2009-03-03

Fear, three times.

There are three times I have been really scared due to the military.

The first went on for some time; but first, I should give some background.

I came back from France, 17 years old and unsure of myself. I had lived for a year overseas, and it was only in the last month when I was getting ready to leave that I had finally started making friends. There was the kid who lived just past me on the bus route, Guillaume, and he and I rode to school and back several days per week. Sometimes this girl in my senior class, Emmeline, would manage to catch the 7:00 am bus at the stop right after mine, but she got worse and worse at it as the year went on, until we hardly ever saw her until we got to school. But other than these two, my only friends were school friends until June of that year, when social invitations and memorable experiences started coming at me from all sides, and it made me sort of bitter - I had just turned down the invitation to attend Prépa at Dupuy-de-Lôme, my lycée, that April, and so suddenly finding myself comfortable in that place felt bitter.

Even though I did come back to go to the University of Illinois, I spent the two months before classes started hemming and hawing. My dad was the only one who asked me about what I was thinking; we talked for a couple of hours about what I actually wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to join the military, to which he replied that I should get my degree but pursue ROTC. This was sufficiently close to what I wanted, anyway, that I took his suggestion and ran with it even though I didn't really desire to get my degree then.

What can I say about that? I do, now, and with every ounce of myself I move towards being the best student I can be. Back then, though, I was under his roof, under his wing, and my existence essentially depended on his work and money to continue. Sure, I could do what a lot of teenagers have done since ever there were teenagers, and left home to strike out on my own, but given my nature and history, this would be completely out of character. But I thought about it, a lot.

Some people never really leave home. They live in the surety that their parents will provide for them, regardless of the mistakes they make or the poor choices they pursue; you can find thousands of these at any state school, usually in the bars instead of class. They don't desire or thrive for themselves; their entire existence seems consumed with living hedonistically and making fools of themselves, then going home and pretending to be model children. These people never really grow up, I think, and it's one of the huge problems we face as a country: an entire demographic that lives dual lives, that does nothing for their own reasons except foolish rebellion with no goal in mind. They live the lives that their families have set out for them, and never make up their own minds except in petty ways, then go home as soon as things turn sour. This may sound judgmental, but since I explicitly stated that I would be this way when writing, I hope you'll stick with this.

Anyway. I had actually driven down to the recruiting station that summer, and sat in the car for half an hour before turning it back on and driving home again, accepting that I would get a degree first and then do what I wanted to. So I ended up at UIUC, studying engineering and going to ROTC classes and events, because I was trying to strike a middle road between what I wanted and what my parents envisioned (my mom, who thought a professional degree was the only kind of degree; my dad, who thought that any education was a good education, and actually had a degree in English Lit even though he had worked construction his whole life; and me, who wanted to live a life with dirt and blood and sweat). And, unsurprisingly, I was unsatisfied.

I met the first woman I ever loved there, and we had a brief, passionate affair (in the "events" sense, not in the "illicit" sense, although she did break up with someone to be with me, so I guess both would be accurate). However, this gap in my spirit that neither classes nor ROTC nor any of the other things I was doing at the time could fill brought us down - I remember telling her, the night I broke up with her (I broke up with her? What the fuck was I thinking?) that when she went back home to Germany, I could enter the Army and get stationed over there and visit her on the weekends. She was always a bit sarcastic, but I could tell that she was being serious when she told me "you don't have the balls to do that." As much as it hurt, I knew she was right.

I kept going to school for another year after we broke up, but it felt empty. The entire time, this hole inside me kept growing and gnawing at everything I tried to do to fill it, and eventually I stopped going to class completely. At Thanksgiving break, 2001, my dad finally sat down with me and asked if I wanted to drop out. Sweet freedom, I thought to myself - he was letting me do what I wanted to, what I was too afraid to do or say myself.

And so, that ended. I spent the next several months at home, working half-heartedly and going to classes at the community college, training in welding. I was really good at it, and truly enjoyed it, but even that felt hollow. I was still under their control, only now I was in their house as well. Again, I drove down to the recruiting station and sat outside in the car. I did manage to walk in and grab a business card before leaving, but fear kept me from going inside the offices there and talking with someone.

Finally, in July 2002, things came to a head. I got in a fight with my mother over some petty nonsense, did something she didn't expect and disappeared for the rest of the day to think, and three days later had taken all of my money out of the bank, packed my car with everything that I thought was necessary for me to live on, and left for Champaign-Urbana. Between usenet (cmi.classifieds was CU's version of craigslist at the time) and my social contacts, I managed to live for a month between weekly sublets and my car, eating as cheaply as I could for a month until I had a job, an apartment, and some things of my own. It was scary but I managed to do it by sheer force of necessity.

I talked to them on the phone from time to time to keep them up to date, but I never once asked for help, and it was amazing. By telling myself that I would never ask for anything from them, I was required to live by my initiative alone. There were some hard times in the next few months - money ran short, I lost my job, I wrecked my car - but by this time, I had been talking to one of my coworkers about the Army, seriously, and had enlisted for real. It took a lot of courage to park there at the recruiters and walk in, but as soon as I did, it became just a bunch of things I needed to do. Paperwork, picking a job, setting up appointments... logistical steps.

The first time I had vanquished my fears.

I emptied out the apartment in May 2003, took my stuff home for a brief goodbye with my parents, and shipped out to Kentucky. There are pictures of me at graduation that I have on my wall, and I can see something in them that isn't there in any of my other photos: conviction, self-satisfaction, confidence. This was something that I had done, by and for myself, and I had succeeded in one try, without getting recycled for being overweight, or unable to meet standards. In fact, I was in the top three shooters in my platoon, on all weapons, and was running two miles in 13:30 flat - which, at 210 pounds and 5' 9", was no mean feat.

