On our very first patrol through the city of Barwanah, I was conscious of a sense of surreality surrounding the fact that I was in a place in which it was possible, nay, even likely, for me to be seriously injured or killed. This realization, while both a bit unpleasant and yet seemingly inevitable for anyone arriving in a combat zone for the first time, did not inspire fear, but brought my mind out of the realm of speculation as to what “war” would be like and into the reality that I was actually in one. Whether the lack of fear was due to confidence in my comrades and our training, or to naïveté in regards to the potential horrors of actual combat, I do not know. Perhaps it was both.
It was difficult to maintain a combat mindset when the better part of a patrol often consisted of either eating with and greeting the locals or trying to give children candy or a pen without them tearing each other apart for it. Our battle was one against complacency; one which, if I am to be honest, we often lost. I would be surprised to discover that someone regarded any of these former activities as those characteristic of war, and indeed they did not fit into the stereotypical notion of war that even I held before our deployment. In light of that view, what we experienced really was not war at all. Yet, these public-relations-type missions were precisely the kind that became the day-to-day grind. While it was singularly frustrating for us, having chosen and prepared to experience war in its more stereotypic form, I knew that our job was a necessary one and that our considerable boredom would likely be something for which veterans who harbor terrible memories would encourage us to be grateful.
It is for this reason that I feel a tremendous sense of guilt every time a veteran from a past war is kind enough to shake my hand (as they did in the airport during both our departure and our return), for I know it is likely that my experience cannot realistically be compared to his and yet display any significant degree of similarity. How does one follow in the footsteps of heroes of, for instance, the second World War? This burden weighs heavily on my mind from time to time. I would honestly be embarrassed to recount most of my experiences in Iraq to any WWII veteran. So comparatively easy our deployment must have been! Granted, this is a different war against a different enemy in different times, but even this knowledge is incapable of putting my mind at ease. Perhaps if the conditions presented themselves I would be able to conduct myself in a manner worthy of mention among the numerous stories of bravery of veterans past; perhaps I would not, though, naturally, I prefer to dwell on the former. One simply cannot know how one’s conduct would fair in a given situation without actually having been in that situation. It is a fact of life, frustrating as it may be at times. Of course, I do not have such a skewed view of things as to desire combat merely in order to gauge my own reaction to it, but it is a question that I cannot help asking myself and one that I am certain many of my comrades have asked themselves as well.
One last item I must mention is that during the entire course of our mobilization, deployment, and return, I have been overwhelmed by the support that I have received. Whether it is a kind gesture, a gift, a card, a prayer, or a Facebook message, I have been inundated by people’s kindness and generosity. Many of these people I do not even know.
I remember our stop in Shannon, Ireland on the way to Iraq. As we entered the airport, the Irish people burst into a standing ovation behind a wall of glass separating the terminal from the lobby, whistling and displaying every kind of friendly gesture. It took a considerable effort to retain my bearing, so deeply did this affect me, and I regretted the fact that I could not make them understand just how much it meant to me.
Similarly, during both my departure from and return to my home town, I was surprised by a large group of supporters, mostly from my church, complete with signs and flags, which encompassed the entire age spectrum. Each time I could but smile and hope that my futile attempts to thank those who were there did not come across as mechanical; for indeed they were but the mediocre verbal manifestations of a deeply felt gratitude.
For such unnecessary demonstrations of support, I am both tremendously grateful and insurmountably indebted. I can only hope that a simple “thank you” imparts with it enough of the actual feeling behind it to relieve me of some of this debt. Thank you.