Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Face I Recognize

Ali Al Saleem Airbase, Kuwait

The first few hours after I arrive back on the ground are hectic--I sit through a mess of late-night briefings, and struggle to find my bag. Things smooth out a bit after they separate those of us taking leave in Germany, and after a few more quick briefs, I'm able to settle down in a transient housing tent. Still, all told, I don't end up getting to bed until almost 4 a.m.

I sleep late--the other soldiers going stateside have a much longer day ahead of them, but I am fortunate enough in that my only obligation is to link up at SATO travel at 1600. I do some light shopping at the PX, and grab a bite to eat. In a few hours, I'll have to get moving again, but before I can go to my appointment at the travel office, there's one more thing I have to do.

We have to arrive at the airport in civilian clothes if we choose to take leave in Europe--it's a security thing, and honestly I'm glad--I've been dying to get rid of this uniform. There's something in a uniform that masks the true nature of the person within, and while I understand the necessity in that, there are times when I chafe against it. Fortunately, Anne sent me a change of clothes some months back for just this reason, and since I haven't showered or shaved in a couple of days, I decide to take advantage of my morning and conduct a certain long-awaited ritual.

The showers here on Al Saleem are clean--much cleaner than the ones I'm used to up North. The hot water always runs, and the water pressure is good, so as I strip down to conduct my personal hygiene this morning, I resolve to not rush through my shower for once, as I am so often forced to do. The shower trailer is empty anyway, this morning, so this makes keeping my resolution easier.

I take my time, soaking up the hot water and letting it ease the knots out of my muscle tissue. I just did a week on tower guard, plus two missions back-to-back before that, so I'm still a little sore from the body armor. The hot water feels great running down my skin, and it feels even better to slough away some of the accumulated funk of the last few days. I scrub and rinse myself until I feel more refreshed than I have in months, after which I turn off the water and throw back the curtain. I have a very specific order in which I want to do things next.

As crazy as it sounds, when you spend so much time dressed like everyone else, it actually makes you more concerned about your appearance. I've dreamed for months about what I would wear when I came home, and Anne didn't disappoint. That woman reads my mind some days, I swear. I throw on my best pair of dark jeans first, after which I brush my teeth and set to shaving.

I'm actually shaving with new blades for once--a thing which I take too little time to appreciate most days. I manage not to cut myself even once, and by the time I put away my razor and shaving cream, I'm ready for the next portions of the ritual. I've been saving my last set of contact lenses for just this occasion, and so with great care I put away my delicate wireframe spectacles in favor of something a little less conspicious. My eyes have to adjust for a minute as I slide the lenses in. They tear up a bit as they struggle to accustom themselves again to the small, invasive sheaths. I blink a few times. My vision swims into focus. I smile. I didn't realize up til now just how good it feels to pretend, even for a minute, that one can see with one's own eyes again. This feeling I relish as well.

Finish up toweling off my hair, after which I set to completing the task of getting dressed. My clothes are laid out neatly on the bench, and I don each vestment carefully, and in a specific order. First the socks, followed by my favorite pair of old Timberlands. The braided leather belt--more practical for me, being so slender--comes on next, but even though the belt does little to keep the jeans from hanging low on my hips, I don't mind. The faint view of "man-lines"--Anne's terminology for the V-shaped muscle group just above my groin--will make a pleasant surprise for her the first time she sees me again shirtless. Speaking of the shirt, this is the final garment I put on; an old black woven T-shirt of which I've always been particularly fond. I raise my arms above my head and struggle into the thing. It slides down with a feeling of comfort and familiarity I can't describe. The sleeve cuffs are a bit tighter now around my biceps, and this too pleases me. Anne will be happy to see I've put on weight.

I turn away for a sec, making sure to check my ACU's for the essentials--wallet, dog-tags , ID, cigarettes, gum--and with those items at last secure, I take a deep breath and turn to inspect myself in the mirror.

And after six long months, I finally see again a face I recognize.

It's not nearly as bad as I thought. The old me--20-something male, about 5'8 and 145 lbs. Slender, but surprisingly enough well-muscled. Tattoos running down the insides of both forearms. Dark blonde hair, harshly-faded, spiky, with dark eyes and a full, almost girly mouth; which I hate but my wife describes as "sensual." She's full of shit. Dressed low-key, but with just a hit of James Dean panache. It may sound vain, but it's a trip. I've become so used to the dull-gray, bespectacled blur of my duty uniform that I'm actually shocked to see myself outside of it. I'm really surprised--I look good. I look damned good. I draw closer to inspect my shave--no nicks or missed patches, and as I pull back, I take a full measure of myself and am unable to keep from smiling. My reflection returns the gesture, gracing me with a wry smirk.

