A year and a half after I arrived back stateside from my expedition to Iraq I was asked about my deployment experience. The child of a friend of a friend needed to interview veterans for a project they were working on, so I agreed. The thing I remembered about my response, and what made me think of this questionnaire many years latter, was my memory of how Iraq smelled. Usually memories are visual, but these memories had an olfactory component to them. This was brought back to mind by Jon Stewart’s recent efforts to highlight the ill effects veterans are suffering from burning shit in Iraq.
At our first forward operating base we had burn toilets prior to receiving chemical toilets, but I think the rear elements had to burn the waste while we were out running missions. The thing people probably don’t realize though is that the baseline pollution level in Iraq, the baseline in combat zones, is considerably higher than what we enjoy here in the United States. Perhaps urban air quality in the late 60s, prior to the EPA, was similar to what I experienced in Iraq.
Of course it may have been worse in Iraq due to the dusty, arid environment. There was always something in the air. We lived in an old government building which perhaps contained asbestos, who knows, I doubt anyone tested for that. What we do know is that the building was famously bombed by Tomahawk missiles on the first night of the war. Those missiles were probably tipped with depleted uranium. We would laugh every time a mortar bounced off of the sturdy building. But, the so-called insurgents might get the last laugh; each of those mortar hits would stir up dust in the unventilated building. The Army should have given us N95 masks rather than gas masks which literally went unused, because, you know, there were in fact no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I left my job and my family in September of 2003, I arrived in Kuwait in February of 2004 and we moved into Iraq in March of the same year.
I enlisted at the age of 18.
I enlisted in the 1-107 Armored Cavalry. It was originally part of the 37th Infantry Division, but latter our unit was transferred to the 28th Infantry Division. While in Iraq my unit served under both the 1st Cavalry Division and the 1st Infantry Division.
Side note: Even though, or perhaps because, we were a relatively small National Guard armor company from Ohio, we received combat patches for the 1st Infantry Division, the 1st Cavalry Division, the 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team, the 28th Infantry Division, and were just short of getting one for the 25th Infantry Division.
I enlisted to pay for college.
I was in Iraq for a total of ten months, eight of those months I was in Baghdad.
I arrived back at the end of December 2004.
My most of our time in Iraq, but on the way we spent a couple weeks in Kuwait.
Side note: My unit may have accidentally stuck a toe in Iran. We were tasked with providing security for one sector of a cordon, but we had to go out of our way so that we wouldn’t reveal the area which was being surrounded. As we navigated the desert we learned that large irrigation ditches are not always on the maps. So, we had to go even further out to get to a spot where we could cross, and we may have breathed some Iranian air along the way.
The question is a very open ended, but here are a few things that still stick out in my mind: It always smelled awful, the country literally smelled like a mixture of garbage, burning garbage, human waste and industrial pollution. There was garbage everywhere and the sanitation was very poor. Generally speaking, it was normally dry and hot. The air temperature, in the shade, was above 128 degrees almost every day in the summer (my thermometer only went to 128). There was a great divide between the poor and wealthy, though our presence leveled the field somewhat. The wealthier people lived in fairly nice houses hid behind huge walls, while many of the poorer people lived in what appeared to be mud huts.
There were many, many different types of people there, and our interaction with them usually depended upon their attitude towards us. We mentored and trained Kurds and Turkmen to be police officers and soldiers, so with them we usually maintained a student-teacher type of relationship. We bought supplies from local Iraqi merchants and employed local Iraqis as laborers, we usually had positive interactions with these people. But, every one that we did not know, the average Iraqi citizens, had to be treated with suspicion for our own protection. So, we were normally interacting with the Iraqi citizens as a police officer here would interact with our citizens.
Side note: Keep in mind that this was written in 2006. Reading this now, the ease in which I compared an occupying military force to domestic US police forces while attempting to paint a picture of them both acting magnanimously is a bit jarring. Also, I did not write the questions, and I do not think the questioner had negative intent with their word selection here, they just didn’t know a word to use for ‘people who lived in the occupied land’. Somewhat surprisingly, I’m not sure I do either.
Long. We worked on shifts, and I was on first shift, so that is where my perspective comes from. We would get up early, shave, eat breakfast, clean our weapons and prepare for the day’s mission. After the mission was executed, we would do an after action review to recap the days event, clean our weapons and prepare for the next days missions. If we had time after all that we would shower and relax.
It was like a great weight was lifted off of me. I was free again. I had control over my life and my destiny again. The Army never told us what was going to happen when and the insurgents certainly didn’t, so while I was there I was basically always waiting for something to happen, always waiting for a stimuli to react to, always waiting for a command to follow. It took me a while to learn to be proactive and independent again, even though I had been so eager to do so. I also had to re-establish my place in my family, my job and society. They all had to keep moving forward while I was away and it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. For example, when I came back I went to Arby’s and they were selling low carb sandwiches, sandwiches without buns. To me this was just a bunch of lunch meat in a wrapper, that’s not really a sandwich. What changed in society that made a sandwich no longer required bread, when I left the presence of bread was a defining quality of a sandwich. There was a lot of little things like that when I came back.
My oldest son knew what I was doing but not why. I don’t see how he could understand why; most Americans, myself included, don’t truly know why we are there.
Coming back was not hard, that was one of the best times of my life. It was a little harder once the initial elation passed. I had to find my position in my family and society again. Every one tried to help me fit in again and to relate to me, but I could not relate back to them completely. I now have a bit of wisdom that most people don’t have, and I can’t even quantify or qualify what that wisdom is. I don’t think that a non-veteran could understand what I am speaking of, and that is at least partially due to my inability to truly describe that bit of knowledge that I have been given by virtue of being in a combat zone.
That was the easiest thing for me to come back to. Not much had changed for me, my same job was waiting with virtually the same problems as when I had left. I was able to read and keep abreast of changes in my industry while I was away.
It probably took me about 6 months to stop scrutinizing overpasses I was driving towards, and another few months to stop habitually changing lanes as I drove underneath them. It must have taken 12 months of more for my heart not to race when I heard a sudden loud noise while not wearing protective gear. And, it took at least 12 years for me to come to terms with my role in the Iraq war. Some people never come to terms with it. If you are having trouble, please speak with someone. It may not be as easy as it should be to find help, but there are people who can help. You are not alone, there are thousands of us who have suffered similar traumas.
Questions originally answered May 9, 2006