is the case, now and in 
the future. 

Again, rest assured that I am perfectly alright, albeit a little shaken up — 
we all are. . . . Please let your minds be at ease and try not to worry about me. 
I am fine. 

Please take care and try not to let this affect your holiday season. Every- 
thing will be okay— I will be in touch again soon. 

All The Way 

CPT Michael P. Sullivan 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 261 



THE SMELL OF FRESH PAINT 

E-mail 
Sergeant Tina M. Beller 



In previous conflicts, U.S. troops rarely described the true brutality of war- 
fare in their letters home. Strict censorship rules did not, for the most part, 
allow it, but even during the fighting in Korea and Vietnam, when letters 
were not screened by military censors, service members often withheld 
graphic details. Now, however, in an age of twenty-four-hour cable media, 
the Internet, embedded reporters, and satellite communications, Americans 
on the home front are able to hear breaking news from a war zone almost 
the moment it happens. Knowing this, troops are more likely to write home 
with details— except for anything that might compromise operational secu- 
rity—about what really happened. On the morning of September 12, 2004 
(Iraq time; it was September u back in the States), insurgents launched 
mortars into the Green Zone, a highly protected area that housed the Iraqi 
interim government, foreign embassies, and other administrative buildings. 
Tina M. Beller, a twenty-nine-year-old sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve 
(350th Civil Affairs Command), was there when the predawn assault 
began. Later in the day, Beller, who was two months shy of her eleven- 
month deployment, e-mailed her parents in Pennsylvania to assure them 
that she had not been injured. 

Dear Mom & Dad 

I am sure by now you can read the news and watch the tube and know 
that we were severely attacked with a barrage of rockets yesterday morning, 
your night time. I guess we still have some diehard 9-11 fans here, those bas- 
tards. 

At any rate, I am just writing to let you know that physically I remain un- 
harmed. Emotionally and mentally, is a different story. I never would have 
thought my day would have started out this way. 

I was the first responder to a building within our compound that was hit 
by a rocket. I was driving back into the compound around 0630 from my early 
morning usual routine when the hair on my arms stood up. I suspected some- 
thing was up, but couldn't identify since I had just arrived from the gym and 



262 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

was too busy praying to Jesus that I hadn't been nailed by a rocket at the 
palace parking lot where I had been driving through just moments before. 

I saw smoke in the distance and a man waiving his arms above him in the 
universal distress signal. I thought maybe something was on fire from an ex- 
plosion. From inside the well-padded palace, I never thought any of the ear- 
lier impact rounds I heard were from down here where I lived. I thought it 
was just the palace being bombarded again. And for certain, I never thought 
we would have taken casualties. Iraqi workers — three. 

The first Iraqi casualty I saw came briskly walking down the street toward 
me. He seemed very alarmed, sort of crazy. I could tell he was in shock. He 
reminded me of a Ping-Pong ball walking back and forth, talking, mumbling, 
although I had no idea who he was speaking to. His mandible was completely 
shattered inside the structure of his mouth. He made zero sense when he 
spoke. He just kept giving me sign language over his belly. I think he was try- 
ing to tell me someone was pregnant. Was that someone in the building? 
Wholly crap! 

I was kind of worried. His head was abnormally larger than the rest of his 
slender body. The mixture of blood and spit that poured from his mouth 
looked really weird like a fountain, a bright red gurgling fountain. I later dis- 
covered he died as well . . . trauma to his head. Just even typing that . . . 
trauma to his head ... I should have known he would pass. Yet I was so hope- 
ful the all-mighty American Soldiers could save him. 

His buddy, who sat cross-legged with his back to me in the now demol- 
ished living room was chanting and rocking. I couldn't figure out why he 
didn't hear me calling for him. I kept saying it to myself, and then I remem- 
ber speaking out loud to myself as I scratched and pounded through the door 
that I couldn't budge all the way open, "Why isn't he listening to me, damn 
it? Why isn't he getting up?" The others say because the rocket blew his 
eardrum out and the poor guy couldn't hear me. The three of them were 
probably honoring their first call to prayer at that time when the rocket 
struck. 

I still wonder to this moment, why in the hell didn't I just go in through 
the front window since it was all blown out, but they tell me not to second 
guess my actions or myself. Had I gone through the window, maybe then I 
would have seen the dead guy, the third casualty, camouflaged with soot and 
debris. 

A Navy Seal, a medic, just happened to be walking by after his shift at the 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 263 

Combat Support Hospital (CSH) ER. He took over for me obviously since he 
was far much more qualified than I. He really did all the work, not me. I just 
ran for help, got an ambulance and then at 0635 in the morning, I started 
screaming for help. "MEDIC, MEDIC. I NEED A MEDIC." In hindsight, 
I don't know why I was screaming medic when the Navy Seal had everything 
under control and was carrying a normal conversation with the two Iraqi 
wounded when the reinforcements arrived. 

The weirdest thing of all was the absolute evil feeling that hit my body 
when I tried to bust through the door the first time, when I was alone with the 
casualties before the Navy Seal came. It actually stopped me in my tracks and 
I just paused. The Iraqi behind me kept nudging me in the doorway, but my 
legs were glued to the ground. A Vietnam veteran here with us explained to 
me last night what I felt was the presence of death. And my body didn't like it. 

The general's driver showed up with a vehicle, and we put them in the 
Yukon and he made like a bandit for the CSH. I never did find out who came 
for the deceased. After somebody told me I was full of blood, I kind of 
thought I should go home and shower and get prepared for the next barrage 
of attacks. And without fail, they came too. 

They hit while I was in the shower. I had been fine until this time not re- 
ally reacting to what I had just seen and the little run I took to call for an am- 
bulance. And that's when I went into shock myself or I did what they say is 
called coming down off the adrenaline high. It was all I could do to keep my 
little legs strong, but I finally just gave into the little trembles and just sat 
down in the shower and cried. A few moments before, I had realized that I 
had now washed my body two times and didn't know why the first time wasn't 
good enough. . . . 

I made it back to my room after a long heaving cry and began to dress in 
my uniform. They found me in my room cleaning my weapon, yet I was shak- 
ing so bad I couldn't assemble my bolt and charging handle together cor- 
rectly. I realized I needed to chill before I was going to defend us anywhere. 

About four of us sat in our common room on the ground floor of our gi- 
gantic concrete house, which used to be inhabited by former presidential 
palace servants. Wearing our entire battle rattle, we just all looked at each 
other, like "wholly shit." There we sat, four women from the age of 24 to 40 
something, from Staff Sgt. to 1st Sgt, gathered in the common room on the 
cold cement floor, both waiting and listening to explosions, radio traffic, and 
fifty cals (calibur) being shot off in the distance at one gate. 



264 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Since the attack, I have gone back once to see the area that was just barely 
lit by sunlight at dusk yesterday morning. Partial brain remains are still on the 
cement floor from the deceased, except now they are pinkish with cement 
gristle all folded into it and oven baked from the sun. Somebody tried to be 
discreet, but did a poor job in covering it up. The gate that was once there is 
all blown to hell. They have cheap yellow police tape around the place. Yeah, 
as if that's going to keep people out. 

I found several pairs of men's sandals that were just blown about like they 
were nothing. And of course, pools of blood, some dark and brown, some still 
red and fresh, reminded me of the tragedy that occurred earlier that morning. 
I saw the pile of rocks that I tripped over in the morning dusk and chaos be- 
cause I was trying to run and thought I was lighter than air, I guess. I saw the 
door that I couldn't bust through. I was glad to see somebody had. Upon later 
inspection of the attacked house, we found out the object behind the door 
was the remnants of the rocket. No wonder I couldn't get through. I saw all 
the cans of fresh paint that were stacked outside the building. The Koreans 
had hired these three Iraqi men to fix up the place for the Korean Embassy to 
move in. Guess the Koreans are going real estate shopping, huh? 

But most of all, the veterans I spoke to last night told me I will probably 
smell paint sometime in the future, and it will remind me of this day, this hor- 
rible event. They also told me it wasn't my fault, and I couldn't have saved 
them since their injuries were far too great for my little hands. From what 
they had heard, I had done the right thing, the honorable thing. "Geez 
Beller, you didn't run back to your room and hide like a lot of them did," said 
one of our senior sergeants, a Vietnam veteran himself. "Just remember this, 
next time somebody comes up to you like they did today asking you about 
your story in disbelief, you look at them and ask them with a stone cold face, 
"Were you there? Then how would you really know what happened?" 

I walked our compound in fear last night. I couldn't bear to think of walk- 
ing by the place in the dark, even though it was the short way home. It was as 
though I were afraid some dark spookiness was going to jump out at me and 
steal my soul or something. The thought of the place so dark like it was in the 
morning resonates in my mind. And their horrified looks, their confused 
looks, the blood dripping on them, the sheer and utter pain mirrored on their 
faces, they all played like a silent movie in my mind all day yesterday, all night 
last night. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 265 

I slept like shit last night. I hope this isn't the beginning of what my Spe- 
cial Forces friend calls "the nightmares." Last night was the first time in my 
life I staunchly did not want to sleep alone. And that's a far cry for someone 
who is a both a restless sleeper and a sheet hog. 

They told me not to write home about it. "We don't want it all over the in- 
ternet." But even talking to all the right people isn't helping the heavy weight I 
am carrying on my tightened chest. And somehow, writing usually does. Even 
though I got my ass chewed and threatened with an Article 15 for not running 
all the way back to my quarters to get my gear BEFORE I went to the scene, 
"You could have been a combat liability to us, SGT, since you didn't have ANY 
of your gear with you," it really all doesn't matter in the big picture. Others here 
at my unit admitted the same things to me along the lines of, "Beller, we would 
have done the same thing you did, run to the emergency first— without a 
doubt." There's always a few ways of looking at things though, I guess. . . . 

Keep well. 



THE DAY OF THE DRAGON 

Personal Narrative 
Captain Robert A. Lindblom 



Thirty-two-year-old U.S. Air Force Captain Robert A. Lindblom was deployed 
to Kandahar, Afghanistan, with the 41st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron 
from February through April 2003 to fly combat rescue missions and manage 
day-to-day flight activities. When tragedy struck his unit in March, Lindblom 
not only had to cope with the personal and operational ramifications of the 
sudden crisis, he had to help his fellow airmen find meaning in the sacrifices 
they and other U.S. forces were making in the region. 



Staring straight ahead at the computer screen in front of me, I could not 
see the rest of the room with my peripheral vision, but I felt the eyes of 
everyone on me. The words hung in the air like a mirage. I knew what had 
been said, but my mind refused to accept it. The radio crackled again, re- 
peating the same message. 



266 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"Roker, Roker, Komodo 11 is down!" 

The transmission was meant for our command and control agency, nick- 
named Roker, but everyone monitoring the frequency would have perked up 
as I did when the call came through. The urgency in the voice answered 
everyone's unspoken question without actually saying the words: the crash 
was bad. It was no mere hard landing or rollover— someone was dead. As a 
flight commander back home, I had been responsible for training and equip- 
ping the preponderance of the forces we had in theater; four of the six crew 
members on board were my personal responsibility. 

Komodo 11 and 13 were Air Force HH-60 helicopters assigned to Kanda- 
har Air Base in Afghanistan. Their assigned task was to conduct combat 
search and rescue, or CSAR, missions — to recover the crews, of aircraft lost 
to enemy fire. This is the primary duty of these Pavehawk crews, and they're 
the best in the world. But U.S. military aircraft were rarely shot down in 
Afghanistan, and the HH-6os were frequently used for medevac missions to 
help individuals hurt either in ground combat or because of other, more 
mundane, reasons. Our primary responsibility still remained U.S. military 
forces, but it was not uncommon when things were quiet for our controlling 
agency, the Joint Search and Rescue Center, or JSRC, at Al Udeid Air Base 
in Qatar, to launch us to assist injured Afghan military and civilians. These 
missions were approved out of genuine humanitarian concern first and fore- 
most, but they also had the side benefit of positively influencing the local 
populace. Nothing inhibits the spread of terrorism more completely than an 
act of kindness and goodwill, especially when it comes at great personal risk 
or expense. 

On that particular day, we received word of two injured Afghan children. 
One had been burned severely and was in serious danger of losing an eye, 
and the other had significant head injuries after tumbling down a ravine. Al- 
though located in separate villages, they were close enough that we could re- 
cover both children and get them to competent medical care within hours, as 
compared to the days it may have taken for them to travel by land. The round 
trip was beyond even the Pavehawk s capacity on a single tank, however, and 
aerial refueling was required. That was the last normal report we received; 
Komodo 11 and 13 had commenced refueling operations with an HC-130 
King aircraft. Now we learned the lead aircraft had somehow crashed in the 
course of that refueling. The details were still unclear. 

All the men looked to me as I stood. As the unit operations officer, I ran the 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 267 

flying operations for the unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Stein. More 
importantly, I was second in command behind him, and on that particular day 
I was in charge. Lieutenant Colonel Stein was flying on Komodo 11. 

"Turn off all the computers and the morale phone," I directed out loud to 
no one in particular, but a few airmen quickly jumped to complete the task. 
To those remaining I said, "No one talks about this outside of the unit. No 
one contacts home. Understand?" 

The JSRC finally responded to the initial call we had all heard. "Last call- 
ing Roker, say again." 

With strained patience, a new voice I recognized as the aerial gunner on 
Komodo 13 came on the radio and tried for a third time. "Roker, this is Ko- 
modo 13. Komodo 11 has crashed. Repeat, Komodo 11 has crashed." 

There was a moment of silence, then, "Roker copies." 

That exquisite understatement belied the frenzy of activity I knew was 
stirring up on the other end of the radio call a thousand miles away. The team 
at the JSRC would quickly begin gathering as much information as they 
could and start coordinating recovery efforts for the six crew members they 
knew to be aboard. I was secretly relieved to have them in charge at this point. 

Soon after Roker acknowledged the situation, the aircraft commander of 
Komodo 13, Lieutenant Spindler, came on the radio. "We've terminated re- 
fueling operations. We're landing to check for survivors." Roker acknowl- 
edged and requested exact coordinates of the crash. They were working to get 
overhead cover from some nearby fighters and a quick reaction force, or 
QRF, to secure the scene. 

Komodo 13 was soon on the ground and silence reigned as he deplaned 
his pararescuemen, or PJs, to search the scene. I flexed my shoulders and un- 
clenched my fists as I tried to reason with myself. Since they were refueling, 
they were most likely flying about no knots, or more than 120 miles per hour, 
when they impacted the ground. The odds of even one person surviving were 
not good, let alone all six of them. 

Agonizing minutes ticked by without update until the PJs reported some 
bad news; they had found two bodies, both deceased. My heart sank with the 
announcement. 

Komodo 13 suddenly recalled the PJs to the aircraft— there were a num- 
ber of vehicles approaching the scene. My mouth went dry as I heard the 
radio crackle with Roker's response. "Intel confirms there are no friendlies in 
that area." Although that didn't necessarily mean the approaching trucks 



268 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

were hostile, it definitely increased the odds. When a warning burst from the 
gunner's GAU-2B mini-gun didn't serve to deter the approaching vehicles in 
the slightest, those odds were upped yet another notch. 

In true cavalry fashion, a flight of Marine AV-8 Harriers arrived moments 
later. After taking a moment to positively identify our helo and the unknown 
vehicles, they began to make low passes over the scene to let the interlopers 
know there was significant firepower immediately available if they meant our 
helicopter or crew any harm. Ignoring this attempt at intimidation, the small 
group of vehicles continued to close the distance. The crew of Komodo 13 
now identified two more sets of approaching lights. They were rapidly being 
surrounded. 

The unknown persons had still not committed a hostile act, so the AV-8s 
could do nothing but look threatening. With odds continuing to mount 
against them, the crew of Komodo 13 wisely chose to crank their engines, 
board their PJs, and take off. They picked up to a hover with the nearest ve- 
hicle only five hundred meters away, climbing to a safe altitude just as the 
trucks arrived in their now-vacant landing zone. 

Komodo 13 had to then fly in deteriorating weather over bad terrain in an 
effort to replenish, while airborne, their dwindling supply of fuel. When they 
finally succeeded in plugging with the HC-130, I breathed a sigh of relief. 
Their tanks had dropped to the point where they could no longer divert to 
any U.S. installation. Without gas they would have been forced to land on 
some mountaintop and we would have had yet another crew down in hostile 
territory. With full tanks, the aircraft commander elected to divert to Bagram, 
only thirty minutes away, instead of flying the ninety minutes required to 
make it back to Kandahar. 

The AV-8s were also low on fuel by that point, but a flight of A-10 
Warthogs had arrived to replace them. The A-ios made their own series of low 
passes, releasing flares each time they went by. Although harmless, that act 
was finally able to deter the curious locals; they soon returned to their vehi- 
cles and fled the same way they had arrived. Our equipment and our men, 
whether living or dead, were safe for the moment. 

About that same time, the JSRC requested I meet them on the computer 
in our secure Internet chat room. They informed me the QRF had arrived on 
scene via CH-47 Chinooks. 

There was a large debris field and it would take some time to search and 
secure it all. Aside from possible survivors, which were obviously our priority, 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 269 

there were weapons and classified information to be protected. The QRF 
spread out to begin this process, while we resigned ourselves to more waiting, 
and I kept a nervous eye on the television in the background. With all of the 
media focus on Iraq, Afghanistan was nothing more than a footnote on the 
news, but that might change with word of a fatal crash. With the sound 
turned low, I watched for any break in the stream of images from the larger 
war— a telltale map or photo of Afghanistan. 

Within the next hour I received a phone call from Lieutenant Spindler, 
notifying me that they were down and safe. But he also told me that their air- 
craft had experienced power problems on the flight to Bagram and they were 
going to need our help coordinating approval to have Army mechanics work 
on the helicopter. I thanked him for the information and promised to work 
the issue. Before we hung up, he updated me on what they had seen at the 
crash site. Three bodies had actually been discovered, not just two as we had 
first thought, and I said a quick prayer for the remaining three airmen. 

Soon afterward, the secure chat room flared with activity. Conflicting re- 
ports began to come in from the crash site via the J SRC. One minute they 
had found two survivors, the next they had found one more body and no sur- 
vivors, after that there were indications they had two bodies and one survivor. 
Rescue operations work this way more often than not. In the desire to dis- 
seminate news as quickly as possible, sometimes the accounts become mud- 
dled and confused. 

I tried to repress my sense of frustration as I was alternately heartened and 
discouraged with each passing report. Suddenly, someone shouted out, 
"There it is" and pointed to the television situated to my right, and we all 
watched as a banner scrolled across the bottom of the screen: "Air Force HH- 
60 Pavehawk helicopter crashes southwest of Kabul. Crew feared dead." I was 
furious; three of our people were dead, and possibly all six. How could they 
relegate their sacrifice to the same status as a record rainfall in Arizona or an 
overturned semi-truck in Virginia? 

Shortly after the news broke on CNN, I received a request for a private 
chat from the JSRC — in this private cyber-room, others would not be privy to 
our discussion. 

"Yes?" I posted. 

"JSRC Deputy Director here," came the reply. "We're in direct contact 
with the QRF." 

"Rgr," I typed, to show I understood. 



270 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"We have confirmation ... six bodies recovered." 

"Understand, no survivors?" I queried, just to be sure. 

"Affirmative ... all deceased." 

Now it was official. Despite the meager hope I had attempted to hold on 
to, they were all gone, including Lieutenant Colonel Stein. 

I stood stiffly. All eyes were on me — everyone knew there was news of 
some kind, although they could only guess at the details. "Gather everyone in 
the maintenance tent," I said. "Time for an update." 

Standing before the small crowd of airmen just a few minutes later, I felt 
the burden of responsibility even more severely. No one spoke— the usual 
banter was replaced by an unnatural quiet and thoughtful, somber expres- 
sions. I silently cursed the moment I had accepted Lieutenant Colonel 
Stein's offer to act as his operations officer at Kandahar. I didn't have the 
depth of experience to handle these affairs, and I was certainly not the inspi- 
rational leader these men needed right now. I was afraid, terrified in fact, that 
I would make a mistake. Even worse, I worried that I would make no deci- 
sion—falling victim to my own fear of error. 

Finally, with a deep breath I began, "Komodo 13 has diverted to Bagram. 
They are down and safe, but their aircraft is hard-broke for power problems. 
They will have to remain at that location until we can figure out how to fix 
their helicopter and bring them safely back to Kandahar." 

Nods of understanding greeted me as I braced for the next announce- 
ment. 

"The QRF has completed their search of the crash site." 

The group held their breath in unison. 

"Thev have recovered all six bodies. There are no survivors." 

J 

Some bowed their heads. Others simply stared, lost in their own thoughts. 
One of the men began to cry silently. 

I stood quiet for a moment, not out of any desire to allow them to absorb 
the news, but because I had no idea what to say next. I scanned the faces be- 
fore me while I struggled to find the right words. As I searched their eyes, I re- 
alized that these men wanted to be led. In a flash I understood; my job was 
actually very simple — I had to act, to lead, that was all. I did not have to be 
perfect, I did not have to be right every time, but I had to lead. That is why 
the chain of command works the way it does — so men under pressure are re- 
lieved of the uncertainty that can otherwise cause paralysis in a unit. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 271 

Whether I wanted the responsibility or not was irrelevant; I had it now and it 
was my duty to pick up the mantle left by our commander and lead these 
men to the best of my ability. I realized as well that we needed something to 
strive for — a goal or a challenge. Without something to occupy our energy, 
the men would settle into a depressive funk. 

"Sergeant Whitfield/' I addressed the NCO in charge of maintenance. 
"What's the status of our third helo?" I knew as well as he did that our sole re- 
maining aircraft was currently non-mission-capable. The engine gauges had 
proven unreliable, and the helicopter was unsafe to fly without them. But I 
wanted the announcement made to the group. He quickly confirmed the in- 
formation for everybody. 

"Gentlemen, we need to get that aircraft fixed. We still have a mission to 
do, and we cannot provide CSAR coverage with a broken aircraft. Can you 
fix it?" 

"Yes sir," he replied with enthusiasm. 

"If we can get that aircraft flyable, we can sit alert with one bird until Ko- 
modo 13 can get back home. We can fly with an Apache escort as our wing- 
man if need be. How much time do you need?" 

"Five or six hours, I think." 

"Okay, let's get to it." The room was instantly energized. 

I coordinated with the Army Apache unit colocated with us in Kandahar. 
Their commander assured me they were ready to support and would stand 
alert with us for as long as we wanted. 

I worked with our maintenance officer to figure out how to get approval 
for Army mechanics to work on an Air Force helicopter. Master Sergeant 
Whitfield provided periodic updates on the status of our remaining heli- 
copter. Progress was slower than expected, but he had every available man 
working on it. Arrangements were also made with our home unit concerning 
death notifications, and individuals were selected to pack the personal effects 
of the deceased to be shipped back home with the bodies and returned to the 
families. 

We also began preparations for an all-post memorial that would take place 
two days later. In the interim, we felt it was necessary to organize a smaller, 
but no less important, ceremony as soon as possible, and we decided to post- 
pone the standard flag raising in the morning and have it at noon. Instead of 
leaving the flag in its normal position, it would be raised once, then lowered 



272 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

to half-staff. Then I would read the names of our six comrades, followed by a 
moment of silence. The senior Air Force officer on base would say a few 
words, and we would close with a prayer. 

Despite the shadow of tragedy still looming over us, the 0800 briefing the 
next morning was less somber, especially with the news that our lone heli- 
copter was repaired and able to sit alert. There were also further discussions 
on plans to bring Komodo 13 to Kandahar. Not only did we need them des- 
perately, the crew themselves wanted back in the saddle. But aside from the 
maintenance hurdle, there was also the problem of arranging the necessary 
escort. Having just lost one helicopter, the JSRC did not look favorably upon 
taking unnecessary risks with another. 

After yet another round of debates with our controlling agency about the 
best way to return Komodo 13 to Kandahar, I sat down in frustration and 
rubbed my forehead. A young airman approached me with a small piece of 
yellow paper and handed it to me without comment. On it were the full 
names of all six crew members I had requested for the ceremony. As I studied 
the list before me, something inside snapped. Seeing the names of the de- 
ceased somehow made their deaths real for the first time. The oldest was 
forty-eight, and the youngest was twenty-one. Two of the crew members were 
engaged, one had gotten married only a few months before, three of them 
had children, one was a single parent, two were set to be promoted soon, one 
was ready to retire, and they were all my friends. 

I knew them all — I knew them and I missed them terribly already. I could 
no longer hold back the weight of my own emotions. A childlike sob escaped 
first, and then the tears came, blurring the sheet of paper before me. I rushed 
out of the office with head bowed and crossed the short distance to our sleep- 
ing tent, grateful for the cool, dark, private sanctuary it afforded. 

There I gave my emotions free rein — all the sorrow, frustration, and anger 
of the preceding twenty hours found an outlet for several minutes, until fi- 
nally I regained some sense of composure. Although I began to feel back in 
control of myself, I made no effort to stop the deluge of tears until a knock on 
the door forced me back from the brink of my misery. 

"Yes, come in," I said, wiping my eyes as best I could. 

The door opened tentatively and there stood the airman who had handed 
me the piece of paper. "Uh, sir, they're getting ready for the ceremony." 

"Okay, I'm coming," I replied. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 273 

The door closed as hesitantly as it had opened. 

The short ceremony for the small contingent of Air Force troops at this 
Army base went essentially as planned. When I read the names aloud to the 
assembled crowd, I found myself unable to stem another flow of tears. This 
time, however, I wasn't alone — not a dry eye remained in the group before 
me. Other than our tiny unit, which comprised less than a quarter of those 
present, no one really knew the airmen who had been killed. Yet they shared 
in our loss, and they knew what it would feel like if it had been one of their 
own. There was a good amount of bonding and thoughtful reflection once 
the ceremony was concluded. I was surprised at how therapeutic the little dis- 
play seemed to have been. 

Soon after the memorial, I began to tire. I realized it had now been thirty- 
four hours since I had slept. Without the adrenaline rush of responsibility, my 
body had begun to shut down. I made arrangements with the NCO on duty 
to wake me if anything significant happened, then decided to try to get some 
rest. Lying in my bunk a short time later, I wondered if I could sleep with all 
that had happened. No sooner had that one thought passed my mind than I 
was unconscious. I slept for almost fourteen hours. 

Two days later we still awaited the return of Komodo 13. The larger, all- 
base memorial ceremony, scheduled for that night, was the only major event 
that still remained. As the acting commander, I had a small speaking part in 
the ceremony, but otherwise bore little responsibility. The largest hangar on 
base was the selected location. It was still pockmarked with bullet holes and 
bomb-related damage from the early days of the war. 

I was truly amazed, and touched, by the tremendous showing that night. 
In short order, it was standing room only and the ranks of mourners contin- 
ued to swell. Even an entire battalion of Coalition soldiers stationed at Kan- 
dahar showed up dressed in their best uniforms. Although most of them 
would not even understand the words spoken, they wanted to show their sup- 
port. Again, the powerful bond of fellow warriors struck me; they had not lost 
their own comrades, but they felt the loss nonetheless. 

As the mournful wail of bagpipes began the ceremony, I felt another 
swelling of emotion. Determined not to lose my composure this time, I held 
my feelings in check through taps, a twenty-one-gun salute, a memorial slide 
show, the words of the chaplain, and my own speech. When it was finally 
over, I noticed a difference in our small unit. I caught small snippets of rem- 



274 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

iniscing as I mingled and even saw a laugh or smile now and then as stories 
were exchanged. We would never forget the sacrifice made by our departed 
comrades, but the closure provided by the ceremony signaled that it was okay 
to return to our mission and stay focused on why we were here. 

The next day repairs began on our helicopter in Bagram. When the crew 
of Komodo 13 finally returned two days after that, it was a joyous reunion. 
The bonds of camaraderie had grown even stronger through the trauma we 
had faced together. Their return six full days after our first notification of the 
crash also marked the attainment of a priceless goal. After twelve hours for 
the crew to rest and recuperate, we were back on alert— full, 100 percent mis- 
sion capable. The sense of pride was palpable. Other challenges still lay 
ahead, but the worst, we felt, was behind us. 

In the weeks and months following the deployment, some questioned the 
loss of life on the night that Komodo 11 went down. Was there a reason for six 
U.S. airmen to die trying to rescue two Afghan children (who, we later 
learned, were successfully rescued by other American troops) from tiny vil- 
lages that no one remembers? We grieved, and still mourn, their loss, but we 
refuse to accept that their deaths were for nothing. During the Kandahar 
memorial for the crew members of Komodo 11, 1 offered the following tribute 
to our fallen comrades, and I believe these words as strongly today as when I 
spoke them that night: 

"The traditional image of a CSAR mission is flying into a hail of bullets to 
recover a young airman or soldier clinging to life after being wounded in di- 
rect combat with the enemy. Just because this was not that type of mission 
does not reduce in any way the importance of their sacrifice. The unfortu- 
nate reality of operations such as the one now performed by U.S. forces in 
Afghanistan is that we often do not see the results of our efforts. There is no 
way to ever know what tragedy we may have averted or catastrophes we may 
have prevented by our presence here. Every ally and friend we make now is 
one less enemy we have in the future. Although their mission did not suc- 
ceed, perhaps the parents of those children will tell them someday of the 
brave men and woman who died attempting to save their lives. Perhaps that 
will be enough to convince one more person of the goodwill and intent of the 
United States of America. Perhaps that's one less enemy that will take up 
arms against us. That is why they flew their mission, and that is why they did 
not die in vain." 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 275 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 

Letter 
Captain Ryan Kelly 



While stationed in Kuwait and gearing up for combat, Company Com- 
mander and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot Captain Ryan Kelly and 
the members of his company in the i-i^oth General Support Aviation Bat- 
talion 42nd Infantry Division (Mechanized), New Jersey Army National 
Guard, were eager to head into Iraq. (Kelly's letter voicing his frustration 
about the interminable waiting they had to endure in Kuwait appears on 
page 23. ) Motivated by a desire "to give back to his country," Kelly joined the 
Army in 1992 at the age of twenty-two, and twelve years later he finally em- 
barked on his first deployment to a war zone. On January 21, 2005, he sent 
the following letter to his mother from Camp Speicher, Iraq, expressing how 
the troops— and one soldier in particular— were reacting to actual combat. 

Dear Ma, 

They are called HERO missions. And they are the worst kind. 

It's the body bag in the back that makes the flight hard. No jovial banter 
among the crew. No jokes of home. No wisecracks about the origin of the 
meat served at the chow hall, just the noise of the flight— the scream of the 
engines, the whir of the blades clawing at the air, the voice crackling over 
the radio and echo of your own thoughts about the boy in the bag in the back. 

Yesterday I was in the TOC (tactical operations center) — it's where all the 
mission planning happens, briefings, maps on the wall, etc. Normally, after 
flying missions, pilots drift around the TOC with an air of satisfied indiffer- 
ence—similar to lions after devouring a zebra. I was talking with the opera- 
tions officer, complaining that my pilots weren't flying enough, when a 
heavy-set, three pieces of cake after dinner man came in. Instead of the usual 
swagger, he was dazed. I asked him what was wrong. He told me he just fin- 
ished flying one of the HERO missions. When we pick up friendly KIAs 
(killed in action), that is what we call it. 

He told me he picked up a US kid killed in a car bomb. He tried to shrug 
it off as just another mission, but it was obviously bothering him. A few sec- 
onds later he left, but his look stayed with me. 



276 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Body bags must have been in the stars because later the Colonel an- 
nounced that the heaters in the medevac helicopters were not working that 
well. In response, the medics, operating on a 'corn husk theory,' started zip- 
ping their live patients inside body bags to keep them warm during the flight. 
It can get very cold in the back of the Blackhawk because the wind seeps in 
through cracks in the window seals. However, the medics forgot to explain 
this to their patients who understandably freaked out. It's kind of funny, in a 
twisted sort of way. I guess being in a body bag is better than freezing on the 
way to the hospital. Why is death always so cold? 

Things have hardened into routine here, like an old artery that's carried 
the same, tired blood along the same, tired path for years. Pump, return, 
pump, return, wake up, eat, work, sleep, wake up — back and forth, back and 
forth, BOOOM! Rocket attack. Pump, return, pump, return . . . We've worn a 
trail through the gravel with our boots plodding back and forth to the hangar. 

If it weren't for the Army uniforms and the constant noise of helicopters 
taking off and landing, and the Russian 747-like jets screaming overhead 
every hour of the day, and the F-i6s screeching around looking for something 
to kill, and the rockets exploding and the controlled blasts shaking the win- 
dows and the "thump, thump, thump" sound of the Apache gun ships shoot- 
ing their 30mm guns in the middle of the night, and the heat and the cold, 
and the hero missions and the body bags and the stress, and the soldiers 
fraught with personal problems — child custody battles fought from 3000 
miles away, surgeries on ovaries, hearts, breasts, brains, cancers, transplants, 
divorces, Dear John letters, births, deaths, miscarriages and miss-marriages — 
and the scorpions and the spiders who hide under the toilet seats, and the 
freakish bee-sized flies humming around like miniature blimps, and the 
worst: the constant pang of home, the longing for family, the knowledge that 
life is rolling past you like an unstoppable freight train, an inevitable force, re- 
inforcing the desire for something familiar, the longing for something beau- 
tiful, for something safe, to be somewhere safe, with love and laughter and 
poetry and cold lemonade and clean sheets, if it weren't for all that Iraq 
would be just like home. Almost. 

Last night, one of my soldiers showed up at the chow hall. I was surprised 
because he's been gone for a while. Two months ago he volunteered to be 
part of a security detail that escorts convoys to and from Kuwait and back 
again. The drive is a perilous 600-mile, one-way trip with roadside bombs, 
RPG attacks, ambushes and small arms fire. 






THIS IS NOT A GAME 277 

The convoys are made up of security teams who speed down the highway 
in armored HMMVs, like cowboys herding columns of trucks stuffed with 
food, fans, etc. Foreigners— Japanese, Turks, you name it— drive the giant 
semis and risk capture and beheadings because the job pays big money. Some 
drivers earn $100,000 or more. Men like mine do it because they want to or 
because commanders like me order them to. My man earns about $40,000 a 
year. 

The convoy escort mission passed to me like a foul smelling egg. The 
Army hatched the mission in an effort to spare more people the risk of con- 
voying. The idea was to get a few permanent escort teams together instead of 
making whole units drive. It's a good idea, if you don't happen to be one of 
the poor suckers on one of the teams. Three men they wanted, three men. I 
was not happy. I was pissed off. Weren't we done with these awful convoys? I 
passed the news like a kidney stone to my first sergeant. We went through the 
horrible process of selection. Who would it be? Who could I afford to lose? 
Who was worth more to me alive? NO one should ever have to ask these 
questions. Fortunately, my men volunteered, sparing me the decision. I 
was— and am — so very proud of their bravery, mom. It nearly brought me to 
tears. After about two weeks, two of them returned unharmed and wide-eyed 
from the experience. 

But not one man. He's still out there. The guys in the TOC tell me he'll 
be on a team for up to three months. That's a long time to let someone take 
shots at you. But it's war, and in comparison to what grandpa went through, a 
tame one. My man's missions are unpredictable. I never know if he's coming 
or going. He'll drift around the CP (command post) or the hangar for a week 
or so, turn a few wrenches on a helicopter and then suddenly I'll get a knock 
on my door at three o'clock in the morning. I'll open it and see him standing 
there donned in his body armor, helmet and rifle. He'll tell me he's leaving 
and my first sergeant and I will wish him good luck and God speed. 

We'll all shake hands, I'll slap him on the back and he'll disappear. Then 
I won't see him for a few weeks. That's how it goes. That's our routine. Every 
time I send him off I feel like a father sending a kid off into the world, won- 
dering when he'll be back again or if I'm going to write a death letter to his 
family. 

For weeks I won't know if he's dead or alive, shot or blown up. All I will 
know is that he is somewhere between here, Kuwait, death and home. Then, 
as suddenly as he left, he'll reappear. 



278 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

The last time he returned, he was flush with confidence and adrenaline. 
I caught him about three weeks ago regaling the guys about this latest trip; 
some Iraqi kids chucked a brick off an overpass and shattered a semi's wind- 
shield. The driver lost control and flipped the truck upside down. It crushed 
him to death. My man was unable to return fire because the kids melted into 
a crowd. 

Despite the horror inflicted on someone else, the trip excited him. He an- 
nounced that he liked driving on the convoys better than working in mainte- 
nance. He asked me if he could stay on the escort mission for the rest of our 
tour. I said, "hell, no," and that he could join the Goddamned infantry later, 
after we were safely back home. That exchange has become our second rou- 
tine. He asks to go, I say, no. We both laugh and he leaves on another mission. 
He said he really likes it. 

That was until last night. 

I was eating dinner, like I usually do, when he appeared, interrupting me 
in the middle of a forkful of coleslaw. Something dark had happened. He was 
somber, deliberate and scared. Before I could say, "Welcome back," and 
"hell, no, you can't be an infantryman," he blurted out: "Sir, can I talk to you 
for a second?" When people say that to me there's a problem. Soldiers don't 
usually talk to me unless they are bitching or have something troubling them. 
God, mom, I've heard that phrase so many times. 

He said he was driving back in a column of 12 armored gun trucks, se- 
cured by the fantasy that the enemy would never dare attack such a bristling 
display of American industrial might— replete with machine guns and auto- 
matic grenade launchers. He was thinking this when a huge roadside bomb 
exploded, engulfing a semi truck in flames, killing the driver and his passen- 
ger and spraying my man's HMMV with dirt. 

