Saturday, June 09, 2007

HOME FIRES: five Iraq War veterans on their return to American life

By Sandi Austin

A strange feeling came over me as the C-130 landed at Fort Bragg, N.C. After 11 months in Iraq, I wasn’t scared any more, but it felt like the rest of America was.

I now live in Monterey, Calif., home of sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, cypress trees, California oak trees, tourists, newlyweds and nearly-deads. I was working in a local restaurant, Taste Café, when a sweet, costume-jewelry-wearing-grandmother, sipping her cappuccino said, “Oh, I was so scared at the aquarium today.”

Thinking that she must have seen the new shark exhibit I replied, “Yeah, lots of teeth on that Great White, huh?”

She shook her head and said, “No, not the shark, dear, the terrorists.” I was looking around at all of the people at the aquarium and thought this could be a terrorist target as well.”

I wanted to reply, “Ma’am, there is no need to be afraid, no one is going to come into the aquarium and blow it up… enjoy the jellyfish, the penguins, and the giant tuna.”

It’s crazy to me the fear that seems to be growing inside Americans. It is as if a seed of poison ivy fell into a garden of tomatoes, corn, and peppers. From the moment the seed was planted it began taking over the rest of the garden.

This fear is planted as we read signs that shout “BEWARE,” as the media presents potential threats over and over again, and as small towns begin preparing evacuation plans against terrorist activity. I won’t fall into that trap. Having been in Iraq, I know what it’s like to be scared, to understand what a true threat feels like. Now that I am back on American soil, I don’t want to live in constant fear. I want to feel like I’m on vacation, worry free. Perhaps we should have fun living now, instead of focusing on the horrible things that “could” happen.

My stomach cringes as I approach the 20-minute wait to get through security. Mind you I have no problem waiting; lines are part of military life. The problem is all the signs glaring back at me while I wait. Their gory message blurts, “High Risk of Terrorist Attack,” “No Liquids, No Shoes, No Socks, No Jackets, No Toothpaste, or Water.” A seed is planted in all of our minds as we wait in line. Why don’t they say “No Knives, No Guns, No Machetes, No Num-Chucks, and No Tomahawks”? Now that is a sign that sends a message.

For a while I swore Proctor and Gamble had something to do with the increased level of security. Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t see the purpose of getting everyone worked up over this so-called terrorist. I wish they would give this character a name, maybe give it a face. Perhaps I should include a drawing of the terrorist I think exists, the one who can create a bomb using the fluoride in the toothpaste and plastic water bottle. (I think we know him as MacGyver.)

I am now a four-binner … shoes, belt and jacket in one bin, backpack in another, computer out of backpack in the third, and purple carry-on stuffed with a week’s worth of clothes in the fourth. So my thought is why don’t we all wrap ourselves in Saran wrap just to get through? Certainly would speed things up. Then again, an airport full of carefully wrapped, naked Americans could get a little scary!

I am almost dressed when the T.S.A. agent says “We will need to search this backpack.” Of course I’m thinking there is nothing in there besides the projector I had to carry for work. The agent reaches in and pulls out a bottle of Jason’s Deli water. I smile, laugh a little, and apologize. I’m sure she feels successful … job well done. That is one less water bottle on the plane! As I zip up my backpack, I decide to make sure I packed my iPod. I open the inside pocket and what do I see rubbing against the iPod … a bright and shiny, red-cased, 12-gauge round. This pack had been on a recent camping trip. I’ll say it once again. Thank god she found the water bottle.

I see this measure of security as another facet to make Americans feel safe, but safe about what? Something that “could” happen, something that we Americans should worry more about? Send out the message and it will be received. The Five Man Electrical Band — and more recently, Tesla — said it best: “Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs, blocking up the scenery, breaking my mind.”

After being home for three months, I was inspired to write the following song:

The Sign

Sitting on my rooftop, trying to find some peace.
Watch the people pass by.
Watch the old man try to make a buck but he’s still got no luck.
Puts his hand in his pocket and empty again.

Old man made his way down town to the local café.
Wasn’t looking for a drink, just a quiet place to think.
Then he saw a sign, sent shivers down his spine.
Said have no fear my friend, the end is near.

Old man grabbed that sign, and he yelled these thoughts aren’t mine.
Raised his hands to the sky, years of rage fell from his eye.

He cried.

I’ll try to understand, what makes you think you can, change the way I see this world surrounding me.
I’ll try to understand, what makes you think you can, change the way I see, when you won’t listen to me.

Old man on the ground, hands on his head, mind racing round and around he cries.

I’ll try to understand, what makes you think you can, change the way I see, when you won’t listen to me.