Thursday, September 20, 2007

Do Not Adjust Your Television Set

It has been a week since our triumphant return to the states, to America, the first world. And as it wasn't quite like I imagined in June, it was every bit as wonderful and surreal as I thought it would be. Every moment leading up to the march to the gym was met with cheers and hysterical laughter. Getting off the plane, turning in our guns, getting on a every step we got closer to seeing loved ones. You could feel it in your face and hear it in the voice of anyone you talked to.

We took a bus to the base gym, where our friends and family waited for us. We stopped short to get lined up nice and neat so we could march in with our backpacks and laptop cases around our necks. Near the entrance there were people already holding signs and clapping. Someone yelled, "hey, Horton!" but luckily I wasn't met with a barrage of cabbage and apple cores. A few more steps and we entered the gym. By the crowd's reaction, it's as if we won the Superbowl. We stopped in the center and it was still so loud no one heard the shortest speech of all time given by a general. "Good job etc, proud of you all yadda yadda, be safe and so forth." On that note, it became a mad house as people rushed from the bleachers and into the scattered formation. Foregoing all military discipline, I looked around the room while at attention to locate my family. As the gym started to clear out I found Bryan, also family-less, and we agreed to look together. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of my dad running up, with my mom not far behind and with her, Lauren.

One of the first things I said to my dad after a big hug was, man, that was a long twelve months.

Seeing my mom get teary-eyed almost made me let loose, but I held my composure by making a point to. Lauren told me she wasn't going to be there, as to make it a family event. But she decided to come and we're both glad she did. A beautiful moment with a beautiful woman. Yes, this is what I've been missing.

Now that things have settled down a little (ha!), I keep getting the same question: what does it feel like to be back? Well, imagine a kid tweaking on Ritalin and Mountain Dew IVs and trying to sit still in church.

In Iraq it feels like the rest of the world is another isolated planet. News came in bits and pieces and often by word of mouth. Our only connection to our own culture was from magazines a few months old and bootleg movies taped with a camcorder in some dank Indonesian movie theater. As much as we didn't want it to, the world kept on turning without us. Anniversaries, births, deaths, all kept happening despite our situation.

Back in the states, everything moves fast. Really fast. Traffic never exceeded about 45 miles an hour in combat, but on the highway it feels like your blood is going to boil at seventy. Every minute, tiny thing seems huge and at once, hilarious. Driving down the interstate I saw a piece of trash caught in the grass by the shoulder. Look at that! I said with a giggle. It's stuck!

Though I've related some pretty gruesome stories in earlier editions of this blog, I never provided much insight to how I felt about my own safety and mortality. I didn't want my family and friends to know that aspect while I was still in danger so their fears and anxiety weren't compounded any further. There is said to be three stages of clarity about one's life in a war. I didn't come up with the theory, but I sure have felt it. At the beginning, you feel like you're invincible and if anything bad happens, it's going to happen to some other guy. Then when people start to get hurt and killed, you think to yourself, I better look out or I'll be next. The final stage comes after the second one wears on you after awhile. Your thought is, I'm going to die next unless I make it out of here as soon as possible.

I entered the final stage on March 14, and there it remained until August 25.

There were times when many of us weren't killed due to good ol' fashioned luck, a soldier's best friend. Bullets missing heads by quite literally an inch or less (and even a couple dudes got grazed on the dome). The IED that killed Chevy was blown at the very front of the Stryker. If the guy set it off just a half second later, it would have blown under the troop carrying compartment. I don't believe in miracles, but I saw a lot of them.

From boots to Pumas, to sweat soaked and shit smelling trousers to Guess jeans, we're trying to rejoin society the best we can. But not everyone who left in June of 2006 was able to make that transition. These are the names of the fallen of Task Force 5/20:

Cpl. Casey Mellen - Headquarters
Huachua City, AZ
KIA Mosul, September 25, 2006

Cpl. Billy Farris - Headquarters
Bapchule, AZ
KIA Anbar, December 3, 2006

Cpl. Brian Chevalier - Bravo
Athens, GA
KIA Baqubah, March 14, 2007

SSG. Jesse Williams - Bravo
Santa Rosa, CA
KIA Baqubah, April 8, 2007

SSG. Vincenzo Romeo - Alpha
Lodi, NJ
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Sgt. Jason Harkins - Alpha
Clarkesville, GA
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Sgt. Joel Lewis - Alpha
Sandia Park, NM
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Matthew Alexander - Alpha
Gretna, NE
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Anthony Bradshaw - Alpha
San Antonio, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Cpl. Michael Pursel - Alpha
Clinton, UT
KIA Baqubah, May 6, 2007

Sgt. Daniel Nguyen - B 1/12 (Cav)
Sugarland, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 8, 2007

Sgt. Jason Vaughn - Alpha
Iuica, MS
KIA Baqubah, May 9, 2007

Sgt. Anselmo Martinez - B 1/12 (Cav)
Robstown, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

Spc. Joshua Romero - B 1/12 (Cav)
Crowley, TX
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

Spc. Casey Nash - B 1/12 (Cav)
Baltimore, MD
KIA Baqubah, May 18, 2007

Sgt. Iosiwo Uruo - B 1/14
Agana Heights, Guam
KIA Baqubah, May 24, 2007

Spc. Francis Tressel - B 1/12 (Cav)
KIA Baqubah, May 26, 2007

Sgt. Andrew Higgins - Alpha
Hayward, CA
KIA Baqubah, June 5, 2007

PV2 Scott Miller - Headquarters
Casper, WY
KIA Baqubah, June 9, 2007

Cpl. Darryll Linder - A 1/12 (Cav)
Hickory, NC
KIA Baqubah, June 19, 2007

Cpt. Drew Jensen - Headquarters
Clackamas, OR
Died in Seattle on September 7, 2007 from wounds suffered May 7, 2007

So. What does it feel like to be back? It feels great, but it hurts, too.