The sun wakes me up; with a grumpy, groggy groan, I push my arms free of the sleep that has locked them into place. The cap goes to the ground and I scratch my head with both hands until the dirt of the last day is free from the shaggy blonde. I place a canteen of water on the embers and wait for it to boil as I wash my face and hands. I put the flask away and make coffee in the canteen. I am aware of where I am at, as well as where I want to be in the next few hours. The summit is close, as I knew it was last night. I am still not sure why I just didn’t go to the top, but then again I am sure that something distracted me. My thoughts run through the marathon of what transpired inside my own head from the night before. No shit, a map helps, no shit, that compasses will point north (for the most part) and no shit, I will make the summit in less than a few hours.
Where I am at, and where I am going, or am I where it thought I would be, are interesting diversions from a few much more simpler questions. Namely, am I where I should be? The simple answer to that question is, yes, I am exactly where I should be. With ease and grace, I go thought the motions of being in the wood line, of living off of nothing. There is confidence in my movements, and where there is none, I will fake it until I have earned it. I have done the same for my occupation for the last decade that it is natural to act with confidence before it has been earned by time and trials.
Where else could I be, well I dream daily of all of the places I could be. This morning and the cup of coffee in my hand are no different; I have visions of the oceans, of cities, of a life with more stability. And these dreams and visions are nice, I have reason to believe the grass is greener on the other side. I have the same reasons to believe this that others use to attend mass. So I keep dreaming, and imaging all of the other things that I could want. Yet when I am in a stack and the door is in front of me, and it is my voice that I hear in the head set “Breach, Breach, Breach,” followed by the concussion of the flex charge, I know. When my Team Sergeant turns and looks in my eyes and gives me a thumbs up, I know. When I am covered in dirt and sweat, and I have dropped my kit and am sitting at a computer typing out the reports and my Junior Charlie brings me a beer, I know. I know that I am exactly where I should be at this moment and time.
Maybe when I was ten, or fifteen or a freshman in college I might have thought that I would be somewhere else, that I would be in a power suit and married. That with my family is where I would spend my thirtieth birthday. That maybe I would be mature enough to have forgiven those whom have trespassed against me. That I would be stable, that I could be looked upon as a model citizen of this nation, a rule follower that left his personal revolution behind in his mid twenties. That, however is just not where I am at, and I would not trade any of those things for the life that I have lived. Regrets are as hot and as painful as the burning coals that burnt my hand pulling boiling water from the flames.
I have regrets and I still have dreams, I have those that I wish would apologize to me, and those that I should forgive. Yet a quirky mix of stubbornness, laziness, and anger have kept me from these things. I know this much and about this much only, I have moved past the point of being able to lay out a plan, or create a map, I cannot change who I am now today. Those choices are gone. I cannot wake up tomorrow and say today I will be a fireman and a husband, or a banker and a father. I must live with the reality that I am soldier, that I am a rule breaker, that I have faults, and that I am alone for most of my time.
I know as well that each day is mine to make, and though I belong where I find myself, I have the ability to change directions, to make a new course, that I can slowly move towards new ends. Though, the very nature of the person that I am, the values that I hold dear, will bind me toward certain ends. That the obligations of my past must and will direct the course of my immediate future. The path is before me and the pines keep me on course, the water will quench my thirst, and my legs will push me up the hill. All of this is possible and is happening, though I am not physically trapped upon the trail, the trail is taking me where I am headed. The path has been chosen over the course of a thousand moments. And I am here and in the now as I place my hands on the rocks, pulling me up towards the pinnacle.
As I stand upon the top of the peak, I look around and smile. As I have said, the ocean would be nice, the money of being a banker would be comfortable, the companionship of a woman would be soothing, yet here I am, exhilarated and exhausted. I am where I thought I would be just a few short days ago when I decided to climb this mountain. The pressure and stress, the exertion that I have placed into any moment must be so much as to clear my head and allow me to live in the sublime seconds. I am where I belong; more importantly, I am where I have paid the price to be. I am who I am, not who I wished that I would be, nor who I dreamt I would become, I am more, I am real. As I sit down on the rocks and pull my water from my bag, I know that I have become something that I am proud of, that I am where I am proud to be. It is these moments that alleviate all of the anguish and pain of my failings, of being alone late at night, of not being who and what I thought, of all my faults, and for a brief moment that I will chase after to find again, I am at peace.