How's it goin', handsome?

Not bad, I silently reply. Ready to go back to Germany? Break some hearts?

You know it. I have to smile wider. I turn away, laughing at myself as I gather my things. I re-emerge into the harsh Kuwaiti sun feeling energized, and as I make my way back to my tent, I bask in the glow of a refreshment I have not known for some time.

Roll out the red carpet, bitches, I think to myself.

I'm back.

Why I Hate Riding in a C-130 (Or, The Two-Hour Winged Bus Ride From Hell)

Imagine the cargo hold of a C-130 transport plane; maybe 45 feet long by 15 wide. It's narrow and cramped, and the bulkheads are lined with exposed piping and bundles of wire, so you feel like you're sitting inside the belly of a giant metal whale. Think Jonah.

Now imagine the hold crammed with you and almost 60 other people. There are no seats; only canvas slings that fold out from the wall. Everywhere you sit, it seems like a chunk of metal is going up your ass. The roar from the propellers is deafening, and there's a thirty mile per hour headwind the whole way, so for two hours the plane jounces violently in the grip of severe turbulence.

The first time you rode in one of these things, you were armed and just beginning your journey into a combat zone. Combat landings, you were told, were a common practice, because when coming in for an approach, a fat-slow-moving aircraft coming in along a low, straight line makes a delicious target for enemy small-arms fire and rockets. It might have been harrowing, the first time it happened, but at least you understood. Now, all you can think is, Sure, the takeoff's gonna be hairy, but after that it's all smooth sailing into Kuwait. You tell yourself this, and for some reason it makes your normal fear of flying manageable.

And somewhere, God is laughing.

Sure enough, the plane guns it off the runway at Anaconda, pitching sharplys soon as the wheels are up. That's a little dodgy, but not bad. Still, consider what might go through your head when, an hour and a half into the flight, the pilot cuts the throttle and banks hard left. The plane drops like a stone from 30,000 feet.

Bastards, I think. They all said the pilots don't pull this shit going into Kuwait. Lying sons of bitches.

Oh well. I wasn't wearing clean shorts anyway.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Freeman Flies Out


It's finally here--the day I've waited for. I will be in the arms of my wife within days. DAYS. The joy this gives me goes beyond words.

My other half, my better half, my best friend, my lover. Anne, the name of a healing saint, and in her a saint I've found. I will fly out from here. I will leave this place, for a time, and though I may only write sporadically, do not fear, for write I will. And when I do write, the face that stares into the screen--the fingers which type the strokes--will reflect a visage that, however briefly, matches the mind within.

I will hike the Alps. I will enjoy music. I will etch ink into my skin. I will sing, and I will laugh. I will enjoy all-night conversations with friends over dark German beer. I will make love to my wife. I wil savor our tongues mingling. I will bask in the "glowing static burn" (her words) as our bodies press together. I will do all these things, and more, and as I do them I will thank every God that possibly exists, for am I back by her side.

I am to be back with Anne, and I am grateful.

I am grateful to the point of tears.

[For those wanting more of substance; read the post below. My first three-post day, fellow readers. Enjoy. --M.]

Popularity and My America

"The American ideals as set forth by our for[e]fathers have been the rock that has seen us through many a dark hour. The difficulty Americans preceive [sic] isn’t a shakiness of our ideals, but a changing of our popularity (or preceived [sic] popularity) in the world."

Comments section, Sgt. Hook, "Hard Is Not Hopeless."

I am, if nothing else, a firm believer in the ideals set down in our Constitution: The Four Freedoms, Rule of Law, Equal Protection under the Law, Separation of Church and State, as well as the other many basic concepts enumerated in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I believe that we came to our once-legendary standing in the world based on these principles; an ethos, if you will, that symbolized a moral high ground within the global arena.

I believe in this. THIS is MY America. THIS is the country that I love. THIS is the country that I signed on to defend (and, perhaps, restore). But I have to admit, while I am proud to be a soldier, I am not proud of the many sins that, since 9/11, have been perpetrated in my name.

Domestic surveillance.



Pre-emptive war.

The abandonment of diplomacy.

I signed up to fight this war, however grudgingly, and the dangers I face are mine to endure. I recognize that, yes, there are people who want Americans dead. Quite brutally, in some cases. But as Socrates said: "It is better to suffer an injustice than to inflict one."

