October 26, 2007
Name: Owen Powell (aka SGT Roy Batty)
Posting date: 10/26/07
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Germany
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Golden sunlight dapples through the slender branches of the October trees, gracing the form of the three men in front of me. Their faces may be young but their expressions are those of much older men — frozen, confused, traumatized, as if they have freshly emerged from some shotgun terror hidden in the thin green copse behind them. One of them holds a short black rifle, much like the one I left behind in Baghdad just a few short months ago, and another carries a machine gun on his shoulder, as if he has marched a long way from the battlefield, yet still hasn’t reached that final patrol base, some unseen sanctuary that perhaps waits across the long field behind me. The staccato chop of a single helicopter echoes up from the depths of the marble city, and I look up as it flies low along the river, and yes, improbably, it is a Huey, a relic these men would remember well. The sound of the slick wells up, and a low shiver starts at the base of my spin and climbs towards my shoulders. Time expands and dilates, and for a long treacherous minute I am unsure of where I am. Is this Combat Outpost Callahan on an impossibly crisp morning, back in Iraq, or is it the Perfume River in Hue, forty years in the past yet connected by the same lethal, heady cocktail — fumbled mistakes and blind American arrogance? The gaze within the bronze eye sockets of the soldiers draws me in, holds my attention for a slow heartbeat, and then I turn to see what it is that has stopped them, forever, from their long walk Home.
This is not the Middle East, and no, it is not Vietnam. The sound of my wife’s laugh brings me back to earth, and the final bullet to my mid-afternoon trance is the sight of the low black wall behind me. I can’t see the names etched upon it, but the dark scar in the green expanse of the Mall can only be the Vietnam War memorial. This is Washington, and I am here, bizarrely enough, to help publicize the release of our book, Doonesbury.com’s The Sandbox.
I say "bizarrely", because, sitting back at Callahan, typing doggerel into a battered laptop while waiting for the next mortar attack, I never thought that I would be sitting at the Pentagon with Garry Trudeau, signing books for an endless line of colonels and generals, all while wearing a new suit and a shit-eating grin. But somehow that’s exactly what has been going on for the past three days, and it has been heady stuff. We’ve been to the Office of Veteran’s Affairs, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and to the Pentagon. We’ve been interviewed by the Washington Post and by National Public Radio. We’ve sat in the press center deep in the bowels of the Pentagon and stared into the mirrored gaze of TV cameras and their attendant bright lights, courtesy of the Pentagon Channel and Defenselink.com. We’ve been recorded and quoted and asked for our insight on American foreign policy. Fortunately, if you want a celebrity that can teach you, by example, how not to be carried away by your intoxicating 15 minutes of fame, Garry is the top choice on a very short list. The sudden materialization of reporters and photographers and fawning bigwigs is greeted with the same ready grin, quiet manner, and a sense of humor so understated that I keep finding myself smiling at a witicism minutes after he delivers it.
Oh, and I’m not alone on this psychedelic trip into the world of the yellow press amid the splendours of our nation’s capital. Along with my wife, Barbara, Troy Steward is here, newly returned from Afghanistan (that's him on the right). I enjoyed his posts and iconic pictures while I was downrange, and it is reassuring to have another soldier with me amid this sudden excitement. We both kept yo-yoing between our deployment mindsets and our new found role of published authors. The other day, when we pulled up to the VA building, we exited the car with Garry, our editor David Stanford, and Shelly Barkes, our publicist, only to be greeted by waiting reporters and photographers, along with a phalanx of Secret Service officers and the flashing blue lights of their patrol cars. No, it turned out the Feds weren’t there for us, but were securing the route for the Dalai Lama, who, equally surrealistically, was visiting Congress with our illustrious Commander-in-Chief the same day. Still, I found myself locked back into Baghdad mode, scanning the rooftops and blank windows around us, suspiciously eyeing the DC traffic, moving into diamond formation around our dignitaries. I looked at Troy, and saw that he was doing the same thing. We both laughed when I leaned over and whispered, “It’s just like being on PSD (Protective Services Detachment) detail, isn’t it?”
It was great to put faces to names that previously I had only seen online, like our editor, David: A shock of white hair, a genuine smile, and a heartfelt hug are the things I think of first when I recall him, along with the amazing conversation we had while walking the Mall, talking about writing. The Internet, this modern marvel, somehow lets you know people from the inside out, even before you meet them.
