BEST OF FRIENDS |
February 09, 2009
BEST OF FRIENDS
Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 2/9/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude
The two car convoy came to a stop at the departure section of the Seattle International Airport. With the engine running, I climbed out of the car and waited on the sidewalk as Steve grabbed his bags from the trunk of Chris' car. The loudspeakers reminded us to make it quick -- "This area for loading or unloading only" played on a constant loop as security guards leered in our direction.
After seeing Steve nearly every single day for three years, I was there to see him off on his one-way trip back home to Chicago. The brisk December wind whisked around us as we cracked our final jokes together. Being tough infantry types, I thought a couple of handshakes and a "Later, dude" would be enough before we parted ways. Instead, Chris and Steve came together for an emotional embrace. Then it was my turn to hug my best friend for the first and only time. "Take it easy, man." My voice cracked as the words came out. He turned and walked through the automatic door, leaving Chris and me on the sidewalk.
With a heavy heart, I got back into my car and headed back to Fort Lewis. In less than five minutes my pocket began to buzz. I pulled out my cellphone and saw a new text from Steve.
"I miss you guys already."
Nearly everyone I knew in the Army had one inseparable friend that they were around constantly. Steve was that person for me. We grew up a thousand miles away from each other but our paths were nearly identical. We both came from working class families and grew up on Nintendo and action movies. We joined the Army for many of the same reasons, mostly money for college that we didn't dare ask our parents for. What made us connect at the beginning was our intense love for debate and reasoning. For hours we could argue about anything. On a train from Geneva to Rome during our two weeks of leave, we debated for more than an hour about the main ingredient of salad. Anyone from my platoon can attest to our spirited, three year long argument about which band was better, The Eagles or Led Zeppelin. Of course it's Zep, but we're currently in a stalemate.
At the many combat outposts that we inhabited in Iraq, Steve and I talked about what we'd do after the Army. We both decided that one tour was enough and that higher education would be the next chapter in our lives. He wanted to be an architect and I wanted to write. We yearned to create something after wallowing in death and destruction for more than a year. The plan was simple: take the GI Bill and run with it.
After coming home from Iraq we started the separation process together, running all over post to collect the requisite signatures and dodge work at the barracks whenever possible. We sat through countless briefings that warned us about the perils of getting tossed into the IRR*, a group of inactive soldiers that can be activated individually and mobilized for duty in Iraq. To get out of it, one simply needed to join the Guard or Reserve and get exemption from deployments. Steve and I had both had a few promises broken by the Army, so we weren't going to be fooled once more. We decided to take our chances, load up the IRR revolver, and pull the trigger.
There is no warning that a former soldier is about to be recalled. There is no way of knowing that the game of Russian Roulette is over and your brains are splattered all over the wall. There is only an unassuming brown envelope left on the front porch to say what is already known: Uncle Sam doesn't run out of bullets.
"Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." -- Michael Corleone
I was at work when my pocket sent out a cheerful tone alerting me to a new text message. I pulled out my phone to see a new message from Steve. I figured it was some trivia question. I could tell he carried his debating persona back home from the messages he sent me. He asked about actors in movies and lesser known points of history that must have come up in discussions with his friends. I opened it to see that it had nothing to do with trivia.
"I just got official orders to go back dude."
My knees almost gave way after reading and rereading the message. I called him right away to offer any kind of help I could. As the phone rang, I looked down at my silver KIA bracelet and ran my fingers over the etched lettering -- CPL BRIAN L. CHEVALIER 14 MARCH 2007 BAQUBAH, IRAQ.
A thousand miles away, Steve was wearing the same bracelet.
I relayed to Steve all the information I had gathered on the IRR. I spent countless hours hunched over my computer researching IRR callups, a challenge considering the intentionally scant information put out by the DoD and Army Human Resources Command. I told him to sign up for any classes, get a doctor's note for any condition, anything that could delay or exempt him from mobilization. There is no shame in it. Steve volunteered during a war, knowing that he would be sent into combat. Not only combat ensued, but the bloodiest fight in Iraq since Fallujah. Steve did his time, and more. His place is at home, not on the battlefield anymore.
By way of Lt. Nixon, Thomas Ricks notes a Pentagon study that reveals troop levels have remained relatively the same since 9/11. A more alarming statistic: 6% of active duty troops have served more than 25 months in a combat zone while 74% have less than twelve months in. The study concludes that the lower to mid enlisted and company grade officers are carrying the most burden. Senior officers and NCOs are hiding like cockroaches in the cracks of TRADOC posts and non-deployable slots while lower level soldiers march to the steady drumbeat of repeated deployments, failed marriages and ever-mounting cases of suicide.
On top of that, the IRR continues to mobilize soldiers that have moved on, going to school or beginning careers and families. The only way to lessen the burden is to grow the size of the force. One idea: take the database of the newly minted Red State Strike Force members and dump them into mobilization slots. Those pathetic goons want to wear patches styled after special forces to fight on a battlefield of snark. They want to organize. I can think of no better way to organize than a shout of, "Dress right, dress!" The slack has to be picked up somewhere, lest our forces remain so broken that we must rely on involuntary callups to get bodies to the fight.
Steve's future hangs in the balance. School has been put on hold until a review board decides if he is fit to go back to Iraq. I have described the looming threat of recall as an ubiquitous afterthought, constantly degrading the sense of normalcy and safety as the days pile on. Now that recall has manifested itself as a clumsy destroyer of futures, the feeling has changed. Not only mental, the dread has become physical, hanging in my stomach like a sharply cornered anvil. My old infantry sore spots -- back, knees and ankles -- throb in a dull ache. The burden is back squarely on my shoulders, but I cannot imagine what Steve is feeling right now. I just know that as his best friend, a thousand miles away, I must carry some for him.
A few days after getting Steve's text, I got a call from our buddy Mark. We were the three biggest poker fiends in the platoon, always at the table no matter the time or the buy-in. He said to me, "You better sit down before I tell you this."
"Is it about Steve?", I asked.
"What about Steve?"
"He got recalled a couple of days ago. Got his orders in the mail."
"Fuck, I did too!", he shouted into the phone. "They got me. They got me."
As the weeks and months tick off the calendar, the game of Russian Roulette claims more soldiers foolish enough to play. It was nearly manageable to keep the thoughts of recall at bay before my friends started to get sucked in. Now, a family in in the suburbs of Chicago is contemplating what the future might bring for their son. The same is happening in the hills of Ohio and in cities and towns across the country.
The burden that veterans carry may lessen, but it comes back with a terrible vengeance. All it takes is one envelope to throw a life off a path that was so delicately created in the humid and dust-choked outposts of Iraq.
*IRR: Individual Ready Reserve