The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

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.

THE THING I CARRIED |

October 10, 2008

THE THING I CARRIED
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 10/10/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
Email: hortonhearsit@hotmail.com

Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple two-step plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. Nearly half of my platoon would be getting out if and when we made it back home from Iraq. We focused the best we could when it came to preparing for the mission, but there is no helping the excitement in the prospect of starting a new chapter of life on the government's dime.

In the run-up to the deployment, a lot of guys were buying their own equipment to take with them. It is generally accepted that government issued equipment is inferior to what you can go out and buy yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. It's just like a backpack except with a sweetass name. The only problem was the zipper sucked something fierce and it held no more than a high school backpack. I'm the kind of person who wants backups of everything. Extra knives, batteries, carabiners, socks. I needed to haul a lot more than what the issue assault pack could carry.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment. His dad's company sponsored us with thousands of dollars to buy magazine and utility pouches, vests and other luxuries. Jesse budgeted himself enough to buy a new civilian assault pack. He didn't need his old one, so he gave it to me.

"You can use it for the deployment, but you have to give it back to me," he said. "But if you decide to reenlist, you can keep it."

"You'll definitely be getting it back," I replied.

I made the secondhand assault pack my own. It was well-worn after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick, black lettering on the front. I sewed on a nametape to cover it up. I wrote in small print "24 Nov 2007" -- the day I was getting out of the Army -- below a message Jesse had written: For those who would NOT serve.

In Baghdad, I carried my assault pack everywhere we went. It was becoming a routine to leave our base in Taji and spend up to a week in smaller bases in the heart of the city. We began to live out of our assault packs, bringing whatever we could stuff in there. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

Jesse was always asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I was going on leave, Josh told him I had a girl writing to me from Seattle. While my platoon went to check out insurgents loading weapons into a car, I stayed behind and told Jesse the unlikely story of our relationship. "Damn dude, good luck with that shit," he said.

Two weeks later, Jesse was cut down by small-arms fire in Baqubah. He would survive some time before passing away. I could not possibly avenge him; I was two thousand miles away. I heard about his death in the most undignified way; a Myspace bulletin read in an internet cafe in Rome.

Framed_horton_pack2aa_2 Coming back to Iraq after leave, I looked at Jesse's assault pack a lot differently. I still carried it with me everywhere, but I treated it a lot better. I no longer tossed it off the Stryker into the dust. I didn't shove it into small spaces on top of the vehicle. In the outposts where we lived, I used it as a pillow.

The assault pack is not an assault pack anymore. It's a backpack. I no longer stuff it with extra grenades, ammunition magazines or packages of Kool Aid. It now carries textbooks, calculators and pencils. I started my first classes a few months ago to fulfill the plan two years in the making. I imagined it to be a seamless transition into civilian life. Boy, I was fucking naive, even when I came home. I saw some guys falling apart from PTSD, getting drunk or doing drugs to drown it out. I thought I made it out okay, relatively.

With my unassuming tan backpack at my feet, I break out in a sweat if I even think about mentioning Iraq in the classroom. I let it slide nearly every time, yielding the topic to daftly opinionated classmates. I feel like a foreign exchange student, confused about the motivation of my peers. I literally carry the burden of readjustment on my back, not wanting to let go of my past but anxious to get to the future. Fractured into part war veteran and part journalism student, who I am speaking to determines which part of me is actually there in the room. To many, my past is my best kept secret. For all they know, my parents pay my tuition and do my laundry. I can be honest here. It's terrifying to be honest out there. Perhaps it's best that way.

For those who would NOT serve -- It's faded now, not easily read unless you look closely. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and ask, "What unit were you in?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.

Comments

Alex,
I am A Viet Nam Veteran who went through a similar experience. I went to college in 1975 and we didn't have as many supports that seem to be available today. We started groups on campus for Vets. This was a way for us to connect and help each other get money, get around the hurdles the system gave us and call each other on stuff.
Link up with a Vet Center, they can help. I was awarded a Bronze Star and didn't acknowledge my service for many years doing what you observe other Vets doing. I now wear a small replica that my counselor gave me on my shirt everyday and am proud that I served just for those people who don't find that as their path; not everyone does.
Good luck to you. Welcome Home!
patrick

Alex;
There's a great organization here in the SF bay area, swords-to-plowshares.org that provides a lot of support to vets. If you're not in the bay area, they may be able to hook you up with a group in your area. Hang in there with school dude. It's the best thing that you can do for yourself.
Chuck

"Daftly opinionated classmates." Hold that thought. Ya just wanna B-slap 'em. Does absolutely no good. Only makes u look "barbaric".

Do take advantage of all the nice looking young women on campus --er, ah, I mean take advantage of all the social opportunities. Yes, yes, that's exactly what I mean.

Just remember you went so they'ed never HAVE to know . . . A lot of those so politically correct folks could never even qualify to serve. And yet they hold impeccible, lofty opinions.

. . . just when you think there's nothing you can depend on.

