Saturday, November 4, 2017

An HONEST Conversation with a Combat Veteran

It can be lonely pulling security.

I could smell the dying leaves in the crisp, early morning air. The wind was strong enough to threaten the last of the colorful red and orange leaves that were stubbornly clinging to their branches. As I took measurements with my tape and speed square, my breath was coming out in wisps of smoke. I was cutting a few 2x4s while trying to anticipate what would be needed next. My brain hurt from trying to solve problems with my limited experience as a carpenter. My back already hurt from carrying boards up and down two sets of makeshift stairs all day. Starting a new career is like driving through thick fog along the Maine coastline. Sometimes you can only see a few feet in front of you, but if you keep going, you’ll eventually reach your destination.

“Hey, Sarge!” The foreman’s’ booming voice from behind me cut through my thoughts. He started calling me that after the interview; then the whole crew followed suit. I didn’t mind it because I knew they were doing it out of respect. This was their world. I barely knew what I was doing half the time. Sometimes I wished they would come to my world and try to understand what it felt like to venture out of their comfort zone.

“Hey, how are you doing today, Mike?” I looked him in the eyes and held out my hand. He took it in a firm grasp. I always respected a firm grip. Shaking another man’s limp hand just felt wrong.

“Good, good. How is everything with you? Are you liking the job?” he asked. Mike had been a carpenter for over forty years and knew his stuff. Tall and thick with a big stomach. He had long gray hair that curled slightly at the ends, and he continuously ran his hand through it to keep it from falling in his eyes. It was a joke among his crew that if he cut it there would be something obscene underneath. I could easily see it due to his outgoing personality and devil-may-care attitude. 

“It’s great. Different than what I am used to, but I am learning.” I said that because it seemed like what someone should say to their boss. The truth was I felt like I was pretending in this new life- “different” was an understatement. It was complete night and day. Carpentry is about creating. The infantry is about destroying. The truth was that I felt frustrated. Since I joined the infantry at seventeen, it meant everything to me. It was my family, my trade, and my hobby all wrapped in one. It was the only thing I wanted to be when I was young. I did not realize all the knowledge I had built through my years in the Army, much of which meant little in the civilian world. Stripped of everything I knew and was comfortable with, I felt like a child learning to walk for the first time. I could see what needed to be done, but I was clumsy and slow at accomplishing anything efficiently.

“I bet it is nice not to be told what to do all the time?” he said with a grin. “Did you get used to getting yelled at all the time?”

“It doesn’t exactly work like that. You see, I was a squad leader when I got out, a weapons squad leader to be exact. Once you get out of basic training and get some experience under your belt, it is like any other job. I oversaw the machine gun teams which had about nine to ten men. Those are the big guns that you see in the movies, you know, the ones that are fed by the long belts of ammo? Each team carry about eight belts of 100 rounds each. The weight adds up; the gun weighs around twenty-five pounds and those belts weigh about seven pounds each.  Anyway, you can kind of talk those big guns back and forth to keep bullets going down range. It keeps the enemy’s heads down, so you hopefully maneuver on ‘em.”

“Did you ever do that over there?” he asked with pure interest.

“A couple of times. It is not as often as you think though, cause you had to find them and finding ‘em was freakin’ hard. People generally don’t stand and shoot; they don’t broadcast their fighting positions ‘cause if they did, they wouldn’t be fighting for too long. It is hard to hear where the shots are coming from because your ears pick up of the crack of the rounds going past. You end up just trying to find the fighting positions for the first fifteen minutes of the fight. Sometimes you get lucky and their weapons kick up some dust or glare, but, man, they make it tough to find them. They like to hide among the people and in the shadows.”

“So, they were cowards,” he interrupted. “That seems like a coward’s way to fight.” He frowned as he thought of this.

“No, they fought when they knew they would win. Fighting in the open will get you killed. It is incredibly effective to lose yourself in the sea of people when facing a technologically superior enemy as they were. It is how the United States lost in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It is also how the U.S. won its independence. If the idea exists, and true believers are willing to fight for it, you will never prevail, especially in a foreign country/culture. To be honest, a lot of our engagements involved mopping up what the Apache Gunships started. You really get sick of picking up torn up bodies, including the enemy’s. It is a constant reminder of what could happen to you. It really wears on you, you know?”

“No, I don’t. Geez, sounds like a mess. Why would you keep going back to that?” he asked with actual concern. I hoped I didn’t sound like a nut. The amount I was sharing surprised me but I figured I should keep speaking candidly. If he didn’t really want to know, well, I guess he wouldn’t ask questions.

“I don’t really know. I’ve asked myself that numerous times since getting out. You kind of get caught up in the culture of the military. The infantry also gives you a clear purpose and validates that purpose with awards and schools that are instantly tangible. You graduate and immediately receive badges and medals. Those things are cool when you are young, but when you get older and leave the military, you realize just how pointless they were. What you really miss are the relationships you form with your buddies. And you’ll never get those back, not the way it was over there…”

My voice trailed off there as I felt a lump rise in my throat. Some you couldn’t get back because, well, you just couldn’t get them back. I quickly looked away from Mike and focused on a tree behind him. I picked one red leaf and concentrated on it until I regained control. It all happened in an instant, so I don’t think he noticed. I was surprised by the pain and shame which engulfed me. It began with a tingling on the skin and flooded up my chest and into my heart. My heart began to suddenly pound with rage. I felt light-headed. I couldn’t come apart here; they would think I was crazy. I wasn’t going to become a veteran cliché. An instant passed, and I was me again.

“How come you keep talking about the infantry? I thought you said you were a sniper?” He asked. Mike wasn’t accusing with this question. By now, he knew I didn’t lie. He was genuinely curious. I would have wondered the same thing.

I got this question after every interview, so I was used to it. People hear the word sniper and just assume that you were one the entire time. Some people hear Army and think of formations and people yelling all the time. I swear they think it is a giant formation walking around with Drill Sergeants, like that guy from Full Metal Jacket, chasing you and screaming at you 24/7. “The infantry is the job you have, while being a sniper is a position. It is like being a carpenter, but you specialize in cabinets. You can still , perform your job as carpenter, but your expertise is cabinetmaking, so you build them as often as you can. On my first tour I was an infantry team leader, a sniper my second, and a reconnaissance squad leader on my third. They are all linked together though. You can do a bit of everything no matter your MOS. Like I said earlier, we cleaned up a lot of Apache casualties and chased down any squirters. Let me tell you what, those Apaches are mean and unforgiving. You don’t want to be on the wrong end of one of those.”

“Those are helicopters?”

“Oh yeah. Fucking mean, swarming hornets. Complete with hellfire missiles and thirty-millimeter machine guns. Nasty things. They remind me of yellow jackets the way those machine guns buzz. One time we were called out on QRF (Quick Reaction Force) because an Apache Gunship had stumbled on an enemy meeting outside FOB Andar. Lit them up like the fuckin Fourth of July. One guy lost his fucking head! Like, right fuckin’ outside! In broad day! Anyway, we get in gear and head out there on foot…”

“What do you mean gear? What did you guys carry I mean. I have obviously seen pictures of you guys wearing vests. What else was there?”

This question made me think for a second. What did I carry? Sometimes it felt like I was carrying the world while other times I felt light as a feather. First, I carried my weapon everywhere I went. It didn’t matter if I went to take a shit in the nearest porter-shitter or a twenty-kilometer movement into the remote Afghanistan mountains. That and a magazine went with me in my pocket if I was on the COP or FOB. On my weapon was an ACOG four power scope with an internal bullet drop compensator that allowed you to range man-sized targets and hold onto the correct elevation reticle for quick engagements. Some soldiers didn’t like the four power because it hindered them in CQB, or so they claimed. I never saw any problems with it. Other soldiers mounted an M68 or Eotech. Neither had magnification but they did have a red holographic dot or crosshair aim point which adjusted for light conditions.    
What else? Oh Dip! Some smoked but almost everyone dipped. Dipping tobacco allowed you to use at night so even people who smoked would still dip. We always carried our dip in a certain spot. I carried mine in my back pocket. I started doing that after I waded through one of those Iraqi shit water streams they use for irrigation. That was a wasted can right there, though I do think I ended up dipping it. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I wore three different types of armored vests during my three tours. I also wore three different camouflages. What a waste of money. I know the armor saved some lives, but I distinctly remember not wanting to carry any of it. I figured if I was going to get killed, it would happen with or without body armor on.  
Some soldiers wore a fighting load carrier, but I liked to attach my pouches directly to my vest. There really wasn’t a difference except that you could take a load carrier off while keeping your armor on. When it comes to pouches, some soldiers went all out, but I took a minimalist approach; that is I tried to only take what I knew I would need and have faith God would provide if something new came about. After all, if I planned for everything I wouldn’t be ready to fight anything because I would be too heavy. In my load carrier, I carried six, thirty-round-magazines totaling 168 rounds. It was 168 rounds instead of the 180 I could carry because I had heard that filling them to capacity increases your chances of a doublefeed. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I was taught it as a Private, so I did it my entire career. Other than that, I only carried my NODS, a one-quart water bottle, and a woobie except for the grenades.
I was a believer in grenades, so I carried a bunch. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a dead enemy combatant who still had his grenades on him when he was killed. That didn’t make any sense to me; if he used them there was a much better chance he would have lived. He in least would have created confusion and casualties in his last moments. You must train yourself to remember to use those guys because they are easy to forget during the heat of a fight. I carried two fragmentary, a colored smoke to signal, and a white smoke to screen movement. I didn’t tape the spoons. I never understood that; the damn thing has three safeties’ as is. That was just a weirdo thing that kept getting passed down over there. It wasn’t worth a damn except that it made some scared leaders feel better. Worse, most of the time soldiers forgot they had taped it so when they throw damn thing during a fight it doesn’t go off. Now you have a live grenade with a taped-on spoon. Trust me, that is never a good spot to be in.     
We carried the dead, both ours and the enemy’s. Our dead and wounded were carried in litters, with or without poles. Mostly though, I remember carrying my buddies under their shoulder and dragging my friends to the relative safety of an irrigation canal though the bullets were still raising the dust around me. The litters and body bags were used after the casualty collection point had been established and a MEDEVAC was en route. Haj, our enemy, was different for obvious reasons. I ruined a classic woodland camouflage woobie when we had to carry a dead enemy combatant back to our Patrol Base. Never mind the blood and gore, the shrapnel that was lodged in the guy’s body ripped it to shreds. When QRF put the guy in a body bag he asked if we were going to want the woobie back. If not, he was going to keep it for himself. Keep it, guy... That was the night of the infamous burning man. I miss that woobie.
 We carried the souls of over 3,000 civilians, firefighters, and policemen who were killed by an Islamic attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Their hopes and dreams, cut short by an act of war, stayed with us as we deployed again and again. We carried the weight of a war in Iraq which seems more irrelevant the older we grow and never-ending war in Afghanistan. We carry the anger and pain of having lost brothers fighting Islam only to be lectured to be more tolerant and inclusive by Muslim groups such as CAIR. Remember…not all Muslims are terrorists so give up more of your culture! Finally, we carry the weight of a dying culture that is being overrun by third world nations, opiates, and political correctness. I pray to God that we, as a nation, recover our heritage, history, and faith before there is no America to give to our children.

“I didn’t carry too much, you know, armor, ammo, and a weapon. That’s about it.” I didn’t feel like explaining all that, so I let the silence weigh heavy on us. He felt it and seemed to understand.

He looked at me like he had one more question but didn’t know how to ask it. I knew what was coming. Civilians are always curious about it, especially after they learn I am a sniper. I understood. Before I was in the Army, I wondered this stuff as well.

“How many people did you kill?”

My mood grew dark as anger coursed through me once more. I thought of the most recent attack in New York. Eight people dead from a truck attack. Fuck Haj.

“Not enough.”