We murder civilians, we rape a SOVEREIGN nations' culture and economy, we talk openly of first-strike nuclear attacks against other governments. We plunge into a culture we don't understand, in hopes of remaking it in our own, Christian, Republican, rich-in-fossil-fuels image. And for what? To avenge a national grief? To prove a point? To justify our own nationalism? And if so, what is noble in continuing this way? Is this American? Sending my brothers and I to our deaths in the name of a barely disguised sense of vengeance and religious fervor--is that American? I don't think that it is.

And I think that the American people are slowly starting to realize this.

I'm all for fighting terrorism. I really am. Send me to Afghanistan. Send me to Darfur. Send me to Somalia. But as far as I can see, fighting terrorism is not what I'm doing here. What I am doing, is contributing to an agenda which sullies American freedoms in my name, and which makes me ashamed of my beloved Army.

Domestic surveillance.



Pre-emptive war.

The abandonment of diplomacy.

Are these American ideals? I don't think they are. My country is better than this. But if they are, then wouldn't it perhaps be better to slough loose such corrupted values? Wouldn't that be American: to strive to regain the Moral High Ground?

What am I fighting for? WHO am I fighting for? I'm clearly not fighting for MY America.

FUCK popularity. Popularity is bullshit.

I want my goddamned pride back.


Oz comes in from work with the usual fanfare--a grunt and the muffled thud of body armor. Brooks is passed out in his bed, and I'm sitting at my laptop, watching "Carnivale." We just came in from a mission the day before, so we're busy enjoying a little comp time.

"You're going to Recon," says Oz. It's a simple statement, unadorned, but it's weight causes me to start from my chair.


"You're going to Recon," Oz repeats, "When SFC Jameson takes over."

"How'd you hear this?" I start to stand up, hoping for more information.

Oz grabs his reflector belt and patrol cap, turning for the door. "Don't go spreading it around."

"Oz, hold up. Oz!" I move to follow, but it's too late. He's already disappeared into the night.

Our company is made up of several platoon elements: Headquarters, Maintenance, Support, and then the primary Line Platoons, 1st and 2nd. I've been a part of 1st since I came to this company, and while it's worked out okay, I can't say I particularly enjoy it. It's boring work, what I do, and I can't even describe how much time I've longed for something a little more challenging.

Support is where Oz went several months back. His platoon is comprised of three sections: DFAC (cooks), Heavy Equipment (Dozers and Cranes), and finally Reconnaissance, which is where Oz was assigned. Recon is unique, in that it contains soldiers from the primary MOS of our unit, only shifted into an intelligence-gathering and security role. It's a small squad, but the cohesion is good, and the slots for Recon are hard to come by. If I had to pick anywhere to go, I'd go there. So needless to say, hearing whispers of such a thing make hairs on my neck prickle. I've wanted off the Line for months. Still, Oz is right--it IS just a rumor--but that being said, I know Oz, and Oz is pretty good at keeping his ear to the operational ground. If it's coming from Oz, something tells me I should trust it.

Who knows, though.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Taji, Part III: Tigris

And so I found myself thrust onto the back of a patrol boat, something one would think the Army (think ground operations) wouldn't even have use for. I found myself there mere hours before I was supposed to convoy back to Balad, and moreover I found myself there in possession of a weapon that wasn't even mine. Sometimes, I found myself thinking as I climbed aboard, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.

The boat on which I rode had been retrofitted with a crude gun mount, but it lacked the bracket with which to affix my newfound source of firepower. As a result, I was forced to rest my bipod on the mount, standing with my legs apart so as to avoid destabilizing the weapon. As we departed the launch, I had to fight to remain standing--the boats we were using produce an awesome amount of thrust, and the sudden acceleration to 60 mph nearly sent me tumbling over the stern. I was carrying over 60 pounds of gear at this point, between my armor and weapon, and since I hadn't exactly been fitted with a life-vest, any fall into the water would most likely have dragged me, clawing for air, straight to the bottom. I found my ears ringing from the roar of diesel engines, and cold spray from the boat's wake slashed at my face.

I can't say exactly what we were doing there--I wasn't given a brief, and honestly as an E-4 I don't make it my place to ask questions. That being said, it was an experience well worth describing here, as winding a road as I have taken to do it. There were two boats--I was on the rear, and Meiers playing gunner on the lead. We fought wind, noise, and low visibility as our hosts sped us along the curving banks of the Tigris River. It wasn't my idea of a good time, but even as nonplussed as I was to be there, I have to admit, even now, that the whole thing was pretty cool.