The experience didn't rattle him. Worse, it changed him. He realized that 
this is not a game. He understands that there are people who are trying to kill 
him, and me, and anyone else unfortunate enough to stray down the wrong 
street. I think he wanted me to pull him off the mission and tell him he didn't 
have to go out on the road anymore. 

But I didn't. He's become proficient, more of an expert on the tactics and 
tells of the enemy than anyone I could replace him with. So I made him stay. 
It's a cold decision, but the right one. Again, I felt like his father. "I think he's 
learning what this is all about," my sergeant said. Maybe we all are. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 279 

This morning I went to work and found a VFW magazine on the confer- 
ence table. On the front cover was a picture of an injured 20-something 
solider, his face and forehead purpled with bruises, his lips swollen and cut, 
his left eye half-closed, his arm in a sling, fingernails black with dried blood, 
his thighs blotched with red abrasions and his leg wrapped in an ace bandage, 
amputated below the knee. He was sitting in a hospital bed with a half smile 
on this face. A blazing bold yellow headline scrawled across his chest read 
"wounded vets rebound." I opened the magazine and flipped to the story and 
saw a second picture of a wounded amputee. This one was of a young Navy 
guy lying in a hospital bed. His wife was sitting beside him. She was not smil- 
ing. 

The caption under the picture read: "Navy Corpsman Joe Worley visits 
with his wife, Angel, while recovering at Walter Reed. A rocket-propelled 
grenade ripped off his left leg, but he said it was 'a fair trade for getting out of 
Iraq alive.' " The cut-line continued: "His sense of humor and positive out- 
look make him a favorite on the amputee ward." 

Christ. What a terrible attempt at positive spin. 

Tell everyone that I miss them. I think about them and you every day. I 
hope I'll be home soon. Peace is such a great and delicate thing. 

Kelly returned to the United States in November 2005. 



CLUSTERS 

Poem 

Captain Robert W. Schaefer 



Just as troops find it cathartic to write letters and e-mails to friends and 
loved ones, many servicemen and women express their emotions through po- 
etry. A formidable-looking Green Beret who has been deployed around the 
world, thirty-seven-year-old Captain Robert W. Schaefer jotted down the 
first draft of the following poem only days after the launch of Operation 
Iraqi Freedom (he would make only slight changes when he returned to the 
States). It relates to an incident that Schaefer observed firsthand. 



280 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Yellow 
or were they 
blue? White, red 
ribbon everywhere — 
Stay out. 

But they were so small, plastic, barely three 
inches across. They didn't look deadly. Two 
soldiers wandered in curious. One 
said: "I wonder what would happen if . . ." 
and gingerly tapped one 
with the toe of his boot 

which then evaporated in a pink frothy cloud, 
a bubble gum pop, then cotton candy chunks 
arcing lazily through the air 
landing with little wet thumps 
muffled by the sand. 

Then, he died— just like that 

just that quickly. 

One moment he was alive and curious 

and the next, he was just a scattering. 

But the second was still alive 
And so, to help him, without thinking 
others ran into that minefield 



pop 
pop 



We too now running, and I, fastest, first, frozen 
by the sight of so much crimson-soaked clothing. 
I didn't know where to start. 

Covered with the blood of others, 

later, I was 

mistaken as a casualty myself. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 281 



But I would not let them take my uniform 
they would still live as long as evidence 
of them remained on my sleeves, 
torn as they grasped for a few extra moments. 



THE VIRTUAL SOLDIERS 

Poem 

Private First Class Allen J. Caruselle 



"When we first got to Baghdad, the [Iraqi] men spread rumors that we had 
X-ray vision in our sunglasses and we would defile their women," U.S. Army 
Sergeant James A. Christenson wrote on April 5, 2004. "The kids would 
come up to us and ask to try on our glasses," Christenson continued, 

all the while looking for secret buttons that would turn on the X-ray 
vision. They would walk around staring at each other with confused 
looks on their faces. My favorite one was the rumor about Marines 
being robots. They had no other explanation for the Marines being 
able to wear all of the hot and heavy clothes in this heat. 

The comparison is an understandable one; decked out in full battle gear 
with audio/video communication systems, night vision goggles, laser scopes, 
and other high-tech equipment, American soldiers and Marines often ap- 
pear, especially to the Iraqis or Afghans they encounter, like futuristic fight- 
ing machines. In the summer of 2003, while stationed in one of Saddam 
Husseins former vacation palaces in Babylon, a twenty-one-year-old private 
first class named Allen J. Caruselle wrote the following poem reflecting on 
the degree to which technology had permeated and influenced military cul- 
ture. Caruselle, a third-generation Marine and infantry rifleman in the 1st 
Battalion, yth Marine Regiment, was on his first deployment to Iraq. He 
would be redeployed twice over the next two years. (The "digital camou- 
flage" Caruselle mentions refers to the battle dress uniforms, or "cammies" 
most Marines now wear, which have a camouflage pattern that appears to 
be made up of digital pixels.) 



282 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

We are the soldiers of the new millennium. 

Our digital camouflage a testament to changing times, 

Our ranks filled with the lost generation of video-pacified children, 

Looking for the next great adventure. 

We train on virtual simulators 

To learn the proper methods of dealing with enemy tactics; 

Civilians and children hiding machine guns behind teddy bears. 

Disconnected from the battle zone by constant and clever training, 

We are taught to live only in the between hours of liberty and leave, 

Silicon knights out to save the world 

From the newest threat of terror and disorder. 

We step into the darkness. 

Situation: Unclear; 

Mission: Unknown. 

This is the tenet by which we throw the dice, 

And our very lives, into the raging storm. 



ASHBAH, THE BAGHDAD ZOO, and THE HURT LOCKER 

Poems 
Sergeant Brian Turner 



Inspired by both his father, an Army soldier during the Cold War, and his 
grandfather, a Marine who fought in almost every major campaign of the 
Pacific Theater during World War II, Brian Turner joined the military in 
1998 and eventually became a sergeant in the U.S. Army with the yd 
Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. Turner crossed the border into Iraq 
on December 3, 2003, and spent almost eleven months in Baghdad and 
Mosul. Nicknamed u the professor," Turner had earned a master's degree 
in poetry from the University of Oregon and composed numerous works 
during his deployment. (After the war, he returned to the States and be- 
came a teacher in California.) Turner kept the poems to himself, however, 
as he didnt want his men to think he was writing about "flowers and 
stuff" In fact, Turner's poems offer profound reflections on the haunting 
and nightmarish realities of warfare and the immense pain military oper- 
ations can inflict on troops and civilians alike. "Ashbah," which is also 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 283 

the title of the first poem, is the transliteration of the Arabic word for 
"ghosts." 

The ghosts of American soldiers 
wander the streets of Balad by night, 

unsure of their way home, exhausted, 
the desert wind blowing trash 
down the narrow alleys as a voice 

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call 
reminding them how alone they are, 
how lost. And the Iraqi dead, 
they watch in silence from the rooftops 
as date palms line the shore in silhouette, 

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows. 

The following poem, "The Baghdad Zoo," is loosely based on stories that 
Turner heard concerning the damage and looting done to the city's main 
zoo during the March 2003 invasion of Iraq ("barchan dunes" are crescent- 
shaped sand dunes). 

An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man 
on a street corner, dragging him down an alley 
as shocked onlookers cried for it to stop. 

There were tanks rolling their heavy tracks 
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil. 
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse. 

Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes 

looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks 

too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century. 

Surreal. Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals 

flew over, frightened by the rotorwash 

of Black Hawk helicopters touching down. 



284 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



One baboon even escaped from the city limits. 
It was found wandering in the desert, confused 
by the wind and the sand of the barchan dunes. 



The final poem is "The Hurt Locker." 



Nothing but the hurt left here. 

Nothing but bullets and pain 

and the bled-out slumping 

and all the fucks and goddamns 

and Jesus Christs of the wounded. 

Nothing left here but the hurt. 

Believe it when you see it. 

Believe it when a twelve-year-old 

rolls a grenade into the room. 

Or when a sniper punches a hole 

deep into someone's head. 

Believe it when four men 

step from a taxicab in Mosul 

to shower the street in brass 

and fire. Open the hurt locker 

and see what there is of knives 

and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn 

how rough men come hunting for souls. 



A CASE FOR BEING THERE 

Personal Narrative 

Major Paul D. Danielson, MD 

In May 2003, thirty-six-year-old Dr. Paul D. Danielson said goodbye to his 
pregnant wife and eleven-month-old son in Massachusetts to deploy to Iraq 
with the U.S. Army Reserve, Medical Corps, guth Forward Surgical Team 
(FST). Like many professionals who have to deal with intense stress and 
suffering on a daily basis, Danielson and his unit used gallows humor as a 
kind of emotional defense mechanism. But even though they were often 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 285 



cracking jokes in the heat (literally) of combat surgery, they were passion- 
ately dedicated to providing the best care possible to critically injured troops 
in and around Baghdad. Danielson wrote the following account about one 
especially memorable patient months after returning home. 



Wakey, wakey, boyzzzz," Butter purred. "Someone mixed it up with 
hajji and we've got us some casualties comin' in." Butter was our 
overtattooed trauma nurse who earned his nickname on account of the gold 
second-lieutenant bars he wore. He was different. Most men who experience 
a midlife crisis quit a respectable job and go out and buy a Harley. Butter did 
it backwards. He woke up when he was forty and decided enough with the 
Jack Daniel's and motorcycle set. He figured he'd join the Army Reserve, and 
six months later he found himself in Mesopotamia. 

The casualties turned out to be from an armored cavalry unit. These fel- 
lows always earned our respect. After dark they'd mount up and drive through 
the bad sections of town. They were trying to draw fire so that they could 
shoot back and put the hurt on the insurgents. Success with this tactic relies 
upon poor aim by the enemy and superior firepower by the Cav troopers. Un- 
fortunately, during this particular mission an IED blew up one of their 
Humvees. 

I batted my way out from under the mosquito netting and slipped on my 
flip-flops. I had stopped wearing my boots to trauma codes for two reasons. 
First, it got too difficult to wash the blood out of them. Second, it was too 
damn hot. Our two field operating tables were set up in a glorified closet in 
one part of the aid station. When you got an OR team in there and all the 
lights and equipment going, the temperature would be over 100 degrees 
Fahrenheit. Consequently, my uniform for patient care consisted of shorts, a 
T-shirt, and a sidearm. We'd add Kevlar and flak vests if the war came knock- 
ing a little too close. It went against all Army regulations. It was also against 
common sense as far as avoiding contact with bodily fluids. However, I 
viewed it as a calculated risk. Two of my cosurgeons were similarly clad, 
which did little to improve the reputation of the reservist medical corps in the 
eyes of the regular Army. Every time the sergeant major from the battalion 
walked through we had to have the defibrillator ready since he almost had an 
arrhythmia just looking at us. 

The trio of yawning surgeons staggered down the hallway to the trauma 



286 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

bay. It was an open area in the front corner of the aid station with two litter 
stands in the center. The harsh fluorescent glow of two Bruce lamps strung 
from the ceiling illuminated the workspace. 

While Butter's staff was spiking bags of IV fluid and opening up packs of 
dressings, the FST's first sergeant, Cueball, came in wearing his combat 
boots. We figured he slept in them; no one could lace up a set that fast. Cue- 
ball loved his docs and his enlisted, and all of us respected him. He was in his 
familiar role of playing bouncer in the trauma bay. He was giving the heave- 
ho to various wallflowers and rubbemeckers who hoped to see some blood 
and guts. I never knew how all these trauma groupies got to the aid station so 
quickly. Of course, I'm being unfair in labeling them. They showed up to 
pitch in, and their assistance in moving patients, guarding EPWs, or just 
being "gofers" was indispensable. 

The medical service corps lieutenant came over to meet us. 

"Morning, El Tee." Warthog, my partner in general-surgery crime, 
grinned. "What are you doing up so early?" 

"Sir?" the youngster replied, still no more certain on how to interpret us 
than the day we first met him in Kuwait. "I just came over from the TOC. I 
can report three or four definites coming, maybe more." 

Warthog was about to ask him how many "definites" three or four actually 
meant, but decided it was too early to tease the young officer. 

Our banter was interrupted as the walls rattled from the roar of a low- 
flying helicopter. There was a mass movement of people to the rear of the aid 
station. 

I glanced over at Warthog, who looked positively meditative as we waited. 

"The last moment of tranquillity, huh?" I observed. 

His mind was on other thoughts. "I hope I covered up my pillow," he said, 
referring to the fine layer of silt that coated everything in the aid station after 
a helicopter landing. 

Any sense of calm was gone a moment later as the first of the four-man lit- 
ter teams burst through the door. 

"I was worried he wouldn't make it to the CSH," the flight medic reported 
as he followed behind the second litter. "Two urgent surgicals. The first is an 
Iraqi interpreter with shrapnel all over. The second is a Cav officer with a 
near-amputation of his right upper extremity." 

We followed the teams into the heart of the aid station, taking care not to 
slip on the blood trail. We exploded into the light and openness of the trauma 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 287 

bay, and then, just as a hush follows the roar of a wave crashing onto a beach, 
a soft hum filled the room to replace the clamor of our arrival. 

I headed toward the second litter: white male, midthirties, eighty kilos, 
awake but looking "shocky." His uniform had already been cut away by the 
time I reached him. A new IV was being started and vital-sign monitors were 
being slapped onto his pale skin. My quick primary survey revealed that his 
right forearm was nearly amputated and his left foot had caught a sizable 
piece of shrapnel. 

"We are going to take good care of you, Major," I said to the wounded of- 
ficer. "But you're going to need an operation on your arm and foot." 

"OK, sir," he said simply. 

I was impressed by his calm. If my severed arm was hanging by a sinew, I 
would have been screaming my head off and crying like a baby. Not him. No 
tears in his eyes, and only a grunt here and there as we adjusted his tourni- 
quet. He was 100 percent warrior. 

Pooh, the orthopedic surgeon, appeared at the foot of the litter. As big as 
a bear and as gentle as the A. A. Milne character, he had left his lucrative 
sports-medicine private practice to come over to Iraq. 

"He needs your magic, Pooh," I said. 

"Nerves intact?" 

He was already trying to decide whether to try to salvage the upper ex- 
tremity or just amputate. 

I frowned. 

"We'll see." Pooh shrugged and shuffled off toward the OR to get ready. 

Warthog and I turned away from our patients to confer in the narrow aisle 
between the litters. 

"Mine's stable," he said. "But needs lots of debridement. He keeps asking 
about your guy." 

It turned out that the Iraqi national was an interpreter. He had been 
studying to be a doctor until Saddam closed all the medical schools. When 
the U.S. Army arrived, the young man decided to put his English skills to 
work. On this particular evening, it was his knowledge of first aid in control- 
ling hemorrhage that had kept the major alive long enough to reach us. 

I walked a few steps down the corridor to the adjoining makeshift operat- 
ing room. Looking in, I found the OR techs opening pans of instruments and 
the nurse anesthetists drawing up their induction medications. 

"We're all ready for you," Mookie greeted. 



288 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

"It's Pooh's show tonight," I replied. 

I felt a bit disappointed. First, I was thinking about the major who was 
about to lose his arm. Second, I was depressed by the prospect of being idle. 
Pooh would be doing the amputation, and Warthog would be cleaning up 
the Iraqi interpreter's wounds. I could kill a little time doing some paperwork, 
coordinating the post-op evacuation of the casualties, and communicating 
with the CSH to give them a heads-up. After that, however, I would be back 
to thinking about home. 

Half an hour later I was self-medicating my self-pity by eating an MRE. I 
had saved the peanut butter tube from one meal and the bag of shelled and 
salted peanuts from another. Now I could mix the two together, add them to 
the standard chow mein packet and season it with Tabasco. It gave the entree 
a little Thai flair. It was perfect comfort food at two in the morning. 

Cueball came round the corner. 

"You've got to have some," I offered, desperate to talk to anyone as a dis- 
traction. 

"No thanks, sir," he grimaced. "But I was sent to find you. They want you 
to poke your head into the OR." 

My mood immediately improved. I left the doctored MRE and thoughts 
of my family behind and headed to the OR. 

Pooh looked up from the major's arm. 

"His elbow is blown away," he said. "I think the only thing holding his 
forearm on is a bridge of skin and his median and ulnar nerves. I can't find 
his radial. And I think that this is his transected brachial artery." 

I peered over at the sterile field. There was a huge gaping hole where the 
elbow joint should have been. The sharp, fractured ends of the bones of his 
arm and forearm protruded menacingly into the wound area. The stump of 
his brachial artery was in spasm. It stood up on end throbbing with each 
pulse. 

It was a sticky situation. It is often possible to restore blood flow to an am- 
putated limb. However, the efforts are useless unless the nerves will work. 
The nerves carry the messages to the muscles to make them move. They also 
carry sensory information back to the brain. There is little use in saving an ex- 
tremity that won't work or that will constantly be getting injured without the 
owner's awareness. Moreover, the technology of prosthetic limbs had ad- 
vanced so much that many patients have a better long-term outcome by hav- 
ing a mangled extremity amputated. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 289 

"Think we should try?" Pooh asked. 

With two out of the three nerves identified and intact, I thought it was 
worth a shot. If it didn't work out, they could always just take the forearm off 
back at Landstuhl or Walter Reed. 

"I'll scrub," I replied. 

Once gowned and gloved, I started dissecting through the mess of dam- 
aged muscle and tendons to find the ends of the brachial artery. A portion of 
the vessel had been destroyed by the blast. In addition, the distal segment in 
the forearm had retracted several centimeters. It was apparent that the two 
ends would not reach one another. I needed a graft to bridge the gap. 

Warthog showed up having finished with his patient. 

"I could use your help. You want to get to work on this guy's groin?" 

"I beg your pardon," he said indignantly. "He hasn't even bought me din- 
ner yet. Let me also remind you that I wear Army green and not Navy white. 
I will not be a part of any of those 'don't ask, don't tell' activities no matter 
how . . ." His words trailed off as he went out for a quick scrub. A few minutes 
later, Warthog was flaying open the patient's thigh to harvest a piece of the 
saphenous vein. We would use it to replace the missing segment of artery. I 
continued to clean up the elbow area and tie off some bleeders. 

The game was on and everything else was secondary. I became focused 
on the operation and lost touch with much of what was going on around me. 
I remember Cueball coming in asking for updates so that he could plan the 
timing of the medevac chopper. The anesthesia team asked about blood loss 
a few times. 

I sewed in the bypass and removed the clamps. The patient's hand im- 
mediately pinked up, and the distal side of the wound started to ooze blood. 
I rested the pad of my gloved index finger on the shiny segment of vein and 
felt the thrill of blood coursing through the vessel. The graft was open. The 
repair was working. It was a moment to savor. 

My silent celebration was interrupted by Mookie slapping, rather 
painfully, a loaded needle driver into my other hand. It was his not-so-subtle 
way of drawing me back to reality. 

"Four-O nylon, sir," he announced, as he handed me the suture I would 
need for closing the skin. 

"Screw you, Mookie," I shot back. "This is the closest thing I've had to sex 
in four months. Don't ruin the moment." 

We finished quickly and dressed the wounds as Pooh put the final touches 



290 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

on the external fixation device. I then broke scrub as the recovery-room team 
came in to help package the patient for transport to the CSH. 

I sat down on a medical chest in the corridor between the trauma bay and 
the operating room. After draining my CamelBak of tepid water, I leaned 
back against the wall and sighed. I am certain that I smelled to high heaven. 
I didn't notice, and it didn't really matter. By that point in the war everyone 
reeked. 

Over the next few days we tried to figure out what happened to the major 
and his arm. Unfortunately, because casualties were evacuated out of the 
country so rapidly, the answer eluded us. In some ways, it was better not to 
know. Everyone was willing to assume that the arm was saved. Morale was so 
high that to consider the other possibility would have been too depressing, es- 
pecially since that night was such a powerful justification for our being there. 

Several months after getting home I was back at my civilian hospital sit- 
ting in my comfortable office when Pooh telephoned. 

"Did you happen to see Oprah yesterday?" he asked. 

"No, I missed it," I replied, worried that he had some psychological scars 
left over from the war that were driving him to watch daytime television. 
"Pooh, why in God's name were you watching Oprah?" 

"No, no, I wasn't," he clarified. "But someone told me that she did a fea- 
ture on some of the wounded U.S. soldiers being treated at BAMC in San An- 
tonio. She interviewed a major who had had his arm saved. I pulled the 
transcript off the Internet, and I'll e-mail it to you. The name and dates seem 
to correspond. I think it's our guy, and it looks like his limb was salvaged!" 

I swelled with professional pride that our operation had succeeded. How- 
ever, it was what this officer said during the television interview that moved 
me. When I got home that night, I helped my wife put our two sons to bed 
before sharing the transcript with her. She sat down at the kitchen table to 
read. It was only a couple of pages of text, but in it the officer described lying 
on the battlefield after being wounded. He was staring up at the Iraqi night- 
time sky bargaining with God for the chance to see his daughter again. Then, 
later in the transcript, the major went on to share his feelings of joy once he 
made it home safely and wrapped both of his arms around his family. 

My wife looked up and dabbed her cheeks with the back of her hand. She 
had never complained to me about my mobilization although I knew how 
hard it had been on her. She had managed all the challenges: child care, 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 291 

work, pregnancy— you name it. She is a strong and optimistic individual, but 
even at that moment I knew she was dreading the day when I would be called 
for a second tour. 

"You know," she said trying to smile. "I hated every minute of that de- 
ployment." 

"I know," I said. 

"But it was worth it, wasn't it?" 



MEDEVAC MISSIONS 

Journal 
Captain Ed Hrivnak 



After wounded troops are treated in a field hospital, those in need of addi- 
tional care are flown out of Iraq or Afghanistan to a larger, more modern 
medical facility in another country (usually Germany or Spain). In many 
cases, they are patched up and returned to their units. But if their injuries 
are more serious, they are sent back to the United States for long-term assis- 
tance and rehabilitation. Thirty-four-year-old U.S. Air Force Captain Ed 
Hrivnak, assigned to the 491st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation 
Squadron, Air Mobility Command, was a fireman living in Washington 
State with his wife, Jennifer (who is an Air Force Reserve flight nurse), be- 
fore serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hrivnak was a veteran of the Gulf 
War in 1991 and had assisted in peacekeeping missions that flew into 
Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and other countries. But despite all that he had 
seen as a firefighter and during his previous military deployments, Hrivnak 
was still profoundly moved by the (mostly) young casualties he tended to 
day after day as part of a medevac crew. The following excerpts, which span 
from late March to mid-July 2003, are from Hrivnak's journal. (CCATT 
refers to the critical care air transport team, which treats patients with life- 
threatening conditions.) 

First Mission 

Our patient load is 11 - 7 + 2 and a duty passenger. That means eleven litter 
patients, seven walking wounded, and two attendants. Some can take care of 



292 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

themselves, some need lots of help. All have been waiting for us for a long 
time and need pain medicine and antibiotics. The patients include: gunshot 
wound (GSW) to the stomach, partial amputations from a land mine, open 
fractures secondary to GSW, head injury/struck by a tank, blast injuries, 
shrapnel injuries, and dislocations. The patients are mainly from the Marines 
and 101st Airborne (Screaming Eagles). Many were involved in ambushes. 

One trooper confides in me that he witnessed some Iraqi children get run 
over by a convoy. He was in the convoy and they had strict orders not to stop. 
If a vehicle stops, it is isolated and an inviting target for a rocket-propelled 
grenade. He tells me that some women and children have been forced out 
onto the road to break up the convoys so that the Iraqi irregulars can get a 
clear shot. But the convoys do not stop. He tells me that dealing with that 
image is worse than the pain of his injury. 

Back in Germany, the patients are off-loaded and we clean up our mess. 
Then a sergeant comes out and declares that we have to sign a paper stating 
we will not drink and drive in Germany. We look at him with anger. Our mis- 
sion from start to finish was twenty-nine hours long. Most of us were up 
twelve hours prior to that, minus catnaps. Forty-one hours later and someone 
in peaceful Germany is worried we might drink and drive. 

The field where we picked up the patients, we find out later, came under 
rocket attack six times after we left. 

Another Mission "Down Range" 

I've noticed that the most seriously injured are the youngest. The older, ex- 
perienced soldiers do a better job of staying alive and avoiding the flying 
metal. One soldier I'm treating looks like a young boy. We talk for a bit as I 
assess him. I medicate him for his pain. It is the first of many infusions. 

The morphine is not working, but it's the strongest stuff I've got. At some 
point during these adjustments I accidentally dislodge a Hemovac suction 
unit from one of his infected wounds. Foul-smelling, reddish-yellow fluid 
drains from the tube and drips off the litter. I start looking at his bandages to 
find the other end of the tubing. I open one bandage and find sand fleas 
where his toes use to be. I try my best to keep a straight face, but the sight nau- 
seates me. Scott, one of my level-headed medics, finds the tubing and resets 
the suction, then cleans up the mess I made. 

We finally get this soldier comfortable. Because we moved him so much, 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 293 

I decide to reassess his extremities. I know there are parts of his leg and thigh 
missing from reading his medical record, but I can't tell from the thick ban- 
dages. The wounds were left open to allow them to drain. The dressings are 
wet and covered in a light layer of sand. I ask the soldier to wiggle the toes he 
has. On one side his toes move fine; on the other side there is no movement. 
What is left on that side is cold and hard to the touch. He looks at me and our 
eyes are locked. His eyes say, "Tell me I'm going to be okay. Tell me that I'm 
going to be fine, tell me I'm going to be whole again. . . ." These are some of 
the longest seconds of my life because I know he is counting on what I say to 
him. 

I bend down below the litter to break eye contact. I act like I'm adjusting 
some of the medical equipment attached to him. My mind is racing. I have 
always been honest with my patients. Do I lie or tell him the truth? The sec- 
onds move so slowly as I fight my internal battle on what is right. I stand 
straight up and there are his eyes. I'm at the end of the litter and with the 
noise of the plane there is no way he could hear me speak. We are now com- 
municating solely with our eyes and facial expressions. I'm sure less than two 
seconds passed before I gave him a big smile and a thumbs-up. Those two 
seconds felt like an hour. He broke into a big smile of relief and I felt broken 
for lying to him. He motioned to me and I walked to the head of the litter. I 
leaned in so he could yell into my ear over the jet noise. "Why do my feet feel 
so cold?" he asked. I yelled back, "There is a lot of swelling in your feet and 
the blood circulation is not so good because of the swelling. It is way too early 
in the game to tell how well you are going to heal. The swelling is going to af- 
fect your senses and ability to move." These were all true statements. I felt re- 
assured with my answer. It is too early to say how this soldier will recover. But 
I still feel bad about lying. 

Easter Day 

Some come onto the plane with the thousand-yard stare. Some come on with 
eyes darting about assessing the new environment, maybe looking for an am- 
bush or a booby trap. Some walk with a nervous jitter, some walk on like zom- 
bies. Some have eyes glazed over from a morphine-induced stupor. Once we 
are at cruising altitude, you can feel the tension drop within the aircraft. 

I thought I was doing a decent job at nursing when my medical crew dis- 
covered a cure-all on our Easter Day mission. We had collected money at our 



294 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

staging base and bought frozen pizzas and cookie dough. Halfway through 
the flight we started cooking the pizzas. I walked from patient to patient and 
asked them if they would like a pizza. There were many looks of disbelief. 
These boys had seen nothing but MREs (field rations) for over three months. 
Then the smell of pizza started to drift from our aircraft ovens. (We have five 
small convection ovens on the plane.) 

Our crew passed out the pizza to the faces of eager boys. They did not 
look like combat veterans anymore. Most of them had gleeful looks like 
young children at an Easter egg hunt. It was like we just gave them a little 
taste of home and America. They started to joke and laugh with each other. 
After the pizza we brought out the fresh-baked cookies (which takes a little 
skill in a pressurized cabin). The cookies were hot and dripping chocolate. I 
weaved between the seats and litter stanchions and let the boys grab the 
gooey cookies. You should have seen the looks on their faces. It was on this 
mission that I realized that there is more to treating the casualties of war than 
pushing drugs and dressing wounds. 

A Mission to Baghdad 

We were in Bravo alert and had been told that not much was going on. A 
crewmate and I were passing the time in our room watching BBC World 
News when a news flash came on describing multiple ambushes and fire- 
fights around Baghdad. Several hours later we were alerted for an urgent mis- 
sion to that very place. We ended up loading thirty-eight patients, the 
majority of them combat injuries. The worst patient assigned to me was a 
Ranger who was nineteen years old, but looked to be about fifteen. He was on 
the litter prone, facing the two critical patients. His arms dangled over the 
side of the litter. As I walked by, his left arm reached up and grabbed my calf. 
He was loaded with morphine and difficult to understand. He was rambling, 
"Take care of my buddies. . . . TAKE CARE OF MY BUDDIES, don't worry 
about me and are they going to be okay? Are they going to live?" The critical 
patients he was facing were his friends. When we loaded the patients we had 
no time to take into consideration their relationships to one another. He was 
looking directly at his buddies while the CCATTs worked desperately to keep 
them alive. 

As the flight continued, I got bits and pieces of what happened. Five Army 
Rangers were on patrol when a remote-control homemade bomb was deto- 
nated under them. Hidden Iraqi irregulars then sprayed the soldiers with 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 295 

small-arms fire. One Ranger died at the scene, and another died at the field 
hospital. We got the three survivors. My patient was the only one still con- 
scious. Each time I walked by him, he reached up and grabbed my leg, al- 
ways asking about his friends. I went over to the CCATT nurse, Brian, and 
asked him how they were doing. He told me, "I got one guy who is shot 
through the neck and is paralyzed. The other guy has multiple shrapnel 
wounds and a severe brain injury. These guys are messed up. I hope they 
killed the fuckers that did this." 

Halfway home, I finally caught up on my other patients. I sat down to jot 
some notes on a patient's chart and fell asleep for a moment. Instantly I 
started dreaming and then woke up with a start. I had never felt so exhausted. 
I looked up to see the prone Ranger waving for help. He was in pain. I gave 
him a touch of morphine. As I leaned into him, he lamented about his 
friends again. I told him they were still alive. He then vomited on me. It was 
the perfect capper to an arduous flight. I have no memory of the patient off- 
loads— I was on autopilot at that point. We got into crew rest midday and I 
had disturbing dreams. 

Faces of War 

The Humvee is like the Pinto of the 1970s: it burns quickly when hit by a 
rocket. One GI told me he saw a Humvee burn down in less than three min- 
utes. You can't get out of the vehicle fast enough when it is hit. I was trans- 
porting a medical officer who was stuck in such a situation. He was hauling 
medical supplies to Iraqi civilian hospitals when they were ambushed by an 
RPG. He was burned on most of his upper body and face. The tops of his ears 
were burned off. His arms and hands were covered in heavy bandages and 
ointment covered his red, peeling face. I sat and talked with him as we waited 
for an ambulance. This officer was prior enlisted, married, and has three chil- 
dren. He decided to become a medical officer to provide better for his family 
and to get out of the field. He told his family not to worry about him, because 
he would be serving in the rear with medical logistics. He would not be fight- 
ing on the front lines. (Where are the front lines in Iraq?) 

He was not concerned about his burns, but he was worried about what his 
children were thinking. He said, "I talked to them on the phone yesterday. 
They didn't understand why I was burned. I promised them I was going to be 
okay— that I would be safe. The kids don't get it and I'm not sure how to ex- 
plain it to them." I stared at his face and burns the whole time he was talking. 



296 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

His face was an expressionless mask. I couldn't tell if he was tired like the rest 
of the patients or if the burns were causing his unvaried, mask-like appear- 
ance. The tone of his voice when speaking of his children was his only sign of 
emotion. 

What does the future hold for these men who go home to their families 
mentally and physically different? And what of the critically injured who 
have a long future of VA hospitals followed by VA disability? How do they 
cope? How do they adjust? I feel obligated to stay out here and take care of 
the wounded. I want to do all I can to help them. 

Battle Buddies 

These Marines and soldiers are good at waiting. They see we are doing our 
best and rarelv complain. One soldier, trving to be patient, went too long be- 
tween morphine shots. He tried to gut it out. He did not want to slow the 
loading of the airplane. We loaded him on the bottom rack and he immedi- 
ately grabbed onto the litter above him. I looked down at him and saw his 
knuckles turn white with a death grip on the litter crossbeam. Tears poured 
down his face but he did not make a sound. I grabbed the primary flight nurse 
and told him to give this kid some of the good stuff. The nurse said he would 
get the morphine when we were done loading the rest of the litter patients. 

I can't blame this nurse. It was his first real casualtv mission in the war. It 
is easy to lose sight of one patient and get caught up in what is going around 
you. I told the nurse to toss me a svringe of morphine and I would take care 
of him myself. When I returned to this GI, a battle buddy was holding his 
hand and talking softly to him. Their hands were locked like they were ready- 
to arm-wrestle. I quicklv pushed the morphine into his vein and apologized 
for letting his pain get to such a level. I felt like I had failed him. His buddy 
stayed with him, talking to him, consoling him, until the pain medicine took 
effect and the soldier's hand relaxed. These two were not in the same unit. 
They were not wounded in the same part of Iraq. They were brought together 
and bonded bv their wounds. Their injuries made them part of a fraternity, a 
private brotherhood I felt privileged to witness. 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 297 



ALIVE AND WELL 

Personal Narrative 
Corporal Stephen Webber 



Forty-three miles west of Baghdad, the city ofFallujah (also spelled Falluja) 
represented the heart of anti-American violence for the first few years of Op- 
eration Iraqi Freedom. In November 2003 insurgents shot down an Army 
CH-47 Chinook helicopter flying over the city, killing sixteen soldiers. And 
on March 31, 2004, in what would become one of the most horrific images 
of the war, four private American contractors driving through Fallujah were 
ambushed, pulled from their car, and beaten to death. The insurgents set 
the four mens bodies on fire and dangled the charred remains from a bridge 
over the Fuphrates as a joyous crowd celebrated. After a quickly aborted as- 
sault in April, U.S. troops swept into Fallujah in November 2004 and were 
able to achieve relative control of the city. A/ Qaeda forces attempted to re- 
take their former stronghold in October 2006, and within a month U.S. 
Marines were engaged in firefights on a daily basis. One of those Marines, 
a twenty-two-year-old corporal named Stephen Webber serving with the 1st 
Battalion (24th Marines, Charlie Company), wrote the following account 
describing how he spent his Thanksgiving in Fallujah. 

"Dearest Stephen— We will probably eat dinner at the Northwestern din- 
ner for students who stay on campus," my mother writes to me on Thanks- 
giving Day 2006 while visiting my younger brother Jonathan in college. "We 
do have a lot to be thankful for in our lives, but mostly this past year and for 
the moment, we must be thankful truly that we are alive and well. ... I hope 
you get that sleep you want and need tonight, and that you get to have a mem- 
orable Thanksgiving dinner 'with the troops.' Love you always and forever, 
and thinking of you that much, too!" 

My mother knows where I am and is aware of the dangers faced by a Ma- 
rine infantryman. I try to shield her from the risks and assure her that I'm 
being careful. In her mind I'm her son who reads philosophy in his spare 
time, writes poetry, and was captain of the high school debate team. 



298 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

The intersection of the two streets code-named Fran and Henry repre- 
sents one of the most explosive areas of Fallujah. During the day Marine 
combat patrols are frequently shot at by insurgents, known as muj (muja- 
hedeen), who hide in the battle-scarred buildings that flank the roads. At 
night the massive supply convoys that slowly lumber through the city are 
blown to pieces by IEDs. After days of continuous attacks my squad is ordered 
to find the muj IED emplacers and kill them. 

Our mission is to set up an ambush. It's a fairly simple concept but, for 
this operation, it's complicated by the constraints of the busy urban environ- 
ment. The spot we choose will have to provide a clear field of fire but must 
also conceal ten Marines, possibly for several days. After poring over maps 
and discussing in detail our experiences working in the area we settle for an 
abandoned building on the southwest corner of the Fran-Henry intersection. 
The top floors of the bombed-out building have collapsed on each other, and 
there are "mouse holes" or cracks in the wall that will allow us to sit back and 
watch the intersection while remaining hidden. The bottom floor is still rel- 
atively intact and several enterprising Iraqis had set up a coffee shop amidst 
the rubble. 

The building, however, is far from perfect. Because of the large holes in 
the broken walls we will have to lay on our stomachs almost the entire time 
to stay out of sight. If a firefight breaks out and the muj get into the taller 
buildings across the street they'll be able to shoot down on us. Additionally, in 
order to provide 360-degree security and maximize the amount of the inter- 
section we can cover, I'm going to have to divide up my squad into small 
groups and spread them throughout the building. These teams will be iso- 
lated and unable to pull out quickly. If attacked, we'll be trapped, and our 
only option will be to stay and fight. 

In preparation we gear up with extra weapons. This is no daylight foot pa- 
trol where speed and movement are paramount for survival. We are going 
with the expectation that we will be getting into a firefight. So we hump sin- 
gle shot LAAW Rockets, which fire a 66mm missile that can easily destroy 
cars or punch holes in walls; M-32 grenade launchers, whose rotating barrel 
can spit out six grenades in a matter of seconds; extra boxes of machine gun 
ammo; sleeping bags; and enough food and water for three days. My assistant 
squad leader, an ox of a man, straps an extra machine gun to the side of his 
pack, in addition to the M-16 he's slung across his chest. We're short a few 
men due to recent casualties so I grab an additional Marine from another 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 299 

squad to give us some extra firepower. 

Tonight's mission is my first time running the show on my own. After a 
month of tough combat our original squad leader is done with it. He refused 
to leave the wire and was subsequently relieved of command. Formerly his as- 
sistant, I have been promoted to squad leader. 