Finally a question of some substance, however, one that will bring us all to the brink of either calling me a cheesy pathetic fool, or a romantic that has an overly developed sense of himself. Either way the intricacies of my job or profession will be brought to light. It was dark in the living room when my phone rang, it was dark outside as well. The movie on the television had barely captured my attention. Although not ready for the type of grilling I took on the phone, one particular question caught my attention, “what is the most important part of my job?” What an interesting way to phrase a general question about another’s occupation. I had expected, “what’s the most fascinating part of your job,” or even “why do you do what you do.” For both of those questions I have well rehearsed statements and stories, that would alleviate the others expectations, while keeping myself well within familiar grounds.
This question was different, without hesitation, I heard what I wanted to hear and started to answer a completely different question. I tried to tell her why I do what I do, what keeps me at my job, and not in the unemployment lines, or rather the freedom of release. That answer is simple and rehearsed… The people that I work with and the problem sets offered me, provide both the camaraderie as well as the necessary challenges to keep me. Both are true statements, but neither of them match what the question was asking. The most important aspect of my occupation, the one that resonates the most with me, is the aspect of responsibility. Not so much the duty, or the obligation to my country, for I have never been an Arthur Sullivan man. But, rather the sole responsibility for the welfare of others that have volunteered to throw their lives on the altar of our Imperial ambitions. It is the sons and daughters of the Untied States that I have been entrusted with through my commission. For those that have seen an officer stand and take his oath of office, you have seen what should be heralded as the most sacred and solemn pledge our nation has to offer.
It is this pledge and oath that truly separates us from mercenaries, (or contractors in today’s colloquial.) It is this oath that forces a young man to swear to another officer that he will do everything in his power to defend the constitution against all enemies. Though not stated in the actual oath, the men and women that are around you when you speak it, can hear the words that are not spoken. They hear, “From the last of my breath I will ensure that the mission is accomplished. That during this trial I am personally responsible for the well being and lives of the men under my command.” A young officer will hear these words, or a similar set, almost daily from the moment that he is commissioned to the moment that he takes command of his first platoon. There truly is no way to easily describe the pressure that he is under. These young man-boys are chastised for each mistake with the curse of, “what are you going to tell his parents?” It will be taken as far as watching young lieutenants write letters of condolences to fictitious soldiers that he has lost in training due to his errors. These letters are written, and are one of the hardest punishments you can imagine. Late at night in your hotel room, you sit there nursing a beer, knowing that the punishment is bull shit and that the letter isn’t real. Yet, by the time you get to the second sentence you can start to feel the emotions rise. The anger at the ones forcing you to do this does not subside but rather changes and you choke back the rising tide of emotions.
As for myself, this is the portion of my job that I take the most seriously. I would like to say that I have done everything I can to keep my subordinates out of harm’s way, that is just not the case. There were days that I was reckless, there were days that I volunteered us to do more and more dangerous acts. Yet, without hesitation, I would tell you that I did my best to prepare my team for these operations, and I took all precautions available after the acceptance of the mission. Having to write the second most difficult letters of my life, the first being the letter to my own parents, letters to the parents of my fallen. Of men that I was with when they died, when my choices pushed them forward into harm’s way. Where no amount of training could have protected them. My choices alone are judged and measured by the blood of not only our enemies but our friends, I have relived these choices a thousand times each night for years. This is the part that they don’t tell you on the recruiting posters, this is the part that they cannot train you for, nor prepare you for. It isn’t until you are sitting at a small, poorly lit desk, with your shaking hands on a key board, working on the opening of a letter that you never wanted to write.
