It was unbearably hot underneath the 30 plus pounds of equipment carried. I left the sweet air of America and became chained in a foreign place that smelled like my local garbage dump. Of course, saying this place smelled like a garbage dump was an insult to garbage dumps. This part of the country was the third world that I had always seen in the Sally Struthers commercials.
The sky came in three colors, blue, black, and gray. The blue days let the sun shine through like an angry kid holding his magnifying glass upon me. I had fair skin, light hair, and forced to take a daily medication that had a 70% chance of having the side effect of “sun sensitivity”.
On blue days, I felt trapped in a sauna with no escape. Dragon’s breath greeted everyone as I watched the needle of the outside thermometer bury itself on the wrong side. Every day became Groundhog Day. Complacency could get you killed in a war zone, yet it became just another survival technique.
The black days were the realm of the Ali Babas. The thermometer read 105 degrees at 3 A.M. local time, and the Western world still wondered why these people seemed eternally pissed off. Anything resembling a breeze would’ve been a godsend, but I’ve never been in a place that felt so far from God. The darkness seemed eternal. No lights and a new moon night cause the childhood fears to come alive as things darker than shadows loomed all around. The irony of it all was that half a world away the ones I loved were enjoying Starbucks and the dollar menu while I huddled in together with my band of brothers and sisters waiting for the next “bump” in the night.
The gray days were the worst days. All the color of the world drained away. We lived in a world of dog sight. The sky was grey; the food was grey; my rifle was grey; my life was grey. No one smiled. Music became meaningless. The smell remained — the constant smell of burning garbage mixed with raw sewage eventually sank into my pores. The worst days were when I could not smell the fetid air.
This place was alive with history, according to the lies our superiors told. This area was supposedly one of the “cradles of civilization”. Science showed us that this is where man first organized themselves from cells, to walking land fish, to monkeys, to humans. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, so rich in Biblical history, were choked with dead fish, floating human waste, and things unseen that would kill any man with one sip. I only had to look around to see that this world was dying.
I watched as people’s lives fell apart. It was like being a back passenger in a car with no driver. I helped where I could, but all I could do was listen as the tears rolled on. It wasn’t just Dear John letters that kept the mood heavy; it was a nightly occurrence to watch as people spent their last few dollars on a phone card to call home only to have an unknown voice on the other end answer. Conversations included things like, “He’s here, and you’re not..” or “She is what I want not you…” or “Daddy/Mommy why can’t you come home now?…” It was once more into the breach as Death smiled and laughed. There I was shoulder to shoulder with PVT Joe Snuffy, whose 19-year-old wife just dumped him an hour before the firefight began.
I don’t think I ever heard anyone say being a soldier was easy. A person more famous than I ever will be once said, “War is hell.” I agree. I also believe that if you are going through Hell, you have to keep going. There is a shared bond that all people who see a combat zone share. It’s not something easily explained, nor should anyone ever try. “You had to be there,” barely covers the topic. Experiences vary as well. For me, it is a drug high that I will never get back. I try to fill my life with things to replace that closeness, but everything falls short. I tell my friends and family that I have stared at the Gates of Hell and returned to tell the tale when they ask me about what happened over there. It’s a little over dramatic, but the feeling is real.
I’m not a war hero. I did not even see a quarter of the action that a typical soldier experienced, but it was no less real. There were nights where I cried; nights where I was too scared to cry. All I knew was the separation from the people and places I cared about the most. Ultimately, I survived. In war, that is the best anyone can hope to accomplish.