Loaded up and ready to move we slip out of our forward operating base 
(FOB) at 0300 and into the silent streets of Fallujah. We leave fully aware that 
the gates of our FOB are often being watched by enemy spotters. To com- 
pensate for this we start out patrolling away from the intersection then double 
back, twisting and turning through the streets and alleyways to confuse any- 
one trying to track our movement. We also know that we're not the only ones 
capable of conducting an ambush. Just days before, my squad was attacked by 
muj gunman as we patrolled by a mosque. We had successfully fought our 
way out, but not before one of our guys was wounded. In order to keep from 
getting our whole squad caught out in the open, for this mission we split into 
two five-man teams that are separated by at least one block but capable of mu- 
tually supporting each other at a moment's notice. 

The streets are completely empty, the result of a strictly enforced curfew 
that prohibits Iraqis from being outside after 2100. Power to the city is cut 
every night at 2200, leaving most of the neighborhoods pitch black. We step 
lightly, trying to soften the crunching sound of combat boots on gravel and 
pavement. Dogs bark. Busted pipes drip water onto the street. Everything else 
is quiet. Occasionally a door opens as a half-asleep Iraqi stumbles out of his 
house to make a midnight call to nature. With every unexpected noise the pa- 
trol instantly freezes, then takes cover behind walls or cars until the situation 
is clear. 

We continue through empty markets and residential areas where the 
homes are pockmarked with bullet holes from previous battles. In the ghost- 
like silence it's hard not to feel the presence of the one hundred Marines 
who've been killed in the city over the last few years. We patrol cautiously past 
schools and decrepit office buildings where we've taken contact days before 
and where friends have recently died. 

As we approach the abandoned building, my squad links back up and 
halts in a ditch. With two other Marines I sprint across the empty intersection 
to the side of our target building to do some recon. The building has been 
used by Marines before and there is concern that the muj might have booby- 
trapped it in hopes that we'll return. We leave behind the rest of the squad so 



300 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

that, if we do set off a bomb, only three of us will die. Using Night Vision 
Goggles (NVGs) and infrared (IR) lights we creep inside. The movement is 
agonizingly slow as we feel for trip wires or anything that can explode. We 
clear a path through the rubble, and I drop IR chemlights to mark a safe route 
to the upper levels of the building. Then I radio the rest of the squad to move 
in, and they work their way up to the second floor. The last two Marines set 
booby traps of our own to give us advanced warning if anyone tries to sneak 
up on us. 

Silently I position my Marines throughout the building. On the third 
floor my assistant squad leader sets in with two other Marines to protect our 
west flank. On the second floor I leave a three-man team facing south and 
covering a giant hole in the floor that is exposed to the street. During the day 
they will be less than thirty feet from unsuspecting Iraqis in the shops below. 
My greatest concern is that if we are discovered, insurgents will throw 
grenades up at us through the hole. I order the men watching it to prep 
grenades of their own. Finally, I have the last group face north and east to 
cover the heart of the intersection. This headquarters group is composed of 
four Marines including myself and Gunny Hayes, our platoon commander. 

Usually platoon commanders don't go out on squad-sized missions, but 
Gunny isn't an ordinary platoon commander. A veteran of Somalia, he was 
capable of delivering ass chewings so severe that there were documented 
cases of his victims having nightmares for days afterward. He had been my 
platoon commander on my first tour in 2004 and through the years I had 
strived to follow his two keys of combat leadership: "Take care of your 
Marines and don't be scared of a goddamned thing." If his Marines were 
going to be in a fight, he was going to be there with them. 

By the time the first streaks of morning lighten the sky we have success- 
fully disappeared amidst the wreckage of the building. People shout and 
horns blare as Fallujah comes to life. Traffic officials play the role of stop- 
lights, blowing whistles and frantically waving their arms to direct the flow of 
traffic. The shops directly underneath us fill with people, their Arabic clearly 
audible to us as we lay mute above them. If we have to move we crawl around 
slowly, carefully placing each hand, each knee, so as not to alert those below 
us. If we have to piss we lay on our side and piss into a bottle. If we have to 
shit we shit into a plastic bag that will stay with us until we leave. 

At night the temperature in the desert plunges. The open walls invite in 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 301 



the swirling wind. The stone floors hold no heat. Shivering we wrap ourselves 
in all the warming layers we have. Gators protect our neck and are pulled up 
over our nose so that only our eyes are visible. There is no talking. All com- 
munication is nonverbal. We take turns sleeping. At least half of the squad is 
always awake. During especially dangerous times every Marine is up and 
watching. 

Despite the seeming normalcy of the activity in the streets and shops, 
around us is a city still at war. Gunfire periodically breaks out. With our head- 
set turned down to its quietest setting we monitor our company's radio traffic, 
listening to the frenzied charter as our friends in other squads take contact. 
We lay there. Waiting. The first day passes. There is nothing. From sunup to 
sunset we expectantly monitor the intersection — only to be disappointed. 
Each night seems colder than the one before. Staring into the darkness with 
NVGs you quickly develop a headache. Your mind wanders to thoughts of 
home and family. 

In the middle of the night I leave my spot to check on the rest of my 
Marines. I know that they too are struggling to stay awake. Before leaving I de- 
cide to take off everything but my combat boots and flak jacket. Shivering I 
pick up my rifle and slowly sneak around the building. As I reach one of our 
posts I stop to whisper with the Marine on duty, his eyes heavy with sleep. In 
the darkness we shoot the shit for a minute, just glad to have human interac- 
tion. Suddenly he freezes, a quizzical look on his face. He reaches out and 
touches my leg. Skin. "Holy fuck corporal you're naked!" he gasps. Then 
bursts into stifled laughter. Grinning, and confident that he will now be alert 
for a while, I move on. 

The next morning is Thanksgiving. Football, turkey, loved ones, the day 
off work. I celebrate by slowly eating unheated meat and vegetable soup out 
of a can while waiting for someone to kill. 

Marine patrols drive by. Below us Arabic is spoken. In front of us cars 
move back and forth. The sun rises, the sun sets. FUCK. It seems like another 
wasted day. But early evening is prime IED time. It's just dark enough to foil 
the naked eye, but too bright for NVGs. The streets are crowded with Iraqis 
rushing home before curfew, allowing the insurgents to hide in the mass of 
people. We press our faces up to the holes in the cement, willing our eyes to 
work. 

"Hey what's that car doing?" Gunny hisses. "He is fucking carrying some- 



302 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

thing! Oh shit he's got something!" 

I strain to see in the darkness but can't make out the car. 

"Oh fuck he has something! He fucking has something!" 

Suddenly through the darkness I observe two men struggling with a heavy 
object toward the middle of the intersection. One takes off down the road and 
disappears in the heavy traffic. The other kneels down by the object in the 
center of the road. A fuckin muj IED emplacer. My chest tightens and heart 
starts to fly. I creep up over the wall, trying not to be seen while simultane- 
ously getting in position to take a shot. It seems like we wait forever. Slowly 
the man starts to work his way back across the street. 

"He's running wire!" 

"Fucking shoot him." 

"Wait for it, wait for it." 

Every muscle in my body is tense. It dawns on me that I am watching a 
man in the last few moments of his life. A man that is about to die but does- 
n't know it yet. I pull my M-4 into my body and locate the man in my scope. 

BAM! 

Gunny has shot first. I start squeezing my trigger as fast as I can. Gunny 
continues firing as a third Marine opens up with a machine gun on full auto. 
Red tracers come screaming out of the building smacking the street then 
skipping brightly off into the distance. I fire about five well-aimed shots be- 
fore the machine gun kicks up thick clouds of dust. I squeeze off ten more 
rounds, firing blindly now into the smoke. The machine gun next to me 
roars. My ears ring. The Marine sleeping at our feet thrashes about wildly try- 
ing to get out of his sleeping bag. The firing ceases. The intersection, which 
had gone from being a major traffic hub to a war zone, is now completely, 
eerily silent. 

Hands shaking I pick up the radio and call our combat operations center. 
"COC this is 2 Alpha." 

"This is COC go ahead." 

"Roger we just engaged IED emplacers. Stand by for battle damage as- 
sessment." 

"Standing by." 

Anxiously we peer through the haze. "God I hope we didn't fuck this up," 
someone mutters. 

"Is that a body?" 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 303 

"Where? I don't see it." 

"Right there next to the wall." 

"Where?" 

"Oh fuck I see it." 

"WE GOT A BODY!! WE GOT A BODY!!" 

"We got him, we fucking got him," Gunny crows. 

High fives, low five, hugs, screams, ecstasy. The best I have ever felt in my 
life. We jump and holler and celebrate. For months we have been on the 
other side of that ambush. We have been clearing streets, fighting with ghosts. 
Losing Marines. 

"COC this is 2 Alpha, we smoke checked him. We got dead muj!" The 
most magical words ever to come out of my mouth. 

"Get down!" Gunny orders, stopping the party. "We're going to get lit up 
standing up like that." 

Still giddy we try to reclaim some semblance of military order. Over inter- 
nal radios we relay what's happened to the others in the building who couldn't 
see the action. We start stuffing gear in packs, ready to move out. A quick reac- 
tion force (QRF) of Humvees rolls up, cordoning off the intersection. 

Gunny grabs my arm, "Webber, let's go down and take a look." 

We take another Marine and the three of us creep down out of the build- 
ing and onto the street. Exuberantly we run up to the body. He is— was— a 
young man with a brown sweatshirt and black baggy pants. Barefoot. His san- 
dals are strewn about in the middle of the street, flung from his feet as he des- 
perately sought to escape our bullets. He's been shot several times in the 
chest and stomach. He has buckteeth. His chin is split open, I assume from 
the force of hitting the ground. His eyes, visible from beneath half-open lids, 
have rolled back into his head. His mouth is open, as if he were in shock to 
be dead. His nose has been shot off. He has a tiny bullet hole in his head, the 
width of a red pencil eraser. Blood oozes from the wound, matting down his 
thick black hair. His ID reveals that he had turned twenty-one only a few days 
before. Someone says his name, which I thought I would remember forever, 
but promptly forget moments later. His right hand is outstretched, pointing 
toward an alley, and safety. But just a few feet in front of his right hand, rolling 
away from him as he fell, is the reason he had to die. A spool of copper wire. 
Attached to the other end is an IED that exists for the sole purpose of killing 
Marines. For putting me and my buddies stretched out, dead on the street. 



304 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Fuck you muj. 

A Marine stands over him screaming, "You STUPID motherfucker! Why 
the fuck did you make me come all the way over here, come all the way to 
this goddamned hellhole, leave my family just to kill your dumb ass? You stu- 
pid son of a bitch." 

Our focus immediately shifts to our security situation; every insurgent in 
the city now knows where we are. We just killed one of their friends, and we 
have a live IED sitting a few dozen meters from us that could detonate at any 
moment. 

We quickly link up with the QRF leader and plan strategy. Between my 
squad and the QRF we have twenty-five Marines. Our biggest concern is an 
RPG hitting the abandoned building my squad is occupying. In order to min- 
imize the risk we want to return to base (RTB) as soon as possible. Unfortu- 
nately we still have the IED. As long as it's there, the Fran-Henry 
intersection — a vital supply route for thousands of Marines— will remain 
closed to military traffic. We will have to wait for engineers to come and blow 
it in place. The engineers may not show up for hours. 

After twenty minutes of waiting, Gunny is getting antsy. We are still on an 
incredible combat high. 

"You know we ought to just pick that IED up, put it in the back of the 
Humvee, and drive it back to the FOB and be done with it," Gunny muses. 
"We can sit it out in a field and the engineers can just blow it there." 

"Yeah," the other squad leader retorts, "until you hit a bump and the 
whole thing blows up in the back of the high back. Who you gonna have go 
pick it up?" 

"Fuck I'll do it." I speak up without meaning to. 

Gunny looks at me. 

"You ever picked up an IED before, Webber?" 

"No." 

"Well then it will be damned-good training won't it?" 

"Gunny you know I'm with you till the end," I smile. 

"I don't think this is such a good idea," the other squad leader says, 
stunned. 

A vague outline of the plan to move the bomb is passed back to head- 
quarters. Engulfed in a thousand other pressing matters and not really paying 
attention they mumble sure. 

"I'm driving the Humvee. Guide me back." 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 305 

"Roger that Gunny/' I say, tracing the thin, nearly invisible, copper wire 
across the road right up to the IED. The fact that we have the wire is reassur- 
ing. Most IEDs are command wire operated, meaning that the IED is set off 
by applying an electric charge to the free end of the wire. We have killed the 
man who was supposed to do that, and we have the wire, so we should be safe. 

Should be, because there is always the chance that in addition to the wire 
the IED is equipped with a radio transmitter. This means that the muj would 
still be able to detonate the IED remotely. Say at precisely the moment 
Gunny and I walked up to load it into the Humvee. In addition, IEDs aren't 
the most stable of explosives. It's not unusual for the homemade devices to 
malfunction and blow up on their own. A single bad bounce in the Humvee 
could accidentally set it off. That's why the number one rule when dealing 
with IEDs is to stay as far away as possible. 

A couple days ago, on this very road, I was on the receiving end of an IED 
blast. Probably made by the same bomb maker and placed by the same muj 
cell. Several weeks before that an IED blew up two other buddies. I want to 
kick the fucking thing. 

As the slack of the wire runs out I come face-to-face with the bomb, which 
is made out of a 120mm artillery shell. The shell is encased in a thick metal 
pipe, which would splinter into shrapnel if set off. Duct-taped to the outside 
is a two-liter plastic jug filled with gasoline, to create a fireball. 

Fuck it. 

I guide the Humvee as it backs up, and then Gunny scrambles out and 
joins me. "God that's a big ugly motherfucker." He grunts as he lifts the heavy 
bomb into the back of the Humvee. Thing must weigh more than a hundred 
pounds. We jump in and drive out of the open intersection to a protected spot 
behind a wall. We get out and begin coordinating our plans to withdraw. The 
radio cackles again, just as we're about to leave. 

"2 Alpha this is COC." 

"This is 2 Alpha go ahead COC." 

"Hold firm. You are not cleared to RTB until the engineers blow the IED 
on site." 

"Urn, roger that." 

Son of a bitch. Our whole plan has been shot to hell. We can't bring the 
IED back to base with us, and we can't go back until the engineers arrive. In 
addition we don't want the engineers rolling up and finding out we have al- 
ready loaded the IED into a Humvee. Aside from half-crazed Marine grunts, 



306 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

most people tend to frown on that kind of behavior. "You care to do the hon- 
ors?" Gunny asks me. 

Cursing I go to the back of the Humvee. I open the doors and grab hold 
of the live bomb sitting in the back. As other Marines stare in horror I pick it 
up and walk the same path the dead man just took. The IED is heavier than 
I had anticipated, and I feel it start to slip in my hands. Dropping the IED on 
the street is about the worst possible thing I can do, and the only consolation 
running through my mind is that if this sucker does go off I won't even know 
it. Nothing but a pink mist and a memory. I grit my teeth and struggle back 
the rest of the way. For the second time that night the IED is placed in the 
middle of the intersection. 

We return to the building that has served as our ambush point. My squad 
has packed its gear and is ready to move out. For a restless hour we wait. Frus- 
tration grows. After a firelight all you want is to be done with it. To return to 
the FOB, tell stories, scream, listen to music, be safe. Waiting for the engi- 
neers seems to take longer than the last two days we laid in the ambush. Fi- 
nally they arrive. An explosive charge is set to blow the IED in place. Our 
squad dashes out of the building and climbs into Humvees that will take us 
home. As we pull away the engineers set off the charge. For the last time that 
month the Fran-Henry intersection blows up. 

When we get back I show our company XO a few snapshots of the IED 
from different angles. 

"Wow." The surprise is evident in his voice. "Some crazy fucker got pretty 
close to it." 

"Yeah," I reply, "real close." 

The war goes on. We resume our exhaustive pace of daylight foot patrols 
and nighttime raids. We take more casualties. Once again we are on the 
wrong side of an ambush. Several days later we get to escort a convoy to our 
battalion headquarters at Camp Baharia, a quiet, relaxing base several miles 
outside of Fallujah. During our few hours there I check e-mails and receive 
my mom's Thanksgiving message. 

I write back: "mom, went on a convoy to baharia today, they have a 
stocked chow hall, has ice cream and everything, got some mint-chocolate 
chip in your honor, squad leader is going well, lot going on. . . . hope you had 
a great thanksgiving in chi-town. love you." 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 307 



ALARM RED 

E-mail 

Captain Lisa R. Blackman, Ph.D 



Even if troops emerge from a firefight or attack physically unscathed, the 
emotional damage can nevertheless be substantial. Watching buddies get 
killed or hideously maimed and realizing how close they might have come 
to dying as well, many servicemen and women are understandably trauma- 
tized by the experience. Dr. Lisa R. Blackman, a thirty-two-year-old U.S. 
Air Force captain from New England, worked as a clinical psychologist at 
the A/ Udeid Air Base in Qatar, with the 379th Expeditionary Medical 
Group, y/^th Air Expeditionary Wing, from September 2004 to February 
2005. During her six-month deployment, Blackman regularly spoke with in- 
dividuals who were suffering from the mental aftershocks of combat. Al- 
though she was limited in what she could reveal, occasionally she would 
offer her family and friends a glimpse of what the troops were going through 
in her (often short) e-mails home. "A quick word on guilt," Blackman wrote 
in a message dated October u: 

No one ever feels like they are doing enough. If you are in a safe lo- 
cation, you feel guilty that your friends are getting shot at and you 
aren't. If you are getting shot at, you feel guilty if your buddy gets hit 
and you don't. If you get shot at but don't die, you feel guilty that you 
lived, and more guilty if you get to go home and your friends have to 
stay behind. I have not seen one person out here who didn't [check off] 
"increased guilt" on our intake form. 

What most struck Blackman, however, was the extent to which the 
troops were unaware of their own psychological wounds. She wrote the fol- 
lowing e-mail about these less visible injuries on October 29. 



Lately I have had a string of combat trauma evaluations. Several have 
been Army troops passing through for R & R— they come here for a bit 
and then go back to Iraq or Afghanistan. As if this is a glamorous vacation site. 



308 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

But, they are grateful to be someplace safe (and someplace with alcohol, 
which I will surely complain about at a later date). Anyway, each one pre- 
sented with a different complaint. One guy wasn't sleeping, one gal was angry 
about "sexual harassment" in her unit, one gal was depressed, one guy just 
wanted to go home. Standard stuff. 

I had no initial clue that the problems were combat related and no idea 
that I should be assessing for acute stress disorder or PTSD. None of these 
guys or gals said "I was in combat" or "I saw someone die." None connected 
these experiences to their symptoms. It was as if they didn't remember how 
hard and unusual it is to be at war. They're used to the danger. They've been 
out here too long. Why would a war mess with your mood, right? 

Each evaluation started with the typical questions: "What brought you in 
today?" "When did the problem start?" "Have you ever experienced these 
symptoms before?" "How's your sleep?" etc. etc. etc. I kept asking questions 
and thinking that the symptoms did not add up. Something wasn't right. I 
wasn't getting the right reactions. Stories were incomplete. Affect was 
blunted. Level of distress did not match presenting complaint. Alarm red, 
people, alarm red. 

At home I ask people if they have ever experienced or witnessed a trau- 
matic event or abuse. But out here I ask, "Have you ever been in combat?" 
Apparently, this is a question with the power to unglue . . . because all four of 
these troops burst into tears at the mention of the word "combat." 

And when I say burst, I mean splatter— tears running, snot flowing, and I 
literally had to mop my floor after one two-hour session. In other words, I 
mean sobbing for minutes on end, unable to speak, flat out grief by an other- 
wise healthy, strong, manly guy who watches football on the weekends and 
never puts the toilet seat down. 

Each time I sit there with not a clue what to say . . . offering tissues . . . saying 
I'm sorry . . . trying to normalize . . . trying to say, "It was not your fault that so 
and so died" and "If you could have done differently, you would have" and "You 
had a right to be scared." And even worse, "You had to shoot back" and 'Yes you 
killed someone, and you still deserve to go back to your family and live your life." 

Next time you are hanging out with a friend, think about what you would 
do if he turned to you and said, "My boss made me kill someone, and I know 
I'm going to hell for it so why bother?" What would you say to "normalize" 
that? 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 309 

I will probably never see these folks again. I have no idea if I have been 
helpful. Maybe I planted a seed of reprieve that will grow into self- 
forgiveness. Maybe I did absolutely nothing but sit here. Who knows? 

I can't stop thinking about the fact that these folks have lost something 
that they will never get back— innocence (and a life free of guilt). My heart 
hurts for them. 

Wish us well, 
Lisa 



TO THE FALLEN 

E-mail 
Sergeant John McCary 



At some point during their deployment, many servicemen and women un- 
derstandably become overwhelmed by the unrelenting strain of living in a 
combat zone. Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant John McCary was 
serving in a human intelligence team attached to Task Force 1-34 Armor, 1st 
Infantry Division, in A/ Anbar province in Iraq. In late January 2004, after 
a month of heavy casualties in his unit (several of whom were friends), 
McCary vented in an e-mail to his family back in North Carolina about the 
increasing ruthlessness of the insurgents and the random, horrific violence 
claiming the lives of his fellow soldiers. But despite his palpable sense of 
anger and frustration, McCary emphasized that he knew more than ever 
what he was fighting for amidst the chaos of war. 

Dear all, 

We are dying. Not in some philosophical, chronological, "the end comes 
for all of us sooner or later" sense. Just dying. Sure, it's an occupational haz- 
ard, and yeah, you can get killed walking down the street in Anytown, USA. 
But not like this. Not car bombs that leave craters in the road, not jeering 
crowds that celebrate your destruction. We thought we had turned the tide, 
turned the corner, beaten the defensive rush and were headed upfield, strid- 
ing into the home stretch. But they are still here. They still strive for our 



310 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

demise. It's never been a fair fight, and we haven't always played nice. 

But not like this. No one leaves the gate looking to kill, or looking to die. 
No one wakes up in the morning and says, "I sure hope blowing up a whole 
group of Iraqis goes well today." You may be worn out, hounded by hours on 
end of patrols, investigations, emergency responses, guard shifts, but you 
never wake up and think, today's the day we'll kill a whole bunch of 'em. 
There's no "kill 'em all let God sort 'em out." That's for suckers and cowards, 
people afraid to delve into the melee and fight it out, to sort it out like sol- 
diers. 

They've killed my friends. And not in some heroic fight to defend sover- 
eign territory, not on some suicide mission to extract a prisoner or save a fam- 
ily in distress. Just standing out directing traffic. Just driving downtown to a 
meeting. Just going to work. All I can think is, "Those poor bastards. Those 
poor, poor bastards." 

And the opposition, they've damned anyone with the gall to actually leave 
their homes in the morning, because they've killed their own, too. Indiscrim- 
inate is one word. "Callous" does not even suffice. What battle cry says 
"Damn the eight year old boy and his little sister if they're in the area! Damn 
them all!?" What do you say to your men after you've scraped up the scalps of 
an entire Iraqi family off the road, right next to the shattered bodies of your 
soldiers, held together only by their shoelaces, body armor or helmets? "We're 
fighting the good fight?" I don't think so. We're just fighting. And now we're 
dying. 

It's nothing new, not really. I know what that look is now, the one on the 
faces of WWII soldiers coming back from a patrol, Vietnam vets standing at 
the Wall. But now it's us. You know the little blurb from Connie Chung that 
says "2 Coalition Soldiers were killed at a checkpoint today after a car bomb 
exploded while waiting in line?" And you think, "ah, just two. At least it 
wasn't like thirty. At least it wasn't in a movie theatre, or the town square." 

Yeah ... I changed my mind about that one. When you sit at the memo- 
rial service, gazing down at the display: a pair of laced tan combat boots, a 
hastily printed 8" x 10" photo, their service rifle, barrel down, their Kevlar hel- 
met set on top of the buttstock, and you hear their friends say, "he talked 
about his son every night. He's two. He can hardly talk but his Dad just knew 
he would be a great linebacker." Or, "his wife is currently commanding a pla- 
toon elsewhere in Iraq. She will accompany the body home but has chosen 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 311 

to return to her own flock, to see them home safely though her husband will 
not join her. Our thoughts go out to their families." WHAT THOUGHTS?! 
What do you think? What good will you do knowing this? What help will you 
be, blubbering in the stands, snot drizzling from your nose, wishing you 
could have known beforehand, wishing you could have stopped it, pleading 
to God you could have taken their place, taken the suffering for them? 

What do you say to the fathers of the men responsible, when you find 
them relaxing in their homes the next day, preparing for a meal? Should you 
simply strike them down for having birthed such an abomination? Or has the 
teeth-shattering punch in the face crunch of seeing a fallen comrade laid to 
rest sated your lust for blood and revenge? 

Resolve, resolute, resolution, resoluteness. You feel . . . compelled, to re- 
spond. To what? On whom? Why? Will your children someday say, 'Tin sure 
glad Dad died to make Iraq safer?" No. They died standing with their friends, 
doing their jobs, fulfilling some far-flung nearly non-existent notion called 
duty. They died because their friends could've died just as easily, and know- 
ing that . . . they would never shirk their duties, never call in sick, never give 
in to fear, never let down. When youVe held a conversation with a man, 
briefed him on his mission, his objective and reminded him of the potential 
consequences during the actioning of it, only to hear he never returned, and 
did not die gracefully, though blessedly quickly, prayerfully painlessly . . . you 
do not breathe the same ever after. Breath is sweet. Sleep is sweeter. Friends 
are priceless. And you cry. There's no point, no gain, no benefit but you are 
human and you must mourn. It is your nature. 

It is also now undeniable, irrevocable, that you will see your mission 
through. You will strive every day, you will live, though you are not ever again 
sure why. Ideals . . . are so . . . far, far away from the burnt stink of charred 
metal. I, we, must see it through to the end. They have seen every instant, 
every mission, every chore, every day through, not to its end but to theirs. 
How can you ever deny, degrade, desecrate their sacrifice and loss with any- 
thing less than all you have? Their lives are lost, whether as a gift, laid down 
at the feet of their friends, or a pointless discard of precious life ... I doubt Til 
ever know. 

I'm ok, Mom. I'm just a little . . . shaken, a little sad. I know this isn't any 
Divine mission. No God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha or other divinity ever decreed 
"Go get your body ripped to shreds, it's for the better." This is Man's doing. 
This is Man's War. And War it is. It is not fair, nor right, nor simple . . . nor is 



312 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

it over. I wish the presence of those responsible only to dissipate, to transform 
into average citizens, fathers, sons and brothers. I don't care about bloodlust, 
justice or revenge. But they . . . they . . . will not rest until our souls are wiped 
from this plane of existence, until we no longer exist in their world. Nothing 
less suffices. And so we will fight. I will not waiver, nor falter. Many of my fel- 
lows will cry for no mercy, no compassion. For those responsible, for those 
whose goal is destruction purely for effect, death only as a message, for whom 
killing is a means of communication, I cannot promise we, or I, will give par- 
don. With all, we will be harsh, and strict, but not unjust, not indiscriminate. 
And we will not give up. We cannot. Our lives are forever tied to those lost, 
and we cannot leave them now, as we might have were they still living. 

We have ... so little time ... to mourn, so little time to sigh, to breathe, 
to laugh, to remember. To forget. Every day awaits us, impatient, impending. 
So now we rise, shunning tears, biting back trembling lips and stifling sobs of 
grief . . . and we walk, shoulder to shoulder ... to the Call of Duty, in tribute 
to the Fallen. 

— John 



McCary himself survived his tour of duty and returned home in September 
2004. He was honorably discharged from the Army in April 2005. 



IN DUE TIME 

E-mail 

Captain Daniel Murray 



Regardless of their patriotism or commitment to the cause, over time and 
with few exceptions, combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to long for 
one thing above all: to return home to the United States. This expectation 
is the emotional ballast that helps them weather the hardships and dangers 
of war. And if this hope is suddenly dashed because of an unforeseen post- 
ponement, the blow to morale can be crushing. Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. 
Army Captain Daniel Murray deployed to Baghdad in February 2004 and 
served in what became known as the Multi-National Security Transition 
Command-Iraq. Murray worked closely with the new Iraqi Army and was 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 313 

tasked with sustaining and controlling access to the Taji Military Training 
Base, which had a five-mile perimeter and was a prime target for the insur- 
gency. On August 1, 2004, Murray sent the following e-mail to his wife 
when he learned that he would not make it hack in time for them to cele- 
brate their third anniversary together. 

Dear Sabina, 

I am writing to tell you that I won't be home on the 15th, as I've been ex- 
tended with a few other soldiers. 

I spent the first 5 months here so busy I didn't even have time to use the 
bathroom on numerous occasions. I heard my name today at least 100 times 
before lunch. Everyone's problem was the most important. And after dinner, 
ALWAYS, and after everyone else has gone home, was when the real emer- 
gencies happened. Unannounced shipments of 100 or more vehicles were 
not uncommon, nor were power outages for entire sections of the base. Iraqi 
medics had to be escorted to their own hospitals with injured or sick pa- 
tients. There was another riot at the dining facility, Central Issue Facility, 
and fuel point. There were people freeloading on the base and consequently 
had to be removed. These things have all happened, and they were all my 
problems. The staff was 11 people on a good day. I had to hide like a fugitive 
in order to get some of my work done. I gave way to not answering my door 
when people knocked. When this failed and they started coming in, I placed 
a sign on the door, forbidding entry. I then replaced this with a bar across the 
door. My only solace became the hours between 0600 and 0730. If I was 
lucky, no one would talk to me during that time. I kept telling myself that on 
the 15th of August, I would be able to rest. The days where I was too tired to 
think straight or sleep amplified my anticipation. I had a job to do and a mis- 
sion to accomplish, and I did it gladly, knowing that it couldn't last forever. 
Dreams of you and times past brought tears to my eyes as I reflected on my 
inability to experience them firsthand at the time. The final day kept me 
going. 

Contingent upon my release was the thing I mistakenly placed my trust 
in, that somebody was going to ensure that I could leave on the 15th. 

But the above conditions pale in comparison, no, are happy compared to 
the rest of this letter. 

Fighting for my survival is exhilarating, but demands without mercy a 
strong personal fortitude. It doesn't stop simply because I am tired. 



314 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

In the last 6 months, people have been trying to kill me, employing vari- 
ous methods. They've shot rockets at me. They've fired mortars at me, even 
while I talked to you on the phone. I now know what a bullet sounds like 
when it flies over my head; I know what it sounds like when it comes out of a 
gun when it is flying toward an enemy. I know how it feels to have to hide be- 
hind a pile of dirt while someone tries to shoot me, helpless to do anything 
about it, because if I did, I would put myself and my men at risk. Two times, 
I've cleaned up blast sites, where propane explosions have claimed the lives 
of 9 people and have destroyed an area of 16 feet around them. But that's only 
ground zero, as the entire facilities are now useless. The people who died did 
so quickly. I've identified their body parts, usually gobs of blood, tissue, and 
hair, up to 90 feet away. I've seen these people dragged out from under piles 
of debris. I've seen and stepped in pools of human blood, trying to help wher- 
ever I can. I've held an Iraqi survivor and my friend while he cried. I pulled 
a dead person killed by the blast and asphyxiated by deadly, burning chemi- 
cals out from under his personal debris pile. We put him in a bag first. I lifted 
the body into the bed of a pickup truck with people crowded around, making 
it difficult to maneuver around. I dropped it like I would a normal suitcase or 
other heavy object from habit, remembering that it was a body only too late. 
And the worst part is that it was the best I could manage. 

I smelled it. Gas, metal, adrenaline, sweat, tears, torn building materials, 
fresh meat, unwashed blown-up body parts. I've seen hair and brains picked 
up onto a dustpan, scraped onto it with a stick and handed to me because no 
one knew what to do with it. I've had to think about securing the site later so 
thieves wouldn't come and steal the salvageable equipment and the dogs 
wouldn't eat any body parts we couldn't discover until the day time. 

I've been on foot in the palm groves outside the base. I went to the bridge 
where 16 people have been gunned down over the last 3 months. One of 
them I knew well — we had worked together for 6 months — he died of a hole 
in his head. I had to be there for his workers when they were left without a 
leader. I had to provide for them at the same time hoping and praying they 
would make it back to work alive after their customary three days of mourn- 
ing so they could continue payroll for the Iraqi Army. 

And I did all of this because it was my duty. 

I watched everyone but two other soldiers leave when they were sched- 
uled to. I kept telling myself that I could see you in due time. I held onto this, 
not knowing how else to put one foot in front of the other. But someone has 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 315 

robbed me of this hope. Someone decided that I didn't warrant enough at- 
tention to be sent home to normal life with you. It was better for someone to 
be negligent, carelessly shirking the responsibility of making sure everyone 
else had replacements except me and a few of the soldiers. 

The way it works, sweetie, is that I have to have someone to replace me 
before I leave. At headquarters, the person responsible for this puts together a 
list called a RFF, or Request for Forces. This document tells how many peo- 
ple we need and when we will need them. The person who submits it must 
do it three months ahead of time. Sadly, that person has not done that. That 
person is home now, with his family. I am still here. I wouldn't mind as much 
if I was still here because my job isn't finished and I had to complete it. I 
mind, however, because the fact remains that I am paying the bill for some- 
one else's negligence. I, and more importantly, you and those I love and who 
didn't volunteer to join the Army, have been forced to bear bitter disappoint- 
ment upon hearing news of my failed homecoming. The feeling of loss and 
permanence imbues my every thought. I try to shake it, but can't. I've learned 
that the only thing I can do to deal effectively with this is to withdraw from 
the world for a day, not being able to do anything else. Brooding seems the 
only comfort. And not caring about anything helps. 

Sabina, I'm not sure when I'll be home. It could be anywhere from 30 to 
90 more days over here. I'll let you know as soon as I find out. 

I love you. 

Dan 

The extension, in fact, lasted just over three months; Murray did not return 
home to North Carolina until November 2004. 



VETERANS 

Personal Narrative 
Second Lieutenant Brian Humphreys 



A platoon commander with 2nd Battalion, yth Marines, Second Lieu- 
tenant Brian Humphreys served in the vicinity of Hit, Iraq, for seven 
months, beginning in February 2004. After surviving his first ambush, 
Humphreys described his visceral response to the incident once it was over 



316 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

(the excerpt is from a longer narrative about his deployment, most of which 
Humphreys wrote in the present tense): 

We have been under fire for nearly an hour and a half We have fired 
over 2,500 rounds at enemy positions not more than fifty yards from 
our vehicles. None of my Marines has been hit. None of the vehicles 
has been hit. Not a broken windshield. Not a dent in an armored 
panel. Nothing. We have fought for our lives, and can scarcely believe 
it. Did that just happen? I think as we pull out of the traffic circle to 
the south, our weapons pointed in every direction, our pulses pound- 
ing. Another thought enters my mind before I have the chance to shut 
it out: That was fucking awesome. 

Humphreys is hardly alone in writing about the initial thrill of being in 
a war zone. As with previous American conflicts, troops on the front lines 
frequently wrote in their journals and letters (and now e-mails) about the 
almost intoxicating rush they experienced during their first days and weeks 
in-country. And for many combatants, whether they fought in the Civil 
War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, or Iraq, 
these feelings often changed over time. They would for Humphreys as well. 



ANG, BANG, BANG. The sheet-metal door amplifies the sound of the 
large fist striking it. Sergeant Graham is standing in the doorway, sil- 
houetted by the white-hot afternoon sunlight. 

"Sir, we have a unit in contact, two friendly KIA. The platoon is getting 
ready downstairs." 

"You've got to be shitting me" is my first response after being woken out 
of a sound sleep. Death has visited us before, but it is not ubiquitous enough 
to have lost its shock value. I throw my uniform and flak jacket on, grab my 
rifle, and head down a flight of stairs. The platoon is already on the vehicles, 
ready to roll with an ambulance. 

"Interrogative, are you still in contact?" I ask by radio as my column of 
Humvees speeds north. 

"Negative," comes the reply. That guy always has an impeccable bearing 
even in one word, I think to myself while watching the sides of the road for 
wires and triggermen. He is the company executive officer. I am the boot 




THIS IS NOT A GAME 317 

lieutenant. The Marine Corps has yet to beat my slovenly tendencies out of 
me. Fate, cruel as it is, put us in the same company together. 

The palm groves to our east that line the Euphrates River whip by. To the 
west of the asphalt ribbon are the scorched wadis used by insurgents to stage 
their attacks. Up ahead I see the telltale cluster of Humvees and Marines. I 
pull up to the first vehicle and find the patrol leader. 

"Where do you want the ambulance?" I ask. 

"Just have it pull up, we'll guide it in," he replies, as if we have arrived to 
help fix a flat tire. The ambulance in the middle of my six-vehicle column 
pulls forward, and I get out to find where the casualties are. 

"What the hell is that?" I ask a Marine. Perhaps the explosion had some- 
how killed a farm animal of some sort who wandered out on the road. A sheep 
maybe? Or a cow. No, not big enough. Well, what is that and how did it hap- 
pen? The Marine gives his buddy's name and asks me to help find his head. 
Fuck. 

We do not want the stray dogs that occupy Iraq with us to find our broth- 
ers. The corpsmen, with their blue latex gloves and body bags, scour the 
bushes for the last scraps of human tissue as waves of heat rise from the 
desert. The Associated Press dutifully reports that three Marines were killed 
in Al Anbar province in Iraq. Names have not been released by the Defense 
Department pending notification of next of kin. We will not read the two- 
sentence notice for several days. The Internet Room is always padlocked 
while we wait for somebody to get a knock on the door half a world away. 