At one point, we attempted to thread the columns supporting a metal railroad bridge. The passage was narrow, and my ferrymen made no effort to reduce speed or heading. We were almost through the gap when the wake from the lead boat caught us and slammed our craft head-on into one of the columns. I'd say we were doing about 40 at this point, but it's hard to say. Whatever the case, the impact pitched me fully off of my feet, and sent me sprawling, weapon and all, into the crew area. My ears rang with a metallic thud--the ceramic plates in my vest impacted harshly off the aluminum deck of the patrol boat. The ammo drum went flying out of my SAW, and as my vision cleared I could see the long line of brass glinting off the sunset. I sighed with relief. The drum was still back in the birdbath, but my rounds were still safely secured in the feed tray. I'd be in the hospital right now, if not for all that armor, but at the moment I was just glad to be still holding on to a functional weapon. My experience from Baquba a few weeks before continues to make me wary when not physically holding my piece. The collision rang my bell, but I was unharmed. I stumbled back to my feet, repositioned my machine gun, and we continued.

Thankfully, the rest of the evening was less eventful. My guides took the boats out to their mission site, and they were able to fix whatever had caused the problem. The evening grew chill, and purple twilight began to fall over the river. After scanning the riverbanks for almost three hours, the engines roared to life again, and once more I was steadying myself against the violent acceleration of our chariot.

As daylight faded in the West, it seemed suddenly that my discomfort--the coldness, the wetness, the suffocating weight of my armor--faded with it. As we hurtled back to the launch, dodging sandbars and bridge overpasses, I remember feeling my eyes open in a way that seemed to have little to do with the onset of darkness. I remember lights coming on in a dozen riverside dwellings, and I remember staring transfixed, at fireflies dancing among the groves of willow and palm. It occurred to me again, quite out of nowhere, that I was traveling over the Tigris River, one of the nursemaids of Western Civilization, and as I scanned my sector I found myself distracted again by the natural beauty of the Mesopotamian deltas.

I heard the Voice: How many others have seen this? How many generations has this river nurtured? How many more will take life from its banks? How many will have to take life upon its banks before this all comes to an end? The questions came unbidden. I could not answer, but instead found myself whispering an unconscious phrase: "The Waters of Creation." I found myself wondering if perhaps being party to this foolish Crusade wasn't, on some level, a worthy price to pay for the lesson on display before me. Like so many of my thoughts, this one, too, never resolved itself; never tilted one way or another. Then the Voice again:

Civilization began here. Will it end here?

I shook my head, adjusting my ballistic goggles. I didn't reply with an answer, only posed another question:

MUST it end here? Heidegger, redux: Muss es sein? Must it be?

Must it be?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Taji, Part II: Eden

Like much of eastern Iraq, Taji is beautiful, but also dangerous.

The path to get there lies along a stretch of road that soldiers here call "IED Alley." It's a thirty-mile stretch of flat pavement, which passes through several towns and serves as a massive shooting gallery for Coalition forces attempting to traverse it. We can't drive it during the day; we have to move at night.

Coming down to Taji at the beginning of our last mission, we ran across a makeshift checkpoint. The T-barriers and guard towers had once been ours, but now they were staffed by lazy Iraqis in civilian clothes and ski masks. They brandished Kalashnikovs and RPKs, and some laughed as we passed through. I didn't like them from the start; not a stitch of clothing that looked government issue. Simple truth is, most U.S. soldiers have learned never to trust the average Iraqi--it's too hard to tell where the loyalties lie. The situation here is all a simmering brew of shifting political alliances, religious hatreds, and family grudges, with the spoon of money stirring the pot. As some rapper once wisely said, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

Not five minutes after we passed through the checkpoint, a convoy a few kilometers ahead of us ran into an ambush. We had to come to a halt, where we stayed for damn near an hour. Up the road, we heard small-arms fire and multiple IED explosions, and when it was all over I heard our captain on the radio with the LT, checking with Higher about the last checkpoint we had passed. LT said it didn't exist on any BlueForce map.

My shotgun, Sergeant Burroughs, glanced at me knowingly. I glanced back. The bastards had been forward observers. They'd been laying a trap, and would have sprung it upon us, had the convoy ahead not beaten us to the punch. We passed that same convoy not long afterward, but I couldn't see any damage, nor any signs of casualties. I hoped my eyes didn't deceive. At the same time, however, I couldn't ignore the arrogant pragmatism of my inner voice:

Better them than us.

