Tuesday, June 05, 2007

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

I’ve been reorganizing the garage all morning. Rearranging journals and notebooks written years ago, weeding through boxes marked “miscellaneous” for any seemingly useful item, throwing out a broken warming plate that never worked to begin with, trash-bagging old clothes for the goodwill bin at the local grocery store — basically sloughing away the material things that seem to accumulate so easily in my life, packrat that I am. But for some reason when I get to my Army duffel bags I don’t leave them closed. I undo their snap-links, grab each green bag with my name and unit numbers still stenciled on them, and flip them upside down to dump everything out onto the concrete floor.

Turner, Brian D.
(Last 4 of S.S. #)
B. Co, 2-3 INF
3rd SQD/ 1st PLT

Heaped on the floor, I find my desert uniform with the distinctive star and Indianhead patch that says I was in the Second Infantry Division, part of the first Stryker Brigade to ever serve in combat. Here’s the folding knife I kept in a pouch on my belt. Here’s an Iraqi bayonet in its scabbard. Plastic Iraqi language cards with pictograms (like cartoon drawings, really) of tiny men and women, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, roadside bombs exploding with three lines of red fire into a small black mushroom cap above.

I don’t know what to do with all this old gear. When I lift up my desert boots and turn them over in my hands, it’s impossible for me not to think of climbing over stone walls in Mosul and landing with a thud on the other side—these were the boots that did it. These were the boots that turned blue after I stupidly and mistakenly thought a cesspool was only a few inches deep (it turned out I could nearly swim in it) as we crossed an open area in squad wedges while patrolling near Balad, just north of Baghdad. These boots kicked in the metal door to a “target house” during a joint raid with the Florida National Guard. They limped and gimped with me through our time in Iraq with the ankle injury that still plagues me to this day.

But I don’t have to dump my old duffel bags to remember these things. Though it’s been two and a half years now since I’ve breathed the dust in Iraq and walked in the dirt there, the war shadows me every day. It forces itself into conversations. It whispers into my ear, as I’m driving under an overpass, that I’m lucky I no longer need to scan the trash there for roadside bombs. When I sat out on the patio at Bullwacker’s Restaurant and Pub in Monterey on a recent weekend, the war whispered for me to sit with my back to the stone wall (so that I could see everything in front of me).

It keeps me up late at night, thinking. Sometimes, I lay in bed for hours remembering a man I didn’t shoot one night in the summer of 2004, and I feel guilty that I didn’t shoot him, odd and terrible as that might sound. I think of the car that nearly ran me over and slammed into the back of our Stryker in the dark backstreets of Mosul, the one I wasn’t able to stop and by rights should have shot, that turned out to be carrying not a bomb, but a husband, wife and infant child. The many women’s faces staring at us when we herded them into rooms and arrested their men after midnight.

I sometimes wonder about the Iraqi translators I worked with, the ones who may or may not have had their heads cut off after we left—do they sit on the edge of the bed as I try to drift off? Do they walk among us here in America and wander amazed through our lives?

I opened my e-mail inbox a few days back and found a message from my rifleman in Iraq, who is now serving his second tour and has just been extended for an additional three months. It was a day like most out here—a sunny California morning—and I’d just ground up some coffee beans and turned on the stereo to listen to David Bowie sing “Five Years” (from “Ziggy Stardust”) when I read the following:

Debated on whether or not to even tell y’all, but I figured you’d be pissed if I didn’t.

Got blown up yesterday. Yes, blown up. We were dismounted and checking some abandoned store fronts near where the Strykers were parked. My team and I found an outside stairwell behind a metal door that led up to a 2nd floor apartment. The door was locked with a deadbolt. The top half was a lattice pattern that you could just barely reach through. Anyway, at the top of the stairs I saw some boxes and a poster with a pic of Muqtada al Sadr on it. Thinking this might be what we call an OMS site (Office of Muqtada al Sadr) I called up what we found and got permission to bust in, which was approved… [W]e got out a prybar we call a Hooligan tool and pried the door open. It took a bit to bend the deadbolt back, but it finally popped. We heard “tink-clink-clink” and thought that was either the deadbolt falling away, or the spoon on a grenade pin falling.

In answer, the door exploded in my face.

How do you drink your coffee after that? How do you pay the bills and go about your daily life knowing that at this very moment—this one—there is a convoy somewhere in Iraq pulling up to the gate inside a military base. A soldier sends up logistical info by radio. Somewhere in that convoy, right now, as you read this, a soldier is pulling out a 30-round magazine, slapping it up against his or her helmet to seat the rounds correctly, sliding that magazine into the magazine well, pulling back on the charging handle, releasing the charging handle to let the bolt chamber a round, and checking to make sure the weapon is on “safe.” That soldier, right now, may well sigh and release a deep breath that will never be written down in the history books or be reported in the evening news. That soldier is about to go outside the wire.

Is this war in the present tense, here in America? Iraq is on the other side of the globe and the events there are mostly reported in the past tense. And yet when I walk through a Home Depot and hear a sheet of plywood dropped on a pallet, I hear an airy breath followed by an explosive crack—the signature echo of an incoming mortar round. And when I listen well enough, late at night, I sometimes hear one of our Iraqi translators, Saier, repeating to me: “The wrong is not in the religion; the wrong is in us.

And my rifleman, is he O.K.? Will he make it home safe? I can imagine him dumping his own duffle bags to find his dog tags and boots and Iraqi bayonets. I imagine dirt and bullet casings and blood pouring out of those bags. A 10-year-old boy with a thousand-yard-stare is curled up there, waiting to whisper his own stories of Spector gunships and Hellfire missiles. And the grenade that exploded in my rifleman’s face? They tell him the shrapnel now lodged in his hand will be absorbed by his body. But late some night years from now, he may realize it has worked its way up through the surface of his skin—that grenade might reveal itself once more.

Brian Turner is a poet who has served seven years in the Army, most recently in 2004 as an infantry team leader in Mosul with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Second Infantry Division. His book of poems, "Here, Bullet," won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award and was a New York Times Editor's Choice selection. He lives in Fresno, Calif, where he teaches poetry at Fresno State.