At one point the casualties got so bad that it seemed the room was closed 
for a week at a time while notifications were made. Iraq is coming apart at the 
seams. Pictures of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from Air Force trans- 
ports surface on the back reaches of the Internet, as if they were a grainy 
celebrity sex video that decent people should avoid looking at. But I think 
otherwise. The images of flag-draped coffins show the end of war as we are 
meant to see it, and as we are meant to believe it. Uniforms, flags, patriotism, 
honor, sacrifice. In these images we are not street fighters struggling to sur- 
vive and kill in a distant gangland, but soldiers in the nation's service. They 
will help the families, I think. They will help us. In our own way, we too, 
need to believe. 

Today, the Marines will have to wait to log on to their chat rooms, 
HotOrNot.com, MilitarySingles.com, and the online shopping sites. I myself 
have become something of a spendthrift in Iraq, ordering more books and 



318 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

CDs than I normally would. I have seen death enough times among people 
who had been indestructibly living only the day before. It is better to go ahead 
and buy the CD you have been meaning to get. There are reminders wher- 
ever you care to look. For instance, the pile of blood-soaked flak jackets sitting 
in the company's combat operations center, a low-tech jumble of maps and 
radios. The flak jackets' owners are either dead or in the hospital recovering 
from their wounds. 

The executive officer reminds us that the flak jackets need to be sent back 
through the Marine Corps's supply chain as soon as possible. Somewhere, 
somebody will wash them and inspect them for damage, filling out all the 
necessary paperwork. It is the banality, even more than the carnage, that 
shocks. Our occupation grinds on. Others will assign meaning to our lives 
here, noble or otherwise. For us, though, there is a close meanness to the 
fight. There are no flags, no dress uniforms. We are fighting a rival gang for 
the same turf, while the neighborhood residents cower and wait to see whose 
side they should come out on. 

Imperceptibly, we are coming to the end of our deployment. Time has 
stood still for months, with days and nights fusing together in the burning hot 
air of the desert. But now, our deployment is being measured in finite units of 
time. It takes getting used to. 

Echo Company will remain in our forward operating base as a deterrent 
to the insurgents, but otherwise will have no dealings with the Iraqi people. 
Our only other mission is to keep our own supply lines open. One of the lieu- 
tenants jokes acidly that he knows a way to shorten our supply lines by fifteen 
thousand miles. Our forward operating base is still the target of the occa- 
sional mortar shell. Sometimes, if we are asleep, we do not even wake up, but 
death never quite leaves us, still creeping along the highways and wadis as we 
wear out the days. 

Returning from a patrol with my platoon, I find a blue sedan riddled with 
bullet holes on the side of the highway. There are a few Iraqi soldiers stand- 
ing around when we find it. We quickly learn the car belonged to Captain 
Laithe, one of the senior men in the local police force. Connected, calculat- 
ing, and English-speaking, he had collaborated with the Americans since the 
fall of Baghdad. I've wondered since I first met him why he cast his lot with 
us, what calculation he made, and whether we could even understand it— 
what mix of nobility and venality it contained. His future, however he imag- 
ined it, ended with the finality of death in a hail of bullets on the highway less 



THIS IS NOT A GAME 319 

than a mile from our forward operating base. 

Not long before we leave, I am awakened out of a sound sleep again, this 
time at midnight. The company executive officer is at the door. We have an- 
other KIA. I feel the same shock I did the first time, only a certain numbness 
has developed, like a nerve deadened by repeated blows. Our turn had almost 
passed, and now this. I nod, and begin collecting my gear. One of my fellow 
platoon commanders is outside in the pitch black. It is the body of one of his 
Marines that we will go out in the dead of night to recover. I ask him if he is 
all right. I ask him if his Marines are all right. The worst thing, he says, is that 
by now they are used to it. It is better and worse at the same time. I realize 
that we have all come to accept the loss of familiar faces, to live with it, and 
cross the line of departure again the next morning. It is this acceptance, 
rather than the thud of hidden bombs, that has finally made us veterans, and 
will finish the words on the obscure page of history we occupy. 

We head off in the pitch black, navigating the highway through the grainy 
green glow of our night vision goggles. We move north to a point just north of 
the place where we lost the two Marines in the bomb explosion months be- 
fore. One of the Humvees in the patrol struck a land mine a short distance 
from the Iraqi National Guard post the Marines had been tasked with 
protecting. 

The sun is rising above the river palm groves when the trucks arrive to re- 
move the wrecked vehicle. The dead Marine's remains are loaded in another 
truck and driven north toward Al Asad Air Base. The remains will be laid in a 
flag-draped coffin and then secured in the cargo hold of a transport plane to 
be flown back to the United States. We, too, will soon go to Al Asad. We will 
then strap ourselves into the cargo hold of an identical plane to begin our own 
journey home. The scrawled memorials on barracks walls to fallen buddies 
will stay behind for the troops who replace us. They might read the awkwardly 
worded poems and epitaphs written in loving memory, and half-wonder who 
we were. 

In the beginning of September 2004, Echo Company is finally packing up 
to leave, and Humphreys concludes his journal with the following entry. 

We are flying out of Iraq tonight, seven months after we arrived to crush 
the insurgency. We are leaving. The insurgents will remain behind without 
us. The contents of my pack and seabag are on the floor. To the left and right 



320 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

of me, fifty-five other Marines — privates, sergeants, and officers — have also 
dumped their worldly belongings onto painted squares for inspection by mil- 
itary police at Al Asad Air Base. Somehow, every transition in the Marine 
Corps involves dumping your trash on the deck. The first night of boot camp 
the drill instructors rooted through our measly belongings, the relics of the 
civilian world we were leaving behind. They used white latex gloves, as if 
they might catch something from the sticks of beef jerky and playing cards. 

The military police just use black leather gloves. They do a perfunctory 
search for contraband, as defined by the ist Marine Division on the "this- 
means-you" poster plastered to the wall. No lottery tickets or advertise- 
ments. No flags of foreign countries not manufactured for sale or 
distribution. No lizard hides. No sex toys. No rocks of any sort, no matter 
how sentimental. No shrapnel. No personal effects of enemy soldiers, to in- 
clude body parts. 

The drill instructors guarding the gates of the Corps were meant to keep 
us from bringing the civilian world into the war world. The military police 
are here to make sure we take nothing from the war world back, except our- 
selves. Many of the Marines are short-timers, with only a few months left in 
the Corps. They will return home and cross back over to the other side to 
continue their lives with friends who barely noticed they were gone. 

For the rest of us, Iraq will be waiting for our return. We can leave, but the 
country and its war will remain. The war that began after the president's Mis- 
sion Accomplished speech is too diffuse for us to make a noticeable mark on 
it. There is no end to where we are going. There is no Berlin, no Tokyo out 
there for us to push toward. We are simply part of a larger historical process 
that unfolds slowly and unpredictably, like rising smoke. How long the fire 
underneath us will smolder, or what the earth will look like when it has ex- 
hausted itself, is impossible to know for those of us who are in it. 

The flight attendants on the chartered 747 parked at the edge of Kuwait 
City International Airport greet us with hand clapping and squealed congrat- 
ulations. I grunt some type of reply and make for a window seat. Back home, 
Sunday football kicks off with flags, uniforms, and exhortations to support our 
brave troops serving overseas, and to remember those who have made the Ul- 
timate Sacrifice. I wonder numbly whether I am expected to bask in the adu- 
lation. I am weary. We fought. We survived, but some did not. 

I do not need to be told to remember. 



CHAPTER SIX 



HOME 



RETURNING TO THE UNITED STATES 



■ ■ . ..,■■'-. 




Twenty-two-year-old U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Robert E. Gordon III 

hugging his wife, Diana, after returning in February 2005 from his second 

six-month deployment to Iraq. 

Photo by his mother, Christine Gordon; used by permission. 



This week he's due home, this son of mine. I wonder: Is he nervous? Is he 
excited? This child who was so kind and sensitive, so caring of his mother. I 
can't even imagine what war has done to him. Is he expecting everything to 
be just the same as when he left? I remember some veterans saying they 
wanted everything to be exactly the same when they came home, and when 
it wasn't, it was a nasty shock. This week is full of questions, full of doubts, 
full of excitement. I walk around with a smile on my face. Despite my 
concerns, I get to see him, and hug him. To count his fingers and toes. To 
sit near, and just watch him sleep, and remember all the times I did the 
same thing when he was two, and ten, and fifteen. To pretend, just for a 
while, that he is not a grown-up soldier, in a war— that he is just my son, 
here, back in my home. 

— Becky Ward-Krizan, writing in April 2005 about the return of her son, 
twenty-five-year-old U.S. Army Reserve Specialist Richard Ward. 



Just before getting on the plane that would take us stateside, a young airman 
said to us: 'This flight is now an HR flight. HR means human remains. We 
have two deceased soldiers on this flight." I couldn't help but feel choked up 
by this news. We boarded the plane thirty minutes later, and then taxied out 
and did our usual combat takeoff, very fast, hard turns, and then leveled out 
far away from the airport. One soldier, a major, stood up and walked to the 
front cabin. He returned later with a crew chief. They stopped by the caskets 
and the major pointed to the bags in front of them. One piece of civilian 
luggage had rolled over and was pressed up against the corner of the casket. 
That bothered the major enough to do something about it. When the bags 
were cleared the major sat down again. He buried his face in his hands and 
wiped his eyes. I could see his chest rise and fall. He took one big sigh, 
rested his head and arms on his knees. I don't know if he knew the two 
soldiers going home. But in a way it didn't matter. I think we all knew them. 
We had just come from Iraq. 

—Twenty-five-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant James A. Christenson, 
writing about his flight home in May 2004 from the Middle East. 



324 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



BEDFELLOWS 

Personal Narrative 
Tammy Enz 




No matter how frequently they communicate by e-mail, letters, or phone 
calls during their separation, deployed service members and their loved ones 
recognize that the dynamic of their relationship is likely to change while 
they are thousands of miles apart. And the question, for many, becomes how 
significant and lasting will these differences be once they are reunited? In 
the spring of 2004, U.S. Army Reserve Captain Daniel Enz was sent to Iraq 
for a one-year tour of duty, leaving behind his wife Tammy and their young 
son and daughter in Illinois. Tammy Enz wrote the following in the fall of 
2004 after one particularly rough, sleepless night 



y husband sleeps next to his M-16. Where my supple flesh used to be 
now lies a cold, hard, merciless thing. Its metal barrel presses beside 
him in the dark while his fingers rest idly on its throat. 

When the Iraqi night sky is broken by the exploding light of war, when his 
barracks shake from the distant pounding of mortars, he twitches in his sleep. 
He pulls his companion closer to him, and it gives him comfort. 

A faulty street lamp spills intermittent light on my bed as the September 
rain pelts the bedroom window in rapid fire. The walls of the century-old 
house groan under the force of the driving wind, and I can hear the wooden 
stairs creak. My heart pounds, obscuring the night noises. My breaths stop as 
I strain to hear my babies breathing across the hallway. I reach across the mat- 
tress, fumbling to seek solace in the lifeless folds of cotton. 

He's not here. 

He says it's 120 degrees over there. The thought hardly warms me. I get up 
and tread through the frigid darkness to hold my hand over the mouths of my 
children. I feel their breath on my palm — proof of life in their tiny bodies. I 
smooth their blankets. I go down the empty stairs to find something to com- 
fort me. 

He can't drink over there. I used to sip the bubbles off the top of his beer 
bottle when we sat together on the porch watching the children chase fire- 
flies. That was a different time. Now I need something harder, something that 



HOME 325 



cuts a little deeper. I don't sip, I slam a glass of whiskey, feeling it trace a luke- 
warm path inside me. I pace. 

Through the window, the moonlight glints off the rain-soaked thorns in 
my rose garden. It's been neglected this year, and the thorns are choking off 
the tender new blossoms. I let it go; no soft hues, no raspberry fragrance, no 
time for frivolity. Beyond the roses, the plastic bat and ball lie abandoned on 
the sidewalk where I left them. 

Earlier, I gritted my teeth as my five-year-old begged me to toss a ball with 
him. I have too much to get done, I muttered under my breath. This is a dad's 
job. I don't have time for this. 

I tossed the ball into his glove. It rolled out and thudded to the ground. 
"Dammit. You're not trying!" He looked at his dirty, naked toes. I know my 
words stung him. I kicked the bat and walked away rubbing the hard lines in 
my forehead — those deep unrelenting creases that will remind me of this for 
life. 

I squeeze my eyelids shut. I cannot bear what I have become. 

I pass the dining room table as I make my way back to bed after a second 
shot. The neat stack of unpaid bills rests precariously close to the corner. I 
swipe them off to the floor. 

I crawl into bed, dead tired but wide awake. The tangled sheets grab my 
ankles. I can't find any comfort. I'm sharp, jutting, angular. The round soft 
parts are gone. My hipbone pokes me through my skin. My knees grind into 
each other, bone on bone. Food has lost its taste. 

Maybe the phone will ring in the predawn hours. He'll speak of his camp 
in the desert and call it home. He's been there less than a year. But through 
the static and the three-second delay in the conversation, he says home like 
he's always been there. That isn't home, I want to scream. 

But neither is this. We were the smiling family in the photo on the wall. 
We were the ones who sanded and polished the old maple floors on our 
knees. We coated the walls in soft pastels. But it is all gray and harsh and cold 
in this light. Like me. 

Finally sleep approaches. I envision it all being over. He's back here. He's 
left that cruel weapon behind. It's me next to him on the pillow. At night he 
reaches out in his sleep. His fingers seek comfort in the darkness. Will he no- 
tice the difference? 



326 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

OVER THE YEARS 

Personal Narrative 
Christine Gordon 



Several months after her son Robert, a Marine lance corporal, deployed to 
Iraq in August 2004, Christine Gordon met an elderly couple near her 
home in Hemet, California, who had been married for sixty years. The hus- 
band, Bob Shahan, had served as a tech sergeant in the Army from 1943 to 
1946. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, and he was one of the se- 
lect few to see combat in both the European and Pacific Theaters. The more 
that Gordon spoke with the Shahans, the more she realized how much — 
and how little— had changed since a new generation of troops had gone off 
to fight. After Robert returned to the States in February 2005, Gordon wove 
together an account of two homecomings separated by six decades— her 
sons and Bob Shahans. (Passages referring to the Shahans are 
in italics.) 



^j'^he night before Bob Shahan was expected to return home, his young wife, 
A. Janet, did not sleep. She sat by the window all night long, waiting for her 
husband. 

The night before our son Robert's homecoming, his wife Diana does not 
sleep either. At 10:00 p.m. my husband Rob helps her move the furniture in 
their bedroom. At 11:00 we hang pictures in the living room. At midnight she 
makes banana bread. At this point, I tell her she's on her own and go to bed 
in the guest room. She hangs wallpaper at 2:00 a.m. At 3:00 she displays his 
welcome home sign. At 4:00 she tries to sleep for two minutes and then says, 
"Ahh, forget it." At 4:03 she vacuums the living room, and on and on. At 6:00 
I find her making coffee, dressed and ready to meet her husband. 

We arrive at the hangar early. Diana greets people she knows and we find 
our own place in the crowd. We all feel a bit shy at first, but soon we begin to 
talk to those around us. I meet a woman with her baby; the daddy has never 
seen this child, now dressed in pink, with perfect features. She's two months 



HOME 327 

old. My civilian brain doesn't comprehend how so many military families en- 
dure this life. I'd been told there would be food so we have not eaten. No 
sleep, no food, no way. I kill some time and go back to the car to forage for a 
couple of apples, a flat soda, and a half-filled bottle of warm water. 

Bob Shahans meals on the ship that was bringing him home consisted of 
baked liver, beans with dry combread, and bologna and cheese sandwiches. 
There were only nine hundred beds for more than two thousand men, which 
meant "hot bunking," a cozy term for the unfortunate condition of sharing a 
bunk with two others and sleeping in eight-hour rotating shifts. A third of the 
men were always on deck. 

The whole way to the car and back I watch the sky as though Robert 
might parachute in, and I'll be the only one to miss it. Just like at a baseball 
game when I'm buying peanuts as the home run is hit. The crowd is cheer- 
ing and I'm always standing there yelling, "What happened?" 

I settle in and look around us. I love these people. All ages, all colors, all 
religions, all with different ideas about the war. All American. We come with 
a common goal: to see our boys and girls. Birth, death, love, loss, children 
leaving, children coming home. All are universal experiences, but rarely do 
we share them with strangers. When we do, they are not strangers for long. 

The plane is delayed and the little ones who began fresh are cheered out, 
tired of holding a sign for a Daddy who won't come out of the desert sky. Mag- 
ically, a TV appears and they resort to watching it instead of the horizon. The 
Marines seem to be able to produce anything in that hangar. Except a trash 
can. I walk around holding my half-eaten apple that's turning brown, search- 
ing for a place to throw it away. 

Boys who started out clean with combed hair are lying on their bellies, 
cars in hand, playing the age-old game "Crash!" The boys are happy. Wasn't 
it last week that Robert played on the floor? 

The troop ship encountered a heavy storm on the way home. Water rose on 
deck above his ankles. Had it continued, the entire ship might have gone down 
with all on board perishing. 

Our daughters, ages fourteen and eleven, unfed and without enough 



328 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

sleep, wait with rare patience. I look at them with pride as they stand by their 
sister-in-law. Actually, she's become daughter and sister, no "in law" needed. 
Not after these past months. Something happens in a family with a deploy- 
ment. You cling to one another, binding together, creating a web, a net to 
catch each other should your Marine fall, with the only hope being that the 
net's true purpose is to catch him when he comes home. I look at Diana and 
the word that comes to mind is "miracle." She's our miracle. She smiles eas- 
ily, laughs even easier. Our overly serious son needed her laughter. I reach for 
her hand to tell her "we made it" at the same time she reaches for a bottle of 
water. I embarrass myself. 

It is Diana's day. Not mine. Not his father's. Not his sisters'. It's Robert's 
day and Diana's. The Shahans were alone when they reunited and I wonder 
if this is how it should be. We are invited guests and I promise myself not to 
forget this. 

We are told that the plane has been delayed another forty minutes. 

Some died on the trip home, washed overboard during heavy seas. Their life- 
line—a rope attached to their belts— had failed. They had survived two, three, 
even four years of combat. And then, so close to home, they drowned. 

We wait in the sun. I begin to get too warm. I look at Diana, she shoots 
me a look that says, "I can't take this." 

"Remember, honey, some are not coming home. We can wait." I mean 
what I say and ignore the burning sun on my back. 

At last the plane lands and again we are told to wait. The Marines must 
check in their weapons. The crowd is pushed back once, twice. Mothers and 
wives don't behave well. We continue to cross the new boundary we've been 
given. It's hard to hold back two hundred determined people. I spot a preg- 
nant woman holding up a sign with an ultrasound photo of her baby. 

I ask Diana for her camera. I can photograph them. It will be my gift. I 
stand on tiptoe to see over the crowds of people, the signs, the balloons. 
Diana begins to shake as the Marines deplane. It's still so far in the distance 
every single Marine looks like the next. Again, a painful wait as the troops line 
up military style. I want to scream. Why is there formality to the end? Let 
them run. I want everyone free to run. 



HOME 329 

It took five days for the Army to discharge Bob. The processing machine at 
Camp Beale ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The doctor exam- 
ined him at midnight. He met with the shrink at 2:00 a.m. and, at last, Bob 
began to arrange his own ride back to southern California on a Greyhound bus. 

I don't hear it but somewhere someone dismisses them. The crowd begins 
to shuffle. We make a plan. Stay put. Let him find us. The possibility of miss- 
ing each other in this crowd is too great. 

My husband Rob is the first to see him. 

Diana stands trembling, her hands raised in a prayer to her lips. She says, 
"I can't see him." 

"He's right there," Rob says. 

She shakes her head. "I can't see him." She's whispering now. 

I'm searching through the faces. I can't see him either. It's horrible. 
Where is he? I hold the camera ready. And then in the blur of faces there is 
one face I know. Serious. Sweet. Ours. Mine. 

But Diana cannot see. 

Rob is so patient with her. It is his son and instead of running to his boy, 
he waits with her. I love him for this more than I can say. "See, right there. 
He's coming this way." 

Tears stream down her face. 

I wave, call his name and grin. He sees me and nods. "Right there, 
honey," I say and raise the camera to take his photo. Until she makes the link 
I cannot have mv son. 

Like a little girl who can't see the constellation in the sky, she still doesn't 
see him. He can't be more than fifteen feet from us now, making his way 
through the crowd. Her hands are shaking against her lips and in that instant 
I think my heart will break. 

At last she says, "I see him," and she moves toward him slowly. He walks 
to her. I fight my own hands as they begin to tremble. I take the photos of 
their reunion. His whole world lives in that embrace and we are not the cen- 
ter of it. I look around and see the few boys who are greeted solely by a supe- 
rior officer and a handshake; I could not be happier for Robert. 

I'm still snapping photos when Robert is left with his arms extended for 
me. Rob has to push me toward him saying, "He's waiting for you." 

"Oh," I say, embarrassed that I've gotten lost behind the camera. I grab 
him too hard around the neck and whisper in his ear. "Thank God you are 



330 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

home. We've all missed you so much." 

I stand back to look at him. He's so handsome. Tan, blue eyes, tall. He's 
lost weight. I touch his face. "You look great." 

He grins just a little. 

Bob Shahan returned to the States thirty-five pounds thinner than when he 
left. The Army weighed him holding his boots so his weight loss wouldn't seem 
so drastic. 

I'm completely irrational because the next thing I'm worried about is that 
my photos won't turn out because I'm shaking so much. 

Diana lays her head on his shoulder and looks like she could curl up and 
sleep. The weight of the past six months is off her shoulders. It's been a hard 
and unexpectedly traumatic deployment. One night shortly after Robert left, 
she was pulled over by a man impersonating a police officer; miraculously, 
she was unharmed. Another time someone broke into the house on base 
(thankfully, she wasn't home), and just days ago, a neighbor's dog attacked 
her, biting her upper arm. I think he was going for her throat. 

Diana handled everything with courage and a sense of humor, and we 
found ways to joke about how she could best defend herself. The joking 
worked its way into a Christmas gift: a small iron frying pan she still keeps in 
her car. She once held it and said, "You wanna piece of me?" Some women 
are Marines, carry a weapon, are trained to kill; other women survive the best 
they can and wait for their men to come home. Diana and I are the latter. 

It's time to leave the hangar, and I look around. I don't know their names. 
But I know their faces and I know their joy. The little girl wearing a Lakers 
cheerleading outfit who suddenly got shy when she saw her daddy, the preg- 
nant woman holding the sign, the Marine who kept wiping away his tears at 
the sight of his newborn, an old man who grabbed his son, clenched the back 
of his cammies and held on . . . these images are seared into my memory. 

I pick up my son's incredibly heavy backpack. I know I look ridiculous, 
but I don't care. As we leave together I couldn't be more proud. My husband 
lugs two barracks bags and a couple of times Robert turns back and says, 
"Dad, are you all right?" Rob and I look at each other and laugh. We've never 
been more all right. 



HOME 331 

Bob Shahan made his way home almost empty handed. While they were at 
sea, he had taken his barracks bag, filled it with his dirty clothes, and added an 
entire bar of GI soap. He had tied a rope to the bag, just as his buddies had 
done with theirs, tossed it overboard, and then went back to his card game. He 
left out one critical step: count to thirty. After playing a few hands, Bob grabbed 
the rope and pulled up the few remaining shreds of the bag while his buddies 
howled with laugher. 

Every little thing is a joy. Showing him our new car. Can he find it in the 
parking lot? What does he want to eat? Does it seem cold here? Hot? 

Every little thing is a worry. I watch his face for the signs. Signs of pain, 
discomfort, sadness. I watch his face for the kind of hurt that doesn't go away 
with a good meal and a hot shower. I look for the sign that maybe I can't read 
the signs anymore. That is the one I fear the most. 

We eat together, talk, and share photos. Robert has pictures of Iraq, in- 
cluding the desert sky, a mosque, and a fat rat named Chub-chub the 
Marines fed constantly. Robert appears healthy and I thank God for that. 

Before we leave our son's home, I make the guest bed. I lay three small 
grapevine wreaths that Diana has strung together across the pillows and write 
a note to my son and my daughter. "Love lives in this house." When I return 
to the living room, Diana has fallen asleep on Robert's shoulder. It's time for 
us to go. I say goodbye too soon to my boy. Yet, I'm content. He's safe. He's 
with his beloved and he will sleep in his own bed tonight. He will come to 
visit soon, he promises. These boys keep their promises. 

In March of 1946, Janet Shahan sat alone at the window. The war had been 
over now for almost eight months, and she had not seen Bob since December 1944. 
The sun had just come up and through the Los Angeles morning haze she saw 
what appeared to be a yellow cab. She's not sure what carried her, because she 
couldn't feel her legs. She grabbed the crystal doorknob, flung the door back, and 
ran down the stairs into her husband's arms. 



332 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



GOODBYE, AFGHANISTAN 

Personal Narrative 

Captain Cameron Sellers 



Born in South Korea and adopted at a very young age by an American cou- 
ple, Cameron Sellers was brought to the United States in 1970 and raised 
in Arizona. Inspired by both a love for his new country and his adoptive fa- 
ther's own military service, Sellers joined the Arizona National Guard im- 
mediately after high school. (Tens of thousands of individuals serving in the 
U.S. military are foreign bom.) His first overseas tour of duty came in 2000, 
when he was sent to Bosnia with a peacekeeping force. After the September 
11 attacks, he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, be- 
ginning in the spring of 2002. During his four months in the Afghan capi- 
tal, the thirty-three-year-old Army captain served in the Office of Military 
Cooperation, which was tasked with rebuilding the Afghan National Army. 
Sellers kept a journal that recorded everything from the more humorous mo- 
ments—such as teaching armed Marines how to swing-dance— to a har- 
rowing mortar attack on the embassy. In the final entry to his journal, 
Sellers wrote about his seventeen-hour trip to the States, which proved to be 
an unforgettable one. 



]he timing couldn't have been worse. Although my deployment was 
l. over and I was cleared to leave, finding a ride home was proving diffi- 
cult. Security had been amped up everywhere because the September 11 an- 
niversary was approaching, and, only a few days before, a member of the 
Taliban had pretended to be part of President Hamid Karzai's own security 
team and tried to assassinate him. There was, however, one flight available — 
a U.S. Air Force crew was taking the American ambassador to Afghanistan, 
Robert Finn, and President Karzai to the States, where Karzai would address 
the United Nations and then the U.S. Congress. After quickly calling some 
contacts I knew at the embassy, I was — miraculously— placed on the flight 
manifest. 

On Sunday morning, September 8, Ambassador Finn and I were raced 
through the city to an unidentified location on the presidential palace 



HOME 333 



grounds. The atmosphere was tense at the helicopter pickup site in light of 
recent events, and when I saw President Karzai's palace guards in their dress 
uniform I wondered if there might be an assassin among them. An Apache at- 
tack helicopter appeared and began circling the palace as a Chinook landed 
to pick us up. Before I could even blink, the president's party, the ambas- 
sador, and I were whisked aboard the helicopters. Out of the corner of my eye 
I noticed a Navy SEAL I knew, and I was relieved because I had heard that 
he had been shot in the head during the assassination attempt against Karzai. 
First reports are often wrong, and it was great to see that he was alive and un- 
injured. 

As Kabul was becoming a distant view, I realized that this was it. My ad- 
venture in Afghanistan was about to become a memory. From three thousand 
feet, the scars of war were hidden and Kabul looked like any southwestern 
adobe town. Looking out the window, I saw the dry Kabul riverbed snake 
through the middle of the city. I saw the old Ghazi stadium that was built to 
draw the Olympics, but was later used by the Taliban to execute prisoners. 

The helicopters flew parallel to the Jalalabad Road and then turned north 
above the new Bagram road that the Soviets built in the 1980s as a secondary 
supply route from Bagram to Kabul. I was as familiar with that road as with 
the ones back home because I usually traveled it every week. I felt that I knew 
every pothole and bump. I remembered the illegal checkpoints where mili- 
tias would shake down drivers for "tolls," the overcrowding of a refugee camp, 
and the kids running from their homes to wave to us as we drove by. 

The Bagram road went through the Shamali plains. Someone had told 
me that the valley used to have hundreds of orchards and the plains were fer- 
tile for agriculture. And then the Russians cut the orchards down and 
scorched the agricultural fields to eliminate potential ambush sites. You 
could travel for miles and the only thing you would see were the dust clouds 
swirling. Once you trekked through the mountain pass from the Kabul plains 
to the Bagram Valley, the only signs of life were explosives specialists placing 
red-painted rocks around the land mines. Once in a blue moon, we would 
witness a camel caravan of Pashtun tribesmen traveling through the valley 
and wonder how they managed to navigate through the active minefields. 

We touched down on the airstrip right next to the flight line. Once we 
landed, we immediately transferred to a C-17. While the layover at Bagram 



334 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

was pretty quick, I still had time to look out the window and reminisce about 
when I first arrived there, when it was just a lonely outpost. Soon after it be- 
came the main hub for the war on terror. Within minutes, we were at thirty- 
five thousand feet flying away from Afghanistan. As the plane leveled off, the 
U.S. Air Force showed President Karzai how we treat all foreign heads of 
state. For lunch we fed him a "Jimmy Dean," which consisted of a small can 
of ravioli, tuna fish, chips, and soda. While the food was lacking, the C-17 
crew was hospitable, and they did the best they could under the circum- 
stances to make our flight enjoyable. 

The ambassador had told me that President Karzai was easy to work with, 
and he appreciated America's help for his people in rebuilding his country. 
While he was pro-American, he was not a patsy. A couple of friends of mine, 
who were in the initial meeting with President Karzai and the JTF (Joint Task 
Force) commander after a wedding party had been shot up by an AC-130 gun- 
ship in Tarin Kowt, told me that the president berated the JTF commander for 
not informing him of this mission as the previous commander had done. As 
quick as he was to chastise the JTF commander, he was just as quick to forgive 
and forget. The president told him that mistakes happen and "Let's move on." 

Even though he is a Pashtun from the Kandahar area, I was told that he 
loved Masoud, the late Northern Alliance commander, and he wept when 
they visited his tomb in the Panjshir Valley. Watching him interact with peo- 
ple on the plane only confirmed what I had heard about Karzai. He had what 
we in the military call "command presence." He attracted the attention of 
those around him without making a scene; his very presence radiated a kind 
of quiet power, dignity, and strength. He transcended ethnic and regional pol- 
itics, and people from all walks of life felt comfortable around him but were 
also respectful. I finally worked up the nerve to approach him myself, and he 
could not have been more gracious. In my later years, when my grandkids ask 
me what I said to the George Washington of Afghanistan, I will reply, "Hey, 
can I get a photo taken with you?" Oh well. 

We flew to Rhein-Main, Germany, and transferred to Air Force Two for 
the flight to New York. Someone told me that President Bush had sent the 
plane for Karzai to use as a courtesy, and talk about first class! Wide aisles, 
plush seats, and tables. Everything had Air Force Two inscribed on it, and I 
was contemplating stealing some of it for keepsakes, but settled for just shoot- 
ing some pictures. The only downside was the meal. It was chicken and rice. 
Hmmm, where had I had that dish before? Oh right, every day since the mo- 



HOME 335 

ment I had arrived in Afghanistan. The Navy SEALs just rolled their eyes 
when they found out what was for dinner. 

Once we got to New York, the pilot flew past the New York skyline. What 
a fitting ending to a remarkable journey. The flyby of Manhattan put every- 
thing into perspective. I thought of the thousands of lives lost a year ago, and 
it was hard to fight back the tears. Once we landed, I stepped out on the stair- 
case to breathe the air and to step on American soil. I could not believe my 
eyes. 

In two days we would observe the first anniversary of September n. I 
thought about everything I had seen and experienced in Afghanistan, and 
why I was there. As a reservist, I volunteered for this deployment when ter- 
rorists attacked my adopted country. A year ago, I wrote to my closest friends 
and relatives why I was volunteering for the war: 

By now you have heard that the Army has called me back to active duty. 
For me, duty, patriotism, and service started long before September 11. 
And my values started long before my parents instilled them in me when 

I was a little kid. It started fourteen years before I was born when 43,000 
American servicemen were willing to die on a peninsula called Korea. 
For most of my life, I have been an average American who grew up with 
a pretty common life except for the first two years: I was born in Seoul, 
South Korea as an orphan. I was discovered in an alley and placed in an 
orphanage. A loving American family picked me to be part of their family 
when I was one year old, and they fought for me to come to the United 
States. Thus began the great life I've lived so far. But all of this would have 
never happened if the United States didn't come to the defense of South 
Korea in 1950. Every Korean of that generation knows their freedom was 
won by American blood. I, as a Korean immigrant, know I am indebted to 
those 43,000 Americans who didn't come home. I am indebted to their 
wives and kids for the scars they have endured because their husbands or 
fathers were no longer in their life. Our grandparents fought World War 

II so the Baby Boomers would never have to live through another Pearl 
Harbor. Now our generation will fight terrorism so that our kids will not 
have to live through another World Trade Center. I have all the confi- 
dence in our generation to rise to this occasion and exceed the expecta- 
tion of our fathers and grandfathers. I have no doubts. Coming home, 
my feelings are as strong as they were one year ago. 



336 OPERATION HOMECOMING 



SEA VOYAGE 

E-mail 
Captain Guy W. Ravey 



While the majority of troops return to America on commercial and military 
aircraft, some— mostly Marines and sailors— make the long journey home 
by ship. Thirty-year-old U.S. Marine Corps Captain Guy W. Ravey, who 
had been flying combat missions in the Middle East, enjoyed the leisurely, 
seven-week voyage back to Hawaii on the USS Constellation. The time 
aboard ship gave him an opportunity to reflect not only on his own wartime 
experiences, but on those of other family members who had served in the 
military as well. While sailing through the jungle islands of Indonesia on 
his way home, Guy Ravey saw something that sparked a powerful emo- 
tional reaction, and on the evening of May 10, 2003, he sent the following 
e-mail from aboard ship to loved ones in the States. 

Dear Family and Friends, 

Tonight was special. Tonight we passed by the island of Halmahera. It is a 
seemingly insignificant blob of tropical land sitting right on the equator near 
New Guinea and the Philippines, but it holds a great deal of significance to 
the Ravey family. This is the island where First Lieutenant Will Ravey, US 
Army Air Corps, was shot down in August of 1944. 

Grandpa Ken Ravey had mentioned the island to me a few times as I was 
growing up. He rarely, if ever, brought the subject of his brother up. Even as 
a child I could sense how raw and painful the memories of his loss still were 
to him. However, he would proudly and reverently tell me the stories of his 
big brother, and once or twice he mentioned how his brother had died in 
combat over an island I had difficulty finding in any atlas because it was so 
small. 

I have hacked away at the subject of Great Uncle Will from time to time. 
I eventually did find Halmahera on an atlas and quickly determined there 
was probably very little chance I or anyone else I knew would ever go there. I 
found out through family ties that he had been a fighter pilot flying P-38 
Lightnings with the 8th Fighter Group and had been on a mission escorting 
bombers attacking Japanese positions. The B-24 bombers were lumbering, 
slow giants that were easy prey for Japanese fighters unless the American es- 



HOME 337 



cort fighters intervened. It was the P-38 pilots' job to pick fights and protect 
the bombers (B-24's had a crew of 10, P-38's had only one). The specifics of 
the story are probably known better by those closer to Will, but as far as I can 
gather, he jumped into a fight where he was desperately outnumbered and 
shot down a plane or two before he, himself, was shot down. Later it was dis- 
covered that he had survived the shoot down only to be captured and exe- 
cuted by the Japanese. His remains were recovered in the 1950's. 

I learned from Grandpa that Will had been married and his wife was ex- 
pecting a child when he died. That son has grown up and had his own chil- 
dren now (one son is my age). The Heises, though answering to a different 
name, are a dear part of our Ravey family. 

The circumstances surrounding Will's death remain tragic. They are haunt- 
ingly similar to those concerning the death of my friend, Dan McCollum, last 
year in Pakistan. Dan was my roommate in flight school and one of my best 
friends in the Marines. His loss hurts me everyday that I live. In a bittersweet 
parallel to Will's story, Dan's wife, Jenn, was four months pregnant with their 
son when his KC-130 transport went down near Shamsi, Pakistan. Daniel Junior 
is a bubbly and happy infant who has his father's arctic-blue eyes and easy smile. 

I went up on the signals bridge tonight and looked out at the dark silhou- 
ette of Halmahera on the horizon. I tried to imagine what it was like to be in 
this area fifty-nine years ago. The pilot in me wondered what the P-38 was like 
to fly, and how exciting it must have been to be where Will was and to do 
what he was doing. The combat I experienced was very different from his. He 
most likely endured malaria, unsanitary conditions, oppressive heat and hu- 
midity, and a determined, well-equipped enemy. Not to mention there was a 
war that endured four long years, not three short weeks. I felt a kinship, 
though, and not just because Will is my flesh and blood. Will was a fighter 
pilot, and he died doing what he loved. 