I hated the inner voice for that statement, that self-interest, but I couldn't deny that he was right.

That being said, the rest of the Taji mission was less eventful, discounting of course The SAW Incident. We arrived early in the morning hours, and found ourselves crashed out in a warehouse lined with cots--transient housing. I had a great deal more spare time to deal with than I would have initially expected, and by the second day I'd actually wished that I'd packed a couple of books. Most of the other soldiers frittered away their time playing Spades, or going to the local PX or DFAC, but I was content to lay on my cot, clean my rifle, and listen to music. I'd tear into an MRE when I got hungry, and fight off boredom by paging through a borrowed newspaper or magazine.

I actually had fun, for the most part. I worked hard when we were on-duty, but I got to see some pretty cool things. I saw a few tank graveyards, worked a bit with local Iraqi soldiers--this time in proper uniform. I even got to see and photograph what I suspect had once been a Saddam-era gallows. It lay in a clearing amidst the dense groves of cyprus and fig, and part of its concrete support structure had ripped completely free of it's moorings. At first I thought it was a playground, but when I saw the two sets of stairs and that elevated platform, some part of me already knew that no matter how people stepped up, at least one of those people would have been intended never to step down.

Taji is dangerous, but also beautiful. To the west of the Iraqi Compound, we traveled along the snaking banks of the Tigris River--the very waters that gave our civilization life. When the sun rose, it shone in amber hues across the canopies of palm jungle. At one point, while sitting at a checkpoint, my ground-guide, Ahote, leaned up against the door of my truck. His stout Hopi figures split in a broad grin, and he pointed east.

"Look at that," I remember him saying. "Bet you never thought a place with sunrises like this would have people in it so eager to shoot at you."

I didn't answer right away, just took it in and shook my head. "Nope."

"Man, I never seen anything like this. Not even in the desert."

"You should see them on the Lakes," I told him. "Water to the East, North, and West. Turn your head one way at dawn, turn it the other at dusk." I felt a sly grin creep across my face. "Like Paradise."

Ahote nodded wistfully. "Yeah."

He had a good point--how can a place so beautiful be home to so much violence? Traveling down the roads here, I saw nothing but beautiful stone houses, centuries-old things with iron balconies and rooftop patios in the Arabic tradition. Far from being owned by the wealthy, these homes were dwellings for large families, inherited and passed down through generations. They sat nestled deep in the palms, and outside children played in the dirt. Out back, adults of all ages roasted lamb and laughed over roaring fires, much as they might have before war ever even came to this place. I got a feeling, driving down these roads, of timelessness; of peace. War comes, cities fall, but these places remain; sheltered and sustained by the healing waters of the Tigris.

What, I asked myself at one point, could make a people forget all of this? This is Eden. What sane person could possiby ignore the writing on This Wall? It's so clear: Stay. Breed. Live. Laugh. Be Happy.

There is no flaming sword here. There is no locked gate. Eden never cast us out, I realize, we just forgot it. Give us thumbs, we forge a blade, as Maynard said. The worst thing God did for us was bring us down from the trees. Had we just stayed there, we might not have suffered so.

But would that really have been the best thing for us?

Every time I stared out at those trees, the Voice asked this same question. Even now, I can't say I know.

I digress.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Taji, Part I

I was finally situated in SFC Jameson's Humvee, when he informed Meiers and I that he wanted us "full-auto."

I heard Meiers sigh. We looked over at each other. She knew what this meant as well as I did. Gunners.

Problem is, Meiers only carry M-16s. This meant we would have to wrestle our way back out of the Humvee and try to track down someone to trade with us. Far be it from us, however, to gripe openly at the orders of our platoon sergeant. So straining a bit under the cramping and weight of our gear, we climbed out and rushed quickly back inside.

We were down in Taji, north of Baghdad, working with the Iraqi army. We'd already been there for about three days, and with plans to convoy back to Balad set for that evening, the sudden rise of an emergency out at the job site made my peers and I more than a little irritable. If I had just stepped out back for a smoke, I found myself thinking, I'd still be chilling on my cot. Then again, such is life. I was happy to be making myself useful for a change, so I moved with at least a semblance of purpose when I burst back into the warehouse where we'd been quartered. I scanned the rows of cots.

Meiers was already switching out with Grabach; that ruled him out. The place was nearly empty, and for a moment I despaired. Then my eyes fell upon my squadmate, Pfc. Stein. He looked to be playing Spades with Ahote and Colton.

