Another counseling session today and a couple of things came out. I’m trying to recall the feelings now. They are slipping back down into the unconscious.
I expressed that I feel guilty about getting the counselling from my therapist. This is compounded by the fact that she is the best I’ve ever seen. I cannot express enough the great admiration and respect that I have for her in her craft and as a human. Because of such I am not scared in going places with her, in letting her see the worst of me, and how much a relief it is to see that she understands and gets what I am saying. Not acceptance necessarily… for she hasn’t agreed with me in all things… but understanding and a non-judgment of them. It is, I think, the best that humanism wishes to be. I expressed my guilt in getting the services from her for free, as she is a member of a network of professionals that volunteer their time for veterans (www.returningveterans.com). We looked at this. I expressed that I am getting from her but am not giving. It is so often the other way around for me, that I give and do not get, that this is an injustice. She asked me what I thought she got out of it all. I couldn’t come up with anything. She said a few things that I could buy into, the joy of helping someone, etc… yet she said something that was alien to me… that I did not know before and it brought tears to me as she told me. She told me that she felt a priviledge in being able to share in my complex world. It is such an alien concept to me that I struggle now to even write it out, to even remember the way she said it. I cannot. She expressed it in a few sentences and there were such deep concern and sincerity in her as she said this that I believed her. Her was, essentially, a person who loved me, I do not feel wrong in using this term, and who was grateful for this. She has heard my greatest fears and my greatest failures and heard me say all that I am most ashamed of… and she is grateful for knowing me and seeing me.
She asked me why I had the response that I did, tears in my eyes, and I told her that it is similar to an image that I had while writing about returning from war. A mental image, a photograph of the imagination, and I had written of it quickly in that past, and it rose to my memory now. I told her, imagine a soldier, home from war, in uniform… me…. and I am at home with a woman, romantic partner, and she is sitting on a couch. I am on the ground and my head is in her lap. My therapist asked me what she was doing in the picture, and I said that she was just letting me be… just letting me be.
Again, the theme of acceptance, so often missed, so often short of.
Some time later in the session we got on a topic of a fight in Iraq. It had never really come up with me in the past and I didn’t think I was bothered by it. Yet now I know that it does bother me and I had tears and a quaking voice as I talked about it.
It is a hot day and it is my second day outside the wire. I’ve been in country for a week now and have had to watch as my platoon rushed outside on patrol, leaving me behind. The reason is that my rifle was not zeroed in. It was Batallion protocol that you could not go out on patrol unless your weapon was zeroed. I finally got it boresighted with a laser and was able to go out. It was, again, my second time to leave the wire and I was unfamiliar with the city, the people, what to look for, the sights and sounds. I was overwhelmed by it all. I was green and new.
We had elements of the Iraqi National Guard with us. They were roaming around with us on this patrol. Some of them spotted a wire in the dirt. We stopped, pushed out security elements, and sent a search team to follow the wire. It was a buried roadside bomb we rolled over (my rig also) and the search team found the lookout spot where the enemy was to push the button, blowing up the bomb. He was not there. Due to a lunch break or something, nobody was there to push the button when we rolled over.
We called out for EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) who were to come out to our location and blow the charge in place. Unti they showed up we were to keep watch on the area so that nobody would come set it off or take the explosive for future use against us. So we set security around us, assigned sectors of fire, etc… and set down to wait.
An hour later one of the soldiers that had an M14 with a scope on it had been watching down the street where Sadr city was… it was ony 400 meters away and a hotbed of insugent activity. He yelled out to the platoon sgt that there was a mortar team setting up. He was just given the go ahead to fire on the enemy team when they mortar team had fired first. They are very fast. One of their techniques is to roll with mortar in a car’s trunk. This is why we are suspicious of four or so men riding around in a car together. They will pull up to a spot and then quickly pull out the mortar, not bothering to sight it in, and they will indiscriminatly fire the mortars and adjust fire from there.