I've often wondered how any person could sacrifice himself for others. I 
know it wouldn't be my first choice, but I think that the perspective I've 
gained over this deployment has given me a clearer picture of why it hap- 
pens. I'm sure that it was not Will's intent to "die bravely while valiantly fend- 
ing off hordes of enemy aircraft." That's the sort of stuff that gets written up in 
awards and history books to help assuage the loss his loved ones feel. What I 
think is closer to the truth, and much more difficult to comprehend, is that 
he didn't want to "foul up." We use a different "F-word" nowadays when we 
talk amongst ourselves in the ready room. It wasn't pain, torture, serious in- 



338 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

jury, nor even death that we feared most: it was failing. Failing to do our jobs. 
Failing to complete the mission. Failing to help our friends in the air or on 
the ground. Will dove into that formation of Zeros because it was his job. The 
fact that he died is tragic, but many bomber crews were probably saved that 
day because of what he did. The Ravey family endured a loss that day so that 
other families, families we will never know, could have their loved ones home 
to produce families of their own. 

Dan's mission was to fly supplies and troops throughout Afghanistan and 
Pakistan during Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. He and his crew flew 
in perilous and demanding conditions not because they were trying to im- 
press anyone, but because it was their job. The missions they flew helped 
feed, transport, and equip the forces responsible for crushing the Taliban and 
liberating Afghanistan. They died so that others could be free. 

The weather at this latitude is hot and sticky, even at midnight, so I only 
stayed outside for a little while. I said a silent prayer for Will and for Dan, and 
then I went below. I felt strange. I'll tell you all this now and hope you un- 
derstand: I felt happy. Being near Halmahera is the closest I've been to fam- 
ily in seven months. It felt warm and soothing. There are many more 
emotions I felt, and maybe someday I'll be able to express them better. 
Tonight, though, I am proud to have closed the loop within our family. I 
called Grandpa Ravey on the sailor phone aboard ship and spoke to him for 
four minutes: long enough to hear the lump in his throat when I told him 
where I was. I am proud to have been able to set eyes upon this place. In a 
way, I feel as though I'm bringing a part of Will's spirit home with me. 

Love to all, 
Guy 



3 A.M. IN BANGOR, MAINE 

Personal Narrative 

Sergeant Michael A. Thomas 



Beginning in February 2003, twenty-nine-year-old U.S. Army Sergeant 
Michael A. Thomas was stationed in Tallil with the 220th Military Police 
Company from the Colorado National Guard, which was attached to the 



HOME 339 

220th MP Brigade. Thomas had been raised in a family with strong roots in 
the military; his father had been a first sergeant in the Army, his uncle was 
one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and his stepmother was an Army re- 
cruiter. Thomas himself enlisted in the Army at the age of eighteen. As 
proud as he was to serve his country, by February 2004 (after having served 
a full year in Iraq), Thomas was more than ready to head back to the States 
and be reunited with his wife, Wendy. In the following account, Thomas re- 
lates how exasperating the journey was— and how meaningful, in the end, 
it turned out to he. 



After months of extending our stay in Iraq, our unit was finally going 
home. The year had felt long enough. We had missed birthdays, births, 
anniversaries, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and when the plane that was 
scheduled to take us back to the States was hit by a de-icing truck in Ger- 
many, we were left feeling as though we'd never return to our families. 

We were ordered to deplane and had to wait for the next flight. 

Sitting in the airport throughout the night, we called our families with the 
bad news. We waited for what seemed like an eternity before finally catching 
another plane. 

Thirty-six hours after our scheduled arrival, we landed in Bangor, Maine. 
It was 3 a.m. We were tired, hungry, and as desperate as we were to get to Col- 
orado, our excitement was tainted with bitterness. While we were originally 
told our National Guard deployment would be mere months, here we 
were — 369 days later— frustrated and angry. 

As I walked off the plane, I was taken aback; in the small, dimly lit airport, 
a group of elderly veterans were there waiting for us, lined up one by one to 
shake our hands. Some were standing, others were confined to wheelchairs, 
and all of them wore their uniform hats. Their now-feeble right hands stiff- 
ened in salutes, their left hands holding coffee, snacks, and cell phones for us. 

As I made my way through the line, each man thanking me for my ser- 
vice, I choked back tears. Here we were, returning from one year in Iraq 
where we had portable DVD players, three square meals, and phones, being 
honored by men who had crawled through mud for years with little more 
than the occasional letter from home. A few of them appeared to be veterans 
of the war in Vietnam, and I couldn't help but think of how they were treated 
when they came back to the U.S., and yet here they were to support us. 



340 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

These soldiers — many of whom who had lost limbs and comrades — 
shook our hands proudly, as if our service could somehow rival their own. 

We later learned that this VFW group had waited for more than a day in 
the airport for our arrival. 

When the time came to fly home to Colorado, we were asked by our com- 
mander if we would like to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Every hand in 
the unit went up eagerly— including my own. 

Looking back on my year in Iraq, I can honestly say that my perception of 
the experience was changed; not so much by the soldiers with whom I 
served — though I consider them my saving grace— but by the soldiers who 
welcomed us home. For it is those men who reminded me what serving my 
country is truly about. 

Thomas remains in the Colorado National Guard and was promoted to 
staff sergeant in August 2004. He is also now a proud member of his local 
VFW chapter. 



THEODORE 

Personal Narrative 
Captain Montgomery Granger 

As eager as returning servicemen and women are to see their friends and 
family members, reunions can be fraught with tension and anxiety. Jet- 
lagged troops are sometimes too exhausted to demonstrate the enthusiasm 
that their loved ones had been expecting. Couples who have argued via 
e-mail or over the phone during the deployment can be harboring hurt feel- 
ings that flare up once they're together. And military parents can find that 
their children are timid and even resentful when they first see their moms 
and dads. Troops who have left behind newborn infants are often especially 
concerned that their son or daughter wont remember them at all. Thirty- 
nine-year-old U.S. Army Captain Montgomery Granger, who was stationed 
in Cuba from January through June 2003, wrote the following account after 
saying goodbye to his wife and three young sons in New York, including one 
child who had been born only days before Granger departed. 



HOME 341 



The night before I deployed, I cuddled with Harrison and Benjamin and 
read them their favorite story (okay, my favorite story to read them): 
Stop That Pickle! It's a fun, silly book about a wayward pickle who faces cer- 
tain . . . well, "consumption," but narrowly escapes due to his incompatibil- 
ity with ice cream. I read it like a seasoned actor, and the boys chuckled and 
laughed along. At the end of each page there was a refrain that we'd all ex- 
claim together: "Stop that pickle!" 

Sandra came downstairs and saw us together. "Why don't you record that 
for the boys, honey?" she suggested. 

I smiled and said, "Sure, that's a great idea. What do you say, boys?" 

"Again!" Harrison said excitedly. 

"Cool," said Benjamin. 

"Great," I said. And we had a blast doing it once more — bigger, bolder, 
and better than before. 

It got late, and I said good night to the big boys, and told them to be good 
to their mother and helpful with their new baby brother, Theodore. They 
promised they would. Kisses and hugs followed, and Sandra put them to bed. 
I went to peek on our newest boy and, quietly leaning against the door to his 
room, watched the rise and fall, rise and fall of his tiny chest as he slept. 

"Yup," I thought, "he works. Our little miracle works." 

Sandra came in and we hugged for a while, kissed gently, and then walked 
downstairs. 

"I miss you already," she said. 

"Me, too," I told her. "And the little fellas. I'm so scared Theodore won't 
know me when I get back, Sandra." 

"He'll know you," she told me, with an intuitive wisdom that had me 
questioning my insecurity. But it bothered me, still. 

"He won't know my smell," I said, "or my voice. I'll scare him when I get 
back, and he'll cry, and then I'll cry ..." I was beginning to ramble. 

"Don't worry," she said. "It'll be fine. I promise." There's one thing about 
my wife. She always keeps her promises. But this one was different. 

I left my family forty-eight hours after Theodore was born. I wouldn't see 
him — or the rest of the family— again for six months. My second activation 
since September n, 2001, would take me to the U.S. Naval Base at Guan- 
tanamo Bay, Cuba, or GiTMO, as we called it, as the field medical assistant 
for the Joint Detainee Operations Group (JDOG), to help run Camp X-Ray. 



342 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

The toughest part about the mission was being away from home. But, 
thanks to modern technology, my family and I used e-mail, snail mail, and 
care packages to stay in touch. 

For Father's Day, Sandra sent me a "talking" picture. It was a small, black 
plastic clamshell frame, with a picture of all three boys on one side and a 
speaker/microphone on the other. The older boys said together, and I could 
see them smiling and giggling as they recorded it, "HI, Daddy! We LOVE 
You! Happy FATHER'S Day!" I kept the frame open for a few more seconds, 
thinking that Sandra might have had something to say, and then I heard it: 
"Gggruuurgle, ggaaaaa, guh!" It was Theodore! These were the first sounds I 
had heard since listening to his soft, sweet whispering breath the night before 
I deployed. 

The tour felt much longer than it was, but in late June, we finally re- 
turned stateside. All I could think of was how the boys would react, having 
not seen me for almost half a year. I wasn't too worried about Benjamin, who 
was six, but I was a bit concerned about Harrison, who was only three. Would 
he be mad? Would he recognize me? Would he even want to hug me? 

As for Theodore, I really had no hope whatsoever. I felt sure he would cry 
if I tried to hold or nuzzle him. I had purposely left behind a shirt I had worn 
for several nights straight, which I asked my wife to wrap Theodore in each 
night so that he would remember my scent. Sandra told me that she had 
cleaned it after a few weeks. "It got bad," she said, after sensing my disap- 
pointment. 

I had clung to that as my only hope, and now, in my dreaded vision, I saw 
myself home and Theodore wake up next to me, notice this completely un- 
familiar monster, and then start one of those high-pitched baby screams that 
begins with a few moments of silence as he sucks more and more air into his 
tiny lungs before letting out a wail that would pierce my ears and heart. 

Due to the uncertainty of my travel arrangements, my wife and the chil- 
dren weren't able to meet me when our unit arrived at the airport, so I 
hitched a ride with another soldier. Pulling up to our house, I saw trees 
adorned with yellow ribbons, and sidewalk chalk greetings in big bold letters: 
welcome home, daddy. Next to that were smiling faces, an airplane, and a 
drawing of me in uniform. 

But no one was there. I sat on the porch with my duffel bags and waited 
for my wife and children. Hours passed in my mind but only fifteen minutes 
had really gone by when I saw our minivan suddenly come into the driveway. 



HOME 343 



I could see Sandra smiling broadly through the driver's side of the wind- 
shield. She was first out of the van — and first to get a welcome-home hug and 
kiss, squeezing me oh so tightly, and whispering in my ear, "I'm so glad you're 
home." 

And then Benjamin jumped out, screeching, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!" I 
hugged him hard, and kissed his cheeks, and held his head against my belly. 

Harrison stood in the doorway of the van, pouting. He looked at this 
strange man holding his brother and pretended to be angry. I knelt down to 
his eye level, smiling, and said, "Hi, Harrison. I missed you." 

Harrison hesitated, and then I saw a twinkle in his eyes as he dove for me, 
crying. I held him a while, kissed his forehead, rubbed his back, and whis- 
pered to him, "It's okay, it's all okay. Daddy's home now." We broke our em- 
brace, and I saw a crack of a smile form on his chubby little face. I started 
tickling his tummy and actually got a laugh out of him. 

Then I saw baby Theodore, strapped in his car seat. He had rosy, fat, pink 
cheeks, a button nose, and blue eyes . . . looking at me. I stopped breathing 
for a moment. 

I approached him cautiously, waiting for the crying, the tears, and the 
struggle to get away from this stranger. I carefully released the seat belt and 
moved slowly, as if I were about to pick up a rattlesnake. I was sure he would 
sense my nervousness and spring "the scream" on me. 

I braced myself for the inevitable. He looked at me, blinked a few times, 
and then started twitching in the arms of this clumsy man who'd obviously 
forgotten how to lift him up like his mommy. He moved his lips and wiggled 
his body ever so slightly. But he wouldn't look away from my eyes. He seemed 
entranced, fascinated, almost as if he were in love. 

I slowly took him from the car seat, and prayed my little prayer of forgive- 
ness: "Oh, Lord, please help this little person forgive me my absence. And set 
me on the path of redemption and full fatherhood. . . ." Theodore gurgled, 
which made my heart jump, and I drew him closer. 

I braved a kiss on his puffy cheek and then pressed his tiny body to my 
chest, with his head on my shoulder. I could swear I heard him sigh. He 
didn't cry. He didn't squirm. He just rested there, gently, as if it were the most 
normal thing in the world. As if, I realized with tears in my eyes, I had never 
gone away. 



344 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

More than two years later, Granger would leave his family for a fourteen- 
month deployment to Iraq. After he returned in late November 2005, 
Granger added a brief epilogue to his account: "My final homecoming was 
wonderful, celebratory, and relieving. Theodore became attached to my hip, 
and was constantly giving me hugs during the first several weeks of my ar- 
rival. It was a dream come true for me. Who wouldn't love constant hugs 
from a three-year-old?" 



WAITING FOR SHAWN 
Personal Narrative 
Paula M. Andersen 

From the day her husband, twenty-five-year-old U.S. Army Specialist 
Shawn Andersen, was mobilized for duty in Iraq in April 2003, Paula An- 
dersen pictured in her mind the precise moment he would be back in her 
arms. She envisioned herself at McCord Air Force Base in Washington with 
her young son, Andrew, and all the other families, each of them holding 
signs and flags and balloons as they waited with a growing sense of excite- 
ment and relief. Although Shawn was expected to serve in Iraq for a year 
with the 555th Combat Engineer Group (attached to the 4th Infantry Divi- 
sion), 14th Battalion, Alpha Company, Paula was elated to receive news in 
the middle of August 2003 that Shawn was returning from Iraq early. She 
would soon discover, however, that the homecoming she had so desperately 
yearned for would be nothing like the one that she had imagined. 



On August 16, Alpha Company's Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader 
phoned me and said, "Paula, your husband is on his way home." My 
hands started trembling, and I asked her, "Are you sure? Are you sure?" 
Shawn was only about halfway through his deployment, but the FRG leader 
assured me that it was absolutely true, and that a few other soldiers from 
Alpha Company were all traveling home on the same commercial flight. The 
FRG leader said she would call back with more details when she had them. 
I went to the store to buy Shawn his favorite foods and candies, as well as 
a sweatshirt and sweatpants, knowing he'd need to adjust to the colder 



HOME 345 



weather in the Pacific Northwest. I also got him a bath sponge, figuring he 
probably couldn't wait to take a long hot shower. 

On August 17, the FRG leader left a message telling me when the soldiers 
were due to arrive at SeaTac Airport in Seattle. The scheduled time was 12:15 
a.m. that next morning. After calling her and confirming the flight informa- 
tion, I told our two-year-old son that his dad was on a big airplane flying home 
to see us. He replied, "Dada is coming home? Oh wow!" 

Just before midnight, we walked into the airport with flowers, a disposable 
camera, and a small American flag. I noticed other soldiers in uniform and 
family members holding flowers, welcome home signs, and flags as well. One 
woman was holding a large sign that read welcome home 62ND medical. I 
knew that there would be other soldiers from other units on the plane; still at 
this point I did not recognize anyone around me. 

About ten minutes later, I heard the crowd start screaming and clapping, 
and then I watched as wives and husbands ran to their spouses. I saw a lovely 
lady hug her husband for what seemed like five minutes and cry loudly. "I 
missed you," she said over and over. Soon, the line of passengers getting off 
the plane started to dwindle. 

No one else was arriving. I began to feel embarrassed. An officer came up 
to me and asked me if my husband was a part of the 555th Combat Engineers. 
I said, "Yes." He told me that those soldiers had gone down to baggage claim 
where he said he thought many family and friends had also been waiting. I 
replied, "How could I have missed him?" By this time, my entire body was 
shaking. I don't remember what I was thinking except that Shawn had to be 
down there. 

A soldier who had overheard me ask someone for Shawn Andersen, yelled 
out, "Hey Andersen, your wife is here." 

"Oh, thank God," I thought. I didn't see him walking towards us at first, but 
finally he emerged through the crowd. And there he stood. He wore glasses, 
was quite tall, and had sandy brown hair, like my husband. But it wasn't Shawn. 

"Oh my God, oh my God," I started saying aloud. 

A short, dark-haired man, who had come to greet some of his fellow soldiers 
home, could tell I was distraught and asked me who I was looking for. I said, 
"Sergeant Shawn Andersen." (He had been promoted while he was in Iraq.) 

He asked, "What company is your husband in, ma'am?" 

"Alpha," I told him. 

"This is Charlie Company." He then asked me, "Who contacted you 



346 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

about your husband being on the flight home?" 

"The company's FRG leader/' I replied. 

He said, "Well, someone has made a very big mistake." 

Shawn was not on the plane. He was not coming home. I turned and 
started walking very quickly to the escalators, running into a mother and her 
two small boys. I apologized and she let me past. "Oh God. Oh my God," I 
repeated to myself. I couldn't stop saying it. My arms were tired from holding 
Andrew and all of our things, and I just wanted to get to our car. I wanted to 
hide. I tossed the roses that we had for Shawn in a nearby garbage can. It took 
me what seemed like an eternity to pay for our parking ticket before walking 
to the car. Frustrated, confused, I couldn't find my cash, and then I couldn't 
find the ticket. I put Andrew in his car seat and called Shawn's parents to tell 
them what had happened. I talked with Shawn's father, who said, "Paula, you 
have got to calm down for Andrew's sake." That is when I realized what my 
son had been saying to me all along: "Mama, I'm scared. Mama, what's the 
matter?" I then knew I needed to keep my composure. 

Over the next few days, I spent hours on the phone and even drove out to 
Fort Lewis to visit the 555th Combat Engineer Group's main administrative 
building to find out what had happened. No one had any answers. And then, 
on Thursday, August 22, 1 received a call from Shawn's father. The first thing 
he told me was, "Paula, Shawn is coming home." I was so confused. Obvi- 
ously I had heard that before. "Now wait," he said. The tone of his voice in- 
dicated that something terrible had happened. "Shawn has been injured. All 
I know is that he has burns to his hands, legs, and face. He just called me 
from Kuwait." He didn't have any other information, and we didn't know how 
bad the injuries were. Later I heard from a notification officer who gave me 
a toll-free number I could call to get updates on where Shawn was being 
treated. After receiving initial care in Kuwait, he was transported to Germany. 

On August 23, Andrew and I drove to Montana and stayed with my par- 
ents. I dialed another 1-800 number that the casualty office had given me, and 
this connected me to the hospital in Germany. A nurse called for Shawn, 
then handed the phone to him. Shawn's hands were wrapped, so it was hard 
for him to get a good grip, but at long last we were able to talk. Hearing his 
voice made my heart skip a beat, but he didn't sound the same. He was in 
deep pain. As hard as it was for him to talk, he wanted to make sure that we 
could see each other when they transferred him to the Brooke Army Medical 
Center in San Antonio, Texas. "I'll be leaving in a couple days," Shawn said, 



HOME 347 



his voice alternating between sounding normal one minute and distant and 
melancholic the next. I was now beginning to worry about his mental state. 

After two days in Germany, Shawn was flown to the medical center in San 
Antonio, where he was quarantined for a few days before he was ready to re- 
ceive regular visitors. On August 31, 1 flew to San Antonio, and when I arrived 
at the airport, I was met by the man who would be my liaison. He told me if 
I needed anything, he was the man to reach. I couldn't have asked for a more 
supportive person. After helping with my luggage and escorting me to the 
van, we were on our way to the hospital, where I would be seeing my husband 
for the first time in six months. "Are you ready?" he asked me. 

My heart started beating so fast, and I choked out the word "Yes." 

We took the elevator to the fourth floor where the Burn Unit was. He went 
to the nurses' station in the ward and told them that he was here bringing me 
to see Sergeant Shawn Andersen. He was first to walk into Shawn's room. I 
heard him say, "I have someone here to see you. . . ." Before I even stepped 
in the room, I started to cry. And there, in a hospital bed, lay the love of my 
life. He reached out to me, and his hands up to his elbows were wrapped. 
There were flash burns to his face and on his lips, and his hair was singed. I 
also couldn't help but notice how skinny he was. It looked like he had not 
eaten for months. I went to give him a light hug. I was afraid that if I hugged 
too hard I would hurt him in some way. Shawn cried. We said "hello" and "I 
love you" to each other. 

The military liaison gave me his phone number and told Shawn to get 
well. He then left us alone to talk. Shawn kept repeating, "I'm so happy you're 
here with me." We talked for about an hour. He asked about Andrew and the 
flight. He told me about the wonderful nurse that he had and explained what 
the doctors had been telling him about his injuries. The main question was 
whether they would have to do skin-graft surgery on his hands. It was getting 
late, so I said that I would let him sleep, and I'd be back in the morning. 

Every day we would talk on the phone with Andrew, who was staying with 
his grandparents, and he would say to Shawn, "Dada, you have boo-boos on 
your hands." 

Shawn would say, "Yes I do." 

Andrew would ask when he was coming home. Shawn would always tell 
him that Mama and Dada would be flying to Grandma and Grandpa's house 
soon and that he couldn't wait to see him. 

In the days that followed, I would visit Shawn in the morning, leave for a 



348 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

little while so he could nap, go with him to physical therapy, and then walk 
laps with him around the ward. The nurses had insisted he get up and walk 
to keep his legs from getting stiff. We must have done a thousand laps, but it 
was my favorite time with him. We talked with each other, and we chatted 
with the nurses. It was an experience that I will never forget. 

Shawn's primary nurse, Ms. Mary, showed me how to clean his burns and 
apply antibacterial cream to them. At first I had to turn my head away, and 
even after a few times I found it hard to look at his wounds. Sometimes 
Shawn's meds were already working and sometimes he didn't get them until 
later, so the scrubbings were very painful for him. He said, "Honey, you are 
going to have to look." He was right. I would need to be able to do this when 
he wasn't in the hospital. 

Slowly he made progress, and he was becoming much happier. Day by 
day I felt I was getting my old Shawn back. After about two weeks in the hos- 
pital, Shawn was told he was well enough to leave (it turned out that surgery 
wasn't necessary), so he said his goodbyes to the nurses and we packed his 
things. As we walked down the hall, I could see into the rooms of other burn 
victims, many of whom were much worse off than Shawn. I couldn't imagine 
what their pain was like. I thought of the tiny burns I'd had from an iron or a 
hot pan, but to have that all over your body seemed unbearable. 

Thanks to a kind lady who traded seats with me, I was able to sit next to 
Shawn during our flight to Great Falls, Montana. When we got off the plane, 
I walked slowly so that Shawn was ahead of me. I wanted Andrew to see him 
first. The nice lady on the plane walked alongside of me, and she was excited 
for Shawn herself. She knew that this father was going to be reunited with his 
little boy again. 

The anticipation of seeing our son was agonizing for Shawn. He worried 
that when Andrew saw him, he might be scared to approach him. As soon as 
we turned the corner, I saw Andrew there with his welcome home dada sign 
and I burst into tears. Shawn kneeled down toward Andrew, who rushed to 
him without hesitation. Shawn hugged him and then lifted him up, and the 
two of them had never looked happier. I gave Shawn's parents and sister a 
hug, and I watched as they all embraced him. I saw how thrilled they were 
that he was back and, although injured, at least still alive. 

A month later we returned to Washington, and in November 2004 Shawn 
was awarded his Purple Heart. It wasn't until then that I found out that the 
five-ton truck he'd been traveling in near Tikrit had been lifted into the air 



HOME 349 

when a roadside bomb exploded underneath it. Miraculously no one was 
killed, but everyone inside was badly wounded. 

It took many months, but Shawn, except for some scarring, fully recuper- 
ated. He has stayed in the military, and he now works as a special agent in the 
Army's Criminal Investigation Division. At any time, he could be sent to Iraq 
again. If asked about going back to Iraq, Shawn will say, "If I have to go again, 
I have to go. It's my job." I couldn't bear to watch him leave a second time, 
especially for a war that I do not agree with. And I definitely couldn't handle 
waiting for him to return. One homecoming is enough. 



A JOURNEY TAKEN WITH MY SON 

E-mails 
Myrna E. Bein 



For every serviceman or woman killed in Iraq, it is estimated that seven times 
as many are wounded. Many of these troops— who return home paralyzed 
or with missing limbs, terrible burns, major head trauma, loss of 
vision, or other catastrophic injuries— face enormous physical and psycho- 
logical hardships. They rely heavily on their families to help with their reha- 
bilitation, and the process can be excruciating for their loved ones as well. At 
about y:oo a.m. on the morning of May 2, 2004, Myrna Bein learned from 
her ex-husbaiid that their twenty-six-year-old son, Charles, a U.S. Army in- 
fantryman, had barely survived an ambush in Iraq a few hours earlier. 
Charles had been riding in a five-truck convoy in Kirkuk when insurgents det- 
onated a roadside bomb and then unleashed a barrage of gunfire on the 
American soldiers scrambling out of their crippled, flaming vehicles. One sol- 
dier was shot in the head, and ten others were injured. Metal fragments from 
the initial blast shredded the lower half of Charles's right leg, and he was ul- 
timately flown to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center for long-term care. 
Charles's mother and his stepfather, Tom, visited him regularly in the hospi- 
tal, and from the morning she heard the news about her son, Myrna Bein 
began e-mailing friends and family with updates on Charles's progress— as 
well as her own state of mind. (Bein also grew fond of another soldier, Spe- 
cialist J.H., who had been with her son when they were attacked.) The first 
time that Bein saw Charles was on Sunday, May 9, 2004— Mother's Day. 



350 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

May 10 

Yesterday afternoon I was finally able to see, touch, hug, kiss and comfort my 
precious son. He arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washing- 
ton, D.C., on Saturday evening, May 8, at around n p.m. I got a call from the 
Red Cross informing me he was there within thirty minutes of his arrival. 
Charles called me around 6 a.m. on Sunday, May 9, to tell me he was sched- 
uled for yet another surgical procedure that day and for Tom and I to delay 
our initial visit until afternoon. . . . 

When I first saw my son, I did not recognize him. His face was very thin 
and drawn and he had about a week's growth of beard. There was a lot of pain 
in his eyes. He grabbed my hand and would not let it go. . . . I'm a Registered 
Nurse and I've seen a lot of people with amputations, so I know what to ex- 
pect. But seeing my son's less than half a leg for the first time, wrapped up in 
that big, bulky surgical bandage, was an experience of indescribable grief. 
Seeing him maneuver so awkwardly in bed, and seeing the pain that he was 
experiencing, just to do the simplest activity, was something I had tried to pre- 
pare myself for, but now I don't think I could have ever been prepared. 

Once he was settled and medicated with morphine again, the pain began 
to ease to what he described as a constant 4 out of 10. He never really com- 
plained about anything. He just gritted his teeth and did what he had to do. 
"Mom, don't try to help me unless I ask you," he said, "I need to learn to man- 
age everything for myself." His left leg is also very painful as he has numerous 
smaller shrapnel wounds, which are sutured and the leg bandaged from toes 
to hip. Charles said he's had many larger shrapnel pieces removed, but some 
of the smaller pieces will just be left. 

Charles held my hand and talked extensively to Tom and me. Much of 
what he said, including thoughts and impressions, he did not want repeated 
to anyone. He has begun to express that he would like to stay in the Army, if 
possible, after he is fitted with his prosthesis and finishes his rehabilitation. 
According to Charles, his orthopedic surgeons have told him they believe he 
could do that, with a different MOS other than Infantry. 

After several hours Charles asked to be taken to the Medical Intensive 
Care Unit to try to see Spc. J.H. We called to the MICU and got permission 
to bring Charles down. It took Charles approximately 30 minutes of pain and 
maneuvering to get himself dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, put a sock and 
shoe on his left foot, and manage his transfer from his bed to his wheelchair. 



HOME 351 

His determination and courage astound me. After another dose of morphine, 
Charles held onto his IV pole and pump in front of him, while Tom and I got 
his wheelchair down the hall, into the elevator, and down another set of hall- 
ways to the MICU. 

I tried to prepare Charles, and myself, for what we could expect to find 
with Spc. J.H. Again, I've spent a lot of hours in ICU's in my time and seen a 
lot of heartbreaking situations, but nothing can compare to what I experi- 
enced yesterday. Spc. J.H. remains very ill and highly sedated. Charles asked 
me to get him as close to Spc. J.H.'s bed as possible where he was able to 
touch his hands, arms, and face. He talked to him for about thirty minutes. 
Charles was deeply affected by Spc. J.H.'s condition. Spc. J.H. and Charles 
were side by side when the IED exploded under their HMMWV. Listening 
to Charles speaking to Spc. J.H., I know that if he survives this, there will be 
a bond between Charles and him that will never be broken. 

May 15 

I thought I'd take the time to send another missive regarding Charles' condi- 
tion. Unfortunately, he has had some very rough days since Friday. He went 
to surgery that day for what he thought would be his last procedure on his 
right leg, to create the best stump possible for his prosthesis. However, 
Charles has had an infection set in, caused by an organism common in sol- 
diers returning with wounds from Iraq. The organism is Acinetobacter bau- 
mannii. It's a very nasty creature and resistant to almost all antibiotic therapy. 
The orthopedic surgery team working with Charles was only able to do part 
of the procedure they had planned, since the infection in the wound has 
caused too much inflammation in the soft tissues to proceed further at this 
point. The infection, coupled with the trauma of all the surgeries, is also 

causing Charles to feel very sick and to have very severe, unrelenting pain 

I know Charles is having moments of despair and I can now, two weeks 
after the event, see the inevitable depression creeping in around his edges. 
The Walter Reed staff tell me that they've now seen enough amputees come 
through there from Afghanistan and Iraq to know that the depression, and its 
resolution, will generally follow a pattern. Apparently, Charles is on sched- 
ule. All of the wounded are followed by psychiatry and receive appropriate 
medication and counseling throughout the course of their care to deal with 
this life-changing event and the fear, anxiety, and grief that inevitably follow 



352 



OPERATION HOMECOMING 



this type of injury. Thank God for that. I know the Army has learned a lot 
about taking care of the whole soldier since the days of Vietnam. Charles told 
me tonight, "I know this will get better." Tom and I are trying our best to sup- 
port him through this horrible ordeal. Most of the time we feel pretty help- 
less, but we do what we can both in prayer and in practical matters to assist 
him where he needs it. 

In spite of what I can see he's going through, I've never once heard 
Charles whine or complain. When the nurses and physicians ask, he rates the 
pain on a scale of o-io, but he basically just grits his teeth and waits for it to 
eventually subside. He doses himself with morphine from his patient con- 
trolled IV pump and gets in his wheelchair and goes down to check on Spc. 
J.H. every day, because he's his buddy and they are in this together. He's 
pushing himself in physical therapy to do as much as he can, as soon as he 
can. My admiration for his courage and determination is so profound. . . . 

There's great news about Spc. J.H. My husband, Tom, and I saw him on 
May 15, along with Charles. We rolled Charles and all his associated intra- 
venous pumps and tubes downstairs to visit Spc. J.H. and his family. Spc. 
J.H.'s mother and brother were both with him. He had been transferred to an 
intermediate care unit, from the Medical Intensive Care Unit, and was being 
prepared for further transfer to a regular care unit as we were there. He was 
awake and for the first time he absolutely recognized Charles. As Charles 
rolled through the door of his room, you should have seen the look on Spc. 
J.H.'s face! He lit up like a Christmas tree. He was able to motion for Charles 
to come in. Spc. J.H. still cannot speak, but I believe that will come in a bit 
more time. The nurse in charge of the unit, a Major, said he was extremely 
encouraged by the progress that Spc. J.H. had made over the past 48 hours. 
Spc. J.H. nodded his head in response to questions, gave a thumbs-up sign, 
grasped Charles' hand very strongly and wouldn't let go, and made excellent 
eye contact. He was sitting up in a chair. He still has one nasogastric tube in 
place and many tubes for intravenous fluids, but when I touched him he did 
not feel as if he had a fever. He still has the evidence of many abrasions, etc. 
from the blast on his face and upper body. He was moving about in the chair 
to make himself more comfortable. 

At times he would get a sort of panicked look in his eyes, which his 
brother attributed to "flashbacks." When that would happen, his brother and 
mother would speak very soothingly to him and he would return to normal. 
His brother said that Spc. J.H. has only just begun to realize that he is back in 



HOME 353 

the U.S. and in a hospital. Charles emphasized to Spc. J.H. that they are both 
out of Iraq and "we made it." Charles updated Spc. J.H. on Spc. J.S. and Pfc. 
C.F. Charles also told Spc. J.H. that he had lived for a short time in Wash- 
ington, D.C. and, "I know this town, man." I think that means he knows 
where the "chicks" are, but some things a mother is probably better off not in- 
quiring about in too much detail ©. 

Last night, Charles wanted to try to go outside into the fresh air, so Tom 
and I got permission from his nurse to take him out onto the hospital grounds 
in his wheelchair. It was the first time since the incident that he's been out- 
side of buildings, aircrafts, or vehicles. I thought it was very telling that 
Charles said that it felt "totally weird" to be outside without a weapon in his 
hand. He said he would have to get used to not feeling as if he had to be con- 
stantly alert to watching his back and the backs of others around him. He said 
he, too, is having flashbacks and that noises similar to the sound of the explo- 
sion are very upsetting. He knows all of this is a normal progression of his re- 
covery from this event and injury. I think that talking about it is probably the 
best thing for him. 

May 25 [to First Sergeant R./., in Kirkuk, Iraq] 

The expected depression and anxiety have now very obviously kicked in with 
Charles. His whole world has been totally turned inside out and he's having a 
lot of uncertainty about what he's going to be able to do in the Army, or out of 
the Army if he has to take a medical discharge. He fears that he is not far 
enough advanced in rank and that the Army doesn't have "enough invested in 
me yet" to really want to keep him. Charles has never been one to gravitate 
toward jobs that don't have a certain amount of adrenaline rush, so he fears the 
loss of his leg will very much limit him in doing what he would like to do in the 
Army. I've tried to remind him that he is an exceptionally intelligent young 
man and the Army must value that. I don't know if you may have any eventual 
influence over what happens with Charles' Army career, but if so, he could cer- 
tainly use all the help he can get. I hope that once Charles actually gets up on 
a prosthesis and is walking again, he will have a brighter outlook. I also know 
that his depression is normal and a part of the process he has to work through 
to deal with this loss of his leg and change in his body image and lifestyle. 

Donald Rumsfeld visited Charles a few days ago when he came to Walter 
Reed. Usually Charles opts out of the visits by the football players, Congress- 
men and Congresswomen, and others who pay frequent visits to Walter Reed. 



354 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

He has had limited energy and also has said he really doesn't care to be part 
of their "photo ops." However, he said that Rumsfeld came without press, just 
with his security personnel, and he did see him. He said his impression was 
that Rumsfeld was much older and smaller in physical stature than he had ex- 
pected. He said that the visit to the injured troops at Walter Reed seemed to 
be a sort of "decompression" for Rumsfeld; a time without reporters, photog- 
raphers, and probing, hostile questioning. It encourages me that Rumsfeld 
was taking the time to go and see for himself the ravages of this war. I know 
he must lose sleep at night over the cost of it. I hope he does anyway. 

May 27 [to First Sergeant R. /., in Kirkuk, Iraq] 

Dear 1st Sgt. J., I have wonderful news regarding Spc. J.H. I saw him last 
night, along with his mother and brother, when James and I visited Charles 
at Walter Reed. Spc. J.H. looked fabulous! He is talking up a storm now and 
appears totally normal, neurologically. Just before we saw Spc. J.H., the psy- 
chiatrist who's following both Charles and Spc. J.H. stopped by Charles' 
room to tell him that Spc. J.H. had begun speaking again that day. He 
thanked Charles for his support, regular visits, and continued communica- 
tions with Spc. J.H. while he was so critically ill and coming out of his men- 
tal fog after the incident. . . . 

Spc. J.H. continued to have a lot of questions and conversation with 
Charles regarding the specifics of the May 2 incident. Basically, Spc. J.H. re- 
members nothing except that he heard the explosion of the IED, and then 
found himself lying on top of Charles feeling pain in his abdominal area. 
Then he said he looked at his abdomen and saw "my guts hanging out." He 
could remember that he began firing his weapon. He has no memory of any- 
thing after that until he woke up at Walter Reed. He said he did realize that 
it was Charles coming to see him in the intensive care unit, even though he 
seemed only semi-responsive. ... As far as I'm concerned, a true miracle has 
occurred with Spc. J.H. There have certainly been many, many people all 
over the world praying for his recovery. When I first saw him in the intensive 
care unit at Walter Reed, I had real doubt that he would survive; or, if he did 
survive, that he would ever be able to live a normal life. After seeing him last 
night, I now believe he will make a full recovery. 

June 1 

It's strange and ironic how my perceptions of what is "good" have changed 



HOME 355 



since May 2. I don't have the awful feeling of personal dread watching the 
news on television or reading the newspaper now, because my son is not over 
there anymore in that hell hole. He's no longer trying to survive the politics 
or the fanaticism or the insanity that is Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, when I go 
to Walter Reed, I think how fortunate he is to have "only" lost his leg. As I've 
gone to visit him at Walter Reed, I've walked many times by the neurotrauma 
unit and said a prayer of thanks that he's not in there with a brain or spinal 
cord injury. Over the past three weeks on the orthopedic surgery ward, I've 
seen so many beautiful young men with such horribly mutilating injuries 
from this war: the Marine across the hall, with both arms gone up to his el- 
bows plus a leg gone below the knee from a rocket propelled grenade; the 
young man in the patient computer room, typing out his E-mail with the one 
hand he has left. The almost ghostly apparition of a 20-something soldier I 
met on the sidewalk in front of the hospital one dusky evening, with a pros- 
thesis on his left arm almost up to his shoulder, and his other arm absent at 
the same level, so affected me I had to stop and compose myself before I went 
in to Charles. 