"Stein!" His head, hook-nosed and a bit too large for his body, wobbled up on his skinny neck. He finally saw me, and I beckoned him over, shifting under my vest as I waited. His voice, rendered soft by shyness, was slurred worse by his usual Kentucky drawl.

"Yea, wassup?"

I pointed to his weapon. "Gimme your SAW." In addition to describing in slang a proficiency in dispensing high volumes of lead, "SAW" is also the official designation for the Army's M249 light machine gun, or Squad Automatic Weapon. Stein complied, and I handed over my M-16. He looked at me, puzzled, as I ducked my head through the sling.

"Whas' goinown?"

I shook my head. "Some bullshit down at the river. I'm starting to feel like Sar'n Jameson's bitch." I opened the feed tray, peering inside. Stein's weapon is always spotless. I can't understand how he does it. I looked back up.

"Got a drum for this thing?"

He nodded. "Yea."

"Alright, hook me up." We moved over to Stein's cot, where he produced a 200-round drum of ammunition. Ideally, I'd have asked for another, but I had no space for it among my gear, and besides, in a pinch the M-249 will take a 30-round mag. Double feeds are more likely, but hey. I took a second to heft the thing in an exploratory fashion--Christ, these things are heavy--before going to affix it to the weapon. I struggled for a second, before Stein interrupted me.

"Got it in backwards."

"Shit, my bad." I corrected myself, making sure my links faced up, rather than down and into the bolt. "Red's safety, right?"


"Good." I hefted the thing over my shoulder. Even now, I don't envy Stein the weight of that thing. I made sure the drum was secure one more time, and then got up to leave. "'Ey," Stein asked me:

"Yewever fahred a SAW?"

I shook my head as I adjusted my shooters' gloves. I turned to go.

"Not since Basic."

Friday, February 09, 2007


On a sunny afternoon
I can step out for a smoke
And watch a throng of soldiers
Barely younger than myself
Paw a girlie calendar.
Their manner is jovial,

Their lusts are reasonable,
But today I turn away.
Leave my vice in silence
And solitude.

The daylight is pale and sweet
And from the West, a slight breeze
Whispers between the palm fronds.
When I close my eyes and breathe,
I can notice how the air
Smells identical to the
Way it once did in my youth,
Back on the shores of Huron.

And then through all the banter,
I notice the tufts of grass
That grow beneath the barbed wire,
And I transcend.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


The last few days have been hectic--it seems that as soon as we get back from one mission, we're preparing for another. It's for this reason that I haven't posted as much recently as I would like. Also, I've been caught up in a conflict of creative interest. I want to avoid the impression that my military service sums up my identity, though at the same time, I am a warblogger, and thus I do feel a certain obligation to record my experiences and obligations for as long as I am here. I want to write about this war, but I want to avoid a "Thin Red Line" kind of experience. This dilemma only continues to magnify, as lately I find the rift between my professional and personal identies growing.

Our squad had a sensing session today with our supervisor--Sergeant Killeen. Jeffrey Killeen has been my first-line NCO since just before I left Germany, and he's fairly new to positions of leadership. He's married to another soldier over in Second Platoon, and he's about six months my junior. I liked Sergeant Killeen well enough before his promotion, but since the start of this deployment I've come to develop certain differences of professional opinion with him.

Sgt. Killeen means well--he really does. I also understand he came into his promotion with a relative lack of experience, and thus is under a lot of pressure from the other NCOs. But while Sergeant Killeen is perhaps less domineering than his peers, I find his lack of ability to delegate tasks to be at times irritating. He micromanages to an insane degree, compromising my own limited personal time and pressuring us to fit a template that rarely takes into account the wildly varying backgrounds and experiences of his squadmembers. Though I have no significant problems with Sergeant Killeen, I do have significant doubts that he will ever send me to a promotion board, or that he will ever have any real confidence in my own abilities. I feel like I'm stagnating under his leadership.

Case in point: while debating recently some of his more "creative" ideas for professional development within the squad, Killeen tried to justify his micromanagement by telling me that he simply wanted me to be the best.

"My goal," he explained, "is to have you and the rest of the squad be the best NCOs in this company, whenever you DO go to the board. Hell, I want you to be better NCOs than me."

"I understand that, Sar'nt," I replied, "but my question is, why do I want to be the best at something I hate?"

Sgt. Killeen couldn't answer me.

