I spent last night dreaming about Iraq. Not bad dreams, but simple things like how great it felt to walk home on a quiet street at the end of a long day. Our base was relatively safe come evening time with the locals being encumbered by a nighttime curfew. Several areas around base were guarded by Marines barely older and some barely younger than I was at the time. Mind you, I was 20 years in 2004. It’s a pretty big deal to know that such young individuals were entrusted with the safety of their fellow service members.
I am currently reading Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart and it amazes how much she talks about telling the little details of our lives. I have a three ring (3 or 5″) binder full of my notes of what I want to say (and have said) to sort through. That’s my research. But the details are hardly mentioned there. So here’s a bit of a beginning because today is Veterans’ Day and a perfect time for reflection:
I don’t hate Iraq. I never have. I was lucky to go. I was also lucky to come home.
There were things I didn’t like about it, like the first time a round landed. Having sizeable buildings shake and feel the ground unstable at my feet is less than appealing. The Euphrates also doesn’t particularly smell good. Being surrounded by local Iraqis who you don’t know if you can trust is also a terrible feeling to experience. Having an M-16 on my person didn’t undo my uneasiness regarding their presence. Seeing these people smoking cigarettes and holding hands with their fellow male companions being guarded by our service members as they took turns sweeping the streets I walked every day was about as awkward of an experience I could have imagined for myself. I know it’s ethnocentric to say it was strange and made me uncomfortable but you just don’t see that in American culture unless people of the same sex are generally of a young age or in a same sex relationship. Given how little interaction between the sexes in their culture is stereotyped in our culture I was really thrown for a loop when I was just how close same sex friendships were among the Iraqi locals. I didn’t like knowing that the motor pool was dubbed the “mortar pool” because there is where a significant amount of mortars would land. The “moon dust” also was heavy on that part of the base. Think of the fine powder-like texture of cornstarch, make it brown and you have moon dust.
But Iraq wasn’t all bad.
The lack of “light pollution” allowed us to see the stars. I enjoyed nighttime the most over there. Getting off work at 10p.m. (until my shift was switched later in the deployment), I walked along rather deserted streets. The helos flying in the air were ours so the whoosh of their blades chopping the air was a sign of comfort instead of fear.
Our command post didn’t have indoor bathroom facilities so we had to go outside to use the port-a-johns and one evening, a CH-53 Sea Stallion landed on our helo pad. The whirring of the blades kicked up droplets from the Euphrates, set off the trip flares along the shoreline, and created such a sound that it gives off the impression that the bird is falling on the building.
There was a building that had a set of exterior stairs leading up to the rooftop. It was a quiet, lovely place to get away even though the furnishings on the roof were Spartan at best; there may have been a handful of chairs and a military issue cot. The view was spectacular and that’s what honestly mattered.
I have a soft spot for the architecture over there. I love how different it is from what we see here. It is a shame that the interiors couldn’t have been maintained in the same way as the exterior (this is obviously excluding the pock marks created from exploded rounds).
Seeing the sign outside of the chow hall that read “Today is Sunday” made me smile because I knew we’d have crab legs for dinner. The deaf Iraqi man (whose name unfortunately escapes me) who worked for 4th Civil Affairs made me smile each time I saw his face. He was short in stature but absolutely charming (and I don’t say that often of short men). One time when I was sitting across from him at a meal, he engaged in sign language with a Marine whose last name was Pharoah (great person by the way). He gestured regarding my hands and I found out that he was asking if I was married. Nope, but I was spoken for at the time.
Because I was overseas in Iraq, I also had the opportunity to visit the country of Qatar. The jewelry shops are to die for and it’s a shame I never acquired something for myself there.
My deployment allowed me the opportunity to slow down even when it wasn’t always what I wanted. Our outside communications were shut off from us from time to time when commands needed the ability to notice loved ones back home and didn’t need word spreading via Facebook to someone’s wife or mother that their husband or son wasn’t coming home. I can honestly tell you I don’t know what movies came out between August 2004 to February 2005 and I don’t care. It obviously wasn’t crucial to my existence. Instead, I got to be embraced by cool fall wind in the evening and the quiet that exists when foot travel is the more common way to get around. My sky view wasn’t obscured by McDonald billboards and the buildings weren’t littered with the detritus of every store trying to make a sale.
I fell asleep at night listening to music that I loved. My possessions were few but things that meant the most to me. I had my keychain my mom gave me after my pet bird, Iris, died. It was the first loss in my life that truly hurt me at an age where I could understand it fully. I brought the keychain because it was the last significant gift my mother gave me. I only let it out of my sight a few times when it was needed as a good luck charm and I was happy when it was restored to my person. My pocket was filled with hand laminated photos of my family piled on my dad’s bed and one of my grandmother and I.
I never knew if I’d live to see the next day so I honestly tried to write nearly every day (obviously, once again, taking into consideration the moments when communications were shut off to us). I wrote about falling in love, being stuck on a military base, eating food, hanging out with friends, and experiencing Iraq with the lenses of a tourist.
I can’t say I tackled the experience like a Marine because I felt like a tourist. I didn’t take photos of dead bodies although I had seen them (in photos). I found the sunset I wanted to remember, the old friend from MOS school I ran into my last day on base (when I got to enjoy the newly installed pizza ovens!), the architecture, and the land.
I took mementos where I could and they took many forms. I have the patches, photos, and letters given to me. I held onto a M & M bag written in Arabic. There is the Mountain Dew bottle in English and Arabic I picked up in Qatar along with Qatari money.
I love where I was because of what I choose to do when I became a Marine. The experience was beautiful (even when it was tinged with sadness) and today is just as beautiful because I am here to enjoy it. I am very blessed to have the people I want in my life and to share my memories with them.