–Ralph Waldo Emerson

Look at the sun through a glass bottle full of apple juice. Close your eyes and spin around 20 times. Stand up too fast. Get married. Read powerful literature. Have a child. Travel. Any of these things can and will change your perspective. That change may be visual, psychological, or both and it may feel subtle or profound in depth. A soldier deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom is virtually guaranteed some kind of a change in perspective then. Go to war. Just, go to war. What a sweeping generalization. As if one could sum up the individual’s complex experience of a year (or more) in Iraq, here in the 21st century, simply by saying one “went to war.” Indulge me as I try to explain a couple of my own changes in perspective here in this limited space.

The really tragic stories about good people who get killed or injured in combat are the hardest ones to hear, and they represent the minority. Not everyone who goes to Iraq takes human life, nor are all wounded. The vast majority of us find ourselves on a forward operating base (F.O.B.) somewhere in a supporting role. We know those who are killed or wounded. We live with them, work with them, love them, and were perhaps with them when it happened.

For example, I was a signal officer. I probably left the wire an average of once a month. Most of my time was spent on base, either in my office, at a command post, the chow hall, the gym, the weapon’s range, on the base’s perimeter, in one of thousands of meetings and briefings, or moving around outdoors between all of these. One morning I was working just outside the base, interviewing Iraqi police recruits. The next day I was not needed at the site. A suicide bomber blew himself up, killing 40 Iraqis, two Americans, and injuring many more, including one of my soldiers. I heard the explosion from my office. I knew most of the soldiers working there that morning. I saw the look in their eyes right after the attack. I remember getting the news 20 minutes later that we had lost Lt. Col. Michael McLaughlin. I had just spoken to him the night before.

I saw what the enemy did. I was constantly briefed on all of the creative ways he carried out murder and intimidation campaigns. I was shot at indirectly by hundreds of mortars and rockets. I went out on checkpoint missions, searching suspect vehicles on the highway. An RPG was fired at my vehicle. It went right in between the vehicle in front of us, and our vehicle, to explode against a concrete bullet-ruined barrier. At the time I didn’t feel cold hearted. People were trying to kill us and I wanted to fight back. I wanted to get home to my kids. I put my fist in the air and cheered when my battalion’s howitzers fired back with such powerful precision at those who would do us harm. I could hear our projectiles whistle past, sluicing the air above me while the Doppler effect played tricks on my ears. I experienced all of these things and countless more, yet like most of us I came home from such an environment without a scratch on my body.

When I drive I like to rest my eyes upon the vehicles flanking me for a second or two. Sensing their presence in my periphery is not enough. Other than that, my driving has not changed. But then again, I was not a driver in Iraq. I was a passenger. Usually loud noises don’t bother me, but sometimes they do if the pitch and volume are just right. And then there are the jets. Every time a jet hits the air brakes overhead it sounds exactly like an incoming rocket attack on my F.O.B. and I always start to duck before catching myself. Like many, I scan a room when I enter it. I check out the faces in a restaurant. And I’m not just noticing the pretty girls. I’m quietly searching for something out of place. A loaded look. I, too, like many other veterans, refer not to sit with my back to the entrance of a restaurant. It is rare that I do.

I enjoy being more observant, more alert. If it wasn’t somewhat like second nature due to my Army training before I went to Iraq, it certainly is now. I may look like a picture of relaxation to you, and I truly am, sitting at a park beside the playground reading a novel while my kids frolic on the monkey bars, but I am aware of your hand digging in your pocket or some other small detail. I notice people lurking around parking lots. Every time someone approaches me to ask for spare change while I load groceries into my trunk at Super Wal-Mart, I see them coming from a mile away. And I turn to face them long before they reach me.

My time in Iraq did not make me fearful. I don’t have PTSD. I am not paranoid in the least, only more observant of my surroundings. I sleep like a bear when I have the time. I am generally more humble, grateful, patient, and alert. I feel that I am a better parent, soldier, and human being. My dreams have solidified and I have more ambition to chase them with.

It’s not surprising, of course, that those who fight in a war undergo changes in perspective about life, death, violence, hardship, camaraderie, perseverance, and more - but it is clearly true. Something so complex and ancient as WAR, broiling in the very blood of the human race, is bound to have such an effect. My time in Iraq has changed me in countless ways. And perspective is such a fleeting and mutable thing. For example, I’ve tried to give you some kind of glimpse here, but sight and thoughts can shift so quickly, like right now as you sit reading these words on your computer screen. Just squint. See it?