In my previous posts on a much older blog site I wrote many times on the deaths of friends, small eulogies and tributes to images of men that will be forgotten with time. It is from these experiences that I tell you as a commissioned officer in the United States Army the most important and the only aspect that I treat with pure reverence, is that of the lives of my fellow soldiers on the battlefield. As a child in the eyes of those that I work with, as a man in the eyes of the world, I stood in front of a wooden stand with a rifle facing downward, behind a pair of boots. My eyes caught the reflection of the dog tags that hung from the pistol grip of an M4 carbine, and I know that though I was successful, for that moment I had failed. For that brief eternity my world narrowed to the name on the tag, I had failed. That the responsibility laid on me, no matter how unprepared or ill conditioned for the task was mine. For a man with no god, it is the one time I wished that I had a god. That I could wish for my friend something more that would make up for leaving his family and friends behind, that could make up for the suffering of his final moments.
A question was asked of me late at night on the phone by a woman that was testing my limits, trying to learn more about me, neither of us were prepared for the responses that would follow. The night was lost to my mind, as I let it race from one aspect to another of my job, before settling down upon the facts of what responsibility is. Of what having to grow up early means. It was in this moment, that I realized I had changed, that over the course of years, living times that others would say were best forgotten, I had aged. I have written that their memories will fade and that they will be forgotten, and yes it is true, and yes time will erase their names, but I will never forget. And the monument on the North corner of Fort Carson will forever carry their names and titles until the earth moves and I have gone to join them.
The world swings awkwardly on its hinges, almost as if you could hear the creaking in the plaster of the night sky. I have felt every move, no different than that of a small boat at sea. Your stomach lifts with each swing and your heart freezes as the old adage of equal and opposite reactions crashes into your soul. So bereft of any emotional ties to another holiday, I am in my room contemplating a religious festival that is cheerfully being celebrated outside my door by the American Special Forces soldiers that have somehow managed to produce bottles of Johnny and Jack. The small fire is a little larger this evening, as is the volume of the conversations. These men have seen things that others would best forget, they have been places that god does not walk, and yet almost all of them to a man believe. They believe deeper than I care to admit to. They believe, yet they also hate. They dislike the people that they are forced to live and work with. To see their efforts diminished and disappear every time they return. Forced to start over, forced to deal with the same problems and norms that set the Iraqi man from us. They are ignorant of Islam and despise its perceived tenets. Though in good fashion and discipline they are professional enough not to allow these opinions to affect their work, as we operate side by side and through the Iraqi Emergency Response Brigade.
They are tired and discouraged, they have been taken to the mat by time and wear, yet they are not defeated. You cannot defeat men such as these. They will never lose; it is not an option that they are willing to even consider. So they continue on, venting to the youngest of the officers in their midst. They vent in the form of cynicism and snide remarks meant to hurt those around them that are not strong enough to take it. They push back against the orders that are passed down to them by those that forget to think before they hit send on the email. The war is over, and their blood as not been for the glories and success that they had hoped for. So, they forget the past, and ignore the future as they toast each other in the form of stories. Crazy stories that would scare the shit out of you, but only make them laugh, though their laughter is hedged with melancholy and sadness. Tones that only those looking for them will hear, as I do from the steps to my room.
Normalcy; in the past ten or so years I believe that I have lost the definition of the word. I have not lived a normal life. I have chosen to live what I hope one day I will perceive as exceptional, though today as I sit here and write this, I do not believe it is so. I am the most passive man that I know. Yet, there is no task that I have shied away from; there is no enemy that I have not pursued. There is no ring that I have not climbed into. And yes my stories have been told in a tall fashion, they are mostly truth. At 29 I am tired, so very tired. Tired of dealing with the expectation of exceptionalism, tired of others not meeting my reality, tired of my reality being just outside of my grasp. This exhaustion drives me to dream of the ocean. To drift into the darkest corners of my mind and set sail on some adventure that is the wind and sun. The dreams are grander than the reality. I am strong enough to admit that, I am strong enough to know that I will never meet my own expectations.