I'm not a sage, or a politician, or anyone with answers to all the hard ques- 
tions. I'm just a mother. I know what I'm feeling down in my soul is what 
countless other mothers have felt over the centuries. I know the mothers in 
Iraq and Afghanistan feel the same thing. It's a timeless and universal grief. I 
see it in the eyes of the other women I meet at Walter Reed; that semi- 
shocked, "I'm trying to be brave and hold it all together" look. We recognize 
each other. 

I know I'm going through a "normal" emotional process, but it feels pretty 
awful at times. It's not always like this; I know I'm tired and I had a bad night. 
I do feel God's love all around me, even in the midst of the suffering. I know 
that things will get better and that there will be blessings that spring from this 
experience for Charles, for me, and for others. There are already blessings 
and I am so thankful for each and every one of them. Most of all, I'm thank- 
ful to still have my son. 

June 10 

A sock did me in a few nights ago, a plain white sock. I'm doing so much bet- 
ter with the grief, but sometimes I just get blindsided again in a totally unex- 
pected way. Some memory or sharp realization will prick at the places 
healing in my heart, and I feel the grief wash over me in a massive wave. 



356 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Sometimes I almost feel I could double over with the pain of it. That's what 
happened with the sock. 

I had brought Charles' soiled clothes home from Walter Reed to wash. 
Everything had gone through the wash and dry cycles and I had dumped the 
freshly laundered clothes onto the bed to fold them. It was late and I was 
quite weary, so I wanted to finish and get to bed to try for a better night's sleep 
than I've been having lately. I found one sock . . . just one. I folded all the 
rest of the clothes and still, just one sock. Without even thinking, I walked 
back to the laundry room and searched the dryer for the mate. Nothing was 
there. I looked between the washer and dryer and all around the floor, in case 
I'd dropped the other sock somewhere during the loading and unloading 
processes. Still, my tired and pre-occupied brain didn't get it. As I walked back 
to the bedroom with the one sock in hand, it hit me like a punch to the gut. 
There was no other sock. There was also no other foot, or lower leg, or knee. I 
stood there in my bedroom and clutched that one clean sock to my breast and 
an involuntary moan came from my throat; but it originated in my heart. 

I guess, as a nurse, I know too much. I know all the details of the physical 
difficulties and long-term complications of life for an amputee that most oth- 
ers have no reason to comprehend. I know about the everyday activities of 
daily living that the rest of us take for granted, and for which we never give a 
moment's consideration, that Charles will now always have to struggle to ac- 
complish. I do know he will eventually win the struggle; he is made of very 
strong stuff. I'm in awe and so proud of his strength and determination. But 
my "mother's heart" still feels very tender and sore. The wounds there are 
fresh and bleed easily when disturbed. God's peace to you all. Myrna. 

August 20 

It's now been sixteen weeks since Charles was wounded in Iraq. Life goes on 
and things settle down. Charles is very stable physically now. His right leg is 
totally healed and the stump continues to atrophy and decrease in size. The 
scars on both of his legs from the surgeries and the shrapnel remain red and 
very noticeable, but are beginning to fade a bit. He has put on a bit more 
weight and looks much healthier. Now he's in the midst of the long hard slog 
of learning to live with the chronic remaining pain, adapting to a prosthetic 
leg, and learning to achieve an active life again. On August 1st, he was in New 
York City with about twenty other soldiers from Walter Reed who were in- 
vited there by the Achilles Track Club to participate in a 5K race. Charles 



HOME 357 

participated in the race on a hand cycle, as he's not yet able to attempt run- 
ning. He finished the course and enjoyed the trip very much. 

Charles' attitude remains generally very positive and he considers himself 
to be one of the "lucky ones." I know that's true as I travel back and forth to 
Walter Reed and see more and more wounded there. There are so many of 
them with terrible burns, often multiple amputations, deep and ragged scars, 
and mutilations. I still find myself especially shocked when I see the young fe- 
male soldiers who are so severely wounded. This war has no front line and 
everywhere is a combat zone. There is no "safer place." 

As more and more wounded come into Walter Reed, especially with so 
many traumatic amputations from improvised explosive devices and rocket- 
propelled grenades, the Prosthetics Department is fairly overwhelmed. The 
sheer number of amputees from all the explosive injuries, all needing artifi- 
cial limbs made and adjusted frequently, means that there are long waits of 
days to weeks for Charles, back on his crutches and in his wheelchair when 
his "leg is in the shop." When this happens, his rehabilitation progress more 
or less comes to a standstill until his prosthesis is ready again and returned to 
him. I see his spirits sag when he is forced back into this mode and is unable 
to continue moving forward toward his goals. 

At times I have to stop and compose myself before I go into Mologne 
House to meet Charles. Last week I had one of those times when I met a 
young father out with his two little sons. He had all of a leg missing and was 
pushing himself along in a wheelchair. His younger son, about three, was sit- 
ting on the young father's lap, while his brother, about five, skipped along be- 
side the moving wheelchair. There are many other heart-rending sights and 
many shocking mutilations, but I will spare you the details. It's a humbling 
experience to move about the Walter Reed complex. The gritty determina- 
tion of these wounded and the support they offer to each other puts a lot of 
the other details of daily life in clearer perspective. Regardless of your politics 
or how you may feel about this war, these wounded, and the dead, are an in- 
escapable reality. I pray to God that we as a nation don't forget the sacrifices 
that are being made on our behalf. From now on, Veteran's Day will be a 
great deal more meaningful to me than just a day to take off from work and 
to fly the flag, if I remember. 

I keep thinking a time will come when it doesn't hurt so much to watch 
Charles struggling to recover. Watching what is left of his right leg withering 
up and growing ever smaller is something I know is normal, but in my dreams 



358 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

at night I see him at about seventeen, running so smoothly and beautifully, 
and when I awake to reality I know how cruel this new "normal" is. Some- 
times, still, when I see him I find my heart clutching and I have to take a deep 
breath and swallow hard to keep the tears at bay. My tears won't help him; 
hopefully my support and encouragement will. 

God's peace to you all, 
Myrna 



In January 2005, a review board of Army physicians recommended that 
Charles be medically discharged because of his disability. Charles, how- 
ever, successfully appealed the decision, and received a waiver so that he 
could stay in the Army. (He was promoted to sergeant in April 2006.) Know- 
ing that he couldn't continue serving as an infantryman, he changed his 
specialty to military intelligence and was selected to begin studying to be- 
come an Arabic translator. His goal is to serve in a combat unit in Iraq, 
Afghanistan, or wherever else he is needed. 



DEAR NEIL 

Letters 
Daniel Uhles 



"You re back home this morning, sleeping in your own bed, and while that 
may not seem like much to some people, it is heaven on earth to me," 
Daniel Uhles wrote on May 11, 2004, to his twenty-four-year-old soldier son, 
Neil. While many parents have just one child in the armed forces to worry 
about, Daniel Uhles had two; Neil and his younger brother, Drew, had 
both joined the military when they turned eighteen. (Their older sister, 
Melissa, had served in the Gulf War and was later honorably discharged.) 
Neil enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard, Drew joined the Marine 
Corps, and in late 2003 through early 2004, both boys were in Iraq at the 



HOME 359 



same time. And, to the absolute joy of their parents, they were both stateside 
by May 2004. Daniel Uhles continued his letter to Neil: 



/hile I'll never be able to get into that psyche of yours, I know you've 
brought home some baggage you'll carry around for the rest of your 
life. You told us from the first days you were in Iraq, as did Drew, that the 
news accounts of the war were very inaccurate and that there was a more mel- 
low side to those people. However, when you describe "incoming," it both- 
ered us immensely, and I, for one, wondered why someone was trying to hurt 
such a nice person like our son. The only thing worse was multiplying that by 
two when Drew was there also. 

You're down the hall sleeping. You're resting. We're resting. And now — 
finally — all seems right with the world for the Uhles family. When morn- 
ings and moments like these present themselves to me, I feel so guilty for 
having such a perfect family. Your brothers and sister and you were worth 
the wait for these moments. They're like rare diamonds to be enjoyed with 
a touch of misunderstanding. By way of defining that, I remember Jack 
Buck was asked in an interview what he would ask God when he got to see 
him. His answer, "God, why have you been so good to me?" The answer ap- 
plies to me also. 

You're down the hall in your own room. Mom's at work. Melissa, Sean, 
Heather, and Kelly are out there doing the same. And Drew is still holding 
vigil with his M-16, only for right now it's in the California desert. The cat's 
in my chair asleep, and I can hear the gurgling water in the fountain out 
front. A new day is dawning. My prayer is that never in your lifetime will 
you ever have to tell your children goodbye as they enter into that eternal 
nightmare we call war. Enjoy the solitude and beauty of the sun coming 
up, coffee perking, the sound of the wrens building their nest for the com- 
ing season, and above all, embrace those you love like there will be no 
tomorrow. 

Neil, welcome home! 

I love and salute you!! 

Love, 
Dad 



360 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Uhles's happiness, however, would he short-lived; in August 2004, Drew was 
redeployed to Iraq for his second tour of duty. On September 15, 2004, two 
uniformed Marines appeared at the Uhles home in Illinois and informed 
the family that earlier in the day, Lance Corporal Drew Michael Uhles 
had been killed in AlAnbar province by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was 
four days shy of his twenty-first birthday. Neil, who had fulfilled his com- 
mitment to the Guard, volunteered to go back to Iraq. Shocked by the deci- 
sion, Daniel implored his son to reconsider. 

November 3, 2004 

Dear Neil, 

I'm writing this letter knowing what I want to say but not knowing how to 
say it, so stick with me on this for awhile. 

You already know that your mother and I really don't want you to volun- 
teer for Iraq again, so that goes without saying, but our reasons for this are 
probably different than you can possibly realize, having been "over there" 
and not here in the good old US of A. 

I'm sure you've jumped ahead and thought about what Christmas will be 
like without Drew, so try to imagine another one without BOTH of you here. 
Yes, I'm thinking of myself, but also I'm thinking of our family and extended 
family beyond our home, yard, village, and country. No one will think less of 
Neil Uhles if he says "No, I've done my share and now it's someone else's 
turn. My entire family has given enough." You're a hero, plain and simple!! 

You've given a foreign country a jump start our country never had. You've 
given the Iraqi people a vision of working together to rid THEIR country of 
insurgents just as we did our country centuries ago in the United States. What 
more could they ask for than a year of a stranger's time to help them attain 
freedom? 

Your feelings are not lost upon us, your mother and me, but please con- 
sider the consequences upon our older family members. I ask that you ease 
their burden in their last years here with us, and let them join Drew comfort- 
ably and free of everyday worry for you in your mission. 

Lastly, I would ask you to take a deep breath, look at your ENTIRE life — 
past, present, and future — and say "Now I'm going to do something for my- 
self! If it's school, so be it. If it's a career, so be it." I guess what I'm saying is, 
plan for YOUR future! "Will another year away be beneficial for what I want 



HOME 361 

and not what someone else wants, or will it only help fill a void in a battalion's 
troop list?" My four years in the Air Force gave me the money I needed to go 
to school, plus it literally saved my life when the military found a tumor in my 
chest. But, your future is ready and waiting, and the "after-burners" are ready 
to kick in for a very intelligent twenty-five year old with an entire life ahead of 
him. (That's an Air Force term.) Will another year impede the take-off or put 
it on hold for yet another year? Don't be afraid of the future, and I certainly 
know you're not afraid of ANYTHING. All I'm asking is for you to take into 
consideration a multitude of other things and consider making a decision 
with the help of those who love you and of those you love the most. 

Love, 
Dad 



Despite his dad's plea, Neil could not be persuaded and was unable to ex- 
plain to his father why he felt so certain about the matter. Struggling to 
make sense of his sons reasons, Daniel asked his daughter, Melissa, and 
her reply was: u Dad, you just have to have been there to understand." In 
May of 2005, Neil embarked for Iraq and was stationed in Baghdad. He re- 
turned home in April 2006 and re-enrolled in college. 



SHALLOW HANDS 

Fiction 
Corporal Michael Poggi 



While some troops adjust relatively easily to postwar life and even express a 
desire to return to Iraq or Afghanistan, many struggle with everything from 
flashbacks, frequent nightmares, and aggressive behavior to substance 
abuse, persistent depression, and thoughts of suicide. A comprehensive 
2006 study by the Army reported that one out of every three soldiers and 
Marines sought counseling for mental health problems within a month of 
coming home from Iraq (the percentage is not as high for veterans of the war 
in Afghanistan) and thousands indicated that they had contemplated 
killing themselves. Some veterans dont even realize that they are suffering 
from post-traumatic stress disorder (FTSD) until they have a total break- 



362 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

down. Twenty-seven-year-old U.S. Marine Corporal Michael Poggi, a mem- 
ber of the elite ist Recorinaissance Battalion, ist Marine Division, fought in 
Iraq as part of a team of "ambush hunters" whose mission was to seek and 
destroy enemy forces lying in wait for U.S. convoys. When Poggi came back 
to the States in the summer of 2003, he saw many of his friends afflicted by 
PTSD, and he knew that he, too, was not unaffected by his months of in- 
tense combat. Poggi found it cathartic to write about the psychological 
repercussions of war, and a year after he returned home he wrote the fol- 
lowing story, which is based on real events and characters but is not, he em- 
phasizes, purely autobiographical. 



I've been drinking steadily since coming back from the war. There's a 
caustic aftertaste in my mouth aggravating the queasiness in my stomach. 
Making my way through San Diego traffic to get to the airport, I know I 
shouldn't be driving like this. I park in the overnight lot and walk to the na- 
tional terminal to catch a flight to Boston. This trip will be the first time I've 
been home in a long while. 

I hate crowds, maybe because I am hung over, or maybe because they 
make me a critic of all humankind. I just can't help but think people are 
spoiled lambs walking around with their heads up their hinds, oblivious to 
the goings-on in the world. It makes me so damn sad. I look around the ter- 
minal and see people bitching and moaning about their flights. I don't know 
any Iraqi kids who complain about waiting for shit; they dream about not get- 
ting shot dead or killed by an explosion. Over there is some woman buying 
her kid a whole damn armful of candy while she holds her cup of Starbucks 
in the other hand. Some kid in Afghanistan just got his leg blown off by a land 
mine, but go ahead and pamper your ankle-biters with more shit they don't 
need! Half the world is starving! I watched people kill each other for dollar 
bills, why should you care? Fucking lamb. 

I have been back from the war for a month. I spent most of it cruising around 
Southern California, harassing college girls with my tattoo stories and getting 
drunk. Thankfully I haven't woken up in a pool of urine lately. Nonetheless, 
I feel more alive than ever. Everything seems so different, so colorful. The sky 
is so vividly blue and white now, sunsets are beautifully orange, and the 
ocean a glimmering pool of I don't even know what. I don't ever recall notic- 



HOME 363 

ing things this much. It's funny what being shot at does to a man. Yet, for 
some reason I can't stand to be in the presence of people anymore. Little in- 
conveniences rub me raw, those polite phony smiles make me want to rip 
someone's face off when they say "excuse me" in that perky inaudible voice. 

I eye everyone in the terminal as a potential threat, every nook and cranny 
an ambush. I want to stand in the center of the concourse and scream at the 
top of my lungs. So loud they burst, so loud all the cigarettes will purge them- 
selves from my body. But I'm too damn tired to stand on a soapbox today; be- 
sides, it's a quiet anger, a pearled soreness beneath the breastbone that drives 
me insane, sore with every breath and with every swallow like the feeling of 
vomit in your throat. I don't know why I feel the way I do. It's not the booze. 
I know that for certain. It's something else, something that will have to wait 
until later. I hand over my ticket and board the plane. As I jostle into my seat, 
I quickly turn my head toward the window and try to think of other things. 

Being there was pure, in the dust storms and blazing heat, the children 
looking up at you like you were God himself come to deliver them. Things 
were simple. The enemy is everywhere, hiding in every building, every palm 
grove, waiting to pounce on you when you let your guard down. The chil- 
dren, tugging at your leg, look up with desperate eyes. They will be slaugh- 
tered when they go home for collaborating with us. Still they hang on to the 
hope that for that brief moment we're there we will save them. Sometimes it 
is almost a nuisance when they'd crowd the vehicles and follow the patrols. I 
can't help but pity them; I'd give all I had to them if I could. Instead, it seems 
we're always leaving them when they need us most. 

I landed at Logan International five hours later and took a cab to 
Bukowski's just off Boylston Avenue, by the Prudential Center. I love that 
place. No one knows it's there really, its windows naturally blend into the 
urban foliage, and you can watch the people wandering about on Boylston, 
oblivious to your observation. A great place for a thought or two, and getting 
drunk of course. I got smashed there that night. I was supposed to meet this 
girl I dated for drinks, but she never showed. I ended up calling my brother 
and my buddy Tim. We proceeded to get drunk. I kicked over a mailbox in 
front of a cop and began my "lamb" speech to everyone on the road. The cop 
just gave my brother the old "get him the fuck out of here" look. I nearly 
fought a few people on the way to the train station. I felt bad that my brother 
and Tim had to struggle with me to cooperate, but that passed quickly. 

A few months before the war, I went to a palm reader. I don't know why, 



364 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

but I thought she might shed some light on things; curiosity I suppose. I don't 
remember how she looked, although I remember she wasn't some quack fat 
lady wearing purple. I do remember how she took my hand, how relaxing it 
felt when I gave it to her. Holding it gently, brushing the lines with the tips of 
her fingers, plying it ever so slowly, she told me things about my character I 
knew were true. Ever since, I look at my hands in a different light. I realize 
how soft and shallow the lines are, and how odd it is that someone you don't 
know could shake your hand and tell you when you're going to die, it was all 
so fascinating. Even if it was all bullshit. 

They say the line running from your index finger that follows the fleshy 
tissue down around your thumb to the midpoint of your palm is the lifeline. 
It's supposed to tell you how long you'll live. I noticed mine stops halfway. I 
know a lot of guys in my unit with hands like rocks, deep crevices in them like 
they've been chapped or wind burnt for ages. It's supposed to be long. But 
mine isn't. 

After days of drinking, I was strewn out on the floor of my brother's apart- 
ment in a bloody mess. When I finally came to in the morning, I felt like 
killing myself. Not because I was depressed, or regretful, but because I was 
hallucinating and delirious. I thought I was going crazy. Spiraling down into 
the void, I stumbled around the apartment, completely disoriented and con- 
fused, slamming down water and vitamins, hoping that the delirium would 
pass, and it did not. I started to scream, first in my head, where the battle was, 
then out loud. So loud my brother came running down from his bedroom to 
see what was going on. I can only imagine what he was thinking when he saw 
me balled up in the corner, quivering and weeping assurances to myself. 

It took me two days to get over the breakdown. I just walked around in a 
trance and sat watching television on the couch. My brother came home 
from work one afternoon and put an end to it. He sat next to me and told me 
that our dad had called and wanted to see me. He wanted me to go as soon as 
possible. I had been waiting for this to happen. I was ashamed to look and feel 
this way in front of my father. 

He had always been proud of my service. He served with the Army in Viet- 
nam, and he's seen his share. He was of the old school that seems withering 
today, one that preaches conservative compassion mixed with blue-collar 
sense of duty. He taught me about nature, from back when I was a little boy in 
the car seat pointing at the hawks circling the highways, to the days as a teen 
when we took long walks in the woods and talked philosophy. The musty pic- 



HOME 365 

tures of a bearded adventurer line a desk stacked with nature guides and ani- 
mal skulls, a living tribute to the man. I would spend lots of time at his desk as 
a kid, picking up and staring at the skulls, reading the guides, and playing with 
the samurai swords he'd bought so many years ago in Southeast Asia. 

Now I was supposed to put myself before his expecting eyes and hide the 
shame and booze. It was almost too much to bear as I stood on his porch and 
rang the bell after minutes of hesitation. He opened the door, hugged me in 
a powerful embrace, and then led me in. 

The living room was as I'd remembered it, but the fireplace mantel had 
been transformed into a shrine to me, and I winced. We moved to the kitchen 
and sat down for coffee. He could barely contain his excitement, but I could 
see his intuition told him something was wrong. 

"You look good, Tommy," he said, grabbing my shoulder. I thanked him 
and sipped my coffee, but I knew he was lying. I looked like shit and felt like 
the sewer. 

"So you've been back for a few days I hear. Staying with your brother . . . 
How's your head?" he asked with a smirk. 

"It's doing fine now, Pop," I replied quietly. 

"Good, just go easy, Tom, you know you get out of hand with that stuff." 

"I know, Pop. I know," I said. He had no idea. 

"So did you . . . you know." 

"Kill anyone?" I answered. 

He nodded. 

"Yes," I said blankly. Truthfully, it hadn't bothered me that I had killed 
someone, or more than one for that matter. It was us or them and the fact that 
it was them means I am here drinking coffee with my dad and not buried in 
the sand thousands of miles from here and that's that. 

"You did the right thing, boy." He sighed. "If you ever want to talk about 
it, I know where you are coming from. I had to do the same in my day." 

"Thanks," I said. The room went quiet, and I could hear someone raking 
leaves two houses down. It made me smile for a moment. I always liked this 
time of year. The smells and sounds seemed more alive in autumn, even as 
the leaves were dying; another paradox to ponder. 

We talked about the family for a long while, and then I looked at my 
watch. 

"It's getting late, Dad, I think I better get going," I said, standing up. "I'll 
be back tomorrow." 



366 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

Dad grabbed me on both shoulders and forced me to look him in the eye. 
I noticed the calloused old hands; I noticed the grooves in them as they 
reached for me, deep and wise . . . unlike mine. 

"Not everyone is going to understand what youVe done, Tommy. It's your 
job to be patient. You Ve got to understand that most people in this country 
have never left it. They never will. But you, you have seen what's out there. 
It's up to you to make them understand. So take it easy with the booze. Relax 
and clear your head out." He patted me on the shoulder as I stepped out. I 
waved goodbye and started the two-mile walk to my brother's apartment in 
the moonless cool night. 

Most of the trees were bare now, and I couldn't avoid the childlike draw 
of kicking through the coating of dry leaves on the streets as I walked down 
the neighborhood's narrow roads, my hands shoved deep in my pockets. I 
traced the shallow lifeline of my right palm over and over again with my fin- 
gers, and I couldn't shake off the thought of mortality that it caused. I re- 
member the palm reader told me to "live every day to its fullest" and to "enjoy 
every moment" — the kind of shit you tell to someone with terminal cancer. I 
couldn't help thinking that I wasn't meant to live for long, and my life was a 
void of nothing, except the anger and frustration of not knowing what I was 
doing with it. I felt contempt for everyone around me, and I knew it; I carried 
it like a loaded pistol just aching to pull the trigger. 

I began drinking heavily again. I tried to escape. I spent a night in jail. 
How it happened I couldn't recall in truth. All I know is what patchwork 
memories I can muster through the inebriated haze and what they tell me 
about when I did pull that trigger. I guess I had taken too many shots too fast 
and assaulted the barroom in a tirade. My friends had called the police. Can't 
blame them, but I'll never go back to that shit hole again. 

My brother bailed me out to take me to the hospital, then left since he 
had to get to work early. The doctor in the emergency room looked at my 
hand, then back up at me with a disappointed look. "It's definitely broken, my 
friend. There appear to be several hairline fractures spiderwebbing off of the 
major point of impact. Luckily there are only minor contusions on the outer 
edges and on your palm when you obviously braced a fall." He sighed and in- 
jected more Novocain into my wrist as he swabbed the cuts with Betadine so- 
lution. I tried to look away, but out of some grisly curiosity I watched as he 
cleaned the wounds, cutting and peeling the skin back. I wanted to see what 



HOME 367 

had become of the hand that told so much. It wasn't telling shit now. It was 
wrapped up and numb. 

I stumbled out of the emergency room at four a.m. and hailed a cab, my 
hand in a splint, arm in a sling. Fuck if I'd go back to my brother's place. He'd 
been pretty cool with everything, I owed him that, but he didn't need my bag- 
gage. I checked my wallet to make sure I had enough funds, and told the cab- 
bie to take me to the Adams Inn in Quincy. It's an old motel down by the 
Neponset. I could get a room facing the river and watch the muddy water and 
highway traffic. 

I went back to my brother's apartment later that day, after some sleep and 
some Percocets. I grabbed all my bags and penned a note telling him where 
to reach me. I found a message from my dad. He wanted to see me today. I 
tossed it in the trash on the way out the door. There was no way I could see 
him like this. There was no way I could face anybody like this. 

I did end up in a room overlooking the river. I set up my laptop on a night- 
stand, and with my good hand began typing furiously. I imagined my hand 
blown off in the war. The thought made me laugh out loud at the irony. I 
hadn't been wounded in combat, yet here I was at home, hand split open and 
broken. 

Everything I typed was angry. I thought that after I had the opportunity to 
vent a little, it would end — it would stop — but it did not. It kept going; from 
the lambs in the airport and their spoiled children to my mom's death, to my 
brothers' success and my failure, to my credit card bills and my high car in- 
surance. Everything was fucked up. I wrote page after page and stopped only 
when I had to urinate or refill my whiskey-coke. On the way back from the 
bathroom, I paused to read the last page of what I'd written: 

Fuck it. Fuck it all. Fuck the lady bitching at the line in the DMV ... a 
few hours out of your life isn't going to kill you. Fuck my ex-girlfriend and 
all her boring ass phone calls about her brother and friends and back- 
aches and fucking cramps. Fuck that wannabe businessman yacking on 
his cell phone like he is somebody. It's all just so amazing to me. All of 
them, heads stuck so far up their asses they can't see daylight. I hate them 
for their ignorance; their bliss ... yet I am amazed that in our country, we 
can have a war with a thousand casualties, and nobody hardly notices. 
I FUCKING NOTICE. I notice the kid in the wheelchair rolling 



368 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

through the mall with his Dad proudly pushing and his Mom tearing up. 
I notice the guy with the fake leg at the bar who I used to serve with and 
buy his beers and recall old times. I notice the ones without the scars and 
prostheses, the ones with the eyes that stab right into you, the eyes that see 
through you. I notice because I have them too . . . and every time I notice 
one of them, I notice ten mindless ignorant people; people who talk 
about birthday parties and dry cleaning, and meetings at work. People 
who go home to sit down for dinner and ask their kids how school was, 
and never once consider that their kid could be in Iraq in a year and that 
chair would be empty forever. You can't talk to them about the horror of 
a dead child's lifeless mutilated body staring back at you from the void, 
knowing you took part in that end, or laugh at the humor and terror in 
your weapon jamming in a firefight where every crack and pop of the in- 
coming rounds has you shaking and ducking for cover. You know they 
don't even know what you really do in the military in the first place, so 
when you talk about the chow and the bullets and the asshole Gunny, 
they just look at you and nod. So you just sit there and smile politely, 
thank them for their homecoming, and try to get out of there as soon as 
you can, before the bitterness and anger seep through. I'm bitter at their 
weakness and their ingratitude. I'm bitter at their fucking lives and their 
petty complications. I'm bitter I couldn't be ignorant as well. FUCK IT 
ALL. 

It was amazing how it flowed from my fingertips, and into this. Though 
"this" wasn't anything. I knew I'd delete it tomorrow when I woke up, but I 
was shocked at how true it was to me. I turned to the bureau mirror and stared 
into the face of the man looking back at me. I saw an animal — a predator no 
doubt— but I saw a pathetic excuse for a man first. 

I looked at the bottle of whiskey I'd emptied while I typed, and in a mo- 
ment of clarity, realized — I am an alcoholic. The thought bothered me more 
than anything I could have ever imagined. A wound a thousand times deeper 
and more painful than any shrapnel or bullet graze, it was a wound to the 
heart. I started to weep apologetically to my reflection, seeking some re- 
sponse but getting none. The people we killed, the shit that went down. It all 
rushed back to me in a moment. I questioned some of the kills. I thought of 
the civilians caught in the crossfire. I wept more. I looked down to my iodine- 
stained wrappings, I envisioned the lifeline's shallow groove tainted brown, 



HOME 369 

and I wondered again why it was so weak. Maybe the palm reader was right 
to say I should live life to its fullest. I won't live long this way at all. 

Poggi is still in the Marine Corps and was promoted to sergeant in January 
2004. 



DOVER 

Personal Narrative 
Colonel Marc M. Sager 



Home to the active-duty 436th Airlift Wing and the reserve 512th Airlift 
Wing, Dover Air Force Base in central Delaware is the largest and busiest 
military cargo port in the United States. Dover's C-$ Galaxy aircraft, which 
are almost as long as a football field and weigh up to a million pounds, pro- 
vide one quarter of the nations entire strategic airlift capability. But Dover 
AFB is unique not only for its aircraft, but for what happens on the base it- 
self in times of war and other national crises: U.S. servicemen and women 
killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to Dover's Charles C. Carson 
Center, the largest mortuary in the U.S. military, to be identified and pre- 
pared for burial. The Center, named after one of its former directors, oper- 
ates seven days a week and can handle up to eighty-five bodies a day. While 
stationed at Boiling AFB in Washington, D.C., Marc M. Sager, a fifty- 
three-year-old colonel in the U.S. Air Force's medical service corps, had an 
opportunity to visit the Center in the spring of 2004. Despite all that Sager 
had seen during his almost twenty-two years in the military as a medical ad- 
ministrator, he was still overwhelmed by the experience. Immediately after 
leaving Dover, Sager began writing the following account. 



To say a mortuary is beautiful sounds odd, but the Charles C. Carson 
Center truly is. Once inside the main doors you are immediately struck 
by the large curving wall in front of you with several engraved panels of names 
and dates chronicling many of our nation's most memorable and tragic 
events— Beirut, Space Shuttle Challenger, Desert Storm, Somalia, USS Cole, 
Pentagon September 11, 2001, and so on. There is a vaulted, translucent ceil- 



370 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ing above that lets in the sunlight and illuminates a large, bubbling fountain 
underneath. 

We were met by the mortuary director, Karen Giles, and Lieutenant 
Colonel Susan Hanshaw from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It was 
immediately apparent how proud they were of the new facility, but even more 
so, in being part of this necessary, but by no means glamorous, aspect of ser- 
vice to our country. Every time they referred to a deceased soldier, sailor, air- 
man, or Marine it was always "the fallen hero." At first this seemed like one 
of the politically sanitized phrases that many of us have used in various set- 
tings over the years, but as the visit continued, it became clear to me that this 
was the phrase everyone used, and that it was also the most appropriate. 

The mortuary is located on the flight line so aircraft can pull up directly 
to the receiving area. Once the transfer cases, which contain the fallen he- 
roes, are off-loaded, they are taken into an explosive ordnance disposal room 
that has walls about ten inches thick. The transport case cover is taken off and 
the remains checked for any loose ordnance that might have been missed 
overseas. The remains are then run though an X-ray machine that looks like 
the ones at airports to inspect checked baggage. The value of this screening 
became clear. Just the week before a live grenade was found in the body 
armor on the remains of one of the soldiers. 

Once the remains have been determined to be safe, they are taken to the 
fingerprint area, where we met two FBI personnel from Quantico, Virginia, 
who rotate every six days to work at the mortuary. The day before remains ar- 
rive at Dover, the names and other information are provided. The agents 
then pull fingerprint files from an FBI computer in Martinsburg, West Vir- 
ginia, which contains all active-duty military and literally millions of other 
sets. From fingerprints the remains are taken to dental. Here again, all of our 
dental records are on file and can be used as a match. Everything is state-of- 
the-art. The radiology techs, who do the full-body X-rays, told me that the 
new system was eight to ten times faster than the old film method, and images 
can now be captured on a CD-ROM. When we were finished in radiology, it 
marked the end of the "easy" part of the tour, as no remains were being 
processed while we were there. That was not the case as I looked across the 
hall into the autopsy room, our next stop. 

A full autopsy is performed on all the fallen heroes. No longer can we sim- 
ply provide families with the statement "Killed in Action." Families want to 
know exactly what happened to their loved ones, so for medical and legal rea- 



HOME 371 



sons a full autopsy is performed. Again, as an MSC, I wasn't sure how well I 
would handle this, but knowing what these brave men had sacrificed, my 
concerns seemed pretty trivial. There were two autopsies being conducted 
when we arrived. The medical teams performing them were very professional 
and careful how they handled the remains. The room itself had ten bays, a 
high ceiling with bright lighting, and lots of air circulation. When we exited 
this room we entered the embalming area that is a mirror of the autopsy 
room. Here two of the staff were preparing the remains of another fallen 
hero. It sounds odd to say, but I could see the pride these professionals took 
in their work. Everything that can be done to make the remains look "nor- 
mal" is done. From here the remains go to "cosmetology," where expert 
makeup personnel restore the faces to look as natural as possible. 

It was comforting to see Critical Incident Stress Management team mem- 
bers at the mortuary. These CISM teams are there to support mortuary team 
members at the point of stress. Even the most seasoned staff members have 
moments when the blunt trauma of war is overwhelming, and there is a con- 
stant need for a calming, healing presence for the caretakers. 

Our fallen heroes are now ready to be put back in uniform. Since almost 
all the deaths are combat related, no one arrives with their dress uniform. 
Here another group of dedicated experts goes to work. Service records are 
used to verify rank, branch of service, and medals. There is a complete "mil- 
itary clothing store" at this location. Shirts, socks, underwear, pants, blouses 
are all available from every branch of the service, in any size you can imag- 
ine, and they also have every ribbon from every service. Unit patches and pins 
are also on hand. The staff can make the ribbon rack and name tags right 
there in less than a day. When we walked through, eight fallen heroes from 
the Army, Navy, and Marines had just finished being put back in uniform. 

On separate racks are the personal items that each of these fallen heroes 
was carrying at the time of death. To me, this was the most poignant aspect of 
the visit: pictures, money, keys, watches still on Baghdad time, AT&T calling 
cards, driver's licenses, and military photo-ID cards— they all brought home 
how young and vibrant these individuals were and, most of all, that they were 
real people, not statistics. The staff explained that the personal items accom- 
pany the remains. 

We had noticed in the clothing area a trash can filled with Marine dress- 
uniform coats. We later met the master gunnery sergeant responsible for en- 
suring each fallen Marine's uniform is properly prepared. He had inspected 



372 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

the coats, he felt the workmanship was not up to par, and he was not going to 
allow his comrades to be sent home in anything less than perfection. Every 
extra step to honor these fallen heroes is accomplished; every oak-leaf cluster, 
star, and device is polished before being put on the ribbon. Every belt buckle 
and badge gets a luster to it. Uniforms are altered and pressed to fit as per- 
fectly as possible. 

Once the remains are dressed, they are moved to the final preparation 
area and placed in caskets. There are even coffins that contain no metal for 
Jewish personnel or anyone else who wants a wooden coffin. There were cre- 
mation urns available too, if that is the family's desire. No detail is over- 
looked. That day there were seven caskets waiting for escorts to take them 
home. They would be gone by the next evening. 

As we came back up front, Ms. Giles took the time to explain how impor- 
tant some of the other people in the process were, such as the folks who 
arrange for airline tickets for the escorts and handle the arrangements for the 
caskets. Over and over we heard, "We are a zero-defects operation. We can't 
let anything go wrong because the families of these fallen heroes are waiting." 

It was a day of many emotions. Most people will never get a chance to see 
what we saw, and probably would not want to. I'm glad I did. I realized once 
more that casualty numbers are the sanitized, amorphous representation of 
what I had just seen. Each number was in fact an individual person— some- 
one's spouse, parent, sibling, sweetheart, or friend— who had joined the mil- 
itary to serve his or her country and paid the ultimate price. I especially 
thought of the parents of these fallen heroes. The remains I viewed that day 
were kids as young as my two sons, both in their twenties, and I kept thinking 
of their mothers and fathers waiting for these bodies of their children, their 
babies, to come home. 

Every person I met at the mortuary exuded pride in what they did and 
their role in ensuring the families got back their loved one in the best man- 
ner possible; appropriate and in keeping with the sacrifice they performed for 
this country. It is obviously a highly stressful working environment, but the 
core mortuary staff, along with the temporary duty personnel and those from 
other agencies, are focused on their duty. 

They have to be — there were eight more fallen heroes arriving the next 
day. 



HOME 373 



TAKING CHANCE 

Personal Narrative 

Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl 



After they are brought to Dover Air Force Base, all fallen soldiers. Marines, 
airmen, and sailors are escorted home to their families and loved ones by a 
uniformed member of the U.S. armed forces. In mid-April 2004, thirty-eight- 
year-old U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Michael R. Strobl, a manpower 
analyst assigned to the Combat Development Command in Quantico, Vir- 
ginia, accompanied the body of a young Marine killed in Iraq to his final 
resting place in Wyoming. Strobl wrote the following description of his jour- 
ney to Wyoming in a small, spiral notebook on his way back to Virginia. 



Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was 
killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his 
mother. I didn't know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him. 

Over a year ago, I volunteered to escort the remains of Marines killed in Iraq 
should the need arise. Thankfully, I hadn't been called on to be an escort 
since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The first few weeks of April, however, 
had been tough ones for the Marines. On the Monday after Easter I was re- 
viewing Department of Defense press releases when I saw that a Private First 
Class Chance Phelps was killed in action outside of Baghdad. The press re- 
lease listed his hometown as Clifton, Colorado— which is near where I'm 
from. I notified our battalion adjutant and told him that, should the duty to 
escort PFC Phelps fall to our battalion, I would take him. 