So today, the five of us--Sgt. Killeen, Spcs. Meiers and Villareal, Pfcs. Brooks and Stein, and myself--gathered at our company's staging area for a little chat. It was actually Staff Sergeant Smith that put him up to it--I think Smith realized that Sergeant Killeen's soldiers were damned close to mutiny. But all things considered, I do think that some important points were raised, and I do feel that this discussion was a key step in the direction of progress. I left the session feeling that Sgt. Killeen better understands our needs as soldiers, and I do hope that this will help accelerate my own career development as well.

Still, as much as this discussion was needed, I can't help but continue to have doubts about my supervisor. He's stressed out so much of the time that his hands twitch, and while he almost never yells at us, he still manages to give off the signs of someone who is slowly losing an internal battle--a dangerous thing in a combat zone. He reminds me of an exotic housepet--some sort of predatory wildcat, perhaps--left in a neglectful home for many years. Sure, the Humane Society might come pick him up, but he hasn't learned how to read people's signals, and he tends to be very defensive. He might be quiet and a little antisocial now, but it's only a matter of time before the claws come out and he rips off somebody's face. I hope to God we're not outside the wire when that happens.

Worst of all, I have a hard time understanding the source of his trouble. I mean, for fuck's sake, he's married, to a woman who very clearly loves him, and whom he gets to share quarters with, even in a combat zone. Wisecracking about his sex life aside, I can't help but feel that, man, if only I got to have my wife here with me every day, I'd be untouchable. There is no stressor that the company of my adoring wife cannot place into perspective. I'd kill to have the deal that Sergeant Killeen has right now. And still, dangers and combat stressors aside, that guy cannot seem to just take a step back and fucking chill. I don't get it.

Sure, his job is hard; sure, he's under pressure from the other Sergeants. But unlike him, the rest of us with wives worrying about us don't get to hold our loved ones at the end of the day. The rest of us have to face mortal danger on a daily basis, all without seeing or touching our partners, for up to a year at a time.

So right now, my ability to sympathize pretty much counts for dick.

Labels: , ,

Monday, February 05, 2007

Deja L'aimee

The Super Bowl kickoff was at 0225 local time, so our chain of command gave us the morning off. I didn't watch the game--I was in bed by 10--so I got up about an hour ago. The company area is deserted, and for once I took the rare opportunity to enjoy a cup of strong coffee with my breakfast at the DFAC. I slept well, but fitfully last night.

I dreamt again. The dreams came to me as flashbacks, hitting me all at once. I was in all places simultaneously. I walked the beaches of Port Austin on a quiet dawn in April. I smoked a cigarette and drank coffee with Anne while sitting on a park bench back on Mackinac Island. I wandered the deserted streets of Marquette, enjoying the frost-laced silence of a December morning. I dreamt of staring out at the Superior sunrise from an empty parking garage downtown. I used to flee there when I needed a better view on things; when I needed a bit of fresh air and maybe some clarity.

I used to wake
Hours before the world
Just to watch her sleep.

Two whole mornings in a row, all to myself. The feeling is disorienting, especially after waking up from dreams as intense as the ones from last night. I feel like I'm having deja vu in reverse; the person I was more real than the person, the place I'm in today. I don't know how to explain it, but the result is, right now, that I'm feeling a powerful sense of mixed enervation and melancholy. Bittersweet, I suppose, would be the term. Yes, I feel bittersweet.

I dreamt of Port Austin. I dreamt of Marquette. I dreamt of Escanaba, and the cafe up the street from my shelter. I dreamt of Frankfurt and Heidelberg and a thousand early conversations over post-coital breakfast. I dreamt of my old friends--Ackerman, Sarah, Muzz. I dreamt of my family--father, mother in for knee surgery next week, and sister Marie; barely nineteen and no idea where she's going. I understand her best for that. I dreamt of the women I've loved--Teresa, Maria, Anne--the three Greatest, my Sisters of Mercy, who taught me more of sacrifice and compassion than the Army ever could. And suddenly, I realize that I'm not dreaming or feeling things already seen, but rather things already loved.

For many, the military is where people go to see both the world and themselves, where they go to feel more alive. For many, it's an awakening. Not for me. More and more lately, as my leave approaches, I feel as though I've slept, and am just now waking. And as my eyes open, I see now that there is precious little that the Army can teach me which the blessings of my life have not already done.

And when I realize this, I realize that, if all things were equal, and I were told tomorrow that my debt was paid in full, I would walk away from all of this, and never again look back. The road might be harder, certainly, but what of worth did not come with difficulty? Would the Army propel me to something better than I already am? Would I be less for returning to my roots? I'm not sure any more. The only thing I am sure of today, is this: the life of an ordinary man, and the myriad troubles and beauties it brings, are an unvarnished gift whose true worth the Uninitiated can never understand.

