NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND |
October 18, 2006
NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND
Name: EOD Officer
Posting date: 10/18/2006
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Buffalo, NY
I should have had enough practice by now, but I'm still not sure how to respond. I just got off the plane a week ago, finally home again. It was my third trip to the Middle East since 9/11, and my second to Iraq. I know by now how to reunite with my wife and kids. I know not to argue with my wife about chores or bills, and to take my place as the outsider in the home for a while. I know how to play with my kids so they become used to me again, and I don't push myself on them too quickly. I know how to have a couple beers without having too many, and I know how to quit smoking again, a habit I always seem to pick up deployed. Having gotten good at all those things, the thing I still don't know how to do is to respond when a stranger says, "Welcome home. Thank you for serving your country."
I did not have a good tour in Iraq. I did not come home confident in the rightness of our cause. That may be because I have no personal stories of building schools, handing out candy to children, or watching a fledging democracy take shape. As the commander of a small Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit (the military bomb squad) trying to cover an entire province in northern Iraq, my men and I only saw the worst humanity had to offer. We disarm fewer and fewer roadside bombs. We save fewer and fewer lives. Instead, we do more and more "post blast analysis", where we conduct a crime scene investigation after an attack and try to reconstruct what the bomb was made of, and how it was used. That took us daily to car bombings of Iraqi clinics or police stations, and attacks on American convoys. We saw far too many Iraqi victims of the indiscriminate violence destroying what's left of the country's infrastructure. And we saw that every day, with seemingly no ability to stop it.
When that suffering is the only thing you see outside the safety of your base while doing your job, you start to develop a different mission. The mission stops being about disarming the bomb, and starts being about bringing your troops home safe. We had a saying: "It takes five things to go home in one piece: luck, training, luck, equipment, and luck." My teams would subconsciously develop a "Catch-22" mentality, counting their missions and playing the numbers game. I would have my team sergeants come up to me and say, "Sir, I've been on 125 missions already, and I haven't gotten hurt yet. But this can't keep up. Do too many missions, and the numbers say you're going to get killed." My team leaders would know; they were disarming the bombs and doing the post blasts on the blown up HMMWVs. I made the safety of my teams my number one priority, and counted the days for them until we could all go home.
So when I get off the plane in Baltimore, and am suddenly surrounded by America again, in all of its glittering excessive glory, what do you say when a complete stranger walks up to you and says thank you? I usually mumbled an inadequate "Thank you for the support", or "I appreciate it", wishing that I had come up with a more sincere or meaningful response. I always think that I should be happy. During Vietnam, soldiers were blamed for the policy decisions of elected officials. Our country learned from that mistake, and I believe most Americans, no matter their feelings on the war, now make it a point to support the average soldier. But instead of warming my heart, when someone says "Welcome Home" and "Thank You", I feel embarrassed and guilty. Embarrassed because my service was no greater than others, and only I know our mission was more about survival than success. And guilty because I am coming home to my wife and children, and so many other soldiers are either still there, or not coming home at all.