The Kuwait Royal Air passenger jet taxied up the runway, unraveling a world of stresses and fears and horrors in its wake. I stripped them off like the filthy uniform, like peeling skin, hoping to reveal purity beneath, as if it were possible to rid myself of the past six months in a baptism of departure. The bitter-sweetness of leaving never seemed a concept that I would connect with the theatre of operations. After the months of privation, of discomfort, of uncertainty, I would be going home, and yet there was much of inestimable value being left behind.
I was leaving, to be reprocessed into the military life, having served my country and done my tour of duty. I was due to change to a new job, leaving Louisiana for an Air Force base in Northern Italy. I was the member of the 43rd Medical Detachment with the most tenure, and it was time for a change.
I said my goodbyes to my soldiers one by one, knowing full well that there were no words capable of expressing the strangeness of my leaving. We had been strong together, supported and cared for each other, we were warriors together, and all had survived to return safely to Kuwait. So we ignored the departure, as if it were merely another mission, something from which I would come back within a collection of hours. We sealed off the pain and unquestioned bond of loyalty to each other into a catacomb of memory and I shouldered my rucksack and duffel. No formalities, just a hug and a pledge from Sulley to take care of my girls.
The engines roared to life and the velocity of takeoff pushed me back into the soft seating. The world outside was pitch, being past one in the morning, and perhaps appropriately so. I was erupting back into the comfortable womb of the West, and reversal of birth, perhaps a metaphor of death. Born out of the tragedy and chaos into the soft protection of grass covered lawns and twenty-four hour convenience, of blonde hair cascading over blue eyes, and of yellow ribbons, of clean white sheets, porcelain toilets, cool morning air and rain.
I had the flight to try and steel myself to the upcoming shocks, to the unknown elements of wanton emotions. Following the Fort Bragg murders, the Army was very cautious of how it reintegrated its returning soldiers, attempting to weed out the depressed, the psychotic, the angry. We filled out questionnaire after questionnaire, and underwent evaluation after evaluation. But nothing could anticipate the breaking point. The stress had been enormous, and the shock of reentry such that it broke some soldiers. So much will have changed, children born and family members died, friends married and divorced, changes in jobs, politics, fashion and in social trends. The world had continued, and we would be expected to leap into it a somehow understand the plot changes. It would be like catching a television show like the Sopranos mid season and playing catch-up. It was stressful and alienating.
Spouses had learned to do without the support of the soldier, and perhaps enjoyed the newfound strength and independence, children will have grown and the little ones may not recognize the service member. Fortunately for me, I had neither spouse, nor children waiting, and would only have to worry that my dogs had become overweight or older in my absence. I was accustomed to homecomings, having lived a gypsy’s life, travel in the name of science had been the watchwords which had carried me repeatedly to Indochina, West Africa, Central America, but everything before had seemed a comfortable vacation in comparison. I sought to consider what awaited, fantasies and nightmares, comforts and luxuries, but as I sat in civilian clothing for the first time in six months, a cool linen shirt and blue jeans, I allowed the tension to filter through the airplane floor and vanish into the Persian night as I fell quietly asleep.
A stewardess gently woke me to straighten my seat back as Amsterdam loomed under wing. The antithesis of the desert, the city looked like a wonderland of trees and water, everything that had been mirage to my thirsty eyes now lay before me like a well-laid table at a starving man’s feast. The contrast in colors and in fertility was extraordinary, and monumental, especially in light of the starkness of the past six months. A moment almost blinding, and confusing in its chaos of vibrancy. Like someone colorblind, I had lived in a monochromatic world and my eyes had grown accustomed to the constancy of the dun coloration, to the muted nature of the visual world. This view of the canal ridden Capital city of the Netherlands was like stepping out from a dark alley into the brilliance of the midday sun. I was amazed at the image, although it only remained for an instant, fixed in the porthole, and then vanished as the plane banked. The flash of paradise seemed illusion and I wondered if I was softly losing my mind.
After almost two days of travel I was back in Texas. It was midday, and purposefully I had been secretive about my arrival. I was exhausted, and a rush of well-wishers might have overwhelmed me. Instead, I rented a car, and wound my way South towards San Antonio. The Fourth of July and all of the symbolism and pomp associated swirled around me, with the highways being studded with firework vendors and the flag displayed from every available vertical. It seemed oddly synchronous to return from War on the Nation’s birthday, and perhaps equally so to return somewhat incognito.
I knew what awaited me at the Womack’s ranch in Victoria Texas, just as I knew the bosom of my own hearth on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake. I was guaranteed the soft, gentle love which I so needed in my reintroduction, people who simply wanted me home, regardless of politics or media or public opinion. Just me…home. So much energy had been fixated on the possibility of a poor or even negative reception, the dread of the marches and anti-war protests had settled like nested birds into my homecoming. How would the country receive us?