HTH

I absolutely think you should share your background in the most non-confrontational way. It helps to practice beforehand (so you don't blurt out things in the heat of the moment) saying what you thought when you signed up, what the reality was in Iraq, and how difficult it can be for you now. Even the daftly opinionated are sometimes more compassionate than you would think. There are statistically so few who have served that it is no wonder you don't run into people who recognize your pack. Thank you for serving. I have the utmost respect for you, and wish you the best. Do seek out vet support groups-it sounds as if they would be helpful. You don't have to do everything on your own! :)

welcome to 1968

Alex,

Welcome home and I am happy that you are able to go to school. There is no need to rush the classroom participation business that touches on your war experience. Keep writing like you did today. It is needed for us to read and helps you work some things out for yourself. I'm very sorry that you lost Jesse. A part of him will go with you forever, even after the bag is a rag. Now everyone who read you post has been touched by him as well. Not what we would wish, but what we have. You honor him.

I worked on a college campus with a very small veteran population as a percentage of the mostly commuter population. It was sometimes hard for vets to find each other. I don't know anything about your campus and town. I was in a position to meet a few of them returning from their tours, or leaving.

You are going to start to unwind some eventually, but it won't happen quickly. The student I knew best took about a year to look his true age again.Try to be patient with yourself. BTW I swear my brother still walks point and he left the army in 1970. He calls it tracking deer:>)

Thank you for hanging in and carrying forward.

mr.horton, welcome home.transition can be a real hassle.after nam i got a day job and spent the evening drinking.after a year and a half, iwas able to cut into the drinking and return to school and keep my job.i met other vets[functional drinkers like myself]wear a part of your uniform,boots stateside fatigue shirt with unit patch, if there's a vet on campus they'll find you.

I cheated and stayed in the Army, but as soon as I heard that you are hiding your past, from your present I knew you have a problem. Don't forget who you are and why, don't forget Jesse, and hold your head up - blame many things for the war - but not the soldiers that served as best they could, I am proud of you, glad you wrote and hope you read the comments. There are a lot of quiet and very alone Vets from different almost real wars out there, just because the Nation hasn't gone to war doesn't mean they didn't. Do well in school, do well in life, and God bless all your best, All the Way!

I know how you feel. If you talk to the everyday crowd about your experiences they either give you the deer in the headlight look or ask "so do you have PTSD?". That or they just listen for 30 seconds out of courtesy. I tend to not talk about it either. Secrets aren't necessarily bad. I also hate the feeling that if you tell them about Iraq people will think you're being self-aggrandizing.

Alex,

A qoute from Gen Patton "It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived."
You, Jesse and the others you have served with and those who came before you and those who come after you are the reason America is the country it is. I've been retired for almost 10 years and still to this day get the 30 seconds of attention and the polite nod when I talk of my time in the Army. So don't let those who don't know bother you. Those who do will find you and you'll feel right at home.

Thank you for serving our country.

I came back from Iraq and headed right into school...and it damn near killed me. Find like-minded people, not necessarily .mil to associate with. Rugby kept me sane, maybe it could help you out as well.

Good luck, and thanks for your great blog, man.

Alex, thank you for your service! I'm an active duty Soldier that have served in OIF too. As a prior enlisted Soldier that got out right after Desert Storm to also go to college on the Army's GI Bill, I also had very mixed feelings. I will say to you to be proud of your service and don't hide the fact that you honorably served this country in a time of war. Don't expect many at school to understand you or even comprehend your feelings. But you have been there and done that, so you can tell your story and when you become a journalist, I think the best way you can honor Jesse is to continue to tell his and the story of the many brave men and women that put their lives on the line to defend this great nation and protect the right of others to dissent. You are a hero in my book. I salute you and encourage you to share your story. Godspeed!

MAJ S. J. Otero

Thank you for sharing. I am a female civilian with no military knowledge at all - living a very soft life so I dont know how you feel. Im just glad that you can still feel. Thank you for protecting me.

Welcome Home brother.
Served 74-81, went Active for Desert Storm.
Resigned right after.
Only a fellow Vet knows about the staring and Zoning out.They should bring back Draft. and make it Mandatory, Two Years.
No deferments, no exceptions.
Not fair that so many Who Choose to serve are ground up and thrown back in over and over.
Not gearing up for Bush or Mom, But for the Jeremy's and the Alex's,and the Jose's and the Leroy's and Yoshi's and Joe's, and the tony's....
For each other and the Smallest Units in which we serve(d).
True Peace to You Bro.
Move On
Stay Healthy and ..."Earn This"

Alex,

I read all the way through your post, nodding my head and thinking to myself that I could identify with that. I got home from Iraq in June, but I don't discuss it with anyone who doesn't know me personally. I've had enough horrible and insulting conversations in the five months I've been home to make me keep my mouth shut.

Your last sentence made me burst into tears, and I hope you don't feel badly about that. I just know how you feel, I know how badly it hurts to want to talk to, or just be around, someone who knows what you are saying, even if you say nothing.

Thank you for your service, from someone who can appreciate what it entailed.

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