The mortars exploded 50 meters away. VERY LOUD and they really grab your attention. My first reaction was one of taking it personally. I was personally insulted that these people were shooting at me. Sounds odd, but that is the emotion that I had. The mortars were being walked up on us, getting closer. One buddy of mine was at the rig close to mine and he got a piece of shapnel that barely scratched his finger. We were lucky. I don’t understand how we didn’t have wounded from as close as the mortars were exploding around us. The platoon sgt yelled “Kill every fucking thing over there” and the automatic grenade launchers, the ‘ma deuce’ (the .50 calibre machine gun) and other weapons. I had been a marine prior to my enlistment in the National Guard. In the marines it was drilled into us the concept of “one shot one kill”, to pick your targets and to kill it. The Army does not do this. The platoon around me erupted in violence. I was frustrated. I looked down my rifle at the scene down the street and saw a huge cloud of dust. The explosions from the grenades and machine guns was ferocious. I growled (I am a growler… I growl in frustration at things) and I cursed loudly. I had no point targets to shoot at, no enemy in sight… and I was pissed! I cursed and yelled and gripped my rifle in frustration. A soldier next to me hit me in the arm and yelled “just fire suppressive fire”, which is military speak for shooting a lot of bullets in one particular direction. So I did… I emptied a clip or two, I don’t remember, and there was nothing left of the mortar team when we were done. However, I had a hand in the killing. Not only in the mortar team, but the busy street they shot from as well. There were civilians there. Women, children, and innocent men. We killed them. I am too connected to it to say whether we acted right or wrong, if we had other means of reacting to the mortars, if we reacted with too much force (and before you say yes… I’d like you to have mortars explode fifty meters from you first). I cannot say. I can say that civilians died and I pulled the trigger. Considering the many grenades, the many automatic grenades, the many many automatic rounds, fired down the street, it is unlikely that by the time I shot my paltry two magazines that I personally killed a civilian. This, in no way at all, lessens me from the responsibility of what I did. I pulled the trigger. People died. That is all that matters.
As the dust cleared, we were moved around in different spots, awaiting for a flanking maneuver from the enemy. They came up on the left flank and snipers had tried to get into place at various spots as well.
I was put in part of a blown up building looking out through an alley. I could hear the machine gun a building over next to me talking constantly. They had something going on. I and the SGT with me, however, had no targets in our limited field of vision. We had to be alert for by the time an enemy was sighted they would have been up on us before we could react. In an urban environment of tight streets, constant turns, people (enemy and non-enemy alike) everywhere around you, cars close, etc… you have to stay ready to act at the blink of an eye. This might explain some of my startle response that I have even now, which always gets laughs from those who see me jump. I hold a little resentment to those who do laugh… it is funny, sure, but it gets old after dozens of times to sheepishly look at the civilian grinning at me because I was startled, spun around, and in a defensive position because of a noise.Why don’t they laugh at a person who lost their arm to diabetes and who still tries to grab for something off of the table, only to remember they don’t have that limb anymore? Not so funny now, is it? You are laughing at my inability to let some things go, to rewire my brain to relax and to not try and percieve the threats around me all the time. Thanks.
I was moved to the roof. From there I could see further out and I noted some men with rifles trying to cross an area far away. We took pop shots at them. The guy next to me was able to get one. I had a good vantage point of our location. The Iraqi National Guard was gone. When the attack first started they bailed on us. EOD had just showed up and when the attack began and they high tailed it back to base. The engagement was over and had died down. We had killed the mortar team and was really just sitting around as other enemy elements tried to flank us and were shooting at us. Nothing major.
During the course of the fight the civilians had come out on their terraces and doorsteps to watch. They continued to cross the field, cross the street, even while gunfire is zipping past them. They ignore it all and walk through our firefight. It is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The guy next to me would fire bullets just before the walking oblivious, at the dirt, and cursing loudly for them to run out of the street, only to see the dust kick up in front of them and they person hop over the spot. This was common to a lot of their reactions.