Texas was obviously the right portal for my reentry, as there was likely nowhere in the United States as pro-Bush and therefore as pro-operation Iraqi Freedom than the Lone Star State. True there had been an extraordinary outpouring of support from friends and family, but there was still the pulse of the nation to take, to analyze and diagnose with my own eyes. Texas would be my first stop, then into Louisiana for inprocessing back at Fort Polk, followed by a two-day drive up the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Shenandoah Valley into the Chesapeake Bay. I would hit seven states on the trip North, and would see the Deep South, Appalachia and the Nation’s Capital on my way, with the occasional day trip into Philadelphia planned in the upcoming week.
Certainly a good enough cross-section in my survey of support for the troops, and in my transition out of the dust and filth. Just as critical for my state of mind was the long quiet drive along the Lewis and Clack trail, cutting up Mississippi, Alabama and into Tennessee. It’s an incredible drive, a forest road, beautiful and manicured, with fragments of history cropping up in between cotton fields and Indian mounds. I love the Natchez Trace, it’s a perfect example of the American road, away from the scream of the highways, the rage and tension simply evaporates in the rhythmic silhouettes of the tree branches casting their shadow dance on the curving road before me. Somewhere in Alabama, small rock outcroppings jut out of the grass and for the weary mind offer a treasure trove of tiny fossils. I always park the car and free my mind in the cathartic search for blastoids and horn coral dating back to the Cretaceous. Sometimes a car will pass, sometimes not, and I am otherwise alone in my mind, under the shifting branches of deciduous forest and the g athering rain clouds. This time is not different. Texas and Louisiana behind me, those first blissful showers and intensely quiet moments alone in the sterile, porcelain tiled bathroom where I thought I might burst into tears, past, I had started the drive to see my family. Mississippi past as a blur, the mansions of Natchez and Jackson flowing by just as the great river herself had done, early under the morning sun.
Now afternoon was on me and Tennessee loomed large on the horizon, with promises of mountains and the advent of the North. I walked over the fossil spotted rocks without truly looking, and caring little if I found evidence of the ancient past. Rather the moment afforded me the peace, and silence which had become the greatest need following six months without. Rain began to fall, and that too was welcome, I was glad for it. Rain washed me as thoroughly as the four daily showers had over the past week, and I couldn’t help grinning. Towns past and I spoke little, interacting with no one, just accepting in fragments that I was home. American flags flew proudly, and yellow ribbons cropped up in clusters, like wildflowers covering storefronts and telephone poles. Cars were festooned with old glory on stickers and posters yelling support blanketed my pilgrimage North. Maryland waited, and would continue to do so without questioning, without judging, as I slowly wound my way home.
In some ways, I dreaded the necessary reintroduction into society, the need to explain and quantify the privations. So much of what I experienced remains unexplainable, even to those soldiers who did not leave Kuwait. There will forever be multiple camps, the civilian at home, for whom the war was a series of images flashed before them by the media, controlled and cataloged images, a regular flow, with the accompanying text and analysis, then there were the troops in Kuwait, who heard the stories told them by those of us returning, filthy and weary, from North of the border. Then again there are those soldiers who did not enter Iraq until the fighting had diminished and the routes were deemed safe. These too will not truly understand.
That is not intended to be patronizing, nor is it superior. Each did their duty as they were commanded, and the job got done. It is just the simultaneous conglomeration of a million instances of chaos thrust like needles into the tired, beaten mind which embody the total experience of war, and which can be expressed as individual events or descriptions, but never as the whole. It is the duty of those remaining at home to understand that, and be gentle to the returning soldier. To appreciate that in some ways, they have experienced the ultimate in horrors and in many cases have survived to carry home an impossible load of recollections. I myself wear the blood stained glasses of memory, and categorize the war as such; personal fragments of chaos and order, often coagulated into a single whole. These are borne inside, to be cried over in silent moments, to be learned from and hopefully, never to be repeated.
I arrived home to my parents’ small home of Earleville, where they spend their weekends, and was awed by the simple expression of this tiny American town. Every single streetlight bore a yellow ribbon. The outpouring of support was not simply raw, unbridled patriotism, but a true expression of solidarity. The sentiment was not directed at me in particular, but instead spoke to every soldier in harms way, every man and woman living in hell for the Nation’s interests, for each individual in this volunteer Army who accepted the call to arms. As I drove through the bastion of Middle America, past the church and the small stereotypical diner, I was humbled by the simple act of remembrance and cohesion of spirit. I arrived home to the welcome of friends and family, and some who merge the two categories, to a bottle of excellent single malt scotch, and to the eternally unbiased love of my dogs, including our family’s newest addition, the Iraqi refugee, Tallil.