I didn't hear back the rest of Monday and all day Tuesday until 1800. The bat- 
talion duty NCO called my cell phone and said I needed to be ready to leave 
for Dover Air Force Base at 1900 in order to escort the remains of PFC 
Phelps. I called the major who had the task of informing Phelps's parents of 
his death. The major said that the funeral was going to be in Dubois, 
Wyoming. (It turned out that PFC Phelps only lived near my hometown dur- 
ing his senior year of high school.) I had never been to Wyoming and had 
never heard of Dubois. 



374 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

With two other escorts from Quantico, I got to Dover AFB at 2330 on 
Tuesday night. First thing on Wednesday we reported to the mortuary at the 
base. In the escort lounge there were about half a dozen Army soldiers and 
about an equal number of Marines waiting to meet up with "their" remains 
for departure. PFC Phelps was not ready, however, and I was told to come 
back on Thursday. Now at Dover with nothing to do and a solemn mission 
ahead, I began to get depressed. 

I didn't know anything about Chance Phelps; not even what he looked 
like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I 
did push-ups in my room until I couldn't do any more. On Thursday morn- 
ing I reported back to the mortuary. This time there was a new group of Army 
escorts and a couple of the Marines who had been there Wednesday. There 
was also an Air Force captain there to escort his brother home to San Diego. 

We received a brief covering our duties and the proper handling of the re- 
mains, and we were shown pictures of the shipping container and told that 
each one contained, in addition to the casket, a flag. I was given an extra flag 
since PFC Phelps's parents were divorced. 

It turned out that I was the last escort to leave on Thursday. This meant 
that I repeatedly got to participate in the small ceremonies that mark all de- 
partures from the Dover AFB mortuary. 

Most of the remains are taken from Dover AFB by hearse to the airport in 
Philadelphia for air transport to their final destination. When the remains of 
a service member are loaded onto a hearse and ready to leave the Dover mor- 
tuary, there is an announcement made over the building's intercom system. 
With the announcement, all service members working at the mortuary, re- 
gardless of branch, stop work and form up along the driveway to render a slow 
ceremonial salute as the hearse departs. On this day, there were also some 
civilian workers doing construction on the mortuary grounds. As each hearse 
passed, they would stop working and place their hard hats over their hearts. 
This was my first sign that my mission with PFC Phelps was larger than the 
Marine Corps and that his family and friends were not grieving alone. 

Eventually I was the last escort remaining in the lounge. The master gun- 
nery sergeant in charge of the Marine liaison there came to see me. He had 
a pouch with Chance Phelps's personal effects. He removed each item: a 
large watch, a wooden cross with a lanyard, two loose dog tags, two dog tags 
on a chain, and the Saint Christopher medal, which was on a silver chain. Al- 
though we had been briefed that we might be carrying some personal effects 



HOME 375 



of the deceased, I was taken aback. Holding his personal effects, I was starting 
to get to know Chance Phelps. 

Finally we were ready. I grabbed my bags and went outside. I was some- 
what startled when I saw the shipping container, loaded three quarters of the 
way into the back of a black Chevy Suburban that had been modified to carry 
such cargo. This was the first time I saw my "cargo," and I was surprised at 
how large the shipping container was. The master gunnery sergeant and I 
verified that the name on the container was Phelps's, and then they pushed 
him the rest of the way in and we left. Now it was PFC Chance Phelps's turn 
to receive the military— and construction workers' — honors. He was finally 
moving towards home. 

As I chatted with the driver on the hour-long trip to Philadelphia, it be- 
came clear that he considered it an honor to contribute to getting Chance 
home. He offered his sympathy to the family. I was glad finally to be moving, 
yet I was apprehensive about what things would be like at the airport. I didn't 
want this container to be treated like ordinary cargo, but I knew that the sim- 
ple logistics of moving around something this large would be difficult. 

When we got to the Northwest Airlines cargo terminal at the Philadelphia 
airport, the cargo handler and hearse driver pulled the shipping container 
onto a loading bay while I stood to the side and executed a slow salute. Once 
Chance was safely in the cargo area, and I was satisfied that he would be 
treated with due care and respect, the hearse driver drove me over to the pas- 
senger terminal and dropped me off. 

As I walked up to the ticketing counter in my uniform, a Northwest em- 
ployee started to ask me if I knew how to use the automated boarding-pass 
dispenser. Before she could finish, another ticketing agent interrupted her. 
He told me to go straight to the counter, then explained to the woman that 
I was a military escort. She seemed embarrassed. The woman behind the 
counter already had tears in her eyes as I was pulling out my government 
travel voucher. She struggled to find words but managed to express her sym- 
pathy for the family and thanked me for my service. She upgraded my ticket 
to first class. 

After clearing security, I was met by another Northwest Airlines employee 
at the gate. She told me a representative from cargo would be arriving to take 
me down to the tarmac to observe the movement and loading of PFC Phelps. 
I hadn't really told any of them what my mission was but they all knew. When 
the man from the cargo crew met me, he, too, struggled for words. On the tar- 



376 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

mac, he told me stories of his childhood as a military brat and repeatedly said 
that he was sorry for my loss. Even here in Philadelphia, far away from 
Chance's hometown, people were mourning with his family. 

On the tarmac, the cargo crew was silent except for when they gave occa- 
sional instructions to each other. I stood to the side and saluted as the con- 
veyor moved Chance to the aircraft. I was relieved when he was finally settled 
into place. The rest of the bags were loaded and I watched them shut the 
cargo-bay door before heading back up to board the aircraft. One of the pilots 
had taken my carry-on bag himself and had it stored next to the cockpit door 
so he could watch it while I was on the tarmac. As I boarded the plane, I 
could tell immediately that the flight attendants had already been informed 
of my mission. They seemed a little choked up as they led me to my seat. 

About forty-five minutes into our flight, I still hadn't spoken to anyone ex- 
cept to tell the first-class flight attendant that I would prefer water. I was sur- 
prised when the flight attendant from the back of the plane suddenly 
appeared and leaned down to grab my hands. She said, "I want you to have 
this," as she pushed a small gold crucifix, with a relief of Jesus, into my hand. 
It was her lapel pin and it looked somewhat worn. I suspected it had been 
hers for quite some time. That was the only thing she said to me the entire 
flight. 

When we landed in Minneapolis, I was the first one off the plane. The 
pilot himself escorted me straight down the side stairs of the exit tunnel to the 
tarmac. The cargo crew there already knew what was on this plane. They 
were unloading some of the luggage when an Army sergeant, a fellow escort 
who had left Dover earlier that day, appeared next to me. His "cargo" was 
going to be loaded onto my plane for its continuing leg. We stood side by side 
in the dark and executed a slow salute as Chance was removed from the 
plane. I then waited with the soldier and we saluted together as his fallen 
comrade was loaded onto the plane. 

My trip with Chance was going to be somewhat unusual in that I had an 
overnight stopover. We had a late start out of Dover and there was just too 
much traveling ahead of us to continue on that day. (We still had a flight from 
Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, then a five-hour drive to the funeral home. 
That was to be followed by a ninety-minute drive to Chance's hometown.) 

I was concerned about leaving him overnight in the Minneapolis cargo 
area. My ten-minute ride from the tarmac to the cargo holding area eased my 
apprehension; just as in Philadelphia, the cargo guys in Minneapolis were ex- 



HOME 377 

tremely respectful and seemed honored to do their part. While talking with 
them, I learned that the cargo supervisor for Northwest Airlines at the airport 
is a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve. They called him for me 
and let me talk to him. 

Once I was satisfied that all would be okay for the night, I asked one of the 
cargo crew if he would take me back to the terminal so that I could catch my 
hotel's shuttle. Instead, he drove me straight to the hotel himself. At the hotel, 
the lieutenant colonel called me and said he would personally pick me up in 
the morning and bring me back to the cargo area. Before leaving the airport, 
I had told the cargo crew that I wanted to come back to the cargo area in the 
morning rather than go straight to the passenger terminal. I felt bad for leav- 
ing Chance and wanted to see the shipping container where I had left it for 
the night. 

The next morning, the lieutenant colonel drove me to the airport, and I 
was met again by a man from the cargo crew and escorted down to the tar- 
mac. The pilot of the plane joined me as I waited for them to bring Chance 
from the cargo area. The pilot and I talked about his service in the Air Force 
and how he missed it. 

I saluted as Chance was moved up the conveyor and onto the plane. It 
would be a while before the luggage was loaded, so the pilot took me up to 
board the plane where I could watch the tarmac from a window. With no 
other passengers yet on board, I talked with the flight attendants and one of 
the cargo guys. He had been in the Navy and one of the attendants had been 
in the Air Force. Everywhere I went, people were telling me about their rela- 
tionship to the military. After all the baggage was aboard, I went back down 
to the tarmac, inspected the cargo bay, and watched them secure the door. 

When we arrived at Billings, I was again the first off the plane. The fu- 
neral director had driven five hours up from Riverton, Wyoming, to meet us. 
He shook my hand as if I had personally lost a brother. 

We moved Chance to a secluded cargo area, and it was now time for me 
to remove the shipping container and drape the flag over the casket. I had 
predicted that this would choke me up, but I found I was more concerned 
with proper flag etiquette than the solemnity of the moment. Once the flag 
was in place, I stood by and saluted as Chance was loaded onto the van from 
the funeral home. I picked up my rental car and followed Chance for five 
hours until we reached Riverton. During the long trip I imagined how my 
meeting with Chance's parents would go. I was very nervous about that. 



378 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

When we finally arrived at the funeral home, I had my first face-to-face 
meeting with the casualty assistance call officer (CACO). It had been his 
duty to inform the family of Chance's death, and I knew he had been through 
a difficult week. 

Inside I gave the funeral director some of the paperwork from Dover and 
discussed the plan for the next day. The service was to be at 1400 in the high 
school gymnasium up in Dubois, population about nine hundred, some 
ninety miles away. Eventually, we had covered everything. The CACO had 
some items that the family wanted inserted into the casket, and I felt I needed 
to inspect Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper. Although it was 
going to be a closed-casket funeral, I still wanted to make certain his uniform 
was squared away. 

Earlier in the day I wasn't sure how I'd handle this moment. Suddenly, 
the casket was open and I got my first look at Chance Phelps. His uniform 
was immaculate — a tribute to the professionalism of the Marines at Dover. I 
noticed that he wore six ribbons over his marksmanship badge; the senior one 
was his Purple Heart. I had been in the Corps for more than seventeen years, 
including a combat tour, and was wearing eight ribbons. This private first 
class, with less than a year in the Corps, had already earned six. 

The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse for the 
trip up to Dubois. This was the most difficult leg of our trip for me. I was brac- 
ing for the moment when I would meet his parents and hoping I would find 
the right words as I presented them with Chance's personal effects. We got to 
the high school gym about four hours before the service was to begin. The 
gym floor was covered with folding chairs neatly lined in rows. 

There were a few townspeople making final preparations when I stood 
next to the hearse and saluted as Chance was moved out of the hearse and into 
the gym. A Marine sergeant, the command representative from Chance's bat- 
talion, met me inside. His eyes were watery as he relieved me of watching 
Chance so that I could go eat lunch and find my hotel. 

At the restaurant, the table had a flyer announcing Chance's service. 
Dubois High School gym, two o'clock. It also said that the family would be 
accepting donations so that they could buy flak vests to send to troops in Iraq. 

I drove back to the gym at a quarter after one. I could have walked; you 
could walk to just about anywhere in Dubois in ten minutes. I wanted to find 
a quiet room where I could take Chance's things out of their pouch and un- 
tangle the chain of the Saint Christopher medal from the dog-tag chains and 



HOME 379 

arrange everything before his parents came in. I had twice before removed the 
items from the pouch to ensure they were all there — even though there was 
no possibility anything could have fallen out. Each time, the two chains had 
been quite intertwined. I didn't want to be fumbling around trying to separate 
them in front of his parents. Our meeting, however, didn't go as expected. 

I practically bumped into Chance's stepmom accidentally and our intro- 
ductions began in the noisy hallway outside the gym. In short order I met 
Chance's stepmom and father, followed by his stepdad and, at last, his mom. 
I didn't know how to express to these people my sympathy for their loss and 
my gratitude for their sacrifice. Now, however, they were repeatedly thanking 
me for bringing their son home and for my service. I was humbled beyond 
words. 

I told them that I had some of Chance's things and asked if we could try 
to find a quiet place. The five of us ended up in what appeared to be a com- 
puter lab — not what I had envisioned for this occasion. After we had arranged 
five chairs around a small table, I told them about our trip. I told them how, 
at every step, Chance was treated with respect, dignity, and honor. I told them 
about the staff at Dover and all the folks at Northwest Airlines. I tried to con- 
vey how the entire nation, from Dover to Philadelphia, to Minneapolis, to 
Billings and Riverton expressed grief and sympathy over their loss. 

Finally, it was time to open the pouch. The first item I happened to pull 
out was Chance's large watch. It was still set to Baghdad time. Next were the 
lanyard and the wooden cross. Then the dog tags and the Saint Christopher 
medal. This time the chains were not tangled. Once all of his items were laid 
out on the table, I told his mom that I had one other item to give them. I re- 
trieved the flight attendant's crucifix from my pocket and told its story. I set 
that on the table and excused myself. When I next saw Chance's mom, she 
was wearing the crucifix on her lapel. 

By 1400 most of the seats on the gym floor were filled and people were 
finding seats in the fixed bleachers high above the gym floor. There were a 
surprising number of people in military uniform. Many Marines had come 
up from Salt Lake City. Men from various VFW posts and the Marine Corps 
League occupied multiple rows of folding chairs. It turned out that Chance's 
sister, a petty officer in the Navy, worked for a rear admiral — the chief of 
naval intelligence — at the Pentagon. The admiral had brought many of the 
sailors on his staff with him to Dubois to pay respects to Chance and to sup- 



380 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

port his sister. After a few songs and some words from a Navy chaplain, the ad- 
miral took the microphone and told us how Chance had died. 

Chance was an artillery cannoneer and his unit was acting as provisional 
military police outside of Baghdad. Chance had volunteered to man a .50- 
caliber machine gun in the turret of the leading vehicle in a convoy. The 
convoy came under intense fire but Chance stayed true to his post and re- 
turned fire with the big gun, covering the rest of the convoy, until he was fa- 
tally wounded. 

After the admiral spoke, the commander of the local VFW post read some 
of the letters Chance had written home. In letters to his mom, he talked of 
the mosquitoes and the heat. In letters to his stepfather, he told of the dangers 
of convoy operations and of receiving fire. 

The service was a fitting tribute to this hero. When it was over, we stood 
as the casket was wheeled out with the family following. The casket was 
placed onto a horse-drawn carriage for the mile-long trip from the gym, down 
the main street, then up the steep hill to the cemetery. I stood alone and 
saluted as the carriage departed the high school. I found my car and joined 
Chance's convoy. 

All along the route, people had lined the street and were waving small 
American flags. The flags that were otherwise posted were all at half-staff. For 
the last quarter mile up the hill, local boy scouts, spaced about twenty feet 
apart, all in uniform, held large flags. At the foot of the hill, I could look up 
and back and see how enormous the procession was. I wondered how many 
people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles — 
probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming. 

The carriage stopped about fifteen yards from the grave, and the military 
pallbearers and the family waited until the men of the VFW and Marine 
Corps league were formed up and the school buses had arrived, carrying 
many of the people from the procession route. Once the entire crowd was in 
place, the pallbearers came to attention and began to remove the casket from 
the caisson. As I had done all week, I came to attention and executed a slow 
ceremonial salute as Chance was being transferred from one mode of trans- 
port to another. 

From Dover to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Minneapolis, Minneapolis 
to Billings, Billings to Riverton, and Riverton to Dubois, we had been to- 
gether. Now, as I watched them carry him the final fifteen yards, I was chok- 
ing up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive. 



HOME 381 

Then they placed him at his grave. He had stopped moving. 

Although my mission had been officially complete once I turned him 
over to the funeral director at the Billings airport, it was his placement at his 
grave that really concluded the mission in my mind. Now, he was home to 
stay and I suddenly felt at once sad, relieved, and useless. 

The chaplain said some words that I couldn't hear and two Marines re- 
moved the flag from the casket and slowly folded it for presentation to his 
mother. When the ceremony was over, Chance's father placed a ribbon from 
his service in Vietnam on Chance's casket. His mother removed something 
from her blouse and put it on the casket. I later saw that it was the flight at- 
tendant's crucifix. Eventually friends of Chance's moved closer to the grave. 
A young man put a can of Copenhagen on the casket and many others left 
flowers. 

Finally, we all went back to the gym for a reception. There was enough 
food to feed the entire population for a few days. In one corner of the gym 
there was a table set up with lots of pictures of Chance and some of his sports 
awards. People were continually approaching me and the other Marines to 
thank us for our service. Almost all of them had some story to tell about their 
connection to the military. About an hour into the reception, I had the im- 
pression that every man in Wyoming had, at one time or another, been in the 
service. 

It seemed like every time I saw Chance's mom, she was hugging a differ- 
ent well-wisher. After a few hours at the gym, I went back to the hotel to 
change out of my dress blues. The local VFW post had invited everyone over 
to "celebrate Chance's life." The post was on the other end of town from my 
hotel and the drive took less than two minutes. The crowd was somewhat 
smaller than earlier at the gym but the place was packed. 

The largest room in the post was a banquet/dining/dancing area and it was 
now being renamed "The Chance Phelps Room." Above the entry were two 
items: a large portrait of Chance in his dress blues and a wooden carving of 
the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the Marine Corps emblem. In one corner of 
the room there was another memorial to Chance. There were candles burn- 
ing around another picture of him in his blues. On the table surrounding his 
photo were his Purple Heart citation and his Purple Heart medal. Above it all 
was a television that was playing a photomontage of Chance's life from small 
boy to proud Marine. 

As had been happening all day, indeed all week, people were thanking 



382 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

me for bringing Chance home. I talked with the men who had handled the 
horses and horse-drawn carriage and learned that they had worked through 
the night to groom and prepare the horses for Chance's last ride. They were 
all very grateful that they were able to contribute. 

After a while we all gathered in the Chance Phelps Room for the formal 
dedication. The post commander told us of how Chance had been so looking 
forward to becoming a life member of the VFW. Now, in the Chance Phelps 
Room of the Dubois, Wyoming, post, he would be an eternal member. We all 
raised our beers and the room was christened. 

Later, a staff sergeant from the reserve unit in Salt Lake grabbed me and 
said, "Sir, you gotta hear this." There were two other Marines with him and 
he told the younger one, a lance corporal, to tell me his story. The staff 
sergeant said the lance corporal was normally too shy to tell it, but now he'd 
had enough beer to overcome his usual modesty. As the lance corporal 
started to talk, an older man joined our circle. He wore a baseball cap that in- 
dicated that he had been with the ist Marine Division in Korea. Earlier in the 
evening, he had told me about one of his former commanding officers, a 
Colonel Puller. 

So, there I was, standing in a circle with three Marines recently returned 
from fighting with the ist Marine Division in Iraq and one not-so-recently re- 
turned from fighting with the ist Marine Division in Korea. I, who had fought 
with the ist Marine Division in Kuwait, was about to gain a new insight into 
our Corps. At that moment, in this circle of current and former Marines, the 
differences in our ages and ranks dissipated — we were all simply Marines. 
The young lance corporal began to tell us his story. 

His squad had been on a patrol through a city street. They had taken 
small-arms fire and had literally dodged a rocket-propelled grenade that 
sailed between two Marines. At one point they received fire from behind a 
wall and had neutralized the sniper with a SMAW (shoulder-launched mul- 
tipurpose assault weapon) round. The back blast of the SMAW, however, 
kicked up a substantial rock that hammered the lance corporal in the thigh, 
missing his groin only because he had reflexively turned his body sideways at 
the shot. 

Their squad had suffered some wounded and was receiving more sniper 
fire when suddenly he was hit in the head by an AK-47 round. I was stunned 
as he told us how he felt like a baseball bat had been slammed into his head. 
He had spun around and fallen unconscious. When he came to, he had a se- 



HOME 383 

vere scalp wound but his Kevlar helmet had saved his life. He continued with 
his unit for a few days before realizing he was suffering the effects of a severe 
concussion. 

The staff sergeant finished the story. He told how this lance corporal had 
begged and pleaded with the battalion surgeon to let him stay with his unit. 
In the end, the doctor said there was just no way; he had suffered a severe and 
traumatic head wound and would have to be medevac'd. 

The Marine Corps is a special fraternity. There are moments when we are 
reminded of this. Interestingly, those moments don't always happen at awards 
ceremonies or in dress blues at Birthday Balls. I have found, rather, that they 
occur at unexpected times and places — next to a loaded moving van at Camp 
Lejeune's base housing, in a dirty tent in northern Saudi Arabia, and in a 
smoky VFW post in western Wyoming. 

After the story was done, the lance corporal stepped over to the old man, 
put his arm over the man's shoulder, and told him that he, the Korean War 
vet, was his hero. The two of them stood there with their arms over each 
other's shoulders, and we were all silent for a moment. When they let go, I 
told the lance corporal that there were recruits down on the yellow footprints 
tonight who would soon be learning his story. 

I was finished drinking beer and telling stories. I found Chance's father 
and shook his hand one more time. Chance's mom had already left, and I 
deeply regretted not being able to tell her goodbye. 

I left Dubois in the morning before sunrise for my long drive back to 
Billings. It had been my honor to take Chance Phelps to his final post. Now 
he is on the high ground overlooking his town. 

I miss him. 



MEMORIAL DAY 

Letters 

DeEtte and Rex Wood 



Late in the evening on November 1, 2004, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal 
Nathan Wood e-mailed his family from Iraq to let them know that he was 
about to participate in a massive operation. "Hey guys whats up" he began, 



384 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

im doing good dont worry so much the big hit hasnt gone on yet but 
very very soon within the next week or so. I cant tell you the exact date 
over the internet but its coming soon. Technically i cant even tell you 
the city but you already know wich one im talking about. It is going 
to be very interesting to see how this turns out because im not even 
sure anymore, but dont worry. . . . if you hear on the news about 3/1 
Lima company thats me and my guys so keep an eye out. . . . Also lis- 
ten for stuff about a train station. . . . Ifi dont get to talk to you all for 
awhile i love you and ill try to write or call when i get a chance. 

The city was the insurgent stronghold ofFallujah, and the train station 
was going to be transformed into a forward base by the Marines. Eight days 
had passed since Nathans last message, and there was still no word from 
him. On November 9, his mother, DeEtte, sent him the following e-mail 
with the subject heading "Are you still alive": 

It is 11:30 am Tuesday the gth. I watched the news till 1:00 last night 
and there was nothing new. I woke up at 5:00 and still nothing new. 
At 10:00 I watched a news conference and heard that there were quite 
a few casualties. I searched the internet and could not find anything 
specific. I did find that there were 3 marines and 6 soldiers killed. One 
soldier interviewed said there were a lot of troops injured. I hope you 
are ok. All I can do is watch and hope no one knocks on our door. Ac- 
cording to the news conference they say you are ahead of schedule. 
That gives me hope that the heavy fighting will be over soon but I 
know you will still not be safe till you come home. I'll keep pray- 
ing. . . . 

The knock that DeEtte feared more than anything in the world came al- 
most twelve hours later; a few minutes after 11.00 p.m. on November 9, 
2004, three casualty notification officers arrived at the Kirkland, Washing- 
ton, home of DeEtte and Rex Wood and informed them that their nineteen- 
year-old son had been killed in Fallujah. Nathan had been shot while 
conducting a door-to-door sweep through an apartment complex the morn- 
ing (Iraq time) of the ninth, and he died instantly. For parents, like the 
Woods, confronted with the trauma of losing a child, the grief can seem end- 
less and all-consuming. Some try to cope with the pain by writing a letter to 



HOME 385 

the deceased, expressing how much he (or she) is still— and always will 
be— loved and missed. On the first Memorial Day after Nathans death, 
both of his parents wrote letters to their son after visiting the Garden of Re- 
membrance in Seattle. His mothers letter follows. 

Dear Nathan, 

Today is May 30, 2005, Memorial Day. You have been gone for almost 7 
months. Sometimes I still don't believe it. I never really understood what 
Memorial Day was about until this weekend. I was browsing through the 
mall and felt so angry that the stores were taking advantage of this holiday to 
push their sales. I wish I was still naive and could celebrate as though it were 
a "holiday weekend." I will never look at this weekend the same. Today I 
share in the grief that many other families have known since losing someone 
they love fighting for their country. Your name has been added to the Garden 
of Remembrance in Seattle. There are more than 8,000 names listed on this 
wall since WWII. I am very proud to see your name among so many other 
American Hero's. I want you to know that seeing your name in stone will 
never replace the real memories I have of you. I will always miss your crooked 
smile, your red cheeks and freckles, your smell and most of all I will miss 
never being able to hug you again. 

Since you have been gone I have been in contact with some of your fel- 
low marines. Your friend Derrick has adopted your father and I to be grand- 
parents of his wonderful boys. Derrick and his wife had a baby boy on 
February 16, 2005. They thought so much of you that they now have a Nathan 
of their own. We will enjoy watching Nathan and his big brother Trent grow 
up. Jacob and his wife Priscilla will soon be having a child of their own. Gar- 
ret too is doing well. His parents call us often to see how we are doing. 

Anne Larson, Nick's mother and I email often. She too is taking the loss 
of her son just as hard. We do take some comfort knowing that you and Nick 
died together. I have recently been in contact with Michael's mother, Karen. 
I am hoping that some day we can all get together to share memories of our 
brave son's. 

Not a day goes by that I don't think of you. I never knew that love could 
hurt so much. There are so many things that spark a memory of you — a song, 
a boy in a baseball cap and baggy pants, a skateboarder. I wish I could spend 
another summer at the cabin with you. I know that when you were there you 
were in heaven. When I think of you now I know that you are on the lake fish- 



386 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ing with your friends and I know that someday I can join you. Until then lit- 
tle man I love you and I hold you close to my heart. 

Love, 
Mom 



Nathans father wrote the following: 

To my son, my hero Nathan R. Wood 

With memories of a little boy who brought me such happiness playing in 
the yard with his dog, playing catch in the back yard and trying his best to 
help his father in anyway he could. 

To the little boy who wore my shoes and gloves that were five times the 
size of his own hands and feet trying to be like me. One who would ride with 
me in the mountains of Montana on my motorcycle and spend all day with 
me just being happy to be in those mountains and to do a little fishing and 
talking. 

As you got older into your teens I lost you because I couldn't seem to re- 
member what it was like to be a teenager and we grew apart. You became 
your own man and became a Marine. On that day of graduation at MCRD I 
felt so proud of you, you had made it and you knew you would, you were a 
true Marine. 

As I told you on the phone while you were in Iraq, it is strange how the 
farther away you are the closer that we seem to be getting. I longed for the day 
that you would come back home so that we could start again and be close 
once again but that day will never come. 

Today as we stand in front of this memorial wall with your name etched 
into it, I feel a great emptiness inside knowing that I will never get to tell you 
I love you and to thank you for all that you have done. You have given the 
greatest sacrifice for your family and your country. You have given more in 
your short life then I will ever be able to give in my entire lifetime and that 
son is why you are my hero. 

When I see the pain and loss in your mother since your passing I would 
gladly change places with you so that she could hug you and smile once 
more. I will never forget you and I hope that you are in a better place. I 
miss you. 

Dad 



HOME 387 



FOR OMAR 

Personal Narrative 

Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker 



Raised in a family of educators in Ramona, California, Dawn Halfaker 
was recruited by Division I colleges across the country as a basketball 
player, but chose to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She 
distinguished herself as a collegiate athlete, earning four varsity letters on 
the court. In March 2004, she deployed with the 29yd Military Police Com- 
pany to Baqubah, Iraq, a small city some forty-five miles northeast of Bagh- 
dad in the Diyala province. As she describes in a memoir written with her 
brother Dale, Halfaker thrived as a first lieutenant on her first combat tour. 
She led her platoon on security missions, trained policemen, and befriended 
Iraqis. Three months later, her tour came to an abrupt end. 



On the night I was hit, we were patrolling a rough neighborhood on the 
outskirts of Bacjnbah. We left the police station shortly after 1:00 a.m. 
on 19 June 2004, a peaceful starlit spring night. In transit between check- 
points, about a half-dozen insurgents leapt from the shadows of a nearby 
building and unleashed a fury of fire on our four-truck convoy. I saw a flash 
and then heard a scream. An RPG smashed through my truck's engine block, 
ripped my right arm from its socket, splintered my torso with shrapnel, broke 
eight of my ribs, and severely burned my lungs. With God on his shoulders, 
our driver Specialist Hill averted the kill zone and raced our mangled truck 
back to the police station where another soldier, Staff Sergeant Lara, and I 
were immediately treated by our medic. 

I was in a medically induced coma for the next two weeks and was awoken 
by nurses to find myself at Walter Reed with tears streaming down from fa- 
ther's face onto mine. I struggled to see him clearly through my foggy state of 
semiconsciousness. As I blinked and breathed my way towards some sense of 
clarity, I could tell that he was not crying out of joy that I was alive and awake. 
He was crying because he didn't know how else to tell me that my right arm 
had been amputated at the shoulder. As a soldier, an athlete, and a leader, my 
physical ability was my foundation. My father's tears told me that foundation 
had been shattered. 



388 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

My first six months at Walter Reed were a nightmare. My arm had been 
amputated because of an unbeatable infection caused most likely by the dirt 
in Iraq. I went through a string of surgeries to stabilize the bones in my right 
shoulder, which were broken at the ends and piercing through the fragile 
skin of my amputation point. The throbbing in the right side of my body grew 
more intense with every passing day. The 'phantom pain/ which stemmed 
from my brain trying to make my nonexistent right arm perform tasks, man- 
gled my nervous system. But my mental battle was worse. I was embarrassed 
of my new appearance. I experienced unimaginable frustration in learning 
how to do ordinary things like write, brush my hair, shower, get dressed, tie 
my shoes, carry a purse, or open a letter with my left hand. The most de- 
pressing thing of all was wondering what I would become. Would men find 
me attractive with one arm? Would I ever get married and have children? 
Would I be able to hold a baby? Without my body to depend on, what occu- 
pation could I succeed at? In my seventh month of rehabilitation, I stumbled 
upon something that led me to adjust my hopeless view. 

I was in physical therapy working on my balance and coordination exer- 
cises. As I watched myself perform seemingly menial tasks in front of a wall of 
mirrors, I noticed something remarkable behind me that I had previously 
failed to recognize. I saw the full severity of devastation in other soldiers in 
the room who had been maimed far worse than I had. Of course I had no- 
ticed their existence, but I had never really considered that I could have been 
one of them. At that moment, as I took a deep look at something other than 
my own misfortune, I finally realized what I could be. 

I could be like the Marine sitting on the floor behind me, blind with no 
legs. I could be like the eighteen-year-old private across the room who had 
suffered burn scars over three quarters of his face and upper body. I could be 
like the poor souls in the occupational therapy room down the hall who had 
brain or spinal injuries, who would never be able to walk, talk, or smile again. 
What affected me the most was not the severities of these soldiers' injuries. It 
was the fact that they were trying harder to get better than I was. They were 
focusing on what they still had, rather than what they had lost. I completed 
my exercises for the day and walked home with a weight on my shoulders 
heavier than I had ever felt before. I felt the weight of hypocrisy. And it 
changed me. 

With my fellow wounded soldiers as my motivation, and with the untiring 
dedication of countless doctors, confidants, friends, and family members sup- 



HOME 389 



porting me through every tear and painful minute of my rehab at Walter 
Reed, I pressed on with a newfound determination and made tremendous 
strides in defeating my physical and mental pain. While my drive of old re- 
turned, something was still missing. There was a poignant question lingering 
in my head that had yet to be answered. What was my sacrifice for? The re- 
ports of the war that I saw in the hospital were terribly depressing. Iraqi deaths 
and American defeats were all that seemed to find their way onto my televi- 
sion. I began to wonder just what exactly I had given my arm for. One night, 
as I lay awake pondering this question, my memory answered it for me with a 
single word: Omar. 

Omar was one of about 230 prisoners serving time at the detention center 
attached to the Diyala provincial police station. Omar was different. He was 
in his midtwenties, well educated, well mannered, and very attuned to what 
his country could gain from the Coalition occupation. He fell in love with 
the Western world and learned to speak English as a traveling member of the 
Iraqi National soccer team in the late 1990s. When American soldiers arrived 
in Baqubah in late 2003, he saw an opportunity to integrate his culture with 
theirs. He befriended every American he contacted and spoke to his country- 
men as loudly as he could about the benefits of freedom and democracy. 

Sadly, it was because he so passionately embraced Western ideals that he 
found himself locked within the filthiest prison imaginable. The local reli- 
gious and nationalist authorities didn't appreciate Omar's brazen pro-West- 
ern attitude, so they framed him for selling hashish to juveniles and had him 
arrested. With no due process to depend on, Omar was convicted of nothing, 
but remained incarcerated for almost a year. If I had had the power, I would 
have freed Omar upon meeting him. However, the jail, just as the police sta- 
tion, was officially in Iraqi control. Freeing a prisoner they saw as guilty would 
have damaged ties with the police force too dramatically. 

Omar's imprisonment did not quell his pro-Western sentiments. We re- 
lied heavily on his information regarding what was going on in the town be- 
neath our radar, what prisoners were guilty of, and who we should or should 
not be afraid of in the jail. He later helped us identify numerous suspected in- 
surgents in the town, facilitated the birth of a child from a pregnant prisoner 
who would not let a Coalition doctor touch her, and organized and super- 
vised the prisoners' visiting days. 

More importantly, he was able to help us believe in our mission every day, 
as he offered us encouragement, support, and valuable words of caution. He 



390 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

was our friend, confidant, and, at times, our cultural mentor. We laughed 
with him, cried with him, and longed for his freedom as much as he did. As 
a reward for his cooperation, Omar was given his own cell and bathroom 
away from the dangerous masses, better food, and, at our insistence, a bit of 
leniency from the Iraqi police. 

One of Omar's favorite pastimes was watching us soldiers play basketball 
in a small makeshift court we threw together outside the jail. He would stand 
in his cell and peer through the bars of his window, shouting enthusiastically 
as though it were game seven of the World Series. He always cheered the 
most for my team, mocking my opponents, claiming that no one could stop 
me. As basketball was a tremendous emotional and physical release for me 
while I was in Iraq, having a local like Omar so enthralled with my perfor- 
mance in our little pickup games was quite uplifting. The more he rooted for 
me, the more I wanted to prove the pride of his smack talk. 

As I recovered in Walter Reed, I learned that Omar took my injury ex- 
tremely hard. According to my soldiers, he cried sporadically for three days 
and constantly asked about my well-being. One day he became so angry and 
frustrated over my injury that he tore down the makeshift basketball hoop he 
helped us build at the police station and wrote, "No LT, no Play" on the back- 
board in big bold letters. (LT was my nickname in Iraq, short for Lieutenant.) 
When the soldiers tried to put it back up, Omar wrestled it away from them 
and insisted that if I were not going to be a part of the game, no one would 
be. Ripping the hoop down was the biggest salute of respect that Omar could 
have given me. He knew how important the games were to me and he wasn't 
going to let anyone, Iraqi or American, forget that. 

Ironically, my injury turned out to be the very thing that sparked Omar's 
release. Captain Solinsky, my commanding officer in-country, had been 
adamant about Omar's freedom being an Iraqi decision. We both knew that 
if we simply let Omar go it would have been a slap in the face to the chief of 
police, and in turn the chief would have made working with his forces even 
more frustrating than it already was. After I was injured, Solinsky was no 
longer cautious. As a tribute to my hard work in trying to free Omar, within 
three months of my injury Solinsky made sure he was released. Moreover, he 
made it his personal mission to ensure that once Omar made it home, he 
would remain protected from his enemies. 

As I lay awake in my room in Walter Reed's complex the night Omar 
sprang into my memory, I realized that my sacrifice was undoubtedly worth 



HOME 391 



something special, no matter what the evening news tried to tell me. All I 
wanted to do while I was in Iraq was to better the lives of those who needed 
it. Omar definitely needed someone to make a positive difference for him, 
and I, along with my captain and my platoon, was able to do that. 

As I went to sleep later in the evening, I felt something I was not sure I 
would ever feel. A sense of resolve. When I was in Iraq, if you would have 
asked me if I would have given my right arm to gain Omar's freedom, I would 
have adamantly replied, yes. If losing my arm was what it took for him to ex- 
perience the happiness accompanied by freedom, then so be it. Looking 
back, it was worth it. 

On 24 March 2005, the day I was discharged from Walter Reed Army 
Medical Center, I did not feel like a victim, a statistic, or a failure to my duty 
as a Lieutenant in the United States Army. I had looked adversity, pain, and 
misery in the eye, and I persevered through them all to emerge a more 
grounded, appreciative, and patient person than I was before I was injured. I 
did not succumb to the comforts of self-pity and indignation, and I did not ac- 
cept failure at any time therein. I am a survivor. And I'm proud to be one. 



THE HARDEST LETTER TO WRITE 

Journal 
Staff Sergeant Parker Gyokeres 



Members of Staff Sergeant Parker Gyokeres s family have served in every 
major American conflict since, in his words, u the defense of Jamestown in 
1609." Gyokeres himself was deployed to Iraq to provide "force protection" 
for the air base in Tallil from November 2003 through March 2004 with the 
U.S. Air Force's 332nd Fighter Wing. His younger brother, Zachary, also a 
staff sergeant in the Air Force, was assigned as a flight engineer on a com- 
bat rescue helicopter in Afghanistan shortly before Parker left for Iraq. Dur- 
ing his five months in Tallil, Parker Gyokeres wrote hundreds of pages of 
journals, all of which he e-mailed to his wife, relatives, and other loved ones 
back home. (He has another excerpt featured on pages 134-39.) Gyokeres 
downplayed the risks he faced, and the majority of his journals detailed the 
more offbeat and humorous incidents that helped him endure the monot- 
ony of life on an air base in the middle of the desert. But there are also mo- 



392 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

ments in his journals when the true nature of war reveals itself in all its cru- 
elty. Perhaps the most serious of his entries is the final one, which, even after 
he e-mailed it to friends and family months after returning home, he con- 
tinued to edit. Gyokeres was no longer writing for them. He was writing for 
himself. 

