COMPARATIVE LIVING |
May 29, 2007
Flags drifting in the wind. Tears. Memories. Veterans. Family vacations and celebrations. It’s Memorial Day 2007 and I am nostalgic once again. On this day in 2005 I was in pre-combat training and mere weeks away from my trip across the Atlantic. I spent Memorial Day 2006 in Iraq. I am painfully aware of the soldiers that have perished in this war, yet I know that they chose to serve and were willing to die fighting terrorism. They volunteered and put themselves out there in the fray, active participants rather than observers. And I still believe that if we weren’t in this war, terrorists would be bringing the fight to American soil. Call me biased, but I say let’s fight in the deserts of the Middle East.
We lost two soldiers from my Battalion while I was in Iraq. One was killed by a suicide bomber, and we held his memorial service in country. The other soldier was injured in an IED attack during our deployment and he passed on a month after we returned home to Utah. I’ll never forget the memorial walls we kept in Iraq. When we first showed up, the unit we were replacing had 17 pictures on their wall. They took them down, of course, when they left. Our wall remained empty for the first half of our tour, and then we had just one photo on it for the second half. My Brigade as a whole lost over 80 soldiers while we were in Ramadi. Every time I went to Brigade headquarters, there were more photos on the memorial wall. And the Brigade built a memorial obelisk. We were called the “Iron” Brigade, 2nd of the 28th Infantry Division, also known as the “bloody bucket” from WWII. The obelisk was a large tower made of raw iron. Hanging inside of it were the dog tags of all the soldiers who had been killed. The wind turned the tower into a huge chime, thin metal dog tags tinkling softly against iron. I can still hear it.
I've been home for nine months now, and I still find it hard to believe. I live comparatively. Whether I'm tucking the kids into their beds or letting them crash in mine, I stare up at the ceiling and think about how lucky I am. When I get tired of my commute to work, I slap myself and remember the roads in Iraq. When I don't like something my daughter's school does, I remember the schools I visited in Iraq. And when I am having a bad day or moment, it takes me all of one nanosecond to use simple comparison and bring a smile of contentment to my face. Life was good before I went to Iraq. But now grass is more than the green of a well-landscaped cliché; it's like the very carpet of the earth.
I had a four-hour gem of free time the other day, meaning no kids, no work, and no distractions. I chose to spend it in the Salt Lake City library. I've been working on a manuscript, and I wanted to write in a new environment. At home it's too easy to find housework or cleaning to do. Distractions abound. This library is supremely comfortable, and who doesn't like being surrounded by books? It still feels wonderful to be more concerned with the quality of my free time than with the prospect of a rocket attack on my battalion headquarters in Ramadi.
I was on the fourth floor of the library, looking past downtown at the mountains, writing and listening to Grant Lee Buffalo on my ipod. It was pretty crowded, even for a Sunday. But it was quiet. I felt completely in my zone as the ambient light was filtered by the nimbus clouds raking the mountains and the height of the chair was perfectly suited to the clean wooden desktop; again, a far cry from my dirty desk in my dirty room in Iraq.
There was a guy sitting across from me, jacked into his ipod as well, laptop purring. We were mere feet from each other, but separated by the somewhat diplomatic engineering of the tables. It was only a metal lamp spanning the length of the desk with an artistic four inch frosted glass bottom, but it was an intended border of space and we were respecting that.
I heard and felt a loud concussion. I looked up at the guy across from me. His eyes were huge but he just sat there. I find that hard to do. Even when I witness a car crash or any kind of emergency I feel compelled to help.
I took my headphones out, went over to the railing, and scanned the crowd below for erratic behavior, the kind of herd-like movement that you might see when a fight breaks out, or a bomb explodes. Nothing. It's too easy to think I'm having a flashback from mortar attacks, or that I'm paranoid because of the recent bombing attempt on this very library. "Too easy" because dismissal must be tempered with a healthy paranoia. It is just when you think it won't happen to you that it might. I should be receiving my concealed weapons permit any day now. I'm excited. I won't always carry a weapon, of course, but sometimes I will. And the first time some freak decides to start killing innocent people while I'm nearby, I will do everything in my power to put one in his head, and two in his chest.
Sitting in this library being honest with myself, I remember the details of my 18-month deployment as if it just ended. And I think about Iraq a lot lately. In some deep way I miss it. I ponder all the military folks still over there, and I hope they are able to complete their missions and return to their families. I pray for them.
I wish I could thank each veteran for his or her sacrifices this Memorial Day, because I know what a deployment can do to a family. Looking back at my own recent combat experiences, I can only hope that the people of Ramadi, perhaps as they once did, can someday stand in silence on the shores of their own violent history and look forward into the light, at last, of their halcyon years.