My mother had organized a welcome home party filled with familiar faces and some strangers, and I was volleyed back and forth between the people who had been there for my family during a period which was as much a trial for them as it was for me. I was slathered in kisses and questions and boisterous expressions of happiness, each in two-minute sound-bites. In a similar way to a wedding receiving line, I emerged exhausted from the tornado of faces and voices and names. But the sentiment was heartfelt and as such was wonderful.
At one point, a radiant young woman appeared before me. Her blonde hair pulled back into a bun, and a brown dress accentuating her lovely form. I was awed. A single officer’s existence in time of war is somewhat monastic, and one strives to forget the fairer sex during war as it is simply too sweet of a torment. So one becomes a mental eunuch, an emotional castrato. My soldiers around me had hung photographs of their spouses above their beds, and had used every possible opportunity made available to call home. They spoke willingly of the things they hoped to do when they got home: the romance, the friendship, the sex. For myself, there were occasional girlfriends to think of, but nothing concrete, no one specifically tangible on whom I could hang hope and desire. So it was put away, closeted and exorcised in the ritual of the daily trial of the Iraqi desert. And now, as I stood surrounded in familiar sights, she glided before me, simple in her essential elegance.
By the end of the party, I had invited her to dinner. Following the months of intellectual starvation and the self-imposed emotional celibacy, the idea of dining in a nice restaurant, with a beautiful and intelligent woman was an extraordinarily sweet torment. Furthermore, it seemed a culmination of reintegration. One on one, I felt that I could slowly and truly emerge from the sand. Demons circled around me, feelings of inadequacy, of roughness, of being a wounded creature.
Would she assume that my motives were sexual and ungentlemanly? Would I be able to hold a true conversation? It had been well over six months since I had spoken of anything outside of the job at hand, and with the constant intake of military food, just as long since I had used appropriate cutlery. Ironically, the problems which arose had more to do with the simple changes in a city like Philadelphia over six months. Normally these are taken in stride, assumed in the evolution of society and the social scene. Six months may seem a blip on the large scale, but in a large city, that gap in time sees complete reversals and significant changes. And therein lies the stress.
It is impossible to act or at least feel like a normal citizen when what you truly need is a moment of constancy. Restaurants had closed and new ones opened, what was hot and happening at my last visit to Philadelphia was now old and tired. Movies and music had changed, new buildings had erupted out of the pavement, and a new crop of jaded youth had migrated into the city, while another population of fresh graduates had undergone an exodus to exotic locations such as New York or LA. I sat incredulous on the phone when favorite haunts had changed names or had closed outright, making way for the new hip joint. I felt aged and disconnected. Finally an old favorite proved itself true and the dinner progressed smoothly, without too much mental stumbling (the restaurant was elegant enough, but where one used ones’ hands instead of cutlery, solving any concerns over my unpracticed manners).
The most significant part of coming home has been the questions of belief. Did I support the War? Did I believe there were weapons of mass destruction yet to be found? Did I have confidence in the President? Perhaps people thought that my being in Iraq gave me a unique perspective, perhaps more raw or with more insight. At the beginning, in Kuwait, these were genuine concerns, they were the fulcrum of every conversation, and predominant in everyone’s mind, but once we moved North, and into harms way, each other became the main concern and the global morals and morays of War metamorphosed into the concerns of the individuals who surrounded us. For me, the American role in Iraq centered genuinely around the freedom of the Shi’ites who had been oppressed for decades. But I can only speak from the ground. I know nothing of Baghdad, nor of the Kurds in the North, I have little concern over the economics of petrol or the risk to the world at large. This is not to say that I don’t care, just that my war was fought for different reasons.
For me, the six months lost in the swirling dust and the desolation, in the camaraderie and the trail of strength and character is justified by the single image of Fatima’s tribulations. The permanent nightmare of knowing that this prepubescent girl, imprisoned for thirteen years, raped a thousand times by her Sun’ni captors, is scarred inside and out until the day that she moves from a living death to true oblivion. With that tattooed on my mind’s eye, I can justify my presence, my loss, my scars, my privations, with the hope that it will never happen again.
Naïve. Yes. Did I help the local Shi’ite Bedouins? Yes. Am I a simple man, entangled in a tapestry of politics and horror and intrigue? Of course. Have I stopped the horrors which man enacts against man, such as I saw in Fatima? Likely not. But for me the war will have been, and will always be, the effort, the proud act of fighting the wave of inhumanity and in doing so, redeem at the very least…myself.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire