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Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

COMBAT EXISTENTIALISM 101 |

October 16, 2006

COMBAT EXISTENTIALISM 101
Name: SGT "Roy Batty"
Posting date: 10/16/2006
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio

This is your midterm exam for Combat Existentialism 101. Please ensure that you use a Number 2 pencil to answer all questions. Completely color in all answer bubbles; do not check or tick the answers. Please answer all 'Other' questions using ten words or less. Reaction time is a factor in this test, so please pay attention and answer as quickly as you can. You may begin.........now.   

1. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. For breakfast, you:
      (a) have a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee that your wife cooked for you in the kitchen of your Victorian townhouse.
      (b) enjoy eggs benedict on a rice cake with a side helping of tofu granola and wheatgrass, and a steaming mug of soy latte double decaf.
      (c) smoke five Camel Light cigarettes and chug a lukewarm can of 'Columbian taste' coffee that was really made in a factory in Saudi Arabia.
      (d) Noon is too late for breakfast.

2. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. After breakfast, you:
      (a) decide that you are going to have a good day.
      (b) decide that, once again, you are going to have a shitty day and vow to make the little bastards at the office / in the classroom / upstairs pay accordingly.
      (c) take your usual choice of antidepressant and hope for the best.
      (d) Other (explain)_____________________________________

3. It is the morning of the day on which you will die. You are deciding on what to wear for the occasion. You:
      (a) put on your best suit and tie, and pick a really nice boutonniere from your rose garden in the backyard.
      (b) remember that today is casual day at the cubicle farm.
      (c) put on the same tan and gray digitized uniform you've worn for a week, accented with 240 rounds of 5.56mm ball ammo and three 40mm grenades.
      (d) The ashram has only one kind of robe. 

4.   It is the morning of the day on which you will die. You spend the day:
      (a) at the park with your children, making sure they know how much you care about them.
      (b) making passionate love with your significant other.
      (c) blowing the $2345.75 in your checking account on beer and hookers.
      (d) briefly looking at an old Polaroid of the wife you haven't seen in four months, before you go cruising through an Arab neighborhood filled with raw sewage and foreign people that would like nothing else than to gleefully chop your head off.

Okay, I could go on with this for some time, but I think that will do.  Just something strange that popped into my head on patrol yesterday, inspired, I think, by a Harlan Ellison short story and a John D. MacDonald book which I read years ago when I was a kid. Not sure why they are reappearing in the cramped interior of a HMMWV in Baghdad, but they did. I think the message they were trying to get across is this:  What would you do differently if you knew that you were going to die today? Really knew it?

In the 'normal' world, we may wonder about death every so often, usually after watching a disturbing movie, or maybe after we see an obituary of someone we once knew in the paper. But unless you are grappling with a serious illness, or wondering what that semi is doing crossing into your rain-soaked lane at 4 a.m., or have decided that skydiving this weekend might be a great way to "bond" with your new girlfriend, it probably doesn't seem like a real possibility to you.

It struck me a couple times recently, waking up in the afternoon of Day 4 of the midnight patrol schedule, and looking at the bleary world with the uber-clarity of the terminally sleep deprived -- what if this really is the last day I'm here?  Would I talk to the guy behind the counter of the store where I buy my morning coffee the same way, if I knew I would die in 4.5 hours? Would I choose to spend the last few hours on Earth 'reading the articles' in a dog-eared Playboy in the stifling and odoriferous comfort of a porta-john, or yelling at a co-worker because his TPS report is late (again), or haranguing my daughter over the phone on the crucial and therefore expensive details of raising her children? Yeah, I know, we've all heard this crap before, and probably better enunciated than this, but it has been a bit of a revelation for me when thinking and feeling it in real terms.

Comments

I have experienced two near death experiences in my life, in fact I did die during one of the experiences and was resuscitated. But I don't think it qualifies on the same level as to what you're dealing with on a daily basis. War is something in and of itself. I'll refrain from sharing my personal viewpoints on the subject as they're irrelevant. I greatly respect you for putting your life on the line for whatever reason the human leaders in power have deemed important at this time in our history. From a very selfish standpoint and comfortable existence, I cannot imagine your reality. Yet I do know what it feels to be close to death and I have the luxury of working through it rather than having it thrust in my awareness every hour of every day. Thank you so much for writing this piece, for your amazing, selfless service and for raising precious awareness of something people, Americans especially, generally take for granted. That is the very breath of life and what it means. Which ironically is something for which you're risking your life, to wake us up. God bless you.

Hey, I think there are a hell of a lot of Americans who have never heard any of this before, nor even want to think about it. But I know from what small amount of experience I have in "combat" areas---Panama and El Salvador (which probably equal one full day of what you have experienced)---that your whole view of life totally changes. We take so many things for granted as Americans that we are only now beginning to realize since we have had terrorism on our own homefront.

When I would come back to the US, I would think, wow, isn't it great that you can drive down the street and not have to worry about being stopped at numerous check points, or worrying about once you did stop, which side was manning that check point? Would you be detained? Would something blow up? (And I won't even get started on the whole civil liberties issue!) And once you get back to the states it will be hard because some jerk here will be making a big deal about something completely meaningless and it will really be hard to be patient....and it will even be a little boring. Once I started working as a civilian, the women I worked with would get bent out of shape about how "busy we were" at work and I would be like "Hey, are we getting shot at? Nope? Then get over it, it's a good day!" But I am glad that I have that perspective now because it makes me remember to value the things that I cherish most and try to let go of the crap that is meaningless.

And all I really have to think about today is getting my extended income taxes mailed and babysitting with my wonderful grandkids. You said it as beautifully as anyone ever has. All of us should cherish every minute of every day. If I could I would be shipping you the best coffee the world has to offer and creating an impermeable shield to be sure that you come home safe. I am heartsick that you have to be there, but support you completely and thank you for your amazing awareness and insight. You have enriched my day. Please take care and stay safe. Come home soon and keep yourself in healthy one piece. Barb

reading these words
its amazing at the intelligence level.

a good surprise.

Thank you for your words. Be careful over there. Everything will be ok, or it won't. What can we do? I do hope you return home safe and sound. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

Sgt."Roy Batty", you are a very good writer - reflective, honest and lyrical. Help us come to some sanity here.

I don't know anything about what you are going through, and I won't pretend to know, but I can tell you a little story about another brave soul, who is still in my thoughts nine years later, and that would be my mother. Facing death every day like she did takes its toll, but she didn"t dwell on it. She was as solid as a rock throughout her illness, telling me more than once that she didn"t fear death any more because she would be with her mom and dad again. When we lost my mom I decided then and there that I was going to live life like it was my last, and be as brave as her when my time comes. So live your life like it's your last, but dammit LIVE !!!!

I really appreciate your hard work on this moving piece. I will pray for your safety. Just take care and Godbless.

Thanks for your bit of insight. I did a short time in Iraq in 2003 and that has stayed with me to this day. I have seperated from the military and am in college finishing my B.A. I apperciate everyday now and even the things that bothered me before don't get to me as much. The only thing that gets to me is how ungrateful people continue to be. It saddens me that so many Americans choose not to recognize how blessed they are. Don't forget that feeling, especially when you come back home. Cherish each day and love hard.
Your essay is also some of the most eloquent prose I have read in a long time and I am an English major. Thanks for continuing to serve.

I'm glad you're alive. Now stay that way!

I respect so much what you are doing and thank you every day. I try to live my life and bring my kids up to remember that a harsh word spoken can sometimes never be taken back and other times is never forgotten. You have brought the point home. Every time I hold back a harsh word or take the time to really enjoy my children and leave the cleaning and work to wait I will not only think of it as I have in the past but I will think of you and say a prayer for your safe return. Thank You.

Hello Sgt:It is reality on what you write. I feel for you soldiers and pray for you. The most important thing we must consider is when our heart stops, we are in ETERNITY. Where we go is our CHOICE when we are alive. DEATH is FINAL. THERE are TWO PLACES. HEAVEN or HELL. Where do you want to go? The majority of people go SOUTH. SAD but true.

I cannot begin to know what you go through on a daily basis. But I do know that I think about these same things every day that my brother is overseas. He just returned home, thankfully, from a 6 month stint in the middle east (with only a broken leg and bodily bruises). He is in the Navy, Special Warfare Combat Crew. I have seen the pictures of him- the pictures of him holding guns bigger than he is. The pictures of him holding a rifle point-blank in the enemy's face while they take over a boat bringing in weapons and bombs into an unsuspecting port. It's scary, and it's REAL. I thank God everyday for bringing him home alive. I thought your post was great. Thank you for sharing your feelings. Thank you for opening the eyes of the naive. And mostly, thank you for your service. I will pray for you and your comrades to come home soon and safely.

Wow, we so don't know or understand what you go through every minute of every day. I just happened on this website and my eyes were opened by your thoughtful prose. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and enlightening us back home here in our warm cozy houses. I'll be thinking of you.

I knew it! I knew it I knew it I knew it! I knew that all those philosophy classes that I loved but couldn't justify taking (where's the money?) had a real, deep-down purpose! They give you the tools you need to keep your head on straight during a bastard life experience. Hang in there, I think you're still sane; and isn't that what counts? I hope you get a chance to have your life turn pleasant.

On this existential theme, you might be interested in a famous short story by Jean-Paul Sartre called "The Wall." If you're interested, let me know at ransomj@dickinson.edu and I'll send it to you.

Antioch College called: They are holding a space for you in the philosophy department. Great insight. Hang in there.

I will pray that you get better coffee!!! I love your attitude, you've got it together.

Faced losing life myself, and let me tell you, I know how brave you are. Every day. You go, guy.

Thanks for the great comments, everyone! They have all brought a smile to my face, which is the most valuable commodity in a combat zone. And to Michael Bowen, who added the comment about Antioch College--the irony of it is that I am from Yellow Springs, Ohio! (Home of Antioch College, for those that don't know :)

I read this post a week ago, and it's ideas/thoughts have stayed with me. I'm particularly intrigued with the Ellison/Macdonald reference. Both better read over good coffee, I think. thanks.

I hear about what you are going through.Both of my sons are in Iraq and I pray to God that I get a letter or an email that week to let me know they are still ok and alive. My oldest got hit by Schrapnel and burned him across the chect and arm and after a week in the hospital they returned him to duty back on patrols.The letters, he emails, videos and pictures I see make me cry for hours and I think why would anyone let their children do this...them I remember the pentagon, the twin towers , Pearl Harbor and several other things and like my husband who served in the Air Force said," You can sleep at night because of men like this one...Someone is "Home" waiting for a breath from you..You have more friends, family and support than you will ever know.Your parents love you No matter what. We all do...

Just hang on in there - real life isn't that much fun either

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