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.

NOTHING IS OVER |

February 24, 2014

Name: Don Gomez
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: New York City
Milblog: Carrying The Gun
Email: dgomez@me.com
Twitter: @dongomezjr

Framed GOMEZ headed to Iraq
SGT Clark and me on the flight to Iraq.

Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.

Violence in Iraq has been steadily spiraling out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”

But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.

There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’

If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.

That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.

Framed GOMEZ Ground Assault Convey to Samawah
Ground assault convoy to As Samawah, March 29, 2003.

Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and lay out all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.

That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.

A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences -- bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.

Framed GOMEZ Whoosh
Listening to Nerf footballs whoosh overhead. As Samawah, March 30, 2003.

My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.

The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.

I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.

Framed GOMEZ letters home
My letters home, arranged by month.

The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.

Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.

Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgotten. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who are now young adults. I wondered if they would remember me, or if they are even still alive.

Framed GOMEZ Paratroopers resting after combat, As Samawah, 4-3-03
Paratroopers resting after combat. As Samawah, April 3, 2003.

Back in August, I grew disgusted with the whole thing. Iraq was getting worse and no one seemed to care. I thought about stopping the project. I was exhausted and angry.

I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.

And now I’m coming to the end. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year long project is about to end. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.

It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag -- a symbolic gesture -- to wrestle the attention of a media saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.

I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.

Comments

I did not serve in Iraq. My brother did and two of my nephews. I appreciate your post very much and thank you for your work in posting your deployment experiences ten years later. I hope this encourages other vets to share their experiences. I am one of a number of civilians who for whom the experiences and wounds of vets *do* matter. May God's peace and healing be with you.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us! It means a lot. Your post is greatly appreciated.

You have a great story and experience. Thanks for sharing with us. And also thanks for severing our country.

Not enough attention is given to these subjects anymore. We are putting our people's lives on the line. You always hear about the new trends and topics, but never about how the soldiers are giving their lives about us. Headlines should say more about how people are giving their lives to make us be comfortable, and less about the new teen idle.

Thank you so much for sharing your experience! I really appreciate it, and thank you for your service! We love you

I agree with you that people are too quick to ignore these subjects. This is actually one of the most frustrating things to me about our society. we are quick to pick up on the latest trends in Hollywood, or who celebrities are dating. However, the truth is that tons of men and women are being put in danger in order to protect our country, and that is not something to be ignored. I appreciate your post very much and cannot thank you enough for your services. God bless!

First off I want to say thank you. Every one of you guys that has gone over there deserve more in return than anyone of us can give you. I myself am a member of the armed forces. My 6 year enlistment is up in 2 days. I just renlisted for another 6 years. Even though I have never been over to the sand box, I see the struggle of friends and random strangers once they return. When I see the news and how bad it is getting it really gets to me. You guys gave so much, and now it is going out of control. I feel for you and your brothers and sisters. Just know you are not alone. Seems like people now a days only care when something big happens, and when it is relevent to them. Well wake up people. There are men and woman over there fighting for their lives everyday.

Theres no words to Thank you for all the hard work you did in Iraq and serving our country. Its impressive all the work you did for your 10 year anniversity blog you put together. Its amazing that you are able to share your story and have pictures that show your journey you've lived. You are right! We are always listening to the news and their main stories they show on tv. We sometimes forget that there are other humans living in that country. It was nice to read that the Iraqins are also suffering in their own country. We get caught up in the news and their big main story they have to share and forget about the other things that are being harmed by this tragic war.
I really appriciated your post.

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