After some time, I will do as all others and I drift towards the fire. Drink in hand and a stoic face that will light up in smile when I am recognized and greeted. When I shake the hands of those that have gone to hell with me, when I grasp the men that hold my life in their hands, then I too will tell the lies that are my reality. The sunrises above the waning fire and begins is slow crossing of the sky and the men trickle away to their rooms. Today will be no different from the last or the next and the possibilities of what it will bring and what we will endure are endless. I to return to my room just as the morning call to prayer is sounded. On the inside, I smile as I recognize the irony of the music of the minarets. I shut the door and lay there awake…
I sit at a small desk, trapped between the cheep sprigs of a bed, and the fridge that is clearly marked ‘do not remove’ as if I would just up and heft the damn thing and walk away. I am hunched over and listing to Bob Schneider as I bang away on the lap top that is square center on the desk, the top of the screen barely touching the small hutch that is weighed down with books, papers, and the gloc. My elbows are on the table and my arms are wrapped around the cut-off plastic bottle that is being used as a rock glass for the Jack Daniels that sits just below my nose. In an attempt to saver every bit of the joy of drink I have placed it in a spot that allows me to breath in every wafer of sweetness. Yes, it is addicting, the smell, the taste, the feel of comfort that comes from some state side habit. I cant help but singing along with the song that is playing. The world can go away and hide behind the sunrise that is occurring outside my blacked out room. The poor souls that need my attention and decisions can wait; I am tired. In fact, the world can wait until I am ready for it again. Tonight was no different than the possibility of any other night. There is no difference in my world between possibility and reality, they are treated the same, with the same level of detachment. I want my humanity back; I want to feel again, so I bury my head into the electronic page that sits in front of me. Oh how I wish I was not good at my job.
The streets of Baghdad are not quiet tonight, nor will they be all day. As I do finally sleep, I have left the small portion of the city called Yusafiah in turmoil. I have separated families, changed the social makeup and forced more children to grow up way to soon. I have ruined the lives of a dozen men tonight, and those whose price I exacted was the least, are those that will be buried in the next two days. Such a world I live in. There are thousands of men and women who claim to do my job, yet in truth it is such a small number of us that are forced to exact violence upon others, forced to do the unthinkable. The night was quiet when I went to this town, even the dogs had decided not to make such a fuss, though that should have clued me in to how the night would turn out, and In all honesty, it did. There was no trap, no ambush, just a group of men that thought they were wrong done by and decided that they would not give up their homes, would not let intruders into their house. It is unfortunate because they were men with families, they told us that we could not come in, that they were protected by the law. Well tonight, my companions were the law and they thought otherwise, these were men that were wanted, with warrants, for acts of indiscriminate war, acts of barbarism. Before I had a chance to intervene, the night became bright under the explosion of artillery pieces precisely laid along the road.
The fireworks were incredible, the lights, and sounds were enough to amaze you. The fighter jet that came in next had me standing with my mouth open staring into the contrails of smoke and stars as he made an entire building buckle and fall. The night did fall quiet again, silence, the eerie silence that is unnatural, I have tasted it before, I have heard it before. The night would be quiet for another hour while we left, and then the streets will fill up as they are now; now as I sit and remind myself. Tonight I will sleep like a baby under the heavy eye lids of scotch carefully poured into a makeshift plastic cup. It is this cup that I find refuge, that I find comfort in. I look into the bottom of the clear plastic and ask what was the price that I paid. I have measured and weighed the price that others have paid tonight, but what in the end was the cost for me. Well I assure you it was not as much as the men of Yusafiah, though still heavy. Achmed, Mahmood, Ali, Mohammad, Yasid, and Saad will all go to the promised land and take with them the trophies of shrapnel to show Allah, they will stand tall at Mohammad’s side (blessings be upon him) they will see the glories that are for those that do good in the name of protecting those that cannot protect themselves. They died trying to prevent another tragedy, another senseless death. It is easy to see how some men can be confused into thinking that all deaths are senseless, yet I cannot see this logic. I have been trained and educated to understand the Kings Gambit in chess. To learn the sacrifice necessary for victory, the definition of the victory will tell us who is fit for the hereafter filled with the glories of your deity. In the end I hope to find my departed state without any of the accoutrements of the religions that I have seen on this planet because I will not answer for the acts that I have done. That is right, I will not commit to remorse, nor will I accept accolades, what I have done without humanity I should receive its rewards without it as well. Give me nothing but room to walk my way and alone, and do not for the love of your life, or those that you have heard about tonight, nock on my door for the next seven hours.