In September, I shipped out to Germany to join the First Armored Divisions First Regiment, 35th Armor Battalion in Baumholder. At 1-35 AR, we were informed that our battalion was already "downrange" (a term in the Army that always means somewhere more dangerous than here; at gunnery, downrange is either where the currently shooting tank is, or where their gun is facing; in terms of deployments, downrange can mean "in theater", "in Iraq", or "at the range"... it was a big joke there) and that we'd be joining them in less than six weeks.

The next month and a half was a blur of processing, enjoying Germany, and hurry-up-and-wait. My cohort had a good time together, but every week or so another batch of soldiers would show up to morning formation in Desert Combat Uniform, and by mid-afternoon would be gone. We talked about what to expect, discussed in private our fears and concerns, and mentally steeled ourselves to leave the relaxed atmosphere of Baumholder for Iraq. Finally, our turn came, and we moved to Rammstein for manifest and the first flight to Kuwait for a couple of days before loading onto a C-130 headed to Baghdad International Airport, where we would be officially "in country."

The night we flew was a nervous one. One of the facts of military existence is there is always too little information for the desires of the man on the ground. This is another lesson I learned, perhaps one I will share at another time; the fact of it is that people will spread rumors in these situations because it's all they have. The rumors fill the vacuum like a dust storm; they occupy a huge volume but ultimately have little substance and just obscure the truth. But we talked, and people relayed things they had heard from "some guy" who had been through it - we'd do a combat landing at BIAP, corkscrewing down and popping flares the whole way; a plane had gotten shot down by some guy with a SAM and we might not ever see the ground; BIAP takes nightly mortar fire... needless to say, we were on edge.

The thing many people who have never been in the military don't realize is that at every turn, there are opportunities to get out. At MEPS, the Military Entrance Processing Station, you first go to have your contract finalized, and then go to be sworn in a second time and shipped. Often, months go by between these two trips; anywhere in there, they allow you to back out. It gets harder at each step, but you can walk before finalizing your contract, you can walk once you're in the Delayed Entry Program, and you can walk before you ship. At basic, there are a hundred ways out, only one of which involves suicide (which all too many recruits fail to realize); some are more shameful than others, but they do exist. Even at a unit, people washed out for a variety of reasons; we didn't necessarily respect them, but until they were outprocessed (having never been downrange), they played a valuable role in the work of the brigade Rear-Detatchment.

Here, in Kuwait, was the final chance to back out. And none of us, all who had come so far by way of a hundred small choices to keep going, to keep driving forward, whether we were ready or ever would be ready, boarded that plane. No one talked for three hours, between taxi and landing, and as we all quietly boarded the First Armored Division bus (bus?! what the hell?) we realized that no matter what anyone had said, this was not something that we wouldn't be able to handle.

There were small fears from this point out; unit pickup (we drove Route Irish in the back of an unarmored truck with no weapons in the middle of the evening; if you know the stories of Route Irish you probably realize why we might have been nervous then); first patrol; first attack; and on and on. There is little to say here, except for one last little anecdote, the time when I finally realized that I could handle this:

One of the first nights I was on guard in sector with my new platoon, it was my turn to watch the radios and keep an eye out for activity. There is a long story behind this, but basically we had picked up a cushy positioning guarding the Baghdad Zoo/Zawra Park, and since the reason we were there was no longer an issue, and since we were in one of the most economically viable regions of Baghdad, there was little to fear. I was alone in being awake on the HMMWV; there was also one person awake on the tank, and I could see them, sitting in the loader's hatch just looking around every once in a while. Hours had passed with little happening, and now it was about 2 am, all was quiet, the truck was quietly clicking with the random noises that all heavy equipment seems to make when it has just been turned off, the radio had been silent for some time...

Suddenly, out of the silence erupted the sounds of a salvo of rockets being fired off, passing directly over our heads, and impacting across the city. In my mind, the following thoughts passed: "I can't tell where those are coming from, but it sounds like it's directly in front of us, passing overhead, and landing directly behind us, maybe two km in each direction... there is no way the company doesn't know about this, nor is there any way they would be able to do anything about it... we aren't being threatened... let it slide." I had no fear, because I realized that there was no way I could affect what was going on; I could send up a useless radio report and clutter the airwaves, or I could just keep my eyes open and keep doing what I was doing. And I did. (My Lieutenant almost shit himself, but that's just him, and the topic of another story completely.)

The third time I was afraid was on my second deployment. It hardly merits mentioning, since it was so similar to the second time I was afraid in the Army; leaving Kuwait to go to an unknown part of Iraq, new mission, new threats... the only reasons I mention it are as follows: a) completeness, b) as a reminder to myself, c) because I began to understand fear this time.

Anyone on the line in a combat zone, facing constant threats and on a high state of vigilance, eventually seems to develop a sort of gallows humor. Atheists start talking about fate, because there has to be some way to characterize the random, senseless shit that happens, and even if it's not the expression of an actual belief in Fate, this personification does help in digesting the nature of a capricious universe. The realization that what happens in the world is largely outside our control is a surprising one for many people. Once I had personally grasped that, I began to gain an understanding that my fear was an expression of the realization that I could not know what the future holds, I could barely affect it, and it could really fuck me up. Letting go was hard, but I have to say that accepting fear as just a physical symptom of existential dread has been liberating.

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I have gone on long enough. I am not proofreading this for now, but I hope it makes enough sense to follow. Comments are welcome, as are readers; this is, again, a public blog, with all the typical caveats. I don't require an audience to keep writing, but I would certainly enjoy it.

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JT said...
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