All of my friends and family have asked me the same thing about the trip — “Well, what was the best part?” The best part was also the hardest part, even when it was really the purpose, not only for the trip, but also for the book itself.
All the royalties from the book are going to the Fisher House, and when we went to Walter Reed we visited one of the Houses, of which there are dozens spread throughout the United States and Europe. The Fisher House looks like any other suburban home, even when it is nestled incongruously among a myriad of blank military buildings. The House offers a comfortable place for wounded soldiers and their families to stay during medical treatment, which, in the case of amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, can stretch on for months. Many of the soldiers would have a difficult time paying for their families to stay in hotels, given the sad state of military pay, and so the Fisher House offers a very real help during a time more traumatic than most of us can imagine.
What made it all so hard for me was coming face to face with the soldiers themselves. Every morning in Baghdad, rolling out the gate in my up-armored HMMWV, I would be confronted with the same fear — not that I might get killed, even though that was always possible. The one great thing about a quick and violent death is that you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. It’s much more disturbing to think about getting cherished pieces of your anatomy blown off, and then having to deal with the day to day realities of having "one sock too many" for the rest of your life. Every morning I would lead my fire team in the Pre-Mission Prayer, and then we would grit our teeth and lock and load, and lurch our way into the morning rush hour traffic, eyeing the side of the road with great intensity.
Here’s the thing — the guys at Walter Reed are living our nightmare every day, and I really worried about how they would take some dickhead in a three piece suit dropping by to say hi. I thought a lot about how I would want to be talked to if I was in their shoes. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be gawked at like some specimen in a particularly upscale zoo. Eventually I figured out that I would probably just want to talk to another soldier, as a soldier — just another "Joe". And so that’s what we did.
The thing that really surprised me was the eagerness with which the guys responded to us. We had dinner with Mark, John and Marko, all of whom were amputees. Marko was missing both his left arm and a leg — and yet all of the guys were really friendly and open about their experiences. We talked about where they were stationed at in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it often turned out that we had been in the same places and had driven the same routes. We talked about which FOBs really sucked, and which had the best PXs. We talked about gear, and the cool gadgets we had added onto our weapons. We talked about asshole platoon sergeants, and the guys who really came through when the shit hit the fan. We talked about getting hit, and what happened when the dust cleared. The guys showed us their prosthetics, and explained how they worked, popping them off to show me the sensors. We talked about our families and the difficulties that they had endured during the whole process. We talked about what we wanted to do in the future. And then we went off and played Halo 3, which made me laugh, because it was such a soldier thing to do. Back at FOB Shield, the guys in my platoon had hooked up a wireless LAN, and any time we weren’t on mission, the Thunderdome, with its open communal roof, would resonate with the yells of victorious cyber-warriors. The Fisher House was no different.
One moment in particular really affected me. We were talking about the term "hero", a term which, with the best intentions, is often overused in today’s Army. I had signed Mark’s copy of The Sandbox, and written "to a true Hero, no bullshit." Mark said “You know, there is always someone who has it worse than you. To me, my brother is a hero. He was badly hurt in an industrial accident, and yet he’s here with me now, and has been the whole time, helping me through all of this shit. I look at my buddy, Marko, who’s sitting here missing an arm and a leg, and he’s a hero to me, because it doesn’t faze him, and he just keeps driving on.” Mark paused for a minute and then he looked at me, in the eye, very intently, and then at Troy. “And you know,” he said, “you guys are heroes to me, because you made it home and yet you’re still putting the word out, letting everyone know what we all went through.”
Let me tell you, sitting there looking at these guys, seeing their wounds, and having a bit of an idea of both what they had been through, and aware of the difficulties which they will still have to face, I had to work very hard not to lose it right there. I looked away, my eyes glistening. It is the single most generous thing that anyone has ever said to me.
So, that was Washington. It was fun and it was great, and it was all over very quickly. I’m back in Germany now, back "home". Leave will be over soon, and then it will be back to whatever drudgeries the Army has to offer — at least until it’s time to prepare for the next deployment. Still, there are a couple of things that I’ll take with me. Meeting new old friends. Hanging out with the guys at the Fisher House. Mark’s compliment and the drive not to let him down; to keep getting the word out.
That, and remembering the cold sunlight on the faces of the bronzed soldiers at the Wall, and the feel of their gaze on my back as I walked away. They’re trying to tell me the same thing, I think.