At the intersection I watched as a car would now and then turn onto the street we were on. They would come toward us and then hear the sounds of warning shots from the gun trucks posted on the ground. They would then run off of the road in a hurry to get out of the street. They realized they were in a bad spot and they hastily left. One car, however, did not do this. The car turned and came toward us. The usual hand and arm signals were given for the driver to stop and turn back. It kept coming and a warning shot was fired. The car kept coming. More warning shots. The car sped up. I was on the roof, watching this and had now trained my rifle onto the car. It sped up. I could see the bullets richocet off the pavement. The car sped up. The driver gassed it. When it got to an invisible line that we all know, it was now a threat and we opened fired. Automatic guns and rifles of soldiers in that part of the cirlce, mine also, were put to use. The car came to a halt. Eventually a man got out of the passenger side. He put his hands up. Soldiers were yelling for him to lay down. He did. But soon later he got up again and was in distress. This repeated a few times, him getting up, being told to get down, and finally a rig was sent out to the location to check on the man. He was shot. The driver of the car, his son, was dead. The man would not leave with the soldiers (and we were coverning down the street now as the soldiers were in open view now of the enemy). The man would not leave without the body of his son. The soldiers grabbed it and, having nowhere else to put it, put it over the back of the humvee. As the rig left the scene we were fired on again by the enemy and we returned fire.
We had to get the man to medical attention and so we decided to withdraw from the fight. Had it not been this we would have stayed. Before we could leave a SGT in my squad had to go back out into this area of being targeted by the enemy. Two other SGTs went with him, one was me. We trotted out into the middle of the street, our rifles trained down where the enemy was at. There was a six story building that we had tried to call an Apache strike on because of fire coming from it. The apaches were called someplace else, another firefight the marines were in a couple of clicks away from us. We were now in the middle of the street in plain sight of this building. No cover in a very wide street (think as wide as I-5). There was a sign post in the middle and I was behind it. It was two inches wide. Two inches might save my life. We were fired on and the three of us returned fire. Because we were in front of our gun trucks, they could not fire. So it was just the three of us. Tactially stupid for the PL or the PSG to allow us to go forward like that in front of his automatic weapons. The SGT beside me gave me a hand and arm signal. I misread it and took a few steps forward. I had one thought in mind… to move forward and to kill. The SGT was really telling me to move to his location on the side of the road and that we were going to withdraw. My reaction was like I said, to simply go forward and to kill. One of the guys in the back was watching me and told me later that bullets were hitting the ground around me. I earned their respect that day because I fired my weapon and did not shrink from going into fire. We ran back, hauling ass, and as soon as we crossed an invisible line on the flank, the automatic weapons began talking. As soon as I crossed into the platoon’s area, several soldiers grabbed me and began running hands over me and then pulling them back. What they were doing was looking to see if they came back with blood, to see if I was hit. It is a common thing you do when you go through a spot like this. You take your hand and run it up the backs of your legs, your back, the arms, and you look to see if they come back red. Adrenaline dampens pain and soldiers have not realized how bad a wound is until is worse and the battle has ended.
This was a rough memory for me. I have problems with the innocents killed. I have pictures of the body on the back of the humvee. I have pictures of carbomb victims and more. They are not for casual viewing. I bring them out when someone says they want to see war. Really? Here, fill your cursed eyes. I show them to the young privates in my care. A picture is bad… but they are not nearly as bad as real life. Imagine the face of your loved one in a picture. It brings emotions to you. But how much stronger is seeing this face in person? It is the same with horrors of war as well. Pictures cannot approach the bleakness. I show the troops under my care these pics to get them to take my training seriously. I am training them to try to keep them alive, to try to get them to realize that this is real, that lives end.
I was choked up, couldn’t speak well, and tears streaming down my face as I recalled these civilians in my therapist’s office. I told her that I did not mind killing the guys that blew up a school of kids. I lost no sleep over it. It did not bother me. I came to terms with it. But the deaths of the civilians… it did bother me. I also told her that I’ve not had any of my troops die under my care. I don’t know how would handle one of my soldiers dying. Hopefully I won’t have to deal with this added pain in the future.