Originally published 05.28.2007
Last fall, I didn't put off telling my family and friends. Dropping out of school and quitting your job tends to warn people that something isn't quite right, so I figured: Just get it out in the open.
"I got called back into the Army. They're sending me to Iraq. I've got two months. No, I don't have a choice."
I started with my parents and then my roommate, and followed with the rest of my friends. I tried to explain that I had to go back overseas, one conversation at a time, until I started to believe it. Then I told them that it wasn't that bad; this would give me a break from school, and I'd get to see new things. I was in Afghanistan last time, not Iraq, so this would be something new and different. And I kept saying that until I believed it.
The two months snapped by. In November, I said goodbye to my family, shipped everything I owned to a warehouse, broke the lease (stiffed my roommate with the tab; sorry, Bryan), finished another draft of my novel, and dropped all of my classes at the University of Texas. Some of my friends wanted to throw a "farewell" party, but our parties can get a little big - and I didn't want to meet new people just to say goodbye to them five minutes later. I really don't like goodbyes. They tend to be full of half-hearted promises, or perhaps it's just that hearts have a short memory, I don't know which.
Leaving school was surprisingly easy. All it took was a few phone calls, and the administration folks at UT were generally helpful in getting my tuition money back. That was a relief, because I didn't much want to fight before I had to. Withdrawing was regrettable, if unavoidable. Certainly I value learning through experience (that's what the Army is all about), but there's a neatness to the classroom that helps draw organized lines in a world that can quite literally blow up in your face. In college, you have the opportunity to learn from others, and if you screw up the difference between the Akkadians and Sumerians, no one is going to die. That's pretty neat.
So when I finally reported to the Army in early November, I immediately found myself surrounded by people in the same situation. They called back around 500 of us, but only 200 showed, and only around 140 were fit for duty. I use that term "fit for duty" loosely, as many of those guys had been receiving disability pay for bad knees, bad backs and such. Their disability pay was cut off upon their return because, clearly, you can't be disabled if you're going into combat. No one talked much for the first couple of days, but there was a bar just down the street from our barracks, and that loosened everybody up.
It did me good to be around other veterans. In the first place, we discovered that we had all gotten out because we knew we had to move on after the Army. I didn't join to stay in, but I was good at it. I was a Ranger, and a team leader, and they sure seemed to need me while I was in. Yeah, it was frustrating at times, but to leave the Army was to leave the camaraderie, the kinship of others who knew what you knew, and understood what only soldiers can understand. It seems we all had to get out; we all had to try the outside. For the most part, we were making it out there. Some of us were running into trouble with drinking or drugs or work, but for the most part we were doing well in school or in our new careers. A surprising number of us were cops or firefighters; it seems we're more needed overseas....
A second thing we had in common was that nearly all of us had trouble making friends with people who hadn't been in the service. It seemed like every guy we met felt like he had to make an excuse for not going over. You wouldn't believe how many civilians planned on being Navy Seals, but they hurt their toe playing football, or their girlfriend told them not to, or their mothers wouldn't let them, etc. I never asked to hear an excuse; I never wanted to. But I suppose they were talking to themselves more than they were addressing me. Maybe it did them good; maybe I'll never know.
Anyhow, those who came back in got along OK. The returned camaraderie (and a liberal application of alcohol) helped the next six months of training glide on by. Those of us who had already been overseas found that it all came back rapidly; the Army added newcomers to our group along the way, and we dragged them along with us.
I taught a grandmother how to shoot an assault rifle, and I taught a 17-year-old girl how to shoot a machine gun. I taught them how to shoot, but I don't think I taught them how to kill. To do that, you've got to really take people to a place they've never been. You've got to grind them down and bring them up into something else. I've taken people there before, and I don't feel like doing that with people who remind me of my grandmother or my little sister. I was a Ranger, an infantryman, and one of the luxuries of being in combat arms was that I worked only with others who at some level wanted to learn to kill, needed to learn to kill.
The training, for what it was worth, is over now. I'm in Baghdad, surrounded by swimming pools, palaces, and concrete walls that can't keep out the sounds of battle that roll across the city every night, nor the mortars that splash across the pavement.
It's a surreal jump from Austin to here, but even after just a short bit of time, I realize that it's Austin that will become more dreamlike in my memory. By the time this deployment is done, I'll have spent more time in combat than I have in the Live Music Capital of the World. And I know from experience that the memories from war are sharper and stick with you longer and harder than the memories of most other things. There's nothing anyone can do about that; it's just something that happens. That's why I've got to try hard here, so that when this time in my life jumps back at me, I'll know that even if everything else was beyond my control, I can remember my own actions without shame or remorse.
As a soldier, I've got to give this an honest shot, whether I want this or not.
Sgt. Meyer is stationed in Baghdad. He welcomes readers' comments and can be reached at email@example.com.