Monday, June 18, 2007

Home Fires: Five Iraq War Vets On Their Return To American Life

By Sandi Austin

Here I stand, weighted down in the sand again, about to enter another foreign territory. I’m marching into a world I have never seen, a world where I am the intruder. Instead of carrying a 40-pound rucksack, I wear a 40-pound aluminum tank. Rather than a crooked Kevlar, I wear a tight neoprene hood. My desert uniform is buried; on this journey I wear a 14-millimeter wetsuit. On my feet I wear booties and soon will don fins. My hands are gloved. Here, a regulator allows me to survive, rather than a protective gas mask. The temperature is 52 degrees, not 118. I carry a Riffe spear gun instead of an M16. I have a compass, a watch, and a plan in case I lose my buddy. My stomach is in knots, but from excitement instead of fear. We are on an underwater hunt.

Now, 10 … 20 … 40 … feet below the surface, breathe, all I have to do is breathe. Suddenly all of the weight is gone. I’m flying. This foreign territory is refreshing; everything moves freely, the colors are intense. The memories of dusty brown sand and grey walls are long gone. The constant sound of patrolling helicopters, gunshots to the east, and incoming mortar rounds has been silenced. I am surrounded only by the Darth Vader-like sound of my breath. My eyes fall on shapes, species, colors, and movement that they could only imagine.

I look up at what appears to be a brilliant shard of broken glass; a school of anchovies 20 feet above, glistening as the sun hits them. The sea lions invite me to dance as they spin around and around. I touch giant sea cucumbers, rough coral, even feel a harbor seal nip on my fins. The giant Kelp forest engulfs me. The smell of burning trash, polluted rivers, and poverty lingers elsewhere. This world represents perfection. In this world my senses are turned back on, my emotions can run freely.

In a war zone, you shut off your emotions. You try to flush the emotions that beckon you to be afraid, to worry, to feel anxious, and to doubt as deeply as possible. You allow yourself to laugh, but are you really happy? You try not to get attached because you will leave soon, or he or she will. You sit at a 45-minute memorial service, on a metal folding chair, in your dusty uniform, for a friend who had his head blown off, and an hour later you are back to your normal routine. There is no time to mourn, no time to ask why. Here I am floating in silence, surrounded by new types of foreigners, with my emotions turned back on… now I can mourn. I am alive again.

When I entered Iraq I carried the M-249, a 9-millimeter, and my Fender acoustic guitar. I had a major that would say “What are you going to do, Kum ba ya them to death?”

I’d reply “I wish I could, sir.”

I was in Iraq and I still hadn’t accepted the fact that I would be pointing a weapon at living beings. Now, holding my spear gun, I’m face to face with a 15-pound Cabazon. Again, because I carry a gun, I am the dominant one in a foreign territory. A feeling of guilt rushes over me. I feel guilty for being so afraid that I had to point a weapon at innocent people every day as we drove downtown to City Hall. But who do you trust, how do you trust? I feel guilty that I am free to float amongst these beautiful creatures, guilty that I have so many choices, that I can safely explore this ocean, even our entire nation, while others live with a 9 p.m. curfew, unable to travel between cities without being searched This time my gun is pointed at dinner rather than a human. I squeeze the trigger and the spear slices through the water.

Ascending back to the surface, I realize that the guilt should stay below, and the new appreciation for all that I have here and now should remain.

I have become an observer, taking in all that this short and precious life offers me. I’ve realized that sometimes it’s good to be the river and move rapidly through the world, other times we should be the tree, standing still, watching the world around us. Three years have passed and I have found peace, found the silence that is inside of me.

Life is like a Kaleidoscope, constantly changing.
No two twists the same.
However, with each twist it still appears beautiful.
Try to see the beauty.