I just got out of prison.

This is what I’ve been telling old friends when they ask me what I’ve been up to lately. And it’s the truth. And I’m not talking about Iraq.

Castlerea, 2007

At the end of April I visited Castlerea Prison near Galway, Ireland. I was there with another American, Nick Flynn (author of a book whose title profanity rules prevent me from mentoining), and an Englishman, John Healy (a former inmate and author of “The Grass Arena”); we’d each come to Ireland to share our work at the annual Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway. Midway through our week there, I found myself walking up to the 18-foot-high walls surrounding the prison, walls gray as faded asphalt, to step inside.

I have to tell you — standing inside Castlerea prison brought back memories I had while serving in uniform. Carrying a weapon creates an odd paradox: a soldier’s life is one of self-incarceration. And I know some people might balk at this idea, but whether a soldier is inside the wire of some base camp or out on a mission doesn’t matter. For soldiers, there is always a perimeter, even if only an invisible one surrounding three soldiers pulling security around a Humvee. So when I looked back at the gate being closed and locked behind me, I found an imagistic rhyme within that moment, a moment when disparate experiences mirror one another, years apart…

Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1999-2000

Near the small town of Brcko, south of the Sava River, in northern Bosnia. For nearly seven months I served as part of the NATO effort there, with the 10th Mountain Division, living on Camp McGovern. I once climbed onto a connex shipping container at dawn to watch the sun rise behind the noxious beauty of trash fires and pollution in the distance. Dusk and dawn were always spectacular and rich in color. A farmer on the road outside our camp gave a flick of the switch in his hands to spur on the ox burdened by a wooden cart overflowing with hay. Cars sped by on their way to work, or a relative’s house, or just to get out and drive to the roadside stands to drink slivovitz and talk about hip-hop and volleyball while a goat roasted on a spit in front of them. I was watching free people, at least those I could see from where I was, going about their lives.

Operation Iraqi Freedom I & II

Fast forward. Al Ma’badi, Iraq, August 2004. Twenty kilometers southeast of Mosul and about half a mile from the banks of the Tigris River. I’m standing in Tower 3 and scanning the rooftops of the village. The kids across the street have climbed atop the bombed-out building there, with sledgehammers to slam and pound and break the ceiling apart in order to strip the insides of rebar. Cars drive down the road to somewhere in the distance I can’t see from here. Maybe they’re on their way to Qara Qush, the Christian town where it’s possible to buy liquor and where Louie (our translator) tells me he often sits on the rooftops to eat pomegranates and drink with his friends and family until midnight.

I don’t want to make it seem like peaches and cream for Iraqi citizens driving down the road or eating dinner in their homes. Iraqis take a tremendous risk every time they turn the key in the ignition and put the car in drive. When I was there, the city of Tikrit was surrounded by concertina wire, transforming a huge urban center into a prison. Imagine if Albuquerque or Buffalo or Memphis were incarcerated in wire. I saw at least one other village that had a similar wire around it. (That’s the one I nearly swam in sewage to get into, by the way.) The Iraqis who live there must show identification in order to enter or leave these places through a security checkpoint.

So here I am: at the perimeter of Al Ma’badi. I’ve been divorced for 11 months now and I’ve been in-country for 10. I feel as if I’ve been cut adrift from my own life. A year ago, I had a family and a home in Tacoma, Wash. Now I have my ruck and my boots and the Stryker and the concertina wire coiled around this forward operating base. With only a platoon of us here, we can’t exert much power outward; we are here for a month or so to basically hold the fort. And when you’re inside the wire, how do you keep sane?

You talk to Bosch about his plans to go to film school while he snacks on black licorice he just got in the mail from back home. Jackowski tells you the gory details about the nasty fall he had while mountain climbing and how he wants to start a P.I. business one day. Hath tells his been-there done-that grizzled veteran stories. Zavala sings love songs in Spanish. Liu describes the chrome bumpers and rims he’s ordered online and had shipped to his parent’s house in Frisco. Noodles cleans his weapon and says he wants to visit a certain girl when he goes home on leave. Knight watches DVDs on the portable player we’ve rigged up and hidden from inspection inside our Stryker from the higher ups. Zoo explains why he chose the Army—because it offers dependable medical care for his young daughter, a child with special needs. Whitt takes a drag on his smoke, like it’s the last one ever, and tells you about the local band scene back home in West Virginia, the tattoo on his shoulder, the last song he composed on his electric bass. And Fiorillo, he describes his dread-locked days, days living on the beaches back East, rafting trips in Maine teaching college kids how to tie knots and find their way around in the woods. And at some point during the year here, three of these guys will tell you how the girls they love back home have left them.

One of the things that helped my sanity was to read when we had any down time. Our lieutenant had a foot locker and so he could carry more books with him. (He was kind enough to loan me a few, too). Among others, I received two books that spoke to me in terms of personal struggle and the ability we have to endure and persevere through adversity. The first was Slavomir Rawicz’s “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.” The second was Henri Charriere’s “Papillion.” If you haven’t read these books, you might want to check them out. (And if you’d like to send something to a soldier but don’t know how, you might try www.booksforsoldiers.com ; I did, when I was in-country, and some anonymous person in America sent me the exact book I wanted to read: “Delights from the Garden of Eden; A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine.”) After I read Rawicz and Charriere, I clearly remember thinking that if these guys could struggle and suffer under all that they’ve gone through then surely I can make it day by day, raid by raid, mission by mission, here in Iraq. It was, in an odd way, uplifting and encouraging.

When I stepped out from the prison walls at Castlerea, leaving the men who were sentenced to life inside the wire, I had to stop for a moment. Feel the warmth of the sun on my face. And it’s true I have bills to pay and regrets and memories that keep me up late at night sometimes. But I also have this day. I can walk down the road in any direction I want.