But I would wait
Centuries more yet
Just to see you wake.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Another Sunday...

Another mission come and gone. I'm thankfully intact, as are all my friends. I've been back for a few days, but honestly with the lack of sleep I've been getting I've been less than inclined to write.

It's Sunday, and the Diyala farmland has been slashed by rain these last few days. The cold has abated somewhat, and there's a sweet, warm breeze coming in from the North. I got up early today--about 0700--and so for now, I'm sitting in the local Internet cafe, enjoying the quiet and talking to an old friend from college over Instant Messenger. I really wish I had something more profound to say at the moment, but unfortunately with the Internet service down at my room, I have less time to commit every single thought I have onto digits. Too many ideas lately have been left to die of exposure overnight.

Our last mission took us out to Baquba, where we were sent to link up with a local armored cavalry element. I rode in the platoon sergeant's Humvee, with SFC Jameson, Spcs. Colton and Gonzales, and the Hopi, Pfc. Ahote, manning the .50 cal. Let me say first off, that I hate riding in Hummvees. They're cramped, prone to rollovers--especially when the new up-armor kits--and even with the armor, still considerably more vulnerable to IEDs than a good 5-ton or HEMMTT. That being said, the convoy out wasn't bad. I spent the trip pounding cans of Red Bull to stay awake, and bullshitting over private channel with the rest of my squad. We love private channel, because it allows us to hear each other over the din of the vehicle, while still scanning the main channel for official chatter.

We ended up getting lost as hell out at Camp Warhorse, unable to find our rendezvous point for our security element. By the way, Warhorse is a dump, from what I could see. The only good thing I've heard about the place is their DFAC. It took us an hour and a half to find our Cav guys, and before long we were rolling back out the wire again, this time with Bradleys and Abrams' speeding ahead of us on either side of the road. We got to our mission site a half an hour later, so between all the little hiccups and missed turns, what should have been an hour convoy took more like four hours.

The mission went well enough, though of course I can't say here exactly what we did. I can say what I did, though--I got covered in mud and sweat, and worked literally until sunrise. At one point, while securing a bridge we had to traverse, I nearly lost my weapon down a gap in the cratered median. I was climbing under a "overbridge" at the time, and in the process was required to unsling my rifle so I could lowcrawl underneath. The primary bridge atop which the temporary structure sits was damaged by a rocket at some point, and the whole thing straddles a quarter-mile-wide gorge that drops down over sixty feet to the river. I tripped on a chunk of concrete, and to my horror my weapon went tumbling down into the abyss. I thought my life was over at first, but upon shining my flashlight into the crack, I discovered a spool of razor wire had fallen partway into the opening, thus snagging my weapon by the sling and leaving it to dangle some fifty feet over a watery grave. I can't begin to describe the relief I felt at that moment. I'd be a buck private right now, if not for that length of concertina.

Thankfully, that was as eventful as things got. A few bursts of gunfire erupted over where our Cav boys where at, but nothing really came our way. We turned back around for home just before sunrise; a tense thing, because daylight in this area is the most deadly time for U.S. troops to be operating. That said, it was nice to drive through the winding dirt roads of rural Iraq just as her people were waking up for the day. Aside from the palm trees, I was amazed just how much the area reminded me vaguely of home. Like Filion, only with mosques instead of churches.

We got back on Thursday morning at around 0830, and after refueling, equipment turn-in, and
restaging of vehicles, we were finally released at almost noon. We downloaded the last of our gear, and while most went straight to bed, I headed for the nearest phone immediately. I always call Anne as soon as I come off a mission. This time, I called her at work, in a staff meeting. We didn't talk long, for this very reason, but it was nice to hear her voice again, and be able to assure her that I was safe.

By 1230, I was back at my trailer, moving quietly to avoid disturbing Brooks as he slept. Itried to lay in bed and read for a few, but before I knew it, sleep was pulling at me, and as far as I can tell I passed out, Camus in hand, still in dusty uniform. I don't think I even took off my boots.


I dreamed I fell through a crack in the earth;
Where below me waited an endless void glittering
With alien stars. The light from my world
Faded to a pinprick as I fell. I rolled
Onto my stomach to face
The dead space between galaxies,
And as I spread my arms, I felt,
For a rare moment, at peace.
My mind blew out like a candle.