Hello all, 

This has been, by far, the hardest letter to write. I returned home to the 
dichotomy of being universally welcomed with open, respectful, grateful 
arms— by a country that is increasingly against why I was ever in Iraq. I per- 
formed my mission well and have great pride in my actions, and those of my 
peers, but I can also understand why people are questioning if there is any long- 
term hope for Iraq and its people. The reason we were sent there in the first 
place will require a lot more study, but that's another book for another person. 

The main issue for me has been adjusting to a life without the dear 
friends I served with and whom I grew to love — and, without whom, I felt 
lost, alone, and unable to relate to others. I am told this is normal. That did 
not, however, make it easier. And I know I'm doing better than many for 
whom I care deeply. They hide it well, but they are struggling. 

The world I returned to was disorienting, confusing, and frustrating to 
me. The racket and clutter of daily life gave me a tremendous headache. I 
now know why some people choose to simply unplug and move into the 
woods. Obviously we heard our share of noise in Iraq, some of it sudden and 
terrifying, but overall it wasn't so incessant. Wherever I walk today I feel like 
I'm surrounded by a barrage of electronic trash — music blasting everywhere, 
cell phones ringing, people chatting away and having the most inane conver- 
sations, and all of it louder than when I left for Iraq. Over there, we had the 
comforting simplicity of a routine. There was a purity to our lives. There were 
life-and-death implications to our actions, but all we had to worry about was 
our friends and ourselves. I'm not saying that either we or our jobs are any 
better or worse than anyone else's back here, but just different. I'm slowly ac- 
climating to a civilian world and the speed of modern life, but it has not al- 
ways been pleasant. 

For a while I truly wished I was still in Iraq. As much as I looked forward 
to leaving, when I got back to the U.S. a part of me wanted to return imme- 
diately. My wife was upset to hear me say that, for a while, I preferred a war 
zone to a home life. Again, I am not alone. Some of my friends and other re- 



HOME 393 



turning veterans I know have talked about this as well. Departing Tallil was 
like leaving a family. We also left behind memories, some of them beautiful 
and some horrific, that left a deep impression on us. 

Traumatic, life-changing, or profoundly spiritual events can bond people 
together in ways that are hard to explain. My friends and I shared all three. I 
do not want to overstate my own situation or suggest I was in grave danger. I 
was not. But there are experiences I had and things I saw that were extremely 
disturbing. The worst, by far, came only two days after we arrived at Tallil, 
when I had my first opportunity to work in our visitor control center at the 
base. I had been on duty for only a few hours when a call came over the radio 
that there was a local ambulance en route to pick up an Iraqi bombing casu- 
alty. Moments later an Army Humvee arrived carrying two soldiers who iden- 
tified themselves as the ones tasked to meet the ambulance. They explained 
to me that they were there to transfer to the Iraqis a body— the body of an 
eight-week-old infant killed by a bomb set off by insurgents. 

I will never forget the sight of those soldiers reaching into a grossly over- 
sized body bag, folded into quarters, and then removing a package no bigger 
than a travel pillow. It was anointed in oils and wrapped in ceremonial muslin 
dressings for a religious burial. Instantly a hush fell over the small group as 
the child was gently carried from the back of that beaten-down, ugly Humvee 
and solemnly placed on a nest of blankets inside the Iraqi ambulance. Both 
vehicles then slowly pulled away, leaving a semicircle of terribly scarred peo- 
ple in its wake. I felt like somebody had punched me hard in the stomach. 

You do not forget moments like these. 

Just over a week later, a critically wounded man arrived at the base in a 
gutted Iraqi ambulance with four other men. One of his companions, whom 
we were told was his brother, whispered into his ear, and held the man's head 
and smoothed his matted hair, while he rocked back and forth, clearly in 
great emotional distress. The man's injuries were sickening. His hands were 
stumps, and all his wounds were terribly infected. His breathing was very 
slow, incredibly labored, and punctuated with large, gasping heaves. There 
were black flies everywhere, and he looked sallow, sunken, and transparent, a 
husk of a man covered in fresh scabs and badly drawn tattoos. I recognized 
some of the tattoos as those of the infamous Fedayeen, the brutal terror thugs 
of Saddam's regime. If there was ever a "Bad" guy I would encounter in my 
life, those tattoos told me all I needed to know. Here was a man who looked 
fifty but was probably only thirty, and would never see thirty-one. He had 



394 OPERATIONHOMECOMING 

lived a hard life and would meet a hard death, and I stood and watched, with- 
out remorse. 

One of my fellow force protection escorts (who is a medic atWilford Hall, 
the AFs largest hospital) did an appraisal. While snapping off her gloves, she 
said, "This man is going to die whether he's given treatment or not, and there 
isn't a single thing any hospital can do about it. It's too late." It was a brutal 
statement, totally lacking in compassion, but it was an honest and logical one 
that we all at the time readily accepted. There was one among us, however, 
who felt that even if the man was going to die, he wasn't beyond mercy. As the 
first medic climbed out of the ambulance, the second one quietly placed 
gloves on her hands and with grim determination climbed into that reeking, 
fly-infested, and urine-soaked ambulance, alone. She looked at us with cold 
flint in her eyes, as if daring us to do something different, and began waving 
a small piece of cardboard over the dying man's face to keep the flies away. As 
we stood there stunned by her compassion, she began to do the unthinkable, 
as a small, lone female in a vehicle full of hostile, frustrated Muslim men. 
She began to pray for him. 

As I realized what she was up to, I became concerned for her safety— a lit- 
tle at first, and then more so as each second passed. She was female, and if 
these men became offended it would be very hard to get her out of that am- 
bulance uninjured. As I moved closer to the door of the ambulance to reach 
in and snatch her out if things went south, I discreetly slid my weapon sling 
into my hands, behind my back. The men asked our interpreter what she was 
doing. He said, "Praying." Immediately, they all laughed out loud at her for 
being so foolish. Our interpreter shot back at them, "No, no, don't laugh, 
she's doing this because she believes only God can help him. She's trying to 
help your brother. Where is your faith?" 

At that, the men instantly fell silent and looked chastened. The man's 
brother shakily took off his shoes and knelt inside the tiny ambulance with his 
forehead against the filthy floor and began to pray for his dying brother. The 
other three took off their shoes where they stood, amongst at least fifteen 
armed escorts, medics, and translators, and knelt on the ground in the direc- 
tion of Mecca and began to pray to Allah. The fearless faith of one person 
changed the hearts of four angry men with a single silent prayer. Those men 
were humbled and suddenly very different as they prayed fervently to Allah. 

Later, when I asked her how she could do what she did, all alone and oblivious 
to her safety, she said to me in a strong voice, "I wasn't alone in that ambulance." 



HOME 395 

It took a week of wearing a mask of brittle bravado for me to finally begin 
talking with my friends about what I had seen. I had been furious with God 
for allowing so much pain into our world, for allowing people to act like soul- 
less animals and kill infants, for allowing all of this to happen in the first 
place, and I felt physically sick having witnessed what evils man is capable of. 
The courage of this extraordinary woman gave me something to cling to. 

These are the people I left behind. 

Many of us also came to admire and even love some of the Iraqis we met. 
Yes, there were troops who grew to distrust and hate them, especially as ten- 
sions escalated and it was harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys. But 
a lot of us had very positive experiences with the locals. They genuinely 
wanted us to remember them as happy, intelligent, fun-loving people and, 
most importantly, as friends. I have heard many times, "You need to come 
back years from now and visit us with your family." To be torn from a place 
that has become so much a part of your own life and where so many intense 
memories are rooted is much harder than people might imagine. 

As difficult as things were when I got home, sitting here now I fully real- 
ize how blessed I am— and was over there. Our base in Tallil was relatively 
safe, far from constant mortar attacks, car bombs, and truly wicked people try- 
ing to do desperate, vicious things to us. Others had it much, much worse. 
They are the true heroes of this war. And they are the ones I think of most as 
I write this. 

One friend of mine at Tallil, who was very full of life and sang in the little 
church choir we had organized, was temporarily transferred to a base closer 
to Baghdad and in a considerably more dangerous area. When I saw her 
again, it was as if only her ghost had returned. She never came back to the 
church — or to us. She pretty much kept to herself, and it was painful to watch 
this once gregarious woman become so distant and reserved. Others reached 
out to her, but to no avail. 

I saw her in passing one day, and I finally asked her how she was doing. I 
was genuinely interested to hear the truth, her truth; for it was obvious that 
there was a real event, or perhaps many, that had caused her to withdraw. She 
suddenly grew dark, and a cold expression, like the sudden remembrance of 
a lost loved one, came across her face. Instantly I knew I had screwed up and 
had carelessly trampled on an unseen line. I wanted to take it back, but it was 
too late. The awkward silence was broken by her curt reply, which, in so 
many words, was not only her answer to the question but an indication that 



396 OPERATION HOMECOMING 

the conversation was over entirely: "I don't want to talk about it ." She then 
turned and walked away. 

We never spoke again. 

In hindsight, and knowing the subject might still be raw, I should have 
waited before asking— or given her time to approach me or someone else. 
Until I came home and watched as other friends wrestled with their emotions, 
it was the first time I had seen how debilitating weeks of trauma and stress can 
be. It was a sobering realization, and I wondered how many others like her 
have we created in these last few years? How many others live with the shock- 
ing and barbaric images of war that are seared into one's memory forever? I 
pray that they will find someone they can confide in and unload this burden 
so that the pain they carry with them is lessened over time. My writing gave 
me an outlet while I was over there, and it continues to help me now. 

I was fortunate not only because I had it easy compared to so many other 
troops, but because my wife supported me during my angry, confused, and 
sleepless times. I cannot thank her enough for this, and she has always been 
there for me and never stopped loving me. This is all that matters, and I do 
not want to leave her again or make her go through all the anxieties and wor- 
ries that she silently endured as well. My wife could not understand how I 
could become so close to people I had served with for such a relatively short 
period, and she was upset about my apparent inability to leave it all behind. 
But it was for my own well-being that she was concerned, and not out of jeal- 
ousy. Most importantly, she knew when to listen and when to let me work 
through my emotions. 

This is perhaps the most important thing any loved one or friend can do. 
Those of us coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan are not looking for sym- 
pathy. We might be reluctant at first to talk about what we've been through, 
good or bad, and some troops might never be able to open up, which is cer- 
tainly their right. There are also things about war that people will never com- 
prehend unless they have experienced them firsthand. But I hope that those 
who need to will reach out, and it's helpful knowing that there are people 
who care about us and are at least making an effort to understand. 

Your support has made this journey an incredible one for me, and I 
couldn't have gone through it alone. Thanks for joining me — and thanks, 
above all, for listening. 

Parker 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 



The morning after National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia 
launched Operation Homecoming, our agency received a heartfelt thank- 
you letter from former NEA literature fellow Richard Currey. Having served 
as a medic in Vietnam, Currey knew well the benefit of unburdening oneself 
through story about the trauma of war. His letter was soon followed by more 
from World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans. They com- 
mended the NEA for creating a program that they wished had been available 
following their combat years. 

Currey soon joined our team of thirty-four distinguished writers who 
taught workshops, recorded war literature, penned essays for our website, and 
evaluated the writing submitted to the program. 

While it is hard to reduce fifty workshops to a few examples, we recall in 
particular Mark Bowden's brilliant explication of Orwell's "A Hanging" and 
how he had constructed Black Hawk Down; Victor Davis Hanson taking a 
room of Marines, soon to deploy to Iraq, back in time to how the Greek 
hoplites fought in phalanxes; on the USS Carl Vinson in the Persian Gulf, 
Jeff Shaara's passionate discussions of historical fiction and his re-creation of 
the boyhood moment with his father at Gettysburg when Killer Angels was 
born; Marilyn Nelson, with her quiet, calming voice of peace, talking about 
the kinship of poetry and meditation, and the responsibility to oneself and 



398 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 

one's community to be a chronicler; Bobbie Ann Mason's reflections at 
Camp Lejeune on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the stories beneath 
the carved names, including those of the families left behind; at Fort Bragg, 
Stephen Lang's evocative reading of a workshop poem about a fallen soldier's 
empty boots, written by a Special Forces troop too overcome by tears to recite 
it himself. For such exchanges, we are deeply grateful to every writer who par- 
ticipated. 

But the greatest thanks goes to the men and women in uniform, and their 
families, who welcomed Operation Homecoming into their lives. They read- 
ily accepted instruction about the craft of writing as well as critiques of their 
own efforts. Though it was often heartbreaking to read the ten thousand 
pages produced, the most difficult task for our editorial panel was evaluating 
the submissions with the knowledge that only 5 percent could be included in 
the anthology. 

After an intensive reading of the panel's recommended pieces, Andrew 
Carroll conceived of the anthology as an epic narrative, ordered the entries 
accordingly, edited them for length with the approval of the submitters, and 
wrote insightful headnotes to establish historical context— all this and more, 
without compensation. A true man of letters, Carroll exhibits in his writing a 
scholar's intellect and a war correspondent's immediacy. 

Following a competitive process skillfully managed by literary agent 
Miriam Altshuler, Random House was chosen as our publisher and — to our 
good fortune —Nancy Miller as our editor. Senior vice president and execu- 
tive editor at Random House, Nancy has an exceptional ability to discern 
where a narrative is waning. She championed this project before, during, and 
after the original edition was published. We also appreciate the support of 
Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Random House, and her staff. 
Rachel Bernstein of Random House's subsidiary rights department led us to 
the University of Chicago Press for the paperback. We are honored to join the 
publishing list of one of the nation's most distinguished scholarly presses. 
This expanded Chicago edition would not be possible without the tireless ef- 
forts of Margaret Hivnor and her colleagues at Chicago who worked on the 
paperback including Joan Davies, Lindsay Dawson, Dustin Kilgore, and 
Ed Scott. 

Without the financial support of The Boeing Company, Operation 
Homecoming would have been a modest program that reached a handful of 



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 399 

bases rather than an international program of lasting importance. In particu- 
lar, we would like to thank Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing Inte- 
grated Defense Systems; Mary Foerster, vice president of communications; 
and Pat Riddle, director of advertising and branding, for their unfailing sup- 
port. Their commitment to enhancing the lives of our nation's service mem- 
bers is readily apparent. 

At the Southern Arts Federation, Executive Director Gerri Combs has 
embraced our program and its mission; Betsy Baker played a key role in se- 
lecting the publisher; and David Dombrosky worked seamlessly with us on 
base logistics. 

Of course, this program would not have been possible without the coop- 
eration of the Department of Defense. The DOD allowed the NEA to solicit 
writing directly from the troops but had no role in selecting submissions for 
this anthology. Without the efforts of more than one hundred DOD and civil- 
ian base employees, this program would not have succeeded. 

The National Council on the Arts, the NEA's advisory board, has been an 
unwavering supporter of Operation Homecoming. NEA Senior Deputy 
Chairman Eileen Mason and Government Affairs Director Ann Guthrie 
I lingston provided valuable guidance in executing the program. Communi- 
cations Director Felicia Knight and her staff attracted unprecedented na- 
tional media attention to the project. Thanks also to NEA staff Karen Elias, 
Dan Stone, Pepper Smith, Monica Glockner, and our former colleague Re- 
becca Turner Gonzales. 

Most important, the success of Operation Homecoming is the direct re- 
sult of the vision and commitment of NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. In a small 
federal agency of 150 employees, he created an artistic program for military 
communities during a time of war. There was no road map for how to do such 
a thing successfully; he found a way nevertheless. Refusing to allow this pro- 
gram to be politicized, Gioia stressed from the first day that our responsibili- 
ties were to the troops and their families— and to the freedom of artistic 
expression. 

— Jon Parrish Peede 
Director, Operation Homecoming 



GLOSSARY 



A-io 

ANA 

Apache 

ASOC 

BIAP 

Black Hawk 

C-130 

CENTCOM 

Chinook 

CJTF 

CPA 

CSH 

DOA 

EPW 

FOB 

HEI/HE 

Hero mission 

HH-60 

HUMINT 

Humvee 

IBA 

IED 

JAG 



(Thunderbolt Warthog) Ground support aircraft 

Afghan National Army 

(AH-64) attack helicopter 

Air support operations center 

Baghdad International Airport 

(UH-60) combat helicopter 

Military transport aircraft 

U.S. Central Command 

(CH-47) tandem rotor helicopter 

Combined Joint Task Force 

Coalition Provisional Authority 

Combat support hospital 

Dead on arrival 

Enemy prisoner of war 

Forward operating base 

High-explosive incendiary rounds 

Recovery of deceased troops 

Special operations helicopter 

Human intelligence collector (interrogator) 

(HMMWV) High-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle 

Individual body armor 

Improvised explosive device 

Judge advocate general 



402 



GLOSSARY 



KIA 

LZ 

MCRD 

Medevac 

M-4 

M-16 

MI 

MOS 

MRE 

NVG 

OEF 

OIF 

PTSD 

PUC 

RPG 

S2 

SAF 

Stryker 

TOC 

WIA 

Zulu 



Killed in action 

Landing zone 

Marine Corps recruit depot 

Medical evacuation 

Military assault rifle 

Military assault rifle 

Military intelligence 

Military occupational specialty 

Meals ready to eat (field rations) 

Night vision goggles 

Operation Enduring Freedom (the War in Afghanistan) 

Operation Iraqi Freedom 

Post-traumatic stress disorder 

Person under control (prisoner) 

Rocket-propelled grenade 

Battalion or brigade intelligence staff officer 

Small-arms fire 

Infantry carrier vehicle 

Tactical operations center 

Wounded in action 

Greenwich mean time 



Military Ranks 

A list of common abbreviations in text, in alphabetical— not rank— order. 



CO 


Commanding officer 


COL 


Colonel 


CPL 


Corporal 


CPT 


Captain 


iLT 


First lieutenant 


LTC 


Lieutenant colonel 


NCO 


Noncommissioned officer 


PFC 


Private first class 


PVT 


Private 


iSG 


First sergeant 


SPC 


Specialist 


SSG 


Staff sergeant 


XO 


Executive officer 



CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS 



The editor is grateful to the troops and their family members who have granted permission to publish 
the following works: "The Outsider" © 2006 by Richard Acevedo, reprinted by permission of Richard 
Acevedo; "My Son" © 2006 by Paul Adkins, reprinted by permission of Paul Adkins; "The Cat" 
© 2006 by Ryan Alexander, reprinted by permission of Ryan Alexander; "Combat Musician," "Lost 
in Translation." and "The Circle" © 2006 by Sharon Allen, reprinted by permission of Sharon Allen; 
"Waiting for Shawn" © 2006 by Paula Andersen, reprinted by permission of Paula Andersen; "The 
Life We Used to Live"© 2006 by Kari Apted, reprinted by permission of Kari Apted; "In the Hangar" 
© 2006 by Sandra Austin, reprinted by permission of Sandra Austin; "Pvt. Murphy" © 2006 by Mark 
Baker, reprinted by permission of Mark Baker; "A Journey Taken with My Son" © 2006 by Myrna 
Bein, reprinted by permission of Myrna Bein; "The Smell of Fresh Paint"© 2006 by Tina Beller, 
reprinted by permission of Tina Beller; "Reclamation"© 2006 by John Berens, reprinted by permis- 
sion of John Berens; "Down the Road" © 2006 by Anne Miren Berry, reprinted by permission of Anne 
Miren Bern; "Alarm Red"© 2006 by Lisa Blackmail, reprinted by permission of Lisa Blackman; 
"DeAr mOM aNd dAd" © 2006 by Colby Buzzell, reprinted by permission of Colby Buzzell; "The 
Virtual Soldiers" © 2006 by Allen Caruselle, reprinted by permission of Allen Caruselle; "X-Ray Vi- 
sion" and "HR Flight" © 2006 by James Christenson, reprinted by permission of James Christenson; 
"I Remember" © 2006 by Gregory Cleghorne, reprinted by permission of Gregory Cleghorne; "Too 
Much Reality" © 2006 by Pamela Clemens, reprinted by permission of Pamela Clemens; "Six Weeks 
In" and "Khost-Gardez" © 2006 by Ross Cohen, reprinted by permission of Ross Cohen; "Dear Boys" 
© 2006 by Chris Cohoes, reprinted by permission of Chris Cohoes; "Only the Beginning" © 2006 by 
Frank Correa, reprinted by permission of Frank Correa; "Friendly Fire" © 2006 by Michael Daftar- 
ian, reprinted by permission of Michael Daftarian; "A Case for Being There" © 2006 by Paul Daniel- 
son, reprinted by permission of Paul Danielson; "Lunch with Pirates" © 2006 by Clint Douglas, 
reprinted by permission of Clint Douglas; "Album" © 2006 by Kathleen Furin, reprinted by permis- 
sion of Kathleen Furin; "What's Going on Over Here"© 2006 by Timothy Gaestel, reprinted by per- 
mission of Timothy Gaestel; "Worlds Apart" © 2006 by Edwin Garcia-Lopez, reprinted by permission 
of Edwin Garcia-Lopez; "Here Among These Ruins"© 2006 by Helen Gerhardt, reprinted by per- 
mission of Helen Gerhardt; "VTC" and "Happy Australia Day"© 2006 by Steven Givler, reprinted by 
permission of Steven Givler; "Theodore" © 2006 by Montgomery Granger, reprinted by permission 
of Montgomery Granger; "Camp Muckamungus" and "The Hardest Letter to Write" © 2006 by 
Parker Gyokeres, reprinted by permission of Parker Gyokeres; "Aftermath" © 2006 by Sangjoon Han, 
reprinted by permission of Sangjoon Han; "Solidarity" and "Our War" © 2006 by Stephanie Harper, 



404 CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS 

reprinted by permission of Stephanie Harper; "The Kids Sit and Learn" © 2006 by August Hohl, 
reprinted by permission of August Hohl; "Buzz Saw" © 2006 by Billie Hill-Hunt, reprinted by per- 
mission of Billie Hill-Hunt; "Medevac Missions" © 2006 by Ed Hrivnak, reprinted by permission of 
Ed Hrivnak; "Regarding Tigger" © 2006 by Jennifer Huch-Gambichler, reprinted by permission of 
Jennifer Huch-Gambichler; "Veterans" © 2006 by Brian Humphreys, reprinted by permission of 
Brian Humphreys; "Safekeeping" © 2006 by Kathleen Toomey Jabs, reprinted by permission of Kath- 
leen Toomey Jabs; "Life on the USNS Comfort" © 2006 by Edward Jewell, reprinted by permission 
of Edward Jewell; "One Small Village" © 2006 by Jared Jones, reprinted by permission of Jared Jones; 
"A Quick Look at Who Is Fighting This War" and "This Is Not a Game" © 2006 by Ryan Kelly, 
reprinted by permission of Ryan Kelly; "The Land of Abraham" © 2006 by Donna Kohout, reprinted 
by permission of Donna Kohout; "Wednesday 2/23/05" © 2006 by Kristina Kolodziejski, reprinted by 
permission of Kristina Kolodziejski; "No Time for Snowmen" © 2006 by Zoltan Krompecher, 
reprinted by permission of Zoltan Krompecher; "Reflections" © 2006 by Michael Lang, reprinted by 
permission of Michael Lang; "The Menorah" and "December 15" © 2006 by Simone Ledeen, 
reprinted by permission of Simone Ledeen; "Road Work" and "Purple-Hearted" © 2006 by Jack 
Lewis, reprinted by permission of Jack Lewis; "The Day of the Dragon" © 2006 by Robert Lindblom, 
reprinted by permission of Robert Lindblom; "To Colonel Lisagor" © 2006 by Sara Lisagor, reprinted 
by permission of Sara Lisagor; "Dearest Son" © 2006 by Carla Lois, reprinted by permission of Carla 
Lois; "Manning the Home Front" © 2006 by Peter Madsen, reprinted by permission of Peter Madsen; 
"Force Provider" and "TIC" © 2006 by Stephen McAllister, reprinted by permission of Stephen 
McAllister; "Dear Baby" © 2006 by Sharon McBride, reprinted by permission of Sharon McBride; 
"To the Fallen" © 2006 by John McCary, reprinted by permission of John McCary; "Timeless" © 
2006 by Christy De'on Miller, reprinted by permission of Christy De'on Miller; "JAG in the Sand- 
box" © 2006 by Terry Moorer, reprinted by permission of Terry Moorer; "Hurtful Words" © 2006 by 
Ruth Mostek, reprinted by permission of Ruth Mostek; "In Due Time" © 2006 by Daniel Murray, 
reprinted by permission of Daniel Murray; "In-Country" © 2006 by Brian D. Perry, Sr., reprinted by 
permission of Brian D. Perry, Sr.; "Shallow Hands" © 2006 by Michael Poggi, reprinted by permission 
of Michael Poggi; "Distant Thunder" © 2006 by Denis Prior, reprinted by permission of Denis Prior; 
"Sea Voyage" © 2006 by Guy Ravey, reprinted by permission of Guy Ravey; "Emily, Updated" © 2006 
by Kathryn Roth-Douquet, reprinted by permission of Kathryn Roth-Douquet; "Dover" © 2006 by 
Marc Sager, reprinted by permission of Marc Sager; "Spin" and "Flight" © 2006 by Richard Sater, 
reprinted by permission of Richard Sater; "Clusters" © 2006 by Robert Schaefer, reprinted by permis- 
sion of Robert Schaefer; "Goodbye, Afghanistan" © 2006 by Cameron Sellers, reprinted by permission 
of Cameron Sellers; "A Couple Hours After We Landed" © 2006 by Andrew Simkewicz, reprinted by 
permission of Andrew Simkewicz; "Moore Thoughts" and "Girl Interrupted" © 2006 by James Sos- 
nicky, reprinted by permission of James Sosnicky; "Get Some" © 2006 by Paul Stieglitz, reprinted by 
permission of Paul Stieglitz; "Taking Chance" © 2006 by Michael Strobl, reprinted by permission of 
Michael Strobl; "Try Not to Worry about Me" © 2006 by Michael Sullivan, reprinted by permission 
of Michael Sullivan; "Proliferation" © 2006 by Robert Swope, reprinted by permission of Robert 
Swope; "3 a.m. in Bangor, Maine" © 2006 by Michael Thomas, reprinted by permission of Michael 
Thomas; "Antoinette" © 2006 by William Toti, reprinted by permission of William Toti; "Ashbah," 
"The Baghdad Zoo," and "The Hurt Locker" © 2006 by Brian Turner, reprinted by permission of 
Brian Turner; "Dear Neil" © 2006 by Daniel Uhles, reprinted by permission of Daniel Uhles; "Broth- 
erhood" © 2006 by Dena Van den Bosch, reprinted by permission of Dena Van den Bosch; "Another 
Bump in the Road" © 2006 by Michael Vivirito, reprinted by permission of Michael Vivirito; "Life 
on the USS Rainier" © 2006 by Todd Vorenkamp, reprinted by permission of Todd Vorenkamp; "This 
Week He's Due Home" © 2006 by Becky Ward-Krizan, reprinted by permission of Becky Ward- 
Krizan; "Memorial Day" © 2006 by DeEtte and Rex Wood, reprinted by permission of De Ette and 
Rex Wood; "Night Flight to Baghdad" © 2006 by Thomas Young, reprinted by permission of Thomas 
Young; "Letter of Condolence to Mrs. Miller" © 2006 by Douglas Zembiec, reprinted by permission 
of Douglas Zembiec; "Bedfellows" © 2008 by Tammy Enz, reprinted by permission of Tammy Enz; 
"Over the Years" © 2008 by Christine Gordon, reprinted by permission of Christine Gordon; "For 
Omar" © 2008 by Dale Halfaker and Dawn Halfaker, reprinted by permission of Dale and Dawn Hal- 
faker; "Alive and Well" © 2008 by Stephen Webber, reprinted by permission of Stephen Webber. 



INDEX OF CONTRIBUTORS 



Acevedo, Richard 178 
Adkins, Paul D. 234 
Alexander, Ryan 159 

Allen, Sharon D. 153 
Andersen, Paula M ^44 
\pted, Kari 192 
Austin, Sandi 151 



Daftarian, Michael S. 17 
Danielson, Paul D. 284 
Douglas, Clint 73 

Enz, Tammy 324 

Furin, Kathleen 197 



Baker. Mark 169 
Bein, Myrna E. 349 
Beller, Tina 26] 
Berens, John 97 
Bern', Anne Miren 203 
Blackmail, Lisa R. 307 
Busch, Benjamin 66 
Buzzell, Colby 133 

Caruselle, Allen j. 281 
Christenson, James A. 323 
Cleghorne, Gregory S. 2, 3 
Clemens, Pamela 194 
Cohen, Ross 85 
Cohoes, Chris 232 
Correa, Frank 251 



Gaestel, Timothy J. 252 
Garcia-Lopez, Edwin 228 
Gerhardt, Helen 56 
Givler, Steven 140 
Gordon, Christine 326 
Granger, Montgomery 340 
Gyokeres, Parker 134, 391 

Halfaker, Dawn 387 

Han, Sangjoon 114 

Harper, Stephanie Metzger 167 

Hill-Hunt, Billie 196 

Hohl, August 68 

Hrivnak, Ed 291 

Huch-Gambichler, Jennifer 226 

Humphreys, Brian 315 



406 



INDEX OF CONTRIBUTORS 



Jabs, Kathleen Toomey 209 
James, Howard 250 
Jewell, Edward W. 50 
Jones, Jared S. 68 

Kelly, Ryan 23, 275 
Kohont, Donna 172 
Kolodziejski, Kristina 112 
Krompecher, Zoltan 235 

Lang, Michael 166 
Ledeen, Simone A. 174 
Leicht, Paul 132 
Lewis, Jack 123, 184 
Lindblom, Robert A. 265 
Lisagor, Sara 202 
Lois, Carla Meyer 191 
Lois, James 190 

Madsen, Peter 217 
McAllister, Stephen 14, 143 
McBride, Sharon 215 
McCary, John 309 
Miller, Christy De'on 239 
Moorer, Terry F. 107 
Mostek, Ruth 222 
Murray, Daniel 312 

Perry, Brian D., Sr. 9 
Poggi, Michael 361 
Prior, Denis 25 



Schaefer, Robert W. 279 
Sellers, Cameron 332 
Simkewicz, Andrew 67 
Sosnicky, James R. 126 
Stieglitz, Paul A. 38 
Strobl, Michael R. 373 
Sullivan, Michael P. 258 
Swope, Robert 255 

Thomas, Michael A. 338 
Toti, William J. 4 
Turner, Brian 282 

Uhles, Daniel 358 

Van den Bosch, Dena Price 188 
Vivirito, Michael 230 
Vorenkamp, Todd 147 

Ward-Krizan, Becky 323 
Webber, Stephen 297 
Wood, DeEtte 383 
Wood, Nathan 383 
Wood, Rex 383 

Young, Thomas W. 59 

Zembiec, Douglas A. 241 



Ravey, Guy W. 336 



Sager, Marc M. 369 
Sater, Richard 162 



INDEX OF TITLES 



Aftermath (fiction) 114 
Alarm Red (e-mail) 307 
Album (personal narrative) 197 

Alive and Well 297 

Another Bump in the Road (e-mail) 230 
Antoinette (personal narrative) 4 
Ashbah (poem) 282 

Baghdad Zoo, The (poem) 283 
Bedfellows 324 
Brotherhood (poem) 188 
Buzz Saw (poem) 196 

Camp Muckamungus (journal) 134 
Case for Being There, A (personal 

narrative) 284 
Cat, The (poem) 159 
Circle, The (personal narrative) 153 
Clusters (poem) 279 
Combat Musician (personal narrative) 153 

Day of the Dragon, The (personal 
narrative) 265 



Dear Baby (letter) 215 

Dear Boys (e-mails) 232 

Dear Neil (letters) 358 

December 15 (e-mail) 174 

Distant Thunder (personal narrative) 25 

Dover (personal narrative) 369 

Down the Road (personal narrative) 203 

Emily, Updated (poem) xx 

Plight (personal narrative) 162 

Force Provider (personal narrative) 143 

For Omar 387 

Friendly Fire (personal narrative) 17 

Get Some (fiction) 38 

Girl Interrupted (personal narrative) 128 

Goodbye, Afghanistan (personal narrative) 

33 2 

Happy Australia Day (e-mail) 140 
Hardest Letter to Write, The (journal) 

39 1 
Here Among These Ruins (e-mail) 56 



408 



INDEX OF TITLES 



Hurtful Words (journal) 222 
Hurt Locker, The (poem) 284 

In-Country (personal narrative) 9 
In Due Time (e-mail) 312 
In the Hangar (lyrics) 151 
I Remember (poem) 3 

JAG in the Sandbox (personal narrative) 

107 
Journey Taken with My Son, A (e-mails) 

349 
Khost-Gardez (fiction) 92 

Land of Abraham, The (personal 

narrative) 172 
Life on the USNS Comfort (journal) 50 
Life on the USS Rainier (journal) 147 
Life We Used to Live, The (e-mail) 192 
Lost in Translation (personal narrative) 

153 

Lunch with Pirates (personal narrative) 73 

Manning the Home Front (personal 

narrative) 217 
Medevac Missions (journal) 291 
Memorial Day (letters) 383 
Menorah, The (e-mail) 174 
Moore Thoughts (personal narrative) 126 
My Son (poem) 234 

Night Flight to Baghdad (personal 

narrative) 59 
No Time for Snowmen (letter) 235 

One Small Village (journal) 68 
Our War (poem) 167 
Outsider, The (personal narrative) 178 
Over the Years 326 

Proliferation (journal) 255 



Purple-Hearted (personal narrative) 184 
Pvt. Murphy (cartoons) 169 

Quick Look at Who Is Fighting This War, 
A (letter) 23 

Reclamation (personal narrative) 97 
Reflections (poem) 166 
Regarding Tigger (e-mail) 226 
Road Work (personal narrative) 123 

Safekeeping (fiction) 209 

Sea Voyage (e-mail) 336 

Shallow Hands (fiction) 361 

Six Weeks In (fiction) 85 

Smell of Fresh Paint, The (e-mail) 261 

Solidarity (poem) 167 

Spin (personal narrative) 162 

Taking Chance (personal narrative) 373 
Theodore (personal narrative) 340 
This Is Not a Game (letter) 275 
TIC (journal) 14 
3 a.m. in Bangor, Maine (personal 

narrative) 338 
Timeless (personal narrative) 239 
To Colonel Lisagor (poem) 202 
To the Fallen (e-mail) 309 
Too Much Reality (letter) 194 
Try Not to Worry About Me (e-mail) 

258 

Veterans (personal narrative) 315 
Virtual Soldiers, The (poem) 281 
VTC (e-mail) 140 

Waiting for Shawn (personal narrative) 

344 
Wednesday 2/23/05 (personal narrative) 112 

What's Going On over Here 

(e-mail) 252 

Worlds Apart (e-mail) 228 



ABOUT THE EDITOR 

Andrew Carroll is the editor of several critically acclaimed 
and nationally bestselling books, including Letters of a Nation, 
Behind the Lines, and War Letters, which was also made into a 
PBS documentary. Carroll is the founder of the Legacy Project 
(www.warletters.com), a national, all-volunteer effort that honors 
veterans and active-duty troops by seeking out and preserving their 
letters and e-mails for posterity. He edited Operation Homecoming 
entirely on a pro bono basis. 



ABOUT THE TYPE 

This book was set in Electra, a typeface designed for Linotype by 
W. A. Dwiggins, the renowned type designer (1880-1956). Electra 
is a fluid typeface, avoiding the contrasts of thick and thin strokes 
that are prevalent in most modern typefaces. 



Current Events 



A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR 

"One of the chanted mantras of our time is, 'But I support the troops.' Terrific. 
Now read Operation Homecoming to find out who they are, what they think, 
feel, want, have learned, won and lost in Iraq and Afghanistan." 
Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal 

Operation Homecoming is the result of a major initiative launched by the National 
Endowment for the Arts to bring distinguished writers to military bases to inspire 
U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and their families to record their wartime 
experiences. Encouraged by such authors as Mark Bowden, Tobias Wolff, and 
Marilyn Nelson, American military personnel and their loved ones wrote candid- 
ly about what they saw, heard, and felt while in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as 
on the home front. These unflinching eyewitness accounts, private journals, short 
stories, and letters offer an intensely revealing look into extraordinary lives and are 
an unforgettable contribution to wartime literature. 

"This anthology is the honest voice of war. ... In the end, 
they are all one voice, a voice we must hear, and must not forget." 

Jeff Shaara 

"[These writings] help us gain a fuller appreciation of those fighting, and dying, 
in a war so far away and requiring so little sacrifice at home." 

USA Today 

"The goal of the project, beyond providing an emotional and expressive outlet for 
military personnel and their families, and getting the basic eyewitness facts of 
history down on paper, is to add to a long tradition of war literature." 

Washington Post 

"These voices are stirring, chilling, and unforgettable." 
Bobbie Ann Mason 



Andrew Carroll is the best-selling editor of Behind the Lines and War Letters. 



The University of Chicago Press 

www.press.uchicago.edu 



ISBN-13: 978-0-226-09499-1 
ISBN-10: 0-226-09499-5 



780226 09499 1